Nov 23, 2012

Hit 2012 Movies Show Why It's All About Learning Genres

For years I’ve been making the case that the key to becoming a professional screenwriter is to follow the first rule of Hollywood: it buys and sells genres. If you don’t know what Hollywood is buying you have no chance of selling them your script.

Genres are different kinds of stories, like comedy, detective and fantasy. These stories have proven their appeal to worldwide audiences for decades, centuries and sometimes over thousands of years. Each genre has anywhere from 8-15 story beats (story events) that must be present in your story if the script is to have any chance of success.

It would be nice if all you had to do to write a sellable genre script is to learn the story beats of your form and execute them properly. Unfortunately that’s what every other writer is doing. You need to do more.

In the past I’ve emphasized the first strategy for writing a genre script that stands above the crowd, which is to transcend the genre. This means that you not only hit every beat of your form, you twist them in a unique way that no one’s ever seen before.

This year we’ve seen many more films that use the second key strategy for writing a unique genre script: mixing genres. Hollywood here is using the age-old marketing technique of “give ‘em two for the price of one.” Except that now it’s more like three or four for the price of one. Almost all of the hit films of the year are a mix of multiple genres. And they, like 99% of the films that come out of Hollywood year in and year out, choose from these 11 story forms: Action, Comedy, Crime, Detective, Fantasy, Horror, Love, Memoir-True Story, Myth, Science Fiction and Thriller.

The question is: how do you do it? It’s not as easy as it appears. When you combine genres you run the risk of story chaos, because each genre comes with a unique hero, desire, opponent, theme and story beats.

Let’s look at the biggest hits of the year and see which genres the writers combined and how. One strategy for mixing genres used by three of the year’s biggest blockbusters – Hunger Games, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises – is to combine one or two genres with the Myth form. Myth is the most popular genre in the world, which is why it is the foundation for more hit films than any other form. Myth travels the world better than the other forms because it deals with big archetypal characters and life situations, so it transcends cultural boundaries. But Myth is almost always combined with other genres that both update and unify the often-episodic Myth.

Hunger Games combines Myth with Science Fiction. Book author and co-screenwriter, Suzanne Collins, understood the power of this combination right from the premise, which is based on the classic Greek myth, Theseus and the Minotaur. Every year King Aegeus must send seven young men and seven young women to be eaten by the Minotaur in ritual payment for a crime. Collins’ main character, Katniss, is based on one of the major Greek goddesses, Artemis (aka Diana), the huntress. The best beat of the story, when Katniss shoots an arrow through an apple in the mouth of a pig, is right out of the Swiss legend of William Tell.

Collins then uses Science Fiction to create a futuristic world that takes the capitalist foundation of American society to its logical extreme. In this world, competition for show and money has taken on life and death stakes. This mash-up of ancient past with possible future gives the audience the sense that this story isn’t specific to a particular time and place. It is universal; it is today.

The Avengers combines Myth with Action and elements of Fantasy. All superheroes are Myth characters (especially the Norse god Thor), and bringing them together to form a Dream Team is as old as both Greek and Norse mythology. But the structure of this story is taken from Action, in particular a sub-form of Action known as the Suicide Mission story. Suicide Mission, like its cousin, the Heist story in the Crime genre, shows us a collection of all-stars who reluctantly form a team to accomplish an almost impossible goal. Using some excellent techniques from TV Drama, writer Joss Whedon takes these mythical heroes through all the action beats, ending with the definitive beat in the Action story, the final bloody battle.

The first film in the Batman trilogy written by the Nolan brothers, Batman Begins, hits and twists every beat of the Myth genre perfectly. But the second film, The Dark Knight, with its showdown between Batman and The Joker, is really a Fantasy Crime story, with the original Myth elements sitting underneath. The Dark Knight is the greatest superhero film ever made, and that put tremendous pressure on the Nolans to top it with The Dark Knight Rises. Their approach? A Crime Epic, a story of worldwide injustice with story beats right out of the French Revolution. That was probably a bridge too far, because even terrific writers like the Nolans could not inflate the Crime beats to that level. But you have to love their ambition.

This is the time of year when the Oscar contenders show up. The hottest picture right now, with a major shot at actually winning Best Picture, is Argo. Argo uses the strategy of mixing genres that rarely go together, in this case True Story with Political Thriller and Action.

True Stories typically have a gritty reality but lack dramatic shape. Political Thrillers are extremely choreographed and intensely dramatic. But at least when done in film, they usually pit a single hero against a vast organized conspiracy. So they often end badly. Because of the unique facts of this true story, these virtually opposite genres fit perfectly together and each genre’s strength solves the other genre’s weakness.

But the usual beats of the True Story form did require writer Chris Terrio to make a big change in the traditional Thriller beats. In the classic Thriller, the opponent is hidden and plot comes from reveals. Not here. The Iranian security force is the clear opponent from the beginning. So Terrio had to pull from the Action genre to create his plot. He sets up a huge vortex, a crosscut between the hero trying to get the hostages out and the opponents closing in for the kill. Everything will converge at the airport, and the combination of Action and Thriller beats gives the film a knockout ending.

Mixing genres is a dynamite strategy if you want the best chance to write a script that Hollywood might actually buy. But it’s not easy. You have to be able to execute. And that means you have to learn the genre beats of every form you’re mixing, and learn them so well that you can make some major adjustments to handle the unique qualities of your particular story. Each genre is a complex story system. But the good news is you can learn them. You just have to willing to put in the effort and the time.

Nov 20, 2012

SKYFALL Story Quiz

There have been many reviews of the new Bond film, SKYFALL.  John thought it would be a fun exercise for you to think about what was effective (or not) in the script before he weighs in with his breakdown.  So, here is a Story Quiz on SKYFALL for you to apply Truby's story structure beats to "get under the hood" and see how it works.  We'd love to hear your answers to these questions on the Truby's Writers Studio Facebook page.  John will weigh in on those comments and post his full breakdown of the movie soon.
1. The hero and opponent are very clear, but what are they fighting over -- loyalty to country vs. personal gain, man vs. machine (technology), something else?    
2. The writers bring in Bond's ghost (childhood).  Was that effective in adding layers to his character, or did it feel like it was thrown in as window dressing? 
3. Did we see Bond grow as a character, go through self-revelations and learn something about himself? 
4. Did we see enough facets/complexity in the opponent (Bardem as Silva)?  
5. Like in any Bond film, the story stretches believability in many places.  Is this a problem with the writing, or something we should expect in one of these action films? 
6. What did you think of the dialogue?  Did it drive the plot, or just entertain? 

Oct 30, 2012


Argo is a terrific political thriller that will probably get some Oscar nominations. I hope that includes one for writer Chris Terrio whose ability to tell an epic true story using the thriller genre allows him to transcend both true story and thriller.

