Thursday, September 29, 2011

Structuring with the Internal Journey

(SPOILERS: Amelie, American Beauty)

The majority of films are structured around an external journey for the character. This makes sense – film is a visual medium. We observe the external actions of the characters. For the most part we have to infer their internal feelings from these actions. Sure, you can use voiceover, but if the movie is built on the running internal monologue of the main character, it’s probably not going to be very visually interesting. And if characters constantly reveal their feelings in dialogue, the dialogue will seem clunky and unrealistic.

So does that mean you can’t tell the story of a character’s internal journey on film? Of course not! Most films do tell an internal story. But they pair that story with an external journey that allows them to reveal the character’s thought process through behavior. I use the concepts of want and need to define the character’s external and internal story, and to tie them together so that both are organic to the movie.

For example, Amelie (scenario by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, dialogue by Guillaume Laurant) is a story about a woman who has closed herself off from the world and needs to open her heart to another before it’s too late. The film builds an external story where Amelie tries to locate a quirky man whose scrapbook book she’s found. Once she’s found the man, she must learn if he’s truly worthy of her affections. Then she must attract his interest. And finally she must gather the courage to reveal herself to him. This goal of finding and investigating the stranger provides an external story that has action and momentum, which in turn allows revelation of her internal journey of trust and connection.

As you can see, the internal and external stories interact. Something happens in the external story that causes a change in the character’s way of thinking. That leads her to take action in the external story that has a result that leads to another character change.  This leads to another action, and so on. But as related as the two stories are, one is usually structurally dominant.

If you’re interested in telling a story that is primarily about someone’s internal journey – say coming to terms with grief, or coming-of-age, or overcoming prejudice – I suggest devising an external story that will allow you to reveal that internal journey. If this bothers you, think of it this way: If you’re telling an external story, you need to come up with an internal arc for your main character so that the external story has meaning. And if you want to tell an internal story, you need to come up with an external arc to reveal the meaning of the character journey.

Structure is always hard, but structuring a movie around an internal journey is often a lot harder than structuring it around the external story. The first step is to remember that the internal journey actually has to be structured!

Ask yourself these questions: What does the character learn? How do they change? What are the stages of this internal journey? How do you externalize those to show the internal change?

American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) is a story about a character’s internal journey. Lester goes from an ineffectual, unhappy, unassertive man to a man who has the courage and determination to live his life on his own terms – but with moral responsibility.

What are the stages of this internal journey? First, Lester realizes how unhappy he is. So he stands up for himself, and discovers he likes the results. As he continues to assert himself, he goes too far, becoming selfish. He starts catering to his own desires without concern for others. Then he realizes how his actions can hurt others. So he finally decides to be both true to himself and responsible. And then he discovers he is happy.

This internal journey is revealed through an external journey of Lester falling for his daughter’s friend, Angela. Seeing Angela triggers his first revelation of his unhappiness. He starts to get in shape and smokes pot, and he discovers that doing things for himself makes him happier. This culminates in Lester quitting his job, which is incredibly freeing. But then he becomes selfish, doing whatever he feels like regardless of the consequences. And he actively pursues the underage object of his affection – something very selfish.

His transition doesn’t always go smoothly – the results aren’t always what he expects. But at each point he learns more about himself. Then finally, on the brink of sex with Angela, he realizes his selfishness could destroy this girl. He backs off, realizes he has to temper his desires with responsibility, and his journey is complete. And it works because the journey has been revealed in stages through external actions.

I commonly see students struggling to structure a story that is an internal journey. The two most common problems are: 1. They are only describing a particular state of being, or a start and end point, rather than moving coherently through each stage of a full journey; and/or 2. They have failed to create an external journey that will reveal that internal journey.

The other side of this is the student who has created an external story, usually a genre piece, with a one-dimensional character that has no internal journey. The solution to both situations is often the same: figure out how the character changes, and structure the stages of that change.


If you're in the L.A. area, I'm going to be co-teaching a one-day seminar on the first ten pages of your screenplay at The Writers Store on October 15.  My fellow teachers are Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) and Jeffrey Berman (Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story).  There are only a couple more days to get the $149 rate.  Here's the link:  The First Ten Pages.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Art of Dramatic Writing – Review

I mentioned a few months back that I had been re-reading The Art Of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. This is considered somewhat of a foundational work in the “how to write” arena. It was written in the forties and is actually about playwriting, but pre-Syd Field it was something of a must-read for screenwriters and is still assigned in most university screenwriting programs. For that reason alone, it’s interesting to check out.

