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May 10, 2011






Following an analytical formula--a blueprint for frustration and failure
The Future and the Truth
Genres (14 basic film genres)
Making Movies Without Film
One Character in Search of an Author
Screenplay Structure -- A Quick Reference 


Barry Pearson

It would be great to have a recipe or formula for writing a successful screenplay, but the complexity of character relationships and the intricate weave of change necessary to create a good movie story makes formulas and recipes virtually useless, if not downright deadening.

Formulas, act structures, plot points, turning points, blueprints, paradigms, zig-zag charts and rules are the Anti-Imaginers and Anti-Creators of the writing process.

Many of the formulas and systems that are "out there" n the form of books and software and courses and workshops attempt to logically analyze and describe the intricate nature of movie stories and reduce them to a paradigm or a map or a structure blueprint, or some other connect-the-dots pattern.

It makes no difference whether the formula, paradigm, theory, system, act structure, journey map, mythological template, or whatever it is called, is sincere or bogus, accurate or inaccurate, useful or useless. If a writer depends on this type of analytical formula to write a screenplay, the strong likelihood is that the writer will fail.

To describe it in a metaphor, it would be like a musician depending on the mathematics of music to write a hit song.

There is a very good reason why that is so. Successful screenplays, like successful songs, didn't become successful because the writer used a certain formula or template or structure. Screenplays, like songs, succeed because the writer used his or her Imagination and creativity, skillfully and powerfully.

Imagination and creativity is where the writing power and writing success is. That's the Good News, because they are elements that you, the writer, have total control over.

Imagination, and creativity are components of the screenplay that can be learned by studying what you do when you create.

That's why Create Your Screenplay emphasizes your process and teaches you how you need to conduct that process in order to write a successful screenplay.



Barry Pearson

"Yesterday, Larry Fynch, Sandra Chan, and Bernard Savoie ecame overnight millionaires.
In these days of 'easy millionaires' that's not necessarily extraordinary. What is unusual is that all three are under 19 years of age, and they didn't win the lottery.

"Fynch, Chan, and Savoie are the owners of, an internet site at which prospective investors can log onto a search engine that picks stocks to invest in. "The three youthful entrepreneurs began developing their securities-based search engine as a school project at Eisenhower High School in Trout Falls, Nebraska."

News item? True story? No. I made it up.

Why? Well, to illustrate two unconnected ideas about screenwriting. One idea is a futurist idea. The other is a technical tip about writing craft.

First, the futurist idea. The bogus "news report" above isn't too far from reality. We've all seen the pictures and read the accounts of penurious computer wizards and entrepreneurs who made millions and even billions of dollars starting with very few assets other than their internet connection and a wise idea. Why does the world put extravagant value on the services of these people?

I believe it's because these "instant millionaires" are part of a completely new phenomenon: the Ascendancy of the Original Idea.

Internet dreamers have always claimed that the internet would democratize the world. Yes. Probably. But it's also possible that the Cyberspace Age will create a new elite. The Original Idea Elite. And this new elite will be rewarded beyond anyone's 20th Century imagination.

It's already begun with real life people not so much different from Larry, Sandra, and Bernard. Websiters everywhere have quickly learned the value of selling ideas and information. So what do artists in general, and writers in particular, have to sell? Original ideas, of course. Daydreams. Tale spinning. The product of their "what-ifs." And those who produce original ideas in any form will benefit from the explosion of demand for the commodity they produce. The Ascendency
of the Original Idea means that even screenwriters will eventually get respect.

Well, maybe that's going a bit too far. I should know better than to make sweeping predictions. A wise old producer once commented skeptically when I made a sunny prediction about future of the show he was working on. He said, "Yeah, from your lips to God's ears." As I recall, the good fortune I glibly forecast materialized as a mixture of good and bad. Which leads me to admit that we screenwriters can probably hope for no more than a mixture of respect and benign indifference.

The Ascendency of the Original Idea, on the other hand, is a sure bet. Because of the Internet.

Authors of books for example, are not any longer at the total mercy of presses, paper, printer ink, and huge publishing and distributing infrastructures. E-publishing has already put the tools of publishing in the hands of authors, and has put the worldwide market as close as a keystroke.

