Screenwriting II — Week 8

October 31, 2013

Hello everyone,

In class we talked about dialogue.

What is the difference between dialogue and conversation? Conversation is real, everyday talk. DIALOGUE IS NOT REAL TALK.  Dialogue is highly selective, often heightened language that has the illusion of being real. Even if it has pauses and sighs and many other infusions of “reality”, the words the actors speak have been well structured and organized by the writer (or they should have been, unless you’re watching an experimental film.) Even John Cassavetes (Woman Under the Influence, Shadows, Faces, and many others) said that he writes his dialogue very carefully and it takes him a long time to decide what to include. He lets his actors improvise — but upon blocks of language that has been written and stylized by the writer.

Have you ever listened to a piece of improvisational jazz? Even the craziest solos that go off in different directions adhere to a melody/theme that has been worked out in advance and which the musicians  come back to during their improvisations. Unless, again, we’re talking about an avant-garde piece, then anything goes. That too is interesting and valuable in its own way,  but we shouldn’t concern ourselves with it in this class.

Good dialogue is more intelligent and wittier than real life conversation. But what is the function of dialogue?  It should advance the story and give depth to the characters. It should not, however, do what structure is meant to do.

Some people have a talent for writing dialogue. But like the rest of us, they have to develop their “dialogue writing” skills by  doing exercises, reading as many screenplays as they can get their hands on, and writing as many screenplays as they can.

Here are a few tips for writing dialogue that sounds “real”.

1. Know your characters. Who is talking? A mobster, a still college professor, a cop? All three should sound differently.

2. Use contractions (can’t, won’t, shouldn’t) unless your character is making a formal speech.

3. You character should interrupt one another.

3. Use an occasional “beat” or “pause”.


In class we did two exercises:

1. Break up scene. This scene should not be in the story you’re writing. This exercise is to help you understand your character.

Your main character (protagonist)  or your main opponent (antagonist) is breaking up with someone. Preferably a lover. But it could be a close friend or a family member. Someone the character knows well. Put him or her on a bench somewhere or in some eatery, and have them work out their feelings through dialogue. The scene shouldn’t be longer than two or three pages. Use standard screenplay format.

2. Monologue scene. Have your main character or opponent present an intelligent and passionate argument for something he or she is totally against. If your character is a liberal, have her argue a conservative point of view. If your character is pro-choice, have him argue the pro-life position. Choose any argument you like.

Put ONE  exercise of your choice  in your group folder on Blackboard and label it EXERCISE.

Those of you who have not turned in their Sequence Assignments on Monday, be sure to upload them to Blackboard ASAP (if you want to get a grade).

Your assignment for Monday, Nov. 4:

Vogler: Ordinary World through Refusal of the Call (81-117)

McKee: Chapters 12-16

See you Monday.


Screenwriting II — Week 7

October 23, 2013

Posted on: Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Hello everyone,

In class I talked about the problems of Act II. I mentioned Syd Field’s books Screenplay and its companion, The Screenwriter’s Workbook. It was Field who introduced the term “plot point” into modern screenwriting. Plot points are what Robert McKee refers to as EVENTS or TURNING POINTS and John Truby calls CHARACTER REVELATIONS.

Field is correct in saying that ACT II is often very boring. Have you ever fallen asleep in a movie theater or simply turned off a film you were watching on TV because it wasn’t interesting enough? I bet you that most of the time it was somewhere in Act II.

So, to avoid the second act sag, Field divided Act II into TWO PARTS — 2A and 2B. The MIDPOINT connects the two parts of the second act and serves as a balancing pole that keeps the story from falling over. Let’s look at Field’s structure of ACT II:

Plot Point 1: The end of Act I, beginning of Act II. In Star Wars, Luke joins the Rebels to fight Darth Vader.

Pinch 1:  Reminds us of the overall central conflict of the story. Stormtroopers attacking the Millennium Falcon and reminding us that the Empire is not giving up on the stolen plans to the Death Star.

Midpoint: An important scene in the middle of the script. It is often a change in character or a revelation that changes the direction of the story.  Moving the story to Midpoint keeps the story from losing its drive and getting boring. Luke rescues Leia from the prison cell. But they’re still stuck on Death Star.

Pinch 2: Another reminder scene about 5/8 through the script (halfway through Act 2b) that is somehow linked to Pinch 1 in reminding the audience about the central conflict. In Star Wars, Pinch 2 is the Stormtroopers attacking them as they rescue the Princess in the Death Star. Both scenes remind us of the Empire’s opposition, and using the Stormtrooper attack motif unifies both Pinches.

