Thursday, January 23, 2014

Example of "Character Monologue"

LuLu, 30,

When I was 19, I went home for Christmas break. My parents were very close. My  father really loves my mother. If I am on the phone with him and she calls, he tells me he has to call me back. I say ‘Mom is more important than me?” And he said “yes” as the phone went dead.

Once my mother had been working in her garden all morning, she walked in with her gardening gloves, spade and hat, she wiped her brow with her forearm, her shorts were sticking to her, that made her waddle a little. My father said very loudly ‘Look at your mother, isn’t she the most beautiful woman you have ever seen?” My mother was beautiful that morning carrying her compost pile, waddling and dripping in sweat. I asked myself if I would ever have a man who looked at me like that.

When I was 19, and I had gone home for Christmas Break and my parents were in love, I got in a fight with my youngest brother who was 15, 6”4 and 230 pounds. He was eating my fat free ice cream that I bought out of the carton with a big wooden spoon. He always was such a pig. I asked him to not eat my ice cream, only I said it in that big sister kiss my ass sort of way. He told me to go fuck myself. Which only made me remind him why he got shipped off to military school with some other choice details about his days in special education. He went crazy like I knew he would. He threw a knife at me, but it missed and smashed one of my mother’s pictures.

I ran into my bedroom, but he kicked the door down and punched me from behind a few times. I turned around and he punched me in the face. He sucker punched me. He always was a little bitch.

My next older brother came and pulled him off me. I walked to tell my mother and she told me to stop being so dramatic. My father tells me that my problem is that my mouth is always going to get me in trouble. I threatened to call the police, but I was just mad and decided to let it go. No one needs to go to jail over ice cream. Well I old was I? Yes, 19. I pissed blood the next day cause he punched my kidneys so hard. My dad said that what I did was a “provocation.”

I remember this years later, I am 30 and the DEA Agent asks me about my brother after he conveniently asked me if I was a stripper. I have no idea how he got this information, it must be the wigs in the box, I shipped them from Los Angeles. They are searching my room. I was standing in the backyard and he asked me about the box. I remember how my mom carried a box of compost in the same place he was standing. I remember how my father told me my mouth was always going to get me in trouble. He asks me if I have ever been in trouble for drugs. I think about that stupid misdemeanor charge I got for marijuana that got dropped because of fucking John mouthing off to the L.A. Sheriff and somehow that shit magically appeared in the car and I wonder if he knows. I think he is stupid, so I tell him, “no.” I forget which way my eyes should look if I don’t want to be considered deceptive. I can hear one of the agents playing my mother’s piano. It made me angry so I told him “if anything illegal was involved with that box that got delivered, then I know my brother did it. He already went to prison. I thought you would have known that since you guys took the time to get a warrant.”

It was really hot the way Kentucky gets in July at 10:30am. I didn’t feel guilty. Let someone say I provoked him to do this, I wish they would. I am wearing jean shorts and a tank top, and maybe I looked like I could work at a strip club, but why would I live here in Prospect? I sat there thinking about it as the officer stared too long at my thighs. I am such a liar I think. I wonder if he knows what a liar I am. I am sure Jackson knows what a liar I am, that’s why he left. He got tired of yelling. I suppose everyone gets tired. Iyanla says that the person that loves you the most will stay and fight for you, but when is that too much? Jackson got tired of me yelling. I yell, I scream, I just need to make sure that he understood me.

 I hate it when I think you are not listening. The yelling is something I understand I think. I think you don’t mean it if you whisper it. The hot air that pushes into you while you are yelling makes me smile a little bit. I remember that day and what I said to my brother and I realized that there is something really sick about making someone lose control. I made Jackson so mad he got on a plane to Africa to help them build roads, that’s how much he wanted to get away from me. I guess he didn’t really love me. I am really such a liar. I wish the officer wouldn’t look at me like that for long periods of time, just because he can right now. I tell him I don’t know anything else. He starts to get really mad. He tells me he will tear my room apart. I know he can’t arrest me. I didn’t do anything. I don’t know anything. I can’t help, but smile inside as he grabs my elbow and pushes me down on the chair. The things I say can really make a man lose control of himself...and that my friend really makes me drunk with power.

