A blog about screenwriting active from 2008 to 2017, but it is currently used in conjunction with with classes taught at The School of Cinematic Arts at USC.
For the current projects of "Breckenridge Hood," please visit UNDERGRIDS.COM.
This Fall I will be teaching "Advanced Motion Picture Script Analysis" to a class of 215 students entirely online. If you are a student in my class, check out some of the articles I've written over the years:
However, it is written in conjunction with the classes I teach at USC and is mainly for those students. In the Spring of 2020 I will be teaching "Writing the Short Script" and "Advanced Rewriting The Feature Script." I'm using this a chance to revise articles that I have already written, as well as to write specifically about teaching filmmaking.
So in a way, this blog has shifted from "How to Write a Screenplay" to "How to Teach Screenwriting." If it is helpful to you in any way, please email me at email@example.com.
This article follows, week by week, the course I teach at USC's School of Cinematic Arts called Writing The Short Script. You may want to check out previous weeks (click on): WEEK ONE WEEK TWO WEEK THREE
In week four (and five) of "Writing The Short Script" students have started writing short scripts based on material generated from the exercises. As an example, take a quick read of one student's first draft, by clicking the link: Pencil People.
The writer developed an idea from the earlier "Memory" exercise, in which she wrote about playing with colored pencils as a child, pretending the pencils were people.
Notice how she establishes a clear protagonist who WANTS something. Then she builds the tension on the playground as this protagonist has trouble getting it (recall our definition of STORY.) Notice how the pencil-play on pages 1-2 is a scene of PREPARATION, and how the ending on page 4 prolongs a moment of heartbreaking AFTERMATH. The pencil people scene PLANTS an expectation/hope as Tobi (the pencil) chooses Tracy. The playground scene PAYS OFF that moment as Tobi (the real boy) chooses Ada.
In general, the point of this exercise is to take a vivid and unique memory and build a short script around it that plays with the concepts we've been talking about in class. Effective short scripts are usually built around one climactic moment (like Tobi's Choice,) with all the supporting beats before and after heightening that single moment's dramatic (or comic, or frightening) impact.
Now that the writer has done the first draft, if she wanted to develop the project further and shoot it, we could give her more feedback. We might suggest she revise the script to make sure that it will be clear to the audience that the Brown Pencil is Ada and the Yellow Pencil is Tobi. We might suggest ways of shooting the playground scene so that it feels like we are experiencing it from Tracy's point of view.
Always, always, always get feedback on your script and revise before shooting. You can revise a script a dozen times, but you usually only get to shoot once.
Continuing with screenwriting terms, in week five we discussed "character." There often isn't a lot of time for complex characterization in short films. There are no long "character arcs" or deep explorations of backstory. None the less, there are a number things we can consider to keep our characters from becoming one-dimensional and boring.
1. Make them specific. Imagine your characters not just as a DOPEY BOY or HOT GIRL. Visualize the little details of appearance, dress, attitude, speech and behavior (especially when under pressure) that makes them uniquely themselves. Often all that is needed is a few choice details and behaviors to imply a complex personality.
2. Make them pertinent. Ask yourself, "Why them?" Why is this character the perfect person (the funniest/most interesting/most ironic/most dramatic) to experience the ordeal of the story? Since you can pick anybody, choose the person whose specific characteristics make the events dramatically, comically, or terrifyingly acute.
3. What can we SEE? Specific details that reveal character have to be obvious to the viewer. They have to be things we can see or hear... and understand in an instant.
4. Choose your best. If you could only pick three details to reveal to us everything we need to know about this character in order for the story to have the greatest emotional impact, what would they be? As per 1-3, they should be specific, pertinent, and visible. In a short film, you are likely not to have time for more detail and depth than that.
Furthermore, for a reader/viewer to truly empathize with a character, we have to have a sense of his or her wants, needs, and motives. In other words, we have to have a Theory Of Mind about them. We have to sense what they are thinking and feeling, moment by moment, as they struggle towards some sort of objective.
