Monday, September 6, 2010

THE VERDICT: A Case Study in Character

An outstanding example of excellent character development can be found in THE VERDICT (1982) screenplay by David Mamet, based on the novel by Barry Reed.

Frank Galvin, a washed up, ambulance chasing, alcoholic lawyer whose life is in shambles, is handed a medical malpractice case against a large, Catholic hospital in Boston. He is expected to take the Archdiocese’s offer and settle the case out of court. But the more he learns about the case, his long dormant idealism and desire for justice are reawakened. He decides to go up against the church and one of the most powerful and connected lawyers in the city – an opponent who will stop at nothing to defeat him.

Galvin graduated second in his class at Boston University law school and became a partner in one of the major firms in Boston. He married and had a successful life. Then Galvin learned that one of the senior partners in his firm had tampered with the jury in an ongoing case. He confronted the partner and told him that he was going to the authorities. In a heartbeat, Galvin found himself framed for the jury tampering and thrown in jail. When he realized what he was up against, he told the partner that he had made a mistake. The firm exerted its influence and Galvin was immediately released from jail. But Galvin was fired, his wife left him, he began to drink heavily and became an ambulance chaser for personal injury suits.

All of this happened before page one.

When the story opens, Galvin only has one client, the Doneghys. Mrs. Doneghy’s sister was given the wrong anesthetic when she went to the hospital, which resulted in her vomiting into her mask & suffocating. She was revived but is now in a vegetative state. Galvin has had this case for eighteen months but has not yet met with the family. The case is due in court in five days. Galvin, finally visits the young woman in the hospital. As the first act proceeds, he understands that this case represents something bigger. A doctor’s negligence turned a vibrant, young woman into a vegetable. If he settles out of court, the doctors, hospital and Archdiocese will sweep this under the rug as they have with how many other cases? Nothing will change.

Galvin sees his opportunity to stand up against the system and the “old boy network.” He can win justice and find redemption.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned how when a character has four traits, they feel more real. Every action they take, every word they speak somehow reflects one of those four traits. Do Galvin and the other central characters have four traits? Let’s find out:

FRANK GALVIN (Protagonist):

Galvin is intelligent. He graduated second in his class from an excellent law school. He was a full partner at a major Boston firm. He understands case law and precedent. He knows how to focus his case into the key concepts that the jury can understand.

Galvin is idealistic. He became a lawyer for all the right reasons. He went up against the senior partner in his own firm. He doesn’t give up, even after Concannon, the defendants’ attorney, has used inside connections to win himself a friendly judge, get stories placed in the local press and even plant a spy in Galvin’s life to get inside information. Galvin believes that jury members will do their best to deliver justice, no matter what the court directs.

Galvin is na├»ve. Perhaps because he is such a moral man at his core, Galvin doesn’t consider how low his opponents would stoop in order to win this case. He is careless with information and too trusting of other people. He is also honest, even when it is politically unwise. He tries to be honest about himself, but looks less carefully at other people, whom he considers to be on his side. Dr. Gruber takes a payoff and disappears. Laura betrays him.

Galvin is self-destructive. He is alcoholic. He blindly enters into a romance with Laura, even though he is in the middle of the most important case of his life. He fails to tell the Doneghys about the settlement offer from the Archdiocese – in clear violation of professional ethics. He insults the judge.

ED CONCANNON (Antagonist):

Concannon is arrogant. His success and the trappings of his lifestyle have resulted in his belief that he is better at the game of law than his opponents. He believes he will win because he almost always does. He bullies Galvin’s key witness, even going so far as to suggest that this profoundly decent woman has lied on the stand.

Concannon is manipulative. He seduces Laura into believing that she will be welcomed back into the fold and practice law at a prestigious firm again – but only if she leaves her personal integrity at the door and, like him, is willing to do anything to win. He curries favor with the judge. When he discovers that Galvin’s expert witness is African-American, he makes sure that he has an African-American lawyer sitting among his law team to counter possible accusations that they are racist when he cross-examines. He has stories favorable to his client placed in the local press to manipulate the jury pool.

