Entries in screenwriting (4)


Gave talk at the Prague Film School

Gave a talk on February 16 on "Understanding Character Arc: A Screenwriter's Perspective" at the Prague Film School, very cool institution in a very cool city.

What is “classic” character development based on 3-act structure or the Hero’s Journey/mythic structure? What are recent trends? What happens when you leave off the beginning or end of a character arc or twist our expectations about what an arc should be? What does a character arc look like when time is compressed, expanded, reversed, or duplicated (either within a film or across TV episodes)?  When is it appropriate not to have a character arc (that is, your character is unchanging)? Finally, how is character arc related to theme/message?  In general, as a writer, how can you use an understanding of character arc to jumpstart your writing process? 



Contribution to Janet Neipris' New Book

Honored to be asked to contribute to the chapter on Lessons from Master Teachers in Janet Neipris' new book.





Discussing Storytelling with Stuart Dybek, Rebecca Gilman, Alex Kotlowitz and Debra Tolchinsky

How awesome to be depicted by Ozge Samanci with the word disease coming out of my mouth and to have had the chance to chat about storytelling with four artists I admire a great deal – Stuart Dybek, Rebecca Gilman, Alex Kotlowitz and the one and only Debra Kahn Tolchinsky. http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2016/03/northwestern-storytellers-discuss-their-art.html




Someone asked me recently,  "How do I order my scenes in my screenplay?" Well, for screenplays, plays and other stories, the answer is both simple and complex.

Most stories take place in a chronological order. So one scene follows another according to chronology.That’s one answer.

But stories often involve an interplay between one or more subplots or between the present and the past.

So a more general answer: You order your scenes according to rising tension/conflict/anxiety/rising stakes. So each scene should involve more conflict than the previous scene and so forth.

Of course if the scenes all have similar conflict/tension/stakes, then you have to ask: Why aren’t the stakes rising? Why isn’t there more conflict?

For a possible solution, consider this conception of four-act structure (yes four, not three):

In Act I, for the protagonist: A problem is created/a question is raised. By taking on this problem, conflict is created so scenes in Act II naturally have more conflict than scenes in Act I.

In Act II, investigation and trials leads to the correct solution/answer. As the protagonist gets closer to this answer, more anxiety/conflict is created as the antagonist (and helpers) tries to stop him/her  (or he/she tries to stop himself if the story is about an internal conflict).

At the end of Act II, this solution/answer is ignored or actively rejected by the protagonist because it's too disturbing (that’s the midpoint of the story).  A different case:  At the end of Act II, the protagonist (or someone close to the protagonist) accepts the answer or solution, or at least gains greater insight into the problem, which puts him/her into greater conflict with the antagonist(s) in Act III.  More confidence = more boldness = more conflict.

In Act III, there’s rising anxiety/misdirection due to this ignored solution/answer.  The protagonist will do ANYTHING to avoid what he/she knows to be the true path. The antagonist is allowed to get stronger. At the end of Act III the protagonist chooses the WRONG answer/WRONG solution and finds him/herself paralyzed. (I call this the dark moment.)

In Act IV: the protagonist’s hidden strength (established in Act I) leads to his/her recovery from this paralysis and very quick (and perilous!) movement towards the antagonist and the most difficult obstacles, which have all been allowed to get quite strong because of the protagonist's end of Act III paralysis.  The protagonist prevails, discovering the RIGHT SOLUTION/RIGHT ANSWER and CATHARSIS. 

So question to ignored answer to wrong answer to right answer.

And greater conflict in Act IV, because the protagonist is late due to his misdirection and paralysis in Act III.

So greater conflict in Act III than Act II because of his/her ignoring the answer.

So greater conflict in Act II than Act I because he/she has taken on a problem.

Another way to think about the ordering of scenes:

A story usually involves two diametrically opposed forces (paths, people, ideas, etc): Force A v. Force B. The question of the story is usually which force will prevail? (Or which answer? Or which idea. Etc.)

At the beginning of each scene or sequence, the arrow points to force A as the one that will prevail. At the end of the scene or sequence, the arrow points to force B.

Beginning scenes – that switch from A to B is very subtle. But at the end of the story that switch from A to B is drastic and sudden and seismic.  

Drop in on any action movie:  The beginning scenes – involve collecting clues that turn out to be right or wrong, so a slight movement from A to B.  The end scenes: Clashes of forces that switch violently from one possibility to the other.

And in all this there are predictable patterns:

One scene where one force is in control is followed by a scene where the other force is in control, again drastically at the end, subtly at the beginning.

One sequence ruled by Force A is followed by a sequence ruled by Force B is followed by a sequence ruled by Force A.  And so on.

If your story seems to go all in the same direction (be "ruled" by Force A), then that’s a clue that your scenes and sequences aren’t ordered in the most effective way. 

If your scenes with more conflict are at the beginning versus the end, that’s a clue that your scenes aren’t ordered in the most effective way.

A nuance to this answer:  Often stories start with an unbelievably tense scene or sequence. Fine. So drop back down to less tension after this scene or sequence, and remember you’re working back to tension/conflict/stakes that must be greater than this beginning scene/sequence. If not, your story will feel front heavy, will be disappointing at the end.

And as always, all of the above rules/ideas should be broken/played with whenever possible.