The first thing you have to deal with in this book is the archaic language, particularly the annoying use of the royal we – as in “For our own use we choose the word ‘premise’” and “As we see it, the basic emotion of Romeo and Juliet is still love.”

The second issue is Egri uses plays as his examples – as you might expect, since it’s a playwriting book. Fortunately they are mostly widely known classics so there’s a good chance you’ve read or seen them. It really helps to at least be familiar with Tartuffe by Moliere and Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen. Egri does provide analyses of these and several other plays in an appendix, so if you’re unfamiliar with them you can still muddle your way through.

It’s also worth noting that Egri was a theater critic, not a playwright. As a result, he’s coming at the writing process by looking at the results and working backwards. If he sees a common problem in plays, he tries to figure out how a writer might avoid that problem. This is certainly a valid perspective, but I wouldn’t take everything he says on faith. A food critic might be able to tell what spice would improve a dish but it doesn’t mean they can teach someone to cook.

Egri begins by emphasizing the importance of what he calls the premise of the play. This is a statement that is to be proved by the story – such as “Jealousy destroys its object.” Functionally, this roughly equates to my idea of the dramatic question – the issue at the heart of the story. I prefer the question approach because it implies two possible outcomes. I fear Egri’s technique is risky because it can encourage on-the-nose and predictable writing. On the other hand, if you do it well there’s nothing really wrong with the premise concept.

Next Egri takes on character. This is the section that really interested me. Egri takes an approach that I oppose – developing character through backstory. But Egri is more in synch with me than he might initially appear. He believes the backstory must be tailored in such a way that the character will ultimately prove the premise. In other words, if your story is about jealousy, then you must create a character that will necessarily become jealous. If the character can avoid this fate, then you’ve failed and must start over.

So Egri is actually doing what I do, which is first figuring out who your character is now, then figuring out how they got there. He’s simply emphasizing the “getting there” more, while I only develop backstory as needed.

Writers and producers talk a lot about making characters “three dimensional.” Usually that’s just a synonym for “complex.” Egri actually defines the three dimensions specifically: physiology, sociology and psychology. He again ties this into creating a character who must behave as needed to prove the premise. I like Egri’s three-dimensional approach a lot. If nothing else, it forces you to think about various aspects of the character’s life you might be ignoring.

The third section of the book is called “Conflict.” Here Egri deals with what we call structure these days. But rather than define specific plot stages, he’s focused more on how the action rises and the character changes. He emphasizes the importance of a steady, step-by-step growth of both story and character. Conflict that goes static or jumps is a failure to him.

Those are certainly valid and useful ideas. But here’s where I feel like we’re in danger with the premise. The conflict may rise consistently and logically, but if it’s so logical the audience can predict everything that’s going to happen from the first scene, how enjoyable is the result? There’s some good food for thought here, but I don’t know if it quite equips the new writer to successfully outline a story. However when used in conjunction with a more modern three act approach, this is some great stuff.

The final section is a catch all for essays on various topics. Many are either dated or playwriting specific. It’s probably the least useful aspect of the book to the modern screenwriter.

As a summary review, I would say there’s a lot of thought provoking stuff on character in The Art of Dramatic Writing, and a few other useful ideas about sustaining momentum. If you’re only going to read one book on screenwriting, this probably isn’t it. But it would make a top ten list for sure.

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In other news, if you're in the L.A. area, I'm going to be co-teaching a one-day seminar on the first ten pages of your screenplay at The Writers Store on October 15.  My fellow teachers are Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) and Jeffrey Berman (Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story).  If you sign up by September 30, it's only $149.  Here's the link:  The First Ten Pages.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fighting Your Concept

One of the biggest flops of this summer was Cowboys and Aliens (screen story by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oderkerk, screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby). Lots of reasons have been suggested for its failure (such as the large number of writers), and many have merit. Personally, I think the biggest problem was the title.

When I hear Cowboys and Aliens, I think, “That’s a movie I’d like to see!” But what I’m picturing is a fun, campy romp – something along the lines of Ghost Busters (written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis). The actual movie is a serious, surprisingly violent action/horror movie. Once you accept this, if you can, there’s a lot that’s good about it. But it doesn’t deliver the promise of its title.

I think most people realized that the moment they saw the trailer, and that’s a big reason they didn’t show up. There are some flaws in the film itself, but I can certainly imagine a successful straight action movie about an alien attack in the Wild West. However, I wouldn’t give that movie a “pun” title like Cowboys and Aliens.

Maybe more important, the filmmakers had a concept that could make a great campy adventure, but they didn’t make that movie. They fought their concept. I’ve had students do that as well.

