"Introduction to Screenwriting"
Week Two
Welcome back!

One of the things most important to me is the integration of art and life. After all, if you succeed, but don't get to enjoy your success, or destroy your health or family in the process, where is the sense in that?

This is especially important to the writer or actress. As you create characters, you must always be aware of the prices that people pay to achieve their goals, the lies they sustain to keep relationships together, the combination of joy and desperation which flows beneath the surface of even the most confident-appearing individuals. And where else are you to gain such knowledge except in self-discovery?


To promote self-awareness, I suggest that you view life as a tapestry, weaving together your work and your life into a seamless whole. After all--if your work doesn't reflect your life philosophies, it is a hollow, shallow thing, void of the only thing you truly have to offer the world--yourself.

Scott McCloud in his superb book UNDERSTANDING COMICS follows the development of a creative project through six stages (or describes how one may be dissected or defined):

* Idea/purpose
* Form
* Idiom
* Structure
* Craft
* Surface

Idea/Purpose is the deepest, most central level of the pearl. This is the core philosophy, and only by a daily, direct inquiry with your own inwardness, a daily interaction with others, and a daily attempt to answer the one unanswerable question in the universe: "Who Am I?" will you clarify your own values sufficiently to ever have anything of substance or value to give to the world.

Left and Right brained writing

It is important to have both mind and heart engaged with your writing process. The intellectual approach to plotting or analysis will help you when things are going badly, or when you are beginning your path. But the realm of the intellect operates to enable the heart to soar. To put it another way--good writing should be like flying, soaring above it all. That is--when it's going perfectly. But the engine often sputters, and then we had better the hell know how to touch the plane down, open the engine, and fix whatever is wrong.

Far too many writers simply crash and burn, because they don't have a clear notion of both aspects. Left-brained writing is like building a cathedral. Right-brained writing is like giving birth to a beautiful baby. One is technical, one is organic. The two approaches must be combined to create the deepest synergy. Artists who have only one or the other approach are limiting their chances for success.

Together, they let you fly.

Why do people read?

Barnes' theory of storytelling is that people read fiction, or watch films, to adjust their emotional tension levels up, down or sideways. To that end, they will gravitate toward fiction which relaxes, excites, horrifies, sensualizes--or whatever else they need. This is just a theory, but at least I have one. What's yours? Find it, and explore it in your work and life.

My theory demands that a story contain a certain amount of emotional charge. The nature of that charge is less important than its quantity--that is, in terms of a work's public acceptance. Your personal philosophy might well demand that that charge be one of love, or anger, or fear, or courage. That is your choice. No piece of work will appeal to everyone, everywhere, all the time. But if there is honest emotion clearly expressed, your chance to find an audience is greatly improved.

Why do people write?

I think that in general, people write to complete a communication loop which was or is incomplete in some other aspect of their lives. In other words, if they had been able to simply talk it out, they would have. This doesn't imply a dysfunction at all, perhaps merely a mismatch between desire to communicate and environmental receptivity to same.

It is important to honor the part of you that originally sought to speak up. It may be nine or ten years old, or thirteen, or older, or younger. It is valuable to make contact with this youngster, and find out what he/she may have to say which has, as yet, been unspoken.

Hooking your reader

Hooking your reader/viewer is a fairly simple process--you introduce a character, create empathy, and then give that character a problem. How to create empathy? By showing how the character is similar to the viewer/reader, or to people the viewer/reader knows, knows of, or would like to know. More on this next week. You can even create a prospective problem or situation without really introducing a character. For instance, in the opening scene of OUTBREAK, no one has really been introduced, but everyone in the audience thought, simultaneously, "Oh, God, somebody is in deep trouble!"

Over and Under-structure

The "Overstructure" of a story is the external event sequence. The "Understructure" consists of the interconnected emotions which motivate the human beings to move through your fictional landscape. Some movies ("Ordinary People") are almost all understructure. Few events, lots of feelings. Others ("Eraser") are all event, and almost no emotion. One could call these two distinctions Yang and Yin, or Male and Female, whatever you like--I'm not into political correctness. I do, however, note that an overdose of either isn't a pretty sight. The best films, books, and people are a mixture of both polarities.

Where do you start?

You start with the minimum amount of scene necessary to allow your viewer/reader to enter the story world. With a detective story it can be very brief (an explosion of gunfire in an alley). With a love story, chances are that you want to take time to build up the characters before you intersect them.

But it is also possible to start in the middle, or at the end and work your way backwards. These are more advanced techniques, however. I suggest you simply start at the beginning, establish your characters, and then get them into trouble.

Scene and sequel

These are the names of two different kinds of scenes, or different beats within the same scene. "Scene" means ACTION, and "Sequel" means REACTION. The following concepts are extracted from Dwight Swain's wonderful book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. Read it!

I. Scene

* Establish location, circumstance, time and viewpoint at the beginning of every scene
* Demonstrate that your character has a goal
* Build to a curtain line

II. Sequel

* To translate disaster into goal
* To telescope reality (writing in summary)
* To control tempo

In other words, scenes are where things happen, and "Sequels" are where people react to what has happened, take a breath, and start over again. They are used to collapse time, and create a sense of reality. What do I mean by that? If you write scene after scene after scene of action, the audience grows numb, and finally could care less, sitting back in their seats and saying: "Gee, look at the neat special effects." Excitement in a film is created by building up empathy and potential audience response during the "Sequel" stage, the relaxed stage.

