Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Developing great characters, Part 6: Place in community

Continuing with my series of posts on character exploration and development, let's take a look at how the external world outside of a character's immediate family circumstances--namely their place in the larger community they find themselves in--is worth pondering early on.

I realize that a lot of this is pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many writers I work with have never taken the time to think about or invent these key character “facts”—info that can often loom large as your writing process unfolds.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Developing great characters, Part 5 – Your characters’ external world

Continuing my series of posts on character exploration and development: 

Placing your characters into their own unique social contexts--the external life circumstances your people have lived through and are currently involved in—is essential.   By doing so, you'll start seriously to dig into their lives and begin asking some critical questions about the forces that have shaped them and that continue to influence how they think and act.  Every person has a definite set of social circumstances that has helped define who he or she is.  I suggest you need to have a pretty good idea of what these are for each of your people.

For starters, make some choices about each character's own blood family circumstances.  There are a whole set of crucial questions you need to think about:

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Developing great characters, Part 4 – Putting them in front of you

     Continuing my series on character exploration: 

     I find that the more complete a visual picture I can create of my characters, the more they come to life for me.  Although I don't usually write for specific actors, I do try to see real people in my mind's eye, most often totally fictional, but nevertheless real--as people often appear in my dreams. I'm talking here about actual physical appearance--height, weight, hair and eye color, skin tone, posture, grooming, attractiveness, sex appeal, degree of ruggedness or refinement, clothes choices, and so on. 

     Here’s a simple exercise that might help open the floodgates.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Developing great characters, Part 3 – physical characteristics

            Continuing with this series of posts on character development and exploration, I’m going to walk you through the various aspects of what I call the short-form biography, beginning with your characters’ physical characteristics. I acknowledge a debt here to Lajos Egri who first presented this basic approach in his all-time best-selling book The Art of Dramatic Writing, first published way back in 1941 (and still in print).  The short-form biography is adapted from and an expansion of the three-part character breakdown Egri calls "the bone structure" of character.

     I should also mention upfront that as we take a closer look at the various elements making up the short-form bio, keep in mind this early character work is just that:  a starting point.  As you explore your people more fully and get to know them intimately, these initial sketches will most likely have to be adjusted to fit the fuller personalities you uncover.  And as your idea is developed and refined, your people may very well have to change to fit into what your script is becoming.  For now, however, the important thing is to get the exploration started.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Developing great characters, Part 2 – the short-form biography

     Here’s the second installment in a series of posts I’m doing on character development/exploration:

Once you’ve formulated a workable idea for a script—a framework for your story, a point of reference, a strategy for the tale’s telling—it’s time to expand it into a bigger and richer dramatic field, to dig deeper into the possibilities you've sketched out and discover what you really have to work with.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Developing great characters: the heart of scriptwriting, Part I

     One of the most critical phases in the writing of a first-class script is the upfront character exploration work that is done before a draft is tackled. Different writers approach this in different ways.  Some do extensive work and others very little if any at all.  In my next several blog posts I’m going to lay out an approach I’ve developed in my own writing and that I’ve “field tested” and refined with hundreds of scriptwriting students and clients over the years.

     So, starting at the beginning:

     What’s in a name?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Locations and your script

     It goes without saying that as a screenwriter works away in isolation on a project it’s important to give serious thought to the locations where scenes are set. Imaginative and unusual settings can help raise the stakes in a story and at times can even play a significant role in moving the story’s plot forward. But it’s also worthwhile to keep in mind that once a script is greenlit and pre-production gears up, those carefully considered locations in the screenplay may very well be drastically altered as location scouting for the production commences and new and exciting possibilities start presenting themselves.

     This is exactly what happened on our feature The Sensation of Sight. The movie was set entirely in a small New England town.  Once we located the town where we wanted to shoot the film (Peterborough, NH), we set about looking for locations that would work for us.  Our locations manager Nick Koloski, writer/director Aaron Wiederspahn, and DP Christophe Lanzenberg spent many days investigating various possible settings for scenes and they found some wonderful surprises.  In fact, a number of the key scenes in the film were shot on locations that didn’t exist in the script—locations that actually demanded that the script be altered to include them. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The script as a means to an end

     Last week I sat on a scriptwriting panel at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.  The focus was on the process of writing a screenplay and there was a lot of lively give and take among the panelists and with our audience.  Many interesting and useful points were discussed and I think everyone in attendance left with ample food for thought. 

     However, as the two-hour session progressed and the discussion got ever deeper into the screenwriting process, one overriding thought began to nag at me.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Developing a script that’s “ready”: What it takes

            A pattern has emerged for the projects my production company is interested in putting into development. Not that what we do is any different than most other producers.  But I thought it would be interesting to detail the process our current top-listed project has gone through in terms of script development.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Submitting your script: Is it ready?

