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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

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Tips on Writing Love Relationships (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

5 Tips on Writing Love Relationships


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Tips on Writing Love Relationships by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #amwritingLove stories can be found in all genres and this year’s films are no exception. From mainstream Hollywood  to independent movies, the quest for love can be found in such films, including Brooklyn, Paper Towns, Far from the Madding Crowd, Carol, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Trainwreck.

While not all these films contain the formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl (complications break them apart) and boy gets girl, these narratives do contain empathetic characters — characters the audience cares about and are rooting for them to succeed in their journey.

In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays I write:

Misunderstandings, mistaken identity, and embarrassing and awkward moments are just some situations couples can find themselves in when it comes to romantic relationships. The love interests can be polar opposites, unknowing soul mates, come from different social classes or backgrounds, have different temperaments, and/or find themselves brought together by an unusual set of circumstances without which they would not have normally met or spoken. The obstacles the couple must face can bring them together or force them apart.

In It Happened One Night (Directed by Frank Capra, Screenplay by Robert Riskin) this classic romantic comedy set in the 1930s Depression-era, protagonists Ellie Andrews and Peter Warne are brought together in an unusual and funny set of circumstances.  Ellie Andrews is a spoiled, stubborn, headstrong heiress, who, against her father’s wishes, just married King Westley, a fortune-hunter playboy.  Escaping her father’s clutches she runs away—and onto a bus to return to King only to meet Peter Warne, an arrogant and self-centered recently fired newspaper reporter, who drinks, gambles, and chases women. Recognizing Ellie, Peter sees this as his opportunity to get his job back and presents her with an ultimatum: Give him an exclusive on her story and he will help her reunite with King or he will tell her father where she is and collect the reward. Ellie reluctantly agrees. Adventures ensue, as they travel by bus, on foot, and hitchhike, surviving exhaustion, hunger, adversity, class differences, and assorted calamities, which ultimately brings them together and they fall in love.

Five Love Relationship Writing Tips

  1. Establish your characters’ needs and wants for finding and/or losing love.
  2. Empathetic characters with definitive identities and specific hopes and dreams, will inspire the reader to root for them to succeed in their relationship
  3. Indicate how your couple will benefit from this romance.
  4. Invent clever obstacles that break up your love interests and find innovative ways to reunite them.
  5. Keep in mind that the two lead characters don’t have to end up together in the end like in My Best Friend’s Wedding.Whether you’re writing a tear-jerker or rip-roaring comedic love story, film executives want to be moved, entertained, and believe in your characters’ love relationships.





HBO’s “Getting On” Will Scheffer talks collaboration, adaptation, the characters’ evolution & more (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Susan Kouguell Interviews HBO'S 'GETTING ON' Creator, Executive Producer and Writer Will Scheffer by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine

Mark V. Olsen (L) Will Scheffer (R) (Photo credit: Lacey Terrell / HBO)

I spoke with series creator, executive producer and writer Will Scheffer about the third and final season of his Emmy-nominated HBO series GETTING ON.  We talked about his collaboration with his husband Mark V. Olson on this series, adaptation, the characters’ evolution, and more.

Based on the BBC series of the same name, GETTING ON is created for American television by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer (co-creators of the acclaimed HBO series Big Love), the show follows the daily lives of overworked nurses and doctors as they struggle with the darkly comic realities of tending compassionately to their aging charges in a rundown, red-tape-filled hospital extended-care wing, blending outrageous humor with unexpected moments of tenderness.
Susan Kouguell Interviews HBO'S 'GETTING ON' Creator, Executive Producer and Writer Will Scheffer by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine

KOUGUELL: What did you learn as a writer and producer during these three seasons?

SCHEFFER: I think I always learn the same thing: “It’s about the people, stupid.” I learn it different ways, dealing with different problems and crisis and joys — but it’s about the people you collaborate with in all aspects of the production and also the people you’re doing it for. I also learned you can shoot a TV show in three days and it can still be excellent if you’re working with the right people.

KOUGUELL: Do you feel that your writing and/or collaboration with Mark has changed since Big Love and if so, how has it evolved?

