How To's | Screenwriting

Screenwriting: The Hero’s Journey in Seven Sequences

1 Sep , 1998  

Written by M.M. Goldstein | Posted by:

Former Boston (now LA) Screenwriter M. M. Goldstein shares his thoughts on life as a screenwriter and his spin on the secrets of screenwriting.

To err is human, but to really screw things up requires a computer, and that’s about as much as I can say right now about our continuing negotiations and renegotiations with the studio (to be named later) about a movie (whose name I dare not utter) on which hinges more things than can be contemplated in your philosophy, or even mine.

Which leaves one in something of a quandary. Namely, what does one write about when one can’t write about what is overwhelmingly important in one’s life? Ruben’s personal life is one thought, but he doesn’t have one; it’s on hold, until victory is won. My personal life has actually started to exist, but as omniscient narrator, I consider it bad form to dwell on the strictly personal. Besides, artistically transmuted, it will inevitably re-appear in some future creative endeavor. But for now, Letter-wise, both deals and dames are non-starters.

Which cogitations have led me to the actual factual subject of this month’s Letter, namely, writing. "Write the script," said Marty Baum, and so we are. And while I can’t even discuss the subject matter of said script, since it would be most foolish to reveal details of such a project in such an early stage of development, I can present the process of creating it, a process which, not coincidentally, requires holding in cloistered abeyance all those above-mentioned issues of work and love. Besides it’s the best way to turn the necessity of waiting into the virtue of creating.

"Each story is a new problem," I recently wrote. "A puzzle made up of variables and unknowns, which include what you want to say, how you want to say it, whom you want to say it to, and what resources you bring to the task. Good writing requires the insight of Freud, the passion of Marx (either one), the Wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job."

All right, it was a sales pitch, excerpted from my instructor’s statement in the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program where, ahem, I teach a screenwriting course online. Nonetheless, it’s true.

To write a script you have to figure out what kind of movie you’re writing, including the genre and tone, the probable audience, and the possible scope and scale of the production of the movie – "all before you even start writing the script."

This is an act both of creative imagination and cold, hard, rational calculation. It’s a whole brain task. Those who are creative and imaginative, but lack the intellectual discipline for the task, will not succeed as well or as often, as those who have both. It’s like music, poetry and mathematics combined to make a magical unified whole. It’s not as easy as it seems.

For our project, we began by putting all these questions on the table to see how many we’d answered, and how well. We decided that the movie is targeted for a large general audience – what in the old days we used to call "the family audience."

This is a "G" or "PG" audience, an audience that consist of young children going with their parents, young teenagers going alone, the key 18-25 young adult demographic that is needed to open a film big (they are the most frequent movie-goers: the "date audience," the "college kids," and young working movie buffs), and the adult audience, (meaning everyone else men and women, singles or couples, with or without kids).

This is a great audience to reach because it’s so big; but it’s also a very difficult audience to get, because it’s so diverse. Big action-adventure movies ("Die Hard," "Armageddon," etc. etc. etc.) reach most of this audience, though they may exclude the youngest kids because of common "R" ratings for language and violence. "E.T." reaches everybody. "Parenthood" reaches everybody. "Titanic" reaches everybody. Lots of others try, but few succeed, which is why most aim for one specific part of that audience, allowing them to direct the marketing more precisely and efficiently. Thus, in setting ourselves the difficult task of reaching everybody, we wisely keep close to our hearts and souls the wisdom that "a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s an Oscar for?" We know we will probably not succeed in our grandest goals, but we absolutely cannot get even close to them if we don’t clearly set out those goals and rationally and energetically try to reach them. "Strive for perfection. Settle for excellence," I am perhaps overly fond of saying. Nonetheless, it, too, is true.

Okay. Having defined the general parameters of the audience we want to reach, we had already made some progress in determining the scale of production we were imagining for this still unwritten movie. It has to be a studio production, or at minimum, a major studio release. You can occasionally reach that large general audience with an independent production, like "The Full Monty," but even that required the marketing muscle of Universal to get there. To reach for the audience we’re aiming for means the movie has to be at least studio friendly.

Which means it has to have stars (forget "Full Monty"; we’re not British filmmakers). Stars are the studio’s guarantee of opening well in the U.S., and selling well internationally. Stars cost money mainly because they can do exactly that.

So now we know we are writing a big budget studio film, which, I might add, is unusual or perhaps even unique for me – at least in the last decade or so. My experience has been with network "Movie of the Week’s" and independent film. Studio films used to be quite beyond my ken. Until now, of course.

