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COF

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screenwriting instructor Pilar Alessandra
shows everyone who’s ever wanted to write a screenplay or TV pilot
how they can do it — without quitting their jobs. Packed with over sixty
10-minute writing tools, this book is focused and simple. This new
edition adds structural shortcuts and additional, updated writing tools
for TV pilots and pitches.

Lea ding H ollywo o d

“Systematic, careful guidance from concept to final draft.”
— Chris Sparling, writer, Buried

— Monica Macer, staff writer, Nashville, Prison Break, and Lost

“Invaluable ... masterful.”
— Charmaine DeGraté, writer, CW’s The 100

is the director of the writing program On the Page ,
host of the popular On the Page Podcast, and author of the best-selling
first edition of The Coffee Break Screenwriter. Pilar started her career
as Senior Story Analyst at DreamWorks SKG and, in 2001, opened the
On the Page Writers’ Studio in Los Angeles. Her students and clients
have sold features to major studios and have written for The Walking Dead,
Lost, Homeland, and Family Guy. www.onthepage.tv
PILAR A LESSA ND R A

MICHAEL WIESE PRODUCTIONS | WWW.MWP.COM

®

Screenwriter

“Lessons that make you a better writer overall. Highly recommended!”

2nd Edition

The Coffee Break
Screenwriter:
Writing Your Script
Ten Minutes at a Time

Pilar Alessandra

M I C H A E L

W I E S E

P R O D U C T I O N S

Published by Michael Wiese Productions
12400 Ventura Blvd. #1111
Studio City, CA 91604
(818) 379-8799, (818) 986-3408 (FAX)
mw@mwp.com
www.mwp.com
Cover design by MWP
Cover photo by Zoltan Tischler, www.bookpictures.eu
Interior design by William Morosi
Printed by McNaughton & Gunn
Manufactured in the United States of America
Copyright © 2010, 2016 by Pilar Alessandra
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means
without permission in writing from the author, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a
review.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Alessandra, Pilar
The coffee break screenwriter : writing your script ten minutes at a time / Pilar Alessandra.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-1-615932-42-9
1. Motion picture authorship. I. Title.
PN1996.A48 2010
808.2’3--dc22
2010018798

Printed on Recycled Stock

Contents

Introduction ����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������xi
ABOUT THE SECOND EDITION��������������������������������������������������������������������� xii
How to Use This Book������������������������������������������������������������������������ xiv
CHAPTER 1: The Story������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 1
EMOTION TELLS THE STORY �������������������������������������������������������������������������� 2
CHARACTER FLAW TELLS THE STORY �������������������������������������������������������� 3
PREMISE TELLS THE STORY���������������������������������������������������������������������������� 7
SECONDARY CHARACTERS TELL THE STORY������������������������������������������ 9
COMPLICATION TELLS THE STORY������������������������������������������������������������11
SYNOPSIZING TELLS THE STORY����������������������������������������������������������������12
RESOLUTION TELLS THE STORY������������������������������������������������������������������14
PLOT AND CHARACTER ELEMENTS TELL THE STORY ����������������������16
YOU TELL THE STORY��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������17
CHAPTER 2: The Structure �������������������������������������������������������������� 21
FEATURE STRUCTURE MADE SIMPLE�������������������������������������������������������22
TV PILOT STRUCTURE MADE SIMPLE ������������������������������������������������������23
ORGANIZING YOUR STORY����������������������������������������������������������������������������24
THE STRUCTURE SHEET���������������������������������������������������������������������������������25

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CHAPTER 3: The Outline����������������������������������������������������������������������34
THE SEQUENCE BEAT SHEET ����������������������������������������������������������������������34
THE BEAT-SHEET REWRITE����������������������������������������������������������������������������40
THE SCENE LIST��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������49
SCENE BRAINSTORMING��������������������������������������������������������������������������������55
FINDING SCENES THROUGH SETUP AND PAYOFF����������������������������59
CHAPTER 4: The Characters����������������������������������������������������������67
CHARACTER FLAW/SKILL BALANCE ����������������������������������������������������������67
CHARACTER SPECTRUM����������������������������������������������������������������������������������68
CHARACTER BIOGRAPHY��������������������������������������������������������������������������������69
CHARACTER MAKES AN ENTRANCE����������������������������������������������������������71
CHARACTER RULES ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������72
CREATING GREAT ANTAGONISTS����������������������������������������������������������������82
CHAPTER 5: The First Draft������������������������������������������������������������84
SCENE INTENTION ��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������84
QUICKIE FORMAT ����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������87
THE SPEED DRAFT��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������89
SCRIPT DEVELOPMENT: ADD NEW SCENES������������������������������������������91
SCRIPT DEVELOPMENT: BUILD ON EXISTING SCENES������������������101
SCRIPT DEVELOPMENT: ADD YOUR VOICE����������������������������������������� 108
CHAPTER 6: The Dialogue�����������������������������������������������������������������114
VERBAL AGENDA����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������114
VERBAL STRATEGY��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������115
DIALOGUE AS A GAME����������������������������������������������������������������������������������121
FINDING CHARACTER VOICE����������������������������������������������������������������������127
CHAPTER 7: The Rewrite�������������������������������������������������������������������� 131
THE CONCEPT PASS���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������132
THE WORLD PASS��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������135
THE STRUCTURE PASS����������������������������������������������������������������������������������136
THE STORY PASS����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������139

