Dec 31, 2010

Black Swan

Spoiler alert: this breakdown contains crucial information about the plot of the film.

Black Swan is a movie that makes you pay a lot more than the admission price. But the payoff is huge.

To be honest with you, I found most of the film annoying. Yes, the dancing is lovely. But the scenes of self-flagellation and abuse made my skin crawl. And I don’t like stories about madness or addiction. Besides shoving an unlikable character down our throats, these films have no plot. They keep hitting the same story beat. Sure enough, Black Swan keeps showing us and telling us that Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, is terribly insecure about performing the role of the Black Swan and is too repressed to express the role’s dangerous sexuality.

All of this overshadows two excellent decisions the writers make early on that pay off big at the end. Their first choice happens in the opening scene. In my Great Screenwriting Class I spend a lot of time talking about how to open your story, because it’s the foundation upon which every other story beat depends.

Ironically, the opening in Black Swan is not a story beat at all. It’s just Natalie Portman, as Nina, dancing. In effect the writers are saying, let’s get the big question out of the way right up front: can Natalie Portman dance?. This isn’t Gary Cooper, playing Lou Gehrig, barely able to throw a baseball (Useless Tip: if you ever have to pick sides in softball, just watch how everybody throws). This movie star is a first class ballet dancer. Establishing that fact is crucial to the film’s success because the story is about the sacrifice needed to be the best in the world at your craft, whether it’s a sport, an art form or a combination of the two.

The second crucial choice the writers make concerns the key structural technique necessary to make a madness or addiction story work. Don’t make the prime opponent the affliction. If you do, the hero is just punching herself, and the drama dies. Instead, create outside character opposition that challenges and exacerbates the hero’s personal flaw. That way you create plot and build the drama.

In Black Swan the outside opposition comes from the womanizing director, Thomas, and the competing dancer, Lily, played by Mila Kunis. Lily is especially valuable because she pulls the story out of Nina’s head and introduces the possibility that a very real conspiracy is underway that will destroy the hero. Sometimes paranoid people are justified in their paranoia.

Finally we get to the “battle” scene, the performance. Everything in the film has been one long foreplay for the battle, and it’s a killer. Like all great battle scenes, it’s based on the principle of convergence. The climactic moment of Swan Lake is also the climax of the film story and the climax of Natalie Portman’s performance. Nina overcomes initial failure and not only defeats her demons, she dazzles as the Black Swan. She is sexy and dangerous in the dance, and she passionately kisses the director offstage, after having had to fend him off up until then.

For this to be the same moment when Natalie Portman’s performance crosses into greatness is an incredible thrill that only film can give us. It’s not that she can get into the pain of the White Swan; this we’ve seen for the whole film. It’s not that she can suddenly act the passion and dominance the Black Swan requires and translate that into first class dance. The white heat of Portman’s brilliance comes in how she can shift back and forth between vulnerability and dominance at lightning speed, and be each emotion at the moment she hits it.

The end of the dance and the film shows screenwriting as the height of dramatic art. Nina, as the White Swan, runs up the platform to commit suicide and we think she will do it for real since the real has by now melded so completely with art. She jumps. But wait, there’s the mattress. We feel release, victory; she has defeated her demons. And then we’re flipped again. She’s already done the deed, given herself the fatal wound. It’s the act she had to take to get the performance of her life. We plummet. But she knows; “it was perfect.” She’s the perfectionist taken to her logical extreme, given a self-revelation that is at once brimming with truth and utterly without understanding.

Oct 10, 2010

The Social Network - Memoir/True Story

Whenever I break down a film script to see how it works, I always start by identifying the central problems and challenges the writer faced in cracking the story code. In adapting the true story of the creation of Facebook, master screenwriter Aaron Sorkin faced at least three major challenges.

First he had to make a true story dramatic. The Memoir-True Story genre must hit the seven major story structure steps just like any other genre. But the writer doesn’t have the freedom to make up the basic story events. And events in real life rarely have the dramatic density and punch of fiction.

Sorkin’s second major challenge was that the main character is a nasty person who is guilty of massive theft and betrayal. It is a common misconception that the main character must be likable in a story. But if he is not likable, the writer’s job immediately becomes much more difficult. No one in the audience wants to identify with someone this unpleasant (though they may want this much success), or see such a person accomplish his goal. So the writer is left with a character who is at most clinically interesting to the audience, much like a strange beast in the zoo. Sorkin’s third big challenge had to do with plot. The real events of Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook form a structure that is fairly similar to the rise and fall of a rock star, a story shape that is notorious for lacking plot and for being deadly dull as a result.

To meet these challenges, Sorkin relied on the nine genre beats of the Memoir- True Story form. One of these is the Story Frame. The frame is found in a vast number of true stories because it allows the writer to solve the form’s biggest restriction, which is the anti-dramatic sequence of true events. You can’t change what happened in a true story, but with a frame you can change the order of how you tell what happened.

The frame in The Social Network is provided by the depositions in which Zuckerberg has to answer to the Winklevoss brothers and Mark’s business partner, Eduardo Saverin, for his theft. Like most frames, the depositions are the chronological endpoint of the story. They are the story equivalent of a trial, or battle, which allows Sorkin a natural funnel point toward which all events build. The frame also lets Sorkin cut out all the boring moments that are part of real life, along with the mundane but necessary steps of building a business.

With the frame, Sorkin largely overcomes the second challenge of the repellant hero, using a structural technique that is both rare and risky: Sorkin turns the hero into the opponent, and the ally, Eduardo, into the hero. Instead of trying to create sympathy for a bad guy, Sorkin changes the focus of the story to the question: will the bad guy lose the deposition and have to pay the people he cheated? Eduardo literally tells the second half of the story, making him the hero, and he gains the audience’s sympathy because he has so clearly been wronged.

I say that Sorkin largely overcomes the challenge of the repellant hero because this guy is unsalvageable. Turning him into the opponent helps, but this story frame comes with a high cost. The crosscut between the deposition and the real events has a cold, distancing effect on the audience. Sorkin might have been able to warm things up by delving deeper into Zuckerberg’s motives, which are nothing more than the schematic ones of being a nerd and wanting to climb the social class ladder. But my sense is that this was a dead end, because Zuckerberg comes across as an idiot savant whose brilliance is extreme but narrow. From the very first scene, we know this guy is hopeless.

