On Scene Structure

September 25, 2009

I refer to these quotations from my favorite writer quotes collection for inspiration and direction when creating or planning scenes for a screenplay.


“Every scene in a book or script should do two things. First, It should progress the story. The test is, if the scene is removed does it leave a hole in the plot? Second, the scene should simultaneously advance the character relationships.” (Stephen J. Cannell)

(on creating narrative drive) “The end of a scene should include a clear pointer as to what the next scene is going to be.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“In screenwriting, where you enter the scene becomes important, and the general rule is to enter late and get out early.” (Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays). He advises designing the scene so that you “enter at the last possible moment, just before the purpose of the scene is established. Then end the scene literally before it is ended,” so as to create a narrative tension, drawing the viewer into the next scene.

“The opening scenes should create an identification between audience and hero – a sense that they are equals in some ways … by giving heroes universal goals, drives, desires, or needs.” (Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers )

“If you don’t know whether to write a scene or not, write the scene.” (Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays , regarding those moments where you are not sure whether to trust that the audience will “get it” or whether you need to come right out and say/show something to make sure they get it)

(On the subject of Narrative Drive) “The end of a scene should include a clear pointer as to what the next scene is going to be.”
(British film director Alexander Mackendrick)

“Particularly in a screenplay or teleplay, it is important to write economically. A great scene often accomplishes several things at once, skillfully weaving together elements of plot, character, conflict and foreshadowing. Do it in one scene instead of four. Look for opportunities of compression without overloading. After you write your scene or chapter, go back and ask yourself: What can I cut to make it cleaner and clearer?”
Writer and lecturer Stephen J. Cannell

Quotations on Screenplay Structure

September 22, 2009

This is the first post in a series of my favorite quotes that I refer to for inspiration or insight while I’m creating a story. Post topic: quotations on screenplay strucure.


Before you can write one word of the screenplay, you must know your structure: The ending, beginning, plot point I, and plot point II. The screenwriter builds his or her story around these four elements.”
Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

The three-act structure is intrinsic to the human brain’s model of the world; it matches a blueprint that is hard-wired in the human brain, which is constantly attempting to rationalize the world and resolve it into patterns. It is therefore an inevitable property of almost any successful drama, whether the writer is aware of it or not.”
(Edoardo Nolfo)

(Alexander Mackendrick)

In every film that’s worth its salt, there’s the text, and there’s the subtext. And the subtext of this film [French Connection II] is alienation. The language and the culture worked against Gene’s character.”
(John Frankenheimer, director of French Connection II)

The first 10 pages of any screenplay are the most important. Almost everything you need to know about the movie is found in these first 10 pages. When the screenwriter sets up the first 10 pages of the screenplay, the reader must know immediately what’s going on.” 
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“There could be as many as nine or 10 plot points during a screenplay. But the two most important come at the end of act one and at the end of act two. They are the anchors of your storyline, the stitches that hold everything together.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

Screenplays come in three sizes: LONG, TOO LONG and MUCH TOO LONG.” 
(Alexander Mackendrick)

“A screenplay is a living thing, and each piece, even though separate and complete, is a part of the whole. Structure, remember, is the relationship between the parts and the whole.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

Passivity is a capital crime in drama.
(Alexander Mackendrick)

“There could be as many as nine or 10 plot points during a screenplay. But the two most important come at the end of act one and at the end of act two. They are the anchors of your storyline, the stitches that hold everything together.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“Anything on screen that is superfluous to the forward motion of the story is absolute torture to the audience…. If you want to verify that, just watch some movies that are like that and it really drives it home with a sledgehammer. If you have information on the screen that doesn’t move the story forward, you are taking moments away from people’s lives.”
Screenwriter Callie Khoury

“Good screenwriting is the art of discovery.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“A plot point does not have to be a dramatic moment, or major scene, or sequence. A plot point can be a quiet moment for an exciting action sequence. The plot point is whatever you choose it to be … But it is always an incident, episode, or event that is dictated by the needs of the story.”
(Syd Field, from chapter 6 of his book Four Screenplays)

Dramatic irony is … where we, the audience, are aware of circumstances of which one or more of the onstage characters are ignorant and are thus kept in a state of expectation mingled with uncertainty.”
(Alexander Mackendrick from a ScriptWriter Magazine interview)

“The Plot Point at the end of Act I is always the true beginning of your screenplay. Acts I sets up the story components. Then, the screenwriter has to establish the dramatic need and create obstacles to that need; the story becomes the main character overcoming the obstacle after obstacle to achieve his or her dramatic need.”
(Syd Field, from chapter 6 of his book Four Screenplays)

“Act II is a unit of action that is held together with the dramatic context of Confrontation. Your character will confront obstacle after obstacle after obstacle to achieve his or her dramatic need.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“The Midpoint, that link in the chain of dramatic action that connects the first half of Act II with the second half of Act II, is what moves the action forward and creates a new dramatic subtext.”
(Syd Field, from chapter 6 of his book Four Screenplays)

“I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can, for a good and greedy reason — I want the executives, who read them and who have the power to greenlight a flick, to say, ‘Hey, I can make money out of this.'” 
(William Goldman from his book Four Screenplays with Essays

“Be certain that the hurdles get bigger and come closer together, accelerating the pace of your story, as your story moves forward.”
(Michael Hauge, author and Hollywood script consultant)

All stories are about transformation.  In every story a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.”
(Blake Snyder, screenwriter and screenwriting instructor/consultant, author of Save the Cat!)

Now, It Really Is Chaos

September 18, 2009

Strange day… I made much progress on the step outline.

Yep, that’s the strange part.

Since I am moving out  in less than two weeks (the end of my lease), the work of preparing for that move has recently crowded its way into my story development time. While I make it a daily habit to always achieve some measure of progress on the screenplay, they have been token advances for the last several days.

But today was different…

Somehow, in the midst of all my packing, apartment hunting, and handling a couple of freelance client needs, I managed to squeeze in a good three hours of screenwriting, in fact making great advances on the step outline.

When I’m working on the outline, I’m normally referring frequently to the story conceptualization board on the wall with its carefully arranged note cards, laid out chronologically along the story timeline, grouped step by step.


But, like I said, today was different

In this earlier post, I spoke against the possible perception that all these notes on the board were chaos. But today, the board really is chaos, as you can see:


If you look closely, you can still barely make out the chronological note card arrangement half-buried amidst all the other junk.

What the… what happened?!

I blame it on the move preparation. To make sure I get my full security deposit back, I’m cleaning off anything I have on the walls (with the conceptualization board being the only remaining exception) so I can patch up holes with speckling paste and touch up with paint if necessary.

So, I’ve temporarily made this board the waiting room for anything that I had on the walls around my office but didn’t want to pack away yet. 

So, yeah, it’s chaos, just as it appears to be.

“But only temporarily,” he insisted defensively.

MOG3 Chicken Came BEFORE This Egg

September 17, 2009

Frankly, the politics of Trinidad & Tobago doesn’t get much coverage in the LA Times. So imagine my surprise when this little article from page eleventy-something in last Sunday’s LA Times caught my eye.

First, it surprised me because the US press in generalimage, and the West Coast of it in particular, doesn’t give Caribbean politics much play. Second, the Abu Bakr coup attempt at the heart of this story took place 19 years ago … but coincidentally was a topic in this MoG-blog post just a few days ago.

Third – the real kicker – this allegation against the prime minister is remarkably similar to one of the planned MOG3 story subplots!

Is that a bad thing?

No … and yes.

It’s a good thing in that this real-world story validates the potential reality of scenarios and characters we’ll be presenting in the Men of Gray III story – which includes fictional political elites who are “on the take” – supporting criminal operatives.

