Screenwriting Column: “Story Plot Points: Twists and Turns”

This column appears in the “Screenwriting 101” section at The Script Lab.

If you’ve studied screenwriting even a little, you know that writers generally talk about stories as having three Acts with a turning point at the end of Act One and Act Two.  (Usually, they also include a “Midpoint” turning point in the middle of Act Two.)  But, how do turning points work?  How do they “turn” the story?

Well, the direction of the story is dictated by what the main character wants.  They take actions to get it and whether or not they will is what engages the audience in the short term.  So, if you want to turn the story, you have to change what the character wants.  You can even think of story structure as how the main character’s “want” changes over the course of the story.

There are two “events” that can cause that change: an action or a revelation.  Something someone does or something someone learns can cause the story to turn in a new direction.

And these two kinds of events can alter the goal that drives the story in three different ways:

  1. The goal is achieved and the character has to move on to a tougher one
  2. The character hits a barrier and is forced to try a drastically different tactic, strategy or approach (creating a new goal).
  3. Something occurs that completely changes the situation or circumstances to the point where a new goal has to be formed.

Putting everything together, we can categorize turning points in six ways.  Here are some examples:

1a. An action leads to one goal being achieved and replaced by a tougher one:

At the midpoint of The Untouchables, Eliot Ness and his team bust an illegal alcohol shipment on the Canadian border and obtain a ledger that could be the key to convicting Al Capone on tax evasion (new goal).  Their success is short-lived as their key witness is soon killed.  The new goal will be tougher.

At the end of Act One of Legally Blond, Elle Woods succeeds in getting into Harvard Law School in order to win back her boyfriend.  But, getting into Harvard will not be as tough as succeeding there.

Act Two of Star Wars ends with the successful escape from the Death Star.  The goal in Act Three becomes “destroy the Death Star before it gets in range to destroy the rebel base.”

1b. A revelation leads to one goal being achieved and replaced by a tougher one:

In Chinatown, when Jake Gittes finds out the horrifying motivations behind the murder he’s investigating, a new goal is formed.  He has succeeded in solving the crime, but now he must protect two women from the murderer, a tougher task.

2a. An action throws up a barrier and the character must take a drastically different tactic, strategy or approach:

At the midpoint of Little Miss Sunshine, a dysfunctional family drives across the Southwest to make it to Los Angeles in time for a beauty pageant the young girl wants to compete in.  But, when her grandfather dies (action) during the trip and they are not allowed to leave and return for the body later, they are forced to sneak the body out of the hospital and continue their journey with a corpse in the back of their van.

2b. The character realizes (revelation) they’re at an impasse and must take a drastically different tactic, strategy or approach:

At the end of Act One in Tootsie, after learning that (revelation) that no one will hire him, actor Michael Dorsey decides to dress up as a woman and get a female part on a soap opera.  As a result, his new goal is to pass for a woman.  He had met a barrier and was forced to do something drastic.  Later at the end of Act Two, Michael finds out that the soap opera has extended his contract (revelation).  So he must come up with a way to get out of it without being charged with fraud (new goal).

3a. An action thrusts a character into a completely new situation:

In Back to the Future, a turning point occurs when Marty McFly, while trying to escape from Libyan terrorists, is forced to travel back in time.  His goal from then on is to get “back to the future.”  In this case, the story turns on an action that thrusts the character into a completely new situation.

Similarly, in Titanic, the iceberg that sinks the famous ship turns the story at the midpoint by creating something entirely new for the characters to deal with.

3b. A character comes to the realization that he’s been thrust into a completely new situation:

In Groundhog Day, the first turning point occurs when the main character comes to the realization that he’s stuck in a loop, reliving the same day over and over again.  This realization doesn’t come right away.  He has to put the pieces together.  When he does, the story turns on the actions he takes in response to being in this purgatory.

Similarly, in Liar Liar, a young boy makes a wish that his lawyer father be unable to tell a lie for one day.   But, the turning point doesn’t occur until the lawyer finally figures out that, for reasons he’s unaware of, he can’t lie.  Once he has that revelation, he can form a new goal.

At the midpoint of A Beautiful Mind and the end of Act Two of Fight Club, the characters realize that they suffer from psychological disorders.

So, when laying out your structure, think about what your character wants and how that changes over the course of the story.

Screenwriting Column: “Creating Complex Characters: Inner Conflict”

This column appears in the “Screenwriting 101” section at The Script Lab.

