I recently had the pleasure of doing another interview, this one on screenplay design, with the fab Ann Baldwin and it’s now up on a terrific site called “Women and Hollywood” run by Melissa Silverstein. In it, I cover what I consider some of the structural essentials to consider when mapping out a screenplay, as well as some useful tools and examples. Hope you enjoy!
Diane Drake is a professional screenwriter, creative consultant, and screenwriting instructor with the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. Her produced original screenplays include Only You, starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr. and What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. Diane grew up in Los Angeles and began her career as a script reader and producer’s assistant working for companies such as Warners., Fox, Columbia Pictures, and PBS/American Playhouse among others. She landed a job as story editor for Academy Award-winning director/producer Sydney Pollack and worked her way up to become the Vice President of Creative Affairs, before turning to screenwriting full-time.
Creating a successful screenplay starts by building a strong foundation and then adding essential elements for the framework of your story. In my interview with Diane Drake, she discusses where to begin laying the groundwork for your script. Diane shows you where and how to include key components that will give your story direction, movement, and depth for a more satisfying experience for your audience and one they will remember.
Ann Baldwin: What is your definition of a movie & why do we go to see them?
Diane Drake: I love a line from Christopher Walken: “Movies are about the moment where somebody’s life changed.” It’s about as concise and accurate a description of what makes a movie as I’ve ever come across. As for why we go to see them, I believe it’s something deep in our DNA. We all love a good story; we crave them from a very early age. Perhaps because it helps us to vicariously live a bit more outside our own limited mortal experience.
AB: When we last spoke, you said that you’ve read thousands of screenplays; what kind of scripts do you recommend that your students read and what should they be looking for and paying attention to as they read them?
DD: I think, first, they should read scripts that are in the same genre and ballpark as what they’re trying to write. Read the best stuff, and read them more than once — at least three times. If you read them enough, you’ll start to get a more intuitive feel for how the writers are doing what they do. You’ll start to absorb those rhythms of pacing, dialogue, even structure. That said, sometimes the best stuff can be a little daunting and so, ironically enough, sometimes it’s good to read some not-so-great stuff too, if for no other reason than to boost your confidence as well as remind yourself of what not to do.
Back in my early days as a reader, I felt I was learning from both the bad and the good material. After slogging through a few hundred bad scripts though, you start to feel that you’re no longer learning and just doing brain damage. I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you have to do it to pay the bills. Still, I read many bad scripts past the point where I would’ve stopped, if I could have afforded to, and I think that experience taught me something as well.
AB: Writers are often told to ‘Write What You Know’, yet most writers often write about things they haven’t experienced. What do you tell your students and clients about this very important aspect of writing?
DD: Obviously, you are your material in a sense. There’s simply no getting around the fact that when you create something original you are pulling it from somewhere out of your own heart, mind, life experience, and imagination. Given that, it’s helpful to pay attention to whatever inspires strong emotion in you. What do you love? What do you hate? What scares you? What makes you laugh? But, at the same time, it’s also important to remember that you don’t have to and usually shouldn’t necessarily write the literal truth of things; that’s what poetic license is about. There’s a quote about exactly this that I like, “It’s better to write about things you feel than about things you know”. L P. Hartley
Not too long ago, I saw the amazing Florian Von Donnersmarck, of The Lives of Others, speak at the Writers Guild. He mentioned the importance of writing what you know emotionally and how much he admired The Talented Mr. Ripley, the film directed and adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel by Anthony Minghella. In the director’s commentary, Minghella specifically talks about how he identified with the emotion of Tom Ripley, the feeling of being an outsider, the poor relation yearning for a more privileged life, from experiences he’d had as a child.
AB: Are there specific questions you ask yourself to help you come up with the basic idea of a story? How do you go about creating your stories, once you have a basic idea? Do you start with characters, plot, theme, or a rough outline?
DD: It varies, but I think I most often start with a concept. Before I invest the time it takes to write a script I want to feel the core idea is something which is somehow fresh and compelling in the one-liner. Then, I refer to the Christopher Walken quote I mentioned above and begin to ask myself who might the main character start as and how might they change? Who might have the furthest to go and how exactly could their life change as a result of taking the journey of the story? What sorts of things might happen and what obstacles might they encounter along the way?
From there, you start thinking in terms of the building blocks, the larger structural pieces.
AB: How do you integrate the structure of a story with the creative aspect of story writing? What process do you use and/or teach?
