Monday, December 30, 2013

LONE SURVIVOR Three Act Structure Breakdown

Nothing says Christmas quite like a war movie. After watching the 60 Minutes piece on Marcus Luttrell’s miraculous escape after being trapped by the Taliban on a mountain in Afghanistan, I felt compelled to watch Peter Berg’s new film, LONE SURVIVOR.

Here’s my three-act structure breakdown of the story… It’s not only a great example of dramatically putting the screws to a main character, but of the hazards of dramatizing a true story.

SPOILER ALERT!  I’m about to reveal the entire plot of the film.


ORDINARY WORLD—Over titles, we see a montage of Navy Seal Training.  Man, these guys are macho and prepared for everything.  We also see they are truly brothers, as they bond through the torturous training.

Cut to a chopper flying with a terribly wounded guy on board.  We hear voice over that says, “There’s a storm inside of us.  A drive.  A river.”  The guy dies in flight and is resuscitated.  See how Berg creates a strong dramatic question for the audience here?  We think, “Wow, what the hell happened to this guy?”

Flashback.  3 Days Earlier.

We meet the main character, Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg,) and his fellow Seals.  He’s totally gung ho to take on a mission.  His pals are Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Matt “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) and their Commanding Officer Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana.)  Each one of them has a personal life and something at stake.

INCITING INCIDENT:  They are prepped for their mission.  The Seals are told they have to capture Shah, a real Taliban bad guy who has been responsible for the deaths of at least 20 marines in the past few weeks. The team will have to climb a mountain to get to his compound.

Under cover of night, they are flown in and dropped silently down onto the mountain. In the morning, they find Shah’s encampment.  Their radios don’t work that well.  It’s tougher than expected.  Shah’s got half the village working for him.  Murphy, the officer in charge, says they need to move back and regroup.  They do.

ACT I TURNING POINT:  Some local shepherds stumble across them and the Seals are forced to take the shepherds captive.  They clearly have ties to the Taliban, and the team knows that if they let them go, they will run immediately to Shah and report their whereabouts.

They have 3 options.  Let them go, tie them up and try to get off the mountain, or terminate them. 


FOLLOW THE TRAJECTORY CREATED BY THE FIRST TURNING POINT:  There’s a huge argument about what to do.  Marcus says they can’t shoot them, it’s wrong, they’re innocent civilians.  “The rules of engagement say we can’t touch them.” Axe says they have to kill them, otherwise they themselves are going to die. Marcus says he doesn’t want to be splashed on CNN as the guy who killed civilians. Murphy reminds them it’s not a democracy.  He says the mission has been compromised.  They’re going to cut them loose, make for the peak, and call for a chopper to extract them from the mountain.

Bana, their C.O., tries to contact them, but can’t get through.

They let the shepherds go.

As the Seals race for the summit of the mountain to radio for help, the youngest shepherd, a young man who clearly hates Americans, races for Shah’s camp. 

The seals get to the “summit” only to find it’s a false peak and they can’t radio for help because there’s no reception.  They have to hide until night. One Seal has injured his foot. 

Back at home base, Bana is concerned.  The team has missed three communication windows.

The Seals hide in the trees.  Murphy goes to do some recon and discovers there are fifty Taliban in the hills watching them.  He races back and tells his men, “We are about to get contacted.”  They prepare to fight.

MIDPOINT:  Huge firefight.  Murphy gets wounded, other guys get shot, and they are forced to retreat.  A mortar goes off behind them and they all roll down a hill.  They get shot at again.  They retreat behind a rock, assess their situation and wounds.  Danny and Murphy are injured badly.  Axe has been shot multiple times too.  Marcus is scared and now knows he made a mistake in arguing to let the shepherds go.  Oh yeah, and even though he doesn’t know it, his back is broken.

BIG GLOOM (remember, this a series of events)  As if it weren’t bad enough, now it gets worse.  They are surrounded again, shot at, Danny is captured and killed.  They are all wrecked and none of their phones work. Murphy is totally shot up, but knows their only chance for rescue is if he tries to get to a summit and use the SAT phone.  This means certain death for him, as he’ll have to go out in the open.  But he has to save his men.  He says to Marcus, “Never end the fight.”

Murphy runs for the summit while Marcus “covers” him with gunfire, makes the call, and is killed.

Bana gets the message, orders choppers to be sent, but is told they can’t leave without Apache cover.  The Apache helicopters are off base and need to be called in.

Now, on the mountain, there are only two guys left.  Marcus and Axe. Axe doesn’t know that Murphy has been killed, and Marcus can’t tell him.  Axe asks, “Are we dead?”  Marcus says, “No, we’re good.”

The helicopters arrive.  Foster and Marcus are relieved.  Hurray!  But this being the Big Gloom section of the story, the chopper is shot down out of the sky.  All the seals on board die in a flaming explosion against the mountain.

Axe and Marcus run.  Axe is shot and killed.

