While discussing her experience at New York Film Academy,NYFA LA screenwriting student Janet Odogwu Butters stated, “When I first came out here, I thought I was going to learn how to write, but NYFA taught me how to be a storyteller.” Every film, be it fiction or nonfiction, documentary or action, begins with a script. Creating a feature film is certainly a collaborative effort but the script provides the bedrock on which every feature film is built. The contributions of actors, cinematographers, and even special effect technicians all depend on the story line that the script creates. Which is why aspiring screenwriters can benefit from taking screenwriting workshops to help them hone the craft needed to write a cinematic script.
Here are 4 ways screenwriting workshops can help you hone your craft.
1. Full immersion.
With a screenwriting workshop, you will be fully immersed into the screenwriting experience. The workshop will focus on your own screenplay, as well as the works of other students in your class. Your workshop will be spent writing, thinking about, critiquing, fine-tuning, and learning about screenplays. With so much focused attention, you’re sure to come away with new insights and skills.
New York Film Academy offers screenwriting workshops of different lengths to accommodate all schedules, such as two-days, eight-week, 12-week, and more. Whatever the duration of your workshop, you’ll receive focused, hands-on, immersive instruction from working industry professionals. NYFA even offers online workshops for those with the most packed of schedules.
2. Hands-on feedback.
Screenwriting workshops will not only teach you how to create a great script, they will apply that knowledge to the script you are working on. These workshops will convert theory into practice. Each students will receive specific feedback on their work that will aid them in crafting the best script possible. The workshops are taught by exceptional staff, such as Paul Brown (“X Files” and “Twilight Zone), whose 2-Day Weekend Workshop is attended by writer, directors, and producers, and actors.
3. They force you to write.
Writer’s block can be the bane of any screenwriter. While there are techniques to break that block, most writers know the best way is to just start writing – whether the content is good or not. Workshops can force you to take that first step, with their rigorous curriculums and strict deadlines. What you write may not be your best (you may even want to delete it and start all over), but the workshops begin the process for revision and show you how you can pull something out of anything you write.
Whether you are a new screenwriter just starting out, or a professional looking for feedback on a project, the workshops in the Screenwriting School are an invaluable resource. The Screenwriting School at New York Film Academy offers a plethora of classes, such as Genre Studies, Business of Screenwriting, and Revision Class. While taking classes is vital to your education as a screenwriter, there are other ways to improve your skills. The school’s screenwriting workshops offer a unique experience for screenwriters and will further your skills beyond the classroom. Visit the New York Film Academy Screenwriting School page and find one that works best for you. That’s the easy part. Next comes the part where you sit and finally write down that brilliant idea.
February is an exciting time to be a fan of film and television. The BAFTAs arrive early in the month to honor the top British and international contributions to the industry. At the end of the month we of course have arguably the biggest film celebration of them all — the Academy Awards.
But right in between those two red carpet events, we get to recognize the best writing achievements of the past year. Below are some of the most notable winners from the 69th Writers Guild of America Awards, which took place Sunday Feb. 19, 2017.
“Moonlight” Takes Home Best Original Screenplay
The award for best original screenplay has always served as one of the top honors of the awards show, and this year it went to “Moonlight.” This coming-of-age story by an independent team has been racking up an impressive collection of trophies and is nominated for eight awards at the Oscars next week.
Winning this award meant defeating many other films that have been earning their own trove of awards this season, including big favorite “La La Land” as well as “Loving,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “Hell or High Water.”
“Arrival” Bounces Back from Golden Globes
Fans of the sci-fi movie were no doubt bummed by the results at the Golden Globes. “Arrival” was nominated for best performance by an actress (Amy Adams) along with best original score, but won neither. But at the WGAs, “Arrival” earned one of the biggest awards of the night: best adapted screenplay.
Things could get even better, as “Arrival” enters the Academy Awards with eight different nominations. Among those categories include best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best cinematography.
The Best in Interactive Storytelling
No one can deny the growth and influence of video games in the last few decades. As computer technology advances at a quick pace, so too does the ability for games to absorb us into virtual worlds. Now, video games are considered one of the best forms of storytelling since only they can offer choices, nonlinear narratives, and more.
The big winner at the WGAs was Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, an action-adventure game that follows a treasure hunter named Nathan Drake around the world. To many of us this win is no surprise, considering Naughty Dog’s reputation for providing some of the best story-driven games of all time. Other nominees were MR. ROBOT 1.51exfiltratiOn, Far Cry Primal, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
FX Goes Home Happy
The 21st Century Fox channel has once again proven itself one of the best producers of excellent TV shows. Three of their latest series left the WGAs with some of the best awards the night has to offer.
While “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” took home the adapted long form award, “Atlanta” won both best new series and best new comedy. “The Americans” also beat strong contenders like “Game of Thrones,” “Stranger Things,” “Better Call Saul,” and “Westworld” to win best drama series.
What did you think of this year’s WGA winners? Let us know in the comments below! Interested in screenwriting? Learn more about the craft at NYFA’s Screenwriting School.
In an industry dominated with rejection, sometimes a single “yes” is all it takes to change the face of cinema forever. Here are five truly groundbreaking movies that, for some studios, were a little too groundbreaking…
1. “Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Despite being a quickly rising star in Hollywood at the time, Quentin Tarrantino had a lengthy battle in trying to get any studio interested in his follow up to “Reservoir Dogs.”
Why “Pulp Fiction” was Rejected: According to Columbia TriStar executive Mike Medavoy, the script was “too demented.” TriStar initially optioned the film and was even in talks to produce it, but then did a 180 by declaring, “This is the worst thing ever written. It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive. It’s too long, violent, and unfilmable.”
Very few studios were willing to touch a movie featuring heavy heroin use, and the search for a new backer was extensive before Miramax picked it up.
2. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)
Initially dubbed “The Adventures of Indiana Smith,” even the attachment of industry superstars George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wasn’t enough to garner significant studio interest.
Why Indiana Jones was Rejected: It wasn’t actually Lucas’ screenplay that lead to it being rejected by every single studio in Hollywood, but more the fact that he was asking $20 million to make it. Paramount ended up footing the bill and Lucas shrewdly negotiated a five-film contract; it ended up grossing nearly $400 million at gross and is frequently heralded as the best action-adventure movie of all time.
3. “Back to the Future” (1985)
Another ‘80s classic that nearly got passed up entirely (incidentally, “Back to the Future” ended up sharing the same budget and box office gross as “Raiders of the Lost Ark”). Why “Back to the Future” was Rejected: It was either too family-friendly or not family-friendly enough, depending on who you asked. Pretty much every major studio rejected the screenplay, with Disney advising that a film alluding to mother-son incest was not “appropriate under the Disney banner,” while Columbia thought it was a “really nice, cute, warm film, but not sexual enough.”
The great Steven Spielberg always loved the script, however, and committed it to Amblin Entertainment as soon as he was able. The rest, as they say, is history — but it nearly got titled “Spaceman from Pluto.”
Naturally, Spielberg replied to the memo and told Sid Sheinberg that he had to be joking. The suggestion was never mentioned again.
4. “The Usual Suspects” (1995)
Now listed by the Writer’s Guild of America as the 35th greatest screenplay of all time, the ultimate mystery crime thriller nearly became as elusive as Keyser Söze.
Why “The Usual Suspects” was Rejected: Much like “Pulp Fiction,” the non-linear plotline of this screenplay completely baffled studios. After numerous rejections (and nine different drafts), the only company who would touch it was a European financing company. Somewhat surprisingly, director Bryan Singer managed to make the movie a masterpiece despite only having a $6 million budget.
5. “Casablanca” (1943)
The curious case of “Casablanca”: a screenplay rejected by numerous agencies 30 years after it had already become one of the world’s finest movies.
Why “Casablanca” was Rejected: It wasn’t rejected the first time around. But in 1982, freelance writer Chuck Ross wanted to see whether movie agents would recognize the screenplay if he sent it out again … and if not, would they recognize its greatness?
It was a clever experiment. Ross retitled the script “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” (the title of the original play on which “Casablanca” was based) and sent it out to 217 different Hollywood agencies.
90 returned the screenplay because they weren’t looking for submissions.
33 agents recognized the script immediately.
8 spotted a similarity with the 1943 classic, but didn’t spot it was exactly the same.
However, 38 of the 217 read and rejected the classic script. Among the feedback Ross received, agents claimed there was “too much dialogue” and that the storyline was “too weak.” One even suggested it needed “a professional polish.”
But funnier still is that three agencies loved it and wanted to turn it into a movie.
It just goes to show: even the best screenplays on the planet get rejected. All it takes is just one “yes.”
Do you have an interesting experience of taking a project through many rejections to find success? Let us know in the comments below!
The definition of a logline: one line (or two at the most) which describes what your screenplay is about.
Job done. Simple, right?
Well, not really. As you’ve no doubt already noticed, this post extends onwards and that’s because a logline is a surprisingly tricky thing to master…
… as well as being something you should ignore at your peril!
Today we’ll be looking at how to get the best out of your logline, and why it should be a high priority.
Loglines: The What
So we’ve already covered the basic definition in that a logline should describe the story, but a great logline should go a little further for that. Consider the following examples, and decide for yourself which one is best in each case:
Example 1: A cyborg from the future hunts down a woman destined to later become the mother of humankind’s savior.
Example 2: A woman must fight for her life against an unstoppable cyborg assassin, sent back from the future with one mission: to kill her and prevent a future human uprising.
Example 1: A group of survivors struggle to escape from a revolutionary wildlife park filled with dinosaurs after a bribed employee sabotages the predators’ security gates.
