Steven Barnes' Free Writing Class!
"Introduction to Screenwriting"
Although the basic structure of: SITUATION, CHARACTER,
OBJECTIVE, OPPONENT, DISASTER remains the method of choice for
diagramming basic plot structure (insuring that all basic elements
are in place), and GOAL, CONFLICT, DISASTER, REACTION, DILEMMA,
DECISION is the preferred method for diagramming basic plot
dynamics (regulating the flow of action), there are many, many
other ways of looking at the basic questions. Although I don't
like to confuse you (yeah, sure), it is useful to look at some
of the other methods which have proved useful.
One which is WAY more than just "Useful" is the "Hero's Journey",
as described by Joseph Campbell. (NOTE: Read "Hero With a
Thousand Faces"). What Campbell says is that there is only
one story, and that humanity has been telling this same story
to itself since the beginning of time. You can find it, one
way or another, in either complete, truncated, or artistically
inverted form, in almost any story which has stood the test
The basic pattern of this "Hero's Journey" goes as follows
(with examples from that most obvious example of cinematic myth
structure, STAR WARS. If you haven't seen this movie, RENT IT.
And yeah, yeah, I know that my quotes are a little off, but
I'm doing this from memory. Whattaya want? I've only seen it
- The Hero is PRESENTED WITH A CHALLENGE
("Your father was a great Jedi, Luke. You, too must
learn the ways of the Force.") In TWISTER, the male scientist
is offered the chance to go off and chase tornadoes, and see
his invention implemented.
- Initially he/she REJECTS THE CHALLENGE.
("I promised Uncle Owen I'd help him bring in the crops...")
In ROCKY, Balboa says that he can't fight the Champ, Apollo
Creed. "It wouldn't be too good a fight."
- The Hero is forced to ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE.
("Oops! My family's been conveniently slaughtered! Guess I'll
follow that Yellow Brick Road...") In DIGGSTOWN, Lou Gossette
is conned into accepting the challenge to fight 10 men.
- The Hero sets out along the ROAD OF
TRIALS ("You'll not find a more wretched hive of scum
and villainy..."). In PRIVATE BENJAMIN, Goldie Hawn undergoes
- The Hero gains ALLIES AND POWERS
(Obie-Wan, R2-D2, C3PO, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia.
Light saber. The Force. Ability to handle anti-Tie-Fighter
energy weapons, etc.). In INDEPENDENCE DAY, an ensemble film,
the Hero is probably the President. He gathers the Good General,
the Brilliant Scientist, the Kickass Pilot, the Heroic Drunk,
etc. Powers would include knowledge of the alien design, a
working saucer, a convenient computer virus, and that great
movie staple, the Spontaneous Mega-Speech.
- The Hero has his/her INITIAL CONFRONTATION
WITH EVIL. During this confrontation, the Hero is DEFEATED.
Luke escapes the Death Star, but his mentor Obie-Wan is killed.
In THE ROCK, Nicolas Cage is captured and put in a cell.
- The Hero enters the DARK NIGHT OF THE
SOUL. (This isn't Luke so much as the entire Rebel
Force [and for that matter, the audience] when they are all
gettin' righteously slaughtered over the Death Star. All seems
lost. Luke is going down the trench, and his back-up men are
getting blown to hell. What's that sound? Why, its two billion
moviegoers, all over the world, holding their collective breath).
In ALIENS, Ripley emerges onto the platform with Newt in tow,
and finds her transport gone. Horrific moment. ("Close your
eyes, Baby--") Yuck.
- The Hero takes the LEAP OF FAITH. ("Trust
the Force, Luke." ) This step always involves coming to trust
a hitherto un-trusted source of power. This power is usually
one of three things.
a) One's own untapped ability.
b) A higher power
c) The strength and integrity of one's companions.
In (appropriately enough) LEAP OF FAITH, Steve Martin forces
himself to believe that something miraculous may actually
have occurred. That he may not be a complete conman...that
there may actually be good in the world.
- The Hero CONFRONTS EVIL AGAIN,
and this time is VICTORIOUS. (The death star blows up) In
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, Jimmy Stewart lets a little
daylight into Lee Marvin's skull. (Or does he?)
- The Student becomes the Teacher.