It’s in facing the challenge of plot that Sorkin had the most difficulty and where his success was most dependent on craft. The rise-and-fall story is a very old plot form, and has the benefit of a clean line on which to hang the particular events of the story. But it makes for a lousy plot because there are almost no surprises. You really have only two story beats: the rise and the fall. Once you establish the rising line, the audience gets it. And when the hero starts to fall, everyone knows immediately where this is all headed.

Strictly speaking the real events of the creation of Facebook only give Sorkin a rise. Using the deposition frame at least gives him a fall to go with the rise, in that Zuckerberg was forced to pay quite a sum to those he cheated and he has obviously suffered a moral decline.

But Sorkin clearly knew that this structure still left him with a thin plot. In my Memoir-True Story class I talk about how to combine fiction genres with a true story to juice the plot. Sorkin’s choice was the thriller form. The thriller is a type of story in which the hero is placed under constant attack and increasing pressure as he goes after his goal. Like the story frame, this genre combination creates a vortex in which events assault the viewer at a faster and faster pace. To see how much this helps the plot, imagine telling the story of the creation of a business, even one that grew this fast, in a strictly non-fiction, chronological style.

Still the frame and the thriller genre can only go so far. Ultimately the facts of this true story and the unpleasant main character mean that The Social Network has one big flaw: there’s no way to end the story. The hero’s moral decline is indisputable early in the second half of the film. And a series of deposition scenes is a far cry from a big courtroom trial where the fight is decided in one last blaze of glory.

Of course Sorkin knows this. He tries to finesse it with his great skill at dialogue. In an attempt to partly redeem Zuckerberg and put final closure to the moral argument of the story, Sorkin has a female lawyer tell Zuckerberg, “You're not an asshole, Mark. You're just trying so hard to be.” But it’s a false distinction and it fools no one. The Zuckerberg character portrayed in this film really is an asshole. And no matter how much the real Zuckerberg was forced to pay, I couldn’t help leaving the theater thinking it wasn’t nearly enough.  

Sep 15, 2010

John Truby Answers

"Hi, John. I've been studying your Love Genre CD and with Titanic in mind, I got confused when I held it up to your Love Story beats. It's pretty much Rose's story, her need, her problem, her ghost, and her self-revelation... but the gaze belonged to Jack.

The inciting incident, if I'm correct, was his, as well, when he won the ticket to board Titanic. But Jack has no need, doesn't seem to have a weakness, he has no problem, has no ghost and no change of character. And yet he's the one that drives the desire line, and most of the action is taken by him.

Who's the main hero? And who's the first opponent?"
- Roy Saringo

Roy, thanks for the questions. Your analysis is quite correct. You can see why the love story is the hardest genre to structure, since it is the only one with two main characters. Also why a love story with the woman as the more primary of the two characters is even tougher to construct. Plus this story adds the framing device of the old Rose.

Rose does have the weakness, problem, need, ghost and self-revelation. She also has the inciting event, but it is the old Rose who sees the news account of the Titanic excavators. You're also right that Jack appears to drive the 1911 story. But that's because social custom dictates that, as the man, he must take the active courtship role. Plus, she is engaged to someone else and it's 1911.

Jack has no weakness or need, which I believe is a flaw in the script. I think that's because James Cameron wanted Jack to be a rogue-charmer-trickster character, the most popular of all character types. Tricksters typically have a weakness, which is that they lie, steal and cheat to get what they want. But this seldom comes across as a weakness to the audience because the trickster is always fooling unjust authority figures. Of course that is precisely what is happening here, as Jack outsmarts all the stuffy snobs who are oppressing Rose.

In a curious way, Jack is almost a traveling angel character in the story. Rose has a problem in her community and Jack shows up, with no real flaws, and teaches her how to live. He also falls in love with her. This is not unlike the structure of The Music Man. By the way, traveling angel stories are famous for having dual main characters: one character has the weakness, need, etc. while the perfect traveling angel character drives the action.

As for opponents, in love stories the first opponent is the lover. That's certainly true in Titanic, though the conflict between Rose and Jack is not the knock down, drag out variety, and in love stories it seldom is. After all the two are falling in love. The secondary opponents are the family members, like fiancé Cal and Rose's mother, Ruth, along with Cal's security man, Lovejoy. Of course when the story switches from love to action, the main opposition becomes the iceberg, the icy water and the lack of lifeboats.

That brings up one last tip about identifying the genre beats in your story. In today's Hollywood, almost every successful script is a combination of at least two, and sometimes three or four genres. This causes writers all kinds of problems, among them determining which beats to use from each of the different genres that are present. There is no easy answer for this. But first you have to know your genres really well, so you can make informed choices. And second, you have to stay true to your unique story idea. Make the beats work for your story, which means change whatever you have to change. It's not about getting an A in genres. It's about using the genres as powerful tools to tell your story well.

Aug 3, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - Love

A lot has been made of the video game elements in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Video games are an important influence on current screenwriting. But you won't find it here. Sure, there's lots of flash, and some of it's amusing and inventive. But it's really video game tactics, played out on the scene level. The story strategy of this film is actually quite old fashioned. Unfortunately in this area, the writers were missing a few of the basic craft elements like plot and genre.

Video game story structure has nothing to do with flashy fights or self-reflexive, cultural in-jokes. Video game story structure is all about exploring a highly detailed story world, moving through deeper and deeper levels and giving the viewer a number of alternative plot lines. None of that happens in Scott Pilgrim. In fact, its structure borrows from the oldest form in storytelling, the myth journey.

Like Hercules with his twelve trials, Scott must defeat a succession of opponents, in this case the seven evil exes in order to win the hand of the damsel, who remains completely passive throughout the film. It's similar to the structure you get in a tournament. But the problem with a tournament story structure - 7 fights in succession - is it creates the ultimate episodic story. That's the first reason this movie died at the box office: there is no plot. The fights with the 7 exes are all the same story beat. Making matters worse is there is no reason for the fights, other than the movie says Scott must fight each ex. But if each is an ex, why does Scott need to fight them? That's the best part about an ex; he's already lost.

