Sunday, May 07, 2006


Does Hollywood look for a certain sort of storytelling? Is there a specific kind of structure that Hollywood expects?

If you're referring to studio movies, there is a certain story structure prescription. That doesn't mean a writer should not deviate from it. However, this basic dramatic structure is the language Hollywood uses. If you want to work in Hollywood, it only makes sense to understand this common knowledge. Of course, having a solid understanding of how this works allows a writer to break through the barriers and explore more atypical ways to tell stories.

I'll break this down into THREE SECTIONS.

1) A look at how the MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION helps to unify the parts of the story.

2) A definition of the important parts of the story.

3) An example of 1&2 in action.

Screenwriters choose to tell a story dramatically. In order to tell a story dramatically, the writer must use conflict. Conflict is when two or more forces come into opposition. Conflict is drama. Your story must be told using conflict as the delivery method.

How can you ensure that conflict drives your story and characters forward?


A screenplay is full of goals. At every moment, characters are constantly struggling to fulfill goals. It’s when the character – in pursuit of this goal – clashes with an antagonistic force – that conflict is created.

There are two types of goals:


A physical goal is active, visual, and easier to film. Because of their external nature, physical goals are often referred to as external goals.

An example of a physical goal: a father must save his son from kidnappers.

A psychological goal is not visual by nature, and more difficult to film. Because of their internal nature, psychological goals are often referred to as internal goals.

An example of a psychological goal: a widower must cope with his wife’s sudden death.

Some goals play a major role in the story, and others play minor roles.

In THE WIZARD OF OZ, minor goals would be:

the scarecrow wanting a brain
the tin man wanting a heart
the lion wanting courage
Dorothy and friends wanting apples from the talking trees
the witch wanting the ruby slippers, Dorothy needing the witch’s broomstick.

The major goal in the wizard of oz is Dorothy’s desire to return to Kansas. It is this major goal that establishes the story.

Without Dorothy’s goal to return to Kansas, there is no dramatic story in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Her “tornadic” ride to Oz is not the dramatic story – merely the set-up. The dramatic story doesn’t truly get underway until Dorothy sets out to find the Wizard in her pursuit to return to Kansas.

In JAWS, the shark that kills tourists is not the dramatic story. It isn’t until Sheriff Brody’s goal is established – to kill the shark – that the dramatic story begins.

Erin Brockovich’s new job at the law firm is not the dramatic story. It isn’t until she sets out to prove wrongdoing from PG&E that the dramatic story begins.

There should be one major goal. (If you are telling several stories – like Magnolia – then each story has a major goal.)

The major goal always belongs to your protagonist.

The goal must be active – not reactive.

The major goal should be very specific – not vague. (Vague goals plague many screenplays.)

The coach wants a winning season is vague.
The coach wants to win the state championship is specific.

The major goal should be introduced by the end of the first act of your screenplay. No later. (If the dramatic story doesn’t begin by the end of the first act, your script could be tossed aside.) No earlier. (Your story could run out of steam too early.)

The major goal is never achieved until your climax – which occurs at the end of the third act. The movie ends when your character achieves his goal.

The stakes for achieving this goal must be life and death (literal or figurative.)

As a writer, this major goal is important because it enables you to shape your story. Every scene should be a cause and effect of the protagonist’s pursuit of this goal. Once the goal is established, the story revolves around fulfilling that goal.

This major goal must be utilized when crafting a log line or pitching your story idea.

A lonely farm girl finds herself in the mysterious land of Oz is not a pitch. It is not a log line. There is no drama suggested here.

However, when the goal is included, the concept takes on conflict and scope:

When a lonely Kansas farm girl finds herself in the mysterious land of Oz, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard who can help her return home.

A pitch or log line without this major goal will not suggest a dramatic story. It’s an immediate red flag. In order to convince someone to keep reading your screenplay, you want to create suspense/intrigue/tension.

