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Home to Tom Provosts Film Seminars, rewriting do's and don'ts, and script consulting services.

Rewriting Dos & Don'ts

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1. Keep the audience in mind

Tom Provost

After reading countless screenplays in the course of many years in “the biz” — looking for projects, giving notes to people, doing script doctoring, etc – perhaps the most recurring thought I have both during and after a read is “Who does the writer think really wants to see this?” It’s a tough and painful question to ask yourself, particularly with a pet project, but before you start your first major rewrite, ask yourself this question:

Does the audience really want to sit through your story on a Friday night after a long week at work?

Think about a coal miner who may see one movie a year. What does he want to see? There’s a reason The Hangover does a lot better than a documentary about, well, coal mining. This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t write something daring or different or dramatic. Then the question is, “Can you tell this particular story in an entertaining way?” There is a reason movies such as Schindler’s List, The Help, Million Dollar Baby, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty make over 100 million dollars. The filmmakers took difficult subject matter and found a way to make the stories entertaining And, yes, even Schindler’s List is entertaining in that it tells a compelling story about a complex character that is suspenseful, energizing, at times witty and continually keeps the audience leaning forward. The movie going public consistently surprises the studios with its ability to see new and original movies… if they are entertaining.

I’m not saying you can’t write your personal pet project about a difficult subject. Not every movie has to be The Hangover, a movie I absolutely loveNot every movie needs to make 100 million dollars. That’s not what I’m saying. But even an indie feature shooting for small distribution needs to engage some part of the movie-going public. The most difficult of stories have to keep the audience leaning forward. Otherwise, you shouldn’t ask people to spend precious time and money watching your story.

Keep the audience in mind!

2. Say in one page what you originally said in three

Tom Provost

Be concise. Repeat it with me: Be. Concise. Even if it means losing your best scene, many dazzling lines of dialogue, your favorite jokes or some riveting moments, condense, combine, toss out.


Example: the very first draft of Alien has many of the elements we know and love. It’s recognizable as Alien. (And this original draft has drawings and diagrams, very cool!) As first drafts often should be, it is talky; first drafts are for getting everything, anything, on the page. That makes for a long slog, however. The “dinner/chest burst” scene happens at page 70! That’s a long wait. In the final draft, though, this scene happens on page 49, a very big difference. The final version of the script is tighter, it moves faster… and even more happens! Because the writers condensed so much, in subsequent drafts they were able to weave in more plot. The entire subplot with Ash (Ian Holm), for instance, is not in the original draft. By being concise, there was time for an additional subplot that added more complexity and depth to the story. By rewriting and rewriting — combining scenes, shortening speeches, honing lines, tossing even good material out – more story is told in a shorter period of time.


Another great example is also from Alien. After Ash goes berserk and is revealed to be a robot, Ripley and the remaining crew hook Ash back up to get needed information from him. (This is a ‘go to school moment’: see upcoming Rule #9.)  The original version of the scene is pretty long, close to ten pages. This occurs late in the screenplay where a long expositional scene would stop the movie dead. But the problem is that all the specific information in the scene has to be disclosed to the audience at this particular point.  What to do? Well, by ruthlessly rewriting and rewriting this particular scene, the writers were eventually able to convey in just a few pages what originally was imparted in close to ten. All the information comes out in a much shorter period of time.

This ain’t easy, folks. It takes rewriting your individual scenes and entire screenplays over and over and over again. But it works. Be Concise. You will write a much better screenplay.

3. Be harder on your characters . . . In fact, be ruthless

Tom Provost

If I was allowed only one piece of rewriting advice, it would be this one: Be harder on your characters. In fact, be ruthless. As writers, we continually pull back from ripping the rug out from underneath our characters for two reasons.

The first reason is a trap into which I step most every time: I fall in love with the main character and don’t want to see him or her get put through the wringer. I wrote a script once where the main character flipped out at his workplace and ended up getting suspended from his job for a couple of days. A friend read the first draft of the script and said, ‘Suspended? Why don’t you fire the guy? It’s a much better choice, more dramatic, and it creates more conflict.” He was right! I realized I was letting a lot of great story opportunities slide by because I liked the guy so much. Don’t let your love for your characters cause you to go easy on them.

The second reason we pull back is because the harder we are on our characters, the harder we are on ourselves, because as the writers, we have to think up smart and rational ways out of the problems we create. The more difficult the circumstances for the characters in the story, the more creativity it takes to untangle the problems.

Given being brutal to our characters creates problems for us as writers, why is it so important? Because the more challenging and devastating are the circumstances for the character, the more satisfying is the journey for the audience (#1! Keep the audience in mind.) Think of your favorite films. Are they benign, laidback rides? Or do the characters, whatever the genre, even be it a romantic comedy, get put through the wringer and have to struggle their way back?

My favorite examples are two outstanding films that are wildly different movies: Tootsieand Aliens.


In both movies — Tootsie one of the best screen comedies of all time, Aliens an absolutely gut-wrenching horror/action-thriller that is one of the best sequels of all time — the main characters, Michael Dorsey and Ellen Ripley, are step by step sent to absolute hell. Every time each character turns a corner, the absolute worst thing that could happen happens. And then happens again. When you think things simply can’t get any worse? Oh my, does it get worse!

Towards the end of Tootsie, for instancethere is a long series of events that occurs in a single night where Michael is thrown into horrible situations, each one cumulatively worse than the last. At one point he even says out loud, “This is a nightmare” yet the comic horrors continue to mount. It’s a dazzling display of pummeling the main character, made satisfying because he needs his comeuppance and also because it is uproariously funny.

In Aliens there is a long, slow buildup filled with intense dread, a wind up of sorts that finally launches with the appearance of the aliens themselves. Ripley and her companions then go on a relentless journey where each situation either figuratively or literally blows up in their faces. No one is spared. One great example is when Newt, the young girl, slides down an air vent, away from Ripley and Hicks, who race off to find her. When the movie shock cuts to Newt, the audience literally groans out loud in the theatre with fear, because we find Newt… chest deep in water! And of course, the worst thing that can happen does:


This is not even yet near the end, many more terrible things happen in the film, cumulating for Ripley in one of the great physical battles of all time.