There are two questions that speak to who a character is at their core:

1. What do they want?

2. How do they go about getting it?

These two things guide a character’s actions.  And, in drama, it’s the actions that tell us who a person is.

If you want to create a complex character, you want to create an inner conflict at your character’s core.  That means, creating a conflict in what a character wants or the approach he/she will take to getting it.

A character that is at odds over what he or she wants has two goals that will directly conflict within the story.  Often this is a conflict between what a character wants in the beginning and what that character realizes he or she needs along the way.  In The Apartment, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is torn between his desire to move up the ranks of his company and his love for his boss’s mistress.  He can have one or the other, but he can’t have both.  Clearly, his two goals don’t mix.

The character doesn’t necessarily have to make the right choice in the end.  In Capote, Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is torn between his first goal (1) to write In Cold Blood, the non-fiction book centering around the murder of a family of four in Holcomb Kansas that would prove to be his greatest work, and (2) his growing compassion for and desire to want to help the prisoners accused of the murders. However, these two goals oppose each other as Capote recognizes that his feelings for the prisoners deeply conflict with the need for closure for his book, which only an execution would provide. Eventually, he comes to terms that he can’t do both, so he must choose.

If characters are not conflicted over what they want, they can still be conflicted over how to get it.  In The Untouchables, Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) wants to bring Al Capone (Robert De Niro) to justice, but he’s torn between his belief in living by the letter of the law and the idea that sometimes you have to break the law to uphold justice.

Creating a strong inner conflict in what a character wants or how to get what they want is one of the most effective ways to create a complex character.

Screenwriting Column: “Creating Complex Characters: Contradiction”

This column appears in the “Screenwriting 101” section at the The Script Lab.

The following excerpt is from Taxi Driver, written by Paul Shrader

BETSY: You know what you remind me of?


BETSY: That song by Kris Kristofferson, where it says, “he’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction, a walking contradiction.”

TRAVIS: (uneasy) I’m no pusher, Betsy. Honest. I never have pushed.

BETSY:  I didn’t mean that, Travis. Just the part about the contradiction.

Contradiction.  If you could boil the secret to writing complex characters down to one word, it’s contradiction.

Think of Salieri from Amadeus.  He destroys rival composer Mozart even though he’s Mozart’s greatest (and often only) fan.

Contradiction. The simplest way to create a complex character is to contradict who a character appears to be and who they are deep down inside.  Movies are great at this.  The film medium is perfect for capturing surfaces.  And drama is great at peeling away the layers to a character’s essence.

In films, surface characterization is created through the casting of actors, hair/makeup, set dressing/props, dialogue and so on.

What does this character look like?  Healthy?  Obese?  Ugly?

How do they dress?  Sharp?  Disheveled?  Flamboyant?

What does their home and office look like?  Messy?  Pristine?  Minimalist?

How do they talk?  Like a Professor?  As little as possible?  Foul-mouthed?

The answers to these questions give us an impression of who a character is.  But, that’s not necessarily who they are.  Actions are the ultimate proof of someone’s character.  More specifically: actions taken in a crisis.

Think about Elle Woods from Legally Blond.  On first glance, she seems like the clichéd ditzy blond.  But, put her in a position where she has to prove herself (like Harvard Law School) and you find that as the saying goes, she’s smarter than she looks.

The angelic little boy who’s actually the Devil (The Omen).  The gentle giant (Of Mice And Men).  The frail green creature that’s the most powerful Jedi warrior in the galaxy (The Empire Strikes Back).

Create a contradiction between the surface and the essence, and you’ve added some necessary complexity to your character.

Screenwriting Column: “The Secret to Rising Conflict”

This column appears in the “Screenwriting 101” section at The Script Lab.

“Your screenplay needs more conflict.”  Heard that one before?  Okay, sometimes that’s what people say when they can’t think of anything more intelligent.  But, face it, it’s probably true.

The first thing to understand though is that not all conflicts are created equal.  In life, we have conflicts all the time that are easily resolved.  That’s not the kind of conflict that’s going to sustain a feature film.  To do that you need a conflict that escalates.  There are two things you want to look for to make sure that happens.

First, you want a conflict where neither character is willing to compromise.  Both characters need to have something at stake if they don’t get what they want.  Those stakes will keep them from giving up (and stopping your movie).

Second, there needs to be something that forces these characters to have to battle it out.  One character can get what he/she wants only if the other character doesn’t get what he/she wants.  It’s a zero-sum game.  You can’t win unless the other side loses.

This is why Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin” is such a useful dramatic tool.  If every character wants the Maltese Falcon or the letters of transit (Casablanca) then only one can win.

Now, to further ensure that the conflict is played out to the end, you might need an “arena” for it to take place in.

“Slasher” movies usually involve a killer stalking a group of college students.  This is a conflict with clear life and death stakes.  The killer is single-minded in his desire to kill and the college students obviously want to survive.  For true rising conflict, the killer and the intended victims have to be forced to play this out to the end.

That’s why these films invariably take place in a secluded area.  But, that’s not enough.  The conflict would end if the college students could simply leave or call for help.  So, the writer has to devise reasons why they can’t do this.  Often, the area is so secluded that cell phones don’t work.  Their car won’t start or has been damaged.  Or a storm is coming in and the roads leading out of the area are flooded.

Similarly, the apartment that Oscar and Felix are forced to share becomes the arena for their conflict in The Odd Couple.  A condo is the arena in The Break-up.  The arena can also be a relationship, like the marriage in Two For the Road.

If you have two characters committed to getting what they want but only one of them can and you have forces that ensure they have to directly engage each other, you’ll have a conflict that escalates until the final climax.

Screenwriting Column: “The Right Protagonist Is The Wrong Man For The Job.”

This column appears in the “Screenwriting 101” section at The Script Lab.

Your main character can be anybody: man, woman, child, animal, robot, even a vehicle (Cars).  As long as he/she has a goal that’s difficult to achieve and vital to his/her well-being, you have a wealth of options.

The goal has to be “vital” or the stakes won’t be high enough and there’s no reason for the audience to care.  It needs to be difficult to achieve because if it’s too easy, there’s no suspense.

There are essentially two ways to make the goal difficult to achieve.  One is to make the antagonists that oppose your main character and the obstacles he/she has to overcome as overwhelming as possible.  The other way is to make your protagonist seemingly as weak as possible, either physically, mentally, or weakness manifested through internal flaws.

Take The Lord of the Rings.  The dangerous mission to destroy the ring into the fires of Mount Doom that ultimately will decide the fate of Middle Earth is entrusted to two Hobbits, the smallest (and weakest) creatures in the land.  In comparison to the fearsome foes they will have to evade, the Hobbits are least likely heroes of all the characters in the story. And not only are they physically weak, but Tolkien throws as many external (and internal) obstacles across their path as possible.

So when you’re thinking about your own main character, think about how you can make him/her the wrong person for the job.  Make them the underdog.  It helps to give them internal flaws that make them ill-suited for the task at hand.

In The Verdict, it’s an alcoholic lawyer who has hit rock bottom that has to take on the Catholic Church and their high priced legal team.  His inner demons and the opposing counsel attack him from both sides.

Make it ironic that your character is the hero of the story.  Does your character have to dress up like a woman?  Then make him a misogynist or a womanizer.  There’s a reason “fish out of water” stories always work.  The main character is ill-equipped for battle and that keeps the audience in suspense. And this allows for a much larger journey and a more rewarding character arc after the protagonist overcomes the obstacles and accomplishes the objective.

So think about how your main character can be the wrong person for the job.  And if they succeed in the end, think about how they become the right one.

Screenwriting Column: “Exposition: Keeping Your Audience Informed”

This column appears in the “Screenwriting 101” section at The Script Lab.

Exposition refers to that information you need the audience to know in order to understand and fully experience your story.

The problem is there isn’t always a natural way to provide this information.  Sometimes you have to figure out how to give it to your audience in a way that doesn’t slow the story down or sound clunky coming out of the actors’ mouths.

What Exposition Does Your Audience Need?

The first thing you need to determine is what information the audience needs to know.  To engage the audience, you need to make sure they’re clear on what characters need to accomplish, what’s in their way and what’s at stake if they fail.  Any information that clarifies these things for the audience is essential for maintaining suspense.

For example, the audience may need to know what specific steps your character needs to take to achieve his or her goal.  At the end of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s goal is to destroy the Death Star before it gets in range to fire on the rebel base.

So, George Lucas provides a scene where Luke and the other rebel fighter pilots are briefed on exactly what they need to do in order to complete their mission, providing both them and the audience with the necessary information.

Exposition may also be needed to clarify the obstacles your character has to overcome.  In a heist film, this requires explaining all of the security systems a thief has to bypass in order to rob a bank or museum.  In an emotional drama, the audience may need to know about events from the protagonist’s past that serve as internal obstacles to what they want or need in the present.