C o n t e n ts

THE
THE
THE
THE
THE
THE

SCENE PASS��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 143
CHARACTER PASS��������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 146
DIALOGUE PASS��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������158
FORMAT PASS����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 162
ELEMENT PASS��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 168
HOLISTIC PASS��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 169

CHAPTER 8: The Craft ������������������������������������������������������������������������ 174
CHOREOGRAPHY IN ACTION LINES��������������������������������������������������������174
FIGHT SCENES ��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������175
EMOTIONAL ACTION LINES ������������������������������������������������������������������������177
THE “TELL” OF THE SCENE��������������������������������������������������������������������������179
THE BUTTON������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������181
SCENE TRANSITIONS������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 184
NARRATIVE DEVICES�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 186
CHARACTER AND SETTING DESCRIPTIONS ����������������������������������������191
ESSENCE PLUS ACTION������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 193
TONAL WRITING����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 194
CHAPTER 9: The Final Edit��������������������������������������������������������������198
GENRE-INTENTION EDIT ����������������������������������������������������������������������������� 198
LINE-CUT EDIT ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 201
STORY-INTENTION EDIT������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 204
SCENE-TRIM EDIT ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 206
THE GENERAL EDIT ��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 206
CHAPTER 10: The Presentation�������������������������������������������������� 210
PROTECT YOUR MATERIAL ��������������������������������������������������������������������������210
PERFECT YOUR LOG LINE����������������������������������������������������������������������������211
DEVELOP YOUR TV SERIES��������������������������������������������������������������������������213
PITCH YOUR SCRIPT����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������216
THE PERSONAL PITCH ����������������������������������������������������������������������������������227
MARKETING MATERIALS��������������������������������������������������������������������������������230

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CHAPTER 11: The Opportunity����������������������������������������������������236
NETWORKING����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������237
NEW MEDIA������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 242
VIDEO GAMES, GAME SHOWS, PROMOS, AND REALITY TV������� 244
WHAT IF THEY LIKE ME? ����������������������������������������������������������������������������� 245
THE LONG PITCH ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 246
Fade Out����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������249
Writers’ Thoughts on Taking Ten ��������������������������������������250
Acknowledgments ����������������������������������������������������������������������������� 268
Author Biography ������������������������������������������������������������������������������270

Introduction

Y

ou’ve got ten minutes. No, really, that’s all you’ve got. After
all, you had to use your lunch hour to feed yourself. You
had to get to that meeting. You had to make that phone
call. You had to get the kids in the bath. There were things to do,
and no time to do them!
But now you’ve crammed your lunch in, sat through the meeting
you don’t know why you took in the first place, and cleaned up
the kids. You’ve managed to take a deep breath and sit down for
a second and focus … perhaps for ten whole minutes. Perhaps,
even on your screenplay.
Remember your screenplay? That wonderful, visual story that
you’ve been dying to finish … or just start. The one you keep nagging yourself to write every time you leave a movie theater and
think, “I can do that!”
You think you need days, weeks, years that you don’t have. You
think you need to study theory, create long outlines, and carefully
pick each word before it even hits the page. You think you’ll never
have the time to even consider an idea, let alone write it. And
you’ve only got ten minutes. Ten lousy minutes.
Good enough.
If only every screenwriter were as lucky as you. Ten minutes
gives you the “ticking clock” every writer secretly needs: a deadline.
As a screenwriting instructor, I’m an advocate of in-class writing
work that gets people writing in the moment. I give students ten
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minutes to write entire scenes, and they often create masterpieces.
I’ve also seen what can happen when I give writers the additional
five minutes they beg for: they overwrite. They think too much.
They fix what ain’t broke, and they write themselves into a corner.
Fortunately, you only have ten minutes. You have no choice but
to create work that’s spontaneous and fresh. You just need some
help to learn to use that time well.

