Hulk Screenwriting 101

This part one of two. Part two here.

So you want to write a screenplay?

Know this: there are over a million scripts floating around hollywood. Hulk has read, oh… A couple thousand of them. And nearly every single person hulk meet in "the industry" has a script of some sort. So yes, it is safe to say that screenplays are an absolutely pervasive part of the culture. Not only does the sheer volume of scripts make it difficult to distinguish oneself in this climate, but so does the fact that there are already a vast number of talented writers in need of work. And lastly, consider the fact that the art of storytelling is something that is already ingrained into our culture. So given all these pertinent realities, hulk has one very simple question:

Why do most movies have major script problems?

Quite frankly, the answer lies in a lot industry bullshit. Meaning there is a good deal of putting the cart before the horse so to speak and moving on with a movie before you really have a story… But this column is not actually about that. Nor is this column is about writing screenplays that sell, pop, or that can be pitched to a studio. While these elements are all important to being a success, it is not a part of what we shall discuss here. In fact, hulk would argue that if you only possess the ability to sell, pop and pitch, then you can only have the kind of success that does not last.

Meanwhile, knowing how to write, lasts.

So the following gargantuan, seven-part column is hulk's humble attempt to try shed some light on how to become a better writer and storyteller. The first three parts of the column are rather conceptual. They take a great deal of time to wax philosophical on the state of mind and purpose one needs to approach storytelling. But the last four parts of the column are (thankfully) rather practical in terms of how to tackle the craft and screenplay-specific conventions.

At this point, hulk would be remiss if hulk did not mention the following information: the following column is, in all seriousness, the length of a book. All this means is that you can feel free approach this column any way you see fit. Hulk did not want to break it up into several columns over the course of days, because hulk felt like it was still one singular idea. And while you may not be able to be read in one sitting, hulk tried to make the structure as digestible and easy to navigate as possible (most of the subjects are listed by point number). Whatever short comings this approach has in terms of pontification, the piece will certainly not have others from a lack of effort.

We like to think of internet articles as these timely, disposal things, but hulk stands defiantly against that notion. A simple "blog post" can be more if we want them to be. We both just have to change our definition. Hulk really wants to believe this column can work like a book, something that can easily be returned to over time. Hulk wants this column to always be here if by chance you need it. And like most hulk columns, it's hulk-sized-ness is informed by the sheer mass of the subject itself; for the art of storytelling, whether we distill it in terms of the ideas, the know-how, or its effect on audience, is an art that is as varied as our own lives, and as expansive as our own universe.

At the same time, please know this column is not meant to be some authoritarian rant on hulk's part. It is meant to be helpful. Nothing more. Nothing less. The motives for writing it are born from a genuine sense of camaraderie, from knowing the same struggle that all writers go through. And if you've been through that struggle then you know that it is sham for any writer to represent themselves as an authority. There is only the lonesome struggle to execute one's ideas. It is constant, pervasive, and ever-lasting. Hulk believes this struggle is tough on writers. It makes for a solitary life. And trying battles with ones own mind. It fosters a solipsistic sense of independence, which can also breed contempt. So as much as anything, hulk writes essays like this in an attempt to connect. To share. To not feel like we are so alone in the pursuit.

As such, this column is meant for writers for every single level. Introductory, intermediate, and working pros who perhaps know most of these things either in a conscious or unconscious manner, but could always benefit from seeing the ideas all laid out. Even certified geniuses can sometimes overlook some missing element it may take to fully elevate their script. And yes, this column is even meant for those who have no interest in screenwriting whatsoever, but are just curious about how the process affects what they see on screen.

Because ultimately this isn't about the path to success, or industry secrets, or some ethereal concept of import…

…this is about trying one's hardest to write screenplays that work.

Part one – what is a story?

You obviously know what hulk means when hulk says story, but let's try and define it in one sentence.

… Yeah, it's kind of hard.

Life is full of these obvious, tangible concepts that we recognize so easily, things like love, anger, happiness, jealousy, and lust (can't forget lust!). We use these words every single day, but rarely do we try to actually define them in one singular, clear way. There have been many attempts made by the worlds great thinkers. The make up all those lofty quotes you've heard at some point and they have either gone on to inspire people, or just fill up those weird "best quotes ever!" web-pages that look like they were designed in 1996. But these well-meaning attempts at definition become even more problematic when you consider the totality and range of most those concepts. To embrace that range means not catering to a simple one-off like "love means never having to say you're sorry." but considering everything that it truly means (and come on, "never having to say you're sorry?" most of us should be apologizing for like 60% of the things we say and do).

So hulk wants to ask you about the word story, as in "what is a story?"

We could just call a story "one of those things people tell" and be done with it, but that's not very helpful now, is it? Imagine if aliens landed down on the planet and the fate of the human race depending on you explaining in a clear way what a story was. It's so hard because stories can have so many different purposes. They can be accounts of facts. Full-on narratives. Rumors. Legends. News articles. Background information. The word itself is so unbelievably dexterous, so how do we narrow it down?

For the purposes of this article, hulk will mostly be talking about kind of storytelling we call narrative. And narratives are only something that humans have been creating since the freakin' dawn of culture. Born from the need to communicate the most rudimentary concepts of language, narratives first sprang up as part of the oral tradition, built around campfires and communal experience. Then we made symbols. Wrote. Painted. And the mediums, formats, and shapes of audiences have changed many times over the course of time, but the stunning importance of narrative has always been there. The archaic tropes and devices involved in these narratives have stayed in tact and remain wholly relevant for good reason: narratives allow us to come to a sense of understanding about life and our function within it.

Why is this history is important? Because it tells us why we still freakin' do it.

Think about it. Parents try to teach their children what to do. Teachers instruct pupils. Elders talk to youngins. They can always say "do this!" or "do that!" but by telling the story they can convey so much more than mere instruction. They convey meaning. Consequence. Action. Inaction. Purpose. It's all there. Narratives mean so much to our culture, not just because they invoke a basic sense of morality, but because they make our very humanity something understandable. They make our humanity something felt.

This should be your purpose. Ideally, whatever it is that you would want to communicate to both the people around you and for future generations should be something that exists in your story. It should be the very point of your story. It should be your purpose.

Okay, we get it hulk! Narratives are important! That's why we're here reading!

Okay, sorry, sorry! Hulk just had to make it clear in case it wasn't. Some folks just need to be reminded why we really do this stuff. Narratives actually matter. When we get older we tend to lose sight of how amazing and new these simple concepts feel to you, but ask any teacher about that one. Because every high school kid in the country is discovering the same ideas you did in high school and they feel just as revolutionary to them. They were the ideas that blew your minds and shaped your lives. This happens less and less frequently with adulthood, but our duty is instead to pass on that meaning. The cycle of these ideas are not only constant, but critical. Hulk considers the passing of these archaic truths to be a meaningful duty.

But yes, you are probably right, you probably think stories matter too.

So now real question is what makes a good narrative?

Is it something that involves you? That is well-realized? That feels honest and real? That is crafted without extraneous excess? That gets you to learn something you never knew before? Or is it something that speaks to some archaic truth that you now recognize in your self?

The correct answer is "yes."

Why good friend, a good story does all those things. There is, of course, some amount of wiggle room when it comes to how successful a story needs to be at each of those elements. For instance, if your story is really concerned with the thematic meaning of a scene it can indulge in some aspects that are not wholly critical for the story, but really there is a negotiation to all this. You can't lose sight of all the things a good story needs, but when you do it has to be for a really good reason. Sure that good reason mostly depends on what is matters to you, the proverbial author, or you, the proverbial audience member, but hulk still thinks it's safe to say that if you look down the list of great and / or favorite films, than you will find that those stories really do capture all of these elements.

So let's just go for it! Here hulk presents a working definition of ideal storytelling: a good narrative is compelling to the audience, economically told, feels real either in terms of emotion, detail, or texture, and speaks to some thematic truth that you recognize in yourself or the world at large.

Ta-da! All hulk had to do was cheat with a run-on sentence and list the stuff hulk said earlier.

You may have also noticed that we have now another hulk-definition that has a really high standard for execution. Remember this definition not meant to be exclusive, but to simply set the kind of model for how to create the best possible stories. The definition is meant to be an inspiration and practical. All the best stories are multifaceted, complex, interesting, and resonant. No matter how technically "untrue" a story may be, a well-told, compelling one will still feel more real than anything else in the world possibly could. The best stories speak to your mind (thematically), body (viscerally), and soul (resonance). So of course you want your stories to do the same.

When you look back to the history of our species, it tells you everything to do. It tells you the purpose of the storyteller, which is not merely here to entertain (though that's certainly part of it), but to engage the younger generation the tools they need to understand how to carry on.

It means you should embrace the high standard. Sit down and look at that definition and look at your own stories. Ask yourself, are you trying to be cool instead of compelling? Are you trying to be funny and edgy instead of being real to your characters? Or instead of to the world you've created? Heck, are you even thinking about what your story says on an larger thematic level? Quite simply, are you doing all the things you need to fit our working definition of a good narrative?

The answers to these questions will tell you everything you need to know.

Okay, gee thanks hulk for the big definition there, but i don't know where to even begin. What kind of stories do i even tell?

Hulk would like to suggest that you implicitly know stories. You know them in your bones. You've seen / read / heard thousands. You, no matter who you are, instinctively know what makes stories good and how they work.

The key is becoming aware of what you already know.

Part two – where to find inspiration

For some people, the hardest part of writing is finding inspiration.

The problem with helping one find inspiration is that it sort of has to be a natural, organic thing. You can't force it. It takes practice, patience, and a lot of work. Hulk mean, hulk could give you a thoroughly bad answer of saying "stories are all around you! You just have to look for them!" but that doesn't really help, even if the statement is sadly true. Stories and inspiration actually are everywhere. And if you train your eye then they becomes constant, pervasive, and even suffocating. But identifying what makes a story worth telling vs. Something that isn't worth telling is a matter that takes a little understanding and largely depends on your disposition.

So first let you and hulk decipher why the moment of inspiration really matters. It's not just the starting point, but something that can work as a backbone for the entire process. Hulk has tons of ideas and they exist in various forms: brain storms, outlines, half-written screenplays, fully-written screenplays, short stories, teleplays, novels. Even a litany of small ideas written on napkins and scraps of paper. What this personal information is meant to imply is that the relative "done-ness" or form of the property has absolutely nothing to do with the idea and concept itself. A finished film is as close to the inspiration and idea as that little scribbled note on a napkin. To the creator, they are conceptually the same exact thing. Never forget that. Because the germ of your idea can be the thing that must constantly light the fire underneath you. While in the slog of working it out you must find that inspiration. The idea itself be a through-line that saves your script throughout the process. The moment of inspiration is both your motive and motivation.

But even then, where to get that idea written on a napkin? The germ of the idea? The very first thing that you write down? The answers to those questions are so ethereal and vague that it is almost foolish to really try and answer it. But, foolish as it may be, hulk wants to help you. So hulk going to do hulk's best here and try to give some productive ways of finding stories you want to tell.

Hulk will start with a question: what compels you?

At first, try to answer it on a macro level: are you concerned with youth issues? Animals? Crooked politicians? The unsung plight of nurses? Corrupt business men? You are really asking yourself, what do i have an opinion about? People look for these kind of broad topics in coming up with ideas documentaries all the time, but it is also a great way to approach fiction. Often these issues have some sort of personal relevance, which  speaks to the old adage "write what you know," but hulk think that phrasing to some real problems (which hulk will explain later in the essay when we get to the "real life" stuff). Instead, hulk thinks what compels you is much more functional approach.

One reason this approach works is because it naturally imbues your film with the thematic backbone you need. And the other reasons is because, come on, you should freaking care about the story you are telling. Otherwise, why do it? When a writer and filmmaker cares, then it just radiates off the page or screen. The audience really can tell. And if you don't care? That comes across plain as day too. Even if it's not the actual thematic matter you find engaging, it should be something else about the work. Most often writers and filmmakers care for genre, effect, or craft. You telling a scary story? You should delight in scaring your audience. Treat the screen the same way you would if you were telling it at the campfire. Engage them.

But remember, this large scale approach is just one half of the deal. Even if you have a strong, interesting opinion on a subject, the idea still has to be explored through the context of organic characters. The characters can't be props to larger ideas because the story will then reek of being hollow and manufactured. Which means you can't just reverse engineer some characters that fit your ideal situation and have them act out what you want to say. It has to be balanced.

So let's go back to the same question: what compels you?

This time let's answer on a micro-level: "my friend so-and-so is amazing, they work volunteer at a hospital and …", or "i read this great article about so and so." heck, it doesn't even have to people-centric. You can be like "i thought of this great scenario where…",  or "this really neat sci-fi world where so-and-so is possible." or heck, you can just have thought of a single line or image which you find compelling.  These micro-level details are a much more common form of inspiration. They are small ideas that excite you to larger possibilities.

But they are not narratives.

You cannot simply say "i want to write about this textured, interesting person." and it will magically produce a textured, interesting story. So often, a lot of recent movies have had trouble when they assume texture and character detail somehow is the same thing as motive. The whole hatred for "indie movies" has nothing to do with them being quirky, or maudlin, or saccharine. It's because they're often so empty. It's not that their characteristics don't "feel real" it's that so often these characteristics try to hide a lack of narrative or thematic purpose. It is character-detail apropos of nothing. You have to go further than that. With real life stories sometimes the "facts" get in the way of good stories. Hulk will get balls deep into why that is later, but hulk just have to make sure we understand that the construction of narrative is something more specific to narrative itself.

Ultimately, a good narrative is born by combining these macro and micro approaches into one singular, coherent idea. Your characters and the story they inhabit should be in complete alignment with the intention of your themes. Which means your narrative is essentially "what you are saying." so when you have a germ of an idea that compels you, whether it's a detail, a person, a concept, or a theme, you must then zero in and figure out how that germ then becomes a story.

For example, when alan ball created six feet under, he had a passing thought about a family who worked as undertakers and how that must be a weird life confronting mortality every day of their lives. That was the germ of the idea. It wasn't just that it was"weird" or "different," but that they engaged this topic so plainly. The battles a concept that is so damn pertinent to a culture that largely avoids the topic altogether. But that was just the conceit. He filled it out with rich, textured characters that also compelled him. Prim matriarchs, 30 year old granola transients, closeted adults, and disaffected teens. But again. That doesn't make a story. He then came up with two devices that propelled everything. First, the father dying so this show about confronting mortality became all the more focused on a personal level. The second, was that that every single episode would open with a client's death. Again, reinforcing the theme of confronting mortality in every possible way.

Do you see the role the germ plays? You think about what compels you and in this case it was the image of a family and the idea of "confronting mortality." he used that as the through line for the entire series, right up until "the end."

Notice how hulk brought up a tv show as the example? Hulk did that on purpose. Not every idea is a great fit for the medium of screenwriting. Some make sense for tv. Some make sense for a novel. Some makes sense for video games. Some make sense for a sketch. Hulk reads things every day that should really best be suited as other things. But how to know what is best for what?

… Okay it's actually pretty difficult, but the idea is to really zoom in on what makes the story work for its own purposes. Hulk's advice is to not think of it as a movie. Just think of it as a story.  Little, big, whatever. Once you understand what the story is on its own merits, you can play with it to figure out how that story best works as a movie, a tv show, comic, whatever you think best.

But no matter what, it first has to compel you.

Part three –  6 general stuffs you need to know beforehand

Ugh. More definitions and treading water before the actual advice! Come on hulk get to the good stuff!

Hulk sorry, but this important.

1. Get your learn on!

Yes, screenplays are just stories.

But as hulk mentioned before there is a way a story makes for a good movie or a way it makes for a better… Something else. To understand what makes a good movie you really just have to understand how movies work… And that's really a whole lifetime of columns. Understanding film is a perceptive art takes years to get a good grasp, but the good news that this information and know-how is something already locked inside your body. You know movies. You've been watching them your whole life. So you just need to watch as many as possible from here on in and then it is just up to your brain to best understand the process your body goes through while you're watching them. You just have to think critically while you do so.

Why is the process so important?

Because if you intrinsically understand movies even if you're totally unaware then that means the audience intrinsically understand movies too. Which means you can't just sling crap up there and "expect the morons to love it." believe it or not, the general audience knows good stuff when they see it. Movies can work viscerally for everyone. The walked out of the first pirates, rise of the planet apes, and bourne supremacy and "got it" so to speak. There will always errant cases of someone acting outside the barometer, but for the most part, well-told traditional narratives will always work like gangbusters. Now you may point on the success of the transformers series as evidence that shitty stuff succeeds too, but they are a rare and special case of an audience knowing the brainless fodder they are about to receive and going for it. Plus hulk argue the tiny bit of emotional connective tissue in the first film (don't torture bumblebee!) Actually earned the series a great deal of public goodwill going forward. Double-plus, you cannot confuse marketing and economics with something being "a good story." just cause it gets butts in seats, doesn't make it good. Hulk really believes that people know good traditional movies by instinct and that is because  every person on the planet implicitly understands the effects and needs of narrative.

So the question you have to ask when evaluating a film is simple: did most people walk out of the film saying "it worked."?

Let's go back to the [condensed] mission statement: this column is not about screenplays that sell, or pop, or how to pitch. These are all elements of success, but hulk argue it is the kind of success that doesn't last. Knowing how to write, lasts. So this column is about becoming a better writer and storyteller. It is about writing screenplays that work.

Because audiences instinctively know how they should work, even if they cannot articulate it. They know if they felt connected, or interested, or laughed, or screamed. They know if they were compelled. So knowing how an audience will respond to what is put on screen is everything. You have to be effective. Hulk will delve into a whole bunch of tools to be effective, but you just have to understand that you need to watch a ton of movies. You need to get your learn on.

2. No, seriously. Get your learn on…

As in start becoming an armchair expert in stuff. Why? Because otherwise you won't have anything to talk about.

Hulk suspects that some people don't realize how smart most writers and filmmakers really are. They are very, very smart. Go ahead. Sit down for any conversation. Your mind will be blown (as long as they're not a ratner or something). The filmmaker will not only be able to talk at length about the themes of their own films, or the absolute intention of each scene, but they will show they they are complete aware of their film's relative shortcomings and can evaluate the reasons why that occurred better than anyone on the planet. But it doesn't stop there. They will be able to talk about the entire landscape of film history. They will have seen most everything. They will completely understand audience psychology hulk mentioned in point #1.

But more than that, writers and filmmakers are at their best when they are interested in the world outside of film. Stanley kubrick was famously interested in so many fields of study:  mechanics. Engineering. History. Literature. Great storytellers tend to be marked by an insatiable curiosity about life itself. Yes, studying film as a medium is important because you have to understand the tools, cadence, and the writing process, but it's a worthless pursuit until you can convey something about the actual world. So look to your life. Look to other people. To politics. Art. Culture. Psychology. Sociology. You should have something interesting to say about the world around you, because the world around you is what is actually compelling to an audience (playing around with film conventions is neat, but to a smaller group of people). The world outside don't live in cinemas (like we do). So if you want to be a writer or filmmaker, prepare for this to be a part of the world. Prepare to be an expert in something.

Embrace the high standard!

Note: hulk not saying you can't ever go meta with your work. Just understand that the meta-ness needs to have a concurrent face-value narrative level if you still want to keep folks interested. That's all. Work the layers!

Wait, wait, wait, this is all getting a little didactic. What makes you such an authority mr. Hulky-pants?

3. Experience + what it means for you.

Okay… So at this point you may be wondering why hulk feels like hulk can even talk about this particular subject. Hulk discussed hulk's humble feelings on the nature of advice and the needs to share in the introduction, but what is it about screenwriting specifically that makes hulk want to contribute?

It is safe to say that hulk is more familiar with screenwriting than probably any other element of filmmaking. Hulk has not only written a deluge of them, but more importantly hulk has reads a metric fuck ton of them. Not casually either, but for, like, professional purposes and stuff. Meaning hulk's ability to look at a screenplay and identify why it works and why it doesn't is a big part of what hulk do. And as such, it's not that hulk want be an authority, but a chance to offer what hulk has known & experienced. And that may be of some use.  And it may not. Hulk just wants to share the struggle just like you. That's more the reason than anything.

But since this particular arena of filmmaking is "what hulk do" you may note a slight difference in tone to this article. Hulk will be a tad less cautious and a tad more direct. And in full-disclosure , some of this directness of tone has to do with something a little more jaded… At least more than you would expect from hulk… As hulk said there are thousands and thousands of people in los angeles who have claimed to have "written a screenplay" and are now trying to sell it. In complete honesty, what they have write is more than likely total crap. They may have a good idea. They may have a good sense of movies. They may have the right intentions. But they have not even put in close to 1/100th the work that so many working professionals in this industry actually have. And sorry, but hulk respects those working professionals too much to not acknowledge the stunning gap between the quality. And you have no idea how hard most of their paths were in getting to where they go. They work at the craft of writing the same way one works at any demanding job. And they are really good at it.

