Casablanca GifA note you are likely to receive in the course of your writing is that “your character needs to change” by the end of the story. Sometimes, you will be told the character needs to “learn” something or needs to “grow”. Too often, the writer is tempted to include a superficial “change” to meet this note. Doing so usually destroys the story. Here are some observations on how to avoid this pitfall and what is at the heart of character change.

How a character is transformed is different for each story. More importantly, the creative process through which a writer discovers and then creates this character change is likely different for each writer. There is no formula or magic process. However, while you are working through these issues, there are some key questions to ask yourself in order to test whether your conception of the character and of the story itself will ultimately lead you to a story with “character change”.

I use the following questions as departure points to create not only the character but the very bones of the story to support that character. By conceiving of the story through these types of questions, I force myself to create a storyline that comes from character change. Here are the key questions (for me):

    1. What fact defines the character’s identity that he or she comes to see differently by the end of the story?

    2. What does the character find out that makes him or her see the world differently?

    3. What aspect of the character’s core identity does he or she learn something new about which makes him or her a different person at the end of the story?

These are not superficial questions. They involve and have implications for every aspect of your story. Each of these questions involves the very core identity of your character and they all assume that this core changes by the end of the story. The best way to understand this is to see it in action. Here are several examples:

CASABLANCA = The core of Rick’s character is angry bitterness because he was stood up without explanation by the woman he loved. By the end of the story, he finds out why she left him and that she still loves him. It transforms him into a different character (in this case, restoring him to the man he once was). Notice, he literally learns a new external fact that goes to the very heart of his being and changes it.

THE SIXTH SENSE = The core of Malcolm’s character is his belief that he is a phony, not a good doctor to these children. Eventually, he has an insight, namely that Cole might be telling the truth when he says he sees ghosts, and through helping the boy, Malcolm comes to learn that he is not a phony. He ends the story with a great sense of self-worth that he did not have at the beginning. Notice, what he “learns” is an instantaneous insight – namely that he should listen to the Cole instead of judging him. The insight itself does not change Malcolm’s sense of self-worth. Rather, the act of successfully helping Cole gives Malcolm his new sense of being. This is different than Casablanca, where the new fact itself transforms Rick and everything that follows is just a reveal to us that the character has truly changed.

IN THE LINE OF FIRE = Frank thinks he is a coward and that because of his cowardice, the world is a worse place. He is driven by his feeling of cowardice and his need to prove himself. He learns he is no coward when he takes a bullet for the president. He is no longer driven to prove anything. In this case, there is no external fact learned and no instantaneous insight. Rather, his very act of courage transforms him.

= Munny lives a hard life, a cursed man suffering for his sins of the past. Ultimately, he is changed by having to use the same tools he used as a drunken, valueless, murderer to enforce some sense of values and honor. He leaves a changed man with some sense of redemption, clouded though it be.

DIE HARD = McLane thinks he is too dumb and unsophisticated to keep the interest of his wife. He learns he is smart enough to save her life. This is the weakest change of all the examples, but it is still present and important to driving the story forward. This picture was elevated from a B-movie to an A-movie in large part because the change McClane had to go through resonated with the audience.

In each case, the “change” is the character discovering what is already inside of him. Each of these stories leads that character to this discovery in a different way. However, all of them share something in common. The story is conceived in terms of character change. In Casablanca, Rick must become a different man in order to do the right thing. In Die Hard, McClane must actually be that smart person to save his wife. In In The Line Of Fire, Frank must be courageous to save the president. Notice that the stronger the story conception in terms of character change, the stronger the story. In Casablanca, perhaps the strongest of all of these, the change that is required is the enormous. Rick must go from selfish, bitter man to selfless, understanding hero. The person at the end is the polar opposite of the person at the beginning (but, importantly, the person at the end was really there all along; Rick just had to discover him again).

This may be helpful; it may just be Monday morning quarterbacking. Or, like Rick in Casablanca, I may be misinformed. You decide.

Enough. Now go write….


Book & Quill GifWhat makes you think you know how to write? Because you’ve written a pile of unproduced, unsold screenplays?

Screenwriting is very technical writing. It is scrutinized in a way other writing is not. It is evaluated in a process that comes with mountains of baggage, none of which is designed to be helpful to training the aspiring writer and much of which is very subjective. Because of this, an aspiring screenwriter can cling to the belief that he or she knows what he or she is doing with no evidence whatsoever. Rather, the writer blames rejection on a million other factors – not having a good connection, not living in L.A., another similar project beat you out (even though you were never even remotely on the radar of the buyers in the first place), Hollywood is wrong about what makes a good movie (that’s my favorite one), you are misunderstood, and on and on and on. Never that you’re writing just isn’t yet good enough.