But this news out of Trinidad & Tobago closely resembles some of the fabricated drama that G. and I concocted for MOG3 back in December of 2008. So closely that, when this movie finally is made and released, it will look to many as though we got certain storyline ideas from the real-world drama that will be the unfolding  over the next few weeks or months: this investigation into Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s possible involvement with Yasin Abu Bakr.

So, for the record…

We crafted the storyline for Men of Gray III – The Midnight Robber long before the Patrick Manning allegations surfaced, and any similarities to his story are purely coincidental. Albeit mighty remarkable. 

Pivotal Scene Fully Structured

September 17, 2009

I finally hit a breakthrough today on how to plant Joe’s seeds of doubt in the team member who is ultimately revealed as a Judas. I think it will work well. 

The trick to making this first act moment work is that Joe needs to figure out that this purportedly loyal team member cannot be trusted but before we do, so that his intuition and skill revealed to us the truth later in the story in such a way that we are surprised by the revelation but not incredulous; so that we see that the clues were there all along (so that we can buy in to the resolution) but not easily pieced together without the extraordinary sleuthing skills of a man like Joe.

And, by Jove, I think I’ve got it.

I’d love to give more details right now, but (A.) It would be a plot spoiler and (B.) I’m beat. As in “tired,” not as in beaten. Between wrestling this dramaturgical construct into submission and packing up the house for my impending move (on the 30th), I am done, adjourning this day and retiring to the companionship of my feather pillow.

More on Horace James

September 15, 2009

In this earlier post, I mentioned my enjoyment over finding five seconds of behind-the-scenes footage on Actor-Director-Producer-Mentor Horace James. In tribute to his influence with the original Men of Gray movie and its sequel Flight of the Ibis, here is more information and a few links for those who knew him or appreciated his work.

In Men of Gray II – Flight of the Ibis

In the sequel to Men of Gray, Horace was involved once again, but as an actor this time. Here’s a shot from Ibis, in which he portrayed a high-ranking government official, making deals with the country’s top drug lord Russo, played by Paul Tuerpe.


This was, I think, his last dramatic role. But it was hardly his first. You can get the full picture of his film acting credits (as well as his other roles as Writer, Producer, and Director) from his filmography on IMDB. It unfortunately doesn’t list his stage credits.

His life….

Horace James was honored by the National Drama Association (NDATT) in 1988 with the Cacique Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to drama.

To read more on his life story, here’s an enjoyable biographical article about Horace when he was 69 and one week shy of a heart surgery (not his first).

His death…

The aforementioned article includes a prophetic quote from Horace about his longevity; “If I could make 70, is all right. That is what you supposed to make: three score and ten.”

He indeed died at the age of 70.

For details on that, here’s a moving and informative obituary published upon his death in June, 2000. Not many of us can say this, but there’s even a song dedicated to him by Paul Keens-Douglas. You can hear a snippet at this link, or download the whole song.

Historical footnote

But not all of Horace James’ drama happened on stage or on camera; a Wikipedia article mentions Horace as one of the hostages in the July, 2000 Jamaat al Muslimeen coup attempt against the government of Trinidad and Tobago. Side note: I just barely missed the risk of also being a victim in that coup attempt, as the terrorists took over the TTT television station where I was stationed day and night until about 10 days before before the attack, editing Men of Gray.

I remember Horace as a Trinidadian Benjamin Franklin of sorts. He was charming, usually smiling, always influencing, and yet rarely in the fore. 

If anyone else has remembrances of Horace James they’d like to share, please do so.

I’m in Director Heaven!

September 11, 2009

I can’t believe it … I’m astounded, amazed, and overjoyed. You aren’t going to believe what I just found…

I’ve been going through a couple boxes of old family videos this week, finally getting around to transferring them from VHS to the computer and to DVDs (hopefully before they had begun to deteriorate!). I had not watched them in years and years.

