The Small-Time Professional Screenwriter (STPS)

Getting Emotional:  How to Make Readers Feel What’s on the Page (STPS # 12)

A recent episode of the Scriptnotes podcast inspired me to write about emotion in screenplays.

Emotion in screenwriting has several aspects:

  • What the characters are feeling
  • How to show characters’ emotions on the page
  • How to evoke emotion in the reader
  • How emotion relates to plot

Let’s start with what John August and Craig Mazin had to say on Scriptnotes (which, again, you should be listening to (or reading the transcript of) every week if you’re serious about screenwriting).

What your characters are feeling

Why do character emotions matter?

As John says, “what characters are feeling so often impacts what they can do in a scene, how they would express themselves, literally what actions they would take.”

For example, in the example John gives, a character walking into a party will act very differently based on what they’re feeling:

imagine that you’re at a party and how differently you’d act or speak if for example you were terrified of someone in the room. Or if you were ravenously hungry. If you were ashamed about what you were wearing. If you were proud of the person this party was about. If you were disgusted by the level of filth in the room.

If you don’t know what a character FEELS in a given moment – and don’t convey that to the audience/reader — then a scene can feel inert – like you’re just moving mannequins around on a set.

Emotional truth is an element of plot logic and it makes characters come to life.

As Craig said on the podcast,

How many times in our Three Page Challenges have we said, “Why is this person speaking in a complete sentence when somebody has a knife to their throat?” You can’t. You just can’t. There’s a lack of emotional truth.

If a character acts/reacts in a way that doesn’t feel emotionally truthful – if it’s not the way a real person would act, or it’s not the way that character normally acts in this story – it can feel fake and take the reader (and audience) out of the story.

That’s not to say that characters have to be 100% emotionally consistent from the start to the end of a story. In fact, movies often involve a character’s emotional growth:  they may start out fearful and gain confidence, for example. Or they may initially repress their emotions and eventually learn to express them. But a significant change in emotional response shouldn’t just be random – it should be caused by something that a character experiences.

Sometimes realistic emotions don’t seem to really matter.  In many action movies, it’s all about the chases, the set pieces, and blowing shit up. Characters react with quips and snarls, but stereotypical action heroes rarely display fear even when circumstances would be terrifying to real mortals.

However, even when you’re dealing with action heroes, showing them experience a range of emotions can make them more engaging.

For example, in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones has just survived an ancient corpse-filled temple equipped with multiple booby traps including a giant rolling boulder. But he only freaks out when he’s confronted with his pilot’s pet snake. We see him experience fear.

Later, Indy again keeps his cool during the battle in the marketplace, where he whips out his pistol to shoot the assassin with the sword. But when he thinks Marion has been killed, he drinks himself into oblivion in a bar. We see him experience sorrow and loss.

How to show emotions on the page

The simplest and most mechanical way to show emotion on the page is with a “wryly” — a parenthetical under a character name that tells an actor how to say a line. For example:



That’s a pretty big gun you’ve got there.

Like most screenwriting devices, wrylies can be used well or badly.

A bad use of a wryly is to restate the obvious:



I hate you!

A better use of a wryly is to indicate that a line should be delivered differently from what a reader might expect:



I hate you.

Some more examples of good and bad wrylies are here and here.

I once got the very bad advice that all emotional responses MUST be visual. For example, you show that someone is angry by saying that their face is red. You show that someone is sad by saying that tears stream down their face.  I.e., “show, don’t tell.”

There’s nothing wrong with red faces and streaming tears – but they’re not all you have to work with.  You can do a lot with verbs, for example.

“She walks across the room” tells us nothing emotionally. It’s just moving the mannequin around the set.

“She saunters across the room, checking the mirror to see how she looks in her new dress” tells us this character is confident, happy, maybe a little vain.

You can also use descriptions that some deride as “unfilmable.”

For example, here’s a moment from a scene in the Oscar-winning script for Little Miss Sunshine. Frank has just been released from the hospital after a suicide attempt and is staying with his sister.

