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.



Postville Script Reading

March 8, 2011

Had my script reading of Postville on Sunday. Went a lot better than expected. The rewrite process was way tougher than I anticipated, as I agonized over how to restructure this part, and where to put this scene, and how to fit in this plot point, etcetera, etcetera.

In sending the script to my dad (who wrote the play) a couple of weeks ago, one of his comments was that in the play, Avram (the lead) and Ray (the antagonist) were both assholes, but the way I’d written the screenplay, Avram was ten times the asshole, and Ray not so much. It was a note well-taken, so I toned it down quite a bit, removing some of the more unscrupulous things Avram does and adding some bigotry to Ray. In the end, at the reading, we took a vote. About half of the people felt that Avram was unsympathetic, and they had a hard time rooting for him, and the other half thought I should leave him just the way he is (more or less), as a morally ambiguous antihero. I’m okay with that. I did get an idea for a Save the Cat moment I can add in as the second scene, which may take care of some of the “unsympathetic” votes, but even if it doesn’t I’m good with people disliking him, because he’s there to be disliked.

Also interesting was people’s attitudes toward the treatment of the different races/cultures. At one point, my actor friend who I brought in to read the part of Avram pointed out that I managed to fit every Jewish stereotype into the first 12 pages. Then, somewhere around page 65, he told me, “Oh, I was wrong, there’s another one.” But then afterward, he said he loved it, because every ethnic group has characters who fit the stereotype and characters who don’t. I’m calling attention to the stereotype by having it in there and then saying, “but see, not everyone’s like this.”

On the flip side, one person in the group pointed out to me that the Latinos are treated as a prop, rather than as characters with their own issues who actually contribute to the cultural conflict. A point well taken. It was suggested that I could combine the two waitresses, keeping only the Latina and giving her a little more screen time. I’d already thought of this, and I think I could make it work. It was also suggested that I could use a Quinceañera to demonstrate cultural conflict and/or connectivity between the Hispanics and everyone else, that I could use the younger generations in general to show rebellion against their cultural traditions and expectations.

The biggest problem is structurally, which I already knew. The false defeat happens about 5-10 pages after the halfway point of the script, and isn’t really treated as a false defeat. Then the third act is blown through incredibly quickly, with the no real attention toward resolving the “Dark Night of the Soul,” which also happens 10-20 pages too late. Which means I need to condense the heck out of what I already have, which will then accommodate the suggestions.

In the end, this reading was incredibly valuable. Most pages had several laughs (or at least chuckles), and people kept coming up to me afterward telling me how much they enjoyed it; that they were impressed by my ability to bring such humor to serious subject matter. At first I thought that it was only dad’s writing that they really liked, that that was where the most laughs came from, but looking back at my notes it was about half and half. When immigration raided the plant, there was an audible groan, “Oh, no!” People argued over whether or not I should keep the scene showing the workings of the meat packing plant, because it was so graphic and visceral, it took them a while to get back into the story; but they wondered aloud at the symbolism of it. And I’m okay with that.

So ultimately, success. Now I just have to gut the thing and rewrite it once again. *Sigh*

More on Three Act Structures and the Movie Vantage Point

February 9, 2009

I’ve been questioning the conventional three act structure quite a bit recently.  Clearly it’s the model of contemporary filmmaking, and write or wrong everybody in the industry knows it and relies on it complicitly in anything they’re making.  For that reason I think that it’s the necessary formula to follow if you want to “make it” as a “professional screenwriter,” but I also think that truly great artists and truly great art move beyond the formulas to carve out their own path, and film should be no exception.

The other dayI wrote about The Shawshank Redemption, which doesn’t really have clear 2nd turning point, as determined by the accepted definition of “major decision made by hero.”  And I think it was the same day that I watched Vantage Point, starring Dennis Quaid, Forrest Whitaker, and William Hurt, which has a similar issue.

If you haven’t seen Vantage Point, it’s got a simple action/suspense premise but with a unique method of delivery – at every step of the way we follow a different character, getting the story from a different perspective, and getting more information about what’s going on – until the very last one (there are supposed to be 8, but it doesn’t seem like that many), when we follow the bad guys to see the real truth.

Dennis Quaid is the closest thing to a hero we’ve got in this movie, but because of the nature of the film’s delivery method, by necessity he doesn’t have much screen time and isn’t really making any major decisions in the classical three act manner.  And I don’t know if you can argue the collective consciousness as the hero.  Can a collective consciousness grow, change, or adapt?

What the movie does have is a clear beginning, middle, and end.  There’s a set up and an inciting incident where we get our socks rocked.  The next several characters we follow shows the build-up of the second act, where the hero and we as the audience try to figure out what’s happened.  Then there’s a major midpoint with a false high, followed by a second inciting incident that raises the stakes even more than they were before.  Then that climbs (at least theoretically – in the execution this is where the let-down was) to a climax and a resolution.