Example 2: A rich philanthropist leads a team of scientists to populate a wildlife park with living dinosaur clones.
The Wizard of Oz
Example 1: A young girl finds herself transported to a surreal land far way from home. Desperately seeking the one man that can help her return, an evil witch shadows her every move…
Example 2: Dorothy is whisked away by a tornado to the Land of Oz, where she meets a group of friends each searching for something unique.
While all of the above examples could use some tightening up, some are definitely more effective than others and we’ll unpack each one as we discuss the conventions of writing a logline.
Loglines: The How
A logline should convey what happens in the story. That much is a given, and all six of the above loglines definitely do that. But a good logline should include all the same elements and structure that make up a fine screenplay:
– A set of circumstances
– A protagonist with a clear goal
– An opposing antagonist
– A point of conflict between the two parties
The screenplay itself, of course, will have resolution but that isn’t necessary in the logline (as its absence results in enticement!)
So, for example: “A recently widowed wife finds herself in a bitter legal dispute with her late husband’s psychotic and overbearing mother.”
That hits all of the above criteria for an effective logline. So which of the earlier examples fail?
Terminator: In this case example 1 is the weaker of the two. It opens with the antagonist, and while his goal is laid out and the scenario set, we don’t know much about the protagonist except for the circumstance she’s in. Example 2 is far stronger, follows convention, and has a greater sence of urgency.
Jurassic Park: You probably guessed this one. Example 2 is the weaker logline; no conflict, just a setting.
Wizard of Oz: The lines are a little more blurry here–both hit all the criteria (save for the lack of an antagonist in example 2), but the first doesn’t waste words on superfluous detail. It’s extremely uncommon to give characters names in the logline and nor is it necessary to explain that she’s in Oz or how she got there; example 1 focuses squarely on the key players and their motivations, and is better for it.
Hopefully that has helped differentiate between what constitutes a strong and a weak logline, but here are a few more tips that’ll help you nail it:
– The golden rule: When we say don’t go more than two sentences with your logline, we really mean it.
– Remember that you’re trying to sell the screenplay itself, not the story therein. You’ll fail if you try to do justice to the latter in two sentences, but it’s entirely possible to make the script itself enticing in the same space.
– Read it out loud to someone. Their reaction will be very telling, and very valuable.
– The logline can actually be helpful to you, too. If you ever get stuck with the production or find yourself losing your original vision, read it back to yourself. That’s the very essence of your film, right there, and should shine through in every scene of the movie and on every page of the script.
Loglines: The Why
If you can’t sell your screenplay in one line, you’re not going to sell your movie to either investors or a paying audience. It really is that simple.
The importance of a killer logline cannot be understated—if you think of it in terms of a job interview and leaving a good first impression, a strong logline is like walking into the room with a Ted Baker suit and greeting the interviewer with a well-manicured hand. A weak logline is slouching into the room with your sweatpants on.
Come at it with laser-like focus, and your logline will be more that worth the time and effort you put into it in the long run. Best of luck!
Learn more about the School of Screenwriting at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.
When in screenwriting school, you’ll likely at some point discuss the process of adapting fiction for the screen, which we’ve talked about at length in this space. This time, we’re going to look at some of cinema’s best examples of big screen fiction adaptations.
There are, of course, more incredible book-to-screen adaptations than we could possible hope to list here, so for the sake of brevity we’ve excluded the blockbuster franchises we all know and love—namely, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. We’ve also excluded adaptations from the works of Philip K. Dick and Steven King, which could fill lists all on their own!
So, without further ado…
8 Essential Book-To-Screen Adaptations Every Screenwriter Should Watch
No Country For Old Men (2007)
Book: Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name (2005) RT Film Score: 86%
One of two entries on this list based on a Cormac McCarthy novel (See The Road) and the first of two hat-tips to The Coen Brothers (True Grit), No Country For Old Men is a powerhouse in terms of both the performances therein and the moody, grim vibe spun carefully throughout. A modern day Western par excellence.
Life of Pi (2012)
Book: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001) RT Film Score: 87%
After languishing for a decade in development hell, Ang Lee finally did justice to the superb Booker Prize-winning book of the same name (and we can’t imagine anyone else who could have done quite the same job.) If you get the opportunity to watch it in 3D, do so. As well as being a great example of a book—not least one that was widely considered ‘unfilmable’—but it’s also a better example of the third dimension used to great effect.
The 39 Steps (1935)
Book:The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) RT Film Score: 98%
While only loosely based on the source material, The 39 Steps is not only one of the finest thrillers ever made but also helped cement a lot of ‘Hitchcockian’ elements which would come to define the director’s career and put him on the world stage. Numerous further adaptations have followed over the decades, including a hit Broadway play.
Book:Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988) RT Film Score: 90%
There are a number of Roald Dahl adaptations we could have included here (the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for one) but Matilda was the surprising hit that is worthy of a special mention. For everyone wondering what happened to the adorable child star Mara Wilson (who also did an amazing job in Mrs. Doubtfire and Miracle on 34th Street), she quit acting shortly after Matilda and is now focusing on writing fiction herself…and thus, the circle is closed.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Book: Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump (1986) RT Film Score: 72%
So great was the success of the Forrest Gump movie that it has almost eclipsed the fact that its origins lay in literature. Forrest Gump is a uniquely charming cinematic gem and one of the best movies of the 1990s. To say this endures as one of Tom Hanks’ finest performance in a filmography as impressive as his is a high accolade indeed.
The Road (2009)
Book:The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) RT Film Score: 75%
In amongst a slew of post-apocolyptic movies released around the same time, The Road snuck in on limited release but ended up becoming an essential watch. Stripping back the usual high-budget flair of the genre, this Cormac McCarthy adaptation concerns itself solely with how the unspecified ‘event’ has ravaged the emotions of the two protagonists. The result is a very grim and highly charged movie, which doesn’t pull its punches.
True Grit (1969 & 2010)
Book:True Grit by Charles Portis (1968) RT Film Score: Original 90%, Remake 96%
A superb book that went on to produce not just one, but two excellent slices of Western cinema. Both the original (which earned John Wayne his only Academy Award) and the 2010 Coen Brothers’ remake featuring a great performance by Jeff Bridges are well worth watching, regardless of whether or not you think you like Westerns.
Book: Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig (1985) RT Film Score: 97%
A cutesy family movie with talking animals and an oversaturated color palette? On paper, it should have been absolutely atrocious, but thanks to its pitch-perfect handling and the amount of heart poured into it from every department working on that movie, it ended up being an unadulterated delight…
… the sequel, not so much.
Got any personal favorite book-to-screen adaptations that we haven’t mentioned here? There’s certainly many more that we could have covered here—drop your suggestion down in the comments below!
Even some of the most talented screenwriters making great strides in the industry get very little credit or recognition for their work—in fact, notoriously so.
Today, let’s buck that trend by paying homage to some of the hottest new talent to ever emerge from screenwriting school and who look set for great things in 2015 and beyond.
Top New Emerging Screenwriters: 2015 Edition
1. Justin Simien
After a series of highly-acclaimed shorts between 2006 and 2009, Simien put out a conceptual trailer for a movie back in 2012, hoping to raise enough money to turn it into a feature via crowdfunding.
The campaign was a phenomenal success, with Simien nearly doubling his target asking amount.
That trailer went on to become Dear White People, a breakout hit that not only grossed $344,000 despite being screened in only 11 theatres (on hell of an achievement) but also won the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at last year’s Sundance.
With the movie sitting at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, we’re all eagerly awaiting Justin Simien’s next career move.
2. Lucinda Coxon
Lucinda Coxon is fairly new to writing for the big screen, but by no means is she a novice writer.
Having enjoyed award-winning success as a playwright for over two decades—predominantly between England and Scotland—her prolific work in theatre eventually saw her cross over to film with 2003’s The Heart of Me. With a long stretch of time lying between the period drama and her other forays into feature film writing, it looks like 2015 is going to be her year; this November will see the release of The Danish Girl, an adaptation of the fantastic novel of the same name by David Ebershoff.
3. Tess Morris
Another British luminary whose success has been written in the stars for quite some time.
Way back in the late 90s, Morris won a prestigious short film challenge for her original screenplay and went on to work as a script editor and writer on two high-profile TV series (Hollyoaks and My Family). Jumping back over to the big screen in 2011, her romcom screenplay Man Up garnered significant interest and was eventually released this year with Simon Pegg and Lake Bell in the leading roles.
Given the success of her first feature and the background from which she comes, it’s little wonder that we’re all looking forward to seeing Morris’ next screenplay.
4. Oren Uziel
Uziel formed one third of the screenwriting team behind 2014’s 22 Jump Street, and as his debut work, it’s fair to say that he came out of the gate running.
22 was far funnier and far more tightly written than any sequel based on a movie based on a TV show should be, and it’s for this reason alone that Uziel is worthy of putting on the ‘one to watch’ list. If he can work this kind of magic and collaborate this well on a franchise title, it’ll be fascinating to see his work on original intellectual properties. We won’t have to wait long—his first solo feature, Kitchen Sink, will be out in September…
… and that’s only one of many upcoming, high-profile Uziel projects in the works, including a rumored Men In Black 4. Expect huge things.
5. Dan Sterling
Dan Sterling has long been a powerhouse comedy writer, having contributed to such national TV hits as The Sarah Silverman Program, The Office, King of the Hill, and The Daily Show.
After proving his chops as both a comedic writer and producer over the course of the last two decades, it was of little surprise that Sony Pictures entrusted him to write what was to become one of the most controversial comedy features in recent memory—The Interview.
How he’ll top that is anyone’s guess, but we’re definitely keen to find out.
