Screenwriting II — Week 2 — Spring 2014

February 5, 2014

Great job pitching on Monday, guys!

Jake, Caroline, Sarah, Enrico, Nick, Saku, David.

It’s hard to present your idea, defend its premise and be open to suggestions and advice without losing your creative center, your artistic “spine”, as it were.  Yes, it’s hard. But writing is hard. It only gets easier insofar as diminished mental bruising and soreness after the first draft as you get better. But you still have to fight the same battles.

On that cheery note…


I mentioned the Traveling Angel structure. The story teacher John Truby coined the phrase and discusses it in his book The Anatomy of Story. What it means is that your central character is not the person who carries the theme on his shoulders. In fact, your central character doesn’t even have a character arc (something that every main character should have, right?). Well, in a traveling angel structure, the community the “angel” comes to is the true main character.  The traveling angel drives the story, but it’s the community that goes through a transformation.  So the first thing to do if you decide to use such a structure is to setup the community first and then introduce the traveling angel.  Examples: Shane, Pale Rider, Dead Poets Society, One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest, just to name a few.

I also suggested that you write a BIOGRAPHY OF YOUR MAIN CHARACTER.  If you’re writing a love story or a buddy movie, you should write a bio for both of your lovers / buddies.

What should a character biography include? Anything you want. Go to town. Feel free. Childhood, adolescence, scars, wounds, the color of her eyes. Anything and everything. Make it as personal as you want.  No need to post it anywhere or show it to anyone. It’s for you.

I like to do my character bio using the Interview Format. You simply write down the questions you want to ask your character and see how he or she answers them. Describe her behavior. Ask a personal question. Would she answer it? If not, ask the same question but in different way. You can do it in a screenplay format, if you wish. Or you can simply write a long essay about your main character. You’ll be living with her for a while, so you’d better get to know her.

At the beginning of next class I will give you a questionnaire regarding your main character. Having written a bio, you should have no problem answering the questions.

Your Assignment for Monday,  February 10th.

1. If you haven’t read the chapters assigned for last week, read them now.

2. Read the screenplay for Collateral (Blackboard / Screenplays page). We’ll discuss it in class.

3. In light of our discussions in class, adjust your pitch to make it more effective.

4. The seven of you who have already pitched, see if you can modify your premise to make it more effective.

See you next week.


Screenwriting II — Week 1 — Spring, 2014

February 2, 2014


It was great to meet all of you.

In class we touched upon the art and craft of dramatic structure — the lifeblood of every great narrative film. We’ll continue to discuss the elements of dramatic structure throughout this course. Remember that Screenwriting II is devoted solely to story architecture, so aside from some exercises, we won’t be writing scenes and dialogue for your story. You will be doing that in Screenwriting III.

In this course  we’ll use  Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. But I strongly suggest that you read the books on the recommended list. It’s important for you to understand and be familiar with the terminology these famous story-structure teachers use, because most Hollywood (an Independent) executives, agents, directors, writers, and even actors have either taken story-structure courses from them or read their books.

On Feb. 3rd you will start pitching your stories in class. We’ll talk more about the art of pitching next week.  Meanwhile, here’s a good article by Christopher Lockhart, who was a story analyst and reader  for the talent-agent-to-the-stars Ed Limato.

Before you begin your Assignment 1, try to understand the difference between Theme, Premise, Logline, and Pitch.

Many writers and writing teachers have their own definition of each term, so it may get confusing. So for this class, let’s agree that…

A premise is a very short summary of your story, a WHAT-IF scenario. Note that you don’t want to be TOO specific in your premise. You want to give us the barebones of your main character, your opponent, and the plot.

A theme is what the story is REALLY about (for you!). It is what your story explores. The moral, the essence, the truth. Note that you should never be upfront (on the nose) with your theme. Let the reader/audience understand it for themselves. Also note that a theme should not be original. There are only a handful of themes and they have been mined by most stories from the beginning of time.

A logline is a one or two sentence presentation of your story. Try not to go beyond two sentences.

Here’s  a logline for Schindler’s List: When a materialistic, womanizing Aryan industrialist discovers his Jewish workers are being sent to Nazi death camps, he risks his life and fortune to save them. Clean, clear, and to the point. There are tons of other things that happen in the film, but that’s the main throughline. What drives the film forward.