Concannon is amoral. He bribes Galvin’s first expert witness, Dr. Gruber, to withdraw from giving testimony. He hires Laura to spy on Galvin and provide inside information, even going so far as encouraging her to sleep with Galvin in order to get the job done. His client’s guilt or innocence doesn’t matter to him – it’s not about the law – it’s about winning.

Concannon is ambitious. He relishes his lifestyle and excuses his tactics as a way to justify his taste for good whiskey, a fine house, travel and all the perks of wealth. He further justifies representing guilty but powerful clients as the means to afford his firm’s pro bono work. He represents Boston’s large institutions, like the Catholic Archdiocese and the hospital, as well as the old boy network throughout the city.

LAURA FISCHER (Ally and Enemy):

Laura is ambitious. She wants to return to practicing law. But hanging up her own shingle is too much work and joining a small firm seems beneath her. She wants to practice in the big leagues, at a major firm. And she’s willing to betray her personal sense of what’s right & wrong in order to get it.

Laura is manipulative. She seduces Galvin, knowing just how to play him. She trades sexual intimacy for information, which she passes along to Concannon. Her dialogue is double-edged in many places – is she questioning Galvin and Mickey as she would a witness on the stand or is she simply curious? If the audience doesn’t know her agenda, she seems to be one thing. If the audience knows that she is a spy, then her dialogue reveals something else entirely.

Laura is self-destructive. She is alcoholic. She sells out her integrity for very little money in hopes that she will get a larger pay-off when she is hired at a large law firm. She betrays the man whom she has grown to love and admire.

Laura is idealistic. Her life and failed marriage have turned her into a cynic, but through her involvement with Galvin, her own idealism is reawakened. When his case seems to have fallen apart, Galvin comes to her, feeling sorry for himself and ready to give up. His words hit her like a blow. If he gives up, it isn't only Galvin's idealism that will be lost. Her words to him might be those of a woman who can no longer stomach defeat or they might be a prayer that he pick himself up and do the hard work that must be done. As soon as she has delivered her final report to Concannon and taken his money, she repeatedly tries to talk to Galvin to tell him the truth.

MICKEY MORRISEY (Mentor):

Mickey is loyal. No matter how many times Galvin has failed, Mickey always stands by him. He knows the true story of the jury tampering accusations and feels he must help and protect Galvin because he knows that his friend is a good – but deeply flawed – man.

Mickey is even-tempered. He never gets rattled. Even when Galvin makes mistakes or their case takes a sudden downward turn, he never complains – he simply helps Galvin accept it and take action on their next step.

Mickey is a realist. More than once, he is ready to walk away from the case, because the odds against them are too great. As Galvin’s case is destroyed piece by piece, Mickey knows that sometimes the bad guys win.

Mickey is a follower. While his legal knowledge is excellent, he lacks the ability to deny the odds and lead the fight for what’s right. He plays it safe. But if his friend Galvin is going into battle, he’ll put his shoulder to the wheel and do the work.

In each scene of this script, these four characters exhibit at least one of the above traits through their words or actions.

Galvin's intelligence and idealism support one another. His naivete and self-destructiveness work against him.

Concannon's ambition, amorality and manipulativeness move his personal agenda forward. But his arrogance represents his blind spot, and ultimately brings him down.

Laura is caught between these two characters. In the beginning, she is closer to Concannon’s view. But by the end, her reemergent idealism brings her closer to Galvin's - but is it too late?

As the loyal friend, Mickey’s traits are less in conflict with each other but instead serve to help illuminate various qualities and reveal information about the main character.

This Oscar-nominated & WGA-winning screenplay is also a case study in structure, conflict, dialogue and theme. Studying great scripts is some of the best education any screenwriter can get. You can download a copy of The Verdict for free from www.simplyscripts.com.

Have a great writing day!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

CHARACTERS: Bringing Them to Life

Scripts with vague main characters get set down by studio or agency readers by p.10, if not sooner. Enhance your characters by giving them 4 traits. Of the 4, have 1 of them contrast with the others.