At a storytelling level, the elements that make a screenplay work are the same elements that make any story work; they are just embedded in the most technical dramatic writing in the world.

So, here’s a thought. Take a big step back. Forget about selling a screenplay or selling anything. Forget about three-act structure, forget about formatting issues, forget about number of pages. Instead, focus on telling a great story.

And tell it in prose….

That’s right, prose. Simple narrative. Just tell the damn story. Whether it is short story length, novella, novel or ten volume opus. Feel free to delve inside the characters’ minds, have soliloquies, reveal internal thoughts, do everything you can’t do in a screenplay (or do none of it – you’re the writer). Just make sure you tell a great story.

And let the story be personal. I don’t mean write about your childhood or the girl who just left you. I mean, make sure you think about what it is you want the story to say, what points of view you want it to reflect, how you want to shape the reader’s experience of these points of view. Make this a story no one else could possibly write – only you.

Here’s what you’ll get out of it. First, you’ll have a story that is more easily accessible to qualified readers, a story from which you can more easily get a body of solid feedback. You will find out where your weaknesses are – at least the fundamental storytelling weaknesses. Second, even without feedback, you will learn a tremendous amount about your writing. You will discover things you have to say, how to say them, and what is important to you as a storyteller. Third, you will improve as a storyteller simply from having made the effort to tell a great story. You will not have the excuse of structural challenges or any other technical issue. It is just you and the story. Fourth, you will take a big step towards developing your own unique voice. And that voice – your voice – is really the only thing you have to sell Hollywood. Anyone can learn the technical end of screenwriting. Only you can tell stories with your voice. But you must find and develop that voice or you are just copying better writers and you will fail. Writing in prose is a terrific way to develop that voice.

So, write something else. Write a story, write a novel, write an opus. It will be worth it, I promise. When you’re done, Hollywood will still be there. You can dig into your next screenplay with a new zeal and, perhaps, some new insight.

Now go write.

(And, by the way, it is no harder to sell a well-told unpublished short story or novel to Hollywood than to sell a screenplay. If you do a great job on the story – you have something else to market.)


IDEA GIFIs the “idea” a storyteller’s gold nugget, to be protected from those would seize it for their own, to be respected by guilds and others as the sin qua non of the script? Or is an “idea” simply the blurting out of a passing thought, no more valuable than any other extemporaneous gaseous expulsion. There are two opposing schools of thought on this, and each of them is ascribed to by writers much better than I.

The first is exemplified by this quote from none other than screenwriter Terry Rossio, who says:

It gets frustrating. There I would sit, reading a screenplay in which the structure, characters, dialogue, and descriptions were all passable… even, in some cases, very good. And yet, in my heart, I knew that there was virtually no way the screenplay would ever sell, let alone get made. It was doubly frustrating because it was hard to explain exactly why it wouldn’t sell. All I could say was that the original idea for the film was lacking in some way.

And the second is exemplified by screenwriter Craig Mazin, who says:

Having an idea doesn’t take effort, nor does it earn you any spiritual or professional regard. Ideas are worthless. Literally. They are not intellectual property. They are not possessable. They are not creditable.

So, who is right?

Well…They both are. The answer to this riddle depends upon why and when you are asking. The question comes up in a number of contexts. Here are some of them:

“Hey, he stole my idea!”

So what? Did you write a script? Did he steal a protectible part of the script? Or was this just a free-floating idea that you knew would be the script of a lifetime when you eventually wrote it.

In this latter context, ideas are essentially worthless. At any given time, there are many, many writers or aspiring writers running around with virtually the same idea. It is formless and it is not a story. It is a free-floating “ort” that likely came to you as an inspiration and has very little development. Anyone can happen to have a similar “ort”. The process of taking that first “ort” and turning it into something with movement, structure and theme in a way that works as a motion picture is a huge undertaking that forges the so-called “idea” into the eventual script – and the “idea” that started it will have been developed and changed through substantial sweat and creativity. At the end of the process, if you state your script as an idea (which you will have to do frequently), it will likely be very different than the “ort” you started with. Even if it sounds the same – it will not be.

“Idea” in this sense is not protectible by copyright and, unless you have a record as someone who can turn orts into completed scripts suitable to be made into motion pictures, it has no value to the studios or other filmmakers. It is not unique; it is not much of anything.

“Hey, why didn’t I get credit when it was my idea?”

Because when your script was rewritten, other writers put in a ton of work. They left very little of your original script except, perhaps, the “idea”. If the idea alone is worth next to nothing, so is the idea in an inferior script. In this context, as far as the industry is concerned, your “idea” is worth next to nothing. So, too, the WGA and the law of most American jurisdictions take this tack, offering very little protection for the idea itself, opting instead to protect the expression of those ideas. You can argue what “should” be, but in the world of what is – your ideas just don’t count for much, at least not in this context.

