Archive for the ‘screenwriting tips’ Category

“You know, my problem with most screenwriting is it is a blueprint. It’s like they’re afraid to write the damn thing. And I’m a writer. That’s what I do. I want it to be written. I want it to work on the page first and foremost. So when I’m writing the script, I’m not thinking about the viewer watching the movie. I’m thinking about the reader reading the script.
—Quentin Tarantino
2009 NPR Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross

Related posts:
Screenwriting Cheats & William Goldman’s Indirect Influence on ‘A Quiet Place’ (“I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can.”—William Goldman)
Picking Words That Give Readers an Experience
Meet Your First Audience
Once Upon a Time … How Quentin Tarantino Made the Leap from Unpaid to Paid Screenwriter

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“I have a whole bunch of little life hacks to break through whatever it is blocking me [from writing]. A bunch of little writing exercises…Write the absolute worst version of the scene. Just get it out of your system. Be as horrible as possible. It shuts up the voice in the head saying, ‘This isn’t any good.’ Good it shouldn’t be.”
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Arrival)
Basic Brainheart podcast interview with Hannah Camacho



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[Substance definition: Significance or importance]

I think if you put energy into how do I break into the industry, how do I get an agent, how do I – it’s putting the cart before the horse. I think that ultimately first and foremost practicing. Shooting it. And then reshooting it. And reshooting it. And rewriting. And just getting, working on yourself and getting better. But just doing it.

Like getting a camera. Getting whatever camera you can get your hands on. And making stuff. And then getting out there however you can. I actually think practically that’s the industry – you can’t say the industry will be the path to your door, but I think the best way to find your career is just to do what you do and get it out there however you can…. Double down on substance. And that ultimately is what everybody is looking for so hard out there. Everybody wants something that’s interesting and good.”
Writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
Scriptnotes Q&A with Craig Mazin (Episode 299)

Related posts:
The 99% Focus Rule (via Oscar winning screenwriter Michael Arndt)
Rod Serling on Breaking In
The Myth of “Breaking In” (Terry Rossio)
Follow Your Own Wacko Vision
‘I never saw myself as a sitcom writer, but I was waiting tables’—How Rob McElhenny helped launch his career with a camera he bought at Best Buy.
Filmmaking Quote #31 (Annie Mumolo)  “Whether it’s short films or whatever you can do, my advice is make your own stuff. I’m a real believer in preparation meets opportunity…”

Scott W. Smith

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“The sequence method doesn’t just make a screenplay better; it also makes it easier to write. Sequencing helps clarify character motivation and drive, and illuminate which scenes are dramatically necessary and which are irrelevant.”
Screenwriter Andrew W. Marlow (Air Force One, Castle)

“A typical two-hour film is composed of sequences—eight-to fifteen-minute segments that have their own internal structure—in effect, shorter films built inside the larger film.”
Paul Gulino

“The best feature of sequencing is that it makes your script digestible. Especially the second act. When you go in to outline your script, instead of having 120 pages of scary infinity, you have 8 clear sequences you need to design and create that fill out this larger structure.”
Screenwriter Ryan Condal (Hercules)
(Done Deal Pro interview found at Go Into The Story)



According to Paul Gulino, in his book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, the history of sequence writing has its roots in early silent film history when there were one-reeler stories that lasted the length of film that could be held on a single reel of film—between 10 & 12 minutes. (Before 24 fps became the standard around the advent of talkies in 1927, motion pictures speeds varied around 18 fps—sometimes as low as 12 fps—so running time on reels was slightly longer than the majority of films in the modern era.)

Those early short films had a protagonist with a goal (say, get the girl untied from the train tracks), with a beginning, middle, and end. They told complete stories in under 12 minutes. Films grew longer and studios, filmmaker, and audiences generally agreed that between 1 1/2 to 3 hours in length was acceptable.