Example, your main character might be ambitious, arrogant and uncaring about others. But his/her 4th trait might be that he/she is secretly afraid that his/her world is meaningless.

Each word & action by that character then comes out of one of those traits. More than four is too confusing. Fewer & s/he will feel “flat.”

Keep in mind the difference between a trait and a characteristic. A characteristic might be that s/he is a gourmet chef or gifted pianist. But a trait would be that your character has a fragile sense of self which manifests as always needing to be the center of attention. Traits take your reader inside your character and how they view and feel about the world.

A characteristic is an action your character does. A trait is why s/he does it.

Do this exercise for each of your key characters and watch your script come to life and your characters come off the page.

Have a great writing day!

Monday, July 5, 2010

CHARACTER BIOGRAPHY - Knowing the Past. Finding the Present.

It’s Christmas. Supper is almost ready. Everyone has been waiting to open presents. But your brother John hasn’t arrived, yet. You always wait for him. It is so irritating.

Your mother finds some puttering to do in the kitchen, even though she already knows that she has done absolutely everything. She watches the clock, concerned that the turkey will dry out if she lets it cook much longer.

You get short-tempered – John has always been the favorite child. If you ever came late, there would be hell to pay. But not him. He is Mr. Perfect.

Your spouse pours another drink, which can only mean that his/her playful drunkenness will give way to a loud and pointless argument later.

Everyone is miserable. But no one says a word.

The door opens, John strides in, wide grin on his face and arms full of gifts. The children crowd around their favorite uncle. The room comes to life with laughter. The party can start, now.

Is your brother oblivious to the misery he causes, or does he do this precisely so that he can bask in this joyous glow? Will he ever change? Will you?

Comedic or dramatic, our individual histories affect the way we go about our daily lives. The same is true for your characters. They each see the world from a different point of view.

Do you need to know everything about your characters’ biographies? It depends. Yes, you need to know enough to be able to effectively convey your characters motivations, emotions and actions. They need to feel real in each situation.

Is it important that your main character always wakes up before his alarm goes off but continues to lie in bed, watching his clock, waiting for it to ring?

Is it important that, no matter how vigilant he is, he can never toast his bread to perfection and always burns it, only to scrape off the char into the kitchen sink?

These things might be very important. Or not. It all depends on what your story is.

These are called “moments.” And, in a movie, moments are magic. They make your characters feel alive and draw the audience into the world you’re creating.

The only way your characters will help you find these moments is if you know their histories.

What do you need to know?

Basic facts: Name? Age? Where was he born? Where did he grow up? Does he have siblings? If so, what was the birth order? Was his family rich? Poor? Educated? Religious? Secular? Conservative? Liberal?

Current living situation: Where does your character live? Why does she live there? Does she get along with her family? Is she social? Anti-social? Shy? Emotionally stunted? Gregarious? Narcissistic? Approval-seeking? Do people find her difficult to get along with? Does she enjoy meeting people? Does she enjoy her life? How does she feel about her own body? Does she tend to criticize others? Does she lack the ability to discern when people are allies or enemies?

Emotional life: What is missing from his life? What is he most afraid of? What brings him the most joy? What does he want right now, in this moment? What is keeping him from getting it? What will happen if he doesn’t get it? What is his secret dream? What does he most need to learn?

In answering these questions, you may find that you your characters take over the writing and begin telling you things you haven’t even asked. You may write things that you will never use in your script. Or you might find that nugget that shifts your story into a new direction.

Let it all happen. The more real your characters are for you, the more real they will feel to your audience.

Do you need to work up complete character biographies before you start writing your script? Not necessarily. Some writers must have full character sketches done before they feel comfortable starting their script; others need to know only the basics, discovering more things along the way.

Writers who draw up complete biographies may have an easier time completing their first drafts, since they feel more of a connection to who the characters are and what they’re about. The downside is that writers can sometimes feel “locked” into their characters being a certain way. You must always be ready to let go of what you think you know and let your characters tell you when you’ve gotten something wrong.