DD: I think first you build yourself a very good, solid story outline within which you identify the signposts of the major plot points. Use that for your structure and then play as much as you want within that sandbox. If I may extend this metaphor just a little further, allow yourself the freedom to go outside of it as well, if you have a very good reason; if you discover a better looking toy out there on the grass, go get it, but you may have to rearrange your structure.
AB: What tools do you use, when creating and writing a script? Do you create your own storyboards, character boards, or sketches, gather pictures, use computer software for visual imagery, or listen to music?
DD: Out of all of these, the only one I can lay any real claim to is listening to music, though now I’m thinking I should try some of the others! But I think music is a great tool; it can get to your subconscious, be a mood-altering experience, and help get you into the right frame of mind. A tip I came across a year or so ago was to get the soundtracks of movies that are similar in tone to what you’re working on. It’s really helpful. I’m writing a script now that has more action in it than anything I’ve written before and listening to the rousing soundtrack from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which helps your head slip into that frame of mind very quickly and easily.
AB: In one of your UCLA Extension screenwriting classes, you mention what Sydney Pollack called “The Spine”, what can you tell us about this?
DD: The spine is what your movie is really about, more in thematic terms, and can be a helpful guiding principle and useful yardstick against which to measure the importance and validity of your scenes. Being able to identify and refer back to it can assist you in keeping your story on track. For example, Sydney felt that the spine of Tootsie was “Being a woman makes a man out of Michael.” That, to him, was the overall point and subject of the movie and he held the individual scenes charting Michael’s character arc up against that yardstick.
AB: What is “The Engine of the Plot”?
DD: I believe your main character’s pursuit of his goal is the engine of your plot. If you feel you’re losing momentum and find your script, as a friend used to say, “Going off to Honolulu,” it’s helpful to check this.
AB: Where do you usually include your ‘Inciting Incident’ in your scripts?
DD: The inciting incident or what Michael Arndt, the writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, calls ‘the bolt from the blue’ happens at about page 10. Ideally, it somehow changes the status quo for the hero. It shakes things up.
AB: In the three Act Structure script, where do you usually put Plot Point #1 and what is its purpose?
DD: I put Plot Point #1 at page 25, give or take, and have my own, admittedly rather wordy, but I think quite useful definition of it: Plot Point #1 is the ACTION the main character takes to try to solve what he perceives his problem to be, which then results in unexpected consequences.
By the way, some people consider the Inciting Incident, which happens at about page 10, to be “Plot Point #1”; but, this is just semantics. I call the plot point that happens on page 10 or so the Inciting Incident, and use the phrase “Plot Point #1” to describe what happens at the end of the first act. Regardless, these are both critical elements, and intertwined. The “problem” that the main character seeks to solve is by taking action at the first plot point, which is usually an outgrowth of the Inciting Incident.
Here’s an example to illustrate those two points:
In Toy Story, the main character is Woody and the inciting incident is the arrival of Buzz Lightyear. Buzz is almost literally a ‘bolt from the blue’ and represents a significant change in the status quo for our hero. His arrival creates a problem for Woody who has, heretofore, always been the leader and favorite. But Buzz is stealing his thunder and Woody grows increasingly jealous, so Woody decides to ‘get rid’ of him. Woody’s intention is simply to knock Buzz behind Andy’s desk, but things go awry and Buzz is accidentally knocked out the window and into the evil neighbor kid’s yard, setting the stage for all sorts of further predicaments and action in Act II. So, Inciting Incident: The arrival of Buzz. Plot Point #1: the ACTION Woody takes to try to get rid of him, which results in unexpected consequences.
Just a few more examples of Plot Point 1 to help illustrate my point: In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman puts on the dress. In Thelma & Louise, Louise shoots the rapist. In The King’s Speech, Colin Firth’s King George VI & his wife hire Geoffrey Rush, the speech therapist. You get the idea. It’s usually pretty drastic action, taken to solve a specific problem, which then has all sorts of unanticipated consequences and side effects in Act II.
AB: What is the ‘Murphy’s Law’ Act?
DD: I call Act II the ‘Murphy’s Law’ Act. Whatever can go wrong, will and usually at the worst possible time. You know, the monster’s coming and the car won’t start. Keep the obstacles and threats coming, pile them on, and let your lead create a way out of it. (“If I can’t find a way, I’ll make one.”)
AB: Do you have any tips for keeping your story moving in Act II?
