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The stuff that dreams are made of


Drama is conducted by the logic of cause and effect. It is also grounded in any number of irrational prejudices, assumptions and fears held by both the writer and the characters that work against the story's best interests by reinforcing the conditions required for avoiding and denying genuine emotion.

In working with story and plot,  the writer will continuously ‘bump’ up against these irrationalities, particularly those that are expressed by the characters through their dialogue and actions. However, It is not always easy for the writer to detect the one's that form his/her own character, which consciously or unconsciously impact story. Decisions as to what to show or not show may be driven by some vague, personal anxiety that the writer harbours rather than by the values and attitudes of the characters in the screenplay. Story choices in the hands of a 'skilled puppeteer' are not always made for the purpose of liberating the characters so much as to stave off the writer's demons or fears of either being 'cheesy' or misunderstood.  

Here are 9 examples of the largely unchallenged notions from which all dramatic story-action springs.

Can you think of others? 


1. The notion that being loved by a significant other is a necessity to a character’s well-being, and indeed their life.

2. The notion that the acts of others (other characters) are more offensive or more wicked or somehow more destructive than those enacted by the protagonist, and that, as such, these others must be punished or held accountable for their wickedness.

3. The notion that life is unnaturally cruel whenever things don’t go the way the protagonist (or the writer) would want them to go.

4. The notion that human misery is created and forced upon the protagonist by the actions of others.

5. The notion that it is right or irrelevant to be terribly upset when confronted by something dangerous or fearsome, and that it is okay to obsess about it.

6. The notion that it is easier and somehow more likely to produce a desired result if the character and/or writer avoids or ignores the problems and difficulties that confront him/her. (‘the passive character’).

7. The notion that a character cannot act unless they are possessed of something more powerful than their own inner resources (e.g.: a weapon).

8. The notion that every protagonist - in order to be effective - must be thoroughly competent.

9. The notion that because something once strongly affected a character’s life, it should always affect it and always in the same way.

                   THE FIVE QUESTIONS

When you write or direct a dramatic scene it’s essential to understand that your characters aren't operating in a vacuum. Every character is part of a far larger world - the story world - which, in a successful film, is continuously intersecting with the worlds of the audience and the tribe/s, relevant to the action. As a director your job is to conduct both cast and crew into an intimate relationship with, and understanding of, the characters that inhabit the screenplay and whose actions are driving the story. The act of initiating the actors and the crew into the story world involves thorough preparation, a preparation that is greatly aided by asking yourself five fundamental questions. The writer can greatly assist this process by asking the questions to begin with. These are the central questions any screen storyteller worthy of the name should be asking her/himself when writing and/or directing any scene. The answers to these questions - when vivid and compelling - form the Rosetta Stone of the story that IS the film-in-the-making, allowing everyone - actors as well as the crew - to work from a common understanding concerning the specifics of every scene and the way in which every scene is connected to the larger world of the story. 


The questions: 


1) Where am I? The place. What are the sensory elements present, and how might they affect me? What is my relationship to this place? Familiar, unfamiliar, loaded with history with is mine, someone else’s etc. FIND THE NUANCES.  

2) What am I doing? My activity. What is the physical activity required to be accomplished at this time? For what purpose am I in this place at this time? What am I here to do? Remember that the activity can be the conduit through which the inner life of the character can be revealed. 

3) Where did I come from? The question has two distinct parts. The first: Where did I just come from and how might that affect my behavior? The second: Where did I come from in the long term? This is the history of the character- the physical and psychological elements which make up and determine character. There is always constant history impacting a scene that colors what the characters do. The scene does not just start when the director yells action. 

4) What is my relationship to the other characters? In what ways are we familiar, intimate- in what ways strangers? What is the history of our relationship? How did it come into being? (This can be developed through improvisations between actors so that there is a common experience which all actors involved can hold) .

5) What is the spine of my character? The spine of the character determines the character’s actions and objectives both over the entire course of the film and in each individual scene; it drives the narrative. My character’s spine is “that without which I would not be who I am.” 