Those who start with biographies that are less worked out may encounter writers block from time to time, requiring them to think more about their characters until they find the way out of their problem. You may learn things about your characters that will require you to change what you have already written. It’s okay. That’s what the rewrite is for.

If you were to stand your characters in a single-file line, have each of them walk into your living room and take a seat, no two of them would do this in exactly the same way. When you know what this scene would look like, then you truly know your characters. Character biography is one of the essential tools you need to get you there.

Have a great writing day!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

PITCH MEETINGS - The Art of Seduction

Ever land a pitch meeting and then feel like a deer in headlights? After all, how do you reduce your story to five minutes or less? It's impossible. ...Right?

Well, actually ...yes, you're right. But - you're going to have to do it anyway. Here is one strategy that works:

First, you need a log line. Your log line needs to set up the world & main character's journey and end with a tease, so they're asking for more. Don't reveal too much. A pitch meeting is a seduction. Don't hand them home plate. Make them work for it.

“A man, trying to escape his criminal past, moves to a small town, falls in love and builds a family - but sees it all threatened when a dangerous stranger appears and demands that an old debt be paid.”

The next steps of your story pitch are like concentric circles. Begin with the innermost circle and work your way out. After your log line, the next circle expands your story into a brief paragraph. More story details about supporting characters & conflicts, also more about tone. Your exec or agent is now on first base.

By continuing your playful seduction, they will be eager for more. Keep in mind that pitch meetings are like a chase. If you chase them, they will pull away. If you seduce them, they will chase you.

I know, I know, it looks like I'm reducing pitch meetings to a psychological game the writer plays with the producer, agent or development executive. And it feels that way because it is. Once your listener is on 1st base, there's a moment when they're deciding whether they want to go to 2nd.

If they want to hear more, that's a good sign. Your next circle would be equivalent to 1/2 to 3/4 of a page. By this time, they will know if they're interested. They may begin to ask questions. That's good. Anytime an exec or agent asks questions, it means they're engaged.

It also means that you haven't told them too much. You have given them space to come to you. You've made your pitch into a conversation instead of a 10-minute speech. From here, you should have a full story beat sheet worked out, just in case they ask for more.

Be aware, you should not leave your beat sheet behind for them. Although you may leave a paragraph description, if you want to. The reason for this is if they want the full pitch again, they should set another appointment. No one can tell your story the way you can.

If your exec or agent asks for a full pitch, keep it to 5 min. or less. No matter how complex the plot. Broad, compelling strokes are all they want to hear - and it's all they're capable of remembering. Your audience will begin 2 check out after that unless you are a truly gifted story-teller "in the room." Or they may continue to ask questions until they feel that 1) you know what your story is & have done the work to get it right and 2) that they can sell this to their boss.

Pitches are tough for so many reasons. Reducing your story to a brief meeting is the first challenge. You will also be expected to have ideas on casting and promotion. If your lead roles are right for hot actors, you need to have a few star names ready.

You will want to have ideas on "what the poster would look like." How might they promote this? How will this movie sell over another movie?

They will probably ask these things. Pitch meetings used to be about story. Now, the writer is expected to have thought about it all.

Is that fair? Yes. In a pitch, you are asking a studio or production company to pay you to write your script. Exex already have other scripts in development. You need to convey to them why they should add your idea to their list. The more work you do for them, the easier it makes things for them. And it also shows that you go the extra mile. A little respect goes a long way.

Have a great writing (and pitching) day!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Garbage Happens

OKAY, YOU'RE STUCK. You have a scene ahead of you and you have no idea how to write it. You know your dramatic elements and what needs to be accomplished to advance the story and characters, but you keep starting over because everything you write turns to garbage.

Seriously. It's garbage.

Don't give up hope. This doesn't sound like writers block, exactly. It's more like "scene block." Keep breathing. You'll get through this by simply accepting the following: you have permission to write garbage.

Norman Mailer once said that as he got older, his writing became more difficult because he was no longer just some writer working on his next book - he was Norman Mailer working on his next book. Pride can paralyze all creative thought.