But Gulino says that 10–15 sequences—with its own protagonist, tension, rising action, and resolution—is a system that works and has been taught over the years at Columbia University, USC, and AFI. (Not sure if that’s the case today. in 2017)

My understanding is sequence writing still fits within a traditional 3 act structure and looks something like this:

Act 1—
Sequence 1
Sequence 2

Act 2—
Sequence 3
Sequence 4
Sequence 5
Sequence 6

Act 3—
Sequence 7
Sequence 8

Screenwriter Paul Castro received his MFA at UCLA (and has taught screenwriting at the undergraduate and graduate level) and seems to have a slightly different spin on the sequence method. (Filmmaker/professor Frank Daniel is credited with developing this method. See this slideshare of how he unpacked the sequence approach.)

“If you have an ensemble cast, or if you have a story that is seemingly daunting to you, there’s a way to manage it. And instead of writing a linear screenplay, one scene after the other and keeping track of the different A-story, B-Story, C-Story—and the —different characters, a way to make it manageable is to execute sequence writing. Now what that means in a movie like Forrest Gump? In Forrest Gump there’s a lot of characters in that movie, and there’s a lot that happens in that movie. It’s really about a young man who has some mental challenges and his quest to win the love of his life Jenny, But a lot happens besides that. But that’s the overall thread of that movie; his relationship with Jenny. So how do we handle all these characters and all these relationships? Sequence writing. So in Forrest Gump you would outline and write in certain blocks of sequences.”
Screenwriter Paul Castro (August Rush)
Inspirational Screenwriting

I haven’t read that screenwriter Eric Roth used this method in writing the Forrest Gump script (or Winston Groom when he wrote the novel), but it is a method that some have found helpful. Here’s how Castro says that sequence writing could have been used in writing the Forrest Gump script. (Breaking down the sequences not in a continues flow, but by  Forrest’s relationships with others in the story:


dan copy


Like using notecards, writing from theme, writing a Blake Snyder beat sheet of your story, or crafting a log line first,  the sequence is just an approach to have in your toolbox. Some screenwriters use it regularly and others never touch it. (And I imagine like all these techniques, some working screenwriters would admit to having never heard of sequence writing.) Find what works for you.

Related posts on other sites:
The Eight Sequences from The Script Lab

The Index Card method and the Three Act, Eight Sequence Structure by Alexandra Sokoloff

An Easy Way To Write A Screenplay on Scriptshadow

A look at Chris Soth’s sequence version called the “mini-movie method—mixed with a little Blake Snyder

Scott W. Smith

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“Reversals are a more compelling form of discoveries or revelations because they turn the story upside down.”
Karl Iglesias
Writing for Emotional Impact


2016 Election Night/ New York Times

(Let me preface this post by saying that while I’ve been a registered Democrat and a registered Republican in the past, for the past 15 years I’ve been an independent. And though I did take part in this year’s election I did not vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.)

Politics aside, the 2016 United States Presidential Election was a great example of a major reversal. Up there with the granddaddy of cinematic major reversals— “I am your father.” And as divisive as this past election was, it’s simply too good a reversal illustration to pass up. (Plus what I’m talking about was already fair game for SNL Saturday night in their Election Night skit with Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and others.)

But before I talk politics, let’s talk sports. On Saturday college football had its own set of major reversals as the #2, #3, #4 teams lost. Something that ESPN reported hadn’t happened on the same day in 31 years. (Both #2 Clemson losing to unranked Pitt, and #4 Michigan losing to unranked Iowa—each by last second field goals—were particularly dramatic.)

And just two weeks ago the Chicago Cubs had their own major reversal. Once down 3 games to 1 in the best of seven  games 2016 World Series, they came back to win three games in a row including game 7 in extra innings. That was not only a reversal in being down 3-1 in the series, but a major reversal because it ended 108 of losing out on winning a championship. High stakes. High drama.

But this week’s Presidential Election had even a bigger major reversal than all of those. One commentator called it the biggest upset in American politics since 1948 when Truman upset Dewey for the presidency, another commentator called it the biggest political upset in a century, followed by an NPR commentator yesterday calling it “the biggest political upset in American history.”  All I know is at least half the voters in the USA are upset. (Major reversals are emotional. That’s why you sometimes see tears flow following one.)