So imagine if you suddenly hopped on a major league field and just went up to bat. Ridiculous analogy, hulk know, but this happens all the time in los angeles and nobody thinks twice about it. There is this weird assumption that anyone can write a screenplay if they have a neat enough idea. Hulk knows this is a democratic meritocracy, that's actually one of the great things about the industry (anyone the right connection can have a shot at being a screenwriter), but hulk's obvious problem is with the lack of awareness. The blind assumption that somebodies literal first attempt to write a screenplay could somehow be worthy is downright strange (note: doesn't fully apply to writers of other narrative forms, but still does more than you'd think). So many people just have no awareness of where they stand. Hence: delusion. And it's a kind of delusion that suffocates the industry and makes it harder for folks who can actually write. It creates a culture where it's more difficult to have confidence to "sell themselves." the don't want to be like the rest of the delusional, pressuring jerks.

So hulk just want you to realize that knowing where you stand, and how far you have to go is a critical element to understanding where you stand in your writing development. This isn't accusatory. Hulk totally includes hulk-self in this one too. Really, hulk know that entire paragraph above reek of a kind of elitism. Hulk totally, totally aware of that. But that's not how it's meant. The statement is meant to show you that you have to start really working for it. You have to respect the craft and the effort the same way the professionals do.

Hulk really, really wants you to be a better screenwriter. You just have to take it really, really seriously.

Why is that so important? Because:

4. The script matters

Hollywood has the reputation of being rather unkind to screenwriters. Why hulk can count on hundreds of hands how many times hulk has heard someone call a script a "blueprint" and that… Gah… Listen to hulk very, very carefully on this one…

That is total balls.

98% of good movies have good screenplays. That is not an accident. If you ever call a script a blueprint chances are you are making, or are going to make, bad movies. Sorry, but it's true. Almost every single bad movie can be traced back to a bad script. Or fuck, maybe even no script at all. Do you have any idea how many summer tent-poles are green-lit and get into heavy pre-production with an incomplete to non-existing script? It is all built on the blind dumb-ass assumption that scripts aren't that important if you have the bare-bones in place.

Hulk would like to submit the idea that this is the single greatest fault of modern filmmaking.

The assumption that a film's story can be simply "figured out" in pre-production, production, or even the editing room is a wholly laughable idea. Even in pre-production, you need to understand what you need in order to have it in place. Hulk mean, how can you really do that without a freaking script!?!?! Do you know how many times productions get locked into a terrible scene, because they already started building sets?!?! Hulk has seen so much money get wasted in pre-production as a bunch of relative nincompoops re-arrange the story on the fly. They even hire/fire writers without realizing the consequence this has on their production.

And when you're actually filming a movie? Yes, you can change a script to enhance, refine, and complement what is actually being filmed. But this is deep-tissue stuff that's decided far along in the process. This is when everything is already set in place. You're not really re-constructing, you're refining. While you are in production you need to understand how what you're working on fits with the context, intention, and logic of the rest of the story. This should be obvious. It's how people made movies for nearly 80 years.

But then the corporations moved in and everything changed. They approached the story like… Hulk guess a corporate business would/ and they sadly discovered that through marketing, tone-appeal, star-power, and property recognition they could still get butts in seats opening weekend. Which is super-great for them because they didn't understand how scripts and stories worked in the first place… To be fair there are a good deal of executives who are stunningly brilliant. And wouldn't you know it, but the things they produce on tend to be rather good too!

But the important thing is that scripts really use to matter to the industry. The business of movies worked on a long-play sell for weeks and weeks. Word of mouth was what got butts in seats over time, and it didn't have much to do with opening weekend box office. So writing a good story, well-told was your freaking business model. Now? It's a neat little bonus.

Which is another idea that hulk would like to suggest is short-sighted balls.

Consider the following argument: if the most valuable thing a movie studio can get their hands on is "a franchise" then how do you get people interested in coming back time and time again? You make a good first movie. And that means you need, like, a good story, right? Not to get too smashy, but seriously people, how is this not fucking obvious? There is the common knowledge that the box office of sequels  has little to do with the actual movie, but is instead are a reaction to the last one. How often do we hear " _____ was so good that i can't wait for ____2!" isn't that how you build the franchise model? Hulk understand that everyone trying to make a good first movie and all that, but being sure you've locked onto a great script is the first part of that. If a franchise is everything to corporate folks, then why insist the story doesn't matter? A good story well-told, is secretly still the business model, we're just not seeing it.

Instead, one of the guys running disney says "only set-pieces matter" and then can't figure out why nobody fucking liked tron. This is the very pinnacle of "not getting it."

The script matters.

This even true for all the popular "improv comedies" you see in today's landscape. Guess what? All those heavily improvised adam mckay movies? Have you ever read the scripts? They're pretty freaking good. And they're a lot closer to the final product than you may realize. The character arcs, the relative points, the tone. It's all there, and it's all often great. The improv's function is only to find the best possible jokes, which they only manage to accomplish by getting some of the best comedic performing minds in a room together. It's a dialogue re-write alone. Not an improvised narrative.

So to all you budding improv-based writers, you need to have to write a script you're proud of first. Improv is a great performance tool, but is not an approach to story. You need the focus that narrative brings. So have the script be the soul of your project and something you'd be proud of, and then try to use improv to simply try and improve the surface.

You know who agrees? Tina fey. She was wholly born from the 2nd city improv model, yet she bases all her writing on the work of golden age tv and the simpsons.

The script matters.

5. Why you still need to be able to tell an original story

With all this "franchise" talk, you may have also noticed that original scripts and stories aren't being made by hollywood all that much anymore. Drew mcweeney wrote a great piece about how we are in the age of fan-fic. He delves into how we no longer have to look at our influences and appropriate them into our own original story, but actually get to work with those very properties that inspired us. As such, it seems like every single thing we produce is either a sequel, a remake, or based on another thing.

The main reason this happens is more industry b.s. they do it for valid marketing reasons (meaning it spikes the awareness numbers because people are already familiar with "the thing" itself). There's also another much more insidious reason for this. The system creates a condition where executives need to pick existing properties so that if they fail, they can justify their decision by saying "i picked something popular i swear! Economically it made sense!" the human angle on that is understandable. No one wants to be fired for crap reasons. But the complete system-wide misunderstanding of deciding what kinds of storytelling to embrace, is not. Storytelling needs room to embrace narrative. It cannot be a checklist of marketing points. It cannot be approached from that logic because you will likely extinguish the very thing you need to succeed. But alas, working with existing properties is the new reality of corporate filmmaking culture.

And here's the thing about that… It's still okay.

Because if you want to be a working screenwriter, then that cool original script you wrote is not necessarily about trying to get it made (though that would obviously be awesome). It's about proving that you are a good writer. And in order to prove that you are a good writer you need to prove that you can write an original, compelling story. That's why it matters.

Because even these films are based on other properties and characters, the question then becomes can you make it interesting? Can you make it compelling to an audience? Can you make the world come to life in a fully realized way? You just don't appropriate story by way of point-by-point adaptation. You have to understand exactly how an original story works and how to integrate film structure into your work. And you learn how to do that by learning to write an original story.

So it goes back to the inspiration angle all the same: what about the property compels you? What is so interesting about it? And from there you tell the story you find compelling with the details and iconography of the known property. You make it your own.

After all, nolan didn't make batman for adults because it was "gritty." he made it for adults by making a batman movie that was about interesting adult-minded concepts. City politics. Symbols. Anarchism. He took the batman iconography and engaged with ideas that interested him. And by doing that he transcended the property through the power and know-how of original storytelling.

6. But still remember, this is not about "getting things made"

Hulk wish hulk could promise you all the fruits of success, but there are so many things that go into getting something made that have nothing to do with writing. It's a separate topic really. So this column is about what you can control. From the very start, hulk said that this column was about writing itself and trying be a better writer.

So all hulk can promise you this: if you understand stories and screenplays, and if you want to pursue screenwriting or some kind of career in film, television, novelization, or media, then no matter what path you end up following the information contain within this piece will still be of value to you

… Or at least it can't hurt.

So those are 6 things hulk think you needed to know beforehand.

Now how the hell do you write the damn thing?

Part four – – how to tell a story – conceptually

Please enjoy the following guidelines/rules/whatevers for how to write a story/screenplay.

These guidelines will start with some necessary story concepts that will help your approach, then follow with structural advice, and then screenplay format advice, and finally the key to putting it all together.

So first up:

7. Empathy is your new best friend.

When crafting a story and characters, there is something very important to keep in the back of one's mind: there is no single more-powerful force on this planet than that of empathy… Hulk know you're counter already. Oh yeah, hulk? Well what about galactus!?!

Pssssh. How does galactus get defeated? Alicia masters appeals to the silver surfer's sense of empathy, which causes him to join the fantastic four and defeat his former master!

Empathy, bitches. Empathy.

But way more seriously, empathy is the most single powerful tool at a writer's disposal. Even this silly galactus example, which can be considered one of the more simple lessons from one of the great comic book sagas, works pretty damn well. And that is because the far-reaching value of human empathy is what hulk considers to be not just a great universal truth, but the single universal truth of humanity's survival… Whoa.

Please excuse the naive-sounding loftiness of the following, but in an effort to be attuned and grounded human beings, we sometimes miss the same lofty truths that stare us right in the face. Hulk would like to suggest that it is an obvious, yet critical truth that empathy is what binds human beings together. It's what allows us to love our partners, families, and friends. Unless we're dipping into some schadenfreude, it is even what gives us our capacity for joy and laughter. Meaning empathy isn't just "a nice thing we have in life," but a wholly necessary function. To paraphrase david foster wallace, it's why we don't spend every second of the day clubbing each other the head and stealing each other's groceries. Even in a world containing crime, depravity, and war, it is empathy that allows us to sometimes refrain from those very things. Which means it's why we survive as species.

Those are the damn stakes and it's stunning how often this realization passes us by… And it's often why we miss the fact it belongs in (almost) every kind of story.

When it comes to our movies, empathy is also the very thing involves an audience and keeps their attention.  It hooks into their bones on a visceral level. It gives the audience rooting interest and perspective. It is the reason a movie is experienced instead of watched. Movies are unique in that they get to have a person actually participate in the old cliche of "walking a mile in another man's shoes." we take it for granted, but isn't that kind of amazing? A great filmmaker uses empathy as their fuel. They use it compel the audience. And hulk truly loves that the thing that enables humanity to function is the same exact thing that enables movies to work! Nothing could be more appropriate for hulk's favorite medium. But now that we know empathy is important, the question then becomes how the heck do we use it?

There is the old adage that you can make an audience care just by threatening to "kill the kitten."

This is just a saying of course. You don't actually need to threaten to kill the kitten (unless you wrote the girl with the dragon tattoo or something). What this analogy really means is you take some obvious thing to empathize with (cute kitten!) And you put it in some kind horrible danger and instantly the audience is automatically involved in your movie. But it also can be any of these rather human, oft-experienced sort of things. Like spilling coffee on yourself. Or having parents that "just don't understand!" or the foil of that and having bratty kids. Basically you want to have this very relate-able texture or context which lets the audience say "i totally recognize and sympathize with that inclination!" (notice hulk said inclination and not "situation" because people make that mistake. It's the emotions we identify with, not the predicament.)

There is of course a way that these devices can be totally manipulative. Some people hate to have narratives box them in with how to feel and think. Rather than spend a big chunk of this on how to balance the goals of empathy without being manipulative, it is far easier to link to devin's excellent review of warhorse, which covers the subject quite well. The main point is to simply find the right balance of presentation and be sure that there are real character motivations behind the devices, meaning the devices/situation should directly impact or comment on the character and story and not just be there to cheaply get "the audience on their side."

Sadly, there are a lot of people in the filmmaking industry who confuse "empathy" with "likability." the mistake is understandable, but please understand that the two are not the same thing in the slightest. Empathy is about relation and understanding. They think likability amounts to "not having your characters do anything bad." this assumption is counter-productive because without having a character do "the wrong / fallible thing" you will end up creating some real shit drama if you ask hulk. In fact, this grave misunderstanding about empathy / likability is responsible for the legions of doormat main characters that movie audiences are treated to time and time again.

Fallibility is empathetic! Hulk know hulk always bring up indiana jones and we don't love him because he's perfect, we love him because he's constantly fucking up (and barely getting out the results). He's afraid of things, he has false confidence, and shows fear. He's a perfect human action hero. Hulk say it now and say it forever, look to indy for inspiration!

There is of course a rather modern tendency to go the other way with empathy and test the audience by seeing how much of a dick a character can be on screen. These sort of jerk-ass antiheroes litter the screen nowadays, and for comedy / dark comedy purposes they can work pretty well. But there's a whole art to it. The effect is actually meant to distance the audience in order to illuminate some kind of larger point or truth about human behavior. This point can be black-as-night funny or darkly poetic (coen brothers) or it can be grating as all hell (the sometimes unsuccessful work of neil labute). But the key is just to have an understanding of that approach. There is a real contrarian tendency these days to go this jerk-ass direction just because it seems different. The inclination is fine, but be sure there is a point to it. Don't just make the jerk-ass main character a shortcut to being funny / edgy without any sort of real thematic exploration.

You will now notice, that whether you go the empathetic or distancing route, a good deal of what you have to do tomake it compelling is exploring is the human condition.

Ask yourself bold questions: what is it that makes this character good? What is it that makes them troubled?

Wait, better yet, let's get specific! Ask yourself, why do we like tony soprano? Why do we not like tony soprano? What details about this character's life make him so interesting?

Hulk has sat here and waxed philosophical about empathy for quite some time, but that's because there is no basic, truthful shortcut hulk can say which makes you understand its nuances. You can threaten to kill the kitten and be quite successful at it, or you bite your thumb at the very concept of empathy all together. There is a wide spectrum of approach and all hulk wants you to do is have a real concrete reason for going in either direction.

It can't just be "because it is easy."

And whatever you do…

8. Beware the lure of indulgence. One of the big mistakes in all of writing is to graciously give into the more indulgent aspects of writing and storytelling. Since empathy is what connects us, sometimes the empathetic effect is so easy to achieve that it is also responsible for letting us "escape."

Now, there is of course a value to escapism. It's a huge aspect of entertainment. But one must always be careful with the masturbatory element of that escapism. You can get an audience member to think  "i'm a hero saving the world! I get the girl! Blah blah" but this sort of indulgence can lead to some really unsavory stuff too. The kind of stuff that has nothing to do with larger truths, or understanding, or the human condition, or why we tell stories. It's about massaging the id. And at that point, your storytelling is basically the facilitation of mental masturbation.

It may make people happy, and that's all well and good… But it may not be doing them a favor. And by extension it might not be doing humanity a favor.

This is not to overly-criticize the desire to entertain. Hulk just think that when engaging the indulgent aspects of storytelling, it is also important to understand what is really happening with the audience, and to take responsibility of your message. Hulk thinks you should try to tie a few of the indulgent concepts into some grounded and responsible aims too. Otherwise you end up writing lifestyle-porn like entourage (which is not only a lazy approach to indulgence, it is such a lazy show it can only resolve plots with deus ex machina… If you like entourage hulk sorry to be crapping on it. Really hulk is. Hulk admit it can be really funny and has a few good performances and stuff, but hulk not like its identity and purpose. It is perhaps the most indulgent, yet well-made thing hulk has ever seen).

So yes, even indulgence must be appropriated into purpose. Hulk not implying that all movies have to have some hallmark message tied into it, because that would be super lame. In fact, some of hulk's favorite films an just go balls out and make the most obviously indulgent, wholly un-real narratives (think of something like crank). The way these hyper-stories work is that the absurdity and un-reality of the presentation actually creates a sense of distance. And with that distance, the audience can implicitly understand that the authors are criticizing or laughing at. It enables satire and irony. You have to think of the presentation like taking on the view of the omniscient observer. Even if salinger technically wrote in holden caufield's voice, we implicitly understand what salinger thinks about everything that holden is saying in doing. It's just a lens.

Ultimately, awareness of what empathy is and how it works, will be the key to making all of your creative decisions. It is the fundamental building block of storytelling, and will inform everything about how you want to tell your story.

9. The consistency of character motive

But what makes a story choice a good one or a bad one?

There are all sorts of inclinations, ideas, and directions that one can go with in writing a story, but the best way to decide if those story choices are worth it is to ask yourself one simple question: "would the character actually do that?"

This question matters so damn much because when a character on screen does something they totally wouldn't do, it becomes the very thing that most alienates the audience. They make a subconscious decision to say "i'm no longer going with you buddy, empathizing this way, now i'm just watching you do the wrong thing." again, hulk is not talking about literal right or wrong here or what you would do. Hulk is talking about what the character would and wouldn't do.

Think about it like this: we would "follow" tony soprano as he killed one of his rival mobsters in a gruesome fashion. It may not be something we would do ourselves, but we understand this is something that fits within tony's psychology and we accept it. But then we would definitely not be happy with tony if he killed some random teenage coed in some gruesome fashion. While both killings are morally "wrong" to us, the audience member, only one of them is inconsistent in terms of character. And that would make us angry with the storytelling. Now. Of course david chase was a master of playing with this moral line and had all these amazing ways of bringing tony to the edge of acceptance, but he always  willing to deal with the consequences. He always looked for meaning to erupt from tony's choices. Hulk feel that chase was one of the most thematically responsible storytellers to grace our televisions. That responsibility never had anything to do with simple moralizing, but the fact that everything about his characters had weight and meaning. It was just incredible.

But it's funny how this question of "inconsistency" applies to real life as well. When tiger woods, who we thought of as the paragon of hard-work, success, and nice-guy-ness, was caught cheating we were collectively appalled. We saw him as a sham and it made us furious. But when charles barkley was caught doing the same thing (and drunk driving to boot!) We just shook it off and said "that's charles being charles!" we like people to be who we think they are.  Character consistency matters so much to our culture, and thus it has to matter to our storytelling too.

When a character does something in your story, it has to make sense. So when they are suddenly pushing their boundaries (and all main characters push their boundaries) it has to feel earned. Sure we want these characters to expand, change, and have arcs, but the story needs to give them wholly valid reasons to do so. The kind of plot-based reasons that perhaps awake something that always in the character's soul. And maybe they just needed to figure out how to let it out. And if you don't give the characters good reasons to change, then you are essentially making your characters be insincere. We think of them like we think of tiger woods. We look at the storyteller like they just wanted the character to fit some point or the story they wanted to tell… And audience can smell that insincerity from a mile away.

Hulk know that hulk makes this "sincere character" thing sound like it's easy thing to do, but this is actually one of the more difficult things for a writer to see in their own work.

That is because, as the creator, it is often hard to separate oneself from the power and control over what you are writing. "of course the character would do that! That's what i'm making them do!" but to the audience, who only gets to learn about the character through the very different lens of experience, it doesn't work like that. They don't know what is inside your head. They only see what comes out from the story. As such, they are actually much better at reading "who the characters are" as well as their capacities for good and bad.

As such, when writing it is important to ground yourself in these same tangible capacities. Remind yourself of them constantly. What would they really do? What are their motivations? What do they want? What do they need? Are they smart enough to do that? Are they kind enough to do that? Are they mean enough to do that? You may like the effect of a decision, but it has to be sincere.

Hulk know we all want to explore storytelling in as adventurous a way as possible, but you have to do what makes sense for your character. Go where they have to go, not where the story wants them to go.

Now…  How do you decide what actually makes sense for a character?

10. Character trees!

Sweet! Actual methods of implementation! It only took hulk 9000 words to get there! Hurray!

So character trees can be an invaluable tool for helping you create fully-realized characters. Especially in television and novels where the depths and histories of character can be explored more richly in the longer formats. But even for truncated screenplays, the value of character detail can do so much.

That being said, also beware the dangers of character trees because they can also lead to a lot of extraneous bullshit. Meaning writers who complete character trees often feel like they need to cram in all the details to make the character "work." this not the case. It makes the assumption that is this said detail that does the heavy lifting. That is not true. Instead it is the nuance of how characters behave. So don't go overboard. That being said, the great thing about character trees is the stuff you come up with will always be there if you need it.

Hulk was once introduced to a smart way of keeping track of character trees by using body parts. You start at the bottom and go up, thus "building a complete person."

To wit:

A) feet – what do they look like? What are the facts of their family history? Where have they lived? The feet are all are factual details to be drawn on.

B) groin – what do the want? How does their sexuality manifest itself? What are the other base wants? Greed? Approval? Esteem? The groin addresses all the things about the person that are born out of impulse.

C) heart –  what do they need? What things do they secretly need in their life that will make them a better person? Notice it is rather different from what a character "wants" (which may be misguided). A character's heart is likely the key to the ending catharsis.

D) throat – how does the person sound? Not just the literal voice, but how does the person project themselves? How do they come off to people? What is their "surface vibe" as they say? A person's throat is basically their posture and attempt at presentation.

E) left cheek – what is their intelligence? How does it manifest itself? How do they problem solve? Basically, the left cheek exposes the "left brained" abilities.

F) right cheek – what is their idealistic / artistic capacity? What is their conscience and morality? Just like before,  the right cheek exposes "right brained" abilities.

G) crown – this is where you can look at at all the body parts listed and piece together an actual psychology. You now have all the tools at your disposal to create a real, complex person with a conscious mind and a subconscious id. You can start to piece together what really matters when you write about the crown. What are their defining memories? What is their pathology? The crown essentially allows you to answer the question: who is this character?

So that's a character tree.

You start factual, then get emotional, then ideological, and then build into an actual character psychology. It is a great way to build fully textured people with whole lives onto themselves. Better yet, character trees work so well in making all your characters truly different from one another.

Character trees are not the be all end all, but a great technique for development and continual resource in the writing process.

11. Don't base your characters on one person, combine them!

Let's face it., our friends and loved ones are huge influence on our thoughts and experiences. There's no real way not to incorporate them into our writing in some form or other. But you have to be careful of when the writer is so clearly basing the character on someone they know. Hulk sees this all the time in scripts. The reason it sucks it comes with this natural expectation that the character's "reality" will do all the heavy lifting.

Know this: just because they are real, doesn't make them feel real.

An audience cannot somehow sense what you implicitly know about this real person. They can only sense the information and characterization that is given. If you've ever been in or taught undergrad creative writing students, you will absolutely encounter the same problem even every single semester:

Hulk: "listen jimmy, hulk not sure the character choice there would-"

Jimmy: "but this is a real person!"

… It doesn't matter. What matters is whether or not it makes sense for the character presented. So what to do when you're so blindly sticking to real life? If you recognize a truth in this real-life person that you want to explore? How to approximate the influence of real people into your script in a more organic fashion?

Hulk has a sure fire trick to making your characters more interesting and freeing them up to the realities of writing fiction: combine them.

You have that one friend who is really interesting? And that other friend who is really interesting? If you try to write them individually they always have a tendency to come off all wooden and lacking nuance. But if you combine the two of them? And you create a shared wealth of history and psychology to draw on? You'd be shocked how suddenly the character is brimming with depth and possibilities.

A long time ago, hulk was once working on a script in which two of the side-characters hulk kind of based off "real life" were coming off flat and one-dimensional. The first was gregarious, funny kid who loved partying and was wasting away his parent's college money. The other was indian student with an interesting family story and trying to approximate some kind fun experience in college. (note: this movie was not van wilder). Then hulk got that great piece of advice: combine them.

Wouldn't you know it, but suddenly the character was leaping off the page. His "indian-ness" no longer defined him, and vice-versa, the party-guy suddenly felt so much more interesting and atypical. It removed the stereotype of both characters. And the gregarious party-going behavior became an interesting way him to manifest his assimilation into american social culture. It was fascinating over-compensation. It also made the problems with his traditional indian parents feel much more textured instead of obligatory. Combining them completely revolutionized this character's story.

So hulk started to do this with pretty much every single "real life" inspiration.

You force them to be filtered through a prism of other characteristics and suddenly it removes the singularity. Now this device is not some one-size-fits-all thing you can do with any two characters, but it becomes so much fun trying to find the neat combinations of people  that actually fit together. Better yet, it creates new meaning to all those details.

We like to think we see the people in our lives as complex, but believe it or not we often just reduce them to their own kind of stereotypes: "oh that's just so and so!" so what hulk loves about this method is that it forces you to remove the singular way in which you think about the people around you. It breeds 3d characterization.

And it's not just true of character either….

12. How to filter "your real life" into a story

Inspiration just doesn't come from characters, it comes from our own lives, experiences, and so many hilarious stories. But again…

Just because it happened, doesn't make it feel real.

All the same lessons apply. Take the inspirations and events and filter them into real storytelling models and beats that make sense (we'll explore this later in the structure section).  Don't just be lazy and assume the reader knows the event is equally "true."

In fact, it's usually the opposite. Real life can have this strange way of feeling "unreal." non-fiction stories are usually filled with the grandest elements and extremes of human behavior. These have a way obscuring the thematic points you may want to make and failing to resonate with the audience. It's completely counter-intuitive, but drawing on real life really doesn't make your work ring true. So often it's suited for non-fiction where we have to believe it.

And fiction is built for what feels true.

So hulk will now turn to another old adage. Really, hulk urge you to remember what hulk about to say, even if you glaze through every single thing in this article (which tends to be pretty complex) just take away one simple thing..

 don't write the story of your life with the lines you wish you said

Not only does it reek of amateur hour, it's just pure masturbation. As p.t. anderson once said "you're working out your psychosis at everyone else's $8.50" (that should clearly be updated to 15 bucks). But the problem is it's cathartic storytelling only built only for yourself. Which is not to say you can't make work, but just so often it doesn't translate. Trust hulk on this one. It will not speak to no higher truth. Even the most lauded masturbatory works, call direct attention to the callousness. Like with the entire work of woody allen, he weaves the problems and hang ups of his own masturbatory writing directly into the narrative. Heck, he outright explains how insignificant it is and how it only helps the artist (this is the entire theme of deconstructing harry).

Reality does not automatically make for fiction. And in case you're wondering, yes,  kaufman / jonze's "adaptation" is 100% about this entire concept. It's all about how one cannot simply rely on the facets of truth and must search for beauty and truth and themes, and must ultimately embrace storytelling conventions to make those ideas resonate (even if one does so cheaply). And that film explains it better than hulk ever could

Hulk mean, of course it can… It's a narrative.

13. The biopic / reality complication

If what hulk just said is true for your stories, then it goes double for biopics.

So hulk has a lot of reservations with the biopic as a film form… Mostly because there is a really high degree of difficulty. Why so difficult? Because recounting a life story tends to have nothing to do with how narratives work. People do their best to try and make it a story,but it doesn't often work. Most of the time, it's just feels like stuff happening. The writers will recount all the "greatest hits" in a person's life. And often the attempts to cram clear narrative devices and themes into story feel completely disingenuous, shoehorned, and inconsistent with the tone of the film

So as a filmmaker, you have two real options.

The first is to heavily layer on the conventions of narrative over the story, so that the traditional storytelling elements do not feel half-assed feel. So they do not fell inconsistent with the overall tone of the piece. You also have to be super confident that those narrative conventions actually fit the truth of the person too (otherwise you might just be making propaganda). The best example of heavy narrative layering done right is spike lee's incredible malcolm x. The stories in the film all have very specific narrative conventions. He expresses malcolm's life through tried and true story tropes. He approached his life events like little mini-movies, all making up a much larger story. Like first there was his hustling days. Then his jail days. Then his period of learning (education montage!). Then his rising up into power days. And ultimately, his meditative final days. There's way more sections than this too, but each of them feels like its own specific movie. There's so much propulsion and economy to each mini-story. Lee fully embraced the principals of narrative at every turn so that the supposedly-restricting "facts" became incredibly compelling. He doesn't change the facts. He amplifies the facts. And in doing so he creates a biopic that isn't just true, it feels true.

The second option is to dismiss the concept of narrative all together and commit solely to the concept of accuracy. This means you tell the story through the evolution of relevant details. This works less well with a person's life, and much better with a specific event or time-frame. Hulk calls this the journo-cinematic route. You be like all the presidents men. You be like zodiac. Even with made-up stories that are meant to capture "the nuance of reality" you be like the french connection. You be like contagion. In all these films you eschew the principals of narrative and character arcs to tell the story of "an event" through the fixation of detail. The actual human characters come in and out, and sure they should be entertaining and fully-textured, but you really just need one of them to drive the narrative propulsion, usually through their fixation on the event itself.

The first time hulk realized that it made so much sense. Their drive help's fuel the film's drive. In all these "real event" films hulk list above, whether fiction or non-fiction, they are filled with characters that push through discovering the narrative itself. To unlock nixon's watergate. To find the zodiac killer. To find charnier. To understand and cure the disease. Their unbending fixation is there to 100% serve the propulsion of the narrative. So where is the arc? Where is the character change we truly need in movies?

The event becomes the character.

This absolutely blew hulk's mind when hulk first heard this idea. It seems to fly in the face of the character-centric stuff hulk said earlier. This detail is actually really important. Even though these films are some of hulk's favorites (and maybe yours as well) there is a way lot of people in the traditional audience can't relate to them. There is no central character journey. It is harder for them to empathize. Yes, they might be missing out, but the filmmaker just has to reconcile the fact that kind of story is not for everyone.

But, but hulk… That's can't be it, right? Just two options!??! With nothing in the middle!?! There's gotta be a way hulk, there's gotta be!

Fine… There's one option. One option to perfectly capture the sanctity of realistic detail and combine it with the ethos of character-driven story. The option is so rare, that hulk has only really seen it happen once in tv and film (novels are much better at it).

That option is the wire.

People often mistake the wire for only having this journo-cinematic route and that's not accurate. Yes, the show was written by former journalists, who so drew on their real lives and experiences, and in such a responsible way that it may have just seemed like that was the case. Everyone was like "the wire is totally, like, real man." … But that's only half the story. Because the show also sticks beautifully to elements of narrative, particularly greek drama structures. They were just so damn good at grounding those obvious narratives in a kind of muted-un-cinematic texture. It resisted all forms of stylization (there's a great anecdote david simon talks about where they don't pan down to show an important detail because "the camera wouldn't know to do that." it was an even-keeled universe). Even with all the show's fixation on detail, they still used perfect story economy. They only used the level of detail they needed and the rest is traditional character arc and catharsis. And in terms of theme it may be the single most socially conscious, thematically-loaded television show that has ever existed.

Hyperbole much, hulk?

Whatever. It's the wire. And if you're going to try to replicate it… Hulk mean… We may never seen anything like again. But even then, perhaps there are some lessons to take away from it.

Like this one:

14. Research!

Hulk is saving a lot of this for an upcoming column, but it fair to say a lot of people have a preoccupation with "in-movie" logic.

Online culture in particular seems fixated on noticing plot-holes and inconsistencies all the time. Often we deride these movies for not "thinking it through' and being "bad" because of it. First off, these sorts of complaints are made by people who would have extreme difficulty writing a story without plot-holes themselves, but that would be sort of flippant of hulk and not important because they're not the ones telling the story. Hulk's problem is that they just might be missing the point.

Hulk thinks  that character consistency (mentioned above) and thematic consistency are far more important than than in-movie logic. Most of us tend to forgive movies with plot holes as long as the reasons for skipping them are pretty damn good. All of the joker's plans in the dark knight do not make a lick of sense. None. But it didn't matter because the film was so propulsive and well-constructed that we got swept up in the story (the film is a great game of cat and mouse). But it really didn't matter because nolan used all that storytelling in service of interesting ideas about anarchism, morality, sociology, and characterization.

So yes, hulk agree, it didn't make a lick of logical sense, but it doesn't really matter. There's a reason everyone walked out and thought "masterpiece!" and didn't notice the plot-holes until they watched it a few more times.

But even though hulk think character and thematic consistency matters way more than in-movie logic, it clearly doesn't mean that we shouldn't bother putting effort. That would just be lazy. And lot of writers in this industry are guilty of being lazy. Hollywood movies are filled with all sorts of nonsense, producing work that makes it seem like the writers have never used a computer and don't understand what the term "hacking" actually means. Even when you go higher-brow than that, the science of lost was often lauded, but it was actually pretty much gibberish. If you have any non-armchair, seriously-hardcore science friends then it was really, really hard for them to watch the show. Mostly, because they would reference these cool advanced concepts and then not actually understand what they entailed. But these are sort of special cases.

As long as we are trying to write good scripts, we should also try to be accurate. The narrative has to be sound first and foremost, but true research can go on to inform so many great ideas and really flesh out your story. You just have to put the work in. And better yet, hulk think that audiences subconsciously respond when characters really know what to call things. The specific details give the air of veracity. And sometimes great truths are arrived at when you work backward from that veracity.

Going back to david simon, generation kill is compelling because all they tried to do with the narrative was create the most accurate depiction of life as a soldier in iraq. And they did so in way that was only meant to make those soldiers happy. But by doing pleasing those soldiers, they created a kind of detail-oriented truth that helped strike a chord with those of us looking in on the situation.

Simply put: audience like to watch smart people be professional. It is responsible for most of the good cop, lawyer, doctor shows we see on tv, even though some of them have taken to lying right through their freaking teeth. And hulk thinks that this dishonest approach to portraying real-world professionalism has really bad societal consequences.

Look at csi. The "science" may be somewhat sound (if that) and features real techniques, but the show is the most dishonest look imaginable about how those sciences are actually used in the field. It is utterly dishonest to how those people really do their jobs. It is utterly dishonest about the success rate of the techniques and the kinds of resources police actually have. And as such it creates a seriously damaging portrait of how society works. Don't believe hulk? A lot of juries have stopped taken jurors if they are csi fans… The show lies that badly (the jurors constantly expect every single case to have the kind of resources they need for on site forensic evidence. Forensic evidence is only studied by 3 scientists in a little lab room and there is a 6 month waiting list) .

The problem with csi is not that they are creating hyper-fictionalized television, but that they are doing so under the guise of realism. It brings up a really difficult argument about the pursuit of narrative vs. The pursuit of real-life logic. Again, there is some wiggle room here, but hulk think if the manner of storytelling imbues a commitment to tangible real-life details, there is also an accompanying duty to portray those details in a similar realistic vein.

And that means you should do your research.

Now let's switch gears out of character / reality and get into some potential trouble spots with story approach.

15. The value pre-existing conflict.

"everything was just fine! And then it wasn't!"

That is the first act of a whole shit load of bad movies you see in theaters. We get a whole look at some world that is built up with a sense of normalcy and then at a certain point, it's like the movie actually decides to start. Now, there is a way and reason to do this, but so many movies don't really use that time for anything important or critical to the story. It's just sort of there. More than that, it feels like so many damn movies pass up on the opportunity to ingrain their films from the very onset with a sense of weight. All they have to do is start people in the midst of a world already in conflict. Doing this gives your story immediacy, importance, stakes, meaning.

And yet so many movies seem to pass on that option. Hulk touched on this earlier, but they'll make a dumb move where they will flash-forward to let us know "things are gonna get crazy later!" and then just start the movie all regular-like. When in comparison there are so many great movies that start in the middle of a larger conflict. There's big, bold examples like star wars, which famously starts in the middle of a space battle. But it doesn't even need to be some grand scale thing. We can start in the middle of intimate human problems too. A parent's death. A relationship at odds. A past-psychological trauma. Starting off with these problems gives your script an immediacy. One enters a world that already feels lived-in and with history. It creates a world that we already know has consequences and importance.

This isn't to say pre-existing conflict should be required for every movie, just that so many stories seem to miss out an opportunity to use it. And that's a shame.

So keep it in mind!

16. The jj abrams question – mystery? Vs. Urgency!

Jj abrams has built a career off the power of mystery.

Hulk does not feel uncomfortable saying that. He knows that it can engage an audience, propel further discussion, create a beautiful atmosphere, and lock into your sense of curiosity. All of his movies and tv work absolutely commit to the power of mystery. He outlines the whole theory in his now-famous (infamous?) Ted speech about how mystery can command a story all the way through and especially the marketing presence. His frequent co-writer and collaborator damon lindelof, often talks about his writing strategy where every character he writes has a secret, which informs and guides their depth.

These tactics have great value… But both these guys tend to use them to a fault. Sometimes mystery is just not the required tone. Yes, mystery can hang over a scene to wonderful effect, but it can also han over a scene to an incredibly muting effect. Sometimes scenes just need to be functional. Sometimes they just need to be clear.

Sometimes they need to have urgency.

Urgency is simple. Urgency is born from clarity. We have to stop that thing or the bomb goes off and we both die! The thing hulk really like about this kind of storytelling is that it is a visceral kind of engagement. Mystery makes an audience member go "oooh, what the heck is going on here?"and brings people into their minds to ponder. This is admittedly a vital engagement that doesn't happen often enough in cinema. But it is often just a cerebral engagement. And urgency, with all its dull simplicity, allows the audience to "skip" the use of their brain and just experience the film in the most primal and exciting way. That may sound like hulk is advocating being a philistine, but not it all. Different scenes / films just call for different things. And hulk thinks urgency is more geared to how best to use filmmaking's natural power.

And don't think that urgency only applies to action and stop the world! Circumstances. It works just as well for two characters talking about the something that is important to each of them. It is wholly functional. Think back to how many conversations of lost had two people waxing philosophical about something we never actually understood. We wondered what the heck they were talking about as they tip-toed around vague concepts, but we were not necessarily engaged on character or story level. And it became more and more tiresome with every passing season. It wasn't that we wanted "answers" it was that we wanted clear stakes and something that mattered. Mystery truly has a short-term lifespan. If you try to sustain it for too long, you're sunk.

So if lindlelof needs to have every character have a secret, do we then lose the power of two characters arguing over stakes we both understand? Hulk understand that often lost was thematically interested in subverting the very idea of what one "can actually know" and thus need to put ones energy into faith. But so often this wishy-washy mysteriousness overpowered the mechanics of basic narrative. What's funny is that the first season really did understand the power of clear stakes and tangible character motivation. But the deeper down the well they went, the more they lost sight of that balance, so much so that it ruined some of the power of the central mystery… And please keep in mind this is coming from a hulk that really, really loved the show.

Ultimately, there's clear reasons to use both mystery and urgency, but hulk just want you to be aware of, you know, how to use it and why. Ask yourself, what would make this scene work better? Not understanding the urgency and engaging the audience on cerebral level? Or totally understanding it and engaging the audience viscerally?

Nothing highlights the differences of the two approaches like mission impossible iii and mission impossible iv: ghost protocol. The first steeps every character, and even the film's macguffin in the total shroud of secrecy. The second explains absolutely everything and takes you on one hell of a compelling ride.

… Hulk knows which one hulk liked. Which did you?

17. Don't write women just in the context of men

Okay… Hulk not going to get big into this, because it going be upcoming column, but writers, both male and female, have to do a better job with how they portray women. They just do. The culture of women in film is in bad, bad way right now.

There's a lot of levels to it. There's active sexism "girls just need to be in a movie so men have something to look at!" and casual sexism "let's only define women through the gaze and context of the male characters!" and even subconscious sexism "the girl in this movie are way more interesting, but guys are default main characters!" again. Hulk going to address all this later in way more detail (with a few certain badass guest stars!), but it is important to create interesting, vivid women who, you know, have their own stuff going on. Notice hulk didn't say "strong role models" because that not the same thing. Hulk talking the fact we can't even write basic human traits. Hulk hear all the time from students and even professional writers "but i don't know how to write women!" … That's b.s… If you can write a guy you can write a girl. To suggest anything other than that is ridiculous and nothing but opting to be lazy.

You may think this issue is "not that important" to the story you are telling, but every film can be made better by making the women in it more three-dimension. Seriously. Every film.  Think of all the rare films that actually manage to write three-dimensional women, and wouldn't you know it, but it just so happens every audience member comes loves it. Even the most sexist dudes on earth, who insist they don't "need" interesting portrayals women, can't help but enjoy whatever they do on screen. We are simply moved by interesting, human characters.

Side-note: hulk also has another column planned around race in movies. But for writing purposes? Especially if you have problems writing characters of different backgrounds? Here's a tip: if you're white and you're writing a bunch of white people. Try just suddenly changing the race of one or more of the characters. Then change nothing else… Problem solved.

Closing argument? People respond to people being people.

And that's all you really need to know.

Now, let's hammer home the thematic angle of story-telling.

18. Everything you write is saying something

Whether or not we mean to put messages in our films and media, they are still there.

This is an inescapable fact of authorship and the anchor behind the entire field of semiotics. Everything characters do or say, automatically implies something about the way characters think about life. Even if they are just automated responses, does that not imply author is saying something about the way certain people may behave?

This does not mean that characters are automatically a stand in for the author's beliefs or some silly notion like that. But there is a way that all authorship comments on the characters. The manner of portrayal, the totality of everything they say and do, has consequences, context, and a tone of presentation. There are layers to it. And an author's messages, whether intentional or unintentional, are expressed through those layers of context.

A good storyteller knows how to harness those messages.

As in they use the story's context to create their own meaning. Hulk talked about the idea of art and intention a great deal in hulk's video game column on call of duty and there are many ways to express an idea in screenwriting, but the one core thing you need to have is a simple awareness of what you are saying. It can be some grand on-the-nose political statement, it can be nuanced thought about a character's behavior, it can be simple justification of heroism and kindness. But it says something. And the simple awareness of whatever that idea is, your theme, your purpose, often does half the job of sorting that context for you. Hulk will say it again: the mere act of having a viewpoint and theme in your head while writing will do half the job for you.

Hulk know that hulk say it all the damn time, but awareness matters. Everything you write in your screenplay means something.

