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The stuff that dreams are made of



There are lots of reasons why a screenplay or a dramatic story isn’t the same as “life” the way we live it. The art of dramatic screenwriting is composed of all sorts of elements not present in so-called reality, like the CUT, for example. But then the job of the dramatic screen story isn’t about slavishly serving “REALITY”. It’s about presenting dramatic characters enmeshed in dramatic and credible situations. A screenplay needn’t conform to reality as we know it. Indeed, you can’t even criticise a screenplay by merely saying that “it shows actions that wouldn’t happen like that in ‘real life’. 

Screenplays, and the films they blue-print, have almost nothing to do with real life. The art of a narrative drama is to make us believe it IS real life, and that whatever is happening in the story  conveys a truth because the characters are emotionally present to us, which means that the characters and the situations in which they find themselves, are identifiable to us, and that they are not only compelling but also credible. For this to happen, the story has to be possessed of an emotional logic that is trackable from scene-to-scene. 

Unlike the lived life,  a dramatic story - if it is to impact on us emotionally - must evince a logic that allows the actions and events in the story to connect and make sense. Plot is all about selection of actions, choosing and ordering the relevant actions that expose the most pertinent and potent aspects of the story that is being dramatised. It’s all about recognizing and revealing - in fresh and surprising ways - the cause and effect evidence of the characters’ problems, plans and goals. When structuring a story it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that CAUSE and EFFECT can be reduced to a list of events or happenings…   this happens…  then that happens…  and this other thing happens and so so. However, a resume of actions doesn’t guarantee a powerful story anymore than a collection of attributes guarantees an intriguing and dynamic character. 

The two most useful words when looking at a sequence of dramatic actions in a script are the words “SO” and “BUT”.  In fact, you can test the dramatic coherence of your entire screenplay by seeing how easily you are able to link the units of action employing these two simple words. 

Take the plot of Sidney Lumet’s award-winning courtroom drama, The Verdict, for example. Starting with the opening shot:  A down-at-heels, unemployed lawyer is desultorily playing a pinball machine in a bar, and losing… SO he goes to a funeral, several funerals,  to see if he can’t get himself some conveyancing work… BUT he is exposed as a heartless interloper seeking to make a buck out of bereaved… SO he’s humiliated and sent packing, with orders never to return… BUT rather than going home, he to a bar where he buys everyone drinks… SO he winds up so drunk he ends up smashing his office and himself in a drunken rage… BUTin a final effort to get his life together, he agrees to take on a medical malpractice case that his only friend has thrown his way - an open-and-shut case that will earn him some “good” money for just showing up and taking a paltry payout… SO he visits with his client’s sister and her husband, assuring them that the hospital will settle out of court… BUT he uncovers a medical malpractice witness and M.D.  who convinces him he can win the case and offers to testify on his behalf… SO decides to turn down the out-of-court settlement of $210,000 and fight the case… BUT his expert witness disappears and the judge won’t grant a stay… SO….  

And you can continue moving through the rest of the plot in this way all the way to the end, linking it all together with “SO” and “BUT”  They connect everything. And the on-going connections reveal the story’s fundamental logic - the cause and effect that moves along the central narrative. 


Re-printed with thanks to Mike Nichols


Every work of dramatic, screen storytelling - whether it be fictional or factional - is based on at least one of the following conflicts. When you write a story or a bio-pic, or relate a true event or series of events, it is helpful to identify the conflicts inherent in the story's action, while at the same time striving to transcend the plot formulas that frequently work against discovery and surprise. To do this, one must work as much as possible from inside the emotional lives of the characters.


1. Person vs. Fate/God

This category could be considered part of conflict with self or with society (many people count only four types of conflict, including those two and conflict with another person or with nature). That’s a valid argument, as one confronts fate as part of an internal struggle and religion is a construct of society, but explicitly naming fate (Oedipus Rex) or God — or the gods (The Odyssey) — as the antagonist is a useful distinction.


2. Person vs. Self

A person’s struggle with his or her own prejudices or doubts or character flaws constitutes this type of conflict (Hamlet).


3. Person vs. Person

Any story featuring a hero and a villain or villains (The Count of Monte Cristo) represents this type of conflict, though the villain(s) is/are often representative of another antagonist in this list, whether a villain is in essence an alter ego of the protagonist (thus representing the conflict of person versus self) or stands in for society.