SCHEFFER: It has. A lot. I used to be the first draft guy (and I still am on some or our projects) and then we’d trade drafts from there — but Mark really ran with the drafts of GETTING ON. And I felt more like I was connected to him at the hip, channeling. We talk a lot more now — before and during the drafting and we solve problems together like in a “dialogue” and then he’ll execute that in the writing.

GETTING ON developed in a special way because of time factors and other things, but I did less actual typing and more talking and feeding answers to Mark’s questions. It really felt like a good process for this show. We’ve already written three other “shows” where I did the first draft and Mark is the closer. And then I’ll get it back for some light polish. But GETTING ON was the show where I think I’d say we became a real writing team. With Mark I/we become better. We trust each other. I’ve had almost the same amount of time as a solo act and a duo 15 years and 10 years, respectively — and I know I’d have a body of work and a career without Mark, but I doubt very much I’d have this career. I’m grateful he finally pushed me into collaborating because he made me a better writer and thinker and luckily it’s made our marriage richer, too. We still write some things solo and we help each other on those. I’m a producer on some scripts of Mark’s that I never could have written and I’m just as proud of those as of our work together.

KOUGUELL: How much input, if any, do the actors have on the scripts?

SCHEFFER: I’d say they contribute. They make it better. But we hold the keys to that particular kingdom.

KOUGUELL: On the show’s trailer you mentioned that you are “digging deeper into the characters this season by introducing their family members.”

SCHEFFER: I think the whole season is about allowing the characters to become the patients, in a way. Their stories are what we’d usually call “the patient” stories.” Sure, we have a few great “guest patient” turns — but the show really comes together this year. It takes off like a plane.

KOUGUELL: How have the characters evolved from the first to your final season?

SCHEFFER: Well, like all good TV characters they haven’t evolved too much. I’d say they’ve become more themselves, if anything. Have they grown and learned why they were so f***ed up? No. But maybe they’ve admitted they were a little screwy to begin with. And they all so surprise us this year in ways you’ll have to watch to see. They’ve become more sure of who they are. They have to me, never been more of a joy to behold.


In a January 2014 article for this publication, I spoke with Will Scheffer about Season 1of this series in which he also offered insightful tips on pitching projects.

Learn more about GETTING ON:


Writing the Music Documentary (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Tips for Writing the Music Documentary Film

by Susan Kouguell

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In this past year, three very different documentaries, portraying a musical artist have been released: What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck directed by Brett Morgen, and A Poem is a Naked Person directed by Les Blank.

These three musical artists, Nina Simone, Kurt Cobain, and Leon Russell are as diverse as are the ways in which these directors conveyed their respective subjects. While some very broad comparisons can be made in some choices made (for example the use of archival footage in Garbus and Morgen’s films, and the use of concert footage in all three films), the more specific comparisons can be found in the fact that each director has a unique vision and voice.

music documentary
In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I write:

Documentaries can be written, using the traditional 3-act structure or in a nontraditional narrative format. The use of stock film footage, “talking heads” (interviewees’ faces discussing the subject matter), voice-over narration, animation, photographs, live action, and so on, are some examples of the tools used to convey the narrative.

Rather than cover every biographical detail of their subjects’ lives, Garbus, Morgen and Blank, allow their subjects to tell their own story through their own words and music, in conventional and nonconventional ways. In Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, original animation was produced and incorporated into the film, to illustrate important moments in Cobain’s life, using Cobain’s artwork, photography, journals and family photographs as inspiration.

Garbus allows the late Nina Simone to convey her story, in part, through concert footage shot during the course of her career. These moments show Simone speaking and playing to the audience, revealing both her personal fragility and phenomenal talent as a musician.

The late director Les Blank employs a nontraditional narrative cinema vérité approach of his subject Leon Russell, during a time (the 1970s), and place (rural Oklahoma juxtaposed with a state-of-the-art music studio). Rather than revealing Russell’s biographical background, the film offers glimpses of Russell’s concerts, rehearsals, friends, and neighbors in an abstract collage.


