Saturday, December 09, 2006

Screenwriting Teachers and Popular Seminars: A Review

Many of you have heard me refer to them, at times, in this blog even. Some of you have contemplated going. Others of you have gone and wish you could go again, but the baby needs shoes, you’re a starving student, or still trying to figure out how to “eat” while doing this thing called “writing.”

Truth is everybody needs to get better. If film school is not in the cards for you, and you still aspire to be your best – here’s the “low-low” on popular screenwriting teachers and their seminars.

It’s fair. It’s long. And it’s reprinted here courtesy of James P. Mercurio and the good folks at Creative Screenwriting Magazine. (Btw: I highly recommend both! Jim’s script consulting services are second to none. Creative Screenwriting should be within elbow’s reach of every serious writer).

On the first day of my first film class at University of Michigan, the professor warned us that we were about to begin a journey from which we would never be able to return. He was talking about studying film: applying thought and analysis to works of art whose primary purpose is to inspire emotion. Never again would we be able to innocently watch a movie. The classes and seminars I review in this article demarcate a similar threshold for many writers.

No longer will an emotional scene where a character reveals his dark secret only wrench your heart. You will identify the function of the scene as the "ghost." You will wonder if the exposition could have been more effectively dramatized. You will realize that the character's unconscious desire ironically contrasts with every other action he has made during the film. You'll look at your watch, not because you're bored, but because you're timing act II. And you will even lose sleep over whether or not Sea of Love is a love story with a crime story subplot or a crime story with a love story subplot.

The seminars and classes I attended were from the following teachers: Robert McKee, David Freeman, Richard Walter, Jeff Kitchen and John Truby. The seminars varied in scope, length, focus and intended audience. If when your mother calls and asks how's it going, and you respond that you've almost figured out how the climax of act II organically resolves itself from the individual characters, then you are either already on your way on this journey or ready to embark. I hope this guides you and supplies enough evaluative judgement to help you arrive at the class or classes that make most sense for you.

With its 2-3 hundred other participants and its theater-style seating, Robert McKee's "Story Structure" seminar (30 hours, $450.00) seems like it is going to be less a class and more like opening night of a show. Although it's 9:00 in the morning, a show is what you get. In keeping with the show metaphor, the class is not a dialogue, it is a monologue. Fortunately it is a honed performance that anticipates all of the audience's potential questions.

In contrast, the most intimate class was Jeff Kitchen's "Action-Thriller Writing Seminar" (2 days, $189). The informality and moments of interactivity among the couple dozen students create an atmosphere similar to a graduate level class or workshop. He even had a couple of writers [Steve Pink (Grosse Pointe Blank) and W. Peter Iliff (Patriot Games)] come in and speak. Although I have to admit that there were a few times when I wish Kitchen would have borrowed from McKee and told some of the students' to shut up.

In between McKee's one man show and Kitchen's cozy seminar are David Freeman's "Beyond Structure" seminar (18 hours, $285), Richard Walter's "The Whole Picture" seminar (12 hours, $275), and John Truby's "Writing the BlockBuster" seminar (3 hours, $39). Each of these three classes hovered around 100 students. Freeman and Walter were very accessible to questions during breaks and at the end of the first day. Because Truby's class was only three hours long, there was not as much time for interaction, but he did field everybody's question before ending his seminar.

Before we get to the teachings, what about the teachers? Reminiscent of a highly-paid motivational speaker (what a stretch), McKee commands and demands the audience's attention whereas Freeman, more the comedian, infuses his workshop with jokes and some plain old silliness. Walter is a storyteller. Kitchen, soft-spoken, is an East Coast, or more specifically, a New England intellectual—a Mamet without the testosterone poisoning. Extremely polished, Truby's mild demeanor belies a lawyer-like analytical mind; he is always concise and convincing. McKee begins at the beginning. He gives a lucid and explicit overview of all issues relevant to dramaturgy. He defines the smallest dramatic unit—a story beat—as a moment that turns or changes. He then continues to define a scene as a series of beats resulting in a change, a sequence as a series of scenes ending in a change, and acts as a series of sequences that turns in an even larger way. And finally, a story is a series of acts which culminates in a climax of a final turn, an irreversible change.