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Example of an "Exploration of World"

Jean Chang
Sean Hood

The World

This research hospital is a monolithic building, comprising 3,000 hospital beds and 25 floors. It functions like a well-oiled machine, seemingly independent from the rest of the world. It is its own ecosystem and employees 5,000 people. This is the daily patient load: 8,000 outpatients,400 emergencies, and 400 chemotherapy treatments. Yellow taxicabs are perpetually parked outside by the curb, waiting for the never-ending stream of patients to hobble out.

The large lobby has a modern atrium with frosted glass, and, upon entering, it is easy to mistake it for a train or subway terminal. People of all kinds are always coming and going: attendings in long white coats, residents in shorter white coats, locals, a smattering of foreigners, and executives in suits and ties. There are two large banks of elevators. The elevators are usually stuffed to the hilt from 9:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M.

To the left of the entrance in the lobby is a FamilyMart, which is a 24-hour convenience store that’s prevalent throughout Asia. Think of it as a fancier and more ubiquitous Famina (which is FamilyMart’s U.S. franchise). This convenience store is an inviting oasis in the middle of the somber hospital. It is brightly lit and done in gleaming white, green and blue. The store carries 20 different kinds of ramen, dizzying arrays of soft drinks, coffee, and alcohol, Lay’s chips in unfamiliar flavors (seaweed sushi, chicken), magazines, toys, and basic household goods. There are warm snacks available 24-hours a day: hot dogs on rotary grills, tempura and fish balls on sticks, tea eggs in vats, buns in small ovens, soups, sandwiches, and Spam sushi. In the coolers, you’ll find a huge selection of combo lunch plates in cute disposable bento boxes. Take one out, have the clerk microwave it, and he’ll slide it into a geometric caddie made out of tissue so you can transport it without burning your hands. Doctors and nurses often come in here for quick hot bites to eat.

On the opposite side of the FamilyMart is a 24-hour drug store, where they sell band-aids, vitamin juices, wheelchairs, baby formula, commodes, and even take-home hospital beds. You can also buy Korean facial masks and deodorant that purport to make your skin and armpits paler. The hospital houses a “B” (basement) level, which you get to after walking down a low-ceilinged tunnel with concrete walls. It’s an underground shopping mall for patients and visitors. It has:

• A spacious cafeteria (about twice the size of an average American mall cafeteria), where there are several types of coffee shops and cuisines: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, vegetarian buffet, Mos Burger, etc.;
• A Bossini retail store: a Hong Kong clothing store specializing in sportswear;
• An Italian leather footwear store;
• An orthopedic footwear store;
• A store specializing in pillows;
• A grocery store;
• A mini farmers market that sells freshly-cut flowers and fruit baskets;
• A well-stocked bookstore;
• A laundry service center;
• A bank;
• A post office;
• A candy store;
• A full-service beauty salon;
• A Yamazaki: a donut and pastries shop, where you use pink plastic tongs to pick up donuts onto trays. Once you check out, the cashier takes the donuts off your tray and wraps them individually in plastic bags with ribbons.

Upstairs, the patient rooms are divided by class. First, there is the “free” room (paid by national healthcare) that normally consists of 2 or 3 beds. Each room also has beds embedded into the walls for family and/or friends to stay overnight to care for their loved ones. Next to and above these beds are cabinets so family can store their belongings. Every room has small tiled showers that are meticulously cleaned on a daily basis.

Upon entering a regular patient room, it can look as though the whole family has moved in. Clothes, bags of chips, yesterday’s Apple Daily newspaper, and cutlery line the windowsills. The vinyl on the built-in beds get easily wrinkled or cracked. Bundles of blankets, brought from home and tied together by red string, line the floors. Uncles, cousins, and friends wander the halls at 3:00 A.M. in their pajama bottoms, clutching toothbrushes.
Like clockwork, the maintenance staff (usually middle-aged women), wearing burgundy aprons, surgical masks, and headscarves, come into every room on a daily basis, checking the garbage for recyclables, which they pluck out with tongs. They put the trash and recyclables in separate bags, tutting loudly and shaking their heads. “There is a recycling container next to the trash can!” they’d sometimes mutter on their way out.

Next up is the single room, which you pay a little more for (the bills for the rooms are regularly dropped off on the patient’s side table by the mail staff). They resemble the regular rooms, except you have no roommates and the TV is a better make.

Then there is the VIP room, for which you pay a sizeable out-of-pocket amount. These larger rooms are located at the ends of the halls on every floor and have wide-screen LED TVs, large wardrobes, and leather couches that fold out to full-sized beds. Doctors tend to make longer visits to people who pay for these rooms.