Here’s  one for Spy Kids: After segueing from a life of espionage to raising a family, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez are called back into action. But when they are kidnapped by their evil nemesis, there are only two people in the world who can rescue them… their kids!

Avatar: An American marine goes to another planet, falls in love with a native girl and her culture, and helps her save it from the modern man and his machines.

The writer and teacher Jonathan Triesman says, “Make Your Logline Memorable

The main point to remember about writing a logline is that you have to try to boil down your own high concept ideas into something that’s easy for people to understand. If you can’t relate to an agent, a publisher, a producer or even a studio executive what your story is about in one or two sentences, then it will be difficult to get them interested in reading your work, and more importantly, wanting to buy it.

Keep in mind however, that a good logline doesn’t tell someone too much. It’s always good to leave a little something to the imagination. In the case of Spy Kids, you want the person you’re pitching, to ask you, “Hey, what does happen when the kids have to save their parents?” And that’s when you can say, “Well, you’ll have to read my screenplay to find out.”

Additionally, when you’re pitching your story logline, you don’t want to sound like a snake-oil salesman by telling someone: “It’s like Die Hard on a bus” or “It’s like The Firm meets The Fugitive.” What does that even mean? However, if you told me that your script was about “A man who is bitten by a genetically-altered spider, and soon discovers that he has unusual powers and the strength and agility of a spider.” Well, I’d say, that’s definitely a movie I’d want to see.

Some may ask, why is the Spiderman logline a high-concept idea? It’s high concept because, while we all can’t relate to what it would be like to be Spiderman, the film has many high-concept themes that we can all relate to such as: unrequited love, parental approval and of course, wish fulfillment as a superhero.”

A pitch is a verbal presentation of your story that consists of a logline and premise (short story summary), and often, but not always, a take on the theme.  A professional pitch session shouldn’t last longer than 10-15 minutes.

Here are two exmples of a logline and premise. This is how I expect you to pitch your stories next week.


The Pitch: Regarding Henry


A ruthless lawyer survives a shooting and realizes that he can’t remember who he was. With the help of his wife and daughter he adjusts to his new life and becomes a loving and affectionate man.


A ruthless and unethical lawyer, Henry Turner, is so obsessed with his work that he has no time for his wife and daughter. He has just won a malpractice case  in which he defended a hospital against a patient who had  claimed he was in the right.

One night, as Henry tries to buy cigarettes, he walks in on a convenient store robbery and is shot in the head.

Henry survives, but he suffers from amnesia. As he makes new relationships with his wife and daughter, he quickly realizes that he doesn’t like the person he was before he was shot. He grows close to his wife and misses his daughter, who is at a boarding school.

The law firm Henry worked at allowed him to return to work out of loyalty. But soon Henry realizes he doesn’t want to be a lawyer.

However, he can’t escape his past. He finds out that prior to his shooting, he’d had affairs with several women, and that he’d done things that would haunt him for the rest of his life if doesn’t do anything about it.

He gives documents from his last case, which his firm suppressed, to the plaintiff, who deserved to win.  He and Sarah recommit to their relationship, then withdraw their daughter form the boarding school she hates.  They’re now one happy family, overjoyed to be together.

The Pitch: You Can Count on Me


A single mother’s life is turned upside-down after her drifter brother comes to town and becomes friends with her son.


Sammy and Terry lost their parents to a car accident when they were children. A couple of decades later,  Sammy is a single mother raising her son in small town  in the Catskills. Terry is a drifter, living one day at a time and getting in and out of trouble.  He hasn’t had contact with his sister in months.

But when Terry finds himself desperate for money, he comes to visit Sammy and her son Rud. And ends up staying for a while. Although Sammy is happy to have Terry stay with them, conflict between the siblings ensues.

While Sammy turns down her boyfriend’s marriage proposition and starts a reckless affair with her boss, Terry grows close to his nephew. Rudy doesn’t know his father and thinks of him as a hero. So when Terry offers Rudy to go visit his father, who lives in a different town, the boy gladly agrees. Confronted by the past he wanted to escape, Rudy’s dad becomes furious with Terry, causing Terry to assault him and get arrested. Sammy and Terry have a fight, and Sammy asks her brother to move out.