Frank sits on the cot in his nephew’s bedroom. On it is a Muppet sleeping bag with the Cookie Monster eating a cookie.

Frank glances at the sleeping bag, then averts his eyes.

This is pretty much the worst moment of his life.

The “action” here is very simple. A character sits. He looks. He looks away.

You can’t “see” the worst moment of his life in the same way you can see a red face or tears or a sauntering woman checking herself out in the mirror. But that last line describes (“tells”) what the character is feeling in a way that the actor can act.

An even more sophisticated way to convey emotion is through everything that’s happening in a scene.

Take a look at the opening pages of The Queen’s Gambit. It’s a three-page emotional journey about a woman who awakes fully dressed and soaking wet in a bathtub to find an unknown person in her bed and a hotel clerk knocking on her door. Somehow she has to pull herself together to face TV cameras and a formidable chess opponent.

There’s not a single wryly in those three pages, and little dialogue. Yet we have a very clear sense of how Beth is feeling from moment to moment.

Read scripts (you can find them via the links here) for emotional scenes in movies and series and see how the writers handled it. You’ll see a wide variety of styles and techniques.

How to evoke emotion in the reader

My favorite book about emotion in screenwriting is Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias.

As Iglesias says,

Good writing is good writing because you feel something when you read it. It’s why a great movie can be three hours long and you don’t even notice, while an awful ninety-minute one can feel like 90 hours.

That’s an important point:  stories without real emotions are often boring, no matter how much shit is blowing up on screen. That’s because we don’t care about the people the shit is blowing up around – we haven’t invested in them emotionally.

One very basic way to get an audience (or reader) emotionally invested in a character is via empathy. For example, readers feel sorry for Harry Potter because he’s an orphan and his aunt and her nasty family make him live in a closet under the stairs.

Another classic/trope is the “pat the dog” scene. You show a character being gratuitously nice to someone (or something) in order to convey that they’re a good person the audience/reader should emphasize with. (Conversely, villains will often have a “kick the dog” scene.)

Iglesias offers dozens of other examples of how emotion can be evoked using character description, scene structure, dialogue, etc. I’m not going to summarize the whole book. Just read it. And take notes.

How emotion relates to plot

In traditional Hollywood storytelling, the characters are in pursuit of some goal, and the pursuit of the goal forms the plot of the movie. The characters want to win the game, get the girl/boy, escape/defeat the villain, save the world, get rich, foil/solve the crime, get home, find the missing child, etc. The movie is over when they either succeed or fail in the original goal, or achieve some other goal, or realize that what they thought they wanted isn’t really that important (and something else is).

But producer Lindsay Doran, in her legendary talk on “The Psychology of Storytelling,” points out:

Audiences don’t care about accomplishments. They care about the moment when a character shares the accomplishment with the person they love.

(There’s an abbreviated TedTalk version of her lecture here.)

Her point is that movies often pay off emotionally AFTER the physical “thing” is accomplished.

Here’s one obvious example: Luke and the gang grin at each other during the medal ceremony AFTER they accomplish the goal of blowing up the Death Star.

But the examples can be more subtle. At the end of Gladiator, Maximus has accomplished his goal of defeating the evil emperor – but he’s dead. We’re led to believe that he’ll be reunited with his murdered wife and son and be able to share his accomplishment with them (that he avenged their deaths), in the afterlife.

At the end of Parasite, several characters are dead and it seems like all is lost. But the son in the poor family fantasizes about how he’ll rise in the world and save his father, reuniting what’s left of the family as he shows his father what a success he’s become.

(In a tragedy, on the other hand, the main character often ends up alone, without anyone to share emotionally with – as in The Irishman and The Godfather and many other mob/crime movies.)

If you’re telling a goal-oriented happy-ending story, think carefully about that “share the accomplishment” moment at the end. Obviously, for the “share the accomplishment” moment to have an emotional impact, the relationships of the people sharing that moment have to be developed throughout the story – not just tacked on at the end.

Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) also has a great long video on story endings here. He ties together the external climax (physical goal) with the internal climax (emotional need) and the philosophical climax (relating to theme).