One of the biggest selling authors of all time, Stephen King, is a convert. He made one of his recent books available only on the internet. For film and television writers, this type of revolution is still in the future, but it's not a mirage or a fantasy. It's a technological certainty.

Someday soon, a couple of high-school kids will create a story on film or tape, load it on a PC, advertise and distribute it over the Net, and------?

Make a million dollars? Become the next Blair Witch phenomenon? Scare the hell out of Dreamworks? Who knows? The revolution is coming. Watch for it.

My second topic, more earthbound, more practical, is a writing tip about creating the illusion of truth. (I regret to say, this idea is not original with me. I was lucky enough to learn it early from another writer/producer who hired me to write half-hour daytime dramas for him.)

The story at the beginning of this article about the three youthful millionaires' attempts to
attempts to create an illusion of truth. Whatever success I had in creating that illusion rests
on the technique of selecting and using specific detail: the names and age of the characters,
the name of their company, the name of their high school and town.

(To the best of my knowledge there is no Trout Falls, Nebraska, but there is an Eisenhower
High School in Trout Falls. I know that because I put it there. It looks a little like the
High School I used to go to).

I'm not suggesting you pepper your screenplays with proper names. I'm suggesting that
you use detail to create the illusion of truth in all its dimensions. The carefully selected location, the precise description of clothing, the individual dialog quirk, the exact type of
prop that characterizes its owner -- these types of vivid specifics build the truth of
a good story.

And I'm betting that good stories will rule in the coming era of the Ascendancy
of the Original Idea.




Barry Pearson

Thoughts about screenwriting come from unexpected places.

During the Clinton Administration, I happened to listen to a radio interview with Gail Sheehy, who was then currently on tour touting her new book about Hillary. Sheehy made a comment about the relationship between Hillary and Bill that has dogged me ever since.

But not for the obvious reasons. Oon its surface, the comment appears banal. What Sheehy said about America's first couple was, "They know everything there is to know about each other."

I got to thinking, no wonder there's no drama in the lives of Hillary and Bill. They "know everything there is to know about each other." And the public knows everything there is to know about them.

If Bill and Hillary were a movie, the country would want to get out of the theater and go home. Two characters who know everything about each other -- the worst thing for a story.

Proven by the fact that successful screenwriters typically begin with the opposite situation. They create two very UNLIKE characters at the center of their story, a Hero and a Bonding Character, who know very little about each other.

Wouldn't you think that Bill, caught "in flagrante delicto," ought to be good dramatic fodder when his wife finds out? Not on the Bill and Hillary show. Because Hillary knows that Bill always forgets to get rid of the trash. She's expecting it. And so is the audience.

But there has to be a story there somewhere, doesn't there? Sure. The story of Bill and Hillary happened when they knew nothing about each other. When they first met. When through some event (and I'm not sure what that might have been) they were forced together.

As fascinated as I am by Presidential power, and marital infidelity, the thing that fascinates me more is the question, what is a story? "The King died, and then the Queen died." That's not a story, I'm told. But "The King died, and then the Queen, overcome by her grief, died of a broken heart."

That's a story. An old example. And one that suggests that a story needs two essential elements: events related by cause, and a situation that evokes emotion.

Some people vow that a story is always a conflict between Good and Evil. Others swear that the paradigm is David and Goliath. Still others claim that every story is a love story, or a journey, or a reworking of a myth, etc., etc. There are probably hundreds, maybe thousands, of views of what constitutes a story. Perhaps they all possess a part of the truth.

This much I know. Most screenwriters build their stories around two unlike characters. The writer creates a desire in the audience to see these characters "get together" in some way, which will happen at the end of the movie, usually (the writer hopes) in an unsuspected manner.

Sometimes the two characters marry, sometimes one defeats or overcomes the other, sometimes they agree to part--there are thousands of variations, but, unlike Bill and Hillary, the major characters never start out "knowing everything there is to know about each other." You don't have to look too far to find the real life screen story in the years of the Clinton administration.