So where do ideas count? In this last context, for many aspiring writers – the most important context:

“Hey, why did my script with flawless execution fail to sell?”

Here’s where ideas are critical. If you can execute scripts well – in other words, if you know your craft – then the only thing holding you back is the quality of your idea. Sparkling, sexy, attractive ideas sell – they get you breaks, they start careers – that is, if you can actually embody them in a well crafted script. In this context, ideas are the sin qua non.

So next time someone tells you ideas are worthless, explain to them that you’re still trying to get your first break and, for you, the unsung writer who actually knows his or her craft, ideas count a lot.


Bill Murray Jeff from “outside L.A.” asks:

Hi. Enjoy the blog. I have a fairly simple question for you, I think. I am working on outlines for a couple of script ideas while I rewrite my first one, and in one case, I can’t quite figure out the ending. I like the idea a lot, and it seems to have good story potential. So how common is it to just plow ahead and hope a 3rd act presents itself somewhere along the line? Does that path offer any hope at all, or is my struggle possibly indicative of a flaw in the idea?

It is common to just plow ahead but usually not too effective. Some writers claim they are able to conceive of a story in terms of its ending and write backwards. I wish I could. Even M. Night wrote six drafts of The Sixth Sense before he figured out that Malcolm was dead. The story did not start out that way.

In my own writing, endings arise out of the core questions I am exploring in the script; in other words, endings arise out of theme. If I do not now how a story ends, it means I have not spent enough time developing the theme. Through rigorous work, theme leads the story to what eventually feels like a natural second act complication (notice I say “feels like” – it is usually actually hell developing it). That second act complication usually dictates an appropriate ending. This sort of approach seems to be adopted by many writers who are much better than me including Gary Ross, for one. (I think Craig Mazin is on that list, too. If not, it gives me an excuse to link to a very appropriate post of his….)

By way of example, in Groundhog Day, the central question is “How do you give a monotonous, redundant existence any meaning?” Kind of a central existential question with implications far beyond the storyline. As the protagonist struggles with this question, trying first one thing and then the next – he is led to a second act complication – he falls in love (perhaps the first genuine thing he has ever done) but the woman will never really fall in love with him because the day always starts over. Only by solving his existential dilemma (finding the meaning of life) does he finally win her love. In the eyes of Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis (the screenwriters), life has meaning when we contribute to the world around us. Once the protagonist experiences this, his life once again has meaning (and the physical monotony also ends).

Notice that in Groundhog Day, every scene explores the theme. In fact, given the extremely repetitive nature of the physical setting, thematic development is the driving force that engages us and compels us to follow along.

Similarly, in The Sixth Sense, the central question the screenwriter explores is “How do you communicate effectively with those you love?” Cole cannot tell his mother what is happening to him. His mother cannot effectively speak to him; her anger and confusion gets in the way. Malcolm cannot speak to his wife nor she to him. All of the characters suffer from the same problem; they cannot effectively communicate with each other. As the two protagonists, Malcolm and Cole, explore this central question in various ways, the second act complication arises – Cole must listen to the ghosts without judging them. (Just as Malcom had to listen to Cole without judging him.) Once he does, he discovers he can communicate with his mother and he discovers he can tell Malcolm how to speak to his wife.

As you can see from both of these examples, developing a story around a clearly focused central core (the theme) takes a tremendous amount of work. However, it gets you to the second act complication and from there to an appropriate ending.

Like so many things in screenwriting – this is no shortcut. In fact, it’s pretty damn hard to do it right. But that’s the way the big boys and girls do it….


DRAFT GIFIf you cannot rewrite, you are not a writer. The first draft of your script is virtually a practice run. No matter how excited you are to have written 120 pages of something, 120 pages of something is not a script. Your rewrite will always take a tremendous amount of frustrating work and the rewritten script will always be exponentially better than the first draft. If this is not the case – you did not do your job.

At the risk of being branded a “mentor”, I will tell you how to rewrite.

The purpose of a rewrite is to clarify and intensify every aspect of your story. In a professionally written commercial screenplay, each scene advances theme, character and plot. It does not merely advance them; it substantially advances them. Because a screenplay is short, each moment must carry a huge amount of weight – it must be filled with highly concentrated theme, character and plot. With the happening of each scene, the relationships between characters must deepen, the conflicts between them must intensify, and the protagonist’s commitment to his or her goal must become more obsessive. With each moment, the theme must be more severely tested; ignoring it must have greater and greater consequence.

The first draft of your script will not do that. It will sing-song, it will contain scenes that are really cool but unrelated to the theme, the story’s resolution may not even grow out of the theme at all, but just out of the plot. The relationship between the characters will be static or uneven or melodramatic (i.e. rely on stock emotions). In short, it will stink.