(Implied in Star Wars, fulfilled in Return of the Jedi, when
Luke is ready to accept his own students, being a fully-fledged
Jedi--or even more specifically, when he "Teaches" Darth Vader
the way back to the Light Side of the Force.) This is often
explicit in films. Most recently, in THAT THING YOU DO, the
hero picks up the threads of his life and eventually opens
a conservatory of music. Other examples are too numerous to
The above is an interweaving of plot and characterization. If
you look too long at the argument "What's more important? Plot
or character?" You'll go dizzy, because they are in essence the
same thing. In other words, the only way you get to know a character
is by what they do. The exploration of a plot is always the revelation
of how a human being reacts to circumstance. The basic EVENT in
"The Towering Inferno" is a building burning. But the various
characters are revealed and deepened as they interact with this
Abraham Maslow suggests a hierarchy of human needs. Until the
basic ones are taken care of, people don't care much about the
higher ones. Although there are always variations, one useful
way to look at this "hierarchy" is:
- Core physical survival. Life and Death.
- Physical comfort, pleasing environment. Clothing and shelter.
- Emotional balance and security. The feeling of love.
- Personal expression.
- Intellectual growth. Learning and teaching.
- Spiritual enlightenment, religious discipline.
NOTE:--I am NOT saying that this is the only order for these concerns.
It is probably vital for you to have an idea what priority you
DO believe in, however--this will reflect itself in your writing
for the rest of your life.
Interestingly, the more your story deals with the basic levels
(1,2,3) the wider the potential audience for your story. And
the faster you establish one of these basic seven issues as
the "At-Stake" (what does someone want? Survival? Sex? Wealth
and power? Love? Learning or teaching? Discover? God-realization?)
the faster your audience will identify. And until your audience
identifies, all of the car-chases in the world will have zero
Conversely, (or perversely, perhaps,) once you have established
a good character, I want to see that character tested to the
max. There was a Medieval concept in play writing called the
"Mindworm" which is quite useful.
Imagine that there was a little worm that would crawl
into the ear of your lead character, and eat them all up. This
is exactly what a story is supposed to do. Over the course of
a story, we are supposed to learn everything important that
there is to know about the main character. The situation, in
other words, is supposed to be extreme enough to "empty them
out." All courage, ingenuity, heart--everything, out there on
the table. Everything you consider of importance must be shown
to the audience. Don't leave an ounce of passion, heroism, or
problem-solving capacity undisplayed--or you have cheated both
audience and character.
That means that the events must be scaled to match the character.
The good news is that once you have learned this concept, you
are ready to write your story.
Why, you ask?
Because, given the tools you now possess, you can start ANYWHERE
in the process, and end up with a complete product.
Don't believe me? All right, what if you only have a scrap
of a scene. Or just a character. Or the beginning of a movie.
Or the end. Just ask yourself the following questions.
Are you beginning to see? You bounce these elements around in
your mind, using these basic patterns until something the size
and shape of a story begins to emerge. Then, you rope, tie, and
write that dogie down.
- Who would consider this situation to be their worst nightmare?
- How could it turn out to be the best thing that ever happened
- Who would love this situation?
- How could it turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened
- What is your character's attitude toward each of the seven
major needs/personality traits? How would you describe them
on each level? What happens in the script which tests them
on these levels?
- What would happen just before this scene, to trigger it?
What would happen just after this scene, as a result of it?
- What would your lead character's worst nightmare be? Fondest
Go back over this class, and extract
the questions I have been asking. And begin to apply them to
your project. I want to see:
- Plot breakdown (Situation, Character, Objective, Opponent,
- Dynamics (GOAL, CONFLICT, DISASTER, REACTION, DILEMMA, DECISION)
- Mythic Understructure (challenge, rejection, acceptance,
road of trials, allies and powers, meet evil--defeated, dark
night, leap of faith, confront evil--victorious, student becomes
teacher) Remember that these are the basic "colors" of drama.
An artist takes these apart, plays against them, inverts,
minimalizes--all sorts of fun can be had. But if you are a
beginner, simply do your best to match story elements to this
structure. The mental work, though exhausting, will be more
valuable than you can believe.
- Character (Describe your lead characters on each of the
AND START WRITING!!!
See you next week!