Why struggle with the substantial complexities of organizing your story tightly around theme? It’s so much easier to write without it. Just string together some interesting moments, create an inciting incident, make sure you have escalating action and obstacles, and resolve everything with a clever twist. What could be easier? All you have to do is be inventive with your scenes and, bingo-presto, a movie, right?


Stories without theme are not stories. They rarely keep audiences in their seats. They wander and get lost. They do not get good word-of-mouth (that all important factor which drives box-office and makes writers’ careers).

How many times have you heard – “It was good until the ending, but…”? That’s because the end was not thematically tied in. The film either failed to develop the theme strongly enough or lost the theme somewhere along the line. Theme is the glue that allows an audience to invest in the story, to feel that the story is in any way important, to respond emotionally to the story in any authentic, lasting way. Theme is the element that, if executed properly, makes audiences want to see the film again and want to have all their friends see the film to experience what they experienced. No other element, no matter how sound, can do that. The biggest spectacles fail to drive that kind of emotional response and expanding interest without strong theme.

Here – it’s easy to see by example:

“Titanic” – strong theme: How do you face inevitable death? It was compelling enough to hold a three hour movie together, to serve as a glue for many moments that would have otherwise been extremely episodic, and to get audiences in to see the film two or three times. Sure, Leonardo intrigued the high school girls, but they did not go to see him repeatedly in his next picture. There was something about “Titanic” that audiences found compelling. The compelling element was a well-developed theme. It made up for numerous other writing and filmmaking sins.

“The Terminal” – weak theme: something about persevering over bureaucrats and being true to yourself and getting into America (for an hour and then leaving), I think???? Despite excellent performances from Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones and the skilled directing of Stephen Spielberg, the picture was not very popular. Why? Absence of strong theme. The picture had great characters, escalating complications and clever resolutions. It still wandered and lost its audience. The various subplots had little to unify them and provided no real emotional impact to the audience. (Why was the putative love story even in there?) The picture had no real word-of-mouth because it had no strong, well-developed theme.

“The Sixth Sense” – strong theme: you must learn to listen openly to reach others. The theme is handled with more subtlety than most pictures. Yet, it is present in every moment; it is the strong glue that holds the story together, and it is very effective. Malcolm failed to listen openly to his first patient, the one who shoots him. Cole does not listen openly to the ghosts. Malcolm does not listen openly to Cole. Cole is afraid his mother will not listen openly to him – so he does not tell her his secret. Malcolm does not listen openly to his wife (he believes she has lost faith in him, but when he finally listens, he realizes she is grieving his death.) When each character learns to listen openly, each character resolves his problem. Yes, the story had a great twist at the end, but what made the twist great is the strong, unified story that led up to it and the fact that the twist was a natural extension of the theme: Malcolm was not listening even to himself or his environment – he did not know he was dead. Once he learned to listen openly, he discovered the truth.

Get it? Good. Go write.


If you don’t yet have an agent or manager, here’s a quick list of some things you need to know.

1. Many writers get their first breaks without an agent or manager, but having the right agent and/or manager sure helps.

2. The best and only way to find the right agent and/or manager is to write very well. Good writing always attracts attention. Attention gets you to a good agent and/or manager. If you don’t know how that works, you probably haven’t been writing enough yet.

3. The best way to submit material to an agent or manager is through a referral. The best way to get a referral is to write well. (See previous item.)Agent

4. Real agents don’t charge to read your material. Run away from the ones who do.

5. In Hollywood, agents are regulated by law and union agreement. They charge a 10% commission to shop your scripts. You only pay if the script sells.

6. Managers are different than agents. Managers are not regulated by law or union contract. Their fees vary, but real managers also only get paid if the script sells.

7. Technically, managers are not allowed to solicit employment for you, but they manage your career. In practice, managers always solicit employment for you.

8. Like a good agent, a good manager is a great ally, but anyone can call him or herself a manager. Make sure the manager has clients who sell scripts or get writing assignments on a regular basis.

9. Real managers also do not charge fees to read your material. Run away from ones who do.

Don’t freak on the agent/manager thing. Just work on the writing. The agent/manager will come.


Here’s an article from the old website. It’s long and dense, so read slow and enjoy. It’s good stuff. I promise not to post stuff this dense again.

(Please excuse any formatting problems. It didn’t quite translate from the old HTML.)

A scene is an expression of essential conflict that advances the story. By adhering slavishly to this principle at all times, you will never have a flat or dull scene, nor will you ever have a scene which is merely expository. To understand the power of this statement, we must start with the essence of character – the forces that drive the character. These are the essential forces that shape the character’s choices. In screenwriting, choices are the only means of displaying character. Each character has a number of driving forces, often conflicting with each other. Various writers and commentators classify these forces differently. For our purposes, we will use the terms super-objective, story objective, scene objective and point of
. Continue reading “WHAT IS A SCENE?”


Trev asks:

How do you feel choice of subject matter influences commercial success. Do you think Hollywood is more interested in another LETHAL WEAPON or SCREAM 3 rather than another AMERICAN BEAUTY?

If you were starting out–what genre would you write for spec?

That’s really three separate questions, so here are three answers:

How does choice of subject matter influence commercial success?

Subject matter per se has little to do with commercial success. Unlikely subjects often turn into successful movies. E.G. “Shindler’s List” (Holocaust), “A Beautiful Mind” (life of an obscure – at least to the public – economist), “Sideways” (wine tasting). The real question for the spec writer (and probably any writer) is whether you can make the subject accessible to your audience. If you desire to write for mainstream Hollywood, then you want the subject to be accessible to mainstream audiences. At the risk of getting a parade of horrible subject matters, I can say that there is almost no subject that, with the right story treatment, cannot be used to create a marketable spec screenplay.