Notice that instead of the fights being the height of drama, they are the ultimate dead zone. And because they are purposely so stylized, we don't even get the pleasure of seeing the hero in physical jeopardy, along with the suspense of wondering if he will win or not. Obviously we're supposed to know these are fantasy fights. But when there is clearly no chance the hero can lose, a fight is nothing but story padding.

Lack of plot is a serious flaw, but in a quirky film like this it's not fatal. A far bigger disappointment is how this film missed the potential to do something special with its genre. Believe it or not, Scott Pilgrim is a romantic comedy. And it could have been the first truly original romantic comedy for the teen and 20s crowd. No doubt there is some original stuff here. But it's in the dialogue, not the story.

Ironically, to write an original script at the story level, you have to first hit the story beats (events) that have determined the romantic comedy genre for hundreds of years. Those beats aren't there by happenstance. They are the way the creation of love between two people is communicated to an audience. It's part of the human brain. For the writer, hitting those beats gets you in the door; it makes the emotion of the story possible. Then you have to twist the beats to give the audience the delight of the new.

Maybe the writers thought the romantic part of their comedy wasn't important. Or they were too busy thinking up hip lines. All I know is they forgot the 1st rule of the love story: there has to be an immediate attraction between the two leads, even if they start with a fight. In Scott Pilgrim, there is no reason for her to like him. Or for him to be awed by her. And we don't get those reasons at any time during the course of the film.

I always tell romantic comedy and love story screenwriters that you can't montage love. The power of film allows you to tell an audience intellectually that two people have fallen in love in a matter of seconds. But that's not important. Even in a romantic comedy, everything rests on the emotion of love, the breathtaking, mind-blowing feeling the audience shares with the two characters that: WE'RE IN LOVE! That life-changing feeling between two complex human beings represents the stakes in a love story. If you don't set that up, and make it believable, the audience will not care.   

Jul 30, 2010


Inception takes off like a rocket and then slowly runs out of fuel. I loved the mind teaser of a plot, but found the longer the movie went on the less I cared. How a film can generate two such different responses has to do with the most important relationship in a story, the one between plot and character.

In the past with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, along with his co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, has shown himself to be one of the masters of movie plotting. Once again, Nolan gives screenwriters a masterclass in how to build plot. Plot is the most underestimated major skill in storytelling, with a lot of specific techniques you must learn to work as a pro. And make no mistake, the ability to pack more plot in your script is the single most distinguishing feature in a script and film that hits big.

Most writers don’t realize that many of the plot techniques they will use for a particular story are determined by one of the first choices they make in the writing process: what genres will I use to tell this story? Indeed, Nolan’s most brilliant move in writing this script was in combining two genres that are almost never together: science fiction and caper.

Science fiction is the biggest of all genres, as huge as the universe and beyond. That’s why it’s so notoriously difficult to write well. It has a broad, loose structure that covers vast scales of space and time. The caper, also known as the heist film, is among the tightest and most focused of forms, built on a specific and high-speed desire line. That’s why caper stories are almost always very popular.

By combining these virtually opposite forms, Nolan allows the audience to have their cake and eat it too. They get the epic power of science fiction with the driving speed of the caper.

Using the caper gives Nolan one other big advantage. The caper is one of the most plot-heavy of all genres, right up there with detective stories and thrillers, and is designed to fool not only the opponent in the story but also the audience. The prime technique of the caper writer is trickery. Like a magician, you point the audience’s attention in one direction while the real action is happening somewhere else.

The rich plot provided by the caper is magnified many times when the mission takes us into the dream world where the rules of logic change. This is where the power of science fiction kicks in. Science fiction is the most creative genre, because you can take nothing for granted. The writer must literally create everything, including the space-time rules by which human life itself operates.

To get maximum plot and puzzle, Nolan smartly creates three levels of the dream world, using the technique of “revelation plot.” Plot in this kind of story comes from digging deeper and deeper into the same world, with each new level providing a whole new batch of reveals, and thus plot, for the audience.

In combining the caper story structure with a three-level dream world, Nolan takes the audience on a high-speed but mind-bending journey down three levels and back out. In yet another level, the hero’s guilt-filled sub-conscious acts as the story frame and provides even more reveals. Like I say, this guy is a master of plot.

Spoiler alert!

Creating a multiple-level plot is a real blast, especially when it’s connected to such dazzling visual elements as the attacking freight train, the fold-up city and the ghost-town like land of limbo. But there’s a catch. All this plot can kill character and emotion if you are not extremely careful with the story set-up.

The character/emotion problem for Inception starts right at the desire line, the second of the seven major structure steps and one of the strengths of the caper genre. Desire is the hero’s goal. It provides the spine of the story, along with the stakes, or why this story matters. In Inception, the goal is a concept, specifically planting an idea in someone’s head. Not only is this a cold abstraction, it means the stakes are ultimately meaningless. We are told this idea will prevent ecological catastrophe. But that’s just a line of dialogue. We don’t see it, and none of the story is at all related to it.

Another source of an emotionless story has to do with the hero’s relationship to those most important to him, or lack thereof. No, I’m not talking about the other members of the team, which is where most caper stories gain their emotional juice. Think of the buddy camaraderie among the Ocean’s Eleven team. I’m talking about the hero’s wife and children. From the beginning of the film, the wife is already dead so there is no chance to get to know her or see her interact in the present with the hero. What interaction they do have is tainted by the fact that she is morose, deadly and generally a real drag. Supposedly the hero is doing all this to get back with his kids, but again he has no personal interaction with them, except to see them as an unreachable image.

With such a weak goal – which propels a story forward - and such a strong ghost – which pulls a story back, the narrative drive of Inception must inevitably grind to a halt. And that’s just what it does. We get some beautiful, haunting imagery, but the final part of the film feels like a slow trek through a dream museum.