Each floor has a lounge, where there are rows of wooden tables and chairs, a common old TV, a sink, and a table of two old computers with CRT monitors. This room is primarily reserved for loved ones wanting to eat outside a patient room.

By every nurse’s station on every floor is a stainless steel warmer—mini ovens to keep the hospital food warm. Everyone uses these—patients, doctors, and visitors. Next to the elevator on every other floor are laundry rooms with coin-operated washers and driers.

The nurses are almost always attractive with feminine voices that would seem at home on any cartoon program. They wear baby pink uniforms with white Peter Pan collars. They push little carts of medicine and keep meticulous notes in identical notebooks.

Attendings sweep into patient rooms unannounced, already late, already ready to leave. A group of medical students trail behind closely like a pack of wolves, each holding a clipboard and a stack of notes. Since medical school begins after high school here, it is not rare to see a doctor so young that you think he or she might be better suited for working at Abercrombie. The attending states the facts of the patient, often acting like the bedridden is deaf or dumb, and then moves on to the next patient, leading his herd and repeating the process.

Salesmen often sneak into the hospital to accost patients in their beds. “Look at this amazing battery-operated back massager! It will cure you!” they proclaim to the ill and bed-ridden. “Look at this magic weight belt that will help you shed the pounds!” Never mind that some of the patients already look emaciated.

If not salesmen, there are proselytizers—kind-faced men and women in non-descript clothes who pad into your room and gently pat your forehead and ask in dulcet tones, “Have you found God, sir/ma’am?” If they are shooed away, they simply move to the next patient bed, repeating the same question much like the attendings do. They are not afraid to wake up a patient. The sale, be it a massager or a religion, trumps all.

The outpatient wing of the hospital looks more like the DMV: candy-colored plastic chairs as far as the eye can see, long queues, and even number dispensers like the ones you’d find at a butcher counter. TVs hanging on the wall keep track of the number they are currently serving. Traditional prescription bottles are rare. More often than not, outpatients leave with bags full of colorful pills in cellophane envelopes with nebulous instructions printed with what looks like a dot matrix printer.

June to October is typhoon season, which means the senior doctors may not come in as regularly. Surgeries are canceled. Electronic signs flash messages about how ORs 1-15 are not, well…operational.

The ICU wing is a different animal. The waiting room is located next to the ICU double doors, and half of it contains luxurious leather movie theater recliners (as though the hospital is saying, “Sorry your loved one is in the ICU, but hey, here’s a cool seat”). The other half of the room has burgundy chairs that fold out into beds. The recliners and the chairs all face an old TV hanging from the ceiling up front next to the hot water dispenser. It’s usually playing a melodramatic Korean or Chinese soap opera that involves lots of crying and beautiful women dying. In the back of the room is a bank of lockers. ICU visiting hours are announced by a pre-recorded sing-song voice coming over the speakers declaring in Mandarin that it is okay to visit. The ICU visitors jump off their chairs or beds en masse and head to the metal chest of drawers next to the double doors. Each ICU patient has a number associated with a drawer, which contains special pukegreen scrubs and caps for his or her visitors. Visitors must put them on, snap on surgical masks, and douse their hands in sanitizer before being allowed in. When it’s time to leave, the same singsong voice comes over the speakers, talking to visitors as though they were toddlers or severely stupid, a nursery melody akin to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” playing underneath: “Thank you for visiting us today! It is time to leave now, okay? But don’t worry! You can come visit another day, okay? Thank you so much for coming! We will see you soon! Buh-bye!”

This is a major Taiwan hospital, considered one of the best in Asia.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Best Books, Blogs, and Online References

At USC's School of Cinematic Arts, the approach generally taught to beginning screenwriters is one that was developed by Frank Daniel, who taught at both USC and AFI. The two books on that method that are most often recommended by USC instructors are:
However, USC students also inevitably read the two most popular screenwriting books.
Reading books on screenwriting can be very helpful, especially reading the beat by beat analyses of individual films.  However, always remember that the analysis of successful films is not the same process as the creation of a compelling scripts.  Screenplay Guru Robert McKee is a genius at analysis, but he is not a himself a screenwriter.  

All books, blogs and screenplay instructors can offer are maps.  But the maps are not the territory.  A screenplay is not something that you engineer according to rules or even principles.  You're story is something that you discover, like an archaeologist searching for an ancient long-buried city.  All books, blogs and instructors can do is give you advice about where do dig.

