Screenwriting Lessons from Karl Iglesias

June 25, 2012

Below are a few takeaways (by no means comprehensive), from Saturday’s Austin Screenwriters Group seminar, led by Karl Iglesias:


  • When you have a theme, argue the opposite.
  • Weave the theme through the story so that it becomes invisible.
  • If you know what your theme is, create a character who starts out the opposite.
  • Mirror/reflection characters: the character you should become (often the mentor) and the one you shouldn’t become (often the antagonist).

Character Arc & Structure

  • Character has the epiphany (a noble choice) at the second turning point. Then the third act is the final battle. A tragedy is all about the protagonist not making the noble choice.
  • There are two parts to a movie: in part one, the hero is flawed and making the wrong choice; in part two, he has had the epiphany, and he fights for what’s right.
  • 90% of movies have a goal that is answered at the end of act 2, then a separate goal for act 3.
  • After the call to action (and the guy says “no”), an external incident forces the character to go on the journey.
  • The darkest moment is when the audience thinks there is no way in hell the protagonist will achieve his goal.
  • The character should change gradually, which he shows through his choices – plot the internal choices as well as the external plots to make sure the character arc is satisfying.
  • Raise the stakes by moving down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In other words, if the character’s goal is forced to shift from self-actualization to self-esteem to love/belonging to safety to physiological needs, the stakes will automatically increase at each step of the way.
  • What we look for in a finale: surprise, insight, satisfaction.

Creating Characters We Care About

  • The character doesn’t have to be sympathetic or likeable, but we must be emotionally connected to them.
  • Elements of character appeal: recognition (empathy), fascination (interest), and mystery (curiosity/anticipation).
  • Pity is the most important way to create a sympathetic character, and often the most neglected.
  • It’s very difficult to be bored when there’s tension. 99% of flat scenes are a result of a lack of tension.
  • Survival is a worthy motivation, but it usually gets boring unless you add in something else.

Cliche Busting

  • Come up with 20 ways to do everything. You’re guaranteed to bust every cliche.
  • When something happens because the writer wants it to happen, it’s manipulative. When it happens because it’s inevitable, it’s organic to the story.
  • Draw a character map, with lines between each character. On each line, write down what those two characters are fighting about.
  • Dialogue exists for one reason: because the character wants to get something.
  • Subtext occurs when a character doesn’t want to say something because there’s something at stake emotionally. The reason so many therapy scenes are on the nose is because there’s nothing at stake emotionally.
  • Melodrama means the emotion of the character doesn’t match the stakes in the scene.



How to Write Great Action Sequences

February 13, 2012

One of the mistakes people make with fight scenes, chase scenes, musical numbers, etc., is that they just have them stuck in there as an afterthought. Something to kill time. It’s an action movie, gotta have a chase scene, right? Someone’s gotta fight someone else, right? Here, they fight, so-and-so wins because that’s what’s necessary for the plot. Time to move on.

Pros know that action sequences are just like any other scene. They have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The character has to start the scene in one emotional state and end in another. And most importantly, it needs to show character and subtext at every turn. The best action sequences, like the best scenes, combine different elements to make something unique and interesting, that the audience has never seen before.

Let’s take a look at some famous ones:

  • Ballad of a Fencing Bout Between De Bergerac and a Foppish Lout. Possibly my favorite fight scene ever. Cyrano de Bergerac, having just unleashed a vitriolic monologue at Valvert on a couple dozen ways he could have insulted his nose, is challenged by another, equally obtuse individual (de Guiche), to a duel. This could very easily have been written as “They fight, and Cyrano overwhelms him.” But no, Rostand brilliantly uses this scene to show that Cyrano is so witty, and such an extraordinary fighter, that he can compose a poem extemporaneously while fighting this fop. Both the poem, and the fight, show Cyrano’s mastery at both, and most importantly insanely entertaining.
  • Summer Lovin’. Had me a blast. One of the most famous musical songs ever. What does it accomplish? 1. We hear two different people tell wildly different accounts of the same series of events, providing a ton of subtext. 2. We show their nostalgia, establishing the exposition in an interesting way and setting up the “ordinary world” out of which the inciting incident will come. 3. We set up a future conflict, since we know that Danny’s account of Sandy doesn’t match her actual personality. Isn’t it so much more fun to have the dialogue expressed in this way, and to have the song tell us so much?
  • Mini Cooper outchases a zillion cops in the streets of Paris. From The Bourne Identity, this is my favorite car chase scene. Why? First off, the chase starts with a major decision on the part of one of our major supporting characters. Just a few minutes ago (in screen time), Marie and Jason found out that Jason is an assassin, and she tried to run but he made her stay with him, for her protection. Now, he’s giving her a chance to leave. As the cops start to approach, he sees them, and tells her, “Last chance.” What does she say? Nothing! She buckles her seatbelt. It’s a physical action, the subtext of which is “We’re in this together, for the long haul.” Then he takes off through the streets of Paris in a Mini Cooper, driving that car with remarkable agility (demonstrates character: this is the first time we’ve seen him drive a car like this), using its advantages against the people he’s trying to outrun (ducking between cars, going through small alleyways other vehicles can’t fit through, driving on curbs, etc.), giving us quippy in-character dialogue (“We got a bump coming” right before heading down a set of stairs), before finally ducking out of the way. At the end, the characters reaffirm that they’re now in this together: they’re going to ditch this car and never come back to it, and Marie agrees.

Each of these scenes moves the story forward, as action scenes usually do, but they also demonstrate character and subtext within the scene, and that’s what’s most important.

Got any other favorites? Share them.


January 30, 2012

I read this book several years ago, and I remember being left with something of an empty feeling. It was like I wished they’d made this into a business book (lessons from Billy Beane to apply to your business) or had a happy ending or something. I couldn’t quite place my finger on what it was that bugged me about it. Until …

Six months ago, I saw the movie trailer for the first time. And I thought, “Yes! That’s what the problem was!” Immediately I realized my issue: this is the rare book that would make a much better movie. So I’ve been looking forward to this one for some time.

It was different than I expected. The subplot with his daughter wasn’t a part of the book at all. There was nothing at all in the movie about the baseball draft, which is one of the parts of the book I most remember – Billy Beane going to players who expected to be drafted in the 15th round, with offers to take them in the 7th round for 11th round money. I remember the book obsessing over the importance of an out – that a stolen base isn’t worth the risk, and a sacrifice bunt isn’t worth the cost – but that’s something you might’ve missed in the movie if you blinked at the wrong time. And I didn’t remember, nor did I expect from the movie, all the backlash he got from his own team, or the losing record the team had over the first quarter of the season. And structurally the movie was very . . . eclectic, making liberal use of stock footage and flashbacks, sprinkled throughout with no rigidity whatever to when or how they’re used.

But that’s not to say that these stock videos and flashbacks were used haphazardly. They were very carefully placed, just not with the same level of visual formality that one might expect from a Hollywood movie.

As a screenwriter, and one who’s worked with adaptations and true stories, I see everything they did and why. The daughter was there to increase the stakes, as were all the threats of him losing his job (which may very well have been exaggerated). They didn’t talk about the draft, because it adds a layer of complexity to a story that was more easily told through the lens of the handful of players who could represent the entire team. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) was a fictionalized composite of Paul DePodesta and several other people – DePodesta didn’t want his name used, because of the way the character was portrayed. Not a surprise at all.

But I’m thinking a lot about character and dialogue just at the moment, and Peter Brand is one of the more interesting ones to talk about. Every line he has in the first three scenes demonstrates his awkwardness:

I wanted you to see these player evaluations that you asked me to do.

I asked you to do three.


To evaluate three players.


How many’d you do?



Actually, fifty-one. I don’t know why I lied just then.

I do. I know why he lied just then. It’s because it’s such a great way to demonstrate this guy as uncomfortable, awkward, and unsure of himself. (And again — not hard to see why DePodesta didn’t want his name on this character.)

Same thing with Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Every line is a demonstration of his frustration at having to put together a winning season with what he sees as an insufficient number of quality players and a lack of faith in his ability to manage the team.

I was not expecting, though I can’t say I was completely surprised, to see Aaron Sorkin listed as the second writer on this movie. Although the dialogue was less circular than usual, and the main characters nowhere near as talkative as anyone we’re used to seeing in a script he wrote, it had his same sense of vitality and imagination.

Overall, excellent movie, and one I’d recommend both to people who have and who haven’t read the book.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

July 28, 2011

Got to see a sneak preview of this movie the other night. First, for those of you who are just here for the “should I or shouldn’t I?” of it, the answer is yes. Hilarious, emotional, and completely awesome.

Now, for the writers, there’s a few things I noticed in the “why” it was such a great movie:

First, the movie was like a roller coaster. Blake Snyder, when discussing the beat board in Save the Cat, tells you to use positives and negatives to figure out the direction of the scene. In other words, if it starts out on a high and ends on a low, it would get a +/-. If the opposite, it would be a -/+. Personally, I’ve also added -/– and +/++ to the repertoire, since I think a complete 180 is unnecessary as long as it moves the story somewhere.

Snyder mentions that other writers insist that scenes should be lined up +/- -/+ +/- etc., but that he (Snyder) feels that’s going a bit far. I agree with Snyder on this one. But one thing I noticed as I was watching Crazy, Stupid, Love was just how much it went up and down. Every time something was going great, something else would happen to slash the characters off at the knees. And then they would reach in from underneath and make things good again, only to screw it all up once again. It’s like the entire second half of the movie was a series of dark nights of the soul.

Honestly, there may have been one too many iterations of this. It was definitely on the emotionally taxing side. (You can ask my wife, who spend most of the movie either crying or cringing.) But the climax was definitely worth it, if for no other reason than the fact that the 13 year old totally steals it from Steve Carrell in a way that any male who was ever 13 would be in complete awe of.

Second, memorable lines. Someone once said that he can tell whether a movie will be successful based on one factor: whether people come out it quoting lines from the movie. Consider the following:

On what was supposed to be the happiest night of my business life, it wasn’t the same, because I couldn’t share it with you.  . . . I love you.  I love you. And I just –

Shut up, just shut up.  I love you too.

Now compare it to what would produce two of the most famous lines in film history:

On what was supposed to be the happiest night of my business life, it wasn’t complete, wasn’t nearly close to being in the same vicinity as complete, because I couldn’t share it with you. . . . I love you.  You . . . you complete me. And I just –

Shut up, just shut up.  You had me at hello.

See the difference?  Jerry Maguire was filled with highly memorable lines: “Show me the money,” “You shoplifted the pooty,” “D’you know the human head weighs eight pounds,” “Help me help you,” and the list just goes on.

But I’m not here to talk about Jerry Maguire. The point is, Crazy, Stupid, Love is filled – FILLED – with memorable lines. My personal favorite is when Ryan Gosling takes off his shirt to an awed female who responds, “God, it’s like you’re Photoshopped!” I think that one might be in the trailer. Another one of my favorites: “Remember last week, when I said I had to work late? I went to go see the new Twilight movie by myself, and I feel awful about it because it was just so bad, so, so bad …”

That’s what a comedy is all about, right?

Third, moments we don’t see coming. I won’t spoil it for you. But very well done. Here I’m reminded of Robert McKee: save your exposition for the second half of the script, when it will explode off the screen and form a huge turning point, rather than be … well, exposition.

Fourth, character. What I found most interesting was that the supporting characters were more clear on what they wanted than the main protagonist. The teenagers, for example, both wanted something very specific that they couldn’t have. Most everyone else thought they wanted one thing, but really wanted something else. But EVERYONE was making very strong decisions to propel their own plotlines. I guess the takeaway from this, to use the words of Will Akers, is to make sure your supporting characters are the heroes of their own stories.

One thing I do wonder about is concept. Because premise-wise, this film isn’t particularly compelling. “A father’s life unravels while he deals with a marital crisis and tries to manage his relationship with his children.” Even for a family comedy, there’s nothing unique about this logline. But the characters and dialogue were written so well, A-list actors couldn’t help but jump on board, and I guess that’s the name of the game.

I’m sure there’s plenty more where this came from, but I think I’m done for now. Go see the movie, and have fun drooling over Ryan Gosling.

Review – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

December 27, 2008

A lot of things ran through my mind watching this film, all the result of several months’ worth of blogging and pondering scripts.

First, I think about theme.  The film starts in modern day New Orleans, as Hurricane Katrina builds strength in the Gulf.  An old woman in a hospital prepares for death, and tells the story of a clockmaker who lost his son in World War I, and the clock he builds in response runs backward. He hopes, he says, that maybe we can get back some of our sons we lost in the war.

Immediately we establish themes of the reversal of time and the value of life – one, approaching the end, at the beginning of the film, the other reaching a premature end at the hands of war.

Then we begin reading the memoirs of this man.  The baby is born.  It is an ugly baby, and rejected by its father and taken in by a young black couple who run a nurshing home.  Themes of rejection vs acceptance.  I can’t help but marvel at the genius choice to make it a black couple, in nineteen-teens deep South, driving in this theme.  Rejection vs acceptance.

His biological father comes to show remorse for his decision, and comes back to make amends.  Remorse for decisions made in the past.  But it’s not too late to change your future.  The inevitably immature mistakes of our past, but the ability to forgive, and love, and grow, and sieze opportunities in our future.  Another huge theme that permeates this movie.