This is where we get into the concept of "soul" in the mind, body, soul approach to movies. When hulk talked about ideas and subjects that compel you back in the inspiration section, the intent was to provide themes that can be used to compel both your characters and then the audience. It is your chance to connect to the person's soul.

Thematic messages are not a burden or a responsibility, but a damn opportunity.

Theme allows the author to say something important. It doesn't need to be oppressive and dominate the story or sense of fun in your film. Even in the most silly of comedies like the other guys, mckay finds a way to comment on the things he finds important and makes them work with the context of a send up of action movies. For instance, he totally finds it interesting that action films often feature these crazy ethnic bad guys who operate drug cartels and murder and stuff, but whose exploits are almost nothing compared to the pervasive shame of white-collar crime. Sure, the film makes fun of over-the-top car chases and cliched super-police officers, but it is also serious criticism about the simplistic way action films paint good and bad.

And even if you just want your movie to be fun and not overwhelm your audience with "messages" there is a way to do that too.  You can post-modernly thumb your nose at the idea of "saying something," avoid what you think is trite or didactic, and implore that very thematic message into your film. Hulk mean, if that's what you actually think, isn't the script just an opportunity to make that clear?

Theme is always an opportunity, not a burden.

19. The ending is the conceit

So if all the ideas in our films mean something, then your ending should say everything.

We often look at endings as those things that just wrap up the story and make us feel better, but a better way to think of an ending is for it to hammer in everything you ever meant. All the story, all those themes, all those ideas, all that work, it should resonate as the audience leaves the theater. Not be extinguished in a merciful, placating whimper.

Hulk talked about this at length in regards to james gunn's excellent film super, where he didn't just do that, but used the ending of the film to reveal the thematic idea of what the film was really about the whole time. It wasn't some cheap plot trick, but a transformative, thematic-hammer. The film's ending is powerful, resonant, and re-shapes the entire film you saw just before it.

Endings always matter. Here's a run-on sentence for ya, but why else would shakespeare always end his plays with some haunting or beautiful monologue, delivered by an actor, seemingly right to the audience, in which they would ruminate on the events that have transpired, what they meant, and how they should resonate going forward… Hulk mean…  He is the greatest writer ever and he basically just tells you the conceit right at the end.

So do not look at the ending of your piece as a burden, but an opportunity. An opportunity to say everything you want to say in your movie. It is an opportunity to be poetic, resonant, and interesting.

And if you skirt on that opportunity? And just wrap a few things up without living up to the rest of your film? Then that might be a bit of a problem because that's what the audience leaves with.

Hammer home your points. End strong. Say something.

Now let's quit this conceptual shit and get into part five and how to use structure!

This part one of two. Part two here.

This part two of two. Part one here

Part five – – how to tell the story – structurally

Note: the corresponding picture to part five, shown above, can die in a fire.

So parsing out the structure of a screenplay is commonly referred to as "breaking a story." it feels like a better phrase than"constructing" because that word feels like rough assemblage. Whereas breaking a story is about taking the idea itself, your inclination + the story already locked in your mind, and breaking it down so you understand it on  structural level. It's more like you are manipulating what you instinctually have and know. Like working with play-doh or something. Hulk likes that thinking much, much better.

Anycrap, let's look at how to properly break a story.

20. Economy is your new second best friend

A friend of hulk's said something fascinating recently. He made the comment that there's not a single  summer tent-pole released in the last ten years that couldn't stand to lose at least 15-20 minutes.

This is a truth.

It is stunning how many movies today tell their stories with ton of fat. And no, hulk not talking about mere "pacing" which isbuilt in the edit and direction (and which is actually executed faster than ever these days). Hulk talking about script-levelfat. Hulk talking about whole scenes that have no purpose other than to be "funny" or "cool." hulk will get into the inclinations that create this story fat in the next few points ( mostly how writers today don't know how to combine characterizationwith plotting), but the point is that you really, really need to embrace the concept of economy. It should be the huge thoughtin the back of your head. Repeat it again and again: tell only as much story as you need… And if you're tellingmore than you need, well then there better be a damn good reason for it.

By valuing economy from the onset, it helps you create a tight, focused, exciting script. If you do that then integrating characterization, nuance and theme is actually far easier to incorporate than going in the other direction. Trust when hulk says itis far more difficult to take a lumbering story, full of thorough characterization and thematic exploration, and then somehowparse it down into a tight story. It's so much harder. So go the other direction.

In every kind of story, even the most casual charter pieces, even films with a leisurely editing pace, you still want the character's evolution to be propulsive. Even with the most intimate, human stories, you always want to enter each scene with anew sense of purpose and interest.

And in order to do that you have to unlearn points #21-22.

21. The myth of 3 act structure.


Hulk hears it all the time when people complain about movies: “it’s the problems in the film’s second act!”

All… the fucking… time.

Now, hulk understands what the complainers mean by the statement. It is usually used to imply when a film is treading water, or losing track of characters, or running out of steam, or cramming stuff in, or whatever story-fault you can think of. Oh, hulk gets how the comment is intended. But the problem with this generic “second act” designation is that it can imply a problem with virtually anything in the middle part of storytelling. Meaning it is abeyond vague way to talk about story structure.

So what creates such wishy-washy storytelling? And the even wishy-washier way of explaining it?

It is because of the ever-popular notion of the 3 act structure, which hulk personally finds to be the most abominable way to both explain and instruct storytelling. So false in what it describes, so false in what it achieves, that even though the phrase is used to near ubiquity, and even though there are thousands of writers using the 3 act model as their guide at this very moment…

Hulk argues it is still, essentially, a myth.

* * *

Question: what is an act?

People use the word all the time without really bothering to think about what it actually means. Isn’t that a little fucking weird? Any time hulk hears people complaining about problems in a film’s act structure or talking about their own, hulk will just ask them that same question: what is an act? Hulk will ask young students, film journalists, even working writers and most don’t have an answer. Sometimes they’ll fall over their words. Sometimes they’ll be hit by a bolt of speechlessness. But their answers basically amount to an act being a term that’s a general placeholder for chunks of story that usually separate “beginning, middle, and end.” and well… that doesn’t actually mean anything, does it?

No. No, it doesn’t.

So hulk’s got another of hulk’s famous working definitions for you. And it’s not out of hulk’s butt here. It’s one used by many great screenwriters, professors, and other way-smart people. And the best way to put it is to define an act by its point of separation from the next. Thus:

 the end of an act is a point in the story where a character(s) makes a choice and can no longer “go back.”

The first thing to understand is that the use of the word “point” is purposely vague.  After all, there are many different kinds of stories, all with many different kinds goals, and that means it can sort of be any kind of moment.

“but hulk! Couldn’t that point really be anything? Like a character just leaving his house and grabbing coffee or something?!?!”

Okay it has to be slightly more valid than a simple change in action or the environment. The act break can be a new and interesting plot development, a poignant character realization, a personality reveal, two previously un-met characters becoming friends, or even, if handled correctly, something as insipid as “no! The bad guys are here! Run!” … an act break can be anything as long as it has a significant changing effect on the narrative resulting in the character choosing an action defined by that change; one that causes them to move forward in this new reality with understanding.

More importantly, an act break creates propulsion.

What has hulk said about character and empathy and all this good amazing stuff so far? How much has hulk talked about characters being our gateways into experience? The more we ground the story changes into those reasons for connecting, the more we involve the audience. It’s not just killing the cat, it’s bringing the audience into a character, which brings them into the story. It’s giving the audience the stakes and meaning. It’s not just “stuff happening.” it is storytelling with purpose.

Better yet, with this working definition, it means a film can have any number of acts depending on what it’s trying to say and do. Hulk talked about it before, but a movie like malcolm x has about 9 distinguishable acts in hulk’s estimation, each focusing on a time in his life where malcolm could go through periods of focus and come to a new kind of enlightenment or character reality. It is a truly epic film that takes the standard biopic and separates those events into very obvious “sections” of character development. And at the end of each of those acts he makes a choice and goes forth into a vastly different situation, full of change and new conflicts. Hulk seriously cannot advise you enough to go back and watch this and sort out all the act breaks. Write down the choices being made and how it helps the character grow and go on their journey. It will be such a useful learning tool in understanding the mechanism of acts and act breaks. Plus, it’s just an amazing film!

Heck, some movies have upwards of 20 acts. It‘s all a question of what story you want to tell and the better you understand this definition of propulsive, character decision-centric act breaks, the better your screenplay will be at propelling the narrative in meaningful ways.

Look. It’s not like the action movie staple of “oh no, it’s the bad guys! Run!” can’t work in terms of changing the situation and making things interesting for a moment. After all, raymond chandler had the funniest quote ever when he said: “in writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns,” but that statement was purposefully a little bit flip. He’s literally talking about a quick story inversion that gives energy when you’ve got nothing else going on. And the real reason you have to be careful with that stuff is that it becomes so dull and repetitive that we get tired of the chase after only two instances or so.

That’s why character is the fundamental and ideal driving force of act breaks. You need more interesting things to be going on than surface-level conflicts and external threats. By the way, this is probably the chief reason michael bay movies don’t actually work. He fills them with all this hooplah and mayhem, but he’s onlyinterested in the chase. Sure, he’ll sometimes be able to mask this macguffin / set-piece-jumping with distracting visuals (or attempts at quasi-racist comedy), but the chase is always his focus and it willalways become boring without actual character propulsion. In promoting transformers 2 he touted the epicness of the 45 minute end battle, but it might have been one of the most boring things hulk has ever seen because it so lacked in purpose and character decision. It was chaos. Meanwhile go back and look at the hour-long battle of helms deep in the lord of the rings: the two towers and count how many choices were character-centric. Look how the moments of the battle were given pauses and consideration, punctuation marks in the longer rhythms of story and character. It was anything but “the chase.”

It’s strange when you look at certain not-so-good movies with this definition of an act and you realize how many of our big summer tent-poles just do nothing like that. And hulk honestly feels like this tiny bit of advice, this tiny rethinking of a popular convention, this way of finally ignoring 3 act structure in favor of constant character development, could save hundreds of movies. Hulk really does.

For example, the recent debacle with the green lantern was entirely due to the fact that the film has one real, genuine act break. Repeat. One.

Oh sure, there’s lots of stuff that happens, but in terms of main character propulsion and decision-making? Nope. The main character makes one decision in the entire film. In fact, no other film quite highlights the failure to create purposeful story changes quite like this one. And no other film quite highlights how our traditional, purposeless understanding of three act structure results in a story that is. So. Damn. Boring.

But let hulk reiterate the film’s plot for you in an effort to make it clear: hal jordan starts as a pissy-ass fighter pilot who is then given a lantern ring by a dying alien cause, like, destinyorwhatever, and is then zapped to planet oa (neither of which is his decision). He then trains for all of two seconds only to then quit and not embrace his new situation (with no discernible consequences and gets to keep his ring) wherein he goes back to being a pissy-ass fighter pilot who doesn’t even fly planes anymore and instead needs about 10 pep talks in his apartment. And it is not until 90 different scenes of relative moping, futzing around in his suit, andfucking rejecting blake lively’s advances that he finally embraces being a lantern or whatever and makes an actual fucking decisionto change things and go back to oa. Then he just fights a giant face-cloud in the entire third act. A few times. Repetitively.

Now… hulk brought this “one act break” thing up to everyone in a group after we saw the movie and they said “no, the second act starts when he gets the ring and goes to oa!” … but after everything hulk has just told you, do not tell hulk that hal jordan getting the ring is equal to an act break. Even though it’s the shift that comes one-third of the way into the movie and thus feels like an act break, there’s no real point to it, nor character urgency of change. There definitelyshould be in that moment, but there isn’t. And that’s because the filmmakers defined an act break as lazily as this group that was evaluating it. They just figured a change in environment and some obligatory hero journey nonsense would do all the story work. And that’s why the filmmakers let their main character spend literally the entire middle of the movie going back on that action. They never understood what the act transition meant in the first place.

Hulk can’t remember the last time a film had one real act break. Everything else, outside of hector hammond (who was lucky enough to get an actual mini-story arc), is just stuff happening. There is no clear character motivation at play in any one other character. Meaning the film, along with hundreds of other movies like it, simply does not realize what an act actually requires. They don’t realize that characters have to make decisions.

And hulk blames this stringent, ubiquitous hollywood belief in the existence of the 3 act structure for crap like this. Hulk really does. By indoctrinating what might seem logical, we have endorsed that which makes for terrible movies.

And it’s not just the fact that they can’t define what act breaks mean whatsoever. It’s actually the entire array of language we use in talking about story structure. It’s this whole dull focus on beginning, middle, and end, which makes some basic sense in terms of “summarizing” a plot, but it gives zero indication of how to actuallywrite that story.

And shouldn’t that be the most important part?

Think about it. Think about hulk’s example from the beginning, the complaint about second acts being purposeless. If we were using the traditional model of 3 act structure, then the first act is all introduction and set up and the third act is the climax. These terms are both vague but still self-explanatory, and when you look at that pesky second act, which is often just defined as “rising action” or “a rise in conflict,” you begin to see why so much “middle” storytelling has a lack of real purpose… seriously, what the fuck does “rise” even mean on an instructional level?

you know… the conflict! Just, um, rise it!”

Whatever it means, it’s certainly not good storytelling. Sure, it can be an accurate summary of what’s happening onscreen (or at least how it feels). But in terms of the actual mechanism it is still incredibly vague on the broadest of levels. Worse, it is not instructing you how to actually write. It provides none of the good stuff that is critical to understanding narrative. Stuff like character arcs, personal motivation, relationships, conflicts, turns, reveals, and propulsion. None of it is in there!

“but, hulk doesn’t that exist separately from structure? Can’t you just do all that stuff within the 3 act guide?”

No! You can’t!

Because that’s exactly what structure secretly is. Story structure is inherently dependent on understanding purpose and all that good narrative stuff listed above. Good structure is about taking those qualities and applying them in the most economical, functional, and dramatic way possible. And for that you need real specificity when it comes to understanding the purpose.

90% of 3 act models lack that specificity. And every single other highly-detailed 3 act model automatically creates so much dead air and purposeless space-filling that it makes for terrible propulsion. Those models focus on page counts and tricks and things that are supposedly universal applications of “what should be happening to a character” that may have absolutely nothing to do with how to make a movie. Hulk can always tell when hulk is reading a syd field devotee screenplay and they all fail in the exact same ways.

And that’s because a 3 act structure leads writers to just try to make connecting points between the beginning and ending of their story. That’s really about all it does. Which means your characters are not moving forward in any discernible way. They’re just waiting around for the 80 minute mark so that they can begin that whole ending thingy. It descends into a shell game of unmotivated events and it’s all because the definition of the 3 act structure is complete ass.

As a result, we hear it all the time: “the problems in the film’s second act.”

Sorry if hulk has been coming off as too smashy here. It’s just such a personal issue. Hulk has never seen something so unhelpful become so widely accepted. Sure, it makes sense and is a simple way to see stories from afar, but it’s also so simple that it’s taught to elementary school kids when they’re first grasping the concept of narrative. And while hulk argues that the simple truths are oft times the most important ones, the expression of those truths should be far more complicated. And the 3 act structure is not even “a truth.” it’s a writing model attempting to help you get at one. So hulk thinks that hollywood could maybe stand to do a little better than a third grade grasp of story.

So let’s get serious.

If 1) the 3 act model sucks. 2) we define acts as something where the characters can’t go back. And 3) a film can have any number of acts it wants – how do we actually approach structure? Well, hulk’s gonna tell you for the whole rest of part five!

But the first step in doing so is comparing the traditional 3 act model with the storytelling model that erupted out of the legacy of the greatest storytelling genius of all time…

William shakespeare.

Fact: while shakespeare’s plays were not officially written with act designations, he did talk a great deal about his view of essential storytelling. And when his works were later preserved they were all broken up into 5 acts and studied extensively as to the purpose of how his stories worked. And in doing that, we identified all the brilliant ways that shakespeare (again, the greatest storytelling genius of all time) used structure to make it work.

For sake of explanation, hulk will use most shakespeare’s most popular play, romeo and juliet as an example-

“audible grooooooooan!”

Hey, it’s a sneaky good play that’s way more satirical than people realize! And far more importantly, it is his best known play so it helps vastly when trying to explain something.

So shakespeare’s 1st acts were always comprised of introductions and the establishing of a preexisting central main conflict (i.e. two families are at odds, romeo is a lovesick pup over rosaline, juliet is a naive and lovelorn girl). Now, hulk talked about it before, but this preexisting conflict in the background is so important because it creates a conditional world for the audience who is entering it. Shakespeare didn’t have cinema’s neat tricks of landscape shots and voiceover prologues. So he started us immediately in the story and it was an amazing way of creating a sense of space, history, and believability. And it’s a big surprise to hulk how often this practice is ignored in blockbuster filmmaking. And heck, even if it is some intricate human drama or something, a preexisting conflict could do so much. Mostly because it gives you a great situation to spur the main conflict into effect!

And that’s because the 2nd act is usually comprised of some kind of central event that challenges or deeply worsens the main conflict. It’s usually in the form of relationship development, a fight, a reveal, or a surprise (i.e. star-crossed teenagers romeo and juliet meet and go ga-ga over one another, which is a huge problem given the nature of the preexisting conflict of their families’ feud). Basically this act features the main surface plot of the story coming into effect. Meaning if you had to explain what the movie was about, the conflict being created in the 2nd act could easily describe the main conflict of the entire film, i.e. “two star crossed lovers fall in love while their families are at war with each other.” and however this conflict is revealed, it should be done in whichever way would benefit the story most.

Then the 3rd act comprises a turning point. Now, hulk reminds you that this need not be a “twist” per se, but more of a spurring incident or action that makes the conflict infinitely more complicated (i.e. mercutio getting killed by tybalt then romeo killing tybalt). Often these moments are surprising. They deeply affect not only the level of seriousness of main conflict, but dramatically alter the actual direction of it. This is the sort of thing alluded to in the “rise in conflict” statement, but you know, way more specific. It requires that you think intensely about the nature of your conflict: why does it exist? What is perpetrating it? What would make it worse? And have the story respond accordingly. And the shakespearean 3rd act is such a great opportunity in storytelling because:

It’s a way to hit the audience with climax-like drama before they’re ready for it. Before they expect it. And it’s not mere “gotcha” tactics. If done right, you can create the kind of emotion to carry you right through to the end.

Shakespeare’s 3rd acts were often filled them with such moments of storytelling beauty: great inversions of fortune. Best intentions gone awry. Deaths! Loss! Confusion! Sudden chaos! Even though these 3rd acts don’t finish the arc of the whole story, they are often the most resonant moments and they are still climax-worthy in scale.

What does hollywood tend to do in their big adventures? They have “2nd act problems,” that’s what they do. They say “hey, let’s put an action scene here!” or spin their wheels and lose all sense of purpose, often saving what could happen now for some inevitable 3rd act obligatory conclusion. They fuck up the middle of their storytelling. Meanwhile the shakespearean 3rd act is perfect. It makes for a “turning point” that is both deeply affecting and provides change to the arc of the entire story. And it is something far more important than what 3-act-structure argues is just putting things in place for climax. Speaking of which…

The 4th act of shakespeare’s model was known as “the spiral” and it is actually full of character decisions that cause characters to sink toward the real climax (i.e. romeo and juliet decide go on the lam, hatch a plan to fake their deaths, etc). These decisions are rapid. Fast-paced. Poorly conceived. And hugely dramatic. In truth,this is the point where you are really arranging and setting up the climax.

But in that goal it is equally important to remember that you have to stay true to the character arcs and flaws, otherwise it will feel like things are flying off the rails instead of simply getting more intense. And this feverish, intense climate is the best place to expose the deep character flaws that will either bring down our heroes or allow them to succeed. (meanwhile, the shakespearean 3rd act turning point can sometimes allow for a main character acting out of character. It’s a neat little distinction to keep in mind when you are trying to decide what a character would do in a situation versus what they didn’t do).

The shakespearean 4th act also provides a great opportunity for a quiet moment of reflection before the finale, before they make the kinds of grave decisions that seal their fate. But it can’t just be allreflection and pausing (cough cough green lantern). Again, it should really feel full of decisions. The pace should quicken. Things should feel like they are falling out of control for our character. It is “the spiral,” after all. And it should feel like it’s all happening in a very short amount of time before we get to…

The 5th act is where the audience gets the climax / resolutions / weddings / tragedy / fallout/ etc. (i.e. romeo and juliet have a fatal miscommunication, kill themselves, and leave their families to be heartbroken and declare peace). The most important thing to remember is that this last act is not just wrapping things up, but is the encapsulation of the story and should exhibit all the points one is trying make in your movie. As hulk said earlier, the ending is the conceit so the climax and resolution are the very goal of your movie. While shakespeare would have a character talk directly to the audience and sum up the lessons they should take away from the story, hulk gets why that same methodology might not fly in screenplay form. But screw it, modern writers are so dreadfully afraid to be didactic that they forget to incorporate their purpose and intent in their endings. They opt for alleviation or obfuscation. Most of them could do with a fair bit of direct moralizing. Heck, no country for old men ends with the shakespearean soliloquy to the audience, so you should be less afraid of it too. No matter what, your ending should be the summation of everything you have written so far. It should not be a freakin’ afterthought.