The political thriller is a popular sub-genre in novels, but much less so in film. That’s because the typical opposition in political thrillers – some form of government agency – is so big and so hidden that it’s not a fair fight. Which means political thrillers in film often end badly.

But that’s not the case in Argo. This film is based on real events whose outcome we know, or at least suspect, going in. Besides giving us an upbeat ending, these real events give the highly choreographed thriller beats a raw, gritty believability and tremendous emotional impact.

Still, the true story foundation creates some real problems for the writer. The biggest difficulty you face in writing a true story is that real events don’t tend to have dramatic shape. They often don’t build to a final decisive battle and they often have long stretches of time where no story beats occur.
Again, that’s not the case with Argo. The final battle is extremely dramatic and the short time period in which the key events unfold means there is no down time. But the true story foundation does require Terrio to structure his thriller in a much different way than normal.

In the typical thriller, the hero investigates an apparent opponent who may, or may not, be guilty of a crime. The opponent’s true power, and the final truth of that character’s guilt, is parceled out over the course of the story. Notice that plot in this form of thriller is based on revelations, and we save the biggest revelation for last.

In Argo, the opponent is not a suspicious, hidden character but rather a known, extremely powerful Iranian security force that will capture and possibly kill the heroes. So plot will not come from a succession of reveals. There is nothing about the enemy we don’t know from the very beginning.

Instead plot must come from the hero’s plan and, even more so, from a succession of building attacks against the hostges. So the writer sets up a huge vortex, a crosscut between the hero trying to get the hostages out and the opponents closing in for the kill.

Terrio creates the vortex by beginning with the endpoint in space and time, the airport, where heroes and opponents finally decide the issue. He then works backward to the beginning of the two prongs: the hero creating his plan and the opponents trying to find who is missing.

One of the key techniques for setting up the vortex properly has to do with the desire line of the story. The desire line in thrillers is especially tricky because it always involves some version of investigating while under attack. Notice there is a push-pull effect on the desire line that is difficult for the writer to calibrate. When the hero is investigating he is active and moving forward. But over the course of the story the hero comes under increasingly aggressive assault by the opposition, which makes him reactive and knocks him back.

In Argo, Terrio replaces the investigation line of most thrillers with an even clearer goal: get the captives out. The opponents have an equally clear goal: keep the captives in. The endpoint of both those goals is the same place, the airport. So now the vortex story structure is simply a matter of speeding up the crosscut as the heroes and opponents approach the convergent point.

This crosscutting vortex structure goes to the heart of the film medium itself. It’s as fundamental as the crosscut between the cowboy racing to save the damsel tied to the tracks and the oncoming train that’s going to run her over. In this simplest form of crosscut, the point is to set up the pressure cooker effect. The faster you crosscut as you approach the end, the greater the pressure builds on the audience. If the hero wins, the result is total elation.

The writer adds a number of other story and dialogue techniques that make this script really sing, especially some very funny inside Hollywood jokes as the hero is concocting his plan. I saw the film at the Writer’s Guild theater and one joke in particular about directors had the audience in stitches. In a story this intense, comedy plays the same role as the fake attack does in horror. It releases the pressure on the audience only to allow the writer to kick the pressure up to an even higher level.

But the key to the success of this script and film is the writer’s ability to infuse an already dramatic true story with powerful thriller beats. Thriller tends to be a very narrow form. In the Detective, Crime Story and Thriller Class I talk about transcending the form by combining it with its genre opposite, the epic. By accomplishing this difficult feat, Chris Terrio has written one of the best films of the year.

Sep 25, 2012

Breaking Bad

I had no interest in watching Breaking Bad when it first began its run. Yet another story about the drug trade sounded boring and unpleasant to me. But after AMC ran a Breaking Bad marathon this summer, I finally gave it a shot. I found I’d been missing one of the best dramas in the history of television.

To understand why a TV show or movie works, you have to start by identifying the story challenges the author faced at the beginning of the writing process. First, show creator Vince Gilligan had to overcome the same audience expectation I had, which is that this was going to be another boring, predictable story about druggies. A second challenge was one all TV writers must solve: extendability. Instead of a two-hour movie plot, Gilligan would have to come up with a huge number of plot beats, over multiple seasons, derived from the business of selling drugs.

This challenge would become even harder when Gilligan decided to use an average guy to drive the story. This wasn’t going to be Miami Vice on the border of Mexico. So what’s the story?

Gilligan’s grand solution to these challenges came when he realized how to do a crime story that uses the unique power of TV. The crime genre, unlike the detective form, is often told from the POV of the criminal. Gilligan’s great insight was that, with TV, he now had an entire season to show what it means and feels like to be a criminal.

American television, like Hollywood film, puts tremendous emphasis on a high concept premise to set the story apart from everything else on the market. Gilligan has said, “What was interesting to me was a straight arrow character (Walt) who decides to make a radical change in his life and goes from being a protagonist to an antagonist.” His initial pitch to Sony was, “I want to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface over the life of the series.”

That’s a brilliant premise, and one that included in its single line how this story idea could support a long-running series. Notice Breaking Bad is the mirror opposite of The Sopranos. The Sopranos is about a mob king who kills by day but sees a psychiatrist and has trouble with his family at night. Breaking Bad is a high school teacher by day who becomes a drug lord at night. Both play with the contrast of sensational crime vs. the common everyday to generate a skewed but fascinating reality.

The choice of which genre to use for your story idea is just as important in TV as it is in film. The Detective story is by far the most popular genre in TV, not just in America but worldwide. Crime, with a few notable exceptions, is not nearly so hot. But notice how the Crime form in TV allows writers to do things they could not do with Detective. Because Crime is from the point of view of the criminal, we feel what it’s like for this average man to see and do progressively more terrible things, to watch while a man is beaten to death, to face certain death at the hands of a drug boss, even to kill a man in cold blood. As they say on the show: “The cost of doing business.”

And with TV Crime you can show how becoming a criminal affects that person’s most intimate relationships. Over the course of Breaking Bad we see in minutely calibrated detail how Walt’s lies and criminal actions drive his wife away and destroy the family he is trying to save.

In all of my genre classes I talk about the importance of not simply hitting the basic story beats of your form, but of transcending them, so that the story is original. This is just as essential for success in TV as it is in film. And this is one of the key strategies Gilligan uses on his show.

All transcendent Crime stories deal with moral accounting over a lifetime. The focus is not on a single crime, but rather on how the criminal’s actions tally up on a lifetime board where some final settlement must be made. Transcendent crime storylines detail the playing out of karma. (For all the story beats of Crime, as well as how to transcend the form, take a look at the Detective, Crime and Thriller Class.)