A while back one of my students was pitching an idea that was along the lines of My Mother is a Werewolf.* Everybody in the class laughed when he said the title. But he didn’t want to make a comedy. He wanted to make a serious horror/thriller. My first note was to change the title.

This isn’t just a title issue. Dude, Where's My Car? (written by Philip Stark) was also a notable failure. I believe the biggest problem was that the original script was a stoner comedy. But as they were about to enter production, some study came out that said, at that time, PG-13 comedies were making more money than R comedies.** So they took all the drugs out to make it PG-13. Without the drugs, the storyline becomes odd and nonsensical. In this case, the rating fought the concept.

I’ve seen that in student work as well – a raunchy idea done without raunch. Can you imagine the PG-13 version of The Hangover or Bridesmaids? Not nearly as good. If you’re doing a movie about the wildest bachelor party ever, you have to be free to show wildness. (On the other hand, There's Something About Mary could be done nicely as a PG-13 movie, though you’d lose some of the funniest sequences. But as a concept, it works either way – you’d just have to come up with equally funny, cleaner replacement scenes.)

Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Bily Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) was not only a success, but is a classic and personal favorite. Still, there’s something that always strikes me as a little odd. The movie, a romantic comedy about two guys who dress up as women and join an all-girl band, opens with a car chase-shootout. There are gangsters in the film, obviously, but the action of the opening scene definitely feels like a different tone from the rest of the movie.

Obviously Some Like It Hot makes it work. The audience knows they’re going to see a Billy Wilder comedy with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, so they roll with it. But, if you were a development exec reading this as a spec, imagine how you would react. You don’t know anything about the story. You read that opening – oh, this is a gangster movie. And then it suddenly gets funny? Could be a little tough to switch gears.

With a spec, you’re making implied promises to the reader with your title and your opening (and your logline if they’ve seen that). If you don’t deliver on those implied promises, then they will see it as you’ve failed, regardless of how well you might have delivered on different promises. In other words, make sure you’re promising what you plan to deliver!

You have to make decisions about the tone of your movie in the early development stages. Is it going to be funny, campy, serious, dark? Is it going to be G, PG, PG-13, or R? It pays to think about what the best choices are for your premise. If you’re going to go against the natural suggestion of your premise – if you want to do the serious, dark version of cowboys fighting aliens – then you have to work harder to “sell” that tone to the audience. This means avoiding things like a misleading title or an opening scene that could confuse the reader – after all, you’re probably not Billy Wilder.

*Actual idea kept confidential, but this is very much in the spirit.

**This pendulum swings back and forth and studies keep coming out that shift development. For a while PG-13 comedies are making more money, so studios try to turn all their comedies PG-13. Then the audience grows tired of them and suddenly R rated comedies start making more money. So the pendulum swings raunchier. The truth is, a balanced mix would probably be the most successful, but studio execs like to chase the heat of the moment.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A few More Lessons from a Pitch Fest

The last couple posts I’ve done have been lessons from a pitch fest I observed last month. Here are a few final “dos” and “don’ts” I took away.


All right, I’m about to share one of my secret weapons for pitching, one that I saw validated during the pitch fest. I always start my pitch by explaining why the story is personal to me. Of course most stories are not autobiographical, but you want to find something in your own life that connects you to the story.

When you’re pitching, you’re not just selling a story, you’re selling yourself. If you can explain how the idea is in some way based on your own experiences, you’re explaining why you’re really the only writer who could write this story.

One of the writers at the pitch fest had a big sci-fi monster movie idea. But she started the pitch describing a bit of her life and how it metaphorically influenced the world of her story. And it did (it’s important that the personal connection is genuine).

The panelists really responded – probably because her pitch had a hook and a good character (see my first pitch fest post). But I did notice they sat forward eagerly when she opened her pitch with the personal connection. They were intrigued. She pitched what was essentially a B-movie premise in a way that emphasized the heart and soul of the movie, and painted herself as uniquely qualified to write it.


After the event, one of the panelists commented to me about some of the writers’ use of screenwriting terminology. He said sometimes he could identify which book they read by how they told their story. He said he wished more had written stories that came from their heart.

Now possibly these writers did have deep personal investment in their stories. But if so, it wasn’t coming through. Overdoing the structural terminology during the pitch can have the opposite effect of creating that personal connection – it can make your story sound lifeless and formulaic.