4. Person vs. Society

When the protagonist’s conflict extends to confronting institutions, traditions, or laws of his or her culture, he or she struggles to overcome them, either triumphing over a corrupt society (I draw a blank here), rejecting it (Fahrenheit 451), or succumbing to it (1984).


5. Person vs. Nature

In this conflict, the protagonist is pitted against nature (Robinson Crusoe) or a representation of it, often in the form of an animal (Moby Dick).


6. Person vs. Supernatural

Superficially, conflict with the supernatural may seem equivalent to conflict with fate or God, or representative of a struggle with an evocation of self (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) or nature (The Birds). But this category stands on its own feet as well.


7. Person vs. Technology

Humanity’s innate skepticism about the wonders of technology has resulted in many stories in which antagonists use technology to gain power or in which technology takes over or becomes a malign influence on society (Brave New World).


Tom Reed couldn’t resist taking a closer look at the dramatic structure of the pilot script of the series BREAKING BAD, so he's drawn up a beat sheet for the episode that those familiar with the series will find illuminating. Here's a few of Tom’s thoughts about the script:


The pilot script for Breaking Bad by Vince Gilligan is an example of truly outstanding writing. It has a powerful premise executed at the highest level, and much of its impact is due to its masterful structure, the specific beats of which just happen to correspond exactly with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet (the “BS2”). Nearly every single scene is a demonstration of the BS2 in action. Whether Mr. Gilligan actually employed the BS2 structure template when outlining the story, or used other tools with different names to achieve his effects, the result in my opinion is a perfect script.

This is an origin story that depicts the birth of a drug dealing criminal mastermind. It takes its time detailing the context of the hero and his “normal world,” and so the page count of the first 8 (out of 15) BS2 story beats resembles a feature script of 110 pages, not the average 57 page one-hour TV script. In other words, it takes its time setting everything up. But the script doesn’t skip any steps to fit inside the allotted hour, it just concentrates the remaining steps in fewer pages. This gives the script’s second half incredible density and story energy.

Something else that gives the script great power is the authorial “Fun & Games” in evidence across multiple dimensions. Vince Gilligan is a storyteller fully “at play” in crafting this script, not just in his structure and story world design, but also his characterization, dialogue, scene progression, logic, the interplay of all the above, and the ample doses of cleverness and insight of various hues.

As the show enters its final season, it’s easy to see why it has steadily gained viewers over five years. Not only is the writing enthralling, but the show taps into the zeitgeist by depicting an average, middle-class man (a “dude”) who, despite powerful gifts (IQ, education, and a passion for chemistry), still finds himself near the bottom of the economic food chain. A lot of people can relate. When the middle class struggles to make a living and even the affluent are feeling the pinch, a lot of us wish we could find a better, easier, way. Some of us might even be tempted to “break bad.” This show offers a cautionary tale of uncommon relevance.

As a fan of the show I thank Vince Gilligan for sharing his special powers of storytelling with all of us, and I thank Blake Snyder for providing a powerful language to examine why Breaking Bad is so damn good. I look forward to the tragic tale of Walter White resolving at the end of this last season with memorable inevitability. May we all be powerfully transformed!   (Courtesy of SAVE THE CAT)


LINK to PDF FILE for Breaking Bad Pilot Beat Sheet

  One-Eyed Jacks - an unusual revenge story

One-Eyed Jacks in the only film Marlon Brando ever directed. The story of how that came about need not be recounted here as it can be found on the web. The film itself, however, is unusual in several respects. Though flawed because of budgetary complaints and the incompatibility of the creative and commercial agendas existing between Brando and the studio, the movie presents a story and a fascinating combination of characters that inhabit a world that is as unexpected and compelling as it is memorable.

Essentially, this is a revenge story with two very powerful and cunning men at its center - one, named Kid Rio (Brando) and the other, an older man, named Dad Longworth. Kid and Dad (the names are meaningful) were friends and partners in crime until Dad ran out on Kid, taking the money and leaving Kid to rot for years in a Sonora prison. Escaping from his imprisonment, Kid's only wish is to track down Dad and kill him. Problem is, after more that six years cooped up in a Mexican gaol,  Kid has no idea as to where Dad has landed. 

