P74StHP5This is a guest post by my friend and writing coach Michael Colleary:

Mental health professionals agree: isolation is bad for your emotional well-being. But dramatic isolation is very good for your screenplays. Pick a movie, any movie – old or new, comedy or drama. Its structure is almost certainly comprised of a process of dramatic isolation.

Dramatic isolation can be expressed in many forms. Physical isolation can be central to a movie’s design, as in the recent Oscar contenders “The Revenant” and “The Martian.” Often more than one sort of isolation is at work in a movie, although the different forms are often interwoven in the service of theme.

For example, when Sandra Bullock finds herself alone in “Gravity,” her sudden physical isolation takes on special poignancy when we learn that she has also isolated herself emotionally when her daughter died some years previously. Thus her superhuman efforts to return to Earth reflect her drive to recommit to a fuller, healed Self.

Similarly, James Franco’s character in the true story “127 Hours” spends his time trapped alone in a crevice ruminating on the cost of the emotional and spiritual isolation in which he has lived his life. The poignant coda of “127” hours reveals how Franco’s real-life counterpart, Aron Ralston, did choose to pursue a more emotionally-fulfilled life.

Perhaps the most fundamental use of isolation is simply to scare the hell out of audiences. “The Shining,” “Alien,” “The Evil Dead,” “Cabin In the Woods,” “Paranormal Activity,” “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” – and pretty much every slasher movie ever made – all rely on the isolation of their victims to create suspense, dread and, ultimately, terror.

Isolation as a structural tool is not unique to movies.

The works of William Shakespeare abound with its use. As Romeo and Juliet fall more deeply in love, we can only appreciate the life-and-death stakes as, one-by-one, they lose their relationships with their friends and families. MacBeth, Lear, Hamlet, Richard III – each of these legendary characters, in their own ways, finds themselves increasingly alone before meeting their fates.

Even movies crowded with characters can create – are required to create – an atmosphere of emotional isolation to successfully convey their stories. The journalists of “Spotlight” have no intimate experience of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, but even so their relentless pursuit of the story threatens them with increasingly painful consequences that are expressed by isolation. Thus the relationship between Rachel McAdams’ character and her grandmother comes under intense pressure. Michael Keaton’s character risks the loss of lifelong friends in the Boston establishment.

Many of cinema’s greatest masterpieces don’t merely hinge on this dynamic process of isolation – they are “about” isolation. This subtext has a profound influence on how the story is told – on what scenes are about, even the structural purpose of secondary characters.

Why is Kay in “The Godfather,” if not to mark for us Michael Corleone’s slide into spiritual isolation and emotional oblivion? Indeed, when the 3-film saga of “The Godfather” is viewed as a single narrative, we can trace isolation as its most central theme.

In Part One, Michael becomes the Don – literally shutting the door on his wife Kay, who represents a life away from the Corleones. In Part Two, Michael’s determination to protect his family leads him – ironically – to destroy it. In Part Three, Michael’s purpose is to repair his fractured relationship with Kay and their children once and for all – thus ending the isolation he chose in Part One. This simply-articulated goal of Michael’s becomes the seed from which all subsequent creative decisions grow.

This design is not limited to dramas. “Bridesmaids” certainly made lavish use of its R-rating. But all the fun was rooted in a very simple, well-designed structure that saw Annie (Kristen Wiig) lose her job, her apartment, her good-guy boyfriend, and – most crucially for this story – her best friend.

And the list goes on. Jailed for murder, Gustav H. loses his privileged life at “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and must fight to regain it (and his innocence). The hapless actors of “Tropic Thunder” find themselves in a very real jungle fighting a very real war. “Inside Out” kicks into high gear when its hero, Riley, runs away from home – beginning a process that threatens her memories and her emotions.

The uses of isolation as a dramatic strategy, as a construct, are limited only to the writer’s imagination. But its purpose is always the same – to create (or aggravate) stress and therefore ratchet up tension – and hence increase engagement – for the writer’s desired audience.

MICHAEL COLLEARY is a screenwriter and producer. His produced credits include “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Face/Off,” which the New York Times named as among “the 1000 Best Movies Ever Made.” He received his MFA in screenwriting from the prestigious UCLA film school, where he is now a frequent lecturer and instructor. In addition to teaching UCLA’s famed “434” screenplay workshop, Michael also consults with aspiring writers for the acclaimed CineStory Foundation, and has mentored veterans via the Writers Guild Foundation.

“Isolation” appears here as a preview chapter of Michael’s up-coming book, “Screenplay DNA.” You can find Michael at, follow him on Twitter, Facebook and/or opt-in to his Hollywood Insider newsletter.

Why is the Cop on the Job?

In a serialized cop drama the mechanics of “How” a crime is solved is so much less important than “Why” the cops are doing what they are doing and “Why” they are affected by the job. If there is no “Why” it’s just cops going through the motions, which can make a serialized story feel by-the-numbers and hollow.

The “Why” provides the emotion, passion, and inter-personal conflict between the individuals in the story (and all the internal conflict within the character). Too often writers simply project their general idea of being a cop and use the mechanics of “How” to put the cops through their paces— Instead of being specific about “Why” one particular individual is a cop and “Why” he/she does the job in a particular or unique way.

