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Screenplay Screenwriting Principal Conflict Character Arc three Act Structure

After reading an excerpt from Steve Martin’s new memoir in the February Smithsonian Magazine, I was astonished to learn that it took him ten years to perfect the effortless lunacy he projected in his 1976 appearance on Saturday Night Live.

There is no substitution for practice, no matter how talented the performer. And screenwriting is as nuanced and performance based as acting, directing or any of the other myriad skills in life. It’s just that the screenwriter is the first crewmember “on set,” and very often the first to get thrown off it.

But before practice, acquire the tools. Screenplays are as heavily structured as a legal document. Getting one thing wrong will get it filed in the waste basket.

Here I am heavily indebted to Robert McKee’s “Ten Commandments of Screenwriting” from his highly regarded story seminars and books, and when I cite him he will get the credit.

Steven King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” is a candid discussion of King’s life, his days as a struggling writer/high school English teacher, his accident, and good bare-knuckled advice to the next generation of writers. If McKee provides the passion, King provides the structure for this article.

The rest is what I’ve learned.


1. Respect your audience. (McKee) ALWAYS give them what they want. NEVER give them what they expect.

2. All stories are about someone who desperately wants something, and someone else who desperately wants to prevent them from the getting of it. This is your PRINCIPAL CONFLICT.

Okay. Most stories. The most famous exception to this rule is the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” which is more of a buddy story. But no doubt the fragments that survive are only the beginning and end of a 27 century old saga that bookends other episodes made up by campfire raconteurs relating how King Gilgamesh and his Tarzan-like pal Enkido kick around Mesopotamia fighting bad guys and solving crimes like “Cagney and Lacey,” only not as butch.

3. Never make it too easy for your protagonist to achieve his goals or acquire his tools. This is the source of your DRAMATIC TENSION.

If you absolutely cannot avoid allowing your hero to get something too easily, at least have him obtain it by cleverness.

4. The protagonist must finish what he starts. (McKee)

The problem or conflict the hero encounters at the beginning of the story must be solved by him at the end, even if means accidently poisoning his mother or poking out his eyes. This is your principal CHARACTER ARC.

COROLLARY 4A: The villain must complete his character arc, too.

Hero and villain can even inhabit the same person. A hero with profound character flaws is called a SYMPATHETIC MONSTER in Hollywood-speak, though this is by no means a modern invention. Both “Othello” (a royal hot-head) and “Oedipus Rex” (that accidental terrorist) are classic sympathetic monsters.

The reason that a flawed hero works is that it increases the ROOTING INTEREST.

5. Observe the THREE ACT STRUCTURE. There’s a reason for it.

Act I: You get about 25 pages to set up the universe of your story, usually centered around an INCITING ELEMENT; this is your First Act. (Most scripts are a minute a page.)

Act II. The second act opening curtain is sometimes called “Crossing the Threshold” or “Entering the New World.” Here you get about 75 pages to explore the permutations of the Principal Conflict – the hero’s dilemmas – until the second act curtain falls about page 95 with “The Destruction of the Hero’s Plan.” This is typically where he/she is depicted at his/her lowest point.

Act III: The last 15-20 pages is the Resolution where the hero triumphs, or bites it, or like in “No Country for Old Men” there may not be an ending at all. The best advice I read comes from William Goldman in “Adventures in the Screen Trade” when he wrote (I paraphrase) ‘When you get to the end, write like the wind.’

There are other structures.

Plays pan out in two acts. Television drama takes four to five acts, plus an opening Teaser or Cold Open. Shakespeare wrote his plays in five acts. And Steven Spielberg is sometimes criticized for his lengthy fourth acts; though “A.I.” absolutely demanded it.

And not all plots are linear. But first, master the three act structure.

Believe it or not, “The Simpsons” has a solid Aristotelian Three Act structure.

6. Don’t unnecessarily complicate when simplicity will do. Robert McKee advises the opposite of this rule, and he has good reason. But over-complication is not for beginners. This is Occam’s Razor for screenwriting. And this is especially true for the BACK STORY, which may or may not be explored in the narrative. (When did Luke Skywalker learn that Darth Vader was his father?)

