Screenwriting Tips

Other Things to Think About... from Screenwriting Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell

Here are some additional tips that I believe can help you become a better writer.

1. It is important to do thorough preparation and research. Be an "expert" in your subject matter. This applies whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction. For example, obviously you will have to do extensive research on a particular time period if you are writing a historical romance. If you are writing a current thriller from a female African-American's point of view and you are a white male, you have to do a different kind of research in order to get into the character's mindset and make her ring true. The point is to really know your subject -- whatever it may be.

2. The challenge is not to write truth, but to write seductive BELIEVABILITY. (The art of verisimilitude.) One of the things I tried to do in Riding The Snake was to weave the facts I found in my research about Hong Kong Triads and illegal immigration in with my fictional tale so that even a sophisticated reader cannot tell where research leaves off, and fiction begins.

3. A screenwriter should look for places to integrate his/her screenplay with toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball CONFLICT: social conflict, emotional conflict, spiritual conflict, cultural conflict, internal conflict, relationship conflict, psychological conflict, and/or, yes, physical conflict, too. Conflict is crucial in maintaining the reader's interest in the story and in the characters. You may write a story about a man in solitary confinement who never has interaction with anyone except a prison guard and still have conflict which could be interesting to read about. But some kind of conflict is usually necessary.

4. Most writers don't spend nearly enough time on character, so the characters lack depth. We don't bond with them; thus they are incapable of taking us along on even the most exciting roller-coaster story ride. You can have the most complex, brilliant "roller-coaster" in the world, but if the reader/audience isn't "hooked" emotionally to your main characters, they won't be "along for the ride."

5. In good stories, you start out with a likeable Hero(s) who have psychological and moral flaws. He/she must be likeable enough to entertain and intrigue us, but flawed enough to have the potential to learn and grow. Remember, "perfect" people are not likeable!

6. Try to take us into a unique world - e.g., in my novels: a Presidential campaign, con artists, computer hackers, Chinese Triads - we should learn something new while we're being taken on a journey and entertained.

7. STORY COMPRESSION: Particularly in a screenplay or teleplay, it is important to write economically. A great scene often accomplishes several things at once, skillfully weaving together elements of plot, character, conflict and foreshadowing. Do it in one scene instead of four. Look for opportunities of compression without overloading. After you write your scene or chapter, go back and ask yourself: What can I cut to make it cleaner and clearer? Am I showing off my research to the reader - do I really need all this detail? Does it advance the story - or is it just plain boring? Look at your work with an Editor's eye, and cut accordingly.

8. TONE: Tone more commonly requires CONSISTENCY from start to finish. If you change or mix tone mid-stream, you risk jolting the audience/reader out of the experience. Although this is another of those rules which can sometimes be broken by advanced writers in specific situations, it is better when starting out not to break it. For example, if you are writing a horror short story, don't switch to a comic tone halfway through. You can, of course, build upon the tone in the story - Stephen King is a genius at this. In several of his stories, the atmosphere starts out perfectly normal, and becomes more and more creepy as the tale goes on. But he doesn't switch to a romantic-suspense tone halfway through: he simply builds on the original tone of the piece. Remember tone and atmosphere when you are writing, whether it is a fresh-air, wholesome action adventure or a gothic, moody ghost story.

9. COLLECTIVE PROTAGONISTS: Sometimes a story contains more than one Hero; King Con and Riding The Snake are both examples of this. Here I felt the risk of fractionalization was worth it because of the relationship dynamic that exists between Beano and Victoria in King Con, and between Wheeler and Tanisha in Riding the Snake. Furthermore, a love story is being integrated, thus adding another level of emotion to the story. BE CAREFUL! Collective protagonists or collective antagonists, who are not potential lovers, are by nature a genuine hazard to solid story structure, and incur the risk of FRACTIONALIZATION. It is hard for the audience to get emotionally involved with too many characters. Realize that trying to write movies like American Graffiti, The Big Chill or Pulp Fiction is an extremely challenging undertaking, so just beware of the risks.

10. THE TICKING CLOCK: Often, usually early in the story, a clever writer plants a time lock, a structural device requiring some specific event to occur, or some particular problem to be resolved, within a certain period of time. This serves to compress the story's tension. Of course, not all stories lend themselves to a "ticking clock," but the resourceful writer digs deep to locate a method and a place for integrating a meaningful one into the story. 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.

11. PREDICTABLE VS. TOO PREDICTABLE: Predictability can often lead to great suspense. The challenge is to walk the line of predictability. Which has more sustained tension? To walk down a corridor absolutely unaware that someone is going to jump out from behind a door, or knowing somebody is going to do just that? On the surface it might seem that the former is more unsettling, because the victim has no time to prepare. However, the latter causes the audience to tighten, to tense, to flex every muscle in terrible anticipation of what is to come. And when it arrives, the effect is all the more shattering for its predictability. When a script is criticized as predictable, what the critic truly means is that it is TOO predictable.

