Quotes for Writers on Narrative and Storytelling

October 22, 2009

This category of quotations from my favorite writers quotes collection is about the bigger picture of storytelling– the theme, tone, motive, intent, pacing. A lot of good advice.


“We all want the movies we write to get made. And that’s only going to happen if someone likes the script. Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend. It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.”
(William Goldman, from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)

“Movies are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily only about story.”
(William Goldman, from the introduction in his book Five Screenplays with Essays)

“What is happening now is apt to be less dramatically interesting than what may or may not happen next.”
(Alexander Mackendrick)

“All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no character; without character you have no action. Without action, you have no story, and without story, you have no screenplay.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“Good screenwriting plays against the grain, plays against the obvious, plays against the way you would expect things to happen.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“In art, the obvious is a sin.”
(Edward Dmytryk)

Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.” 
(Rod Serling)

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” (William Arthur Ward) Substitute the word “teacher” with “writer” and you have a powerful, relevent piece of advice for the screenwriter.

“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)

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” (Stephen King)

Characters & Characterization

October 10, 2009

These are some of my favorite quotations for fiction writers on creating, developing, and unveiling great story characters. On other topics, see more quotations for writers here.


“Good screenwriting allows the main character to discover what’s going on at the same time as the audience discovers what’s going on. Character and audience are connected by the community of emotion.”
(Syd Field, from chapter 12 of his book Four Screenplays)

“At the end of a movie (or any good narrative) ask yourself, How did the main character change? What did she want or need at first, how did she go about getting it, and what did she finally achieve or discover? What did that character learn? Usually there is an obvious answer that hides some more problematic issues: the action plot may be over, but a new plot is just beginning.”
(Stephen J. Cannell)

A character in isolation is hard to make dramatic. Drama usually involves conflict. If the conflict is internal, then the dramatist needs to personify it through the clash with other individuals.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“Self pity in a character does not evoke sympathy.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“It is desirable that all characters, even those only shown briefly shown, be presented as whole human beings. Any character worth keeping is worth developing.”
(Author and Film director Edward Dmytryk from his book On Screen Directing).

Beware of sympathy between characters. That is the END of “drama.”
(Film director Alexander Mackendrick from his book On Film-Making)

“A good film is behavior. In the language of screenwriting, action is character. What a person does is what he is. How the characters respond, what they do, what they say, how they act or react in a particular situation are what really define their character.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“What I’ll do is go out in the backyard in the morning, and just sit there and try to open myself up and let the characters come to me; let them talk to me. So much of writing is about getting quiet enough so you can hear your characters talking. Sometimes I feel they choose you because they know you’re listening. You just have to shut up and listen.”
Screenwriter Callie Khoury

“When you have two characters equally sharing the role of protagonist, their combined personalities become a single entity — the yin and yang… two halves that complete each other.” He uses Thelma and Louise as an example of this.
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

Obstacles must confront your hero throughout your screenplay”
(Michael Hauge, author and Hollywood script consultant)

“When the screenwriter stares into that 60 page unit of dramatic action that makes up Act II, it’s important to remain focused on the dramatic need of the character. It establishes the foundation of the conflict that pushes the action forward through Act II and will provide a context for the Confrontation.”
(Syd Field, from chapter 12 of his book Four Screenplays)

“Stories are driven by desire; Your hero’s goals and objectives determine the story concept, plot, and structure.”
(Michael Hauge, author and Hollywood script consultant)

“In every film that’s worth its salt, there’s the text, and there’s the subtext. And the subtext of this film is alienation. The language and the culture worked against Gene’s character.” John Frankenheimer, Director talking about the lead character in French Connection II played by Gene Hackman)

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!)

Screenplays Are Structure

August 13, 2009

[Note: If you read this blog because of your interest in Liberty in the Fires (aka Men of Gray III), be advised that this entry deals primarily with the process of screenwriting, not the movie project]

If you’ve ever written fiction for any other kind of story form, you may be wondering if all of this effort I’m going through to “structure” the screenplay is necessary. 

To this, I would ask, is it necessary to change the oil in your car every 4,000 miles? Is it necessary to stretch your muscles before going for a run? Is it necessary to stop and smell the roses along the way?

Of course, none of these things is “necessary.” But they are all considered wise.

Likewise, writing a screenplay with careful attention to its dramaturgical structure from the get-go is a good idea, even if it’s not necessary. This is perhaps more the case with screenwriting than other forms of writing because…

Screenplays are unique

At first blush, screenplays and novels may appear very similar. But actually the novel is a much more flexible narrative form, both in structural design and overall length. For two of those reasons in particular, careful thought to the structural elements is essential to the success of the screenplay.