No matter what the story – tragedy, comedy, or history – shakespeare’s plays were imbued with this specific 5 act structure every time. The intro, the establishing of the conceit, the turn, the spiral, and the climax (which hammers home the conceit). Sure, he gets heaped with praise over his mastery of language and the deep resonance of themes, some justifiably credit him as the father of psychology, but hulk wants to make it clear to you that he was just so fucking brilliant at story structure to boot… it’s sort of unfair. And hulk knows it may seem lame bring up such an obvious choice as “best writer ever” but, well, he was.

But while hulk clearly adores the way that shakespeare’s 5 act structure can help you unlearn 3 act structure, chiefly in how it gives import and meaning to “the middle” of storytelling, it is important to remember that this shakespearean 5 act model is just another possible example and not the rule. You can honestly do whatever you think best in terms of number of act breaks. It’s whatever works for your story, like the use of 9 acts in malcolm x. But hey, if you’re looking for a tool to help better structure your story, or if you are a student looking to get better and learn how to write with purpose and intent… well… one could do a lot worse than that shakespeare guy.

So now then.

After reviewing all this, hulk wants you to go back to the traditional 3 act structure model for a second. You may notice something very important when comparing it to shakespeare’s model. You may notice the way the second act described in the 3 act structure is the exact same way act 4 is defined in shakespeare’s model, minus the whole important “decisions” part. Shakespeare’s “spiral” with its increasing of intensity and positioning of details before the climax is really similar to the 2nd act’s rise in conflict.

Hulk argues that this is so telling that it’s not even funny. It means that this little, short moment that shakespeare used for escalating the final stakes and positioning the endgame is the same exact way hollywood screenwriters handle the entire central section of their goddamn movies. No wonder so many are aimless and boring.

After all, it’s no accident that’s shakespeare’s 4th acts are always the shortest, least interesting, and least compelling part of every single one of his plays. Name a memorable moment from any of them! Hulk’s sure there’s something, but hulk can tell you the major event of every act 3 in every single one of his plays. He kept this 4thact stuff short for a reason.

So imagine a whole hollywood full of writers trying to expand that same tiny amount of story and purpose into the 30-60 sum odd pages that make up entire second acts… how terrible is that? It means that characters can’t help but just wait around. It means the writers are simply trying come up with distractions and b.s. conflicts that don’t have anything to do with the point or truly affect or alter the arc of the story. It means that writers end up cramming too much good stuff in the first act to try and establish all needed details when really they are missing great opportunity for developing a story at an organic pace.

The lessons of shakespeare can translate to anything. You may ask: “hulk! How does this 5 act thing work with popular movie-going? Big budget movies aren’t exactly shakespeare!”

First off, shakespeare would totally write the best summer blockbusters ever and that’s actually sort of what he was doing for his time and age!

Second off, while there are a host of great examples, let’s look at hulk’s old buddy / great movie: iron man, which has an exceptional story structure. It may not have been written with this five act shakespearean intent, but hulk swears to you it fits and is worth talking about. After all, the one thing everyone seemed to love about that film is that it spent so long before tony actually became iron man, and thus the audience got to experience all the great character development along the way. More telling, everyone lauded the fun sense of adventure that came from out of the conflicts of his trying to build the suit. It avoided so many modern pratfalls. It never rushed getting to “the action” that so many big budget movies require, because the film instinctively knew that it could take a movie about the process of invention and make it work great. The storytelling was the action. And guess how many acts the movie has, in hulk’s humble estimation?

Yup. Five.

Act one – intro + state of preexisting conflict – we get to know tony as a playboy and even see him deal with the external moral conflict of supplying weapons and brush off the concerns of the fact that his weapons are falling into the wrong hands.

Act two – the conceit and being at odds with the preexisting conflict – tony is captured and put to work in the terrorist camp. He discovers the reality about his weapons going to the bad guys and he is already at his lowest point and on the brink of survival. He decides to build the prototype suit and escape. He becomes iron man; conceit established!

Act three – the turning point – tony is now back at home, and he makes a moral decision, shuts down weapons ops, and changes the direction of his life. Tony decides to continue on this path and starts building a new suit (which has a hilarious set of trials). Obadiah is revealed as the bad guy behind tony’s kidnapping. Tony goes live with his suit and helps others, not just himself.

Act four – the spiral/escalation of conflict – tony continues to use the suit out in real war conflict, admits the truth to rhodes, gets sidelined by obadiah, and now faces a grim circumstance. Notice that these developments feel more of the action-y wheel-spinning activities that reek of standard act 2 developments that one sees in typical 3 act structure. But in this movie? Because it all comes after the awesome suit-building transformation of act 3? It feels so fresh and exciting to the viewer who has had to wait. The movie held out beautifully before tipping its hand. And it all goes on for a perfectly shorter length of time, before moving to the inevitable finale…

Act five – climax/conclusion/resolution – tony’s conflict with obadiah comes to a conclusion both personally and as big-ass iron men fighting in death suits. The important part of this act is how all the plots come together (even though the action felt a little underwhelming). Hulk actually finds that detail to be neat, to be honest. It meant that the action was the least interesting part of a big summer blockbuster for once. And that’s a serious achievement. Score one for charisma and characterization!

But hulk understands that some of you may argue there lots other possible act breaks in iron man. Some of you may contend that the film was not written with five acts in mind.

Both are absolutely true.

For one, writing is filled with “micro-acts” which help propel every scene forward and have different acts for all the different stories and characters (we’ll get into this later), but tony’s arc with pepper has its own act breaks. Tony’s relationship with obadiah has its own breaks. It all comes together to make the story feel propulsive + organic. After all, every scene should have a real goal and objective to it.  And going back to the point at hand, labeling all that great character development and decision-making in the middle of the movie as just the rise in conflict is just downright asinine.

For two, hulk keeps saying it, but you can decide the act breaks are wherever you want and you’d be right. It’s just about what seems the most reasonable and makes the most sense. Better yet, it is about what makes the most sense for giving your act breaks purpose and meaning. And call it a naturally occurring number, but hulk sees movies with the 5 act structure turn up in good stories again and again. And it’s not just shakespeare and iron man, folks.

Ever notice that all one hour tv dramas are all segmented into 5 acts? Yes, it’s done for commercial breaks, but that magic number is no accident. It’s a tried and true system that helps make those tv shows propulsive instead of languishing. Again, like anything, you are more than allowed to break away from this model and make good television, but you’d be surprised how many non-traditional narratives utilize 5-6 acts too.

People loooooooove to talk about quentin tarantino’s non-linear storytelling as a counter example to traditional “act-based” storytelling, particularly with pulp fiction. But guess what everyone? That movie has exactly 5 acts, which are all distinctly separated with title cards. Oh, and reservoir dogs? 5 acts separated with title cards. Both kill bills? Each one has 5 acts separated with title cards. Inglourious basterds? 5 acts separated with title cards. Django unchained? 5 acts with super-imposed signifiers. You sense a theme here?

Hulk just cannot emphasize this enough.

A story is a multifaceted thing. If you want to structure your story, remember to have both act structure for the main plot and act structure for each of your characters’ personality developments. By having all these varying structures, each with their own beats, with each character making active decisions, it creates a constant sense of moving forward for your movie. That’s why they call it “development,” as it is the key to bringing your audience along for the journey.

But perhaps you think hulk is being too hard on the 3 act structure. Perhaps you think hulk is simplifying it in an effort to tear it down.

That’s fine.

But hulk would argue that the heavy advocates of 3 act structure do a good enough job of that on their own.  In researching this topic hulk came across so many websites that… hulk just can’t even quote them… It’s too soul-crushing. It’s just full of blind reductions and over-simplifications and gross amounts of lying. Entire charts where they say “no, shakespeare was totally writing in the 3 act structure!” and then they reduce act 2-4 of his plays and just slap the “act 2″ designation on it, which is not only hilarious in its over-simplification but it actually ignores 3 act structure rules because he introduced his main conceits in the second act, not the first. The whole thing is basically laughable. They’ll toss out entire act structures of 4 act modern dramas, because they think it is only there to account for set changes.  They’ll look at entire acts that last half the running time and say “well, you probably shouldn’t do that.” it’s upholding a model that is not only wrong, but deeply uninformative.

Seriously, does the following image make you feel confident about your writing?

Hulk sees models like this shown to young writers all the time. So if you are writing a screenplay. Hulk is telling you. The 3 act structure is garbage.

Stop citing it in articles.

Stop talking about it with friends.

It will not help you.

It can only hurt you.

Start the dialogue. Insist that it is a myth propagated by a need for simplicity. Say “of course stories have a beginning, middle, and end, you insufferable turd!” then throw a drink in their face and run away… okay, maybe hulk is getting carried away here. But hulk seriously worries that unless we really, truly change the culture of how we talk about the 3 act structure and act breaks, then all this advice may be useless.

Chances are you will find yourself in a hollywood meeting someday, and they’ll start talking about 3 acts and to try and argue with them would be fruitless. Say what you need to, hulk guess, but stick to a more propulsive method of narrative in your own work. Tell ‘em it’s 3, but really make it 5. Do everything you can, because in this hulk’s opinion the strict adherence to 3 act structure is killing hollywood.

Heck, if this book were to have any sort of real-life, substantial change, hulk would adore if it got studios to start thinking outside of the 3 act box. It’s certainly something hulk has tried to share every place hulk has worked… but who knows if getting the message across is possible given its level of acceptance.

And the very worst thing is that this same hollywood often fails at the 3 act structure they’re trying to uphold. And that’s because so many movies are green-lit on just a pitch and possibly having stars attached, so you basically have movies being made that have only figured out the conceit so far. Meaning they only know the first act or so… and that’s fucking it. The endings of these films are so barely established and uniformly tend be terrible. So many scripts seem to start with a straight line from their starting point and pursue the fallout until they just run out of steam. It really is inconceivable to hulk that folks can start making a movie without truly knowing the ending. So if you want be a writer, always knowyour ending. Always uphold your purpose.

So, to summarize this rant of unlearning:

The amount of acts in a movie should be dependent on the story you want to tell. Each act should reach this moving forward point in an organic, earned way. And the total number of acts you use is dependent on how much you are trying to accomplish with the story. More importantly, they should all tie together in a coherent way.  And then, it should ultimately be done with the best possible economy without losing anything critical or affecting the organic quality of the telling. It’s a lot to handle, but that’s the ideal. And if you’re starting out, try shakespeare’s 5 act on for size. Hulk thinks it’s a wonderful learning structure.

After all, no matter who you are, storytelling is largely about problem solving. One can always come up with great ideas that motivate and excite them, but the other half of that equation is figuring out how to make it translate to a fully-formed reality on the page. How do we make this scene entertaining and yet propulsive? How do we make a movie that is true to our conceit? One that works on every character level? You need to constantly ask yourself these questions.

Which means that writing is problem-solving.

And take hulk’s advice: the 3 act structure won’t help you solve a problem. If anything, it will create more problems. And thus, there’s nothing more important for you to unlearn in your quest to become a better writer…

22. Do not use hero journeys either – it is a crutch

this was also linked to in the preamble article and raises similar problems. Now, of course the hero journey can be used just fine in a lot cases, but hulk's main problem with the structure is how it similarly reduces the concept of propulsion in favor of theme alone. But really it's much worse than that. So many writers use it as crutch nowadays that the beats are so overused and sooooooo familiar at this point that it's almost counter-productive to the goal involving theaudience. And since it's a crutch, the writers often don't even care about the themes involved and hit these beats because that's what they think stories do.

Screw if it makes sense for character and this plot, i'm doing what campbell says i should do!

Yeahhhhh, the problem with that is that's not what campbell said you should do. What does hulk mean? Hulk means that joeseph cambpell never meant for the hero journey to be a structural writing guide!

The hero journey was a way of appraising ancient myth to understand the cultural relevancy and anthropological ties that bind.meaning it was an academic and thematic appraisal. It was not ever meant to be thought of as structural guide. Hulk know that george lucas used it as his inspiration, and thus everyone is now using it as their inspiration, but the things that make star wars a good narrative, whether it be the characterization, the propulsion, the scene-to-scene goal-orientated structure, have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he was tapping into these common archaic myths that campbell described. That for theme and theme alone.

Look. The hero's journey seems like it's a structure because of the circle and the points along the way and all that other stuff, but it doesn't appropriate storytelling and how to execute conflict resolution. It just doesn't. Hulk thinks it's truly awesome for identifying themes and motifs, but it was never meant to be a "how-to-write!" structural tool.

To bring this point and the previous one all together: green lantern was a film that was absolutely ruined byits naive will to adhere to both 3 act structure and hero's journey (it's a 2 for 1!). You can absolutely feel both models' dirty mitts all over the thing, with no understanding of the other values the story needs to fill those concepts in.the entire second act just loafs around waiting for things to happen. Really. It's all supposed to be part of some "trial"but it's not even that. It's just an extension of "the refusal" that goes on for-fucking-ever. It's an endless delay of pep-talks and this faux-manufactured "conflict" because the writers are so afraid to move the story and characters along to the points they're reserving for act 3. Wasting an audience's "narrative time" is worst kind of offense to hulk (again, not talking about slow-paced editing. Hulk actually likes that. Narrative time is different). And when the obligatory climaxcomes it feels apropos of nothing but mere expectation. It's wholly unearned and distances itself from anything that comebefore. Even the act 1 transition is garbage. It isn't even really an "act" because hal jordon doesn't even make achoice to go to planet oa. The ring just takes him there. And he then spends the entirety of this supposed "act 2" going back on that transition. The entire film has one actual decision right before the last battle.

This is a complete failure to understand what storytelling really means.

Hulk feels the film is one of the laziest, most-story-deaf scripts ever written. Really. None of it is what you want in how totell a story. And hulk really worries that part of the reason is because they so desperately clung to 3 act structure and thehero journey, thinking it would handle everything they needed.

Dammit all, hulk smash! You, the person hulk writing to now, stay away from them! You want to be propulsive! And.. And… Sorry hulk calm down now. [clears voice] … Hulk just want to suggest to you that there are other models out there which help youwrite much better work.

You may argue "but hulk you talk about other structure  model to use. Aren't those just as reductive?" no, not really. It's a fair point of course, because all these models are indeed reductive, but there is a specific way that thereductive angles of each all help solve certain problems one encounters in writing. And hulk finds that aside from a few thematic points in the hero journey, these two popular models won't solve much of anything.

But hulk really believe there are some other models that will help.

So let's look at them, shall we?

23. The sequential approach

The sequential approach is more detailed than this, but basically it amounts to "sit down and start writing the story logically from point a to point b."

… Yeah… This is a horrible way to write screenplays if you've never written one before.

Chances are it is will create a run-on, purposeless story. It will show a lack of forethought. Ideas will be lost and the story will simply meander to places it never felt like it would belong. Hulk sees scripts that were clearly written this way time and time again, where the story just plain runs out steam with no real sense of how to resolve it.

But the value of the sequential approach becomes startlingly apparent later on in your development. Once you've already had a good deal experience with structure and heavily outlining, it can re-introduce the most basic logical form of writing. Yousee, so many intermediate writers get caught up in the game of beats and structure and character points that they'll end upwriting these little disconnect scenes. The story is this scene and then it's that scene, etc. They'll work each worklike their own little plays. It works in terms of making your outline look good and well-realized, but over-relying on those methods also hurts the overall flow. Because no matter what most structural outlines create flow problems. They just do. And in comparison, the logical process of writing sequentially can so helpful when you finish a scene and say "well now i go here of course!"

Meaning that sequential approach is best used as a kind of intermittent tool. Start with heavily planned arcs, but don't be afraid to momentarily lose yourself in the flow of the writing (particularly if it the first draft). But always take pit stops to refocus. Be sure that where you're going fits back into the outline. Go back and forth, but never be afraid to give into what scene dictates might happen next.

Once you're done, you still keep going back working it into your beats. The whole thing is a difficult balancing act (oncehulk explains the next few beats, achieving this balance will make much more sense), but really the important thing is to realize that flow is always critical to organic story propulsion..

But how do you be sure what "flows" actually makes sense?

24. Trey parker + matt stones': "therefore / buts" not "ands"

Watch this video of the south park guys unexpectedly show up in an nyu screenwriting class and drop some knowledge bombs. (prop's to hulk's friend dave for finding it). Really. Watch it. It's 2 minutes. Hulk swear:

This is one of the most succinct and helpful things that hulk has ever come across in explaining the process of writing. Sincefinding it, hulk has not only spread the word, but used it time and time again. Hulk really not even need to expand on it because it so freaking clear. It even addresses the single most relevant problem in today's writing and that is a lack of narrative purpose to the action one seeing on screen.

Simply put: "therefore's" and "buts" create the sense of propulsion.

The "and thens" stop the narrative cold.

It's no accident that the south park guys have become better writers with every passing season of the show. They have always been funny and smart, but after 10 years they have finally learned to shape their storytelling. Meaning theshow has gone from being flippant and funny, to now they are being downright resonant. A punk ass show that can tell stories mind, body, and soul. And that's really something.

So look at your stories. Look at every scene. If the only way to line up the beats is with "and then" then you're in trouble. Find your "therefores" and "buts."

Start reshaping your purpose!

25. Dan harmon's circles

There are, of course, far more complex models to create this same sense of propulsion.

There was a recent wired article where the incredible dan harmon, creator of community, delved into his structural approach the show. Check it out this model has a very specific purpose to tv sitcoms, but the form is rather interesting and can be applied to many otherforms of storytelling. The short version of his character-conflict-structure look like this:

1. A character is in a zone of comfort

2. But they want something.

3. They enter an unfamiliar situation

4. Adapt to it

5. Get what they want

6. Pay a heavy price for it

7. Then return to their familiar situation

8. Having changed.

It is a wonderful way to look at storytelling because it is a direct model for showing how a character changes. It is a perfect model for achieving catharsis.

This model not only fosters good characterization, not only incorporates some thematic idea of what human beings want, but also requires a sense of narrative propulsion and purpose to each scene. 8 little story beats that can be manifested over a wholemovie, an episode of television, 8 scenes, 8 little moments, or even, if you're really good, a single brief interaction.

The complexity of how harmon approaches these circles is fascinating, but it is important to recognize that this particular model is something he personally understands in every facet. It is his method. Whereas this whole analysis is about howyou incorporate it in into your method. Even if it may help you solve a whole bunch of problems in your script, it just might not make perfect sense for your non-sitcom approach.

So the real lesson to take from dan harmon's circles is how much work and thought he puts into his character arcs, and howhard he works at getting his stories to break to them.

Whichever structural methods you end up incorporating, you should be working just as hard.

Moving on!

26. The snow flake method

A lot of times, particularly when approaching longer stories like season-long tv arcs or novels, people will have trouble finding ways to enrich the story with detail while still remaining relevant to the conceit. Sure we have point #10's charactertrees, but that's doesn't solve a lot of long-form structure problems. That's when hulk finds the snowflake methodhelpful.

take a look, it gets to the good stuff at "the ten steps of design."

There's a lot that goes into it, and again the link is so clear that hulk just doesn't want to regurgitate it, but theidea is to really  flesh out the ideas in through-lines through every facet of the approach. It can be a fascinating exercise to take your core idea and extrapolate it into singular details. You basically ask yourself:

"what are the scenarios in which my core idea would best manifest itself?"

Let's go back to our awesome six feet under example, which seemed to use the snowflake method. Alan ballasked himself, what scenarios would confronting mortality best manifest itself? And he found answers: working in a funeral home, father dying, constantly taking in dead bodies, constantly dealing with grieving loved ones. Hulk have no idea if ball is a snowflake-method guy, but when hulk looks at his work it sure looks like it. All central theme extrapolated into plotting, character, and singular details.

At this juncture, you may have realized that whole point of these structures is to have as many different ways of attacking different kinds of story problems. This is perfect because writing is largely about problem solving. You write. Everything seemsgreat. You hit a snag. You try and figure it out.

That's writing.

So depending on what you're looking to solve, there are so many models to incorporate into your favorite method. So that being said, lets look at hulk's favorite method and use the entire story-breaking / inspiration process we've learned sofar. It's really a two part process. The first is:

27. Breaking into concurrent arcs

One of the best places to start really organizing your structure is to look at all the arcs in your story and lay them out asindividual stories.