He plans to go back to Alaska and laughs when Sammy suggests he stay in town and get a life. But they reconcile before Terry leaves, both coming to terms with their respective lives, both deeply changed by their time together.

Here’s a good article from Script magazine on the art of pitching.

Your assignment:

1. Prepare a pitch of your story (logline and premise). If you know your theme, that’s great. Include that too. If you don’t, that’s okay. We’ll work on it.

2. Read the assigned chapters in the textbook.

Upload your work to your respective folder on MY WORK page.  Click on Upload Tutorial link for upload instructions.
The assignment deadline is on Friday, January 31st at 11:59pm. You can uploaded ANY TIME BEFORE NOW AND THE DUE TIME.
If the assignment is submitted more than five minutes past its due time, it will be considered late and your grade will go down by one letter.

Let me know if you have any questions.

See you next week.



Welcome — Screenwriting II / Spring 2014

January 2, 2014

Greetings and welcome!

In this course we’ll examine the fundamentals of movie structure and its narrative components: story, character, action, dialogue, etc. We’ll discuss film genres and watch clips of popular (and not so popular) feature films. We’ll analyze scenes from the motion pictures and screenplays that are considered models of story structure. But most of all, we’ll do a lot of writing.

You can view the course syllabus and calendar on the Syllabus page in the sidebar and your grades in Grade Center. I will post class highlights, assignments and exercises on the Announcement Page (also known as Homepage).

PLEASE NOTE; All the assignments and exercises should be uploaded (by you) to MY WORK  page in your respective Group Folder. We’ll talk more about it in class.

The required text for this course is:  The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. The book is availalbe at the Brooklyn College Bookstore:

718-951-5150 /

I  take attendance very seriously. So if you are unable to attend every class and come on time, please consider withdrawing from this course!

Looking forward to a great semester. See you on January 27th.

Alex Kustanovich

Screenwriting II — Week 14

December 13, 2013

Hello everyone,

Well… This is my final post. Our last class was on Monday, Dec. 9th.  But it’s not over yet. Your Final Exam is due on Dec. 16th.

Fourteen weeks together.  I hope you’ve learned something. I know I did.  

On Monday we saw Unforgiven, written by David Webb Peoples.  I’m attaching an excellent essay — Unforgiven:  Anatomy of a Murderer —  written by William Beard. which discusses the complex themes and narrative structure of Unforgiven. I strongly recommend that you read it.


Unforgiven is an upside-down morality tale and a take on the theory of justice  in a form of a revisionist Western.  Before we talk about the dramatic structure of the film, here are a few elements to consider when you ponder the overall theme of the film (not an easy thing to do, which is what makes this film so great.)

1. Money and revenge. How are they connected?

2. The myth of the old west. Truth or fiction?

3. The importance of the subplot with English Bob and W.W. Beauchamp (the writer)

4. The “leaky” house Little Bill is building. A metaphor for our society?

The film doesn’t offer any easy answers. More important, it tries to conceal, disrupt and subvert any traditional approach to our understanding of that the theme of the film might be.

Let’s look at the dramatic architecture of the film using the Hero’s Journey model (see the image at the bottom of the page):

1. Ordinary World. 2. Call to Adventure. 3. Refusal of the call.
All three stages are introduced within the first 12 minutes of the film.  We see the saloon in Big Whiskey, WY where the prostitute gets cut up and where the final battle will take place. We meet Little Bill, the main antagonist. And then we introduce William Munny, our main character and his world.  Schofield Kid is the Herald.  But Munny refuses the call because he is no longer the man he used to be.

4. Crossing the First Threshold. The end of Act 1. William Munny decides to take the opportunity to make money, so he can take care of his children and his farm. Even if it requires going back to his old ways.  He decides to catch up with the Schofield Kid. But first, he needs an ally, someone he can talk to. Enter Ned Logan, who also serves as Munny’s mentor.  When Ned decides to join Munny on his journey, that’s Crossing the Threshold (End of Act 1).  Would William Munny go alone? Probably not.