Plot Point 2: A major reversal that ends Act 2 and begins Act 3. The hero is hell-bent on facing the opponent.  Plot Point 2 comes AFTER the hero had her lowest point and learned to go beyond it (remember The House of Games?)


1. Continue to work on the Sequence Outline. DUE MONDAY, OCT. 28th, NO LATER THAN 9:30AM.

2. Read THE SOCIAL NETWORK screenplay (Screenplays page on Blackboard).

In our next class we’ll look at dialogue writing and discuss scenes from Facebook. We will also do dialogue writing exercises.
Please bring something to write on and something to write with.

Let me know if you have any questions.

See you Monday.


Screenwriting II — Week 6

October 18, 2013

Posted on: Friday, October 18, 2013

Hello everyone,

We had an interesting, albeit disturbing, phenomenon visiting our class on Tuesday. I’m curious to hear your impressions of Max Landis. Those of you who have not uploaded their synopses, do it now to get a grade. If you wait until Monday, I won’t be able to accept them.Your next assignment is The EIGHT SEQUENCES. We talked about it on Tuesday in class.  Below you will find some information on the
8  Sequence approach and how to write the sequences.

Here’s what you should be doing for Monday:

1. Continue to read Vogler (pp. 49-81). And be caught up on McKee. *Don’t forget about the quiz*
2. Work on your 8 Sequences (Due Oct. 28th)

Note that when you show up late, it is destructing for me and for the students. BE ON TIME.

Okay, now on to the 8 Sequence approach.  It was developed by a USC screenwriting professor Frank Daniel. Here’s what the screenwriter Neil Romanek says:

“Writer/director Frank Daniel was one of the world’s great screenwriting teachers. Director David Lynch said of him, “ I have to tell you he was my only teacher…He was a nobleminded and nonegoistic man, and no one understood the art of film making as he did.”
Frank Daniel believed that the key to good film story structure was the effective use of the sequence, a progression of scenes with its own dramatic tension and climax. He taught that every feature film is made up of 8 sequences and that each sequence serves a unique function in moving the story forward. Students of Daniel and his 8 sequence method have gone on to dominate the film industry, yet the understanding of the film sequence is still a prized specialty.”

The Eight Sequences


SEQUENCE ONE -Status Quo &Point of Attack

Establishes the central character, his/her life, and the status quo and the world of the story. It usually ends with the POINT OF ATTACK or INCITING INCIDENT, but this plot point can sometimes appear

earlier in the first few minutes of the film.

SEQUENCE TWO – Predicament &Lock In

Sets up the predicament that will be central to the story, with first intimations of possible obstacles.The maintensionwill be established at the end of the act. The sequence ends when the main character is LOCKED IN the predicament, propelling him/her into a new direction to obtain his/her goal.


SEQUENCE THREE – First Obstacle & Raising the Stakes

The first OBSTACLE to the central character is faced, and the beginning of the elimination of the alternatives begins, often a time where EXPOSITION left over from ACT I is brought out. Since our character is locked into the situation and can’t simply walk away, the stakes are higher – there is a lot more to lose.

SEQUENCE FOUR – First Culmination/Midpoint

A higher OBSTACLE, the principle of RISING ACTION is brought in and builds to the FIRST CULMINATION, which usually parallels the RESOLUTION of the film. If the story is a tragedy and our hero dies, then the first culmination (or midpoint) should be a low point for our character. If,however, our hero wins in the end of the film, then sequence four should end with him winning in some way.

SEQUENCE FIVE -Subplot & Rising Action

The SECOND ACT SAG can set in at this point if we don’t have a strong SUBPLOT to take the ball for a while. We still want RISING ACTION, but we’re not ready for the MAIN CULMINATION yet.

SEQUENCE SIX – Main Culmination/End of Act Two

The build-up to the MAIN CULMINATION – back to the main story line with a vengeance. The highest obstacle, the last alternative, the highest or lowest moment and the end of our main tension come at this point. But we get the first inklings of the new tension that will carry us through the third act.

Note: Since the midpoint and ending are paralleled, the PLOT POINT at the end of act two must be at a polar opposite of those points. So if our hero wins at the midpoint and at the end of the film, then she must have her lowest point here.


SEQUENCE SEVEN – New Tension &Twist

The full yet simple, brief establishment of the third act tension with its requisite exposition. Simpler,faster in nearly all ways, with rapid, short scenes and no real elaborate set-ups. The TWIST can end this sequence or come at the start of the eighth sequence.