Hulk could come up with a fun analysis of a movie that we all know and could work with, but because hulk keeps talking about the problems of reverse engineering, let's go in a different direction instead. Hulk will now come up with a made-up story right here on the spot… Hulk swear this what hulk doing and it probably going to be pretty bad. Again, hulk swear hulk won't refine the idea so it will be bad, but at least you can see the organic process:

Um… So, like, a doctor has journeyed to a small aids hospital in africa, to rebuild his life after a painful divorce… Youknow this kinda story. It makes up the world of melodrama and such. So in this story the doctor has to face his own past and pain and yada yada yada you get it, but also…..  There's a boss who runs the hospital in a very counter-intuitive waythat is different from the doctor's own experience. And this is not just in terms of medical logistics, but regard for human life and what is "best for everyone." the boss won't take certain risks and will only do what they can do to keep the system in balance. And there is also another main character and she is a co-worker at the hospital and love interest to help him rebuild his life. That sounds like three good places to start.

Now… Hulk not just interested in something as simple as those character archetypes. Hulk really wants to explore the real-life concepts of compassion vs. Practicality in a bureaucracy.  Plus, hulk really interested in the state of health and politics in africa. So now we have some themes hulk finds compelling. So the main character and the boss will have a disagreement over the proper treatment of aids, where the main character is pro-practicality with safe sex and the boss is religious with theold stance of abstinence. But hulk doesn't want it to be this simple good / bad dynamic. Let's reverse it then. The boss will also have a very practical approach to not helping folks who can't be helped and will only get others sick, where as the main character sees that as lacking compassion. They both have their ideals, and they both have their sense of practicality. Cool.

So hulk begins to work with these ideas, blah blah blah but at certain point in brainstorming process hulk would sit down to map out the three arcs.

-relationship with boss

-relationship with co-worker

-relationship with his self / past

And for each of these arcs hulk would plan out a story for that makes sense on its own. They would not simply be "elements" ofa larger story, but their own complete stories, independent of anything else. Also, hulk would not waste anything. Hulk wouldlist out each scene, which would comprise each beat of the story. This would allow hulk to be sure that each beat really accomplished something.

Hulk won't do it for all of them, but here's a quick + dirty treatment (that again is unedited) of what the story beats would look like for one of the arcs.

-relationship with boss: doctor meets boss and notices their different life approaches. The doctor feels alienated. The doctorthen sees the boss's pragmatic uncompassionate style in action and it gives him ethical concern, so they come into a conflict over it. The doctor sticks to his guns on a different case and saves a patient who a danger to others. It is a success andeveryone else fine, much to the dismay of the boss, the main doctor feels emboldened by this success, so the next time the doctor does this same thing, it is less successful. His emboldened attitude was misplaced so he then he sees negative consequencesof this decision. A decision causes others to get sick, the doctor sees how his emboldened attitude has undermined the bosses ability to run the hospital, the negative consequences for spiral, the problems are righted by the two appreciating the other and coming to work together.

Now this is example isn't that good or focused, and in fact it is the kind of hospital plot line we've seen a milliontimes before, but that just makes it perfect for our purposes. Since they are all familiar story beats you implicitly "get" thebare bones of the story, we can now  talk about where it can properly go.

The first step would be that these beats need to be fleshed out in an organic and accurate manner. The story, like any story,could easily feel forced. But the beats could easily feel natural as anything too. Either way, we have what we need. We don't need any more scenes than what is conveyed in that description of the arc. So we have economy. Notice hulk does notdouble up on conflicts which say the same thing. There is an incident that shows a good reaction. And incident that shows a bad reaction. We don't need any more than that. Those two cases alone will propel the story where it needs to go.

Next. Hulk would do this for the other arc with the coworker relationship and the arc with his past / self. Again, we do thisto be sure each element is a singular, complete story.

… But these are not three separate stories, are they?

Not at all. This is a movie, or a tv show, or a novel, or whatever. And as such it is one thing. Which means the arcsneed to be ingrained into a singular story.

This is where you do the 2nd part of the breaking process and:

28. Merge into conflicting arcs

Hulk uses the following movie all the time when talking about screenwriting, not because it's a stunning example of innovative writing, but because it only tries to do the most basic things and it gets them so, so right.

The movie is kung fu panda.

Really? Yes.

The thing hulk loves about the film is how it balances the relationships and plot mechanics to keep them all very unified. There is po, the dim-witted panda chosen to be the dragon warrior by master oogway and meant to unlock the power of the dragon scroll. There is tigress, the one who was in line to be the dragon warrior and is now deeply disappointed at not being chosen. There is tai lung the villainous former pupil who wants to unlock the power of the dragon scroll for himself. And all three are linked to master shifu who failed in training tai lung because he loved him too much and gave into all tail lung's indulgentbehaviors. To correct his mistakes, shifu was  far too hard on his next pupil tigress, who he imbues with far too much desire to please him. And then shifu is faced with training the idiotic, but well-meaning po, a task he does not want or understand, especially because it was meant for tigress. And then guiding over all of them, particularly shifu's frustrations, is master oogway, the one who chose po as dragon warrior and guides all five of these characters with a quiet sense of zen and destiny.

5 main characters. 5 different sets of relationships. They all have motives to relate to each other. They all have reasons todislike each other and provide conflict. But best of all they are all "interested parties" in the main plot of obtaining the dragon scroll. They all have a real stake in the story and action. They are not characters made be foils for each other. They areall real people with real stakes. The film does not waste of this great dynamic either. When the dragon scroll is unlocked, inmoment of converging plot, it really allows them to come to a real catharsis about the understanding of themselves and their relationship to one another, po's embracing of his own zen-like abilities, tigress's will to accept po as dragon warrior, shifu's realization of his blinding pre-judgement of po, and even in the case of revealing tai lung's own pride and weakness. The movie comes together for every character arc and every relationship, all in a singular narrative moment.

Hulk just has to say it, but the basic mechanics of plotting and character in this film are fucking perfect.

It's also somewhat funny and has some really good kung fu.

So again we return to hulk's silly african doctor movie that we just made up and is nowhere near as good. We don't want it feel like 3 separate movies, we want to go all kung fu panda on this shit. We want it to converge. So weessentially "start over" with the multiple arcs. That's right we don't just augment what is already there to make it work. That would be half-assed and ultimately make things still feel disconnected. We need to converge the relationships. We needinterested parties. We need stakes and different wants all centering around the central setting and narrative. We need to findour unifying concept of a "dragon scroll" even though it probably won't be a tangible object and instead some concept thatis far more ethereal.

We need to make it one story.

Which means all those arcs we just made in point #27? They don't matter. They were a rough draft to help us be sure we didn't skirt anyone's relationships. Now is the time to completely assimilate them together by starting over.

The tai lung example above made hulk think about about adding another character to the mix who would complicate the whole thing and add another layer of conflict. They could be another co-worker in the hospital. They could create a love triangle and have a radically different, inhumane idea of how the hospital should be run, one that would surely sink the hospitals direction. The inclusion of this character would be productive. It would make for a clear 'wrong" in the scenario. It would provide theaudience with empathy for the other main characters and hate for this jerk-face. It would basically set up default rooting scenarios we want in the film. It would be totally effective and worthwhile.

… It also not the kind of human story hulk interested in telling.

For one, it's just too damn manipulative. Hulk knows this melodramatic story likely can't be turned into high-art or anything, but hulk's particular inclination would be to make this script more quiet, nuanced, and well-observed. And that means no abject villains. But since we still want the inner-conflict the villain provides, it would then make sense to take someof those same 3rd party clashing motives, and give it to a non-evil character. How about the love interest co-worker? This would be good because before this hulk hadn't really a strong idea of the character's faults. Sadly, she was just one of those foils who could "make the doctor realize he needs love" or something stupid. But giving her a contention and differing viewpoint on what direction the hospital should go in. Doing this provide stakes and conflict. It would maker her relevant to thestory and not just relevant to the main doctors catharsis. It would help make her textured and real. We would get the same conflict the villain would have provided, but in this version her humanity  would make her view seem more human.

But what could this third direction for the hospital actually be? Well, hulk very interested in the politics of africa as well, so maybe the 3rd character should want to reach out to the local army or despot who, despite their atrocities, have resourcesthat could help. Both the boss and the main character should want to stick to the hospital's crucial independence. It would make for a story in which all 3 main characters had significant interest in the direction of the hospital (ie the plot), butalso the main theme of idealism vs. Practicality. It would give all three characters different relationships with one by adding this army/despot character we would then have an outside force which helps us automatically empathize with everyone within the hospital's team. But again, none of this would be so cut and dried by the end. They would all come to understand about each others' view of idealism vs. Practicality.

It is the merging of conflicting arcs. And it is how one writes one singular story.

Now, hulk should mention that figuring out a scene order is too big a subject to get into here…  That may sound crazy,but it's its own 8,000 word column. Hulk will cover that when the time comes, but your approach should be pretty logical. Just sort of put it together and try to include as many of the characters in each scene as possible, except when they have to bealone or in pairs. Use logic.

There is also one thing about hulk's african doctor movie example that hulk have to talk about: early on hulk realized something very important. It has to deal with point #17 and the treatment of women in film. You'll notice hulk immediately went to the "default male protagonist" and also the default "female support figure." neither of these options are good first inclinations. You may even realize that this story, with all its capacity for melodrama and by total admission a somewhat greys anatomy-like plot, really makes more sense if the main character was female…. Hulk totally agrees… That'sa good sell for this movie… But here's the thing. Because the tone of the story could feel so much like fodder for a kindof exploitative female story (something almost lifetime-esque), hulk would like to try to push it in a different direction andembrace an a-traditional tonal approach. It would be a male doctor in touch with emotions and a simple relate-able story. Hulkwouldn't want it to be "aimed at an audience" but something more organic, nuanced, and aimed at everyone. It a case wherehulk would go the opposite of intuition for main character's gender, but all for a very specific effect.

This is what hulk talks about when talking about the responsibility of the author. Think about these kind of matters and effects constantly. They will totally inform your themes. And with enough discussion hulk would easily be open to switching back thesexes of the two coworkers, so that the female was the protagonist. Hulk wouldn't worry about doing that in the you know why?

Because they're people. Not genders. And writing them as people makes for better characterization. You can switch gendersin scripts all the time and unless you're making penis and vagina jokes or something (which something hulk would totally do) the effects aren't that big a deal. The gender doesn't matter the way you think it does. So don't worry so much about it. In the end, they will either be played by an actor or an actress so the audience will be able to know. You don't have to write it to tell them.

But even as hulk eschews the gender lines and espouses on the principals of melodrama here, the principals of melodrama do notapply to all forms of stories. That's why you should:

29. Learn your genre conventions

Do you realize how many "mysteries" and procedurals hulk reads where it is completely clear that the author has never actuallystudied mysteries? And are totally just copying what happens on tv? It about half the time. All hulk wants is for them do pick up any damn book on the subject and learn conventions of noir or mystery or detective work or whatever the heck they're writing. It's not about simply aping the storytelling models, but the fact that don't understand the tone either. They just sort of pick up on some basic textures from sorta kinda watching it once and awhile (csi shows dothis! Etc). And that is crap thinking.

Mostly because it creates crappy scripts.

The truth is that to even begin trying to discussing all the rules of genre conventions would entail another 30,000 word column. Don't worry though, we'll break up genre into individual columns for some point down the road. Hulk just want to insist if you writing a western. It should look like you've seen a western before – cough cowboys & aliens cough… Sorry, that may seem like a cheap shot, but it really didn't seem like it knew the first thingabout the genre beyond the importance of wearing cowboy hats. And if you're writing horror, you should know the mechanicsof a scare and when to lay the mechanics on thick or light. There's an entire rhythm to a horror film and you'd be shocked how often people misuse and abuse it (or not even understand it. Hulk lookin' at you wicker man remake!).

But the real reason you need to know your genre conventions, isn't just for these tonal reasons, but because they each have a psychology to how they work.

Most of the time it is about the psychology of release. For example, all genres and films use similar cause + effect models toachieve  some form of anticipation and release. Each genre then lines up with a different emotion: horror films use thistwo ways. When you are excited for the kill, it utilizes anticipation and then uses a moment of shock to send you into elation.but when you fear the kill it tries to establish tension followed by a moment of releasing the audience from tension, which makes it "ok" to watch again. The two psychologies completely inform how one one should write and stage the action of the horrorin any given moment. You have to ask the question, does the audience want this particular character to die? Or not want this particular character to die? And go from there.

If you look at action films the cause and effect needs to manifest itself by creating tension followed by a moment of elationand impact (are they going to do it?!?! They did it!!!) Even though you know that in most actions films the heroes will succeed, that doesn't actually matter. The film's success is in tricking the audience's brain, through wholly visceral film-making techniques, to feel for a split second like they maybe they won't. (going back to urgency vs. Mystery, there is a reason action films work well with clear stakes and completely obvious urgency. It's visceral).

These cause + effect models are everywhere and part of every kind of genre. To understand them is paramount to your ability towrite. It even goes to thematic motifs like understanding how good westerns are often about "the end of things." or that romantic comedies depend on the audiences falling in love with the characters before the characters do with each other (there'sa reason the recent romantic comedies have completely failed when they go for they slept with each other! Now they have tofigure it out! It doesn't play into the basic sense of how the cause + effect works… Knocked up notwithstanding because that movie actually goes for other avenues of narrative resonance and succeeds brilliantly.)

Understanding the psychology of how a genre works will give you precisely what you need to make your own film work…. And yes, every film is technically a genre film.

Now that we've covered "breaking" stories, we should look at a few micro problems and devices that show up in writing…

30. "page 17"

The term "page 17" is a strange phenomenon revealed to hulk by an old mentor.

He said that if you look through most good screenplays, for some reason the movie's main plot or action kicks into place on exactly page 17… He spent a career looking into it… Hulk checked into it too… He's actually right.

It's almost bizarre, but if your read a ton of scripts, "page 17" of these 90-120+ page screenplays seem to be this naturally occurring point in the main plot where the story really gets going. Even something as non traditional as the first chapterof inglorious basterds is 17 pages (sorry, hulk just checked, it's 17.5). It's like the "screenwritingpi" or something, this naturally occurring page number were it "feels right" to really start embarking down the main narrativepath.

Perhaps this is apropos of nothing, but hulk sees it is yet another tool at your disposal. Have you started your main plot toofast? Have you delayed it for too long? If it's page 33 and the main plot of your story hasn't gotten going yet, all because you're still "setting things up," then chances are that is a bad thing.

It's not as if you absolutely have to get your main story cooking by page 17, but hulk would like to suggest if you're going much earlier or much later than that page number, then perhaps you should probably have a really good reason todo so, that's all. Don't let it be due to laziness.

31. If you use characters, they should likely be reused

Again, these are guidelines. But so often we are introduced to certain characters in a story, who achieve some temporary goalin a scene. Comic relief. Exposition. Spurring forth a new plot. Whatever. And often they will then disappear… It doesn'twork that well for your story economy.

Hulk knows hulk keeps picking on the movie (perhaps fairly so), but in green lantern we are introduced to haljordan's family in an opening scene. They clearly do it to make him seem all human and caring and stuff. It's so freaking manipulative it's just stupid. But then… We promptly never hear from them again… Whatsoever.

Sorry, but it was one of the most laughable things hulk's ever seen. Not just for in-movie logic terms, but character consistency too. You figure he'd care about his family when all of a sudden shit started going down with the city getting eatenby parallax, but hey whatever. Hulk guess there's far more boring things to do when your family in trouble. But hey, it's just offense from a terrible script (who knows though, maybe something ended up in the cutting room floor and hulk just being mean).

But the real reason it sucks is because it feels like wasted narrative time. The audience can inherently sense messy and scattered storytelling. They sense when things don't feel important or necessary. Like in hulk's example with how the characters in kung fu panda converge and have stakes in each other because it makes for a relevant story. Simply put, there should be reasons characters are part of the story. They should serve purposes beyond "i like what they do for the heroin this one particular scene."

The stories we weave and have connections. Even something as silly as animal house, doesn't just bring inotis day and the knights for a good times sequence, but later returns to them to make a very different impression (complete with criticism of white-assumption, but also some old-school racist overtones!… Okay, really it's the "primitive cultures"joke that is truly dated, but it's fucking awful. Meanwhile, the rest of the movie is still pretty amazing. Sorry for the tangent). Anycrap, the point is you should always try to look for opportunities to make all the characters have as much relevancy to the story as possible.

And that means finding fun and interesting ways to bring them back. As a great example, think about the way curb yourenthusiasm plots are constructed where everything always seems to come back and be relevant. Whether comedy, drama, short or long narrative, find ways to do things like that. It doesn't have to be so perfect and have little neat bows on it,but there is surely an organic way not to waste characters.

Because the more the characters feel like tangents, then the more they'll feel like tangents.

32. Beware deus ex machina

Deus ex machina works when it is the point.

To clarify: there are so many stories where at the last second the hand of "god" or fate or whatever comes in saves the characters from certain doom. These moments are so out of nowhere and often undeserved that even the most unaware audience member will be tempted to call "bullshit!" at the screen. There are the ritual worst offenders of this device (like lazy old entourage), but on the spectrum of use there certainly less-horrible examples of stories that do it quite well.

As hulk said above, deus ex machina works best it is the point of the story. Usually this requires some sort of engagement ofthe idea of faith, that a character espouses some believe that the universe is trying to  guide them, or that he trusts hewill be saved. Hulk talked a little crap about the storytelling problems in lost before, but that was perhapsundeserved. For that show had amazing characterization and deep-tissue thematic resonance. They were also quite good in how they handled this particular device. The best example of which was in season one episode appropriately titled "deus ex machina."spoilers and such, but in the episode john locke, a man who has recently found his faith through extraordinary means, once again begins to question it. A vision had brought him to a mysterious hatch on the island, one he desperately has tried to open inorder to unlock the mysteries within. Over a great deal of time he finds no success in trying to open it. His anger grows. Andone night he stares down into the hatch and slams his fists against the window. He screams and yells to whatever is within. Hethen yells out to the universe, why had they cursed him with the vision? What did the world want from him? Why was he supposedto open this hatch? Why would the universe be so cruel as to taunt with this impossible task? He screams and cries into the hatch as the music swells. He is at his wits end with his very sense faith… And then… Ever so quietly… A light comes on within the hatch… It shines on john's face and up into the night sky…. End episode.

It's one of the more beautiful moments hulk has ever seen on television.

And that is because it finds such meaning in this tiniest of gestures, one that speaks so deeply to the narrative and themes at play. The simple device of a light turing on, as well as the focus of the entire episode leading up to the device, is about the very purpose of deux ex machina itself. And for that reason they turn the device not just into something that "works" withinthe narrative context of the show, but something that swoons with meaning and resonance. It is perfect writing.

So when you consider using deus ex machina in your own work, think of this one stunning example. Ask yourself, why am i usingthis "easy" solution? Is this the only way i can solve the problem? And if so, think about the nature of the device and what itactually means on a thematic level. Does that fit your own themes? Is it appropriate for your character?

Deus ex machina works when it is the point.

33. Beware the opening flash-forward

No this isn't more lost stuff. The kind of opening flash-forward hulk talking here about happens all thetime and hulk mentioned it before in the pre-existing conflict point. What hulk talking about is when a movie will start off with some moment from the climax or later scene, when things are all heightened and dramatic and stuff. Why do this? Becauseit lets the audience know stuff is going to go down in this movie! That it will get all serious! That the protagonist will endup in some crazy situation! That's, you know, full of drama and stuff!

Hulk politely asks: so the fuck what?

What is the real point of that? Of course the audience knows that kind of stuff is coming. That's probably why they boughta ticket. Hulk get the desire to let an audience know what kind of craziness is coming so it doesn't take them off guard,but so often the flash-forward is apropos of nothing else. And after it's over, the narrative will just jump back to the real beginning of the story. Hulk sees the device used so damn much these days and not only is it ubiquitous it's also poorlydone. A quick-seeming and cheap solution to… Hulk not even sure what… Making things seem serious? Aren't there so manybetter ways of doing that? Like with the whole "pre-existing conflict" thing hulk mentioned?

Honestly, a lot of time hulk feels like writers use it "because that's what movies do." ugh. It's just so devoid of tact.

Now this isn't to make it seem like the device is completely unusable, as there are some ways it works. For instance, it was a common device on the first few seasons of breaking bad. Sometimes they worked spectacularly. They'd start with a few scattered images we barely understand. They will build a complete sense of mystery as to what we're even seeing. There is literally no comprehension so it works like a mystery to be pieced together. "oh, that's that object from…" etc. It's used as clues. It's not just jumping ahead, showing off the answer and then asking "how are these characters going to end up in this crazy situation!?!?!" which is what so many fucking scripts do. And the times breaking bad did give away actual context and information, it was often a piece of total misdirection.

But if you're just doing it so your story starts off all climax-y and serious then you're not only wasting the audiences time, but you're robbing your climax of important resonance. You're subconsciously making the audience feel like they're just waiting until we get there again. And even if breaking bad used it well for two whole years, there's a real reason they stopped using it. There's only so much even they could do with it.

The opening flash-forward is horribly overused device, so be wary.

34. Don't fuck with the audience just to fuck with the audience

The following is hulk's general piece of advice about life: if you start any sentence with "wouldn't it be cool if…" don't do it.  Just don't do it.

