Yves Lavandier's Constructing a Story

Table of Contents | Back cover | Pages from the book




I became interested in the rules of narration in 1980 as a budding filmmaker, not as a theoretician. In the Western world, the first treatise on screenwriting is none other than Aristotle's Poetics [02]. After him, Horace, Nicolas Boileau, Denis Diderot, William Archer, Lajos Egri, Edward Mabley and many others over the centuries added their reflections and enriched the thought process. Then suddenly, in 1979, for reasons that escape me, the reflection narrowed considerably with the publication of Syd Field's Screenplay [26], a book that had enormous influence in the United States. Almost overnight, writing a script required adopting a fixed formula and if you didn't, you were cooked. In the decades that followed, numerous Anglo-Saxon theoreticians elaborated on the model proposed by Syd Field, and each ended up with a complicated and rigid structural theory. As it miraculously turns out, the great masterpieces of cinema (most of them American, of course) conform exactly to this model. Neither the spectator nor the screenwriter that I am were ever convinced, much less helped.

When I see a clever-looking diagram with arrows and lines showing increases and decreases accompanied by "proof" that supposedly backs it all up, I can't help but think of two images. The first comes from Cinderella, the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It's of Cinderella's stepsisters who mutilate their feet to squeeze them into the golden slipper. At first the prince is fooled, but when he sees the blood flowing, he rejects the usurpers. It seems to me that certain script theorists are like Cinderella's stepsisters. They absolutely want to make their foot (their inadequate model) fit the golden slipper (the entire repertoire of great stories). In my opinion, they give themselves blisters, do damage to the works, and manage to embroil a great many writers in this fool's errand (see pages 58-59).

This obsession with bending reality to fit a problematic model brings me to the second image that always comes to mind, that of an illusionist doing a sleight of hand. Like all magicians, she needs to create a smoke screen, and for that she needs a clever and complicated formula to convince her audience. Human beings tend to assume sophisticated models are more intelligent and therefore more credible than simple ones. (see Alex Bavelas's experience as described in Analyzing a Script [45]). I have to admit that compared to some other paradigms, my conception of the three acts is tediously banal (see page 102). It's not impressive. However-and this is the point of what I'm trying to say-my goal in writing this book isn't to impress you. It's to be in agreement with the facts, the very facts that are often considered stubborn, and to help you write. In other words, my aim is to provide the right map for the territory. I won't claim 100% success, but this has been my sole motivation. Note that it's a writer's motivation. Over the years, I've searched for the theories and the methods that seem the most logical, the closest to reality, and the most practical to apply to my own writing. My goal has been to find a paradigm flexible enough to allow me to write any type of story, ranging from The Cherry Orchard to The Terminator, and from Maus to Some Like It Hot.

Now, if rigid and sophisticated models help you write, by all means use them. We're counting on you to tell deep moving stories. In the end, that's all that matters.

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Conflict and obstacle

Despite their connection, conflict and obstacle are two distinct notions, and it's important not to confuse them. Everyone knows what conflict is, and yet the notion is difficult to define. Dictionaries seem content to simply say that a conflict is the result of opposition. We know what creates conflict, but we still don't know exactly what it is. I propose the following definition: A conflict is a difficult life circumstance, always associated with a feeling of frustration and often with anxiety. Does that imply that there are difficult circumstances in life that don't involve frustration or anxiety? Yes. When a person can navigate a difficult situation using humor or when she sees the situation as an opportunity for growth and gaining experience, it ceases to be a source of problems. It's rare for people to react with such a degree of distance or serenity in the face of adversity, but it happens. In all other cases, the difficulty turns into a conflict that generates disagreeable emotions.

An obstacle is an element that opposes a movement, that is to say it opposes an action, a desire, a longing, an objective (conscious or unconscious). This oppositional element can be an object, an animal, a person, a natural element, an event, another objective, a quality, a defect, an emotion, etc. But first we need a concrete objective before something can be considered an obstacle. A wind of 30 knots is an obstacle for someone who's trying to play ping-pong outdoors, but the same wind is no obstacle at all for a seasoned windsurfer. In the same vein, depending on the circumstances, a wall can be an obstacle, an aid, or completely neutral. A train conductor's habitual behavior can be an obstacle for someone trying to ride without a ticket and no obstacle at all for a paying passenger.

