Jeffrey Hirschberg says: “While it is impossible to have a foolproof formula, I have learned certain principles dramatically increase the probability of your story achieving a modicum of greatness.”
by Jeffrey Hirschberg
Throughout my years of screenwriting I have read and analyzed thousands of scripts from writers of all levels, including screenplays from my students at Buffalo State College, Cornell University, Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, and R.I.T.’s School of Film and Animation. Here is what I discovered during this time:
1. Assume everyone has A.D.D.
There has never been a greater truism in Hollywood. While I am guilty of playing dime store psychologist, one does not need a PhD in Clinical Psychology to conclude that audiences (that means us) tend to have short attention spans.
“Attentiveness (or lack thereof) of the audience is directly related to its ability to make a successful emotional connection.”
Now, we can argue there are certain external factors contributing to a population of diminishing attention spans (MTV, video games, text messaging, IM, and the Internet to name a few possible culprits), but it is safe to say that the attentiveness (or lack thereof) of the audience is directly related to its ability to make a successful emotional connection – and that connection must be made quickly, or you will lose your audience even more quickly.
Readers, like moviegoers, need to be entertained very quickly.
2. Spend most of your time on the first ten pages of your script
In Gladiator, we are immediately engaged as we are introduced to our hero – General Maximus – and the respect he commands from the Roman army. Add an action-packed, bloody opening battle to the mix, and we are sold.
In Pulp Fiction, the first ten pages of the script feature a restaurant robbery and the prophetic musings of two unforgettable hit men. The dialogue is fresh, imaginative, and unrelenting in its pace and originality. If you are a reader perusing the screenplay, you undoubtedly want to continue turning the page.
When you are finished with your script, give the first ten pages to a group of friends or family you trust. Then ask each of them one simple question: “Do you want to read more?” If the overwhelming response is in the affirmative, you are on the right road to writing a memorable screenplay.
3. Write roles to attract movie stars
Create a memorable hero or villain and chances are you just might attract a movie star to your script. Why? Because characters like the heroes and villains featured in my book are unique, intelligent, and intriguing people with magnetism to spare. Who wouldn’t want to play Hans Gruber, Norma Rae Webster, Hannibal Lecter, Ellen Ripley, or Gordon Gekko?
You may also want to watch films that feature Academy Award-winning roles.
Movie stars can buy anything from Porsches to Picassos; they have adoring fans throughout the world who will wait for hours to get a glimpse of them; and they are told by sycophantic agents, managers, attorneys, studio executives, PR professionals, writers, producers, and directors that they are nothing less than the great Da Vinci reincarnated.
“Who wouldn’t want to play Hans Gruber, Norma Rae Webster, Hannibal Lecter, Ellen Ripley, or Gordon Gekko?”
But, they cannot buy the respect an Academy Award affords them. So, if you can write a juicy role that will attract the attention of one or more movie stars, you just might find yourself in the midst of a studio bidding war.
4. Write economically
Throughout my years of writing and reading screenplays, one of the most common mistakes I have experienced is “overwriting.” This phenomenon often falls into two categories: 1) verbose stage direction; and
2) “on the nose” dialogue.
Verbose Stage Direction
Keep your stage direction short (I recommend trying to keep each paragraph to less than five lines) and to the point. Never forget you are writing a piece of entertainment, and stage direction should entertain as much as it informs us as to the comings and goings of your characters.
“On the Nose” Dialogue
“The point is to make the audience work a bit for the information – not too much.”
Several years ago, I sent a script to my manager and received notes including quite a few pieces of dialogue circled with the comment, “OTN.” I was perplexed and asked him to explain.
He said these were several instances where my dialogue was too “on the nose.” The point is to make the audience work a bit for the information – not too much (we don’t want to frustrate them) – but enough for them to feel emotionally involved in your story.