After a fruitless and prolonged search, Kid  winds up in the saloon of an old friend where a drifting gunslinger/bank robber not only tells him where he can find Dad but also informs him that the place where Dad lives has the biggest, fattest bank this side of the Mississippi.  Kid also learns that the town's sheriff is none other than Dad, a reformed criminal who now presents as the community's most respected and likeable citizen.

And so the stage is set for a dramatic encounter replete with subtext, suspense, tension and a masterfully drawn baddie - Dad's evil deputy, played by Slim Pickens. 

One-Eyed Jacks is not everyone's favorite film - when it first appeared it was a commercial and critical disaster. Perhaps it was ahead of its time. Or maybe we have developed a more subtle appreciation of the ambiguities that underlie the human condition. For my money, the film is a tour de force that ranks with the greatest westerns ever made, and breaks with many of the cliches one normally associates with the form, the most obvious being that it is set along the Pacific coast where many of its best scenes are played out against a background of pounding surf and golden beaches - unusual for its time, for any time. Indeed, I can't think of another major American western that employed such a location.

Also, look for the powerful cameo performance by the eccentric and over-the-top character-actor, Tim Carey - the "bastard Mexican" whose treatment of women leads to the confrontation between Dad and Rio that informs the rest of the film. This is a fine and highly intelligent western revenge story, by turns brooding, cerebral, exciting, and ponderous, but always surprising.

Finally, the film highlights the singular importance of endings. The ending that the studio insisted upon was not the one that Brando preferred. Watch the film and see if you can't imagine what Brando had in mind.


The fundamental grammar of dramatic narrative is based upon a CHARACTER that has a PROBLEM. The character also must have A GOAL or OBJECTIVE, which is what they desire to be the case, in contradistinction to the problem that threatens their well-being AND under which they are struggling. They must also have a PLAN OF ACTION for dealing with the problem.

The interesting thing about DRAMATIC PROBLEMS is that the more a character strives to fix them the worse they get. This basic grammar is readily identifiable in every dramatic feature film. The importance of making grammatically sound decisions as to the dramatic action in a story is important, but it is possible to adhere to the grammar and still produce a story that doesn't work.

Have a look at this illustrated analysis of the seven attempts to stop the runaway train in the movie Unstoppable.



                 T h e   A r c h e t y p a l   J o u r n e y


Essentially, this is a "fish-out-water" story in which the fish are undergoing a primal rite of passage.

Four suburbanites from Atlanta go into a wilderness, dependant on one of their party (Lewis Medlock).

This is a character-driven drama in which each of the characters is an archetype.


The Four Principle Characters

It could be argued that this starts as a multi-protagonist story, but the dramatic action centers mainly upon Ed, who must take up the challenge of the wilderness virtually single-handedly after the canoe accident.

Ed Gentry (John Voigt)  - Joe-Average. Everyman. The Middle-Class.Respectable and Moderate. He craves the normal while flirting with the dangerous. He wants to be safe and indulges in vicarious thrills. Underlying value: to be secure.

Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds)  - Physical man. Hunter. Athletic. Materialistic.  Underlying value : to survive.

Bobby “Chubby” Tripp (Ned Beatty) -  Appetitive. Desirous. A sensuous voluptuary who is preoccupied with his own sexual prowess (or lack of it). He is both feminine and lustful. Underlying value: to prove his manliness.

Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) -  Artistic. Imaginative and creative. Aesthetic sensibility. A sense of proportion, balance and justice. “The Law”. The group’s conscience. Underlying value : to do the right thing. 


The Dramatic Question

Are these guys going to make it safely down the river “in time to see the football game on Sunday afternoon”?


What stands in their way?    Nature (the antagonist),  as well as their own natures.

KEY CHARACTER POINT: The source of each one’s strength is also the source of their vulnerability. Where each is strongest, he is also weakest.

Rape of nature is introduced right at the beginning. The reason for the canoe trip is BECAUSE Lewis is anxious to see the river before “they” – the powers-that-be  (i.e.: progress) – build their dam and flood the river. They are, as Lewis says, going to rape the country. But the city boys are, themselves, expressions of the very progress that Lewis abhors. And in the film the rapists become the raped;  the defilers, the defiled.