The Apaches finally arrive, but Marcus, due to his injuries, can’t move.  When the Apache pilots can’t see any movement on the mountain, they leave, assuming all of them are dead.

Marcus is left under a rock, alone. (see how low Berg brings him?)

ACT II TURNING POINT:  The next morning, Marcus fights to stand up and struggles to find water.  He finds a river, plunges in, but is immediately discovered by a villager.  Freaked out, he holds a grenade, threatens him. The villager, Gulab (Ali Suliman) says he is not Taliban and will help him.  Marcus, completely alone and terribly injured, has no choice but to trust him.


RACE TO THE CLIMAX:  Marcus is taken to the man’s village, where Gulab and his son take care of him. The rest of the village is nervous, fears the Taliban will come and kill them all.  Gulab refuses to put Marcus out and sends someone to the closest U.S. Military Base to tell them where Marcus is.

The Taliban enter the village and the villagers attack them, telling the Taliban to leave.  The Taliban say they’ll be back.  “For an American, you will die?”

CLIMAX:  The Taliban come back (don’t they always?) and there’s a huge shootout.  Marcus and Gulab and his kid fight the Taliban.  Marcus is about to die, when the kid gives him a knife and he stabs the guy.

U.S. helicopters arrive and strafe the hell out of the village. They rescue Marcus.  He says thank you to Gulab and his son.

BRIEF RESOLUTION: Now we’re back to the helicopter shot we started the movie with.  Marcus is injured, being transported back to the base.  He dies, and then is resuscitated. In voice over, he says, “Part of me died up on that mountain.”  We find out that the village to which he has been taken has a tradition that they must help whoever comes their way.  And this is what has saved Marcus.

The end.

Now, there’s plenty to quibble about in the screenplay.  For one, the pretentious  voiceover.  We don’t need it and it’s self-important. We get the themes of the movie purely through the action.  We also see this directorial overkill in the sections where the key characters (Murphy, Foster) die in super slow “give me a break” motion.

I also wonder if the stuff that happens in ACT III in the film (Gulab and his son fighting the Taliban in hand to hand combat), actually happened in real life.  If it didn’t, it’s a great example of how the filmmakers felt the need to have a rousing three-act structure climax, despite the truth.

LONE SURVIVOR is a tight, compelling drama about a band of Navy seals who are dropped on a mountain, but only one gets out alive. 

If you like war movies, check it out.  The action sequences are great, and I’ve never seen rolling down a hill look quite so painful or real. 

Oh yeah, and Eric Bana is a hunk.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

PRISONERS Structure Breakdown

Here is another in my series of film structure breakdowns… 

PRISONERS, written by Aaron Guzikowski, is a terrific crime film, filled with rich characters, a gritty setting and a strong three act structure.  It also has complex backstories and like any good mystery, the puzzle pieces come together in a way that’s wholly satisfying.

At two and a half hours, it’s long.  But the Three Act Structural Landmarks space out appropriately throughout.

SPOILER ALERT!    I am about to reveal the entire plot of this movie.


ORDINARY WORLD: We see the normal life of the main character, KELLER DOVER (Hugh Jackman.)  He’s out hunting a deer with his teenaged son.  He tells his son to always be prepared for the worst. 

INCITING INCIDENT: On Thanksgiving, Keller, his wife GRACE (Maria Bello), his son and eight-year-old daughter ANNA walk down the street to another family’s house for dinner. This couple, FRANKLIN (Terrence Howard) and NANCY (Viola Davis) have two daughters, one the age of Keller’s older son, and a younger, JOY, the same age as Anna.  After dinner, the two little girls ask to walk over to Anna’s house to look for her lost whistle.   Slightly drunk, the parents say yes. 

The girls disappear.

While all the parents are frantically looking for them, Keller’s son says that earlier, the girls crawled on top of a creepy camper that was parked in the neighborhood.  They could hear a radio inside and knew someone was there. They call the police. 

DETECTIVE LOKI (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives and tells Keller he’s solved all of his cases and will find his daughter.  Loki finds the RV and takes down the young man inside, ALEX JONES (Paul Dano.)  Loki brings him in for questioning.  He has the intelligence of a ten year old.

Loki thinks Alex is innocent, but Keller thinks he’s guilty.

Loki investigates all local sex offenders, and finds a priest with the long dead body of a man in his basement.  The priest says the dead guy confessed to taking 16 children. 

ACT I TURNING POINT:  Loki releases Alex. In the parking lot of the police station, Keller attacks Alex.  The young man taunts him by whispering (in NOT a ten-year-old voice), “The only time they cried was when I left them.” Alex’s feeble aunt HOLLY (Melissa Leo) defends her nephew.  Keller is now sure Alex is guilty.


FOLLOW THE TRAJECTORY CREATED BY THE FIRST TURNING POINT:  Keller begins to stalk Alex.  Alex sees Keller and does something cruel to his own dog, and sings a song the girls were singing right before they disappeared.

Furious, Keller kidnaps Alex and brings him to an old abandoned house.  He’s going to hold him prisoner until he confesses. Franklin, the other girl’s father, is helping him.

Loki interviews the priest.  The priest says the dead guy was religious.  Told him he was “Waging a war against God.”

Keller tortures Alex to try to get him to tell where the girls are.  Alex won’t talk.

MIDPOINT: At a vigil for the girls in front of Franklin’s house, Loki sees a creepy guy wearing a hoodie.  Loki starts to follow him and the guy runs away.  Loki chases but loses him (now we have another suspect.)  This is actually the point where my husband turned to me and said, “Where does this movie take place?  Perv County U.S.A?”

Loki pursues clues about the hoodie guy. Franklin and Keller continue to interrogate/torture Alex.  Alex still refuses to talk.

Hoodie sneaks into Franklin and Keller’s houses.  While investigating the break-ins, Loki sees lye in Keller’s basement, begins to suspect him.

THE BIG GLOOM (remember, this is usually a series of events). 

Loki follows Keller, but discovers a clue that leads him to the hoodie guy.  Hoodie has the girls’ clothes with blood on them. Loki tells the parents their daughters are dead. Keller does NOT believe him.  Will not give up.  Hoodie shoots himself in the head.  Now they won’t ever know where the girls’ bodies are.  Keller tortures Alex more.  Finally, Alex (whose face seriously looks like it’s going to explode from his wounds) breaks, and says the girls are in the “maze.” The cops discover that the blood on the girls’ clothes was pig blood and hoodie probably took the clothing when he broke into the houses.  He’s a copycat, not the real abductor.

Keller goes to Alex’s house, talks to his Aunt Holly.  He apologizes for attacking Alex in the parking lot, tries to get info on the “maze.” Holly says that her young son died from cancer years ago.  Alex is all she has.

Keller is distraught.  Time is ticking out on his daughter and he has nothing. 

ACT II TURNING POINT:  Franklin’s little girl turns up alive.  She can’t tell Keller where Anna is but says, “They put tape on her mouth.”  And Keller knows who did it.

Loki finds Alex in the abandoned building and rescues him.


RACE TO CLIMAX:  Keller goes back to Alex’s Aunt’s house. He says he knows the girls were here.   That she and Alex took them.

CLIMAX:  The aunt holds Keller at gunpoint. She says that Alex never wanted to hurt the girls. She and her husband, who ran out on her years ago, were distraught about their son’s death and were “waging a war on God.” She cuffs Keller and makes him crawl into a hole underneath a car that’s parked outside her house.  He refuses.  She shoots him in leg.  Trapped down there, he finds Anna’s whistle.

Loki goes to notify the Aunt that they found Alex.  He realizes she is the bad guy. They get into a shootout.  Loki kills her. He races with Anna, who’s been drugged, to the hospital.

BRIEF RESOLUTION:  Anna is saved.  We discover that Alex was actually one of the boys taken by Holly and her husband a long time ago.  Keller is missing.  Loki thinks he ran away because he knew he would go to jail for kidnapping and torturing Alex. 

Loki goes to the aunt’s house to check with the CSI people who are there.  They’ve found nothing, and leave for the night. Loki stands there, in the snow, then hears a tiny, weak whistling sound coming from underneath the ground.


If you’re writing a mystery, this is a great script to study for structure.  It’s complicated, but if you look at the moving pieces, they all line up and make perfect sense in the end.

The main character has a strong goal—to find his daughter. The antagonist is just as strong—he will NOT reveal her location.  As in most great crime/mysteries, the bad guy is revealed to be just the person fronting for the true mastermind.  The detective in this movie serves to create red herrings and perform the final rescue of Keller.

Gritty.  Compelling.

What more could you ask of a crime drama set in Perv County U.S.A.?

Thursday, November 21, 2013


For those of you who don’t know me, I just spent 30 days in Bali as a mentor at The Daily Love Writer’s Mastermind—a retreat where 13 writers wrote a first draft of their book or screenplay in a month.  When Mastin Kipp, founder of The Daily Love, asked me to go, I was like, “Sure, a month in Bali?  Sounds like paradise!”  But as the months ticked by and we got closer and closer to our departure date, I felt resistance coming up.

What?  I have to get a bunch of shots?  They have Dengue Fever there?  Rabid dogs walking the streets?  Holy crap, what if I have to be helicoptered to Hong Kong?  What if I get so sick they can’t helicopter me to Hong Kong?  What if they get me to the helicopter to Hong Kong but it’s broken?  This went on and on in my mind, spiraling out numerous doomsday scenarios, each one ending with me being helicoptered to China.

As writers, part of our skill set is an ability to imagine things happening.  Mostly, it’s cool stuff like, “What could happen to my heroine in this scene where the bats attack and try to bite her neck?” Or, “What would happen if a meteor landed in a small town and suddenly, all its inhabitants began to yodel?” The flip side of this ability to envision interesting scenarios is the ability to imagine terrible things happening in our own lives. 

It didn’t help that on the first day after our arrival in Ubud, I tried to cross the street and caused a scooter crash.  The Balinese driver was ok, his bike was banged up, and I paid for repairs, for him to see a doctor, but I was shaken.  Had all my predictions come true?  Only would I cause OTHER people to have to be helicoptered to Hong Kong?  And yes, there were scary looking dogs walking around town.  Not the cute kind we have in the U.S., ones with collars and actual owners. These dogs were wild, Cujo-like, half crippled.

Each week, Mastin held weekly personal growth workshops aimed at helping the writers. And in one of the gatherings, he said something that struck to the core of what I’d been experiencing. 

He said, “The quality of your life, is the quality of your relationship with uncertainty.”

I felt as though I’d been struck by lightning (cliché, I know, but true.) In my writing, in my life, I have always tried to create certainty.  “If I give my work to a ton of friends for feedback, then I’ll lessen the chances of failure.”  “If I teach X amount of classes, I’ll get X amount of income and that will make me feel calm.” The list of the ways I have clung to certainty and not done things because they were too risky, goes on and on.

Yes, we all have to earn a living.  Yes, we all have to be careful not to step in front of moving trains.  And I understood that I was doing these things out of self-protection.  But in protecting myself, was I allowing fear to stop me from pursuing things I loved?

I felt totally out of my comfort zone going to Bali.  But if I hadn’t, I never would have experienced a tropical rainstorm pounding violently on my roof in the middle of the night. I never would have eaten papaya that tasted like fruit flavored butter (I’m serious.  Fruit.  And butter.  Together.)  I’d never have stepped off that curb, caused a scooter crash, and learned that the Balinese driver and I could both be fine.

Most importantly, I’d never have come to the realization that I needed to change my relationship with risk.

Being a writer is inherently uncertain. The likelihood of making a decent living is slim, and there are many pitfalls. People can hate the thing you poured your heart into, spent years on. You could fail.  You could write something that doesn’t sell.

But is all that time and effort a waste if you are doing the thing that makes you feel truly alive? Pixar has a consistent pattern of completely re-booting ideas that don’t work.  They embrace uncertainty.  They go for it, spend a lot of money, then turn the ship around if it’s not going anywhere.  Nobody dies.  Taking a leap out into the unknown, for them, is just part of the creative process.  And it delivers HUGE rewards.

So let me list the action steps I am going to take to alter my relationship with certainty.

      -- When offered a job, I am going to ask myself, “Do I really WANT to do that job?  Or am I just taking it because I’m scared?”
      -- I am going to work every day on a project of mine that I know is un-commercial, just because I love it.
      -- Instead of backing away when I feel uncomfortable about something, I’m going lean in a bit and listen.  Is it fear talking, or is it genuinely something I shouldn’t do?
      -- And finally, I’m going to consciously make myself NOT THINK about helicopters.  Of any kind.

So what’s your relationship with uncertainty?  Can you live with it?  Can you do more than that—can you embrace it?”

Can you step away from that job that provides a steady paycheck, but doesn’t allow you time to write?  Can you step out onto that blank page in a way that truly scares you?

“The quality of your life, is the quality of your relationship with uncertainty.”

What’s one small step you can take today to commit to this risky, creative, crazy, completely unreliable art form you love?

P.S.  This photo is of Mastin's girlfriend Jenna and I near a Balinese volcano.  I must have made some progress in my personal growth journey because I don't look remotely worried that it's going to explode. 

Friday, September 20, 2013


When I got out of school, and began to pursue my career, I learned lots of things about screenwriting.   Maybe, if someone had told me about them before I began, the road would have been easier. 

Maybe I wouldn’t have even listened.

Still, it’s interesting to look back and think about what I’ve gleaned from all those meetings, and all those sleepless nights worrying about a pitch, or a scene that was giving me trouble, or whether I was any good.

So here they are.  The top ten things I wish someone had told me about screenwriting (and writing in general)...

1) Relax

2) You will have good writing days and bad writing days.  Accept them both

3) Remember that your main character always drives your story.

4) Write what you are compelled to write.  Don’t chase trends.

5) If something feels like the best thing you’ve ever written, it’s probably crap.  It’s when you’re on the edge and feel like you’re about to fall off a cliff that you’re doing something interesting.

6)  Always wear great shoes and a good pair of sunglasses to meetings.

7) Do not base your self worth as a writer on what other people think of you.

8) Write every day. 

9) Prepare for meetings, but go in open to whatever happens

10)  Watch movies.  They’ll remind you why you got into this business in the first place.  And sometimes, why you want to get out.

Eeek-- I just thought of one more.  And it’s probably the most important.

11) Follow your heart and not your fear.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.  Here’s a hint—your fear has a much louder voice.  You have to get really, really quiet and still to hear your heart.

Friday, September 13, 2013


All right, it’s confession time.  I hate myself.  I really do.  I hate that I get up each week in front of students and say, “Here are the rules of screenwriting.”  Mostly, at several points in the semester, I interject the word “some” before “rules.”  Or I mumble after proclaiming something loudly, “Of course, there are other ways to think about this….”

Here’s the deal.  There is such a thing as a structural template. Aristotle identified it, and Joseph Campbell read a hell of a lot of myths and fairy tales to confirm this. Most classically structured stories have the same shape.  They really do.  The same things happen over and over in the same order with different accessories.

But back to why I hate myself.  This weekend, I went to Story Expo, which is an event where screenwriters, novelists and people who write memoirs come to talk and give writers tips.   And I’m sitting in a seminar by a pretty famous screenwriting guru guy.  I’m not going to mention names, but if you’ve ever scrolled the internet looking for books about the craft and such, his name will come up.  So, he starts by saying, “Three Act Structure doesn’t work.” 

And I am OUTRAGED.  I mean seriously.  I start to sweat and get totally pissed.  I feel my legs begin to shake, my armpits are sweating.  I’m about ready to faint, punch him in the face. What did he just say?  I mean, really, what did he actually just say?

As if he hears me (all this outrage by the way, is going on in my mind), he says it again. 

Now, I’ve read this guy’s “Story Steps” and I’ve decided they have merit.  That’s why I’m sitting in his seminar.  He’s actually super smart and has lots of valuable things to say about story and craft.  And in the left side of my brain I know he’s just saying this so that people will buy into his “brand.”  But on the other side, all hell is breaking loose.  My Italian side.  The side that will throw a frying pan at you if you look at me wrong.

So, I’m fuming, trembling.  And I have to leave, I literally can not sit there another minute.  So I go to a bunch of other seminars which are great (Chistopher Vogler, you’re my hero.)  But later, I decide I need to go back to this moment of outrage and figure out why I got so mad.  I mean Joseph Campbell himself told me to go there, right?  Because the people we hate most (villains) represent what we hate in ourselves (and I quote here, “Luke, I am your father.”) 

And as I’m driving home, analyzing my anger, at first I think I hate this guy because he insulted MY STRUCTURAL MODEL.  The one I love, the one that’s helped me understand how drama and comedy and movies really work.  But then I go a layer deeper and understand that every week I am doing exactly what this guy is doing.  Reducing the magic of storytelling into some little box that I’ve CHOSEN. 

Still, I realize what I really dislike is that he’s wrong.  I mean, it’s totally irresponsible to tell people who come to a screenwriting exposition with open minds and a passion for movies that three act structure doesn’t work.  Because it DOES work.  It worked in the time of Aristotle, and it works now.  And you can see it every week at your local movie theater.

So let’s look at this guy’s story “steps.”

He has an Inciting Incident, called “The Inciting Incident” in Three ACT Structure.
He has a First Revelation, called “The ACT I Turning Point /ACT I Break” in Three ACT Structure.
He has combined The Opponent’s Plan & Main Counterattack and Attack by Ally to stand in for Three Act Structure’s “Midpoint”
He has an Apparent Defeat, which is called “The Big Gloom” in Three ACT Structure.
He has a Battle, called “The Climax,” in Three ACT Structure
Finally, at the end, he has New Equilibrium, which is called the “Brief Resolution” in Three ACT structure.

Dude, you're teaching Three Act structure.

So here’s a moment where I can like myself.  I’m going to commit to saying to my students as often as I can remember, “There are lots of different approaches to writing a classically structured movie.  You can pick the one that works best for you, but they’re all basically the same structure and anyone who tells you different, is blowing smoke up your butt or trying to sell you a book.”

So tell us your theory Mr. Expo, your approach.  It’s interesting, and you explore character in a really cool way.  But don’t discount something that’s important for every student of the craft of screenwriting to learn.  It forms the foundation for your “Steps” and was spelled out by Aristotle in his Poetics in the year 350 Before Christ.

The thing you say doesn’t fly is the simplest, purest, most magical thing of all.

It’s that stories have a Beginning, a Middle and an End.

Good luck telling us that doesn’t work.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Five Signs You’re Beating a Dead Horse Screenplay and Need to Move On

I feel qualified to write about this topic, because getting caught in a rewrite loop is my Achilles heel.  I will hang onto a screenplay until it’s wrenched from my bloody fingers.  If anyone gives me a note, I feel compelled to implement it.  They must know better than me, right? 

Here are five signs you need to let that old chestnut rest, and write something new.

1)   Every time you try to work on it you feel like throwing up.  And not from excitement.

You have dragged this old nag around the ring several times, restructured, changed characters, and it’s still not working.  You dread opening up the file.  The words are so familiar that you can’t even read them anymore—they just swim before your eyes.  Yet you keep changing it and changing it and…
Yes, changing it some more.  This feeling of nausea is not the kind you get when you are trying something new, or stepping out of your comfort zone.  No, this is the sick feeling of repetition, running in place, wasting time.

Close the file, think about what you’ve learned from this project and move on.  It hasn’t been a waste of time, but a learning opportunity.  What pearls of wisdom can you take with you to your next script?