Questions create intrigue.

Raising questions throughout your script will create a desire within the reader to continue to turn the pages to learn the answers to these questions.

In crafting your dramatic story, think of your goals – major and minor – as questions. Shape your story around these questions.

Dorothy’s goal to get back to Kansas would be converted to a question:

Will Dorothy get back to Kansas?

Questions create tension.

Instead of Sheriff Brody setting out to kill the shark, convert it to:

Will Sheriff Brody kill the shark?

Instead of calling it a major goal, we’ll call it a MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION.

Minor goals – for the purpose of crafting your story – should also be thought of in terms of questions. We’ll call these MINOR DRAMATIC QUESTIONS.

If your major dramatic question is based on a physical goal, like Dorothy’s and Sheriff Brody’s, you have most likely devised a hero-based story. All action movies are hero-based. For the most part, these are the stories Hollywood is more likely to gravitate toward.

If your major dramatic question is based on a psychological goal, like Timothy Hutton’s in ORDINARY PEOPLE or Kevin Kline’s in LIFE AS A HOUSE, you have most likely devised – what I call – a slice-of-life story.

A slice-of-life story is character driven. Slice-of-life stories are often referred to as “character pieces.” They usually involve resolving some sort of dysfunctional relationship – like mother and daughter, for instance.

Ensemble pieces can be “slice-of life” like THE BIG CHILL or hero based like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

Your protagonist is not limited to either a physical goal or a psychological goal only. Screenplays should employ both: Dorothy’s physical (external) goal is to get back to Kansas. Dorothy’s psychological (internal) goal is to find her place in the world. Or:

Will Dorothy get back to Kansas?
Will Dorothy find her place in the world?

Although her psychological goal is very important, the story’s major dramatic question is physical because it is the true engine that drives the dramatic narrative. Her desire to get back to Kansas sets the story in motion.

In SIGNS, Mel’s physical goal is to protect his family from aliens. His psychological goal is to find spiritual peace.

Will Mel Gibson save his family from aliens?
Will he find spiritual peace?

Although his battle with aliens is basically a metaphor, it is the engine that drives the story. Hence, the major dramatic question here involves Mel’s saving his family from aliens.

In INSOMNIA, Al Pacino’s physical goal is to conceal the accidental shooting death of his partner. His psychological goal is to absolve his guilt.

Will Al cover-up the death of his partner?
Will Al absolve his guilt?

In MINORITY REPORT, Tom Cruise’s physical goal is to prove his innocence for a crime he has not yet committed. His psychological goal is to find closure regarding his son’s disappearance.

Will Tom Cruise prove his innocence?
Will Tom Cruise find closure?

However, it is his pursuit of innocence that is the major dramatic question, because it is the engine that drives the story.

Slice-of-life example:

In LIFE AS A HOUSE, a dying Kevin Kline wants to resolve the strained relationship he has with his son. That is a psychological goal. His physical goal is to build the house before he dies.

Will Kevin Kline resolve the strained relationship with his son before he dies?
Will Kevin Kline finish building the house before he dies?

Since this is a slice-of-life story, it is the psychological pursuit to resolve the strained father/son relationship that drives the story. Hence, the major dramatic question is psychological and not physical.

The use of a character’s physical goal and psychological is at its height when the two clash.

In MINORITY REPORT, Cruise’s physical pursuit of his innocence is constantly hampered by his psychological pursuit for closure involving his missing son. Cruise’s life revolves around his pre-crime police work; it brings him a vicarious sense of closure (because it spares potential crime victims the pain he has experienced), yet in order to prove his innocence, he must dismantle pre-crime.

The script reaches the zenith of drama when the character’s physical goal and psychological goal come into conflict with each other.

Remember, since psychological goals are not visual in nature, it is the screenwriter’s job to manifest this internal goal through drama and/or visual icons/motifs.

Mark Andrus, who wrote LIFE AS A HOUSE, uses the building of a house as a visual metaphor.

