flying wrestler Thoughts on screenwriting from writer-producer Erik Bork Sat, 20 Jan 2018 01:32:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 69134138 Not About the Work Fri, 19 Jan 2018 00:41:10 +0000

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I, Tonya strikes me as a great example of a point I often find myself making to writers who bring me film or TV ideas about someone trying to accomplish something in a particular workplace or field of endeavor.

And that point is this: “It’s not about the work.”

What I mean  is that no matter how entertaining and high-spectacle a particular field of endeavor is (and those are certainly good qualities to have), writers don’t usually engage an audience by focusing on characters primarily trying to achieve something in their work. Instead, we focus on the primal emotions and problems they experience in their personal lives.

The one exception to this is the “procedural” movie or series about cops, lawyers, doctors, or other such “heroes” whose jobs have huge stakes and involve essentially saving or protecting lives. In these, we might have some big “case” that needs solved, and we’re fascinated by the process by which these people carry out their work in order to achieve their important goals.

For everyone else, in every other kind of profession… not so much.

So in I, Tonya, we’re not focused on the specifics of what she’s trying to accomplish as a champion figure skater — the practicing, the planning, the various competitions, the jumps and everything else that’s involved. The goal for the main character in the story is not “winning a Gold Medal” or “being the best skater,” and the main problem is not that it’s hard to do this well, and other skaters are really good, too, or anything else like that.

Yes, she’s pursuing skating throughout the movie, as the backdrop for the story, and the generator of personal conflicts. But what’s in the foreground?

  • Her conflict-laden relationship with her mother
  • Her conflict-laden relationship with her husband
  • Her conflict-laden relationship with the skating establishment, the media and the world at large

And what’s primarily at stake? It’s not about skating medals. It’s about:

  • Finding your place in the world
  • Rising above your messed up circumstances
  • Finding/maintaining love
  • Being accepted for who you are

We’re always looking for these universal type of conflicts and goals in a script, in order to get the audience emotionally invested. So this is a story not about trying to be the best skater, or even dealing with the fallout of the Nancy Kerrigan attack (which is limited to the third act). It’s about a young woman with an abusive mother, then an abusive husband, who has no resources, gets no respect, and has to try to make a life for herself. And she is sympathetic, because she has so much working against her. (This is a key method for making seemingly unlikable characters more relatable — big problems, underdog status, and unfair circumstances.)

This all might seem like obvious stuff, but it’s super common for me to see scripts about workplaces or ambitions where the main stakes and content of scenes has to do with working toward success and winning in some field of activity, and the challenges of trying to achieve that — rather than these more fundamental human problems.

I often see, for instance, true story ideas about someone who is first to achieve something, or who achieved something really special and important. Such stories tend to be not so engaging for an audience, unless they are personalized in some way, where it becomes about the horrific personal challenges of trying to get to the goal. In addition, we usually want the stakes of the achievement to be massive — for the main character, and ideally others, as well. Lives generally have to be made fundamentally better or worse, in basic and powerful ways, depending on the results of the achievement. If they aren’t, it’s possible that it’s an undertaking that isn’t quite movie-worthy after all.

There’s a reason they made a movie about Tonya Harding, and no other figure skater. Perhaps others achieved more, and had more unique and challenging paths toward the specific skating goals. But a mass audience doesn’t really care about that. They care about people whose stories are relatable and about primal things, ideally with some larger-than-life element that can be entertaining to watch. And they enjoy watching people with the biggest struggles and difficulty, on a human level.

It’s the same reason the only Apollo mission that became a hit feature film was the one where everything went wrong: Apollo 13. My first professional writing gig was helping to adapt the other Apollo missions — where things generally went right — into the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. And there were times when I really wished there were human problems on the level of Apollo 13‘s, in some of them, so they wouldn’t just be of interest to people already fascinated by the subject. And we definitely had to look for those, and try to focus on them.

The good news is that human stories are everywhere. People are fighting for the kinds of things Tonya Harding wanted and couldn’t get, in every arena or endeavor, in every place and time. Whether you’re writing a true story adaptation or something fictional, these fundamental human questions are almost always there, beneath the surface. It just might take a little digging — and making it a priority to focus on them.


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How to Finish Act One Fri, 05 Jan 2018 00:38:37 +0000

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I’ve written before about the first ten pages of a screenplay, and touched on the nature of the Catalyst (which the Save the Cat “beat sheet” insists should happen on exactly page 12). But I haven’t yet focused on its “Debate Section” — which was recently brought to my attention by one of my coaching clients.

So let’s talk about how the first act of a movie typically ends — and what takes us from the mid-act Catalyst (or Inciting Incident) to the Break into Act Two. (Try not to be annoyed by the inappropriate capitalization — it helps these structure “beats” stand out.)

An extremely common issue I see in scripts is that nothing really rocks the main character’s world in a big enough way until about p. 25-30. I often find myself suggesting that the current “Break into Two” event should actually be the Catalyst. While it’s true that something major should happen at the act break (the main character leaving their familiar world for an “upside down” one). But that does not mean this is where the main story problem begins. That happens earlier.