A Screenwriter’s Guide to the Sundance Film Festival: Maximizing the Bang for Your Buck [STPS #11]

The Sundance Film Festival is one of the great movie meccas. About 120,000 people (1/3 from Utah)  attended all or part of the 11-day event in 2019, and many indie filmmakers dream about having their films selected by the Festival.

The competition is fierce. For the 2019 Festival, 14,200 submissions — a record high – vied for slots, including those for 112 feature films.

Many films (and some future Oscar-winners) got a turbo boost from Sundance buzz, including (as the Festival website notes):

Sorry to Bother You, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Eighth Grade, Get Out , The Big Sick, Mudbound, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fruitvale Station, Whiplash, Brooklyn, Precious, The Cove, Little Miss Sunshine, An Inconvenient Truth , Napoleon Dynamite, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Reservoir Dogs and sex, lies, and videotape. 

If you have a film accepted to Sundance, then attending is a no-brainer. Of course you’ll want to be on hand when Amazon, Apple, and other streaming services are conducting bidding wars for Festival favorites.

But what if you’re “just” a screenwriter – and maybe one without any credits? Is it still worth it?

Well…. maybe.

Unlike, for example, the Austin Film Festival, Sundance isn’t especially oriented toward screenwriting. You’re not likely to pick up any great screenwriting advice or even meet any other screenwriters.

But Sundance is fun – if your idea of fun is:

  • shivering in the ticket-holders’ line so you can tell your friends about movies that won’t be in theaters for 10 months,
  • marveling at the perfection of Lupita Nyong’o as she talks about how she learned to play the ukulele for the zombie film Little Monsters,
  • strategizing about how to get into parties you haven’t actually been invited to, and
  • watching Jeff Goldblum get mobbed by paparazzi outside the Hollywood Reporter

So it’s maybe not for everyone.

But if you decide it’s for you, here are some ways to save money and maximize the value of the experience.

Book Everything Early

 Sundance is hella expensive, and things can sell out fast.

Tickets, Passes, and Packages

Passes and packages for the 2020 Festival go on sale October 17, 2019. One important thing to know is that the Festival is divided into the “first half” (January 23-28, 2020) and the “second half” (January 29-February 2). The first half is where most of the action is, and the town of Park City, Utah, where most of the Festival takes place, really clears out by the second half.

An express pass to the first half is – gulp — $4,000. But you can get a more limited pass for as little as $300.

A 10-ticket package runs $700 for the first half; but a package of six shorts tickets is only $100.

Utah natives get special deals, and individual film tickets are available for $25.

Ignite” is a special package for people age 18-25 that costs $250 and gets you 10 movie tickets, five wait-list vouchers, access to special panels, and an official credential – which is the golden ticket for getting into many events.

If you don’t care so much about watching movies, but just want to get into the non-ticketed events (like panels), an official credential costs $300 for the entire festival.  That might be your best option if you’re just going to Sundance for the schmoozing and star-spotting potential and don’t qualify for an Ignite pass.

Boston screenwriter Adam Pachter has been to Sundance three years in a row. The first time, he saw a lot of movies and went to few parties. In 2019, he saw one film and went to a lot of parties. As he says,

This may be Sundance heresy, but for me a movie represents 2-3 hours when I can’t meet anyone. As a screenwriter based outside of Hollywood, networking is essential. And I can meet more people at one Sundance party than in a week or two in LA . . . because in LA, those people aren’t ever at the same event!

At just one event this year, I met an accomplished director, a best-selling author, the founder of a TV festival, and the head of lit at a major management company.

Overall I attended more than 20 events in three days, and almost every one was worthwhile. Sundance is a great place to meet filmmakers and learn about their work and your shared areas of interest. Then I go home and watch the films later.

You can pick up a few individual tickets for films, just so you have something to talk about with the people you meet at venues like the Filmmaker’s Lodge.