As for blogs, the three most tracked by USC students are:
As for resources online, here are three basic sites that are useful for the class:
Because screenwriters are also filmmakers, and many of my students aspire to direct their scripts, I'd recommend this blog on independent filmmaking:

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Screenplay Terms: Glossary

    Different books and different "screenplay gurus" use different terminology, but there are a few basic terms that make discussing stories and screenplays easier. The ones that come up a lot in class (or writer's group) discussions are:

Click on the terms below to see a definition.

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Frank Daniel's Sequence Approach

Once a writer has a general notion of STORY STRUCTURE, s/he moves on to a more detailed working out of screenplay structure.  Legendary dean of both USC and AFI, Frank Daniel broke down a movie's structure into eight sequences.

"A typical two-hour film is composed of sequences – 8 to 15 minute segments that have their own internal structure – in effect, shorter films, but inside the larger film.  To a significant extent, each sequence has its own protagonist, tension, rising action, and resolution – just like a film as a whole.  The difference between a sequence and a standalone 15 minute film is that the conflicts and issues raised in a sequence are only partially resolved within the sequence, and when they are resolved, the resolution often opens up new issues, which in turn become the subject of subsequent sequences." (Screenwriting, Paul Gulino, pg.2)

The sequence approach divides the film into eight sequences.  The First Act has two sequences, a Second Act has four sequences, and a Third act has two.

(Click on each of the SCREENPLAY TERMS below for a full definition.)

First sequence

Excite the viewers curiosity with an OPENING IMAGE and HOOK.  Present EXPOSITION explaining the who, what, when, and where of the story.  Show a glimpse of the life of the protagonists before the story gets underway - the STATUS QUO. This sequence generally ends with the inciting incident or POINT OF ATTACK.

Second sequence

The protagonist tries to reestablish the STATUS QUO disrupted by the POINT OF ATTACK, fails, and must face a worse predicament.  The protagonist's WANT is defined, as so, the sequence poses the DRAMATIC QUESTION that will shape the rest of the story.  This is the END OF THE FIRST ACT, and with it the MAIN TENSION is firmly established.

Third sequence

The protagonist makes a first attempt to solve the DRAMATIC QUESTION and fulfill his/her/their WANT, but fails.  SUBPLOTS are established.  This sequence often includes the first major SET PIECE of the movie, which explores and exploits the MAIN TENSION or COMEDIC TENSION.

Fourth sequence

Here the protagonist often attempts, once again, to restore the STATUS QUO and fails.  The end of the sequence is the midpoint or FIRST CULMINATION.  It often brings a major REVELATION or REVERSAL.  So, a major element of this sequence is audience PREPARATION for this culmination. The audience should be tempted to guess the outcome story.  The STAKES are raised.

Fifth Sequence

The protagonists deals with the AFTERMATH of the first culmination.  Often new characters are introduced for new opportunities are discovered.  The protagonist's NEED (as opposed to WANT) becomes a force and complication in the protagonists choices. The sequence may deal heavily with SUBPLOTS, such as a romantic subplot, and may give the audience a break from the MAIN TENSION of the main plot.

As with other sequences, this sequence may have its own TENSION, WANT and central QUESTION that gets resolved at the climax of the sequence.  However the MAIN TENSION and MAIN DRAMATIC QUESTION remain unresolved.

Sixth sequence

This is the last sequence before the END OF THE SECOND ACT.  The protagonist has exhausted all easy courses of action and must address the central dramatic question head on.  Forces pushing the protagonist to a CHARACTER CHANGE become impossible to ignore.

The MAIN TENSION resumes it's intensity, and is seemingly resolved in the CULMINATION at the sequence climax. This may be a "dark night of the soul" in which the protagonist feels that all is lost, or it may be a victory that leads to a bigger problem and THIRD ACT TENSION.

SUBPLOTS are generally resolved in the sixth and seventh sequences, before the climax that resolves the central DRAMATIC QUESTION and ends the story.

Seventh sequence

The apparent answer of the central dramatic question proves premature.  The STAKES are raised on final time.  A new THIRD ACT TENSION is established that will answer the dramatic question once and for all. The story seen in a new light, and the protagonist might reverse his/her/their goals.  Often this long sequence ends in a FALSE ENDING/FINAL TWIST.