Along those same lines, sometimes exposition is needed to explain why protagonists can’t use the simplest option to getting what they want.  You don’t want the audience to say, “But, why didn’t they just do this?”  Exposition may be needed to answer that question right off the bat.

Clarifying what is at stake is another purpose of exposition.  Disaster and Action/Adventure movies often have to do this.  “What will happen if the magic potion falls into the wrong hands?”  In those films, it’s important to give the audience a clear picture of what the main characters are trying to prevent.  In a sports film, it’s important to know that if the main characters lose their next game, they won’t be eligible for the playoffs.  In a courtroom drama, the audience needs to know that if a lawyer doesn’t locate her witness in time, the judge will throw out her case.

If the information doesn’t clarify the goal, the obstacles or the stakes, then you might be able to leave it out.

Using Conflict to Convey Exposition

There are a number of ways to give information to the audience.  Bad writers will use awkward dialogue like “Well, Frank, as you know we’ve been friends for four years.”  A common mistake in expository dialogue is having one character tell another character what they already know.

Dialogue like that reads extremely awkward because the character is speaking for the audience’s benefit, not for their own.  And since the dialogue is not being said to further the character’s interests, the actor playing the part will probably have trouble with the lines because they will lack motivation.

So, in order to make expository dialogue work, characters must have a reason to say the words.  They should have something they want and something should be preventing them from getting it.  In short, there needs to be a conflict.  

Your characters should speak the information you need the audience to hear in order to get something.  The information is ammunition they are using to demean, flatter, or threaten someone to get what they want.

The above example could be changed to “Frank, we’ve been friends for four years, you can trust me to pay you back.”  It gets across the same information and the information is given to a purpose.

Making the Audience Want Exposition 

Another way to make exposition feel natural is to make the audience want to know the information before you give it to them.  This is done by arousing their curiosity first.

In a drama, you can allude to an emotional trauma that is haunting a character a few times to arouse the audience’s curiosity.  Then, when this backstory comes out it won’t slow down the story because the audience wants to know it.  In Casablanca, the audience wants to know what happened between Rick and Ilsa in Paris before they get the answer.

Another way to arouse curiosity is show the audience something that demands an explanation.  The movie Back to the Future is very skillful in how it gives exposition to the audience.

To understand what Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) needs to do so that he can return to his own time period, the audience must know how the time machine that sent him into the past works.  The movie accomplishes this by showing the time machine in action first.  

This prompts a number of questions from both the audience (and Marty).  Only then, does the film give the explanation.  The explanation doesn’t feel dry because the audience (and the main character) wants it.

Similarly, in The Matrix, the film depicts a series of events that are completely out of the ordinary.  Once the audience (and the main character’s) interest has been peaked, the rather lengthy explanation does not get boring.

Bad exposition can take the audience out of your story.  But leaving important information out is not an option if you want to maintain tension.  So, whether it’s using conflict or curiosity, find a way to weave in your exposition without the audience noticing.

Screenwriting Column: “Your Character’s Goal: Raise the Stakes”

This column appears in the “Screenwriting 101” section at The Script Lab.

You have a character.  That character has a goal.  And there are obstacles to achieving that goal.  That’s all you need to create a suspenseful story, right?  Wrong.  There’s one more element.  And it’s the one that’s often forgotten.  There needs to be something at stake if your character fails.  Or else there’s no reason to care.

The goal and the stakes for not achieving that goal are like opposite sides of a coin.  One represents hope and one represents fear.  That’s why it’s helpful to have an “all or nothing” goal, where there’s a clear line between success and failure.

To make sure you have enough at stake, the audience should feel that your character’s emotional (and maybe even physical) well-being for the rest of their life is contingent on their getting what they want or need at the end of the story.

The idea of two people being “soulmates” is a storytelling convention older than Romeo and Juliet.  In real life, if we fall in love with someone and it doesn’t work out, we might be heartbroken.  But, in time, that feeling will pass.  “There are plenty of fish in the sea,” the saying goes.

In a movie, if a character is in love with someone, the audience should believe that that person is the only man or woman for them.  If the audience feels that the character will get over it and move on if things don’t work out, there’s not enough at stake.  But, if they feel that this is the character’s one chance at “true love” then the stakes are almost life and death.

For the stakes to be truly compelling, the audience should feel that your character will never recover if they fail to achieve their goal.

In The Verdict, Frank Galvin says “There are no other cases.  This is the case.”  He’s not just trying to win a lawsuit.  He’s trying to save his morally-bankrupt soul. 