The premier movie artists of transcendent Crime are the Coen brothers, in films like Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit. What’s unique about Gilligan is his ability to adapt transcendent crime to the TV medium, by having the crime come out of the hero’s sickness and buried hubris, and by showing that the nastiest war of the show is within the family.

Like the Coen brothers, Gilligan also plays with the black comedy elements that so often come with transcendent Crime. This was especially true in the early episodes of the first season when Walt and his partner, Jesse, are comically incompetent at this new business of crime. But we also saw it in the opening episode of season 5, essentially a comedy caper where the guys rig up some high-powered batteries to knock out an incriminating computer in the police station.

Of course the linchpin in Gilligan’s story strategy is his extremely complex and contradictory hero, Walt. Walt begins as a brilliant but nebbishy normal guy, a character grounded in a reality that every viewer recognizes. He is an everyman, pushed around his whole life and trapped in a job that is beneath his talents. Then he learns he has cancer. This bombshell makes him take stock and take control of his life.

For a transcendent Crime show, this is a brilliant stroke. Notice that by starting Walt as a normal and moral person, Gilligan prevents the viewer from mentally shoving the hero into the crime or gangster ghetto. Crime isn’t something those “other” people do. Crime is the crucible where everyman Walt must face a series of moral tests. And the decisions he makes, the methods he uses, lead him down a path to hell.

It’s a path filled with contradictions. Walt starts to become hooked on the intellectual game of it all. On the plus side, he starts to become assertive, his own man, even as he faces death by cancer or by murder. But then Walt comes to feel that he is an artist, a master chef. The hubris that was buried deep inside him long ago starts to bubble to the surface, until finally in season 5, Walt is a full-blown Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

As so often happens with a well-drawn character, the seed for Walt’s flowering as a complex and contradictory character lies in his ghost, the event from the past still haunting him in the present. In the first few episodes of season 1, Walt hints at the fact that he was screwed out of a wildly successful chemical business. Now he teaches chemistry to high school students. But deep down he believes he is a genius and deserves to be a rich businessman, too. When all the original rational reasons for making and selling drugs are long gone, it is this pride and resentment that will guarantee Walt’s eventual death.

The single biggest challenge for any show runner and writing staff is how to sequence the episodes. In other words, how do you segment and sequence the plot over an entire season? By watching all the episodes of this show in such a short period of time, I had a clear window into how exceptional the story build is in Breaking Bad.

Again, much of the credit for this has to go to Gilligan’s original conception and structure of the show. By starting Walt as a moral everyman, Gilligan is able to sequence the plot based on the hero’s moral challenges. Each episode tracks both an escalation of trouble for Walt and a moral decision that is more complicated than the one that came before.

This escalating moral sequence is hung on the premise line of the show: from Mr. Chips to Scarface, from protagonist to antagonist. Notice this gives a natural endpoint for the series. As Walt goes to greater extremes to reach his obsession, his rationales become emptier, and he finally runs out of options. As Gilligan says, “Breaking Bad is not engineered to last indefinitely. It is engineered to end at a certain time and place. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure what that time and place is.”

This focus has been a tremendous benefit to the show, allowing it to build not just within each season but from first season to last. But the cost is starting to be felt. Breaking Bad has shown us the making of a master criminal, but now that he's here, he’s not as much fun to watch. It’s not just that he’s become extremely unlikable, especially to his wife, Skylar. He’s not as compelling. With so much hubris, it’s obvious what is going to happen to him. So the plot has suffered as the final season moves toward its inexorable end. The only question for me is: who will kill him. My bet was on Jesse. But as Walt has become more monstrous to his wife, I now believe that Skylar will have the opportunity to prevent his death, but won’t.

If you’re interested in writing for television, you must study this show. In my TV Drama Class, I go into great detail about all the elements that go into a great TV script, from tight structural weave to lean, powerful dialogue. You’ll find those same elements in any episode of Breaking Bad.

If you’re a screenwriter or novelist, study this show for mastery of story. Because no matter what medium you work in, it’s all about being the best storyteller you can be.

Aug 28, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

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

The three Batman films from Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer are incredibly ambitious super-hero movies. These writers aspire to high art, and in the case of The Dark Knight, they succeed. The Dark Knight is a truly great film. But the pressure to build on that success for The Dark Knight Rises was immense. And while the ambition for this final film of the trilogy is nothing less than a critique of modern worldwide capitalism, the writers fail to create a bridge that can carry that massive weight. It’s a bridge too far. So it all comes tumbling down.

To see why this happens structurally, we need to begin by identifying the story challenges these writers faced in writing The Dark Knight Rises, and then look at the solutions they came up with. No doubt they began by asking themselves: how do we take The Dark Knight, the best super-hero movie ever made, to a new level? How do we explore the mythology of Batman in greater depth and scope so that it can stand not just for a city in decay, but a worldwide system where injustice is embedded in its very fabric?

In executing their vision, the writers of The Dark Knight Rises have always had a tremendous advantage, which is that Bob Kane’s original Batman story has the most advanced and complex of all super-hero mythologies. Embedded in the concept is the dark side of the super-hero itself, the self-destructiveness that comes from relying on a savior to fight the criminal among us.Other super-heroes like Spiderman and the Hulk have their ghosts and weaknesses. But Bruce Wayne/Batman is Hades himself, a man of the darkest demons who will use almost any method, both illegal and immoral, to fight crime.

But this advantage is not absolute. We saw what Tim Burton and the original writers did with the concept in the first Batman films. Other than Michelle Pfeiffer’s fabulous performance as Catwoman in Batman Returns, these films were pretty forgettable. What the Nolans and Goyer were able to do was to see the dramatic and epic potential of the concept so that Batman became a modern savior, and was loathed because of it.

Besides expanding the basic concept, the key technique the writers used to kick the Batman stories above all other super-hero franchises and into the realm of dramatic art was to build the stories with various moral philosophies. For Batman Begins, the origin story of the trilogy, it was elements of eastern philosophy and Old Testament justice that provided the opponent’s justification for using total force to fight crime and moral decay.

In The Dark Knight, the writers went with Nietzsche and the Existentialists for Batman’s bout with the terrifying Joker. The Joker, in a common misunderstanding of the Nietzschian Overman (aka Superman), thinks he can break any law because he is superior to the herd. The Existentialists provided the classic “dirty hands” argument that says you can never stay morally clean when you fight dirty people.

Here we see the fundamental technique that made The Dark Knight a great film but which is missing from The Dark Knight Rises. The plot of The Dark Knight is a series of increasingly difficult moral challenges the Joker gives Batman to prove his worldview that man is nothing more than a brutal animal.

