Stephen J.

Cannell LECTURES ON SCREENWRITING
DISCIPLINE Trust me, it's okay to write garbage. You can learn from bad writing. Don't try to be brilliant; it's a standard that you most likely will never attain, and if you're trying to be brilliant, the most common by-product isn't brilliance, it's pretentiousness. Writing is not that hard. Make up a good story, then let it flow. Leave the brilliant work to the dead. The only other thing I want to say about getting ready to write is that it is very important to write at the same time every day. Two hours at the minimum. Writer friends of mine sometimes alibi, "I can't do that, I have a job driving a truck. I gotta be at work at eight." Okay then, get up at four. Write from five to seven, then go to work. You have to make a place in your day for this activity or it will NEVER happen. The one great thing about writing is that you will always improve! With each script, short story or novel, you'll get slightly better. The ones you write next year will be better than the ones you wrote this year. Keep going and your talent will grow, but you have to be at the keyboard for that to happen. @@@@ Choosing Your Story Choose a story you absolutely love. Don't write for money. Write because you have to get this one down on paper. Don't settle for second best. Make this one promise to yourself: Once I have worked out my story and have started to write it, I will not stop until the project is finished. NO QUITTING halfway through because "it's not working." This is my second most important rule, which I call the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE RULE. @@@ DESIGNING THE CHARACTERS
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Nobody likes a perfect person! All of my TV heroes have been flawed. Remember. It is important to do thorough preparation and research.. If you are going to write him as the complex monster that he was. For example. In his mind. The challenge is not to write truth.Who are the people in your story going to be? Why do I care about them? Will anybody else? What is the journey my hero/heroine is on? What is his or her major flaw? These are just a few questions to ask before laying out a character arc. You want to have engaging characters that are not perfect. 2. Here are some additional tips that I believe can help you become a better writer. and belong in comic books. Finding the motivation for the villain is extremely important. this was valuable social retribution. despite the fact that he was one of the most infamous villains' mankind has ever seen. @@@ WHO ARE THE VILLAINS? Make sure they are fully rounded. Hitler thought he was performing a service to mankind when he gassed six million Jews. 1. you have to do a different kind of research in order to get into the character's mindset and make her ring true. but to write seductive 2 .whatever it may be. Heavies who twist their moustaches and know they are evil are cliches. Be an "expert" in your subject matter. The point is to really know your subject -. This applies whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction. Make him or her a believable character. not genocide. If you are writing a current thriller from a female African-American's point of view and you are a white male. Show that he believed he was a hero. A good antagonist will help to define the protagonist. obviously you will have to do extensive research on a particular time period if you are writing a historical romance.. you must see inside that twisted logic. @@@ OTHER THINGS TO THINK ABOUT.

But some kind of conflict is usually necessary. 3. STORY COMPRESSION: Particularly in a screenplay or teleplay. In good stories. Remember.do I really need all this detail? Does it advance the story . Try to take us into a unique world . We don't bond with them. thus they are incapable of taking us along on even the most exciting roller-coaster story ride. 7. internal conflict. emotional conflict. and fiction begins. A screenwriter should look for places to integrate his/her screenplay with toe-to-toe. eyeball-to-eyeball CONFLICT: social conflict. in my novels: a Presidential campaign. yes. brilliant "roller-coaster" in the world. physical conflict. "perfect" people are not likeable! 6. 4. too. A great scene often accomplishes several things at once.g. so the characters lack depth. You may write a story about a man in solitary confinement who never has interaction with anyone except a prison guard and still have conflict which could be interesting to read about. conflict and foreshadowing.. go back and ask yourself: What can I cut to make it cleaner and clearer? Am I showing off my research to the reader . You can have the most complex.e. but if the reader/audience isn't "hooked" emotionally to your main characters." 5. it is important to write economically. psychological conflict. Most writers don't spend nearly enough time on character. cultural conflict. He/she must be likeable enough to entertain and intrigue us.) One of the things I tried to do in Riding The Snake was to weave the facts I found in my research about Hong Kong Triads and illegal immigration in with my fictional tale so that even a sophisticated reader cannot tell where research leaves off. spiritual conflict. but flawed enough to have the potential to learn and grow. they won't be "along for the ride. Conflict is crucial in maintaining the reader's interest in the story and in the characters.we should learn something new while we're being taken on a journey and entertained. con artists. (The art of verisimilitude.or is it just plain boring? Look at 3 . After you write your scene or chapter. skillfully weaving together elements of plot. character. Chinese Triads .BELIEVABILITY. and/or. Look for opportunities of compression without overloading. relationship conflict. computer hackers. Do it in one scene instead of four. you start out with a likeable Hero(s) who have psychological and moral flaws.

BE CAREFUL! Collective protagonists or collective antagonists. 10. who are not potential lovers. TONE: Tone more commonly requires CONSISTENCY from start to finish. you risk jolting the audience/reader out of the experience. Realize that trying to write movies like American Graffiti. so just beware of the risks. THE TICKING CLOCK: Often." but the resourceful writer digs deep to locate a method and a place for integrating a meaningful one into the story. within a certain period of time. don't switch to a comic tone halfway through. it is better when starting out not to break it. Of course. 8. Here I felt the risk of fractionalization was worth it because of the relationship dynamic that exists between Beano and Victoria in King Con. thus adding another level of emotion to the story. a clever writer plants a time lock. if you are writing a horror short story. and becomes more and more creepy as the tale goes on. of course. the atmosphere starts out perfectly normal. Although this is another of those rules which can sometimes be broken by advanced writers in specific situations. 9. and between Wheeler and Tanisha in Riding the Snake. Furthermore. moody ghost story.Stephen King is a genius at this. build upon the tone in the story . COLLECTIVE PROTAGONISTS: Sometimes a story contains more than one Hero. An example of a ticking clock would be the movie Armageddon.your work with an Editor's eye. You can. King Con and Riding The Snake are both examples of this. where the team had only a short time to blow up the asteroid. If you change or mix tone mid-stream. and cut accordingly. a structural device requiring some specific event to occur. This serves to compress the story's tension. It is hard for the audience to get emotionally involved with too many characters. Remember tone and atmosphere when you are writing. But he doesn't switch to a romantic-suspense tone halfway through: he simply builds on the original tone of the piece. whether it is a fresh-air. or some particular problem to be resolved. The Big Chill or Pulp Fiction is an extremely challenging undertaking. or all of mankind would be destroyed when it hit Earth. This gives an underlying tension to the entire movie. not all stories lend themselves to a "ticking clock. For example. 4 . wholesome action adventure or a gothic. and incur the risk of FRACTIONALIZATION. usually early in the story. In several of his stories. are by nature a genuine hazard to solid story structure. a love story is being integrated.

however. to tense. (If you must use a coincidence. TOO PREDICTABLE: Predictability can often lead to great suspense." with plots that are well-written and events that are skillfully orchestrated. or knowing somebody is going to do just that? On the surface it might seem that the former is more unsettling. Don't throw a subplot in just because you feel you need one. the effect is all the more shattering for its predictability. (This is especially important in mystery writing. the latter causes the audience to tighten. SUBPLOT: Creating good subplots is sometimes a difficult skill for a novice writer to master. one key rule is that the subplot should in some way affect the Hero's story. of course. developments. than in dialogue). 12. a clear set-up. A good subplot has turning points. you are writing a farce where the entire story may be based upon coincidence after ridiculous coincidence. because the victim has no time to prepare. Which has more sustained tension? To walk down a corridor absolutely unaware that someone is going to jump out from behind a door. PREDICTABLE VS. Remember: just as a main plot line has a three act structure. audiences seem more willing to accept coincidences in action. Traditionally. And when it arrives." If you are going to use a subplot. and a resolution at the end. For example: Who is the subplot character in Hamlet? Laertes. subplots are used to compare the Hero's approach to a problem to another character's approach to the same problem. However.11. Often the turning points of a subplot reinforce the plot line by occurring right before or right after the turning points of the main plot. Depending on the subgenre. Son of Polonius. A subplot must relate to the main plot or to the main characters in a way that is interesting and sheds a new light on the main story situation or it will merely be distracting.) Most readers or viewers resent a dependence upon coincidence because they understand it for what it is: a writer's laziness. what the critic truly means is that it is TOO predictable. to flex every muscle in terrible anticipation of what is to come. When a script is criticized as predictable. mystery fans often feel cheated when they plot or mystery is too transparent) Even a good story may be launched or resolved by a coincidence. (Unless. 13. Laertes has to deal with the same problem as Hamlet: "In thy visage do I see myself reflected. COINCIDENCE: Audiences and readers expect movies and novels to be "special. so does a subplot line. The challenge is to walk the line of predictability. in general the writer should strive to avoid relying on coincidence to resolve a story or to provide a solution to a puzzle. 5 .

