Why we need stories (in 3 words or less)

May 25, 2014
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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Great Endings #10: The Ultimate Test

January 20, 2014
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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Great Endings #9: Does your script have a Bow and Arrow Moment?

December 11, 2013
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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Great Endings #8: What does your hero sacrifice?

December 9, 2013
Gran Torino Walt (Clint Eastwood) points his finger gun at local hoods harassing his Korean neighbours

While your audience will generally want your hero to gain something, for a truly great ending you’ll also have to make sure your protagonist loses something very dear.

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Great Endings #7: Want a massive high? First you’ll need a shattering low

December 5, 2013
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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Great Endings #6: Two key moments that set up your ending

December 2, 2013
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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Great Endings Step 5: What sort of transformation moves us?

November 28, 2013
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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Great Endings Step 4: Hero can do in Act 3 what they couldn’t in Act 1

November 27, 2013
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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Great Endings Step 3: Forced to make difficult choice at the climax

November 26, 2013
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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Great Endings Step 2: Hero gets something more valuable

November 18, 2013
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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Great Endings Step 1: Hero shouldn’t get what they wanted

November 18, 2013
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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10 steps to a great movie ending

November 18, 2013
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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10 parting words of advice

November 12, 2013
Thumbnail image for 10 parting words of advice

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

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What’s better than a happy ending or a weepie? Ecstatic Agony

August 28, 2013
Thumbnail image for What’s better than a happy ending or a weepie? Ecstatic Agony

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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Transcendent Story Pt 2 – 5 qualities that lift the great above the good

August 26, 2013
The Godfather movie poster - Marlon Brando

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

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How to win audiences and Oscars – introducing the Transcendent Story

August 24, 2013
Thumbnail 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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Radical solution to Hollywood-Indie standoff: Character and Story in same screenplay

August 13, 2013
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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Proof of the Hero’s Journey: my life as a screenwriter

April 5, 2011
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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A new character-driven Hero’s Journey

April 4, 2011
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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Why Juno the screenplay is more moving than Juno the film

March 15, 2011
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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Where I disagree with the Hero’s Journey

February 20, 2011
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 one subplot you really need

January 30, 2011
The Social Network Opening Scene Mark Zuckerberg Erica Allbright Jesse Eisenberge Rooney Mara

Here I unveil a very special type of subplot – one that can help you deliver an emotionally powerful ending.

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The secret to subplots

January 26, 2011
When Harry Met Sally Jess and Marie both on the phone in bed

There’s one critical thing your subplots should do if you want your screenplay to work.

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The 6 most common logline weaknesses

January 11, 2011
40 year old virgin movie poster Steve Carell

If you liked my earlier article on how to write a logline, here’s a follow-up piece on the most common weaknesses I see.

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How to read between the lines of the 2011 Golden Globe nominations

December 21, 2010
Golden Globe nominations under the magnifying glass

By analysing the categories in which films have (and have not) been nominated, you can tell what worked – and didn’t work – in this year’s crop of screenplays.

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Why The Social Network shouldn’t work (and why it does)

December 11, 2010
The Social Network Movie Poster

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

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Ben Affleck’s The Town – where it lost its way

October 23, 2010
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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Screenwriting secrets found Buried in a box

October 23, 2010
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 gets A+ for character, but C- for story

October 7, 2010
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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Why screenwriters should take the oral before the written

August 20, 2010
Oral storytelling around a campfire

A lot of screenwriters won’t share their stories until they’re “finished”. Here are 2 reasons you should tell your stories before you write a word of your screenplay.

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Why Inception didn’t do it for me

August 11, 2010
Inception Leonardo DiCaprio

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is extraordinarily imaginative, brilliantly executed and not even remotely emotionally engaging on any of its 3 levels. Here’s why it leaves me cold.

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What should happen at the midpoint?

July 30, 2010
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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10 screenwriting insights I wish I’d had 25 years ago

July 22, 2010
Thumbnail image for 10 screenwriting insights I wish I’d had 25 years ago

Over the last 25 years, I’ve stumbled and lurched my way to some understanding of the screenwriter’s craft. Here I share the 10 screenwriting insights I wish I’d had when I started out.

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Why Toy Story 3 makes grown men sob

July 7, 2010
Toy Story 3 poster

Toy Story 3 reduces men to blubbering wrecks. Here’s why I think it’s so powerful – and it’s not about toy separation anxiety.

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Rocket Science: charming but does it pass the fundamental story test?

June 29, 2010
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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How much do Australian films have to take to break even?

June 11, 2010
Box office

In LA, they say your film has to take 4 times its budget at the box office to make a profit – but local producer Vincent Sheehan says in Australia the equation is even more daunting.

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Animal Kingdom: Yes, it’s good but …

June 9, 2010
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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The high concept trapped inside I Love You Too

May 27, 2010
I love you too Megan Gale Brendan Cowell Peter Dinklage Peter Helliar Yvonne Strahovski

Peter Helliar’s debut writing feature is disappointing but buried deep in the film is a high concept that might have made for a huge hit.

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4 basic questions 90% of screenplays don’t answer

May 18, 2010
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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What I learned about deus ex machina from dominoes (and Gary “Big” Ross)

May 10, 2010
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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Why Schindler’s List won Best Film and Saving Private Ryan didn’t (in 27 words or less)

May 10, 2010
Thumbnail image for Why Schindler’s List won Best Film and Saving Private Ryan didn’t (in 27 words or less)

Spielberg won Best Director Oscars for Schindler and Ryan but his Holocaust film won Best Film and Best Screenplay while his other WW2 film won neither. Why?

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Why David Stratton didn’t dig Beneath Hill 60

April 15, 2010
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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Did you catch Hitchcock in Date Night?

April 13, 2010
Steve Carell and Tina Fey 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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How to write a logline

March 25, 2010
LIam Neeson and Ben Kingsley in Schindler's List

Before you write a single scene of your 120-page screenplay, try to express your film’s logline in 27 words or less. This simple early test can help focus your narrative and save years of wasted effort.

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Why can’t people write good endings any more?

March 10, 2010
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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How to transform your character from wimp to hero

August 26, 2009
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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Why Baz Luhrmann’s Australia didn’t work

August 26, 2009
Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrman's Australia

There are some fairly obvious story flaws in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. But the reason it didn’t work was far more fundamental.

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