Notice this brilliant plotting technique has three great advantages. First, it grounds the philosophical questions in specific moral choices the hero must make. Second, it builds the scope of the philosophy through a sequence of increasingly difficult and deadly options. Third, it hangs the larger philosophical issues on a strong narrative line, the hero’s desire.

None of this is present in The Dark Knight Rises. The writers try to kick the film up to a higher philosophical level by returning to the fundamental theme of Batman Begins, where Ra's Al Ghul first introduced the idea of wiping out a society when it has become corrupt beyond repair. Batman’s main opponent in this film, Bane, is Ra's Al Ghul’s new executor of this moral philosophy, which is a form of fascism.

But what is Bane attacking? Crime is actually way down in the eight years since the days of The Dark Knight. The writers introduce Catwoman as a Robin Hood figure, but she seems solely out for herself, and not a model for egalitarianism. A couple of traders on the stock exchange are a little haughty, but that does not constitute an attack of the 1%.

To put this in story terms, there’s no set up. If the writers want this third film in the trilogy to expand to a critique of worldwide systemic injustice, they have to show specific examples of how the little guy is being destroyed. And they have to show that these individuals are all connected within a system of slavery.

For a while we don’t notice the lack of a larger thematic set up, because we are too busy keeping track of all the plot lines. The Nolan brothers are the only screenwriters in mainstream Hollywood that suffer from too much plot. We would all like to have their ability to string reveals and surprises, but here it gets way out of hand. Besides straining and at times breaking all believability, these plot lines start to slow the narrative drive, which is determined primarily by the hero’s goal.

That’s when the writers spring the fatal plot beat. Batman foolishly walks into Bane’s lair and is promptly tossed into some obscure prison. For the next hour of the film, with no set up and Batman out of commission, the writers try to pay off their critique of world capitalism. After turning Gotham into an armed camp, Bane “gives” the city back to “the people.” How exactly does that work when the people are the ones being enslaved? Then we go through the major beats of the French Revolution, complete with storming the Bastille, or Batgate as it’s called here. And we get the citizen tribunals, whereby the rich 1% are sentenced to the guillotine. In wintry Gotham that means walking out onto the ice until you break through.

If this modern revolution had been set up in the beginning, maybe, just maybe, it would have worked. But with Batman stuck in a hole, the desire line of the hero has effectively stopped. So there is no spine, no suspension bridge, to support all this philosophical baggage. Narrative drive grinds to a halt. And we get one hour of stall.

Knowing how to weave a powerful theme into a storyline is one of the marks of the finest practitioners of the dramatic art. It is even more difficult to do in the lean story form of the screenplay. Most writers are so afraid of preaching to the audience that they avoid theme altogether. That’s a big mistake.

The writers of The Dark Knight wove theme into the plot so well that it may have been the single biggest reason for that film’s greatness. The failure of those same writers to weave theme through story structure in The Dark Knight Rises is just as instructive. Because this aspect of the craft is so important I spend a great deal of time in my Anatomy of Story Masterclass explaining in detail how it’s done. But I will tell you this: it all starts with constructing a strong story spine, the hero’s desire, that can carry the weight.

Jun 26, 2012

The Comic Journey

Family films, especially animation, make up a large chunk of summer blockbusters. And the one technique these films use to produce their massive worldwide audience is the Comic Journey. We see this in the big tent-pole animation films like Madagascar, Ice Age, Toy Story and Shrek, as well as individual animation hits like Up, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo.

Comedy poses a unique problem for anyone wanting to write a blockbuster. The studio has to be able to sell it outside the United States. Action stories and myth stories travel very well, because they are two genres based on a universal language. But comedy is notoriously stuck in its home of origin. What is funny in the U.S. may not cause a laugh in Germany, Italy and Japan.

Comic Journey gives you a number of advantages when trying to sell a comedy to the worldwide market. First, it lets you create the comedy out of the structure, not the dialogue. That’s because it’s using the storytelling strategy known as irony. Irony says that life is filled with failing to reach our goal or reaching a different goal than we intended. That goal is the spine of the story.

Why is this so valuable? Because dialogue is specific; structure is universal. Structure travels; dialogue stays at home.

A second advantage of the Comic Journey is that it gives you the benefits of the journey - such as story movement, heroic action, and character change - and adds the benefits of comedy - such as irony and laughter. This is a powerful and popular combination.

A third advantage of the Comic Journey is that it’s an excellent way to make social commentary, since your hero encounters many different people from many strata of society on the route. That tends to give your comedy a stronger theme, which is always a good idea, and lets you people your story with a wealth of fun, quirky characters. That appeals to the parents, so they actually enjoy taking their kids out for those summer family films.

So how do you set up a comic journey? Begin by focusing on your hero. You have probably heard how important it is for comedy to come from character. In the Comic Journey, one of the ways you do that is to create a pompous person who encounters a harsh reality or a normal person who encounters pompous or insane people. Notice either way you get a comic contrast that allows you to drop the characters, to deflate them, throughout the script. This is crucial. Many movie comedies die after the first fifteen minutes because the essential comic contrast disappears.

Next, give the hero a goal that forces him/her to travel. This is the spine of the story and is the line on which you hang the comic encounters. 

Because the Comic Journey is inherently episodic, it’s also a good idea to give this goal some urgency. The more intense the hero's desire line, the more comic encounters you can hang on the line without the line collapsing.

One of the best tricks for a great Comic Journey is to come up with a reason for the hero to take the family along for the ride. Again the episodic nature of the journey is your biggest problem. In the Comic Journey story, this quality comes from the succession of opponents your hero encounters along the way. Every time your hero meets and overcomes an opponent, that’s a mini-story. Hence the episodic feel.

But if you bring the family along for the ride, the hero has an ongoing opposition that never goes away. You get a through line to the journey as well as characters other than the hero that the audience can get to know and invest in.

Above all, when writing the Comic Journey, make sure the hero’s encounters create comedy, not just conflict. Laughs only happen when an inflated person is punctured. Structurally, there are only two ways for that to happen. A pompous person keeps running up against a harsh reality or a sane person keeps meeting and exposing a bunch of pompous or phony people. In every encounter, someone must be deflated or you are wasting the scene.

The Comic Journey is just one of hundreds of story techniques that you can use to be successful. The most important thing is to realize that success comes from mastering the craft. It takes a lot of work and a lot of study, but the rewards are tremendous.

May 29, 2012

The Avengers

The Avengers is why Disney bought Marvel and paid them so much money. It’s all about the character bank. In a worldwide market, companies put a premium on branding, which is selling an already recognizable product, and transmedia, which is telling the same story through many media forms. If you own a large bank of appealing, recognizable and repeatable characters, you rule the storytelling world.

But the characters in your bank can’t just be distinctive and memorable. Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire won’t help you here. They have to be characters who can go on many adventures, which is why they almost always come from the myth and action genres, and they are heroes, superheroes and gods.