The cost of airfare depends, of course, on where you’re coming from. For US tickets, it’s considered wise to shop for tickets between three months and 30 days before departure; for international flights, the window is five and a half months to one and a half months. But with 120,000 people coming into town, some flights (especially from places like LA and New York) will book up early. Look for flights into Salt Lake City – the nearest major airport.


As of mid-October, 26% of the Airbnb listing for Park City for the first week of the Festival have been booked. If you want to stay in the middle of things, even a dorm bed in a hostel will run about $120 per night.  You can get a studio condo for $399 per night.  If you want to splurge and stay at the Park City Waldorf, a junior suite will cost $1248 per night.

It’s much cheaper to stay outside of Park City, and drive in for the Festival every day, but it’s also less convenient. The savings on accommodations may be eaten up by the cost of a rental car and gas, you have to be comfortable driving on potentially treacherous mountain roads, and of course you can’t drive yourself back to your motel if you’ve been drinking at a party.

You don’t really need to stay near Main Street in Park City, since Festival venues are all over town and frequent shuttle busses run between them. Unless you like long, cold walks or want to pay for a lot of ride-shares, pick a location that’s close to a shuttle route.

Pro tip: The temperature will usually be around freezing, so dress warmly. This means a parka, long underwear, hat, gloves, and waterproof boots with good tread that can handle icy sidewalks. Sundance isn’t about being fashionable, and even movie stars mostly dress casually.

Bring Friends

One of the best ways to save money on lodging is to share with friends. For example, you can get an eight-bed condo on Airbnb for $995 per night, making the per-person cost “only” a little more than $100 per night. Having a real kitchen will also let you save money on food once you get sick of the free granola bars (see below).

Attending with friends also gives you a posse to hang out with, and potentially expands your networking opportunities (assuming you all try to meet OTHER people and don’t just hang out together).

Eat the Free Food

As soon as you arrive in Park City, it becomes obvious that Sundance isn’t just about the cinematic art. It’s a trade show.

Everything that CAN be sponsored WILL be sponsored. Main Street is lined with “lounges” sponsored by brands: clothes, liquor, cars, banking, etc.

Food can appear in unexpected ways. You may be waiting in line when Postmates starts hurling donuts around.

Swag is ubiquitous and varied. You may even be handed a free DNA test from (a $99 value) and discover (as I did) that you’re 36% Norwegian and have a far more interesting family history than you ever imagined.

In exchange for your attention, vendors will ply you with free food and drink. If you can live on lattes, chai-flavored caramel corn, beef jerky, and granola bars, you’re golden.

If you do have to break down and actually PAY for food, some of the cheapest options are in the concession tents next to the main film venues.

Pro tip: Stay hydrated! You’ll be high in the mountains and it’s dry. You may get a free water bottle as part of your Festival package, or you may get one as swag. If all else fails, you can buy an official one as a useful souvenir at one of the many Festival shops.

Win a Contest

There are several ways that you can go to Sundance for free.

By becoming a Sundance Institute Member (starting at $65) by November 3, 2019 you’ll be automatically entered for a chance to win a trip that includes airfare, lodging, passes, party invites, dinner, and a goody bag. You can also enter the content without becoming a member.

The Black List sponsors the Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship, which awards one screenwriter each year an all-expenses paid trip to the Festival and an opportunity to meet with producer Cassian Elwes (Mudbound, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club).

Unrepresented feature writers with an “independent sensibility” who have made less than $5,000 in their film or television writing careers can opt into consideration via the Black List website until November 8, 2019.


Sundance is run by more than 2,400 volunteers from around the world. Applications are open from July to November. Benefits include access to non-ticketed venues as space permits, volunteer screenings, a winter jacket with the Sundance logo, a party, and snacks.

Get a Journalism Gig

 If you’ve ever covered a film festival in the past (and have the clips to prove it), you can apply for a press pass that will get you a credential and 10 free tickets for screenings.

The initial press accreditation application window is open until November 15.

Don’t Stare at Your Phone

 If you’re going to Sundance to network, you’ll need to make an effort to actually meet people. You’ll have lots of opportunities, because a lot of the Sundance experience involves waiting in line – to get into movies, to get on the shuttle buses, etc. Keep your phone in your parka pocket and strike up conversations with the people next to you.