5. Make sure every character has a unique voice
Movies work most effectively when they are populated with characters that are unique from one another. So, you should try to –
One of the problems I see over and over again with new writers is the depiction of characters who feel familiar and stereotypical. The key is to go against stereotypes, thus providing your audience with the refreshing read they crave.
Surprise us with quirks and unusual traits
Every once in a while, I’ll be sitting in a movie theater and suddenly I’ll discover something fresh and unusual about one of the main characters. It is that feeling of surprise we all desire and unfortunately, those moments are few and far between.
Create someone an actor will love to play
One can only imagine Julie Roberts’ reaction when she read the script for Erin Brockovich. It is simply not the typical role afforded to actresses in Hollywood.
The hero of the film is a quintessentially strong character any actress would love to play. She is confident, bold, sympathetic, and has plenty of memorable monologues. It is a classic underdog story resulting in Roberts winning the Oscar in 2000.
“The hero of the film is a quintessentially strong character any actress would love to play.”
Transform him/her over your story
Rick Blaine in Casablanca is a great example of a hero transforming over the course of the story. At the beginning of the film he confidently states his mantra, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But, at the end of the film, he does just that – sticking his neck out for the woman he loves.
Make everything about his/her journey difficult
We love watching our heroes struggle. What would Raiders of the Lost Ark be if Indiana Jones immediately stumbled upon the Ark of the Covenant and brought it back to America?
What if John McClane burst into the Nakatomi Christmas party and took out Hans Gruber and all of his henchmen in one momentous moment? And, what if Ellen Ripley easily discovered the Alien’s whereabouts as well as a surefire way to destroy the monster? Boring!
6. Understand your audience
When you are writing a screenplay, there are two audiences you should consider: 1) the readers, agents, managers, producers, and studio executives who will be reading your screenplay (aka, the buyers); and 2) the demographic you believe will be most interested in seeing your movie.
If your script is a comedy, it must be funny. If you are writing a horror script, it must be scary. Sounds like common sense? It isn’t. Talk to a professional reader and ask her how many comedy and horror scripts she has read of late that are actually funny and scary. “The comedy scripts are scary and the horror scripts are funny,” is the answer you just might receive.
Re: demographics: Hollywood studios like to categorize the world into four simple compartments, typically referred to as quadrants: 1) Male under 25; 2) Male over 25; 3) Female under 25; and 4) Female over 25.
If you ever wondered why every Pixar film seems to make a billion dollars in worldwide gross and ancillary revenues, it is because the company excels at making Four Quadrant movies – films that appeal equally to males and females under 25 and over 25.
7. Know your three-act structure
Like it or not, Hollywood has a language all its own. Here is what buyers expect from your script:
1. By page ten, they want to be introduced to your hero, what he wants (his goal), and the genre of the story you are telling.
2. By the end of Act One (page twenty-five or so), readers want to know exactly where this story is going, including the stakes (What happens if the hero does not achieve his goal?) and the villain (The person, place, or thing preventing the hero from achieving his goal).
3. By the midpoint (the middle of Act Two, page fifty-five or so), readers like to feel that the stakes for the hero have been raised in some fashion. Maybe a new character has been introduced. Maybe a new obstacle or villain has reared its head. Maybe the hero has experienced a distinct character transformation.
4. By the end of Act Two (page ninety or so), readers presume your hero will be in a heap of trouble. Up until now, the hero may have been steadily moving toward achieving his goal. But at the end of Act Two, things have changed. He has suddenly been put in a corner and the audience is asking itself, “How in the world is he going to get out of this one?”
5. In Act Three, readers want your hero to somehow devise a new plan and escape from the mess that has presented itself at the end of Act Two. This is the big finish.
8. Be aware of theme, and keep it consistent throughout the script
Theme is a tough nut to crack. When I ask my students the theme of Die Hard, they often restate the film’s core concept (or, in Hollywood terms, the “logline”), saying something like, “It’s about a cop thwarting a group of international terrorists while saving his wife and a bunch of innocent people.” While this is true, it doesn’t quite touch on theme.