The point of the Catalyst is that it completely upsets the status quo and demands attention, now. It literally begins the story, which a quest for resolution of whatever it has brought. So if the first thing that really rocks the main character’s world is that they find themselves in an “challenging new world” of some kind, that event should be the Catalyst. In such stories, the Break into Two is not the first entrance into that world, but more of a forced commitment to dealing with it, for the foreseeable future, in a particular way.

What happens in between these two things is the Debate section.

Contrary to its name, it’s not just a bunch of talk about what to do and how to do it. And it’s not a single scene where such “talk” happens. Beat sheet examples online or in Save the Cat Goes to the Movies might focus on the big “questions” of the Debate, which makes sense. But the section is not just about asking them. It’s about exploring the available options, through action and conflict. The Debate is the entire second half of Act One, essentially (depending on how long it takes for the Catalyst to play out). So it’s usually a series of scenes in which the main character is actually taking steps to try to figure out, solve or reverse that Catalyst event. All of these efforts typically fail, and only one option remains — which is the path that Act Two will take.

My go-to illustration of this is the Jim Carrey comedy Liar Liar (which is also great for talking about unsympathetic characters and their arcs, as well as its “Out of the Bottle” genre). In a magical movie like this, one might assume the Break into Two is the entrance into the “upside down world” of being suddenly unable to tell a lie, for this smarmy lawyer. But it’s not! That happens at the Catalyst.

On p. 12-ish, Jim Carrey realizes he can’t lie. What happens next? He doesn’t just “Debate” what to do. He tests and experiments with the problem, trying to solve it any way he can. He is active, and this leads  to conflict and complications. That’s what we want for this section — and pretty much every section of a script. He figures out that his son caused this with a birthday wish, and tries to get the son to wish him back to being lie-capable with a new cake and candle. Which doesn’t work. Then he experiments with the limits to this curse. Is there a way around this? Can he write a lie? No. Finally, he tries to get a continuance on the big case he’s about to try (which has huge career/life stakes for him). But that fails, too.

The Break into Two is this character having to begin to argue this case — where lying is typically his main weapon — while only telling the truth. That’s his personal nightmare, and his “upside down world.” As with most “Out of the Bottles,” the character gives up trying to “solve the magic” as Act Two begins (because he’s learned in the Debate that he can’t), and instead focuses on how to get through a personal life challenge with the magic firmly in place, which isn’t easy. In fact, it seems impossible. 

The Debate section, then, is a series of scenes where the main character actively tries to solve the massive challenge that has emerged as the Catalyst, usually in the simplest, smallest, most direct ways (which never work). They do the same things that you or I might do, if we were in their situation. This is part of what makes them relatable, and keeps the audience subjectively experiencing the story from their point-of-view. They don’t just leap into a scary “upside down world” willingly. They usually try to go back to what’s comfortable, as quickly as possible. Only when they are out of options does that change. So the Debate is often a “Refusal of the Call to Adventure.” Sometimes the main character does want to go on the adventure of Act Two, whatever it is, and the Debate is more of a quest to try to make that happen, which has its own difficulties.

Either way, it’s a transitional period between getting one’s world rocked, and later leaping into the void to take on whatever challenge is involved in trying to address that. During this crucial in-between section, they have time to deal with and reel from the Catalyst, consider the options ahead, and try those options out — starting with the one that requires the least from them. But the option they will be stuck with — at the Break into Two — will require the most.

A couple other examples:

The Sting – following his friend Luther’s death at the hands of Doyle Lonnegan (the Catalyst), Robert Redford’s character looks for a way get back at Doyle, which leads him to Paul Newman, and possible “big cons” they could play on Doyle. The Break into Two is the beginning of their particular big con.

The Wizard of Oz — after being transported to Oz (the Catalyst), Dorothy tries to get the lay of the land and figure out who is for her and against her, and how to get back. She talks to Glinda the Good Witch, and ultimately decides to set out on the path to find the wizard (the Break into Two).


Has this section proven difficult for you? Do some of these challenges ring true? Do you see it a different way, or have question? Leave a comment and we’ll discuss…


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Fun & Games Section Fri, 22 Dec 2017 23:40:36 +0000

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Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books called the first half of a screenplays second act the “Fun & Games section.” This is where the action shifts to an “upside down world” of some kind, where the main character will try to confront their overall story problem/goal.

It’s also where I’ve noticed that a lot of screenplays tend to stumble.

What I often see is a “Fun & Games section” where things are going pretty well for the main character, and they are essentially “having fun,” even.

The problem is that nothing that will bore an audience more quickly than happy/successful characters. As I’ve written before, we audience members are almost like sadists, who love watching the main character of any story struggle and be punished in various ways, while failing to get what they want.

But I get the impulse to make this section “fun.” I mean, it’s right there in the name! But I think what Blake meant, if I could be so bold, is that this section is a lot of fun for the audience — an audience that loves to see the main character not succeed, and not be happy.

It’s true that in “Fun & Games,” things generally aren’t as messed up as they will be after the Midpoint, in “Act 2B” (a/k/a the “Bad Guys Close In” section). The story problems generally escalate throughout Act Two, which ends with an “All is Lost” crisis. But that doesn’t mean that it’s all “Fun & Games” for the main character in Act 2A. Far from it.