“What have you seen?” is the standard conversation-starter. Asking “What brings you to the Festival?” can be an efficient way to find out what role other people play in the industry.

Pro tip:  bring one or more portable phone batteries and an assortment of charging cables, and you can be the hero of your stand-by line.

Bring Business Cards

 If you want to stay in touch with the people you meet, it’s a good idea to have business cards. Don’t scatter these like seed corn on every flat surface; no one’s going to email you randomly. But if you hit it off with someone you meet in line and want to keep the conversation going, a card can be useful.

When you collect cards from others, it’s smart to follow up with an email after you get home, mentioning that you enjoyed meeting them and wishing them good results with their filmmaking projects.

Try to Get into Parties

If you can get into them, Sundance parties offer prime networking potential.

The problem is getting into them.

Big names obviously get proper invitations to big parties sponsored by studios, streamers, and Hollywood agencies. Those are pretty much impossible to crash unless you’re buddies with someone in the business.

But there are plenty of other parties that you can get into with only a Festival credential.  Some of these are listed in the Festival brochure under “Offscreen.”

Often, information about parties circulates by word-of-mouth – another reason to talk to people in line and on shuttle busses.

To find parties, you can also:

  • haunt social media (#sundance), and ask your #FilmTwitter buddies to help you out,
  • Google Sundance + party + 2020,
  • call/email anyone you know who has any connection to the movie industry and ask them to forward invites,
  • check Eventbrite and other event sites, and
  • follow the crowd from any party you get into to the next one.

If you do get invited to a party, be sure to Rsvp, or you may be left off the list at the door.

Come Early and Leave Early

If you can only afford to attend part of Sundance, it’s best to arrive by January 22 so you’re ready to schmooze by the 23d. As noted above, things ramp down quickly after January 28.

Another reason to come early is that Park City is a ski resort – so there’s a risk of being snowed out and missing some of the fun.

It’s impossible to predict whether attending the Sundance Film Festival will be useful to your screenwriting career. But if you love movies (and the people who make them), Sundance is well-worth adding to your bucket list.


Feedback on the First Page of Your Script [STPS #10]

I looked at the first pages of some scripts recently posted for feedback on reddit, to see if I could spot any common issues. Turns out I could.

 1.  Character intros are over-written.


A woman by the name of KENNEDY, a short blonde girl, is sitting within her bedroom staring out of the window.

Suggested revision:

KENNEDY (16, short and blonde) stares out the window.

a. You don’t need to say that she’s a woman if you’re using the pronoun “she” for the character.

b. You don’t need to call her both a woman and a girl.

c. If the slugline says that the scene is in her room, you don’t need to repeat in the action line that she’s sitting in her room.

2. Action lines are over-written.


HIDEO (mid 30’s Japanese male, glasses, well dressed, chubby build with a kind face) is walking through a large industrial, harshly lit room. Hideo is walking through rows of mature marijuana plants, with his shoulders brushing against the leaves as he passes. He can be seen counting a large bundle of CASH.

Suggested revision:

HIDEO (mid 30’s, Japanese) walks between rows of mature marijuana plants, counting a large bundle of CASH.

This also has issues with #1, #5, and #11.

3. There are things in the action lines that the audience can’t see or know.

“They both work for the same boss.”

How do we KNOW they work for the same boss, just by looking at them?

“TESS (25, sleep deprived) sits upright on her bed, facing her tightly locked door.”

How can we SEE that it’s tightly locked (as opposed to simply CLOSED) unless you show us that there are multiple bolts or something?

4. There are basic mistakes in grammar, word usage, and punctuation.

“Shes” should be “she’s.”

“Its fine” should be “it’s fine.”

“Hi mom” should be “Hi, mom.”

“I already talked to her, it’s okay” should be “I already talked to her. It’s okay.”

Sentences should start with capital letters. They should end with punctuation – usually a period.