Hell-bent for the RESOLUTION. Clarity is important. If they turn left, all is well, if they go right, the world as we know it ends. Not that we don’t have complex emotions or ideas about what it all amounts to, but at this point we crave clarity. Will he get the girl, defuse the bomb, turn in his murderous brother and escape from the sinking boat surrounded by sharks?

This Sequence Outline is NOT an absolute formula or perfect recipe to building a feature script, but it is something to work from. Because each script is a prototype: new, unique, custom-made just for its own story.

Introduction To Sequence Structure

April 12th, 2010

(this article originally appeared at the screenwriting

website, March 2010)

I always pat myself on the back for having written a great scene, but writing a great scene doesn’t help you tell a great story any more than getting a great shot helps you make a great film. What makes a shot “great” is what’s on either side of it, its relationship to the larger assemblage of shots. What makes a scene great is how it plays against the scenes before and after it. A scene, no matter how I feel about it, is only useful insofar as it contributes to a larger whole, and that whole is its big brother, the ‘sequence’. If you’ve never heard of sequences and are now feeling a bit disoriented in the story anatomy hierarchy, just remember: shots make up scenes; scenes make up sequences; sequences make up acts and acts, as we all know, make up movies.

Of all those building blocks, I would argue that it’s the sequence, not the scene or the revered act, which is the most important one in the screenwriter’s toolkit, and the one he or she must come to understand completely and intuitively. Yet sequences are not well understood by most writers, beyond a vague sense that a sequence is a few scenes stitched together for some kind of common purpose. What’s a good definition of a sequence? Here’s mine: A sequence is a unit of story structure composed of a series of scenes with a coherent dramatic spine. It begins when a character is placed in a state of uncertainty or imbalance – i.e., when the hero has a big problem. It ends when that problem is resolved and – and here’s the key – the solution to that problem creates another, further problem that then begins a new sequence. So a sequence begins when a character is confronted with a crisis – and a crisis is any situation in which you can’t say, ‘Let’s just forget the whole thing’ – and it concludes when that crisis is resolved in favour of a new crisis. When a sequence completely resolves or eliminates the central problem that began the whole story, then the movie is over. A master storyteller is one who leads us to believe that each sequence will be the one that will finally resolve or defuse the main conflict of the story, that will solve all the character’s problems, and then surprises us, frustrates us, thrills us, by delivering the complete opposite: an even greater complication that draws us into a new sequence. Each sequence has a beginning, a middle and an end. Or to frame it in writer’s language, an inciting incident, a rising action and a climax. You can even think of each sequence as having its own mini-story arc. LA-based screenwriting teacher, Chris Soth, calls his seminars on sequence structure, the ‘ mini-movie method’ and encourages students to treat each sequence as if it were a short movie unto itself – not a bad suggestion if you don’t take it too literally.