But, unless you actually are the late Norman Mailer, you have nothing to worry about. Everyone else in the world writes badly, sometimes. Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk more seriously about garbage.

Allowing yourself to write garbage is liberating. When confronted with "scene block," you need to write the worst version of your scene that you can possibly think of and write it as fast as you can.

"Huh?" I can already see your heads turning in that sideways quizzical way, the way my dog's does when he's thoroughly confused. Stay with me a sec ...

You think too much. You need to stop it. You already worked your outline and know enough about your character histories to write this. You're thinking way too much from your left brain. You want this scene to "make sense." But life doesn't make sense sometimes, and neither does writing.

Just do what it takes to get it on the page.

When you give yourself permission to write something awful, you free yourself. Sometimes, you really do write an embarrassingly good example of bad writing. Other times, the expectations and demands that you put on yourself are the problem. Releasing expectations can access interesting things that you didn't know you had inside you. But in either case, the scene is written - and you have given yourself permission to throw it away later.

The other critical thing that writing a "garbage scene" does for you is that it allows you to move forward in your script. As you continue through your story, you grow to understand your characters even more fully. Everything sharpens.

When you finish your draft, review your script, paying special attention to your "garbage" scenes. Are they as bad as you thought they were? Have you learned things that now make these scenes easier to write? You might find that you have communicated the content of these scenes in other ways and don't need these scenes at all.

Screenwriters, like sharks, must keep moving forward or their story will drown.

Keep swimming and have a great writing day!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

THEME = The Heart of Your Script

ONE KEY MISTAKE that screenwriters often make is to forget to include a Theme for the main character. Yes, well-drawn characters are vital. However, there needs to be a reason for your audience to keep reading.

What is the most important single moment in your story? The Climax. What is revealed to the Main Character in the Climax? The Theme. Theme is the key to the entire structure of your story. Without it, you are merely rendering events. With it, events take on meaning.

Theme is also tied to the emotional journey of your Main Character. This emotion is the “universal” that the audience hooks into. When audiences relate to characters who are from history, the future or another planet; even though they may fight in a war, track down a killer or win the girl who is impossible to get, it is because of the emotions felt by your characters.

I will never be William Munny, from the movie “Unforgiven,” striding into the Big Whiskey Saloon to face Little Bill Daggett who just killed my best friend Ned. But I understand the emotion of this character who has tried to change his life, undergone hardship, been pulled back into his past and now intends to exact revenge for a wrong done to a loved one.

Without this emotion - it’s nothing more than a gunfight.

Characters = What. Theme = Why?

Why does your audience care? If your work isn’t getting optioned or sold, look at your theme again. Do you know what it is? If you don’t - then, the reader doesn’t.

Brainstorming Tip:

Here is an exercise you can do when you’re just starting your idea. First, choose a theme. Maybe it is something like: “absolute power corrupts even the truest heart.”

Next, ask yourself what kind of character might learn this. Perhaps it is someone who has nothing but kindness in his heart. Then decide what situation might take such a good person and thrust him into a position of absolute power. And finally, imagine what situation might occur that would force him into deciding between grasping that ultimate power and doing the right thing.

You now have the bones to build a structure and have created a dramatic climax.

This example is from “The Lord of the Rings,” where a simple hobbit was chosen to destroy the ring. But in the moment of truth - he couldn’t …and almost lost his soul.

But this exercise will work with any theme. Do this next time and see your writing become more compelling. And you will also find the structure of your work grow to the next level.

Have a great writing day!

Monday, May 24, 2010

CHARACTER - The 3 Needs

All dramatic writing boils down to what does your main character want? Why does s/he want it? What’s keeping her/him from getting it?

Yes, I’m sure many of you reading this know it. At the same time, reread that script that you wrote that didn’t get sold or optioned. Are you sure you conveyed answers to these three questions?

If you’ve been told that your script feels meandering or takes awhile “to get going,” chances are you need to identify your character’s want. If your main character has nothing that s/he wants, then your story will have no direction and feel adrift. The executive or creative element that is reading your work will not give your characters the “benefit of the doubt.” If they don’t know what’s at stake, they won’t read another ten pages to find out. They’ll just set it down.