So … are there three acts?  Yes, certainly.  But it’s not as cut and dry or as formulaic as we make it out like it has to be.  There’s plenty of wiggle room, and as long as the tension is rising and there are moments that dramatically propel us to the next set of events, we’re fine.

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.

The Elusive Second Act

October 24, 2008

I had a breakthrough with the screenplay I’m working on, Charisma, today.  Someone at AFF had pointed out that he doesn’t like writing treatments because you’ll inevitably write something like “over the next six months, they slowly fall in love,” and so then when you come back to actually write your script, you realize that you’ve relegated your entire second act to the first half of a compound sentence.

I had fallen into this trap with Charisma.  In a two-page treatment, my second act comprised one paragraph, and it wasn’t even a long one.

But today, as I was sitting, struggling, figuring out how exactly my second act goes, I thought back to another piece of advice I got from AFF: It’s not just your screenplay that’s broken up into three acts. Every act is broken up into three acts, as is every scene.  Every part of your movie will have a setup, a turn, and a completion that drives us forward to the next part of the story, and if you just break it down like that, you’ll get clear on where to go next.

And so, struggling with my one-paragraph second act, which I’d already broken up into three distinct pieces, I realized I just needed to break those pieces up further.  After spending an hour ruminating on how she “Develops her Skill” (which, in this story, for those of you familiar with Chris Vogler’s interpretation of the Monomyth, comprises the “Approach to Inmost Cave” and “The Ordeal”) the entire thing came to me in a matter of minutes as I poured out the three distinct parts of that section – the failure in developing her skill (the setup), a breakthrough (the turn) and success in developing her skill.

In the end, it’s not quite that formulaic.  The breakthrough and success actually occurs in an interaction with the villain (whom she doesn’t yet know is the villain), and his subsequent action, which is inadvertently caused by her unwitting success, and thrusts her into the Ordeal.  But lo, my problem was solved, and my second act is a giant leap closer to reaching its final solution.

Review of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”

October 23, 2008


Having just read a redefinition of genre that puts Die Hard and Schindler’s List in the same category, I was naturally watching this movie with an eye on what category it might fall into. What are the rules of that genre? What is it that works and doesn’t work about this story?

I was, to be quite honest, disappointed, and I’m trying to figure out whether I’m just being brainwashed into formulaic movie writing, or whether there really was something about this movie that didn’t work. At the outset it seemed like a “Night of Chaos/Buddy Movie,” similar to Superbad, Go, American Graffiti, or Dazed and Confused, but it didn’t seem to know the rules of that genre. Of course, what makes that genre work is that young, immature individuals are after something, encounter a number of hiccups along the way, eventually get what they want and realize that they don’t really want it.

While Nick and Norah may not have missed the boat, they didn’t make it either. They’re sort of straddling the boat on that one. Nick starts the movie in love with Tris. Then it’s obvious he doesn’t want Tris, but goes back to her knowing he doesn’t want her, and then goes back to Norah. Norah starts the movie wanting someone like Nick, then gets Nick and sort of decides she doesn’t want him, then sort of decides she does, then goes back to her ex-boyfriend she knows she doesn’t like, before leaving him and winding up back with Nick.

Meanwhile, they’re trying to find a secret concert and trying to finding Norah’s drunk friend (Caroline). But these quests, too, are moving all over the place, and we’re never sure what they’re really after.

An accurate high school rollercoaster ride, maybe, but it made for surprisingly uninteresting cinema.

At first I was really happy that it didn’t just become a boy/girl rehash of Superbad, after they lose Caroline but find her only 30-45 minutes later. But by the time they found her, the heroes had lost their other quest, and were never really able to get it back.

There, I think, is the lesson we must take from this film – the hero must always be searching, and he must be clear on what he is searching for. Or if he’s not clear on what he’s searching for, we need to be clear that he’s not clear; that he’s searching for something to be searching for. We can all relate to being an aimless teenager, wanting to fit in, wanting to find the hot spot to get drunk, wanting to find the awesome band, wanting to be successful, wanting to find the girl and get laid, and not really knowing which of these is our priority. (For me it’s the last one.) The problem is that neither character was clear about any of this, so the film ended up being a jumbled mess.

There was, however, one gem recurring from yesterday’s post on finding the hammer. When drunk Caroline asks random guy at train station (a cameo by Kevin Corrigan) to hold her gum while she eats half of his turkey sandwich … he takes the gum and holds it. I realized, in that moment, how much more awesomely hilarious that was than the attempted rejection that would be obvious response to such a heinous request. And it completely worked. Don’t try to argue, just take the f***ing gum.

Overall, quite a few entertaining moments, but the amusing obstacles to their quest were lost in the swamp of structure that was this movie.

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