Marvel has made a number of hugely popular films focusing on a single superhero, like Thor, Spider-Man and Iron Man. But The Avengers takes this genre to a whole new level, because it’s all about the lure of the All-stars, the Dream Team.

The all-star story is as old as myth itself. The Greek gods on Mt. Olympus and the Norse gods in Asgard are each communities of the best in their field. In more recent story forms like the caper film (Ocean’s Eleven) and the suicide mission story (The Dirty Dozen), the pleasure comes from watching a bunch of highly talented individuals come together as a team to accomplish an apparently impossible goal.

Few writers get an assignment like The Avengers, but you can create your own all-star story, and start a wildly successful character bank of your own. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as writer-director Joss Whedon makes it appear. Using The Avengers as our guide, let’s explore some of the challenges of the all-star story.

Just because these are superheroes or gods doesn’t mean you don’t have to establish a strong weakness-need for them at the beginning of the story. One of the strengths of the Marvel characters has always been that they run counter to the old conventional wisdom that superheroes are all good. In a great story, regardless of genre, the plot always plays out the character’s internal flaw.

Marvel characters have loads of flaws. For example, the Hulk has a real problem with rage, Thor is arrogant, and Iron Man’s Tony Stark is a raving narcissist.

All well and good. But with all-star stories you face an additional challenge in this area. You have to establish the weakness-need for a lot of major characters, and you have to do so in a relatively short period of time, without delaying the plot. This challenge is what hurt the Watchmen film. It took so long to establish the ghost and weakness-need of each of the major characters that the story died before it ever got going.

Whedon’s smart solution to this character challenge is to use two story techniques at once. The first technique, which Whedon brought over from his experience as a television writer, is to generate the primary conflict among the heroes. In the middle of the film, the heroes have gathered together but are not yet a team. Some of the Avengers imprison the main opponent, Loki, in their huge mothership. Loki doesn’t seem to put up much of a fuss about this, and that’s because he is planning to defeat the Avengers by getting them to fight amongst themselves.

Conflict among the heroes is more dramatic because we care more about our heroes than some super-villain. In TV you always want to generate most of your conflict among the leads, not between the leads and an outside opponent new to that episode.

This internal conflict also delays the unification of the heroes into a Dream Team. That’s another huge advantage because, when they do unite, during the final battle, it is under the greatest possible jeopardy.

And how do our heroes fight each other? They attack each other’s ghost and weakness, ultimately destroying their own ship in the process. So we get a plot beat – attack by the opponent – along with quick character sketch of each hero’s flaw. It’s all interesting to the audience because it’s expressed through conflict, not as boring exposition.

Notice the dissension also sets up the basic character change in the story, which is from troubled individuals to a perfect team. That moment of character change, when the heroes form a ring to fight as one against the alien forces, is the sweetest emotional moment of the film.

Here’s another tough story challenge. If you are going to have a team of all-star heroes, you have to come up with an equally strong opposition to match them. That’s hard, given that your heroes together must surely be the most powerful force in the universe. So your tendency is to create a team of all-star opponents, the Nightmare Team. But now you face story chaos, because you have to service so many heroes and opponents.

Again Whedon’s solution is instructive. The Dream Team element meant he wouldn’t try to come up with a single opponent, like The Joker, who would attack the heroes morally, questioning the very concept of the savior, or superhero. But he also didn’t go for the single opponent who would try to match the heroes’ physical abilities. Other than his apparent imperviousness to pain, Loki has no special superpower. Instead, he is the master schemer, a god whose distinguishing quality is his brain. He is potentially stronger than all the all-stars combined, because he can outsmart them. He can use his knowledge of the special weakness of each superhero to defeat the entire team.

The Avengers is an action-myth story, so we need a big physical battle. To take on the opponent’s role of physical action and fighting, Whedon brings in alien forces that not only have super powers, they attack by the thousands. Loki and the aliens form a nice combination of brains and brawn that can seriously challenge the Dream Team.

The Avengers shows us once again that the all-star story is one of the most popular in storytelling history. But it’s harder than it looks. If you remember to start by identifying the form’s unique story challenges, you will be halfway home.

Apr 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

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

In spite of The Hunger Games’ massive success at the box office, many viewers have complained that the movie is not as detailed as the original novel. I always find this comment ridiculous. While novels and films share hundreds of techniques that make for a good story, they also have at least one major difference: novels are a narrative medium while film is a dramatic one. When people dismiss the movie for not being as “good” as the book, they fail to see the key story elements, found in book and film, that make this a worldwide story phenomena.

The Hunger Games is the latest example of a huge blockbuster hit constructed by combining the myth genre with video game story elements. In my Genre classes, I have long pointed out that Myth is the basis for more blockbuster hits than any other genre by far. Book author and screenplay co-author Suzanne Collins understood this powerful technique right from the premise. In one of the most important of all Greek myths, Theseus and the Minotaur, every year King Aegeus must send seven young men and seven young women to be eaten by the Minotaur in ritual payment for a crime.

Like J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter stories, Collins has woven myth elements throughout her story. Main character Katniss is based on one of the major Greek goddesses, Diana, the huntress. When she and her fellow tributes show up in the arena, they are driving chariots. Like Romans watching gladiators kill gladiators and animals slaughtering Christians for sport, the rich dandies of the Capitol watch on live television as children butcher children. When Katniss shoots an apple with her arrow she repeats the act of legendary freedom fighter William Tell.

All of these mythical and ancient historical references give the story an appeal that can transcend age, gender and cultural boundaries. But that’s not enough for a hit. While myth is the foundation of more blockbusters than any other genre, it is almost always combined with one or two other genres to unify and update the myth form. In the case of The Hunger Games, Collins has combined myth with science fiction. This mashup of ancient past with distant future gives the audience the sense that this story isn’t specific to a particular time and place; it is universal. It is the essence of human beings.

Collins also uses science fiction to take the capitalist foundation of America society to its logical extreme, where competition for show and money has taken on life and death stakes. Like Rollerball and Westworld, the players in this competition are pawns to the big corporate money, and if you lose you die.

One of the biggest mistakes that science fiction writers make is that they create a futuristic world that is so bizarre, so unlike anything we know today, that the audience is alienated from the story almost before it begins. They may continue to watch but they will have a clinical attitude to the story throughout. And this is the kiss of death, in fact the single biggest reason that many science fiction films fail.

Collins has avoided that problem by creating a recognizable future world. Again her technique has been to connect past to future. The rural mining town of Katniss’ District 12 reminds me of 1930’s America, with the film’s shooting style reminiscent of Margaret Bourke-White’s photos of the drought victims of the Dust Bowl. This familiarity gives the audience an emotional connection to the story world. Although there are many elements that tell them this is a futuristic abstraction, the multiple references to America’s past, and in some cases present, tell them this is a story about today.