Imagine you're playing ping-pong outdoors. Suddenly the wind starts blowing at 30 knots. Don't you feel frustration? Imagine you're on a train without a valid ticket as the conductor approaches. Don't you feel a degree of anxiety? And when you're issued a citation, don't you feel frustrated? If you answered no to the questions above, that means the wind and the conductor aren't obstacles and therefore wouldn't cause conflict for you.

A scene in White Heat presents a conflict which proves to be an obstacle to action. In prison, Cody (James Cagney) is told that his escape has been arranged for that night. Breaking out is his local objective. A few minutes later, he learns that his beloved mother has died. He experiences an intense static conflict. Overcome with grief, he lashes out, smashing things and attacking guards. He ends up in solitary for an undetermined length of time, completely blowing his escape plan.



Life is Aristotelian

Dramaturgy exists beyond the theater and the cinema; it exists in life itself. All living organisms, vegetable, animal, or human, are programmed to propagate the species. It's one of the great unconscious goals of life. This means that as soon as a living organism consciously or unconsciously begins an action whose outcome is uncertain, we have dramaturgy.
- Will the superorganism make the cut of natural selection? Suspense.
- Will the seed blown by the wind take root and give birth to a plant? Suspense.
- Will the freshly-hatched baby tortoise make the journey from the top of the beach to the sea in one piece? Suspense.
- Will the birth of my child go smoothly? Suspense.
- Will I win my court case? Suspense.
- Will I succeed in learning how to play the piano or do iron work? Suspense.
- Will I get a raise ? Suspense.
- Will I manage to write a good story? Suspense.

For human beings, the principle also works on the unconscious level.
- Will I finally understand that I have difficulty: letting go, recognizing my mistakes, getting to work, settling down, accepting my imperfections, accepting death, respecting others, respecting my body, being authentic, etc.? Suspense.
- Will I grow and transform for the better, or will I regress to my basest instincts, letting them take over and intensify? Suspense.

The principle also works when we identify with another person, be they real or fictive, or when we think that another person's actions affect us.
- Will my child pass the test? Suspense.
- Will my candidate win the election? Suspense.
- Will my team win the World Cup? Suspense.
- Will my fellow countryman taken hostage across the planet be liberated? Suspense.
- Will the French film and audiovisual industry ever understand the importance of a script (as a narrative) and finally give storyteller-screenwriters their proper seat at the table? Huge suspense.

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Authenticity, intimacy and facing up to the issues

The key scene can be the most difficult to write. Writers often skirt around it, subconsciously deciding to avoid the confrontation. This is because writing this scene requires authenticity, vulnerability, or both. It takes courage to expose oneself in this way, to be truly oneself. But facing up to issues is extremely beneficial, not just for whatever the writer is grappling with but also for the writer herself. If she doesn't face the music, the work will suffer.

In one of my workshops, I once forced a writer to tackle a scene he had been avoiding for several sessions. I told him to put his two characters face to face and let them say whatever they needed to say to each other. I didn't care if it came out clunky. I wasn't concerned about the scene making it into the final script. But the step had to be taken. I told him I wouldn't comment on any of his new work until he had written that scene. When he came in the next day, he looked like a different person. It was amazing. He had written the scene. He read it to us. It was moving. The writer got past the blockage.

I've seen so many writers launch themselves into their narrative without knowing what they want to say because they refuse to dig deep. In my view, finding the hidden, inner meaning of a work is a crucial step. This is not just a problem for writers' workshops. Every week we see new films and new plays that lack coherence precisely because their writers have not thought deeply enough about what their work is saying. And conversely, I have seen how serious consideration of the issues of intention and meaning can improve a writer's work.

