Emotional Status Quo

Brokovich-ETBScreenwritingI drove along the Great Ocean Road along the West Coast of Victoria to the Twelve Apostles Rock formations.  It was a spectacular and slightly harrowing journey with a friend.  Lots of fog and high twisty mountain roads on the very dark way back.

Along the way we got to talking about the emotional status quo of characters.  Too often characters seem to have emotional amnesia, especially when off stage for a couple of scenes.  What’s a character’s emotional status quo?

It’s the emotional temperature of the character when he or she enters a scene.  What has happened to the character in the previous scene?  How does that event drive the character into the next scene?  If, for example, the character’s internal Fear is activated how is that made external in action in the next scene?

Where on the Character Map does the character move?  Does the Fear drive the character to act against his or her self-interest by lashing out with a Trouble Trait?  Or does the Fear drive the character to retreat into his or her Mask?  Perhaps the character tries to cope with the Fear by pushing forward with the Strongest Trait.

Each scene must build on the emotion of the previous scene.  Each scene must be propelled by cause and effect. In other words, your character does something, which causes something else to happen or forces the character to try a different tactic.  This has an effect on the character’s emotions which causes your character to do something else, etc.

Each and every scene must have conflict, conflict, conflict. Without conflict there is no way to struggle toward a character’s inner truth.  Without conflict, the audience has no edge-of-the-seat eagerness and excitement to see what will happen next.

Your principle character must drive the action in each individual scene and in the cumulative sequences.  His or her actions must set off the chain of events that propel the story forward.  If all your main character is doing is reacting to the actions of others, rethink the scene or sequence.  What can your character do to set events in motion?

Here are some examples from Erin Brockovich:  Erin’s vulnerability and Fear is activated by the disapproval of the office staff.  That leads her to lash out with her confrontational and defensive Trouble Traits. When she needs help the staff rejects her.  That activates her Strongest Traits. She takes on the problem alone and her determination and moral concern leads her to investigate the toxic spill.


Morning. Erin walks in, wearing her usual garb.  She passes
the coffee area, where Jane, Brenda, and Anna are milling.
Brenda sees her, gives Anna a nudge.  They both check out her
short hem.  Anna nudges Jane, who looks as well.  Erin
glances over just in time to see all three of them staring at
her judgmentally.  She stops in her tracks and stares back.

Y’all got something you wanna discuss?

The women go back to stirring their coffees.  Erin walks on.


Ed is walking into his office with a coffee cup in his hand
when he trips over the same box of files again.

Damn it!
(calling out)
(no answer)


Erin is alone, filing as she talks on the phone.

Where’s Anna?

Out to lunch with the girls.

Oh. Huh.
Well, look, I have to open a file. Real
estate thing. Pro-bono.

He plunks the box of papers & files on her desk.  She stares
at it, with no idea of how to go about that.

Oh.  Okay.

He sees her staring at the box.

You do know how to do that, don’t you?

Yeah.  I got it.  No problem.


Ed heads out, but pauses before leaving.

You’re a girl.

Excuse me?

How come you’re not at lunch with the
girls?  You’re a girl.

I guess I’m not the right kind.

Erin goes back to work. Ed starts out then stops.

Look, you may want to – I mean, now that
you’re working here – you may want to
rethink your..wardrobe a little.

Why is that?

Well…I think maybe..some of the girls
are a little uncomfortable because of
what you wear.

Is that so? Well, it just so happens, I
think I look nice. And as long as I have
one ass instead of two, like most of the
“girls” you have working here, I’m gonna
wear what I like if that’s alright with

Ed hides a smile. He nods. As he exits, Erin returns to work
and remarks, without looking up….

You may want to re-think those ties you

Suddenly self-conscious, Ed looks down to his chest…


Erin is at her desk, staring bewildered at the files from the
box Ed gave her, which are now spread across her desktop.
She sees Anna packing up her things to leave.

Anna?  With this real-estate stuff —
could you remind me, cause I’m a little
confused about how exactly we do that.
Why are there medical records and blood
samples in real estate files?

Erin, you’ve been here long enough.  If
you don’t know how to do your job by now,
I am not about to do it for you.

What Happens in Vegas

WhatHappensinVegas ETBScreenwritingA very long international flight is the perfect time to catch up on movies I missed the first time around.  On this trip I managed to catch up with a high-spirited Romantic Comedy romp that turned out to be a really enjoyable surprise.  The film has its flaws, particularly in its rather pat ending.  The finish is predictable and lacks that little extra twist that lifts this kind of story above the ordinary. But the film does have its virtues.

