Archive for the ‘screenwriting tips’ Category

“The MDQ (Major Dramatic Question) is the linchpin of the dramatic narrative – the purpose for which the story is being told.”
Christopher Lockhart

“Hunger for the answer to the Major Dramatic Question grips the audience’s interest, holding it to the last act’s climax.”
Robert McKee

This whole concept of a Major Dramatic Question should have been screenwriting tip #1 (instead of #101) on this blog— but here it is unpacked a little and I hope you find it useful in your writing.

“At the center of every good movie there is a single driving force around which all other elements gather. It has the rage of a hurricane, the focus of a cougar, the horsepower of a Lamborghini. It’s not the movie’s star. It’s not a special effect. It’s not the awe-inspiring action sequence or the most tearjerking dialogue. It is deceptively simple, so sly and stealthy, you don’t even know it’s there.

It’s a question.

Sure, a good story raises lots of intriguing questions, but there is one question at the white hot center of all others. This is the ‘major dramatic question,’ or MDQ for short. Every good story has its unique MDQ. Think of it as the story’s nucleus. It’s a centrifugal force that propels the story along its path of action, accelerating it steadily and breathlessly toward a climatic conclusion. And once the MDQ is answered, the story is over.

…The MDQ is the thing that keeps us watching, wondering how things will turn out. By the end of the movie, there will be—there must be—an answer to the MDQ. A ‘yes’ or a ‘no.'”
Daniel Noah
Writing Movies: The Practical Guide to Creating Stellar Screenplays 
Gotham Writers’ Workshop edited by Alexander Steele

According to the writers at Gotham Writers’ Workshop the way to find your MDQ is through your protagonist who has a tangible goal with obstacles that presents conflict in achieving their goal. Here are some MDQ examples they give:

Will Scarlet win Ashley? (Gone with the wind)
Will Indy obtain the legendary Ark of the Covenant? (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill? (Silence of the Lambs)
Will McClane free the hostages? (Die Hard)
Subtle films have a MDQ—but they tend to be more internal than external.
Will Miles pull himself out of a Rut? (Sideways)

While some call the Major Dramatic Question, others call The Central Dramatic Question, and Joe Bunting at The Write Practice simply calls it The Dramatic Question and here are some examples from his website:

Is Odysseus going to make it home from Troy? (The Odyssey)
Will Romeo and Juliet ever be together? (Romeo and Juliet)

Here are examples from Act Four Screenplays:
“Who/what is Rosebud?” (Citizen Kane)
“Will Chuck Noland survive this ordeal? (Cast Away)

And a couple more recent examples from Daniel McInerny:
“Will Walter find missing negative #25? (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
“Will P.L. Travers sign over to Walt Disney the rights to the Mary Poppins books? (Saving Mr. Banks)

While a single MDQ isn’t always clear (and sometimes it even shifts) here are a broad range of films that come to mind when I think of a MDQ:
Will Rea (Jennifer Lawrence) find her father? (Winter’s Bone)
Will Marlin find his son? (Finding Nemo)
Will Kramer be able to keep custody of his son? (Kramer vs. Kramer)
Will a freed slave find his wife? (Django Unchained)
Will the troops find Ryan? (Saving Private Ryan)
Will Pee Wee find his bike (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure)
Will Phil (Bill Murray) find a way to stop reliving the same day over and over? (Groundhog Day)
Will E.T. get home? (E.T.)
Will Scotland find freedom from tyranny? (Braveheart)
Will Neal (Steve Martin) make it home for Thanksgiving? (Planes, Trains & Automobiles)
Will three buddies find their friend—before his wedding? (The Hangover)
Will a man buried alive survive? (Buried)
Will a stranger protect a small western town against outlaws (High Plains Drifter)
Will a sheriff protect a small western town against outlaws (High Noon)
Will Erin bring justice to a small town? (Erin Brockovich)
Will Matt Damon’s character reach his potential? (Good Will Hunting)
Will Ida ever return to convent and become a nun? (Ida)
Will Butch, Sundance and Etta make it to Bolivia? (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Will Jerry land a large contract for his client and save his business? (Jerry Maguire)
Will C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) get a promotion? (The Apartment)
Who killed the under-employed screenwriter? (Sunset Blvd.)

WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart on his post Screenwriting 101 gives these examples:

Will Dorothy get back to Kansas? (The Wizard of Oz)
Will Sheriff Brody kill the shark? (Jaws)
Will Galvin win the case? (The Verdict)

Lockhart adds that while the MDQ tends to be external (physical), a connected internal dilemma (psychological) can be proposed in the form of minor dramatic question.

Will Galvin win beck self-respect?
Will Dorothy find her place in the world?

(Playing off of Lockhart’s physical/psychological idea let me drop in two of my favorite films and ponder if you can ask a single layered, mash-up question. Will Rocky beat Apollo Creed (physical/external)or at least go the distance with him—and prove to himself that he’s not a bum (internal/psychological)? Is it possible for the MDQ to—pardon the pun—have a one-two punch? In the indie film Pieces of April, “Will April find a way to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving AND make amends to her family?” Now we’re tying in theme and climax into the MDQ—powerful stuff.)

But it’s the MDQ that drives the story and is tied to the major goal of your hero/protagonist. And I’ll let Lockhart drive home the importance of The Major Dramatic Question:

“The MDQ is the THROUGHLINE. It carries us from the END OF THE FIRST ACT through to the CLIMAX. The dramatic narrative builds to the climax – which is the dramatic and emotional pinnacle of the story. It is the moment of cathartic release.”

P.S. There are always exceptions, and biopics and ensemble movies seem to be the trickiest in dealing with a Major Dramatic Question. For instance in both Apollo 13 and Schindler’s List, the MDQ is not “Will the astronauts survive? and “Will Schindler save lives in Nazi concentration camps” but a question of how they were accomplished. And even in cases where a MDQ is not 100% clear, the question you always want audiences asking is, “What happens next?”

Related post:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
One Clear Dilemma
Magnetic Endings (Tip #100)
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings 

Scott W. Smith

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“[Jim Sheridan] said—we were talking about screenplay writing— and he said the ending should be like a magnet. When you stop and think about that in your head immediately you get this piling of iron filings over here—which are the scenes and the characters, and the words which lift up—and as you get close to the magnet they get more and more magnetized and they start going fast and faster, and faster and faster, until the end when they’re all just phumph. And that’s the feeling you get when you see a really great film at the end. It’s all those iron filings have just gone whoosh, and you go out filled up with this incredible energy. It’s like the energy of electricity I think. And a great film needs to be that. (Pointing) So that’s your iron filings, and then the magnet’s your ending. And the relationship between those two things seemed to be a very helpful tip.”
Two-time Oscar-winning actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson
BAFTA Guru Screenwriters’ Lecture Series

P.S. Producer, director, playwright & screenwriter Jim Sheridan has been nominated for six Oscars including his work on writing In America, In the Name of the Father, and My Left Foot. While acting in In the Name of the Father Emma Thompson picked up that simple writing tip from Sheridan.

Related Posts:
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (part 2) 
Happy, Sad, Ironic & Ambiguous Endings
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)

Scott W. Smith

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“You need to have a lot of perseverance and persistence in order to get things through, which was certainly true for The Theory of Everything.”
Producer/screenwriter Anthony McCarten
(Who said he worked on The Theory of Everything “more or less, for 10 years.”)

Oscar-nominated and  BAFTA-winning screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) started his writing career as a journalist with a small newspaper in New Plymouth, New Zealand. Along his writing journey the 53-year-old has written plays, novels and TV programs.

“When I left university, I tried making it as a poet for a while, but there was no money in poetry. So, I turned up at an unemployment office and they said, ‘We have no positions for poets at the moment, but can you act?’ I said yes, of course, but it was a complete lie. And I found myself performing a reduced Shakespeare for schools. This threw me into the world of actors and opened a door for me to write a play. It’s how I morphed from someone who wrote poems to someone who wrestled with plot and structure and character and movement and so forth.

“I was 10 years into being a playwright and, during that time, nurtured a desire to write a novel. While I was developing my skills as a novelist, opportunities arose where I was asked if I would be happy to turn my novels into movies. And that returned me to my first love, which was TV, and the stories I grew up watching in black and white.”
Anthony McCarten
MovieMaker interview with Mark Sells

Related posts:
“I can’t keep handling this…rejection” Advice from a now Oscar-winning screenwriter.
Perseverance (Werner Herzog)
Tennessee Williams on ‘Apparent Failure’
Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcuts’
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter “I think every writer harbors—secretly or not-so-secretly—delusions of grandeur.” Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (whose own writing journey echoes McCarten’s—Perseverance & Persistence).

Scott W. Smith



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“Boris was a great artist. He did a beautiful job under difficult conditions. The weather was cold and overcast. We rushed to shoot the film in 35 days. Cheap is fast. Every day costs money. Spiegel, the producer, was on Kazan’s tail to go faster. We were pleased by the way the film turned out. Everybody was against it. We overcame all the obstacles.”
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg on Director of Photography Boris Kaufman who won an Oscar for shooting On the Waterfront which Schulberg won an Oscar for writing
on the waterfront

In the past year and a half I’ve been giving away boxes of my screenwriting and productions books to high schools and colleges. Last week I went through my bookshelves again and came up with two more boxes of books to give away and this batch includes William Froug’s Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade which was first published in 1992.

I flipped through my copy heavy with yellow highlighter marks looking for something I hadn’t covered on this blog before. Here’s the quote that jumped out at me:

“You are almost always better off if your scene is located outside in an interesting location with things happening in the background and all around the talkers. Keeping the characters moving helps. Movies are about moving pictures.”
Producer/writer/professor William Froug
Screenwritng Tricks of the Trade

Since this summer I’ve been calling these posts part of Screenwriting Summer School, it would be an interesting test to write down your all time favorite movie scenes and see if the majority of them are inside or outside. I know some screenwriters have a color coding index card system to see if they have a nice contrast of interior and exterior scenes. (Can’t recall anyone else saying you’re, “almost always better off if your scene is located outside.”)

The first exterior scene that jumped to my mind is the playground scene from On the Waterfronwritten by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. A simple walk and talk scene with Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando. It’s an understated scene and a bit of an exposition dump, but the good girl/bad boy scene (and their relationship) is important for the transformation of Brando’s character.

It’s a scene that does move the story forward and ties into the climax at the end of the story. I also like this scene because it’s an indie filmmaker-friendly kind of scene. It would be possible to shoot this scene with two actors and a four person crew. (How? Read The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns.)

The playground scene opens with a dolly shot* that runs a full two minutes without a cut. But it’s an elegant scene that’s not only well written and acted but watch it a couple of times and see how the direction and cinematography of this outdoor shot work to make the shot visually interesting. There’s the smoke from trashcan fires floating by, the swing set, the dropped glove, the stick of gum, the Manhattan skyline across the river, and the wrought iron fence—all of which to help make the three and a half-minutes visually interesting.

Van Gogh once said that he’d be content with water and a Rembrandt painting. I feel that way about On the Waterfront—a 1954 film that won 8 Oscars including Best Picture, and which the AFI lists as the #8 best movie of all time.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the climax of On the Waterfront is set outside. But the scene most played from the movie “I coulda been a contender” is set inside a car, and Karl Malden’s well-known speech is an interior scene. If someone’s expanded Froug’s outside comment please send me the link.

I’ve been watching the first season of The Sopranos (another Jersey-centered mob story like On the Waterfront) and I know cable TV—especially in the 90s before The Sopranos changed the face of TV—doesn’t have the budgets of an average Hollywood movie, but there’s a lot of sitting around and talking on The Sopranos. (Same for the #2 rated all-time TV show Seinfeld.)

Perhaps that’s the nature of the beast and it’s not fair to compare a top Tv show with a top movie.  Last year the Writer’s Guild of America named The Sopranos as the top show in television history. Created by David Chase it stands on it own and paved the way for one of the writers on The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner, to create Mad Men. And while Mad Men has its share of interior shots, the set design and set decorating of show set a new standard in Tv of how visually interesting an interior shot can be. And I’m sure there are plenty of Breaking Bad fans who would rather watch the compelling opening scene of the series a few times over the scene I chose from a black and white film that’s 60 years old.

This isn’t really about is TV more like theater than film, or a debate if TV writing is the best dramatic work being done today. It’s just three sentences by the one-time TV producer/writer and former UCLA professor Mr. Froug that I hopes helps you contemplate about your scene settings.