Don’t ignore the little squiggles. Fix your mistakes when they’re flagged.

5. There are too many present continuous (“-ing”) forms of verbs rather than simple present.

Simple present (walks, talks, eats, hits, etc.) is the default for screenplays.


HIDEO (mid 30’s Japanese male, glasses, well dressed, chubby build with a kind face) is walking through a large industrial, harshly lit room. Hideo is walking through rows of mature marijuana plants, with his shoulders brushing against the leaves as he passes. He can be seen counting a large bundle of CASH.

Suggested revision:

HIDEO (mid 30’s, Japanese) walks between rows of mature marijuana plants, counting a large bundle of CASH.

That’s not to say you can never use an “-ing” form. In the revised example above, “counting” works because he’s counting as he walks.

6. Major characters are introduced with no description at all.

“A MAN rinses his BLOODY hands into a rusty looking sink.”

Is this guy 19 or 90? Asian or Caucasian? Clean or grubby? Is he wearing a business suit or cargo shorts?

Give us SOME kind of a picture if this is the main character.

See this podcast about character intros in general.

7.  “We see” is used when it’s really not needed.

I’m not totally against “we see,” but it should be reserved for when it’s the best way to convey something to the reader.

“We see Peter tinkering with his web shooters” can be just “Peter tinkers with his web-shooters.”

8. Action/description lines are too long.

Keep them to no more than four lines (NOT four sentences) except in very rare situations.

Long blocs of text tend to make the reader tune out and skim.

Think of each action bloc as a single shot. Many/most can be just one or two lines.

9. There are TOO MANY CAPS.

Suddenly, it BURSTS open, and a group of six ARMED MEN flood into the room. They’re dressed like soldiers, but their EQUIPMENT and CAMOUFLAGE OUTFITS are more than well-worn. ASSAULT RIFLES raised, they quickly spread out and search the room.

Vivian opens it and EXITS the bathroom.

Pools of green waste dot the wild, moon-like landscape. TOXIC, LIME- COLORED RAIN eats away at the sign. It hangs high above the entrance to a MINING BAY that is steeped in billowing SMOKE – as white and as striking as the SHOWER OF LIGHT coming from a nearby star.

Reserve caps for character intros, non-human sounds, and REALLY important props and actions, or it feels like YOU’RE SHOUTING YOUR SCRIPT AT US.

10. There’s no description after the slugline.

Give us at least one sentence of description to tell us what we’re looking at before a character starts talking.

11. Scene descriptions are over-written.


Outside the window of the hotel room is rows and rows of tall buildings located in Downtown Chicago.

Cars honk, the occassional ambulance can be heard, and smoke comes out of the chimneys visible on top of the shorter buildings.

You could just say “The window looks out on downtown Chicago.”

(Also, that’s not how you spell “occasional,” and “downtown” doesn’t need to be capitalized…)


Yeah, you could say that a lot of this is trivia. But it’s the kind of trivia that can get you off on the wrong foot with a reader, and it’s easy enough to fix — so why not make an effort to make a better first impression?

How to find an agent, sell a script, and “break in” as a screenwriter [STPS #9]

When people ask questions on reddit/Quora/etc. like:
  • “how do I sell my script?”

  • “how can I find an agent/manager?”

  • how do I get a screenwriting job?”

They’re likely to get short and simple answers like:

If you want a more detailed and useful answer, you’re going to have to do some homework. Here are some resources.

Books about how to sell a script and “break in”

Breakfast with Sharks by Michael Lent

Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds by Michael Hauge

The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters by Karl Iglesias

Getting it Write and Breaking In by Lee Jessup

The New Screenwriter’s Survival Guide by Max Adams

Books about the screenwriting life (including breaking-in stories)



A Screenwriter’s Guide to Getting (and Keeping) an Agent

You Finished Your Screenplay — Now What?

WGA Writer Explains How To Become A Pro Screenwriter

Just google “screenplay marketing” or “how do I get a screenwriting agent” or “how do I sell my screenplay” or similar to get tens of thousands of more links like this one.