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Basic structure in a character-driven story

If you're writing a character-driven story, you'll focus on characterization and possibly on one of the characters' evolution, but that doesn't release you from the need to have a logline. Successful character-driven stories follow a classic structure, containing at the very minimum an inciting incident, a climax and a dramatic objective. (A notable exception being A Christmas Carol, as discussed on page 54.) Spoiler warning-the examples below give away the endings.

In the play Amadeus, the inciting incident is Salieri's discovery of Mozart and the climax is Mozart's madness. Salieri's dramatic objective is to escape the jealousy that's eating him alive. In Dom Juan, the inciting incident is when Donna Elvire asks for an explanation and issues a warning in connection with Dom Juan's tragic flaw: "Know that your crime will not go unpunished and the same heaven which you mock will avenge your perfidy." Dom Juan's dramatic objective is to live freely as a libertine and the climax is Dom Juan's death. In The Easy Life, the inciting incident is when Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) and Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) meet. Roberto's dramatic objective is to return home. The climax is the car accident. In About Schmidt, the inciting incident is Schmidt's (Jack Nicholson) retirement and the climax is the speech he makes at his daughter's (Hope Davis) wedding. Schmidt's dramatic objective is to receive some positive recognition. In The Cherry Orchard, the inciting incident is when we learn that the property will be sold at auction in three months. Lioubov's dramatic objective is to find a solution to the problem of the family's estate, and the climax is when Lopakhine announces that he's bought the property. In A Streetcar Named Desire, the inciting incident is when Blanche arrives at Stella's. Blanche's dramatic objective is to breathe a little. The climax is the rape. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the inciting incident isn't shown. It's the moment that pushes McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) to pretend he's crazy. The incident is recounted, however, in an interview with the mental institution's director (Dean R. Brooks). We also see its consequences, namely McMurphy's arrival into this new environment. McMurphy's dramatic objective is to avoid prison. The climax is when McMurphy attempts to kill Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).

In summary, even if you choose to write a character study, and if plot-driven stories don't excite you, you still need to construct a sufficiently solid frame for your characters. Otherwise you run the risk of having your audience disengage and miss the essence of your wonderful portrait.

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The dramatic protagonist and the arc protagonist

Preliminary remark 2. Contrary to the insistence of some screenwriting theorists, the character who evolves doesn't have to be the protagonist. In fact, we can consider that there are two protagonists, one for the dramatic question and the other for the arc question. In Monsieur Perrichon's Holiday, Armand is the protagonist of the dramatic action (want: to win Perrichon's daughter) and Perrichon is the arc protagonist (need: to learn to express gratitude). Cyrano is the dramatic protagonist in Cyrano de Bergerac (want: to win Roxane's love) and Roxane is the arc protagonist (need: to be less superficial). Anne is the dramatic protagonist in The Miracle Worker (want: to teach Helen to communicate) and Helen is the arc protagonist (need: to be less wild). Billy (Jamie Bell) is the dramatic protagonist in Billy Elliot (want: to become a professional dancer) and his father (Gary Lewis) is the arc protagonist (need: to be more tolerant). Harold is the dramatic protagonist in How to Train Your Dragon (want: to become a real Viking) and all the members of the Viking village together are the arc protagonists (need: to be less primitive). See also the examples of One Thousand and One Nights, Toy Story, The Lives of Others and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest below.

In Romeo and Juliet, it's not the co-protagonists who change but rather the Capulets and Montagues when they end their ancestral feud (Act V, Scene 3). In certain plays by Molière (The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, The Impostures of Scapin), we find young people and their servants as co-protagonists opposite rigid characters who could potentially be arc protagonists. I say "potentially" because Harpagon, Argan, Argante and Géronte barely evolve. They serve more as the subjects of character portraits sketched by Molière. The play Tartuffe is the most complete in this respect. Dorine, Mariane and a good part of the family make up the dramatic protagonist (want: to stop Tartuffe from wreaking havoc). Orgon is the arc protagonist (need: to be less naive). He's the one who evolves. And Tartuffe is the subject of the portrait (and the main character).

On the subject of non-protagonist characters who change, I should also mention those stories where the main character remains constant but serves as an inspiration to others: Being There, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Babette's Feast, Forrest Gump, Mary Poppins, etc. These characters are often called catalyst characters.