At the time of writing, Cannes 2015 is underway and it was touted by the organizers themselves as a festival that would look to redress the imbalance between the genders. As if to reinforce this promise, the official festival poster prominently features Ingrid Bergman.
Alas, it could be easily argued that Cannes failed to live up to those promises, so far on two counts: firstly, there was the outrage caused by festival staff turning away any females not wearing high heels (even those with disabilities). Secondly, out of the 19 contestants shooting for the Palme D’Or this year, only two directors are women.
We’ve already discussed the woeful state of affairs regarding marginalization within the film industry, and this recent example points to the fact that positive change is slow…
…But it is coming.
While we continue to both celebrate and promote diversity in our own screenwriting school and across other programs, there are a growing number of diversity initiatives that are well worth checking out.
What Is a Diversity Program?
Much like tax incentives—in which an entity (usually a state government) offers tax relief in order to attract movie production to an area—diversity incentives offer additional benefits to those who strive to keep a balanced team in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.
In fact, some states are even making this mandatory. As such, it’s in a production company’s best interests to make sure they promote diversity, and that in turn benefits the wider community.
Below you’ll find a list of some of the main—and most enticing—diversity programs and incentives which exist for both screenwriters looking to break into the industry and producers looking to improve their own practices.
Film & TV Diversity Incentives and Programs
CBS Diversity Institute– CBS has a number of great diversity programs for screenwriters and others working both behind and in front of the camera (as well as a very good blog which explores the topic of diversity within the industry as a whole).
WriteGirl – A truly fantastic outfit that has successfully paired hundreds of high school girls—usually from underprivileged communities in LA—with female writers who have already made it in the business and are offering mentorship in writing.
HBOAccess Writing Fellowship – While HBO’s new program has closed its doors for this year, it’s certainly one to watch—in the most recent intake, eight semi-professional screenwriters were invited to a series of master classes at HBO’s Santa Monica HQ, before being paired with an executive developer for an eight month mentoring session (as well as an industry meet-and-greet held in their honor at the end). Keep an eye out for next year.
NHMC Television Writers Program – A long-running workshop group that is catered towards Latinos looking to break into professional scriptwriting, this program addresses the fact that only 2.8% of staff writers on televisions shows are Latino.
Alliance for Women in Media – Based in Washington D.C., the AWM is a nonprofit organization run by both men and women to advance the influence of women in numerous forms of media. Part of that includes a number of scholarships and fellowships, including the longstanding Gracie Awards Fellowship.
Diversity in Casting – One for producers. As the most well-known (and possibly oldest) diversity program still active for actors, the Screen Actors Guild allows producers of low-budget productions to take advantage of contractual benefits in conjunction with the guild as long as certain conditions are met.
Illinois Film Tax Credit – Another one for producers to look into. As mentioned above, some states are making diversity conditions mandatory in order to qualify for tax breaks. Illinois is one such state, and as long as you can track and prove you’ve “made good faith efforts” to achieve a racially diverse film crew, the benefits are quite substantial.
Sony Diversity Fellowship– One for directors.Introduced last year, Sony Pictures Television began their own program entitled the Diverse Directors Program. While details for this year are yet to be announced, qualifying candidates last year were invited to shadow high-level TV directors as they produced numerous acclaimed series.
Know of any more that we should be including on this list? You know what to do—drop a comment below, and let’s support those who make the entertainment industry a more fair and balanced place to work.
A lot of people think that there are only a handful of stories out there to tell, and every script falls under one of those plots. One of those stories could be the hero’s journey, or the monomyth, a concept developed by writer Joseph Campbell in his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Borrowing the term from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Campbell describes the monomyth as a recurring pattern shared by multiple famous works from different times and cultures. Needless to say, it is a concept with which any student enrolled in screenwriting school would be intimately familiar.
This pattern focuses on a single protagonist following a distinct arc, with many of the same beats on that arc. Figures that follow this epic journey include Moses, Jesus Christ and the Buddha. But it’s not just classic stories that use the monomyth—it can be found throughout modern pop-culture, and is the foundation for many of the superhero and Young Adult themed franchises dominating Hollywood right now.
Here, then, are just five famous examples of the omnipresent monomyth:
1. The Matrix
The first step in the hero’s journey is the call to action, where a seemingly normal person in a normal, mundane life is brought into the larger, more fantastical world. In this case, cubicle drone Thomas Anderson follows the white rabbit and ends up discovering the Matrix and the Real World. He gains amazing powers and saves both worlds as Neo.
2. Men in Black
Following the same path as Neo is NYPD Officer James Edwards, who finds out that aliens live among us when he joins the MiB as Agent J. A crucial component of the monomyth is supernatural aid in the form of a mentor or guide. Neo had Morpheus and Agent J had Agent K.
Will Smith’s lead character must enter the Belly of the Whale, the monomyth step where the hero separates fully from the normal world, never able to return. Edwards does this when his identity and even his fingerprints are erased, permanently becoming Agent J.
3. The Hunger Games
Katniss Everdeen is a recent example of the monomyth, a normal girl from humble roots who enters the strange world of the Capital and the Arena and uses her superior skills at archery, hunting, and problem solving to take down tough competition and an entire evil empire. While doing so, she must follow the Road of Trials, the first step of the monomythic second major arc, Initiation. This includes winning over sponsors and allies while impressing the Gamemakers during training, and then competing in the Hunger Games itself.
4. The Lion King
While science fiction and fantasy often use the monomyth, it doesn’t mean it can’t be found in genres. One famous example is The Lion King, itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After Simba is cast out into the strange jungle world outside of his pride, he makes peace with his new life and surroundings, enjoying the good life with his two mentors, Timon and Pumbaa. This stage is called the Apotheosis, a period of recharging before the hero’s return arc, often after he or she has even died. In this case, Simba didn’t physically die, but his ties to his Pride have. This step follows Atonement with the Father, which Simba does much more literally while speaking with the ghost of his dad, Mustafa.
5. Star Wars
Not necessarily the entire trilogy (or hexalogy, or soon-to-be ennealogy) but specifically episode IV, A New Hope, is a classic example of the monomyth. In the span of the first film, Luke Skywalker goes from an innocent farmer on a backwater planet to a wielder of the Force and the hero of the empire. He becomes the Master of Two Worlds, the penultimate step of the monomyth, when he joins his material piloting skills with his spiritual Jedi abilities to make a one-in-a-million shot to destroy the Death Star and save the day. This also becomes Luke’s Freedom to Live, the final step. Luke would have more training and would confront his father in the future, but when describing the monomyth, Joseph Campbell wasn’t thinking of the era of never-ending sequels and spin-offs. Nobody’s perfect.
Since the dawn of time, humanity and storytelling have gone hand in hand. The only thing that has changed over the millenia is the way in which we tell our stories.
Arguably, nearly all forms of media—from photography to music, cinematography to traditional art and everything in between—is all about conveying a story to an audience. But despite countless centuries of collective experience in storytelling, we’re still figuring out the best ways of going about it.
As is taught in screenwriting school 101, story is key. Here are 10 essential TED Talks on storytelling that will help you figure out how best to tell yours.
J.J. Abrams – The Mystery Box
Abrams is heralded as the master of not just sci-fi, but also knows how to keep viewers intrigued in a story right the way up to the pay-off. The art of injecting the right amount of mystery into a screenplay is a tricky one to master, but Abrams’ TED talk—intriguing in and of itself—will put you on the right track.
Tyler Cohen – Be Suspicious of Stories
Rather than cover the best practices of storytelling, Cohen takes a critical eye to the craft and reveals some of the pitfalls—many of them related to subjectivity—that screenwriters come up against.
Nancy Duarte – Uncovering the Structure of the Greatest Communicators
Nancy Duarte, a graphic designer and writer, came across an intriguing observation: some of the world’s greatest orators all used very similar patterns in their speeches. In unpacking the structure of some of the most well-known speeches and presentations, there’s a lot screenwriters can learn from Duarte’s TED talk in terms of making an emotional connection with their audience.
Elif Shafak – The Politics of Fiction
Fiction is a powerful thing. It has the ability to transcend the limits of its own created world and have a tangible effect on the real one we live in; here, novelist Elif Shafak explores this concept and shares examples of how fiction can help bring us together from across cultural and/or political divides.
Scott McCloud – The Visual Magic of Comics
Comics and screenplays—or, more specifically, the creation thereof—share a lot of parallels. Scott McCloud is widely considered to be the grandfather of comic theory, and the deeply insightful advice on storytelling that he delivers throughout his inspirational TED Talk is of use to both screenwriters and comic book creators alike.
Isabel Allende – Tales of Passion
Isabel Allende is famed for her compelling work as a novelist, but is also becoming equally well-known as an activist. In this essential TED Talk on storytelling, Allende discusses creativity and the art of exploring feminist issues through stories, and is equally as funny as it is moving.
Andrew Stanton – Clues to a Great Story
By all measures, Andrew Stanton is an incredible storyteller, having created some of the most enduring Pixar tales to date (including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E). His talk is a candid invitation into his creative process, with much of the theory being readily usable in your own screenwriting.
Got a favorite from the above list, or know of any other must-watch TED Talks on storytelling that every screenwriter should check out? Head on down to the comments below and let’s get the discussion flowing.
The Simpsons celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary as its own sitcom recently, continuing its record as the longest running primetime sitcom in television history. Since that inaugural pilot, a Christmas special about the Simpsons finding their family dog, there have been over five hundred fifty episodes of the show. Lots of episodes means lots of screenwriters, many of whom are fresh out of screenwriting school, and The Simpsons’ writers’ room has been a revolving door of some of Hollywood’s top talent since day one.