Besides the myth genre, the other key to the huge success of The Hunger Games is its deft use of video game elements. Video games are a relatively new story medium, and their massive influence on novels and film is just starting to become clear. I’m not talking about transmedia here, where a specific video game is turned into a novel and/or a film. These are almost always failures because the creators/producers try to boil all the permutations of a video game into a single story that can be written or filmed.

The trick to combining video games with novels and movies is not to transfer a particular video game story but to apply the story elements that video games do especially well and that appeal to a large audience. For simplicity sake, let’s focus on two elements, story world and keeping score.

Because video games allow a player to take a number of different paths through the same world, there is an extreme emphasis placed on a story world with lots of details and surprises. The difficulty of translating this story element into a novel or film is that these media have a single story path, so you can’t allow too much exploration by the reader/viewer without losing narrative drive.

But, driven by the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter stories, allowing the audience to explore a detailed story world is probably the single biggest change in commercial storytelling in the last ten years. The exquisite detail of the Potter world was mind-boggling. And a big reason Rowling was able to create that kind of detail in novel, and then film, is that she had seven books to do so.

Collins has three books to detail her world and uses the full array of techniques. First she creates the overall arena, which is a totalitarian society within which this moral horror can believably occur. She then sets up fundamental contrasts within the arena, with the rich, powerful amoral Capitol set against the poor, starving rural District 12. Within this macro-arena of high contrasts, she then creates a second smaller arena, the field of battle. This arena must have a clearly defined wall surrounding it to create the pressure cooker effect, whereby you build the conflict under such extreme pressure that it finally blows sky high.

Keeping score is the most obvious story element that distinguishes video games from other forms of media. Video games are essentially the combination of sport and story, or quantified drama. The biggest drawback to this element is that it destroys ambiguity; you either win or you lose. This is the main reason many critics have not yet given video games the accolade of unique story medium (they’re wrong, by the way). But keeping score also has great value. Since in most video games you are the main character, keeping score tells you exactly what you, as both main character and viewer, have accomplished in the story.

In The Hunger Games, of course, the element of keeping score is so fundamental it is right in the premise. This is a tournament to the death, “Survivor” with life and death stakes. In Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, another book and film heavily influenced by video games, we get a life and death fight between the two titans of evolution, man and dinosaur. But The Hunger Games is even more horrific, because this is a fight among children, and 23 out of 24 must die. Each contestant has different psychology, skills and training. And as in any game, luck will have a big role to play as well.

The game is also fixed. The contestants from Districts 1 and 2 are the only ones trained for this event. Naturally they usually win. But ironically, Katniss’ greatest weakness, her home in the starving 12th District, is also her greatest strength. She practices survival every day of her life, and she is a master of the bow and arrow.

Collins does something very interesting to turn the great weakness of keeping score into a story strength. What the player/main character accomplishes at the end of a video game has a very all-or-nothing quality. But in great storytelling what the character accomplishes, known as character change, is deeper and more subtle. Character change is not based on how many bad guys the hero has defeated, or on the sensual charge the player experiences in the process. Character change comes from how a character challenges his/her psychological and moral self.

In The Hunger Games Collins turns the tournament-to-the-death element of keeping score into the lever by which Katniss can have both a psychological and moral change. The tournament creates a Prisoner’s Dilemma on a massive scale, representing all of society. Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of the great insights in all of philosophy and game theory. In the classic setup, two prisoners are placed in separate interrogation rooms and given a choice of confessing to the crime or staying silent. But the authorities rig the choice so that each prisoner, without knowledge of what his partner is doing, must confess, because to trust his partner and stay silent risks death if the partner is the only one to confess.

Because only one player can survive the Hunger Games, the mini-society in which they live is one of total paranoia and distrust. Katniss’s distrust is heightened even more when she discovers that Peeta, her fellow tribute from District 12, has joined the alliance formed by the trained killers of Districts 1 and 2. Yet, over the course of the battle, she is not only able to trust him, but perhaps even love him. And when faced with the ultimate Prisoner’s Dilemma – whether to kill this person she loves – she makes the moral decision that risks her own death but also takes her to higher humanity.

Some critics have pointed out that The Hunger Games is a breakthrough for Young Adult fiction, especially for girls. Maybe so. But the big lesson of The Hunger Games has nothing to do with the age or gender of the reader-viewer. Simply put, if you want to give yourself the best chance of writing a blockbuster book or film – a longshot at any time – write a myth-based story with video game techniques.

Mar 29, 2012

Mad Men

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

As head writer on a show that has been on hiatus for 17 months, Matthew Weiner faced a huge story challenge in the opening two-hour episode. And it’s not yet clear whether he solved it or not.

The vast majority of TV shows have a tremendous advantage when it comes to creating narrative drive, in that they have clear, achievable desire lines. Cops solve crimes, lawyers win cases, doctors cure diseases. Desire, the hero’s goal in the story, is the object of measure in any TV episode.

But one of the main reasons Mad Men catapulted above all other TV shows when it first appeared is that it wasn’t constructed around a lead character with a clearly achievable goal every week.
Don Draper is an ad man, and his goal from one episode to another is never the same. Instead of repeating the same story every week, Mad Men could make every episode totally new, its own work of art, through a complex story weave of multiple characters with ever-changing goals.

This is great for story and character complexity. But it wreaks havoc on narrative drive. Instead of a single, propulsive force, a Mad Men episode is a crosscut among ten or more storylines, all happening simultaneously. The more you crosscut, the more you move sideways, and the less narrative drive you have. Result: you lose huge chunks of your potential audience.

Matthew Weiner has been more than willing to make that bargain in the past. But now he has to write a two-hour opening episode for an audience that hasn’t seen the show for 17 months. He doesn’t have the benefit of a single clear desire line to kick-start the massive story engine. And he is hemmed in by certain events that have happened to his characters at the end of the last season. Don is engaged. Joanie is pregnant, by agency partner Roger Sterling. Don’s ex, Betty, is married to someone else and never comes to the office where all the action is. And the actress who plays Betty is pregnant, so she can’t be in the opening episode anyway.

What all this means is that Weiner essentially has to do two hours of crosscutting to re-establish the various weaknesses and problems of his huge cast. He begins with Don already married to his new wife. That’s probably a good idea, because there wasn’t much he was going to get out of stringing that engagement along. But until now Mad Men was built on the contrast between Don selling the American Dream at work while living an unpleasant, and occasionally nightmarish lie at home. At least in this first episode, Don is relatively happy at home and a no-show at work. So the narrative must be carried by others. The problem is who.