The tendency to confuse the two types of protagonists we've been discussing leads some theorists to wrongly attribute the role of the dramatic protagonist to the arc protagonist. In The Godfather, for example, Michael (Al Pacino) is clearly the protagonist of the character arc. But whether he's the protagonist of the dramatic action is a lot less clear. When I watch The Godfather, I see the whole Corleone family as the protagonist. More specifically Vito (Marlon Brando), Sonny (James Caan) and Michael. In fact, Michael only springs into action very late in the film, well after the second act has begun.

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The Apartment (1960)

The arc protagonist is the dramatic protagonist, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon). In the beginning, we see him allowing people to walk all over him. We might also take him for an opportunist since he allows himself to be exploited so that he can climb the corporate ladder. That said, there may be other ways to make his way in business than allowing managers at his company to use his apartment for their romantic interludes. But Baxter is the kind of guy who can't say no. He also confounds us by bending over backwards to be nice. In the second half, when he could benefit from the disastrous impression Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) makes with his love interest Fran (Shirley MacLaine), he does everything to excuse Sheldrake's behavior and patch things up between his boss and the young woman. Baxter is very close to being a sucker. Luckily, his niceness doesn't go unnoticed by Fran. Baxter receives his worst blow at the climax. When he tells Sheldrake that he won Fran's heart and he's going away with her, Sheldrake shows he still has the upper hand and proves him wrong. At that moment, Baxter abandons his objective (to win Fran). We enter the third act. Only then, for the first time in the story, does Baxter say "stop." He mans up and sends his boss packing.

Conclusion. Steps 1 and 4 are clear. The arc climax is the immediate conse-quence of the dramatic climax. The arc conflict is also connected to the dramatic conflict. Baxter is humiliated for a good portion of the story, and this happens in the intimate domain of romantic feelings. In this regard, the scene where Baxter realizes that the woman he loves is sleeping with his boss in his own apartment is a terrible blow. At the moment of the climax, the thought of continuing to lend his apartment to Sheldrake for his trysts with Fran is unbearable to Baxter. But he makes a choice. After all, he's already lost his love; at least he could get to keep the assistant direc-torship that cost him so much. As a matter of fact, Diamond and Wilder make us believe for a moment that this is what Baxter chooses. That's a red herring. In truth, the camel's back has been broken. Nobody will ever wipe their feet on Baxter again.

There is a moral center to the film embodied by Dr Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), the voice of reason character. What's original here is that Dreyfuss makes a mistake about Baxter. Dreyfuss thinks that his neighbor is a swinging playboy, when nothing could be further from the truth. Still, when Dreyfuss tries to prod Baxter to be a "mensch," paradoxically we agree with the doctor. Not because Baxter needs to learn to treat women better, but because a mensch would put a stop to people's abusive behavior of him. Logically, because Baxter knows Dreyfuss is wrong about him being a playboy, he can't hear Dreyfuss's advice. In all the repertoire, Dr Dreyfuss is perhaps the only voice of reason character who makes a mistake while being right at the same time.

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Avoid accidental sexism

If you're a proud male chauvinist, this section doesn't concern you. I invite you to skip it. But if you believe in equality between girls and boys and between women and men, please read on. Because it's possible for a writer to be sexist without realizing it. This holds true for women, as well. It's enough to just reproduce any of the numerous sexist beliefs that circulate in every culture and that we pick up unconsciously, including through reading books and watching movies. The fact is, story is a powerful cultural vector. It's so hard to escape its power that the majority of well-intentioned fictional works can't help but propagate a subtle sexism. It starts with the gender of the protagonist, who is more often than not male.

