A Screenwriting Revolution!

I’ve been having some revolutionary thoughts lately.

And these are beyond the ordinary musings of a screenwriter, such as, “I’d love to see a nuclear explosion wipe out these ego-maniacal fucks in Hollywood.”

No, my thoughts have centered more around my long-promised, free, screenwriting book that I’ve been working on, which has been tentatively titled, The Screenwriting Revolution. I don’t know when it’ll be available except to say – when it’s damn good & ready.

How can this next generation distinguish themselves?

Let us speak now about the litany of crappy 2009 films. You can blame it on the writer’s strike all you like. The fact is, the craft of screenwriting has been in decline for years, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s time for a revolution, time for the next generation of screenwriters to step up and make their voices heard. And take storytelling into exciting and interesting new directions.

But how can this next generation distinguish themselves?

Let me list a few random thoughts and then I’d like to hear what YOU think would be appropriate for a screenwriting revolution.

Format & Grammar

First and foremost, a writer ought to know how to write and a screenplay ought to look like a damn screenplay. Some might think that sounds so reasonable as to be anything but revolutionary, but this, of all things, continues to be one of my most controversial positions. People love to point out that most screenplays are generally filled with poor writing and poor format and thus, they should be able to write like a child, too. This is one of the great rationalizations for declining standards in films.

First and foremost, a writer ought to know how write and a screenplay ought to look like a damn screenplay.

You need to embrace learning and knowledge and the joy of using your brain and writing brilliantly. The fact is, quality screenwriting begins here. If everyone else is writing like shit, that’s even more of a reason for you to write gold, because it’ll make you stand out. At the end of the day, it’s not about what everyone else is doing. It’s about what YOU are doing and how your work reflects upon YOU.

If you don’t like what I’m saying – great. I’m going to write circles around you.

Reject the Gurus

On the one hand, I believe that you should be a brilliant, well-read writer who has digested many, many guru books so that you will know what many people around the world think about screenwriting. (Although I would suggest getting those books from the library, if possible. I wouldn’t give those people a dime of my money.) Then you should study films (and stories) for yourself. You will probably realize that, more often than not, the art of storytelling is never black-and-white but endlessly grey and that gurus are generally limited in their imaginations, which is why they’re not writing stories.

You should be a brilliant, well-read writer who has digested many, many guru books.

Truth be told, I’m at my wit’s end with Robert McKee whose idea of a seminar is bullying people like a thug into accepting his limited ideas about storytelling. That he even acts like a pompous ass should be the first red flag to observers because it means he’s intellectually stifled (and thus, must resort to bullying) particularly when he’s challenged with solid exceptions to his narrow-minded “principles.” HE just wants stories to be told the way HE likes them to be told.

Let’s count three little ways he’s wrong:

– McKee wrote in his book, Story, (pg 104): “The finest writing not only reveals true character but arcs or changes [to] that inner nature for better or worse, over the course of the telling.” What a rank steaming pile of horseshit. How about one of the most iconic figures of the spy genre, and with a few exceptions, such as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, James Bond RARELY had an arc. That is a fact. This isn’t debatable. We don’t want him to change. We love him just the way he is. He gets the job done and he does it with style. Can you imagine how different he’d be today if he had a change to his inner nature in every single film? He’d be a villain now, would he not? Bond proves the point that when it comes to franchises, arcs are not a requirement for satisfaction or longevity. I loved the point Ebert made in his Quantum of Solace review about Bond’s best quality. Bond is not some dumb action hero. He is a figure who rises above all of the baddies of the world and rarely lets them get him down. “This is a swampy old world,” Ebert wrote. “The deeper we sink in, the more we need James Bond to stand above it.” Exactly. THAT is the bigger point to his character and why we love to spend time with him again and again and again. Is there anything wrong with that? Hell no.