I then dig deeper, suggesting Die Hard is really about a man trying to reconnect with his wife. True, this reconnection takes place amidst the backdrop of an action-packed heist, but at its core, this is a story about John McClane discovering the importance of family and the love and appreciation he has for his wife, Holly.
9. Watch and re-watch successful movies similar to your story
There is an old adage in Hollywood: They want the same, but different. Because the average studio picture costs over $100 million to produce and market, studios are in the risk aversion business every bit as much as they are in the movie business.
The impact on you is that these buyers of product tend to gravitate toward the familiar – stories they think will have the best chance at attracting a global audience.
10. Know what your hero wants (the goal), what happens if he doesn’t get what he wants (the stakes), and who/what is preventing him from getting what he wants (the villain)
Think about some films you haven’t loved. I bet one of the reasons there was no love connection was because they failed to answer the questions above.
In Toy Story 2, Buzz Lightyear is the primary hero whose goal is to lead a group of toys to save Woody from being sent to a museum in Japan. The primary villain of the story is Al (of “Al’s Toy Barn” fame) and the stakes are simple: If our hero and his team do not achieve their goal, they will never see Woody again.
Jaws is another movie that quickly answers our burning questions. By the end of Act One, we know Police Chief Martin Brody (with the support of Quint and Hooper) is our hero, his goal is to kill the shark, the villain is the shark itself, and the stakes are: If Brody does not achieve his goal, more residents of Amity will die.
11. Leave them wanting more
This Law seems to be as ancient as showbiz itself. Yet it is just as relevant today as it was at the turn of the twentieth century. The Law is really about crafting a memorable, climactic ending that will forever be satisfying to your audience. An outstanding ending can often save a mediocre film while a mediocre ending can often ruin an otherwise outstanding story.
So, does your climax:
1. Feel like a big, fulfilling finish?
2. Reveal a significant character trait of your hero or villain?
3. Resolve the central problem established in Act One?
4. Contain a satisfying surprise?
5. Appear five to twenty minutes or so before the end of the film?
If your story accomplishes all of the above, you are on your way to crafting a memorable tale that will live on in the memories of your audience. Happy writing!
The above article is an abbreviated excerpt from Jeffrey Hirschberg’s recently published book: “Reflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TV.”
Jeffrey Hirschberg is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Television and Film Arts Program at Buffalo State College. A member of the Writers Guild of America and judge for the WGA awards, Jeffrey has been a professional screenwriter for eighteen years and has written and/or created shows for Showtime Networks, Lifetime Television, and ABC. He has worked at NBC, Viacom, and Warner Bros.
I studied acting for three years and hold a graduate diploma in writing from Sydney’s UTS. My interest in film and writing was solidified through interning at The Story Department and gave me the opportunity to fine tune my skills. I’ve been involved with several film projects, the most recent of which was shortlisted for Tropfest.
With the knowledge gained from university and my experience at The Story Department, I’m now specialising in professional feedback on short films and documentaries.
12 thoughts on “11 Laws of Great Storytelling”
Great article, and reminders! I look forward to checking out your book.
I’d characterise that article as a collection of relatively obvious observations combined with downright nonsense. ‘Assume your audience has ADD’? This is precisely what’s wrong with the teaching of Screenwriting – it deifies the Hollywood model and aims for the lowest common denominator. Do the Dardenne Brothers assume their audience has ADD? Does Michael Haneke? Sally Potter? PT Anderson? The Coens? ‘I recommend no more than five lines for screen directions’. I knew a screenwriting student who had got it into her head that dialogue should never be more than 3 lines long. That’s where this kind of insane assumption comes from – idiotic generalisations passed off as professional academic teaching. In one of Syd Fields’ books he says quite non-ironically that “American screenplays tend to be 120 pages and European screenplays tend to be 90 pages”. What on earth was going on in his head when he wrote that? I would like to see Mr Hirschberg explain why the screenplays for Truffauts The 400 Blows, Melvilles Le Samourai, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves, and Antonioni’s Blow Up make for such wonderful cinema. It’s certainly not because of anything in the above article.