When it comes to storytelling specifically, the reason is simple. Asking that question implies you are thinking about the result first. You are probably thinking about some abstract idea of how audience will react. You are thinking about the ways stories are normally told and how you want to be different.  You are thinking not about how people will be compelled or engaged,but how they will sit back and be amazed because you did something different and "cool."

Hulk has mentioned time and time again in these columns about how trying to pursue cool is a poor aim, because it always reeksof false intention. It always seems desperate and unearned. It has nothing to do with being a valid option for the will be like a marketing executive trying to identify what the hip kids are into. It's true even if you're a cool,forward-thinking, progressive person. It will feel calculated and cold. The pursuit of cool or what's "different"  will always seem disingenuous.

So try to tell your story. When it comes to narrative, don't actively try to be different for different's sake. Because it will just end up seeming like you're fucking with the audience.

Look no further than the current debacle with ending of the devil inside. The studio / filmmakers went along with doing something "different" and in moment of complete stupidity they did something they thought might be cool. Spoilers if you want to see a horrible movie: the film ends abruptly and tells them they can continue the experience with the story on a website, thus shifting it into some form of transmedia lameness… Well guess fucking what? Did the filmmakers not realizethat, narratively-speaking, they were doing the most ridiculous thing in the history of the world?

Devin had a great article about it how the decision, even if unintentional, made it seem like they were effectively cheating the audience and thus they got fucking pissed. Hulk agrees, but really wants to hammer the point home that it was how the url called to attention the fact they were exposing an incomplete narrative, by implying there was more narrative to be held elsewhere. They did something worse than just having an unresolved ending… They made it seem like the narrative was purposefully incomplete.

Here's the filmmaker's explanation:

"the stories always have a very hollywood ending. And we're doing the antithesis of that. I know some people love it and some people f*cking hate it but it gets people talking. We're just trying to make it realistic. Not every situation ends perfectly or the way you want it to end." (via bloody disgusting)

… Sorry.

Now that hulk has that out of system let's analyze why that comment might be the worst thing ever said by a filmmaker.

The first problem is that he makes it clear he's okay just fucking with the audience to get a reaction. Second, what the hell does that have to do with realism? Nothing, that's what. Third, he's obviously not trying to tell a story but justdo "the opposite" as if that somehow is attractive or cool or badass. It's just contrarianism apropos of nothing. Fourth, he plays the "get people talking" card which only matters if you're pushing a product like a salesman, not a so-calledartist. Fifth, he plays the "purposefully-witholding message" card, thus implying we're just mad at the ending because thefilm didn't end how we wanted it to, thus implying we're just a bunch of hapless dumb-farts who need to be placated.

For all five of those reasons hulk would like to politely suggest this guy can go sit in the corner of director jail and thinkabout what he's done.

Because the most grave problem with all these statements is that there is clearly no understanding of what narrative even means. None. His "hollywood ending" comment shows that he perceives nothing about how endings work. He seems to think that anythingwith resolution is akin to having the characters ride off into the sunset hand in hand. It's asinine. Remember what hulk said earlier about how the ending is a chance to ram home themes? Well most found footage films tend to end abruptly, but at least most of them have an ending gesture like that manages to do something. They will at least reveal who the bad guy actually is, or show that everyone else is still alive is totally fucked or something but. This one just ends on another action beat indistinguishable from other action beats before. The film and his ensuing comments are enough evidence to showcase that this personcould not possibly understand less of what a story is, how it works, or why it matters.

If  "the ending is the conceit" then this films conceit was total ineptitude.

So to all of you, hulk want you to know storytelling is not some "game" where you mess with the audience. It's an art. Ifyou want to go in bold narrative directions, you start with the familiar tropes and you carefully bring the audience on a journey, often to places that are uncomfortable, but you do so with a guiding hand. You can bring always an audience to an antagonistic place, but you can't do it in antagonistic way. And if you do? You better be damn sure that audience's angered reaction is the exact result you want (which is why in its most basic sense, human centipede 2 "works" for its filmmaker).

So while everyone is going around saying the devil inside is "fucking stupid," there's a real reason whyeveryone is so damn angry. They showed the deepest lack of understanding of why people watch movies. You can't take turns or surprises and mess with expectation without having a damn good reason for them.

You have to negotiate your dropping of one element of good narrative making, and fully embrace one of the other elements fromour working definition. Dropping theme? It better make perfect sense for the texture, character, or reality. Dropping narrativeeconomy and propulsion? Better make perfect sense for theme. For instance, the change of narrative direction in no country for old men is easily felt, but has a stunning thematic resonance. By removing shackles of narrative restriction,the film is free to explore something completely abstract, even downright poetic. As a result, what could have just been tight, well-realized action films, becomes on one of the best films of all time.

But also remember that for all the people who either weren't perceptive to thematic stuff or just not that into it, the ending of no country really rubbed them the wrong way. And it's because it eschewed the most basic expectations of narrative. But the coens understand and expect those limitations. They understand their responsibility to deftly weave in and out narrative in order to create new thematic meanings. Sure, the coen brothers defy expectations of storytelling constantly, but they do so only to engage deep questions behind life.

They don't sit around and go "wouldn't it be cool if?"

35. Writing is re-writing

Finish the first draft. Then do at least, like, 7 rewrites… At least.

The simplest truth is that a first draft is nothing. It is not proof you have written a story, but proof you have written a certain number of pages. Hulk has never really read a good first draft of anything. So the way hulk always likes to write is to just get a first draft over and done with so that hulk can then be on hulk's way with all the fun editing process.

Editing is fun.

There is the old adage that "writing is re-writing." hulk feels it is true because that is when you get to shape the actual story. When it's a bad script, which they all are at first, you can reshape it through sheer commitment to make it a good script. And the best part about refining your script is, you know, you can still make great changes with zero negative consequences (unlike when you start filming).  Hulk loves editing scripts. It's when the story actually feels alive.

Paul thomas anderson talked about writing once and said, to paraphrase, that writing is like ironing. You have this rumpled mess that's still a shirt and everything, but you keep going over it again and again til it's smooth. Each pass straightens the shirt, accomplishing its job until you have exactly what you need.

So how do you know when you're done?

It'll be "done" when you feel like you're just tinkering with it. You'll making small incremental changes which, sure might be well and good, but they are providing no deeper overhaul or understanding to the piece itself. So hulk think you should only get one round of tinkering and then it should be out of your hands and with other, trusted eyeballs. To either be approved of, or to tell you what it really needs.

No script ever feels perfect. There is only the time to let it go.

36. When & how to disregard these guidelines

And so at last this massive part five comes to a close (two more parts to go! Whooo!)

Hulk said these were all guidelines, not rules. And hulk meant it.

Your idea. Your story. The thing that compels you. That is what matters. Everything should cater to it. You may have noticed that throughout all these guidelines, hulk kept bringing up exceptions to rules. Sometimes they were exceptions that worked andsometimes they didn't work. The ones that didn't work were either haphazard, unconscious reactions or flippant, counter-intuitive gestures. While the ones that worked were justified because they only abandoned one element of our good narrative definition to deeply explore another element of our definition. The good exceptions negotiate and approximate, whether it plot, context, character, texture, thematic, etc.

So do what makes sense for the kind of story you want to tell.

Be willing to say "fuck battles in the last act." if that's what it calls for. Tarantino’s kill bill vol. Ii knew that after the battle against the 88, he couldn't top it action-wise. So he had a brilliant 5 minute monologue, summing up the entire viewpoint of character, followed by an equally climactic discussion over dinner, and finally 5 seconds of intense fighting… It was a hundred times more interesting than any possible battle. He did what made sense forthat story.

So do what makes sense for your story.

Mike leigh's happy go lucky eschews every rule of traditional romantic comedies to say something far moreinsightful about the nature of life and happiness.

Do what makes sense for your story.

Animal house essentially stop the movie and has a full-on dance number to "shout." it halts the narrative andsucceeds only because it is a pure joy from start to finish.

Do what makes sense for your story.

The ending of no country for old men tosses aside all narrative propulsion to wax philosophical on the natureof life and resolution itself. It pokes inward at each of the characters, cutting to the bone of their essence, but leaving these other big cathartic gestures off-screen. And yet it all resonates with a simple speech, al

Do what makes sense for your story.

Shane carruth's primer gleefully breaks every single rule about narrative, concept, and coherence. As such, a lot of people can’t even watch it. But for some folks, he manages to create one of the more brazen, interesting films ever made. It so concentrates on the concepts of scientific veracity that it captures its resonant thematic truths through the subject itself (much like the zodiac and contagion examples), only his subject is one of the most complex theoretical concepts on the planet. This completely unapologetic treatment of scientific accuracy via plotting results in a stunning, distinct, original film. The filmmaker pursued an uncommon view that compelled him and thus revealed a new view that compelled us.

Do what makes sense for your story.

But just know this… Every single rule or guideline that is being broken in the examples listed has damn good reasons for why. It's not "just cause it would be neat." they weren't making some totally pedestrian movie and then broke a rule because "it's more real!" they weren't even just "going with their gut," a thing that hulk bets many of you would want to do. Hint: that could just be your visceral, contrarian id talking. And that's not something you want to trust with story.

No. Those examples of exceptions succeed because it makes complete sense for those stories. It's almost as if that had to go there to see their conceits through.

The biggest problem with how everyone is breaking the rules nowaways is not because it's robbing us of traditional narrative power, though that sucks, it's because no one seems to even understand why the rules are even there. If they don't know what the rule says and how it works, they therefore can't understand what breaking the rule says either. They're just trying to be "different" … And hulk says fuck that.

Worse, there's some folks who really don't even know the rules are anymore.

There's gotta be a reason for all of this, right? Why don't we know the rules anymore? What happened? And why do we just slam forward with this faux-understanding of filmmaking?

It all speaks to an evolution of filmmaking. If you forgive hulk for indulging this bit of a history-lesson, but back in the golden age of hollywood everyone pretty much knew the narrative rules. Movies had a very set craft. They knew all the beats. Writers were all stabled in the studio system and they would even have different roles. There would be a structure guy. A dialogueguy. The director had a role. Movies and storytelling were on an assembly line. Yes this produced a lot of similar work, but it was downright professional stuff. And besides, all the best writers / filmmakers knew how to sneak subversion right into it anyway so the artistic inclination was able to flourish too. The point is that the authors created good stories, well-told.

The 60/70's changed the paradigm. The system had been "working" so well for so long, but a good deal of storytellers got lazy within those constructs. Which means movies in general got lazy too. When this was coupled with serious changes in counter-culture, it resulted in the audience genuinely tiring of the hollywood system. New audiences wanted an alternative, so they turned to new filmmakers. They didn't have resources so the construction was messy. Natural. Outdoors. Thus, movies broke themold. The textures, stories, ideas all resonated in a perfect way for the time and place. Of course, the huge success of some blockbusters in the 70's paved the way for another round of studio dominance, all done through the homogenized, big business80's. But again, things changed. We had another reaction to "the man" with the 90's independent film boom. Again the films went messy. Natural. Outdoors. But alas, the independent movement was homogenized again as corporations are now running  "indie studios" too.

The purpose of all this history is to highlight the fact there have been ebbs and flows to the nature of the business for… Pretty much always. There is always a dichotomy: to work within the system, or to work outside the system. Depending on the direction of the trend it makes it easier to do one or the other, but storytellers, at least the ones we lionize, always seem to have implicit desire to snub the dominant culture or popular models and embrace the most artistic constructs and forms. It is anidolization of perpetual rebellion. The 90's independent filmmakers rebelled against the homogenized 80's model, but they were also in love with the 60/70's poets of their day, and sought to emulate them.

It's all very romantic sounding… But the problem with this, and why no one seems to give a shit about the rules anymore,is because we have fallen in love the cadence of this rebellious work.

Think about the 90's boom. Tarantino has had hundreds of emulators, but the reason no one comes close to being as good ashim is they only take the tangible stuff. The cool suits. The swears. The out-of-order storytelling. The ironic sense of musicand bloody gunfights. They get the idea that people talk, but not how they talk. They miss the very simple elements of narrative propulsion, objectives, and clear stakes. His story telling isn't out of order for no reason, but instead to reveal the story in a fascinating thematic evolution. People obsesses over his cadence, which is totally neat and stuff, butit's not why his films work.

This has always been true. People rip-off altman, scorsese, spielberg, lucas, etc. But the reason those rip-offs feel so falseis not because they are derivative, but because they fail to recognize the most basic dynamics of good narrative storytelling.let's go super-recent:

Super 8 usurps all the language and cadence of spielberg's films, but it fails because it doesn't know how to make the monster elements connect thematically to the story (unlike jaws + et). Really, it doesn't get two central components of our good narrative definition.

Attack the block succeeds because it takes the inspiration of carpenter and dante and filters those motifs and approach into its own personal story and texture. Plus it has deep thematic ideas. It gets all four components of hulk'sgood narrative definition.

Story rules. Cadence is overrated.

And because hulk has to acknowledge the exception for just about everything, yes the cadence/style of your script and film is  great tool for speaking to certain audiences. But stylization is not nearly as critical as the intention and honesty of your well-meaning story. It doesn't matter where you come from and who you're working for, you can be operating subversively within the system, or you can be chucking rocks from the outside with an independent bent. You can be telling a traditional story or you can be using wildly inventive meta form. It really makes no difference to hulk. The meaning of the story, and its ability to resonate for the audience, is what makes the narrative thing work.

Hulk doesn't care what kind of conceptual story you are telling, or what structure you are using…  Just think aboutwhat you are saying. Approach your stories in terms of mind, body, and soul. Ask yourself questions. What does this action mean? What am i implying with this character's behavior?

Know when you're following the rules and know when you're breaking them.

Know who you are reaching and why.

Be conscious.

Part six – how to tell a story – screenplay-specific instruction

Of course, there is the format of the screen play itself. The reason hulk waited all the way until part six to talk about it is because the fundamentals of good storytelling are way, waaaaaaaay more important than what basically amounts to a matter of proper formatting. The things you are about to learn are simple and easily applied. But this does not mean that hulk does not think formatting and screenplay etiquette aren't important. They are just not super important.

So aside from the very basics like grammar and spelling, there are other basic things you need to know like  what scene headings are, how to number scenes, etc. But these are matters are easily learned from reading any screenwriting book or scripton the planet. Or just google "how to format a screenplay." it so easy hulk not going to even link to it. The point is it is sonot necessary for this column and would waste your time.

What is far more necessary, however, is to discuss more of the unspoken rules that can greatly improve your script.

37. Know it's being read by every kind of person

If charlie kaufman, an incredible writer who knows what really makes a great script, sat down to read your script you would want him to think it's great. This goes without saying. The same can be said for if your favorite actor sat down to read yourscript. And then if a studio exec said down to read your script you would want them to think it's great too . And if a script reader, who reads a million of them and whose time is short, sat down to read your script you would want them to think it's great and keep reading, forgetting there's a next one on the pile. And if an 21 year old intern, who really doesn't have the breadth of experience or patience, sat down to read your script you would still want them to think it's great too.

Now guess which order of people the script will be read in?

Yup. You have to make your scripts accessible to the 21 year old intern. Sorry folks but when you're starting the game it's true. Now, this does not mean that you "can't use big words" or tell a complex story. That would be nonsense. The 21year old intern is actually pretty smart. What it means is they are busy and can get distracted. Actually, the same goes for all those people really. Their time is invaluable.

Which means you have to get to the point and not dilly-dally in the damn description.

That means no "walls of black text." really. Hulk one of the most patient readers on the planet. Hulk can read fast. Hulk picks up infinite jest every year and revisits it. Hulk fucking loves to read dense intricate text. Hulk mean, look at these fucking essays. How could hulk not? But when hulk sees that big wall of black text in a script, hulk's heart just sinks a little. It just has no real function in a screenplay. By the end of part 6 you'll fully understand why that is, but for now just accept that it is. And this reality just means it is never productive to read. It's certainly never any funto read. It's never compelling. You may think it's important, or relevant, or interesting, or carefully constructed. But to the reader it's just not. It's just clear you're worrying too much about someone not doing exactly what you want with the detail. That's not good screenwriting.

So when describing the action, be as brief and concise as possible. It's the same thing as hulk's "have narrative economy!" lesson only it applies to the actual text and not the story. The second things start to get dense in the description, every reader will tune out. It is an absolutely fixture of the business. These are busy-as-shit people. Most of them will simply glance at the action to get a sense of what's happening and then just go back to the dialogue.

So be brief and move on.

But at the same time you can't have nothing either. Because what you write in the non-dialogue sections is stillvitally important to the story, it still has to be conveyed with purpose. Because the director will absolutely use it to go into production, the critical details have to be there. Which means that you, the writer, have to learn how to balance the needs of economy with the needs of relevant information.

And wouldn't you know? Here's a way to do that:

38. The golden rule of description

"write only what we can see."

This is an important one. If you're writing "he grew up in a small town back…" in your action lines you are doing it wrong. It may be helpful for the filmmakers in trying to decide who to cast etc, but the only information that should be conveyedis what the audience could see in the theater.

For one, any good director will sit down and look at a paragraph that has nothing but character history and say "how the fuckcan i show that?" and the promptly toss your script in the garbage. If they like the story, then they'll just ignore it anddo what they want. So instead, a good script conveys the information that can be seen. The details like: age, clothing, posture, voice, and actions. These details don't have to be reductive and limiting, but an opportunity. Really try to say something with this age, clothing, posture, voice, and actions. Use them to really say something about the character.

You do this in the script because, fuckin hell, it's exactly what the movie needs to do too. It can't just start reading your action lines. So they need to convey visual information!

Sorry if hulk seems angry and smashy about this one, but you'd be amazed how many people don't realize this very simple facet of how the script should be informing the movie how to work. If you need to establish that someone worked on a farm? Don't write "she used to work on a farm." there's nothing you can do with that. Instead write about how she has picturesup of her with her family on farm or something tangible like that. It may be lame, but it's at least something that can beshown.

Hulk's old action-scene column-partner tom townend (cinematographer of attack the block!) Brought up thegreat example of handling exposition with example from silkwood. Meryl streep's character is on a plane and she's about to be handed food. She goes to grab her wallet to pay, but attendant informs her they're free. The meaning is clear: she's never been on a plane before… This was long before the airlines went broke and you had tostart paying for shit. But the attention to detail speaks volumes about character.

Since you can't just go into the description and write the history of the character, embrace these opportunities to fit itin elsewhere. Going back to character trees (point #10) try to fit your "feet" details into the story with other ways: groin,throat, and crown.

If you write something we can't see, is not just mere faux pas, not just a completely wasted opportunity, but a writing habit that will actively make the movie worse. You're putting an idea into the filmmakers head that will make total sense foryour story, help them get it, but it won't help the audience get it.

Guess who matters the most?

The golden rule fixes all: write only what we can see.

39. Oh by the way, you are not the director

This rule seems to go more and more by the wayside, but here's the thing: if you are submitting this script, chances are you are not the director. They will want to hire another person. Which means if you mention camera moves or anything that shouldbe in the shooting script only, then you are totally overstepping your bounds. The director might even be pissed offenough about to completely disregard your advice and actively do the opposite(even if it's good)… Hulk's seen it happen.

So as a writer, how do you, like, convey what should be seen? The answer is simple: you don't. But there are still a few tricks one can use to convey not only what should be shown, but how too. Here's hulk's best example of how to imply movement with words. Say you want to show something up close then have the camera pull out or cut further back to show thewhole thing. To do that you say something like this:

"a delicate hand glides over a 1952 chevy bel air. The hand belongs to anita jones (20's), fresh-faced midwestern smile, with a bad home-spun blonde dye job and a discount pink dress. She proceeds to wave to the crowd."

Now. Hulk just made this up. But what does it tell you? It conveys a camera motion without an actual note of camera motion. The "belongs to" bit is great trick for implying we should be up close and then back out. Just like you want to do with action lines, you show don't tell.

But going back to point #38 just before this, the information also conveys a good deal about character. It shows she's working a car show. The "midwestern" term implies not only a look, but a personality type that goes along with it (without just saying "she's the personality type"). You show her d.i.y approach to her appearance and this implies she doesn't have much money.

Writing these sorts of lines, which inherently convey character, meaning, setting, information, and cinematics, is exceptionally difficult and takes a lot of time. Hulk probably spent 20 minutes on that one line and it just going up as an example in a column. This is how you need to approach description.

This is all part of what hulk likes to call:

40. The poetic art of action lines

Paul attanasio probably writes the best screenplays in hollywood.

That is not to say he writes the best stories that will become the best movies, though he's obviously done some amazing work. This is to say that he writes the best for the medium of screenplays. His action lines are poetic, resonant. They allow thedirectors to make the best possible movies. Even when his character descriptions get a little too much in the way of things "you can't see" they are still these tangible, beautiful concepts that can come across in the performance of the character. But really it's his ability to convey information in beautiful, small bits. And often the writing is so good and so concise,you just don't really mind his rule-breaking.