Two unlike characters? Well see, there's this President, a little bit roguish, ladies' man, plays fast and loose with the truth, and then there's this Prosecutor, by the name of Starr, religious guy, bit of a zealot. These two guys are worlds apart temperamentally, and morally. They know squat about each other, really, and the Prosecutor's out to put this President in the tank...well, you COULD write the story, except that CNN already got to it. Great ratings, so I'm told.



Barry Pearson

Picture this: it's a good many years ago, and I'm sitting at the bar in the Beverly Hills Hotel with the Production Manager of the movie I'm rewriting at the time (even though the movie is already shooting).

This was in the days when wannabe producers hired bellhops to walk around the BHH Breakfast Room paging them, just for the optics of looking like they were still hot, still cooking with one deal on top of the other. Anyway, I foolishly commented to the P.M. that I LIKED Hollywood: the excitement, the high rollers, the parties, and I REALLY liked being employed to write movies.

My Production Manager scowled over the top of his beer and snarled that he hated Hollywood. Why, I asked. There was a pause, and then he growled one word in a tone that I'll never forget. "Mendacity," he said.

Lies. Duplicity. Fraud. Or in Winston Churchill's words, "terminological inexactitude."

Whatever you call it, mendacity is a blowtorch under the seat of the emotions, and emotions are the currency of drama, the human reaction we writers struggle to invoke. Maybe we should strive to design our scripts around concepts of lies and deceit.

Mendacity is not a tool much spoken of among the gurus who train writers, but it's an element worth bending your mind to if you're a storyteller.

Think of the movie stories you know. Pick successful but not blockbuster or Oscar-sweep movies. Example: two widely separated Dustin Hoffman successes, "The Graduate," in which Ben (Hoffman) beds the wife of his father's best friend, and then falls in love with her daughter, and "Tootsie," in which Michael (Hoffman) masquerades as a woman in order to nail an acting job, then falls in love with the female star of the show. Both films
are energized by the lie the hero is living. In fact, the lie, the fraud, is the engine of both movies.

Look at the movie "Vertigo," in which Alfred Hitchcock layers on trickery and deceit with a trowel. "Vertigo" is still being used as a model by writers and speakers on the art and craft of the screenplay.

No doubt that Mendacity has story power. Could it be that, as writers, we've overlooked the "secret" to writing screenplays? I don't know. Maybe.

Personally, I'm not a seeker for the Holy Grail of screenplay writing--the one principle, one "trick", one formula, one paradigm, one "structure" that will open the gilded gates to writer heaven.

It's tempting, though, isn't it? When you're struggling with a concept that feels flat, when you've created a character that won't come alive, when you're staring a hole in the wall hungering for a Mach 3 plot that will paste an exec to the chair. I must say I'm fascinated. I'm mendacity-curious.

Especially since the release of "The Insider," written by Eric Roth and Michael Mann from an article by Marie Brenner ("The Man Who Knew Too Much"). Stylistically ground-breaking, assiduously unsentimental, "The Insider" dissects everyday corruption with rat-terrier tenacity.

The movie contains an iconic shot in which Tobacco barons stand and swear their "belief" that nicotine is not addictive. The shot is repeated throughout the story like an mantra of evil, until we're convinced that lies themselves, and not deeds, are the ultimate evil.

Everything in the movie comes to be about Mendacity. The most fiery, passionate exchange occurs when Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) rages again and again at Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), "I NEVER LIED TO YOU!"

The punch of that scene alone could tempt us to try using Mendacity as a writing tool, a creative principle. But we better be careful. Playing with Mendacity has its consequences.

What's the consequence now shadowing the makers of "The Insider?" This fine, intellectual, passionate, courageous, crusading movie? The ironic consequence is that its creators can not escape being judged by the standards of their own creation.

The Word is out. For example, the scene between Mike Wallace and Lowell Bergman in the hotel room? Never happened, according to Wallace. The thread about Bergman engineering the Wall Street Journal to debunk the lies about Wigand? Never happened, according to the Wall Street Journal. The plot turn that has Bergman manipulating the pivotal Mississippi lawsuit? Didn't happen. Etc., etc.

But if the makers of "The Insider" succumbed to the lure of mendacity themselves, it may not matter. Why? Because they are, after all, artists, who are paid to make things up--aren't they?

