Read these 21 Story Craft Tips tips to make your life smarter, better, faster and wiser. Each tip is approved by our Editors and created by expert writers so great we call them Gurus. LifeTips is the place to go when you need to know about Screenplay tips and hundreds of other topics.
Subplots are secondary storylines that either support or contrast the theme of the main storyline. If your theme is a thesis that your protagonist will prove either right or wrong, then the subplots are the different sides of the argument. They're the pros and cons. Supporting the thesis through one storyline and contradicting it through another enriches the story and generates curiosity about how the protagonist will resolve his dilemma. What will he choose? How will it turn out? Subplots also help give us a better sense of character.
One of the subplots in the movie Moonstruck (written by John Patrick Shanley) involves the main character's parents. Loretta's mother discovers that her husband, whom she truly loves, is having an affair. This subplot mirrors and plays out the theme, which is true love is a risk worth taking. Her mother's story underscores Loretta's dilemma: Will she play it safe in a loveless marriage? Or will she follow her heart and embrace vulnerability, as her mother did?
Subplots are complete stories with a beginning, middle, and end. They have their own protagonists, usually a secondary character. The subplot protagonist often goes through a change, but it's a shift rather than a profound transformation. That kind of journey is reserved for the hero.
Your decisions about where and how to begin and end your subplots will affect the pace of your entire story. You may want to have the major subplot climax coincide with the A-story climax, or slightly before or after. Be careful not to dilute the A-story climax with a too-big subplot climax. Be sure to wrap up any loose subplot threads in the resolution.
The theme of your story is its underlying issue, the thing it's about, the moral at the story's core. Theme is what transforms the film from a collection of interesting scenes to a unified whole. Theme gives the story its spine. It's the glue that binds.
Think of your theme as a thesis that your protagonist will prove either right or wrong. In Casablanca the theme is self-sacrifice for a higher purpose. Humphrey Bogart goes from insisting that he sticks his neck out for no one to sacrificing the woman he loves so that they can all battle tyranny. The theme of Wizard of Oz is, "There's no place like home." Common themes include "Crime doesn't pay," "Power corrupts," and "Reality is illusion."
How do you come up with your screenplay's theme? Sometimes theme is present from the very start, sometimes it emerges as you write. Each writer has a source of inspiration, an aspect of life that fascinates her and that she explores through her writing. Usually, your theme springs from that well. If you've chosen a story you truly believe in, the theme will become apparent.
Once you are able to articulate your theme, use that knowledge as you rewrite. Every scene, character dilemma, and event should either speak to that theme or contradict it. (See tip #36, Subplots.)
In many movies, the theme is stated outright early in the first act. How blatantly or how subtly you do this depends on your sensibilities and on the kind of movie you're writing. Be careful, however, not to use the theme to bash the audience over the head with a message. To loosely quote Samuel Goldwyn, movies don't deliver messages. Western Union does.
When my brother and I were little, my father used to tell us bedtime stories featuring Doctor Terrible, a villain of his own invention, and me and my brother as the heroes. Each night, my father would get us into an impossible predicament. There we were, trapped by Doctor Terrible and armed only with tennis rackets. We listened to my father's words, breathless with anticipation, eager to learn what ingenious plan we would hit upon.
And then it would happen. My dad would turn the light off and say, "To be continued tomorrow."
Mine was a sleep-deprived childhood, hanging out there on that cliff. All I could think about was WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT.
When you anticipate something, you look forward to it, like a special night out or a vacation, or you prepare for it, like a job interview or retirement. Anticipation propels you into the future, and the emotions about the upcoming event can range from hope and excitement to dread and worry. In real life, most of us find swinging back and forth between the two extremes too stressful. But at the movies, we find it exciting. We want to be kept on the edge of our seats hoping the hero will make it but worrying he won't. A gripping story uses anticipation to keep us hooked.
There are many ways to build anticipation into your story. One is the tactic my dad used—setting something up, and then delaying the payoff (see tip #34, Setups and Payoffs). Another is to hide information from the character but share it with the audience. One scene I saw recently did both of these to great effect. In the movie Babel (written by Guillermo Arriaga) we know that Cate Blanchett's character will be shot. We see the kids aim at the bus and pull the trigger. Then we go back in time a little and see Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt on the bus. She's sleeping, her head against the window. We KNOW the bullet will penetrate the window, and we wait for it to happen. But she continues to sleep peacefully, oblivious to the danger, as the bus rolls on. And rolls on. The moment of impact is delayed and you're left squirming in your seat with anticipation.
After you've written a scene, go back through it and see how you can create more anticipation. Where can you make us hope the character will achieve his goal, and where can you make us worry that he won't? How many different ways can you make us ask what will happen, if it will happen, and when will it happen? Build anticipation into your script and your reader won't be able to put it down.
Act III gets the hero out of the tree by accelerating the action. Now we're on a downhill ride as the hero makes a new plan and goes for broke. All the complications the screenwriter established during Acts I and II come together in Act III. At the climax, the hero will either land safely or he'll crash and burn. In the aftermath following the climax, the tension releases. Any threads that are still left hanging are resolved, and we catch a glimpse of the hero's future. We finally find out if he gets the girl, or if he lands in jail.
The third act of Thelma and Louise accelerates the action: Thelma robs a store; the girls blow up a semi; they refuse to turn themselves in even though the law is closing in on them. At the climax, a chase scene involving multiple cop cars ensues—and leaves the girls hanging on the edge of a cliff. In this film, climax and resolution happen almost simultaneously when the girls decide to go over the cliff rather than turn themselves in.
Act III covers the last 25 or 30 pages of the screenplay.
The overall movement in a three-act screenplay can be stated as first setting tension, then building it, and finally accelerating and releasing it.
The lengths of the acts as stated above (a ratio of 1:2:1) are flexible. In fact, it is often dramatically advisable to shorten Act III. Ideally, Act III should give the audience a sense of acceleration up to the final conflict and finish with a resolution that is short and sweet. An Act III that is too long will drag the story down.
Act I sets the tension and gets the hero up the tree by establishing the characters, the story world, the story concept, and the conflict. We learn who the protagonist is and what he wants. We become familiar with his world before it gets disrupted, and we are encouraged to like him or feel sympathy toward him. We also learn where and when the story is taking place and are introduced to the rules of this story world.
An event must happen in Act I to disrupt our protagonist's life, eliciting action from him and setting the story in motion. This is the inciting incident, and it often occurs early in the first act. The first major twist or reversal in the story occurs at the end of Act I. The protagonist has experienced a major change in his life and has made an initial decision about how to react to this change. The conflict has been established.
The first act of Thelma and Louise (written by Callie Khouri) introduces us to the two protagonists and their normal world. Their goal at this point is a weekend away, a bit of an escape from the daily grind. For Louise (Susan Sarandon), it's a break from waitressing and an opportunity to get her mind off Jimmy, her non-committal boyfriend. For Thelma (Geena Davis), it's a chance to escape her domineering husband. When they stop at a bar for a few drinks, we experience their bond and their sense of humor, and we quickly get to like them. The inciting incident occurs when Louise shoots the man attempting to rape a drunken Thelma in the bar's parking lot, disrupting life as they knew it in a dramatic way. By then we're on their side, ready to follow their adventure.
Generally speaking, Act I covers the first 25-30 pages of the screenplay.
Storytellers have employed the three-act structure since its origins in ancient Greek drama, and Hollywood still uses it today as its standard. While it isn't the only way to successfully organize a story, it's a good place to start, particularly since studio executives pretty much expect it. And, once you have mastered the three-act structure, you'll be able to play with alternative structures much more convincingly.
The three-act structure is an organizational tool. Every good story has dramatic tension that happens at the right time and in the right places. Too little tension, and the story stalls. Too much tension, and you wind up overwhelming and confusing your audience. The three-act structure helps you map out the progression of tension from opening to inciting incident to climax and resolution in a coherent way.
Each of the acts has a specific job to do. You can think of it as setup, complications, and resolution. Or to put it another way, get your hero up a tree in the first act, throw progressively bigger rocks at him and force him further up the tree in the second, and let him climb down or shake him out of the tree in the third.
Let's take a closer look at the individual acts.
Turning points are events that spin (or turn) the story in a new direction. They are the major twists or surprises that keep audiences glued to their seats. It takes a minimum of three turning points—one at the end of each act—to keep the audience involved through a three-act, feature-length film. Turning points are also called plot points, major reversals, or act climaxes.
At the Act I turning point, the protagonist has experienced a major change in his life and has made an initial decision about how he will respond. At the Act II turning point, the protagonist realizes his strategy isn't working and he needs to change course. The Act III turning point is the movie's climax, the final show-down between protagonist and antagonist. It's here that we discover whether the hero wins or loses.
Many writers add a mid-act climax halfway through Act II, called the midpoint. Essentially, this is a fourth turning point, but smaller in scope than the turning point at the end of Act II. It gives the screenwriter one more destination to work toward, ensures that the conflict will build continuously, and helps keep the screenplay on track.
We expect good stories to have turning points and are disappointed when they don't. If you want to keep your audience involved, it's crucial to understand turning points.
A beat is the smallest structural unit of a script and is defined as an exchange of action/reaction. It's a line of dialogue, an action, or a reaction that creates an emotional moment. For example, a woman dressed for an evening out checks the clock—her date is late. She's annoyed (beat #1). The doorbell rings. Angry, she opens the door (beat #2). Her date tumbles in, bloodied and bruised. Her anger turns to horror and concern (beat #3). As we see from this example, beats are strung together to build a scene.
A scene is a continuous action in a single location. Each scene functions as a mini-story, with a beginning, middle, and end. A scene has its own protagonists. This could be the hero, the antagonist, or some other character depending on the scene's purpose. The scene's protagonist must have a goal (she wants to go out) and face obstacles (her date is first late, then incapacitated).
Scenes accomplish the following tasks:
• Create anticipation and move the story forward
• Reveal conflict
• Reveal character
• Elicit emotion
The best scenes accomplish several tasks at a time. Once you've clarified a scene's dramatic purpose, set it visually and dynamically. Keep your script tight by narrowing the timeframe of its action: Start the scene as late within the action being depicted as possible, and end it as soon as possible, leaving the moviegoer to imagine part of the scene's buildup and aftermath. Scenes link together to form sequences.
A scene sequence is made up of several scenes that work together to build tension toward a bigger climax. In a sequence in which the hero's wife leaves him, scene one could be an argument during which he pushes her. In scene two, he calls from work to apologize but she says she's leaving. In scene three, he rushes home to find her gone. Each scene has a climax—the push, the wife's announcement, the realization she's gone. But they all contributed toward the climax of the sequence—his realization that she's gone.
An act is constructed out of scenes and scene sequences that build toward a climax bigger than each of the scene sequence climaxes. The information revealed in an act climax is so new and shocking that it completely changes the protagonist's situation. An act climax is also called a turning point (see below). Acts are discussed in more detail in tips #27-30.
Stories are arranged by their shared elements into categories called genres. Aristotle gave us the first two genres by organizing stories according to their emotional charge. Positive or upbeat stories were categorized as "fortunate." Negative or downbeat ones were "tragic."
As storytelling evolved over the centuries, more and more genres and subgenres emerged. Today, no one can agree on how many genres exist or how to divide them.
Below is a description of some of the most common film genres and subgenres. All of these will be familiar to you and, as you will see, genres often overlap.
Comedy: This category includes romantic (There's Something About Mary) and screwball comedies (Rat Race), satires (Thank You for Smoking), and black comedies (Catch-22). Comedies are meant to amuse. Since it's hard to laugh at someone in danger, one of the most important rules of comedy is that no one gets hurt. No matter how many pratfalls a character takes, his reaction is always funnier than the injury is painful. The only exception is black comedy, where the scale tips toward laughs of discomfort.
Drama: Drama is an umbrella category for a serious portrayal of realistic characters, settings, and situations—in other words, everything that isn't a comedy. The important distinction here is the emotional charge. Comedies make us smile, laugh, and guffaw; dramas make us reflect, worry, and cry. The category drama has many subsets and includes movies like Kramer vs. Kramer, The English Patient, and Rain Man.
Action/Adventure: Action films are fast-paced, mile-a-minute rides. Explosions, chases, and battles figure prominently. Adventure films usually revolve around some kind of quest, and are often set in exotic locales. Action and adventure are so intertwined that they are often treated as one. Some sub-genres are: disaster/survival films (The Day After Tomorrow), treasure hunts (Romancing the Stone), swashbucklers (Pirates of the Caribbean), and spy films (Casino Royale).
Crime: Here, the main storyline revolves around a crime committed. Among this category's many sub-genres are: police dramas (Se7en), gangster films (The Untouchables), film noir (The Maltese Falcon), courtroom dramas (12 Angry Men), and thrillers (The Manchurian Candidate).
Horror: Designed to scare the living daylights out of us, horror films shock and thrill at the same time. In his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee divides horror into three subgenres: the uncanny, in which the source of horror is subject to rational explanation (Psycho), the supernatural, in which the source of horror is irrational or from the spirit world (Poltergeist), or the super-uncanny, where the audience is kept guessing between the two other possibilities.
The genres above are only one way of classifying story types. For a thought-provoking take on the issue, check out Blake Snyder's book Save the Cat.
There is no story without conflict. As entertainment lawyer Judith Merians puts it, "Too often writers forget to tell a story. There's lots of character development, establishing of setting, but I don't know what the fight's about. If I don't know that, you've lost me."
When a character wants something very badly but must overcome obstacles to get it, this creates an interplay of opposing forces—in other words, conflict. Conflict is about struggling for power in ways big or small. Luke Skywalker wants to beat Darth Vader. Three bachelors taking care of a baby want it to stop crying. The stakes may be different, but both are power struggles that give a story its essential conflict.
The choices a person makes when faced with extreme conflict bring out his or her deepest character. That's why conflict is so compelling dramatically. We get to live through the hero's dilemma vicariously and wonder if we ourselves would be as courageous or as foolish.
There are four elements essential for story conflict:
• The character must have a goal and encounter obstacles along the way.
• The goal must be essential to the character. He must not be willing to give up. There can be no compromise.
• The goal can't be too easy to achieve. The odds should be stacked against him.
• The character must stand SOME hope of achieving it, otherwise the story will come across as implausible.
Every story has a central conflict. In The Pursuit of Happyness, written by Steve Conrad, the central conflict is Chris Gardner's struggle to become a stockbroker and provide a home for his 5-year-old son. But there's also scene conflict: between Chris and the mother of his son, who doesn't believe in him; when Chris is in the homeless shelter repairing his last bone density scanner so he can sell it to feed his son, and the shelter lights go out; and when Chris' boss asks to borrow $5 without realizing it's all Chris has left. Each of these scene conflicts feed the primary conflict. Chris can't give up or his son will go hungry. The odds are highly stacked against him and his goal seems almost impossible to achieve. But he has two qualities that give us hope: He's determined, and he's highly intelligent.
Start with the primary conflict, which is your hero's story goal. As your story progresses, add new obstacles and setbacks for your character to overcome, but make sure each conflict feeds the bigger conflict. Allow the obstacles to become increasingly more difficult and the conflict to escalate as the hero approaches the crisis point. Master the art of conflict, and you will have the audience sitting on the edge of their seats.
Narrative is everything that isn't dialogue. It includes descriptions of the characters, the locations, the images and actions we see, and the sounds we hear. It also sets mood, pace, and tone.
Good narrative is active and lean. Here are some points to keep in mind:
Write only what you can see or hear: If you describe a character's inner state (A painful memory from when he was 5 years old overwhelms George) or give backstory (Celia was Jonathan's first girlfriend) in the narrative, how will the audience be made aware of this information? If it's absolutely vital to the story to have this information, turn it into a visual or a line of dialogue.
Describing Actions: Whereas novels are often written in past tense, screenplays are always written as if they're happening right here, right now. Use present tense: John opens the door, walks into the room. Stick to active voice: John opens the door, and avoid the passive voice: The door was opened by John. Replace the present continuous (Gloria is driving) with the present simple (Gloria drives) whenever you can.
Describing Location: Include only enough for the reader to follow the story and the production team to design the shot. Follow the "rule of three." Point out no more than three items in a room to characterize it. People can easily visualize and remember three things, but become overwhelmed when asked to remember more. Use quintessential details. For example, if you want to describe a hippie's apartment, you may want to point out the chintz, the incense, and the Kama Sutra displayed on the coffee table, but skip describing the furniture, the color of the rug, and the windows. Unless, of course someone is about to burst through a window. Then by all means let us know it's there.
Describing Characters: When describing the way a character looks, avoid non-descriptive clichés like "drop-dead gorgeous," or specifics like "blond and blue-eyed." The first only gives us a generic picture, and the second limits the casting possibilities. Use metaphors to paint more vivid pictures. Instead of, "At six feet tall and weighing only 120 pounds, Beth is too skinny," say "If Beth stood sideways and stuck out her tongue, she'd look like a zipper."
Break up the paragraphs. Large blocks of text are a turn-off to the reader. First, it slows down the reading experience and as a result slows down the story. Second, it indicates the writer is either inexperienced or spending too much time on details. Keep your description to blocks of four or five lines. Include only details that are truly important. Keep your sentences short and simple. Avoid complicated grammatical constructions.
Tone: Keep your tone consistent. If you're writing a comedy, your descriptions, actions, and choice of words should be funny, too. If you're writing an action film, then your narrative should be full of tension and action.
Think of setup as a promise made and payofs as a promise fulfilled. When you set something up, you create an expectation in the reader that it'll be paid off later. In Thelma and Louise, as Thelma is packing, she throws in her gun on a whim, even though she has never used it and is afraid of it. When we see that, it propels us into the future. We know that gun is going to be used and wait for it to happen. If it doesn't, we'll feel cheated.
Every story element needs to be set up: actions, character traits, character transformations, events, turning points, the ending. In The Pursuit of Happyness, set in the 1980s, we see the hero playing with a Rubik's cube, and we hear a report on TV about the fad it's set off (setup). In a later scene, the hero attempts to talk himself into a prestigious training program for stockbrokers, but the broker he's trying to impress is too wrapped up in the Rubik's cube to listen. The hero manages to complete the puzzle, thereby proving his smarts to the stockbroker (payoff).
When you set something up, it needs to evolve organically and naturally. The point is to tease without blatantly manipulating. It can't scream, "Hey, you! Look here!" Make the intervening stuff between the setup and the payoff pertinent to the story and interesting in its own right. Then deliver the payoff. Work on getting the timing right, which will vary from scene to scene and story to story. Don't leave people hanging too long, but don't close the gap too quickly either.
Sometimes viewers need to know about something that happened before the movie began so they can understand the story. Or they need some background information on a character that explains his personality or behavior. Exposition, as this information is called, has to be delivered through setups, flashbacks, dialogue, or other subtle means, including visuals and music.
Writing exposition is tricky, because it can easily fall in the "telling" rather than "showing" mode. If you're too heavy-handed with your exposition, you pull the reader out of the fictional world. Good exposition is woven naturally into the story.
Exposition should be doled out on a "need to know" basis. Give the reader only as much as he needs to know right now in order to understand the story. A good way of creating suspense and masking exposition at the same time is by making the audience curious about what happened or what the character is hiding. In Casablanca, by the time the flashback of Rick and Ilsa in Paris rolls around, we are dying to know what happened between them.
One trick for revealing information the audience needs to know is to reveal it to a character who is also in the dark. In The Silence of the Lambs (novel by Thomas Harris, script by Ted Tally), Clarice's superior prepares her to meet Lecter. Because Clarice needs this information to do her job and stay safe, this bit of exposition comes across as believable. A more awkward bit of exposition is the opening scene of My Best Friend's Wedding. At dinner with George, Julianne checks her answering machine and learns her best friend Michael called. She then proceeds to tell George every detail we need to know about her relationship with Michael. The problem is, George is Julianne's second-best friend. Wouldn't he already know the story? That kind of information dump is pure telling. It pulls you out of the story.
Another trick is to reveal exposition through action. In Casino Royale (novel by Ian Fleming, screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis) a scene was included to inform us of Bond's double-00 status, achieved once a spy kills twice. Bond is face-to-face with a spy gone bad. The spy is cautious but confident, sure that if he were really in trouble, the agency would have sent a double-00 agent. But, as he points out, Bond has only killed once. At that point, Bond pulls out a gun and shoots him, securing his double-00 status.
When writing exposition, search for ways to mask it. Don't tell us anything we don't need to know, and don't allow characters to discuss things they already know. Reveal exposition through action as much as you can. And create curiosity by holding on to exposition until it's absolutely essential to the story.
Stage directions tell an actor how to execute the actions of the story. An example:
Sally nods. (Action.) She wants him to know she understands. (Stage direction.)
The consensus in Hollywood is that too many stage directions slow down the script reading and insult the actors' intelligence. The same goes for including camera angles in your script, a big no-no and a sign of a rank amateur. Camera angles amount to stage directions for the director. Remember, nobody likes being told how to do their job.
Writers often feel that stage directions get the emotions across expediently. If someone is speed-reading, the parenthetical will tell them Carol is feeling hurt. The reader will get it. Isn't that the point?
Yes. And no. The reader needs to be gently guided by the story itself, not pounded over the head by the writer. Similarly, the actor's motivation, the director's cues, and the designer's inspiration should all come from within the story. Film people are creative people. They want to fill out the details with their own imagination and creativity. A screenwriter's job is to remain evocative rather than absolute.
Let's look at an example from Tender Mercies, written by Horton Foote.
Mac, an alcoholic musician, wakes up alone in a motel room. Prior to abandoning him in a drunken heap, his companion went through Mac's jacket and stole his money. In this scene, Mac looks for his money to pay Rosa Lee, the owner of the motel:
He enters. He goes to a jacket lying on the floor. He searches the pockets of the jacket looking for money, but finds nothing. There is a half-empty bottle of whiskey on the dresser, and he goes to it and takes a swig and then goes back outside.
We are told what Mac does, but not how he does it. Mac doesn't stumble as he enters or search his pockets in a panic. We understand Mac intended to pay. His drinking from the bottle shows a need to steady himself, and we can assume he feels pretty bad. The actor (Robert Duvall) found his own facial expressions, timing, and gestures to communicate his character's emotions.
Focus on showing through events and actions rather than telling through stage directions. Then, if you feel a stage direction is necessary to emphasize or clarify a moment, go ahead and use it. If you do this judiciously, nobody will have a problem with it. But avoid camera angles at all costs. Simply show us what we need to see. Instead of CLOSE UP on a hand turning a key, write A hand turning a key.
Scaling back stage directions shows that you trust your story to do its job, and that you trust readers, actors, and directors to do theirs. The most confident writers use the fewest stage directions.
Take another look at the photo of Greg Beal of the Nicholl Fellowship surrounded by over 6,000 script submissions (http://photos.oscars.org/listanevent.php?events=50). Now imagine you're the reader sitting in the middle of that avalanche. How much patience do you have for a story that doesn't grab you right away? I'm betting not a lot.
"Readers are overworked," says producer Hal Croasmun. "Your job is to make it impossible for them to put your script down."
Hollywood's short attention span can be infuriating to writers who have poured their life's blood into their work. "Unfair!" they cry. "If a reader puts down the script after 10 pages, they'll miss the award-worthy love scene on page 53. And what about the fantastic twist at the end?" Unfortunately, by then it's too late.
It's the business of readers and producers to know what will hold their audience's interest. "I've asked over 25 producers, 'At what point in a script can you tell if it is written by a professional screenwriter?'" says Croasmun. "Many said, 'Within three pages,' and more than half said, 'On the first page.'"
Don't think the public will be more generous. Several years ago, famed editor Sol Stein conducted an informal study on book-browsing habits in mid-Manhattan bookstores. He found that most people read about three pages before either buying the book or putting it down to pick up another one. In his book On Writing, Stein says, "Thereafter, whenever a novelist told me that his novel really got going on page 10 or 20 or 30, I had to pass on the news that his book in all likelihood was doomed."
The first 10 pages need to introduce us to the story, the setting, and the characters. They need to establish the hero's "life as usual" and to show us the event that catapults the hero into a different life (inciting incident). By the end of the first 10 pages, we need to know what the story is about. All this needs to happen in a fresh and entertaining way. Many novice writers stop the story to establish the characters and the setting and to unroll "life as usual." But experienced writers reveal character and establish relationships and setting and get the story rolling by giving us conflict from the get-go, saturating every line of dialogue with meaning, having their characters interact with the setting, and creating intriguing story questions that pique curiosity. The best way to learn how to write great openings is by studying the first few pages of some of your favorite scripts.
When you grab your reader on the first page, you've just made a promise to tell him a great story. Live up to that promise on every page that follows, and your reader won't be able to put your script down.
The ending is the last thing an audience sees. If it's amazing, they'll remember the movie as a wonderful experience. If not, they'll leave the theater disappointed.
There are three kinds of endings. Happy endings, downer endings, and bittersweet endings.
Happy ending: Boy gets girl (You've Got Mail), justice triumphs (The Verdict), and everyone lives happily ever after. We leave the theater feeling good, our hearts full of hope for humanity and ourselves. Because audiences love happy endings, Hollywood loves happy endings.
Downer endings: Boy gets girl but he loses something even more valuable (Body Heat), evil has destroyed good (Chinatown). The world is a mess, and we leave the theater sobered. Sometimes hardship elucidates life, and there have always been successful movies with downer endings.
Bittersweet endings: Girl loses boy, but she wins something more valuable (My Best Friend's Wedding). Or good triumphs over evil, but only because the hero made a personal sacrifice (Casablanca).
Endings must resolve the story question in a clear and unambiguous way. If the question raised in Act I was, "Will the boy get the girl?" your Act III has to answer with a yes or a no. Not a maybe. Even in a bittersweet ending, the answer is either "yes, but" or "no, but."
The ending has to be set up step-by-step. It can't come out of left field. It should be hinted at throughout the film. It should feel inevitable, as if that's the only possible way this story could have ended. It should make sense. But at the same time, the ending needs to be surprising.
What? How can an ending be both inevitable and surprising?
Look at Thelma and Louise again. Everything in the story points to Thelma and Louise not being willing to give up their freedom. Their whole journey has been about escaping from society's constraints. Are they really going to allow themselves to go to jail? No! They have to get away! That's the inevitable part. But the way they choose to get away—by going over the cliff and facing their death on their own terms—that's the surprise.
Once you've written your ending, go back through Acts I and II and verify that every twist, event, and revelation in Act III is properly set up. This is what will make your ending seem inevitable, and therefore true to the story. It will feel right.
Act II throws rocks at the hero by building the tension and deepening the conflict until the tension reaches a breaking point at the end of the act. The protagonist now has a goal—to get the girl, solve the mystery, save the world. If he achieves his goal without struggle, we have no story. So the writer throws obstacles in the hero's way and develops subplots to complicate his life. By the end of Act II, the hero has his goal in sight and thinks he has the solution. But then the major reversal at the end of Act II turns his solution on its head. The hero is forced to muster even more strength and determination or change his plan, often against a running clock.
In the second act of Thelma and Louise, the girls now have a different goal: to escape to Mexico. Their main obstacle becomes the law. Complications build. They need money. Louise refuses to go through Texas. The law is closing in on them. But finally Louise's boyfriend Jimmy shows up with some cash and it looks like they'll make it—until a hitchhiker Thelma picked up robs them at the Act II turning point.
Act II generally runs from page 25 or 30 to about page 90.
The Inciting Incident is that event which disturbs the hero's life-as-he-knew-it and "incites" him to take action. It happens early in Act I, usually somewhere in the first 10 pages. In Kramer vs. Kramer (novel by Avery Corman, script by Robert Benton) it's when Joanna walks out and leaves Ted to parent his son alone.
The Crisis is that moment when all seems lost. Nothing the hero has been doing has worked, and he's further from his goal than ever. This is the point where the hero has to regroup and rethink. Only if he digs deep and taps his inner resources will he find a strategy that works. In Kramer vs. Kramer, when Ted learns he lost custody, he must choose between appealing, which would mean putting his son on the stand, or accepting the decision, which would protect Billy. He chooses to give up custody and protect Billy, and now must come to terms with the consequences.
The Climax is the final showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist. This is the scene the audience has been waiting for, the moment that answers the story's biggest question. Will good triumph over evil? Will the boy get the girl? In Kramer vs. Kramer, the climax happens when Joanna realizes that Ted is a better father than she is a mother because he's willing to act in Billy's best interest, and she lets him have the boy.
The Resolution is where all the loose ends are tied up. Often, we are left with a slight hint of the future. In Kramer vs. Kramer, the resolution is simple and quick: Joanna asks to be allowed to visit Billy, and then she and Ted go upstairs to talk to him. The audience is left believing that somehow, this family will find a balance that works for them.
Certain schools of acting teach that every human interaction boils down to a negotiation for status. Every gesture made, word spoken, and action taken is an attempt to either elevate or lower one's status in relation to the other person. If you think about it for a moment, you'll see just how true that is.
In a shop one day I watched a woman walk up to a cashier and ask for a pack of cigarettes. The shop was out of her brand. Most people would pick a different one or go to another store, but not this lady. She insisted. The cashier glanced at the line forming and, somewhat vexed, repeated they were out. The woman tried to engage the cashier in conversation. She didn't seem to mind holding everyone up. She felt she deserved attention, and she wasn't going to allow the cashier to lower her status by depriving her of it. But from the cashier's point of view, her own status was being lowered. She prided herself on her efficiency, and this customer was keeping her from doing her job. She snapped at the customer—which only led the customer to greater hesitancy and indecision. Meanwhile, everyone in line was grumbling. I'm sure they felt the customer was wasting their time—and lowering their status.
Finally, the manager came over. He led the woman away to another register, where he indulged her. From his point of view, as manager and mediator, his higher status remained intact. From the customer's point of view, her status as someone worthy of attention and service also remained intact. They both felt they had the upper hand. The customers were satisfied, as was the cashier, who could get back to work. When I left, the customer was still happily browsing cigarettes.