“I’m not worried about Trump. As a Democrat, I hope he gets the nomination. Because if he gets it, I don’t think there’s any way he can win.”
Writer John Grisham
Interview published April 18, 2016

Perhaps filmmaker Michael Moore was the only person in the press in recent months who truly believed Donald Trump actually had a chance at becoming the next president of the United States. (And that includes the now President-elect Trump. Sources in Trump’s camp said he was “surprised” he won.)

But regardless of your view of the outcome of the election, there’s a great lesson here to improve your screenwriting and storytelling.

As I watched the election results unfold last Tuesday night it reminded me of watching a movie.

Act 1 (8:00 PM):  While the Major Dramatic Question was “Who is going to win the election?” the feel was “How big a margin is Hillary Clinton going to win by?” Basically echoing what Adam Nagourney wrote in The New York Times the Sunday before the election, “It’s hard to begrudge Democrats their gloating about the state of the Republican Party as the campaign enters its final hours. By most measures, Donald J. Trump appears headed for defeat.”

Act 2 (8:30 PM): As the Southern states started tilting red for Trump, TV commentators said things like “We expected this…” but then when Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida were all shaping up as too close to call one of the commentators said, “I’m not sure what’s happening.” Others said that it was surprising, but that Trump would actually have to win Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, AND Florida to have any chance at a path to win the election. Highly unlikely.

Act 3 (9:30 PM):
Trump did win Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, AND Florida. Now the talk flipped to “Hillary still has a path to the White House.” And that drama played out for about half an hour or so until Clinton appeared to be losing Iowa and Wisconsin and that Trump was actually going to pull off a major upset. In the early hours of Wednesday, Clinton conceded defeat. For the rest of your lives if you ever forget what a major reversal looks like you just have to recall the 2016 Presidential Election.

“A reversal changes the direction of the story 180 degrees…Reversals can work physically or emotionally. They can reverse the action or reverse a character’s emotions.”
Linda Seger
Making A Good Script Great
Page 67

Minor reversals (good and bad) are a daily part of our lives, but major reversals really get our attention.  It’s a divorce, a death, or the loss of a job. But it’s also a marriage, a birth, and a promotion. It’s been said that there really are only two emotions, happy and sad.

Movies are also full of minor reversals. Just about every scene has some kind of reversal in it.  The uncertainty holds our attention. But what sets a major reversal apart is scope and magnitude.

In Rocky, when Adrian finally accepts a date from Rocky that’s a reversal in their relationship up unto that point. When Rocky loses his locker, that’s a reversal. But when Rocky, a low-level, club boxer is chosen to fight the champion Apollo Creed, that is a major reversal in the story. It’s such a major reversal that five Rocky movies have flowed from the reversal.

If Rocky isn’t chosen for that fight, perhaps he realizes that boxing really isn’t his calling in life and takes a factory job where he ends up fighting the system like Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae. But Rocky fought for the championship and it resulted in a franchise that’s made over a billion dollars at the box office.

Robert Mckee says a film needs to have at least three major reversals to “satisfy the audience” and I’d agree with that. But I’d add that there are five places in script where major reversals are not only common, but needed:

  1. The inciting incident. (What others call the “Knock at the door.”) It’s the thing that sets your story in motion.
  2. Act 1 Turning point
  3. Midpoint conflict
  4. Act 2 Turning point
  5. Crisis/Climax toward the end of your story.

Many memorable movie scenes are major reversals that loosely fit in one of the above categories.

“Reversals go a long way toward helping writers confront the twin-edge sword of predictability.”
Richard Walters
Essentials of Screenwriting
Page 74

Off the top of my head here are some major reversals:

—”I see dead people.” (If you don’t know the reference I won’t spoil it for you.)
—”She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Ditto the above note.)
—The tornado in The Wizard of Oz.
—The plane crash in Cast Away.
— The super posse shows up in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
—Matt Damon gets stranded on Mars (The Martian).
—Sandra Bullock gets lost in space (Gravity).
—A command module malfunctions (Apollo 13).
—Jerry Maguire gets fired.
—Zoltar grants the young boy Josh his wish and he wakes up as a man (Big)
—The warden throws a rock through a Raquel Welch poster in Shawshank.
—Woody in the box at the end of Toy Story 3. (Yes, I shed a tear or two.)
—The ______ in the box in Se7en.
Both Fight Club and A Beautiful Mind have major reversals where the audience learns the main character has a mental illness.
—When Tom Cruise learns who the Rain Man is (Rain Man).
—And the Keyser Soze ending to The Usual Suspects:

Scott W. Smith

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“The purpose of a ticking clock: to inject urgency and tension into the story or an individual scene.”
Screenwriter Doug Eboch (Sweet Home Alabama)
Let’s Schmooze blog

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 11.05.48 PM

The last movie I saw (Eye in the Sky) was full of anticipation, and that was set up by the ticking clock scenario. Time was of the essence for the entire film. While I have touched on the ticking clock concept in pervious posts, I realized I had not done a post dedicated to unpacking the concept in detail—so here it is:

The ticking clock is simply a device writers use to create a sense of urgency—in both the characters and the audiences. It’s not found in every film and TV show, but there are plenty of examples over the years of stories across all genres that show it’s something worthwhile to have in your toolbox.

Sometimes the ticking clock is used in a single scene and other times it basically spans the entire film.

Two examples that come quickly to mind are Back to the Future (1985) and Taken (2008). Situations where major stakes are on the line if such and such doesn’t happen within in a specific time frame.

It doesn’t have to be a literal clock ticking down (though it can be) but it must be clear to those involved (and those watching) that there will be dire consequences if some terms aren’t met before a specific deadline.

“An example of a ticking clock would be the movie Armageddon, where the team had only a short time to blow up the asteroid, or all of mankind would be destroyed when it hit Earth. This gives an underlying tension to the entire movie”
Stephen Cannell

“A time endpoint, also known as a ticking clock, is a technique in which you tell the audience up front that the action must be completed by a specific time. It is most common in action stories (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen).”
John Truby
The Anatomy of Story

“Always helps to have a ticking clock. In Millions, the two boys have only a limited amount of time before the fortune in cash they found is worthless, as all currency is about to be converted to Euros. They are forced to solve their problem before the suitcase of money is useless.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks

Here are other films with ticking clocks:

127 Hours —A solo adventurer must find a way to get his arm released from being wedged in a rock crevasse before he dies from lack of food and water.
48 Hours
The  Hunt for Red October
United 93
Back to the Future

Silence of the Lambs
Little Miss Sunshine
The Hangover
High Noon
Blue Brothers
Happy Gilmore
The African Queen
and more recently The Martian.

Here’s what the ticking clock looks like on the page from the Drew Goddard written screenplay The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s book). This scene starts at page 16 after astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) survives being left behind on Mars.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.53.39 PMScreen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.54.24 PM

Even terrific indie films Winter’s Bone, Buried, and Ida have ticking clocks. Tv programs like Breaking Bad and Empire have ticking clocks related to the health issues of the lead characters.

Like any technique there are times when its use can seem heavy handed and forced—even a cliche. But that doesn’t negate that in the right hands it is a time trusted (pun intended) way to produce a sense of urgency.

Remember in Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks and his troop are charged with finding (and returning) Private Ryan before he’s killed on the battlefield? That qualifies as a ticking clock. As does finding (and killing) the shark in Jaws before it wrecks the town’s tourist economy.  And, now that I think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, E.T. and Schindler’s List all make uses of ticking clocks. So if Spielberg doesn’t shy away from ticking clocks why should you?

Related Posts:
The Bomb Under the Table 

Scott W. Smith




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Harry got up 
Dressed all in black
Went down to the station
And he never came back
New York Minute by Don Henley

“Every story, every scene, and every beat is about change—a change in knowledge caused by discoveries, and change in actions caused by character decisions.”
Karl Iglesias
Writing for Emotional Impact

A great bookend to making sure you have conflict in every scene you write is the whole concept of change. The average scene is 1-3 pages long and in that short time—in every scene—step back and ask, What’s changed?