With Ruben and his movie about to surface in the near future, (and he being my writing partner and I his producing partner), suddenly that which was unthinkable is not only possible, but also necessary. We "must" follow up his movie with another studio movie. If we do, then we are in the "System". If not, we might have to start all over again to get in, and once in a lifetime is quite enough for me, thank you very much.

So virtues and necessities combine, (as they are wont to do if you want them to), we have an opportunity, and we must take it now, or forever hold our peace (which is hardly probable for either one of us these days). Win or lose, we’re going for it…totally.

So, we know we’re writing a big movie, aimed for a large general audience as well as a studio movie that must attract either several major stars or one humongous Bruce/Arnold/Mel/ SuperDooperStar so the studio will take the financial risk of making it.

But, given that the superstar route generally dictates the action-adventure genre (since that’s the most bulletproof worldwide, and when you pay $15-$20 million or more for a star, you need bulletproof), we quickly determined that we needed at least several really good roles suitable for several stars.

Which, fortuitously enough (or maybe we planned it this way; I forget) is inherent in the story we are going to tell. It’s about a lot of different people, all of whom could be played by seriously good actors of different sexes and ages and demographic appeals, thus, hopefully, appealing to all these similarly different audience groupings.

" " "

Still, you gotta write the script, and let me apologize in advance here since this is necessarily going to get a little technical. As noted earlier, I’ve been a teacher of screenwriting for 10 years, and I practice what I preach (because I teach what I know has worked for me).

First, before you do start writing the script, you MUST write a treatment. What’s that, you say? Okay, you’re a newbie; let me explain. A treatment is a prose story that describes, in as complete detail as possible, the scene-by-scene story your movie is going to tell; i.e., what happens, what are we seeing and hearing and feeling, and in what order for the course of the roughly 120 minutes of the movie. Essentially a movie is a sequence of emotions created by the images and sounds up on the screen. A treatment explains what they are and when, precisely, they happen.

An initial treatment, such as the one Ruben and I gave to Howard W. Koch and Marty Baum and others about a month or two ago, can be short. Ours was ten pages double spaced – the first 3-4 pages were devoted to an overview of the subject matter, selling the project; the remaining 6 pages sketched the story. We set down the major characters, the way the story opens, the major conflicts in the early part of the movie (for Syd Field aficionados, the "Act One hook"), the major conflicts at the later part of the movie (the "Act Two hook") and the resolution. The beginning, the middle, and the end – the general requirements of all movie stories.

But as a writer and teacher of writing, I know you need more than that to proceed safely to script. The paradigm I’ve developed for personal use as well as teaching purposes combines Field’s paradigm with Joseph Campbell’s classic analysis of myth, generally known as The Twelve Steps of the Hero’s Journey, resulting in what I call the Seven Sequence Story Structure paradigm.

A "sequence," again for the uninitiated, is a small story within the overall story of the movie, a series of scenes of some 15 minutes total time, tied together with a beginning, middle, and end. Two of these sequences make up the beginning, three form the middle, and two resolve the end.

But all this, I fear, is becoming more technical than is appropriate for such a forum, so if you are interested in exploring this further, check me out online through UCLA Extension at www.unex.ucla.edu/certprgms/writers/screen.htm or if your base is in or around Beantown, through External Education at Emerson College.

Anyway, our early short treatment was really a written verbal sales pitch, a story summary, rather than an actual treatment. It tells you, and those to whom you are pitching the story – what the story is about, and why they should be interested in seeing the script. It doesn’t take the time actually to detail all the beats of all the sequences that tell the story. But the final story treatment must. To proceed otherwise is to set off on the journey of writing the script with an incomplete map; you can do it, but it’s dangerous. You may get lost. You may realize you can’t get there from here, or actually get there and not know it since you haven’t identified where there is. Only when all 120 minutes of your movie (that is, all 120 pages of your script) are clear in your mind do you know enough to proceed safely.

So what we’re doing now is identifying each and every beat we expect to use to in telling the overall story. We’re parsing the story, so to speak; deconstructing it, I suppose. And since there are multiple internal stories in our movie, for multiple actor/stars (each of whom goes through a beginning and middle and end of his story journey), it’s complicated (which is why we get the big bucks for it, supposedly).

At the end of the process we will have a roughly 20-25 page single space document, called a "step outline" in some quarters, a "beat sheet" in others, and a complete, ready to go write the freakin’ script treatment by me. It will contain enough information to allow us (or any other professional screenwriter) to write the screenplay aptly. And when I say that, I mean it.