This issue comes up so often that I have a standard example I always use: Legally Blonde (a Blake Snyder favorite). Elle Woods’ “Fun & Games section” consists of her first days at Harvard Law, where she learns that Warner is engaged to a smart and nasty brunette, who shows off an enormous ring, and gets Elle kicked out of class — helping to make Elle laughing stock of all her new classmates. While it’s true that she also meets allies Emmett and Paulette in this section, the basic thrust of it is: “This is going to be hard, even harder than I thought.” And her first attempts to get what she want end in miserable failure.

That’s the essence of the Fun & Games section. The main character enters the arena where Act Two will take place, and is overmatched, often a fish out of water, trying to get their bearings, and face their obstacles. And it’s not going well.

Blake Snyder also said this section delivers on the “promise of the premise.” And the “premise” of any movie is really its central problem, and how impossible it will be to solve. Ditzy L.A. sorority girl making it at Harvard Law and winning back Warner? Good luck! What makes it a strong premise is its seeming impossibility. And the Fun & Games section is where we first see that impossibility on display, being explored.

Yes, there can be some lighter moments, and some partial victories. But most of the time, what the main character tries to do in this section should fail in some way, complicate their situation, and “change the game” of what they are fighting over — thus moving the story forward.

This is also not a short section of a movie. In fact, according to Blake’s beat sheet, it’s the lengthiest beat, at 25 pages. (It’s tied with “Finale” — but I often see successful movies with shorter Finales.) This means there’s room for a lot of story here — a lot of action on the main character’s part toward what they want to achieve, and a lot of twists and turns that build the story. Some scripts have a tendency to stall out at this point — to keep things “light,” and save the real problems for “Act 2B” or even the third act.

This is one of the most typical issues with scripts that cause professional readers to pass — stories whose problems start too late, or aren’t big enough. An infographic from an anonymous studio reader made this point a few years ago, analyzing the most common recurring problems in scripts they read. Number one was “The story begins too late in the script.” Now it’s possible they could be talking about late “Catalysts,” which don’t come until the “Break into Two” point (which I also often see, and will blog separately about). But I think it also refers to the real problems of the story not taking off until its second half, after “Fun & Games” is over.

Here are a few other examples of the main thrust of the Fun & Games section of some successful movies. As always, I appreciate your comments!


  • The Hangover — Initial, hilariously difficult attempts to recreate events of the night before, leading to various complications.
  • Die Hard — John McClane first begins fighting the bad guys in earnest, with no real backup from the police.
  • Get Out — Chris starts to see all the freaky/weird things about his girlfriend’s family, where he feels more and more trapped and threatened.
  • Saving Private Ryan — Various military skirmishes where members of their team get killed, plus a lot of infighting within the team.
  • The 40-Year-Old Virgin — Andy’s new friends try to get him laid, with horrific results.

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One Problem Affecting Everyone Sat, 16 Dec 2017 17:57:40 +0000

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At the heart of a good original TV series idea is one big problematic situation. It somehow affects all the series regulars. And it leads to endless new stories. It’s not unique to particular characters, but is the over-arching reason for the series’ existence. It’s the hook, and the heart of the pitch.

When a series idea is lacking this — which is often the case with writers I work with or teach (and has been in my own ideas, too) — it has a hard time moving forward, no matter how many good problems and conflicts it has for individual characters.

But we certainly do need those, as well. We want to be able to draw stories from the characters’ compelling life problems/issues. Each week, they should face new challenges related to something about their situation that constantly bothers them, and how they don’t have the life they really wish they had. A lot of “stories” in a series also comes from the primary characters having multiple lines of conflict with each other, which are never fully resolved.

But in addition to those things, I suggest focusing on finding a compelling central difficulty that affects everyone on the show, and which can never really be solved (or else the series would end). This is really key to a sellable TV premise. In fact, to a large degree, it is the show’s premise.

If you have a show set at a workplace, for instance, with good character challenges and conflicts, but no one issue or problem that unifies things, and transcends the individual people — while affecting them all — then you don’t quite have what buyers are most interested in.

These are not easy to come up with, but the best overall problems create a kind of “hook” for the show that you could put in its logline — and use to sell the idea to potential readers of the pilot script.

This hook might not even need to mention individual characters. Ideally, when one hears it, they get what the show is basically about from week to week. Any specific character situations and conflicts beyond that are only icing on that cake.

This is maybe easiest on shows with life and death stakes. For instance:

A boy goes missing and his friends team up with a mysterious girl they meet with telekinetic powers, who seems to know something about a monstrous hidden world connected to theirs, where perhaps their friend will be found.

On this show — Netflix’s Stranger Things —  the existence of that world  is the main overall problem that affects all the characters. They also have lots of compelling individual conflicts and problems, but those are secondary. The monstrous world generates most of the stories on the show.

But this kind of thriller/horror series isn’t the only kind that needs such an overarching problem. Every genre does.

Consider the half-hour comedy The Office. On the surface, you could say it’s about a number of comedic characters with various problems and issues, who work at one of the world’s most boring jobs. But is that really what the show is about? I don’t think so. Beyond that, there is one big problem affecting all the characters, which is the true premise of the show. It’s the fact that they all work for Michael Scott (or David Brent, in the original UK version) —  a boss who creates so many issues and difficulties that you could almost call him a “monster.”