Some screenwriters will construct a ‘beat sheet’, a kind of outline, for their scripts and often what they’re doing, though most amateur writers wouldn’t think of it in this way, is flailing around in the dark trying to find what the sequences are. When there are troubles with a screenplay’s act structure, the real fault can often be found in its sequence structure. In my own writing, when the story feels adrift and vague – or when Act II just isn’t working – the cause is almost always a lack of clarity in the sequences that make up the film. I run into the trap of overconcentrating on individual scenes, stringing them together like a child’s bead project, without noting how they contribute to making up a larger sequence, and time and time again I have to look at the bigger picture. Many screenwriters who are aware of and consciously manage sequence structure in their work have been influenced by the teachings of Frantisek ‘Frank’ Daniel who was Dean of the School Of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s. This is where I learned about sequence structure, alongside many other media creatives whose names are more familiar to you than mine. Frank Daniel delighted packed lecture halls with his analyses of a wide range of films in terms of their sequence structures and many of us undergraduates would sneak into the back of his graduate level courses in order to learn something we knew was invaluable for our craft. Frank insisted that every complete film story has exactly eight sequences, usually two sequences in the first act, four in the second, and two in the third act. Some say the origin of this eight-sequence template is the division of early feature length movies into reels, physical reels of film, usually around ten minutes long. Reels, typically with two projectors operating side by side, would have to be switched during a showing, and writing films in ten-minute, cohesive sequences then helped keep each dramatic beat of the story contained within its own reel. I have my doubts about this. I tend to think it worked the other way around. I think the reason a ten-minute reel was used in the first place was because that was – due to some mysterious quirk of the human emotional makeup – a satisfying length for a single dramatic beat to be introduced and progress to a climax. I believe the storytelling element came first and the technology followed. I do not have the courage to say that every feature film always has eight sequences, although Frank Daniel used to amaze us by somehow making every film fit the structure. Sticking to a strict eight-sequence feature film model though can be very helpful in trouble-shooting. It encourages us to look more deeply when a story appears to have too few sequences, or to compress or cut when confronted by a plethora of sequences. The world is not literally divided into lines of latitude and longitude but it helps to pretend that it is. Generally speaking, the better written a movie is, the clearer its sequence structure will be, and vice versa, the clearer your sequence structure is, the better your story will probably be. Films dominated by strong physical action, adventure movies and musicals, tend to have a more transparent sequence structure and lend themselves to easier analysis. Both action movies and musicals will often have set pieces at the climax of each sequence. Solid sequences and the writer’s facility with them are what make some three-hour movies seem to fly by and some 80-minute movies last eons. Dances with Wolves (1990) is the second longest movie to win the Best Picture Oscar yet it flies by largely because of its rock-solid sequences, each with a clearly-defined tension that leads into the next sequence. On the other side of the coin, loose or vague sequence structure is usually to blame in that bizarre, yet frequent, phenomenon of a movie that is packed with action but is utterly boring and exhausting. Ask a friend to list their favorite movies and you’ll get a diverse set of responses but it’s a good bet that most of the choices will have in common clear, strong sequence structure, and the very best will have sequences that keep surprising us and keep us guessing, and play in contrast or in sympathy with each other like find symphonic music. I am an on again/off again David Lynch fan. I can never make up my mind whether I love his work or not. One thing that keeps me coming back though is his solid sequence structure. I may not like what he’s doing on the screen all the time but it’s always presented in a structurally rock-solid, coherent way if you look at the skeleton under the strange and fearsome flesh he puts on top of it. Imagine my surprise – lack of surprise, it should be – to learn when researching this article that David Lynch was a devoted student of Frank Daniel.  How a story is dissected into sequences may depend very much on the analyst’p s point of view. Like an isolated, non-technical civilisation that doesn’1 t distinguish yellow from orange, for example, one analyst might see one large sequence where another sees two shorter sequences. I’ve included below a simplified outline of the sequence structure of Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), indicating the problem that begins each sequence, and the resolution that ends it and launches us into the next sequence. You might disagree with my breakdown, which is good. Do your own analyses of as many films as you can and don’t worry too much about trying to force a movie into eight sequences. The key is to locate exactly where each new dramatic tension begins, note how the character tries to solve that tension, and then to find exactly where that tension is replaced by a new one.



• Problem: The Empire is about to retrieve the Death Star plans,

capture the Princess and send R2D2 and C3PO to the spice

mines of Kessel – in short, the movie is about to be over.

• Complicated by: the droids are captured by Jawas.

• Resolution: The droids find safety with Owen Lars and his

nephew Luke.


• Problem: Luke find a mysterious message from an important

person begging for help from someone he might know.

• Complicated by: R2D2 runs away.

• Resolution: Luke decides to go with Ben Kenobi to Alderaan.


• Problem: Luke and Ben have to find a way to get to Alderaan at

Mos Eisley Spaceport.

• Complicated by: Imperial forces are searching the city for them.

• Resolution: The Millennium Falcon escapes Mos Eisley and

heads for Alderaan.


• Problem: Fly the droids and the plans safely to Alderaan.

• Complicated by: Alderaan is destroyed.

• Resolution: Our heroes are captured by the Death Star.


• Problem: They discover the Princess is aboard the Death Star.

• Complicated by: The Princess is scheduled to be terminated.

• Resolution: The Princess is rescued.


• Problem: They must take the most important person in the

galaxy to safety, starting from the bottom of a garbage masher.

• Complicated by: Legions of single-minded fanatics are trying to

kill them.

• Resolution: They escape the Death Star and the Death Star’s

sentry ships.


• Problem: The Death star is following the heroes to the Rebel


• Complicated by: Han is abandoning them.

• Resolution: Luke and the rebels fly out to destroy the Death



• Problem: The Death Star is going to destroy the Rebel Base

and end the rebellion forever.

• Complicated by: Darth Vader engages the rebel pilots in his

own ship.

• Resolution: Luke destroys the Death Star and becomes the

hero of the galaxy.

Let me know if you have questions.