ABOUT THE SECOND EDITION
A funny thing happened on the way to writing this second edition of The Coffee Break Screenwriter. That funny thing is called
“The Second Golden Age of TV.” Between the first edition, written
in 2009, and this edition in 2016, television dramas and comedies such as Mad Men, Homeland, Breaking Bad, Orange Is the
New Black, Veep, Silicon Valley, Game of Thrones, House of Cards,
and The Walking Dead dominated conversation and made “bingewatching” a national pastime. The hunger for more content and
high-quality TV fed alternative platforms like Netflix and Amazon.
And with more platforms came the need for more writers.
Suddenly, writers saw TV as a place they could build a world,
stretch their character arcs, and potentially find a long-term career.
Managers and agents increasingly asked for original pilots as both
potential script sales and as writing samples.
As a huge fan of TV myself (there’s a Breaking Bad Heisenberg
decal on the front of my laptop), I began teaching television writing
out of my writers’ studio in L.A. I used and added to the screenwriting tools I taught in my feature classes and was happy to discover
that most of the writing tools in the original Coffee Break translated
seamlessly. The only major change was letting go of a slavishness
to feature act breaks. In this edition, you’ll often see Act 1, Act 2A,
Act 2B, and Act 3 replaced with what they really stand for anyway:
Beginning, Middle (part 1), Middle (part 2), and End. These four
parts apply to any scripted medium including webseries. I’ve also

I n t r o ducti o n

added writing tools that expand upon the world of the script. I’ve
additionally provided new exercises that bring dimension to character relationship. Toward the end of the book, I’ve updated pitch
templates and story examples. I even updated the pronouns to
reflect what is beginning to be a more even playing field of male
and female writers and main characters. Since the first edition, I’ve
met and heard from hundreds of writers — both beginning and
professional — who said The Coffee Break Screenwriter streamlined
their process, helped them finish their scripts, and made them
better writers. This edition intends to build on that success, making
the writing tools accessible for all mediums: feature, TV, and web. I
hope you’ll enjoy this second edition as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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How to Use This Book

T

his book will help you use your stolen ten minutes of time
to make real progress on your screenplay or television
script. Each chapter focuses on a different phase of the writing process: THE STORY, THE STRUCTURE, THE OUTLINE, THE
CHARACTERS, THE FIRST DRAFT, THE DIALOGUE, THE REWRITE,
THE CRAFT, THE FINAL EDIT, THE PRESENTATION, and THE
OPPORTUNITY.
This second edition has also allowed me to incorporate new
and additional television-writing tools. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re
writing a feature script or a television pilot, the chapters will help
you each step of the way.
Within these chapters there are subsections to help you work
through each phase. As you move through, you’ll also see “Take
Ten” writing tools and exercises. These have been created to help
you move through the writing process quickly and efficiently, ten
minutes at a time. When a “Take Ten” exercise comes up, try it out.
Not every tool is going to work for every writer. But you should be
able to find at least one new thing that will help you to brainstorm,
outline, expand, or polish your script.
At the end of each “Take Ten” exercise, you’ll see a summary of
“What You’ve Accomplished.” This should remind you that you actually have moved forward in your story — despite the short amount
of time in which you’ve worked. “You’ve finished something,” they’ll

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say. “So don’t go back and make it perfect. Turn the page and do
something else!”
And, from time to time, you’ll also come across a “Ten-Minute
Lecture.” These are meant to quickly distill and demystify current
screenplay theory or common screenwriting language.
If you’re just beginning a new project, I’d suggest following along
chronologically, using the book to build your story from concept to
finished script. Even if you’ve already written a screenplay or pilot,
you’ll find outlining tools and writing tips that will streamline your
process.
If you’re a writer who only needs help with certain areas of your
script, feel free to jump from chapter to chapter. Even skipping
around, you should find a writing tool that will work for you.
It’s up to you. All I can tell you is that time is wasting, so start
writing! You’ve only got … well, you know!

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The Story

T

his chapter will help you to brainstorm your idea, shape it
into a story, and hone it into something script-worthy. We’re
going to build from character flaw, nail the hook of your
movie or TV pilot, make decisions about the middle, experiment
with the ending, and then see what happens when we put it all
together. Not every brainstorming tool will be the one that cracks
your story open. But at least one of them will. And when it does,
keep working from there!
Getting Past Brain Freeze
So you’ve carved out that ten minutes, but now your brain is frozen.
What was it you were going to write again? It was about that guy
who did that thing in that place, right?
Well, believe it or not, that’s a start!
TEN-MINUTE LECTURE:

THE KEY INGREDIENTS OF EVERY MOVIE or T V PILOT
A movie or pilot is usually about a MAIN CHARACTER with a
PROBLEM who engages in an ACTIVITY with STAKES hanging
in the balance.
END OF LECTURE

While you have ten minutes, let’s put these elements in order
and see what you come up with.
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TAKE TEN:
THE OVERVIEW
MAIN CHARACTER
What kind of person is he or she?
PROBLEM
What difficult situation occurs?
ACTIVITY
What does he or she do about it?
STAKES
Ultimately, what does he or she have to lose?

WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
By listing some central elements, you’ve begun to figure out your story.
Add a couple of other ideas into the mix and you’ll see it take a clearer
shape.

Emotion Tells the Story
Every screenwriting teacher has a theory about story.
Here’s mine: Action triggers emotion. Emotion triggers action.
Honestly, that’s it. In screenplays, you can’t have one without
the other. And it’s important, as you go through these tools and
build your screenplay, that you keep in mind how married these
two things are. After all, who cares about a major event in a movie
like a bomb going off or a car chase or a haunting or a wedding
unless we get a chance to see how that bomb, chase, haunting, or
wedding affects a character?
And how can we invest in what a character is actually feeling if
we haven’t been privy to an event that drove her to that emotional
place?
Action shows us the story. Emotion pushes the story forward.