I’ve always counseled writers that it is okay to use terms like “first act” and “midpoint” and “climax” in their pitches. The buyers know the three act structure terms and will understand the signposts you’re using. It can help give them a sense of where they are in the running time of the story. But these things should only be signposts, not the focus of your pitch.

Don’t forget, you’re telling a story not building a bridge.


Last post I counseled you to listen carefully and make sure you absorb the feedback you get from the people you pitch to. That’s true not just in the post-pitch section of your meeting, but after you leave the room as well. Usually you’re going to pitch the same idea many times. Producers and executives in this industry, despite their reputation, are mostly smart and savvy people when it comes to story. So if someone makes a suggestion for your story, it’s worth considering whether to incorporate it before the next session.

One of the writers at the pitch fest took that to heart. He had a comedic idea that centered on a shocking and controversial act by the main character. The first panel responded dramatically to that moment in the pitch, laughing loudly – and it’s hard to get industry people to laugh, believe me. The discussion afterward was spirited. But the feedback was that the audience may have a difficult time with the event. The panelists suggested the main character should fake the act, rather than actually perform it (I’m keeping the specifics vague out of respect to the writer’s confidentiality).

The writer in question listened and absorbed that feedback. For the next panel, he changed his pitch so that the main character faked the act. And the new panel didn’t respond nearly as well. I felt for the poor guy – the original panel steered him in the wrong direction.

So what could he have done differently? Should he just ignore feedback? No. But perhaps he would have been better off listening to the panelists’ visceral response – the laughter and engagement with the idea – rather than their specific suggestions for change.

Wow. This pitching stuff is hard.

Welcome to Hollywood.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lessons from a Pitch Fest – Attitude

Last post I discussed the two biggest ways I saw writers fail with the content of their pitches at a recent pitch fest I observed. Now I want to discuss my observations on a topic just as important as what the writers said: their attitude during the pitch. What I observed can essentially be boiled down to a “do” and a “don’t.” Interestingly, the writer who succeeded most impressively with the “do” was also the one who failed most dramatically with the “don’t.”


Enthusiasm is contagious. It was great to see how excited the panelists got when the writer was excited. This doesn’t mean you have to jump around and act out parts or anything. I’m naturally kind of a laid back person so my pitches tend to be laid back as well. But when I’m talking to my friends about a movie I saw that I loved, my excitement comes through in my voice and expression. What would it say if I didn’t show similar enthusiasm for my own idea?

The other thing is you want the buyer to be rooting for you. I found it interesting how supportive the panelists were to the writers who were upfront about their Hollywood hopes and dreams. It’s a tough business and I think meeting someone with a little wide-eyed optimism helps the buyers reconnect with why they got into this line of work as well. The opposite of that were the writers who seemed more focused on mechanics or marketing than on telling a story they’d love to see on screen (more about that next post).

Bottom line, the buyers should be able to tell that you’re talking about a movie you’d really like to see as a fan of movies.


After each writer pitched, the panelists at the event each offered a few words of feedback on their stories. A similar thing happens in your average pitch meeting. How you respond is important to how the buyer will remember you. None of the writers at this event had a full-blown meltdown or anything, but some did not handle the criticism as well as one might hope.

The most common problem was defensiveness. A panelist would start to speak and before they could even finish the thought, the writer would jump in explaining some piece of the plot they hadn’t mentioned. In this event, writers were limited to nine-minute pitches, and some seemed to think that the time limit had prevented them from properly telling their story. Believe me, if you do a good pitch you can convey your story well enough in nine minutes for a buyer to decide if they’re interested in it. In fact, several writers did that successfully at this very event.

Often, too, the writer’s response was actually not related to what the panelist was saying. So the panelist might say, “I didn’t really feel like the character learned an important lesson…” and the writer would interrupt with something like, “Well, he and his brother were both in love with the same woman when they were in college. That’s established in the first act, but I left it out of the pitch because of the time limit.”

I could see the panelist get frustrated whenever something like this happened. The writers usually didn’t notice because they were too wrapped up in their own story and not doing the most important thing at this stage:


When a buyer is giving you feedback like that, it’s important to listen. Then take a moment to consider the suggestion. And if you think there is relevant information that might clarify something the buyer missed, share it. But if they really just didn’t respond to the character arc, you are not going to change their mind by throwing out a bunch more extraneous information. And worst of all was when the writer would delve into some minutia of plot. As I said last time, plot mechanics never sell your story.

This one is hard, I know. Chances are pretty good that you’re going to be nervous when you pitch, and it’s hard to stay calm and collected when you’re nervous. But you’ll do much better if you can keep an enthusiastic attitude but combine it with a little cool objectivity.