In 1985, in the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, a female character explains that she only watches films that have at least two female characters who have a scene together in which they don't talk about a man. These criteria became known as the Bechdel-Wallace test. It's an interesting source of inspiration to help you avoid sexism in a work of fiction, but it's not the only one. You can also :
- Ensure you have more than one important female role (aka The Smurfette principle). Distribute all kinds of roles to women. Make them judges, surgeons, CEOs, and not just mothers or whores.
- Avoid making all of your female characters look like top models and don't give them a heart of gold or a surreal magnetism.
- Avoid making all of your female characters under 40 years old or over 70. Too many actresses in the Western world have experienced the long gap between the role of the young love interest and the role of the grandmother. As stated by the actressess of AAFA, starting at 50, women on screen develop a superpower. They become invisible! Is it because as they mature, many women gain in strength, which frightens a lot of men?
- Avoid having your female characters all be in service to the male protagonist.
- Avoid the powerless female victim who serves to support the sadism of the bad guy (and of the author).
- Avoid clichés. Not all women are terrible at DIY. Not all Native American women are wise ecologists. Not all women want kids, etc. Unfortunately, this list is very long.
- Avoid treating a rape like a cold. If you want to include a rape in your story, ask yourself first if it's absolutely necessary. If you decide it is, don't treat it lightly. Ask yourself how you're going to show it. In fiction, some rapes are little more than guilty indulgences. Among other things, don't show us a woman who's been raped but quickly moves on to other things. Rape always has painful, long-term consequences. In a particularly tough episode of Outlander (S1, Ep15), a man (Sam Heughan) is raped. The writers don't stop there. The repercussions of the rape are exploited in the following episodes. I hope that this inclusion of authenticity wasn't simply due to the fact that the victim was a man.
- And, last but not least, make sure your main female characters have three dimensions and think of giving some of them a nice rounded character arc.

If you're concerned about this topic, you can also take inspiration from works with great female characters. Ones that come to my mind include Alien, Alice, Antigone, Carmen, The Cherry Orchard, Desperate Housewives, A Doll's House, Downton Abbey, Erin Brockovich, Gone with the Wind, Lysistrata, The Merchant of Venice, The Miracle Worker, Mother Courage and her Children, Mulan, Mustang, Read My Lips, Saint Joan, A Special Day, Steel Magnolias, The Story of Qiu Ju, A Streetcar Named Desire, Thelma & Louise, and Victor/Victoria among many others. Note that some of these works don't go easy on their female characters. It's another way of putting women on the same level as men.


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Navigating character blocks

i) One way to navigate character blocks is to let yourself be inspired by the repertoire. There are hundreds of successful characterizations that you can draw from and mix and match. This character could be a kind of Professor Calculus, that one can be inspired by Antigone, that one is like Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller in Prison Break). Your characters will come to life pretty quickly, and you'll be able to see them. What I don't recommend you do is imagine a specific actor in the role. That can be a dangerous crutch. A good role should be written for any competent actor to play. Also, chances are you're basing your image of the actor on their past work, and that's limiting for them and for you. Finally, you have no control over whether the actor you imagined in the role will ever play it.

ii) If the reason you're stuck is because you don't like the character, you may be bumping up against some quality you don't like in yourself. Confronting and accepting this quality (no mean feat!) may bring the character to life for you.

iii) See what happens if you replace the character you're stuck on by a totally different character. Make them older or younger, flip their sex, or give them different character traits. The result may be no better, but the exercise could help you see your character from a different perspective.

iv) And finally, here's a tip that can be extremely effective and that I've used myself. Imagine you're trying to persuade a well-known actor to take on the role. The actor receives plenty of other offers and can turn down anything uninteresting. What do you say to convince her? The clock is ticking and you have five minutes to make your pitch. Make sure to record it! I bet you describe the character fully, emphasizing her most attractive qualities, even if she's a villain or a minor character. You may well be surprised by the difference between your pitch to the imaginary actor and the character you've written. Now simply rewrite your character so that she's more in alignment with your pitch.


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Milestone and subgoal

After each milestone, ask yourself what the resulting subgoal is for your protagonist. There will be one because a milestone is a local inciting incident. That said, a milestone doesn't always have to launch a brand new subgoal. It can also reinforce the general dramatic objective or the preceding subgoal, in other words confirm the protagonist's action. If the milestone is a twist or the installation of a dramatic irony, it can also modify the viewer's perception on an already declared objective (see below).

The first act/second act transition is the very first milestone of the second act. As such, it launches a subgoal that usually represents the easiest solution the protagonist can use to attain her objective. This makes sense, since a living organism will first reach for the simplest, most obvious, and least taxing solution. Of course, in drama, the easy solution never works. At the end of the first sequence, the protagonist is obliged to find a solution that demands more investment on her part. Or perhaps the easy solution solved some problems but caused new conflicts, which in turn lead to new subgoals.

Ironic subgoal

If the milestone installs a dramatic irony with the protagonist as victim, the subgoal can be tied to an ironic question. Milestones 5 and 6 of North by Northwest, listed above, are two such examples. Milestone 5 has multiple functions. It's a twist (we are surprised to learn that Kaplan doesn't exist), a clarification of part of the mystery (we understand how the spies could mistake Roger for Kaplan), and an installation of a major dramatic irony (we now have information that neither Roger nor Vandamm have). Because Roger is the victim of this dramatic irony, he can't have a subgoal connected to the information that he doesn't know (consciously or unconsciously). This is where the audience steps in and projects a subgoal upon him: to learn the thing he doesn't know. Even if milestone 5 doesn't change anything about Roger's general objective or subgoals, it modifies our perception of everything that follows. It also modifies the way the writers exploit the obstacles. When Roger tries to see Kaplan and Eve pretends she just spoke to Kaplan and set up a meeting with him, our emotional response is colored by milestones 5 and 6 because we now know that Kaplan doesn't exist and Eve is working for Vandamm.

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From step outline to treatment: the added value

Let's imagine that your main characters are young students, and that in your step outline, you've written: "Charlotte begs Kevin not to leave her. But he does, telling her that maybe he'll come back if she changes." A lazy writer might show Charlotte and Kevin in the street or after one of their classes. She'll ask him not to break up with her. They'll argue. And Kevin will top it off by saying: "I might come back if you change." Here, the treatment adds nothing of value, and everything is communicated through dialogue. Let's imagine now that Charlotte and Kevin are in their German class, seated in different parts of the classroom. The teacher catches Charlotte passing a handwritten note. In it, she begs Kevin not to leave her. The teacher makes Charlotte translate the note into German in front of everyone. Charlotte does. Then the professor makes Kevin answer, also in German. In front of the whole class, Kevin tells Charlotte to get back to him once she's changed. I'm sure that you can be even more creative than this, but at least in this second scenario an arena is exploited, Charlotte shows resourcefulness, and there's added conflict that probably helps us relate more to Charlotte. In this transition from step outline to treatment, the scene has gained in value.

As another example, let's look at how an important character is first introduced in The Toy. In the step outline, the introduction might have been written as: "François Perrin sees CEO Rambal-Cochet, who he's heard so much about, for the first time. The CEO is an arrogant man feared by his employees." And in the treatment, we might read something like: "In the courtyard of the Rambal-Cochet factory, a long table has been set up for an outdoor lunch. The employees have already begun eating because the CEO had informed them he'd be late. Suddenly, his car pulls up and stops at the bottom of the courtyard. Everyone stands up in a show of deference. The CEO is accompanied to his seat at the head of the table. Without a word, Rambal-Cochet sits down. Instead of pulling his chair up to the table, he grasps the sides of the table in both hands and pulls the table toward him, moving it a good yard and creating havoc among his guests. Then he begins to eat, pleased with himself and indifferent to the others. They, in the meantime, scramble to figure out whose plate and whose glass belongs to whom, all while trying not to show resentment." This extreme gesture characterizes Rambal-Cochet in a couple of seconds as no exchange of dialogue ever could.

A last example from Parenthood. In the step outline, the scene could be expressed as simply as: "Susan tells Nathan she's leaving him." A weak writer might have come up with a classic and very talky breakup scene containing raised voices and maybe tears. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel exploited the characters' traits, making the scene anything but banal. Nathan (Rick Moranis) and his wife Susan (Harley Kozak) are striving to ensure that their 4-year-old daughter (Ivyann Schwan) becomes a genius. But Susan thinks that Nathan is going too far and their daughter is becoming imbalanced. She begins to question her husband's methods of education. The problem is he's so wrapped up in what he's doing that she can't get through to him. One day, as Nathan is using flashcards to teach their daughter the periodic table's chemical abbreviations, Susan suggests a new set of flashcards. Extremely interested, Nathan begins to read: This is - the only way - I can get - your attention. Nathan protests that their daughter is way beyond this basic stuff. He continues reading: I'm leaving you. Nathan stares at his wife in shock. He says: "You're leaving me!" Susan flashes one last card: Yes.

As you can see, moving from the "what" to the "how" consists of, among other things, exploiting and even milking what you've set up, especially in the domains of arena and characterization. It also consists of pushing your creativity to the limit. An exercise that's done in certain screenwriting courses is called, "I'm pregnant." It calls for writing a scene in which a woman tells her companion that she's expecting his child. The scene can't resemble thousands of similar scenes that have already been written. The first volume of the graphic novel Les Vieux Fourneaux contains a lovely one. Using a treasure hunt, the mother-to-be leads the father-to-be to the discovery of a Punchinello puppet in a drawer, which is the French equivalent of a bun in the oven. But he doesn't get the metaphor and is only worried by the fact that his underwear is missing from the drawer.

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The first ten minutes

In 2015, someone at the Writers Guild of America West told me that the guild registers 70,000 works a year, most of them screenplays. It's a gigantic number, especially when you consider that not all writers register their scripts with the WGA. This means that an average of 200 scripts per day flood Hollywood, 365 days a year, which translates to massive work for the interns and assistants, who regularly take home a tall stack of scripts to read on weekends. The task is inhuman. With this overwhelm, Hollywood has discovered many shortcuts for weeding out scripts without reading them until the end. Finding an excuse to say no has become a well-developed skill. The first tests a script has to pass to get read are script format, genre, and immediate appeal. If your script isn't properly formatted, in the trash! If it doesn't follow genre conventions, in the trash! And if your first ten minutes don't grab the reader, she won't even read as far as the second act. In the trash!

Does this mean your first ten minutes have to be super sexy? For some in the US, yes, that has become the tacit rule. Of course, your opening shouldn't be wishy-washy, unclear, or clumsy. But is it really necessary to start every story with a big bang? If you're writing an adventure film featuring James Bond or Indiana Jones, it makes sense. Not just because those films are popular entertainment, but because first acts are dedicated to the future protagonist's life routine, and the life routine of a flashy spy or treasure hunter is pretty spectacular. But not all narratives benefit from this kind of opening.

When you look at the repertoire, you'll find many great works that don't fit this rule. At the beginning of Seven Samurai, the bandits decide not to attack a village they've already pillaged so that it can recuperate before the next raid. An impatient writer might have started the film with a very big and showy attack. Hashimoto, Kurosawa and Oguni decided they didn't need that. Despite all the admiration I have for films like The Secret in Their Eyes, 12 Angry Men, Fargo, The Miracle Worker, Groundhog Day and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I don't find their first ten minutes amazingly engaging. Sometimes, like in Alien, The Apartment or Once Upon a Time in the West, they even seem to drag on. Besides, I'm not convinced that audiences are unduly bothered when movies don't gallop out of the gate. They know that a story needs time to install and launch the action. An average adult audience will give it more than 10 minutes. My suggestion, therefore, is to be a professional and engage the reader from page one, but without forcing things or giving in to the pressure to have the hugest opening possible.

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When you begin writing a story, the options seem limitless. It's like being at an intersection with an infinite number of possible paths and having the absolute freedom to choose among them. For some writers, this might feel delicious. Unfortunately, you risk biting off more than you can chew, which is asking for trouble. You can't tell the entire story of humanity in two hours. You have to tell one specific story. If you want to end up with an original narrative, you'll have to make a million choices. Some choices will be small, obvious, and easy. Others will require courage and awareness. Choice by choice, the goal is to eliminate all possibilities but one.