I am Here for the Learning Revolution

– Not just McKee but most gurus teach you that every protagonist in every story MUST be sympathetic. Then please explain to me the universal appeal of Ebenezer Scrooge. There is joy to be had in watching the transformation of a totally unsympathetic protagonist, is there not? The Lives of Others was a fantastic film about the transformation of a monstrous Hauptmann Gerd Weisler. How about satire? The whole point of satire is to ridicule the protagonist who has to be unsympathetic. Most recently, I watched In the Loop, which had me rolling in laughter. I don’t think there was a sympathetic character anywhere in that film. But, you see, that’s the point because it’s SATIRE. In the end, almost all of those unsympathetic characters got their comeuppance, which is quite satisfying.

– Who is the most complex character in the history of literature? Hamlet. And in McKee’s Story, he praises the complexities of the prince (page 378): “Hamlet isn’t three-dimensional, but ten, twelve, virtually uncountably dimensional. He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To Ophelia he’s first loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash, as he stabs someone hiding behind a curtain without knowing who’s there. Hamlet is ruthless and compassionate, proud and self-satisfying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, sane and mad. His is an innocent worldliness, a worldly innocence, a living contradiction of almost any human qualities we could imagine.” Does that sound like a sympathetic protagonist to you? No.

What was Hamlet’s overriding quality? He was passive.

He is a character with depth, which is far more intriguing and valuable to the art of storytelling than flat sympathy. Hamlet was so brilliant that he is the only character in all of Shakespeare’s canon who could have written his own play. But what was Hamlet’s overriding quality? He was passive. He was caught inside a revenge story and yet because he was so brilliant, he was free from it. He could see all sides of everything and pontificated as much. He could exact revenge – or not. It didn’t matter, because he saw everything. He was, as Harold Bloom wrote, “a reflecting pool, a spacious mirror in which we needs must see ourselves.” It was through his passive nature that the genius of Shakespeare and his life-altering poetry shined through in ways never seen before.

So what say you? Shall we dumb down the art of storytelling to simplistic formulas or shall we find inspiration in the greatest characters ever created and shoot for the moon?

To Hell with Structure

Let me say, first of all, that every aspiring writer should be experts on structure, especially the 3-act form. You should know the 3-act backwards and forwards, and I don’t mean being book smart about it, either. I don’t care how easily you can rattle off to anyone anywhere how the structure works. I’m talking about the knowledge that comes from the experience of writing many, many scripts within the 3-act structure. You need enough writing experience in your life of shaping stories to fit the 3-act structure, of building tension, of molding that rising climax, and creating satisfying payoffs so that you can feel the 3-act structure in your bones as you compose a story. That never happens overnight.

The 3-act structure is nothing less than a cheap security blanket for the most insecure industry in the world.

But once you accomplish that, you should say, “To hell with structure.”

Truth be told, the 3-act structure is nothing less than a cheap security blanket for the most insecure industry in the world. The people of Hollywood cannot free themselves from the absurd belief that the structures of previously successful 3-act films will guarantee success in future stories. While I certainly love Casablanca, I would never tell anyone that this one script should be the model for all screenplays. How fucking ridiculous is that? Who wants to see a thousand variations of Casablanca? Each genre has its own unique set of rules and clichés. What works in one story in one genre does not necessarily work in another story in another genre. Not every compelling story can be so easily shoehorned into the sometimes simplistic and formulaic 3-act structure. There is so much joy to be had from so many other structures, such as The Godfather, which was a 4-act structure like many Italian operas.

Anarky For Ever

Alfred Hitchcock was notorious for breaking structure. Many of us think back on the Psycho shower scene as being shocking by the fact that there was this surprising, scary, brutal murder that took place in the shower. However, we forget that so much of the shock in that moment sprung from the fact that Hitchcock was killing off his protagonist. We were following this woman and getting involved in the drama of her life and then – eek-eek-eek! – she’s dead. Gone. Hitch totally pulled the rug out from underneath us and we were suddenly lost, narratively speaking, by her death. Who do we follow now? Where does the story go? We’re all alone in this motel with this crazy killer! Has there ever been a guru suggesting that great horror films should follow Hitch’s model of Psycho by killing off the protagonist halfway into the film? Who says you can’t kill off your protagonist? A good long study of Hitchcock reveals many, many interesting (and successful!) breaks in structure.