  • First, other forms are more structurally forgiving
    The percentage of successful novels that ignore the fundamental theories of the narrative form is considerably higher than the percentage of successful movies that have broken from standard dramaturgical constructs. By comparison, nearly every movie that has done well at the box office conforms to certain dramaturgical standards (three acts, built around a primary conflict, ending with a resolution of the conflict, adhering to the genre expectations, and so forth).
  • Second, the screenplay is rigidly constricted by length
    When writing a novel, there really is no set length requirements. If you can tell your whole story in 100 pages that’s okay. If you need 500 pages to tell it, that might be okay also. However, go to a Blockbuster store and browse through the new releases, noting the duration of each movie. I would be shocked if you find one that is less than 88 minutes or more than 130 minutes.There’s a good half dozen reasons as to why this is, but the point is that any story idea, no matter how great, must be structured by the screenwriter so that it conforms to the standard movie length, playing out at no less than 90 minutes and no more than 120 minutes.  Following the standard screenplay format, that means 90 to 120 pages.

Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the screenplay compared to other literary forms is that it isn’t written to be read by the consumer; it’s a blueprint for building a movie. Because of this, it’s generally accepted that…

Screenplays are structure

When I say that screenplays are structure, I’m quoting famed screenwriter and novelist William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, Heat, The Princess Bride…). Most other screenwriters concur. Rather than belabor the point — you’re welcome to do your own research on it (I’ve provided some links at the end of this blog entry to get you started) — just know that my reasons for carefully planning the structure of the screenplay are based on my personal experience and on this premise that a good screenplay is built on a solid, familiar structure.

In his book Screenwriting 434, Lew Hunter explains that, while “in life, things happen one after the other,   in structure [i.e., the structured writing of a screenplay] one thing happens because of the other.”  In other words, the screenwriter structures the sequential “happenings” to propel the story forward. Renowned author Syd Field states that “Structure is the most important element in the screenplay.  It is the force that holds everything together; it is the skeleton, the spine, the foundation.”  So, when it comes to the process of structuring, does this necessarily mean that…

It’s my way or the highway?

No. It’s my personal experience that the structural exercises I’ve been describing, and that I’m about to move through, are a valuable time investment in the development of a screenplay.

If these methods don’t work for you, that’s fine. Perhaps you have one of those rare minds that can juggle dozens of concepts simultaneously over a period of days or weeks without losing track of each individual bit. And perhaps you’ve got a gift for maintaining a visual map in your mind that allows you to objectively see how those individual component pieces that make up each of those story concepts can or should complement one another, and thereby analyze their relative importance to the story — all while enveloping your most creative mental processes on breathing life the poetic beauty of the story’s telling.

If your brain works in that rare and fortune away, you can probably just sit down and start typing. But if your mind is more like mine, you may get value in using these structural mapping processes that I employ in your own writing. The process creates a physical representation of the story elements that you can see with your eyes, touch with your fingers, and refer to while you write.

Even a fairly simple screenplay will inevitably have many secondary themes or subplots or supporting character developments that weave their way as story threads through the fabric of the screenplay. Without a good mental map of your story, it’s easy to end up with incomplete story threads that will annoy the moviegoer. Worse, you may lose the balance of the story, getting lost on the trail of an interesting subplot within the universe of your story. It’s hard enough to keep the story to 100 pages even when you have a razor-sharp focus on the needs of your main storyline. Losing yourself in something off the beaten track muddies your narrative and forces you to either completely restructure the story, or delete much of what you’ve just written because it was ultimately unnecessary. So, when writing a screenplay, it’s helpful to remember that…

Screenwriting is both a subjective and objective process

If you enjoy the process of writing fiction, you most likely find it addictively engrossing and necessarily subjective. How then can you keep one hand on the wheel of the story’s structural requirements while you are purposely submersed deep within the scene and within the minds of the characters you are creating?

That’s the trick, you see. To be a successful screenwriter, you need to be both subjective and objective as you create your story. Writing fiction is a naturally subjective process. Conforming that creative process to the time-boxed and convention-laden strictures of the screenplay requires that you never lose your objectivity even as you delve into the creative, subjective process of writing.

For this reason, I recommend that you try it before you knock it; if you want to write a screenplay, try using the visual mapping processes I’m describing in this blog, particularly if you haven’t yet successfully written a complete screenplay or if you have written one but were not happy with the result.

Researching Screenplay Structure

If you want to learn more about the structural standards of screenwriting, these links may help: