act | A finite block of story action, its conclusion leading either a new direction for the story’s conflict, or to a resolution. An act is like a story all unto itself. It, too, has a beginning, middle, and end. Acts should be treated not just as parts of a larger whole, but also as separate entities with their own internal structure and rhythm.
action | A concrete, goal-oriented character behavior aimed at producing a specific result. An action is what a character does in a given moment in order to get what they want or need (their goal). Characters change their actions according to both circumstance and the effectiveness of previous actions (i.e. learned behavior). Characters use actions like fencing swords to duel for the success of their respective goals. These repeated duels throughout the body of a story create drama.
Actions should be framed as infinitive verbs.
Examples: to challenge, to flaunt, to hide, to destroy, to flirt, to torment.
To create maximum dramatic tension, actions should be:
- Superlative: Choosing the strongest possible action from a range of choices creates maximum drama. To terrify would be stronger than to startle. To obliterate one’s opponent is far more powerful and compelling than merely to beat them. A standard strategy is to increase the intensity of these actions over time, as characters always try the easiest, most obvious action first; trying to convince somebody to do something is far easier than trying to kill them if they don’t agree with you. So while goals should always be of greatest importance, actions ramp up in power over time.
- Conflicting: Characters’ actions should clash with one another, even if they are supposedly on the same side of the battle. Example: The landlord, Fred, comes knocking at the door of Stu and Sally’s apartment looking for rent. Sally hates the landlord, who is an old lecher who constantly tries to hit on her. Stu is afraid the landlord will evict them when the lease is up next week. Sally’s action becomes to annoy Fred so he’ll finally leave her alone. Stu’s action is to please Fred. Fred’s action is to woo Sally. All three of these actions work at cross purposes to each other, creating what in this case will probably become a comic scene.
chain of events | Like falling dominoes, an inevitable sequence of events in which each event is directly caused by the ones preceding it. The chain is the overall sense of cascading momentum a tightly plotted story generates. Shakespeare had an excellent sense of this in his tragedies, where each event linked clearly to the next, propelling the story relentlessly forward. A strong character goal will create this chain for you with little effort, because motivated characters will tell you exactly where they want to go.
exposition | An explanation of details necessary to understand the plot. Expository dialogue should be avoided! Ideally, all story information is conveyed as much as possible through visuals, especially strong actions. Talky, preachy, pedantic dialogue is boring, wastes time, and is the mark of a lazy writer. While presenting a certain amount of story information through explanation is sometimes unavoidable, at very least make the process entertaining; look, for example, at the second act of The Matrix, in which Morpheus explains everything to Neo, including the nature of the Matrix and the history of the human/machine war.
external conflict | Physical obstacles that block, thwart, or threaten a character. Examples: bad guys, a bomb, a raging river, a sinking boat, a baseball game, an unpaid bet, the police, a handicap, an addiction.
goal | A specific objective sought by a character during the course of the story. The goal is what drives the character forward, what makes them press on despite long odds, and trying or even life threatening circumstances. A good goal, therefore, needs to be imperative to reach. Weak goals will undermine and cripple your characters into pathetic indecision and wallowing inaction. Make your goals of absolute importance to your characters, and they will push on at any cost, creating maximum conflict. A goal can be a person (“I must find Professor Von Bering!”), place (“I must get to Shangri-La!”), thing (“I must get the Maltese Falcon!”), or desired result (“I must stop that madman from destroying the world!”). Goals can just as easily be inner-directed, and require a character to resolve a psychological or emotional issue; in fact, great stories often have two goals for the main character to achieve, inner and outer.
hero | The person who drives the action and chain of events. This means that they are proactive rather than passive. They are so motivated, so fired up, that they are not content to wait around for their predicament to resolve itself. The hero’s function is separate from that of the main character, in that we do not necessarily see the story through the eyes of the hero. A perfect example of this is the film Badlands, in which Sissy Spacek’s character narrates, and it is her perspective through which the story is filtered (and distorted); thus she is the main character. Yet it is Martin Sheen’s character who precipitates all of the story action, and it is his goals that drive the story forward; thus he is properly the hero (although being a serial killer, it might be better to deem him an antihero!).
Typically in action films is where you will find a main character who is also the hero. A character like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan provides both main perspective and driving force. An interesting exception to the action film standard can be found in buddy films, where as in the Lethal Weapon series, Danny Glover’s character is more like a main character, and Mel Gibson’s character is more like a hero.
internal conflict | The emotional and/or psychological obstacles a character contends with through the course of a story. Examples: insanity, the love or validation of another, fears or phobias, trust, neuroses, rage, depression, lack of direction.
main character | The person through whom we see and experience the story. Note that the main character can also, but not always, fulfill the function of the hero.
plot | The main chain of events that drives a story forward to its inevitable conclusion. The plot is the major story thread, or “spine” of the story.Typically, the elements of a plot are actions that serve to move the story forward, as opposed to subplots, which are usually for the purposes of dimensionalizing character or exploring emotional complications. Action or comedy films, for example, tend to be long on plot and short on subplot, whereas in drama, character development can often be more important than physical conflict, and so internal conflicts become the plots, and external conflicts are the subplots. Plots and subplots both have a structure that mirrors the structure of the whole story; a beginning, middle, and end, with events that break them into distinct “acts” each with different emphasis and direction.
slugline | The title line of a scene or shot. This typically consists of an “interior” or “exterior” designation, written “INT.” and “EXT.” respectively, a location, and a “DAY” or “NIGHT” designation.
INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY
subplot | A story thread which typically dimensionalizes characters or introduces emotional complications. Whereas plot tends to be geared towards vertical movement, that of climbing towards a goal or an end, subplots tend towards horizontal movement, or that of fleshing out and exploring characters and situations from a fuller emotional and motivational perspective.
Linda Seger, in her classic work Making a Good Script Great, skillfully illustrates the use of subplots in her dissection of the structure of Tootsie. She points out that Tootsie has no fewer than five subplots, each of which is utilized to dimensionalize the film’s themes
of love and friendship by showing Michael Dorsey’s interactions with the various characters in his double life as Michael/Dorothy.
subtext | A character’s actual intention, which lies beneath their words and actions. Subtext is everything – it is what an actor uses to create character, it is how the writer avoids writing “on the nose” dialogue, it is what deepens and strengthens characterizations. The key to writing excellent dialogue is to have characters talk about anything but what they really want to say – let real meaning be carried beneath the words. The contrast between their words, actions, and emotions creates dramatic tension which drives the scene, and gives the characters depth.
superobjective | The long-term desire that a character has which lies beyond the immediate goal of the story. Character’s goals are typically tied into a long-range ideal, their hopes and dreams for their future life beyond the boundary of a story’s end. This ideal is like the string attached to the carrot of the goal — it supports the goal and pulls it along. In other words, the superobjective makes the goal worth reaching to achieve a higher purpose.
In Jaws, Sheriff Brody’s goal is to kill the shark, but his superobjective is to protect his family. In every James Bond film made, Bond’s goal is to kill the bad guy, but his superobjective is to save the world. In Outland, Marshall O’Neil’s goal is to stop the drug ring, but his superobjective is to gain self-respect.
Superobjective is also intimately woven together with theme, because superobjective reveals the true desires of a character, thus shows their true self. Also, this connection with true self is one possible, and common, conclusion of a character arc. Goals generally must be concrete and achievable within the body of the story (unless your character is insane or deluded), but superobjectives can be anything from simple practicalities to total pipe-dreams.
ten-page rule | this is the idea that to give a screenplay the proper level of story momentum, a writer should have a major event take place roughly every ten pages. The story uses these scenes as ascending steps that build the dramatic tension towards the high point of each act climax.
theme | A universal idea explored in the context of a story. The theme is what the story is really “about” beneath its surface layer of action. As in a piece of music, themes recur throughout the body of the story, in combination and contrast with the action. Often the writer does not merely present the thematic idea, but espouses a particular opinion or moral stance about the theme.
Macbeth is about ambition, but it also says that selfish ambition is evil and destructive. Hamlet is about revenge, but also points out that indecision is a fatal weakness. Thelma & Louise says that a woman should control her own destiny, but, sadly, that a man’s world has no place for such women. Blade Runner asks what it means to be human, but points out that it takes an artificially constructed person to really appreciate life.
To give a theme its due in a story is to breathe life and resonance into a work.