In each film, it takes a lot of creativity and finesse for the writers to enable the hero to believably triumph. This creativity pays off enormously. Because the circumstances the writers come up with are so grueling, because each character endures the struggle and believably succeeds, each film is an incredibly satisfying ride for the audience. Hence the enduring popularity of both films.

A more recent movie I love that is also beautifully brutal to the main characters is Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (woo hoo, Brad Bird!).


Everything, and I mean everything, that can go wrong for our team goes wrong. And then goes wrong again. And when you think it can’t get any worse? Oh my, do things go horribly wrong again! Take just the extended sequence in Dubai, pictured above. These are efficient, smart, highly capable people yet everything goes terribly awry at every possible moment. Which forces the characters, i.e. the screenwriters, to be extremely creative in figuring out satisfying ways to thwart the villains. This means no cheating. Or leaping from “A” to “C” without figuring out “B”. When the circumstances as created are as difficult as any noted above, this is tough to do! So we often pull back thinking, “Well, it would be cool if the detonator actually went off! But then I have no idea what I could do to fix everything… so the detonator can’t go off.” When we think this way, our stories suffer for it.

Yes, being hard on your characters will make your writing life tough. You yourself may get a little nauseous experiencing the hell along with your characters. But your story will be so much the better for it and so much more rewarding for the audience. So when you rewrite, go after your characters with a mallet. Brutalize them, send them to hell. Both your characters and your story will be the better for it.

4. HDWK?? How do we know??

Tom Provost

When you give a lot of notes, you develop a shorthand. The abbreviation I use most isHDWK??, which means “How Do We Know??”  Most of the time it references details used by a writer to help convey character or reveal an important piece of information. Details are how we as writers convey information. Yet many of the details I encounter in screenplays are details an audience watching the movie would never catch or understand. Because people read screenplays rather than watch them, we often write things in our screenplays to help us move faster without worrying if it would work when filmed.

Take this description of a character I once encountered, the first time the character appeared:


A MAN enters the room. This is Mark Anderson. Tall and handsome, with a lopsided grin, Mark is a Harvard graduate, married for 15 years, the father of three children. A ruthless businessman, he will do anything to get what he wants.

I see this type of character intro constantly. Let’s translate it to the big screen. We, the audience, see this actor walk into a room. What do we see and what do we know? “Tall and handsome, with a lopsided grin”… so far so good, we can see that onscreen. But How Do We Know the rest? We don’t! This is information that must come out naturally on screen, which means it should emerge the same way in the screenplay.

Let’s examine each detail:

Harvard Graduate: Sure, he could be wearing a Harvard Sweatshirt… but that doesn’t necessarily mean he graduated from Harvard, he could simply be a fan of the school. I guess he could be wearing a Harvard ring, but that would need to be cited in the screenplay. As written, it’s a cheat for the writer to reveal it here. If the audience can’t know it, you should not yet cite it in the screenplay.

Married 15 years, the father of 3 children: Ok… “married” I can handle. This fellow Mark could be wearing a wedding ring, fine. But “Married 15 years”? HDWK?? There is no way an audience can know he has been married 15 years when he walks in the room, nor that he has 3 children. This, too, is information that needs to come out naturally in the screenplay in the same manner it would on screen, via dialogue or a family photo on a desk or any variety of ways. It’s a cheat to throw such information into the description, even as a shorthand, because what is on the page should be what the audience will experience.

A ruthless businessman, he will do anything to get what he wants: Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis could convey in a few seconds how ruthless Mark is, but unless you have the greatest actor in the world playing the part, that, too, is information the audience would never know at this particular point in time, unless we’ve heard other characters talking about him before he enters. (And then you don’t need to repeat it anyway.) Rather than lazily throwing that piece of information into the character description, the writer must use story, action and/or dialogue to convey the character’s ruthlessness to the audience. If it is important to the story that we know this immediately, then the writer has to create some kind of action or dialogue that will convey it immediately. Maybe he walks into the office and kicks a dog or throws his secretary out the high rise window. I don’t know, this is your problem as the writer of your screenplay! It’s a problem you must deal with if you want to write a kick-ass screenplay.

As far as I am concerned, the reader of your screenplay is the same as the audience sitting in the movie theatre. Which means everything on the page should then relate to what the audience in the theatre will see and experience. Which means if you need the audience to understand or ‘get’ some piece of information, you have to figure out a way to convey it in an honest fashion. Which is a challenge to any screenwriter’s storytelling ability.

Let’s look at a straightforward, simple example of imparting such information in the proper manner. One of the best films I’ve seen in years, a movie that deserves a much wider audience, is Warrior. Seriously, if you have not seen this movie, drop everything you are doing and go rent it right now. It’s that good. But Tom it’s about MMA fighting, I could not care less. No, seriously, see this movie, it’s not what you think, it is incredible.


Here is an excerpt from the first page of the screenplay, where two of the main characters are introduced:


PADDY CONLON (60) exits the doors of a run-down church holding a 12-STEP BOOK. He is followed by a cluster of other PEOPLE in the program and says his goodbyes.


Paddy grips the steering wheel with labor-calloused hands and drives over the P.J. McArdle Bridge and up a winding hill. He listens to “MOBY DICK” on tape as the last piece of daylight bleeds away. With rosary beads swaying from his rear view, Paddy turns and eases the Olds past row houses in a blue- collar neighborhood high above the city.


TOMMY CONLON (28), hard miles on a handsome face, sits on the stoop of an old row house in a wool watch cap and winter coat. A duffel bag is at his feet, a bottle of whiskey in a brown bag in his hands. He reaches into his coat pocket, pops a handful of prescription PILLS, and stares off into the approaching night.

Note that every piece of pertinent information we get about the characters, information that is important to the story (Paddy is recovering from addiction, he is a religious man, he is blue collar, Moby Dick means something to him – the inference left to us; Tommy has had a hard life, drinks freely, might have an addiction to pills) comes from specifics that will be seen or heard on screen. There are no cheats, no fill-ins. The writers do their work properly, giving us insight into the characters through action and details the audience will be able to glean immediately.

