.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}


Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Breaking Story

It's really the hardest thing to do. Talking to a friend today he shared how he could spend six months "breaking story" and still not neccessarily have it .

Normal. I said. I spent years and years breaking story on an original script which I finally wrote three years ago. I first thought of it - about 15 years ago.

There is no time limit to the process, no sundial to track the brightness of the imagination. Every story is unique, and has unique demands. Some will come quickly and form completely, some won't ever form at all. Why? How the hell do I know?

Okay, that was a joke.

I suspect it has to do with some things I've learned along the way.

And what I have learned is this:

To break story completely you need three things, and an addendum.

1) The Big Idea. This goes for an original, or for your take on a re-write, or hopefully the adaptation you're doing as well. It's what you bring to the project that thrills you, excites you, makes you gleeful every time you sit down to wrestle the bear. You need the idea that will inspire you, unlock your heart, make your mind thrilled. It will have: energy. It will not have: structure, arc, or sequencing.

That last bit is very important. The Big Idea is pure energy and joy, it's why we're all writers to begin with. Hey, here's this great idea! I have to do something with that!

You need that. It's the gas for your tank, the lightning in your clouds.

Hard to proceed without it.

2) Premise: You need to figure out how you put the lightning in the bottle. You need your premise - briefly what happens to whom, what it does to them, how it ends.

3) You need to arc out your realities:

Situational reality: what happens, to whom, when, where and how, and to what conclusion.

Emotional reality: the emotional place your hero starts - and why the story smashes him flat, will "kill" that version of him, forcing him to change into what he must become to bring closure to his situational reality.

Simple, right? Simpler if you can see it has parallel sequences that run in opposite directions. You can click here to see my discussion of it.


You may not want to do this. So don't. Every writer has their own process, this is mine. Some writers are completely intuitive - they find their stories through instinct and patience and the emotional bubbles that rise up through the creative fire that seem to guide the way. I've done that too.

The reason I do it this way is because of the



Good to have one. An excellent reason, and really one of the only reasons for me, that I produce anything. I'm not good at the five/ten/one page a day thing with no finish line in sight. Dates on calandars, looming meetings, looming phone calls, all these get me off my butt and defining and clarifying my big idea. I use everything else I've just written to help hone it from a cool notion to a refined rocket sled ride.

It may not work for you, and that's cool. Everyone has their own process. Share some ideas here. It will help others, or tell me why my ideas are flat. It all helps all of us and our process.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"one of the only reasons". A really nifty phrase! I'm also of the opinion that many only reasons can coexist peacefully.

But I was going to ask a question.

What about creating characters? Do you tend to start out with fairly well developed characters (i.e. you have formed a lot of opinions about them, know a lot about them) or do the characters sort of gradually take form all the while you are plotting/breaking the story? Have you ever discovered, in mid-stream, that your main protag should be of the other gender? Or that the story would be better if you changed protagonists?

The other night I saw a film that had a kind of lame script. Its basic flaw is that the story is told from the wrong point of view: the person on the other side of the fence (so to speak) should have been the main character. It's a first feature film, for both director and writer, and I suppose it's easy for relative beginners to oversee such a fundamental flaw.


Thursday, March 30, 2006  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Anna: good question. I can only give you my own process. i don't wait for full character development. I take a piece, something that excites me emotionally, that is real to me, and I start with that. It has to be orchestrated correctly, so that it's at odds with the opponents and allies and that you've got the right hero - as you pointed out - that would be a big error. I would understand their needs and lacks, but not create the huge character dosier I used to which I ulatimately found I would abandon anyway as it was only mindful and not in my hart. So I start as soon as I have a "lock" on a piece - and as I write I let it form in a deeper way. Sometimes they come in fast, sometimes slow, but I find it a very powerful way to create and keep moving with the energy of the story and let it get richer as I go along.

Thursday, March 30, 2006  
Blogger greg said...

Another brilliant observation Phil.

In working with my writers group - I have found my strengths and weaknesses tend to jump up and slap me in the face. While I love to plot a film - overplot, in fact - it is the emotional journey and throughline that really creates resonance - even to the point that sometimes the plot can fall away IF the emotional journey is correct. While I would prefer to distract the reader (viewer) with a big set piece action scene to make him think something emotional is happening - you can't have one without the other to make a good film.

Thanks again for the sound post!