Although McKee's analysis is Aristotelian, he ultimately deviates a hair by claiming that character is inseparable from structure. Character, as opposed to characterization, is the hard choices characters make when there is a gap between what they expect and what they get. Stories only move forward when characters face and make hard decisions which reveal his or her true nature. Only by having a character who is willing and able to keep fighting until the end of the line do you have an effective story.

Although McKee calls his class "Story Structure," he has 30 hours which allow him to spend some time on other issues such as scene construction, dialogue and the habits of a professional writer. In fact, he balances the theory of story and structure with an emphasis on content and meaning. He is an advocate of research as the conqueror of cliché. He does a fantastic job of explaining how the controlling idea and theme manifest themselves dramatically in the crisis, climax and resolution of the film.In Mckee's scene-by-scene analysis and thematic analysis of Casablanca, he illuminates great subtext and clearly shows how a popular entertainment form can rise to the levels of great art. This analysis was on par with the best analyses I have seen in even graduate-level film classes. Granted, as Richard Walter points out, the analysis may not have helped Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch write the script to Casablanca, but if it can give young writers an appreciation of the artistic level to which our craft can rise (without sacrificing any commercial or storytelling aspects), then kudos to Bobby.

Jeff Kitchen, like Mckee, approaches story from the perspective of a classical dramaturg. He also begins with Aristotle but ends with a mostly unknown turn-of-the-century playwriting teacher, William Thompson Price, founder of The American School of Playwriting. Using Price's work, Kitchen's applies principles of rhetoric and dilemma to structure.

Whereas most other teachers' approach to dilemma is limited to the paradigmatic axis (individual moments), Jeff's concept of dilemma on the syntagmatic axis (structural) is difficult but profound material. Instead of just considering a scene where a character has a dilemma (two equally unacceptable choices) and a difficult choice to make, Kitchen shows how a dramatic script should boil down to one central dilemma for the protagonist. For instance, in The Godfather, Michael's dilemma is that although it is unacceptable to sacrifice his happiness and peaceful life by getting involved with the family crime business, it is equally unacceptable to allow the family to be destroyed by his noninvolvement, as it is becoming increasingly apparent that he is the only one capable of running the business properly.

Kitchen (correctly so) believes that although this is a powerful tool, it is material that may take a long time to sink in. Therefore, he offers a specialized, yet optional, one-day Hands-On Sunday session ($150) where students work with him to apply his tools to their own work.

Besides the structural use of dilemma and Central Proposition (see sidebar), Kitchen offers another structure tool: Sequence, Proposition, Plot. This tool uses reverse causality and backward plotting to effectively eliminate all unnecessary scenes. I won't try to explain it here, but it's a lifesaver if you have ever found yourself "here" in your script and needed logically to get yourself "there."

To Kitchen's credit, he is the first person who demonstrates a concrete usage for the 39 Dramatic Situations. Whereas David Freeman mostly dismisses the 39 Dramatic Situations by asserting that they don't fit most stories, Kitchen takes the logical and creative jump to taking the word "situation" literally and using them to brainstorm, not necessarily plots, but themes, scenes, subplots and characters.

Although much of Kitchen's class services advanced writers, there is an aspect that would really appeal to young writers. At the end of the seminar, Kitchen literally opens up his notebook to show you his specific method (an application of his theoretical tools) of writing. This may really help a beginner who is still trying to establish a concrete writing method or perhaps an intermediate writer who has had a script fall apart in the middle pages.

Kitchen's emphasis on structure makes his seminar almost antithesis of and, therefore, a complement to David Freeman's seminar. Freeman's "Beyond Structure" class, self-billed as the next logical step to McKee, has the unique designation that it dwells least on structure than any of these other classes.