Spine of the character -> Objective -> Action -> Transition -> Action-> Transition, etc through the scene.




Dramatic structure is essentially a search for reasons. Why do the characters behave as they do? What are the reasons, and how can these reasons best be dramatised?

The structure must have its own precise line of logic. Would-be screenwriters  often begin writing a story without having any idea of the problem or crises that will drive the action. Many become fascinated with a mere notion and ignorantly believe that that they can create an interesting story by illustrating the notion. If one is to dramatise and not simply illustrate one has to sit down and work out the dramatic significance of one’s characters and the context in which the action occurs.

The BIG PRINT is a major domain for both character and setting. The things a character doesn’t say can be expressed here. The character’s mannerisms, gestures, idiosyncrasies are expressed here. The environment which the character inhabits comes to life here.


What are the essential prerequisites of drama?

1.      A dynamic, identifiable character

2.      A clear and compelling emotional relationship

3.      A potent and credible crisis that impacts that relationship


Essential character principles

1. There shouldn’t be a character in the script who doesn’t have to be there to answer the demands of the main character’s story. No matter how delightfully a character is written, he is a bore if he serves no definite plot purpose.

2. Character traits must satisfy the demands of the main character’s story.

Drama unfortunately will not allow for the complex, contradictory impulses that constitute real-life people. The best the writer can hope for is to achieve in dramatic characterisations an essence or a basic truth of the character. DON’T hold on to preconceptions you have formed about a character… keep open… one learns about a character as one learns about a person… through gradual revelation and modification of one’s assumptions as to WHAT they are.

Characterisations devolve from the incidents in the main story. And the story in turn devolves from the characters and what they do and say.


The best way to humanize a villain is simply to get away from thinking of him as “the villain.” Try not to categorize him. Try not to limit who he is because he is standing against your protagonist.

Your villain is just a character. Just a person. And when you approach him as you would any other person, you will realize that:

  • HIS MOTIVES DON’T HAVE TO BE PURE EVIL. This is perhaps the most important point in today’s post. A villain’s motivation doesn’t have be malevolent. He can be trying to right an injustice, or draw attention a societal ill, or help his family or race survive: just going about it in a way that’s not the best.
  • HE CAN BE MORE CONFUSED OR MISINFORMED/ MISGUIDED THAN EVIL. This is always an option, if you want to take it, even to just a point (rather than fully).
    Don’t we all have something we wish we’d done differently? Something we wish we had or hadn’t done at all? Why should your villain break this mold? Unless your villain is a narcissist by nature, why should he think he’s perfect?
  • HE WILL HAVE TO FACE A FEAR. And I don’t mean “he’s afraid of dying but you know he’s gonna be a goner by the end.” We all grow and develop as people by leaving our comfort zones and facing situations that unnerve us.
  • HE CAN SHOW SOME KIND OF MERCY. That mercy doesn’t have to be directed at his enemies. He can be patient with the people in his life he cares about. He can overlook the little flaws of those important to him or give someone a second chance. Your villain should be a human being who is developed as a character: that means some positive attributes as well as negative ones.
  • HE CAN QUESTION HIMSELF AT SOME POINT. Most stereotypical villains never do this, but a truly human villain just might. This doesn’t mean he’ll abandon his aims and his plan. It doesn’t mean he’ll change anything about his strategy (though he could). It just means that, like we all do, he’ll take a moment to reassess himself and what he’s doing. He’ll doubt himself.

Villains can be complex and tricky to write, but they are also TONS of fun. One thing I do, I’ve found, to humanize my villains is to insert a piece of me in each one of them. Some neutral or positive aspect of my own personality becomes part of my villains. I don’t generally do that on purpose; it just happens.




Here is another story paradigm courtesy of Donna Michelle Anderson’s book. 