Friday, March 31, 2006  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

greg: yes, I'm a plot oriented guy too and always have been. Had to develop and grow my sense of and discovery of character and emotional story telling. Could always find it in time intuitively (if I was lucky) but on deadline, you don't have the advantage of time, so you need to define and refine your process, or use any tricks you have to get there immediately. The trick: determine your character's emotional reality immediately "he feels x and wants y because of it" (okay, that could be "he feels unhappy and wants to fill his emptiness with a certain substance, or he feels lonely and he wants a girl, or he feels burned out, maxed out, taxed out and wants to be left alone) Fine. (notice no backstory. That can always be filled in with leggo pieces, but the emotional reality is what you want, and that's in the NOW right NOW and we all know emotion and will relate and that's all you need to know). Now, where is he is going? Well - he will be drawn into your story ONLY because his feeling x will somehow be compelled - (he will be offered the substance at a price, the opportunity of the girl is dangled, he will be promised to be left alone if he does one more thing - or whatever, you get my point). Then your next job: he will be smashed flat by your story and after the midpoint of the classic act 2, feeling x will seem a lot more insignificant and stupid in fact, in the face of his mortality, let's say, and he'll suddenly discover he really feels z- yes Z! Wow - that's who he really is! And this new feeling is a rebirth of who he is - the death of the old self, and is the true nature of his soul and will allow him to deal with y appropriately now, whether he wants it or not, as he's in a higher place. Algebra, anyone?

Friday, March 31, 2006  
Anonymous James Patrick Joyce said...

Pardon my novice clarification.

This is essentially the difference between what the character wants and what he needs?

Essentially, his problem is because of his need, but thinks it is because of his desire.

So the character is attempting to resolve x (his problem) with y (his desire). But his problem can only be resolved when he realizes z (his need), not his desire.

ex. He is sad & lonely (his problem) and thinks it is because he needs a woman (his desire). But what would really eradicate his loneliness would be to accept himself (his need).

Friday, March 31, 2006  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

james: this sounds like Truby, who is a great analyst. And I think his system is amazing and wondefully thought out and can help many. I never went too far into it - but far enough to help me when I was starting out - then got completing hung up on endless steps through the process, and structure, 22 if I remember, as I tried to jam my story into his grid and never could. Which is ultimately why that system didn't work to me. It's too mindful. Yes, to say need vs. desire is correct, but detaches you from the "feeling" of it. Desire is a "wanting" need is a "something required". "Wanting" is exciting, lustful, passionate. You ever feel excited about "something required?" Like turn a circuit breaker back on? Not me. analytically - it's true. but it doesn't trigger my story telling buttons. So I need to express it in a way which stays connected to what the character feels - it's why I literally say he feels x, then feels z - and when he KNOWS he feels z - he suddenly knows who he truly is. JESUS, THAT'S EXCITING. All drama is the search for personal identity, starting with every Greek play, and we are doing the same here in our writing - and when your character feels that change in the last third of your movie - he's been re-born into his own sense of who he is. Or maybe learns it for the first time. THAT'S EXCITING. So i don't call that his "need". A psychologist might. But I have to think of it as an emotional atom bomb, a re-birth, a promethean recreation of himself. (Nice mythic reference there). We have to stay that connected to the excitement of the storytelling process. Long answer, but I think you see why I differentiate the way I do - and why I would arc his situational reality - what he does,why, where, how - and what happens. And then his emotional reality separately - he feels x and wants y, forced to face x and under undue hardship, he realizes he really feels z and that is the only reason he's able to finish the journey to y as a new person.

Friday, March 31, 2006  
Anonymous Devin B. said...


Thank you for sharing useful tidbits with the rest of us. I am an aspiring scribe, having just spent a little over a year putting my big idea to paper/screenplay. The whole process was invigorating, and I have found an all new passion to chase after – screenwriting!

What you wrote about is true (at least, it was for me). My “big idea” hit me back in 1996. It lingered in the vast netherworld of my imagination for the next decade. I would do conceptual drawings of certain key elements, only to file those away for years to gather dust. I had a clear vision, but no cohesion... no story with defined characters, plot, or conclusion.

It wasn’t until I met my future wife that I finally worked up the gumption to learn about screenwriting and try my hand at the process. I found that I have kind of a knack for it! The ideas worked themselves out (and the bad ones fell of the page). I had an organic process that dictated where to go next by virtue of the drama I had created... how to sustain it... maximize it.

Now I am left with my first ‘baby’... 116 pages of something I’m very proud of. It has been copyrighted and registered with the WGAw, and I recently entered it into a large contest (Final Draft’s “Big Break” Competition). Hopefully, if my work is as good as I think (and hope), it will garner some attention – and I can pursue a new outlet, and possibly a new career!

If not, I will always have the memories (and the script!) to fall back on.

Take care. Your blog is great!

Friday, March 31, 2006  
Anonymous James Patrick Joyce said...

I've never had the opportunity to do a screenwriting seminar, but since most of my learning has been from the internet (pro blogs, wordplay, etc) it's entirely possible that I recalled this from Truby or from one of his students.

And thanks for the response.

Friday, March 31, 2006  
Blogger Eleanor said...

Hi Phil,

Your comments above are great - I can feel that they're right. I know in my head that what you are saying is correct, my heart and gut confirms that, but I don't grok it.
It's driving me nuts.

I think I'm missing part of the structure step - but I don't write to formula like that (maybe that's a mistake?)...I think my process is similar to yours in some respects - the story has to come from character and emotion, not from artifically placed walls.

I feel like the second act is a gaping chasm, and someone deep in the darkness is laughing at me.

I guess it's the obstacle course part of it that I'm having problems with.

Any suggestions on how to crack this wide open?

Saturday, April 01, 2006  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

eleanor: first of all, every writer feels this way - in the sense of the gaping chasm. But you know the old saying about what a hero is? A coward who keeps fighting. In some sense, that's the trick. You keep at it. The more you do it, the more you will begin to have a sense that you can complete things - and that will be your greatest ally - that feeling. Because every story has its own obstacles, traps, confusions and the most veteran writers tackle with the same issues all the time. But you just know after a while that you can finish - just by keeping at it. I attended a museum exhibit on Abraham Lincoln once that showed rare personal effects and letters. One letter was a response he wrote to a little girl when he was President, who asked him how he had prepared to became President. In a nutshell, he wrote about his childhood, about being a lawyer and what he learned, and finished by saying something to the effect of "in the end, you just do your work, keep working, keep working." That really struck me. Because that's what you have to do. As to writing from character - I'm opposite that - I'm a plot guy - love the machinery - and it's my work to grow and explode character all over the place. So I make sure I do it, and that all plot is the outcome of the character I devise, usually after I get my plot idea. As to the gaping chasm of act 2. Here's a quick review - even though you're not a structure person and I see you've posted comments on my structure posts. Act 2 is really 2 acts. So that a screenplay is 4 acts. Each act has a midpoint. So a screenplay is like eight chapters. Feels more like you can handle it immediately, right? What are the chapters? Wish you could come to my workshop. Too indepth to go into here, sadly. But the bottom line - the hero of any myth will always hit the same beats. Don't give yourself over to any specific system, they are just there to remind us what we already know. Familiarize yourself with a few out there, but like a kung fu student, you have to keep practicing until you start do it without thinking.

Saturday, April 01, 2006  
Blogger Eleanor said...

Thanks for the reply!
I wish I could come to the workshop too...sadly the plane fare from the UK is rather prohibitive.
You should record it to CD rom and sell copies. ;-)

I have a couple of sps finished already, but the story I'm breaking right now is a different genre (horror), and it really only has two characters...Which makes it all about winding up the spring.

"the hero of any myth will always hit the same beats"
Back to basics! Yay! I'll go do some more reading then. :-)

Sunday, April 02, 2006  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Eleanor: email me.

Sunday, April 02, 2006  
Blogger Eleanor said...

I emailed you the other day, as requested.
Did you get it?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006  
Blogger Mary Stella said...

*There is no time limit to the process, no sundial to track the brightness of the imagination. Every story is unique, and has unique demands. Some will come quickly and form completely, some won't ever form at all.*

Thanks for the excellent, necessary reminder today.

Monday, April 10, 2006  
Blogger Robot Porter said...

A couple of tricks I've found that help me.

I write out of order. And I do it at all stages of the process, outline, treament, full script.

This helps for two reasons: 1) It increases my chances of having something significant to write on a given day; and 2)some of the problems on page 5 may be solved by writing the scene on page 15.

Another thing I do that helps, I write scenes with dialog very early in the process. These scenes may never be part of the script. They almost never are. But it helps me get a feel for the characters and the tone of the script.

Of course, as you say, this may not work for anyone else. But it works for me.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home