Freeman introduces his students to exhaustive lists of scene-sculpting techniques, plot twists, dialogue tips, rooting techniques (see sidebar) and character arcs (to name only some), and supplies clear examples illustrating each of them. He tries to raise his students writing up to, in his own words, "the next level." Freeman provides numerous tools for making great dialogue and helping expand the dimension and depth of characters and scenes. His approach is anti-intellectual (not anti-intelligent) in that the names and the descriptions of these techniques are devoid of pretentious theory.

Freeman's approach to teaching dialogue differs from McKee's. McKee approaches the topic via structure. McKee argues that knowing the beats/structure of your scene frees you to write great dialogue. Not until you know exactly what subtext your dialogue needs to convey, are you free to be creative and come up with great lines. Freeman's approach relies more on describing and examining recurring patterns and characteristics of good dialogue. A few of the over twenty techniques he names are "Dropping the first word of a speech.", "A character may start speaking on a tangent.", "A character may have different ways of speaking around different people." (Imagine the difference between recounting your hot date to your mom as opposed to your best same-sex friend.)

For every one of the techniques he names, Freeman presents a lucid example; his snippets of television dialogue are exceptionally well chosen. I wish he would have touched on the subject of whether or not film dialogue has slightly different requirements than dialogue for television.
His discussion of character was thorough if not groundbreaking, and he made a nice distinction between the dimensionality and depth of character. Freeman's Diamond technique for creating character dimensionality is, excuse the pun, a real gem. This simple tool insures that your characters not only stand out, they stand out from each other.

Although Freeman does not focus on structure, he goes over structure in broad strokes. His tidy and brief overview of structure would seem to apply mostly to high-concept fare which seems to be his strength and passion. The main structural tool he provides is a way to generate several brainstorms for high-concept films by using other films as a starting point.

Of all the seminars I reviewed, Freeman's is the only one to incorporate workshop exercises. He would assign brief exercises focusing on one of his principles or rules. Some of the attendees claimed that these exercises improved their writing on-the-spot.

Richard Walter's "The Whole Picture" has a distinguishing characteristic also. Of all the seminars I attended, it is the only one to spend a substantial amount of time on the business side of screenwriting. He covers many of the unwritten rules of breaking into Hollywood, querying an agent and professionalism among writers. Although his information could be gleaned from several other sources, Walter does remind all frustrated writers that finding an agent is an the easy part compared to writing a damn good script. Richard also hands out copies of his book, "The Whole Picture" which chronicles the seminar, so that participants may eschew notetaking, relax and enjoy the casual anecdotal lesson which follows.

Walter demystifies the entire process of screenwriting to a very simple thesis. He tells students to write stories that are personal to them and that are integrated. By integration, he means that every character, line of dialogue, line of action description and story beat should be absolutely indispensable to your script. Rather than supplying various, complex theories for each genre, Richard simply says there are two types of movies: good and bad. Period.

His demystification of the process may seem a little daunting (or trivial) at first. It's like saying, "'Brevity is the soul of wit.' Now go write good comedy!" But when he goes through a few pages of scripts with the audience, illustrating his concept of integration, everything becomes clear. Forcing the writer to make sure everything—story points, formatting, characters, dialogue, action description—is essential and integral, Walter shows that by stripping away everything that isn't good writing, what's left will necessarily have to be good writing.

Let's see how Walter's approach compares to some of the other teacher's methods. Truby might specify, "Subplot characters face essentially the same stuation which the protagonist faces." McKee theorizes that subplots must satisfy one of the following four functions: to echo or contradict the controlling idea, to complicate the main plot, or to interest the audience until a delayed inciting incident falls into place. Walter simply says to the writer who is ready to add a subplot, ask yourself if the subplot is absolutely essential to the story? Does it fit? Is it absolutely indispensable? If the answer to these questions is yes, then the subplot's function will take care of itself.

