February 25

THEME; AGAIN (Classic Post)

It’s late. I’m at the keyboard re-reading the damn pages, again, and thinking about theme, again. The questions I always face from beginning to end are “Why write this script?”, “Is it exploring questions worth exploring?” and most importantly, “Does each and every scene really further the exploration of the theme?” As if that’s not enough, I also worry about whether the story is entertaining while making this serious exploration, whether the characters are interesting enough, and whether anyone else will be interested in the questions the story asks.

After years of working on creatiing interesting characters, I’ve finally decided I don’t give a damn. When a development exec says, “You need character development,” he or she really means, “The story is just not that interesting.”

Somewhere on the old website, I posted some pretty good articles on the psychology of character. I put a lot of serious thought into how to conceive characters that are built on internal conflict from the ground up. I’ll post these articles again one day, but what I’ve come to realize is that the psychology of a character doesn’t matter at all if what the character is up to doesn’t matter. Is my character facing a struggle that asks a question that I think is important? If not, I’m wasting my time.

So how the hell do I know whether my theme is good enough? The only answer I’ve ever come up with is that if it reaches me, if I look at what really matters to me, if I get it on the page through dramatic action without ever preaching it, then it’s worth writing. Not only can’t I tell what will be important to a particular exec, I can’t write it if it means nothing to me. It’s too hard. I don’t want to be vacuous. Contrary to popular belief, execs are not stupid. They know when you don’t care; it shows up on the page.

There’s a lot to say about theme and I’ll get around to saying it. Just not tonight. I need to read the damn pages again.

June 9


I was wondering what makes a good story. Because I feel if you can’t write a good story, your movie is just another movie.

Jon from Haydenville Massachusetts

That’s a very big question. Many of us spend our entire careers answering it over and over, hoping each time to get it right.

I will give you my answer, but ultimately, you have to create your own. How you answer it defines you as a writer and, as I’ve said many times, your individual voice is one of your most important assets.

The other important limitation on giving an answer is that, no matter what the answer, there are always stories that match none of the criteria that are excellent and broadly recognized to be so. With those caveats, these are the characteristics which, to me, make a good story:

1. Remarkability.

2. A central theme arising out of an important moral conflict that is symbolic of a conflict we all face. For example, in Jerry McGuire, the central conflict was how to stand up for the values that brought him into the business in the first place and how to deal with the cost of standing up. The values at the heart of the story were important to its audience. A substantial number of middle class employees face this question daily. They are not top sports agents, but even as mid-level insurance executives, they wonder whether they will ever escape the grind.

3. Excellent craftsmanship. Writing is a craft as much as anything else. Well-crafted scenes, dialogue and structure mean a great deal to me.

4. A story tightly wound around the important thematic questions the story is intended to explore. No waste – nothing superfluous. Every scene is an interesting exploration and deepening of the theme. A few examples of this kind of story are “Pleasantville”, “High Noon” and “Casablanca”.

5. Intelligent and witty writing. A good story expresses itself in ways the average audience member recognizes he or she could not do if he or she sat down to write a movie. Audiences recognize exceptional storytelling and respond to it.

I am personally less interested in whether the story has a traditional resolution. For example, I enjoy tragedies and non-conventional stories. Examples include “The Perfect Storm”, “Confessions of A Dangerous Mind” and “Barton Fink”.

But, that’s just me.

July 31


LEGALGreg from Hermosa asks:

When using stories that were told to you – like by a police officer – that involve cases that have already been prosecuted – what is the general rule as to how much of the story you need to change, once the information is already in the public domain. Is changing a few names and locations enough? Or does it have to be more drastic than that?

And if so, how does Law and Order get away with it?

[Caveat: This is not legal advice, just thoughts on a weblog.]

This question is trickier than it sounds. When portraying real life events, there are two primary questions: (1) How close to the truth must you stay to avoid defamation or other types of lawsuits? and (2) what is the source of your information?

If you are telling a real life story, you are ordinarily protected from a defamation action if the story is true. However, if the story portrays events in the life of a private person (as opposed to a “public figure”), you may be liable for invasion of privacy even if the events you portray are true. On the other hand, if you are portraying the story of a “public figure”, you are protected from actions for defamation and, for the most part, privacy, as long as you do not exhibit “malice” in the story. “Malice” is usually defined as an intentional distortion or reckless disregard for the truth with intent to injure the party about whom the story is made.

A “public figure” is a person who intentionally injects himself or herself into the limelight, such as an entertainer or politician. Others can be “public figures” at least for limited purposes. For example, an accused murderer is a public figure, at least with respect to stories related to the murder.

The other important issue relates to the source of the material. You can freely use “facts” known to the general public because facts do not have copyright protection, only the expression of those facts (e.g. a newspaper article). However, if you are using stories told to you by a police officer, even if the subject matter of the story is generally known to the public, your information may contain the private impressions and experiences of the officer. That portion of the material is owned by the police officer and you need to obtain rights to use it. Similarly, if you are basing your story on newspaper accounts of the event, you must be careful not to include the impressions and experiences of the reporter. You can only use the “facts.” The line between facts and impressions and experiences is not always clear. For that reason, unless the event is widely known, most studios prefer to secure rights to some kind of material, whether it is a newspaper story, a book, or the rights to someone who participated in the event.


1. “The Perfect Storm” – true story of a storm, but much information about the characters was fictionalized. In that case, the family of one of the dead crewmembers sued in Florida and lost. HELD: No defamation, no invasions of privacy, no malice, even if the events as portrayed were not accurate.

2. “Primary Colors” – obvious fictionalized version of Clinton’s rise to power. No defamation because (i) Clinton is a public figure and the story is “fair comment” and (ii) the story is clearly fictionalized and, while designed to comment on Clinton, it is obviously not intended to be his real story.

3. “Law And Order” – the writers take stories “ripped from the headlines” on a regular basis. They are protected because (i) “ripped from the headlines” by its nature means “public figure” and (ii) they are clear that the stories are fictionalized and only inspired by true events, not a portrayal of the event.

4. “Nixon” – the true to life story of Richard Nixon. The writers are protected because Nixon was the most public of public figures, President of The United States. He would have had to show that the material was untrue and written with the intent of injuring his reputation.

While studios are sued all the time when they produce real life stories, if you as a writer follow these basic guidelines, the real life nature of your story should not be a deterrent to selling it. Hopefully, it is an asset.

Good luck with your story.

February 26


I get asked this a lot and I’m tired of answering it; I have pages to write. So here it is, hopefully for the last time. Some newbie writers worry about their ideas or entire scripts being stolen. In fact, all of us worry about our ideas being stolen to some degree. Here’s my take on the best way to avoid that, both as a writer who, of necessity, circulates a lot of ideas in the community and as an entertainment attorney. This is not legal advice – just thoughts on a weblog.

1. Similar ideas always exist and always come from multiple sources. If your so-called idea is just a vague general concept, there’s not much that can or, in my opinion, should be done to protect it. If you believe in your idea, flesh it out, write something down, maybe even put in the real work it takes to write the script.

2. Written ideas can be copyrighted. Copyright your screenplays and, if written down in sufficient detail, your ideas, too. Do not bother to send them into the WGA script vault or any of the others around town. It is just as easy to fill out a proper copyright form and send it to the Copyright Office. A real copyright sometimes gives you additional legal rights. The link you just passed takes you to a page where you can get the right form and simple directions to register your copyright.

3. Keep a written record of who you share your ideas with. If you talk to someone about your idea, put it down on your log, including the date, time, and substance of what you shared.

4. If you are not represented by an agent or manager or if you present ideas on your own even as a represented writer, write a confirming letter immediately following your presentation of the idea – just a short note that confirms in a nice way that you presented such and such an idea and appreciate it being considered. If you are represented by an agent or manager, talk to him or her about the best way to confirm an idea presentation. The agent or manager may prefer to do the follow up.

Finally, expect similar ideas to surface and, often, beat your idea out. It’s part of doing business. If you are really worried, write a good script. Those are much harder to steal.