Oh, to live and lie in L.A.




Barry Pearson

Maybe you've worked on, or visited, movie sets or locations. Try to imagine what you'd feel like if you were transported magically to a movie set or location in the late 30's or early 40's. My guess is you'd probably feel pretty much at home.

What? In the 30's? The 40's? That's ancient history.

Not in the movie production business. Because, fundamentally, movies today are made the same way they were over 50 years ago. Heavy cameras. Huge lights. Armies of workers.
And trucks. And trailers. Lots and lots of trucks and trailers.

What does that mean for us screenwriters and other movie artists? It means we can't work competitively at our craft unless somebody (usually some corporation) puts up a lot of money. Because the technology of movie making hasn't changed since the early days of
the industry.

But change is out there. On the leading edges somewhere. People are inventing. Innovating. Working in garages somewhere like Steven Jobs and Steven Wozniak (remember them?) building
their Apple II in '76.

Before we climb out to the leading edges, a little personal history.

Back in the late eighties, before the word "digital" was on the lips of every four-year-old in North America, I was hired to produce and story edit 25 episodes of a dramatic anthology series created by the Landsburg Company in Hollywood.

The shows were individual stories with different casts and independent c storylines, and were all shot on location just like little movies. Only we didn't get to use any film. We shot with two (state-of-the-art at that time) news cameras and a minimal crew. Instead of lots and lots of trucks and trailers, we rode around in vans and midget RV's.

We were lucky enough to sign talented actors and directors, we told our stories well, and the product aired all over North America, and who knows where else.

The point? Well, there are two points, actually.

Number one: because of the two cameras and the lightness of the crew and equipment, we were able to shoot the stories in one-quarter the time it would have taken using a single film camera.

Now, it shouldn't take a whirl with calculus to figure out that we shot the productions for 25% of what they would have cost if they had been produced on film.

Imagine how the movie industry would change if movies became 4 times cheaper to produce.

Oh, what's point two?

Number two: the productions didn't LOOK like film. They were videotape, they looked like videotape. (They also weren't "projectable" in a movie theatre as some videotaped productions are today, but that's another techie story).

So imagine how the movie industry would change if whole movies could be shot on tape, using two or three cameras. (Well, they sort-of can, but that's also another story, and maybe "the truth is also out there" about that one).

Which brings me back to the reality of today. I see change and revolution around the corner. Perhaps we're on the cusp of a technological "critical mass" that will create a sea-change in the whole business of telling movie stories--which is what the purpose of movies comes down to--storytelling.

Perhaps we saw a blip on the screen a few years ago, when the much ballyhooed, shot digitally, "Blair Witch Project" broomed into theaters near all of us.

This train of thought does have a caboose.

Are digital film makers at the leading edges of a revolution in the movie making business? Who knows for sure? But the truth is out there.





Barry Pearson

In my screenwriting seminar, Create Your Screenplay, I deal extensively with the creative and structural nature of the screenplay. That takes two seven-hour days. Nevertheless, I'm going to lay out the Quick Reference version here. (See my book IT'S ALL ABOUT THE STORY for the full version.)

Please note that I created some of the terms I will be using here, so they will be unfamiliar to you. Here's a short glossary:

BONDING CHARACTER - the second most important character in your story, the character who carries on a relationship with your Hero.

BONDING EVENT - the event, sequence of action, that brings the Hero and the Bonding Character into contact and into a relationship with each other.

LOCKING EVENT - the event, sequence of action, that radically alters the nature of the Hero/Bonding Character relationship, so that it becomes very difficult for them to disengage from each other.

ESCALATING EVENT - the event, sequence of action, that dramatically raises the stakes in the Hero/Bonding Character relationship. In my seminar, I tell the writers not to be a "slave to the page count."

That said, almost every successful screenplay accomplishes typical developments in a specific order, which just happen to fall approximately on or near certain pages (assuming you're using standard screenplay formatting). For the purposes of this article, I'm assuming a 100 page screenplay. Adjust the approximate page counts if your script is longer. The page numbers are only meant to be a rough guide, anyway.