The

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Story

TAKE TEN:
EMOTION + ACTION = STORY
Start your main character off on an active, emotional journey by asking the
following questions:
In the beginning of my story, this event occurs: ��������������������� .
It makes my main character (MC) feel this way: ��������������������� .
So he does this: ����������������������������������������������� .
But that makes someone else do this: ����������������������������� .
That event makes MC feel: �������������������������������������� .
So MC does this: ���������������������������������������������� .
Keep asking these questions and see how much story you can invent in
your ten minutes.

Character Flaw Tells the Story
Don’t you wish you had someone who could just tell you what
your script is going to be about? Someone who could come up
with plot points and scenes and save you all of that planning work?
Fortunately, you do. You’ve got your main character (who we’ll call
the MC). With the right questions and exploration, that main character can often reveal his or her own movie story.
That’s why we’re going to start the writing process by taking a
hard look at the person you think may be your main character.
We’re going to figure out what that person is like before he or
she hits page one, what his or her flaws are, how those flaws can
launch a story, and how personal rules might pay off in interesting
plotting and scenes.
So, let’s start with your main character — “that guy who did that
thing.” If that guy is at all interesting, it’s because he is human, fallible … flawed. Oh, your character doesn’t have a flaw? Well, mess
him up. Get his hands dirty. Perfect characters are boring. Flawed
characters are like us, and that’s what viewers respond to.
Flaws don’t have to be “fatal” — they can simply be human.
Anger, arrogance, and selfishness are flaws that often start a

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character off on an intriguing rocky road. But sweetness, humbleness, and charity carried out to the extreme can also be flaws.
What would It’s a Wonderful Life be like if the MC wasn’t restless? What would the movie Whiplash have been like if the MC
wasn’t obsessed with his goal? What kind of a journey would
Sophie’s Choice have taken if the MC wasn’t in denial? What would
Sideways have been like if the MC wasn’t a drinker?
In Cast Away, William Broyles, Jr. wrote a story about a man
ruled by time. He even gave the man a flaw-related job: FedEx
supervisor. Then he simply stranded this man on an island, an
island where he had all the time in the world.
Instant movie.
Let’s see what trouble your flawed main character can get into
and out of. Answer the following questions and see what movie
develops.
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TAKE TEN:
THE MAIN CHARACTER FLAW BRAINSTORM
First, determine the flaw of your character. Then, discover his story by
asking the following questions:
1. K 
eeping your main character’s flaw in mind, what’s the WORST
SITUATION he could find himself in?
2. What is the FIRST ACTION your MC would take?
3. How might that action BACKFIRE?
4. W 
ho is the LEAST LIKELY PERSON who might help the MC or team up
with him?
5. What NEW ACTION might that person push the MC to take?
6. Who or what might GET IN THE WAY of this new activity?
7. How might the flaw of the MC turn into a SKILL?
8. W 
hat SURPRISING FINAL ACTION could be taken that is the least likely
thing your character would have originally done?

WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
You may have just structured your entire movie or TV pilot!

The

Story

Character-Driven Structure
How did you structure your entire script by answering a few questions about your character’s flaw? Well …

Questions 1–3
In a movie, Act 1 usually ends when a character creates a problem
or makes an existing one worse. It’s not just that something terrible
happens to him or her. The way that flawed person takes action
as a result of that event is usually the more interesting act break.
He or she makes the wrong choice and, ultimately, the adventures
within the movie lead to a better one. In a TV pilot, a main character has the same tendency, though that bad choice might launch
an entire series (such as Breaking Bad).
Question 4
In the first part of Act 2 for a movie, or Acts 2 through 4 for a TV
drama, the main character often works directly or indirectly with a
supporting character. This builds a relationship, creates a B-story,
and gives the MC someone to interact with. Making that character
the “least likely” choice builds tension. Will these two characters be
able to achieve a goal while also managing their personal conflict?
Question 5
The supporting character in a movie, or the ensemble of characters in a TV show, are often the outside influence that causes the
main character to take a new action or begin to change. Supporting
characters aren’t there just to support; they’re there to change the
game. They push; they come up with new ideas, they influence. By
the end of a movie, or by the end of a series, these new actions
may also force your character to confront his or her flaw and start
thinking differently.
Question 6
In the second part of Act 2 for a movie, or Acts 3 through 5 for
a TV drama, an opposing force often shakes things up by trying
to prevent the main character from achieving a goal. This is the

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antagonist … the bad guy. But sometimes it’s a force of nature, or
even the MC’s own flaw. Sometimes it’s a mixture of all three! The
key to this section is remembering to use the antagonistic force to
create a challenge for the MC. Keep us worrying and wondering!

Question 7
Now we’re in Act 3 of your movie or Act 5 of your TV drama. So,
how will your character ever get out of this situation? Well, your
character always had a distinguishing characteristic: his flaw. Perhaps
that could actually be of use and translate into a skill. Selfish =
­survivor. Loose cannon = risk taker. Obsessive = k­ nowledgeable.
The goal in a movie is not to abandon what makes your MC interesting, but to use those traits to help. Looking for a key to character
development? There it is. In TV, the skill/flaw marriage is played out
week after week. The character of Don Draper from Mad Men is a
hard-drinking womanizer who also happens to be a great ad-man.
Rarely do we imagine that he could be one without the other.
Question 8
By script’s end, your MC has learned from his or her journey not
to make the same mistakes as the first time. In short, to do the
least likely thing he or she would originally have done. In a movie,
we see the MC make the correct choice instead of the wrong one
made at the Act 1 break. With this new approach, he or she finally
solves his or her problem. In TV, a procedural uses this same tactic
to solve problems all the time. By making a new choice, a character loses his or her blind spot with a suspect, and the real killer
is revealed. In a half-hour comedy, a character usually has to “fix”
a mess he or she has made as well, and making the right choice
is one way to do it. But don’t be quick to completely “solve” the
problem if this is an episodic or serialized drama. You might need
an entire series to get there!

The

Story

Premise Tells the Story
So, now that you know who your character is and what trouble he
or she gets into … exactly what is your movie about?
Most writers try to reach for the stars when asked this question.
“It’s about man’s inhumanity to man,” they answer.
“It’s about the universal search for love.”
“It’s about the need to put others first.”
No, really, what is it about? What’s the big idea? In short …
what’s the log line?
What’s that perfect, one-line synopsis that will make studios
throw money at the movie and have audiences lining up at the
theaters?
Drawing a blank? Here’s a trick, and it’s actually going to take
less than ten minutes. Just ask yourself one question: What’s the
“what if” question of my movie?
“What if” an ordinary man fell in love with a computer operating
system?
“What if” an out-of-work actor gets the gig of his life … as a
female soap star?
“What if” a high school girl is forced to choose between her love
for a vampire and her friendship with a werewolf?
“What if” a man ages backward, growing younger as the love of
his life grows older?
Of course Her, Tootsie , Twilight, and The Curious Case of
Benjamin Button are high-concept movies, meaning that they can
often stand on concept alone to bring in the big bucks. But the
“what if” can be found in smaller character-driven and “slice-of-life”
movies as well. If it’s really a movie, there’s a big idea in there
somewhere. In fact, you probably began this project because you
imagined something that no one else has imagined.
“What if” a respected mathematician’s top-secret government
project is really a schizophrenic delusion?
“What if” the midlife crisis of a suburban father leads to murder?

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With A Beautiful Mind and American Beauty, we think high drama
rather than high concept. Yet, in each case, the writer has found
the big idea within the story and exploited it.
A Beautiful Mind, for example, could have just been about a
noble mathematician who struggles against a mental illness. But
would it have gripped audiences? By focusing on the imagined
top-secret project, the writer creates both a suspense movie and a
character play.
American Beauty was also wise to frame its story as a thriller. A
midlife crisis movie on its own, but pitch it as only that and you’re
going to have a producer falling asleep in his sushi. Add the twist
that this crisis actually leads to the character’s untimely death, and
you’ll start a bidding war.
In The King’s Speech it was the high stakes that helped turn
up the dial on its premise: “What if” a future king must overcome
his stutter in order to give a rousing speech that will convince his
country to fight Nazi oppression?
So, let’s find your “big idea,” the special premise that makes this
story worthy of being on screen. It’s there!
Come up with your own “what if?” question for your movie or
TV series. Remember to focus on the hook. What makes your story
unique? Is it the clash of two opposite characters? Is it the unconventional approach the character uses toward solving a problem?
Or is it the problem itself — a situation never before seen on the
big screen?
Thinking.
Thinking.
You may be dwelling on Act 1 when you try to find your hook.
But you should also feel free to explore other areas of your script.
“I see dead people,” for example, wasn’t revealed until the midpoint of The Sixth Sense. And that was the hook, without question.
Got it? Good. Here goes:

The

10

Story

TAKE TEN:
FIND YOUR LOG LINE
What if ������������������������������������������������������� ?
See the big idea in that one sentence? Didn’t think you could boil it down
like that, did you?
Now, scratch off the “what if?” so you turn your statement into a workable
log line.
What if ������������������������������������������������������� .

WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
The log line is the cornerstone of your script. By defining the big idea —
the hook — you’ve given yourself something to build on. From here, you
can take your idea and run with it.