And of course, there is birth and there is death.  The cycle of life.  The beginning and the end.

I think about adaptations.  The original story was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.  Benjamin’s birthdate was 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War; in the movie, it’s 1918, on the day World War I ends.  It seems, as I’m watching it, that so much has been skipped to trim eighty years of a man’s life into three hours, I was surprised to find out the original was a short story, 9,000 words, and not a full-length novel.  I think again to the fact that this was a work in public domain, for which a beautiful adaptation has been made, and I consider again the adaptations I want to make: Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Milton, Chaucer, the list goes on.  There are so many ways to adapt a work, only your imagination can hold you back.

I think about the formula, and how great it is to have a character who’s so passive in his protagonism.  He makes choices, but never makes a wrong one.  He never does something that makes us say, “Oh, no, not that!” because from birth to death he has this patience, this calmness, this understanding.  He’s a man of few words, and he somehow seems inactive in the way he drives the action.

And he’s so damn beautiful.

I’m not one for period pieces.  And I’m not one for epic dramas.  But this was an outstanding, beautiful piece of fiction that absorbed me at every moment, beautiful and ugly.

Maybe Charisma Shouldn’t Be a Stripper

December 8, 2008

I read a blog post today on concept and execution that argued rather convincingly that strippers and mafia are cliches in film, and that having either in your film are a great way to get it dismissed with the dregs.

Boy, did my heart sink when I read this.  Charisma, by trade, is an exotic dancer.

I find myself wondering now whether it’s completely necessary for her to be a stripper.  In the first incarnation, as a comic book idea I came up with a year and a half ago, she was just a waitress (rather than a dancer) at a strip club.  I ultimately made the change to stripper because I thought (a) it would sell more comic books, and (b) it made the stakes higher.  From a plot and thematic perspective, though, all that matters is that she feels like a failure and that she’s lying to her father about her job.  Beyond that, we’ve got options.

I find myself brainstorming new options:

  • Janitor
  • Hooker
  • Call girl
  • Geisha
  • Mafioso

Damn, I’ve run out of ideas.  Looks like it’s back to the drawing board.

Editing Nonfiction

October 25, 2008

I’m a contract writer/editor/proofreader.  It’s the day job that pays the bills (I’m not a famous screenwriter … yet), and at the moment the day job is editing a nonfiction book targeted toward teachers.

The thing is, writing in the nonfiction/business realm is really not all that different from any form of creative writing.  The first two rules are basically the same:

  1. Honor thy character
  2. Honor thy story & structure

1. Honor thy character: Show me a movie with a weak, boring protagonist, and I’ll show you a movie that didn’t sell.  Similarly, show me a book that doesn’t know it’s target audience, and I’ll show you a book that doesn’t sell. In a movie, character is king.  Rossio, in his essay The One Hundred Million Dollar Mistake, identifies this as one of the most important battles when protecting your screenplay’s vision, and the same thing is true of nonfiction.  Know who your audience is.  Know what it is they’re relating to.  Know who they’re supposed to care about and why, and make sure the entire book is set up to drive them toward that interest.

The book I’m editing is clear who its target audience is – teachers.  And it’s clear who the beneficiaries of the information are – teachers and students alike.  As a result, this book, in its first edition has sold quite well for a self-published title, even though it has a number of problems in the next area of concern:

2. Honor thy story & structure: How many times have we heard this story: a film has a great premise, and it sounds good from the outset, but word of mouth spreads about how bad the film is, and the result is a financial disaster.  The reason, more often than not, is that the film doesn’t know where it’s going, why, or how. I’ve already talked about structure quite a bit in this blog, and how important I’m realizing it is to the overall success of screenplay.  And it goes without saying that the same thing is true of nonfiction.

The biggest problem book I’m editing is that it doesn’t really know where it’s going.  The premise is outstanding: it’s original, clear, and identifiable as an ironic problem in the education industry (forgive me for being so general – I’m trying to maintain some discretion with the client).  But after a fabulous set-up, the second act is a weak rehash of things we already know, and we’re left with the experience of a formulaic, unsatisfying lack of original information, where so much potential formerly was.

The solution is simple: identify where the book is headed, why, and how it’s going to get there.  What exactly are we trying to accomplish?  What’s the best way to communicate that?  After establishing that, the rest will fall into place, and with a little work we should have a powerful and effective asset to build the future of education in this country.

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