Joy McNally (Cameron Diaz) is super-conscientious career woman engaged to a man who is exhausted by her organized, detail-oriented uptight attitude.  She is a Power of Conscience character who schedules a meeting with her fiancee to “make a plan to make plans.”  Fed up, he breaks up with her in her apartment hallway.  Joy is humiliated that all their friends are listening as they wait inside for a suprise birthday party for HIM.

Jack Fuller (Ashton Kutcher) has the opposite problem.  He is “not serious boyfriend or husband material.”  He is a Power of Ambition character who is so afraid of failing (and proving he is a loser) that he never takes a gamble or finishes anything.  He is fired by his disgruntled fed-up boss, who also happens to be his father.

Feeling devastated, they both head to Las Vegas to (literally) drown their sorrows. A computer error is the “meet cute” that throws them together in the same room. The two spend a drunken night of true confession and “my life is crappier than your life.” They wake up to discover they are married.

A 3 million dollar jackpot won with Joy’s quarter but played by Jack lands them in front of a judge, in an argument about who can claim the money.  The judge decides that they should remain married for 6 months and attend counseling sessions before splitting up either the money or the marriage. Neat as a pin Joy moves into Jack’s sloppy and disgusting bachelor pad.

Over the course of the film there is a real exchange of gifts.  Joy learns to be less uptight and driven to prove her “worthiness.” Jack learns to believe in himself enough to put his talent on the line.  He becomes the woodworking craftsman (and artist) he was meant to be.

Jack Fuller is a refreshing take on the Power of Ambition.  This Character Type is usually portrayed as an eager young striver in the Tom Cruise mode of Jerry Maguire or Rain Man. Instead, Jack starts out squarely in his fear.  He is paralyzed by his utter conviction (and his father’s belief) that he is a failure.  When Joy speaks up on his behalf, Jack is astonished.  At a corporate retreat she makes him feel like a winner.

Joy is a more conventional Power of Conscience female character.  She is the good girl who works hard, is responsible and plays by the rules.  She is vying for a promotion in a job she hates because that’s the “right” thing to do. Jack teaches Joy the importance of loving what you do and finding time for family and friends.

Check this movie out. It’s not perfect but it hits enough of the right notes to be a fun romp and a satisfying bon bon of entertainment.

#TypesTuesday – Revolutionary or Rebel Part Two

che-guevara-etbscreenwritingI am back in sunny California.  Sea breezes and Mexican food tonight.  I had a wonderful time in Wisconsin and am lucky to have a beautiful lakeside apartment to stay in for the duration.  But it is always good to be back home.

I had a question about my last post.  Can a revolutionary also be a rebel?

The answer is real life, of course, is yes.  Real life is messy and complicated.  Storytelling is not.  The stories in film and television help us make sense of the world.  They lift us above the chaos of life.  They condense time, put things in context and give meaning to cause, effect and experience.

In order to have real power, a story and a character must have a single clear emotional focus.  That means a story must be about one true thing.  Intuitively, it would seem that if a story is about many things it would appeal to a wider audience.  In fact, the opposite is true.

When a story is about one true thing the audience brings their philosophy, experience and view of life and they measure that against the choices the character makes.  They bring their perspective to the story and test it against the one true thing on the screen.  In doing so, they make the story about themselves.

When a story is about too many things, it is confusing.  The audience can’t make the story about themselves because there is no clear hook or connection.  When a story is about too many things, it is about nothing.  The audience can’t find a clear way in.

Going back to the original question:  Is the character a revolutionary or a rebel?  What is the most true about the character.

Both a revolutionary and a rebel challenge the status quo.  Is the challenge to authority about changing or reforming a situation or society as a whole (the Power of Conscience) or is the challenge to authority about asserting personal individuality or personal autonomy against the dictates of the state or society (Power of Idealism).  (See yesterday’s post for examples.)

Once you’ve made your choice then bring all the decisions and conflicts back to that one true thing.  Answer all the Story Questions about that choice.  What’s a Story Question?

A character’s Story Questions are the defining personal, philosophical  and psychological questions that drive the character’s actions in the story.  They give the character’s emotional journey shape and meaning.

Each of the Nine Character Types wrestles with one specific and clear set of Story Questions.   The character’s answer to those questions define the one true thing at the core of the film.

What about a novel?  There’s more room to explore in the longer form of a novel.

The best novels also have a very clear set of Story Questions at their core.  These questions might be expanded upon in more depth in a novel than in a film.  But the best novels don’t stray from the essential truth about what’s driving the character forward through the story.  Clarity of emotional focus is essential in every storytelling medium regardless of length or form.

Revolutionary or Rebel

tom_joad_ETB ScreenwritingMy last day in Milwaukee is a sausage buying extravaganza.  I stopped at Usingers and bought several varieties with their own special spices.  Flying back to Santa Monica tomorrow.

I’ve been working on the final edit of the Power of Conscience eBook.  That particular Character Type is often confused with the Power of Idealism character.  The distinction between the two is subtle but clear. It is rather like the difference between a revolutionary and a rebel.

A revolutionary is someone who works for political or social change.  The orientation is toward changing and improving society.  The basic orientation of a Power of Conscience character is to seek moral and ethical perfection. They believe they could do better, others could improve and the world could be a better place.

A rebel is a person who resists authority, control, or tradition.  The orientation is more individualistic. The basic orientation of the Power of Idealism character is to seek aesthetic perfection.  Noteworthiness, rarity, distinctiveness, individuality and/or the unusual, idiosyncratic or eccentric are what these characters value most highly in themselves and others.

Power of Conscience characters cause revolution to conform society, as a whole, to a higher moral or ethical standard. Power of Idealism characters rebel against the status quo to resist authority or conformity and to promote or preserve their personal autonomy.

A Power of Conscience character looks at the world like this:

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build– I’ll be there, too.”  Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in The Grapes of Wrath

A  Power of Idealism character looks at the world like this:

Mildred: “What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?”
Johnny: “Whaddya got?”  Johnny Strable (Marlon Brando) in The Wild One

“And maybe there’s no peace in this world, for us or for anyone else, I don’t know. But I do know that, as long as we live, we must remain true to ourselves.”  Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) in Spartacus

Wall-E – Getting to the Essence of Things

wall e ETB ScreenwritingI am here on the lake front and just have had my wireless router installed.  I am writing on my trusty MAC and catching up on email and newsletters.  This caught my eye from earlier in July:

“In Disney Pixar’s new movie, “Wall-E,” the female heroine is a shiny all-white robot with no seams or overt buttons showing. Remind you of anything? Actually, it brings to mind most of the Apple product line.  Could this be the product-placement model of the future?”  This is a quote from an interesting newsletter article from Ad Age.

What does this have to do with screenwriters?  There is a really important lesson here.

The article goes on to say:

“The idea is that your logo isn’t going to be featured or your product isn’t going to be shown … but your essence runs through the whole thing instead… ‘How many companies could do that?’ Not too many, I think.”

A strong brand is crucial for marketers.  Apple has such a strong brand it doesn’t even need to be mentioned by name in the hit film, Wall-E. The MAC start up tone and the sleek design is all you need to say “Apple.”

Essence is defined as: the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something.  Synonyms are: soul, spirit, nature; core, heart, crux, fundamental quality

Every pitch you write, every character in your story and every script you finish should have an equally strong brand.  What is the soul or spirit of what you are trying to convey?  Is there an iconic image that captures this  perfectly for your script and your character?  If not, find one.

In a few seconds the audience (or executive in a pitch session) should be able to get the essential core of your story and character. One of my favorite quotes is by Albert Einstein:  “If you can’t say it simply and briefly you probably don’t understand it well enough.”

Do your understand your story and character well enough to distill them down to their most fundamental quality?  Can you convey that briefly and simply?  Do you have an iconic image that sums everything up?  What I am asking is incredibly hard.  It requires immense effort and a bit of creative genius.  You must care enough about your script to go that extra mile, if you want it to succeed.

The Nine Character Types helps distill the essence of a character and story instantly.  It helps you understand the fundamental principles at the core of your script.

The Dark Knight & Emotional Content

dark-knight-ETB ScreenwritingI had an interesting email exchange with a reader and wanted to post my reply.  He took issue with the muddy plot in The Dark Knight.

Several critics agree and one reviewer blasts the movie on that score saying:  “Nolan’s latest exploration of the Batman mythology steeps its muddled plot in so much murk that the Joker’s maniacal nihilism comes to seem like a recurrent grace note.”  The review goes on to decry the “airless complexity” of the story.

The Dark Knight
is a classic example of the Emotional Toolbox premise that– “In the battle between reason (plot) and emotion (connection), emotion ALWAYS wins.”

Audiences will forgive almost anything if the emotional connection in a film is strong enough. If the emotional bond isn’t strong enough then very little else will salvage a movie.

The country seems to be in a very pessimistic mood these days. Polls are showing more people losing confidence in the economy and feeling like the country is headed in the wrong direction than any time since the Great Depression.  The Dark Knight reflects the general sense of being trapped in choices, all of which are bad.

We also haven’t fully mourned our fallen in Iraq either.  We never see their coffins coming home.  We never see any of the funeral ceremonies.  We keep putting on foot in front of the other despite the enormous personal and emotional cost.  I think that is what Batman is forced to do.  He even continues the fight under false assumptions– Alfred burned the note Rachel sent him.

If you’ve just come to my blog– there is a short essay about The Joker in an earlier post.  His role is so pivotal in all of this.  What we fear most is chaos.  That’s what people sense right now– being on the edge of chaos.

The Dark Knight is hooking into emotional themes beyond the movie’s plot points.  The question for any writer, not just those who write about Super Heroes, is–  How does your script connect with the deeper emotions of your audience?

Mark Gill gave a powerful keynote before the NALIP Conference

He says in part:

Quality of emotional content is what matters, period. In a world with too many choices, companies are finally realizing they can’t risk the marketing money on most movies.

In the end, all of this (effort in movie-making) has to add up, seamlessly if possible, to something that moves us– to the quality of the emotional content. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about thrills, laughs, tears, or an adrenaline rush. What matters is that we are engaged and, ideally, emotionally transformed and satisfied.

In a world increasingly dominated by numbers– financial, technological and most importantly the finite number of hours in a day, our very human desire for contact, meaning and emotional transformation isn’t going away. It’s growing. Those who remember that will survive and most probably win.

That is the premise on which I founded The Emotional Toolbox and creating that emotional authenticity and connection is at the core of The Nine Character Types eBooks.

The Dark Knight & The Power of Truth

darkknightbatman ETB screenwritingI am still looking out over the hills and trees of the rolling area surrounding the Mississippi River, thinking about the latest Batman movie. The Dark Knight is a powerful and classic Power of Truth film.

In a Power of Truth film things are never what they seem.  None of the major characters in The Dark Knight are what they seem at first glance.  The tangled undergrowth of human duplicity catches and pulls at every character in the film.

In the beginning of the film, Batman tries to find out the truth about one thing: a spectacular bank robbery.  Over the course of the film, he finds out the truth about a larger thing:  what happens to human nature under the extreme duress of chaos.  In the end, he finds out the truth about himself:  he is both stronger and weaker than he imagined.

In the movie, criminal acts are just the surface.  This surface, upon closer inspection, is tangled up with its own deeper undergrowth of human darkness.  Once the surface of the crime is cracked, chasms open that no one could have imagined.

Batman is continually looking for answers that elude him.  He is caught in the eternal Power of Truth paradox:  Seeking certainty in an uncertain world only brings more uncertainty.  Who is he?  Does Gotham need him?  Will he break his “one rule” to save the woman he loves?  How  “bad” is he willing to be to do “good”?  How easy would it be for him to permanently cross over into the Dark Side?

Christian Bale, the actor who plays Batman says:  “Now you have not just a young man in pain attempting to find some kind of an answer, you have somebody who actually has power, who is burdened by that power, and is having to recognize the difference between attaining that power and holding on to it.”  What is the real truth about Batman?

Not only is Bruce Wayne not what he seems.  Batman is not what he seems.  At the end of the film, he takes on the burden of Two Face’s crimes to give Gotham a “hero,” turning himself into someone he’s not in the eyes of the public. Batman tries to “save” Gotham from the truth.

Lt. James Gordon speaks of Batman’s new role saying:  “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now… and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector… a dark knight.”

Batman says:  “Sometimes, truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”  Alfred, by destroying Rachel’s final farewell letter echoes Batman sentiments and saves Batman, himself, from the awful truth that Batman had lost Rachel long before she died.

Everyone in the film is bound up in the tangled undergrowth of human duplicity.

There’s more about Power of Truth characters and stories in my forthcoming eBooks on The Nine Character Types.

The Dark Knight – Alfred & The Power of Love

Alfred Dark KnightToday I’m sitting on a screened porch in Wisconsin, on vacation, and taking a closer look at another Character Type in The Dark Knight. Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s long-time friend, confident and butler, is a classic Power of Love character.

A character driven by the Power of Love is often someone who tirelessly pushes another forward in a story.  Although typically developed as a female character,  a Power of Love character can also be a compelling male ensemble player (or even lead).  These characters— often soft-spoken, gentle and compliant on the outside— are made of strong, even steely, stuff on the inside.  They believe the best place to be is the “power behind the throne.”

All these qualities are very evident with Alfred.  His courtesy and refined manners mask a steely determination and protectiveness on Bruce Wayne/Batman’s behalf.  Alfred stands just behind Batman’s power and is a subtle but strong presence in the story.

Alfred: I suppose they’ll lock me up as well. As your accomplice…
Bruce/Batman: Accomplice? I’m going to tell them the whole thing was your idea.