Here’s the second exterior scene that came to mind:

*A small indie crew couldn’t lay the tracks needed to do that On the Waterfront dolly shot with the large camera they used, but they could quickly set up and use a shorter dolly move using something like a Dana Dolly or what I have the Porta Jib Explorer. (I’ve even set my up in as little as 10 minutes shooting solo.) Or you could ditch the tracks altogether and using something like the MOVI.

Update: I learned that the studios wanted to shoot On the Waterfront on the lot in Los Angeles, but Kazan said it was an ‘East coast movie” and fought and won to shoot it in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Related posts:
The Source of ‘On the Waterfront’
Telling Our Own Shadow Stories
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith 

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“To speak technically, photography is the art of writing with light.”
Gerardo Suter 

“I think that you should make as much film as you possibly can —long and short. But I don’t think it’s smart to start screenwriting without at least having carried a camera around. I really think you have to teach yourself to see the world cinematically in order to write cinematically. The thing I think that’s poorly understood about screenwriting from people who aren’t close to the film business is that screenwriters don’t just write the dialogue, we don’t just make up the story and structure the dramatic beats, but we also describe the images on the page which are then transferred into film images by everybody else. And carrying a camera, which I did for many years, really taught me to see the world in terms of photographs. It gave me a leg up in terms of learning to write visually.”
 Writer/director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club)
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters interview with Jay Fernandez  (Part 1)

Related post:

John Ford’s Advice to Spielberg
Descriptive Writing—Part 1 (Tip #22)
Descriptive Writing—Part 2 (Tip #23)
Descriptive Wriitng—Pt. 5, Setting (Tip #26)
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)
Cinematography & Emotions

Recommended Book: The Visual Story by Bruce Block

Recommended Website: The American Society of Cinematography (ASC)

P.S. I didn’t attended Vincent Laforet’s Directing Motion Workshop that toured the country the last three months, but the trailer looks great. And it’s available as a digital download and DVD. (I’m trying to get my hands on the material to review.)

Scott W. Smith


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“It’s all those movies from my youth that made me want to get into this—all the popcorn movies.  The Die Hards, Empire, the Star Wars films. Those are the films that made me want to be a filmmaker. Recalling those—the excitiment of  being a 10-year-old kid in a theater again, writing for that kid is a big part of doing those kinds of films.”
Writer/director Stuart Beattie

A couple of years ago I worked on a small video project with Deion Sanders who was not just one of those rare athletes who could play both professional football and professional baseball, but he’s the only athlete in the history of civilization who has played in both a World Series and in a Super Bowl.  That is he played two completely different sports at the highest level possible. If anyone earned his nickname it was Prime Time.

A few days ago in my post Simple Stories/Complex Characters (Tip #95) I quoted screenwriter Stuart Beattie saying, “I’m a big fan of simple stories, complex characters. I love when stories get from here to here. I know then I’ll have room for great character stuff to go on.” But in yesterday’s post I wrote how he was one of the credited screenwriters on one of the most successful blockbuster franchises in Hollywood history—Pirates of the Caribbean. The lesson, of course, is that it’s really not an either/or question. The film world is big enough for Blanche DuBois and James Bond.

Human beings have an amazing ability to enjoy contrasting things. Off the top of my head I recall being one of about 100,000 people once at a Bruce Springsteen rock concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum, but also going to a small theater with a couple hundred people to hear a concert with classical guitarist Christopher Parkening. Granted, both concerts had guitars on stage, but they were two totally different experiences. And both enjoyable as I watched talented performers at the top of their fields.

Movies are no different. This year I went to see the intimate character driven Polish film Ida three times in the theater. But that doesn’t mean that the blockbusters Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark aren’t some of my favorite all-time movie going experiences.

Stuart Beattie explains the differences between writing a character driven story and a Hollywood blockbuster.