Character descriptions are the easiest way to explain the meaning of HDWK??, but it doesn’t stop with character descriptions. I see this problem all over the place when reading screenplays. An example of the proper use comes at the bottom of the first page of Warrior, immediately after the above:


Paddy pulls up to the curb in front of the house, clicks off the tape, kills the engine, and climbs out of the car. As he approaches the stairs, Paddy sees Tommy. Can’t believe his eyes.



Tommy gives a drunken, crooked smile.


What’re you doing here?

I was just passing through. Figured why

not have a belt with the old man. 

When Paddy pulls up to the house and sees Tommy on the stoop, a lesser writer would have written Paddy pulls up to the house and is surprised to see his son sitting on the stoop. That would get a huge HDWK?? from me in red ink because it’s a cheat. There is no way at that point we could know Paddy is Tommy’s father. Tommy could be anyone.

How do we find out their relationship? The dialogue: “Figured why not have a belt with the old man.” Now the work is done. The audience knows Paddy is Tommy’s father. What’s the next line in the screenplay? Father and son look at each other.  Now the writer can mention the relationship in the description. Because it has been established in real time for the reader/audience. Simple. Elegant. Excellent. Not a cheat.

Avoid the cheat. Avoid HDWK?? Whatever the piece of information is you need to impart, write it as audience will experience and understand it when watching the movie on screen, whether through visuals, dialogue or sound. Doing so forces us to be better writers, using action and detail to convey information rather than slumming with cheats in our descriptions

5. Disclosure of information is everything

Tom Provost

Disclosure of information, i.e. discovery, is the single most important aspect of storytelling. I teach an entire 8 hour seminar on this subject, so there is no way I can do it complete justice here… So, you know, come to my Cinema Language class. (Hey, I have to pitch it every once in a while, forgive me.) But I want to touch on Disclosure a little bit here, as it is indeed so vitally important for any story. Additionally, I will refer to it constantly in the rules to come.

Disclosure of Information is the essence of storytelling. It’s what keeps the audienceleaning forward, a catch phrase my students get sick of hearing. As a storyteller, that is your ultimate goal, keeping the audience leaning forward. I’m such a film nerd, if I am in a movie that is gripping me I am literally leaning forward in my movie seat. If there are not many people in a movie theatre, and I am having an incredible time, I’ll even get up and go stand at the back of the theatre, back against the wall, and watch from there for the rest of the movie. I get so fired up by good storytelling, I can’t sit still. But whether or not you are leaning forward physically, a good story will keep you leaning forward mentally. The story will keep you engaged. One misstep in Disclosure and the audience will begin to lean back and become disengaged.

In a nutshell, Disclosure of Information is the How, When and Why of Storytelling: How a piece of information is disclosed, when it is disclosed, both determined by Why this piece of information is being disclosed.


Understand, disclosure refers to everything, from such massive pieces of information as I see dead people”, revealed at exactly the perfect moment in The Sixth Sense to such seeming small details as sticking Michelle Pfeiffer or Maureen Stapleton in a red dress, inThe Fabulous Baker Boys and Interiors, respectively. And while there could not be two wildly different actresses, the effect in each movie is stunning. Every detail a great writer places in a screenplay is revealing something. If it’s not revealing something, it shouldn’t be there.


Let’s look, then, at How, When and Why.

How: The way you reveal inforation can be visual, such as the above-mentioned red dresses, or the hint of a fin in the water in Jaws. It can be a line of dialogue, such as “I see dead people” or an entire scene, such as the CIA scene at the beginning of Act Two ofNorth by Northwest (more on this scene below.) It can be a piece of action made by one or more of the characters, such as Mary Tyler Moore’s character Beth dumping her son Conrad’s breakfast down the disposal in Ordinary People or Russell Crowe snapping the top off a chair early in LA Confidential. All of this is disclosure, revealing plot points and/or character, and it is up to you, the writer, to determine the best ‘How’ for each particular piece of information you must impart. Note: often with how, it is less a choice of right or wrong  but instead finding the best how for that particular piece of information.

When: When the information is revealed is key. Let’s take The Sixth Sense. Imagine if we knew from the beginning of the movie that Cole sees dead people. It would be a completely different movie, much of the wonderful dread that develops in the first hour would be killed, as well as all kinds of engaging discovery. M. Night keeps us leaning forward because along with Bruce Willis’ psychiatrist, we want to know what the hell is going on with this little boy. Had M. Night revealed this piece of information too soon, we probably would have become bored with not enough discovery occurring. He certainly would have had to think of something else to keep us leaning forward. Revealing information too early, then, can cause the audience to lean back.


Yet at times you can hold off information too long. I had a very savvy movie friend who saw The Sixth Sense at a preview screening and knew nothing of the movie. He loved it, as we all did, but he noted to me that had “I see dead people” not come exactly when it did, he would have shut down and leaned back in his seat. He’d had enough of ‘what the hell is going on’ and needed the story to reveal that piece of information and then move on to something else. Which is exactly what M. Night did in that genius film.

A movie that held information out way too long, for me, is a weird and very ambitious movie from 2005 called Stay. It has an amazing pedigree: directed by Marc Forster, written by David Benioff, starring Ewan McGregor, Ryan Gosling and Naomi Watts. It’s a mind-bender of a film but waits until the very end to reveal everything. The movie was so confusing, which admittedly was part of the point, and became so obtuse, I ended up leaning back in frustration, not caring what happened. That was a film that, for me, waited too long to reveal information and it lost me. When is even more important than How. To soon or too late and it’s over.

Why: Why is what will determine how and when. Let’s look at two classic Hitchcock films,North By Northwest and Psycho, that evidence the effect of Disclosure beautifully. (Spoilers abound here.. you should have seen these two films already anyway!


Hitchcock, working at the peak of his powers, made these two films back to back in 1959 and 1960. They could not be more different… North By Northwest is in glorious wide screen color, is fast, funny and sexy, it’s a wildly enjoyable ride with a completely satisfying and audience pleasing ending. Psycho on the other hand, a film I could teach frame by frame it is so masterfully crafted, is black and white, has very little humor, and is a dark, disturbing trip into madness with a creepy and deeply unsettling ending that leaves the audience trapped in a vortex of chaos. Hitchcock’s use of disclosure is what creates two incredibly different films.

