Steven Barnes' Free Writing Class!
"Introduction to Screenwriting"
Hi, there, and Welcome back!
probably noticed by now that this is pretty high-level material.
In fact, you could probably take the information in any one
week and stretch it out into an ordinary 10-week class.
Hell with it. I'm making the assumption that some of you out
there are red-hot, and ready to trot. The others? Well, it's
a computer class, after all. Just print everything out, and
go over it and over it and over it. Get together with a group
of friends, and study it.
The first time I ever understood the structure of humor was, curiously
enough, a Rodney Dangerfield joke. For the following joke to have
the appropriate effect, please imagine me 60 pounds heavier, 20
years older, and considerably whiter.
I am also tugging at my tie with one finger. Repeat after me:
"I don't get no respect." Excellent. Here's the joke:
"I took my girlfriend to a party
last weekend. We ran into her ex-boyfriend. Six foot two. Blond
hair. Blue eyes. She said: `George, this is Rodney. Rodney, this
Do you understand why this joke works? And it did: it brought
the house down. The reason it works is multifaceted, so let's
go into it.
- Rodney Dangerfield's personae. What is it? We said it at
the beginning: "I don't get no respect". He is the perpetual
underdog. This sets up the context for the joke. In other
words, you know he is going to get the worst of it in any
conceivable situation. As soon as he says "I took my girlfriend
to a party." you already know what's going to happen--he is
going to be shamed or abandoned. Why is this funny? BECAUSE
HUMOR IS A RELEASE OF TENSION. Much, or most humor, is based
on cruelty. Puns and certain kinds of visual or conceptual
humor are excluded from this. But a HUGE percentage of the
things that people laugh at are things they would never want
happening to them. We have all been hurt by loved ones: abandoned,
betrayed, embarrassed, cheated on, or misunderstood. It HURTS,
dammit. So comedians like Dangerfield operate like cultural
lightning rods. They experience our pain, we empathize and
say: "Better him than me", and get to discharge our own anxiety.
The result is laughter.
- "We ran into her ex-boyfriend. Six foot two, blond hair,
blue eyes". OH. Now, we know exactly what is going to happen.
Rodney is going to be abandoned. She is going to leave him
cold. We can already feel the anxiety building. Oh, the pain.
When and where it happens are the only remaining questions.
- "George, this is Rodney. Rodney, this is Goodbye". WHAM,
he hits you with the punch line faster than you expected it
to come. The result? The tension is released, laughter occurs.
The art of humor is important, because humor, horror, suspense
and dramatic tension are all part and parcel of the same thing.
Call it "Twisting the Story Line." This is the ability to create
tension or expectation in your audience, and then pay it off in
a fashion that they don't anticipate. This is crucial. If they
know ahead of time how you're going to "do them," it won't be
as devastating. Suspense, dramatic tension, and humor are art
of the unexpected.
Yet and still, the entire plot and structure has to make sense
in retrospect, so that the reader or viewer looks back across
the structure and marvels. So, unexpected, but LOGICAL. At least,
"Pulp Fiction" is a gorgeous example of a screenplay which
makes complete sense in retrospect, but defies the viewer's
attempts to predict its twists and turns.
In order to manipulate plot elements artistically, in order to
be able to feel your way into a plot and turn it over to your
subconscious, you must find a plot structure which works for you,
makes sense to you, and then watch hundreds of movies, hundreds
of television episodes, read hundreds of books, and apply your
model to each of them--until you can FEEL your way through a story,
until you have an instinct for what goes on under the surface.
Only then will you be able to fix problems in your writing--and
every project should be problematic, or else you are operating
below your level of competency, and that, my friend, is what
is known as Hack Work. What you want to be always pushing the
edge of your ability. THAT is what creates growth, and self-exploration,
and that elusive quality known as "Art."
All of these plot structures are designed to ensure that you have
the basic elements in play (structure) and that they flow toward
higher and higher levels of tension, or deeper and deeper levels
of discovery. But you CANNOT simply have a story get tenser and
tenser and tenser--the viewer will burn out. Nor can you just
reveal character endlessly. The audience will say: "So what? Don't
these people ever DO anything?"
Now, obviously, there ARE movies
which are endless cycles of incident, with no character at all.
Check out the Kung Fu section of the local video store for some
hideous examples of this. Or the Porno section, for that matter.
And there are movies which are all character and no incident.
These crop up in art houses all the time. Check out "My Dinner
With Andre." Well, at least in "My Dinner," they TALK about
The cycles of outer action/ inner reflection form the compression/release
cycle which locks your viewer into the story. This is what "addicts"
them to the story, creates the suspension of disbelief, and
makes a perfectly reasonable, rational person willing to watch
flickering images against a wall for two hours, and react emotionally
as if it is all quite real. In another time, this would be called
insanity. In the 20th Century, it's called Buying Your Mercedes.
There is a useful way to find the thing that you should write
about. And that is to ask yourself the question: what are you
most passionately interested in? Hmmm? What do you really care
about the most? What devils you? Drives you? What imagery pops
up in your dreams most regularly (and I assume you have been keeping
your dream diaries.)
What obstacles have arisen most often to stop you from getting
the things you want in life? What recurring goals have you pursued,
and what has kept you pursuing them? What is the ideal life
that you envision for yourself, and what is the price you would
have to pay in order to reach it?
These questions, and others like them, are deviling your characters
as well. If you tie the answers to these questions into your
various characters, you begin to flesh your story out, as well
as making the work of deep, personal worth. And making a story
personally relevant is the key to tapping your deepest capacities.
- Who are the characters in your story? Describe them physically,
- How do their concerns and problems and goals dovetail with
and reflect your own? How are they aspects of your own personality?
- How does the plot "empty" these people out? Stretch them
to their limits? And how does it mirror some concern in your
own life, such that resolving the plot is also helping you
to solve your own dilemmas?
- How is this situation their worst nightmare? How is it the
best thing that could ever happen to them?
- What are the moments of key, killing tension? And the payoff
for the viewer?
- Why should the viewer care about these people? What have
you done, or what are you willing to do, to get the viewer
personally involved in their lives?
- What are the unexpected twists and turns, the moments of
discovery which will take your viewer's breath away?
- WHAT ARE THE MOMENTS THAT THEY WILL TELL THEIR FRIENDS ABOUT?