Month: November 2015

Writing Believable Action

This post comes from the folks at TSL, The Script Lab. Note: they define action as anything a character does. This is NOT a tip on writing a set piece for Transformers 6: Blowing Up Whatever’s Left.

Writing Believable Action

Recently, we were asked about the use of “false action”, which was described as forcing your characters to do something during dialogue because that’s better than having them just standing around.

We had never heard of this exact terminology used to illustrate action, but understood the concept behind it. However, not every concept is necessarily a good one, and this is never more evident than with writers guilty of applying this so-called “false action.” Big rookie mistake!

The word “false” is our first clue. When supporting points in an argument, for example, you wouldn’t use false logic (or fallacies) to illustrate your claims. Your audience would be skeptical of sweeping generalizations, jumping to conclusions, and non sequiturs, etc. Because your argument is based upon false thinking, you lose all credibility. “False action” works the same way: it’s forced and unconvincing.

The screenwriter’s job is to find believable action for the character to do, something that is not only plausible, but probable. You have so little time in a screenplay to create believable and dynamic characters. Wasting that time with “false action” is a sure fire way to lose your reader.


Chef is literally nothing but non stop sandwich-building action.

It’s true that characters should never be just standing around. Film is a visual medium after all, but if the dialogue doesn’t require action, find a reason to have the character interact with his or her environment and use the character’s body to show another part of his or her personality.

While your hero is lambasting his baby brother for wrecking his car, for example, have him whipping up his latest culinary masterpiece. Or while your heroine is reciting some great legal exposition, have her organizing her desk like a consummate OCD patient.

Whatever can show a glimpse into another part of their personality is what you’re after. Each moment is an opportunity to give more depth to your character; never waste it.

The Script Lab


More Screenplays Than You Could Ever Read

The website Go Into The Story has unleashed a cavalcade of screenplay links. Award contenders from the last four or five years and some from even earlier.


And this is a formatting guide from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“The best way to learn how to write a script is to read as many scripts as you can, in as many formats as you can. As a beginning screenwriter, odds are you’re going to be writing a lot of spec scripts (short for “speculation,” or, in other words, free); if the spec script is sold, and manages to make it to production, then you’ll end up with a shooting script (which has been broken down by the script supervisor) and feature lots of details like CUT TO:, POV, and CAMERA ANGLES. This is the draft the crew uses to make the movie,” No Film School says, and this collection has plenty of both.

Award Worthy Screenplays

In the Internet era, most production companies that have screenplays that they think have a chance at a nomination, release them online, which is a great boon for screenwriters finally able to see several truly excellent screenwriters ply their trade. Here are some of those links for this year:

Grandma, by Paul Weitz

The Diary Of a Teenage Girl, screenplay by Marielle Heller, based on the graphic novel Phoebe Gloeckner

Infinitely Polar Bearwritten by Maya Forbes

The Lady in the Van, screenplay by Alan Bennett, based on his memoir

Son of Saul, written by Clara Royer & László Nemes

Testament of Youth, screenplay by Juliette Towhidi, based on the autobiography of Vera Brittain

Truth, screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the book Truth and Duty by Mary Mapes

Room, screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel

Straight Outta Compton, screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff

Trainwreck, written by Amy Schumer

Legend, written by Brian Helgeland

Carol, screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, based on the book The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Woman in Gold, written by Alexi Kaye Campbell

Macbeth, screenplay by Jacob Koskoff & Todd Louiso and Michael Lesslie, based on the play by William Shakespeare

Slow West, written by John Maclean

Ex Machina, written by Alex Garland

The End of the Tour, screenplay by Donald Margulies, based on the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky

While We’re Young, written by Noah Baumbach

Mississippi Grind, written by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck

Remember, written by Benjamin August


Perhaps we should pick one and read it to figure out how the authors handle the plot points transitions, etc. What does the group think?














What I Look For: The Script Reader

(Ray Morton is an author and script consultant, but previously he was forced to slog through hundreds of scripts. These are tips he says can help us stand out from the pack.)

1. A Reasonable Page Count

The first thing Ray does when he gets a script is flip to the back and check the page count. Screenplays are to between 90 and 120 pages long. Any shorter and there probably isn’t enough story. Any longer and the screenplay either has unnecessary plot, too much description or camera moves. Either way, Ray practices his jump shot and chucks it toward the trash.

2. Something Interesting In The First Few Pages

Ray likes when scripts start with a bang. Something exciting, interesting, funny, scary, etc. needs to happen right away to hold his interest.


Scream has an amazing opening that hooks the viewer from page three

Very often Ray had to endure endless amounts of expository blather, giant blocks of description or first pages that look more like a novel than a screenplay (no white space).