The why for Hitchcock is the effect Hitchcock wanted to have on the audience. Let’s start with North By Northwest. He wanted NBNW to be a big, fun, audience pleasing romantic thriller, which is what he delivered, the movie is a joyride start to finish. Because that was Hitchcock’s why, the movie has a very startling scene. The first act of the movie, while being a lot of fun, is a little edgier and more suspenseful than the rest of the movie, because we travel through the chaotic events of the first act mostly in Roger Thornhill’s (Cary Grant) perspective. We don’t understand what is behind the chaos Roger is experiencing so we are on edge. At the end of the first act, after the murder at the UN, we abruptly leave Roger’s world/perspective and cut far away to the CIA, where we find ourselves in a room with some CIA agents who… reveal all the mysteries of the movie! Everything is suddenly laid out on the table for us, there is no longer any mystery to the movie, save one card Hitchcock withholds for a big reveal later in the film. The first time I saw this on the late show in high school I was completely thrown by the scene as I watched it. Why would the filmmaker reveal so much so early in the movie?

Hitchcock knew that if he gave us all that information at that point, we would suddenly be way ahead of Cary Grant. When the audience has more information than the main character, we can feel superior and we tend to relax a little. It often lessens suspense. This CIA scene works that way here. Think about it.. had this scene not occurred at this point,NBNW would be a darker ride. We in the audience would be as lost as Roger all the way through. All the sex and comedy and fun of the movie would be colored by our confusion at what was occurring and our constantly wondering what was going on. By revealing so much information at this point, Hitchcock certainly risked losing us by revealing too much too soon. But it works here, not only because everything that happens afterward is masterfully done, but because Hitchcock knew his why. He wanted us to have an enjoyable, effortless ride, the 1959 version of a big summer blockbuster today.

The exact opposite is true of Psycho. Here Hitch’s why was that he wanted to scare the crap out of the audience, really get under the audience’s skin. So he reveals very little information, he keeps us, the audience, in the dark the entire time. Even when he gives us information, it is usually a trick, making us think we know one thing when the truth is something altogether different. Imagine watching Psycho if we knew from the beginning the big secret of the movie. It would be a very different experience, not nearly as disturbing.

In one film, then, Hitchcock gives us information early… why?  To keep us relaxed and having fun. In another film, he withholds information… why? To keep us on edge and disturbed. The why determines how and when. In NBNW we get the information revealed very perfunctorily, in one fell swoop, early in the film. In Psycho we get little bits and pieces, often in disturbing ways, and we don’t get the full picture until the end, after which Hitchcock then rips the rug out from under us again with a final scene that negates any comfort the explanation might have given us. How, when and why.

One more favorite example. I wrote in Rule 3 about Aliens, James Cameron’s brilliant sequel to Alien. The theatrical cut was a very unnerving experience for me. Along with The ExorcistAliens has one of the slowest builds of any horror thriller I’ve seen. I love a slow build, such incredible dread begins to develop. In Aliens, the theatrical cut, we stay in Ripley’s point of view the entire time. While we know, like Ripley, how terrible the Alien is, we know nothing of the world of the new planet to which she travels, a planet where bunch of terraformers have disappeared. By the time Ripley and the team of soldiers arrive on the planet and enter the seemingly abandoned compound, I found it hard to breathe, I was so on edge. We enter the compound knowing nothing of what is inside, not even what it looks like, and so we experience everything along with Ripley. It’s a hellishly suspenseful ride that finally explodes when the aliens attack deep in the bowels of the compound.

In the extended cut of the film that was later released, however, we cut away from Ripley and Earth early in the film and see an extended sequence of the life of the terraformers at the compound, before they disappear, and we see the beginnings of their downfall. This sequence is very well done, yet Cameron was right to cut it in the original release because, by seeing who/what/why at the compound before arriving with Ripley, by revealing that information early, it kills most of the dread and terror that occurs when Ripley and company enter the compound, because we have been there before already. We know things Ripley and the soldiers don’t know so we are not discovering things along with them. It’s a great example of the effect when information is revealed has on a story.

This is just a cursory look at Disclosure. We will return to it time and time again in future rules. But as you rewrite, think deeply about the effect you want to have on the audience, your “why” and use that “why” to help determine “how” and “when” you reveal every piece of information. So many times I will ask someone why a particular piece of information was revealed at a particular time in their story and they look at me with a blank face. Little if any thought was put into it. Disclosure of information is everything. It’s essentially all you do on the page. It will make or break your efforts. Master disclosure and you will master your story.

6. Master your world | Now is the time

Tom Provost

One of the most effective ways to figure out what’s going wrong with someone’s writing is to start questioning them about the world they’ve created. I often try it in a backhanded sort of way:

“There was a lot I liked about your main character (well, maybe not). Remind me, what is their apartment like? And what kind of car do they drive?” I get a blank stare.

“That was an effective scene with Rachel and Sally at work. What’s the layout of the office? And how employees work there?” Long pause.  “Layout? Employees?”


I am as guilty as any writer of being lazy.  We all can be lazy, particularly when it comes to detail work. Detail work is often a tedious pain in the ass. I continually find writers skipping the detail work about their characters lives and worlds because they think it isn’t going to matter.

If it isn’t going to make it into the screenplay, why should I worry about it?

It matters greatly. Writers who do their background work end up writing much better, more fully fleshed out stories than writers who don’t. This applies, certainly, to doing a backstory for every character. But that’s first draft work, even when you vomit out a first draft, which I highly recommend. You should always write out a detailed backstory of your characters before even a first draft. This is work that, before you rewrite, can be fleshed out even more or adapted to your needs. I love it when I need a certain plot point to occur, but am having trouble with it, then realizing if I massage the history of a certain character, suddenly the plot point can work. Fun stuff. Along with such character background work, it is imperative that you master the various worlds that exist in your stories. Now is the time.

Some people write about fantasy worlds, a la Lord of the Rings.  Some people write about real places, such as New York City. Some people write about fictional towns in real places, such as a made up small town in Texas. Whatever the milieu you decide to explore, you must know the world of your story down to the most specific detail. Which includes the worlds within your world. This does only just apply to imaginary worlds like Narnia or Hogwarts. In fact, I think it matters as much or more when you are dealing with the real world.