Our main character is now leaving his ordinary world behind and entering the special, “magical world”.

5. Tests, Allies, Enemies.

The elements (storm, rain) and the Schofield Kid provide some of the opposition for Ned Logan and William Munny on the way to Big Whiskey.  Munny gets sick.

6. Subplot.  English Bob.  He’s brutally beaten by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and expelled from Big Whiskey. We now know what kind of person Little Bill is and what’s waiting for William Munny.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave.
Vogler says that at this stage the hero often experiences setbacks while approaching the cave. He or she is torn apart by challenges.  She needs to get into the minds of those who stand in the way. She discovers s that if she can understand or empathize with them, the job of getting past them will be easier.

As a train carriage with the beaten and  humiliated  English Bob is leaving the town of Big Whiskey,  our hero and his allies — Ned Logan and the Schofield Kid — are entering the town.  Thunder and rain. We’re approaching the next step — the Ordeal.

8. The Ordeal (Midpoint).
“The hero stands in the deepest chamber of the inmost cave and faces a direct confrontation with his greatest fear,” says Vogler. No matter what the hero came for, it’s Death that now stares back at her. She is brought to the brink of death in a battle with a hostile force. The hero of every story is an initiate being introduced to the mysteries of life and death.  She must appear to die so she can be reborn, transformed.”

First, Munny Little Bill beats Munny so hard that he nearly kills him.  As he’s recovering, Munny confesses to Ned that he’s scared of dying.  But recovery has also brought a new wisdom with which Munny is ready to confront his enemies and get his reward.

9. Reward.
Munny is even more determined now to collect the bounty. He and his allies kill one of the cowboys.  But when Ned goes back home after the first killing, Munny and the Kid continue on their journey.  After the second cowboy is killed, one of the prostitutes brings them the reward money. She tells him that Little Bill killed Ned.  And we see Munny slowly going back to his old self — a murderous, whiskey-drinking outlaw.  How else could he face Little Bill?  Munny is now hellbent on revenge.  The end of of Act II.

10. The Road Back.
The hero wants to go back home with the elixir despite the trials that remain. But he realizes that the old ways are not effective anymore. “He gathers up what he has learned, stolen, or been granted and sets a new goal.”  Which leads to to…

11. Resurrection (The Final Showdown).
The shootout with Little Bill in the saloon, during which Munny executes Little Bill in cold blood.

12. Return with the Elixir.
The elixir is almost always metaphorical.  William Munny had to embrace his dark self in order to live a normal life? Perhaps. It is whatever you think it is.  But note that Munny doesn’t simply return to the life he had before his journey. His new life has to encompass all of the things he learned about himself on his journey.



Screenwriting II — Week 13

December 5, 2013

Greetings everyone,

On Monday we saw The Apartment, written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.  It is certainly one of the greatest screenplays ever written. Even if you think that it’s soft, outdated, or simply not “powerful” enough to entertain or move you, you can surely agree that it is a powerhouse craft-wise (and otherwise-wise :)). You can find the screenplay on the SCREENPLAYS page.


As I was putting together a brief structural outline of the screenplay for you, I came across an excellent and thorough Hero’s Journey Analysis by Allen Palmer, an Australian Screenwriter and screenwriting teacher whose blog Cracking Yarns ( I have been following for a couple of years now and  recommend that you do too.

With Allen’s permission I’m attaching the entire analysis, in PDF. Heros_Journey_Apartment
Let’s go over the major structural points we’ve been talking about throughout the semester.



Introducing C.C. Baxter in his boring world. Single and spineless.

The apartment. The Key. Why is he doing it? To move up the ladder at his firm.
What is the significance of a “key”?

Dr. Dreyfuss next door.  Is he Baxter’s mentor? Think about it. We’ll discuss it in class.

Meet Fran Kubelik, the elevator operator. Mr. Kirkeby says “No one has made any progress with Miss Kubelik. The INCITING INCIDENT / CALL TO ADVENTURE.

More confident now that Mr. Sheldrake (Ally / Shapeshifter) is on his side, Baxter asks Fran out.  That happens around 32 minutes into the film.  It’s a decision Baxter probably wouldn’t have made if Sheldrake hadn’t told Baxter that he was “executive material”.  TURNING POINT / ACT 1 BREAK / CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.


Since The Apartment is a love story, the writers had to develop two central characters – Baxter and Fran.

Fran and Sheldrake. He lies to her, says he’s leaving his wife.
She still loves him.
Sheldrake’s secretary sees them leave.
Fran too CROSSES THE THRESHOLD by deciding to stay with Sheldrake.

Baxter gets stood up.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Baxter has sold his soul to the Devil. He’s moving up in the company. He has his own office now.

Approaching the Inmost Cave

In ancient legend, a typical ‘innermost cave’ is the land of the dead or a labyrinth. It is the lair of the dread enemy where no help may be found and only deep courage will win through.

Baxter sees his reflection in Fran’s mirror.  It’s broken. “Makes me look the way I feel.”
Baxter is crushed.  This happens 55 minutes into the film. MIDPOINT.

The Ordeal / Hero’s lowest point

Baxter at a bar dancing with a flusie, drunk and miserable.
Fran is with Sheldrake at Baxter’s apartment. She’s crying.
She gives him a Christmas present. He gives her a hundred-dollar bill, like she was a prostitute.
Fran takes sleeping pills.

Note that both of them are involved in every major turning point – Act 1 Break,  Midpoint, Lowest Point,  etc.

On p.85 the theme is stated. “Why don’t you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch. You what that means?  A human being.”  The doctor is a mentor, remember? Baxter needs to change.

Fran almost dies. Death and rebirth.

Kisses Baxter on the forehead. His reward for getting punched.

Baxter is happy. He will tell Sheldrake he’s taking Miss Kubelik off his hands.


The Road Home.

Sheldrake has a surprise for Baxter. His wife kicked him out, so HE will take Fran off Baxter’s hands.


Baxter and Sheldrake.

Sorry. You’re not bringing anyone to the apartment

Especially not Miss Kubelik.

Baxter quits. He’s being a Mensch.

Fran and Sheldrake celebrating New Year’s Eve.

Sheldrake tells Fran that Baxter quit. “Said I couldn’t bring anyone to the apartment. Especially

not Miss Kubelik.

Fan runs. Baxter’s resurrection gave her the strength to be heroic herself.


I love you

Did you hear me, Miss Kubelik. I adore you.

Shut up and deal.

Your Assignment:

Start working on your Final Exam (a rewrite of the Step Outline).
Those of you interested in doing the extra-credit assignment, find it on Blackboard / Left Sidebar / Extra Credit.
Both the Final Exam and the Extra Credit assignment are due on Dec. 16th, no later than 9:30 am. NO EXCEPTIONS.

Monday, Dec. 9th is our last class.

See you then.


Screenwriting II — Week 12

November 25, 2013

Greetings everyone,

Another great class. We talked about your step outline, my comments, and your Final Exam  — a  REWRITE of your step outline based on the feedback from me you received via email and the comments from your groupmates on Blackboard.  You don’t have to follow our comments blindly, but read them carefully, see if you agree with them, and try to find dramatic and visual ways to address them.

Some of you still struggle to understand the difference between SCENES that are BEATS and transitional/passing scenes.  This is important to remember: every BEAT / STEP is a scene, NOT every scene is a BEAT.John Truby (The Anatomy of Story  has an interesting and useful advice regarding beats (his term for Step Outline / Beat Sheet is Scene Weave):

“The point of the scene weave is to get one last look at the overall architecture of the story before writing it. Therefore, don’t go into too much detail, because this will hide the structure. Try to describe each scene in one line. For example, a description of four scenes in The Godfather might look like this:

 -Michael saves the Don from assassination at the hospital.

-Michael accuses police captain McCluskey of working for Sollozzo. The Captain slugs him.

-Michael suggests that he kill the Captain and Sollozzo.

-Clemenza shows Michael how to execute Sollozzo and the Captain.”

Put a Structure Step next to a pivotal scene. For example:

Bombs falling. An airplane whooshes overhead, spraying fire. Jack gets off the ground starts to walk away, paying no attention to the mayhem around him. (CHARACTER REVELATION #2  or SECOND PLOT POINT or whatever it is).