Conan O’Brien got his start writing Simpsons episodes. Judd Apatow and Brad Bird worked as story editors for several years. The following thirteen writers of Simpsons episodes went on to script some of Hollywood’s biggest movies. Not included on this list are the multiple writers of The Simpsons Movie. Also not included are successful screenwriters like Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who co-directed The Interview, who were invited to write a Simpsons episode after their big break. Most of these thirteen cut their teeth on the classic series before using that resume booster to land a feature gig, for better or worse.
1. Wallace Wolodarsky
Together with Jay Kogen, Wolodarsky wrote several of the series’ classic episodes during The Simpsons’ first four seasons. On his own, Wolodarsky later wrote the Rainn Wilson comedy The Rocker, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, and the hit animated film Monsters vs. Aliens.
2. Jon Vitti
Jon Vitti has written the second largest amount of Simpsons episodes, a whopping twenty-five, most of them during the series’ earlier, golden era. His animation roots came in handy when he moved on to writing features. Vitti scripted both live action/CGI hybrids Alvin & the Chipmunks and Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel and wrote the in-production Angry Birds movie, a CGI adaptation of the wildly popular video game.
3. Jennifer Crittenden
Jennifer Crittenden also wrote for The Simpsons during its glory years, and has racked up several Emmy nominations throughout her prolific career in television. She also made the leap to the big screen, co-writing the romantic comedy What’s Your Number? starring Anna Faris and Chris Evans.
4. Mike Reiss
Together with Al Jean, Mike Reiss not only wrote for The Simpsons but was also its showrunner for two seasons during the height of its critical praise. After creating The Critic and other series, Al Jean returned to The Simpsons where he has been showrunner ever since. Reiss tried his hand at animated features, writing the screenplay for Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.
5. Don Payne
Don Payne co-wrote over a dozen episodes of The Simpsons from 2000 – 2013 with his writing partner, John Frink, namesake of the show’s resident nutty scientist. Payne moved on to writing blockbuster superhero films, including My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Thor, and the story for its sequel Thor: The Dark World. Tragically, he succumbed to cancer in 2013, and his last episode for The Simpsons, “White Christmas Blues,” was dedicated to his memory.
6. Ken Levine & 7. Dan Levine
Ken Levine and David Isaacs were already veteran TV writers when they scripted episodes of The Simpsons. In addition to working on 1980s classics Cheers and M*A*S*H, they also wrote films Mannequin 2: On the Move, and the Tom Hanks, John Candy comedy Volunteers.
8. Larry Doyle
Larry Doyle wrote seven episodes for The Simpsons, as well as the Ben Stiller comedy Duplex and Bugs Bunny feature Looney Tunes: Back in Action. However, he’s probably best known for his novel I Love You, Beth Cooper, for which he also wrote the screenplay adaptation.
9. Brent Forrester
Brent Forrester is another veteran of TV comedy, having written for The Ben Stiller Show, King of the Hill, and The Office, which he also produced and directed. He also scripted four of The Simpsons’ classic episodes around the same time he wrote his only feature—The Stupids, starring Tom Arnold. He’s currently working on a screenplay for Mindy Kaling, The Low Self Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie.
10. Joshua Sternin & 11. Jeffrey Ventimilla
Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia wrote two of The Simpsons more famous episodes before moving into Hollywood features. Together the pair have scripted the Ben Affleck holiday comedy Surviving Christmas, The Rock vehicle Tooth Fairy, the live action/CGI hybrid Yogi Bear and the computer animated kids film Rio.
12. David H. Steinberg
David H. Steinberg is the exception to the rule on this list, having written mostly movies and only one episode of The Simpsons, which first aired this year. Before that, he scripted American Pie 2 and its direct-to-video sequel American Pie Presents: The Book of Love, as well as the similar-styled comedy Slackers.
13. David Mandel
David Mandel got his start writing for the 1990s’ other sitcom classic, Seinfeld, but also co-wrote an episode of The Simpsons. He’s also scripted the big-budget adaptation of The Cat in the Hat starring Mike Myers, as well as Eurotrip and Sacha Baron Cohen’s controversial feature, The Dictator.
From birds to boys to everything in between, the Best Original Screenplay nominees for this year’s 87th Academy Awards are a diverse, intriguing mix. Most of the writers up for the Oscar have competed for the award before, so it’s anyone’s game. Here is a look at some other works by the Best Original Screenplay nominees and what led them to their Oscar-nominated screenplays, essential reading for any screenwriting student or aspiring screenwriter.
Birdman – Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
While this is the first Oscar nomination for the other writers of Birdman, writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was previously nominated for Best Writing and Best Directing for his 2006 film Babel and is up for Best Directing and Best Picture this year.
He has also scripted his upcoming film The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. AGI has also written his film Biutiful with Birdman co-writers Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo and all four nominees are currently scripting the upcoming Ed Helms television series The One Percent for Starz.
Boyhood – Richard Linklater
This is Richard Linklater’s fifth Oscar nomination, counting his nods for Directing and Best Picture for his 12 years in the making masterpiece, Boyhood. He was previously nominated for Before Midnight and Before Sunset, which were in the Adapted Screenplay category as they are based on Linklater’s original screenplay, Before Sunrise.
He’s also written most of his own films, including Slacker, Dazed and Confused, The Newton Boys, Waking Life, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly, Bernie and his upcoming effort, That’s What I’m Talking About.
Foxcatcher – E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
This is Frye’s first nomination and Futterman’s second—he previously got the nod for his work on Capote.
Frye is a veteran screenwriter, having scripted films since the 1980s. His credits include Something Wild, Amos & Andrew and an episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers. He was also script consultant on Lars Von Trier’s experimental film Dogville.
In addition to Capote, Dan Futterman has written for the television shows In Treatment and Gracepoint.
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
While this is Hugo Guinness’s first Oscar nomination, Wes Anderson has received five others, including his nods this year for Directing and Best Picture. His other nominations include two other Original Screenplay nods for The Royal Tenebaums and Moonrise Kingdom and a Best Animated Feature for The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Anderson’s other screenwriting credits are exclusively for his own directed films, including Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, and again for The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Hugo Guinness’s story credit for The Grand Budapest Hotel is his only writing credit to date, but he also did art and voice acting for The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy
This is Dan Gilroy’s first screenwriting credit, though he has been writing for Hollywood since the early 90s. His brother is successful screenwriter and director Tony Gilroy. Some of Dan Gilroy’s credits include Freejack, Chasers, Two for the Money, The Fall, Real Steel, and The Bourne Legacy.
If you want to write movie screenplays, you need to read movie screenplays – it’s just as essential as batting practice for professional baseball players. Reading in general is important, whether it’s novels, comics, or the backs of cereal boxes—even if you’re not paying attention, your brain is remembering hundreds if not thousands of subtle connections between language and storytelling.
Reading screenplays provides an added benefit—allowing you and your brain to see proper formatting in action. It’s also vital for aspiring screenwriters to see the difference between how scenes play out on the page and how they play out on the screen. Finally, while proper screenwriting adheres to a very rigid format, it’s extremely useful to see how various writers work within those rules and even use them to their advantage. Even if you know exactly what you’re seeing, your brain is actively learning and your subconscious is absorbing more and stronger information with every script you read.
By reading screenplay after screenplay, you will get a sense of how you can write your own.
Here, then, are ten websites that allow you to download professional movie scripts. Start clicking and start reading today—if not for your own sake, at least do it for your brain’s.
Go Into the Story is the official blog for The Blacklist, the screenwriting community famous for its annual top ten list of unproduced scripts. One useful feature of Go Into the Story is its bank of downloadable movie scripts.
The titular Drew has been sharing scripts with curious readers and writers for almost two decades now, and has a vast library from which to choose from. A great benefit of Script-O-Rama is that it holds several drafts of certain movies, an invaluable resource for those who want to see how a Hollywood film evolves in the writing process.
Screenplays For You is a clean, smooth website with hundreds of scripts. You’re more than likely to find something from the genre you need—its library boasts everything from low-key award-winning dramas like Sideways to action blockbusters like Avatar.
The Screenplay Database is another useful resource with a large choice of scripts to choose from. If you’re interested in a certain type of film, the website also allows you to search its library by genre, to better allow you to window shop and find something you didn’t even know you were looking for.
The Script Lab comes in handy if you’re looking for more recent screenplays. Its front page divides its library into the three most recent years of releases, so if there’s something from 2014 you’d like, for instance Birdman or Boyhood, this is the website for you.
You’ve got to love the straightforward title. Movie Scripts and Screenplays gives you exactly what it says, with a long list of manuscripts that you can also directly find with its search function.
All writers know that reading great material is an essential part of honing and building your craft. But if you’re ready to take the next step in developing your skills as a screenwriter with the most hands-on, intensive training in the world, check out NYFA’s screenwriting programs. Looking for a long-distance way to take your writing to the next level? Check out NYFA’s online screenwriting program options.
The Walking Dead takes its Christmas vacation this week with its midseason finale. So far, season five has been the best run of episodes yet. In fact, it’s been great, which is a surprise to anyone who watched the show in its earlier seasons.
Something happened near the end of season two and throughout season three, where the show started to find its legs and have glimmers of quality television. Season four was its coming-of-age, with the zombie series finally living up to its potential. Now, midway through season five, The Walking Dead and its stellar screenwriting has finally become appointment television, and The Walking Dead midseason finale is on everyone’s schedule.
The show always had some strong points—after all, we wouldn’t have watched it through its growing pains if it hadn’t. It had that badass opening theme by Bear McCreary. It had a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting. It had top-notch makeup effects and boasted the goriest violence on all of television. It had… well, that was about it.