Secondary Characters Tell the
Story
It’s been said that every character in a movie thinks the movie is
about them. The first time I heard that, I thought, “Of course! Why
should characters in movies or TV shows be any less self-centered
than we are?”
A villain doesn’t know he’s the villain — he thinks he’s the hero.
He believes some good-looking guy with more screen time is
simply getting in his way. A romantic interest doesn’t know she’s
just “the girl” — she thinks she’s running the show.
Modern-day kids’ movies are often based on this idea. Turn the
typical bad guy in a children’s story into a hero by looking at the
story from his point of view, and you’ve got an instant hit. Shrek
follows the Ogre’s point of view in a princess story; Monsters, Inc.
looks at the story of monsters who scare children. And Despicable
Me is literally about the trials and tribulations of the world’s greatest villain.
Pixar, in particular, has a great way of building entire worlds from
even the most seemingly minor character’s point of view. It thinks:
“What if” the toys in children’s rooms came alive? ( Toy Story)

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“What if” insects had a society of their own where humans and
birds were obstacles? (A Bug’s Life) “What if” the inner feelings of
a young girl had feelings of their own? (Inside Out)
Turning a story around from a secondary character’s point of
view makes for great grown-up films as well. Bridesmaids is told
from the point of view of a maid of honor. The Queen looks at
the story of Princess Diana’s death from the point of view of her
mother‑in‑law. The Departed is so rich because it focuses equally
on the lives of two men on opposite sides of an undercover mob
sting. And Game of Thrones works so well because it richly weaves
in the stories of every character in its world, no matter how seemingly minor. (Did you catch the turn with Littlefinger in Season 4?
Oh my lord!)
By discovering the individual stories of your supporting and
opposing characters, you’ll discover their character arcs and find
new depth in your script. You may even find a better script idea.
You’re still in the brainstorming stage, so it’s worth taking ten minutes to try it.
10

TAKE TEN:
YOUR SECONDARY CHARACTERS’ LOG LINEs
What if ����������������������������������������������������� ?
Love interest log line
What if ����������������������������������������������������� ?
Mentor log line
What if ����������������������������������������������������� ?
Best friend/family member log line
What if ����������������������������������������������������� ?
Antagonist log line
WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
By seeing the script through the eyes of the other characters, you’ve seen
them as richer individuals with their own stories. If, indeed, you’ve found
out that the more exciting story to tell is that of another character, don’t
worry. It’s early enough in your writing process to make a new choice.

The

Story

Complication Tells the Story
A well-written log line pushes the reader or listener to want to
know more about your script. The inevitable follow-up question is:
“And then what?” What happens next? Where do you take the story
from here?
So, I put it to you:
And then what?
You don’t know? Time to brainstorm the major complication of
your story. If your log line is “a troubled therapist discovers that his
twelve-year-old patient sees dead people,” the “and then what?”
would focus on what problems occur as a result of this power.
In the case of The Sixth Sense, problems occur when the dead
people threaten the boy’s sanity and the case threatens the therapist’s marriage. Notice that these “problems” all stem from the
antagonists: the “dead people.”
Ask yourself what problems occur for characters once you’ve set
up the premise, and you’ll probably discover that they’ve been created by your antagonist, a.k.a. your bad guy. Who might want to
prevent your hero from doing what he or she wants to do? What
villainous steps would that person take? That’s your complication.
And it’s often the answer to “and then what?”
Sometimes, of course, problems can occur because of the intrusion of your supporting character. Falling in love can be a positive
complication, but it’s still a complication. In Crazy, Stupid, Love,
problems occur when the supporting character who’s been teaching the lead character to pick up women actually falls for his
own daughter. In Juno, complications occur when Juno becomes
attached to the couple that intends to adopt her baby.
Sometimes, problems occur because of the flaw of your main
character. And that’s a good thing. That flaw is only really useful if it
comes back from time to time to shake things up. In The Silence of
the Lambs, problems occur when Hannibal Lecter forces Clarice to
confront her psychological demons, causing her to weaken in the

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face of the serial killer. In (500) Days of Summer, main character
Tom Hansen’s romantic nature and obsession with falling in love
cause him to continually push to make a failing love affair work.
It’s time to brainstorm your own story complication. By doing
so, you’ll find your midpoint event and spin it in such a way that
it heightens your script, giving it that extra “oomph” it needs to
reinvest the reader and the audience.
10

TAKE TEN:
DISCOVER COMPLICATION
Find the big complication of your movie story or TV pilot:
Problems occur when ������������������������������������������ .

Now heighten it.
Don’t be afraid to go to extremes.
What’s the worst thing that could happen?
What’s the most emotional thing that could happen?
What’s the most genre-worthy thing that could happen?
Problems occur when ������������������������������������������ .
List two more complications. Don’t forget to think about your supporting
characters and what they’re going through.

Problems occur when _______________, ____________, and
____________.
WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
You’ve thrown a wrench into your character’s story and forced him or her
to deal with new problems that heighten the second act. By dealing with
clever complications, characters earn their happy endings. If the journey is
easy, it isn’t a movie or TV show.

Synopsizing Tells the Story
Thanks to your brainstorming character, you have a sense of your
story. Creating a log line has helped you find the hook, and creating complication has expanded that idea into a movie or TV pilot.
But we’ve done this all in pieces. Now, we want to see how the
story feels when we describe it briefly with a simple beginning,
middle, and end.