Basically it’s all about character. A character had a need which must be fulfilled. Character drives action which in terms explores theme. Make sure your characters are relatable. This may or may not mean likeable. A relatable character could be an everyman/woman and your audience must identify with him, even if he’s/ she’s a homicidal maniac. Your audience must also be able to track the character’s arc to keep them engaged.



We see the main character in their normal world, their conflicts and where they want to go.



The main character’s natural world is upset, causing a problem which must be addressed.

Rejection – The main character is reluctantly drawn in action.

Commitment – After the initial trepidation, the main character decides to embark on their mission.



Despite numerous obstacles the main character embraces their challenge.

Their opponent returns to hinder the main character’s goals.

Escalation of conflict as the main character faces more obstacles.



There is a twist which alters the main character’s course.

The main character hits rock bottom. All is lost.

The main character makes a decision to overcome the final hurdle.

The main character makes the ultimate sacrifice and emerges a wiser, better person. 



The journey ends and the main character resolves their issues.


                   IS THE PRICE RIGHT?

Everyone that has ever written a screenplay and has shown it to a script editor has probably heard the question: "What's at stake?"

So, what exactly are we talking about when we talk about stakes?  Stakes are not the same as objectives or goals, which is what the protagonist wants and is actively pursuing. The hero of a story, for example, may want more than anything to win a hard-boiled-egg-eating contest. That is the character's goal, and every scene may be arcing towards that outcome. But winning the contest is not what’s at stake. The stakes are defined by the distance between success and failure, and the price exacted for having a shot at success. What will happen if he/she gets what he/she wants? And, often more importantly, what will happen if he/she doesn’t?

A writer can easily dismiss a reader’s critique of the stakes like so: “Whatever. He (the reader) just doesn’t care as much about contests as I do. Obviously, this story isn’t for him.”  Wrong attitude. If your screenplay/film is aimed strictly towards people that are passionate about eating excessive amounts of hard-boiled eggs, you’re stuck trying to sell your story to a very small and specialised group of people.

How do you force otherwise uninterested people to walk towards the light and see the beauty of egg-eating, to understand that it’s more than stuffing your face; it’s an art and even a philosophy of living? Well, you don’t have to. All you have to do is focus on the life of your character and determine the "price" or cost to him/her of winning and/or losing. Cause, really, it's not about eggs at all. It's much more personal than that.

In the film, Cool Hand Luke, its about mind over matter - Luke's "sermon" to the other inmates about the nature of power and self-belief - the transforming energy of inspiration and the will to power. In the act of eating 50 eggs Luke confounds the conventional logic and show how the impossible is possible; he also manages - unwittingly - to provoke in his fellow chain-gang mates the vision of himself as a kind of saviour figure - a person that they can believe in, who they might imagine is qute capable of leading them to the promised land, whatever that metaphor may appear to be for each of them. As Dragline says, "Ol' Luke is a genuine world-shaker."  We begin to care more about Luke and th price that must eventually be exacted for his elevation to the status of a Christ-figure.

When someone tells you to raise the stakes in your story, think about the PRICE that the character must pay in order to give him/herself the best chance of success. Think of what the protagonist does and the response to what s/he does - widen the gap between success and failure as much as possible. If it appears now as a pothole in the road, transform the pothole into a canyon. That may entail making major changes throughout the script or it may mean altering a small handful of scenes in the beginning and end. Either way, it requires work, and quite a lot of courage. It can mean the difference between getting your script rejected at every turn or optioning it and launching a career in screenwriting. Stakes is high.




Stakes are the thing in the story that makes a reader care what happens.

Your fun characters and snappy dialogue and careful plotting literally do not matter if nothing much will happen if the plan doesn’t come together. And the stakes can be anything, really, as long as they are dreadfully important to the characters, and fit the tone and the genre.

  • It must be specific. John McLaine in Die Hard must stop a band of terrorists or they will kill his wife. That’s a stake. A movie based on getting to a wedding on time is weak on stakes, unless there is a compelling, specific, personal reason that being late for this wedding will be disastrous, such as your protagonist is in love with the groom.
  • It must be clear. Spec scripts often take it for granted that what is important to the characters and why it’s important are self-evident. For clarity, if your ballerina protagonist feels she is aging and winning the lead role is all that stands between her and losing her place in the troupe, which would end her career, don’t keep that to yourself or allude to or hint at it. Show it, say it. Draw a big red circle around it.
  • It must matterand it must matter now. Burn the ships. A protag holds a priceless stolen piece of art for a violent criminal, just for a few days. Don’t allow 14 things to almost happen to this art. Your inciting incident is that he immediately smashes it. Now what? That’s the drama. Don’t shy away from big stakes because you’re not sure how to write your way out of them. Be confident. Push the story, and at the end, it turns out the piece was a fake. Easy. Big stakes do have answers, and you will find them.

Low stakes make very weak scripts. Fearlessly ramp up your stakes until they are nothing less than a howitzer pointed right between your protag’s eyes.

—  courtesy of ANNIE LABARBA

The I, THOU & IT of Dramatic Screen Storytelling

Martin Buber, in his major contribution to modern thought, I and Thou, posits a philosophy of personal dialogue in which human existence may be understood and differentiated in terms of the way in which we humans engage in dialogue with each other, with the world, and with the divine. Buber contends that human beings invariably alternate between two attitudes toward the world – one which is expressed through what he refers to as an I-Thou relationship, and the other, which he terms an I-It relationship. I-Thou signifies the relation of subject-to-subject, while I-It is a relation of subject-to-object.

Likewise, the screen storyteller’s relationship with characters may also be understood in terms of such a choice. Does the writer choose an I-Thou relationship, in which the writer is cognizant of and emotionally open to ALL of the characters necessary for finding the story, or does the writer simply enforce his own separate role of chauvinistic puppeteer, armed with a predetermined agenda, which the dramatis personae are obliged to dance to though they were mere puppets dancing at the end of not-quite invisible strings?

In the former relationship, the writer is an equal – no more or less important than the other characters (including the audience and the tribe or tribes whose story is being told). In such a relationship, the writer acts and interacts within a context in which none of the characters becomes a slave to formula. In an I-Thou relationship, the roles of the characters, including the role of the writer, are not subsumed under the tyranny of method or served up in answer to the requirements of technique or as some simple-minded response to unmanaged fear or prejudice. Successful – i.e.: fresh and original – dramatic characters do not live at the pleasure of the storyteller alone, to be manipulated according to every passing fit and whim. Instead of perceiving one’s fellow characters as separate, isolated beings whose raison d’etre is is to serve the insecurities and needs of the writer, and whose actions serve only to hit each plot target in a timely fashion, the mediumistic writer is immersed in a vital, transformative dialogue in which ALL of the characters are involved with all of their being with each other.

In contradistinction to this, the I-It relationship, is largely an act of insecurity, a misguided need to control events at any cost, the full meaning of which usually lies beyond one’s emotional comprehension. In an I-It relationship, the screenwriter perceives the characters largely as consisting of specific, isolated qualities and attributes. How many fledging writers have wasted their time and energy compiling copious lists of what foods, colours, clothes, hobbies and attributes their characters like or possess?  To perceive characters simply as a list of attributes and attitudes is to view them – and oneself – as fragments of an objectified world of things. I-Thou is a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, while I-It is a relationship of separateness and detachment.


Screenwriters, and filmmakers generally, often try to convert (or pervert) the subject-to-subject relation to a subject-to-object relation, seldom realising that the being of a subject is a unity that cannot be analysed as an object. When one tries to analyse a subject as an object, the subject is no longer a subject, but becomes an object – in short, it becomes something that it is not – something inauthentic, something contrived or pretentious. When a subject is analysed as an object, the subject is no longer a Thou, but an It. The being, which is analysed as an object, is the It in an I-It relation.

The subject-to-subject relation affirms each subject as having a unity of being, and in that affirmation creates the possibility of recognising that larger unity, which is the resonant power of Love – as an emotional energy binding the two subjects into One. This atonement – or at-one-ment – is the essence of the experience of IDENTIFICATION, which is the emotional essence of the dramatic experience.

When a subject chooses, or is chosen by, the I-Thou relation, this act involves the subject’s whole being. Thus, the I-Thou relation is an act of choosing, or being chosen, to become the subject of a subject-to-subject relation. The subject becomes a subject through the I-Thou relation, and the act of choosing this relation affirms the subject’s whole being.

Buber says that the I-Thou relation is a direct interpersonal relation that is not mediated by any intervening system of ideas. No objects of thought intervene between I and Thou.1 I-Thou is a direct relation of subject-to-subject, which is not mediated by any other relation. To accept this is to suddenly be free of all those screenwriting tomes and how-to books by which the snake-oil salesmen ply their foolishness. One is either IN the drama and in an I-Thou relationship with one’s characters or one is not, and the only things that method, technique and formula can do is to keep you from entering into the only kind of relationship that will make any difference at all.

Thus, I-Thou is not a means to some object or goal, but is an ultimate relation involving the whole being of each subject.

Love, as a relation between I and Thou, is a subject-to-subject relation. Buber claims that love is not a relation of subject-to-object. In the I-Thou relation, subjects do not perceive each other as objects, but perceive each other’s unity of being. Love is an I-Thou relation in which subjects SHARE this unity of being. Love is also a relation in which I and Thou share a sense of caring, respect, commitment, and responsibility. In this way, the writer/story relationship is both a sacred trust and a secret feeling.

Buber argues that, although the I-Thou relation is an ideal relation, the I-It relation is an inescapable relation by which the world is viewed as consisting of knowable objects or things. The I-It relation is the means by which the world (or screenplay) is analyzed and described. However, the I-It relation may become an I-Thou relation, and in the I-Thou relation we can interact with the world in its whole being.

In the I-Thou relation, the I is unified with the Thou, but in the I-It relation, the I is detached or separated from the It. The detachment is frequently perceived as a threat, something that must be manipulated or dominated, something that can be sorted out and when sorted out can produced money and fame.

In the I-Thou relation, the being of the I belongs both to I and to Thou.

In the I-It relation, the being of the I belongs to I, but not to It.

I-Thou is a relation in which I and Thou have a shared reality. And in the world of screen storytelling, this is nowhere better expressed than through STORY. Story is the shared reality of ALL the characters, but never becomes fully born unless all of the characters are involved with all of their being, and BEING WITH.

The I which has no Thou has a reality which is less complete than that of the I in the I-and-Thou. The I which has no Thou seeks meaning in what it might acquire – and in the realm of storytelling this often means the frantic acquisition of incompatible additions to that incomplete reality that will remain eternally incomplete by virtue or such additions.

The more that I-and-Thou share their reality, the more complete is their reality. No addition is necessary. Their completion merely multiplies completion.

Buber equates God with the eternal Thou. God is the Thou that sustains the I-Thou relation eternally. Whether one accepts the idea of God or not is less important to committed storyteller than the wisdom that the eternal Thou is not an object of experience, nor is it an object of thought. The eternal Thou is not something that can be pigeon-holed, investigated or examined. The eternal Thou is not a knowable object.

The unformed character – the goad to action – the uncarved block that pits one’s courage against unlimited possibilities – call it what you like – God or the imagination, or freedom (including the freedom to choose not to be free - as in the Garden of Eden story – whatever you like, Thou is the barrier-less Being through which and from which one speaks to the future and from which the future is becoming, becoming present, not yet. It is the courage to Be that appears when everything that we have held most dearly disappears in the anxiety of doubt.

One does not use knowledge to get one to the edge. Knowledge is the edge. If one is to leap into the unknown - which is the story - one will have to leave knowledge behind. The leaping IS the Thou before Thou appears.  


1 Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), p. 26.


"Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart." ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” ~ Henry David Thoreau