2)   You’ve sent it out to everyone you (and your agent) can think of and nothing’s happened.

Still, you believe if you just made a few changes, they’d respond differently.  Like actually call you back.  Silence is a very big piece of feedback.  Even if you get someone on the phone and they tell you WHY they passed, their reason will probably not be the whole truth. They want to stay friends with you so when you write your next project (the one that actually works!) you will sell it to them.

Don’t chase people.  It’s a waste of time.  Unless someone gives you a reason that really seems true, and they say they’d be interested if specific changes were made, it’s probably not worth your time.  Most likely, they would have bought the script the first time around if they were truly interested.

3)   You insist on rewriting it over and over because it’s not “perfect.”  

Guess what.  It never will be.  You’re clinging because you’re afraid of sending it out, of being rejected, or of admitting you’ve “wasted” time. All this fear is a form of resistance.

This is my personal favorite. I keep thinking the more I work on the project, the better the script will be.  Not true.  I now believe there is a threshold of “awesomeness” that every script has.  Once you reach this peak, most of the changes you are making on your own are probably lateral moves. It’s still the same basic story, with the same protagonist and themes.  If you completely reboot something, that’s different.  But tweaking here and there will not substantially change the marketability of the project.

Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”  You could conceivably dress up this orange pony until the cows come home. 

It’ll still be an orange pony.

4)   You’ve been working on it to the exclusion of all other projects for more than two years.

Working on a script for more than two years is not unusual.  However, if you've been working on this script for two years, and have not been developing any other ideas, it might be time to let that script go.  If you think it’s good, send it out-- to a contest, agents, producers. If it’s bad, put it in a drawer and chalk it up as a learning experience.  While you're rewriting, you should always be working on your next project.  Outlining/pitching/researching etc.  You need to have more than one ball in the air… Otherwise it’s very difficult to forge a career that lasts. Most professional screenwriters have a ton of abandoned projects.  It’s just part of the creative process.  Again, what wisdom have you gained from this script?  What fatal disease infected your horse, and how can you avoid this malady in the future?

Sorry, but I’m loving belaboring the horse metaphor.

5)   Your script doesn’t have a strong enough hook.   And deep down, you know it never will.

This is probably the single most common reason people should give up on a screenplay.  There is no central conceit or conflict or character that holds our attention.  And no matter how much you pussyfoot around this fact, it’ll never change.  The central nugget of the story is just not compelling or original enough.

Some ideas are good, and some are bad.  Most fantastic writers have worked on dog projects.  Not everything is a chunk of gold, some are made of coal and worse.  Be proud of yourself for trying this idea and learning something about what makes a good movie.

Once you’ve slaved and slaved over a bad idea, you pay a lot more attention to the “concept” of your next one. This is probably the single most important part of the creative process.  Does the idea have enough juice, enough humanity, enough genuinely engaging conflict and originality to pull a viewer in?

If it’s a generic idea, it’ll be a generic script.

In conclusion, veterinary students, abandoning a project is not failing.  It’s just part of the creative process.  Not every idea will work.  One of the reasons Pixar is so successful is that they are not afraid to face the music and reboot or bail on a project when necessary.

Work hard on each script.  Work smart.  Know when you’ve got something and when you don’t, no matter how hard you’re trying.

Most importantly, trust your INSTINCTS. 

We all know when our horses are dead.  It’s just really hard to bury them.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

WRECK IT RALPH Structure Breakdown

Here is another in my series of story structure breakdowns.  Today I’m focusing on WRECK-IT-RALPH, the animated film starring John C. Reilly as a “bad guy” video game character who just wants to be the hero for once.

Don’t we all?


ORDINARY WORLD-- Ralph’s a video game character in “Fix it Felix.”  He’s the bad guy—his job is to break stuff so Felix (the hero) can repair it. Ralph is bummed because he can never win a medal. While all the other “Felix” characters hang out after work in the penthouse of an apartment building partying, Ralph is stuck sleeping in the dump.  He goes to ‘Badanon’ meetings and tells the other bad guys all he wants is to be a hero.

(see how clearly the writer is setting up Ralph’s goal/desire?)

INCITING INCIDENT-- There’s a 30th Anniversary party for the "Fix It Felix" game and Ralph’s not invited.  He decides if he wins a medal, they’ll include him.

He goes to a bar, to try to find a medal in the lost and found.  Once there, he meets another game character who tells him he can fight bots in a game called “Hero’s Duty” and win a medal.

Ralph enters the "Hero’s Duty" game.

There are guns and soldiers killing insects, blowing up eggs.  It’s totally violent.  Ralph FREAKS OUT.

The other Felix characters discover Ralph is missing and without a bad guy, their game won’t work. The video arcade owner puts up an “Out of Order” sign on the console.  Oh no—when this happens to old games, they get carted off and destroyed!   