From it, any competent writer should be able to write what is essentially the "same" screenplay, any variations primarily being in the dialog and internal structure of the scenes. Lest you doubt this, let me give you an example from when I wrote for "General Hospital" a few years ago (I did Dominique’s death episode; you could look it up).

Weekly we scriptwriters were given a 12 page story treatment for the daily hour-episode we had to write (in a week or less). Each treatment described every one of the 23-24 scenes of the show, which characters were doing what, what catastrophe was happening where, and from that any of some 10 of us scriptwriters could write essentially the same episode. And we had to since the script had to follow precisely the story arcs of the previous day’s episode and lead precisely into the story arcs of the next day’s episode, both of which were written by writers I never saw or knew, but who were operating off of story treatments such as mine, coordinated by a producer/writer who actually knew what was going to go on for the next six months, which I sure didn’t (I was having enough trouble trying to remember who was who and had done what with or to whom in the prior 7700 episodes of the show).

Though slightly off the topic, the reality that the basic story really is the heart and soul and identity of the script explains for the uninitiated how it can be that many writers are brought onto studio-type productions for re-writes and dialog polishes and such and still not get screen credit.

If in contention, screen credit – the credit that goes on the print of the movie you see in the theater, after the "Produced by" credit and before the "Directed by" credit – is decided exclusively by the Writers Guild of America. It was a bloody fight to win this right back in the late 30’s and early 40’s; it was the fight that created the union. And this power still remains the identifying purpose and reason for being of the Guild. Without it, producers could give their girlfriends’ writing credit, and sometimes did. Now, writers decide, and while not always wisely, in my experience, always fairly.

Having participated in a number of the WGA arbitrations, I am familiar with the rules, and therefore know that under these rules you can change major portions of dialogue, and significant portions of the story, and still not deserve to get credit.

The rules we live by say, for example, that any writer re-writing an original script must be responsible for "50%" of the final produced script in specific categories, such as dialogue or story structure or characterizations in order to receive screen credit. And changing 50% of any of these elements pretty much makes it a different movie.

Re-writers get paid for their efforts after all, and at the studio level very, very well, so they are already compensated. But some payments are keyed to screen credit (which neither the studio nor the writer nor his agent nor God in his/her heaven can contractually guarantee since only the Guild can determine it) — so thus is explained the endemic public bitching on this issue, and that’s quite enough about that, eh?

Anyway, this process of filling in the blanks in the story structure outline involves something called "creativity," which is what distinguishes us from the machine, including the computer of the opening paragraph, (and I bet you thought I’d never tie that in, but I did, didn’t I)?

Fleshing out this step outline requires creative thinking, cogitating long and deep about each of the dramatic arcs of each of the characters, drawing from each and every facet of our combined understanding and experience, both real and second-hand, and our study of history. Significantly, we’ve found that while Ruben’s and my backgrounds and life experiences are vastly different, virtually all of the understandings we can reach from them (usually mediated by references to movies which are equally part of both his and my imaginations) are similar enough to produce a unified artistic vision and tone for the work.

But what are we looking for when we cogitate? Well, stuff that’s interesting. Now try programming that into your mainframe and see what you get. GIGO, eh? You can’t ask such a question of a machine. Fuzzy logic or no, it just doesn’t translate well into the digital yes’s and no’s, on’s and off’s of that world, at least, not yet.

The problem is that we really don’t know what we’re looking for. We just know it when it comes to us, while talking, walking on the beach, taking a shower, lying in bed, having dreams or nightmares, whatEVER. We have the experience to recognize it as possible story material, a potential piece of the puzzle.

Which, when recognized, is then written down, and initially "placed" in the story where you think it will go. This process, of placing these disparate and disorganized ideas throughout the story, can be imagined as dropping them like notecards into one of seven "shoeboxes," each representing one of the Seven Sequences used to tell your screen story.

When all the shoeboxes are full enough, when each part of the story feels like it is full and rich to excess, when you feel like you’ve got a movie-and-a-half of ideas, you start to write it out in order of appearance in the full treatment using what fits, leaving out for now what doesn’t, and seeing if what you have left can get you through your story with the style and tone you want.

Then you go back and think some more, since it never works all the way through the first time, nor the second or third. But eventually you get it all set out and polished a bit so it’s readable, if possible, pleasurably, and hopefully with the feel of the movie you want to grow out of it.

Then you show it to a few people who will tell you what’s wrong with it, and after you contemplate sucking on an exhaust pipe for a while (since that sounds far more pleasant than more re-writing), you just go back and fix what you can. When you’ve gone through that process to the point that you cannot stand the pain any longer, then you start writing the script.

Hey, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.


Click here for the Seven Sequences Outline.