Unless it’s a mystery, everything should be on the plate before the audience.

7. Don’t write on the nose. Employ SUBTEXT. (McKee; actually this is everyone’s rule.)

People rarely say exactly what they think. Conversation is negotiation. We tend to circle each other analytically when we meet; an ancient hunter/prey behavior. For creative dialogue it’s okay to beat around the bush a little.

COROLLARY 7A: In a romance, NEVER let the lovers say “I love you” until the very last page. You’ll note that in many of the funnier romantic comedies, the lovers start out hating or fearing or suspecting each other of nefarious motives.

8. Always strive to show. Not explain. Movies are not radio. (McKee)

9. Strive not to use false mystery, cheap surprise or red herrings to advance a story. (McKee; this is almost a Corollary to guideline 6.) You only have two hours. Stick to the story. Steven King put it this way: “If it doesn’t have anything to do with the story, don’t put it in.”

Industry Old Timers put it this way: “If you can’t film it, don’t write it.”

10. People tend to speak in fragmentary sentences for no longer than it takes to exhale one breath.

And remove all those “Ohs,” “Wells” and “Nows” from the dialogue. The actors will just put them back in later.

11. Know your world as God knows this one. (McKee) In other words, research, research, RESEARCH!

There is such a thing as too much research; you can lose the rhythm of the dialogue that way. But it’s easier to trim it out than put it in.

12. Observe proper screenplay formant. This is the pickiest rule of the lot, but people in Hollyweird are crazy bad ugly for proper screenplay format.

I have no room to explain all the rules here, but one of the best guidebooks I’ve read on the subject is “The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style” by Christopher Riley (Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA, 2005). I think this is the style manual for Warner Brothers Studios.

It’s also necessary to read other screenplays (about 10) in the standard format. As there are as many subtle differences as screenplay writers, you’ll find it helpful to know what’s different and what’s standard. Some screenwriters even post their scripts for free on their websites.

But remember, people in Hollyweird are crazy bad ugly for proper screenplay format. I once had a script tossed aside because it wasn’t in 12-point Courier type, it was in 11-point.

13. Read as often and as much as you can.

I read Fiction, for inspiration; Non-fiction, for ideas; Writing and film manuals, to keep me humble.

14. “Write your first draft with the door closed. Rewrite your last draft with the door open.” (King)

Your first draft is only for yourself. This is the draft where you write all the messy embarrassing intimate stuff that you’d rather not another soul should read. This is the draft you shred.

Your last draft is for the world to read, because that’s who you’re writing for.

15. Try not to have your characters accomplish a task with an expensive elaborate stunt, when an inexpensive clever one will do.

The screenwriter also has the privilege of being the first crewmember on set, so when you write, keep an eye on the budget.

For established screenwriters with profitable track records, the exact opposite of this guideline will be expected of them.

16. It’s all nonsense.

“Nonsense” isn’t actually the exact word employed by William Goldman in “Adventures in the Screen Trade” (this is a family site), but after three years in Hollyweirdland I’ve come to understand what he means. And it is this:

Contrary to what Hippocrates said, in Hollywood art is not long. It is the flavor of the week, as fleeting as cigarette smoke, as substantial as a hallucination; just as ephemeral, as vilified, and far more toxic.

There is a “Simpsons” episode in which Homer pitches a TV drama to a famous director about a hero who’s a talking pie, a notion the famous director dismisses as pure idiocy. In the last scene, the famous director pitches a movie about the serious sensitive issue of love lost, redeemed and regained. The producer asks, “What else have you got?” (They actually ask it that way.) The famous director replies, “I’ve got one about a talking pie.” The famous director not only descends to the level of pure idiocy, but steals someone else’s idea to get there. To which the famous producer replies, “Tell me more about the talking pie.”

Believe it or not, this is not far from the reality of it.

If you think I’m wrong, just check out “Beowulf,” which is a good example of what I call the Hollywood Philosophy of the VERY LOUD: Why paint with a brush, when a sledgehammer will do.

17. No one knows anything.

Another of William Goldman’s rules. You’ll have to read his “Adventures…” to get the full story. Suffice to say that if your project is going nowhere (or worse, being mangled) in the studio system, their way of avoiding telling you the truth, is not to make eye contact and shrug their shoulders. Cuz’…

Nobody knows anything.

18. Everybody knows something.

Anyone desiring to break into the entertainment industry needs to live in one of five places: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and to some degree, Chicago or Toronto, as both has a Second City and a robust film community. All told though, if you want to break into the movies, L.A. is where you need to be, if for no other reason than it’s a more comfortable city to live in after they cut your utility services from lack of a job.

Example: You’ve all been told there are only Seven Basic Plots. One day, there they were, in the Op-Ed page of the L.A. Times: Voyage and Return (or Road Trip), The Quest, Confronting the Monster, Rags to Riches, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. “Star Wars” is all of those.

In fact, I think this list originated in a film class in which the professor gave his class the Seven Basic Plots assignment. If they came up with Seven, they got an A. If they came up with more than Seven, they got an A+.

19. Tell the truth. Reflect the real world.

My sister, the actress, put it another way: There’s not enough parts written for older women. And neither, I would add, for Asians and Latinos.

Even a city as white-bread as Louisville has a Vietnamese beauty parlor, and Chinese, Thai and Indian restaurants, all within walking distance from my apartment. And Latinos seem to working on every street corner road crew.

So make that first screenplay small, but honest. And remember, there are lots of out-of-work middle-aged Latino/Asian women who’d kill for a good speaking role. And they might help get your foot in the door.

20. Know your industry terms.

There’s a One Sheet: which is (despite what “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting” says) the one-liner on the movie poster that beckons interest. A Treatment: 6 to 12 pages explaining all the key plot elements of a screenplay. A Bible: a longer treatment usually for a TV show, only with a list of character bios in the show. A Show Runner: usually the creator/head writer/producer of a TV show. And a C-47: which, believe it or not, is the movie set term for a clothes pin. This isn’t by any means a complete list, but should give you some indication what you’re in for.

21. Know your technical terms.

Here’s your homework: Master Shot, Fourth Wall, Bounce, B-Story, McGuffin (or MacGuffin), Rack Focus…

22. If there’s a gun on the wall in Act I, it must go off by Act III.

This rule is generally attributed to Anton Chekov. But Steven King also renders a version of it, adding:

“The reverse is also true; if the main character’s lucky Hawaiian shirt plays a part at the end of the story, it must be introduced early. Otherwise it looks like a deus ex machina (which of course it is).” (“On Writing,” p. 283.)

23. If you must have a pet animal in a scene, take care to make it a dog, not a cat.

Dogs are immanently trainable. Cats are as feral now as when the first African Wildcat walked into a human settlement 10 thousand years ago to feed on the mice that the granary attracted.

You think Jonesy the Cat was acting in “Alien” (1979)? Ridley Scott tied Jonesy to the floor and brought in a great big box. When it came time for the cat to arch his back and hiss at the alien, Scott had the front door of the box opened to reveal the biggest Doberman pinscher they could find. That’s how you get a cat to act.

24. The four categories a beginning screenwriter should never attempt are:

Historical Drama, or Costume Drama. They’re too expensive.

Baseball Movies, or Civil War Dramas. Foreign audiences don’t understand them.

Dramas, or Melodramas.

All of the above categories are usually “branded,” that is they have a pre-existing audience by way of a novel, graphic novel, comic book, historical incident, or personality. And, the experts warn, NOBODY ACTUALLY SEES DRAMAS.

And Cartoons, or any other kind of Animated Film. These are usually written by studio insiders.

By now, you’re thinking, what can I write? Here’s the answer…

25. The easiest scripts to sell are Horror, Comedy, and Romantic Comedy, because they’re low budget.

And EVERYBODY’S looking for the next “Clerks,” the irony being that this type of script doesn’t leap off the page. “Clerks” only appealed to the vision of the young man who made it, Kevin Smith, for a legendary $27,000. Which would have paid for exactly 9 and a-half seconds of “Spiderman 3.”

26. Enter script contests.

Unless you have family in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York or Toronto (or are willing to move there), film school probably isn’t a good educational investment.