If we have no idea what a character is doing or why, we are liable to lose interest.
Short Films Of The Week
There are several problems with many of the short films I have shared on this blog so far. Popular shorts on the web tend to be dialogue-driven comedies with a twist ending, and they are often not particularly cinematic. Several students pointed out that the setup-punchline structure gets old... very fast. Since my goal is to help my students develop their craft and expand their vision as filmmakers (not just help them make a popular short,) many of the films I'll explore in upcoming weeks will move beyond what has gone viral on youtube.
This week, I'd thought I'd stress visual storytelling without dialogue. Some of the best short films ever produced were filmed in the silent era. So this week I am suggesting you watch at least one of three classic SILENT shorts. They are...
My guess is that you have not seen at least one of these three, and every serious filmmaker should study all of them.
Short Film Scripts
By Week Five, students started writing their short scripts for a project that they will actually shoot. The variety of subject matter, from narrative films to experimental, from comedy to drama, was very encouraging. Some examples of first drafts (and there will, of course, be revisions) include American Fried Rice and Unfinished Image.
In American Fried Rice, notice the use of atmosphere and environmental detail to give us a sense of the protagonist entering a new world. Notice how the title and the opening image are paid off in the climax. This short a good example of how PLANT and PAYOFF can be used to deepen and explore THEME.
In Unfinished Image, notice how the protagonist's WANTS and NEEDS are explored, and how sexual tension (See Week One) is heightened entirely without dialogue. Characterization is achieved with just behavior and context. One of the suggestions I had for this script was for the writer to explore the final AFTERMATH moment a bit more deeply.
Since many of you are going to want to put music in your films, check out:
Short films are not mini-features, and some of the screenwriting tools we associate with features - Three Act Structure, Save The Cat Beat Sheets - don't necessarily apply to pieces that are 2-7 minutes in length. However, there are other tools that are powerful and useful - at any running time - for heightening emotional impact as well as creating unity and cohesion.
In Week Three of "Writing The Short Film" at USC's John Wells Division of Writing for Film and Television (that's our new name btw), students are writing short scripts around the prompt, "Preparation for a Date or Significant Event." The idea is to explore three concepts:
Plant and Payoff
In The Tools of Screenwriting, David Howard writes, "A 'plant' is a preparatory device that helps to weave the fabric of the story together. It can be a line of dialogue, a character's gesture, a mannerism, a prop, a costume, or a combination. Later in the movie, when the circumstances have changed, there is a "payoff" in which this line, gesture, prop, whatever, is repeated and takes on a new meaning."
As you write short scripts, you should look for opportunities to introduce an object/dialogue/activity and then bring it back later in a different context, infusing it with new a meaning, one that tells us something essential has changed for the characters. Some examples...
An object/prop plant and pay-off: In Sideways, a wine bottle dated back to 1961 is introduced as one of Miles’ most prized possessions. He looks forward to drinking this wine at a special occasion. Later in the movie, after he has been to his ex-wife’s wedding and realized she will not get back with him, Miles ends up drinking this prized wine in a McDonalds by himself, from a cheap plastic cup.
In an example from the short film we saw in Week One, objects are "planted" in The Lunch Date - the shopping bag and the boxed salad - both of which are possessions that the old woman is worried might be stolen by homeless men. Near the end, both the shopping bag and the salad are "paid off" creating a new meaning and an emotional punch.
Dialogue plant and pay-off: In 300, before raping Queen Gorgo, Theron says: “This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this. I am not your King.” Near the end of the movie, Gorgo speaks the same words back to him as she thrusts a knife into his chest: “This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this. I am not your Queen.”
By way of example in a short film, here is "A Man Walks Into A Bar." Notice how the film is structured around two conversations, one before an event and one after that event. Notice how the lines of dialogue in the first half have one meaning and context. Then notice how they come up again in the second half with a different context and meaning.
Preparation and Aftermath
In Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, Paul Gulino calls a scene of Preparation "an important tool that can greatly enrich an audience's experience of a film...which is explicitly designed to create an expectation in the audience - usually Hope and Fear (see Week Two and the definition of Tension)...These are scenes that can often be cut without affecting the plot, but they greatly enhance the emotional impact" of an important event in a film.
Later, Gulino writes that a scene of Aftermath "provides punctuation in the story, lending emphasis to certain important moments. They inevitably follow emotionally charged scenes, and are usually characterized by little or no dialogue or activity, and are heavily atmospheric, often enhanced with music."
A famous screenwriting saying goes: “Tell your audience you’re going to do something and, afterward, tell them how you did it.”
Preparation could be anything from the planning before a heist to an athlete practicing to the point of exhaustion before a big match. In these cases, the Aftermath scenes might be the criminals celebrating a successful caper, or the athlete facing the disappointment of a loss.
In general, we don’t want to jump right into an important event; we want to be with our characters as they plan, worry, dread, predict, avoid, and eagerly await what is coming. And afterward, we want to see how much this important event has changed them or their surroundings. Often the audience needs a moment to "take in" what has happened and to understand the consequences.
So, scenes of Preparation heighten the Tension by triggering Hope and Fear in the audience as they imagine a future event going well or going badly. Scenes of Aftermath dissolve tension as the audience catches their breath, and comes to terms with an event that may have unfolded in a way they didn't anticipate.
The long briefing for the Osama Bin Ladin raid in Zero Dark Thirty is an example of a Preparation scene. The somewhat muted celebration after the team comes from the operation is an example of an Aftermath scene. In TheKing’s Speech, King George and Logue warming up to the climactic speech is a Preparation scene. The uproarious success of the speech as the crowds salute King George is an Aftermath scene.
In short films, there is often only a single "event" that occurs near the end of the story. Most of their running time is spent building anticipation with scenes of Preparation for that single coming event. Here is one example, in which a man asks his friend to do something for him, and the short builds more and more tension as the time comes for the friend to actually do it. The last comic bits of the piece surround the unexpected aftermath.
In a longer example, the short film First Match, notice the multiple scenes of preparation leading up to a girl's first wrestling match. Notice how the final scenes of Aftermath are handled with minimal dialogue and thick atmosphere.
Repetition with Variation
Many of my students this semester have experience in the arts: music, painting, architecture, dance, and so on. In all the arts, establishing a pattern (a melody, a rhythm, a set of movements, and so on) creates a set of expectations in the audience. As that pattern repeats itself, the variations can create surprise, delight, shock, and further expectation for the next cycle.
M C Escher
The same is true of narrative storytelling. In this short film, "Black Hole," a man reaches into a hole over and over again, with various intentions, various results, and an ultimate consequence.
Another one to watch for Repetition with Variation is Standby by writer/director Charlotte Regan. The four minute short is a series of scenes that all take place in the front of the same police car - essentially the same shot repeated again and again over time to explore the friendship between two police officers.
Next week I'll be lecturing about Character, specifically how to create and establish compelling characters in a limited time frame. Please respond in the comments if you have questions or suggestions! For the previous classes, check out:
In Week Two of "Writing The Short Film" at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, students bring in exercises and read them aloud to the class. Each exercise focuses on a specific memory: a secret place they used to go, their favorite toy, a person who frightened them.
The idea is to look at story elements - environment, props, character - and notice what kind of specific details are vivid and evocative. Much of rewriting involves moving away from dull, generic, cliche choices and finding those that are pertinent, memorable and unique. Short films in particular, where there is little time for exposition, require finding visual and aural details that tell us everything we need to know in an instant.
Next, we discuss the first 32 pages Moonlight, in light of our definition of Story from Week One: a story is about someone who wants something very badly but is having trouble getting it.
In this first section of the screenplay, it is Juan's story. Although the larger movie is about the boy, "Little," in three stages of his life, we (the reader/audience) experience the first act from Juan's point of view, as he tries to get the boy to speak, tries to find out where he lives, teaches him to swim, confronts his mother, and finally admits to the boy the truth. In this first section, we feel sympathy for the boy and his troubles, but we feel empathy for Juan as he tries to help him. We are "in Juan's shoes."
What does Juan want? He wants to father (to mentor, to protect, to teach) the sensitive child.
Why does Juan want this so badly? We see the relationship's potential when Juan teaches the boy to swim. We see what the boy faces without Juan in the abusive scenes at home with the boy's mother. This sets up the TENSION (see definition below): we HOPE that Juan can help and protect the boy, but we FEAR that the boy's home life and street life are too dangerous and abusive.
What are the primary obstacles Juan faces as he attempts to get what he wants? Well, Juan is the mother's drug dealer, as so, he himself is (ironically) the source of the boy's primary problem.
Juan's attempts to help the boy reach the highest point of tension in the final scene of the Act when Juan has to answer the boy's direct and unflinching questions. Am I a fagot? Do you sell drugs? Do you sell drugs to my mom?
It is also the moment of greatest empathy for Juan. We (the reader/audience) sit with him at that table, feeling his struggle to say the right thing. We know what Juan knows, and what the boy doesn't know. We feel Juan's struggle and heartbreak.
Screenwriting Term of The Week: TENSION
There are many forms of tension in movies, but tension always creates anticipation and anxiety about what is going to happen next. Tension is what makes you turn the page. Tension keeps the audience in their seats.
Tension is created when the audience can imagine or sense what is might happen next in the story, sequence, or scene, but isn't sure which way it will go. The story elements suggest several possible futures. We (the audience) HOPE for one outcome(s), but we FEAR another.
There are many forms of tension. Cinematic tension can be created by music, editing, blocking and camera movement. Mystery tension creates a puzzle, whodunnit, or intellectual problem for the audience to solve. In a feature screenplay, there is overall story tension, sequence tensions, scene tensions and tension within individual beats.
In this class, however, we will explore comic tension, romantic tension, suspense/fear tension, and more generally dramatic tension. In all cases, the writer leads the reader/audience to imagine something funny, romantic, or scary is about to happen next.
More importantly, while we can imagine (hope) for a good outcome we can also imagine (fear) a bad outcome, and it is not clear to us which way it's going to go.
In general, tension rises (i.e. the stake rise) when the possible good outcome gets better and/or the possible bad outcome gets worse. Likewise, if we have no sense of the future or if we feel like we know how things will turn out, the tension dissolves. To engage the audience, we must keep the tension high.
For example, in last week's short-of-the-week, The Lunch Date, tension is established right off the bat as we see an elderly, white woman in an environment filled with homeless African American men. We sense (as we are confronted by a homeless man who steps in front of the camera and speaks directly to us) that she may be harassed. As the story later plays out in the cafeteria, we see examples of dramatic, comic and even comically romantic tension, as we wonder what the conflict over the salad will lead to next.
Festival programmers who read screenplays and watch short films tell me that one of the biggest problems of most submissions is that they lack Tension!
Short Film of The Week
Ahhh, so hard to decide which to short film to recommend. If you are a USC film student in the mood for comic tension, watch George Lucas In Love. It's set in at USC's School of Cinematic Arts and it stars my former TA (from back when I was a student in the 90s.)
If you are in the mood for intense dramatic tension along with edge-of-your-seat modulation of hope and fear, watch the short film Wasp.
Since my students will start out making very short films with no dialogue, I thought I'd show this clever two-minute piece. Notice how it uses point-of-view, selective details, and the withholding of key-information to create fear/suspense tension, with a twist.
For a variety of current short films try this collection of Award Winners.
Another semester at USC begins, and this time I will be teaching a group of twelve graduate students about "Writing the Short Film." Of course, writing short scripts is really an introduction to scene and sequence writing, the building blocks of all longer-form movies, TV, and new media.
I love this class.