The degree to which a script has to be truly ready before submitting to producers and agents was brought home to me several years ago in a rather vivid and unforgettable way. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Patience and perspective in script development

     There’s been a lot written about the development process that the vast majority of scripts go through before they’re finally made into films or produced on the stage.  What comes through loud and clear from these accounts is that rarely is this a solo experience with the writer working alone through a number of drafts. More likely it’s an arduous undertaking involving many professionals giving input and taking up to a year or more of work.

But what’s the point of it all?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Designing story: a script consulting experience, part III

My last two blog posts have attempted to lay out a recent day-long script consulting experience I had with a client where we worked through his story scene by scene and engineered a solid structural framework.  Here’s how the session concluded: 

By the end of the day (actually it was relatively late that night), we were exhausted, but we had on the table four dozen cards divided into three distinct acts that represented a definite structural roadmap for a story that excited us.  We sensed that the script based on this outline would really deliver the goods and make the kind of statement that the writer wanted to make.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Designing story: a script consulting experience, part II

    My last post introduced a day-long script consulting session I recently had with a client.  Here is how it unfolded:

    Basically what we spent the day doing was a very hands-on working through of the story scene by scene and crafting a structure that would fit into the basic three act framework.  I started by writing “Act I” on a card, then “Act II” on another, and “Act III” on a third and placing them on the table, a couple of feet apart.  This gave us from the start a simple structural design to build on—dividing the story into these three time-honored parts of setup, struggle, and solution.  (I’ve posted several blogs on these structural story components—see, for example this one from last month.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Designing story: a script consulting experience, part I

    A couple of weeks ago I invited a script client of mine to my mountaintop home in New Hampshire to do some intensive work on a promising project he’d been developing. We’d been working on it over the phone and via email for some time and we both agreed that it would be optimal if the two of us could actually grapple with the script together in person and hopefully pin it to the mat once and for all.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Is 3-act story structure passe...?

     There’s been a lot written online lately about the 3-act story structure model for scripts and why it works or should be avoided.  See, for example, John Truby's article and comments on the UK's Raindance website.

     It seems to me, however, that the real issue here is simply a matter of semantics.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dealing only with closed chapters

     My last post (“The risk of self exposure”) made the case for mining your own life experiences and inner emotional life when looking for potent story ideas. But I ended with stating there’s one cautionary note you should keep in mind.  Here it is:  As possible ideas start presenting themselves, be sure the specific experiences or episodes you're drawing on from your own life are truly in the past and not issues you're still right in the middle of emotionally.
     Several years ago I made this mistake.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The risk of self-exposure

     Here’s another basic principle of the craft that writers early in their careers often have trouble putting their arms around. Simply put, if you're going to write meaningful, gripping scripts, you have to make available your inner, private secrets and not be afraid to deal with them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The myth of recognition

     One consistent issue beginning writers have with modeling characters on people close to them is their fear that their models will recognize themselves in the finished script and not be happy. Because of this fear, they often tend to stay clear of any idea drawn from their own lives which would automatically involve characters based on real people.  They don't want to offend or upset anyone.  They're unwilling to risk the possibility that a friend or family member might see an unflattering portrayal of a character obviously based on them.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott weigh in on "slow and boring" films

     I came across this article in the New York Times the other day by the paper's two top movie critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott in which they discuss that there's a place for films that go beyond supplying mere entertainment.  If you haven't already seen it, it's well worth a read and definitely food for thought.  It has undoubtedly hit a nerve as there are 186 comments as of today.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The writer's paradox

     Lately, I’ve had some interesting discussions with clients about the very early stages of the writing process and those critical private deliberations every writer must have when deciding whether or not to seriously pursue a new story idea. One very simple and basic principle that keeps coming up I think is worth sharing, something that all writers might need to be reminded of from time to time.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Filmmakers Notebook interview

I wanted to share with you my current two-part interview in Filmmakers Notebook.  It covers more of my production company's producing work--especially our first feature The Sensation of Sight and what we're working on now.  But it's all part of the same game.  And Filmmakers Notebook is a great site.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The negative and positive premise

     If you've been following this series of posts on premise, I hope you're starting to get a sense of why it's important to add this tool to your toolbox.  Here's yet another consideration.

     There are basically two kinds of workable dramatic premises. The first conveys a lesson by showing the negative consequences of a certain mode of behavior or action.  It leaves the audience wiser about what not to do if they want to avoid the central character's fate:  ruthless ambition leads to destruction, jealousy leads to ruin, suspicion leads to disaster, chasing after worldly success leads to disillusionment.  A good number of classic plays and films contain this type of premise.  The best of them are enormously powerful and have the potential to affect audiences profoundly.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Scriptwriting retreat in New Hampshire...?

           I wanted to put a bug in your ear about an interesting possibility.  Recently I’ve been approached by a couple of potential scriptwriting clients about the idea of coming up to my farm in New Hampshire for an intensive script consultation with me on a project of theirs.  We’re talking about a period of time ranging from a weekend to a couple of weeks.