Compared to the other AMC shows at the time—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Rubicon—The Walking Dead wasn’t exactly what people thought of when they referred to the new Golden Age of Television. But now the highest rated television show on cable can finally stand tall with, at the very least, its genre-show brethren Game of Thrones and Orphan Black. How did The Walking Dead get good? Here are ten reasons:
1. Characters Got Smarter
It makes sense that by season five, The Walking Dead’s characters started showing some of those delicious brains. Now, a few years from the zombie apocalypse, most of the dummies and suckers of Georgia have been eaten or decapitated by eye-patched madmen. All that’s left is the cream of the crop. Smart characters make for great TV. There’s nothing more frustrating than yelling at your screen when someone does something stupid or goes into the wrong room. But when they’re doing exactly what you would do and still end up cornered and without options, nothing is more thrilling to watch.
2. Characters Got Deeper
Like video games, the characters of The Walking Dead finally jumped from two dimensions to three dimensions thanks to some key changes in the writing. Sometimes ensemble television shows have to start with broad stereotypes for the audience to keep up with the story, but it’s about time we started seeing different shades and depths to Rick, Daryl and the rest. The last couple of seasons have focused as much if not more on character than plot, a sign of any great drama. Finding out that these band of survivors are actually interesting individuals makes the choices they make that much more compelling.
3. Characters Got Names
Even better is that these added dimensions weren’t just added to the primary cast, but almost all of the ensemble as well. It’s hard to imagine that characters like Beth have been with the series since the beginning of season two, considering she didn’t get her own storyline until season four. Before that, Beth was just “Hershel’s Other Daughter.”
4. Plots Got Morally Ambiguous
Even from the very beginning, the question the series seemed to be asking was “What morals must we sacrifice to live in a new post-apocalyptic world order?” But the show struggled with ways to ask it. Even situations that seemed abhorrent, like having to murder Carol’s zombified little girl in season two, weren’t actually moral quandaries. She was no longer Carol’s little girl—she was a murderous zombie, just like the rest, and Rick realized she had to be put down hard and fast. But since then, the show has posed questions that don’t have clear right answers, and where no decision will end up a good decision but still need to be made. Characters must ask themselves what to do with hostages, who to leave behind, who must be sacrificed for the greater good. Watching smart, deep characters with names confront these moral quandaries makes for fantastic drama.
5. Plots Got Burned
The Walking Dead was typically as slow-paced as its title monsters. It even spent two episodes re-introducing us to The Governor in the middle of season four. Then, something happened. Actually, a lot happened. Quickly. The season ended with our heroes trapped in a boxcar prison by cannibals, looking like it would take several episodes for them to plan and execute their escape. It took less than one. Burning through plot is an extremely bold move for a series, as original plots are hard to come by. But it creates a thrilling sense that anything can happen and keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. While that long-term prison escape could’ve been fun, watching it go up in flames along with that plot thread was way more exciting.
6. Characters Got Quiet
Do you know how we knew The Walking Dead asked the question “What morals must we sacrifice to live in a new post-apocalypse world order?” Because characters always asked that, out loud. All the time. Along with anything else they were thinking. The Walking Dead wanted to be a character drama from the beginning—the problem was, it had no grasp of subtext, treating its audience as dumb as its zombies. Too busy showing us bloody intestines and brains, it was telling us everything else. Now characters keep it closer to the vest, and the audience actually has to work a little to infer what they’re thinking from their actions and context and from what they’re not saying. You know, like good shows do.
7. The Show Got Courage to Try New Things
For the most part, the first three seasons are very similar. While The Walking Dead still has some wing spreading to do, it’s gotten bolder experimenting with its tone and other aspects, like the aforementioned plot-burning. One great example is introducing the trio of Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita. Rather than try to adapt these larger-than-life comic characters to the moody realistic tone of the show, The Walking Dead embraced their cartoonish styles and had fun with these three. It injected a great deal of fun into a show that desperately needed it.
8. Episodes Got Focus
Along with playing with tone and plot, The Walking Dead has switched up its structure. Season 3’s best episode followed only Rick, Michonne and Carl on a side mission, and the writers seemed to take notice to its positive reception. Many episodes of the last two seasons play as little movies, telling complete stories with just a few focused characters. Rather than switching back and forth between plots, audiences got deeper into characters’ heads and tension builds more consistently, such as in The Governor’s Season 4 two-parter. The show has also been smart enough to switch it up to an ensemble type show when the plot needs to race ahead. It’s a careful balance The Walking Dead has finally gotten a handle on.
9. The Show Got Better Mood, Music, and Direction
While most of the show’s improvements have been in its writing, The Walking Dead has beefed up its already decent direction. The last two seasons have combined mood, music, and cinematography to create a show that is as artsy and poetic as top tier dramas like Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men. While the show’s theme has always been one of its highlights, the show has also learned to use music better and to stronger effect, though it sometimes still suffers from the unnecessary sad montage.
Carol started the show as a background character with an asshole husband. Even when her daughter went missing and ended up killed, she still remained on the sidelines of the plot. But somewhere along the way, all the shit her character has taken turned into an amazing set of armor and Carol emerged as a fascinating, multidimensional character, even replacing Daryl as The Walking Dead’s resident badass. She’s smart, tough, sexy and watching her work is a highlight of the show. In just the last season and a half, Carol has executed a surrogate daughter, thrown herself off a cliff in a van, and single-handedly wiped out a cannibal fortress. Meanwhile, Rick farmed some tomatoes.
Everyone and their mother have tips and advice for aspiring screenwriters. (My mother’s is “Don’t stare so close to the screen or you’ll go blind!” and “Always right justify your name and contact information on the title page!”)
Some tips, like bad rumors, spread so far and wide as to become hard certain truths, even if they’re just the opposite. Here are just five myths of screenwriting that are patently false, as fake as the name of most movie detectives.
Myth #1: One Page = One Minute of Screentime
The famous page-a-minute rule isn’t really a rule—it’s a guideline. Guidelines are good. Guidelines are our friend. Guidelines are like a solid GPS—keeping us on track and in the right direction. But it is not an infallible rule that must be obeyed at all costs. After all, even your GPS sometimes tells you to make a left into a river.
While the page-a-minute guideline is true for your average screenplay, your page count can actually vary wildly. The script for Academy Award-winning Gravity, a film with sparse dialogue, lengthy complicated action setpieces, and lots of quiet tension, is only sixty-eight pages long. A Tarantino screenplay, loaded with back-and-forth dialogue that could be spit out in seconds but take up several pages of print, will typically be well over 120 pages.
Of course, aspiring screenwriters don’t get the same benefit of the doubt as people like Tarantino and Alfonso Cuarón. But if your story is complete, with no extra fat and nothing missing, then it should be as long as it needs to be. The people reading your screenplay will be far more concerned with your narrative than with your page count.
Myth #2: Exposition Is Bad
Somewhere along the way, exposition got a real bad rap. But unless you’re like Terrence Malick and making some visually poetic mood piece, your story’s going to need some context. Bad exposition is bad—that’s no myth—and bad exposition is when characters explain something to each other that, in the reality of the film, they should already know and shouldn’t need to be said.
Good exposition, which is not only totally okay, but preferred, gives the audience a background to ground your story. If you can’t show-not-tell your exposition, then tell it in a way that makes sense. A character new to the situation can be an audience surrogate, asking questions and getting answers for us. A general can update the President in his or her daily briefing. A protagonist can check her or his voicemail. Etc.
If done well, exposition can be fun and seamless, a natural part of a scene. The exposition laying out the bank robbery in Reservoir Dogs just comes off as another classic Tarantino dialogue between Mr. Orange and Mr. White and ends with them getting a taco and the audience informed on the gangster’s plan.
Myth #3: Mailing Yourself Your Script = Copyrighting Your Script
Nope. The best way to copyright your script is to register it with the Writer’s Guild. There’s even a handy-dandy option built right into Final Draft that lets you do this. It’s official, it’s legal, it will protect you if anyone ever does in fact steal your idea.
Mailing yourself your script and keeping it sealed is very weak evidence proving you wrote a given screenplay first. For one, it only works with the very first judge who opens it, and copyright cases often drag on and go through several levels of the judiciary system. Secondly, it doesn’t legally count as evidence of copyright—it’s more circumstantial proof than anything.
Thirdly, have you ever used the post office? Chances are your package will arrive as beat up as your protagonist. And if you’re moving around a lot (which you probably are because paying rent is a lot harder than paying a one-time WGA fee), your package will take that much more wear-and-tear. By the time you get it to court it’s going to look like a crazy person’s manifesto and will be scanned for bombs and white powder.
And if you’re a prolific writer, those packages are going to eventually take up more space on your bookshelves than the Song of Ice and Fire series.
Myth #4: Keep the Camera Directions Out of Your Script
Keep the directing to the Director, people will tell you. This is generally true, and you don’t want your unproduced screenplay to look like a shooting script. But some camera directions should be included, especially when a given scene only works with a specific angle or move.
You’re not writing a play after all, a sparse set with lots of options. Movies can be extremely specific, lines and moments can be tied directly into the way we view it. Try to avoid the phrases “We see” or “The camera pans” but if you’re smart you can hide directions into the way you word your action lines. Phrasing your action the right way will make your intended shot, like a POV or a landscape wide shot, inevitable for the filmmakers who shoot your screenplay.
“The whites of Mark’s eyes turn red with anger” is telling us it’s an extreme close-up without ever using the words extreme close-up. The director will see this when she reads it and choose the right shot. She might think it was her idea but we savvy screenwriters will know better and give yourself a pat on the back for the great shot.