The

Story

Use the Brief Synopsis template to get you there. Notice that the
“Solution” section presents different options. Feel free to use one
or more of these.
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TAKE TEN:
BRIEF SYNOPSIS
PREMISE WITH HOOK:

(What if) ������������������������������ ?

COMPLICATION:

Problems occur when ������������������������ .

SOLUTION:

This leads to the discovery that ���������������� .

OR
Fortunately, ��������������������������������� .
OR
Tragically, ���������������������������������� .
Use descriptive, active language to help you see your movie. Characters
don’t just feel; they do! Use verbs!

Example: The Wizard of Oz
(What if) A restless girl is hurled by a tornado into a magical world and
discovers that the only way she can get home is to seek help from a
powerful wizard. Problems occur when an evil witch sabotages her and
her new friends: a brainless scarecrow, a cowardly lion, and a tin man
without a heart. Fortunately, the group melts the witch, proving that they
have the brains, courage, and heart to solve their own problems.
Example: Breaking Bad (pilot)
(What if) A chemistry teacher with lung cancer enlists one of his students to
help him cook and sell meth with him so that he doesn’t have to saddle his
family with medical bills. Problems occur when he antagonizes drug dealers
who connect him with his DEA agent brother-in-law. Fortunately, the teacher
is able to mix chemicals that immediately gas the drug dealers and kill them.
This leads to the teacher’s discovery that power and financial gain might be
within his grasp.
WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
A beginning, middle, and end are nothing to sneeze at. In movie terms,
those are your first, second, and third acts. For TV, you’ve covered the
major beats to write your pilot episode.

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Resolution Tells the Story
It’s difficult to begin your story until you know your ending. This is
particularly important when it comes to creating the pilot episode
of a TV series. The ending of your pilot launches the entire series.
So knowing what needs to be established by that point is pertinent.
By the end of …
THE WALKING DEAD: We know that zombies are everywhere.
Deputy Grimes is on a quest to find his family. Grimes’s wife is
now sleeping with his best friend.
BREAKING BAD: We know that Walt has committed to cooking
meth with Jesse. He’s already pissed off local drug dealers. He
enjoys the power.
30 ROCK: We know that Tracy is now a fixture at the show and will
certainly cause problems. Liz Lemon’s new boss has usurped her
power and will probably continue to do so.
THE BIG BANG THEORY: It’s established that Sheldon, Leonard,
Howard, and Raj bond in nerdy ways. We also discover that Leonard
has a huge crush on Penny and will continue to pursue her.
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TAKE TEN:
ESTABLISH YOUR LANDING POINTS
1. By the end of my script, this event needs to happen: 
��������������������������������������������������������������
2. By the end of my script, this relationship needs to be established: 
��������������������������������������������������������������
3. By the end of my script, this secret needs to be revealed: 
��������������������������������������������������������������
4. By the end of my PILOT script, this series goal needs to be established: 
��������������������������������������������������������������

WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
You now know your endgame so that you can start outlining toward that
end.

The

Story

While it’s great to know what’s going to happen at the end of your
script — your sweethearts get married, your cop gets the robber,
your good guy defeats the bad guy — how all that happens can be
a challenge.
Remember that audiences invest their interest and their money
in a movie or TV series in order to discover how a character will
solve a big problem. Wimp out with that solution and they’ll shut
off the TV or demand their money back.
Many writers do know what the big discovery will be for their
character; they just don’t know how to get there. Often, the answer
can be found in the small, clever details — what I call the trigger
moments — that lead to the big revelation.
In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the entire story is
turned around by one honest moment in which Charlie returns the
top-secret new candy he’s been asked to steal. His act of honesty
triggers the third-act reward.
In Casino Royale, James Bond is asked about funds he was supposed to transfer, triggering his realization that the love of his life has
betrayed him.
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, main character Joel
Barish is given the cassette tape that talks about his former girlfriend, triggering him to reclaim his memories.
In Homeland, the nervous tapping of fingers causes the lead
character to believe that a war hero is actually sending coded
messages to a terrorist enemy. Again, it’s a small moment — and
ultimately a false lead — but it’s a “trigger” for the main character’s
revelation.
Discover your script’s major trigger by working backward from
the big revelation.

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TAKE TEN:
WORK BACKWARD TO FIND YOUR ENDING
1. S 
tart with the final reveal: What does the character discover that is most
painful, shocking, surprising, or delightful?
2. Where did that person discover it?
3. What physical clue led him or her to that place?
4. What was said that triggered the character to search for that clue?
5. What event occurred that caused that character to speak the line?
6. What problem occurred that created that event?
7. How did the main character’s own actions create that problem?
8. What goal did the main character have that caused him or her to
behave badly enough to create this problem?
9. What circumstances in the main character’s world inspired that goal?

WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
By asking these questions, you should have at least one new way of
moving toward your big revelation.