Let’s start with, Tootsie, one of the great screen comedies of all time, a movie I’ve referenced before in Rule #3Tootsie is a movie with a variety of worlds, every one of which has been thought out in great detail, details that then begin to both inform and deepen the story. There is first the overriding world of New York City. While Tootsie might not be as classic a New York movie as any number of Sidney Lumet or Woody Allen movies, it is a thriving backdrop to the film and the world of NYC is used to great effect. One such example being how taxis figure prominently into the characters lives. This is a detail the writers discover, which enables them to then use it to comic effect a number of times in the movie.

There is the world of the New York actor, also detailed brilliantly, setting the stage for the initial jumping off point of an actor, Michael Dorsey, being so desperate for work he dresses up like a woman, Dorothy Michaels, and ends up landing a part on a soap opera, Emily Kimberly. Which leads to the world of the soap opera. Any milieu in which you stick your character you yourself need to know better than anyone. In Tootsie, the writers (and actors) studied the world of soap operas in depth. They investigated this world until they knew every fact possible. Did every fact make it into the screenplay? No. But as the screenplay was crafted and then the movie filmed, these details helped flesh out the genius that ended up on screen.

Here’s an example of how your research can inform plot. We often see events occur in movies where we think, ‘That would never happen’ but it was apparent the writer had to get from ‘A’ to ‘C’ so he contrived an unbelievable event to bridge the gap. Bad writing. He probably didn’t do his detail work. In Tootsie, when Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) gets the part of the new female administrator of Southwest General Hospital, he meets and begins to fall in love with Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange), an actress who plays a nurse on the show. These two characters do not know each other, other than a couple of quick hellos and a fast scene in which they acted together. Yet the writers need a fast and believable way to throw them together so the story can continue. This is made doubly difficult by the fact she is dating the director of the soap and spends most of her time off set with the director, or with her baby at home. What to do?

Well, doing their research, the writers discover that soap opera work is grueling. For actors,  soaps are one of the most difficult jobs in the business. Sometimes actors on soaps have to learn 25-50 pages of dialogue over night, or more! Michael is believably reticent about approaching Julie, and were he to be aggressive at this point about pursuing her, it would make no sense and be a contrived plot device. Yet we need them together to further their relationship… what to do, what to do… wait! We know from our research how many pages these actors have to learn overnight. Many actors can move much faster rehearsing and memorizing together than alone. Aha! What if Julie asks Dorothy/Michael over to her house for dinner to rehearse for tomorrow’s scenes?


Thinking.  As she passes Julie’s dressing room: 

                     JULIE’S VOICE

          Some day, huh?

Dorothy moves to doorway.  Julie sips white wine.


          Does this happen often?


Every so often… We actually had to do it live once. You should have seen Van Horn’s face — of course, you couldn’t see Van Horn’s face — he was so panicked, they had to shoot him from the back. Dorothy… I know this is just what you want to hear but — we’ve got 26 pages tomorrow.  If you could find it in your heart to come over and run it with me; we could have something to eat.  I’m a born defroster. 

And so Dorothy/Michael goes to Julie’s apartment for what he considers ‘our first date’. And the writers have a believable reason, born from their detailed research, to get these two together.

Everything in Tootsie has been thought out this way, much of it based on detail work the writers did about the various worlds. Note how in the above dialogue they throw in a reference to taping live… Soaps? Tape live? It happens. And when the writers find out that can actually happen, it enables them to come up with a way Michael can get off the soap in one of the most hilarious finales on film.

(Note the writers also do their set up and payoff work here, an upcoming rule… knowing they are headed to a live scene, they subtly set up this possibility with a few references such as the above throughout the film, so when it finally does occur, we don’t think it some wild plot device, it seems believable.)

Tootsie abounds brilliantly with detail work that adds to the story. Each little detail the writers discovered about the soap… how the filming works, do they ever have to play live, how do dressing rooms work, what does the crew do… all slowly creeps into the script beautifully, which leads to wonderful payoffs. But the details don’t even need to pay off in a big way. They simply add depth, to the milieu and also to character. Even crew members of the soap opera who have only two lines are vivid, well thought out characters that stay in the audience’s mind.

There are many other worlds in Tootsie. The restaurant where Michael and his roommate work, for instance. The kitchen of this restaurant is only in one scene but, having worked as a waiter for 10 years myself, I can tell you that in the one short scene that occurs in the restaurant kitchen, the filmmakers absolutely nail the chaos and world of a restaurant kitchen on a busy night. We also have: Michael and Jeff’s apartment, Julie’s family farm, Julie’s apartment, etc etc. By the end of the movie, the audience could describe in detail each world, these worlds are so well drawn.

Think of your favorite movies and I bet they are movies where the worlds were thought out in great detail. Want to watch some some incredible examples? The Taking Of Pelham 123(original version! Original version!) uses the world of NYC and the subway transit system to genius effect. It’s my favorite New York movie, even more than Annie Hall and Pelhamis also one of my favorite films I’ve ever seen. Talk about a genius script.


All The President’s Men creates the world of the 70’s Washington Post newsroom brilliantly and uses actual details to amazing effect. Lincoln certainly did it this year, recreating another era of Washington DC and Congress and using the details learned to great effect.

Another favorite of mine is Wait Until Dark, one of the most famous theatrical thrillers of all time, which was then adapted into a terrific movie starring Audrey Hepburn. The entire play/film takes place in an apartment, thought out to great detail. Through his detail work, Frederick Knott was able to create some incredible moments and one of the most famous finales of all time. If you never thought it would be important to know the minute details of where a lamp is placed and where a refrigerator might plug into a wall, and how these two small details might transform your story, check out this movie.

The more you can detail about your world, the better you know all the various worlds in your story, the better your story will be. This doesn’t mean all those details will make it into your screenplay. Most, in fact, will not. But an in-depth knowledge of your milieu will infuse your screenplay with depth and even help you get around tricky plot point where you might be stuck. It will even affect your dialogue, often without your even realizing it. Specificity matters. It can make the fantastic real. Even tricker, it can make what is real actually seem real. Master your world. Now is the time.