Once the goal (major dramatic question) has been established, a launching pad for the drama has been created. This goal will serve as the THROUGHLINE for your screenplay.

With this established, you structure your story using PLOT POINTS.

A PLOT POINT is a MAJOR EVENT in the script that spins the story around, gives it new life and new energy. (They are also referred to as TURNING POINTS.) These are STRATEGICALLY placed within the story for maximum impact.

There are TWO MAJOR PLOT POINTS: end of act one AND end of act two.

The INCITING INCIDENT, MIDPOINT and CLIMAX can also be considered plot points.

In a 120-page screenplay, we understand the first act to be 30-pages, the second act 60-pages and the third act to be 30-pages.


A scene or a sequence which give us insight into what the character is all about. (In SEA OF LOVE, we witness cop Al Pacino cut a crook some slack because the bad guy is accompanied by his son. This telling beat gives us a glimpse into Pacino's characterization, and it creates a likeability factor for the character too.)


An event that introduces the protagonist to the potential problem. This plot point is in act one.


The moment in the script when the protagonist commits to solve the problem by actively pursuing a goal. It is here that the MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION is introduced.


An event occurs wherein the character cannot give up his pursuit. It is a “no turning back point.” The bridge has been burned behind him (figuratively speaking), and he can only move forward. Often, this is manifested as a TICKING CLOCK. In classically structure romantic comedies, this is the point where the man and woman sleep together.


An event that depicts a massive loss for the protagonist. It appears as if the hero will not achieve his goal. This is the ALL IS LOST MOMENT. This is often referred to as the crisis because the protagonist is at the farthest possible distance from his goal.


The moment in the story when the hero has either succeeded or failed in achieving his goal. It is the HIGHEST EMOTIONAL POINT in the story. It is the moment of CATHARSIS. It is the moment the audience learns the answer to the MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION.

Here is an example of structure-in-use from David Mamet’s THE VERDICT. This is from the FINAL DRAFT dated 11/23/1981 (123pp). Close facsimiles of this draft can be read online for free.

LOG LINE: A drunken, washed-up attorney struggles against a goliath law firm to win a medical malpractice suit.



Galvin is introduced as an attorney lower than an ambulance chaser – he chases Hearses. He is a washed-up attorney- glory days long behind him. He is a drunk – who only seems to show signs of life when he is in a bar.


For physical/external storyline: MICKEY jolts GALVIN into consciousness, reminding him that he has five-days to prepare for the ONLY case on his docket. This is a definite money-maker that will ensure GALVIN some much needed income (page 6-7).

For psychological/internal storyline: GALVIN visits his comatose client in the nursing home. He comes to understand the severity and enormity of the case before him (page 8).


GALVIN decides to try the case, “I have to try this case. I have to do it, Mick. I’ve got to stand up for that girl” (page 31). NOTE: This is the point in the story where the goal is establinshed. GALVIN's goal is to win the case. A MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION is proposed: WILL GALVIN WIN THE CASE? The MDQ is the linchpin of the dramatic narrative – the purpose for which the story is being told.

We also understand his psychological goal: to find self-respect. His lack of self-respect was brought about in a jury tampering scandal that almost resulted in his being disbarred. (This is his backstory.) With his current medical malpractice case, he can do something good and meaningful. This internal dilemma can be proposed in the form of a minor dramatic question: WILL GALVIN WIN BACK SELF-RESPECT?



1) We meet CONCANNON (nemesis) and the massive law firm and resources that GALVIN must face (p.32).

2) JUDGE clearly a defendant’s judge. But GALVIN won’t back down. They are going to court(pp.40-44).

3) GALVIN terribly nervous during voir dire. Will he be able to perform during trial? (p. 44)?

4) CONCANNON launches media campaign to deify his clients and the hospital (p.46).