DD: Act II can be a slog. I think there are two things which are helpful in dealing with this challenge. First, the midpoint, which as plot points go is probably the most nebulous. There are lots of different definitions for this out there, but the one I like best is that something is different after this point; there’s no going back. As Thelma in Thelma & Louise says, “something’s crossed over in me”.
The thing to remember about Act II is it’s about twists and turns, hills and valleys, and the lead’s encountering and figuring out ways to overcome unanticipated obstacles. And generally, the more obstacles a character faces on the road to achieving their goal, the more invested we become. If it’s all just easy, a cakewalk, well, then who really cares? Where’s the story in that? Action movies do this in very obvious, big, and loud ways. But all stories benefit from, dare I say, require it.
A great example of these principles in action in a more “quiet” movie is Sideways. There’s hope for Miles, there’s no hope, there’s promise, and it’s dashed. Up and down, up and down. I’ve recently realized that, from a certain angle, the reason we go to movies is to watch people struggle and, more importantly, to see them overcome their challenges and in the process somehow transcend themselves. So, Act II should be filled with moments of triumph and moments of despair, the greatest of which is Plot Point #2, at which point all should look lost and leads to Act III.
AB: What can you tell us about the ‘Or Else’ Act?
DD: I call Act III the “Or Else…” act. What’s the ‘or else’ for your main character if they don’t succeed at whatever it is they’re after? Another way of putting this is – what’s at stake? A clue to the answer lies in the fact that I believe Act III should come down to either a literal or figurative matter of life or death. So, in what way will your lead’s life be over– at least in their eyes– if they don’t manage to achieve their goal? What exactly is the ‘or else’? What’s to become of them? Why must they succeed or die trying?
AB: Do you try to incorporate symbolism into your scripts?
DD: No, it’s not something I set out to consciously do ahead of time, maybe because I think it might wind up too precious. But if it happens organically, if something occurs along the way, then that’s great.
AB: Any secrets for writing dialogue?
DD: It’s helpful to have a sense of rhythm and I think to a certain extent you either have an ear for it or you don’t. But you can certainly improve and train your ear. Again, I recommend reading work that is similar in tone to what it is you’re trying to create, particularly if it’s comedic. Get those rhythms in your head and they will bleed into your own work. Another suggestion is to allow yourself to forget trying to be clever, trying to be profound, etc. Instead, simply ask yourself, under the given circumstances– and ideally the circumstances you’ve set up are inherently somewhat interesting– what would someone actually say?
AB: Do you have any helpful editing techniques?
DD: I love editing. It’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process. If I can make something better and stronger by simply cutting out what’s extraneous, by eliminating the chaff, I’m a happy camper. In order to be able to do this most effectively, sometimes it’s helpful to take a break from your work and/or to get fresh eyes on it.
Regarding editing the script as a whole, remember that, ideally, you want your scenes to build a cause & effect chain, one pushing into the next. The more you can do this, the better the flow and the stronger the forward momentum will feel.
As for editing within a scene itself, I tell my students it’s like a party where you want to make a cool impression, “Arrive fashionably late and leave early”. Get into the scene at the last possible moment, do what you need to do, and then get out at the earliest opportunity, unless you have a very good reason for sticking around. Don’t wear out your welcome.
AB: Who are some of your favorite heroines or strong female lead characters in past films and what about those characters do you feel made them strong, likable, and memorable?
DD: Thelma & Louise — there is something still so liberating, real, and potent about that movie. Thelma’s line, after she robs the liquor store and jumps back in the car, “I think I’ve kinda got a knack for this shit.” is probably one of my all time favorite lines of dialogue. Erin Brockovich; Sigourney Weaver in Aliens; All the women in Enchanted April; Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday; Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith; Jamie Leigh Curtis in True Lies. I love that these women are willing to really FIGHT for what they want. And of course, Scarlett, in Gone with the Wind; for all her faults, she is the personification of Winston Churchill’s dictum, “Never, ever, ever give up”.
AB: Can you share any current or future projects you’re working on that we can look forward to?
DD: I’m currently working on a book on writing, a screenplay which is set at Christmastime, and plan to offer an online course soon. Please check my website for updates at www.dianedrake.com . You can also find me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/dianedrake or Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/diane.drake.52
Ann Baldwin is a screenwriter (The Power of Dreams, Scent of a Trail, Dream Catcher) with several spec scripts in development. She reviews books on screenwriting and filmmaking, writes articles, interviews, and has several books (fiction & non-fiction) in-progress. Prior to launching her writing career, she was a special event coordinator and manager in the hospitality and entertainment industries for over 25 years.