The Guiding Principle - almost every screen story is MAINLY ABOUT ONLY TWO CHARACTERS.

One of these is the HERO, the other is the second most dominant character, whom I call The BONDING CHARACTER.

To oversimplify:

In the first 10 pages one of these two characters will be introduced and detailed. Not all movies begin with the Hero. Many begin with the Bonding Character.

Sometimes this Bonding Character is the villain, or the monster, or the potential love-interest.

Somewhere between pages 9 and 18 roughly, an event will occur which brings the Hero into contact and interaction with the Bonding Character. This event I call the BONDING EVENT.

For example, in "Witness" the Bonding Event is a murder witnessed by the son of Rachel Lapp (Bonding Character, played by Kelly McGillis).

This event brings Rachel into contact with John Book (the Hero, played by Harrison Ford).

It is important to understand that the Bonding Event is typically the culmination of a sequence of backstory events set in motion and propelled by the evil or negative force in the story, which I call the Opposing/Attacking Force.

This force can be a human villain, a monster or alien, a force of nature, a cartel of evil persons -- in other words the total combination of outside forces that the Hero has to contend with in your story..

Following the Bonding Event there are a series of scenes which detail the developing relationship between the Hero and the Bonding Character. These scenes lead up to a second important event, the LOCKING EVENT.

This is the second major event in your screen story. It introduces a turn of circumstances that alters the relationship between the two major characters, so that they cannot easily disengage from each other. Their desires and their situation change in a way that forces them to stay in contact with
each other.

This applies equally to two central characters who have a hero/villain relationship(Sleeping with the Enemy, Alien), as to characters who have a hero/ally relationship (Witness, Terminator), or a hero/love-interest relationship (When Harry Met Sally).

This Locking Event occurs somewhere between pages 20 to 35.

Following the Locking Event there is a development that raises the stakes for the Hero and Bonding Character, the ESCALATING EVENT. Often this development is one which raises matters to a life-and-death issue. This Escalating Event occurs somewhere between pages 40 to 55.

Following the Escalating Event there is a sequence of evelopments
which comprise the portion of the script wherein the Hero tries to accommodate, adjust to, and escape from the situation of jeopardy in which he or she finds himself or herself.

Until a moment arrives when the Hero is in such a hellish situation that he or she starts to go on the offensive and fight back. In essence, the Hero is driven to state of mind like Peter Finch in Network who yells, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!"

This sequence typically occupies the pages from 60 to 75 or thereabouts.

Next there is a sequence of scenes in which the Hero plans to defeat the forces opposing him. The Hero put a plan into motion and locks horns with the opposing force or forces in an effort to defeat them. This is the "plan-that-fails" segment of the script. This sequence will fall somewhere around pages 75 to 85. (Again, I caution you not to be a slave to the page count. Use page numbers very approximately).

At this point, I should mention the issue of how much screen time you should be spending on each aspect of the storyline. Obviously if you find your Hero being "mad as hell" at page 45, your script is out of whack.

As a sidebar, in the scripts that I see from writers, a common weakness is that the writer has skipped either the Locking Event or the Escalating Event. That error will throw the whole shape of the story out of balance.

When the Hero's plan has failed and he or she looks to be utterly, finally defeated, there is a sequence in which he or she discovers what appears to be a hidden weakness in the opposing force or forces. This of course is a weakness that you the writer built in when you created the Opposing/Attacking force of your story.

This revelation (when the Hero has discovered the hidden weakness of the opposing forces) initiates the "plan-that-succeeds."

The ensuing sequence -- the one in which the Hero battles and defeats the opposition - occupies pages 85 to 95 approximately.

Following the Hero's victory, there is a final sequence in which the writer dramatizes the Hero's new status and situation, and allows the audience to vicariously savor the Hero's victory, even if it is bittersweet, which it often is.

That covers pages 95-100 approximately. A parting note: You would do well to analyze a number of your favorite movies to see if you can recognize this structure. Try to study the nature of the features I have outlined so that you can apply them to your own work. There is a teeming variety in the way writers have used this typical structure, and it does not always jump out at you when you watch a movie purely for enjoyment.


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