14. 15. MOMENTUM: There is nothing worse than a story that really drags. How will your Hero be enlightened and changed at the end of the story? F. What don't you like about your main character? C. When each scene propels you emotionally and logically to the next scene. for example. and doesn't hold the reader's or the audience's interest. You may discover they have little traits and habits you weren't even aware of when you started. If you don't have an increasing motive. The theme is the central underlying idea/message/ morality/ philosophy/weighty issue. that you believe in and are trying to express and intelligently weave into the fabric of the story. By that time the audience is eagerly anticipating the confrontation at the climax of the story. the main character is held down by who he was in the beginning. so that they flow logically (this also applies when you are doing prologues and flashbacks. until finally there is no avoiding the central confrontation between the Hero and Villain. Why do you like your main character? B. leading the audience both intellectually and emotionally to the climax of the story. 16. 17. What is your Hero wrong about in the beginning concerning himself? G. THEME: A good story can work on multiple levels.) Make sure that each of your scenes has a purpose and is necessary . Your scenes should be connected in a cause and effect relationship. etc. 19. Get to know your main character by asking some questions about him or her: A. What does your Hero have to learn about how he interacts with other people? E. THE HERO'S "GHOST" OR BACKSTORY: The Hero's moral flaws and weaknesses are usually dependent upon something haunting him/her 6 .. THE HERO'S CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: Character profiles can be very helpful for beginning writers. a deeper level is theme. Ideally. What are the moral flaws of your Hero? D.it must either advance the action. the crucible that the Hero goes through becomes more and more intense. MOTIVE: You need an increasing motive for story and character to expand. create anticipation or show an important event or highlight on one of the characters. In an action thriller. as well. you have story momentum. the theme should expand as the Hero and Opponent come into conflict. What intermediate insights is your Hero going to have along the way? Keeping a profile of your main characters can help you flesh them out and make them seem real.

are expressions of what they have become. moral and/or situational. it should reverberate throughout the story and the Hero must struggle to overcome it. Thus.) Signature lines are most popular in television and movies. because you want your Hero(s) to have a dramatic range-ofchange. it is advantageous to have your protagonist(s) be in some kind of trouble. we meet WHEELER at the country club bar. SIGNATURE LINE: A "signature" line of dialogue is one that is repeated throughout the story and may take on greater significance as the story/stakes expand. The incidents increase the Hero's DESIRE to obtain the 7 . though. we often see the hardbitten hero wisecracking his way through a dangerous situation with a favorite signature line. (e. If the ghost is effective. in Final Victim. (In Riding the Snake. Hannibal's often repeated line: "I love it when a plan comes together. dank garbage barge. we meet THE RAT in a dirty. the ghost takes place in the prologue. the incident(s) in Act I cause the Hero to form a goal and compel him to deal with the problem. and if they are clever.) 21. 23. can be a great addition to a show." was his signature. but often the audience won't see the actual events comprising the ghost. THE PASSIVE PROTAGONIST: Be careful of creating a story and Hero where too many important external events happen to the Hero and He/She ends up merely REACTING as opposed to boldly acting. often events and experiences that occurred before the actual story begins. but may just hear about important things in the Hero's past from other characters when they talk about the Hero or from the internal dialogue going on in the Hero's head). (Hamlet is the exception that proves this rule. we end up with a rather weak and passive Hero who has no plan of action. (In King Con.: In the A-Team. 22. is DEFINING THE PROBLEM. In Act One. Don't overdo it. 24. In hardboiled detective novels. whether it's psychological.from the past. Overcoming a challenge or a problem is a classic way for a person to grow emotionally and mentally. Sometimes the world/environment which the Hero and Villain are surrounded by when we meet them.g. and it takes a writer of William Shakespeare's stature to pull this off. INITIATING INCIDENT: If Act I.) Be aware of the surroundings of the main characters and let the surroundings subtly tell the audience more about the character. 20.