What is the essence of the rape?  Lack of respect for nature wedded to a sense of invulnerability. 

The hillbillies are part of nature. They are presented as something to be feared – the dying child – inbred, grotesque, laughable. They are NOT respected by the city boys.

Every major turning point in the film is accompanied by a PLAN, starting with the plan at the beginning : “We’re gonna leave Friday and I’ll get you back in time to see the pom-pom girls at halftime cos I know that’s what you care about.” (Lewis Medlock).

The story presents a journey into the heart of darkness, thus entering a tradition that includes stories like  Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Old Man and the SeaThe  Odyssey, and Ovid’s tale of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. It is a journey into the unknown, into the unconscious, where each finds what he fears most and struggles to over come that fear or die.

Water is highly symbolical in the journey, associated as it is with the unconscious, with memory (Neptune) – there is also the idea of initiation (baptism), and transformation.

Dreams are associated with the unconscious too – at the end of the film there is Ed’s dream of water and the resurrection of his most terrible fear.

The idiot savant (Lonny) = Spontaneity… as does the dancing hillbilly. There is no learned behaviour here, merely the natural expression of being inside the moment, inside nature, inside one’s own nature. It is the world of pure paideuma; it is what the city boys “sold”, as Lewis points out.

The banjo and guitar music at the beginning is improvised, free – the conscious mind goes on a holiday… at this point there is real COMMUNICATION between the locals and the interlopers. It is interesting to note that as soon as Drew wants to formalise or acknowledge the connection (with a handshake) he breaks the connection. Lonnie (nature) turns away from him.

The musical motif is repeated throughout at significant moments, sometimes in the form of reverie – as in a musical memory of what has been lost - or sometimes as a dirge or a slow ominous march towards the dark of the not-yet born.

Lonny  is also the gatekeeper – their last connection with so-called civilisation. As they pass under the footbridge, they pass the threshold of the known world and enter into “the belly of the whale”.

The structure is unusual.

What is the inciting incident? Where does it occur?  It all depends on HOW you “read” the story.

In the novel, it’s the men deciding to go on a canoe trip. In the original script it’s the men arriving in Oree. In the film, arguably, it’s the men’s encounter with the Griner brother and his agreement to drive their cars down to Aintry.

The story proceeds by virtue of the contrasts it presents and the tensions that result from these contrasts:

The primitive vs the modern

The backwoods vs the city

The old vs the new

The known vs the unknown






Scene by scene

A scene breakdown of the positive and negative energy shifts/movements occuring in each each. A scene with a plus ("+" )denotes a positive scene, which the major actions of the scene promote the attaining of the characters'  goal or objective.

A scene with a minus ( "-" ) is a negative scene in which the actions and/or events in that scene make it more difficult for the characters to achieve their goal. A "-/+" signifies an ironic positive scene in which the actions of the scene APPEAR to oppose the characters' objective, but don't.

Conversely, a "+/-" signifies an ironic negative scene insofar as it would APPEAR that the actions are favoring the characters' onjectives, when in fact they don't. All dramatic scenes are charged in one of these four ways. Where their is no charge, the scene is said to be neutral, which means lacks drama.  


Act I

Sequence 1 – “Into the Wilderness”

Scene 1  ROAD and WILDERNESS (Two cars make their way along roads that become more and more primitive, accompanied by V/O conversation. First plan)     +


Sequence 2 – “Oree”

Scene 2  - OREE TOWNSHIP       +

Scene 3  -  GRINER BROTHERS COMPOUND   (Inciting incident?)    + / -


Act II

Sequence 3 – “Heading Downstream”

Scene 4  - TRACK TO RIVER    + / -

Scene 5 - THE RIVER  /  RAPIDS   +

Scene 6 – FIRST CAMP   +


Act III 

Sequence 4 – “The Resting Place”

Scene 7 – THE RESTING PLACE     -

Scene 8  - BY THE RIVER  (Burial of the dead hillbilly & second plan)       + / -


Sequence 5 – “Into the Abyss”

Scene 9 – RIVER/GORGE      -

Scene 10 – CLIFFS     + / -

Scene 11 – GORGE     +


Sequence 6 – “Deliverance”

Scene 12 – RIVER  (discovery of Drew)     -

Scene 13  - RAPIDS       +


Act IV

Sequence 7 – “Civilisation”

Scene 14 -  RIVER   (third plan)        +  

Scene 15 – COUNTRY/CHURCH    +

Scene 16 –   HOSPITAL   +                                       


Sequence 8 – “Investigation”

Scene 17 – GUESTHOUSE    -

Scene 18 – RIVER    -

Scene 19 – ROAD  (Church with ringing bell)   -

Scene 20 -  HOSPITAL    +


Act V 

Sequence 9 – “Return”

Scene 21 – PARKING LOT (One more question)   +

Scene 22 – CEMETERY   -

Scene 23 – ED’S HOUSE/ATLANTA       + / -     






as expressed in the film, DELIVERANCE

1. The Ordinary World of the hero with its suffering, boredom and neurotic anguish.  (Back story, played out in exposition in the film)

2. A Call to Adventure, when the ordinary world is no longer endurable and the hero is ripe for change.  (played out in exposition in the film)

3. Refusal of the Call when the hero is scared, even terrified at first, and avoids the challenge.  (not included in the film, except for Ed’s expressed desire to return to the city during Lewis’ encounter with the Griner brother)

4. Meeting a Mentor who acknowledges, supports and spurs the hero onward. (This role is fulfilled by Lewis in both the film and the novel. Most obvious in the fishing scene with Ed)

5. Crossing the First Threshold when the hero begins to feel really weird, and gets very scared. (This begins with the first hillbillies negative reaction to the canoe trip; it is heightened by the Griner brother’s reaction to the trip and further amplified by the journey down to the river, crashing through the trees, etc)

6. Tests, Allies and Enemies when the hero feels greater stress and anxiety than ever before, is tempted to pack the whole thing in but finds people who can help, and often a few dangerous ones who can hurt. (The night camp; the counter with the deer and the climatic confrontation with the hillbillies at the “resting place”.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave where the hero glimpses the dark side of his true, hidden self, the side he's always denied for most of his life.  (The debate over what to do with the body and its burial)

8. The Supreme Ordeal in which the hero attempts to use those parts of his true self that terrified and shamed him before. (Ed’s scaling the cliff and killing the hillbilly)

9. Reward for Seizing the Sword when the hero slowly discovers new passion and begins to feel a steady, daily glow from harnessing the power of his true self.  (The return to civilisation, - as personified by the wrecked cars – and Ed’s success in returning the group to the relative safety of Aintry.

10. The Road Back when the hero must adjust his new-found passion to the demands of the ordinary world, a trying time for imaginative heroes impatient with bureaucracies and the tedious people who inhabit them. (The police investigation)

11. Resurrection when the hero glimpses his impending death, takes his "What have I done with my life?" exam and grades himself. (The resurrection in the film is of the body of the slain hillbilly, and the guilt that Ed carries and will carry for the rest of his life.



READ ABOUT Why Story Formula Structures Don't Work

DELIVERANCE with Christopher Dickey

Return to main PLOT PAGE

                          Q U I C K S A N D

Somewhat dated but nevertheless still quite watchable example of a film noir narrative that employs the fundamental grammar of dramatic storytelling. Starring Mickey Rooney, Barbara Bates, and Peter Lorre.  the film tells the story of a young garage mechanic's incremental descent into crime.

Actually, Rooney  starred in two criminally overlooked and under-appreciated noirs: Quicksand and Drive a Crooked Road. Few people even know they exist let alone have seen them, but that is something this posting should rectify, at least in part. 

The beauty of this film is that it provides a simple and vivid object lesson in the essentials  of dramatic screen storytelling. If drama is a language for presenting emotional energy and if the writer's and filmmakers' job is to build that energy, both visually and aurally, then Quicksand is the perfect primer for laying bare the elements of energetic narrative. Here is a story that clearly demonstrates the emotional logic and cause-&-effect progression of the best dramatic stories, with rising stakes and a ticking clock. If you want to learn something about dramatic screen storytelling, sit down and watch this over-looked gem, then fill out a "drama report" on it and see just how effectively and efficiently it asks and answers ALL the important dramatic questions.