Telescoping of time is of no small importance. Note this example from STAR WARS:

Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and the gang evade Imperial attack ships as they leave Tattoine, an exciting SCENE.

The next time we see them, they are more laid back--playing chess, practicing with light-sabers, etc. Eventually, they reach their destination--a planet which has been shattered by nasty old Grand Moff Tarkin (bet you thought Darth Vader did that evil deed, didn't you? Nope. As we know by the last film, old Darth was really a pussycat. But I digress.). Anyway, does anyone know how much time has passed between the escape from Tattoine and the arrival at Alderan? Who knows? Who cares? Clearly not the audience, who rarely notice that Luke seems to have traveled hundreds of light-years and crammed in months of training without ever changing his socks.

Motivation-reaction units

The unity of SCENE and SEQUEL is called a "Motivation-Reaction Unit", and it is an absolutely invaluable tool for the writer. Here is how you construct one:

* Choose the effect you want the particular stimulus to have, in terms of motivating your focal character to desired reaction and, at the same time, guiding your reader to feel with him.
* You pick some external phenomenon--thing, person, event--that you think will create this effect.
* You frame this stimulus so as to pinpoint the precise detail that highlights the point you seek to make.
* You exclude whatever is extraneous or confusing.
* You heighten the effect by describing or displaying the stimulus in terms that reflect your focal character's attitude.

Goal setting

You must have goals in your life, which reflect all three major areas: Body, Mind, and Spirit. Without goals in all three areas, you will remain blind to the hidden destroyers sabotaging your excellence.

Can't think of a goal? Then your first goal is to find a goal. Goals must be SMART, that is:

o Specific
o Meaningful to you
o As-if now (I am a successful writer, I have an Emmy on my mantle)
o Realistic (anything anyone else has accomplished is POSSIBLE for you, if not probable within a given time frame. There are no unrealistic goals--just unrealistic time limits for their accomplishment.)
o Time-bound. By when will you accomplish these things? It is ENTIRELY reasonable to anticipate increasing your performance by 50% a year, if you are committed to working smarter, and not harder.

What are your character's goals? Hint: if your character's goals dovetail with your own in some way, your emotional connection to her will be stronger. Goals generally exist in one of seven areas: Survival, Sex, Physical performance, Emotion, Self-Expression, Intellectua growth, Spiritual growth. Where is your character's goal? And how have you experienced this same urge?


You have a character with a GOAL. That goal is almost always one of three things:

* Possession of something
* Relief from something
* Revenge for something

The attempt to reach the goal leads them to a CONFLICT (Opposition)

Attempt to resolve the conflict leads them to a DISASTER (the Hook). This should be the first time that the viewer's pops his/her head up and says: "Hmmm. This is gonna get interesting!"


The character has a REACTION: (fear, anger, grief, joy, embarrassment, etc.)

The emotions place them on the horns of a DILEMMA (survival versus patriotism is one used in almost all war movies). Resolution of the dilemma leads them to making a new DECISION. Which leads them to a new GOAL, and starts the cycle over again.

Take two popular movies and break them down into at least one cycle of Goal, Conflict, Disaster, Reaction, Dilemma, Decision.

(All right--take for instance JURASSIC PARK.)

Goal: To inspect the park, and determine its stability and safety.
Conflict: Clash of beliefs--is it or is it not safe to bring dinosaurs back to life?
Disaster: Safety gear fails, and toothy Meatasauruses stalk the park, looking for lunch. Yum.
Reaction: Run like hell, in a total panic.
Dilemma: Oops. There really isn't anywhere to run, is there? And individual characters face several dilemmas, most of them having to do with self-preservation versus concern for others.
Decision: To try to get the park operating system back on line, and call for a chopper to GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!!

Very simple. If the movie had been executed with the usual "B" special effects, direction and acting, JURASSIC would have been an utterly forgettable film. However, give it the best dinosaur effects ever ever ever, and you suddenly, and not unreasonably, have the top box office film of all time.

It is probably easier to understand the process of structure by analyzing Jurassic Park than something like CHINATOWN, after all. While in your learning phase, remember to K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Storyteller.

Also: Look into the structure of the film, and answer the following questions:

* What are the character's initial goals? Do these change over the course of the film?
* What are the barriers to goal success?
* What do the characters in YOUR screenplay/teleplay/outline want? What stops them from accomplishing it?

See you next week!

Author's Bio: 

Steven Barnes (WWW.DIAMONDHOUR.COM) is a NY Times Bestselling author who has written for Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, Andromeda, Stargate SG-1, and Ben Ten: Alien Force. Barnes has lectured at UCLA, Mensa, and the Smithsonian Institute. With over two million words published, he is one of the most prolific writing instructors in the world. His LIFEWRITING FOR WRITERS course has been called "groundbreaking," and his new "HERO'S JOURNEY: Life Mastery" course is now available at WWW.REALHEROSJOURNEY.COM