An assistant professor should know the difference between a law and a helpful tip – these are not remotely like laws. Neither are they about storytelling, but deal with screenwriting. The term ‘storytelling’ may be constantly stolen by those wanting to gain credibility by association with an ancient oral art, but the ancient oral art is still practiced today by plenty of us and is a lot more sophisticated than this rather sorry collection of tips is aware of.
Neilan, do you read screenplays by aspiring screenwriters? I find that these observations are not obvious. They are an excellent summary of some of the key problems.
Tim, thank you for your comment. You are right and I do sincerely hope most readers will understand that they are not breaking the law by ignoring these tips (LOL).
I do however agree that screenwriting and storytelling are often confused and this is not always helpful.
That said, it is necessary to update our terminology to fit the times we live in.
I believe the main contemporary forms of storytelling are TV drama, news and advertising.
Having re-read my original comment, that sounded a lot ruder than I’d meant it to sound. The tone of the comment was wrong, but the point was not.
I do read screenplays by aspiring writers.
With the exceptions of point 7, point 10 and point 11, the article has no level of expertise and could have been written by any relatively well informed film student.
Point 7 could have been written by anyone who has skim-read McKee or Field, and presumes to make imprecise generalisations sound like steadfast laws: ‘by page 10 readers expect to be introduced to your hero, what he wants, and the genre’ – I’ve heard the same thing said by readers, producers, writers and academics who’ve placed it at page 2, page 4, page 5, page 10, page 15… all with similarly misleading finality, without a detailed explanation.
Point 10 is useful and accurate, but ultra simplified, and with absolutely no disclaimer mentioning what an ultra simplification this is. Simplifications can be useful, especially to novices, but only when treated as such, otherwise they quickly lead to cliche and can stunt a young writer’s progress – like a guitarist or pianist learning a song he is not skilled enough to play at full speed, and therefore learning his mistakes and imperfections along with the melody. And I’ll give an example of a film I and many other grown-ups love that disproves the first paragraph of point 10: Taxi Driver.
As for Point 11, everything except sub-points 2 and 3 (revealing a significant character trait, resolving the central problem) could have been written by an amateur. It could have been written by a dentist who likes to go to the cinema a lot. It’s full of vague generalisations, and contains little or no insight into the craft of screenwriting.
I apologise for my first rudely worded comment.
I do wonder though if you could address some of the examples I gave in relation to the points made in this article? The Dardenne Brothers? Michael Haneke? PT Anderson? The Coens? Or even the case of Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver? The 400 Blows? Le Samourai? The Bicycle Thieves?
Could you explain Taxi Driver in terms of “The Goal”, “The Stakes” and “The Villain”?
Hey there, I linked to this article in December, but thought I’d drop by to throw in my 2 cents. I agree that most of them are things you’ve heard before, but I do actually like the A.D.D. point as I do think audience’s attention spans are growing shorter and shorter.
One thing, though, that I think is really wrong is his analysis of the characters in “Toy Story 2”. I originally wrote:
Big Al is NOT the villain of Toy Story 2. He is not actively preventing the other toys from saving Woody. Stinky Pete is. Stinky Pete is the Antagonist of the film, even if it isn’t revealed until much later in the story. His efforts were always there, just hidden from us. Big Al is the Contagonist of the film, meaning he is the character who generally gets in the way, driven by the temptation of making big bucks off of the little toys.
Yeah this is what STUDIOS want a director or screenwriter to follow, I’m pretty sure the Coen bros or Terrance Malick or a handful of other directors with substatial credibility don’t follow more then half of these rules. This isn’t a rule guide, it’s a fall short and play it safe guide. How about a page that shows why movies don’t need to fall into the studio system, only making movies for money and not for storytelling. Because this article hits every single action/comic money making only movie I can think of.