Myth #5: You Have to Use a Screenwriting Program
Okay, sure, this one is true, you do have to have standard formatting for your script if you want people to take it seriously. But only the final draft!
Writers are a diverse bunch (besides the insecurity and constant loneliness—that’s all of us.) Writers write in all sorts of ways, and all of them are write. Er, right. If you’re like me, you do your best work with a pencil and marble notebook while sitting on the beach. Or maybe you don’t find your true groove until you’re thumbing it in your Notes app while on the train to work.
Whatever gets your creative juices flowing—that’s how you should be writing your script. Just because your story will end in Courier New does not at all mean it needs to start that way.
Writers forge their own paths. It’s part of our DNA. And while rules were indeed made to be broken, it’s more important to remember that some rules were never actually rules to begin with. Just bad rumors.
Last year, a sci-fi film entitled Europa Report made its way onto online rental services to little fanfare outside of a few hardcore sci-fi and indie film blogs. The plot is rather ho-um—a team of astronauts land on an alien planet searching for life, spanners are thrown into the works, et cetera—and so far it’s garnered very little fan fare.
But perhaps it deserves a little more attention than what it has received since its full release.
After all, it’s one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movies ever committed to film.
What Apollo 18 Should Have Been
Director Sebastián Cordero and crew took great pains to make sure everything in the movie was scientifically plausible; orbital physics are adhered to, the galactic geography is sound, the surface of Europa is realistically rendered and every line of space-talk between the characters is as it should be. The decision to stick so dogmatically to real-world physics is a bold one, and arguably makes this otherwise unremarkable space romp into an incredibly fascinating entry into the genre.
Now, it’s not the best film in the world by any stretch, and only the most ardent of space fans won’t balk at spending $10 just to rent it—the pacing is uneven, there’s some hammy acting in places, and it doesn’t bring anything new to the ‘found footage’ aspect of the film. All said and done however, it’s the immersive exploration horror film which Apollo 18 tried to be, made all the better for its scientific realism.
But what of movies where the science gets silly? Excluding purposeful bending of reality for comic effect, does a movie hamstring itself by not paying enough attention to the hard laws of the universe?
Breaking the Rules, For Better or Worse
Consider the old amnesia movie trope. Rarely is it portrayed with any accuracy, and in fact, rarely is it used as an effective plot device.
But the scientific inaccuracies which usually come with the ‘man wakes up remembering nothing’ cliché aren’t the underlying reason why we groan every time a scriptwriter falls back on it. We actually forgive extreme oversights on silly things such as ‘reality’ as long as the trope is used to execute some original ideas or to craft a compelling experience for the audience. Think of the screenwriting in Memento, or even Total Recall.
There are, of course, some very good reasons to forgo realism, especially when exploring science fiction. In the real universe, it would take nearly 20,000 years of sailing through an uninteresting void in order to get to the nearest exoplanet, and if we’re looking for possible life, it’d be pointless to make the trip given its molten temperature. To get to the Gliese 581 set of planets, which are the closest place with a chance of harboring anything interesting, we’re looking at a 500,000+ year voyage. As such, it’s hardly practical to hinge a movie featuring human exploration on such stellar figures (and the reason why Europa Report was set on our own cosmic back door).
When quizzed on the speed of the Excalibur craft in Babylon 5, creator Michael Straczynski famous said with a wry smile “it travels at the speed of plot.” Namely, precisely as fast or as slow as the writers need it to in order to move the story forward at the desired pace and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s also true that some of the best inventions in science fiction were the product of writers trying desperately to get from A to B, either in a physical sense or within the narrative.
But if the lack of scientific accuracy is born out of sheer laziness, then it can create a jarring hole in the very fabric of the movie. While we don’t question why the Icarus II starship in Sunshine has gravity because it’s an unimportant detail not worth spending screen time explaining, we do have our willing suspension of disbelief popped when the relatively small (on a planetary scale) asteroid in Armageddon appears to have more gravity than the moon…and numerous other sins.
This is because we can easily assume there’s some sort of device or centrifugal force creating the gravity on the Icarus II; we can’t imagine that everything we know about astrophysics goes out the window the second someone steps onto an asteroid. Whether this laziness on the director or writer’s part is through ignorance or an inability (or unwillingness) to present things in a more believable light doesn’t matter; audiences don’t need to have a PhD in rocket science or filmmaking degree to see right through it as the sloppy craftsmanship that it is.
All in all, both good and bad sci-fi will exist regardless of how much of a grasp the filmmaker has over accuracy, or how much they care to use it. Case in point: in one of the DVD extra commentaries for Alien, Ridley Scott mumbles hesitantly about the movie being set “something like… twenty, thirty years from now.” While that film testifies to his mastery of horror and a superb movie all round, if he thought back in the eighties that we’d already be terraforming deep space by now, his understanding of the limits of space exploration technology is severely lacking (at least it was back then).
Back to the present, and we should really take our hats off to the producers of movies like Europa Report and the (slightly less but still impressively accurate) Gravity for at least trying to make extreme accuracy a selling point. It raises some interesting questions, but it remains to be seen whether this will become a trend in mainstream sci-fi writing.
Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, and Max Greenfield in The New Girl, one of the many single-camera sitcoms that now dominate primetime.
If you don’t know what a single-camera sitcom is, you’ve almost definitely watched one at some point. While it’s been around for quite some time (Get Smart, The Andy Griffith Show, Doogie Howser M.D.,) it’s only become prevalent in the last ten years or so. As opposed to the three-camera setup found in most TV studios, single-camera is shot like most films, with traditionally cinematic shots and angles storyboarded like any movie. While this one characteristic is what separates the two classifications of situation comedy, their differences lie far beyond how many cameras are used to film them, allowing a different type of screenwriting to take hold.
For one, the more cinematic style of shooting lends a more, well, cinematic style to the sitcom. Many can resemble low-budget independent films (even the biggest sitcoms’ budgets pale in comparison to feature films). Single-cameras, because of the way they are shot, typically don’t have live studio audiences and most eschew a replacement laugh track. Without a laugh track to tell you where the punchlines are and when to laugh, and coupled with the slower, quieter filmic approach, the humor of single-camera sitcoms presents itself in a completely different way.
As a viewer, you have to actively find what’s funny within a scene. Just as good characters in comedy can be indicated by lines that are only funny because they were spoken by that particular character, the single-camera environment sets a tone and becomes a place where jokes are only funny because they were specifically said within them. This is usually what people mean when they say a location in a script is a character in itself (unless they say New York is its own character, then they’re just bullshitting.) This also allows the humor to be more subtle—the slightest roll of the eyes can be caught in a close-up reaction shot and sell the same kind of laugh that a character hammily mugging to the audience in a three-camera sitcom would make.
Single-cam in action:
Single-cam comedies don’t have to be calmer and quieter, however. Rather than feel like an independent film, single-camera sitcoms can resemble screwball comedies. The 2003 cult favorite Arrested Development is a prime example of this and did what The Simpsons and other animated series (shows allowed to bypass three-camera setups without raising any eyebrows) discovered they could do fifteen years earlier—the rapid-fire delivery of jokes and scenes and locations. A standard episode of a show like Arrested Development or 30 Rock has an incredible amount of scenes when compared to a three-camera sitcom like Friends. These shows in effect become live-action cartoons, embracing and indulging in the lack of boundaries a three-camera set inhibits on scripts.
Why are three-camera setups inhibiting and typically averse to subtle forms of humor? It helps to remember that three-camera shows aren’t defined by the fact that they’re shot with three cameras (and conversely, many single-cams like Arrested Development are always shot with two or three cameras simultaneously). Rather, it’s better to think of them as recorded stage plays, performed on very limited sets for flesh-and-blood live studio audiences. This is a fundamentally different storytelling medium than the much more cinematic single-camera style. YouTube is full of clips of multi-cam shows like The Big Bang Theory with the laugh track edited out and they are fascinating to watch.
You might not have noticed when watching a multi-camera show because as viewers we’ve become so accustomed to its form, but actors pause between jokes and actually hold and wait for the audience’s laughter to subside before resuming their lines. As the YouTube clips amusingly convey, talking like this in real life would make you sound like a crazy person. But three-camera actors must perform this way, and three-camera writers must likewise conform their scripts. Not only can more subtle humor be easily lost on an audience seeing everything at once several dozen feet from the action (as opposed to being merely inches from a close-up viewed on your screen at home), but a joke’s timing—one of its most crucial components—has to be set and predicated by this staccato hold-and-wait type of performance.
Three-cam without laugh track:
The limited locations of a three-camera sitcom also derive from its theater-like stage. Only so many sets can be built and fit into a single studio. That’s one of the reasons the three definitive sitcom genres exist—workplace comedies take place in the workplace, family comedies in the home. Usually there is a bar or a diner in a friends (and often, workplace and family) comedy where everybody hangs out, just to keep things visually interesting. A show could also employ a limited exterior set portraying the outside of their house or bar. Sometimes they might throw in some B-roll second-unit shots of exteriors to make it feel like the show is really taking place outside the studio and in the real world, or at the very least, make it feel like it’s being shot on location. (For instance, Seinfeld’s classic apartment window exterior was neither Seinfeld’s apartment—which was a set—nor actually even in New York.)