In a large part the whole concept of Batman is Alfred’s idea. Bruce/Batman’s continuing story hinges on a key action Alfred takes.

Power of Love characters are defined by their determination.  They will not give up on whatever goal, scheme or objective they have in mind for the object of their attention.  These characters  sincerely do believe they know what is best for others.  They can be very cunning in controlling and manipulating others (always for the other person’s own welfare).

Alfred advises, consoles and prods Bruce/Batman through-out the film.  Rachel entrusts Alfred with the note that, ironically, are her last words.  Alfred first delivers Rachel’s farewell note and then surreptitiously takes it and burns it.  He does so out of love for Bruce/Batman, and he sincerely believes he (Alfred) knows what is best.  Maybe so, but Alfred also deprives Bruce/Batman of the truth and the last words of the woman he loves.

The Dark Knight – Two Face & the Power of Conscience

Two Face ETB ScreenwritingThe Dark Knight is a huge blockbuster and a fascinating complex film.  One of the reasons it is so popular with audiences is the clarity of the Character Types in the story.  I’ll look at each of The Dark Knight characters over the next several days and discuss each Character Type in the film.

Let’s start with Harvey Dent/Two Face (Aaron Eckhart).  This character is an iconic Power of Conscience character.

Power of Conscience characters know instinctively if something is wrong, unjust, unfair, improper, corrupt, evil or out of line.  Their judgment and response is swift and immutable  These characters are propelled forward by personal outrage and moral indignation, usually on another’s behalf.

Harvey Dent’s moral condemnation of crime fuels him to clean up Gotham and make it safe for ordinary citizens.  He is a vigilant prosecutor of evil.  He catches and punishes criminals within the strict confines of the legal system.  He is a “white knight” and a moral hero.

After he is burned and Rachel dies, Dent moves toward his Dark Side and becomes Two Face, a twisted vigilante and self-appointed judge, jury and executioner.  As Two Face, he is a fascinating counterpart to Batman.  (More on the Dark Knight in a later post.)

Harvey, or any other Power of Conscience character, moves to the Dark Side by believing the ends justify the means (evil behavior for a moral purpose).  The burning question for these characters is how bad a thing are they willing to do for (what they consider) a good cause? What ends justify what extreme means? Incrementally, they stumble down a slippery slope taking actions which they feel are justified, until they become exactly like the oppressors, persecutors or criminals they once loathed.

Harvey moves toward his Dark Side because of his outraged sense of fairness and justice.  He explains:  “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. (holds up his coin) Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.”

The “fair” and impartial flip of a coin will be his “moral compass” from now on.  He is a man without mercy or compassion.  There is, however, no true justice without  the humanity of those qualities.  There is only revenge, which is a bitter poisonous force of destruction.

He will be a fascinating villain to watch.

The Power of Conscience character will be covered in great detail in my forthcoming eBooks on The Nine Character Types

#ThinkpieceThursday – Mamma Mia: We Need To Laugh!

mama-mia-meryl-streep-etbscreenwritingOkay, I confess.  I LOVED Mamma Mia.  I am not a big Abba fan, although I like their music well enough.  I admit the movie premise is a bit thin but the casting is wonderful.  Everyone on board seems to be having a fantastically fun and silly time. I needed a good laugh that day and got one.

As the US moves into deeper financial straights, I wonder if audiences aren’t headed toward a Depression Era mentality?

The 1930’s filled movie houses across the country with silly comedies.  It was one of the few ways audiences could forget their troubles.  One of my favorite films around that era is Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941).

In the film, John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a wealthy young Hollywood director who has had a string of successful but light-weight comedies.  He wants to direct a more sober masterpiece: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Yes, this is the film that inspired the Cohen Brothers’ film).

Sullivan describes his serious opus as an exploration of the plight of the destitute and downtrodden. Not surprisingly, he is pressured by studio bosses to make another, more lucrative comedy instead. Sullivan refuses and goes on the road to research his film incognito, dressed as a homeless vagrant.

What he discovers is that humor is what saves us when time are tough.  As times get tougher around the world, audience are going to need to laugh.  Maybe you should dust off those comedy scripts you’ve got in the drawer.  Now might be the time to sell something silly but inspired.

Also, if you’ve got a serious piece maybe you can take to the next level and make it a black comedy.  Dr. Strangelove started out as a drama.  Seeing the absurdity in the horror of nuclear war, Stanley Kubrick decided to turn it into a black comedy instead.  It is considered a classic while the competing drama (on the same subject) Fail Safe, never got as much traction or acclaim.

Check out both films as a master class in comedy.