I love the idea (obviously on a limited basis) because this in-person work is a very productive way to really dig into a script and make enormous progress in a relatively short period.  I’ve done this numerous times with writers at playwright/screenwriter conferences around the country, but never at my own place in the hills of southwest NH.  At least not with scriptwriting clients.  I’ve held many script pow wows here with my own producing teams on our film company’s projects, but this will be the first time I’m actually opening up this possibility to my writer clients.

My rambling spread is in the hills of Stoddard, NH in the heart of northern New England.  We’re on a high ridge overlooking the famous Mt. Monadnock to the south.  From our big front porch (where we’ve conducted countless script and production meetings) we overlook the Green Mountains in Vermont 60-70 miles away to the west.

 We have a private beach on Granite Lake just down the road and our property borders on 15,000 acres of forest preserve.  Suffice it to say, it’s conducive to the creative spirit and to harnessing that special energy that comes with it.  An added bonus is that I might be able to pull in my producing partner, writer/director Aaron J. Wiederspahn, to join us on the porch for a session or two, especially if we’re discussing a pertinent film we’ve just screened together. 

I’ve investigated several possible housing arrangements and there are ample opportunities to rent a place nearby for a short-term stay.  This is a major laid-back summer vacation region, so finding a B&B or other accommodations is very doable.  Prices run the gamut.  

Just thought I’d throw this out there, seeing I have clients already suggesting it.  Let me know if you’d be interested in discussing the possibility further.  Best way to reach me directly is at or contact me through my website at  Could be a fun way to get a lot of good work done on your project in a very short period of time.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

More thoughts on premise...

            In all my years working with playwrights and screenwriters, the one thing that’s helped the most in getting to the heart of a script’s problems is focusing in on what the writer really wants to say.  Without a clear sense of where you want to land with your story it’s almost impossible to proceed in figuring out how to put it together or rearrange it so it will arrive there.  Successful invention happens because the inventor has a passion for creating a specific thing that, once made, functions in a specific way.  It’s no different with a successful script.  This is why giving some serious thought to your dramatic premise early in your writing process is worth the effort.  

            Here are some further tips to keep in mind as you work at formulating your premise.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Why think about your premise early on?

     There’s a somewhat silly argument swirling around out there about the importance of thinking about what you’re trying to say with your piece as you start developing a new story idea.  Silly because it’s obvious that there’s an interrelatedness between theme and structure.  That it’s important early on in the development of any story idea to attempt to come up with—as accurately and as simply and clearly as possible—the universal truth you think you ultimately want to communicate.  In scriptwriting this is generally referred to as the dramatic premise.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's all in the story

Recently there’s been a lively discussion on my production company’s Facebook page about the scriptwriting process and the order in which writers should learn the elements of the craft. 


Of course, the difficulty in learning the skills necessary to write a good play or screenplay is determining where to start.  All the basics are important.   However, towering over everything else is the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.  It all starts here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

One-day Scriptwriting Workshop

I’m offering a special workshop on Saturday, May 21 in Keene, New Hampshire.  Here’s the basic information: 


                  WITH BUZZ McLAUGHLIN

An intensive and lively one-day scriptwriting workshop for playwrights and screenwriters that will take participants through the A to Z process of writing a play or screenplay:
·        laying down the basics and formulating your dramatic idea
·        In-depth character exploration
·        Analyzing and charting out dramatic structure
·        Format and techniques of good dialogue
·        Writing the first draft and beyond
Utilizing numerous exercises and handouts to guide you through the writing process as it unfolds, the day is designed for both beginners and more experienced writers looking for a solid review of the basics. 

WHEN:  SATURDAY, MAY 21, 2011  10am - 5pm
               (with 1 hour lunch break in downtown Keene)

                 7 MAIN STREET, KEENE, NH
                 #11, THIRD FLOOR

COST:  $125

TO REGISTER:  CALL 603-313-4872
                           or email 

Join us if you can! 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

those hidden I-beams

     I’m amazed when I hear of writers who say they don’t draw up a structural framework before plunging into writing a first draft.  More power to them, but I don’t know how they do it.  And I privately wonder how many hundreds (or thousands)of pages of exploration they have staggered through to come up with their workable draft.  I believe (as do most folks working in this business of writing plays and screenplays)that drawing up a set of plans or charting out a road map before the actual writing begins is a much more beneficial, efficient and practical approach and I can think of no better way to get a grasp of the importance of this than to look at the process involved in constructing a large building...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Why another blog on scriptwriting...?

I decided to start this blog to share some of what I have learned about scriptwriting over the past three plus decades.  My career runs the gamut from independent film producer to playwright to screenwriter to artistic director of a professional theatre, to author of a popular book on playwriting, to scriptwriting workshop leader, to university professor of playwriting, to script consulting.

Through these various facets of my career (most running simultaneously) I’ve learned a few things about how to put a play or screenplay together and how a writer in the entertainment business can best maneuver the often turbulent and tricky waters of creating a brilliant script and then see it get produced in a beautiful and professional way.  So now I figure, as Neil Young hints at in one of my favorite songs ("Tell Me Why"), I’ve reached a point when I’m “old enough to repay” but still “young enough to sell.”