That having been said, the more uncomfortable the subject matter, the more difficult you may find it to create the right story treatment. You will walk a fine line between honoring the subject matter and telling an accessible story.

Do you think Hollywood is more interested in another LETHAL WEAPON or SCREAM 3 rather than another AMERICAN BEAUTY? Continue reading “WHAT SHOULD YOU WRITE?”


In commenting on another post, Mark (last name unknown) shared with us that he is eight years out of a UCLA MFA in screenwriting, has a large body of scripts and has four of them currently in the market. He expressed his frustration at being a starving artist, but says:

“I wrote because I’m a writer, and to get good at it…you gotta write.

I wish more so called writers realized this, but they don’t.
Sad thing…some of those that don’t are selling scripts and writing in Hollywood now, and are part of the reason there’s so much junk being made.”

First, hats off for hanging in, Mark. A lot of aspiring writers are envious of your degree and your ability to focus on your writing. Good luck with the scripts currently out in the market. I picked out your comment because it fits in exactly with the post I’ve been working on and helped me a great deal to focus it.

As a pre-amble, I want to say for serious writers who have been at it awhile and are looking for a break, the answer is frequently to bring the writing up a notch. Keep in mind, I’m not saying Mark needs to do this. I haven’t read his writing. Hopefully, we’ll read about him in the trades next week with three out of the four scripts having been picked up in huge sales. What I am saying is that, if you work hard at your writing, you circulate it regularly in the mainstream Hollywood community, and still it’s not somehow getting real attention (e.g. sales, options, significant mainstream attachments of producers or other real objective elements that establish some degree of acceptance – and don’t fool yourself, you know the difference between real attachments and fluff), then you should consider what you need to do to the writing to get to the next level in your career.

No surprise, I have a suggestion on where you might turn for an answer. Read (or reread, as the case may be) Terry Rossio’s brilliant columns at Wordplayer. Not just a few of them, but all of them. Terry Rossio and his partner Ted Elliott are two prolific screenwriters at the top of their game. They’ve done it all and love to share, in eloquent and extremely helpful terms, the secrets to their success. To me, these columns are particularly useful to writers who’ve already been at it a while, writers who have a solid appreciation for the challenges of writing and a burning desire to get better. Consider the columns an advanced course for turning good writers into great writers.

But enough kissing up to Terry. That’s not really the purpose of this post. Rather, the purpose is to talk about junk screenplays. Mark expressed a frustration that is common, and understandable, among writers at Mark’s level. Namely, that crappy writers seem to get breaks when serious writers work for years without them. There is no question that every producer in town is inundated with total garbage scripts. They clog the system and make it hard to get any script even looked at.

But that’s the business –

and that’s not who we’re competing with. Continue reading “COMPETING WITH JUNK”


I hear a million horror stories about writing with partners. I’ve written both alone and with partners. Sometimes the partnerships worked. Sometimes they did not. I like writing alone, but there is something about writing with the right partner that is very satisfying. For the last several years, I’ve written exclusively with one partner. I like writing with him; we are able to do things with the writing neither of us does when we write alone. This is our approach to partnership and why I think it is effective:

1. We leave the idea of individual authorship at the door. We recognize that every idea generated out of our mutual work is a mutual idea. It would not exist without the joint work we do, period. It does not matter who said it first, who thinks they thought of it first, who thinks they had the idea ten years ago but only mentioned it now. If the idea comes up in the context of joint work, you cannot separate it from the whole of the work nor should you try. The WGA calls writing partners a “team” and treats them essentially as a single writer. You should, too. If you do not, you are not a partnership. You are two people competing with each other and keeping score while trying to jointly create a screenplay. This is a hard way to write anything, let alone develop a lasting creative relationship. Continue reading “WRITING WITH A PARTNER”

Remember “Separated Rights”?

In a recent post, I mentioned “separated rights” and said I’d explain them soon. Well, those rascals at The Artful Writer beat me to it. Here is an excellent explanation of separated rights.

I would add that one of the many reasons “separated rights” are important for emerging writers is that, in addition to WGA minimum requirements, many negotiated terms of the writer’s contract are sometimes keyed to a determination of “separated rights.” For example, the amount of contingent compensation (money you get if the film is actually made), amount of and/or right to pay for sequels (even if you don’t write them), and amount of and/or right to pay for television series based on the movie are often impacted by whether you have separated rights.

Who determines which writer has separated rights? The WGA.


What does that mean, “Is it a movie?” We hear it in pitch meetings, from producers and agents, really all over the place. It is a Sword of Damocles used to fend of approaching concepts. The question isn’t really even a question. It is the listener’s assertion that your idea/script/pitch is not worthy of a 60 million dollar investment from the listener’s studio or from anyone else’s. It is a pronouncement that your idea fails to contain some basic element contained in every movie that should ever have been made and every movie that should ever be made in the future. The very question itself suggests that your concept should be taken out with the trash. When you hear, “But is it a movie?”, pack your bags, make nice for the next time, and get on the bus home.

But what is missing from your idea/pitch/spec that makes it not “a movie”?

This criticism is a particularly tough one. First, any joe can use it and mean anything he or she wants. Sometimes, it’s used just to avoid telling you the hard truth about your script, pitch or idea. Remember, producers aren’t out there to train you. They want to find the next picture and get it made. Second, to a large degree, execs who use this do so specifically to avoid thinking in terms of specific analysis. Something like, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. That’s all I can tell you.”

So what do you do if you begin to get this response? Look at your story. Is it clear enough, compelling enough? Is your presentation being understood? Why? Because maybe, just maybe, the exec is right about your pitch. It isn’t yet a movie.