Check these fucking out:

"herbie stempel, herbert the great, early 40s and overweight. Marine haircut and shabby suit. A job for his generation – – exiled to the boroughs, flayed by grey-flannel insults, scourged by lowly status, grudge-laden before god.

"charles van doren, 30s, handsome, well-born, debonair, self-deprecating, perfect. The lithe build of a man who has never beenmade to run uphill. An endearing blankness — the boy availability of a man still in search of himself.

These are both from quiz show… Which is one of the best scripts ever written (though the movie almost letsa bad accent destroy a perfect film), but the real reason it's wonderful, particularly for this column, is that it shows you how to write scripts. Concise. To the point. Gorgeous prose. Hilarious dialogue. Poignant dialogue. Hilariously poignant dialogue. It's all there.

If you want to know how to write beautifully in the format, it should be your bible.

Seriously, download the pdf andkeep it forever:

But let us really hammer this point home:

41. Don't waste opportunities to say something

In robert towne's incredible script for chinatown (though he isn't afraid to go on for big walls of text… It was a different era) there is this really neat little detail that exemplifies something that doesn't happen enough in screenwriting.

Jake gittes is a private detective who has just informed one of his clients that, yes, his wife is cheating on him. To consolethe poor chap jake does the following:

"gittes reaches into his desk and pulls out a shot glass, quickly selects a cheaper bottle of bourbon from several fifths of more expensive whiskeys."

The implication of this may seem obvious, that gittes is "cheap" or something, but the fact that he has them all lined up andready to go in his office says something else… It implies that jake knows the client won't know the difference.

What may seem like a small detail in the script is actually a detail that can be sussed out to several other implications. It's a brilliant little gesture of which towne is a master. Really, hulk read a shit ton of scripts and these opportunities are rarely explored. So hulk want you to embrace the kind of high-degree storytelling evident in these tiny details. Embrace thehigh standard. Always try to always say something. Even try to say multiple things at once.

Every detail in your script can matter if you really want it to. Don't waste opportunities to say something!

42. And if you want to be colloquial…

So while attanasio and towne represent the formal end of the spectrum of screenwriting, on the other side there are more colloquial writers.

For instance, there is shane black.

Shane black was the first million dollar screenwriter. He wrote the lethal weapon movies and the lastboy scout. He then sort of went to writer jail for the last action hero and the long kiss goodnight, but he returned in a big, big way with kiss kiss, bang bang (it's a hilarious, great film if you've never seen it). But when he started out, one of the things he became famous for was being very colloquial in the scripts. He directly engaged the reader and would say things like: "this is the scene that's so fucking good, the audience will just whip it out and start jerking off right there in the theater!"

… It made an impression.

Which is to say a lot of people liked it and found it funny, and a lot of the old school thought he was pissing on the craft.both are fair reactions. But whatever you have to say about it, hulk thinks the scripts behind that colloquial prose were usually pretty good (even if the scenes usually weren't good enough that the audience would start jerking off). But even if thatbasic goodness was really what mattered, all the love and all the hate also spawned a lot of imitators. What can hulk say? Itall just keeps coming back to people fixating on the tangible details instead of tone. So they fixated on his being colloquial.maybe they thought that was the secret or something, hulk dunno. But some do fine with it. Some do not.

All hulk have to say on the matter is this: if you're going to go colloquial, then let's get something straight… Youhave to be really fucking funny.

That's all there is to it. Because if you're not actively making the reader laugh than there's, quite literally, no point to doing it. Seriously. None. You're already pissing on the concept of economy. And by breaking the 4th wall just say "i know you're a person/ hulk who is reading this. Let's just try and cheer you up!" it better be good. But there isn't anything else the reader can can do with it other than laugh. It certainly won't make the movie any better. It certainly won't convey to the director how to make the movie any funnier. The audience sure can't see the funny line.

It adds nothing of value to the film. The only thing it can do is make the reader laugh, which admittedly is something to be appreciated in the long slog of reading scripts.

But if it doesn't make hulk laugh, then it's just garbage for wasting hulk's time… Which means some reader mightthrow it in the garbage to boot.

Those are the stakes. Be warned.

43. Voice over… Perhaps, try not using it

Voice over is one of the most overused devices in the history of cinema. It is used to explain things that don't need explaining and would best be left to being shown through actual cinema. Or they are often issues that would be best left to being explored by dramatic means. Even the most unaware audiences find voice over to be pretty un-engaging.

Why is that? Because voice-over always tells, and never shows.

What perhaps speaks to the device's assured laziness is how fucking inconsistent it is too. If you're going to use narration at the beginning of your film, then you have to use it at the end (cough the descendants cough). Otherwise you're just cheating. Then there's that hilarious time the voice over showed up in a couple scenes in the middle ofwe don't live here anymore and then promptly disappeared for the rest of the film. These sorts of uses only confirm the laziness. Those films used it just when they needed it to solve some weird, stupid problem of exposition. Then they promptly dumped it.

The real problem here, and what every single person who uses it tends not to realize, is that when voice over goes in and outhaphazardly, you are altering the rules of your "movie universe." you are saying the story comes from this person's perspective and they are a kind of "god of perspective" in this movie. That's what voice over really means to your tone. And it has a huge impact to how your audience subconsciously thinks about the film's reality. So when the movie suddenly fucking ditches the voice over and becomes a regular movie apropos of nothing, then the audience can feel it. You are essentially saying you have made two different kinds of universes in your film. And that's cheating. Worse, it's destructive to the intent of your storytelling.

There are of course, a ton of examples of great voice over.

All the malick films employ the device to stunning affect. But heck, the dude is basically writing poetry which goes along with the stunning beauty of his imagery. And really, he's one of a kind. Another example is in the informant!where the seriousness of the plot is intentionally undercut by going into the head of matt damon's ridiculous main character, where he'll suddenly start ruminating on panties in japanese vending machines. There is no information or exposition, but pure characterization and hilarity. This doesn't make it narrative nonsense though as it serves two obvious functions: it helps balance the comedic tone with the seriousness of the story, and it helps explain just what kind of batshit guy would godown this silly, extreme path. Hulk thinks it's great. And then there's the voice over in the coen's raising arizona, which does the exact opposite. H.i. mcdunnough, who on the surface a complete hick criminal, has this lofty, beautiful, poetic narration that actually counters the hilarity of the world of the film, by giving it this deep poetic resonance and makes the whole thing a kind lofty, weird, wonderful fairy tale.

There's always a way to use a device well.

Just don't be lazy about it. Voice over can lend a nice feeling of atmosphere, characterization, and tone, but be carefulwith how it affects your universe. If you really need it and don't want to fuck with your universe, then try a few simple tricks to use it more organically. Like have one character literally telling a story that can overlap into the next scene and effectively be used like voice-over. This way you get the tonal and information effect you want without getting the tonal effectyou don't want. But again you have to be consistent about it.

But really, always try not using it first… You'd be surprised how well plain old narrative works.

44. The practical art of dialogue

Hulk talked in the introduction about knowing the struggle of writing. Well… Hulk knows this struggle. It hulk's biggest obstacle. Hulk knows this. Hulk just does not have the ear for it, especially while writing the first few drafts. Sofor hulk to really work with dialogue, it takes time, patience, and a lot of lesson-learning.

So here the following are hard-earned lessons that hulk has come to know:

A). Eliminate the following in dialogue: "ums", "likes", and "you knows."

If you want it to be something organic and sounds like how real people talk, then that's for the actor to decide. Seriously. If you're trying to get an actor to time their ums, likes, and you knows to your exact specifications and cadence, thenyou are going to get the most hollow sounding fake nonsense ever. It is impossible to make these kind of natural pauses seem unforced. So take em out. Plus they're not necessary anyway and will completely stall the reader just trying to get the meaning of your words. Really make them go bye bye.

B) you want your character's dialogue to be more clear and on point than you'd assume.

Don't layer the dialogue in a lot of qualifying and anticipation. Nancy meyers movies tend to do that horribly. Stuff like"well, i was going to say…." and "i think i really just need to come out, and let you know that." ughhhhhhhh. Have you everseen the holiday? It's like 2 hours of characters sputtering out stuff before the characters talk and haveopinions. It doesn't come off like "organic speech," it comes off like hulk's ass. Adding these kind of qualifiers just slows down the entire rhythm and import. It prevents the audience from following along and engaging and responding because they're miles ahead of the character's themselves. So just say what you freakin' mean. Be terse and to the point. Youmay worry that doing so will make your characters sound terse and to the point, but it won't. Movies forgive a lot of brevity. It will be organic because it won't sound like real life. It will make them sound like they're in a damnmovie. Which they are. There's a reason characters talk like that in films and it's because that's how the audienceneeds them to be.

C) your characters can't all talk the same way.

You should be able to hear one person in a scene and know who they are just by the dialogue. Achieving this can be really difficult, but it's true. You can't just rely on the actors to do it for you. When hulk reads comedies 1/4 of them have alltheir characters in the generic funny pithy voice, and 1/4 of the others have their characters all talk like the author. It sucks (fyi, the other 1/4  of comedy scripts are really funny , and the last 1/4 are not funny whatsoever). So concentrate on having your characters have different voices. If this is a big problem for you, hulk have a few practical solutions. If it helps, think of a bunch of different actors in your head, all with unique cadences. Throw in steve buscemi, with… Um… Dennisleary and, like, carol king or something. Or whoever! Hulk knows this sound stupid, but it will honestly help you differentiatethem in your head. When whatever actor comes in to play them they will bring the character a more organic center, than the extremes you used in your head. It's just a way of making their voices separate. A mere means to an end.

But honestly, there's a sure fire way of fixing most of these dialogue problems…

45. Final + bestest advice ever: read your entire screenplay out loud… Many times.

This will solve a lot of the problems mentioned not just in the last point about dialogue, but all the 45 points mentioned sofar.

You'll hear your script out loud and be like "oh that sounds like crap" or "oh that's a weird thing to say" or "oh that totally wasn't necessary." you'll get a sense of how your scenes are paced and if any of the scenes don't make sense near each other. Have a couple friends read it with you and talk about it.

Hulk really can't tell you enough how much you need to do this.

Just by getting the damn thing outside your head, it solves so many problems inherently. You'll know exactly what to do with it once it's "real." like with the action lines that go on and on? Guess what? If you get bored reading them, the the person reading your script will get bored reading them. So you'll know exactly what to cut. Reading a screenplay out loud should inform you. It should speak to the exact kind of movie you want to write.

To the anecdote!

And now, hulk will speak to the power of what reading a screenplay out loud can do for you. We can all agree that thesocial network was pretty much great, right? It has such a wonderful use of dialogue, smart commentary, insightful details, resonant themes, and a propulsive sense of storytelling… Hey… Wait a minute! Isn't that just all the things hulkmentioned back in part 1 of this essay!?!? When hulk talked about what makes a good narrative??? Hulk is bringing it full circle on y'all!

So on to the actual anecdote. Hulk just did a podcast with will from the silvertongue online u.k. (hulk will link soon!) And he told a story that hulk had never heard before. During preproduction on the film, david fincher apparently had aaron sorkin sit down for him, and in one sitting he had sorkin read the script out loud. He wanted to know the pace, inflection, andsense of rhythm that belonged in the script. So aaron sat there, read the entire movie out loud, just as he had pictured it. It took him 2 hours and 1 minute to read the whole thing.

The final running time of the film? 2 hours 1 minute.

The lesson is clear folks: read your script out loud and hulk will guarantee you will win an oscar.

… Okay, it won't do that but will make your script way, way better in every sense.

Part seven – now here comes the hard part

And thus we come to the final part of our journey, and hulk has to start it with some bad news.

Hulk hate to break it to you, but none of the things hulk just told you actually matter.

… That sound you hear is everyone's hearts falling down into their butts.

The reason it doesn't matter is because everything hulk just told you is not something that can be easily parsed out overplanning sessions. You may now understand it. You may now really be eager to start trying to apply it. But it cannot be fully applied with simple awareness. For one, there are so many details about how and why to create a story, that when we sit down toactually do it, it reveals itself as dysfunctional. We'll just be trying to think of that one thing, that one goal, and thecontents of this entire essay will fall out or our brains like it teflon.

Which means that writers have to take these devices and concepts and ingrain them into their process. These elementsmust be seared into their brains so they are completely automatic. Only then will the writing process, and the writing itself,truly feel organic. Only then can you write "sequentially and with flow" and still include all the critical elements of storytelling and structure that hulk has been fawning over for the entire column. Because the simplest truth is that you really need that speed. There is a certain kind of on-the-fly writing chops that are desperately needed if one plans to be a working writerin film and television.

Sure you might be able to hammer out something good in the course of a year, but what about when you're handed a re-writejob and the thing starts shooting in a week? What about the fact that it's the end of the season and you have to write an entire episode in two straight all night sessions? That's just as much part of being a writer as anything else in this business.

But even then. Even if you're a writer who somehow has all the time in the world. Chances are if you can't write organically, then your work won't be organic either.

So it has to be ingrained.

… But how the hell do you do that?

Hulk has regularly cited malcolm gladwell's theory from "outliers" that it takes 10,000 hours to become truly good at anything. It takes practice. Focus. Repetition. The same way a baseball player practices hitting a ball over and over again until each reaction becomes simple muscle memory. A writer must do the same. Identifying script problems, seeing narrative shifts, recognizing false-sounding dialogue. These are all things that must be ingrained and easily recognized though the same kind of muscle memory put on display by a great baseball player. And to get to that point takes 10,000 hours of writing. 10,000 hours of solving your own script problems. 10,000 hours of thinking about things like character motive, story structure, and the art of cinema.

And if you write every day, then 10,000 hours usually takes about… 10 years.

Hulk cannot help if this reality scares you. So often hulk talks to people who have dreams of writing scripts and so often they are not even close to that figure. Some of you are still young and in school and in the perfect place to start. Some of you are… A bit behind. But if you really want it, then you cannot let that reality stop you. You have to be ready to put in your 10 years. And hulk can really speak to the truth of that 10,000 hour figure. It wasn't until 10 years in that hulk's writing became even remotely passable. And suddenly, it felt like hulk woke up one day and it all clicked. Yes, the process was actually rather gradual, but all these things hulk "knew" had become something hulk actually "understood."going back to point #24hulk mentioned that it took the south park guys about 10 years to really understand storytelling and how to approach their show… That wasn't an accident. Things take time. Things take work.

So for all these pages and pages of practical advice, advice that hulk really, truly believes in, in case that's not obvious, there is still no quick fix. You have to learn to incorporate those ideas into your deepest essence as a writer. You have to practice with them like a baseball player would. And like a baseball player, you'll find your own strengths over time. You'll find you already have a lot of the skills and training you need to be good at structure. Or perhaps you've been training as a good listener so you have an ear for dialogue. Maybe you have the skills to be economical. But no matter what yourskills become and how they manifest themselves it will take unbelievable amounts of work.

This is scary. And you have two possible reactions:

1) damn… I… Don't think i can do that. I don't think i have time, and i mean… That's so much. I want to,i really want to be a writer, but i just don't think i can do it.

2) okay, fine. Whatever. That's not going to stop me.

If you answered like #1 then you like the idea of writing. You like the things it makes you feel, or perhaps the lifestyle oracclaim you think it will afford you. And  if you answered like #2, then you are a writer.

So it is time to start writing. Go do your first screenplay. Just write the damn thing. Do it. And once you finish it, yes it's going to be terrible. But that's totally okay. Sit down. Write another one. Do it better. Then do it again. And again. Don't look at them as your be all end all, but another step in the process. Learn how to craft stories. Then write another. And another. Get better. Don't worry you're "wasting good ideas" because the value of the idea and the inspiration never goes away even if the script is crap. You can always come back and re-do the idea once you're better at writing.hulk's done that all the time. Just keep writing them. Hulk wrote over 70 screenplays before even one working professional,said "hey this is pretty good!" and from there, getting something actually made is even harder. Yes, it takes luck to get theright opportunity, but you gotta be sure you can deliver when the opportunity comes.

Just remember, it is scary as all hell. But you are not alone. You have thousands of other writers with you… And you have hulk.

Hulk knows that sounds cheesy as all hell, but hulk mean it: you have a hulk on your side. Hulk wants you to win. Hulk even hates that this oh-so-necessary 10,000 hour message is dominating the last section of this article. Yes, hulk needs to warn you, but hulk would rather inspire you. So in that spirit, hulk just wants to finish this sucker with a little explanationof one of hulk's heroes.

The man in the lead image of this part seven is a guy named paddy chayefsky. He is one of the greatest screenwriters of all time.

Chayefsky's success was due in large part to the fact that he was, first and foremost, a writer in general. He wrote plays, novels, television, and even criticism (hulk likes criticism too in case you haven't noticed). Paddy  chayefsky approached his craft with remarkable sense understanding. His style always seemed to vary. You could always recognize his focus andintelligence, but never an overpowering "style" that dominated his work. His voice could mutate at a moment's notice. He could transcend genre, tone, comedy, drama, medium, form, and even language. He could explore the simplest stories about decenthuman beings and ethos (marty), the growing state of the nyc social scene long before capote even thought of breakfast at tiffany's (the bachelor party), the incredible thematic realities of bureaucracy and personalwill (the hospital), the hardcore sci-fi and horror concepts of trippy genetics (altered states), the ahead-of-its-time views of sexuality and become a forerunner to late 60's cinema (the americanization of emily), and in his magnum opus, he managed to penetrate the deepest layers of satire to the point where he basically foretold the future of television and american culture at large (network). If you need a comparison then chayefsky was sort of a porto-charlie kaufman and certainly every bit as much of a genius.

But chayefsky didn't just work on these lauded projects, which earned him the most lone screenwriting oscars of anyone inhistory; he spent most of his career as a "working writer" during the golden age of television. Back in college hulk hunted down most of his lesser-seen stuff and the one thing that always becomes so amazingly clear about his work is that even with his this utilitarian tv work, he so completely understood what he needs to do and explore with the story. While he famouslyhated the way hollywood encroached on storytelling and the author's duty calling it "democracy at its ugliest," he still never, ever let that impact the quality, nor the effort that went into his work. He knew how to write big and small, broad and nuanced, when to follow rules and when to absolutely shatter them.

The range, totality, understanding, and humanity of paddy chayefsky inspires hulk every single day.

He is everything we should ever want to be in a screenwriter.

He inspires hulk to write something like this column.

The writing of this column was a bit of a strange journey for hulk. For one, it's not really a column and more like a book. Hulk's been working on it for about 4 months. A week ago, hulk was close enough that hulk thought it would easily be doneby last sunday. Well… Hulk decided to include a few more points and suddenly it spiraled. Hating the fact it was coming after promised, hulk's spent the last 4 nights getting about an hour of sleep. The delay was the right decision however. Hulk sincerely hopes you agree.

But why would you write something like this hulk? What is the purpose?

On one level, hulk was excited about the idea of trying to convey the sum total of almost all of hulk's knowledge about storytelling and screenwriting. Of trying to make it a singular complete thought. A story of writing with a through-line that would maybe speak to you. Band on some small level, this column feels complete, and yet… Hulk still feel like barely scratchingthe surface. As crazy as it sounds, hulk looks over what is written and stills sees so much more that can be said.

Which means, the next step falls to you.

This column is only but the first step in a longer conversation. Having finally written this behemoth, hulk finally feels freeto go on and talk about few scripts specifically or delve into more nuanced ideas. Going forward, this column becomes the resource to look back on for hulk, a stepping-stone onto other discussions and even better insights.

And hulk wants to talk about all of those ideas with you.

Hulk wants us to flesh them out and make them feel real and understood. Hulk hopes that maybe you can help hulk even refine those ideas too. To teach the hulk the many things that hulk has yet to understand about a subject that can only be tamed, but never mastered. Hulk wrote this so we could both become better writers. And if we really want to make it happen, then we can allbe something of a sounding board for one another. Hulk says this without a hint of cynicism or disinterest. The internet is full of yelling and contention and ugliness and hulk wants to create a place where we can do way better than that.

Because secretly we are way better than that.

Hulk genuinely wants to change how we regard the internet. Hulk know that sounds freakin' insane, but it's true. Hulkbasically just wrote a book and here it is.

It's for you. It's free.

So write in the comments below as hulk promise to return to this column again and again over time. Disagree with one of hulk's definitions? Needs help breaking a story? Can't figure out a character's path? Write. Ask. Help. And feel free todrop hulk a line any time at [email protected]. It can get a little backed upat times, but hulk reads every single thing hulk is sent and will always try to get to every single person. Right now hulk about 60 hulk-mails behind (some going back to october) , so please be patient because hulk fully respond to each one.

But really, why do all this, hulk?

The same reason hulk explained at the beginning. Because hulk knows the struggle. It is endless war with one's one is lonesome. Difficult. And often infuriating.

… So who would want to go through that alone?

<3 hulk

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