Here are some other examples of loglines for shows from the last ten years, which capture that one problem that affects everybody on the show, and which is the show’s basic reason for being — creating most of the main stories from week to week:

A high school chemistry teacher with a wife and a son decides to team up with a former student to cook and sell meth. (Breaking Bad)

Members of several dynastic noble families vie for power, security and independence in a fictional fantasy realm. (Game of Thrones)

The strict gender roles of the early 1960’s affect all the employees of a top Madison Avenue advertising agency. (Mad Men)

A New York lawyer moves to West Covina, California to stalk her ex-boyfriend from her teen years, shaking up the lives of everyone she encounters. (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend)

When their patriarch goes to jail, the members of a spoiled family have to learn to survive without him — and the successful business that supported them. (Arrested Development)

A revolutionary startup threatens to shake up the status quo of Silicon Valley — if its founders can survive all the challenges to making it survive and thrive. (Silicon Valley)

Three households who are connected by blood each deal with unique challenges related to contemporary non-traditional families. (Modern Family)

Each of these shows is about something big and conceptual that affects everyone, and creates conflicts and problems in all of their lives. These are ongoing throughout the series, and really power the show from week to week. Mad Men is maybe the best example here of a show that would be pretty ho-hum if it didn’t have this one thing it was really “about.” Imagine it without that: a show set in the early 1960’s at an ad agency. What’s exciting about that? What’s really dramatic, interesting, relevant and challenging to all the characters — which elevates this into a TV series millions of people could emotionally connect with and be consistently entertained by? It’s what they explored regarding gender roles, which was behind most of the problems and stories on the show.

Even with procedural dramas about cops, lawyers or doctors, the new ideas that break through tend to have some unique twist on what we’ve seen before, usually in the form of an element that creates extra conflict and difficulties for everyone — whether it’s the misanthropic lead doctor on House, M.D., the supernatural/mysterious forces behind the crimes on The X-Files, or the idea of following a murder case through both the detectives and the prosecutors — which was the fresh approach (at the time) of the original Law & Order.

Coming up with original series ideas that can advance a career is not so different from writing features, in the sense that the idea is everything. I first learned this from my agents, when I was out pitching drama series a lot. They insisted that I needed that one big conceptual hook to make an idea stand out, and which will generate story after story, for a potentially endless number of episodes. It’s not necessarily easy to find, but when you have that, it makes everything else so much easier.

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Who is My Antagonist? Sat, 02 Dec 2017 23:27:59 +0000 The post Who is My Antagonist? appeared first on flying wrestler.


Many writers believe their story needs a villain — a single character who is the main source of opposition in the story, or the primary “bad guy.” Since arguably all stories have a “protagonist,” don’t they all need an “antagonist”?

I don’t believe they do. Not every successful story has one person who is “the problem,” or the singular ongoing opponent to whoever and whatever the audience is rooting for.

All stories need major oppositional forces, which create a lot of conflict and problems. But these are not always embodied in an “antagonist.”

As with many topics in screenwriting, it’s somewhat of a terminology issue, where different people use the same words to mean different things.

I personally don’t use the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist” all that much. I prefer “main character.” The main character is the audience’s emotional point-of-view in the story, the one we’re experiencing everything through the perspective of. What they think, feel, want and are trying to do is usually front and center. It’s not hidden or mysterious. It’s what pulls us through the story, and is responsible for us caring enough to want to stay with it.

Generally this character has a big problem, and a lot of difficulty in getting what they want. You could call the source of that problem and difficulty their oppositional forces. Or “antagonistic” forces.

In some genres, these do typically take the form of a single character. Superheroes need a super villain who is tough to defeat, such as Ares in Wonder Woman. In horror films, the monster tends to fulfill this role. In a “find the killer” story, it’s obviously the killer. Overall, in genres focused on life-and-death stakes, the “antagonist” is more frequently used.

The definition of “antagonist” could be extended to include a group working together, or a situational problem as in Gravity or Apollo 13, or even a handing off of this function from one character to another over the course of a movie. But in all those cases, there is still that same sense of the problems for the main character being specifically embodied by someone or something who actively opposes them.

But in other genres, there might not be any of these kinds of “antagonists.”  Instead, the problems might come from a variety of places — situations, institutions, multiple unrelated characters, the nature of the goal and its difficulty, etc. Consider Wonder, for instance. Or The Big Sick. 

No antagonist in THE BIG SICK


It’s not “better” or “worse” to have an “antagonist” or not have one.

Let’s go back to the word “protagonist.” What does it really mean? Is it the same thing as “main character”? I’ve been heavily influenced by the “Dramatica” theory and software in my understanding of this, and in my opinion that they are not the same thing, and not every story even has a traditional “protagonist” (let alone an antagonist).

Dramatica defines protagonist and antagonist as archetypal characters that are present in certain stories, but by no means all. (The others have “complex characters.”) In every story, there’s an overall goal that emerges early on, when some problem or inequity surfaces that rocks the status quo. In Dramatica terms, the one who wants to solve it and pursues solving it is the “protagonist,” and the one who doesn’t want it solved and wants to stop the protagonist is the “antagonist.” So you have Chief Brody vs. the shark in Jaws. Simpler good-and-evil tales and action movies tend to have these archetypes.

Stories with “complex characters” don’t usually have an archetypal “protagonist,” let alone an “antagonist”. But they always have a main character — who might have a lot of qualities in common with what we think of when we think of “protagonist,” but don’t completely fit that archetype.  (Dramatica goes much deeper into what those qualities are.)

So it really comes down to whether you’re using archetypal characters or complex ones, and what sort of genre you’re aiming for.

Here are some examples of movies which have an antagonist, and some which don’t:



  • Star Wars
  • Fatal Attraction
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • L.A. Confidential
  • Die Hard
  • Aladdin
  • The Karate Kid
  • The Sting
  • Alien



  • The Hangover
  • When Harry Met Sally…
  • Good Will Hunting
  • The 40-Year-Old Virgin
  • The King’s Speech
  • Pretty Woman
  • Forrest Gump
  • Jerry Maguire
  • Tootsie


What you might notice from this list, if you like to work with the Save the Cat genres as I do, is that certain genres usually have an antagonist, and certain ones don’t.


Those that usually do:

Those that usually don’t:


So depending on your preferred genres, you might always need an antagonist, or you might never have one. Like so many things that seem like they should have cut-and-dry answers, the answer is really “it depends.”

As always, questions and comments are welcome!

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Main Character’s Problem/Goal Sat, 25 Nov 2017 20:31:57 +0000 The main character of a story has a problem they want to solve. The main character of a story has a goal they want to achieve. Which is it? It’s either, and it’s both. The main character has a problem and/or a goal. Sometimes people refer to it as the “problem/goal.” It’s at the very center […]

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The main character of a story has a problem they want to solve.

The main character of a story has a goal they want to achieve.

Which is it?

It’s either, and it’s both.

The main character has a problem and/or a goal. Sometimes people refer to it as the “problem/goal.”

It’s at the very center of any story, and should be the focus of the logline, synopsis, query and/or pitch. It’s something difficult to resolve, and has primal external life stakes — for the main character, and sometimes for other people the audience comes to care about.

In some stories, it can feel like there’s no goal, only a problem — and the writer might wonder if they need more of an active goal.

In other cases, there’s clearly a goal, but not much of a problem. Could that be an issue?

Let’s start with the first scenario. We’re focused on a problem. But it doesn’t quite feel like there’s a goal, other than to solve the problem. Is that enough?

If the problem is big and difficult enough, and it matters enough — and they are continuously actively trying to solve it (which leads to complications and narrative build), then I would say “yes.”

If not, I would say “no.”

So what about the second scenario? Can the main character have a goal, but not a problem?

Not really. In a goal-focused story that really grabs an audience, what the main character is chasing (which has those big stakes and high difficulty) is generally meant to solve a big problem. And/or if they don’t reach the goal, they will have a big problem. Plus, the process of chasing the goal creates problems that weren’t there before. The conflicts and difficulties build and complicate.

The “goal-only” type story doesn’t work if those things aren’t present. We don’t want a main character who only has “positive stakes” — meaning, their life will be better if they reach the goal. We want them to also have strong negative stakes — life now is unacceptable, and/or it will be, if the goal isn’t reached. Negative stakes tend to be more powerful than positive ones. They matter more to the audience.

So either approach can work, as long as the main character is punished and struggling in some way, for virtually the entire story. This helps give the audience  a strong enough reason to care, to want to take the journey of the story, and to put themselves in the character’s perspective.

What doesn’t work is when the character has too easy of a time, or has the upper hand throughout. Sometimes I see scripts where the main character is a kind of clever winner, who is superior to all the antagonists he encounters, and always comes out on top. I get why writers do this. Many movie heroes are cool and capable, and we fantasize that we could be them.

However, for a story to work, the hero has to be overmatched by their situation, and their oppositional forces. And I don’t mean just some of the time. They have to be losing — meaning the problem is strong and the goal distant — until pretty much the final moments of the climax.

Sometimes the hero(ine) is James Bond-cool in the process. But James Bond always has a super villain who looks like they’re going to succeed, until the very end. There’s a massive problem that needs solved, and, cool as he is, James Bond is losing. He might make some progress toward his goal, but those brief moments are usually followed by even bigger complications, revelations, rising stakes, growing urgency, and/or a sense that there is now that much more to solve than there was before. That’s how plots “thicken.”

There’s a famous George M. Cohan quote: “In the first act, you get your main character up a tree. In the second act, you throw rocks at them. In the third act you get them down.” One of my coaching clients recently told me about another version of this, which might be even more apropros to screenwriting: “In Act 1, you get your main character up a tree. In Act 2A, you throw rocks at them. In Act 2B, you set the tree on fire. In Act 3, you get them down.”

I think that sums it up pretty nicely.

So whether it mostly feels like a problem the main character has to solve, or a goal they’re chasing which remains out of reach, the key is that they’re having trouble, and that it builds. In most cases, scripts can benefit from starting the difficulties earlier, making them bigger in general, and growing them more along the way. If you can do this believably and entertainingly, the audience almost can’t help but stay engaged.