And that’s the negative side of making your story world the land of dreams. Stories about dreams are almost always less than meets the eye. They seem highly intelligent at first glance, because we are entering the realm of pure mind. But they are also as evanescent as a dream, made of elaborately detailed walls that are just fronts to the nothingness behind.

There is one final structure element that causes this visually stunning film to slow down and become less involving as it goes on. In the 22 Step Great Screenwriting Class, I talk a lot about the moral argument found in all great storytelling. Knowing how to execute this crucial element is one of the marks of a professional writer. It’s the sequence under the surface that made the plot of The Dark Knight build in intensity and was the real key to the film becoming a cinematic masterpiece and blockbuster hit. The plot of The Dark Knight is built on a series of moral tests that The Joker throws at Batman. Each test is progressively bigger and more difficult than the one before, ending with the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma where the passengers of two ships must decide whether to blow up the other ship first.

Don’t think for a moment that moral argument is primarily designed to increase the intellectual quality of a film. It increases the emotional power of a story many times over, because the stakes now involve lots of other people and not simply the psychology of the hero.

In Inception, Nolan again infuses moral philosophy into the plot. In this case we’re dealing with Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” literally applied to love (a technique normally used in the thriller genre). But Nolan’s understanding of this moral principle is much weaker than his thoughts about the savior in Dark Knight, and it’s not applied to the plot in as seamless or sequenced a way. Viewers come out of the film confused and think it’s their fault. They believe that this philosophical complexity is the mark of a brilliant filmmaker and far above their meager powers to understand, at least on one viewing. Wrong. Moral argument in story is very complex. Sometimes you nail it, and sometimes you just don’t.

Inception is well worth breaking down structurally to see a master of the screenplay form try something new and challenging. But don’t get caught on the dazzling surface. Look at how the writer’s original choices in combining genres and setting up the story gave him both strengths and weaknesses. The more you learn about the all-important connection between plot and character, intellect and emotion, the better writer you will be.

Jun 29, 2010

Un Prophète

Un Prophète (A Prophet), the French nominee for the best foreign film Oscar in 2010, is a revolutionary step in French cinema and the world entertainment business. It’s an epic crime story, but it’s not told from the top down, giving us the “big picture,” like most epics. This story is told from the bottom up, so its power builds and feels intensely real. Not only does this make for a great film, it marks the move in French film from art house cinema to competitor with the U.S. in worldwide genre filmmaking.

France has produced many genre films in the past. For example, before directing Un Prophète, Jacques Audiard made Read My Lips, a solid if unexceptional crime-thriller. But French film for decades has been trapped by the auteur theory and the art films that inevitably result from the belief that movies are all about the director’s vision. What you get is quirky, navel-gazing dramas that no one but the director’s family wants to see. What you don’t get is a good story. And that’s what the audience, not just French but worldwide, demands.

The key to telling a story with worldwide appeal is genre. But with the stranglehold of the auteur theory and art house film, most French writers and writer-directors disdained genre storytelling as predictable American fare appealing to the lowest common denominator. Not wanting to make American films in French, they worked around the edges of genre, so the films were neither good genre films nor good art films.

With Un Prophète, writers Thomas Bidegain, Audiard, Abdel Raouf Dafri, and Nicolas Peufaillit have found a way to overcome the false distinction between genre film and art film and instead make a genre film that is a work of art. They’ve found a strategy that allows them to borrow from the best of French film tradition and at the same time punch the elements of genre that make it the worldwide standard for popular storytelling.

That strategy is what I call in my 22 Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes “transcending the genre,” which involves twisting all the beats of the particular form and adding drama elements to make the story stand out from all the other films of its kind.

To understand how this advanced script works, we need to focus on the genres on which this story is founded. Genres aren’t a formula for writing. Each genre is a contained story world expressed through a contained story form.

Though set within a prison, Un Prophète is a gangster story, which is a sub-form of the crime genre. Like all gangster stories, it is about success in the modern world, shorthanded as “the American Dream,” and how that Dream has been corrupted from its original idea of success as spiritual attainment to success as material gain.

These writers know their gangster form cold, borrowing from such classics as The Godfather (one of the mafia prisoners is even named Corleoni), Goodfellas and even the gangster-Western Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars. Knowing the beats of your genre is the first step in writing a successful screenplay, because the entire worldwide entertainment business is based on repeating popular story forms.

Just as in those classic gangster films, Malik, the hero in Un Prophète, must climb up the organization and use illegal and immoral methods to succeed. He begins as an illiterate 19-year-old with no family. So he starts as close to the bottom as you can get. The writers then track his climb up the ladder, and they excel at placing him in one impossible predicament after another. This technique of the impossible predicament works well in any genre, because it keeps maximum pressure on the hero during the difficult middle section where 90% of scripts fail.

The second step in writing a successful script for the international market is to twist the beats of the form and add drama elements. As Audiard has said, “I like the stylization of a genre film. It’s a way to accelerate the connection with the spectator. Here is the good guy, here is the bad guy. But once the spectator has agreed to get on board, then it’s up the filmmaker to become more subtle and break from the confines of the genre.”

To break the confines of crime, the writers of Un Prophète have borrowed a number of techniques from the advanced screenwriting/Masterpiece form. As in all masterpiece films, Malik is trapped in a system. But by starting with the naïve young hero first entering prison, he and the audience have only fleeting glimpses of what that enslaving system might be. Like Buonasera in the opening of The Godfather, Malik has to piece together the hierarchy of the system on the run, under extreme pressure, and figure out how to play the system before it kills him.

Un Prophète also twists the beats of the gangster and masterpiece forms in the way the hero grows. Starting Malik as an innocent 19-year-old makes him a clean slate. In prison, he not only learns the ways of crime, he takes classes in reading and economics. By the end of the story he hasn’t just experienced the simple character change we see in most stories. He has gone on a complex journey of learning on many levels of the story: in business, in religion, in character, crime and family.

The storytelling weave in this script is quite complex and advanced. The main technique the writers use to create such an intricate plot has to do with one of the seven major structure steps, the desire line (see the 22 Step Great Screenwriting Class). Stated simply, Malik goes from being a reactive hero with a weak desire line to being an active hero with a strong desire.