A sequence of clever details that push a character toward a truth is a
much more interesting journey than one in which he or she simply trips
on the answer, or worse, is just told!

Plot and Character Elements Tell
the Story
Use ten more minutes to review your elements by putting them
on one page. Use this page as a constant reference tool to remind
you of your original intentions for your project.

The

10

Story

TAKE TEN:
INTENTION SHEET
Use this sheet to sum up your “take ten” exercises so far.
Main Character Flaw
Log Line
Secondary Character Log Line
Major Complication
Revelation Trigger
Fortunately/Unfortunately Ending

WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
You’ve created a guide that will keep you on track as you outline, write,
and expand your script.

You Tell the Story
All of the work you’ve done — finding your character-driven story,
discovering your structure, using a “what if?” question to find your
hook, building on the hook to find the complication, and working
backward to find your ending — should have helped you to create
a real movie story or TV pilot in your mind.
Additionally, as a veteran moviegoer and TV watcher, you already
have a story sense that helps you as a writer. And as a person who
tries hard not to be boring, you’ve become a master storyteller. You
relate funny events to your friends and coworkers, reminisce with
your loved ones, and tell bedtime stories to your kids.
In fact, the next template uses the language and simple beats of a
bedtime story to help you tell your movie story. You don’t need fancy
film terms to create an outline, just a rich beginning, middle, and end.
This template is somewhat long since it works through your
entire movie or TV pilot. To deal with it in ten-minute increments
of time, it’s been divided into four sections to equal a beginning,
middle (part 1), middle (part 2), and end.
If you get stuck on a blank, just move on to the next section. Or,
it may mean that there’s an obstacle or activity that’s missing from
your movie. Make something up and see what happens!

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TAKE TEN:
DESCRIBE YOUR MOVIE LIKE A BEDTIME STORY
Ten Minutes:
BEGINNING
Once upon a time, there was a ���������������������������������

main character (MC)
who was ��������������������������������������������������� .

character flaw
When ________________ happened, he or she ������������������� .

obstacle flaw-driven strategy
Unfortunately, ����������������������������������������������� .

screw-up
So the MC decided �������������������������������������������

goal
and had to ������������������������������������������������� .

action that begins a new journey

WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
You’ve set up the character by describing him or her as a flawed
(translation: human) person. You’ve also triggered a big movie- or seriesworthy problem by having your own main character make an unwise
choice. This helps move that character forward in the story.

Ten Minutes:
MIDDLE (part 1)
In order to take this action, he or she decided to ����������������� .

strategy
Unfortunately ___________________________ happened, which caused

obstacle
����������������������������������������������������������� !

complication
Now he or she had to ____________________ or risk ������������� !

new task personal stake

The

Story

WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
You’ve set goals for the MC with potential to lead to a variety of interesting
adventures. Then, by the midpoint, you’ve created a major complication
that forces the audience to reinvest in the character and her story.

Ten Minutes:
MIDDLE (part 2)
Where the MC once wanted to �������������������������������� ,

old desire
he or she now wanted ��������������������������������������� .

new desire
But how could that happen when ������������������������������ ?

obstacle
Filled with __________________________, the MC ���������������� .

emotion new action
But this only resulted in �������������������������������������� .

low point
WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
You’ve used your antagonist to mess things up for your main character
and fooled the audience into thinking that there’s no way out. This will
make Act 3 — when your main character solves the problem — feel like
even more of a victory.

Ten Minutes:
ENDING
Fortunately, this helped the MC to realize ������������������������ !

the solution
All he or she had to do was ����������������������������������� !

action using new lesson
Using __________________, _________________, and ������������ ,

other characters skills tools from journey
the MC was able to ������������������������������������������ .

victorious action

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Unfortunately, ����������������������������������������������� .

final hurdle
But this time, he or she �������������������������������������� !

clever strategy
This resulted in ���������������������������������������������� .

change in situation
WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED
You’ve drawn from your MC’s journey, using the characters, skills, and
resources obtained along the way, to help solve the problem. Just to make
sure it doesn’t end too neatly, you’ve added a final hurdle, a staple of
modern structure, to give the screenplay one last hitch.

To get here, you made up a story on the spot — filling in the blanks as
you went. If any of the beats don’t work for you, just replace a word.
Doing so may change the whole story!

TEN-MINUTE CHAPTER REVIEW:
STORY

1. Brainstorm the central ELEMENTS and EMOTION of the story.
2. Find a CHARACTER-DRIVEN STRUCTURE through the character’s
FLAW.
3. Commit to concept by creating a “WHAT IF” LOG LINE.
4. Discover the second act by creating a COMPLICATION.
5. Decide on a beginning, middle, and end by writing a BRIEF
SYNOPSIS.
6. BRAINSTORM BACKWARD to discover the ending you’re working
toward and work back from the reveal to “trigger” the solution.
7. Get a sense of the flow by describing your movie like a BEDTIME
STORY.