Walter is also willing to read all of his students' work. He sometimes even recommends scripts to executive and agents. I slipped him a copy of my script (I think he was unaware that I was taking his class gratis for this article), and less then two months later, he sent me a two-page letter praising the script and even referring me to an agent. Granted, a few paragraphs of the letter were form-letterish, but he took the time to point out some details unique to my script.
John Truby's Writers Studio offers several services for the screenwriter including screenwriting software, audiotapes and various seminars. For screenwriters, Truby suggests one of two strategies. The first strategy is to write a quirky, independent script that defines your point-of-view and "take" on things as a commodity in and of itself. (Ed Burns, Tarantino, Kevin Smith) The second strategy is to master a specific Hollywood genre or two. Then, of course, regardless of the track you select learn your form inside and out via The Truby Studio's products.

The taped seminar of the "Twenty-Two Steps" (a part of his software and a part of his larger Story Structure seminar) and "Writing the Blockbuster" seminar (3 hours, $39) are classes on general structure. Truby's "Twenty-Two Steps" is a mini structure course. More prescriptive than McKee, Truby presents a paradigm to follow. Some of the steps seem rather obvious like "the introduction of the antagonist" (or the mystery cloaking the antagonist, or the romance in a love story). But Truby's scientific dissection of subtle points like the difference between a character's moral need and psychological need is not unimportant. At first glance, the 22 steps may seem like a mechanical list of prerequisites for a film. Eventually the intelligent application and analysis of The Verdict and Vertigo show the steps' flexibility.

The three hour "Writing the Blockbuster" seminar is a sound but brief overview of screenwriting structure focusing on character arc, desire-line and genre. Truby points out that most blockbusters follow the double-track of character and action. There is a personal/psychological problem for the character and an external (action) problem. By solving the personal problem, the protagonist is more able to solve the action problem. The seminar effectively introduces the students to similarities and recurring patterns in blockbuster movies. But the instructional emphasis on blending genres makes it clear that this seminar also acts as a veiled sales pitch for other Truby items which go into further detail about his specialty: genre.

In Truby's genre audio tapes and software add-ons (sold separately), he breaks down each of the genres (Action, Comedy,Crime, Detective, Horror, Fantasy, Love, Masterpiece, Myth, Sci-Fi, Thriller) into their unique story beats and components; he even matches up the 22 steps with their specific genre counterpart. Even his half-sentence statements of the goal for each genre (Horror-to defeat a monster, Thriller-to evade attack, Myth-journey within, etc...) are illuminating. Although there are books written for fiction writers that contain some of this information (especially crime, mystery and romance), Truby is the most thorough and no-nonsense source for genre study tailored for screenwriters.

A development executive himself, Truby claims that Hollywood's obsession with genres, coupled with its penchant for pigeonholing writers, make it crucial for screenwriters to master a genre. Looking back at the last year there was a "traveling angel story" (a comedy subgenre) about a traveling angel, a conspiracy thriller with the word "conspiracy" in the title and I saw a spec script sale for a thriller about "mind detectives" (a type of detective Truby distinguishes) called Mindhunters, so his opinion is worth considering.

Before I was aware of Truby's courses, I brainstormed a quick list of similar movies I admired and wanted to watch again before embarking on a thriller screenplay. I listed films which seemed to define the genre I wanted to study. Here is the list:
1) Three days of the Condor
2) Parallax View
3) Marathon Man
4) Pelican Brief
5) The Firm
6) Point Blank
7) All The President's Men

Upon analysis, I realized how intertwined the authors, writers and directors are of these films. Try to follow me: #1 and #2 not only share a screenwriter (Lorenzo Semple, Jr.) and the distinction of being the two films which Brian Helgeland (who is currently writing and directing a remake of #6) claims influenced him most when he wrote Conspiracy Theory, their directors, Sydney Pollack and Alan J. Pakula, went on to direct and write/direct, respectively the Grisham adaptations of #5 and #4. Pakula also directed #7 which was written by William Goldman who also penned #3 and the Grisham adaptation of The Chamber. The recent movie The Game made a knowing wink at #2, and here in 1998, #7 is the film X-files creator Chris Carter mentioned as the model for the X-files movie.