12. COINCIDENCE: Audiences and readers expect movies and novels to be "special," with plots that are well-written and events that are skillfully orchestrated. (This is especially important in mystery writing. Depending on the subgenre, mystery fans often feel cheated when they plot or mystery is too transparent) Even a good story may be launched or resolved by a coincidence; however, in general the writer should strive to avoid relying on coincidence to resolve a story or to provide a solution to a puzzle. (Unless, of course, you are writing a farce where the entire story may be based upon coincidence after ridiculous coincidence.) Most readers or viewers resent a dependence upon coincidence because they understand it for what it is: a writer's laziness. (If you must use a coincidence, audiences seem more willing to accept coincidences in action, than in dialogue).

13. SUBPLOT: Creating good subplots is sometimes a difficult skill for a novice writer to master. Remember: just as a main plot line has a three act structure, so does a subplot line. A good subplot has turning points, a clear set-up, developments, and a resolution at the end. Often the turning points of a subplot reinforce the plot line by occurring right before or right after the turning points of the main plot. Traditionally, subplots are used to compare the Hero's approach to a problem to another character's approach to the same problem. For example: Who is the subplot character in Hamlet? Laertes, Son of Polonius. Laertes has to deal with the same problem as Hamlet: "In thy visage do I see myself reflected." If you are going to use a subplot, one key rule is that the subplot should in some way affect the Hero's story. Don't throw a subplot in just because you feel you need one. A subplot must relate to the main plot or to the main characters in a way that is interesting and sheds a new light on the main story situation or it will merely be distracting.

14. MOMENTUM: There is nothing worse than a story that really drags, and doesn't hold the reader's or the audience's interest. When each scene propels you emotionally and logically to the next scene, you have story momentum. Your scenes should be connected in a cause and effect relationship, so that they flow logically (this also applies when you are doing prologues and flashbacks, as well.) Make sure that each of your scenes has a purpose and is necessary - it must either advance the action, create anticipation or show an important event or highlight on one of the characters, leading the audience both intellectually and emotionally to the climax of the story. In an action thriller, for example, the crucible that the Hero goes through becomes more and more intense, until finally there is no avoiding the central confrontation between the Hero and Villain. By that time the audience is eagerly anticipating the confrontation at the climax of the story.

15. THEME: A good story can work on multiple levels; a deeper level is theme. The theme is the central underlying idea/message/ morality/ philosophy/weighty issue, etc., that you believe in and are trying to express and intelligently weave into the fabric of the story. Ideally, the theme should expand as the Hero and Opponent come into conflict.

16. MOTIVE: You need an increasing motive for story and character to expand. If you don't have an increasing motive, the main character is held down by who he was in the beginning.

17. THE HERO'S CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: Character profiles can be very helpful for beginning writers. Get to know your main character by asking some questions about him or her: A. Why do you like your main character? B. What don't you like about your main character? C. What are the moral flaws of your Hero? D. What does your Hero have to learn about how he interacts with other people? E. How will your Hero be enlightened and changed at the end of the story? F. What is your Hero wrong about in the beginning concerning himself? G. What intermediate insights is your Hero going to have along the way? Keeping a profile of your main characters can help you flesh them out and make them seem real. You may discover they have little traits and habits you weren't even aware of when you started.

19. THE HERO'S "GHOST" OR BACKSTORY: The Hero's moral flaws and weaknesses are usually dependent upon something haunting him/her from the past; often events and experiences that occurred before the actual story begins. (In King Con, the ghost takes place in the prologue, but often the audience won't see the actual events comprising the ghost, but may just hear about important things in the Hero's past from other characters when they talk about the Hero or from the internal dialogue going on in the Hero's head). If the ghost is effective, it should reverberate throughout the story and the Hero must struggle to overcome it.

20. THE PASSIVE PROTAGONIST: Be careful of creating a story and Hero where too many important external events happen to the Hero and He/She ends up merely REACTING as opposed to boldly acting. Thus, we end up with a rather weak and passive Hero who has no plan of action. (Hamlet is the exception that proves this rule, and it takes a writer of William Shakespeare's stature to pull this off.)

21. In Act One, because you want your Hero(s) to have a dramatic range-of-change, it is advantageous to have your protagonist(s) be in some kind of trouble, whether it's psychological, moral and/or situational. Overcoming a challenge or a problem is a classic way for a person to grow emotionally and mentally.

22. Sometimes the world/environment which the Hero and Villain are surrounded by when we meet them, are expressions of what they have become. (In Riding the Snake, we meet WHEELER at the country club bar; in Final Victim, we meet THE RAT in a dirty, dank garbage barge.) Be aware of the surroundings of the main characters and let the surroundings subtly tell the audience more about the character.

23. SIGNATURE LINE: A "signature" line of dialogue is one that is repeated throughout the story and may take on greater significance as the story/stakes expand. (e.g.: In the A-Team, Hannibal's often repeated line: "I love it when a plan comes together." was his signature.) Signature lines are most popular in television and movies, and if they are clever, can be a great addition to a show. In hardboiled detective novels, we often see the hardbitten hero wisecracking his way through a dangerous situation with a favorite signature line. Don't overdo it, though.