Joanie is stuck at home with her new-born. This highlights the contrast that she and Peggy have always represented on the show of talented women who are held back by their gender. But as long as she is paralyzed at home by her problem, she can’t provide a driving desire for the episode. She finally takes action when she brings her baby to work, and the episode immediately catches fire with two excellent scenes. In the first the various women in the office take turns holding the baby, with Peggy wanting nothing to do with it. Then she has a nice bonding moment with financial partner Lane Pryce, who assures her that the office is falling apart without her. But this comes fairly late in the episode.

Peggy doesn’t have much to do here except feel frustrated coming up with a winning ad for beans. That leaves Pete, a pushy little whiner who is even more obnoxious than usual in this episode. He battles Roger for a bigger office that befits the success he has achieved in bringing clients to a firm that is having serious money problems.

Given the immense challenge Weiner faced in coming up with this first episode, we should probably be amazed that it was as good as it was. Now that he has taken care of all the set-up work for this season, he may be able to take the show in some exciting new directions as Mad Men takes on 1966. But for writers who love the craft, this episode points up lesson #1 in television: it all starts with desire.

Feb 28, 2012

Downton Abbey

The latest example of the coming of age of the television medium is Downton Abbey. In the old days of TV, each episode of a show was a self-contained story. The problem was introduced in the opening scene and solved 44 minutes later. By the end of the season, the audience had seen 22-24 versions of essentially the same story.

Notice this guaranteed that the TV medium as a whole could be nothing more than a factory of generic story product. Then Steven Bochco showed everyone that the real potential of the medium came not from a single episode but from an entire season. Instead of being film’s tag-along little brother, TV could tell its stories on a canvas ten times the size of a feature film.

In story terms, this meant, above all, interweaving multiple story lines over many episodes. No longer confined to a 44-minute straightjacket, the writer could get at a deeper truth by using film’s unique crosscutting ability to compare and contrast storylines.

Set in an English country house (more exactly a castle), beginning in 1912, Downton Abbey takes this multiple storyline approach to the extreme, so far having tracked the stories of 33 different characters. The question arises: what techniques does writer Julian Fellowes use to take this multiple storyline show to the highest levels of the TV form? I’d like to focus on two above all: story world and character web.

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. Downton Abbey has one of the most detailed story worlds in television or film, and all of these details have been chosen and created by the writer.

The first key choice Fellowes made in the story world had to do with placing the characters in pre-World War I England. This allowed Fellowes to work in the fabulous TV genre of historical epic (Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire). The Crawley family will stand for all of England at a time when England was about to undergo some of the most radical changes in its storied history. In the Anatomy of Story Masterclass (called The Great Screenwriting Class on CD), I talk a lot about the advanced story world technique of placing the characters between two social, or historical, stages, when society undergoes a relatively sudden shift. This highlights the forces of change acting upon the characters, so the audience focuses on how they adapt to these forces, and whether they do so in time to avoid their own destruction.

Fellowes uses another advanced story world technique by focusing not just on a family, but on a system, with highly defined roles, hierarchy, set of rules and values. Just as the American epic, The Godfather, depicts a family that is part of a mafia system, Downton Abbey’s family and servants are part of the British class system. This rigid system organizes and divides people in two fundamental ways, by wealth-power-status and by gender.

While any system is trouble for the characters trapped within it, it is tremendously useful for the writer. It gives Fellowes an almost unlimited number of permutations for conflict, which means he can not only run these oppositions as long as he wants to write the series, but can also make each individual episode extremely dense with conflict scenes.

Notice a system also gives the writer an extra level of depth for every character in the story. Even the most powerful character in the hierarchy, aristocratic father Robert Crawley, is enslaved in some way by the rules, values and expectations on which the system is built. And the least powerful character in the hierarchy, scullery maid Daisy, becomes heroic in her efforts to better herself against tremendous systemic forces and in her determination to do right by the dying soldier who loves her.

Over the course of the series, Fellowes has combined these two techniques – the changing social stage and the enslaving system – to give him the overall story path that each character will play out. World War I was a huge fulcrum for change in England, and even a network as old and powerful as the British class and gender system must bow to its awesome force. In simple story terms, the characters move toward equality; the rich and the men lose some of their power, while the poor and the women gain in power. The magnificent castle becomes a place for soldiers to recuperate, the aristocratic daughters act as nurses, one marries a mechanic, and the rich father can do nothing but accept it.

Closely connected to the story world is a technique I call “character web” (again for full details on this important technique see The Anatomy of Story Masterclass). Character web has to do with how all the characters in a story are connected to one another, which both helps to define and distinguish each of the characters and makes this story, with these characters, unique from every other story. Another advantage to placing the story within a social system is that it makes it easier for the writer to come up with a unique character web. The characters are all part of the same system, but they are distinguished by being in power – upstairs – or being out of power – downstairs, being male or female, by what role they play in the family and in the house, and so on.

On top of these basic distinctions, the writer can then add structural differences and subtleties. Here Fellowes borrows heavily from a fairy tale technique, refined by Jane Austen, which is the three sisters. The eldest and most beautiful, Mary, carries the main love storyline with the cousin who will inherit the house. Edith is the plain and resentful second sister unable to find a proper mate. And Sybil is the youngest who attacks the system by marrying the mechanic.

Of course, many stories have been set within the English class system. So the writer has to come up with a way to distinguish this character web from all the others. Fellowes uses a number of techniques to do so, but the most interesting one for me is how he depicts the upstairs characters. In the vast majority of British class stories, especially those written in the last hundred years, writers have depicted the aristocrats negatively, as the enslavers of those who work for them or those unlucky enough to be born poor.

And with good reason. While upper class characters aren’t at fault for being born into an aristocratic family, they do run a system that makes it virtually impossible for the vast majority of citizens to achieve anything close to their true potential in life. The history of American storytelling is defined largely by the principle of the individual creating, and often recreating, himself (for example, Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby). By contrast, the central hallmark of English storytelling has been a fixed self, determined almost totally by whether the individual inherits or fails to inherit the family fortune.

But that’s not how the upper class is defined in Downton Abbey. Yes, the entire plot is generated from the fact that a total stranger and distant cousin inherits the vast family fortune which then radically alters and jeopardizes the future of the three aristocratic daughters. But the aristocrats in this story are not evil, or even bad. Quite the contrary, the enormously wealthy head of the family, Robert, is probably the most positively portrayed character in the entire web. When the Titanic disaster shifts the inheritance to cousin Matthew, Robert could fight it with his powerful connections, and probably win. But he refuses to do so because it would be illegal and worse immoral.

All the aristocrats have their personal flaws, as all well-written characters do, but they are essentially good and decent people. Far more surprising though is that Fellowes depicts their exercise of power in a positive light. The simple rationale is that they are providing stable, paying jobs along with a good home for people who otherwise would have nothing.

Similarly, Fellowes doesn’t portray the servants as freedom fighters going up against the powerful in a terribly unjust system, but as children happy to play their roles in the larger family and thus intensely loyal to their masters. The benefit of this approach is that the characters are surprising and the overall character web is distinct from most other depictions of the British class system.

But the cost is immense. While I love following the beautifully woven trials and tribulations of this loving extended family, I occasionally feel like I’m watching a British Gone with the Wind. Sure, the blacks are all slaves in that world, but Tara is such a bustling happy place, run with love by that benevolent dictator with a heart of gold, Gerald O’Hara. No wonder that even the lowliest black character finds living out his role in the plantation family so comforting. Isn’t it a shame the Civil War came along and destroyed such a beautiful world?

You can’t have it both ways. Just because you show decent aristocrats doesn’t mean their exercise of privilege and power isn’t terribly destructive. Just because you show poor or uneducated people happy in their roles doesn’t mean that they aren’t enslaved and possibly forfeiting a much deeper happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Fellowes depiction of the system as essentially beneficial is the greatest flaw in the construction of Downton Abbey, and is what in my mind prevents it from reaching the top echelon of works of art in this amazing medium of television. But we’re talking about extremely rarified air here. Anyone who wants to create their own series, or who just loves television, would be wise to study this show to see the techniques of a master writer.

Jan 27, 2012

Best Original Screenplay 2011

It’s that time of year again when Hollywood likes to pat itself on the back. For the last 10-15 years, the awards have been highly ironic, since the best work has come largely from the independent film community, not the major studios. While the studios have been busy making money from superhero franchises, the indies have been making original and compelling work that has approached the quality of American TV drama. Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in this year’s Best Screenplay category.

The Oscar nominations came out this morning. But I have found the Writers Guild awards to be a better gauge than the Oscars of the year’s best writing. Nominated this year for the WGA Best Original Screenplay are 50/50, Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, Win Win, and Young Adult.

The most glaring similarity among all these films, besides their high quality, is that four of the five combine comedy and drama, while the fifth,Bridesmaids, is a straight out comedy. Normally comedy doesn’t get anywhere near the respect it deserves, especially at awards time. But when you combine it with drama, you get a powerful hybrid where the comedy comes out of real people and their pain, and the serious drama is leavened by the often-ridiculous nature of life.
I liked all of these scripts, but the real surprise for me was the sleeper film, Win Win. This is a comedy drama combined with a sports story, and the film’s ability to weave all three threads into a seamless whole is exceptional (the fact that a second, equally-fine sports drama, Moneyball, came out the same year is amazing). Sports stories can be dramatic and inspiring, but they are almost always unbelievable. First, they try to compress too much improvement into too short a period of time. Second, they often use actors who have the athletic ability of a snail. The resulting lack of authenticity is deadly.

A sport is a physical and mental craft. Like screenwriting, it takes years of training and practice to do well. The result, when played at a high level, is art. Film, as the sensual and realistic medium par excellence, is potentially unmatched in bringing the thrill of this art form to the audience. But you have to know how to do it. And the writer of Win Win does.

The first key to Win Win’s success is that its main character is not the athlete but the coach. The comedy and drama comes out of this character’s journey, with the elements of the sport, in this case wrestling, hung on that line. Coach Mike Flaherty is a family man and a lawyer in a small town, and he’s in trouble from page one. Times are hard, his practice is dying, and he doesn’t want to tell his wife. He’s also the wrestling coach at the local high school, and they haven’t won a match all year.

This is putting tremendous psychological pressure on Mike. But another technique that writer-director Thomas McCarthy uses to kick the film to a higher level is that Mike doesn’t just have a psychological flaw. He makes a moral mistake. When he sees the opportunity to make $1500 a month as the guardian of a senile old man, he grabs it, even though the way he does it is illegal.

With that as the foundation and spine of the story, McCarthy then brings in troubled high school kid Kyle from out of town. Kyle, who is the old man’s grandson, is a scrawny-looking, 120-pound boy with badly bleached hair. He is also a fantastic wrestler.

Directors often say that casting is 90% of their job, and director McCarthy did his job to perfection. He knew that the success of this little indie sports-comedy- drama rested on the authenticity of his kid wrestler, even though actual wrestling takes up only about a quarter of the film. The actor, Alex Shaffer, was a New Jersey state wrestling champion, and he has skills that you just can’t fake.

Of course the reason most directors don’t use real athletes for lead roles in their sports movies is that real athletes don’t have the acting chops. But this kid does. Sure, he’s no Paul Giamatti, who plays Coach Mike. But the boy’s understated, closed-off performance is perfect for this particular character whose family troubles have shut him down emotionally.

By making this Coach Mike’s story, McCarthy grounds the kid’s entrance, the sports story, in small town reality and connects the two storylines – sports and drama – through the two lead characters. The success of one line and character means the success of the other, and the rest of the film becomes a kind of love story between the desperate coach and the troubled boy.

The high point of the film is the coach’s revelation that this scrawny stranger isn’t just a wrestler, he’s a phenom. The boy won’t help Mike with his financial and moral problems, but he will make a big difference to Mike’s loser team. And any coach will tell you that the chance to work with just one player of this caliber is coaching nirvana. It’s also pure gold for the viewer.

I will admit that part of the pleasure this viewer took from Win Win came from the fact that when I was a young man I had the opportunity to coach some of the best players in my sport of squash. Making a strategic suggestion that a great player would then execute brilliantly was a thrill I will never forget. I also found myself, as a high school sophomore, playing on the same team as a tiny, 14-year-old freshman who was so incredible he regularly beat the best college freshmen in America. Unfortunately, he left after one season because there was no one on our team who could challenge him in practice.

But while my personal background may make this story especially appealing to me, it is the writer’s craft that makes it work. The middle of Win Win tracks the rising success of the star wrestler, the team, and the emotional connection between coach and player. But the hidden moral issue must eventually rear its ugly head. Once again we see the value of founding this story on the hero’s moral flaw. Not only does the story escalate to concerns much larger than sporting success, the plot veers from the predictable sports beats of progressively bigger victories.

I won’t go into specifics about the film’s ending. But the writer effectively turns the sports plot back to the dramatic interplay between the moral and emotional issues of the main character and his family.

Win Win, and the other films nominated for Original Screenplay by the Writers Guild, are a promising sign that the underestimated and complex Comedy genre may finally be gaining the respect it deserves. But, as I always point out in my genre classes, the trick to transcending the form, and making your script stand above the crowd, is to combine Comedy with Drama. If you learn how to turn these two story strands into one, you will be very hard to beat.