If readers have said that they didn’t “invest” in the outcome, it likely means that your character “need” isn’t strong or clear enough. If your main character has one reason for wanting her/his goal, it is not nearly as strong as if s/he has TEN reasons. As you add more reasons, your character's "want" becomes a "need." And when you show that your character has a genuine need, your audience pays attention.

Think about your own life. If you only sort of want something, how committed are you to getting it? If you HAVE to have something, what would you be willing to do? The same is true for your characters.

There also needs to be a consequence for your character if s/he fails.

If readers have told you that your ending needs to be stronger, odds are good that there needs to be more obstacles and conflict. Torture your main character. When in doubt, create an obstacle - internal or external. The more obstacles your character must confront - or the more compelling the obstacle - the more the reader will root for your character and be involved with your script.

Readers who are involved, are more likely to option or buy. They are also more likely to remember you and your writing.

Have a great writing day!

Monday, May 17, 2010

REWRITING - Are We Having Fun, Yet?

David E. Kelley wrote or created TV shows from LA Law to Ally McBeal to Boston Legal. He has written 100’s of episodes. And he writes in longhand. On legal pads. Every day. Time consuming? Maybe. However, he does not rush his writing. And neither should you.

Many times, screenwriters think they can “fly” through their rewrite. But this attitude suggests that rewriting is tedious but necessary. Like a chore to be dispensed with quickly.

What if screenwriters thought of rewrites as enjoyable? What if they realized that rewrites are, actually, “the fun part”? The hardest work is done, already. The structure is in place. The characters have traits and goals. You know what the conflicts and theme are.

Now is the time to let your characters breathe …and come to life.

Here’s a way of approaching your next rewrite that you might not have thought of:

When rewriting, avoid using the copy & paste commands.

Yes, I’m serious.

With screenplays, less is more. However, you must still convey so much. That means that you must choose exactly the right word. Every time.

Keep a copy of your prior draft at your side and refer to it as you actually rewrite each word. By using this technique, you will be forced to re-choose every word of your script and ask yourself: “Is this the best way to convey this character, this action, this situation?”

You will see yourself choosing better verbs, saying in one word what you’d said in three. You might even find yourself removing large sections of a scene. Or even an entire scene. It can be heartbreaking. But writing is not for the squeamish.

You must be brutally honest with yourself. Your characters - and your readers - will thank you for it.

Have a great writing day!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

STRUCTURE - Part 2 - I Can Already Hear You Say It

"WHAT about 'formula'?" I hear you ask. "Aren't those 9 scenes just another Hollywood formula?"

Yes and no. Here's a reality check: unless you know a key talent element (director, producer, actor), your script will be read by a story analyst. Unless your agent is also your best friend, your script will first be sent to the agency's Story Department, where it will be read by - you guessed it - a story analyst.

If your story analyst is your ex-roommate from college, then, no worries. If not ...um ...well, good luck. Story analysts, also known as "readers," are mostly freelancers and get paid for each script read. Since they need to pay their rent, it means that they read at least two dozen scripts each week. 24 scripts x 52 weeks = 1,248 scripts each year. That's a lot of reading. Or not.

In most cases, admit it or not, they read the first ten pages, the last ten pages and the dialog in between. Yes, it's a cruel reality. All those words you bled over that may never get read (There are ways to force the reader to read it all, but I'll cover that when I write about formatting in a later blog.)

Another thing your reader is looking for are the 9 scenes mentioned in my earlier blog. It's a subconscious checklist. They will notice if they're not on the page. And if not, they will move your script from the pile that says "Consider" to the one that says "Pass."

Is that "formula"? I'm afraid so. But the news isn't all bad. This method of storytelling has a history that goes back to the beginning of ...storytelling. It's imprinted into us. It works.

And once you have determined what these scenes are in your screenplay, you are free to experiment with how they unfold - and in what order.