For many students (and many reading this blog,) this will be their first attempt writing scripts and working in standard screenplay format. The class covers fundamentals and assumes no previous experience. So, on the first day, I urge everyone to...
In this blog I'll be showcasing one short film a week. To start, The Lunch Date is a classic example of a conflict and characterization student film, with a clear moment of "epiphany."
Write Scenes, Get Feedback
The structure of the class is extremely simple. Every week there is an assignment of 3-5 pages. Every class we read those assignments aloud and discuss them. This includes exercises and actual short film scripts for projects the students will actually produce and shoot in another class.
All blog readers should consider mirroring this process by forming a Writers' Group of 2-10 people, meeting regularly, reading work aloud and offering feedback. This introduces new writer/filmmakers to the most important and powerful screenwriting tool: The Rewrite Loop.
Since this is ultimately a writing class, I'll be introducing all sorts of screenplay concepts and terms, from Plant-and-Payoff to Theme.
But the term and definition I always start with is the most basic: Story
A story is about someone who wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it.
In class, we discuss students' stories in terms of each piece of this definition. "A story is..."
"About someone..." Whose story is it? Through whose eyes, and more importantly through whose emotionsdo we experience the story? Who takes the actions that drive the story forward? Who changes as a result? How does that character's viewpoint allow the story to be told in a unique way?
Sometimes you write a first draft thinking it's a story about one particular character but discover that a different character is actually the one taking action, making decisions, and changing as a result. The feedback on your script might reveal that a different character is the one the audience actually cares about and identifies with. Take this feedback seriously.
"...who wants something..." What does this protagonist want? What primary desire is forcing him/her/them to take action? Whether or not the protagonist gets s/he wants is the DRAMATIC QUESTION that the story tracks and ultimately answers. This WANT has to be very specific and concrete, so that the audience understands what is driving the plot forward.
Often in first drafts, the protagonist is passive. Circumstances don't force him or her to take action towards some sort of specific and concrete goal. Stuff happens, but all the tears, twists and tornadoes are not married to any clear objective, and so the audience loses interest.
"...very badly..." Why does s/he want it so much? What's going to happen if he/she DOESN'T get it? This defines the STAKES of your story.
Often in first drafts, the story lacks tension because if the protagonist doesn't get what they want, it's not clear that it would be all that bad. Not getting what they want should be an emotionally devastating outcome for our hero. It should be, figuratively or literally, a matter of life and death.
"...but is having trouble getting it." What are the obstacles? Who is the antagonist, or what are the antagonistic forces that are keeping the protagonist from getting what s/he/they want?
Often in first drafts, things are too easy for the protagonist. Lucky coincidences help them along. Antagonists don't put up much of a fight. Problems are solved without much trouble. A former acting/directing coach at USC, Nina Foch, had sharp advice for writers on how to handle their protagonists. "Make Them Suffer!"
Of course, short films don't always take the form of "stories" according to this definition. Shorts can be driven by poetic tension, thematic tension, and cinematic tension. They can be experimental, didactic, experiential, commercial and otherwise non-narrative. However, in my own writing and in the kind of writing one does as a professional in film and TV, this definition has been extremely useful and almost universal.
Anyone who is planning to make writing a central part of their filmmaking future should probably buy a copy of Final Draft, as it is the industry standard. However, for the purposes of writing scenes and short films, you can take advantage of all the free screenwriting software available, including Celtx, Adobe Story, and Trelby. You can read reviews of all the available screenwriting software here: Best Screenwriting Software.
Filmmakers are using technology and social media in surprising ways. Recently, I spoke with Jingyi Shao, a writer/director who was once in my screenwriting class at USC, but is now a peer working with me in a writers’ circle. I share the conversation because I'm interested in how filmmakers use technology in creative ways. Feel free to comment and join the discussion...
Sean: So, you mentioned this in our writers’ group, but tell me about how you use Instagram as a creative tool, both as a writer and a director.