  1. Immerse yourself in the music. Research the artist and his or her music in order to gain a complete understanding of your topic.
  2. Keep an open mind to what you might discover as you research and shoot. Some filmmakers begin with one narrative idea for their film, but find that along the way that idea changes, as more material is unearthed either through archival finds or interviews.
  3. As you develop your ideas and your interview questions for your subjects, determine what your significant message is, who the main ‘characters’ are and how they will bring light to your topic.
  4. Listen carefully to your interviewees, they might reveal new information and offer unexpected and exciting insights about your subject matter.
  5. Watch documentaries that share your sensibility to give you inspiration.

What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus is currently playing in theaters and on NetflixKurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is in limited release in theaters, as well as A Poem is a Naked Person.



The Satisfying Scene


The Satisfying Scene

Scenes must have a reason to exist in your screenplay. Each scene must advance the plot forward through dialogue and/or visual storytelling.  Characters’ journeys drive the script’s narrative, and each scene must steer their journey forward.  Although some scenes might not even contain any characters, these scenes must still provide information about your plot, as well as your characters’ lives and actions. There is no set rule as to how many lines, paragraphs, or pages constitute a scene.

In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I analyze Sleepless in Seattle (directed by Nora Ephron, screenplay by Nora Ephron, David S. Ward, and Jeff Arch).  Here’s an excerpt:

In the romantic comedy, reporter Annie Reed crosses the country to meet a man she has never met after hearing his young son on a call-in radio show, seeking help to find a new wife for his widowed father.

In this scene example we find Annie and Barbara, having a warm mother/daughter talk in the attic.

The Scene Objective:

Annie starts reexamining her feelings about Walter.

Scene Summary:

While trying on her grandmother’s wedding dress, the newly engaged Annie tells her mother, Barbara, about how she and her fiancé, Walter, met. Mother and daughter differ when it comes to believing in destiny, signs, and magic in a relationship—Barbara is a believer while Annie is a pragmatist. The scene concludes as Annie, wearing her grandmother’s wedding dress, hugs her mother and the dress rips. Annie now believes in signs.

The Scene Arc:

In the beginning of the scene, Annie doesn’t believe in destiny and expresses her certainty about her upcoming marriage to Walter. By the end of the scene, Annie is having some subtle doubts when she realizes that she doesn’t have the same type of magic with Walter that her mother felt for her father when they met, and Annie is beginning to believe in destiny.


About the Author

Susan Kouguell, award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, is the author of THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises (available at $1.00 with DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD: ).   Susan is a regular contributor to Indiewire/SydneysBuzz, Script Magazine and The Script Lab.

Kouguell teaches screenwriting at Purchase College, SUNY and presents international seminars. As chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990, Kouguell works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, executives and studios worldwide.  Recipient of many grants and fellowships, including the MacDowell Colony, Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Edward Albee Foundation, Kouguell’s short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and were included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial.  Kouguell worked with director Louis Malle on his film And the Pursuit of Happiness, was a story analyst and story editor for many studios, (Paramount, Viacom, Dustin Hoffman’s Punch Productions), wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies. Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell on Twitter, and read more articles on her blog:


How to Please a Story Analyst (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

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How to Please a Story Analyst

by Susan Kouguell

Way back when, I was a story analyst for production companies and studios. Here is my story. And this is the story you should know.

script consultantsMost scripts submitted to agents, production companies and/or studios will get coverage, which is a story report written by a story analyst (also called a “reader.”) Many story analysts are recent college graduates, looking to break into the film industry. Most are smart, overworked and underpaid. Many are aspiring screenwriters who are reading for a company to support their own screenwriting and are paying their dues in this job to get their foot (and their own scripts) in the door.

Story analysts are the lowest people on the film industry totem pole. They are often the lowest paid, yet they have one of the biggest tasks – to find that winning screenplay! Story analysts might get three scripts (or more) to read overnight after a full day of reading. It’s your job to grab their attention and make them want to check a READ on your script’s coverage.

Story analysts are looking for talent, not just the winning property. They may PASS on a script because it’s not the type of project their company is looking to produce at that time, but will hold onto to it as a writing sample for other projects they currently may have in development or for future assignments. Or, the production company, studio or agency might contact the writer to see his or her other work, which might lead to a writing job or a script sale.

“I’m tired of rewriting so I’m just going to submit my script now,” If you are saying this, then you’re not passionate about your script – and in turn, story analysts will share your sentiments and reject your screenplay. Story analysts read countless scripts per week. They must feel your commitment to your script. They want to like what they read.

