Story structure

Life is hard - hands grasp desperately to the top of a cliff face

I wandered in the wilderness for a long time as a writer because almost all of the screenwriting bibles fail to address the most fundamental question: Why do we need stories?

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - Chief hugs a lobotomised RP McMurphy (Jack Nicholson)

When it comes to endings, you can tick all the boxes in terms of theory but ultimately there is only one thing that matters.

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Thelma and Louise sail off over the Grand Canyon in their Thunderbird

A profoundly moving ending depends first on building tension. But how you release that tension is just as critical.

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Kramer vs Kramer Ted (Dustin Hoffman) hugs Billy just before he is about to surrender him

If you want to end your film on an affecting up beat, you’re going to need to precede that with a very significant down beat. (Or vice versa).

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Dead Poets Society Midpoint Mr Keating (Robin Williams) confronts Todd (Ethan Hawke) and the timid student finally reveals what lurks beneath his timid shell

An emotionally powerful ending depends on 2 key moments before the climax itself. And neither of them is the Inciting Incident or a Turning Point.

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Dead Man Walking Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) confesses to Sister Prejean (Susan Sarandon)

Most screenplays have some sort of character arc but this “transformation” typically fails to move us. Here I explore what sort of change does tend to profoundly affect your audience.

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Lars and the Real Girl Lars and Margo at the graveside Great Ending

In the great endings the hero typically does in the final act what they could not have done at the beginning, and this shift seems to be fundamental if you want to profoundly move your audience.

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Strictly Ballroom Scott (Paul Mercurio) and Fran (Tara Morice) do the Paso Doble

Most screenplays suffer because the resolution comes too easily. You must make it really hard for your hero – and that doesn’t mean making the antagonist 6 inches taller or 40 IQ points smarter.

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Schindler's List Oskar receives a ring from his Jewish workers - the Elixir

In the last post, I noted the hero rarely gets what they wanted in a profoundly moving ending. Here we explore the ecstasy they get to balance the agony.

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Casablanca Ending Rick Says Goodbye Ilsa

Think your hero needs to triumph at the climax to satisfy the audience? That’s a rookie mistake. Here’s why …

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Dead Poets Society Climax - Boys stand on their desks -

The films we love tend to have profoundly moving climaxes. In my next 10 posts I’ll explore how to craft a truly transcendent ending.

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Girl getting on school bus

My final tips to the departing AFTRS Grad Cert Screenwriting cohort of 2013.

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Anne Hathway as Fantine in Les Miserables

If you want to write a Transcendent Story, don’t think happy or sad ending. Think “Ecstatic Agony”. Here I explore what that means and why it’s so powerful.

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The Godfather movie poster - Marlon Brando as Don Corleone

Here I identify five characteristics of the Transcendent Story that can touch both broad audiences and tough critics.

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Post image for How to win audiences and Oscars – introducing the Transcendent Story

Here I introduce the very special sort of story that can reunite the disparate Hollywood and Indie audiences and achieve the filmmaking Holy Grail: critical and commercial success.

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Mexican stand-off Reservoir Dogs Harvey Keitel vs Steve Buscemi

Sick of soul-less Hollywood blockbusters? Me too. But I’ve also had a gutful of two-act, too-cool-for-school indie pics. I’m proposing a crazy idea – a rapprochement between Character and Story. No, really, I think it can work.

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Old-fashioned typewriter

Here I illustrate the Hero’s Emotional Journey with examples from my own torturous but ultimately rewarding life as a screenwriter.

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The Kings Speech Bertie Colin Firth Empire Games Humiliation Wembley Big Microphone

In my last post, I revealed where I diverge from Vogler on Character Arc. Here I outline a new Hero’s Journey that focuses on the protagonist’s emotional journey.

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Juno Ellen Page Chair Pipe

The ending of Juno’s screenplay is much more powerful the film – and it holds a valuable dramatic lesson for screenwriters.

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Miles (Paul Giamatti) drinking from the spitoon in Sideways

The Hero’s Journey transformed my storytelling but I fundamentally disagree with Chris Vogler on character arc.

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The Social Network Movie Poster

The Social Network breaks a bunch of screenwriting “rules” but gets away with it. How?

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The Town Movie Poster Ben Affleck

The Town is an intelligent heist flick but the ending is disappointing – and instructive for students of screenwriting.

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Ryan Reynolds in Buried movie poster

How can you make a movie about a guy stuck in a coffin? Here’s how Buried screenwriter Chris Sparling pulled it off and the screenwriting lessons we can all learn from it.

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Easy A Movie Poster Emma Stone Olive Penderghast

I loved the lead character and adored Emma Stone but the story fails to capitalise on these extraordinary elements.

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Brokeback Mountain Heath Ledger Jake Gyllenhall Fight

If all you do at the midpoint is raise the stakes your script has little chance of packing much emotional punch at the climax. Here are the 2 things you should be focussed on delivering around the middle of Act 2.

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Rocket Science movie Anna Kendrick Reece Thompson School Bus

The Herald raved about this indie charmer and it is fabulous in parts. But ultimately it didn’t satisfy my own personal definition of a good story.

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Animal Kingdom movie poster

Local critics are raving and David’s Michod’s crime family drama has some exceptional elements but here I try to balance the hyperbole with a little critique.

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Number 4

There are 4 questions every screenplay should be able to answer. Yet 9 out of 10 scripts don’t. What are the 4 basic questions for dramatic storytelling?

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Tom Hanks in Big movie poster

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had about dramatic writing came from Gary Ross. It involves dominoes.

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Brendan Cowell and Gyton Grantley in Beneath Hill 60

Beneath Hill 60 is a decent film but it “didn’t connect” with David Stratton. We look at why and how a good basic story could have been tweaked to make a better film.

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Steve Carell and Tina Fey have a threesome with Alfred Hitchcock in Date Night

While the dearly departed Alfred Hitchcock didn’t perform one of his famous cameos in Shawn Levy’s Date Night, the master’s fingerprints were all over the Steve Carell-Tina Fey comedy.

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Jeremy Renner as Blaster One in the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air and No Country for Old Men are all good films spoiled by the finales. Have screenwriters forgotten how to satisfy audiences or are they perversely choosing to frustrate us?

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Todd (Ethan Hawke) in Dead Poets Society

One of my students just asked me how his hero could gain courage. This question goes to heart of character arcs so I thought I’d share my response.

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