In Good Will Hunting, if Will doesn’t break down the walls he’s put up after years of abuse, he’ll forever squander his gift and close himself off from love.

The climax of your movie should be the most pivotal moment in your character’s life.  The rest of their life should be at stake.

“The Craft of Screenwriting” Workshop at the Traverse City Film Festival

On Sunday, July 31st, I’ll be teaching a workshop on Screenwriting as part of the Traverse City Film Festival’s “Film School.”  The Film School features two classes each day during the festival taught by visiting filmmakers and Industry professionals.

Participation in the workshop was made possible by a growing collaboration between the University of Michigan and the festival.

The workshop on “The Craft of Screenwriting” will take place at 3PM at Northwestern Michigan College.

Screenwriting Column: “Creating Your Cast of Characters”

The column appears in the “Screenwriting 101” section at The Script Lab.

Ideally, every scene in your screenplay will have conflict.  The best way to ensure this is to have a cast of characters with competing agendas and opposing personalities.  You want a cast where you can randomly select any two characters, put them in a scene together and have a conflict to explore.

Now, you also want that conflict to connect to the plot.  You want it to connect (causally or thematically) to your main character and the goal he or she is trying to achieve.  Or else it doesn’t belong in your movie.

So when you’re brainstorming ideas for characters, it helps to start with your main character and their goal and then branch out.  Besides your protagonist, here are some characters you may need:


Your protagonist has a goal.  You’ll need a character who directly opposes that goal.  This is the main antagonist, the “villain” to your “hero(ine).”  And you want their relationship to be a zero-sum game.  The antagonist can’t achieve his/her goal unless the protagonist fails (and vice-versa).


In order to get what they want or need, the protagonist will probably have to grow.  You may have to bring someone new into their life to force that growth.  This character is usually a mentor or a love interest.

Even if this character doesn’t oppose your protagonist’s goal, there should still be conflict between them.  And this conflict is usually borne out of their having opposing beliefs or personality traits. 

Sometimes the protagonist must learn to become more like the “catalyst.”  In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) becomes more like his love interest, Rita (Andie MacDowell).  And sometimes they must both learn to become more like each other.  In countless romantic comedies, one character learns how to let loose while the other learns how to be more responsible.  In buddy cop movies, two unlikely partners learn to work together, often adopting each other’s best qualities.

Either way, the change occurs through conflict.


You’ll need a lot of conflict to keep an audience engaged for two hours.  So you’ll probably need more than one antagonist. 

Are there characters that try to stop your main character for reasons different from your main antagonist?  In Die Hard, John MacClane (Bruce Willis) doesn’t just have to deal with Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman); he has to deal with a smarmy hostage who’s looking out for himself, a reporter trying to get a story at all costs and the cops who want him to give up because they think he’s doing more harm than good.

Are there characters who think they are helping your protagonist or are pretending to help but are actually getting in the way?  In a spy movie, this could be a double-agent.  In a character drama, this could be a well-meaning, but overbearing mother who cripples your main character’s confidence.

Maybe you’ll want to use a contagonist, someone who doesn’t directly oppose the main character but leads him or her down the wrong path.  A character like this can be the flip-side of the mentor or love interest that sparks your main character’s growth.  And you can use them to form a triangle to dramatize your main character’s inner conflict.


There must be something at stake if the main character doesn’t get what he or she wants or needs.  You’ll need characters to establish those stakes. 

Are there characters whose life will be harmed if the main character doesn’t succeed (a damsel-in-distress, for example)?  Whose lives will be improved if he/she does? 

What about what your character needs?  Are there characters whose lives are negatively affected by your main character’s flaws (like a long-suffering boyfriend or girlfriend)?  Perhaps, there’s someone who looks up to your protagonist and their life will be led down the wrong path if the protagonist doesn’t change?

Sometimes you need a character that serves as a cautionary tale of what will happen if the main character doesn’t change.  In Ordinary People, Conrad’s friend from the mental institution commits suicide, giving the audience an idea of what may happen to Conrad (Timothy Hutton) if he doesn’t overcome his emotional trauma. 

Your characters can also fill multiple functions.  A “catalyst” character can be used to establish the stakes.  If you’re doing an ensemble movie, an antagonist for one character could be a mentor for another.

Knowing each character’s functions and designing them with respect to your protagonist’s goal is an effective way of ensuring that every scene in your movie has conflict and connects to your plot.

“Ocean of Pearls” DVDs Now Available

DVDs of “Ocean of Pearls” are now available through the film’s official website.