While trying to escape “Hero’s Duty” Ralph sees a shiny MEDAL OF HEROES.  He climbs to try to get it.  Felix comes to Hero’s Duty to find Ralph.  He meets a tough sexy soldier named Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch.)  Ralph punches the glass that protects the medal, steps through some dangerous exploding eggs, and grabs the Medal.  He’s got it.  Hurray!

ACT I TURNING POINT—But suddenly Ralph is scooped up by an out of control space bot and crash lands in a weird Candy/Go Kart game called “Sugar Rush.”  Everything is made of candy and its like nothing Ralph has ever seen before. (28 minutes in) 

(See how he enters a whole new world at the end of ACT I?)


FOLLOW THE TRAJECTORY OF THE FIRST TURNING POINT: Ralph’s medal has flown out of his hand and landed on top of a candy cane.  As he tries to climb to get it, he meets a little girl named Vanellope.  She needs the medal to enter a Go Kart race.  She takes it and runs away.

Felix and Calhoun realize Ralph and the cybot are in Sugar Rush and that if they don’t destroy the cybot, it will destroy every game in the arcade. (stakes!)  Felix and Calhoun head to Sugar Rush.

We meet the bad guy—King Candy, the ruler of "Sugar Rush."  He’s a little twisted and has two donut henchmen.

Vanellope uses the medal as a coin to enter the big Sugar Rush Go Kart race.  Everyone thinks she’s a freak because she “glitches.”  Ralph chases her, trying to get the medal.  He’s captured and brought to King Candy’s castle.  They want to imprison him, but he escapes.

The other girls make fun of Vanellope.  Ralph defends her and scares the girls away.  He wants the medal and she wants to win the race.  They decide to join together.  If he helps her win the race, she’ll get back his medal.

Felix and Calhoun talk about what happened in the past—a game character went “turbo” and tried to take over another game.  He destroyed that game and others.   As they are walking, they get trapped in quicksand, but in the nick of time are saved by Lafffy Taffy.  United by danger, Felix and Calhoun fall in love.

Ralph and Vanellope break into the Kart building place and make one.  It’s kind of messed-up looking, but Vanellope loves it.   King Candy sees her, says she must destroy the car and that she’s not allowed to race.  She and Ralph escape him.

Ralph and Vanellope go to her house.  It’s kind of like Ralph’s dump. Vanellope explains that glitches can’t leave their games.  Ralph builds her a race track.  She learns to drive, says she’s going to win!

King Candy goes into the game’s “code” and takes the Hero’s Duty medal.

MIDPOINT-- King Candy brings Ralph the medal.  He says that Ralph must do what is right.  Vanellope can't be in the race.  If she wins, the customers will see her glitch and “Sugar Rush” will be Out of Order.  She and everyone in the game will die.

BIG GLOOM-- Vanellope makes Ralph a homemade medal that says he’s her hero.  Ralph tries to talk her out of the race.  Tells her she can’t be a racer. 

She discovers Ralph sold her out to King Candy.  He wrecks their Kart.  Vanellope cries, falls to the ground, says, “You ARE a bad guy.”

Ralph picks up his Hero’s Duty medal, and goes back to “Fix it Felix.” Everyone’s gone.  Felix has been captured, didn’t come back, and the Video Arcade owner’s going to pull their plug in the morning.  One of the few remaining characters tells Ralph he can live alone in the penthouse.

ACT II TURNING POINT-- Ralph throws away the Hero’s Duty medal.  He sees the one that Vanellope made him, then notices her picture on the side of the Sugar Rush game console. She WAS a racer.  King Candy must have destroyed her code.  That’s why she glitches. If she wins the race, the game will be reset and she won’t be a glitch anymore.  Ralph has to tell her!


RACE TO THE CLIMAX-- Ralph races back to “Sugar Rush.”  He finds Felix and asks him to fix Vanellope’s Kart. He promises never to be good again.

Ralph finds Vanellope, apologizes, gives her the repaired Kart.  They all head to the race!

CLIMAX—Vanellope is racing and wants to win.  She’s about to achieve victory, but Calhoun comes back, has to kill the cybot.  She tells everyone they’re in danger.  Go to Game Central Station now!  All the game characters start to flee.

We discover that King Candy is “Turbo!”  He chases Vanellope.  She uses her glitch to escape from him. Vanellope crashes.  The whole game is falling apart.  Ralph grabs her.  She says she can’t leave the game, that he has to leave without her.

Ralph faces off with Turbo and defeats him.  Vanellope’s about to be killed by the cybots.  Ralph sacrifices himself to save her.  He destroys stuff.  Accepts who he is.  Vanellope wins the race, and the whole game resets.  “Sugar Rush” goes back to the way it was before Turbo arrived.

BRIEF RESOLUTION-- Vanellope is the “queen” of Sugar Rush, but is a benevolent ruler/racer.  “Fix-it-Felix” is back to normal and Ralph is taking it “one game at a time.” He and Vanellope will always be friends.

Felix and Calhoun marry and Ralph hangs out with his friends in the penthouse.

The End!