Question: do you honestly think that by following formula and doing what everyone else is already doing is going to get you noticed? Consider how Memento put Christopher Nolan on the map or how Pulp Fiction made Quentin Tarantino famous or how Rashomon shined a light of well deserved international acclaim onto Akira Kurosawa, one of my favorite directors. Most recently, we had the non-linear narrative approach of (500) Days of Summer written by first-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber. I recall Kelly Masterson’s debut screenplay, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, was a break in structure that impressed Sidney Lumet enough to turn into a film. An argument could be made that new writers with structurally ground-breaking work move to the front of the line.

But have solid reasons for doing what you’re doing and never lose sight of the fact that your characters always come first. You find success by how the break in structure serves your characters.

Final Thoughts

So how can we start a revolution? Hmm. I’ll toss up three ideas:

  • By rejecting the simplistic formulas and structures outlined by the gurus.
  • By embracing experimentation.
  • By supporting each other as a community.

What say you, readers?

– Mystery Man

I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.

I also write for Script Magazine.


photo credits:

I am Here for the Learning Revolution

22 thoughts on “A Screenwriting Revolution!”

  1. Yep – food for thought.
    After seeing so many films this summer and just automatically sitting back thinking… inciting incident….point of no return Act 2…false victory Act 3 …etc. It can all get a bit ho hum. The best film I know had no character arc – just a revealling character. In fact, everyone changed except the hero.

    • I think even audience who haven’t read about structure are overly aware of it in this day and age. I think everyday audiences are more then ready for some more progressive forms of narrative structure.

    • “But what was Hamlet’s overriding quality? He was passive.”
      Erm no, he wasn’t. He fronts up to his father’s ghost,he puts on an “antic disposition”,he rigs the Mousetrap to trick Claudius, he torments Ophelia, he stabs an unknown figure behind the arras, he brilliantly uncovers the Rosenkrantz-Guildernstern murder plot on the way to the UK and does a switcheroo on them, he fights Laertes in the swordfight. Passive??!!
      OK, at times he disastrously DELAYS (eg not killing Claudius in prayer – though he gives a clear reason for this). He thinks about whether to kill himself – but decides not to. Bad timing and hesitancy are two of his major problems. Inaction? No way. Other we’d have a play as inert as the Coens’ A Serious Man, ie something that would never have been performed for several 100 years.

      2) Your point about (a) Bond disproving the need for transformation is undermined by your next paragraphs where you write of how satisfying it is to watch Ebenezer Scrooge’s (er) transformation. You’ve contradicted yourself.

      One more point; glad to see you emphasising structure. Whether it’s 3 act, 4 act or non-linear is beside the point. For maximum effectiveness you need structure of some description rather than just letting a story unfold in some haphazard rambling way.

      • I believe MM was saying it was Hamlet’s “overriding” quality, not his only quality, and that was what what made him the complex figure he was.

        As for the second point, he did not contradict himself. He clearly allows for a wider view that has room for transforming protagonists and no-transforming protagonists. I’ve recently made the point on my own blog, The Last Reveal, that when the protagonist does not transform there is still a transformation, and it is in the audience’s understanding at the protagonist’s expense.

        In fact all arcs are actually always either single or two-fold: in the audience or in both the protagonist and the audience. And plot assembly – what most people see as structure – is purely a surface operation. It can range from 1 act, through 3-act, and beyond, almost to infinity when one considers television meta-stories encompassing years of episodes. The most common feature film structure is 3-act, but ALL THAT JAZZ and FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL are 5-act, for example, as are most of Shakespeare’s plays. WILD THINGS is a bad example of 7-act structure shoe-horned into 95 minutes. But, as I show in my analyses of these films from a couple months back, they also exhibit a deeper 3-part structure of character/audience transformation.