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Out of the Bottle Sun, 19 Nov 2017 01:27:51 +0000 I see a lot of scripts these days where the writer initially depicts the main character as kind of a selfish jerk. This is on purpose, because they want to “arc” them to a better, nicer person in the end. I get this desire, as many of the best movies feature powerful character growth. However, […]

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I see a lot of scripts these days where the writer initially depicts the main character as kind of a selfish jerk. This is on purpose, because they want to “arc” them to a better, nicer person in the end. I get this desire, as many of the best movies feature powerful character growth.

However, as I’ve written about before, there’s a danger with the “starts a jerk” approach: that the audience will so dislike the main character that they won’t want to follow them at all. We normally need the “hero” to be a likable, decent, good person who “saves the cat” (as Blake Snyder would say in his book by that name) and puts others ahead of themselves.

On the fairly rare occasion where a main character is not personally likable, this is usually offset by some combination of huge heroism on their part (as on House, M.D.) and constant life and death stakes (as in Scarface) — where they face challenges so huge and primal, as an underdog, that we can’t help but relate, and overlook their unlikability.

So what if you don’t have that heroism, or those constant massive challenges and stakes, right out of the gate? Does that mean the main character can’t be something of a jerk at the beginning? Aren’t there some successful comedies and lighter dramas where they are?

Yes, there are a few. And they generally fall into one very specific type of story, which Save the Cat calls the “Out of the Bottle” genre. (I love the book’s ten genres, and this is one in a series of posts focusing on them.) In an “Out of the Bottle” movie, some magical situation tests, challenges and rocks the world of the main character, and they spend the bulk of the movie being punished by it. Because of the incredibly difficult (often comedic) gauntlet they face while dealing with this, they are forced to grow. For example:

  • Liar Liar
  • A Christmas Carol/Scrooged
  • Groundhog Day
  • What Women Want
  • The Family Man

In these movies, the whole point is to “challenge and transform a jerk,” and it happens through something magical and fantastical — like, in Liar Liar, where a wish from a child causes his lawyer father to be unable to lie.

Note that even in this movie, however, the main character is not completely selfish, in the opening pages. When he does show up to be with his kid, he clearly loves him and engages with him in a sympathetic, fatherly way. The problem is he’s unreliable, often doesn’t show up, and in his work life, tells a lot of lies. If he wasn’t even a good father who loves his kid, it might have been too much for the audience. It might’ve been too hard for them to care. And we writers really need them to care — to connect with the main character in some way. If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything.

So we can start our movie with a “jerk” main character, if we’re about to spend ninety minutes essentially beating the crap out of them — as Liar Liar does — through some challenging magical situation that they can’t escape from. The focus really needs to be on “changing the jerk” as the entire point of the movie. If their change is just the internal character arc in a story that is about some other problem/goal, and they’re not specifically pressured and punished in this sort of way, I think it’s very hard to get an audience to engage and care about them — because of their initial unlikability.

Out of the Bottle: LIAR LIAR


The “Out of the Bottle” genre is not limited to movies about jerks who need to be punished and change. There are plenty of other variations, where completely lovable characters experience some magical thing which challenges them — such as Field of Dreams, Big and The Nutty Professor. But in the end, the point of the story is the same — they grow in some clear way, into a better, happier version of themselves.

The magical/fantastical event generally happens at the Catalyst, mid-way through the first act, after a “wish” by themselves or another character, which comes true. After this, in the “Debate” section, the main character tries to test the magic, tries to figure it out, takes initial steps in response to it which lead to complications, and often tries to reverse it or minimize it. But this mostly fails. None of these things returns life to normal.

So at the Break into Act Two, they realize this magic is here to stay, for now. They’re going to have to tough it out and deal with it. There’s no easy escape or return to normalcy. They are stuck in an “upside down world.” And usually there is something with very high stakes going on in their life (often in their career) that they have to accomplish, so this magic might be coming at the worst possible time. (Though really, it comes at the perfect time, in that it ultimately causes the main character to grow.)

The magic typically punishes the main character throughout the second act, leading to an “all is lost” moment at its end. Then in the third act, there is finally an opportunity to reverse the magic, and to return to a normal (but better) life. There’s a challenge involved here, a final battle of sorts, but in the end, the magic usually ends, and the main character has learned something and grown in some way.

“Out of the Bottle” movies tend to be comedies or inspirational dramas. If your idea for a movie with magic or supernatural elements has life-and-death stakes, action, horror or thriller elements, it’s probably better suited to “Monster in the House,” “Golden Fleece,” “Whydunit” or “Superhero.” But if it doesn’t, and these “Out of the Bottle” elements sound like what you’re going for, then I would suggest trying to follow these basic principles.

Out of the Bottle: FIELD OF DREAMS

The five “subgenres” detailed in Save the Cat Goes to the Movies gives us more of a feel of the common variations of “Out of the Bottle.” You’ve got the “Body Switch Bottle” (The Change-Up, Switch, Freaky Friday), the “Angel Bottle” (Oh God!, Aladdin, Cocoon), the “Thing Bottle,” where some object or item causes the magic (The Mask, Jumanji, The Nutty Professor), and the “Curse Bottle” — which applies to those “jerk” movies where the magic will force them to wake up and grow. Lastly you’ve got the “Surreal Bottle” — a catch-all for stories where really weird things happen that don’t quite fit any of the other types (Pleasantville, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

Some common pitfalls when writing this genre:

1. Don’t have the main character be constantly trying to undo the magic throughout Act Two. The whole point of these movies is that they can’t undo it (until a new opportunity in the third act changes that), and Act Two is about trying to get through something specific, urgent and important in “normal life” that the magic makes more challenging. The fun lies in watching them deal with those problems that the magic either creates or makes worse, with them unable to stop it.

2. Don’t make the magic unclear, unbelievable, mysterious, complicated, multi-faceted or gradual, in its revelation. With these movies, there is generally one specific magical premise that emerges at the Catalyst, and its rules and limits are made clear in the rest of the first act. It happens for a specific reason, at a specific moment, through a specific method — all of which is very clear to the audience. They are asked, all at once, to buy into this magical premise, and it’s an agreement they make with the movie to go along for the ride. (It helps that the magic comes in response to a clear wish from one of the characters, the fulfillment of which is something we can all relate to and want to see.)

3. Don’t make the magic mostly a positive thing in the main character’s life. It might give them special powers, but with those powers must come problems, conflicts and challenges that they are ill-prepared to deal with. This is the whole point — that the magic presses them to their limit. And all stories, really, have that in common — they are about characters with something extremely difficult and important going on, that they are forced to deal with, where they are overmatched, and where things tend to get worse and more complicated, right up until that last chance at victory in the climax.

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Changing the Game Fri, 25 Aug 2017 02:48:24 +0000 In any story, the problem gets worse in the middle for the main character. Or at least it gets more complicated, more difficult, more dangerous, etc. They are generally not “winning.” They’re overmatched by whatever they’re involved in. The difficulties of writing the second act of a screenplay — or plotting out the vast central […]

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In any story, the problem gets worse in the middle for the main character. Or at least it gets more complicated, more difficult, more dangerous, etc.

They are generally not “winning.” They’re overmatched by whatever they’re involved in.

The difficulties of writing the second act of a screenplay — or plotting out the vast central section of any story — lie in achieving that effect.

After all, if your main character is actively focused on solving their one big problem and/or reaching their one big goal in every scene (which they should be), then real progress should be made, right?

Well, yes and no. Forward motion should happen, but with it should come all kinds of other bad stuff, so that the net effect is that things build to a big crisis, usually about 3/4 of the way in. This “All is Lost” moment doesn’t usually come out of the blue. It’s a result of “bad guys” (or problems) “closing in,” prior to that point (to quote Save the Cat).

To achieve this, a writer needs to give their main character powerful oppositional forces (not always a specific antagonist character), which are acting against them, in a “punch-counterpunch” sort of fashion. Each side is fighting back and forth, reacting to the other, adjusting and trying new things, so that the situation continuously evolves.

The “game should change” for the main character, in virtually every scene. The status of their overall problem/goal — and where they’re at in trying to reach it — keeps developing. It doesn’t just stay at one level, in an ongoing stalemate. It builds.

Sometimes writers try to keep things difficult by having the main character try an approach to the problem/goal which fails, and then another approach that fails, and then another that fails. While sometimes this can work in a quick montage sequence to show time passing, most scenes or sequences shouldn’t end with the main character right back where they started from, before the scene or sequence. If they do, it’s called a “stutter step.” And it could easily be cut from the script, and no one would miss it.

The best scenes are crucial, consequential and necessary, because something happens in them that forever changes the game from this point forward, and leads to new actions, new decisions, new circumstances for the characters, unlike what they’ve experienced before.

Even in a good mystery, where the detective is making some progress toward solving the case (the pilot of the original X-Files comes to mind), with each new clue comes new questions and new challenges. And the tension only grows — which, of course, is what you want.

So the stakes need to be high, the degree of difficulty also needs to be high, and the process of trying to solve the problem and/or reach the goal needs to keep leading to new complications, in such a way that the problematic situation builds and builds, to a breaking point.

Only in the final act, after all seemed lost, is there one last chance to confront the situation in a new way. But even that should not go totally smoothly: it should surprise the main character in some ways, throw them off their guard, and force them to improvise.

That’s ultimately what we like watching characters do: fail to get what they want, and run into new difficulties, which they have to react to, and try to figure out a way to address. Then we like to see them put those new plans into motion, and not quite succeed with them, either — but in new ways, that “change the game” from what it was before. If you read Robert McKee’s book Story, he talks about this as the basic anatomy of a scene.

When in doubt, punish the main character more, make it harder and worse, and complicate the situation. Add conflict and problems. You almost can’t have too many of those. But a lot of scripts suffer from having too few — or from having an overall story problem that doesn’t really build enough, isn’t dynamic, and kind of stays too much the same, throughout.

George M. Cohan’s old saying went something like this: “In the first act, you get your main character up a tree. In the second act, you throw rocks at them. In the third act, you get them down.” The nature of those “rocks” is really key. They should get bigger and more dangerous, and the main character should be losing, despite taking actions to try to avoid or combat them.  How you keep those “rocks” evolving — as well as their reaction to them, and plan to defeat them — is the foundation of your story.

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Dude with a Problem Fri, 28 Jul 2017 00:48:17 +0000 They’re trying to kill me! That’s what’s happening in the most misunderstood of the ten “genres” in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books. “Dude with a Problem” is misunderstood because of its name, which really describes every story. Movies are always about someone with a problem. So writers often think their idea fits this genre, when it doesn’t. In separating […]

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They’re trying to kill me!