It does seem that Hollywood has consistently gone to the same people to repeat their success in a genre. And it's telling to show how great genre films from twenty-five years ago can still be our models, inspirations and benchmarks for current films.A few of the other teachers said they believe that the analysis of breaking down films into divisions and subdivisions is redundant or useless. I agree that it is possible to write a good script, even a genre or a high-concept script without Truby. But Truby's argument is that to stay competitive in Hollywood, you have to do everything to master your craft. In light of my short analysis above, If I were competing with William Goldman (and I hope to) for a writing assignment on an Alan Pakula thriller, I would want to know as much as I could about the genre.

I would be shirking my responsibility to you, the readers, if I were to avoid delving briefly into the role of devil's advocate. I have neither desire nor reason to disparage any of these classes, and even if I did, I shouldn't be the one to decide if a class or an approach is right for you. Look at the course content, and decide. Each of these teachers takes pride in his message, and desires to help writers write better screenplays.

I wrestled with the helpfulness of Freeman's exhaustive descriptive—not prescriptive —listings of techniques which many people could possibly figure out by intuition on their own. I talked to a few people in the class who were frustrated with a lack of theory. For instance, after listing dialogue techniques like, "Characters interrupt," or "Characters answer a question with a question," Freeman would not propose a theory or discussion of subtext or under what psychological conditions a character might be more or less likely to speak in this fashion. But there were also attendees who seemed to respond immediately to the clarity and simplicity of his message.

Walter gets a bad rap for sometimes being too anecdotal in his lecture, and I talked to a few participants who felt the seminar was a bit breezy. Sure there is a bit of name-dropping, but Richard usually follows his own rule of storytelling and subtly integrates his points and teaching of the craft right into his stories. He tells a story about how personal Star Wars was to George Lucas as opposed to being just a calculated commercial attempt. Not only was the story interesting, I hope its point was not lost on the audience.

Kitchen's material ranges from the very theoretical to the elementary. One way Kitchen defuses this problem is by offering specialized classes like his separate one day development sessions for development execs, Action-Thriller Seminar and a one-day Hands-on session for writers to work on their stories by applying his tools. One definite misuse of Truby's material would be to use it as a shortcut. The old adage, "A little bit of information can be a dangerous thing," holds true here (see Cliffhanger). Remember what makes a genre film work is the tension between what has come before and what has yet to be seen (the original stuff you bring). If you are going to embark on mastering a genre, you most likely love those kind of films. Therefore before going to the Truby tapes or software add-ons, I would recommend a self-directed study of favorite, classic or canonical films like I did with the above seven films.

The above adage could also apply to McKee's class. The worst thing this class can do to a young writer is to overwhelm and stifle him or her temporarily. The worst thing it can do to a novice development exec is turn him into spawn of Satan. This class can give development execs the tools to pass on almost every script. Few scripts submitted to me -- even by professionals -- succeed in the case where the Spine (thoughline) is not the external goal of the protagonist, but the unconscious desire. I worry that words like "Spine" and "unconscious desire" get thrown around alot by people who couldn't even identify the spine of a movie like Good Will Hunting which even declares its Spine in the title.

And occasionally McKee goes off on some self-righteous tirade about "Monkey Paws" and vivisection. More than a few times my derriere was begging me to yell, "Shut up," so that we could trim the 12 hour day. This should not steer anyone away from the class; it should just be a reminder to bring a seat cushion.


Beginners would benefit from any of these classes. Freeman's and Walter's absence of theoretical pretense or Aristotelian rhetoric makes their classes a great choice for beginning writers or the dilettante considering a change in career.

Truby's "Writing the Blockbuster" seminar is an introduction to Truby and his products. And because of its shorter length (3 hours) and its price, it's a great experiment for beginning writers not sure if they want to jump into the more expensive and longer seminars.

The only reason I hesitate to recommend writers who are at the beginning of their craft to McKee is that all of his principles can seem daunting at first. Writers should let instinct and experimentation (failed or otherwise) be their teacher for a while. Having a script that you've already written or are working on also helps to learn the fundamentals, because you're mulling over the new ideas as you try to apply it to your own script.

