Category: Uncategorized

The Hateful Eight Script – Legally Available For Your Consumption

Last year a version of this script leaked, upsetting Quentin Tarantino so much that he swore he would not make the film. He did. Released yesterday (Happy Boxing Day everyone), it is garnering mixed reviews (certified fresh at 75% by Rotten Tomatoes and 70% at Metacritic) in its 70mm “Roadshow” Edition.

With the film finally in theaters, Tarantino has officially released the screenplay for award consideration.


The Hateful Eight, by Quentin Tarantino


5 Things Screenwriters Can Learn From Star Wars

Since The Force Awakens is now the biggest opening of any film ever (adjusted for inflation), it seemed fitting/interminable to have some SW themed advice…

By Michael Rogan,

It’s hard to say anything NEW about the most famous/profitable/legacy-building science-fiction story of all time: “Star Wars.”

And though George Lucas is revered as a filmmaking visionary – and merchandise guru – he is not always appreciated for his merits as a screenwriter in the original “Star Wars.” (Especially when you consider his later, more uneven, work in the prequels.)

That being said, Lucas does employ some rather deft, kick-ass screenwriting techniques in “Star Wars: A New Hope.” And many of them, as screenwriters, we can borrow.

So, here are 5 Things Every Screenwriter Can Learn From the Classic, Original “Star Wars”:

Screenwriting Hack You Can Learn From Star Wars #1: If Yer Gonna Steal, Steal From the Best

We all know about Lucas’ man-crush on the whole Joseph Campbell Mythic Structure thing-y. But the real look, feel – and narrative framing – of “Star Wars” is pure Akira Kurosawa, the famed Japanese director.

Sure there’s the samurai-inspired light saber motif and the Toshiro Mifune-style robes worn by Obi-Wan Kenobi. But it’s how Kurosawa, in his film “Hidden Fortress,” told the story from the POV of two road-weary peasants that gave Lucas the idea for C3PO and R2D2. (A narrative device that not only provides the film with much-needed comic relief, but also keeps it from feeling episodic.)

Screenwriting Takeaway #1: If yer looking for some structural inspiration, forget the latest Michael Bay offering and go straight to the masters.


L to R: Princess Leia, Han Solo, R2D2 and C3PO in The Hidden Fortress

Screenwriting Hack You Can Learn From Star Wars #2: Forget Setting, Have Your First Image Establish Conflict

Forget having your script open with a character hitting the snooze button or fade in on some crane shot of a city. (Which it seems like almost every script I read these days, does.)

Instead, notice what Lucas did with the opening of “Star Wars.” A big spaceship shooting lasers…followed by an even BIGGER spaceship shooting even BIGGER lasers.

We have NO idea what these ships are, or who’s driving them. Or what the hell is going on.

We just know that little ship is about to be swallowed by that big ship. (A nice touch since that is thematically what the entire story is about.)

Screenwriting Takeaway #2: Have your first image in your script throw the audience into conflict. (And THEN establish setting.)

The matrix

A mysterious, unbelievable fight scene opens The Matrix

Screenwriting Hack You Can Learn From Star Wars #3: Resist the Need to Explain EVERY Unknown

Some screenwriters, especially those doing sci-fi or fantasy, often feel the need to explain every single obscure or unfamiliar term, worried an audience will get confused.

“Ah, yes, the Particle Transporter. The device that can disassemble, then re-assemble matter and can only be found on the planet, Nebu-Tron. Why didn’t I think of that?”

Technical exposition like this may prevent confusion. But an audience NOT KNOWING what every piece of technical jargon in your story means can give your yarn a level of authenticity – an element there’s a whole other world that EXISTS, bt we don’t know about. And this can create serious audience engagement.

Notice how many foreign terms are thrown at us in “Star Wars” with NO explanation:

  • Moisture farmer
  • Power converters
  • Nav-Computers
  • Binary load lifters

All but the most obsessed “Star Wars” fans, to this day, have NO idea what any of this stuff does. And, yet it gives the feeling that these are real characters using real devices. (No matter how unreal or silly the situation, or moisture farmer, may be.)

Screenwriting Takeaway #3: Don’t explain every technical (and insider) detail related to your story. (Leave a bit of mystery – it’ll boost audience engagement.)

Screenwriting Hack You Can Learn From Star Wars #4: Have Yer Bad Guys Disagree On Methods

Too often screenwriters will create a legion of bad guys/antagonists who agree on every detail and strategy for getting what they want.

But in “Star Wars” Lucas constantly has the big, bad Empire agree on the over-arching goal of “destroy the Rebel Alliance” – but disagree on the methods for realizing this goal.

Whether its Gran Moff Tarkin disagreeing with Darth Vader over the impact of Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Vader creating a  hostile work environment by strangling a co-worker…

…these “conference room” disagreements not only provide some nice comic relief. They also add serious conflict to exposition-heavy scenes that could be as dull as workplace safety seminar otherwise.

Funny, yes? Powerful way to add conflict to every scene – even the ones with the bad guys? Absolutely.

Screenwriting Takeaway #4: Make sure your gaggle of bad guys agree on the central goal, but disagree passionately on the methods for achieving this goal. (This disharmony usually leads to their undoing.)


Long time coming.

Screenwriting Hack You Can Learn From Star Wars #5: Fill Your Fight Scenes With Grudges (Not Choreography)

Nothing gets me angrier than some millenial smart-ass named StarWarsBlasterz43 trying to convince me that the “Phantom Menace “light-saber fight, with Darth Maul and a young Ewan MacGregor…

…is so MUCH BETTER than the “Star Wars” sword fight between Darth Vader and a Alec Guiness, who was in his 60s at the time.

Simply because the “fighting” isn’t any good.

There’s no doubt that Alec Guiness looks a bit more prepared for an AARP convention than a light-saber duel at the end of “Star Wars.”

But. That. Is. Missing. The. Point.

The power of the final confrontation between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader is that these men have serious history together. They go way back. (We have no idea how far back.)

And as they face off in a stew of resentment, jealousy – and revenge – we realize we are watching something really PERSONAL. (And that makes it some of the most emotional storytelling in the entire film. No matter how awkward the choreography may be.)

Screenwriting Takeaway #5: Ditch the three-page fight scenes full of explosions and car chases. Focus instead on old grudges being settled.

And really, if the entire collection of movies (and that includes the awful prequels) can teach you anything, it’s that special effects and CGI spaceships and special-edition creatures may look good on an iMac in a LucasFilm office…

But the real magic of “Star Wars” is in the characters, flawed as they may be, facing insurmountable obstacles. (And discovering who they are in the process.)

Something every screenwriter, even those writing a story that doesn’t contain a single moisture farmer, should aspire to.


Jack’s Treatment

Journal of Rudd Screenplay Treatment D iii

This hero’s quest details in the Journal of Rudd, obstacles and how the 17 year old landlubber Frank Rudd Bybee, overcame those obstacles. Frank, who, in 1897, after leaving the homestead in Iowa, in search of a relative, and after a reluctant sea-voyage, tells of how Frank becomes one of the unwilling hero’s in rescuing Lady Sarah Churchill from Boer forces, and helping to relieve the Siege of Mafeking, in South Africa. The Narrator, who appears to guide the viewer sporadically, is Frank’s Rudd Bybee’s grandson.

Amander Franklin Rudd SILENCE THIS SCENE.
Amander is working in the print-shop of the Dennison Review, creating a leather bound book, that becomes The Journal.

Adelia Rudd (‘Ma’) AMANDER’S daughter.
Later Amander is seen riding up to the homestead, to visit his daughter, Adelia Rudd, (aka ‘Ma’). Amander also gave MA a note, addressed to Frank. After giving the Journal and note to Ma, he rides off. (exeunt Mister Amander)

Frank Rudd Bybee (Frank), 17, Hunter – a dog, and ‘Ma’.
The note is from Frank’s brother, Charlie-Elmer, in San Francisco writing urgently for help. Frank and Ma conspire to keep the Journal and the note secret from Pa, who will no doubt seek out ‘sissy making’ stuff, such as writing and sketching, and cause an uproar due to an alcohol-induced stupor.
Frank is perplexed. He tells Ma what he saw in the woods. What he can’t understand is why didn’t Hunter growl. Hunter was right there.

While sitting in the snow clad woods near the creek on the homestead, Frank sees a vision of an ‘island’ (or so he thinks) . This flat-topped cloud covered rock massive seems to appear out of a lake, or a vast expanse of water. He can not figure out what, where it is, or how this could appear to him in the woods in the middle of Iowa. He becomes ever so slightly obsessed with this image. What can it mean? How could it happen? Why didn’t Hunter react?

Pa returns from piece-meal iron-mongering job in Denison, and finds the Bybee boys at their musical best, fiddling, harmonica, more. Pa goes nuts. Art, music and writing are ‘sissy making stuff’. Frank runs up from the creek, and helps in the confrontation which has Ma, Oliver, Frank and others flailing trying to keep Pa under control. Frank hustles in and lays Pa out cold by hitting him twice over the head with the barn’s ‘shit-shovel’. Frank fears he has killed Pa. He does not wait to find out.

Running away from the farm, Frank knows he has Ma’s blessing, but Pa is another matter. He starts his daily entries in the Journal of Rudd. Heading for Arion Depot, hoping, that if Pa is alive, that he doesn’t follow Frank as Pa is a very good tracker. At Orion Depot, Frank discovers Ol’ Jebb truly likes him, and despises Pa. Jebb buys an image from Frank – Jebb’s coffee mug – it is Frank’s first sale of his art. Clari, whom Frank has had his eye on for awhile, and Frank become lovers in the boxcar of the Great Northern Railroad. Frank asks Clari to accompany him to San Francisco. She declines.

Frank rides shotgun on the Great Northern, as Malcolm shows him the ropes in survival as ‘injuns’ attack. Frank proves himself as a very good shot, taking down a wood pigeon in front of Malcolm from the doorway of a wildly swaying, rickety box car. When ‘injuns’ do attack, it is the son of Standing Bear, Bear Jumping, whom Frank kills. Then it is up the Platte, over the range, near the area of the Donner Party tragedy, down into and across the great salt desert, and on to Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento).

To Frank’s amazement, his girl friend, Clari, and her aunt, Aunt Bee, arrive in Sacramento, most unexpectedly, with the news that Clari’s mother has died. Aunt Bee, as she is referred to, has lived on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. She cautions Frank on the types surrounding that area.

Brief history of crimps and crimping, featuring master crimp, Bunco Kelley (aka Shanghai Kelley). He is heavily responsible for corrupting many State of Oregon and California legislative councils. Became leader of the Oregon Republican Party. Heavily involved in heroin trafficking. Few could believe anything he said. The two recent Acts of State Legislature he does not like at all. He is ‘persuading’ council members with every favor he can figure (including a visit or two to a flop-house of his, on the house, as it were.) Eventually tried and convicted of a murder he (probably) did not commit.

Later, while waiting for Clari and Aunt Bee to return from scouting the Barbary, Frank encounters Bunco Kelley who invites him to his psuedo-birthday party to say “Thank You” for all the help. Also, that Kelley says he knows where Charlie-Elmer works. Responding to the invitation, but cautious about the motive, after all, what help, but Frank is lured by the news of Charlie-Elmer’s whereabouts? Frank goes on board a ship, is given a tonic, and that’s the last thing he remembers, until he wakes up, in the brig of the Hornet II. Bart, the First Mate, pushes food and Frank’s Journal to him in the brig. He will be let out, as soon as they are far enough away from land that Frank can not swim ashore. Should he dare call Bart, ‘the Fart’, Frank will become shark-food.
“Shark? Shark food? What’s that?”

Days pass, the great lake gets bigger and bigger. Frank is finally allowed on deck, only to hear Victor say he had met Charlie-Elmer, and that Charlie-Elmer now manages a flop-house or sailor’s boarding-house, run by Bunco Kelley. Victor, who chants and drums, Bart and the seventeen year old, Frank, cautiously form a shipboard working alliance. Frank slowly learns the ins and outs of life aboard a sailing ship, and slowly he introduces the concept of his sketches by labeling himself the ‘Cloud-Collector’. The ship is heading (ostensibly) for London via Valparaiso, Chile, the Straight of Magellan, South America and north to Europe. In the brig, Frank is startled by the sudden, ochre eyed appearance out of gloom, narrow eyes, and great, long white whiskers. A feline, one Rippens – the ship’s cat.

Awhile out, after Frank proves his weather reading capabilities, warning Bart and the crew, they spot Bunco Kelley’s clipper racing up astern of them. After the storm, they make it to Valparaiso. The talk is that the ‘Mister Captain’ and Kelley are pushing heroin – or some serious contraband. Frank is content to mind his own business – except revenge is sweet – he wants back to the farm, Ma and Clari – Kelley got him into this – Kelley will get him out and back to Iowa, else Kelley dies – or worse.

Bart announces that Frank will be allowed shore leave, on condition that he returns to the ship. Frank, mulls the offer, then gives Bart his word of honor. While ashore, Frank spots Kelley arranging for a pick-up. He maps the house where the couple have entered. When Bart comes to collect Frank, he is informed of the collusion. Bart is equally antagonistic towards Kelley. Bart and Frank kidnap Kelley. He is now prisoner in the same brig where Frank was before – and the captain has zero knowledge of this.

They set sail with extreme-weather gear for the passage through the Straight of Magellan “…as long as the deep sea monsters stay below…” as Bart puts it – with a twinkle in his eye. The passage through the land of near ice and snow is traumatic to say the least. ‘Deep sea monsters’ do surface. But the ‘monsters’ (hump-backed whales) help the ship stay off the rocks, not hinder its progress – and Frank yells at Victor to keep drumming, to keep chanting. They make it through the horrific Straight. Rum is made available as celebration. A feeling of camaraderie emanates, after that bit of adventure.

Soon after leaving the South American continental shelf they are hit by ‘…and very, very big swell…’ a tsunami. Bunco is being washed overboard, Frank is the only one close by, but Frank has Bart in a sailor’s grip, and has no interest in saving Kelley – after all, how did he get on deck? Bunco yells to him to let go of Bart and save him. He offers him gold, Frank refuses. Bunco Kelley becomes ‘shark-food’. Bart rewards Frank with his freedom as soon as they can ‘persuade’ the Captain to head for the nearest shore. The mutiny succeeds, landfall is imminent. Upon the call of “Land Hoo…!” Bart rushes Frank to the bows and Frank sees his vision in the woods, of a rock in the middle of a great lake. A massive rock with a white cloud tumbling over it – surrounded it would seem, by water – this is Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa rising at the Tavern of the Seas.

Bart honors his promise of Freedom for Frank, and together with Rippens, the cat, Frank lands on the shores of Southern Africa – never again to return to America. The sense of isolation that encompasses Frank, as he sleeps on the slopes of Signal Hill, is only intensified in the dawn two days later, by the sounds of distant chanting and a drum, as the ship, Bart and the shipmates, hoist sail, and depart Table Bay on the early morning tide. All Frank wants is to live up on the summit of the mountain behind him –where no ‘great swell’ can reach him – ever.
He thinks, he can not be the only one who has stood alone – totally alone – on a foreign shore – and survived. He has proven he is a survivor. He will survive.

By a series of fortuitous events in trying to barter his art, Frank meets Chester, manservant to Rudyard Kipling. Then Miss Mini-Clara Harryman, Cecil-John Rhodes and eventually Robert Baden-Powell. Rhodes asks Frank to help Baden-Powell relieve the Siege of Mafeking. Frank agrees, leaving the romance with MCH. In Mafeking, with the help of Haribooi, a man of the Khoi-Khoi tribe, Sir Winston Churchill’s aunt, the lovely Lady Sarah Churchill is rescued from the Boer encampment. In the process, Haribooi is wounded, captured, tied to a wagon wheel, and whipped by the Boer’s. Frank owes it to Haribooi, rescues him from the Boer encampment. As the 6-8 Boer’s sing praises to God, Frank looses it – a shoot-out occurs. As Frank lays Harribooi at the steps of the convent in Mafeking, Haribooi dies in Frank’s arms.

On returning from Mafeking, Frank passes through the Hex River Valley, where Rhodes has some of his large fruit farms. Frank spies a little thatch roofed cottage. That is where they, Miss Mini and him, will make a home, he decides. Suddenly, returning to Iowa is not such a major issue for Frank after all.

At Cape Town Station, Frank is met with jubilant crowds hailing him as a hero. He insists he is not a hero, that Haribooi is the hero – not him. There and then, on Cape Town Station platform, with steam and noise and cheers all around he asks Miss Mini to marry him. She agrees, “I thought you’d never ask.” Rhodes is delighted, offering Frank a job as assistant foreman of the Cape Orchard Company, in the hamlet of Orchard, and as wedding present, gifts the cottage Frank saw, to the couple.
Reluctantly, Frank agrees to Rhode’s request to ride in support of B-P, who is regarded as a total hero of the Crown and is being hailed as such at the Relief of Mafeking Parade. Cecil Rhodes has informed Her Majesty of the incredible feat.


Frank and Mini move to Orchard where three sons, Ellis, Leland and John Ernest, are born in quick succession to the couple. In memory of the true hero, Frank finds a lovely ridgeback dog, dark chocolate in colour. His name? Harri.

Frank Rudd Bybee, dies an isolated, lonely, misunderstood man, in Worcester, near Orchard, in 1953. Upon discovery of the Journal of Rudd, something no-one knew about nor ever expected, Frank’s grandson vows to retrace Frank’s steps, and to set the record straight on behalf of his grandfather, by firstly, telling the Journal of Rudd story. This has now been accomplished. Then seeking out Miss Mini’s Memories, and vowing to eventually create The Journal of Jack.

As the Hero’s Journey was not completed with the stranding of Frank in South Africa, by coming full-circle, Jack Bybee feels that he is completing the Journey of his grandfather’s behalf.

“There’s a movie in this… somewhere there is a movie in this.”

Yet More Screenplays

You can never have too many screenplays!

The collection this time includes Sundance fave Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, immigrant story Brooklyn, the story of an elderly composer who vacations in Switzerland and reflects on his Youth, a college student gets disrupted by her change agent aunt in Mistress America and finally an adaption of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel about a romanting square in Far From the Madding Crowd.


Top 5 Ways You Can Wreck Your Characters

There are so many ways to screw up a screenplay and not having believable, well-written characters is one of them. Lucy V Hay of Bang 2 Write wrote a post about this:

5) … They introduce their characters badly. Whether screenplay or novel, your character needs to be introduced in an interesting and dramatic way.  When we meet your character for the first time – especially your protagonist – s/he should be preferably DOING something that:

a) Tells us *something* about him/her in terms of personality

b) Gives us a sense of the storyworld/the tone

c) Gives us *some clue* or indicator about the situation at hand

Yet too often we meet characters waking up, getting ready for the day ahead and/or eating breakfast; coming down the stairs or from another room (usually when someone yells for them); sitting in cafes or restaurants musing; or sitting in their bedrooms doing the same. LE YAWN.

This is nearly always because writers mistakenly believe that seeing a character in their home environment (or similar) makes us “care” about them. IT DOESN’T. It’s just dull!

Remember, readers make all kinds of assumptions not only from your very first page, but from your opening image too! Make sure you introduce your characters in ways we don’t see all the time to stand your best chances in the marketplace.

4) … They put too much tragic back story “up front”. This is an issue that seems primarily a screenwriting-related problem. I loved the following dialogue in the brilliant WRECK-IT RALPH, which I watched recently with my Wee Girls. For context, Ralph, a character from a platform-esque computer game, finds himself at one point “inside” a Call of Duty-style military game, under the orders of Calhoun, a hard-ass female sergeant:

RALPH: Jeez, she’s kinda intense, huh?

SOLDIER: It’s not her fault. She’s programmed with the most tragic backstory EVER.

In comparison to WRECK IT RALPH then, scribes DON’T play the notion of a tragic back story up front for laughs. Instead, the reader will have to wade through stories of child abuse; adoption/rejection; rape; bereavement; self harm and recriminations – all before the actual main story gets going. More often than not, this will mean going through an acre of flashback before the situation in hand kicks off, though sometimes there will be various arguments and/or a funeral, or even ALL OF THIS (yikes!).

Yet these huuuuuuuuge adverse life events are massive; to make them blithely “character building” feels like a slap in the face for the characters. Not convinced? Think about it:

“Oh my character has to deal with being held hostage in the bank where she works – BUT IT’S OKAY BECAUSE IN THE PAST SHE WAS ABUSED AS A CHILD, SO SHE CAN HANDLE THIS” —WTF???

Yeah, yeah ***of course*** writers don’t mean it this way; they’re trying to give their characters “layers” and make us “care” about them. I totally get that. But seriously, overly tragic back stories played up front are not the way. Characters’ reactions and the way they deal with what’s happening to them in the “here and now” tells us SO MUCH more than acres of flashbacks or expositional dialogue about their traumatic childhoods.

3) … They “back end” (quiet at the back) characters’ motivations. And of course,  as with most things writing-related, there’s an opposite end of the scale too: we don’t know what characters’  motivations are in the first instance, because writers are so busy trying to make us “care” about them, usually with various flashbacks to stuff that happened “before”. So we don’t know what the characters want, why they want it, or when by. Instead we end up finding this out in retrospect. As a result it’s difficult to invest in those characters’ journeys.

Sometimes this happens in spec novels too, especially those where the scribe is writing in the first person. I’ve noticed writers attempting Young Adult in particular can have this issue. What tends to happen is the scribe is so busy “setting up” the character and the world s/he lives in (especially a school environment), they forget to tell the reader what the story is *really* about.

2) … They introduce too many characters. Sometimes a screenplay or novel will have a plethora of characters, often to persuade us what a great or upstanding protagonist we have. We’ll see the protagonist interract with all kinds of people, in all kinds of ways, usually all positive. Aaah. Sweet.


And before you say it: YES, technically novels can have as many characters as they want. But — and there’s always a but with me! — they need to have a reason to be present in the narrative. The reason can be anything the writer wants, but broken down, those characters need to relate to:

a) Plot

b) another character

c) arena (or storyworld)

d) theme

e) all of the above

Otherwise your characters simply float about randomly and the reader can’t “connect” with them. FACT. Sorry!

It’s the same with screenplays, but more condensed. Being much “shorter” than novels (both literally and figuratively), this is inevitable, yet many screenplays – whether feature length or TV pilot –  have what I call a “Mer De Noms” (sea of names). I simply can’t keep track of them all. This is usually because in addition to that sea of names, I can’t discern each character’s role function. More on this, next.

1) … They give characters No discernible role function. This is probably the top screenplay characterisation problem EVER and usually happens because scribes are so busy trying to persuade readers to “care” about characters, they forget *why* the characters are part of the story in the first place.

We all hear about “differentiating characters”, so many scribes spend a lot of time trying to make each one SOUND or LOOK different. And this is a good start. But sounding or looking “different” does not great characterisation make. Why?

Because great characters are what they DO. 

In other words then, the characters in your screenplay all have to DO different things in order to be “differentiated”.

For the above, they need a specific role function, ie:

Protagonist: Usually “for” the “main theme” of the story. 

Antagonist: Usually “against” the “main theme” of the story. 

With protagonists and antagonists in mind, it’s usual the protagonist drives the story, though sometimes it’s the other way round and the antagonist will instead. Occasionally, we will have a passive protagonist (especially in the case of the Comedy genre), but if this happens, another character (antagonist OR an important secondary) will usually “take the reins” and give them back to the protagonist in the resolution.

Secondary Characters: These guys can boiled down to this notion – they HELP or HINDER the protagonist or antagonist in their respective missions. 

From the above, secondary characters may perform very tried and tested roles like Mentor; Second In Command; Henchman; Love Interest; Best Friend; Comic Relief and so on.

Peripheral Character: These guys reflect the story’s intentions and/or facillitate the plot or (usually) the main characters’ motivations in some way (or the opposite). 

A good example here would be characters who are placed in the narrative simply to die as in the Horror genre, or war and disaster movies. Peripheral characters don’t have to die though; sometimes in Comedies and Thrillers a peripheral character may obstruct our protagonist in his/her mission, like the Jobsworth Official who won’t help, or a Police Officer who arrests the protagonist or turns them away.


  • Great characters come from great stories; they are inextricably linked.
  • Good characterisation makes use of back story, but not at the expense of the “here and now”.
  • Great characters have role functions/ a reason WHY they’re part of the story.
  • Good characterisation is about a character’s reactions to the situation in hand.
  • Great characters are what they DO.

Good luck!

Backstory for Dummies! reallly does have a page for everything. They have one for screenwriting and it specifically covers backstory and the steps needed to establish one for a character.

Creating the Backstory For Your Characters  – from

Most writers dream a little before they tackle writing their scripts. Actually, they dream a lot. Before you craft an environment, you want to know its history, its geographical location, and its condition. Before you write a scene between parents, you want to know what attracted them to each other, how long they’ve been together, how many children they have, and the like…

The ability to write complex events inhabited by complex people comes from knowing everything you can about why those events occurred and who those people are. The details you unearth may not all make it into your final draft, but they will add color and depth to the eventual script…

Backstory refers to everything that occurred in your story’s past. A character’s backstory may include family background, job history, psychological condition, and any memories you create for that person from childhood on. The backstory of a situation includes events that led up to it and a suggestion of why that situation’s occurring now.


Walter White’s past is suggested but never completely explained.

Elements of the backstory

You may find it helpful to invent your script’s history one section at a time. Just as detectives follow a certain line of questioning, so will you subject your story to an inquisition of sorts. Here’s a list of categories that you may want to consider in your search for a backstory:

  • Convictions and beliefs: What are your character’s political, social, and economic views? Does your character have any theories on life in general or in detail? How did he or she come to feel that way?
  • Education: Consider both formal education and acquired education in this category. Where your character went to high school may be as important as the three months he spent on the streets learning to play the drums.
  • Family background: Invent your character’s family history, including the uncle she was named after but never sees. Friends are included in this category.
  • Geographic location: Detail any environment that helped shape your character’s present circumstances. Create everything from the climate to the socio-economic make-up of the community to the carefully manicured lawns.
  • Key past events: Virtually every main event in your story will be possible because of something that’s occurred in the past. What events led up to those in your story, and why did they occur?
  • Past successes and failures: People are shaped in part by their best and worst memories. Knowing what your character’s track record is may be helpful in certain situations that arise in the script itself.
  • Phobias: Your characters’ fears dictate what they avoid in life and, in some cases, what’s pushing them to succeed. Think specific and general; a fear of rose thorns may be just as compelling as a fear of commitment. The film Arachnophobia was fueled by the main character’s fear of spiders.
  • Profession: How do your characters make a living? Do they enjoy working at the library, or are they biding their time? How did they get where they are?
  • Quirks: What makes them unique, physically and psychologically? In Forrest Gump, the main character is compiled of odd characteristics, one of which is how fast he can run. The film A Beautiful Mind tackles one man’s battle with schizophrenia. A character’s quirks may propel your story forward.
  • System of values: People differ in where they draw the line between right and wrong. What do your characters value most in themselves? In a lover? In a child? What types of behavior would make them ill?
  • Talents: What has your character always been good at? Does he utilize that talent, or has it gone by the wayside? Perhaps your story starts on the day an opportunity arises for that talent to emerge.
  • Time period: What part of history are you tackling? Whose history will you portray? Is yours a Civil War story or that of a future age? If you plan to flash between moments in your character’s life, how many moments and what were they?

Each of these categories suggests its own series of questions that you might answer about your story. Jot those questions down as they occur to you; you’ll undoubtedly return to them with each new person and environment you create. Although it’s impossible to highlight upon all that you discover in a single script, much of your story may come from the information you invent now.


12 Years a Slave features a story set in the 1850s.

Developing a screenplay through backstory

Imagine that you’re a tourist in a foreign country — you don’t speak the language, the people aren’t familiar, and anything might happen to you next. This experience isn’t unlike that of most movie-goers. They need someone to guide them through their journey and a guidebook to understand the importance of what they see along the way. You are their guide; the backstory is their guidebook.

A detailed backstory may be your greatest source of support as a screenwriter. It renders your characters unique and colorful, which will inform how they speak and behave throughout your story. It helps establish a clear world for your characters to explore and, therefore, provides the fuel for most — if not all — of the future scenes in your script.

Consider the information that you have: You’ve created a time period, an environment, and some character biographies. You may also have envisioned several situations leading up to your story’s main events. Your next step involves conveying those details to an audience that knows next to nothing about your story.

You can easily convey time periods and locations through costume, dialect, a lingering description of the landscape, or a caption alerting your audience that the story takes place in Paris, 1763. Past events and character traits are often more elusive. Although there’s no single formula for using this type of backstory to generate scenes, you may want to consider the following process as a way to begin:

1. Identify the detail that you want to develop. It might be an event, a trait, a location, a family member, or a friendship. Choose one element.

For example, your main character could have moved around constantly as a child and is, therefore, unable to settle down as an adult. That unsettled sensibility could be the detail in question.

2. Visualize three ways the detail manifested itself in the past. In particular, concentrate on what moments might reveal the detail to a stranger.

For example, you could envision your character as a child. She’s kept her bedroom decidedly blank, anticipating the next move. She fidgets constantly in school, often upsetting her classmates. She travels with an imaginary friend — the only constant in an ever-fluctuating environment.

3. Visualize three ways the detail manifests itself in the present. Every character exists in at least three roles during the course of a day. Your main character might be at once a mother, a neighbor, and a renowned biologist. Decide how the detail affects your character in several venues.


Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right has several roles: wife, lover,  and mother.

For example, you might imagine that your character is a marathon dater, unable to settle on any person for a length of time. She juggles three jobs at once, constantly dashing from one end of town to another. Although she’s lived in an apartment for a year, she has yet to completely unpack.

4. Decide which scenes might exist in your screenplay. Flag any scenario you visualized that will help an audience understand the story you want to write. If more occur to you along the way, jot those down, too. You’ll return to those scenes later when you begin piecing your screenplay together.

Not every piece of information you come up with will find its way into your screenplay. If you’re telling a Civil War story, you may concentrate on your character’s political history and ignore his family background. On the other hand, if your Civil War story centers on Abraham Lincoln, his upbringing might be important. The type of story you’re telling will dictate which details you reveal from the past. But remember, whether you focus on it or not, everything you imagine will enhance and strengthen your script.