NonFiction ~~- The 10 Commandments Of ScreenWriting


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Plot and character are the same thing.

Structure is character:
The same 1 phenomenon seen from 2 different points of view.
We see the character do things and the sum of what the character does under pressure is the character's reality, and also the plot.
What they DO is who they are.
How they choose is who they are.

What seems is not what is.

People are not what they pretend to be.
Bond/batman are deep, different under pressure than at leisure.
structure builds pressure on characters;
pressure forces the characters to make choices;
their choices reveal deeper and deeper levels of their true character.

story is the experience of aesthetic emotion.
story merges reality with feeling.

PREMISE: What would happen if...?
The magic if.

Our sole responsibility it to tell the truth.
In a world of lies and liars, an honest story is always an act of social responsibility.


Nothing moves forward in a story without conflict.
Life is perpetual conflict.

Do not proliferate characters.
Do not multiply locations.

Scene climax = mild reversal
Sequence climax = moderate turning point
Act Climax = major reversal
The reversal shocks the audience into insight.
"Luke you can't kill me; I'm your father."
There are only two core emotions: pleasure or pain.

Every turning point should bring the audience either pleasure or pain.

Dimension is not multi-talent or lots of quirks.
Dimension is contradiction: the charming thief,
  • the caring loving father who is also a murderer,
  • the guy who commits adultery arising out of a relationship of compassion for the wife his neighbor beats,
  • Macbeth, guilt-shackled but ambitious,
  • the moral puritan tormented by his own lustful desires,
  • the military general who only wants peace.

  • These contradictions must stay consistent throughout the piece.

    Dimensions fascinate the audience and create empathy.

    Other examples of complexity in character:
    the genius who cannot see the obvious,
    the blind prophet who sees all,
    the father who loves his children so much he pressures them to be good to the point of abuse,
    the mother who loves her children so much she ruins them with permissiveness, or shelters them to the point that they cannot cope with reality when she's gone.
    The man who "loves women" but leaves a trail of broken hearts behind him.

    Feeling is long term a mood; concerts and museums have mood
    emotion is a quick peak. Crimes, victories, and betrayals have emotion.
    Feeling is boring.
    Drama brings emotion.
    Unless the scene brings a change in the status of some major theme affecting the protagonist, no amount of music, set design, or skill in creating the golden-sunset garden will save the scene from creating boredom.

    True choice is a dilemma, the lesser of two evils.
    The character under pressure choosing what he perceives as good from his perspective, in answer to his strong desires.

    If the scene is about what it's about, then you're in deep doo-doo.
    The lovers don't fall in love over a candle-lit dinner.
    They fall in love working out the mechanical details of fixing a flat tire.
    Nothing is what it seems.
    No text without a subtext.

    5 step analysis of a scene:
    Who is driving the scene? What is the conflict? What does the protagonist want? Desire is the key

    What forces of antagonism block this desire? What does the antagonism want?
    These two desires should be in direct conflict.

    Note opening thematic values and their charge, positive or negative.

    Break the scene into beats of action/reaction exchanges in character behavior.
    See the surface action.
    Look beneath the surface to what the are actually doing.
    pleading / ignoring the plea is a beat

    a new beat occurs when action clearly changes

    4. Note closing values and compare with opening values. The charges must have changed from step 2.

    5. Survey the beats and find the turning points.
    Locate the moment when the gap opens between expectation and result.

    The beats should move the stakes higher and higher, placing the characters at greater and greater risk of losing what they deeply desire.

    Average scene length is about 2.5 minutes (2.5 screenplay pages.)

    Sets within the set.

    As we progress toward an act climax, the scenes get shorter and the action brisker, then after the act climax we switch to comedy or romance to give the audience a little breather before ramping up again.

    You can stat personal and slowly allow the character's actions to affect more and more people.

    drive down into the dark secrets under the masks.

    Build the symbolic charge from the person to the universal.

    We save our own humanity when we stop killing others.

    Tops of mountains are places where great things happen.

    Irony plays between actions and results, words and what they mean in subtext.

    CRISIS = Danger/Opportunity

    Movies are about their last 20 minutes.
    Stories are written backwards.
    The grand payoff.
    On final action by the protagonist settles everything.

    The ending must be both inevitable and unexpected.

    A combination of spectacle and truth.

    a slow curtain, allowing the impact of the climax to wash into all of the ancillary characters, transitioning audience to re-enter the real world.

    He protagonist can only be as interesting as the antagonism makes them.
    If the story is weak, the fix is to increase the antagonism.

    Take the story to the limits of human experience.

    The negative values must be so strong that the protagonist shines in comparison

    tv drama shows you criminals getting justice.
    This is mere theme / counter-theme.

    A deeper drama shows you the judges are the criminals.
    The is called the negation of the negation:
    love being the object, the protagonist hates even his own self
    love being the object, hate masquerades as love
    truth being the object, we lie to ourselves

    who's watching the watchers?

    Dramatize exposition, don't tell
    Convert exposition to ammunition
    If facts must be verbalized, verbalize them in an antagonistic dialog.

    Scenes can only turn in one of 2 ways: on action or on revelation.


    The audience prays for surprise, the revelation of a hidden truth, followed by a rush of insight.

    Coincidence must come in early, so that time can build meaning out of it.
    Generally never beyond the midpoint, and never at the ending.

    COMEDY is about anger. Whatever you hate, you lampoon.

    The protagonist must be full of contradictions, the most multi-dimensional character in the script.
    The protagonist creates the rest of the characters.
    The cast is a solar system, the protagonist is the sun, the supporting cast the planets, the bit players the moons around the planets.
    Each character draws out a different shade in the protagonist's personality.

    Bit parts are flat but not dull. Bit parts each have an interesting trait.
    Don't cause unnecessary anticipation by making bit parts so interesting the audience wants to see them more times than the protagonist requires them to appear.
    Don't give the one-appearance cab driver two fascinating dimensions: on the surface a loving wise old mentor, but inwardly a cheat.

    All characters bring out dimension in all the others.

    Allow the maximum room for actor's creativity.
    Actors don't want to read a scripted role written for puppets.

    Envision the perfect actor cast in your role, and you'll remember that the actor needs little coaching from the writer.

    Fall in love with all of your characters, especially all of the bad people.

    No one thinks they're bad. Your villians should do things they think are noble, desirable, logical, and/or warranted in their circumstances.
    No mustache twisting.

    Not "right against wrong," but "right against right", taken to its ultimate conclusion, where one "right" ends up being worse than the other right in the specific situation.

    Nobody is right or wrong in this conflict, because both actor's actions are determined by their point of view, the way they see the world.

    All drama is conflict: Without conflict you have no action;
    without action you have no character;
    without character you have no story;
    and without story you have no screenplay.

    Character is self-knowledge, this is the root of all fine character writing.
    We only know ourselves.

    What would I do in this situation if I were that character?
    The honest answer is always the right thing.

    The more you understand yourself, the more you understand others.

    the nature of drama, after all, is to show the universal connection be- tween all humans, regardless of race, color, gender, or cultural differences.-Syd Field, Screenplay, the Foundations of Screenwriting

    Compression and economy, say the absolute most in the absolute least words.

    Direction: each exchange of dialog must direct the scene where it's going.

    Purpose: each line executes a step in design that builds and arcs the scene around its turning point.

    And all this must sound like talk.

    The words must be 100% immediately understandable to people who aren't really paying attention to the words.

    Short, simple, informally spoken, sentences
    noun, verb, object
    noun verb complement

    There is no such thing in life as a monologue.

    Every reaction changes the next line.

    life is always action / reaction.

    Life is always an improvisation.

    We write screenplay in the present tense.

    Everything is NOW in the movie.

    Avoid generic nouns with adjectives.

    "Spike" instead of "big nail."

    not big house but mansion.

    He strolls, lumbers, waddles, minces, lurches, hobbles, not "walks slowly"

    Use specific one word.

    Eliminate "is" and "are" throughout.

    Everything is changing, becoming, nothing is static.

    A chateau guards the headlands above the village.

    The most specific active verbs and nouns possible
    Hemmingwayesque shunning of adverbs and adjectives.

    Eliminate all metaphor and simile that does not describe what you see/hear on screen.
    Eliminate "as if."

    Eliminate director traps: neat language that can't be literally photographed.

    Eliminate "we see" and "we hear."
    We doesn't exist.

    Eliminate all camera and editing notations, including "cut to", "smash to", etc.
    Do not direct from the page.

    Simulate the effect of watching a movie, using only text.

    NO editing/directing instructions.
    Instead, your single spaced mini-paragraphs of description, each separated by a double space, imply changes to camera distance, focus, and composition.

    We react symbolically to each object we see.

    Exclude 90% of reality.
    Only include those objects that tell the story.

    A category of motifs that repeat throughout the movie.

    variety and repetition inside of the image system,

    external imagery
    spider's web
    these are the low hanging fruit used in student films

    Internal imagery, given special meaning in the film, is the higher hanging fruit
    water, drizzle, condensation, fish, wine, tea, all throughout the movie diabolique, symbolizes not life, but death

    Casablanca has 3 image systems: shadows and light / America and rick / separation of Ilsa and Laslo contrasted with closeness of rick and ilsa

    Chinatown has 4 image systems: seeing/seeing falsely, corruption holding society together, water/drought, sexual cruelty vs. sexual love

    Hitchcock: images of religion vs. sexuality
    John Wayne: wilderness vs. civilization

    Inside out vs. outside in

    The struggling writer writes the story.

    The successful writer writes THE STEP OUTLINE: the structure first, then fills in the gaps when the structure is working.

    Simply write on a 3x5 card (or a computer that replicates the cards) a 1 or two sentence description of what happens in each scene, how it builds and how it turns.

    On the back of the card, number the scenes and name them hings like 1st act climax.

    Pour out 5, 10, 20 times more plot events than you need.

    Destroy 90% of what you write in a patient search for gem-quality story.

    Find the last act climax, then work backward, using only the best ways to get from the beginning to that climax.

    Then read the few surviving 3x5 cards in order to friends, 10 minutes.

    The simple reading of the step outline should grab your friends' attention from the start, hold it until the end pays off in a moving emotional experience. Wow!
    A great story produces awed silence and appreciation.

    Everything wrong with the step outline will be 10x more wrong when stretched into a 120 minute movie on a big screen.

    The step outline should work brilliantly before the rest of the writing begins.
    The step outline can be expected to take 6 months or more to perfect.

    If the story works as structure, then you can easily expand out into a treatment, which is two or 3 paragraphs of double-spaced, moment-by-moment description for each of the "3x5 card" steps.

    Talk about what the characters want, their subtext, but never dialog.
    Treatments are different from finished screenplays in that they can say things that you can't photograph.

    From the mature, polished, functioning treatment, you can quickly produce the actual photographable screenplay with dialog.

    Don't write dialog in search of scenes, nor scenes in search of story.

    Story first, then scenes, then finally dialog.

    Some of our ideas are just not worth becoming a motion picture.
    We must find that out as fast as we can.

    title -> logline -> step outline -> treatment -> revision, revision, revision makes the finest work your talent will allow at this point in your life