That’s what’s happening in the most misunderstood of the ten “genres” in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books.

“Dude with a Problem” is misunderstood because of its name, which really describes every story. Movies are always about someone with a problem. So writers often think their idea fits this genre, when it doesn’t.

In separating out this type from the others, Blake was talking about a particular type of problem — one that involves a “life and death battle.”

And he didn’t mean a third act battle only, or a battle that in theory could be life-threatening, or a battle against a fatal disease (which isn’t active, external, visual, cinematic and fun/exciting to watch).

He was talking about action movies, where the battle against the would-be killer(s) is ongoing, throughout. And that’s the whole problem and goal of the movie: not dying. It’s about survival, period. Defeating, destroying, and/or eluding the killers.

As with all of the ten genres, the five subgenres in Save the Cat Goes to the Movies are instructive, in illustrating what he really meant.

In this case, you have the following:

1. “Spy Problem” — someone is trying to kill the main character, often for unknown reasons, as in North by Northwest, Three Days of the Condor or Enemy of the State. Usually some sort of secret spy stuff is behind it all, and the main character has to get to the bottom of it, in order to solve the “problem” and survive.

2. “Law Enforcement Problem” — rather than spies, we’re dealing with simple law-breakers here. Cops are involved, but they are usually in way over their head. Like the best movies in all genres, they are severely overmatched and losing, until the very end — as in Die Hard or Speed. Or cops could be the adversaries, instead of the hero, as in The Fugitive. Either way, the main character is innocent, and fighting for their lives — and possibly the lives of others.

3. “Domestic Problem” — the would-be killer here is more of an intimate, like a lover, ex-lover, or would-be lover — or someone else the main character knows well — as in Misery, Cape Fear or Sleeping with the Enemy. “Women in jeopardy” movies usually fit this type.

4. “Epic Problem” — here we move beyond the single bad guy or group of bad guys threatening an individual or small group. In this subgenre, everybody is going to die, and the problem is beyond human — as in Armageddon, Deep Impact or Independence Day. This is the subgenre of “disaster movies.”

5. “Nature Problem” — again there is a non-human threat to life, but to a smaller number of people than in the “Epic” subgenre, and due to something more “natural” and real — as opposed to fantastical “what if?” scenarios in the “Epic” subgenre. Often these are even true stories, as in Apollo 13, Alive or Into Thin Air.

With all the subgenres, the biggest “problem” I see writers run into, with this genre, is not making it truly a life-and-death battle, all the way through. Save the Cat talks about a “Sudden Event” as the “Catalyst” in Act One, which leads to an ongoing battle for the main character. This is not easy to sustain for an entire movie, and keep everything believable. It’s always a question of how you keep your hero(es) imperiled, but also active in trying to solve the problem, and yet failing and losing, but not to the point of dying. They can make some progress in Act Two, and should, but still be in an “All is Lost” place at the end of it — where death looks certain, and all hope gone — only for one last chance to emerge in Act Three.

Usually these stories are about a “punch-counterpunch” dynamic throughout the middle of the story, where the hero takes some action to try to pursue their goal (which is survival, and ending the threat) — and their antagonistic forces “counterpunch” back at them. This dynamic goes back and forth throughout the story. But the key is that the game has to be changing with each punch or counterpunch — leading the story into ever new territory, evolving the nature of the situation without resolving it. It’s a bit of a high wire act.

The genre is closely related to “Monster in the House” — which also involves action and life-and-death battle, against a “monster” of some kind. “Superhero” movies also tend to have life-and-death battles at their core. As do some “Golden Fleece” movies (especially “Epic Fleece” and “Caper Fleece”).

The key difference here is that there is nothing special about the hero, typically, in a “Dude with a Problem.” They aren’t “super.” They’re an “Innocent hero” — an everyman, usually, who never expected something like this, and isn’t a badass who is used to dealing with such problems. And the nature of the threat is something that is fairly grounded and possible in the real world — not a “monster.”

Finally, rather than having a distant goal to pursue, which will make life better, as in a “Golden Fleece,” the goal here is incredibly contained and simple: “don’t die.”

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Teaching at National University Fri, 09 Jun 2017 19:22:04 +0000

Since 2011, I’ve begun teaching as an Adjunct Faculty and creating classes for National University’s online Master of Fine Arts in Professional Screenwriting Program.  I’ve been focused on the “TV Writing Track,” where I present an introductory course followed by a 12-week workshop where students  learn about the different series genres, pitch multiple concepts for […]

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Since 2011, I’ve begun teaching as an Adjunct Faculty and creating classes for National University’s online Master of Fine Arts in Professional Screenwriting Program.  I’ve been focused on the “TV Writing Track,” where I present an introductory course followed by a 12-week workshop where students  learn about the different series genres, pitch multiple concepts for original shows, and ultimately outline a pilot episode for one of their ideas.  Check out the program’s Facebook page… and read about some of the other great faculty on its Tumblr page

There’s also a great Script Magazine article about the program online.

More info on courses and degree requirements is below…

Download (PDF, Unknown)


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