Eighth sequence

The TENSIONS created by the POINT OF ATTACK are finally resolved.  Any remaining SUBPLOTS are tied up.  The final image may recall images that opened the film.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Story Structure

Most theories of screenplay structure are based on the Three Act Paradigm, inspired by Aristotle's Poetics and supported by the simple observation that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

These three acts correspond to the audience's emotional experience. In the beginning, the audience becomes emotionally involved with the characters. In the middle, the emotional commitment is heightened by rising tension and expectation. The end brings the audience's emotional involvement to a satisfactory end.

Interestingly, this emotional structure mirrors the phases of human sexual response: excitement, plateau, climax and resolution. 

Here's a detailed look at the Three Act Paradigm, with its "turning points, rising action and climax." 

However, many have criticized the Three Act Paradigm, and claim that an over-emphasis on act breaks, reversals and climax can lead to weak plots and poor characterization.

At USC's School of Cinematic arts, the theory of story structure most often taught comes from Frank Daniel. In his lectures, he said that "a good story well told" had five elements:

  1. The story is about somebody with whom we have empathy.
  2. This somebody wants something very badly.
  3. This something is difficult but possible to do, get, or achieve.
  4. The story is told for maximum emotional impact and audience participation.
  5. The story comes to a satisfactory (but not necessarily happy) end.

(See The Tools of Screenwriting, by David Howard and Edward Mabley.)

Brian McDonald, in both his blog and book Invisible Ink, claims that all effective stories have the basic structure of a fairy tale:

  1. Once upon a time_____________
  2. And every day________________
  3. Until one day_________________
  4. And because of this___________
  5. And because of this___________
  6. And because of this___________
  7. Until finally__________________
  8. And ever since that day_______

There are also certain filmmakers who discard traditional story structure altogether, and have proposed alternatives:

  • David Lynch, in such films as Lost Highway and Mulhollland Dr., uses dream logic and circular (rather than linear) storytelling. His theories of story and creativity can be found in his book, Catching The Big Fish.
  • Andrey Tarkovsky, in such films as The Mirror and The Sacrifice, embraces a poetic, rather than traditionally dramatic, approach to cinema. His theories can be found in his book, Sculpting in Time.
  • Raul Ruiz, in films such as Three Crowns of the Sailor, challenges the idea that every plot should have a central conflict as its backbone. His theories can be found in his book, Poetics of Cinema.

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Friday, January 17, 2014


A secondary plotline weaved into the story. There could be more than one of these. All these subplots usually clash with the primary plot down the line.  For example, In Se7en, we spend time with Mills’ wife, so that we understand his agony when the box arrives.

It’s important to make the subplots feel like the part of the same movie and have them thematically related to what’s going on in the primary plot. 

Using the same example, Se7en is about whether hope can blossom in a dark world where evil men like John Doe exist. In the primary plot, this theme is reflected in Mills’ corruption by John Doe. Similarly, the subplot with Mills’ wife is about her confiding in Somerset that she’s pregnant but contemplating about having an abortion as she is unsure about bringing a child into an immoral, dark world.

Intersecting subplots with the main plot at just the right moments is a great way to create surprises (In Crazy, Stupid, Love all the subplots come together at the climax of the movie in unexpected ways.) or save the protagonist out of an impossible situation. The latter could involve a second character unexpectedly saving the main character (In The Departed, Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan is saved at the last minute by a fellow cop who turns out to be working for the Mob as well.) or the character using a skill he/she learned during his/her subplot. (In Kill Bill 2, Beatrix Kiddo finally slays Bill by using a technique she picked up during her stay at the temple.)

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What is your movie about? For the more analytical folk: What is the topic you’re investigating in this story? 

Casablanca is about whether if it’s worth to sacrifice personal happiness for the greater good. X-Men is about what it means to be excluded from the society due to being different. Kissing Jessica Stein is about the fluidity of sexuality. Bridesmaids is about anxieties associated with aging and friendship.

Interestingly, what a script implies the main character needs (as opposed to wants) often reveals the theme of the movie, and the point-of-view of the storyteller.  Luke needs to "Use the Force" and "Trust his Feelings" and that reveals George Lucus's theme of humanity/mysticism versus technology (as embodied by the Death Star.)

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Subtext is what the character means when he/she speaks. We want subtext in movies because people saying exactly what they’re thinking all the time is boring and stale. Dialogue with subtext adds weight and dynamism by using the context of the situation and the state of the character.