"Pulp Fiction" is a perfect example of tweaking this 9 scene formula. This script was a bold departure from standard structure, wasn't it? "Pulp Fiction" is a great movie, with amazing dialog and truly original characters. But the structure is simply a shell-game version of the basic 9 scenes. It is as though Tarantino wrote a linear story, cut it into sections and then rearranged the sections. It was innovative. But it was a linear story told out of sequence.

Tarantino is a gifted writer and a serious movie buff. He knew the "rules" - and then he broke, bent and twisted them. His innovations were choices, not accidents.

What about ensemble stories, like "Crash"? A brilliant script. Tremendously difficult to write. If you check closely, you'll see that each character has a three-act arc. Are all nine scenes there? In some subplots, yes; in others, no. But, again, the writer/director Paul Haggis was aware of convention. His departures from it were made from that awareness.

Write the 9 scenes for your script. Know the skeleton of your story. Then, if you want to experiment - go for it!

Have a great writing day!




STRUCTURE - The 9 Essential Scenes

YES, outlining can be a headache. Yes, it can seem daunting, at first. "Why do I need an outline? I know my story. Who has time to waste? Let me start writing."

Admirable ambition. But misguided. If your story isn't structured, you are likely to write yourself into a corner and have to start over. And the time you spend writing those 44 pages will be wasted. Ouch.

Doesn't outlining take the spontaneity out of your work? No. What it does is create a framework in which your characters come to life. Your characters are spontaneous. Not your structure.

The simple truth is this:

Screenwriters who do not outline, leave the bleached bones of their main characters lying in the desert of Act Two.

And this world is filled with millions of unfinished screenplays.

Here is a tool to use while outlining your script. These are the scenes that every reader is looking for. Believe me, if they're missing, they will notice.

You need to be clear on 9 scenes. These scenes are the signposts along your screenwriting journey.

1st: What is your opening? How does it set up your main character & conflicts? What is your setting, action and tone?

2nd: What is happening on p.10? Does the audience have a general sense of what this movie will be about? Does the audience have a sense of the emotional terrain in your story?

3rd: Your main character needs to “cross the threshold” into Act II somewhere between p. 15 and p. 25 (depending on genre). “Crossing the threshold” means leaving his/her “ordinary world” behind. Once passed, nothing will ever be the same. In Act II: The old world is left behind & your character enters an unfamiliar space, where s/he will meet allies & enemies.

The 5th scene you need for your outline (Yes, I know I skipped one. Be patient): The Midpoint of Act II. It is strongest if this scene occurs between pages 50 & 60. The Midpoint is where the stakes are raised in a way that changes the trajectory of the main character’s journey.

NOW, the 4th scene you need - yes, we’re backtracking - is half-way between the beginning of Act II and Midpoint. It’s called Pinch Point One. Pinch Point One raises the conflict for your main character, forcing him/her to step further into the emotional wilderness.

6th: Pinch Point Two. You guessed it - halfway between Midpoint and the end of Act II. And yes, like PP1, it forces your character to go deeper.

7th: The End of Act II. This is usually a crisis, dramatic or comedic, which makes the Climax inevitable. The End of Act II might be your character’s lowest point or the place where the final challenge has been set and there is no turning back.

8th: The Climax. You’d be surprised how many scripts don’t have one …or have too many. The Climax is where your main character must either make a choice between what s/he THOUGHT s/he wanted & what s/he REALLY wants. This is frequently a choice between an external goal and an internal, emotional goal. Or the Climax may be the point where your main character has his/her “blinders” removed to see the world with new understanding.

In either case, the Climax is the point where your theme is revealed to your main character.

And what is #9? It is the Final Scene. What is the feeling that you want to leave with the audience? The emotion of the final scene can make the difference between a sale and no sale, between a hit …and a miss.

Emotion is everything. It’s what the audience comes to the movie theater for: to feel. And by sharing it in a crowd, they feel connected.

These 9 scenes are essential. Hitting them right is your craft. Your outline is your map. You need one before you start your next journey.

Have a great writing day!