TAKE ACTION.  Think about your own story.  Do you have a strong goal for your main character up top?  Ralph wants that medal, and this object becomes something that drives him forward and creates twists and turns in the plot.  Does your character enter a whole new world at the end of ACT I?  What happens at the midpoint of the movie that turns the story in a new direction? How does it all fall apart for the hero, and then what DECISION does the protagonist make at the end of ACT II that drives him/her toward the climax?

How does he or she face the bad guy in ACT III and TRANSFORM?

Have fun!

P.S.  Do you have a really cool clever facet to your story?  In WRECK IT, all the candy in "Sugar Rush" functions as part of the plot-- providing obstacles, etc.  Watch it if you want to find out what happens in the Diet Coke and Mentos cave...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Jule Selbo, a colleague of mine and fantastic screenwriter, has designed an amazing story structure model which I’ve been using in my classes and loving.  It's simple, and focuses on the protagonist’s goal as the primary structural engine to drive the plot.

These 11 Steps will work for any genre of film, and are elaborated in Selbo’s book, “Gardner’s Guide to Screenplay:  From Idea to Successful Script.” (available through Amazon)

So you can see how it works, I've described the 11 Steps for the classic film noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

For those of you who love the film, you know the main character is Walter Neff (played by the excellent Fred MacMurray), and the femme fatale is Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck, in all her black widow glory)  For those of you who don’t know the film, watch it—it's amazing.  One of Billy Wilder’s best.


1       1) Character’s Overall Want:  Walter Neff is a cocky insurance salesman.  He meets Phyllis Dietrichson and falls in lust.  He wants her.

         2)  Character Logically Goes for his/her want: He flirts with her and shows up at her house when he knows her husband won’t be home.

   3)  Character is Denied:  He discovers the reason she wants to buy life insurance is so she can kill her husband.  Walter says, “You can’t get away with it.”  Phyllis says, “I think you’re rotten.”  He says, “I think you’re swell, as long as I’m not your husband.”  He walks out.

         4) Character Gets a Second Opportunity to Achieve the Overall Want:  Phyllis comes to his apartment, complains that her husband is abusive.  Walter is super attracted to her (it’s Barbara Stanwyck, of COURSE he’s attracted!) and he’s always had this dream of pulling off the perfect insurance scam.  He figures out a way to outwit his boss at the insurance company and be with her.  He decides to help her kill her husband.


         5) There are Conflicts About Going after the Second Opportunity:  They could get the death penalty.

         6)  The Character Goes for it Anyway:  Neff tricks Mr. Dietrichson into signing the insurance policy.

         7) All Goes Well:  They plan the murder, and it goes off without a hitch (aside from a minor witness who tries to talk with Walter on the train.)  They kill Dietrichson, and leave his body on the tracks. Still, as they walk away from the body, Neff says in classic noir voiceover, “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps, I was a dead man.”  (this is 59 MINUTES in, the MIDPOINT of the screenplay.)

   8) All Falls Apart: Walter’s boss, Keyes, gets a hinky feeling and decides there’s something fishy with the case.  At first he thought it was an accident, but now suspects it’s homicide.  Walter tells Phyllis she should NOT file the claim.  Being a femme fatale, she files anyway.  Neff befriends Phyllis’s stepdaughter Lola and discovers that Phyllis probably killed Lola’s mother so she could marry Dietrichson.  And to make things worse, Phyllis is sleeping with Nino Zachetti (Lola’s boyfriend.)  Neff now knows that Phyllis is a total snake and will destroy him. 

         9) Crisis:  (Note, this step is always a DECISION made by the main character) Neff decides to kill Phyllis.


   10) Climax:  Neff goes to Phyllis’s house.  She shoots him first.  She’s about to finish him off, but realizes she really loves him and stops.  He shoots and kills her.  Neff tells Zachetti to go away, be with Lola (He redeems himself.)

   11)  The Truth Comes Out to Make Things Right:  Neff has confessed everything on a tape recorder.  Keyes discovers Walter, wounded, and says he’s all washed up.  Neff’s going to the gas chamber.

The End.

What I love most about this structural model is that the 11 steps focus on your main character’s "want."  This creates lots of forward momentum in the story-- the protagonist is always trying to get something and facing obstacles.  Plus, your main character's goal  can change.  Notice how in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Neff’s goal switches from wanting to be with Phyllis, to wanting to destroy her and save himself? This also supports his character arc from “cocky ladies man” to “vulnerable, desperate dupe.”

The story is told in flashback (we start with Neff racing away from Phyllis’s house after being shot) and as he tells us what happened, we see it onscreen through the 11 Steps.

If you are just starting to outline your movie, or if you are stuck in your pages and can’t see the forest for the trees, try using this structural model. 

Take Action!  Set a timer for 10 minutes, and dash down what the 11 steps might be for your main character.  I guarantee you will find a spine for your protagonist that will carry him/her through to a big finish.

And if you want to throw in a dash of Joseph Campbell, make sure that in the climax, the hero has to face the darkness in him/her self.