In No Country For Old Men Anton Chigurh intimidates a simpleton shop keeper into a deadly coin toss. He doesn’t just come out and say: “If this coin toss doesn’t go your way, I’m going to murder you.” Because that would be boring. Instead they have this chilling conversation:

“What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”


“The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.”

[Chigurh flips a quarter from the change on the counter and covers it with his hand]

“Call it.”

“Call it?”


“Well, we need to know what we're calling it for here.”

“You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair.”

“I didn't put nothin' up.”

“Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life. You just didn't know it.”

Actors love subtext because it gives them a job to do. It doesn’t take that much effort for them to simply say: “I love you” and mean it. But if you came up with a unique way of saying that, something that didn’t mean “I love you” at all, you bet every actor is going to want to act that scene. As an added bonus: Your scene is going to sound different than the billions of scenes where characters say “I love you” to each other.

The following dialogue is from Punch Drunk Love and it’s a romantic scene where the two leads, essentially, say “I love you” to each other:

“I’m looking at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fucking smash if with the sledge hammer and squeeze it, you’re so pretty…”

“I wanna chew your face and I wanna scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them.”
Subtext is also why you can write understated dialogue and let your character’s actions do the rest. 

At the end of Schindler’s List, all the workers Schindler saved thank him. But they do not say: “Thanks for saving us from dying in a horrible way, great Schindler…” What transpires is simple: Schindler’s right hand man, the Jewish Itzhak Stern, gifts Schindler an inscribed ring. Schindler looks at him, slightly confused, and Itzhak explains the meaning to him: 

“Whoever saves one life saves the World Saves the World entire.” 

Schindler’s thanks Itzhak inaudibly, and puts the ring onto his finger.

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Character Change

Traditionally, the external elements of the story are used to push against the internal values of the character, pushing him or her to change. Important thing to remember: Nobody changes until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change. 

In Inception, Cobb does not want to let go of his dead wife but, eventually, decides to because holding onto her would result in his team dying. In Prisoners, Keller Dover resists his impulse to kidnap the creepy Alex Jones who might know where his kidnapped daughter might be… Until he realizes not kidnapping him would probably mean that his daughter might never be found.

It is notable that while in many Action/Adventure or Comedy movies the protagonist doesn’t necessarily experience this interior journey, many modern Blockbusters make an effort to include this in the overall experience. 
Compare the countless Bond movies of the yore with the recent Casino Royale and Skyfall where James Bond unmistakably changes throughout the course of the movie. Similarly, compare countless super hero movies with the first Iron Man where Tony Stark goes from a selfish weapons manufacturer to a benevolent philanthropist.

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Want versus Need

What your character wants to do versus what he/she needs in his/her life to be truly happy. The larger this gap, the more internal conflict your character will have to battle with. Traditionally, a character “changes” from pursuing his/her want to his/her need as he/she grows. 

In A Few Good Men, L.T. Kaffee is a military lawyer known for settling all his cases because he doesn’t want to risk his neck. Initially, when the case of the movie comes to his attention, he WANTS to settle it as usual and move on. However, he decides to stay with the case as he uncovers the conspiracy and realizes he NEEDS to do the right thing and get this case to trial.

In 40 Year Old Virgin, what Andy WANTS it to hide the fact that he’s a virgin from Trish. This causes him to act bizarrely and Trish suspects he’s a psycho, kicking him out. Only in the last moments of the film he realizes that he NEEDS to be honest and tell her the truth.

It should be noted that this progression from WANT to NEED is not necessarily a positive journey. Many movies feature dark character whose journeys from WANT to NEED defy traditional expectations.

In The Unforgiven William Munny WANTS to collect the bounty without turning into a monster. But, after the first two acts of the movie, he realizes he NEEDS to become a monster. Similarly, in L.A. Confidential, Exley WANTS to do everything by the book but, after the first two acts of the movie, realizes that he NEEDS to get his hands dirty and break the law if he’s ever going to make a difference.

A powerful juxtaposition occurs when a character gets what he/she wants but not what he/she needs.

In Up In The Air, all Ryan Bingham WANTS is to travel without strings and gain ten million frequent flyer miles. But, his affair with Alex Goran makes him realize he NEEDS love and family in his life. In a great scene, he receives the news that he has successfully accumulated ten million frequent flyers, just after Alex breaks his heart. He has gained what he WANTED but not what he NEEDED.