There are four basic categories of “Why” anyone becomes a cop (or a doctor, or any other professional):

1. It’s a job. Being a cop is solid union employment and a dependable way to make a living and support a family. The cop does what is expected and punches out. The cop puts in the time and is concerned and responsible on the job. But he or she doesn’t take the job home and retires as soon as is feasible.

2. It’s a career. Being a cop is a good opportunity for advancement. The cop is working to achieve something else. The job is a means to an end (rising through the ranks, running for political office, becoming a consultant, etc.) It is a stepping- stone to something else and worth the hard work and extra effort to achieve a larger goal.

3. It’s a vocation. Being a cop is a life mission or a higher calling. The cop is there to make a difference, have an important impact, or change people’s lives. The work is a consuming passion for the cop. There is no dividing line between work and personal life. Work is the cop’s life.

4. It’s a mistake. Being a cop is not a good fit. The individual is a cop for the wrong reasons or the wrong motivations. Or the reality of the job doesn’t conform to the ideal of the job or the fantasy of being a cop. In any case, the individual puts in the time and effort, got the job, and now is trapped.

Any kind of employment, but particularly policing, has a variety of people who look at the “Why” of doing the job very differently. All individuals naturally assume their “Why” is the most valid reason or, if everyone else was honest, is the real motivation for anyone doing the job. This is a great opportunity for personal conflict in a story. Too often in cop shows (or shows featuring the medical profession) everyone is doing the job for the same reason. That isn’t the case in life and it shouldn’t be the case in drama.

Layered onto “Why” someone is employed as a police officer (it’s a job, a career, a vocation, or a mistake) is the “Why” of the individual’s Character Type. Looking down on nine different police officers toiling away long into the night it might be easy or convenient to believe they are all working hard for the same internal motivation or with the same value system and world view in mind. But every one of the Nine Character Types sees the world very differently, believes very different things about how the world works, and sees the primary role of a cop from a unique perspective.

1. Power of Conscience cops believe policing is an important duty and carries with it the responsibility of making the world a better place. Doing the right thing is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what is the higher duty or the most right—law or justice. (These two principles are not the same thing). Hill Street Blues‘ Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) is this kind of character. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) is the comic version on the same show. Homicide’s Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) is also a Power of Conscience character. Rylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant) in Justified is a more recent example. Although not a cop show, the sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in The Walking Dead, was a Power of Conscience law enforcement officer.

2. Power of Will cops believe policing is a matter of strength and the ability to dominate the situation. The use of power is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what actually constitutes strength or power— excess or restraint. (Does compassion and tolerance make you stronger or weaker?) NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) is this kind of character. A more recent example is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) on The Shield.  In The Walking Dead, Shane Walsh (Jon” Bernthal) is a Power of Will law enforcement officer.

3. Power of Ambition cops believe policing is a matter of winning or losing. Appealing to other’s self-interest is the way to get things done. Their struggle is with short cuts vs. the long hard patient slog—results or process. (If no one else plays by the rules why should they?) Hill Street Blues‘ John “JD” LaRue (Kiel Martin) is a Power of Ambition character. A more recent example is Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) on The Wire.  Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) is another example of this kind of cop in The Shield.

4. Power of Love cops believe policing is caring for others and helping them succeed. Compassion and understanding is crucial to how they get the job done. Their struggle is when to employ “tough love” or just give up on someone. (When does empathy or understanding simply enable bad or destructive behavior?) NYPD Blue’s Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) is this kind of character. Another example is Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) on Hill Street Blues. Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart in True Detective is a Power of Love cop.

5. Power of Idealism cops believe policing is a matter of individual style and personal excellence. Use of unique talents and refusing to buckle under to stupid bureaucrats is crucial to their method of policing. Their struggle is how to maintain their individuality and still be part of a larger organization. (When does being a maverick or a rebel cause more harm than good?) Homicide’s Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) illustrates the Power of Idealism character as a cop.  Another example is Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) on The Wire.

6. Power of Reason cops believe policing is a matter of keeping personal self-control and maintaining the social order. Objectivity, expertise and a depth of knowledge are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to connect with their own emotions. Dexter’s title character (Michael C. Hall) is one of the best recent examples of this kind of character on the police force. Monk’s title character (Tony Shalhoub) is the comedic example. Sofia Helin as Saga Norén in the Swedish series The Bridge is another great example of this kind of cop.

7. Power of Truth cops believe policing is a matter of uncovering secret agendas and avoiding hidden pitfalls. Establishing trust, knowing who your friends are, and being attuned to conspiracies are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to accept the ambiguity of the job and the possibility of never finding real certainty. (Is the “truth” a moving target or something fixed and certain?) Homicide’s conspiracy obsessed Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) is this kind of character. Hill Street Blues’ loyal to the core Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is another example.  Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) on the UK version of Wallendar is a Power of Truth detective so is Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rusty Cohle in True Detective.

8. Power of Imagination cops believe policing is a matter of listening to your instincts, following hunches, or special intuitive clues. Often access to what others cannot see or hear or a quirky special kind of insight is crucial to doing their job. Their struggle is how to interpret their unusual intuition or how best to communicate it to others. (Do they take me seriously or do they think I’m crazy?) This kind of cop is rare on television. Hill Street Blues’ Michael (Mick) Belker (Bruce Weitz) is an uncouth ruffian version of the Power of Imagination character.  Another example is police consultant Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette) in Medium.