        The way to look at it, I believe is multi-level, with the surface structure carrying the plot, and the deep structure carrying what the plot’s events mean.

  2. I totally agree.
    We as writers create rules for our selves to help craft our stories, but these rules were created to be broken. Many writers use these rules (i.e. An inciting incident MUST happen on page 35) as a crutch and never let go only to their dismay.

    When I write I try to make it a rule (like mentioned before I usually break this rule) to keep about 49% of traditional western story structure and come up with my own structure for the rest. The three act structure is not the Bible; it’s merely a template that should be modified for each story.

  3. I’m with you!

    Bond is simply Bond – a simple man. However, it is the playing of the character that offers us change. The character on the page will differ to the character on the screen – it has to, page and screen are different entities. Any filmmaker will tell you, and it isn’t too hard to see, that there is a very real world of difference once we move from the page to the performance – with much happening in that process. Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Daniel Craig – the page is consistent, the screen is not. Even if only subtle, the changes are obvious – otherwise why would we have favourite Bonds?

    Point being…… See More

    I believe a similar thing happens with a screenplay – each screenplay will have its own philosophy, atmosphere and mood, just as each Bond actor brings with him unique qualities. We could not force Moore’s suave humour onto Daniel Craig – or have Craig imitate Moore, it doesn’t work, Craig is Craig, Moore is Moore, Connery is Connery – by the same token it doesn’t often work when one attempts to force a screenplay to match the beats of another. For each screenplay there is an instinctual beat to be found which, upon tuning into it, should help guide the structure.

    I’m all for a revolution – the formulas are tools, there to help us, not the other way around.

    Best regards,


  4. My initial drive to start blogging was inspired by the Australian situation. Mystery Man is talking about the actual Hollywood Output. They are two very different things. (Both have a place on the blog, I think.)

    When I look at Australian writing, both produced and unproduced, I find writers aren’t even scratching the surface of what is possible. They are completely and utterly ignorant of how structure works, i.e. how audiences perceive the various ways in which a story can be told.

    Who’s to blame?

    I don’t know. It’s a vicious circle. Writers are ignorant because they don’t know where to learn it, so they turn to the one with the loudest mouth. Internationally that’s McKee and locally … Well, let’s not go there as I hear similar stories of teachers bullying writers.

    So Australia needs a Revolution of its own kind. A different kind than Hollywood.

    Speaking of which… Surely there is room for more daring storytelling in Hollywood. The past two years have shown us that formulaic storytelling such as AVATAR works well, but a more daring approach such as THE DARK KNIGHT works, too. (Only, the latter was a franchise, so there’s still that other security blanket.)

    About McKee, I find he has virtually nothing interesting to say about structure. His approach is so bland and non-committal that he’s eclipsed by a dozen other ‘gurus’ when it comes to that. Surely, he says a few valid things about SCENE design, but ironically he does NOT deliver on the title of his book in terms of STORY structure.

    I love structure. But that doesn’t stop at the 3-Act Structure. I love analyzing how writers show a much deeper understanding of drama, anticipation, dramatic irony, Hero’s Journey etc.

    Admittedly, much of this is after-the-fact analysis that is hard to use when you’re in the creative zone. It’s RE-writing stuff. But what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what professional writing is mostly about?

    I do have some questions about parts of MM’s militant attack: I don’t see why people who have studied story and written it down, shouldn’t be rewarded for it. If you can afford them, why not BUY the books? I don’t see why teachers who can help writers to crack the foundations before they continue doing their own work shouldn’t be rewarded. (Other teachers get paid, too?) Meanwhile, I’ll continue to contribute to our community for free.

    But taking the guru’s models for granted is like copying your favorite writer’s dialogue lines. It’s derivative as hell. First learn the craft, then shape your own voice and style by bending (and breaking?) some rules.

    So bottom line: I completely endorse the core of MM’s argument as personally I’d love to see a more diverse mix of movies. It’s perfectly possible to be entertaining without copying a formula that has been done to death.

    But it takes talent, skill and hard hard work.