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What happens if your protagonist DOESN’T get what/she wants? What’s the worst case scenario? In most Action/Adventure movies the stakes are Physical and Life/Death. (If The Avengers don’t succeed, the Earth will be destroyed!)

In Comedies and Romantic Comedies, the stakes are usually more personal. 

In Annie Hall, the stakes are Alvy and Annie’s relationship. In The Hangover, they need to find Doug or otherwise they have destroyed his wedding.) As for smaller stories, the stakes must be intensely personal. (In The Wrestler, being a Wrestler is The Ram’s entire life. We see how uncomfortable and out of place he is outside of that world over and over again, so we know how much he needs to be a Wrestler, even if his body wouldn’t allow him.

It should also be noted that interweaving Personal and Physical stakes together can yield great results. 

Taken is an action/thriller with very personal stakes: If Liam Neeson can’t rescue his daughter, she will be raped and killed. On the other hand, The King’s Speech is a small drama that heightens its Personal Stakes to Life/Death stakes. If King George can’t overcome his speech impediment and bolster his countrymen’s spirits, then England will fall to the Nazi’s.

You also want Stakes to get bigger/more personal as the movie goes on. 

In The King’s Speech George is crowned King, making everything more important all of a sudden. Inversely, in Aliens, the Life/Death stakes are compounded by the fact that Ripley and Newt have built up a personal connection throughout the movie and, in the climactic scene, Ripley has to save Newt from The Queen.

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Comedic Tension

The main comedic conceit of the movie that causes the hijinks’ to happen.

It could be the flaw of the characters (In American Pie the comedic tension is the fact that everyone is obsessed with sex and does stupid stuff to get it.) or the position a character is put in. (In Being There the most hapless, hollow character is constantly perceived as a brilliant and deep philosopher.)

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The minimum necessary information the audience needs to understand in order to participate in the story. The amount of this information varies from movie to movie. Usually high-concept movies need to explain the rules (Groundhog Day), science-fiction movies need to explain the foreign concepts (Blade Runner) and heist/caper films tend to spend a lot of time explaining how the thieves are going to break into their intended target. (Ocean’s Eleven).

And, then, of course there are movies that are all three of these things (Inception). Good luck with that. (Seriously though, this is why almost half of Inception is straight-out exposition.)

Good writers bury Exposition into Funny Situations or Heated Arguments. As long as you entertain your audience, a little bit of information dump is not going to hurt anyone. Another way to do it is make sure it’s Visually Exciting (Morpheus showing Neo what Matrix is, Cobb talking about the rules of the dream-world as Paris folds onto itself in Inception).

Note: You can always skip exposition and have the audience play catch-up. This is a risky technique best suited for independent movies (Primer, Mulholland Drive) but it has resulted in some pretty unique stories. Although, note that almost every single movie in this category is made by a writer/director.

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Mystery versus Suspense

The difference between the two is the information audience has at their disposal. In a Suspense situation, the audience has more information than the characters (The entire premise of the NBC show Hannibal is a great example of Suspense. Will Graham and his CSI buddies investigate killers with the help of a brilliant psychiatrist named Hannibal Lecter. Of course they have no idea they are actually investigating Hannibal’s crimes and he might murder them if they found out the truth… but the audience is completely aware of this.) or has at least as much information as the characters (Rear Window, Jaws).

A mystery is when the audience knows less than the characters and there is a question that needs to be answered. (The Usual Suspects, The Prestige.)

It should be noted that while Mystery is cerebral (What is that? Who did that?), Suspense is emotional (Get out! Run!). You might think keeping the audience in the dark is a good idea, but usually, without a proper emotional spine, these movies fall flat because the audience stops caring about the continued mystery. Best mystery movies combine their cerebral question with an emotional spine. 

The Usual Suspects is all about who Keyser Soze is, but, also, emotionally it’s about Dean Keaton’s descent into crime. The Prestige has a labyrinthine plot of mysteries laid upon mysteries, but, at its heart, it’s about two friends sucked into a vicious rivalry and how much they sacrifice for the sake of vengeance and stagecraft.

That being said, if woven correctly, a Mystery could yield great moments of Surprise.  Who could forget the last five minutes of The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense?

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A string of scenes elaborated on more than they would need to be because they are entertaining. Basically, the massive action sequences in Tent-Pole movies and the elaborate comedic sequences in comedies.

If you’re writing a “big” movie, you want some creative set-pieces in your story.