Screenwriting II — Week 5

October 9, 2013

Posted on: Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Greetings everyone,

First, let me know if you have questions re: the mail I sent on Monday. Think of what you want to ask our guest. You can bounce it off me, if you want. If you want me to ask him something, let me know.

Second, if Margaret tried your patience, that’s good. Sometimes you need to work with a film in order to understand what it’s trying to communicate. You don’t have to like it. There are plenty of very smart people out there who didn’t like the film. The most important thing for you is to discern what the writer (and in this case the director) Kenneth Lonnergan tried to do and what dramatic techniques he used to accomplish his goal. As you’re reading the screenplay (on Blackboard, on Screenplays page / link below) ask yourself “What is this movie about? What is the nature of the journey of its main character? Has the journey changed, even a little bit, the way she sees the world?”

Check out this summary from Rotten Tomatoes:
(would have been a pretty good way to pitch the film)

Margaret centers on a 17-year-old New York City high-school student who feels certain that she inadvertently played a role in a traffic accident that has claimed a woman’s life. In her attempts to set things right she meets with opposition at every step. Torn apart with frustration, she begins emotionally brutalizing her family, her friends, her teachers, and most of all, herself. She has been confronted quite unexpectedly with a basic truth: that her youthful ideals are on a collision course against the realities and compromises of the adult world.

Here’s an interesting article about the film.,85264/

Here’s two positive reviews from The Guardian, a British paper, and from Time magazine:

And two negative reviews, from The New York Times and New York Post

The reviews are of an earlier cut, the 2 1/2 hours one; we saw the extended cut.

We will talk more about it on Monday.

Some of you have asked me how to make a synopsis come alive. That depends on your ability to write sentences that come alive. Read as many synopses as you can and see what they do that you can do better. The main purposes of writing a synopsis at this stage of your writing process is for you to understand your own story. Concentrate on the heart of the story only, i.e. the journey of your main character and the troubles and tribulations she encounters on her way to her new self-equilibrium, to use John Truby’s line. By the way, if you don’t follow John Truby’s blog, I recommend that you do. You will find a lot of interesting things on it.

Keep working on your synopsis. Due Tuesday, Oct. 15th at 9:30am.  Don’t forget we’re meeting Tuesday next week, not Monday (Conversion Day at BC).  Whenever you’re done with it and think that it’s in a presentable state, upload it to your group’s folder on Blackboard. Kal has already uploaded his. Offer him feedback.


I promised to give you a link to an audio interview with two Breaking Bad writers.  It’s about 40 minutes or so.

Happy writing.
See you Tuesday.

Screenwriting II — Week 4

October 2, 2013

Posted on: Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Hello all,Even those of you who didn’t have your story fully worked out, did a very nice job on your pitches. I know how tough it is to present your not-yet-fully-formed ideas in front of a class. I’ve been there myself.
So congrats to all for accomplishing that.

Now the real work begins. You’ve know left your ordinary world and (by remaining in the class) have chosen to walk through the gates of the magical world. I can hear the fairies and dragons say “welcome”.
As I said in class today,  I think the hardest assignment this semester is writing a synopsis. Not only do you have to have your story worked out from the beginning to end, but it also has to be well written (using grammatically-correct sentences — check for typos too, please), entertaining, and succinct. It’s difficult to do well and requires several drafts. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Right.

Here are a few links to sample synopses and on how to write one:

House of Games,   SAMPLE-SYNOPSIS

Also, I promised to give you a link to the 1st Episode of The Writer’s Room on Sundance Channel (Breaking Bad writers).  Here it is:

Here’s something to inspire you:

If the above links don’t take you outside of Blackboard, copy and paste them in your browser.

Story (McKee): Ch.2 through 8

Assignment #2: SYNOPSIS. Due October 15th, no later than 9:30am (in your respective group’s folder). The maximum length for the synopsis is TWO PAGES, SINGLE-SPACED. The IDEAL length for the synopsis is a page and a half or two pages, double-spaced (see the samples).
Do not turn in your synopsis if it’s longer than two pages.  Sure, your first, and even your second. draft can be as many pages as you think you need to lay your story out for yourself. But then you have to put on your editor’s hat, pull out the “writer’s axe and chisel” from under your desk, and  go to work. Hack your sentences down to two pages and chisel your words to a presentable state.  Pretend that you’re submitting it to a producer who will write you a check if he likes your story.  Even if you’re writing a synopsis for your eyes only, do it as if you’d be presenting it to the whole world.