Making choices can be painful. When you choose one thing, you also turn your back on all the alternatives you decided against. Don't think that you can "choose" to use every charming idea that comes to you. Saying yes to everything is, in fact, the opposite of making real choices.

I know I'm insisting on this point, but in my workshops I've seen too many writers who don't know how to limit themselves. They rebel against embracing the writer's duty of making choices. These writers only end up going round and round in circles.

The need to make choices holds true for all elements including, of course, the ending. I'll come back to this later. With the exception of some rare occasions where leaving the ending open or allowing the audience to complete the ending themselves makes sense, you should assume your writerly responsibilities. Every human being has a point of view on the world, be it conscious or unconscious. An artist has the task of transmitting her point of view through her art. That's the only way to create a connection with her audience. A point of view alone isn't always sufficient to create this connection, but it is absolutely necessary.

Personally, when I go to the movies or the theater, I don't care if I agree with the writer. I just want her to share her point of view on life with me, because I'm not there to "write my own movie." I believe that writers who leave open endings so that viewers can draw their own conclusions are in fact writers who simply can't choose.

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Question (arc): The question that underlies the character arc: Will the character who has a character need change, and if so will that change be positive or negative? 41, 43-71, 107, 112-113, 117

Question (dramatic): The question that underlies the main action: Will the protagonist achieve her objective? The question is lodged in the viewer's mind at the end of the first act and helps create suspense (in the broad sense of the term). 7, 44, 45, 59, 95, 100-101, 106, 110, 152, 154, 179, 199

Question (ironic): The question at the heart of a dramatic irony: Will the victim find out what she is unaware of, and how? The question forms in the viewer's mind at the moment a dramatic irony is installed. It can strengthen, replace, or supplant the dramatic question. 44, 106-107, 134, 199

Red herring: A preparation intended to mislead the viewer, usually in order to spring a surprise, but sometimes in order to create a contrast. A good red herring is invisible. 56, 57, 109-110, 197

Remake: A new version of a pre-existent work of drama. Remakes were not invented by Hollywood. They have existed since antiquity.

Resolution: The moment when a narrative mechanism reaches its completion after having been exploited. The resolution of an action is its climax and its dramatic answer. The resolution of a mystery is a clarification. The resolution of a red herring is a surprise. The resolution of a dramatic irony is an obligatory scene. The resolution of a characterization can be the arc climax and its corresponding arc answer. 199-201

Road movie: As its name suggests, a movie where most of the action happens on a journey, usually by road. Aside from its geographical locations, the main distinguishing feature of a road movie is that it's episodic, made up of a series of sketches that see the protagonist(s) go from one encounter to the next. Some plays have a road movie structure and could be considered "road plays." One such example is Peer Gynt.

Rule: A prescribed guide for conduct or action that may be known consciously or unconsciously. Drama, like all languages, is based on rules. The word implies a great many varieties and degrees of constraint. 2-4, 28-29, 32, 49, 76, 201, 202, 211

Scene (dramatic): A unit of drama presenting a local action in a larger work of drama. A dramatic scene can move through several settings, and thus can comprise several logistical scenes (see below). 10, 22-23, 32, 98, 131-148, 149-153, 162, 163, 167, 171-172, 196, 209

Scene (logistical): A unit of action that takes place in a given location and time and involving a given set of characters. The logistical scenes in a screenplay are indicated by a brief scene heading: INT. BATHROOM - NIGHT. The distinction between a logistical scene and a dramatic scene is similar to that between a logistical act and a dramatic act.

Scene (obligatory): The resolution of a dramatic irony, i.e. the moment when the victim of dramatic irony becomes aware of what she didn't know previously. An obligatory scene is a particularly important form of scene that must be written and a major plot point. Sometimes referred to as a moment of revelation for the victim (but not for the viewer). 23, 51, 55, 63, 105, 108, 109, 111, 132, 155, 194, 199

Scene of aftermath: See Aftermath scene.

Scene that must be written: Any scene (or moment) expected by the viewer. A scene that must be written is the payoff of a foreshadowing, and as such is satisfying for the viewer. The climax and the obligatory scene are the ones that must be written the most. 40, 191

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