Most screenwriters think about marketing LONG before they have anything worth selling.

How do you know if you’re ready?

You may be ready when:

  • you have at least two very good features or pilots,
  • people who know what they’re talking about (not your buddies, not your mom) say they’re good,
  • you start placing in contests like the Nicholl and Austin,
  • you get into programs like the ones listed here, and/or
  • you get 8s and up on The Black List.

Being “ready” doesn’t mean that you’re likely to sell a script or get a writing gig, however. The odds of that happening are incredibly low.

But waiting until your work is ready, and doing your homework (see resources above) before hitting the market can save you from wasting time and effort and potentially burning bridges you may later want to cross.


Structure 101: More than one way to build a screenplay (STPS #8)

What do we mean when we talk about the “structure” of a screenplay?

“Structure” isn’t the same as an outline or a beat sheet, though outlines and beat sheets are tools you can use to develop a structure.

Structure is like a framework or a skeleton. It’s what holds your script together and keeps it from being a pile of word mush.

Structure involves a lot of elements. For example, it can encompass:

  • Causation: THIS causes THAT
  • Dramatic Questions/Suspense: What’s going to happen next? What’s really going on here?
  • Pace: How fast/slow does the story move?
  • Variation: in scene length, intensity, etc.
  • Obstacles: what problems do the characters bump into?
  • Reversals: changes in direction/goals/wants, good-to-bad and vice-verse, etc.
  • Plants (clues), Reveals (surprises), and Callbacks (references to earlier events)
  • Framing Devices (prologues, epilogues, stories-within-stories, etc.)

Structure Doesn’t Mean Formula

I don’t believe in any “one-size-fits-all” theory of structure. Also, I’m highly suspicious of any overelaborate structure model, because that can lead to formulaic, paint-by-numbers scripts.

I don’t believe that if you do X by page 10 and Y by page 24 you’re well on your way to a great script. That’s just silly (but too many screenwriting books are based on such silliness).

But if you’re not applying any structural thinking to your script, you can end up with mush.

So here are some ways of thinking about structure.

This happens and then this happens and then…

Beginning screenwriters often write scripts that are basically “this happens and then this happens and then this happens” or (worse) “these people talk and then those people talk and then some other people talk.”

When a story lacks structure, it’s often called “episodic” – and that’s “bad.”

(This is confusing, because “episodic” also simply means a story told in episodes – like a TV series.)

The “bad” kind of episodic is when a story is just a series of events that are loosely tied together. There are some good examples here.

Episodic stories are usually boring – even if each event is something “entertaining” like sex, violence, spectacle, pratfalls, etc.

  • If all you have is sex, you have porn.
  • If all you have is violence, you’ve got a boxing match, or a bullfight, or whatever.
  • If all you’ve got is spectacle, you’ve got a fireworks display.
  • If all you have is pratfalls, you’ve got clowns in a circus.

Those things may be entertaining – but they’re not movies or TV shows. They’re not stories.

Even if you combine sex, violence, spectacle, and pratfalls, you STILL don’t have a plot for a movie or TV show — unless these things take place within some kind of structure. (And it will still be boring unless we care about the people involved.)

Therefore and But

Episodic screenplays are all “and then,” as Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) discuss in this talk:

We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked. Basically. You’ve got something pretty boring.

What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘so this happens’ right? And then this happens,’ no no no no, It should be ‘this happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’

“Because” is about causation.

“But” is about reversals.

Stories and Plots

E.M Forster, the English novelist who wrote A Room with a View (1908), Howard’s End (1910) and A Passage to India (all of which have been adapted into movies and/or series) famously wrote:

A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality –  “The king died and then the queen died” is a story.’ But ‘“the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.

Again, he’s talking about causation.

He also wrote that a story “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.”

He’s talking about suspense – about raising questions that the audience wants to have answered.

Suspense and Dramatic Questions

A leading cause of mushy screenplays is the lack of a series of dramatic questions.

The answers to big dramatic questions are usually obvious and thus boring.