In general, though, ninety percent of a given multi-cam episode will take place in the same handful of sets. Single-camera shows can shoot on location, or at the very least use different angles to make the same set feel fresh. So not only are they capable of several more scenes than their three-camera counterparts, they can place these scenes in a multitude of locations. This can expand the sense of the world the show occupies and ground it, or inversely add to its cartoonish energy. A comedy like Arrested Development could take place in a California apartment complex, Iraq, on a boat, in a magic shop, at the beach and in Reno, Nevada, all in the same episode
More scenes also allow for more storylines, and more storylines allow for more characters. While a three-camera sitcom’s primary cast is usually limited to six or less, a single-cam sitcom like The Office can boast an ensemble of fourteen or more. Similarly, a multi-cam script might include a primary A-plot, a secondary B-plot, and perhaps a tertiary C-plot, whereas a single-cam could include A, B, C, D, and E plots and give them all more heft and substance.
Another trend since Friends helped sitcoms usher in the single-cam revolution: the mockumentary series. While fake-documentaries have existed in cinema for quite some time, it wasn’t until the new millennium that television decided to crank them up to eleven. Again, Arrested Development proved itself ahead of the game by employing a cinéma vérité format that had its characters lean against the fourth wall and graffiti it rather than break it. But it was even earlier, in 2000, when the original U.K. version of The Office portrayed the fictional documentary crew as a diegetic presence existing in the world itself, allowing all its characters to communicate directly with the camera like some sort of latter-day Zack Morrises.
The U.S. remake of The Office brought this style across the pond to mainstream American audiences, which then spread to both comedy and drama alike, giving television writers new tools and techniques to employ. The so-called “talking head” shot, where a character delivers their thoughts interview-style straight to the camera allowed for exposition dumps—exposition that would feel too cheap or out-of-place in traditional narratives—which in itself allowed for cramming even more plot into a twenty-minute episode. (Arrested Development’s Narrator, another documentary staple, was a similarly useful device.)
In addition, characters could be developed in their talking heads not by what they said but by what they didn’t say, which coupled with facial and body language allowed for a subtext much harder to come by in multi-camera sitcoms. The mockumentary format also gave a more voyeuristic viewpoint that could make its storytelling more realistic and grounded—with Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback being an early pioneer of this format. While the characters frequently broke the fourth wall, audiences were drawn forth within it. This poses a delicate balance for sitcom writers—at first the American Office tried hard to faithfully depict the drudgery of working in an office, but quickly abandoned this when producers realized that people didn’t want to come home from the office just to spend their free time watching other people work.
Lisa Kudrow in the mocumentary-style The Comeback, which is a pioneering “talking head” sitcom.
Why have single-camera comedies only exploded now if they provide such an interesting alternative to multi-camera studio sitcoms? The biggest reason, as always, comes down to money. Shooting on tape with a handful of sets was always much cheaper than shooting cinematically. But digital video has come a long way and is now at a point where it is cheap enough and good looking enough to make single-cam as viable (if not more viable) an option as multi-cam. And while the prevalence of single-camera sitcoms highlights the changes television has made since Friends, we are currently amidst an even greater geological shift for situation comedies, a shift proving that money is and always has been the driving force for the evolution of TV production—the advent of multimedia.
Single-cam might be in but it isn’t new, it’s been around since the 50s—just ask The Beaver. And Adult Kevin was narrating to the camera on The Wonder Years long before J.D. was on Scrubs. But the Internet and smartphones and video games and digital cable haven’t been around as long as TV, and they’re introducing change in complicated and unforeseen ways.
More entertainment options means less people watching the same thing at any given moment. While for most of its existence, television has split its real-time audience between three or four main networks, there are now hundreds if not thousands of choices a viewer can make. Any given channel’s ratings are drastically lower than they were fifteen years ago, despite an ever-growing population of more potential viewers. The Big Bang Theory, television’s highest-rated scripted show, boasts numbers that would’ve been considered moderate when Friends was ending its run and would’ve been considered outright weak when Friends was debuting. Seinfeld was almost cancelled by NBC in its early seasons because it only had four million viewers, a number many sitcoms would beg for today.
While this scares the hell out of the networks and their shareholders, having more options is obviously a good thing for television viewers. More venues provide more specific niches. Shows can stray farther from the norm and not be as mainstream and homogenous as they’ve been in the past—their common denominator no longer has to be as low. Types of humor that not everybody appreciates can finally find a voice. Unconventional sitcoms like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,Workaholics, and Veep can now find audiences. In most cases, their numbers aren’t as large as the networks’, and pale in comparison to the ratings of yesteryear, but they no longer need to be so large. For the time being, they meet a standard that television executives have to be satisfied with. Television writers are striking while the iron is hot, experimenting in many and varied ways. Even eleven-minute sitcoms like Eagleheart can find themselves renewed year after year. While entertainment diversifies and ratings dwindle, creativity is thriving.
And we haven’t even settled into the new paradigm yet. All signs point to this just being the beginning. Innovation continues to dominate a rapidly growing and changing planet. Even if the tools we use were to somehow peak at their current point, we’re still years away from learning truly how to use them. This new wave of multimedia sitcoms, (some, like Orange is the New Black can’t even technically be called television shows) might end up seeming closer to Friends than they do to whatever comprises the entertainment landscape two decades from now. There may no longer be networks, or even TV, but don’t be surprised if the sitcom still exists in some form, about people in the workplace, or families, or—thanks to the legacy of Friends—good-looking twentysomethings just hanging out and shooting the shit. They might be on the moon or something, but there will always be friends.
Click here for the first part in our Evolution of the Sitcom series, which looks at the lasting influence of Friends on the sitcom landscape.
Twenty years ago today Friends debuted with a pilot that might as well have been called “The One Where that Show Became the Biggest Thing on the Planet.” It’s crazy to think that it’s been two decades since Rachel first moved in with Monica, and a lot has happened since. The TV landscape that Friends was born into was a very different place from the one we live in now.
Sitcoms were still almost exclusive to the broadcast networks—the Big Three and FOX, which was just graduating from experimental outlier to mainstream juggernaut. Sitcoms themselves were barely recognizable from the form they take today. For half-hour comedies (and really, all media), 1994 was the calm before the storm, a gray area where old met new and when everything was about to change. And it was Friends that sat right in that gray space, on a leather couch with an oversized cup of Central Perk coffee.
Sitting on that precipice of twenty-first century entertainment, Friends represented both the old and the new. It was old in that on its surface it seemed like every other sitcom that graced the airwaves for thirty years previous—multi-camera and backed by a small-screen Greek chorus: the studio audience. Though it wasn’t just another brick in the wall—it was the top of the heap, occupying the same throne once ruled by Cheers and I Love Lucy. It was one of the last Nielsen megahits, before Internet and smartphones and digital cable divided ratings into smaller and smaller pieces of the pie, a water cooler show when everybody at the water cooler still actually watched the same show.
But Friends was also something new, something different a generation that had grown up on sitcoms hadn’t seen before. Friends introduced the modern hangout comedy. Now, hangout comedy is a loose term, a subgenre of sitcoms. Since the dawn of television, almost any sitcom to date can be classified in one of three categories: family comedy, workplace comedy, or friends comedy. Go ahead, try to think of a show that doesn’t fall into at least one of those three genres. Can’t do it, right? Obviously Friends belongs in the latter category, but it also introduced something more specific, something generational.
Unlike Cheers (which was more friends than workplace) or The Golden Girls, Friends allowed viewers to watch a bunch of goodlooking twentysomethings literally hang out (and one got the feeling that the screenwriters were doing the same). Just chill. Shoot the shit while sitting in a café, bouncing snappy sarcastic one-liners off and occasionally having sex with one another. Even more revolutionary, while previous sitcoms had you sit and watch these characters, Friends made it feel like you were there in the coffee shop hanging out with them, something a show could only get away with once enough of the key demographic had actually grown up with TV. It was the next logical step for the entire medium, and it was Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey that took that step.
Obviously it worked, because the show became such a phenomenon. Like any hit show, every network tried to replicate its success by directly copying the idea with new pilots. Friends suddenly occupied the same TV listings as shows like The Single Guy and Caroline in the City, both of which might as well have been titled Other Friends. Most of these shows fizzled as these attempts to recapture lightning in a bottle tend to, but the hangout comedy did become its own tried and true subgenre, finding another hit a few years later in Will & Grace and existing today in the recently departed but critically adored Happy Endings and the very much alive New Girl, among others. But while shockwaves of Friends’ explosive debut still ripple throughout the TV-sphere, twenty years is a long time. Sitcoms today are different in many ways, catering to people who grew up watching TV and made for people who grew up watching TV. Today, half-hour comedies are edgier, more meta, sometimes not even a half-hour. And most of them, unlike Friends or its contemporaries, are single-camera.
Come back tomorrow to read the second part in this series charting the evolution of the sitcom.
The Golden Rule cannot be understated: if you want to get better at writing, then write.
If you take nothing away from today’s post than that, so be it. But right from the off, it’s important to note that it doesn’t particularly matter how you go about it—practice your craft, learn from your goofs, find your own voice and growth will inevitably come.
So if we take that as a given, this begs the question…
Malcolm Gladwell, the inspirational and intriguing science journalist, once posited that it takes 10,000 hours of practice in order to attain mastery in any field. While the accuracy of the number has come under academic fire recently, the underlying concept is fairly steady.
And this is where formal tuition in screen writing comes in. You can go those 10,000 alone and become a master screenwriter—many have, many will, and there’s nothing wrong with that route. Alternatively, you could put yourself in an environment that accelerates that process.
And attending screenwriting school helps on pragmatic grounds, too. While it is entirely possible to get your 10,000 hours in during the wee small hours of the morning between your family going to bed and getting up for your day job, it’ll feel like a lot more of a hard slog than if you went at it full time for a few years. And if that sounds like too long a spell to take out of working life, there are plenty of part-time screenwriting programs too, including eight and twelve workshop-based courses.