3. A Clear Premise

A general’s family is murdered and he is sold into slavery as a gladiator. The stuttering second son of the king suddenly becomes king himself and has to give the most important speech in modern British history. A Hollywood hack whose career has dried up comes to Broadway to reinvent himself as an artist.

The premise, Ray says, is the central part of a dramatic film, and the audience needs to know it as soon as possible – no later than the end of Act 1. Ray states he has – more than once – been forced to endure 100 pages of backstory to set up a premise that pays off on page 110. Jump shot, trash can.

The premise also needs to be clear and there should be only one. Many new writers, Ray says, put two or three premises into their script with unfortunate results.

4. An Interesting Protagonist

They’re only the main character and likely to be in, at minimum, 98% of the scenes. It might be helpful if they weren’t boring. How to not be boring: give the character a clear goal whose actions in pursuit of said goal will drive the plot, Ray states. Meeting the main character as soon as possible is important as well – to avoid confusing the main and secondary characters – and getting their goal revealed as soon as possible so he knows where the story is headed.

5. A Worthy Antagonist

How do we know Clarice Starling is up to snuff? Because she tangled with the most dangerous, psychotic and intelligent bad guy of them all:


Voted the #1 movie villain of all time…You tell him the news.

If the character goal is to get ice cream and only a four year old can prevent it, that is not going to make for a compelling test. Ray says the antagonist must be a formidable obstacle and if a person then a colorful and interesting character – but not more colorful and interesting than the main character.

6. A Clear Conflict Between the Two

The conflict between the protagonist and antagonist must be clear so that it is evident why the two are at odds. The conflict must also escalate continuously becoming bigger and more intense, Ray says.

7. A Story That Develops the Premise

A good script is one in which the story springs from the premise and spins that concept out through three acts to a logical and exciting conclusion, Ray says. If your script is about a gigantic house that flies, then let’s explore that entire concept.


Technically, it is a castle: The script for Howls Moving Castle is a gem.

8. A Story That Brings a Fresh Twist to Its Genre

If the script is a genre piece, the story should incorporate all of the narrative elements that constitute that genre so that it will be satisfying, but to do so in fresh and interesting ways, so the piece won’t be predictable, Roy says.

9. A Plot I Can Follow

If I can’t understand your story, then it’s a good bet I’m not going to recommend it. Nuff said, Roy. Nuff said.

10. A Plot With Momentum

A narrative builds continuously from the inciting incident to the inevitable yet surprising climax.  That intensity is hard to achieve…if you keep stopping it for flashbacks, fantasy or dream sequences or asides, or if you allow it to get sidetracked by superfluous subplots, according to Roy.

Roy has more recommendations from his years of experience which you can find at the below link.



When Flashbacks Lead To Burnout

(I read this and thought it was valuable, considering we had been discussing flashbacks at the meeting)

By Stacia Brown, Washington Post

Two hour-long action series debuted on network TV in 2001 — “Alias” on ABC and “24” on Fox — and both relied heavily on flashbacks and flash-forwards, otherwise known as in medias res storytelling. At the time, the device seemed novel, even groundbreaking. Before these shows, keeping up the frenetic energy of a blockbuster action film over a 22-episode television season might’ve seemed like a tough ask.

But both shows rose to the challenge and were rewarded with long series runs — “Alias” at five seasons and “24” at nine — setting a pesky in medias res precedent that persists 14 years later. Hit shows such as ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Quantico” still lean on the time-jump model in each of their plot-twisting episodes. But these days, starting stories in the middle of things feels more tiresome than groundbreaking, more lazy than ambitious.

Both seasons of “How to Get Away With Murder” begin by revealing a shocking homicide viewers will need to watch several episodes to solve. Each episode alternates between the events of the murderous night in question and the weeks leading up to it. By jumping from the future to the past, we’re being asked to keep track of not only plot points in reverse but also character development.

The first-year law students in Annalise Keating’s (Viola Davis) class are introduced to us as accomplices to a heinous crime. We watch them plot a cover-up of their involvement, then through a series of slower-paced flashbacks they try to earn our empathy by being doe-eyed or lovably fratty or wisecracking or Type A achievers. It’s a risky tactic that doesn’t always pay off. We may grow to like the students, but the time-jump device leaves logical holes that are harder to fill. After a season and a half, I have grown to understand the students’ personalities, but their devotion to working for Annalise, who increasingly leaves chaos and crime in her wake, is unclear.


Annalise Keating is brilliant, brutal and in more than one time continuum.