Jing: Originally I saw Instagram as a visual tool. As a director, I would use it in a multitude of ways. First, most obviously, you can follow your favorite filmmakers - cinematographers especially like to post stills of what they shoot, post pictures of where they are, and post other images that just interest or inspire them. On one level you're looking for what you admire, but you're also seeing what they admire. It’s a very interesting way to quickly scan visual pallets of color, mood and imagery.
Then I started using it more as a practical tool for location scouting. Say you are shooting in Los Angeles, and you need a boxing ring. You can very quickly search for “boxing ring” on Instagram and scroll through several hundred pictures within a minute. Many have geo tags, so you can immediately go there. But also, you can see other people’s perspectives of these places. You might walk into that boxing gym and say, "Okay, I want to shoot this punching bag." On Instagram someone might have posted a shot from the floor looking up or from above looking down or from the perspective of the speed bag itself. You know what I mean? The images are both practical and inspirational.
Ultimately, Instagram inspires my writing because I can follow people's online “personality,” and see what they're interested in. Sometimes how they tag or how they caption their own posts is interesting and revealing. You get a peek inside their character: how they speak, what places they might go, and what they value. When we populate a screenplay with characters, we have to imagine the details: what foods do they like to eat, what clothes do they like to wear, what friends do they hang out with, what do they do on a Friday night? You can see all this within the app.
Of course, we could get into an argument about whether what they post is their “real” selves. We could ask… Is that just a public face? But since we're just fleshing out characters, we can just take the traits and details we need from what these people reveal of themselves.
Sean: It seems like Instagram is a great character building tool because regardless whether it is entirely “real,” all sorts of information about Instragram users is conveyed in the pictures they take, and the places they go, and the things they share about themselves. Screenwriters are often asked to write about characters who are nothing like them (the writers) at all, characters we don't have necessarily have an intuitive understanding of, and this is certainly a way to observe people we might otherwise not have direct access to.
Jing: Absolutely, and it's always those little details that seem really random, but in the right context, they become very powerful - details that enrich the story. When you approach a character abstractly and break down his reasons, motivations, and “Wants,” the story can become too logical. Every person has an inherent logic, but that logical pattern is revealed over time, with an accumulation of details. I feel like sometimes in writing, we start with that logical breakdown instead of discovering these organic and authentic patterns through observation. On Instagram, I can just observe complete characters.
Instagram is also a pop culture machine that can quickly divulge a lot of information about how people are living, behaving, and speaking right now.
It’s extremely fast. I think we work in a medium that is very, very slow. It's the slowest art form because it takes so much money and it takes so many people and you have to jump through so many hoops to get a thing out there in the world. I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of the films coming out of Hollywood are remakes. I think the people who have worked for decades to get their films made about what is important to them don't always have a clear idea of what young creators are paying attention to.
By that I mean that older Hollywood filmmakers make things that are important or powerful to them, but these things might not be as relevant to young people of today as they think. There is more of a generation gap between film/tv leaders than other industries like music, art, fashion. Because it takes less money and resources to create their music, art and clothes, the development in these other industries seems a bit faster and of the moment.
Sometimes I'm on Instagram and surprised by what I find. I'm like, "This has 100,000 likes?" Really? But if you spend a little time and look into it, you realize, "Wow, this is actually what's powerful to people. It’s what people are interested in. You actually start to understand it.
Sean: So, you see Instagram as a window into millennial culture, but also a window into pop culture - a kind of culture that isn't necessarily represented in movies yet. Movies are still working from a traditional template of characters. For you, Instagram gives you a whole new pallet of people, imagery, behaviors, and concerns that aren't being reflected in movies and TV right now.
Jing: Yes. Especially when you're a writer and you want to create something naturalistic and authentic. You have to be able to operate in that space. You have to include social media and technology in the story. In television, there are multiple episodes of shows like Atlanta and Master of None that deal with social media. It's essential to the experience of the character's lives. So to take that out or to leave that out would make it artificial and dated.