Similarly I recommend that beginning writers do not use Truby's genre studies as a shortcut. His approach to Hollywood films via genre is an intelligently schematic and interesting approach which should complement—not replace—intuition and the vast store of residual knowledge all writers who are film lovers have.


Kitchen's various seminars contain a range of useful material from a hands-on introduction to a specific method of writing to individualized attention for each participants' material.

McKee's class is a textured class which would probably benefit every writer from amateur to high-paid professional. I even know of writers who take the class a second time, an expensive option that can be avoided by purchasing McKee's tome Story.

Many of Walter's students found that the few minutes spent analyzing screenplay pages were the invaluable highlight. If analysis is what you are seeking, I would recommend Walter's course "Beyond the Basics" (10 hours, $275). In this seminar he offers intensive individual attention—applying his principles of integration to your script—which would be fruitful for the intermediate to advanced writer working on a draft of a script.

Freeman's focus on material other than structure creates an apparent audience: writers who have a satisfactory grasp on structure yet want to emphasize other areas of screenwriting.


As mentioned, McKee's "Story Structure" and Walter's "Beyond the Basics" are good classes for intermediate-advanced writers.

If you're writing in classic Hollywood genres, it seems like you have nothing to lose to try Truby's individual genre analyses.

If you're interested in an alternative approach to structure, emphasizing dramatic unity and a fresh application of rhetoric and dilemma to structure, then consider Kitchen's courses to augment your paradigm of structure.


But where do you start? Which of the above list is most important? The word Drama is from the Greek word meaning "to do" and accordingly my suggestion to a writer is do. Do what feels right. Do what you want. Do what you need. Do what you mean. But DO plaster your butt into your seat (loungechair, hammock, or prison cell bench) and write.



Freeman list over 30 rooting techniques which are ways to make a character more sympathetic, i.e., to get audiences to root for them. The movie Philadelphia, Freeman points out, uses no less than fifteen of these techniques. Of those fifteen, here are fiveA character suffers undeserved misfortune.A character is an underdog.A character is ethical.A character stands up against the masses.A character is thoughtful and intelligent.Remember in the seminar, Freeman would give examples from other movies of each of these techniques.


1) Thou shalt not take the crisis/climax out of the protagonist's hands. The anti-deus ex machina commandment.
2) Thou shalt not make life easy for the protagonist. Nothing progresses in a story, except through conflict.
3) Thou shalt not give exposition for exposition's sake. Dramatize it. Convert exposition to ammunition.
4) Thou shalt not use false mystery or cheap surprise.
5) Thou shalt respect your audience. The anti-hack commandment.
6) Thou shalt know your world as God knows this one. The pro-research commandment.
7) Thou shalt not complicate when complexity is better. Don't multiply the complications on one level. Use all three: Intra-personal, Inter-personal, Extra-personal.
8) Thou shalt seek the end of the line, the negation of the negation, taking characters to the farthest reaches and depth of conflict imaginable within the story's own realm of probability.
9) Thou shalt not write on the nose. Put a subtext under every text.
10) Thou shalt rewrite.


In Truby's newsletter, he briefly discusses the film Anastasia, and how its success is linked to its succesfully melding two genres effectively. His usage of the word "opponent" and "ally" are in the specific sense in which he defines them in the Twenty-Two Steps."....The first and most important choice for the animation film is whether to base it on the myth, fairy tale or drama form. .... the writers (of Anastasia) get to use a Myth foundation for the desire line: Anastasia wants to find her home. But the writers wisely avoid the episodic problems that plague the myth form (and substantially hurt the sucess of Hercules) by layering a second genre, love, onto the story. Anastasia's second desire, which occasionally conflicts with the first, is Dmitri. As the lover, he becomes the second opponent (and first ally), and he and Anastasia experience all the classic love story beats on their journey to Paris. Instead of encountering a number of successive opponents, the lovers' ongoing conflict unifies the middle of the script."


Throughout his book, "The Whole Picture," which follows the seminar by the same title, Walter lists twenty-some no-nonsense gems of insight. Follows are a few of these principles:Principle 2: Screenwriters must embrace authentic self-disclosure, no matter how painful, as nothing less than the organizing principle of their creative lives.Principle 6: The least important, most overappreciated element in screenwriting is the idea.Principle 11: Do not have one character tell another character what has already been told to the audience.Principle 16: Every writer will do anything, will seek any excuse, to avoid working upon the particular assignment in front of him at any given moment.Principle 21: Lie through your teeth.


(Jeff Kitchen gave me permission to abridge his work and go into some detail regarding his dramatic tool, Central Proposition, which is a major part of his seminar. Although a few paragraphs are not going to do this justice, they should serve as as introduction to Kitchen's approach.)

A syllogism is a logic term that describes two premises leading to a necessary conclusion: A and B, therefore C. The most famous example of which is this:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is a mortal.

Kitchen credits William Thompson Price (who was trained as a lawyer) for using the Logic of Argumentation to state the core action of a drama as two premises leading to a conclusion. If we consider that drama is literally a fight to the finish, then the Central Proposition for a script is in this form:

A) A volatile situation is created, setting up a potential fight.
B) An exacerbation of situation A, a touching off of the fightwhich will be a fight to the finish.
C) Now that the fight has begun, what will be the result?

The key to applying this material to your script is to make sure that A and B are intrinsically linked and that they clearly raise a specific Central Dramatic question C.
For instance, let's look at a purposefully ineffective Central Proposition as it applies to a romantic story.

A) Joe sells cars.
B) Mary works at the library.
C) Will they be married?

The problem is that there is nothing inherent in A or B which forces the question raised in C. Forgive the above contrived example, but let us see this tool as it is applied to Romeo and Juliet.

A) Romeo, scion of a family at feud with Juliet's family, falls in love with her at first sight. [A potential fight is set up.]
B) Romeo defies the enmity of the families and marries Juliet. [The fight to the finish is now in progress.]
C) Will Romeo find happiness in his marriage with Juliet? [Dramatic Question arising in the mind of the audience.]

Stripping down the core action of the drama to a unified proposition as above helps cut through the elusiveness of drama. Price said that a writer can take all of the energy that goes into rewrites and put it into engineering the script properly in the first place.

Kitchen says that the best demonstration of this tool's power is the application of the Proposition to a work in progress, rather than showing it applied to an acknowledged masterpiece. Kitchen claims, "...the tool has tremendous formative power as it pulls material into a coherent whole. I have seen this happen over and over again in my development seminars."Kitchen examines The Godfather with this tool:

A) Michael Corleone, son of a Mafia don, doesn't want to be involved in family crime business, but jumps in when his father, Vito, is shot, and executes the would-be assassin, Sollozzo (an agent of Barzini). [A potential fight with Barzini is now set up.]
B) Michael indirectly declares war on Barzini, the Don behind the power struggle, when he tells Moe Green that he is forcing him to sell his share of their hotel and casino in Las Vegas. [A fight to the finish is now in progress.]
C) Will Michael defeat Barzini and save the family? [Dramatic Question arising in the mind of the audience.]

Kitchen admits some initial confusion arises with this example, because Michael's attack on Barzini is so indirect. Barzini is so entirely behind the scenes that there is no opportunity to confront him directly. But it is clear how this tool halts the fight in mid-action and identifies the Dramatic Question arising in the mind of the audience. Kitchen spends ample time in his seminar applying this tool and others to The Godfather, Tootsie and Blade Runner. (Note: Prices have changed since this article was published.)

Originally published in Creative Screenwriting (Vol. 5, #5, pages 32-39) It appears courtesy of James P. Mecurio, Articles & Essays

I have personally taken Robert McKee and David Freeman seminars and can vouch for them. On the basis of Jim’s recommendations here, I think Truby, Walter, and Kitchen would also be well worth the investment.

Happy writing!

Kevin C.


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