Okay, now on to Shame.


A colleague provided a link to a streaming video of the film, which you can see for FREE online: You will pick up many more interesting details on second viewing.

You guys are very discerning viewers and excellent critics. You’ve caught and understood a lot of nuances in the story and the relationship between Jan and Eve.  Even though this is not your typical love story, it is a love story nevertheless.  The lovers are together in the end, but they are miserable together, ashamed to be in the world, ashamed for what they have and have not done. Let’s look at Jan’s and Eva’s character arcs.

We introduce them on a peaceful farm,  hiding from the conflict that’s present in the cities. He’s an indecisive complainer. A rather weak man whose retreat form the city represents a sort of selfish retreat. “It’s better to know nothing,” says Jan. “We can only hope for the best.” Eve, on the other hand wants to know the “news” and is upset by Jan’s escapism, but is quickly distracted by the promise of having fish for dinner and good wine. In a way she too is complicit in the shame that she feels at the end of the film.

Both of them are sensitive people, classical musicians, artists who are supposed to help the world deal with pain. But as the war interferes in their lives, it not only changes the world around them but their emotional world and the relationship between them.

Here are few  important structural moments:

1. Jan and Eva visit their friend, the antique dealer, who’s about to go off to war. He’s wearing an ill-fitting uniform and represents the world that is no more, the world of yesterday, with its porcelain figurines and things of the past.  He disturbs the tranquility of the peace that Jan and Eva think they live in.  This scene starts the story and is the clearest inciting incident.

2. Jan and Eva see the dead parachutist in their backyard and are pounced upon by the rebels who tell them to leave at once. This is the first revelation (Plot Point 1 and the end of Act 1 — it happens about 30 minutes into the film).

3. The midpoint is clearly when both Jan and Eva are interrogated by the current, probably fascistic government. This is where the former mayor Colonel Jacobi saves from the concentration camp and send them home. The relationship between Eva and Jan are more strained now. She’s sick of his cowardice and feels that she has to protect the family, because he seems unable to protect them.  (Note that you may see other reason for the continuing strain in their relationship. This is a complex film and allows for multiple interpretations and requires multiple viewings).

4.  Plot Point II, which marks the end of Act II and comes right after Jan’s lowest point (apparent defeat / ordeal) when he finds Colonel’s money and realizes that Jan essentially “sold” herself to the Colonel. Why? To protect them?  Or maybe because she wants to assert herself with a “real” man, with someone who gets things done, with someone who has power and influence? Like in all Bergman movies, nothing is obvious.  Something not being obvious is different from something that’s confusing or not clear.  Bergman refuses to spoon-feed his audience and prefers that they work with his movies instead.  That’s what distinguishes art from mere entertainment.

5. The final battle is between Eva and Jan after Jan kills the young soldier and takes his boots. When crying she asks him “What did you do with him?” He pushes her away and is willing to go to the boat without her. She despises him now, but drags along because it’s the only way for her to survive.

6. Resolution. The scene in the boat, with dead bodies floating in the water. Bergman’s grim statement about the state of the world and our collective mental health.

The film has been accused by some critics for failing to represent a “real war”. But as Paisley Livingston in her book Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art correctly states: “Bergman’s film is one of the few films…  which does not obscure the fundamental reciprocity of violence and the senseless identities of oppositional  parties. The film directly confronts the impossibility of distinguishing between good and bad forms of barbarism when barbarism implies the destruction of all.”

Watching the movie for the third time, I realized that in this film about musicians there’s no music on the soundtrack. It’s another important point that Bergman wanted to make without hitting us over the head with it.  If you want to add anything to the discussion about the film, please bring it up on Monday.

No homework this week.  Relax and enjoy Thanksgiving.


Screenwriting II — Week 11

November 21, 2013


A short post this week.

In class we analyzed the first act of Body Heat and Eve’s Bayou.  Did the writers use different techniques to introduce the main characters? What are the techniques?

I recommend that you see both films and read the screenplays (Body Heat is available on Blackboard).

Your Assignment:

Step Outline – Act III, Due Monday, November 25.

Be sure to comment on your groupmates’ work on Blackboard.

See you Monday.