Don’t go into such a program lightly, however; while screenwriting school may sound like a relaxed walk in the park, they’re usually very intensive and mimic the ‘trial by fire’ nature of the industry out in the real world. This in itself can be instrumental in your growth as a filmmaker, since no artist became great without enduring some constructive criticism and hard knocks.
Art In a Vacuum
As well as getting some space to single-mindedly focus on advancing your career, there’s another tangible benefit. A lot of professions within filmmaking are inherently collaborative, and rely heavily on more than one person working closely together in order to breathe life into a project. Screenwriting, however, is not one of them.
Developing a script (at least for film, TV can be a different ballpark) is a rather solitary pursuit, and until your screenplay is optioned, it can usually feel like working in a vacuum. In fact, you’ll often feel like the outcast of the team all the way up to the final cut.
Since it can be hard to learn and grow without outside interaction (creatively speaking, at least), attending screenwriting school can help pierce that bubble. Not only will you get to mingle with film students of other disciplines – which is infinitely helpful in giving you a more rounded overview of the industry – but you’ll also get to work closely with other writers.
Ever been stuck on a plot point or characterization issue only to have a fellow writer help you crack it in ways you’d never have dreams of? At screenwriting school, you’ll practically have that fresh perspective on tap.
It also provides a good opportunity to observe how other screenwriters apply the fundamentals of the craft to different genres, which can be incredibly useful in expanding the proverbial writing toolbox. A good writer is like a sponge, so it makes sense to be in an environment where there’s a lot to absorb.
In conclusion, it’d be foolish to say that screenwriting school is for everyone, but if you suspect that your career and skill level would be enhanced by formal tuition in the craft, don’t be afraid to take the plunge.
In an industry based on the ability to write consistently and well, it should come as no surprise that there are countless blogs available online for aspiring screenwriters of all stripes. To help the aspiring screenwriter take advantage of the many articles and essays out there, we have compiled the top screenwriting blogs and sites with the best screenwriting content.
Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog: Authored by Alex Epstein, a professional TV and film script writer who has also written the books Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made and Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box, this blog provides humorous insight into the screenwriting process behind popular films and TV series.
Doug Richardson: The screenwriter behind such action blockbusters as Bad Boys and Die Hard 2, Richardson’s blog is ideal for gaining a glimpse inside the work ethic and experiences of a successful scriptwriter with posts articles full of helpful anecdotes from the films on which he’s worked.
Flying Wrestler: The blog of writer and producer Erik Bork who has written episodes for such famous miniseries Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon, his blog contains informative articles that cover the many different challenges and aspects of scriptwriting.
Go into the Story: Penned by renowned screenwriter Scott Myers, this is the official blog of The Black List and offers both insight into developing the craft of screenwriting alongside highlighting events and professional advice that will help scriptwriters get their screenplay picked up.
John August: A perfect example of the intersection between screenwriting and technology, August—whose writing credits include Go, Charlie’s Angels, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride—now concentrates primarily on creating useful screenwriting applications alongside a popular podcast that explores the craft of writing entitled Scriptnotes.
John Truby: Having served as a script doctor on over 1,800 movies, sitcoms, and TV dramas, John Truby has created a secondary career for himself holding his seminars around the world. His site is chock full of helpful guides and detailed analyses of films of all genres.
Ken Levine: Best known for his extensive TV writing work, which includes M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier, and The Simpsons, Ken Levine’s blog provides a Hollywood veteran’s insight into the current state of TV writing along with helpful articles that are perfect for the future comedy writer.
Linda Segar’s Official Website: Having pioneered and defined the position of a script consultant back in 1981, Segar is an active and in-demand consultant who has given advice on over 2000 scripts and written nine books on the craft of penning a screenplay. Her site is a good source to work with a venerable screenwriter and producer.
Screenwriting from Iowa: Written by Scott W. Smith, this blog focuses on writers who have chosen to pursue a career in screenwriting outside of Hollywood and how the internet has enabled writers to develop successful careers wherever they might find themselves living.
Script Angel: The blog of script development consultancy Script Angels, the bloggers also write informative articles that will help novice screenwriters to better understand how the industry works.
Script Mag: Started by the screenwriting resource store The Writers Store, Script Mag boasts a hub of blogs that offer numerous articles on the different areas of writing scripts.
ScriptShadow: Based on the idea that one becomes a good screenwriter by studying other scripts, this blog provides daily reviews of film and television scripts in addition to helpful articles that will help one develop his or her screenwriting abilities.
Scriptwriting Secrets: Although nearly 16 years old at this point, Steven Sashen’s eBook remains online for a reason as it covers the fundamentals of the screenwriting craft , making his site an ideal starting point for the aspiring screenwriter. While some of the information is out of date, Sashen’s eBook still contains plenty of invaluable advice for both the seasoned and novice scriptwriter.
Steven Pressfield: A wholly unique insight into the process of writing in a particular genre, Steven Pressfield is a writer who has focused primarily on military stories—though his book The Legend of Bagger Vance was a departure from his usual subject matter—his site is full of useful advice for screenwriters interested in penning stories about the military and war.
The Aspiring TV Writer & Screenwriter Blog: Featuring a number of professional contributors who are currently working in the industry, The Aspiring TV Writer & Screenwriter Blog focuses on the practical skills aspiring screenwriters need to cultivate to land an internship, make the right connections, and much more.
The Bitter Script Reader: Written by an anonymous script reader for one of the top agencies in Hollywood, this blog offers invaluable advice as to how to write a script that will actually grab the attention of a script reader.
The Screenwriting Spark: An excellent source for articles, interviews, videos, and many more resources that demystify the craft of screenwriting, The Screenwriting Spark was created with the simple and effective philosophy that screenwriters inspire screenwriters.
Wordplay: Featuring forums and essays, this screenwriting hub is best known for its insightful library of columns that includes over 100 essays written by professional screenwriters covering virtually every facet of the screenwriting process.
Author: Melanie Williams Oram, Chair, Screenwriting Department, New York Film Academy
It’s against our nature to fail. We’re programmed to succeed at all costs. Our fear of failure can cause us to be risk averse, to stay in our lane, and to accept tasks where we know we can shine because we will only have to use skills that are clearly in our wheel house. Creating memorable characters means counteracting your natural instincts to avoid failure at all costs. A screenplay character needs to be willing to learn new skills, to venture into new lands, and most importantly to take risks. Intriguing and complex characters in good screenplays succeed where ordinary people do not because they leave their comfort zones willingly in spite of the fact that failure is not just a remote worry but a real possibility. In fact screenplay characters MUST live through an Epic Fail incident in order to reach their goal.
Creating an Epic Fail moment is an essential building block to developing an iconic screenplay character. An Epic Fail Incident usually happens around the midpoint of a screenplay and is the place in the story where the character reaches an obstacle so great, so high, and so deep there’s nothing for her to do but face the challenge head on. She cannot avoid this obstacle and despite all of her best efforts her plans do not succeed. She suffers a major setback and she experiences an Epic Fail incident.
Like all key story points, The Epic Fail moment needs a set up so that the pay off can be rewarding for the character and the audience. An Epic Fail incident can only happen if there’s something at stake. The protagonist must face the reality that if she fails to overcome this obstacle she will lose something that’s truly important to her. The higher the stakes, the more compelling the Epic Fail moment becomes. An Epic Fail incident can cost the protagonist her job, the trust of a loved one, or even her freedom.
Why do we love characters like Neo in The Matrix or Annie in Bridesmaids? It’s because they don’t just screw up situations and fix them quickly. They suffer from a tremendous loss during an Epic Fail moment but they are able to reboot and find a way to succeed. Neo fights hard but Morpheus still gets captured by the machines. Ultimately he chooses to believe in his own abilities, accept his destiny and beat the machines at their own game. Annie totally bombs in all her duties as maid of honor and destroys her friendship with her best friend Lillian. After Annie’s friendship with Lillian disintegrates, Annie is left broken and alone and she decides to abandon the silly and hurtful competition to prove that she’s Lillian’s BFF. Annie refocuses her efforts and insures that Lillian’s wedding gets back on track and salvages the seemingly irreparable damage done to her friendship with her best friend.
Two very important things happen when you include an Epic Fail incident in your screenplay. It gives your audience a chance to connect with your protagonist. Everyone wants to see a character succeed against all odds. Think about the first time you saw Rocky and you watched the scene where Rocky initially runs the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He’s alone, he’s winded, and he barely makes it to the top. Clearly there’s no way that this character is ready to get into the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world. Rocky is trying to train but he’s failing completely. The audience connects with Rocky’s struggle and his determination to overcome his feelings of inadequacy and failure. Later in the film when we see the iconic scene where Rocky runs the stairs again, he’s triumphant and he’s followed by scores of people who are encouraging him to succeed. Rocky’s has transformed from a down and out, isolated low level hoodlum with no future to a guy who becomes a hero in his community and is ready to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. The audience connects with Rocky in that moment. We’ve witnessed Rocky fail utterly and now we’re excited by his success. We want him to win. Rocky’s victory on the stairs would not have been so satisfying if we didn’t see him grapple with what appears to be inevitable defeat.
Also, an Epic Fail moment allows the character to experience a reboot or a flip-the-script moment where she can learn from her mistakes, develop a new strategy, and continue with her journey to reach her goal. The Epic Fail pitches the character into the depths of despair and the agony of defeat but it also allows her to reinvent herself. Armed with the pain and the heartache that the character experiences during the Epic Fail and combined the with the knowledge she gets from the reboot, the character is positioned to reach her goal and more than likely make an indelible impression on the minds of the audience.