In watching movies and reading scripts it’s easiest to see change within a scene when it’s a major event that serves as an inciting incident or a act break.

For instance, around the 7 minute mark in Jerry Maguire, the Tom Cruise character says, “I couldn’t escape one simple thought—I hated myself…I hated my place in the world.” Then in a late night breakdown/breakthrough he writes a personal mission statement (“Fewer clients. Less money.”) that changes his personal outlook from how the scene started, and it also changes the whole direction of his life. By the end of the scene he’s, “the man I’d always wanted to be.”

After that scene he gets applause from his co-workers, and soon afterwards gets fired. Then he loses his clients, his girlfriend, and his financial stability. Conflict and change working hand in hand.

Sometime the change can be as major as an accident (Cast Away, The Martian, Gravity), the  break-up of a relationship (Legally Blonde), but other times it can be a little more subtle like an oven not working (Pieces of April), or asking for directions (Richard Gere in Pretty Women).

The core foundation of change boils down to just three categories you’ve been hearing since taking literature classes high school:

  1. Intrapersonal (Self)
  2. Interpersonal (Others)
  3. Extrapersonal (The World)

There are other names these categories go by—Inner/Internal/Interpersonal/Intragroup/External—but whatever you call it, it boils down to conflict you have with :

A) Yourself
B) Those close to you (family, friends, co-workers)
C) The larger society, world, universe

Another way it’s put is:
A) Man vs. Self
B) Man vs. Man
C) Man vs. Nature

Sometimes a category is added like Man vs. Supernatural. But I like to cap it at three and tucking supernatural conflict into Man vs Others. And while it’s anathema to some to suggest there are rules in screenwriting, in general it’s best if something changes in each scene you write.

“Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare. If the answer you write at the end of the scene is the same note you make at the opening, you now have another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script?”
Robert McKee
Story, Page 35

That’s McKee speak for “What’s changed?” If nothing has changed it’s a good time to ask why the scene needs to be in your script.

A simple example of a scene where the charge (and the change) goes from positive (+) to negative (-) is an early scene in Rocky. Rocky starts the scene upbeat having won a fight the night before, but when he arrives at the gym he finds out he’s lost his locker to another fighter.

One of my favorite change scenes in fairly recent movies—and I’m flying from memory here—is in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps where Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) goes to Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and asks if he can marry his daughter. Gekko says no and things go down hill from there, but the scene ends with Gekko offering him a job. So in that case the scene starts out neutral, goes to negative, and ends up positive.

In Scriptnotes episode 219 John August and Craig Mazin discuss this general idea a little as they look at a scene from The Lookout.

“The fun of thinking about scenes this way is that you start to focus in on a really important question when you’re writing a scene, every scene, scene after scene after scene. At least one of these states — an internal state, an interpersonal state, an external state — at least one of them must be different at the end of my scene. Or this scene is not a scene. And it doesn’t belong in my movie.

“And that’s where we talk — when you and I talk about intention and purpose, this is where the intention and purpose starts to happen. The changing state. What has changed inside of you? Nothing? Fine. What has changed between you and her? Nothing? Fine. What has just changed in the world? There are times when you can get all three working kind of nicely. And I love that.”
Craig Mazin
Scriptnotes Ep 219

A scene that comes to mind (and one I know McKee is fond of talking about) where at least conflict happens on all three levels (with himself, with others, and with his world) is the French toast scene in Kramer vs. Kramer. There’s a lot of conflict and change in just two and a half minutes.

Scott W. Smith



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“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
Story, page 198

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)

What 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 the 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.)
Who is Keyser Söze? (The Usual Suspect)

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? (The Verdict)
Will Dorothy find her place in the world? (The Wizard of Oz)

(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 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 questions you always want audiences asking is, “What happens next?” and “How is this going to end?”

Related post:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
One Clear Dilemma
Magnetic Endings (Tip #100)
Insanely Great Endings
‘What Happens Next?’—Mamet

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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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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