5) Plaintiff’s brother-in-law (DONEGHY) assaults GALVIN after learning a settlement check was offered but rejected by GALVIN (to pursue the injustice) without his knowledge. He will have GALVIN disbarred (pp. 47-49).

6) GALVIN’s star witness (DR. GRUBER) vanishes – bought off by CONCANNON (p. 52). GALVIN has no case.

7) The JUDGE refuses to give GALVIN an extension (p. 55).


GALVIN calls the insurance company with the intentions of taking the offer. His request is denied (p. 57)

This is a NO TURNING BACK POINT. GALVIN has no choice but to take this case in front of a jury.

He has been stripped of his star witness.
He is up against a law firm that can buy off people.
He must deal with a JUDGE who is against him.
He must face his distraught clients.
He must cope with a motion to have him disbarred.
He must also grapple with the idealistic notion that got him into this mess.

GALVIN has the wind knocked out of him. He even says, “I can’t breathe in here….” (p. 58).

Dramaturgically, this is a classic reversal. GALVIN even tells LAURA, “…We just had a small reversal in the case” (p. 59).

This mid-point increases the tension exponentially and gives the narrative a new energy and more momentum to sweep us to the plot point at the end of act two.



1) Find new “expert”: Second rate, “black” DR. THOMPSON (p. 64-66).

2) GALVIN must get MARY ROONEY to testify. He fails (p. 67-70).

3) DR. THOMPSON proves to be sincere but “lame.” (p. 71-73).

4) GALVIN says, “They’re going to kill me tomorrow” (p. 73). “I’m so frightened” (p.74).

5) GALVIN begins the trial without a prayer (p. 76). NOTE: The trial beings at a strategic place - halfway between MID-POINT and END OF THE SECOND ACT. This provides new energy and tension to act two – which often proves the most difficult act to sustain.

6) We learn that CONCANNON has a “good” source of intelligence feeding him vital, inside info (p. 78). NOTE: DRAMATIC IRONY or SUPERIOR POSITION is when the audience knows something the character doesn’t. This is a method of creating tension.

7) DR. THOMPSON and GALVIN get creamed in court (pp. 78-83).

8) GALVIN and the JUDGE have it out in chambers (pp 83-85).

9) GALVIN fails miserably with DR. TOWLER – learning that his client was anemic. It devastates his case (p. 88).


GALVIN’s best friend, confidant, and mentor (MICKEY) tells him, “It’s over” (p. 90). This is the “all is lost” point in the screenplay.

LAURA is the “mole,” providing intelligence to CONCANNON (p. 91). NOTE: This throughline, introduced on page 78, remains DRAMATIC IRONY – as the audience knows something that GALVIN does not.



GALVIN refuses to go down. “There are no other cases,” he pledges (p. 90). He follows a new lead: KATHY COSTELLO (p.93).


The FOREMAN declares, “Your honor, we have agreed to hold for the Plaintiff…” (p. 121). NOTE: The climax is the highest point in the story. It is the moment the answer to the MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION is revealed.


The MDQ is the THROUGHLINE. It carries us from the END OF THE FIRST ACT through to the CLIMAX. The dramatic narrative builds to the climax – which is the dramatic and emotional pinnacle of the story. It is the moment of cathartic release.

RESOLUTION/FUTURE PROJECTION (a hint at what the future has in store for our hero)

The jury wants to award MORE than requested by plaintiff (p. 122).

GALVIN has won his case against all odds – re-igniting his career. He turns his back on LAURA (pp. 121-122). We also understand that he has won back self-respect. This answers the minor dramatic question proposed in the first act: WILL GALVIN WIN BACK SELF-RESPECT? His defying LAURA and his big win suggest the answer to this question is YES. He also finds the meaning of TRUTH. His faith in truth is restored - a major theme of the script. The journey has "changed" GALVIN. He is a different man at the end than he was at the beginning. This is his "character arc."

Drama transforms characters. In Hollywood, hopefully for the better.

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