9. Power of Excitement cops believe policing is an adventure and a thrill ride. Their charm, good-humor and ability to get themselves in and out of traps is crucial to how they do their job. Their struggle is in following orthodox rules when it is so much more interesting to play fast and loose, improvise, and shoot from the hip. (Are we having fun yet?) Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is the quintessential example of this character.

The “Why” of policing combined with Character Type creates a variety of complex and interesting individuals. It would be possible, for example, to create four very different Power of Conscience characters depending on whether they view policing as a job, as a career, as a vocation or as a mistake.

Their values and their world views would not change but their attitudes would clash. For example: How these characters define their “higher duty” or what is the “most right” is hugely influenced by the reason they are on the job. Those different perspectives provide enormous potential conflict. Here is the breakdown:

1. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a job would probably believe the higher duty is owed to family. This cop would follow the rules, be conscientious, but not take the job home.

2. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a career would probably believe the higher duty is owed to the organization or society. The higher the cop rises, the more effective the position becomes to do good and improve the larger situation. This cop would be relentless in seeking opportunities to advance a larger moral agenda.  And the issue of “how much bad am I willing to do in service to a good cause” would be a recurring personal theme.

3. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a vocation probably believes the higher duty is owed to the victims of crime. This cop’s passion would be justice for the victims and punishment for the criminals. His or her personal life would be consumed by this life mission.

4. A Power of Conscience cop who see policing as a mistake would probably believe the higher duty is owed to one’s self. Policing can be a dirty murky business where there often is no right answer and true justice is hard to find. This lack of clear-cut black and white or right and wrong would probably be an unbearable burden on this individual– giving rise to external moral outrage and internal guilt or self-loathing. How can I be good or worthy in a cesspool?

Creating an ensemble which clearly addresses “Why” the cop is on the job combined with Character Type provides an endless source of internal and external conflict. Making use of the full variety of human experience in specific combination creates memorable partnerships, unforgettable enemies, and extraordinary individual characters.

#TypesTuesday – Tracy Flick and Hillary Clinton : Power of Conscience

Tracy-Flick-Hillary-Clinton-EtbScreenwritingHillary Clinton and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in the movie Election are a great examples of hard-driving intense Power of Conscience characters.

I found a fantastic clip of Tracy and Hillary intercut in a scene from Election.  It is a wonderful sketch of everything that is most important to this Character Type.  The clip refers back to Clinton’s run against Barack Obama (a Power of Imagination character) in 2008.

Power of Conscience characters believe that leadership must be earned by dedication, hard work, thorough preparation, and devotion to duty.  Leadership must be deserved. One must be worthy in order to lead. At their worst, these characters can become rigid, accusatory, sanctimonious, judgmental, and hypocritical.


Disney’s “Frozen”

There is much to recommend Disney’s “Frozen.” Exquisite art direction, great comic sidekicks, thrilling set pieces, exciting action sequences, and the wonderful voices of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel belting songs like full fledged Broadway Babes.

The film has been a great commercial success and has had a generally positive critical reception. I find myself in the distinct minority. For me the film has a very muddled story and lacks a strong clear emotional arc. Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen it.

“Frozen” is very loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, “The Snow Queen”. The original story depicts a little boy and girl, Kai and Gerda, caught in a terrible struggle between good and evil. Innocence is the only power that can vanquish darkness. This link is a good summary of the original story:

Evil is mostly eradicated from the Disney adaption. Anderson’s Snow Queen character is a powerful female villain on a par with Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, Cruella deVil in 101 Dalmations, The Little Mermaid’s Ursula or the Evil Queen in Snow White.

Instead of a great Diva of Darkness, “Frozen” gives us troubled Princess Elsa of Arendelle, a loving daughter and doting sister who has the ability to freeze everything within her reach. One day, during a wintery romp with her adoring younger sister, Anna, she accidentally pierces the girl with a ice shard.

Her parents bring Anna to a troll king for healing and the troll king is told Elsa’s powers are innate and not a curse. The random mishap causes Elsa to retreat from her sister and subjects to hide her abilities and for fear of causing further harm. Her parents are then lost at sea for no apparent reason.

Anna, tries endlessly over the years to draw her sister out, only to be rebuffed. Elsa can no longer hide when she comes of age and must attend her summer coronation ceremony. Tragedy strikes again when the young queen is angered by Anna’s impulsive engagement and cannot control her temper or her freezing powers.

Elsa locks the kingdom in a Polar Vortex of endless winter. She flees to far off snowy North Mountain and creates a crystal palace or Fortress of Solitude where she can finally be herself and be free by “never feeling anything”. This doesn’t make her evil, only a misunderstood recluse.

Anna, always believing her sister to be good and kind, goes after Elsa. Elsa deeply cares about Anna and is ever fearful of hurting her. Tragedy strikes yet again when Elsa becomes angered by Anna’s persistence and pushes Anna away piercing Anna’s heart with paralyzing cold. Unless Anna’s heart is thawed by “an act of true love,” she will be frozen solid forever.

Anna is rushed to Arendelle to the supposed saving True Love’s Kiss of her betrothed, Prince Hans of the Summer Isles. He reveals himself, in a stunning narrative cheat, to only be after a crown (being 12th in line to the throne at home). There is never the slightest hint that Hans has anything but honorable intentions prior to this verbal revelation. Refusing to kiss her, he throws Anna in jail. I’m not sure how he thinks this will get him closer to the throne since he has no claim on it himself. Hans then mounts a search and destroy mission to kill Elsa. Yes, this is evil but it comes unearned, is illogical, and is very late in the story.

As Anna is dying, in the final moments of her life, she shields Elsa from harm. Although this is a sacrifice it is not a very big one. Anna is dying anyway. She is giving up something she has already lost. Elsa’s tears of grief melt Anna and supposedly warm Elsa’s own heart.

Here are my problems:

If Elsa’s freezing power can cause harm, even unintentionally, how can she be trusted (or trust herself) once back in Arendelle. Her benign building of an ice rink for the amusement of her subjects mirrors the original tragedy with her sister. What has changed?

If Elsa’s powers were the result of a curse, the curse could be lifted (by an act of love). Her freezing ability would be ended. If her abilities were a curse her parents could be killed on a journey to find a way to lift the curse, making Elsa feel even more culpable.

As an inborn ability, Elsa’s freezing power doesn’t go away. But we see no visible process of learning to channel it or control it. Will anger, despite her best intentions, have future disastrous consequences?

Elsa’s abilities also have no effect on her personality. Despite her frigid isolation and singing about never wanting to feel anything she personally never becomes bitter, cold, or cruel. Her hands may be cold but her heart is still warm. Everything she does, even creating the snow monster, is to protect others by keeping them away from her.

Elsa had a loving heart as a child princess and has one now as a young queen. She sacrifices years of her life to protect Anna. How are a few tears of grief at the end of the story a more powerful “act of love” than a life-time of sacrifice?

Anna, in turn, never gives up on her sister. She even pursues Elsa up a dangerous mountain against everyone’s warning. She is undaunted and, even when injured, doesn’t doubt Elsa’s goodness. How is shielding Elsa when Anna is moments from death, with nothing left to lose, a more powerful “act of love” than a life of undoubting belief in her sister and endless attempts to engage her?

If the cold had retreated from Arendelle as Elsa moved further away and up the mountain the people could demand that Anna be crowned queen instead of Elsa. Hans could try to rush Anna into a marriage, and secure the crown for himself as well. He could argue that Anna has always been the ignored, marginalized, abandoned younger sister. This is her time to shine and take her rightful place. He believes in her and Anna would make a wonderful queen. Hans could argue he will give Anna all the love Elsa withheld by withdrawing and now finally leaving her.

Hans’ arguments could provide a powerful incentive to stay. Anna would have everything she wants (and has always been denied): a sunny life of comfort and joy; the prestige of a crown and the ability to fully engage with her subjects; and the warmth of her own “true love.” However tempting, if Anna refused to marry without her sister’s blessing it would take her back up the mountain. The journey then would be at the sacrifice of everything that could make Anna happy. Even though she might be sorely tempted to stay Anna could still decide to give her sister one last chance.

Instead, Anna simply repeats what she has always done– go after Elsa. There is little holding Anna back and no delicious alternative beckons. There is nothing to tempt her into selfishness. There is no real inner struggle or doubt. Maybe her sister is not a force of good– but as evil, selfish, and angry as Hans might claim.

Despite being told (several times) True Love’s Kiss is essential, it is never used to any consequence in the story. Hans refuses to kiss Anna instead of kissing her and the kiss having no effect. The coldness of his kiss could make Anna realize her sister was right and he wasn’t the man for her (in an action that isn’t a verbal narrative cheat). That could propel Anna back to Elsa, to apologize, realizing Elsa always had Anna’s best interest at heart. She could then save her sister to make things right between them.

Unbelievably, these “Frozen” sisters never argue with bitter emotional consequences. (There are no more serious wounds than those inflicted by a sister.)  There is an argument about Anna’s impulsive engagement but it doesn’t last long. There is no deep seated terrible misunderstanding that constantly erupts between them. Why doesn’t Anna resent her sister’s withdrawal and just give up on her? Why isn’t Anna turned away from Elsa by Elsa’s seeming selfishness in refusing her blessing of Anna’s engagement? Why doesn’t Anna accuse Elsa of ruining her life and not wanting (never wanting) Anna to be happy? Why doesn’t Anna accuse Elsa of being cold and controlling? Why doesn’t Anna believe that Elsa is unhappy and wants everyone else to be frozen in unhappiness as well? Why doesn’t Hans try to undermine their relationship? Why aren’t the sisters deeply estranged at some point? Deep estrangement and bitter misunderstanding could propel their conflict and would provide something powerful to overcome.

In “Frozen” loving sisters never stop loving each other and, at the end, love each other more. That’s not a dramatic emotional arc.

There is also little lasting romance in “Frozen.” Even though there is great chemistry between Anna and Kristoff there is no real suggestion he and Anna are now a permanent couple. The gift of a new sleigh would logically prompt to Kristoff to leave the now sunny Arendelle to go back to harvesting ice (a prospect he seems happy about). Hans is quickly dispensed with in a dunk in the water and then back to the Summer Isles. There is no love interest at all for Elsa throughout the story.

This is a troubling lack of positive male energy. I am all for Girl Power and sister stories but instead of finding partners who are their equals and who treat them as equals both the heroines of “Brave” and “Frozen” seem to dispense with the importance of men all together. I’m not sure that mothers and sisters, as wonderful as they are, should negate the need for a grown-up romantic partner.

“Frozen” is a pleasant enough diversion but it lacks the power of classic fairytales.

Interesting vs Profound

Characters quirks and unusual events that make a story interesting don’t necessarily give it a depth. Unconventional characters or unique circumstances can grab an audience’s attention but not make a story  particularly rich or profound. Alternatively, a story can be very deep and complex but uninteresting and tedious.

Jack Warner once said: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union and send a telegram.”  The primary purpose of entertainment is to entertain.  The most entertaining stories incorporate elements that are both interesting AND have some kind of deeper meaning.  All great movies have both.

“Beware of the allure of the bizarre, a quality that may attract but ultimately fails to satisfy. For strange effects and extraordinary combinations, we must go to life itself. When you see ordinary situations with extraordinary insight it’s like discovering a jewel in the rubbish.” Stephen Kendrick, HOLY CLUES: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes.

Loss is the key element giving every great film meaning because loss is the one thing that transcends culture, race, religion, sex, age, social, economic or political situation.  It is the one thing we all share as human beings.

We all lose the comfort and safety of the womb, lose our baby teeth, lose our innocence, lose our virginity, lose a friend or loved one through separation, death or betrayal, we face reversals of fortune, if we live long enough we lose our parents, if we live long enough we lose our children.  In the end we lose our own lives.  Life is made up of a series of loses, how we cope with loss is what determines our characters. How character is revealed through loss is what gives a story meaning.  What does your character have to lose?


Coming of Age and The Power of Idealism

A British producer recently asked me why Billy Elliot and Bend It Like Beckham were such a hit with International audiences.

Both films use the Power of Idealism to fuel the conflicts at the core of their stories. These films, at their heart, are about the battle between:

■ Individual vs. Society: Each protagonist struggles with his or her individual identity vs. the “proper” role or position within the family and the larger community. These protagonists march to very different drummers than the rest of the society portrayed in the film.

■ Desire vs. Duty: Each protagonist wrestles with talent/passion and social responsibilities as a son or daughter of the family and a member of the story community. These protagonists are caught between what they love and whom they love.

■ Rebellion vs. Conformity: Each protagonist breaks barriers, by dancing/playing football, to rebel against the restrictions of the family or society. This very physical rebellion and release is the source of much of the fun in both movies. In contrast, each protagonist has a sibling who is much more willing to conform and who is implicitly or explicitly held out as a role model.

■ Longing vs. Contentment: Each protagonist desperately wants something outside of or beyond that which is offered in the confines of family and home. While others in the community are content to stay within established social boundaries, the protagonist dreams of being or doing something more unique.

These kinds of films are particularly powerful because of the underlying feeling of loss through-out. Loss is one of the emotions that resonates most deeply with audiences. The audience knows that the price of all new beginnings is the end of something else. Coming of Age or Power of Idealism films incorporate loss in several key respects:

■ The price of growing up is the sacrifice of a child-like innocence. Over the course of the story each protagonist sees his or her parents (or other beloved authority figure) as they are— human beings with frustration, failures, and feet of clay and not as the all powerful gods of childhood.

■ The price of rebellion is loss of favor and acceptance by family and society. Rebels, by definition, anger and alienate those against whom they rebel. These protagonists are threatened with severe punishment, rejection and/or ridicule if they don’t conform. The protagonist persists in spite of the high potential cost.

■ The price of leaving is a loss of communal belonging. Once the protagonist fully asserts his or her individual identity and follows a unique passion or talent there is no going back. Although the family or community might eventually embrace or even celebrate the protagonist and his or her accomplishments; the protagonist has moved beyond and transcended the community. It is clear in the narrative that the protagonist will continue to move further and further from “home” to follow his or her dreams.

These emotional elements play out in a clear distinct cycle in each film. Although they are worlds apart externally, each protagonist has a similar psychological profile internally and undergoes a parallel emotional journey over the course of the films. This story cycle is the same in all Coming of Age or Power of Idealism films.

Such strong underlying patterns resonate very powerfully with audiences. When presented in a clearly focused narrative the audience responds deeply and eagerly desires to share the experience with others. This clarity, power and emotional response makes films like Billy Elliot and Bend It Like Beckham resounding international hits (regardless of culture, race or milieu in which the story is set).

Children’s Media Conference 2014


Leading children’s media event to host Waterstones Children’s Laureate

Waterstones Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman will deliver the creative keynote at this year’s Children’s Media Conference (CMC) which takes place from 2-4 July 2014 in Sheffield.  The keynote is on Thursday 3 July.

Currently in its 11th year, the CMC is the premier event in the UK for supporting children’s media and hosts a global delegation of creatives, producers and distributors of kids’ content across all media.

This year’s CMC has a theme of Child@Heart and will include an impressive array of 50 conference sessions and masterclasses featuring leading children’s media executives from around the world.

Malorie Blackman was appointed the coveted role of Children’s Laureate in 2013 and will hold the post until next year. She has written over 60 books for children and young adults, including the Noughts and Crosses series of novels (Noughts and Crosses won the Red House FCBG Children’s Book Award as well as being included in the top 100 of the BBC Big Read), Cloud Busting (winner of the Smarties Silver Award), Thief (winner of the Young Telegraph/Fully Booked Award) and Hacker (winner of the WH Smiths Children’s Book Award and the Young Telegraph/Gimme 5 Award for best children’s book of the year).  Her latest book is Noble Conflict, a story of love, violence, trust and betrayal.

Malorie is a scriptwriting graduate of the National Film and Television School.  Her work has appeared on TV, with Pig-Heart Boy, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, being adapted into a BAFTA winning 6-part TV serial.  As well as writing original and adapted drama scripts for TV, Malorie also regularly wrote for CBBC’s Byker Grove.

In 2005, Malorie was honoured with the Eleanor Farjeon Award in recognition of her distinguished contribution to the world of children’s books.  In 2008, she was then honoured with an OBE for her services to Children’s Literature.

Malorie Blackman says: “All children have a right to be seen, heard and represented in the arts. The stories we tell as well as the stories we are told – in whatever form – define us as individuals and as a society.  They show us who we are and what we can be.  But are the needs of our children being met?  Are all of our children being represented?  What can we do to improve the situation?”

Greg Childs, Editorial Director at CMC adds: “Year on year, the CMC continues to explore issues that are relevant to the rapidly changing children’s media landscape. We are genuinely thrilled to have someone of Malorie Blackman’s standing to deliver this year’s creative keynote. With the theme of Child@Heart at the core of this year’s conference, we are excited to hear her thoughts on what appeals to today’s child.”

For more information visit:


Aronofsky’s Noah & Adaptation Challenges


Darren Aronofsky’s film, Noah, has caused controversy and consternation across the religious spectrum. Some professed atheists are none too pleased, either.  Yet, the film racked up impressive box office numbers and has scored many positive reviews in both the secular and religious press.

Those who complain about the film criticize Aronofsky’s visual style, the mass killings of flood victims, Aronofsky’s straying from specific elements in the scriptural text, and adding creative elements not present in the original Bible story.

Whether you liked the film or not, Noah is a great look at the adaptation process and the key elements in transforming a story from one medium to another.

The story of Noah, as it written in the Bible, is episodic. One action simply follows another. Instructed by God, Noah has a goal.  He sets about accomplishing that goal in a straightforward sequence of events.

There is lots of external conflict in Noah’s Bible story: the rigors of building the ark, gathering the animals, the danger presented by the rising flood waters, and the endless days of floating across a vast watery world not knowing where or when they would land. But the Biblical text provides very few relationship conflicts and Noah has no personal internal conflict.  Much is missing or omitted from the original text that needs to be present in a successful fictional story.

Scripts fail when the protagonist only struggles with external obstacles.  Our internal struggles and contradictions define what we do and what we do defines who we are.  Character is action.  A character’s internal conflict drives the character’s actions in response to any and all external conflicts. Resolving that inner conflict is what creates a character’s emotional or spiritual journey.  No inner conflict no journey. As written in the Bible, Noah has no conflicted interior life. He simply proceeds on his mission step-by-step.

Among the Nine Character Types, Noah is Power of Conscience character. Power of Conscience characters are propelled to act out of an innate sense of duty, responsibility, and righteousness.  Noah is specifically described as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, one who walked faithfully with God”.

Power of Conscience characters feel responsible for the greater good and for doing good. Internally, they wrestle with how far they should go in seeking justice or how much wrong should they do in the cause of right. They struggle with what is the higher duty. Is the precise letter of the law more important than the more generous spirit of the law? Which should prevail: justice or mercy? Is punishment or forgiveness the more righteous choice? What does the higher duty call them to do?  Please note: SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Power of Conscience characters fear failing in their own eyes or in not living up to their own high moral standards. They fret over how far they should go in promoting their deeply held personal beliefs or acting on their moral outrage.

Some of the best adaptations start with a question.  I don’t know him personally but I believe Aronofsky started by asking himself why, after fulfilling his mission, does Noah drink himself into near insensibility, to the point he doesn’t bother to dress himself. Aronofsky’s answer seems to be— because Noah thinks he has failed.

Noah interprets God’s command to mean that human beings have fallen into corrupt and evil ways and must be wiped off the face off the earth.  Only the innocent (animals) are worthy of surviving. Noah believes he and his family are the last humans and will be of no use once the animals are saved.

In order to strengthen Noah’s position, Aronofsky doesn’t include Noah’s son’s wives in his retelling of the story. Only one son, Shem, has a wife, Ila, but she is barren.  When a miracle occurs and Ila conceives, Noah believes the child must be killed (sacrificed to God) if the baby is a female (and capable of reproducing).

Noah’s wife, Naameh, argues for mercy. Noah is adamant about his interpretation of his mission. After Ila gives birth to twin girls, Noah remains convinced about what he must do. He burns the raft Shem and Ila build to escape.  Ila runs back into the Ark.  When Noah finds her, knife in hand, she begs to be allowed to comfort the children so they won’t die afraid.  She sings a lullaby that Noah sang to her.  When the babies quiet, Noah cannot kill them in their innocent slumber. At the expense of his mission, Noah saves the babies.  Noah believes he has failed.

Ila comes to him in his depression and tells him that human compassion, mercy, and kindness are the most important virtues.  It is impossible to fail God if you hold these things in your heart and you act for the good of another.  Ila suggests that it is God’s will that Noah discover mercy in contrast to the harsh justice he has witnessed.

Noah is an Old Testament story brought into the New Testament.  What Ila tells Noah reminds me of what Jesus tells the Pharasees when he heals a man on the Sabbath.

Matthew 12:11— “And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”– so that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

The letter of the law says it is forbidden to work on the Sabbath.  The spirit of New Testament teaching is that compassion, mercy, and kindness toward others are more important than Sabbath law or any other law. For the sake of compassion and generosity, Jesus ignored laws of ritual washing, laws forbidding association with women and those who were unclean, and dietary laws.  Over and over in the Bible, Jesus chooses mercy.

The role of Noah reminds me of the Power of Conscience conflict at the heart of Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Javert in Les Miserables.


Javert hunts Jean Valjean for decades.  Javert’s duty is to strictly enforce the law and to return all escaped convicts to prison.

Jean Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, and end the chase, but Jean Valjean spares Javert’s life instead.  Javert realizes his quarry is a good man.  Javert lets Jean Valjean go.

But Javert cannot live in a world where mercy might be morally superior to the letter of the law.  Javert kills himself because he cannot live with this contradiction of his rigid belief in his duty as a “man of law”.

Noah struggles with the same kind of contradiction. What is the higher duty?  Should we promote justice or extend mercy? How far are we willing to go in doing what we believe is right? How far is too far? These internal conflicts are at the heart of Aronofsky’s adaptation of the the Noah story.  They are the essential conflicts that make this brief episodic Bible story work as a movie.

#TypesTuesday – Archetype or Character Type? Wizards in Harry Potter

dumbledore-etbscreenwritingI was having a conversation with a friend the other day about archetypes. I must admit, I am not a fan. To me an archetype is a job description: a wizard, trickster, mother, hero, outlaw, seductress, judge, or mystic simply do different kinds of work in a story.

Let’s take the first job on the list, wizard. The Harry Potter book and film series features many different wizards. Each has his or her own individual kind of wizardry and distinctive personality.

That’s the problem with archetypes. There is no one way to be a wizard. There are lots of different ways to play that role in a story. Different wizards view their role or job differently, believe different things about the world, and frame their responsibilities very differently. In a story, a character’s job or role is much less important than how the person sees the world, understands that role, and fulfills his or her duties.

That’s where Character Type comes in. Character Type determines how a person views the world, sees his or her place in it, and develops a philosophy of life and love, Character Type creates innate strengths and weaknesses and determines the lessons to be learn over the arc of the story. Different Character Types are concerned about very different aspects of their role or job. For example:

A Power of Will wizard is most concerned with using his or her abilities for vengeance or to expand and defend a personal domain or to bend others or the elements into submission.  Lord Voldemort is a great example.  “There is no good and evil, there is only power…and those too weak to seek it.”

A Power of Conscience wizard is most concerned with the justice and ethics of magic and how it is most rightly or properly used.  They do not break rules or tolerate misbehavior.  Minerva McGonagall is a great example:    ‘Now, I must warn you that the most stringent anti-cheating charms have been applied to your examination papers. Auto-Answer Quills are banned from the examination hall, as are Remembralls, Detachable Cribbing Cuffs and Self-Correcting Ink. Every year, I am afraid to say, seems to harbour at least one student who thinks that he or she can get around the Wizarding Examinations Authority’s rules. I can only hope that it is nobody in Gryffindor.”

A Power of Ambition wizard is most concerned with the flash, dazzle and showy presentation required to be impressive, gain prestige, status, being popular, or acquiring a grand reputation.  Draco Malfoy is a great example:  “My father told me all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford… You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.”

A Power of Truth wizard is most concerned with divining oracles and prophesies or delving into deep dark hidden secrets.  They are secret keepers and it’s hard to know where their real loyalties lie.  Severus Snape is a great example:  “What made you think he’d really stopped supporting Voldemort, Professor?”  Dumbledore held Harry’s gaze for a few seconds, and then said, “That, Harry, is a matter between Professor Snape and myself.” Snape has the most surprising reveal in the story, which changes our whole view of him at the end.

A Power of Reason wizard is most concerned with the magical formulas or precise processes that lead to specific knowledge or expertise.  Hermione Granger is a great example:  “That’s what Hermione does. When in doubt, go to the library.” She is a little off-putting and can be very condescending but she is one of the smartest and best informed young wizards in the group.

A Power of Excitement wizard is most concerned with adventurous exploring, wild experimenting or creating the chaos that makes magic fun and surprising.  They hate being bored or trapped. Sirius Black is a great exmple:  “Personally, I’d have welcomed a dementor attack. A deadly struggle for my soul would have broken the monotony nicely. You think you’ve had it bad, at least you’ve been able to get out and about, stretch your legs, get into a few fights…. I’ve been stuck inside for a month.”

A Power of Love wizard is most concerned with relationship magic, bonding spells, and creating mutual alliances.  These Character Types are stalwart friends and are self -sacrificing for others.  Harry’s best friend Ron is a good example:  “We’re nearly there,” Ron muttered suddenly. “Let me think — let me think…” The white queen turned her blank face toward him. “Yes…” said Ron softly, “it’s the only way … I’ve got to be taken.” “NO!” Harry and Hermione shouted.”That’s chess!” snapped Ron. “You’ve got to make some sacrifices! I take one step forward and she’ll take me — that leaves you free to checkmate the king, Harry!”

A Power of Idealism wizard is most concerned with creating magic that is completely unique, entirely special, and is a reflection of his or her deepest passions.  These are the truly exceptional wizards, those who are the legends.  Dumbledore is a good example:  “Professor Dumbledore, though very old, always gave an impression of great energy. He had several feet of long silver hair and beard, half-moon spectacles, and an extremely crooked nose. He was often described as the greatest wizard of the age.”  Harry Potter is also such a legendary wizard, specially marked, and charged with a unique and extraordinary destiny.

A Power of Imagination wizard is eccentric, slightly dreamy and live in a world of their own.  Although unassuming, these Character Types have enormous heart and bravery.  These kinds of wizards can see and hear things others don’t or simply miss.  Luna Lovegood is a great example:  “Oh, yes,” said Luna, “I’ve been able to see them (winged horses) ever since my first day here. They’ve always pulled the carriages. Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.”

Each type of wizard looks at the role of magic through very different personal lens of Character Type. Resorting to an archetypal “wizard” too often leads to stereotypical behavior that is cliched. There is no one way to be a wizard just as there is no one way to be a cop, a nurse, a priest, a mother, or a fool. Each Character Type makes the role, the job, the archetype entirely his or her own.


Lessons from eQunioxe Scriptwriting Workshop

I am the 2013 eQuinoxe Europe workshop in Zurich.  We’ve got nine script from seven countries.  In working on all these projects one set of questions keeps coming up.

The answer to this these questions provides a critical overview of the story. If they aren’t answered clearly then it doesn’t matter how good the individual scenes might be. The story won’t add up to much or hold together properly.

The following is an excerpt from my book How to Evaluate Stories available on Amazon

What Does the Character Want?

What the main character wants is a clear and simple ego-driven goal. It is something that directly benefits the main character that he or she can physically have or obtain. It is concrete. It is specific. It is the finite object of the character’s personal desire. For example: Win the championship trophy, get the promotion, pay the rent, solve the crime, buy the fancy car, steal the jewel, get the girl (or guy), etc. To obtain the want, the character must abandon the need.

What Does the Character Need?

What the character needs is an inner ache or yearning that the character is unaware of, denies, suppresses, or ignores. It is a deeper, more abstract or intangible human longing. It is not physical or concrete. It is an emotional or spiritual urge or inner call to live up to one’s higher nature. For example: To become a better parent, to forgive another, to act with integrity, to find one’s faith, to become more altruistic, to be a more reliable friend, to face the truth, to love unselfishly, etc.
To embrace the need, the character must abandon the specific self-centered goal (or object of desire) and address more fundamental and far-reaching human concerns.

What is the Conflict Between the Want and the Need?

One of the most common problems with stories that don’t work is the lack of a clear and specific want vs. a deep and powerful inner longing.

The want pulls us through the story. The need draws us deeper into or inside the character. If this bedrock conflict isn’t clear the story won’t add up to very much.

Does the Story Clearly Distinguish the Want and the Need?

Does the main character have a specific physical or concrete object of personal desire? What does he or she want? What is the concrete physical goal or specific objective? Does the main character actively pursue this objective through the story?
Does the main character have a clearly delineated deeper human longing? What is missing deep inside the character?
What is the main character willing to sacrifice or surrender to obtain the want or to embrace the need? Is there a high cost for each choice?

Does that mean that no character ever gets what he or she wants? We know that’s not true. Characters get what they want all the time. But this happens in a one of two ways.

1) The character gets what he or she wants and finds that it is hollow:

For example, in Jerry Maguire, Jerry (Tom Cruise) gets what he wants, to get back in the game by representing a major NFL player. He finds his victory is hollow when he realizes he has no one to call or with whom to celebrate after a big win. This is when he returns to his wife and family.

In Dangerous Liaisons, Vicomte Valmont (John Malkovich) gets what he wants: To seduce the un-seducible woman. He finds his victory is hollow when he realizes he has destroyed the only woman he has ever loved and who truly loves him. The story ends tragically with his death and hers.

2) The character lets go of the want and embraces the need and then, in the classic comedic turnaround, he or she finds something even better or finds that the want comes around on the other side:

In life, this is the experience of a young couple that tries to start a family. What they want is a biological child. They try and try to no avail. They realize what they need is to start a family with a child who needs them. They adopt and are deliriously happy. What happens one year later? The wife gets pregnant. This happy turnaround happens enough in life that we believe it in fiction.

Or for example, in Pretty Woman, Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) wants to pay the rent. That’s why she picks up Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) in the first place. It’s why she stays with him over the course of the story. When he offers to meet that want by buying her a condo (and pay her rent in perpetuity) she turns him down. What she needs is to live a life of honesty and integrity. If she accepts his deal she will always be a whore. She rejects his offer and it is that act of integrity that brings him back to her as a real suitor and a true partner (rather than as a man who is simply “buying” her).

The tougher the choice is, the better the story. Does the main character pay dearly for whatever he or she pursues and chooses? The price is the end of the long road where the character comes face-to-face with the ultimate truth. Who is the character really? This supreme price is what the audience is waiting to see. If the price is not high enough, the story suffers.

The following was an excerpt from my book How to Evaluate Stories available on Amazon