Then, much to my surprise…

Right in the middle of a family tape from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I discovered a treasure trove of video from the 1990 Men of Gray movie’s production that G. and I shot in Trinidad – stuff that we both assumed was no longer in existence!

First, a cool find, but not “director heaven” …

I found a TV interview for national television that we did during production. We were being interviewed on TTT (Trinidad & Tobago Television) — the country’s only imagestation at the time.

The show was called Community Dateline. I don’t recall the name of the show’s host, so please shout it out if you know.  

Being interviewed was me (Ric Moxley – as director, editor, and co-writer), the movie’s producer-writer-actor G. Anthony Joseph, and Corbi Hilburn, who DP’d the first half of the movie. image

There’s some fun stuff here, including a couple clips from the movie, behind the scenes stories, and more.

I may put some of this up on YouTube, so you can see it too.

Now, the part that puts me in director heaven:

What played on the tape after that interview was the real gold: several pieces of the raw footage (i.e., straight from the camera, outtakes and all) from the production. This is incredible.  We thought that the original footage was history – completely lost.  But there it is, in bits and pieces, unfortunately, but there it is. 

Sadly, some of it has been recorded over with family movie clips, like, “…And here we are in our new Sherman Oaks apartment with our newborn daughter” (who, by the way, just graduated high school this year, which really puts the historicity of this footage in perspective). But I never would have guessed that any of that raw footage would have survived.

One of the reasons I’m excited…

…is that, since the movie was mastered on 3/4 inch tape, and because all the editing was done during the pre-digital age (which means that even a master copy of the edited movie is a copy of a copy of a copy), any VHS copy I have of the edited movie suffers from some quality degeneration. So, to have come across segments of the original, unedited raw footage from production is a kind of goldmine for me.

I didn’t find enough of it in this discovery to ever re-cut the movie, which is what I would like to do someday. But there is some good material there, including behind the scenes pieces and (what we thought was) off-camera banter, plus some worthwhile things we shot but that didn’t make the final cut.

Among this raw footage discovery:

  • A lot of “B-role” material we shot while driving through the downtown Port-of-Spain city streets, capturing traffic, crowded sidewalks, police officers in action, famous landmark drive-bys, etc. – stuff I needed  for cutaways and montages, etc.
  • All the footage (takes and outtakes) from the Lavantille interior and exterior drug bust scene that we did with one of the Gopaul brothers (Dale, I think) and Julien.
  • Several day and night exterior and interior car scenes between the characters Joe Cameron and his partner Ivan.
  • In-progress police training at the St. James barracks, used for cutaways and transitions, shown here. 

Police recruit training at St. James barracks

  • A street drug deal scene, and Joe following a dealer on foot
  • Chaguaramas sunset driving shots (for following thug Louie to the home of big-time dealer Marcus, where Joe and Ivan bus’ up d place.

I think there’s about an hour’s worth of production footage altogether. Who knows? Maybe we’ll do something with all this someday. Like cut together a behind the scenes clip or two.

As a bonus, it turns out that we had in this treasure trove of once-lost footage…

About five seconds of Horace…

Horace James. Wow. God rest his soul. 

At the time (1990), Horace was the a head show producer at TTT and was instrumental in the success of this movie.  First, while he wasn’t directly a part of the crew, Horace was a mentor to me and G., teaching us about theimage business of doing business in Trinidad & Tobago, which is a bit of an art.  Second, he was a kindred spirit, feeling our pain and compassionately helping us through the trials and tribulations of making a movie. Third, he contributed pragmatically, being our primary liaison with the TV station, who sponsored much of the production and provided most of our production and post-production equipment.

Horace’s office, which is where I shot this tiny snippet of video, even became our production office during production.

Sadly, Horace James is no longer with us (nor is TTT). I sure do miss him. One of the good guys. And so, while It ain’t much, I’m glad to have uncovered the small bit of production office footage.