And me? As the detached writer/observer, I found my own way of maintaining status by choosing to thrive on the situation rather than becoming exasperated by it.
Some status negotiations seem obvious: a prisoner and a warden, a teacher and a student, a king and a peasant. But status negotiations occur in every relationship, no matter how loving or intimate. Mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives continually jockey for the upper hand. We even manage to elevate our status by seemingly lowering it. Witness a group of women complaining about their ailments. "You think you've got it bad? I can hardly walk!" The one with the worst ailment seems to be lowering her status, but in fact she's proclaiming herself champion in the battle of pain.
Create conflict by infusing every character interaction, no matter how mundane, with status negotiation. Don't forget status negotiations between grown-ups and children, and between pets and their owners. My husband and I recently spent 47 minutes attempting to get a 7-inch parakeet into her cage. That, my friends, was one doozy of a status negotiation.
Read Impro, by famed acting teacher Keith Johnstone.
"Understand the conventions of the genre you're writing for," says screenwriter Susannah Farrow. "There are certain things moviegoers expect to see in a comedy and other things they expect to see in a thriller. Make sure you include those things."
Audiences have their favorite genres and are well versed in genre conventions. If they've come to see a comedy, they want laughs. But they also want original situations, not something they've seen a hundred times. To write successfully within a genre, a writer must study and master its conventions while avoiding its clichés.
The choice of genre may impose conventions on:
• setting (the West in a western, a battle in a war film)
• roles (detective and criminal in a detective story)
• events (boy-meets-girl in a love story)
• emotional expectations (in an action/adventure, will the hero save the day? In a horror movie, will the axe murderer strike again?).
Some genres have many conventions. Let's take a crime story as an example. The audience expects: a crime to occur early on; someone to investigate; twists in the form of false clues, multiple suspects, or the revelation of hidden layers; and a showdown (physical, intellectual, or both) between the criminal and the investigator.
The hardest part of writing within a genre is avoiding its clichés. The first writer who revealed that the criminal was really a corrupt cop found an exciting, new twist. But by now that device has become an overused gimmick. Find ways of meeting audience expectations without resorting to clichés.
Watch as many movies in your genre as you can, and study their scripts. Ask the following questions: What are the conventions of settings, roles, and events? What emotional expectations are the films fulfilling? What's been done to death? What's original? How is your script like these movies, and how does it differ? Can you give the events that have to happen in your story a fresh, contemporary twist without committing any genre sins or falling into formulaic writing?
Understanding genre is an essential element of good writing. If you master your genre and its conventions, you'll be able to pay off audience expectation with skill, originality, and elegance. And if you wish to write a genre-defying script, your knowledge of genre will only make your experiment bolder.
As contests go, a boxing match is pretty straightforward: two guys (usually) beat each other until one falls down and can't get up. This is primeval conflict—man against man in violent confrontation. Because violence is so unambiguous, movies featuring this kind of conflict resonate with everyone and therefore do well globally. But violence isn't the only kind of conflict there is—or even the most common.
Movie heroes battle individuals, groups, natural and supernatural forces, or their own inner demons. When a protagonist is forced to face his own flaws, this is known as "internal conflict." All other conflict can be grouped together as "external conflict."
Because movies are a visual medium, the most successful screen stories depict external conflict represented by a visible, tangible external antagonist. Films with external conflicts include When Harry Met Sally (man against man), Jaws (man against nature), Rosemary's Baby (man against the supernatural), and Erin Brockovich (man against society).
But movies are rendered more interesting when they include internal conflict in addition to the external one. The most gripping stories include external situations or antagonists that force a hero to face and conquer his character flaws in order to succeed. In The Verdict, written by Barry Reed and David Mamet, Paul Newman plays an alcoholic lawyer who must overcome his inner demons and win a ground-breaking case against a corrupt institution. The internal conflict deepens the external conflict and strengthens the movie.
Boxing matches are only compelling because we get caught up in the drama of watching an underdog dig deep within himself to muster the strength to win. We are awed by the sheer determination exhibited by the combatants, and wonder if we have that same ability inside ourselves. Effective internal conflict can range from overcoming awkwardness or insecurity (The 40 Year Old Virgin) to struggling with addiction (Leaving Las Vegas) or madness (Shine), but in order to be dramatic, it must be expressed visually.