Plant, Pay-off

A “plant” is a prop, line of dialogue, activity, or thematic beat that is included in an early scene, and the “payoff” comes when it reappears in a later scene, in a new context and infused with a very different meaning.

Example of an OBJECT plant and pay-off:

In Sideways, a wine bottle dated back to 1961 is introduced as one of Miles’ most prized possessions. He looks forward to drinking this wine at a special occasion. Later in the movie, after he has been to his ex-wife’s wedding and realized she will not get back with him; Miles ends up drinking this prized wine in a McDonalds by himself, from a cheap plastic cup.

Example of a DIALOGUE plant and pay-off:

In 300, before raping Queen Gorgo, Theron says: “This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this. I am not your King.” Near the end of the movie, Gorgo speaks the same words back to him as she thrusts a knife into his chest: “This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this. I am not your Queen.”

Example of an ACTIVITY plant and pay-off:

In The Silver Linings Playbook, Tiffany run safter Pat and catches up to him the first time they run together. At the end of the movie, after the dance competition, the situation is reversed: This time Pat runs after Tiffany and catches up to her.

Example of plant and pay-off tied to the THEME:

One of my favorite examples of "plant and payoff" occurs in The Social Network. In an early scene, Sean Parker suggests to Mark Zuckerberg that he tell potential investors and partners, "I'm CEO ... bitch!" In the scene, this is a funny line, one that stirs Mark's ambition and the audience’s excitement about what Facebook will become.

It’s a line that means, “I’m a badass! This is fun! We’re in this together!”
It is a plant.

Later in the movie, after his best friend, Eduardo Saverin, is pushed out of the company (and betrayed by Mark) and Sean is arrested for drug possession, Mark opens a box of business cards, which read "I'm CEO ... bitch." The meaning of the words has entirely changed. They are now an emblem of the price of ambition and success. For both the audience and the protagonist, the words feel like a slug in the stomach.

Now the same line means, “I’m an asshole. This is no fun. I’m all alone.”

The key part of any plant and payoff is this change in meaning.
In this way, Plant/Payoff is a kind of metaphor. "I'm CEO ... bitch" comes to encapsulate the movie's underlying themes juxtaposing Zuckerberg’s single-minded ambition with the longing for human connection.

I like to differentiate Plant and Payoff from straightforward EXPOSITION. We may see a baseball mitt early in a film, and then see it in a later scene when the hero plays baseball. But the meaning of the mitt hasn’t changed, so it’s not really a payoff. The placement of the mitt in an early scene is just a piece of information we need to know to understand later events in the story - i.e. exposition.

Preparation, Aftermath

Showing the preparation and the aftermath of an important scene.  A famous screenwriting saying goes: “Tell your audience how you’re going to do it and, afterwards, show them how you’ve done it.”

Preparation could be anything from discussion of the heist plans before a caper or the protagonist steeling herself for a gymnastics trial. In this case, the Aftermath would be the party after the caper or the protagonist, let’s say he/she failed, facing the disappointment of his/her coach.

Preparation and Aftermath are essential tools because it delineates which scenes the storyteller considers to be important. 

We don’t want to jump right into a climactic scene; we want anticipation, we want to be with the characters at those moments. And, similarly, we want to see how much this climactic scene has changed them or their surroundings. Thus, by using Preparation and Aftermath, you can “milk” the power of your scenes.

The long briefing for the Osama Bin Ladin raid in Zero Dark Thirty is an example of a Preparation scene. The somewhat muted celebration after the team comes from the operation is an example of an Aftermath scene.

In King’s Speech, King George and Logue warming up to the climactic speech is a Preparation scene. The uproarious success of the speech as the crowds salute King George is an Aftermath scene.

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The ending of the story that answers the central questions/themes of your movie. The ending could be ambiguous (Inception, Memento) or final. It could be sad or happy or joyous or depressing. 

Your job is to make it satisfying.

Note that the ending of your movie will determine the theme of your piece and your personal life philosophy. 

This is how Lord of Rings and Game of Thrones are exact opposites. Lord of Rings postulates: “The Good and the Noble will always triumph over the Wicked.” whereas Game of Thrones postulates being “Good” and “Noble” are sure ways to be mercilessly murdered by the Wicked.

An interesting way to end your piece is to have a multitude of meanings. In Annie Hall, the movie ends with Alvy shrugging and saying that love is finite and painful but something we just can’t live without, for we need the joys we get from it.

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