7. Let ‘the good stuff’ happen on screen

Tom Provost

Imagine watching this year’s Life Of Pi and after the storm hits and the ship sinks, we cut immediately to Pi (Suraj Sharma) and the tiger sitting on the lifeboat. No discovery as Pi deals with his first moments on the boat and the other animals. No terrific shock as the tiger leaps from underneath the awning. Just Pi and the tiger, on the boat. Sitting.


Or perhaps Silver Linings Playbook. Pat (Bradley Cooper) has been invited to his friend Ronnie’s house for dinner. He leaves his own house and we cut immediately to Pat, Ronnie, Veronica (Ronnie’s wife) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) sitting at the table, skipping the moment where Tiffany enters the house and she and Pat first meet. And Pat falls in love.


It’s hard to imagine people making such choices after the fact but time and again I will be reading a screenplay and the best moments either happen off screen or fly by in a line or two with no import given to them. (We’ll deal with the latter in an upcoming rule, Spend time on the right things.)  As you rewrite, think deeply about the journey on which you want to bring the audience and imagine being in the theatre yourself, watching the screen. This is how I tend to write: I imagine myself in the theatre, watching my story play out before me. What do you want to see? What are the great moments in your story that the audience wants to experience and remember? It amazes me how often writers can miss the most important moments in their stories.

One of my best students, who is working on a terrific comedy, did this recently. She threw two of her main characters into a situation ripe with comic possibilities, two teens handed an ominous package to deliver, but then skipped the delivery all together. The next time we saw them was in their apartment, talking about the event. If you’ve ever watched a movie and been excited for something to happen, then thought, ‘Hey! Wait a minute!” when said event never happened, you know what I’m talking about. 

My favorite was a TV show for which I cut promos, 7th Heaven. 7th Heaven was a TV show that ran for years with a well deserved following, less because it was a great show but because the cast/family (The Camdens) were an enjoyable bunch of people the audience enjoyed spending time with. The writing would drive us crazy, however, because most of the show took place in the kitchen and all the good stuff happened off screen. We might get exited about the promotion possibilities reading the synopsis of an upcoming show: A bomb explodes down the street from the Camdens! Martians land in Glen Oak! Well, on the show someone would run into the kitchen and exclaim “A bomb went off” or “Martians landed” and everyone would run out, then we would cut later to everyone coming back in the kitchen and talking about it. Obviously I am being a bit facetious here with the plot lines but this was how stories were told on the show. Mostly the characters talked about “the good stuff”, good stuff that inevitably happened off screen.

As always there are seeming exceptions to this rule, if done well. One of my favorites was on the brilliant TV series Rome, which skipped Mark Antony’s “Friends, romans, countrymen” speech to show only the aftermath. It was very clever and very enjoyable. But this isn’t even the best example because, of course, that speech is so ingrained in our psyches that it was possible for the writers to play on our expectations and skip it, because we know it so well. Additionally, the depiction of the aftermath was terrific and made up for us missing the speech. I guess there might even be a clever way to tell the story ofTitanic and miss the sinking of the ship. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But there needs to be a specific reason behind it, it has to be part of your storytelling device.


Best example? Reservoir Dogs, a heist movie without a heist. But that’s part of the point of Tarantino’s genius first film and it works, ultimately, because the story is about something completely different than the heist, which becomes completely superfluous to the story.Reservoir Dogs was designed that way from the beginning and had a very specific reason to skip the heist. In the screenplays I read, very important moments are left out, not for a specific reason but because they might be too difficult to deal with or the writer simply doesn’t realize the import and wonder of the moment.

Discover your best moments and don’t skip them. Craft them beautifully, have fun with them! Keep the audience in mind and let “the good stuff” happen on screen.

8. Send the audience to school early — NEVER in Act 3

Tom Provost

Exposition is the bane of every screenwriter. For an audience to understand what is going on, a writer has to provide needed information. Spewing expository information at an audience, however, tends to be boring and it also slows a movie down.

Ideally, you want to give this information in little bits, disclosing some here, disclosing some there, to keep the movie moving forward and also keep the audience leaning forward. Sometimes, though, there is no way around a mass of exposition. I call such a scene sending the audience to school. (I imagine others have called it this as well, but I never heard it before I thought of it so I will claim it until refuted.)

Few people like to go to school; they certainly don’t want to go to school on a Friday night at the multiplex. Which means you have to figure out an enjoyable way to give them the information they need.


My favorite example of such a scene is in the movie Jurassic Park. There is a genius send the audience to school scene early in the movie, when the audience finds out how John Hammond created all the amazing dinosaurs:

This is essentially a lecture. Ugh. But a number of things are going on that make the scene work in the body of the movie. First, the scene is perfectly placed structurally: the scene comes after we’ve first seen the dinosaurs. Right before this scene is the amazing moment where our heroes, and we the audience, see the dinosaurs for the first time. It’s a grandsense of wonder movie moment that primes us for the rest of the movie. We now want to know how the dinosaurs were created. So we’re willing to sit for a little bit of school to find out. Imagine if this scene played before we see the dinosaurs. Boring. It would stop the movie cold as we would have no reference for the lecture. We’d instead be itching to get out and see the dinosaurs. A lesser writer would have structured it that way as prep for the big moment. But Michael Crichton and David Koepp knew exactly what they were doing. And boy do they work it!

Knowing they need to keep it interesting, they come up with a number of devices to keep the scene moving. In fact, literally moving! They make it a ride! We all love rides, so they have fun with the fact that we’ll sit in a ride and listen, at least for a little while. Plus, we have the tension that is already developing between the scientists and Hammond and the lawyer. And John Hammond getting frustrated that no one will fully pay attention…talk about mimicking school! Also, it’s a cartoon, with lots of silliness to help the lecture be fun. Oh and there’s a down home country guy narrating it to keep the science, you know, on our level.

Finally, the filmmakers riff on us not wanting to be in school by having our heroes begin to get frustrated with it as well. About the time we’ve had enough, our heroes mirror our sentiments and break out of the ride, endearing us to them even more. We’ve learned enough and now it is time to go back out into Jurassic Park.

It’s a genius send the audience to school moment.

Unfortunately, not only do I see extremely boring send the audience to school scenes in script after script, scenes that stop the story dead to explain things, these scenes usually come in Act 3 where the writer has no other choice but to spew information in order to tie up all the loose ends he hasn’t been able to explain yet. Nothing kills Act 3 more than sending the audience to school. Yet I see it all the time.

Imagine if in Jurassic Park, just as the kids get back to the compound and start to be chased by the raptors in the kitchen, as our other heroes are fighting to back to the compound, we suddenly have that send the audience to school scene from the Act 1, explaining everything. It seems ridiculous, yet time and time again not only do I see this occur repeatedly in screenplays, I see it in produced movies! Sure, occasionally it is a genre element. Detective stories traditionally end with the hero summing everything up, a la The Maltese Falcon or Tell No One. Even as part of that genre it slows the movie down. But I see this happen in every genre, even by good writers. Once you hit Act 3, story reigns, you have to keep your story racing to the finish and you can’t stop to explain things you should have dealt with before.

Lay out before you on a sheet of paper all the information you need to get across to the audience. Detail it. First, cut as much as you can. Then find a way to impart this information to the audience early, in pieces if possible. If you need to do it in one fell swoop, figure out a clever way to do it, one that will keep us on our toes. Send the audience to school early, and never in Act 3. 

9. Let’s talk monologues

Tom Provost

Monologues. Hmmm. What we need here is a big ‘Danger’ sign with flashing red lights. It’s not that you shouldn’t ever use them, though I want to say ‘Never use monologues, avoid monologues like the plague.’ Some of the greatest moments in stories are monologues. Take that Shakespeare fellow of whom you might have heard tell. I hear he used them quite well.

Of course, a play is different than a movie. Often in plays monologues are delivered to the audience, a theatrical device that works onstage. Unless you start your film with the device of a monologue to camera, such as the brilliant Annie Hall, monologues are much trickier in movies because they can derail a movie in the same manner as Sending the audience to school.

3 comments, then, for monologues:

1). No page long monologues in Act 3. Do the work before.

As noted, this is similar to # 8. Many a long monologue is inserted into Act 3 as a send the audience to school device, having one character explain everything that hasn’t yet been explained in the movie. But even if your monologue is not a send the audience to school moment but something else entirely, Act 3 is a dangerous time to have a long monologue, because once Act 3 begins, story should completely take over and the movie should roll steadily to the finish.

Even the best writers and filmmakers are guilty of Act Three monologues that kill a movie.Tell No One, a brilliant and wildly enjoyable French thriller, has a long ending monologue to explain everything. Yes, a summation monologue part of that genre but it still stops the movie. Ordinary People, one of my favorite films of all time, has one at the end that could have been done better.

Often monologues are used as a stalling tactic: how many superhero movies or action movies have the villains doing monologues? Honestly, after The Incredibles made such brilliant mockery of ‘monologuing’ I’m surprised that writers even consider them anymore. Yet we seem them time and time again, often in Act 3.

Yes, there are times for a monologue. But avoid them in Act 3!

2). If you are going to have a page long monologue, have something else going on.

If for whatever reason you want to have a monologue, make sure other things are going on in the scene to keep the monologue from boring the audience to death. Blake Synder, is his excellent book Save The Cat, calls it the ‘pope in the pool’. But whatever you call it, have something else going on to keep the scene interesting.


Here is an example of a long monologue in a movie that works because so much else is going on in the scene. This is from Anthony Mingella’s adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley. If you have not seen the movie, this is later in the movie (but not in Act 3!!) after Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) has killed two people, including Dickie (Jude Law). Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), Dickie’s girlfriend, discovers something that makes her think Tom might be guilty:

There is so much going on in this scene that even though the monologue is well written, the monologue almost becomes superfluous. Why does it work? Many reasons:

-       Tension, certainly. Tom has killed two people so we know he won’t hesitate to kill Marge if given the chance. The scene in part, then, is driven less by the monologue itself but by the question ‘Can Marge get out of the apartment before Tom kills her with the razor?’

-       The scene is beautifully shot, keeping us in Tom’s perspective in the set up, so we know he has a razor and wants to kill Marge, then switching to Marge’s perspective on the long slow crawl to the door, so that we feel her fear and see what she sees, the blood in the pocket. This perspective shift mid-scene is not easy to make work but Mingella pulls it off perfectly.

-       There is the subtext in the monologue, as Tom is often describing and confessing himself, rather than talking about Dickie.

-       Gabriel Yared’s music is terrific.

-       Finally, Marge gives the audience a nice bolt of energy by standing up to Tom and calling him out, even when she is terrified for her life. (We’ll address this great character trait in an upcoming rule.)

In lesser hands, this could be a rather boring monologue that stops the movie. Here, as the movie approaches the end of Act 2, it’s an extremely tense and thrilling scene, aided also by the fact that two big stars have been killed off already so we have no way of knowing if Marge/Paltrow will actually make it out the door. Terrific.

3.) Just try to avoid them, ok??

I know, I know, you have a great monologue, not in Act 3!! and want to use it, for good reason. Sigh. Ok. You better know what you are doing and make good use of every other gift at your fingertips.

But try to avoid them!


One of the biggest box office successes of all time came out last year and had a rather controversial monologue in the middle: Skyfall, which became the #1 James Bond film of all time and is #7 on the worldwide all time hit list. I loved the movie, saw it 4 times in IMAX and thought Javier Bardem’s monologue right in the middle was daring and wonderful. It’s shot in a single take, with him starting far away from the camera, so we are kept leaning forward trying to see him as he approaches. There’s been so much dread-inducing talk of the character in the movie previously that we are excited, yet nervous, to meet him. Bardem kills the monologue, of course. The entire scene is tense, creepy, thrilling. Yet even here, very well done, a lot of people complained about the monologue, saying for them it stopped the momentum of the movie.

Even when well done, then, a monologue is tricky business. It certainly will cause script readers eyes to gloss over when they turn the page and see a long monologue staring them in the face. That’s the last thing in the world you want to have happen, which we will also cover in a later rule.