    End of rant.

    • “But it takes talent, skill and hard hard work.”

      True Karel… though I believe it takes one more quality and that is “to give a sh*t whilst not giving a sh*t at all”.

      I know. So Zen.

      Care about the story without caring about whether this story will ever succeed. When “they” say “no fear” I think they’re referring to having no fear of failure.

      That’s why Gurus exist, cause everyone wants to strike it rich and get it right first time and not spend 5 years on a dead end structure they couldn’t crack. And Gurus have to have a cookie cutter philosophy that (a) differentiates themselves from each other and (b) can be simply reduced to a book, cause that is where the most profit is gleaned for least amount of sweat.

      So the real bad guy in this equation is the social structure built on paying the mortgage and keeping up with the Jones.

      The Gurus are just paying their mortgages the best/quickest way they know how. As script writers, a lot of us are doing the same.

      Ignore that and look the other way and there you’ll see true originality staring you down and asking “you game hombre? (or the feminine equivalent… my spanish is rusty)”. Sure maybe no-one will ever make that film, but what would one rather “the okay film that got lost amongst all the other stuff released last summer” or “the greatest script they never made”. As a scriptwriter I know where my coat hangs.

  5. my musings – Structure is absolutely necessary in the first draft to enable your screen story to find its way to an audience. Without it your film is doomed. But how many know how to use it effectively and then can pull off pissing it off? Unless you are a writer with a gazillion credits you wouldn’t dare or your work will never get past the readers let alone into a producers hands. You have to play by the rules if you want to work. However I believe that the subsequent drafts and the rewriting are where you find the space for experimentation, finding a unique voice that can deliver a solid audience to see your film. With many films taking years to get to the screen or rather to get from the writers hands to a producers, this time lapse allows you to have lived with your story and to have had ample opportunity to inhale its essence. This is the headspace where magic happens and no guru can teach this. But with all of their teachings, its impossible to ignore the guru’s. Some do need a hard stab with a pen in places I wont mention (use your imagination), but bully’s are bully’s because we let them. Many writers just extract what they need and create their own principles to use in their work. Wether it works can only be judged by individual credits :)

  6. Thanks all for the interesting discussion. Maybe something sparks when you put Bond and Hamlet in the same room.

    Does Bond transform? I’d say to a degree. The gig usually goes from fulfill the brief to something more personal, usually through choosing the good girl over the bad girl and falling for her, if only in a Playboy magazine kind of way.

    Is Hamlet passive? Hollywood doesn’t make tragedies very often and it’s easy to forget what a tragic hero looks like. Hamlet is that most tragic of figures, a loser who deserved to win. He makes decisions, he acts, but under the auspice of a cruel god (Shakespeare) it is always the wrong decision. Arguably Hamlet succeeds, in a suicide bomber kind of way, in taking the ‘rotten’ ruling class of Denmark down with him.

  7. “First and foremost, a writer ought to know how write and a screenplay ought to look like a damn screenplay.”

    I stopped there. “To know how write?”

    How about learning to proofread, Howie?

  8. Is this really relevant to the Aussie film industry ?
    I can’t believe that idea that our local films are ‘following a set story structure and failing because of it.’

    Is there a single Australian film that has failed because it was following the Hollywood formula?

    Let’s look at some examples:

    ‘Candy’ was released in 2006. Its theatrical run in the USA sold fewer than 5000 tickets.
    That’s in a country with 300 MILLION people.

    What went wrong?
    (1) Was it the lack of a star?
    No. In fact, it starred Heath Ledger who was the hot star at the time – Brokeback Mountain had just been released.
    (2) Was it because it followed a simplistic Hollywood formula?
    No. In fact, it did the exact opposite. The formula would say have a happy ending, etc.

    So what was it?
    The reason seems obvious – it was a story about a drug addict’s life spiralling out of control.
    People simply don’t want to watch those kinds of movies in the theatre.
    It might have been beautifully filmed and amazingly acted.
    You could have the hottest name at the time and people simply won’t go to see the film.