It may surprise you to know that this is the same fundamental strategy that writers Laurent Cantet, Robin Campillo, and Francois Bégaudeau used in the true story-drama, Entre Les Murs (read my structure breakdown of Entre Les Murs.) It’s a strategy that can work in any of the major genres, but it’s very hard to pull off.

Starting with a weak desire line is usually a bad idea, because the story quickly collapses without narrative drive. But the weak opening desire in Un Prophète and Entre Les Murs doesn’t come from writers who don’t know how to give the hero a strong goal. They purposely deprive the hero of a strong desire at the beginning so they can intensify the reality of the hero’s situation. Malik begins as a loser, a 19-year-old illiterate entering prison for a six-year term. This guy’s only goal is to survive and he doesn’t even know how to do that. The early scenes are raw and brutal, and the drama comes from forcing the audience, along with the hero, to wallow in the horror of the experience.

Once that’s been established, as only film can, the second part of the strategy is to give the hero a stronger and more specific desire line as the story progresses. Notice that this technique allows the writers to express the deeper theme of the film not just in the content – Malik becoming more successful and powerful – but also through the form and structure of the storytelling – a character who is more conscious, focused and driven. This has a more powerful effect on the audience because it is working on them below the surface.

Again I want to caution writers that this strategy is very risky. If you deprive the hero of a goal for too long, you lose the audience, and they are very hard to win back. But if you weave and pace the story right, the audience gets to have their cake and eat it too. They get the gritty feel of harsh reality that only film can bring, and they get the pleasure of great storytelling that comes from a main character gaining a progressively stronger desire.

This building desire line makes the intricacy of the plot possible because it literally becomes the spine on which the complexity hangs. As the hero’s goal becomes stronger, the writers add more plot lines, both outside and inside the prison. From this innocent clean slate of a character, for whom plotting seems impossible, the branches of plot spread out until everything connects and the system is laid bare in all its terrible logic.

The script for Un Prophète is worth careful study by anyone wishing to write screenplays in the current worldwide entertainment business, and especially by French writers and directors. I believe this is a landmark film for French cinema, because it represents a liberation, a breaking free of the shackles of auteur theory and the art house film that has ghettoized French cinema for decades. The writers of Un Prophète have planted a flag that says, “We French screenwriters and filmmakers have finally entered the arena of international genre filmmaking, and we are here to win.”

May 27, 2010

The Good Wife

American television is as good as it’s ever been right now, which means it has the best writing in the entertainment industry. American film isn’t even close. This week we saw the end of one of the greatest shows in TV history, with the finale of Lost. If you love great writing like I do, that’s a big loss. But there’s a lot of talent in TV right now. So while we’ve been reluctantly bidding farewell to Lost, The Good Wife has quietly moved up the ranks until it is now one of the five best dramas on TV.

When you watch a terrific single episode of television, you naturally want to praise the author of that episode. But a huge amount of the credit for any episode must go to the original construction of the show itself. In fact, creating a great series on TV is almost totally dependent on the show’s structural conception.

In my TV Drama class, I talk extensively about the seven key structural elements that determine a successful show and how to write them. One of those is the character web. Character web is crucial in any work of fiction, but especially in TV drama where the audience returns to the same family of characters week after week, hopefully for years to come.

Character web has to do with how all the characters in a story hang together as a single fabric. Notice we’re not just talking about the main character here. We’re talking about how all the characters relate to one another, both connecting and contrasting. If you come up with a unique character web, in which each character is set in opposition to the others in the right structural way, you will have a successful series that can run forever. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

If you study the character web on The Good Wife, you see one of the reasons this is the best legal drama to come along in some time. There are many elements that go in to creating a tight character web, including character hierarchy, role, and archetype. But the element that most distinguishes the character web on The Good Wife is the moral relationship of all the characters.

Legal dramas have been shading the line between good and bad, guilt and innocence, for a long time. The days of the righteous defender against the oppressive prosecutor are long gone. David Kelly has done a number of legal dramas that highlight the moral complexity of being a lawyer. But The Good Wife has taken the moral conundrum to a new level.

The key technique for constructing a moral character web is to start with the central moral problem of the hero. Then make all other characters some variation of that moral problem. In The Good Wife, Alicia Florrick, the main character of the title, begins as a “good person.” In fact she is perceived as a paragon of virtue because her husband, the state prosecutor, has been caught cheating on her and is in jail for corruption. Alicia must go back to work as an attorney to support her family while under the harsh glare of publicity.

As the first season progresses, however, Alicia finds herself in a number of morally difficult situations that call into question just how good she really is. Most prominently, she feels a strong attraction to her boss and has to use her husband’s possibly corrupt connections to defeat a colleague who is competing for her job. From her initial elevated position, Alicia can only decline when forced to succeed in a morally impure world. As Sartre said, we all have dirty hands.

Creating this interesting main character is the first step in building a strong show. But what sets The Good Wife apart is the way the show’s creators, Michelle and Robert King, have constructed a web where all the characters must traverse morally dangerous ground. And each character, like Alicia, must find some balance between love and business success without becoming morally corrupt.

Having set up a character web where each character is caught between guilt and innocence, the Kings can play out a story structure in each episode that combines stand alone and serial elements and is dense with reversals and betrayals. Each episode tackles a legal case that serves as the fulcrum for all the characters to have to confront tough moral decisions. With so many characters conniving and choosing, each episode feels like a moral cyclone where everyone is simultaneously jockeying for success without losing their soul.

This story structure gives the show two major strengths. First, even the minor characters have complexity, so each is compelling and together they are a knockout. Second, each episode is packed with plot: the writers tease the audience with a moral challenge in the opening and then relentlessly turn the screws until the final scene.

Because this show was constructed so well from the start, I expect it will only get better as it goes on. Whether you are interested in writing for television or not – and you should be – study The Good Wife to see how master storytellers work the craft. Goodbye Lost, hello The Good Wife.

May 7, 2010

Date Night

Date Night is a so-so comedy thriller. For those wishing to master the screenwriting craft that’s a good thing, because you can often learn the most from a movie that isn’t too good or too bad. Its strengths and its flaws are easier to see.

With stars Steve Carrel and Tina Fey it’s hard to avoid comparing the film to The Office and 30 Rock. That just gives us another instance of the truism that the best writing in comedy is in television, not film. But the brilliance of those shows is actually more difficult to explain. With Date Night, techniques and choices, successes and failures, are clear.

The biggest challenge when you write a comedy screenplay is setting up the comic structure, what I call the “clothesline,” on which you will hang the jokes. This clothesline is essential in sitcoms too, but it is much harder to create in a movie because it has to stretch for at least 90 minutes, not 22.

You create the clothesline using two major structural elements, the comedy sub-genre and your hero’s desire line. This is where most comedy writers go wrong. They don’t realize that there are seven major comedy sub-genres, including romantic comedy and farce, and each has a completely different set of story beats you have to hit to tell the story well (see the Comedy Class for the beats in all 7 sub-genres).

In Date Night, writer Josh Klausner uses the comedy thriller form (a kind of action comedy), which goes back at least to the early Hitchcock films. Here we have the innocent couple on the run, forced to battle criminals or spies. This form is not used much nowadays because combining comedy with thriller creates real problems of tone. If the opponent is too deadly the jokes aren’t funny. There’s also a number of contrivances you have to explain away, most notably how two average shmos could possibly compete with, much less defeat, hardened criminals, and why don’t they just go to the police.

The Date Night script gets barely passing grades in these basic areas of storytelling. The unbelievability of Steve and Tina going up against professional killers is always present. But this isn’t a fatal problem because the audience just falls back on the fact that this is a comedy.

The advantage of using the comedy thriller sub-genre is that it gives the script a strong desire line that extends to the end of the story. Much like the detective line in The Hangover, this couple’s desire to escape attack and find the incriminating flash drive creates a strong narrative drive on which the writer can hang any number of funny but episodic scenes. It also allows him to save the funniest scene for last, which is one of the gold standards in a comedy movie and almost never happens.

As a comedy writer, your goal is always to make the comedy build. The laughs should stand on the waves of the laughs that come before until the audience is gasping for breath. That rarely happens in a movie comedy because you have to extend the story for 90+ minutes and because you have to tie up all the story business as you get to the end of the line.

Klausner solves this problem in Date Night, first by setting up the thriller line and second by keeping the final battle simple. Without a last complex action scene to divert the audience from the jokes, Klausner can keep the focus on two top comic performers doing an incompetent pole dancing routine that brings the house down.

With the strong if hokey clothesline, the strength of the movie can come through, which are the funny bits that pop up throughout the story. Lines like “He turned the gun sideways; it’s a kill shot,” gags like the painfully slow motor boat and scenes like the marital spat between the Tripplehorns are laugh-out-loud funny. In Hollywood, the rule is if you have three laugh-out-loud moments in the film you have a hit. That’s a low bar for movies as opposed to television, but the important thing for writers to focus on is how you get those laughs. And that comes from the comic structure that supports the gags.

If setting up the clothesline is one of the big strengths of Date Night, the attempt to make the comedy come from character is one of the big weaknesses. Most writers have heard how valuable it is for the comedy to come from character, but few really know what it means, or how to do it. I discuss this a lot in the Comedy Class, because if you can master this set of techniques you immediately become one of the top comedy writers in the business. Let me focus on one technique in this area.

You must begin the story by establishing a deep weakness/need in the main character – in this case a couple – which then will be solved by the story line. In other words, the hero’s weakness must be embedded and solved all the way back at the premise line. The premise is your story stated in a single sentence. The Date Night premise might be described like this: a couple whose marriage has become predictable defeats criminals and renews their love.

The premise is like the hypothesis in a science experiment. It’s the fundamental truth about the world you are trying to establish. In an experiment you may determine that your hypothesis is wrong. But in a story you have to prove the premise. The sequence of story events must display in detail the truth about life you describe in one line. This is also called fulfilling the “promise of the premise,” the promise you make to the audience when they agree to come to the theater to see this story.

Klausner clearly wants to tell a story that proves the premise because he spends a great deal of time at the beginning showing that this couple’s marriage has grown stale from the demands of work and children. Even their date night hits the same old routine. The thriller structure is supposed to be the vehicle of renewal. It’s the same technique used, correctly, in Rear Window, where the Jimmy Stewart character learns to respect and commit to the Grace Kelly character by solving a crime with her.

But while this process is given lip service here, it never actually happens. Sure, escaping killers and bringing them to justice makes for an exciting night and a fun makeout session on the lawn the next morning. But it has nothing to do with changing what’s wrong between these two and how they will act differently toward one another for a 1001 nights in the future.

Klausner is definitely doing some things right here that most comedy screenwriters, even those with films under their belts, are not doing. He’s not reaching the level of the sitcoms in which these stars normally appear, but those sitcoms don’t have to tell a funny story over 90 minutes. Still, I can’t help feeling disappointed with this film. When a writer knows how to create comedy from character, you get great thematic comedies like Groundhog Day that express recognizable truths at the same time they make you laugh. Date Night is simply not in that league.

Mar 30, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland is one of the greatest stories of all time, with arguably the best story world ever invented. It is also notoriously difficult to turn into a film. And the reasons all have to do with the script. The most recent version of Alice, written by Linda Woolverton, is the latest disappointment, and a close look at the choices she made are very instructive to those of us who love the craft of screenwriting.

Alice is a classic fantasy story, and in many ways it set the form. A little girl, living in a highly organized, mundane world, travels to an upside-down fantasy world of illogic and returns to the real world freer and a little more grown up as a result. The overall structure of the original story is very tight. The problem comes in the middle, because the middle is structured according to the myth form, not fantasy.

Alice is on a journey in Wonderland, which means that the story is highly episodic. Each scene is a new encounter with strange new characters. While these individual scenes are invariably fun and extremely creative, they do not build. This is the great challenge of any writer using what I call “journey plot” (see “The Anatomy of Story”). It has stumped writers from Cervantes (Don Quixote) to Dickens (Oliver Twist) to Twain (Huckleberry Finn). The main reason the episodic element doesn’t hurt the original Alice in Wonderland is that the book is so short. But that won’t work for a feature-length film.

If we look at what Woolverton did in adapting the original story, we can see that almost all her choices were designed to overcome this episodic quality. The problem is that while her choices decrease the episodic quality, they also represent paint-by-number storytelling that gets increasingly boring as the story goes on.

It’s ten years later. The new Alice is a young woman trapped in the same stifling world and facing the prospect of a stultifying marriage to a rich fool. The trip to the fantasy world is supposed to force the heroine to confront her personal weakness. But notice in this set up, the craziness of Wonderland won’t force Alice to change because she’s a rebel from the beginning. The single greatest feature of the original Alice in Wonderland is that the fantasy world is based on illogic. So it attacks the very way that logical Alice and the audience think, the way we construct the world. Because this new Alice is never shown to be part of the “normal” worldview, fantastical Wonderland is just a series of strange landscapes.

To focus the story, Woolverton suggests the ending by showing a scroll in which Alice kills the Jabberwocky in the final battle. This sets up the vortex of the story that is supposed to sequence events at increasing speed. Now Alice’s journey has an endpoint, so each stop is not a stand-alone moment but a step on the path to her final destiny where she will save the kingdom.

But by turning Alice into an action hero, Woolverton has made a pact with the story devil. Action stories typically have even less plot than myth stories, not just because big action set pieces stop plot but also because the audience knows that nothing big is going to happen until the final showdown. And in this film nothing does. Woolverton is still stuck with the journey plot, which makes it extremely difficult to add plot through reveals. Without surprises, the plot must die.

The other major technique Woolverton adds to overcome the episodic quality of the original story is to bring some of the major characters along for the ride. So, for example, instead of leaving the Mad Hatter after the tea party, he comes along as an important ally to help Alice kill the Jabberwocky and defeat the Red Queen. Bringing characters along on the journey and having a single ongoing opponent is always a good idea when you’re writing a myth story. It allows the audience to care about the characters more intensely and increases the power of the opposition. But the value of these two techniques is largely removed when the heroine’s goal is so predictable and mundane as fighting a dragon in a big final battle.

Many people have expressed disappointment with director Tim Burton for this visually stunning but boring film. But visuals have always been what Burton is good at, not story. I find it fascinating to compare how a visual artist like Burton (Batman and Batman Returns) and master screenwriter-storytellers like Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) handled the same Batman story material. Frankly, there is no comparison, and it’s one more proof that movies aren’t a “visual” medium, they are a story medium.

Ironically, screenwriter Woolverton’s efforts to unify and build the story stripped the film of the great strength of the original story, which are the breathtakingly original characters and scenes. And Burton’s vaunted ability to create strong visual worlds totally misfired when he failed to base his visuals on the defining principle of the Alice in Wonderland story world, which is the brilliant illogic and nonsense that only a professor of logic could create.

One day a screenwriter may solve the riddle of making a great Alice in Wonderland film. That will be a great accomplishment that I would love to see.

Feb 26, 2010

Lost - The Final Season

The last season of Lost is upon us, and it gives writers of every medium an opportunity to watch masters of the craft push the television medium to places it has never gone. Lost is the first example of video game story structure transposed to TV, and the results have revolutionized the medium.

The old model of television involved the stand-alone episode, best exemplified in a crime or detective show. A murder was committed at the beginning of the episode, and then the cop uncovered the criminal and brought him to justice by the end. The next week a new crime was committed and solved. So plot was limited to what could be unraveled in 45 minutes.

With shows like Hill Street Blues and ER, the technique of the serial was added to TV. The cops, lawyers or doctors now had ongoing personal problems that extended over many episodes while retaining the stand-alone elements where a crime or medical emergency was solved by the end of the episode.

The creators of Lost had a big realization: the TV medium has not been used to its full potential, especially in the area of plot. So they shifted their focus from the single episode to the entire season. If you multiply 45 minutes per week by the 24 weeks of a network season, you have a story that is 9 times the length of a movie!

That’s Dickens’ territory. But the model the Lost creators used to construct this mega-canvas was not the 19th century novel, because that doesn’t take advantage of the crosscutting power of film and TV. Instead they cross-pollinated TV structure with video game structure, potentially the most plot intensive of all story forms. This meant three things above all:

1. the huge importance of the story world
2. an almost infinite number of characters
3. tremendous plot, because you can keep going deeper into the same world and find more reveals.

Like all multi-main character stories, the storytelling in Lost is all about juxtaposition and story weave. In the first three seasons, the writers were funneling out, adding layers and layers of plot, increasing the story’s scope by increasing the number of characters. But by the end of the third season the writers had reached the limit of plot: first, there were so many characters that they seemed like pawns and not people, and second, plot came to feel like a huge stall where further complications were just pointless.

That’s why, in the last two seasons, the writers have been funneling down, concentrating on the six “survivors” as well as John, Jack and Ben. This speeded up the plot by giving the many strands a convergent point, and switched the emphasis from the puzzle of plot to the emotional satisfaction of character.

In the first four seasons, the conflict focused on characters in space. Last season Lost shifted to conflict in time. In other words, time travel. Time travel is always a fun plot device. But what does it really mean? The ultimate thematic point of time travel is to compress into one view a character’s moral failings vs. the final moral judgment against him or her. Through the crosscut, the viewer can suddenly see in one view a single character’s life span, and the choices that make all the difference in the quality of a human life.

Sure enough, in the middle of season five, we saw a series of episodes in which each of the main characters had their own show. Instead of strictly plot reveals for a mass of characters within the world, time travel allowed the writers to create strong emotional character payoffs for each of the nine major characters. At the same time the plot reveals for the entire show continued to come over the course of the whole season, which satisfied the plot cravings of the die-hard viewer.

If last season was about time travel, this season the writers are using the story technique of alternative history, contrasting actions on the island with an alternative present for each of the major characters back in the real world. The purpose of the alternative history technique is the same as it is for time travel. Both contrast the moral choices that caused these characters to come to the island in the first place. Each episode gives a character a chance at two paths, the island that tests their great flaw and real life where each person can finally make things right.

Besides being a lot of fun to watch, Lost gives writers a chance to see some of the best storytellers in the world, in the middle of their creative process, working the craft and pushing the magnificent medium of television. I’ve been saying for years that the best writers in America are working in TV. Even if you’ve never watched this show, you owe yourself the pleasure of seeing what great writing can do before Lost is gone forever.

Jan 19, 2010


In all the visual splendor of James Cameron’s Avatar, it’s easy to overlook the script. In fact, the Avatar screenplay has come in for the same abuse Cameron’s Titanic script earned. You’ve heard the complaints: the story is a Pocahontas rip-off. The bad guys are just evil villains. The dialogue is stilted. In short, great visuals, bad screenwriting.

The critics aren’t so much wrong as irrelevant. What they don’t get is that Cameron is a brilliant writer of pop culture. He is one of three or four best popular storytellers, and his secret, which all current screenwriters need to know, is his mastery of genres.

Like Avatar, Titanic had fabulous visuals. But the key to its success was that it combined the disaster film – a sub-form of action – with the love story. These two forms are on opposite ends of the genre spectrum, which is why they are rarely combined, and why Cameron showed his true genius when he put them together.

The disaster film gives the audience the thrill of spectacle and scope, something no other medium can do as well. But for that same reason, disaster films have no heart. They’re about the thousands of people in the maws of slaughter. They’re not personal. That’s why Cameron spent most of that film setting up a love story, which is about the community of two, the most personal, heart-filled genre you can get. So when the disaster finally hit, the pain of loss started at the epicenter of the two lovers and spread out from there.

Jump forward to Avatar, and Cameron is using the exact same strategy. Avatar isn’t just a big, noisy war story set in an outer space future. It’s an epic romance, the grand myth combined with the intimate love story. The technical definition of the romantic epic is that the fate of the nation is determined by the love between two people. That is a very tough story weave to do right, but if you do, it has almost infinite worldwide popular appeal.

An epic is almost always built on the myth genre, by far the most common genre in worldwide blockbusters. The key question for the screenwriter, especially when you are adding fantasy and science fiction elements, is what myth to use. In the Myth Class, I talk extensively about the ten new myth forms on which a large percentage of worldwide storytelling will be based. One of these I call the eco-myth, and that is beat for beat the new myth that Cameron uses in Avatar.

Of course, the “new” eco-myth has a history. For over 160 years, it has been one of America’s two national myths. The first is the Western, and it was the dominant American myth from about 1850 to1960. The Western is the story of the building of the American nation by taming nature and “civilizing” the “savages” the Europeans encountered as they were going about their godly task.

But there was a second American myth that played underneath the Western all those years. It was the anti-Western, also known as the “Eastern,” starting with Thoreau and working its way through John Henry, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. It broke into the forefront of American storytelling during the Vietnam War, in films like The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The anti-Western has been described in one line as “the Machine in the Garden,” and that is the myth on which Avatar is based. It is the dark side of the American story, but more generally is the story of any technologically superior, male-god culture that wants the land of a nature-based, female-god culture.

The downside of the anti-Western myth is that it ends badly for the hero. The natives are slaughtered, and that is not going to work if you want an international blockbuster. That’s where the eco-myth puts a new twist on the anti-Western. Instead of ending with inevitable destruction, the eco-myth finds a way to rejuvenate the world by creating harmony among people and between people and nature.

The great strength of the eco-myth as a foundation for a blockbuster – besides the happy ending – is that it combines the myth story structure with a detailed story world. Story world has been a major element of blockbusters for at least the last ten years, as we vividly saw with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. The eco-myth, by its very nature, is a celebration of the interconnectedness of all things in the world, and the cinematic medium is unmatched in showing this.

Like Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, Cameron creates a lush story world that emphasizes trees and plants. The center and foundation of the Na’vi world is the great protective tree, a futuristic version of the Tree of Life that holds up the marriage bed in The Odyssey. The plants of Pandora are often floating and lit from within, which gives the audience a sensual and emotional understanding of what it really means to live in an interconnected world.

Floating is the essential feature of this story world, and is a major reason for the massive success of this film. Any fantasy world, if it is to be successful on a grand scale, must have the qualities of a utopia. And in the history of utopias, the single most important quality is floating or flying. Think of the floating tea party in Mary Poppins, Harry Potter playing Quidditch on his broomstick, or the floating house in Up. Cameron understands this deeply. So his jungle world of Pandora is much more like an ocean floor. Plants float, so do entire islands, and the ten-foot-tall Na’vi fly everywhere on the backs of the giant bat-like banshee, infinitely more agile than the most advanced fighter plane.

This element of flying is also crucial to the second major genre in Avatar, the love story. One of the unique beats of the love story is the first dance. Here the dance occurs while the would-be lovers fly on the backs of a banshee. It’s a beautiful orchestration of dance, love, flight, action and story world, and that scene alone is worth the price of admission.

As Avatar moves to its inevitable final battle, Cameron brings all of the story threads together. The focal point of the battle is the lit-from-within Tree of Souls, and for the techno-fascist humans, it is fit for nothing but destruction. Of course, this film is not a tragedy, so the battle does not go the way of history, with the technologically superior Europeans wiping out the natives. It’s a glorious scene where Cameron pulls out every trick in the story book, including a charge on horseback that is right out of The Charge of the Light Brigade.

If you want to understand Avatar’s phenomenal success, you have to see it as a piece of screenwriting, but without the traditional standards of “good writing.” Cameron is a genius of popular storytelling, and he knows the great popular storytelling comes from mixing genres that take maximum advantage of the film medium. True, the rest of us don’t have the advantage of $300 million to realize our screenwriting dreams. But if you think Avatar’s success comes primarily from all that money on the screen, you will miss some truly invaluable lessons in story. As Cameron himself has said, “People ask [me] about the future of filmmaking…the simple answer is that filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change. It’s all about storytelling.”