24. INITIATING INCIDENT: If Act I. is DEFINING THE PROBLEM, the incident(s) in Act I cause the Hero to form a goal and compel him to deal with the problem. The incidents increase the Hero's DESIRE to obtain the goal and impel him forward. (In King Con, there are 3 incidents: Beano is brutally beaten by Mob boss, Joe Rina; Carol Bates, Beano's cousin is killed; and the criminal case against Joe Rina is dismissed. These are all very powerful motivators for Beano and Victoria.)

25. THE GOAL: The goal is an essential part of drama. But not just any goal will do. In order for a goal to function well, it should try to meet three main requirements: First of all, something must be at stake in the story that convinces the audience that a great deal will be lost if the main character does not obtain the goal. Secondly, a workable goal brings the protagonist in direct conflict with the goals of the antagonist. Thirdly, the goal should be sufficiently difficult to achieve so that the character changes while moving toward it.

26. If you want your Hero to increase his DESIRE, then increase the MOTIVE. (In King Con, Beano's desire for revenge against the Rina Brothers greatly increases after they murder Carol.)

27. INTRODUCING AN ALLY: Drama needs someone else for the Hero to express how he feels. This character is often a "Truth-teller" who understands the Hero's moral and psychological weaknesses and is not afraid to point them out. This relationship can provide a very entertaining dynamic, while also providing great insight into the primary Hero. Sidekicks fall into this category. The sidekick has had a place in fiction since the form was invented. Whether it is Captain Hastings to Hercule Poirot, Watson to Sherlock Holmes, or Jim Rockford's dad to Rockford, the ally is allowed to point out the lead character's foibles and follies, thus instigating change in the Hero's attitude or actions. The ally can also be used to convey information that you want the audience to know.

28. Particularly in a screenplay, it is important to put the preceding steps in motion early because you need DENSITY OF STORYTELLING; you need to accomplish a great deal of important FOUNDATIONAL story work in the first 30-40 pages of your screenplay.

29. The Villain can help define the Hero. Ideally, the Hero expands in terms of stature and quality as the Villain evolves from prospective opponent to actual opponent.

30. THE VILLAIN'S ALLY: Although of course not present in every good story, the Villain's Ally is often a very interesting character. (example: Johnny K. in Riding The Snake; the Vichy police captain in Casablanca) By nature, the Villain's Ally is torn... He or she is secretly working for the Villain, but comes to like and be influenced by the Hero.

31. FIRST EPIPHANY: The Hero's first major revelation usually occurs at, or near the end of Act One. Each time the Hero learns something major (and it must be MAJOR otherwise it's not going to be a powerful enough revelation) it should kick your story up to a higher level of energy, desire and motivation. In King Con, a perfect example of this is when Beano discovers that Carol has been murdered. In Riding The Snake, the revelations that propel Wheeler and Tanisha into Act Two occur at the Pacific Rim Society, where they learn that the stakes of their investigation may be international.

32. THE PLAN: The Hero needs an intelligent plan of how to beat the opposition; then creative and resourceful improvisations to deal with the various attacks and counter-attacks escalating toward the final climactic confrontation. Even in a love story, someone is usually trying to win someone else's love and a "villain" is usually standing in the way. The concepts are the same regardless of the genre in which you write.

33. An "antagonist in motion" creates suspense and excitement. By opening a window into the Villain's "world", we can learn about his power and vision and moral arguments that help define his motivation. The Villain's power and intelligence, in turn, compels the Hero to "enlarge", otherwise He will be defeated. (Joe Rina and Willy Wo Lap are examples of powerful, intelligent Villains. I think Willy is particularly strong because he has a vision, came from poverty, and I tried to make him a very layered character.)

34. HERO'S FINAL EPIPHANY ABOUT VILLAIN: At this point the Hero gets the final piece of information He needs to do battle with the Antagonist. In a mystery, he may not even learn who his real enemy is until the Final Revelation, and in other genres, this information may reveal the true stature of his nemesis.

35. Hero encounters "Hell": When this occurs is flexible and can happen more than once. It can come at the end of Act Two, and/or before, during and/or after the final battle. (In Riding The Snake the dangerous journey into the Walled City, and the encounter in the drain under LAX; in King Con the Heroes "visit to death" occurs up in the hills at The Presidio.) During this dangerous encounter, the Hero is often moving through a constricting space, an increasingly intense crucible. Perhaps has to navigate through a gauntlet, a narrow gate, often with a visit to death.

36. HERO'S SELF-EPIPHANY: This should strip the Hero bare in some emotionally powerful and revealing way... the shattering experience of seeing himself as He really is. This self-revelation will either destroy our Hero or make him stronger and give him new light. A radical self-revelation may change the Hero's whole sense of who he is in one moment. A tragedy if at the end the Hero is "destroyed" instead of made stronger by the revelation.

Notice two common themes in good drama: The problem of personal identity and discovery, and learning when to fight and when to be tolerant. Apply these story suggestions while you are outlining, while you're writing your story, and after you have completed a first draft and are trying to spot the problems and areas of weakness.

* * * * * *

Don't let this excessive list of "Dos and Don'ts" make writing seem more complicated than it is.

Remember: writing should be fun.

Trust your instincts and use this list to troubleshoot problems when they pop up.
That's it for now.

Screenwriting Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell
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