    So why on earth did we spend money to make it?

    Another example:

    ‘Closed for Winter’ was released in March 2009.
    As far as I know, it hasn’t had a theatrical run in the USA.
    In Australia it looks like it only had fewer than five thousand tickets sold.

    It was beautifully filmed. A masterpiece.

    So what went wrong?
    (1) Was it the lack of a star?
    No – it had Natalie Imbruglia, which at least for a certain audience should have been a big help.
    (2) Was it because it followed a simplistic Hollywood formula?
    No. In fact, it did the exact opposite.

    The director James Bogle explained at the premiere screening that he wanted it to be slice of character – not a Hollywood story.
    And that’s what it is. Beautifully made, but doesn’t follow a story. Tragic events happen.
    People are sad. Nothing is resolved.

    And, not surprisingly, the audience wasn’t interested.

    So why do we keep making films that we know aren’t going to interest theatre audiences?

    If we want to argue that we aren’t ‘theatre audiences aren’t important’, then good.

    We can all agree that theatrical runs aren’t everything.

    But there is no point in spending the extra money to make it suitable for a theatrical run if we know that the story isn’t suitable.
    We can stop aiming for a theatrical run and aim for straight to DVD .. or straight to Youtube or iTunes download.
    It could have found a wider audience and they could have saved money on the production costs.

    Can anyone think of an Australian film that failed to an audience because it was following the Hollywood formula too closely?

    Is that really the problem ?


    • Mac, I believe the issue is that film makers in Australia wish to be know as artists rather than commercial artists (that in their eyes are sell outs). Being in the arts industry for some time now I know that there is a lot of bickering about independent artists selling out to become commercial and being driven by greed than truly providing thought provoking pieces to stimulate the mind than the economy.

      The thing is with the arts world, we need to make a commercial product to prove to the powers at be that we have a name that attracts. Once we’ve made that point in our career, we’re free to do whatever we like. Musicians are the perfect example of this. They release albums that provide commercial success to their name and as more albums are released the styles and personality of the band evolve in to their own – rather than what the studio wants. We as film makers must do the same, build our reputation for breeding success and then we’ll be free to do as we please.

  9. Wow this post has people fired up. As they say, “everyone’s an expert”.
    My 2 cents are this:
    A film is about how it makes you feel. Excited, happy, bored etc… The most successful films are the ones that have feeling, even if that feeling is gratuitous. In the end the structure is only a piece of the puzzle for manipulating feeling. A good writer will use structure (plot) together with character, setting and mood to manipulate the viewer’s emotions.
    If the viewer likes the way their emotions were manipulated, they will like the experience. If not they will not like the experience. Regardless of how it is done; even by large transforming robots or blue faced aliens.

    By the way that’s patented theory by me, so don’t forget to cite :)

  10. I agree with MM’s assessment of character arcs. Many great film characters don’t have an arc, and that is what makes them great. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness)in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” does not change. Neither does Patton (George C. Scott) evolve from a blood and guts general into a peace loving hippie. And we follow Burt Munroe’s journey in “The World’s Fastest Indian” because he has one aim and one aim only – to win a motorbike speed record. This one aim makes him a changeless character, and we admire him for his tenancity.

    There must be somewhere some erudite literature on character arcs in American films and the belief in redemption and self improvement. This quasi-religous concept is in contrast to the European tradition of a more rigid society that places less emphasis on the individual.

  11. I think you do McKee a disservice. Having sat through 4 long days of listening to him, I didn’t feel bullied at all. He was an amazing guy to listen to.

    He was clear and upfront about what he was trying to do. His book and lecture are about condensing down the elements of story down to some basic concepts. And they work. No question about it.

    He was also totally clear about the following point. Once you know these rules and you’ve mastered the craft, go out and break the hell out of them.

    Funny really that you should be trying to shoot McKee down, as you both seem to be saying exactly the same thing. McKee would be the first to admit that there are successful exceptions to the rules.


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