So at least think about avoiding monologues, ok??  If you use one, however, never have a page long monologue in Act 3 and have something else going on!

10. Do something!!

Tom Provost

Few things are more frustrating than passive main characters. Yet in screenplay after screenplay I read stories with characters who sit around and do nothing.

Nothing kills a story like inaction. Great writers know it. Great storytellers of all kinds know it. During my starving actor/waiting tables days, I took a bunch of classes at The Groundlings, Los Angeles’ equivalent of Second City, a marvelous improv/comedy troupe that has launched many a career. You might think Improv is just funny people ‘winging it’ on stage but there is great discipline to the art. The actors follow many rules on stage, rules such as the ones we are discussing, rules that enable them to tell funny stories. Perhaps the main rule of improvisation at The Groundings is that you can never say “No” on stage. It doesn’t matter what your partner says in the scene, you may think it’s the dumbest, most unplayable action imaginable but still you never say no. Because if you say no, it kills the forward motion of the scene. Everyone is stuck standing around doing nothing, which no one in the audience wants to watch.  (Keep the audience in mind!)

The same is true of your characters and stories. Like some of these other rules, Do Something! seems obvious but when giving notes to writers on their screenplays, often very good writers, when I point out characters doing nothing and/or saying ‘No’ many a writer has defended to the death the inaction of their characters. But they are confusinginaction with conflict. These Are Not The Same. Conflict makes for great drama, great stories. Inaction makes for boring nothingness. Ultimately, you can do what you want, its your story. But inaction makes for extremely inert viewing.

There is, of course, a reason we have our characters say no. Characters saying yes causes us problems as writers. It forces us to be creative, it makes us work hard. We have to solve problems. This is similar to why we avoid being hard on our characters (see Rule #3.)Characters who sit around doing nothing are a lot easier to write about and deal with than active, passionate characters who get into messes we as the writer then have to fix. To tell interesting stories, though, you must create one hell of a mess with active characters who do something.


I’ve written about Aliens before. I’ll write about Aliens again. It’s a great movie. With Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the sequel, James Cameron created one of the great screen characters of all time. Ripley is remarkably human and scared, she’s very real and relatable. Yet even in her frailest, most terrified moments, she kicks incredible ass because she acts.

“But, Tom! Near the beginning, when they ask her to go to the terraforming planet to see what happened to the colonists, she says ‘No!’”

True. But she says “Ok, Yes, I’ll go” pretty damn fast. Like, you know, in the next scene. So the movie can, like, you know, happen. Cameron did not waste any time getting Ripley to say Yes. She then remains in action for the rest of the movie, driving the story forward.

Are there stories where a character can say ‘No’ for a long time? Sure. Some people call this ‘Refusing the call.” But these stories can be tricky to pull off. Importantly, in these stories, the main character is still active, still doing something, not just sitting around, usually yammering.

You can’t imagine the screenplays I read where nothing happens, forever. Or maybe you can. We’ve all written them, myself included.

One of my favorites to cite is Hook. Look, if you read even half a page of my writing, or watch the montage I cut for my class, you know that Steven Spielberg is the filmmaker who has influenced me the most. I love the guy, love his movies. I use clip after clip from his films in my classes. One of the few movies of his I don’t like is Hook because the main character, Peter, does nothing through most of the movie. Well, he does one thing: He repeatedly says No: No, I’m not Peter Pan; No, I don’t remember what you are talking about; No, I don’t want to do anything; No, No, No. It’s a frustrating, enervating experience. Do Something!

Surprisingly, sci-fi movies make this mistake. The best sci-fi movies are built around discovery, a sense of wonder and action. One of the best examples is oen of Spielberg’s best, Close Encounters. Wow, what a great film where the main characters ACT. Unfortunately we often see the opposite, once again writers confusing inaction with conflict. In Stargate, Daniel Jackson (James Spader) travels across time and space to a brave new world. Rather than be excited about finding this new world and wanting to go explore it, as soon as he crosses over he instead repeatedly says No. Oh, and he bitches about not having sun block. Seriously?? I’m supposed to want to follow this guy around for 2 hours? In a word, No.

In Prometheus (don’t get me started) everyone travels for two years or some such in hyper sleep to find a new life form, yet when the new life form appears, what everyone supposedly wants and has traveled a long way to find, everyone suddenly runs from it or is uninterested. The captain, for instance, goes off to get laid. I mean, I know it’s Charlize Theron but still… When the captain sees the possibility/proof of an alien life form down on the planet, you’d think he would Do Something rather than slink off to have sex.

Banging… head… against… wall.


Last night I finished the just published novel NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. It’s his third brilliant novel in a row, the loser. (I’ll be doing a blog on Hill soon at He’s an amazing writer. In a recent interview, Hill made a terrific comment about action:

Really dynamic characters want things, and aggressively go after them. They’re willing to take really aggressive action to get what they want, or protect what they want and what they care about. So if you have a really strong lead character, that character will generate plot, seriously. A great, active character is as good as a V-8 engine under the hood. It can’t wait to rev up and go.”  

Amen! Here’s another great example:


I remain a fanatic for the TV show Lost. While in many ways an ensemble piece with lots wonderful lead characters, ultimately the main character of Lost is Jack (Matthew Fox), he’s the heart and soul of the show. I wanted to punch Jack in the face as often as I wanted to hug him but one thing you could count on with Jack is that he took action. More times than not his action caused disasters on the show, but god bless him, he did something. How much more fun is that for drama and storytelling than sitting around doing nothing?

As you review your recent draft, be on the lookout for 1) anyone saying no 2) characters sitting around passively 3) anyone who does nothing or rejects out of hand a suggestion. 90% of the time, this is a dreadful mistake. I probably will have more disagreement with this rule than any other, because there are stories occasionally where characters say no or reject the call and the stories work. But I guarantee you, in those stories, when main characters reject the call, they still do something. They act. (I don’t want to hear about Hamlet. You are not Shakespeare. The Dane Prince also acts quite often in the play. He might not do what he is thinking of doing, but he creates a lot of forward motion.)

Write about characters who act, even if their action causes terrible problems. Kick your characters in the butt, drag them up off the couch and get them to do something.