  • In a superhero movie, will the hero(s) prevail in the end? Of course!
  • In a rom-com, will the couple end up together? #duh!

Often, the audience knows HOW the story is going to end when they go into the theater or sit down on the sofa.

What makes it interesting is all the little dramatic questions and answers along the way.

For example, imagine you’re seeing Star Wars for the first time. Here are some of the dramatic questions you’ll be encountering:

  • Why is this big spaceship chasing this little spaceship?
  • Who’s the lady with the weird hair and the blaster?
  • What’s she doing with that droid?
  • Why is this Luke guy living with his aunt and uncle? What happened to his parents?
  • Who’s Obi Wan Kenobi and why is he the only one who can help?
  • What’s up with “The Force”?
  • What’s Han going to do about Greedo?
  • How is Luke going to rescue the princess?
  • How’s the gang going to get out of that trash compactor?
  • Where does blue milk come from?

Some of the questions are answered soon after they’re raised. Others don’t get answered until the end of the movie – or even in other movies.

Episodic (in the good way) TV shows are all about the dramatic questions – including ones than can span multiple seasons:

  • Who are Jon Snow’s real parents?
  • How can our heroes fight the Night King?
  • Who’s going to sit on the Iron Throne?

Audiences can love or hate how you answer the questions – but if you don’t even ask those questions, they’ll get bored.

If you don’t have at least one dramatic question “running” at all times, your story stops dead.  Or it’s just coasting along with the engine off until you raise another one.

Three Acts

A really old (but still useful) model of story-telling structure involves three acts:

  • Act 1: A character (or group) is in a situation. A problem/goal arises.
  • Act 2:  The character/group confronts that problem/goal. Complications ensue.
  • Act 3: The character/group succeeds or fails.

Occasionally, like with Job in the Bible, shit just happens to a character. But it’s usually much more interesting when a character actively tries to solve a problem or achieve some goal.

Probably the most famous explainer of the three-act structure for screenwriting is Syd Field in Screenplay.

A similar model is in How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Viki King.

Hero’s Journey

Another really old (but still useful) model of structure involves a “hero’s journey.”

Joseph Campbell is often associated with this model, but it’s as old as story-telling.

Basically, the hero’s journey

involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.

This model was applied to screenwriting in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

“Save the Cat”

Save the Cat is a series of books started by the late Blake Snyder. Some people love these books; others hate or sneer at them.

The famous/infamous Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BSBS) is formulaic. It can also be useful in helping you start to mold your mush into a story. I often use a BSBS at the very early stages of figuring out a script. That doesn’t mean I’m wedded to it or obsess about what happens on what page. (Also, I loathe his page 5 beat.)

It’s all about theme

Craig Mazin (HBO’s Chernobyl and the Scriptnotes podcast) says structure is all about theme.

He says it’s about asking what your character believes at the beginning, and what you want that character to believe at the end.

The structure of a script thus arises out of the character confronting, and wrestling with, that thematic question.

He talks about it here.

The Unified Theory of Screenwriting

In this interview, I talked with Ashley Miller (Thor, X-Men First Class).  Here’s what he had to say about structure:

I’m not a fan of anything that smacks of formula—“If you do this, your screenplay will work.”

I don’t care if you’re talking about Christopher Vogler, or if you’re talking about Robert McKee, or if you’re talking about Blake Snyder. I don’t believe that’s how the creation process works.

What they’ve each identified is an analytical tool. They’ve identified a way of looking at a product in retrospect and telling you what the parts are.

In other words, many structure models are autopsies – but they’re not recipes.

Miller combined a bunch of different structure models into a chart that he could apply to his own work – as a diagnostic tool AFTER he wrote one or more drafts.

I’m not saying, “This isn’t working because it fails to meet any of these standards.”

What I’m asking is, “Am I getting an insight about what’s making me feel this bump in the story?

What’s making me hear and smell the gears grinding?”

You can see the chart at the link above.


There isn’t one best answer to “how do I structure a screenplay?”

Understanding different ideas about structure can give you tools that can make your script better.