"Introduction to Screenwriting"
Week Four

Hi, there, and Welcome back!

You've probably noticed by now that this is pretty high-level material. In fact, you could probably take the information in any one week and stretch it out into an ordinary 10-week class.

Hell with it. I'm making the assumption that some of you out there are red-hot, and ready to trot. The others? Well, it's a computer class, after all. Just print everything out, and go over it and over it and over it. Get together with a group of friends, and study it.


The first time I ever understood the structure of humor was, curiously enough, a Rodney Dangerfield joke. For the following joke to have the appropriate effect, please imagine me 60 pounds heavier, 20 years older, and considerably whiter.

I am also tugging at my tie with one finger. Repeat after me: "I don't get no respect." Excellent. Here's the joke:

"I took my girlfriend to a party last weekend. We ran into her ex-boyfriend. Six foot two. Blond hair. Blue eyes. She said: `George, this is Rodney. Rodney, this is goodbye."

Do you understand why this joke works? And it did: it brought the house down. The reason it works is multifaceted, so let's go into it.

* Rodney Dangerfield's personae. What is it? We said it at the beginning: "I don't get no respect". He is the perpetual underdog. This sets up the context for the joke. In other words, you know he is going to get the worst of it in any conceivable situation. As soon as he says "I took my girlfriend to a party." you already know what's going to happen--he is going to be shamed or abandoned. Why is this funny? BECAUSE HUMOR IS A RELEASE OF TENSION. Much, or most humor, is based on cruelty. Puns and certain kinds of visual or conceptual humor are excluded from this. But a HUGE percentage of the things that people laugh at are things they would never want happening to them. We have all been hurt by loved ones: abandoned, betrayed, embarrassed, cheated on, or misunderstood. It HURTS, dammit. So comedians like Dangerfield operate like cultural lightning rods. They experience our pain, we empathize and say: "Better him than me", and get to discharge our own anxiety. The result is laughter.
* "We ran into her ex-boyfriend. Six foot two, blond hair, blue eyes". OH. Now, we know exactly what is going to happen. Rodney is going to be abandoned. She is going to leave him cold. We can already feel the anxiety building. Oh, the pain. When and where it happens are the only remaining questions.
* "George, this is Rodney. Rodney, this is Goodbye". WHAM, he hits you with the punch line faster than you expected it to come. The result? The tension is released, laughter occurs.

The art of humor is important, because humor, horror, suspense and dramatic tension are all part and parcel of the same thing. Call it "Twisting the Story Line." This is the ability to create tension or expectation in your audience, and then pay it off in a fashion that they don't anticipate. This is crucial. If they know ahead of time how you're going to "do them," it won't be as devastating. Suspense, dramatic tension, and humor are art of the unexpected.

Yet and still, the entire plot and structure has to make sense in retrospect, so that the reader or viewer looks back across the structure and marvels. So, unexpected, but LOGICAL. At least, in retrospect.

"Pulp Fiction" is a gorgeous example of a screenplay which makes complete sense in retrospect, but defies the viewer's attempts to predict its twists and turns.

In order to manipulate plot elements artistically, in order to be able to feel your way into a plot and turn it over to your subconscious, you must find a plot structure which works for you, makes sense to you, and then watch hundreds of movies, hundreds of television episodes, read hundreds of books, and apply your model to each of them--until you can FEEL your way through a story, until you have an instinct for what goes on under the surface.

Only then will you be able to fix problems in your writing--and every project should be problematic, or else you are operating below your level of competency, and that, my friend, is what is known as Hack Work. What you want to be always pushing the edge of your ability. THAT is what creates growth, and self-exploration, and that elusive quality known as "Art."

All of these plot structures are designed to ensure that you have the basic elements in play (structure) and that they flow toward higher and higher levels of tension, or deeper and deeper levels of discovery. But you CANNOT simply have a story get tenser and tenser and tenser--the viewer will burn out. Nor can you just reveal character endlessly. The audience will say: "So what? Don't these people ever DO anything?"

Now, obviously, there ARE movies which are endless cycles of incident, with no character at all. Check out the Kung Fu section of the local video store for some hideous examples of this. Or the Porno section, for that matter.

And there are movies which are all character and no incident. These crop up in art houses all the time. Check out "My Dinner With Andre." Well, at least in "My Dinner," they TALK about incident.

The cycles of outer action/ inner reflection form the compression/release cycle which locks your viewer into the story. This is what "addicts" them to the story, creates the suspension of disbelief, and makes a perfectly reasonable, rational person willing to watch flickering images against a wall for two hours, and react emotionally as if it is all quite real. In another time, this would be called insanity. In the 20th Century, it's called Buying Your Mercedes.

There is a useful way to find the thing that you should write about. And that is to ask yourself the question: what are you most passionately interested in? Hmmm? What do you really care about the most? What devils you? Drives you? What imagery pops up in your dreams most regularly (and I assume you have been keeping your dream diaries.)

What obstacles have arisen most often to stop you from getting the things you want in life? What recurring goals have you pursued, and what has kept you pursuing them? What is the ideal life that you envision for yourself, and what is the price you would have to pay in order to reach it?

These questions, and others like them, are deviling your characters as well. If you tie the answers to these questions into your various characters, you begin to flesh your story out, as well as making the work of deep, personal worth. And making a story personally relevant is the key to tapping your deepest capacities.

* Who are the characters in your story? Describe them physically, mentally, emotionally.
* How do their concerns and problems and goals dovetail with and reflect your own? How are they aspects of your own personality?
* How does the plot "empty" these people out? Stretch them to their limits? And how does it mirror some concern in your own life, such that resolving the plot is also helping you to solve your own dilemmas?
* How is this situation their worst nightmare? How is it the best thing that could ever happen to them?
* What are the moments of key, killing tension? And the payoff for the viewer?
* Why should the viewer care about these people? What have you done, or what are you willing to do, to get the viewer personally involved in their lives?
* What are the unexpected twists and turns, the moments of discovery which will take your viewer's breath away?

Good Luck!

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