Annalise’s personality is also shortchanged due to in medias res storytelling. She’s a horribly damaged, possibly self-loathing person, some of whose childhood and college secrets we’ve come to know. But who is this woman? The series seems to have begun at a time in her life when her perfectly coiffed grasp on career and home have suddenly unraveled; we’re introduced to her just weeks before a very long downward spiral. And even with all that’s been revealed in flashback, it’s still hard to understand why her two full-time employees are so loyal, why her students are doing so much of her work for her, and what her ultimate goals are — for herself and for those who naively rely on her.

“Quantico” has a similar protagonist problem. Another ensemble cast show built around a tough female lead, “Quantico” asks us to invest in FBI recruit Alex Parrish’s (Priyanka Chopra) fight to prove her innocence, after introducing us to her at the scene of a terrorist attack, for which she’s the lead suspect. It’s fine to know upfront that there’s been a bombing for which Alex will eventually be blamed.


FBI agent or terrorist: not necessarily mutually exclusive

But over the course of this series’ first seven episodes, we’ve been introduced to a large principal cast whose back stories are all being underserved by the show’s time-jumping conceit. Each recruit’s story seems to exist only to provide them a chance to be shifty-eyed red herrings. We don’t really know anyone — least of all Alex, whose defining characteristics seem to be trying to unlock her deceased father’s secrets and falling in love with another FBI agent who’ll help her with that and with clearing her name. And it’s hard to trust that we will get to know these characters since it’s clear that their back-stories are being developed only in ways that serve the flashback-flashforward device. Any character who has Middle Eastern ties, for instance, has had those ties revealed.

Knowing too much too soon is rarely a narrative asset. It works best in slow-burning mysteries that are painstaking about establishing characters’ traits and motivations. The goal then is for the viewer to feel like she’s being let in on the sleuthing process. With “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Quantico,” I feel like I’m being tricked with smoke and mirrors, an outsider rather than an assistant. As a viewer, I always want to feel more clever than confused — and too many time-jumps make that needlessly difficult.

When in medias res is used simply to shore up shocks and thrills, it shortchanges both plot and character, which in turn shortchanges audiences. It would be great to see each of these series take more linear, chronological approaches next season. It would give both the characters and viewers a little breathing room.


By Bill Adams

I have been struggling with the idea of backstory in my latest novel. Backstory literally brings the forward momentum of a story to a dead stop. For this reason, backstory is to be avoided.

All the same, backstory seems to be built into every good character arc. The main character has a goal (what Aristotle called the hamartia), but is hampered from completing it by a psychic wound or other vulnerability.spencertracy

(In Bad Day at Black Rock, Spencer Tracy has an all time great back story)

The main character is typically not aware of his vulnerability (think Oedipus and his hubris). That conflict between the conscious and the subconscious animates a good character. In the Aristotlean method, the story turns when the main character overcomes their vulnerability and achieves their goal.

The problem arises when writers feel the need to explain why their characters are the way they are. It’s usually a bad childhood or a war injury, disgrace, shame, etc. Soon, writers are traipsing down the garden path of backstory.


(Dressing impeccably, but tormented internally: Gregory Peck in The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit)

I don’t think it has to, however. You can show the character’s flawed personality throughout the story by having him or her do things that are seemingly out of character and at those moments, allude to the past. This avoids the info-dump and doesn’t stop the story dead.

For example, Mrs. Dalloway reminisces a lot, as Woolf characters are wont to do and one day when talking to a male friend, she inexplicably bursts into tears. The narrator puts us in her head and we learn that she married for economic security instead of for love, and now, facing her woulda-been lover, realizes the magnitude of her mistake. It’s not a big info-dump, just a few sentences. The weight of the scene is carried in the present-tense tear burst, not by the backstory.

A full-fledged backstory with a flashback generally doesn’t work. It  worked in The Godfather II because that story was a picaresque – highly episodic, with no strong story throughline. It was really just “one damn thing after another.” In that structure, a flashback is a good as any other episode.

Godfather 2

(I know it was you Fredo…because of your picaresque backstory! Al Pacino gives John Cazale some shocking news in The Godfather II)

That’s how you get away with it also in “superhero” adventures – the story of how Batman got his ears or The Lone Ranger got his mask. You can do a full backstory, because the main story is little more than a set of episodes.

But if you have a well-defined plot, then either you have to start at the beginning (as Sophocles does with Oedipus Rex, or as Dickens does with Great Expectations), and show the original trauma/loss then move forward in time, or else you have to weave the backstory in through little comments and notes throughout as Virginia Woolf did.

Since I’ve got a strong plot, I’m going to try that latter strategy. And I’m thinking, I don’t really have to explain the early causal event. All I have to show is the personality conflict. Where it came from is not all that important. Let it remain mysterious. That’s going to be my strategy.

(For more on backstory: