Friday, September 25, 2009

RMFW Workshops – Screenwriting, Presented by Eldon Thompson

I wanted to post some of my notes from the RMFW conference. You'll have to excuse me if these are a little sparse in certain spots. The only real point that I can criticize Eldon Thompson on as a presenter is that he spoke EXTREMELY fast. I'm a quick note-taker (law school, hello), but even I couldn't keep up at times.

So, you might be wondering – why take a screenwriting class, Jen?

What can I say? I love movies. Love, love, love, LOVE me some movies. You might say I'm slightly obsessed with them, though I haven't seen a new one in ages. And one comment I've heard over the years is that some of my scenes are "very cinematic." I'm not sure that's always a good thing in writing – guess it depends on who you're talking to. That said, I really didn't know much about screenwriting before taking this class. Even now, I'm not sure it's something I could do – well. I definitely want to try, though. Especially after taking this class.


Eldon started off by talking about some of the differences between novels and screenwriting.

  1. For one, novels have more freedom while screenwriting is much more structured. For a two hour film, you'll need 120 pages. It's 1 page per minute. Therefore, if you're writing for TV, you'd be shooting for 40 pages, etc. No going crazy on the word counts, people!
  2. Certain events HAVE TO happen on certain page numbers. This all helps to provide a tempo and/or the beats that are expected in films. In novels, we can pretty much do just about anything and get away with it. Within reason, of course.
  3. While writing a novel is a solo venture, writing a screenplay is very collaborative. Eldon made a point of saying you'll get opinions from every direction – the actors, the director, the boys in the office, etc. Actually, he made this part of screenwriting sound very tiresome. In novels, specificity is the key. You can go on and on about using a certain dog breed in a scene, while in screenplays you simply have to say "there's a dog." Why? Because you're not the only one working on the project. Someone else might come along and see a different breed. (Jen's aside: Are you getting the sense that while you're giving a lot of creative input into a project, you're not allowed to go hog wild on details? Cuz I sure am.)
  4. Films/TV shows are dictated by cost. Obviously in novels you can place your characters in the wildest, most extravagant setting you can imagine. In film, things come back to the Benjamins. Can you really afford to shoot at the top of the Eiffel Tower or would the backyard of your mother's house be more reasonable? (I think we all know the answer to that one.)

Eldon finished this section by reminding us of The Golden Rule: Every rule is made to be broken. But, Eldon pointed out, understanding why the rules exist is always a good idea.

So, some tips on writing a screenplay:

  1. You want a major event to occur every ten pages. At the 30 page mark, you want a culmination of the previous two events. AKA – The Payoff.
  2. Conflict (as in novels) is the key element. You want two characters with opposing objectives in every scene.
  3. Avoid dinner scenes!
  4. One of the big mistakes first-time screenwriters make is that they want to add direction. (i.e. try to dictate camera angles, how emphasis should be placed on certain lines of dialogue, etc.) Basically, they want to be the directors. They want their screenplays to play out in their minds just like a novel would. Well, folks, Eldon said to NOT do this. You'll step on peoples' toes. Big time. I mean, just imagine if I wrote a screenplay that eventually starred Jack Nicholson. Do you think Jack would want me to tell him he has to say his line like a little girl? Yeah, don't think so.
  5. There's a lot less time in film, so you need to keep your writing lean and mean. Central character focus is very, very important. You'll want to focus mostly on your primary characters, a little less on your secondary, and leave out your third altogether.
  6. Scenes should build on the previous one. NO tangents.
  7. You don't need to describe setting with a lot of detail. (Goes back to the Benjamins and stepping on peoples' toes again.) You pretty much want to stick with whether the scene takes place indoors or outdoors; whether it's day or night; and the location (once again, bearing in mind that this is subject to change. Ah, you just know most of it will be shot at your mom's house.) Remember Eldon's BIG RULE: SIFYN – SAVE IT FOR YOUR NOVEL.
  8. Everything in a script has to be seen on the screen. You can have someone frown, but you can't say WHY they're frowning. EVERYTHING is visual rather than internal. If it can't be seen on the screen, take it out.
  9. Do not let reality cloud your story. Hollywood could care less if the scene you're describing really happened. A movie has to be the most dramatic version of an event possible.


How can you get started?

  1. Try to adapt an established story. You'll need permission if you want to shop it around (an option from the writer), but it's a good way to get practice.
  2. Eldon warns it's difficult to adapt your own work. In order to adapt a novel to a screenplay, you must be ruthless. You have to yank out entire threads/subplots, delete characters you love, etc. You must be ruthless if you attempt this. Go into it open-minded, and DO NOT be afraid to KILL your darlings!

Software options for screenwriting:

  1. Movie Magic
  2. CeltX (free download)
  3. Final Draft (industry standard)

Okay…now we're going to get into the nitty-gritty of writing a screenplay. The "set-up" so to speak.

Three things you should always keep in mind: Character, Desire, and Conflict. Repeat after me. Character, Desire, and Conflict. Got it? K.

For this section, he used Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure, seen here:

I'll go through because Eldon listed some great examples for each stage/turning point, etc.

Stage 1 – Setup. (0-10%)

  1. Basically, you introduce your hero doing what he/she does.
  2. You should draw the reader/viewer into the setting, establish identification with your character, etc.


  • Erin Brockovich – We see Erin is a broke, single mother who has fallen onto hard times.
  • Castaway – Fedex guy who has to leave the love of his life to go on an impromptu business trip.
  • Gladiator – What's his bucket – Russell Crow – leads his troops to victory.

Turning Point #1: Opportunity (approx. 10% of the way in)

  1. The new opportunity. A new, visible desire develops that will start a character on his/her new journey.
  2. The character goes in WILLINGLY.


  • The Empire Strikes Back – Luke goes off alone to find Yoda.

Stage 2 – New Situation (10-25%)

  1. Hero reacts to his/her new situation.
  2. Formulates a specific plan to tackle new problem/journey.
  3. Will often see a geographical shift (i.e. the character moves)
  4. The characters go into the situation willingly. They're excited and believe the obstacle can be solved easily.


  • Mrs. Doubtfire – Robin Williams devises a plan to see his children. (Becoming a female housekeeper)

Turning Point #2: Change of Plans (Approx. 25% of the way in)

  1. Something happens that makes it clear things won't be as easy as they first thought.
  2. Audience should be cheering them on.
  3. Character's inner journey may be different, invisible. But you must develop a visible desire that the audience can see on the screen.


  • The Empire Strikes Back – Leia and Han Solo escape Hoth, thinking they are well onto their destination when their light speed doesn't work.
  • Working Girl – Tess realizes her boss has stolen her idea and is determined to sell it herself.

Stage 3 – Progress (25-50%)

  1. The hero's plan seems to be working.
  2. He/she has avoided all obstacles for now


  • Erin Brockovich – Erin gets Ed to represent the Hinkley residents. She also establishes her relationship with biker boy.
  • The Empire Strikes Back – Luke finds Yoda and begins his training.

Turning Point #3: Point of No Return (Approx. the 50% mark)

  • The character must fully commit to his plan
  • There is no way out but forward


  • The Truman Show – Truman crosses the bridge.
  • Titanic – Rose sleeps with Jack.
  • Erin Brockovich – Ed's firm hires the new, bigger firm.

Stage IV – Complications and Higher Stakes (50-75%)

This should be fairly self-explanatory. IOW, I have a hole in my notes. (g) If you need help, read one of Donald Maass's books. J

Turning Point #4: Major Setback (75% point)

  1. Should take place around page 90 in a two hour movie
  2. This is the hero's darkest moment. All hope seems lost.
  3. If the hero is pulling off some great deception, this is when he/she is revealed.
  4. Couples break up.


  • The Matrix – Morpheus is captured.
  • Titanic – It's clear the ship is going to go down.
  • Working Girl – Tess is caught by her boss and gets canned.

Stage V – The Final Push (75 to 90-99%)

  1. Hero must gather resources to achieve goals.
  2. The conflict is overwhelming, nothing is working.

Examples: (these are my own – more holes)

  • Titanic – Jack and Rose try to save themselves; get to a boat.
  • The Matrix – Keanu Reeves is fighting the matrix guys, but he isn't strong enough.
  • Gladiator – Crow's escape/coup attempt fails and his men are killed.

Turning Point #5: The Climax (90-99% point)

  1. The hero must determine his/her own fate.
  2. He/she cannot rely on someone else to save them.


  • Gladiator – Final battle scene in the coliseum
  • The Empire Strikes Back – Luke fights Darth Vader and discovers DV is his father. (Jen's aside: Luuuuke… I am your faaaather. Umm, sorry if I spoiled that for any of you.)

Stage VI – The Aftermath (90-100% point)

  1. The hero's challenge has been overcome.
  2. This gives a look at where the hero is NOW.


  • Erin Brockovich – Erin receives her bonus check and is now working on a new case.
  • Gladiator – Russell is reunited with his family. I remember there was a lot of wheat.


And that's it, folks. You've just got the lowdown on how to write a screenplay. Anyone dying to give it a try?

Oh…just a few last notes.

Genre standards:

Comedy/Rom. Comedy – 90 min/pages

Action – 120 min – pages will likely be less because of the big action scenes.

Historical Drama/Epic – 120 min/pages

NOTHING goes under 85 minutes.


Eldon's final tips:

  1. Create balance. White space is very important!
  2. Less is more for dialogue.
  3. Flashback/dream sequences: As a rule, don't use them. (But what was it Eldon said earlier…what was THE GOLDEN RULE?? Ah yes, all rules are made to be broken.)
  • When using a flashback, use headers – end/begin flashback.
  • Patterns CAN work well, but don't use them as a crutch to get backstory in.
  • Use them very carefully. Most people consider them a cheat. (Jen's Aside: There must be a lot of people REALLY mad about the show Lost.)


And Eldon's one last piece of advice. This is important. I'm putting it in big bold letters:


Jen: Wha? When did floors come into it? I mean, I know there has to BE a floor, but I DIDN'T specify whether it was hardwood, marble, or parquet. SWEAR!!

No, no, no. That's not what he meant.

He simply meant you can't fixate on/polish one section of your screenplay forever. Move on. Push through to the end. Go, team, Go!


Hope this was useful! Thanks Eldon – great class!

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