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.


The Time Traveler’s Wife

September 15, 2011

When I first saw a trailer for the movie The Time Traveler’s Wife, I never had any interest in seeing it. But I did want to see the book, so I was excited to find it at Half Price Books to bring home and enjoy.

The first hundred pages or so, I was immediately hooked. Fascinating concept. I love the treatment of fate as part of the time travel paradox. Love the constant sense of impending doom. Love that he meets her at a different time than she meets him.

Unfortunately, the deeper we go into the story the longer and more melodramatic it seems to be. The second half of the book seems to spend tons of time going nowhere, to the point where at the climax I was more glad it was over than I was caught up in any kind of emotional experience. I pitied our heroes, but didn’t really care for them, kind of how I might feel for a homeless person asking for change. It’s a shame, because for so long I really did care about them, the author just did a fantastic job of making them as pitiably annoying as possible for as long as humanly possible.

I guess I can see thematically the value in making a routine out of their unconventional life, but I feel like that could have been captured in a catch all couple of pages that describes that routine, rather than continually inserting vivid descriptions of events that don’t advance the plot at all. This may just be my curse as a screenwriter: I can’t stand stories that talk about anything not directly related to the plot. But the first half of the book didn’t leave me with that sense (or left me with it only sporadically so), so I don’t see why the rest needed to.


Montage Overboard

January 7, 2009

How many montage sequences is too many?

In reworking my second act, I’ve noticed that I now have four montage sequences in the first 50-odd pages of the screenplay, and I’m worried I’ve gone overboard.

In part this is a stylistic choice – the first such sequence occurs in pages 1-4, and it was very much intentional, and very much a cool way to introduce our heroine.  During the opening credit sequence, we’re interspersing a phone conversation with shots of her getting ready for work.

The second is pages 29-34, and it’s basically the first turning point.  I’m worried about that, because I think it may be a cop-out for me to avoid having to write the scene. That said, it’s supremely cool because of the visual imagery, and because we’re again cutting back and forth time-wise – this time even more so, moving between “before the decision” and “after the decision” until the “before” catches up to the “after” and we see how she got there.  So although I think it needs a little work to make the “after” scene stronger, I feel pretty good about it structurally.

The next one, which is the one I  just reworked, starts only 6 pages later.  This is worrisome.  Plot-wise, Chelsea needs to spend the entire day in the library reading, fall asleep in the library, wake up at 6 am, find a group of people doing Tai Chi in the park, giving her the idea to take martial arts classes, and then spend the entire day at the martial arts studio, before going home where she gets arrested.

As the “hero develops his mad skillz at the top of the second act” sequence, it makes perfect sense to make it a montage, but looking at it in context, just 6 pages after the one before it, it feels a little cheap.  I employed the same before/after time-cut device, and now that I’ve done it I realize that I’m just being lazy and trying to avoid creating multi-dimensional scenes.

So now I need to figure out how to make this multi-dimensional.  Which is hard because right now it’s conceived purely to advance the plot.  But if I can eliminate this montage, I can probably keep the one that comes after her arrest, which is basically the midpoint, establishing a theme that the major moments of the film occur in time-cut montage sequences.

So I guess it’s time to put my thinking cap back on.  Thematic scenes?  You bet.

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.

Review – Australia

December 23, 2008

I think a movie is supposed to evoke an emotion.  That’s how we know it’s good, right?  It makes you feel whatever the director wants you to feel.

The emotion Australia filled me with is, “Damn, I wanna go home and watch Moulin Rouge!

It just doesn’t hit on quite the same level as Baz Luhrmann’s previous hits.  And I’ll tell you why.

Australia isn’t the movie it thinks it is.  I’ve been thinking a lot about theme recently there are definitely a number of thematic elements that reveal what the author is going for.  The biggest is the question of belonging: where do I, as a person, belong in society?  Another is what defines success. But in a Baz Luhrmann film, the cinematography is as much a character and theme as those are, but here it’s kind of amorphous, nebulous, swinging back and forth without really knowing why.

It’s a multi-act film (four or five acts), with a fake ending after Act 3.  Up until that point, it’s set in the barren Outback summer: red, dry, and immense, with much of the scenery reminiscent of an IMAX or 70 mm film.  But that story completes with the fake ending, and continues into a lush green spring, which lasts only a few minutes before descending into a bleak, gray, war-torn city.

If that first part had been the first part of a trilogy, the scenery itself could have been treated with the diligence it was due, as could the threats that were being presented by the human antagonist.  As it was, the fourth and fifth acts felt like an afterthought, necessary to wrap up the loose ends with the villain, with the war, and with the “stolen generation” of the half-breed aboriginal star, Nullah, rather than contributing something real to the film.  It lacked imagination and a proper treatment, perhaps fearing it was already too long.

More to the point, the most dramatically stunning moment in the film occurred about a third of the way through, and nothing occurred after that to even remotely approach that level of suspense.  I don’t know that that last segment could have served to correct that, but even if it could have, the survival of our protagonists in the face of war occurs out of serendipity, not climactic decisions.   As a result, we keep getting further and further away from the climax, which occured 60, 80, 100 minutes earlier.

So although it’s not bad, and it’s definitely worth seeing in the theater for some of the stunning images, it’s not great, and ultimately a little disappointing.

Story, Plot & The King and I

December 3, 2008

I watch a lot of movies.  This is one of the great joys of being a freelance writer and a screenwriter; I get to watch movies whenever I want, and write it off as “research.”  And trust me, I take advantage of this opportunity.

My wife is a great movie partner, by the way.  We go see action flicks together all the time, I managed to talk her into Tropic Thunder – which she loved, and she stood in line for hours to see The Dark Knight in IMAX on opening night.

But a look at our DVD collections might tell you differently.  I tend to buy “modern marvels” – new movies that are tremendously unique and, to me, powerful: High Fidelity, Being John Malcovich, Adaptation, and Natural Born Killers.  Her collection, on the other hand, tends to focus more on films like Elizabeth, Pride & Prejudice, and the complete Rodgers & Hammerstein collection.

Moulin Rouge and Amelie made both of our collections.

We’re still in the process of moving in together, so this difference has become somewhat glaring as we combined and organized our collections this week.  But I’ve missed a lot of classics growing up so we decided to pop in The King and I for our Monday and Tuesday evening viewing.  I felt like it would’ve been better if it hadn’t been a musical, or if it had starred Jodi Foster instead of Deborah Kerr.

In all seriousness, I saw Anna and the King in the theater when it came out, and though I liked it, the only thing I remember 9 years later is a line where Jodi Foster is talking about how she’s falling for the king (or something), and “the way he looks at me, I feel like …” and then the person interrupts her and says, “One of his twenty-three wives or forty-two concubines?”

The thing I loved about The King and I is the fact that the love story between the two leads occurs purely in the subtext.  He is in love with her, and she with him, but to say that would cheapen their entire relationship.  It’s that undercurrent – that their relationship is so clearly different to any of his other relationships – that drives the entire film, but they both know that they could not be married, that it’s antithetical to either of their cultural beliefs.  The fact that their remorse of this is internalized, rather than externalized, is what makes it so amazing to watch.

To compare it to a more extreme example, Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs have the same problem – there is clearly something there, whether it’s sexual tension or some kind of emotional connection, but it’s clearly something that will never, ever be stated out loud.  Can you imagine how awful that would be, if they’d actually spoken that intimacy?  “You frighten me, Dr. Lecter, but there’s something powerful about you that I find intriguing.  It’s almost as if, under different circumstances, we could be together.”  Yuck.  Instead, it was internalized and made for tantalizing viewing.

Something to realize is that both of these movies featured Oscar-winning performances.  Although I, as a writer, would love to be able to give the writers all the credit for their brilliant work in creating these scripts, I don’t think that can discount the powerful impact of the actors and actresses who portrayed them.  Subtext is a difficult thing to write, but it may be an even harder thing to perform, and for that I can’t express enough gratitude to Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, Anthony Hopkins, and Jodi Foster.

There’s one other thing I noticed about The King and I, which is the extent to which the story takes its time.  Though there is a very clear plot, the focus isn’t there – it’s on the relationships.  This a theme that’s been recurring a lot for me recently.  I’m been taking improv classes, and one of the recurring lessons of this particular school is that if you focus on the characters and their relationships, the story will take care of itself.  I’m not sure how much I’ve liked this approach – I’m a very story-oriented kind of guy – but I’ve been taking the coaching and applying it.  It’s also something I’ve been criticizing my dad’s most recent play for.  Though it’s an excellent play, and far and away the best thing he’s ever done, I feel as though, as the play progresses, the focus turns away from the relationships and toward the driving points of the plot.  As a result, the third act ends very quickly and the theme and character arcs get lost.

This is what makes The King and I so amazing.  We spend fifteen or twenty minutes, toward the top of Act II, on the play within the play (a 1950s film interpretation of a 19th century Siamese theatrical interpretation of a 19th century American novel – brilliant!).  While it progresses the plot in a few ways, the elements of it that progress the plot don’t need fifteen minutes to be executed.  More importantly, it’s a huge thematic moment: it’s an opportunity for the king to be proud of Anna and of his country, and for Anna to be proud of her students and her work; we see awe and magic; the recurring theme of refusal versus acceptance of that with which we are unfamiliar; the struggle between power and subordination, king and subject, master and slave; and we see extraordinary beauty.

Why the play-within-the-play in Midsummer Night’s DreamHamlet?  Why is Les Miserables three hours long?  Why, in Waiting for Godot, do we watch our heroes do absolutely nothing … twice?  The answer to all these questions is the same: because the story happens not in the plot, but in the relationships and the thematic moments in between.

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