But if you’re waaaaay outside the system, entering script contests is the easiest way of getting noticed. There are shady contest runners, but they will be apparent after you do a little research about them on the Internet. There are also script contests that prefer particular types of material, but those will be obvious, too.

F.Y.I.: Hollywood loves lawyers for some reason. If you have a law degree, and are young and personable, your period of unemployment will be about one month.

27. Don’t aim for an Oscar nomination with your first script. Though one notes that the exceptions’ to this rule outnumber the population of Albania.

Here’s a look at what usually wins at Oscar time, in order of frequency:

The Event Picture, The Message Picture (usually about tolerance), The Big-Picture Picture (the opposite of the Event Picture), The Sentimental Favorite (seldom the best movie of the year, this is a vote for Hollywood’s favorite son, the poor boy who made good, the trooper, the little train that could, the old warhorse who kept plugging away despite all those Oscar snubs, B-Movies and spaghetti westerns), The Picture that Actually IS the Best Picture (you know what I’m talking about), Comedy (don’t get no respect; in the 79 years of the Oscar, only six comedies have won).

28. Protect the star. And the studio.

William Goldman reminds us that the producer, director and writer are often the only mucky-mucks on the set with college educations. Actors are street smart – the good ones pick their projects well, and with no little sense of wisdom – but they have obtained their literary and scientific acumen from comic books. First, avoid taking suggestions from them.

Second, every once in a while (okay, 90 percent of the time) you’ll get notes for script changes that are criminally insane. You must recognize when this is happening and argue for the integrity of the story. Otherwise, it could make the star look silly, lose the studio money, and make you look like an idiot.

Third, if worse comes to worse, you can always take your name off the script and pass the mess on to someone else to take the blame for, er, I mean, rewrite. Some scripts get so botched that screenwriters have a universal pseudonym for the non-existent screenwriter that infected the planet with it – Alan Smithee – red flagging the disaster to others in the industry as a waste of time and brain cells and respects no one on the planet but the tragic egos of the lunatics who figured out too late that they should’a put more lifeboats on the Titanic, and we’re all on it…

…a circumstance you have a duty to point out.

Then head for a lifeboat.

29. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. (McKee) And this rule cannot be stressed enough. I’ll even recite Steven King’s version because I think it’s the cleverest:

Second Draft = First Draft – 10 percent.

(That’s a minus sign, not a dash.)

And rewrite with the door open (or at that coffee shop down the street).

30. Study the good stuff, not the bad stuff.

Study the blockbusters to see what works. Study the Independents and Foreign Movies to realize there are no limits. And study the Classics to stay humble.

And if you know people who like “Godzilla” movies for their unintentional humor, DON’T HANG OUT WITH THEM.

31. You can ignore the rules.

But only after the crucible of much experience.

Robert Altman made a bunch of moderately interesting cookie-cutter melodramas before he broke-out with “MASH.” And even Charlie Chaplin admitted that he worked hard at his craft when he said, “Art is the concealment of effort.”

32. Finish what you start.

This is generally a good habit to get into for just about any endeavor in life, except bank robbery and murder.

But once you start that script, commit to it, no matter what. After you type that first FADE IN: – and though it may take months to do – don’t quit till you type that final FADE TO BLACK.

33. Don’t be afraid to quit.

Go ahead, finish that first draft.

I wrote a horror spec based on what one of my L.A. connections wanted, an “A-Team meets Predator in Afghanistan.” I came up with a horror script called “Death Shop,” which started out great, was so-so in the middle, but really pooped-out at the end. It was literally giving me nightmares. But I tried fixing it up anyway. Soon I realized I really HATED the thing. The script had become a bigger monster that it depicted. Finally, I came to my senses. I quit, and went onto something else.

So if no amount of lipstick will turn that pig into anything other than a pig, cut your losses, chalk it up to a learning experience, and have bacon for breakfast.

34. And always remember, as Steven King wisely wrote, “Life is a support system for art, not the other way around.”

Or, as Gary Marshal put it: “Life is more important than show business.”

All of which means, until you get that million dollar paycheck…

35. Don’t quit your day job.