This does not mean you are a bad writer – it means you have written a first draft.

Before writing the next draft, you must thoroughly analyze your first draft and identify these weaknesses. How does each scene substantially advance theme, character and plot? What is the theme? (It usually changes from your first ideas about the story.) For each scene, how is the relationship between characters deepened even as the conflict between them is intensified?

You must invest the tremendous work it takes to answer these questions for each and every scene. If you cannot answer them, your story will be hopelessly muddled. It will not have an impact on your audience.

During this analysis you will identify strong scenes and weak scenes; you will learn what your story is really about. You will learn that much of the material has no place in your story – even scenes you thought were your best.

Now, you will create new material to fill in the many gaps, repair the weaknesses. Each bit of new material must adhere to this high standard you have set for yourself – it must fulfill the purposes of substantially advancing the theme, the characters and the plot. Only by fulfilling these purposes in every moment will your story be compelling, driven and satisfying to your audience. A story is tightly wound around a central unified core (theme) and this is the process of winding it.

Now, you will see your story begin to have true movement, not just movement of plot, but real story movement. The rewrite is hard – often harder than the first draft – but it is much more exciting. A properly performed rewrite brings the story to life. When you are done, you will see an exponential improvement in the quality of the story – that is the mark of a real rewrite (as opposed to mere tinkering).

Then, of course, you must clear your head, accept that this draft is not yet nearly at the level required to meet your competition, namely the best writers in the industry, and you must rewrite it yet again. You start by analyzing each and every scene….


STORY CUBE GIFSteve from Los Angeles asks:

So I’m going to the big screenwriting expo this weekend. I just signed up for it a few days back with no intentions other than checking out a lot of seminars. This morning, I was perusing the site and took a gander at the screenwriting tournament. You probably know that they give you a scenario and then you have 90 minutes to pen a 2-3 page scene. I LOVE working on deadline. I got excited. Really excited. I read some of the scenarios from past contests and felt the ideas come. Even more exciting. Then, I took a deep breath and realized, these are premises for a SINGLE scene.… In the past, I’ve tried to do too much in too small a space. I don’t want to do that again. Since the contest is on deadline, there’s no time for wasted minutes. Any suggestions as to how to approach a contest like this?

I can only suggest you remember a few basics of scene construction:

1. Get into the scene as late as possible. It’s usually later than you think. Chop off the first part and see if the scene still works.

2. Get out as early as possible. It’s usually earlier than you think. As soon as you have accomplished what you intended, get out.

3. Unless it is the last scene in the picture, make sure it leaves something incomplete. The reader should want to know what is next. One way to do this, is to have characters talk around an issue between them, unable to talk about it directly, and move on with the thing still hanging in the air.

4. Scenes also have a beginning, middle and end. They should have movement. No wasted action – everything directly in service of the movement.

5. Clean professional dialogue. See this column on dialogue to understand how I approach dialogue. For me, this approach tends to generate reasonable dialogue fairly quickly.

Good luck. Let us know how it goes.


PROFESSOR WAGSTAFFSam from Philly asks:

I am an amateur writer, and I am looking to take a class, but I’m not sure which is best suited for me. What I am trying figure out, is the class offered by the New York Film Academy better or the same as a class at a local college? Thanks for the help.


Honestly, I have no idea. I haven’t taken any classes from New York Film Academy or from your local college. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s what I have looked for in the past when I took classes:

Experience of the teacher. I prefer to learn from instructors that have at least some reasonable professional experience.

Curriculum. I personally prefer courses that involve both writing and theory. All theory and it tends to mean very little. Many courses require you to write outlines, scenes and pages and subject them to peer review. This, in conjunction with theory, can be helpful. This is one of the reasons weekend seminars are not very effective from my point of view. You spend all your time on theory and have no guided practice. You walk out thinking you now know how to write a decent screenplay, but when you actually sit down to write, theory is just theory and you must face the same hard issues in your writing that you had before. There are no quick shortcuts to learning to write strong, professional quality work.

An important caveat to peer review is that in a screenwriting class, most of your peers are awful. They will never be good writers. You are taking input from people who, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Consider every word they say, but think through it and make your own judgments about your work. One of your goals as a writer is to surround yourself with quality input as quickly as possible. Bad input is sometimes distracting and often disheartening. At an early stage, it is a necessary evil, but you must make it through the fire.

Tuition. Do not get sucked into paying a fortune for any course, especially a short course, that promises to deliver huge results. It won’t happen. Short courses are like books – you get a lot to think about, but you still have to work it out for yourself through lots of writing over a long period of time. Tuition for screenwriting courses should be in line with other similar college courses.

Good luck finding a course.