“The big blockbusters—you have to have a certain amount of spectacle, that’s why they’re blockbusters. You have to have that eye candy that people come back to see again, again and again.  So that usually means more complicated plots and just more stuff going on. Car chases, explosions, exciting moments—all that kind stuff. The plot stuff expands and the character stuff shrinks. You don’t have a lot of time to set up characters, you’ve got to get the plot rolling, things like that. Something like Collateral takes its time. In blockbusters you’re hitting [the audience] in their seats, you’ve got to provide those thrills, have them jumping all around. It’s a ride. It’s the difference between a roller coaster ride and a ride in a horse carriage around the park. It’s a different beast completely. Just as fun, just as many challenges [to write], but a completely different beast.”
Stuart Beattie
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters 
interview with Mike De Luca

Joss Whedon wrote and directed the blockbuster The Avengers and then turned around and wrote the script and directed Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Jon Favreau directed the blockbuster Iron Man and this year has a hit with the character driven Chef, which is closer in scope to the first indie film he wrote (Swingers). Swingers in turn was directed by Doug Liman who went on to direct The Bourne Identity.  All great examples of writers and directors at the highest level who’ve made character driven stories and blockbusters—and done it at the highest level.

But if there’s a Deion Sanders of filmmaking my vote goes to director Steven Spielberg who made Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List back to back—and that was just a couple of years after he directed The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun back to back. Spielberg is Prime Time+Oscar TimeX3.

P.S. A good example of a complex story and simple characters is Edge of Tomorrow. Maybe a little too complex. As I walked out of the theater it was interesting listening to various audience members trying to explain the film to each other (especially the ending). While the $178 million film is doing fine globally ($341 million) one of the reasons I think it was a disappointment in the States is the story—despite solid reviews and being full of spectacle (and exposition)was a little too complex to get good world of mouth advertising.

But you’ve got to give Hollywood credit for producing such an ambitious none-sequel project.

Scott W. Smith

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“I like simple stories and complex characters.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade)
Filmmaker Fills Simple Stories with Complex Folks/Roger Ebert

“I’m a big fan of simple stories, complex characters. I love when stories get from here to here. I know then I’ll have room for great character stuff to go on.”
Screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Collateral)

In Stuart Beattie’s screenplay for Collateral (2014) the story is simple, a hit man catches a cab at night with the goal to kill five people before he catches a morning flight out of LAX. That simplicity allowed Beattie to add some complexity to the characters played by Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. (Cruise’s character is a hit man with an appreciation and knowledge of jazz music.)

“[The jazz scene] is modeled after two favorite scenes of mine, True Romance with Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper…and the Luc Besson movie La Femme Nikita when he takes her to the restaurant and you think, oh great—he’s finally taking her out. And here’s the gun, here are the people. And the whole thing changes on a dime. I love those kind of scenes and I wanted that kind of scene in Collateral.
Stuart Beattie
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters (Part 1) interview with Mike De Luca

It’s worth noting that there are echoes of the jazz scene in the 1993 movie Schindler’s List when Amon Goeth (known as the “Butcher of Plaszow” and played by Ralph Fiennes) who appreciated classical music yet had no problem standing on his balcony and casually shooting a couple of Jewish workers in the forced labor camp. It may not be historically accurate, but it’s great cinema in conveying that one can be educated and sophisticated musically —and still be a savage killer.

Screenwriter Steve Zillian, who won an Oscar for writing Schindler’s List, is admired by Beattie. Chances are good that Schindler’s List is in what Beattie calls his “personal reference library.”

“I have a library of probably 100 scripts that are my favorite scripts and I’m going going back and referring to them again and again. How do they do that? How’s that set-up? How’s that written?”
Stuart Beattie

When you watch the below clips in light of the above scene from Collateral keep in mind these five quotes:

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”—Painter Salvador Dalí

”Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”—Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch

“How does an artist look at the world? Well, first she asks herself, ‘What’s worth stealing?’ And second, she moves on to the next thing.”—Author Austin Kleon

“I think it’s fine for young (filmmakers) to out and out rip off people who come before them because you always make it your own.”
Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”
Composer/ pianist Igor Stravinsky

P.S. Sometimes writers don’t sample or crib other writers, but their own work. Beattie points out that Lawrence Kasdan used two similar love scenes in both of his scripts for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Continental Divide.

Related Posts:

Inspiration Flying Under the Radar
“Steal Like An Artist”
“Impact. Energy. Emotion.” Nice quote from Mike Corrado (from a CreativeLive Rock and Roll Photography class) that describes the jazz scene in Collateral quite well.
Simplicity in Screenwriting (Tip #27) “Let this be our first lesson: Movie stories are usually simple…..Write simple stories and complex characters.”—Paul Lucey
Writing Good Bad Guys (Tip #85)

Scott W. Smith

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