INTRODUCING AN ALLY: Drama needs someone else for the Hero to express how he feels. a workable goal brings the protagonist in direct conflict with the goals of the antagonist. This relationship can provide a very entertaining dynamic. 30. 28. Carol Bates. while also providing great insight into the primary Hero. the ally is allowed to point out the lead character's foibles and follies. Joe Rina. Beano's cousin is killed. Particularly in a screenplay. Thirdly. THE GOAL: The goal is an essential part of drama. and the criminal case against Joe Rina is dismissed. or Jim Rockford's dad to Rockford. THE VILLAIN'S ALLY: Although of course not present in every good 8 . But not just any goal will do. The sidekick has had a place in fiction since the form was invented.) 25. then increase the MOTIVE. Whether it is Captain Hastings to Hercule Poirot. In order for a goal to function well. 29. there are 3 incidents: Beano is brutally beaten by Mob boss. 26. it should try to meet three main requirements: First of all. (In King Con. Sidekicks fall into this category. Watson to Sherlock Holmes. something must be at stake in the story that convinces the audience that a great deal will be lost if the main character does not obtain the goal. If you want your Hero to increase his DESIRE. (In King Con. Ideally.) 27. Beano's desire for revenge against the Rina Brothers greatly increases after they murder Carol. you need to accomplish a great deal of important FOUNDATIONAL story work in the first 30-40 pages of your screenplay. it is important to put the preceding steps in motion early because you need DENSITY OF STORYTELLING. thus instigating change in the Hero's attitude or actions. This character is often a "Truth-teller" who understands the Hero's moral and psychological weaknesses and is not afraid to point them out. The Villain can help define the Hero. the Hero expands in terms of stature and quality as the Villain evolves from prospective opponent to actual opponent. Secondly. These are all very powerful motivators for Beano and Victoria. The ally can also be used to convey information that you want the audience to know. the goal should be sufficiently difficult to achieve so that the character changes while moving toward it.goal and impel him forward.

) 34.. compels the Hero to "enlarge". The concepts are the same regardless of the genre in which you write. In King Con. and/or before. or near the end of Act One. in turn. HERO'S FINAL EPIPHANY ABOUT VILLAIN: At this point the Hero gets the final piece of information He needs to do battle with the Antagonist. (example: Johnny K. The Villain's power and intelligence. 33. I think Willy is particularly strong because he has a vision. during and/or after the final battle. In Riding The Snake. he may not even learn who his real enemy is until the Final Revelation. 31. then creative and resourceful improvisations to deal with the various attacks and counter-attacks escalating toward the final climactic confrontation. Hero encounters "Hell": When this occurs is flexible and can happen more than once. 32. in Riding The Snake.story. a perfect example of this is when Beano discovers that Carol has been murdered. we can learn about his power and vision and moral arguments that help define his motivation. An "antagonist in motion" creates suspense and excitement. but comes to like and be influenced by the Hero. the Villain's Ally is torn. the Vichy police captain in Casablanca) By nature. the Villain's Ally is often a very interesting character. 35. It can come at the end of Act Two. (Joe Rina and Willy Wo Lap are examples of powerful. and I tried to make him a very layered character. the revelations that propel Wheeler and Tanisha into Act Two occur at the Pacific Rim Society. Each time the Hero learns something major (and it must be MAJOR otherwise it's not going to be a powerful enough revelation) it should kick your story up to a higher level of energy. desire and motivation. and in other genres. where they learn that the stakes of their investigation may be international. came from poverty. In a mystery. (In Riding The Snake the dangerous journey into 9 . By opening a window into the Villain's "world". THE PLAN: The Hero needs an intelligent plan of how to beat the opposition. otherwise He will be defeated. intelligent Villains. someone is usually trying to win someone else's love and a "villain" is usually standing in the way. this information may reveal the true stature of his nemesis. FIRST EPIPHANY: The Hero's first major revelation usually occurs at. He or she is secretly working for the Villain. Even in a love story..

and learning when to fight and when to be tolerant. often with a visit to death. and after you have completed a first draft and are trying to spot the problems and areas of weakness. This self-revelation will either destroy our Hero or make him stronger and give him new light. a narrow gate. Notice two common themes in good drama: The problem of personal identity and discovery. and the encounter in the drain under LAX. Apply these story suggestions while you are outlining.) During this dangerous encounter.. Perhaps has to navigate through a gauntlet. ****** Don't let this excessive list of "Dos and Don'ts" make writing seem more complicated than it is. 36. A tragedy if at the end the Hero is "destroyed" instead of made stronger by the revelation. A radical self-revelation may change the Hero's whole sense of who he is in one moment. an increasingly intense crucible. HERO'S SELF-EPIPHANY: This should strip the Hero bare in some emotionally powerful and revealing way.. the Hero is often moving through a constricting space. while you're writing your story. Remember: writing should be fun. Trust your instincts and use this list to troubleshoot problems when they pop up.the Walled City. That's it for now. 10 . the shattering experience of seeing himself as He really is. in King Con the Heroes "visit to death" occurs up in the hills at The Presidio.