Story Analysts’ Confessions

Years ago, when I worked as a story analyst for Miramax Films (Harvey Weinstein), Punch Productions (Dustin Hoffman), Paramount Pictures and Viacom, I befriended my fellow story analysts. Of course we commiserated (okay, complained) about our low pay and long hours, but once that kvetching session ended, we revealed what was really annoying us. Most of the scripts we were covering were weak. Okay, honestly, many were just plain bad.

There were some common threads as to why these scripts were bad. I compiled my discussions with colleagues, and included my own first-hand experience as a Screenplay Doctor and a former story analyst in my book, The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! Here is an excerpt:

Complaints & Observations

  • We are intelligent, but few of us have psychic abilities. If it’s not on the page, we have no way of knowing what’s in your head and what you intended.
  • If your first ten pages don’t grab our attention, it will be difficult if not impossible to redeem yourself later. Beware! This may result in a PASS.
  • Each and every character must be unique, have a distinctive personality, and serve a purpose in the story, otherwise you are truly frustrating us.
  • Don’t throw in the kitchen sink. We know you are not confident about your story when you include extraneous plots and characters.
  • We may not have gone to medical or law school, but generally we are well read. We will immediately recognize if the terminology or research in your script is weak or implausible.
  • Even superheroes’ actions need to be plausible! If you have action scenes, be sure that they are realistic and well executed; otherwise we will be inclined to PASS on your script.
  • Don’t keep us in a confusing time tunnel! If your script jumps forward in time, whether it’s several months or several years, then be sure that this is clearly indicated in your script.
  • Film, unlike plays or novels, is a visual medium. Endless dialogue and too much description will persuade us to PASS on your script.
  • In your description paragraphs, don’t telegraph what is about to be seen and/or heard in the dialogue and/or action. Enough said!
  • Don’t direct your script with camera angles. Using camera directions is absolutely frowned upon. We know that directors and producers do not want to be told how to shoot their movie!
  • A script is not a novel. Dense paragraphs of descriptions are a turn off. Each separate action should be a new paragraph. Be brief and concise. Make each word count. Since we are often tired and overworked, these paragraphs become a blur of black lines and consequently, we may overlook important details.
  • Avoid heavy-handed exposition at all costs. Don’t over explain information about back-story in dialogue. We know if you’re setting up a whole scene just to get exposition across.
  • Watch out for rambling scenes! Generally, one script page equals one minute of screen time. You must keep this in mind if your scenes run long since we are looking for a well-paced screenplay.
  • When we read voice-overs, we often panic. We don’t want to be spoon-fed information. We don’t want to hear the same information in voice-over that will soon be revealed in dialogue.
  • When we read flashbacks, our alarms start to go off! Generally, we frown upon flashbacks because we know flashbacks rarely work on film. If you really feel that you need to use them, know that we will be scrutinizing them to see if they are indeed necessary.
  • Incorrect format will get a quick PASS! Don’t cheat and use a smaller font or change the margins. We will catch this immediately. Respect the time of the person reading your script.
  • Don’t submit your script unless it looks perfect! No typos. No coffee stains. No photocopying lines. No missing or extra blank pages within the script. Believe me, you don’t want us to become irritated because we are attempting to decipher text between the spots and smudges, and trying to figure out which page belongs where.

Take your time writing and rewriting your screenplay. You do not want to cause any unnecessary stumbling blocks that will result in your screenplay getting a PASS. Always do your best work before submitting it.



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The Spine of the Screenplay
by Susan Kouguell

In my more than 25 years of teaching screenwriting and screenplay consulting I continue to find one common issue — many screenwriters do not know what the inherent conflict is in their scripts. The truth is — they don’t know the dramatic spine of their story.

story structureMany screenwriters tend to get sidetracked in set pieces, formatting, dialogue, and other basic elements; they have lost sight of the vital yet basic skill – dramatic writing. Whether you’re writing a comedy or drama, a thriller or action film, a farce or fantasy, crafting a solid conflict and resolution is critical to your script’s success.

The spine in a human’s body is what holds the body’s framework together. In a screenplay, the spine holds the script together. Without a strong spine, the body and the screenplay collapse. A crumbling screenplay results in a script that will be rejected by film industry folks.

The spine can be as simple as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, or it can be more complicated.

Characters’ motivations prompt the choices and decisions they make, which in turn, advance the narrative.

The dramatic spine is the drive behind your protagonist’s actions. It is what propels your protagonist forward. In this example, the dramatic spine is seen through the athlete’s choices.

Example: Your protagonist is a female athlete who has always played by the rules and has won every competition. But when she discovers that her brother needs expensive medical treatment, she will do whatever it takes to save his life, including cheating at an event so she can win the prize money.

The dramatic spine can be seen when characters push towards their goals and the emotional changes they experience are punctuated.

Sign up for Susan's webinar on wordbuilding!

Sign up for Susan’s webinar on wordbuilding!

Characters must have a set of both internal and external obstaclesthat challenge them. When these internal and external obstacles are tied together, your plot will have a more relatable and believable conflict.

In My Best Friend’s Wedding Julianne attempts to sabotage her best friend’s wedding to win the man she believes she should have married all along, but her emotional progression provides the twist in the narrative; she’s not the woman the audience will be rooting for due to her selfish and duplicitous actions.

In the film Juno, Juno’s pregnancy is the spine of the story; her decision to keep the baby and the way in which it impacts her relationship with the father of her baby, as well as her own family and the adoptive family, propels the narrative forward.

Tips to Discover the Dramatic Spine of Your Screenplay

  • Picture an actual human spinal framework and then envision what your characters hold on to both emotionally and physically, internally and externally, in order to achieve their goals. Protagonists and antagonists must have specific goals they hope to accomplish as the plot unfolds. Along the way, they must face obstacles, roadblocks, problems, and hurdles, which raise the stakes in the script.
  • Understand your characters’ wants and needs.
  • Determine what is causing the major conflicts between your characters.
  • Know the emotional progression of your protagonist.
  • Identify the overall through-line of your plot.

Don’t lose sight of your true identity: Screenwriter as Dramatist.



Susan’s THE SCRIPT LAB: The Choices Your Characters Make: The Consequences in ‘Force Majeure’

The Choices Your Characters Make: The Consequences in ‘Force Majeure’

Regardless of the genre you are working in, your main characters must make key choices that will propel the narrative forward and shape your plot.

Force Majeure (written and directed by Ruben Ostlund), the official entry for the foreign language Oscar from Sweden, centers on a picture-perfect family; a handsome young couple and their two young children on a ski vacation in the French Alps. When the father makes a choice to abandon his family as an avalanche approaches, the consequences of this choice propels the narrative forward. This choice is further examined by the themes of male gender stereotypes; specifically shame and expectations of men.

In the chapter entitled ‘Your Unforgettable Characters Come Alive’ in my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I write:

Characters must be complex, fully defined, multifaceted, and distinct. Readers must understand who your characters are, their motivations, behaviors, needs and goals, and feel empathy for them.


Susan’s: Highlights from the Locarno Film Summer Academy Master Class with Award-winning Director Agnès Varda

Agnes Varda with Stefano Knuchel at the Locarno Film Summer Academy Master Class

Agnès Varda

Stefano Knuchel, Head of the Locarno Film Summer Academy, invited me to sit in on his master class with the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival’s    Pardo d’onore Swisscom winner French film director Agnès Varda.

Known as the Grandmother of the French New Wave (a term with which she takes issue, as I cite in my Conversation with Varda).Varda’s film credits include     “La Pointe Courte”     (1955),     “Cleo from 5 to 7” (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962), “The Creatures” (Les Créatures 1966), “Lions Love (…and Lies)” (1969), “Documenteur” (1981),”Vagabond“(Sans toit ni loi, 1985), “The Gleaners and I” (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) and ”   The Beaches of Agnès” (Les Plages d’Agnès, 2008).

Speaking to the group of international students, Varda shared her passion for cinema, photography, and installation work, with humor and honesty. Here are    some highlights from Varda’s talk.

I asked Varda about finding inspiration and her writing process

I don’t search for ideas; I find them. They come to me or I have none. I would not sit at a table and think now I have to find ideas. I    wait until something disturbs me enough, like a relationship I heard about, and then it becomes so important I have to write the screenplay.

I never wrote with someone else or directed together. I wouldn’t like that. I never worked with (her late husband, director Jacques) Demy. We would show    screenplays to each other when we were finished.

When you are a filmmaker, you are a filmmaker all the time. Your mind is recording impressions, moods. You are fed with that. Inspiration is getting    connections with the surprises that you see in life. Suddenly it enters in your world and it remains; you have to let it go and work on it. It’s    contradictory.

Question from Student: How did you manage to navigate a male-dominated film world?

First, stop saying it’s a male world. It’s true, but it helps not to repeat it. When I started in film, I did a new language of cinema, not as a woman, but    as a filmmaker. It is still a male world, as long women are not making the same salary as men.

Put yourself in a situation where you want to make films; whether you are woman or not a woman, give yourself the tools: maybe you    intern, maybe you go to school, or read books. Get the tools.

On Filmmaking

We have to capture in film what we don’t know about.

If you don’t have a point-of-view it’s not worth starting to make a film.

Whatever we do in film is searching. If you meet somebody, you establish yourself, who you want to meet, what kind of relationship it is. Our whole life is    made up of back and forth, decisions, options — and then they don’t fit.

When one is filming we should be fragile; listen to that something in ourselves. The act of filming for me is so vivid, it includes what you had in mind,    and includes what is happening around you at that moment — how you felt, if you have headache, and so on. A film builds itself with what you don’t know.

Life interferes. You have friends. Kids. No kids. Then there is a leak on the wall. Everything interferes. It’s how you build the life with others.

Sometimes I go by myself to do location scouting. When I go by myself, something speaks to me in a place I’ve chosen and I know maybe we should take    advantage of that. We have to be working with chance. ‘Chance’ is my assistant director.












Susan’s: Grief and Plot Choices in ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them’

The theme of grief prevails in this love story about the once happily married couple Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. The disparate ways in which Conor and Eleanor handle their bereavement after a tragedy is the central conflict of the story; their grief tears them apart and the couple separates. This grief is the catalyst that drives the narrative forward, and it is also the elephant in the room.  The tragedy is unspeakable — literally — neither Conor nor Eleanor are able to speak about the death of their young child.

It is never revealed exactly how or when their child died, or if anyone was at fault. This was a deliberate choice writer/director Ned Benson made when developing this story.

Not detailing the when, how or why, in a screenplay can be risky. There are pros and cons to this type of choice; some readers might feel that they have been cheated while others might feel satisfied. The bottom line is this: The risk can be lessened if your characters are well-developed and their motivations for their actions and attitudes towards each other are clear.

Following the screening of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them at the Paris Theater in New York City on September 13, there was a Q & A with the two leads, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, moderated by film critic Thelma Adams.

I asked Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy about Ned Benson’s choice not to reveal what happened to the couple’s child.

McAvoy: “Benson wanted the film to be about two people healing and carrying on after a tragedy. The film would not be any greater knowing the cause of death.”

Chastain: “I’m grateful Ned Benson didn’t expand upon it. I saw Eleanor as a wounded animal; if the animal is hurt they’re going to bite you. For Eleanor, the only way she can survive is to move forward. Sometimes you just can’t talk about the grief. For her, if she talks about it, she’s back in the water.”

Leaving the question to what happened to their son unanswered, was a thought-provoking decision for writer/director Ned Benson, but a satisfying choice for both Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, who concluded his response to my question, “Life happens in life.”





Modern Times, Metaphor and Visual Storytelling (The Script Lab)

At the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was shown accompanied by a live orchestra, the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana.  I had not seen the film for many years and was particularly struck by the visual storytelling and the use of metaphor; two points I detail in my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays!

Use visual storytelling to establish the setting and mood. Opening with a significant image will also help to grab the reader’s attention. The reader must be able to step into the world that you have created and have a complete understanding of it.

The first four shots of Modern Times:

1)    Title card: “Modern Times” A story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness”

2)    An image of the second hand of a large-faced clock moving forward

3)    A herd of sheep rushing forward

4)    A mass of rushing workers ascending subway stairs.

In these four shots the audience is informed what the story is about from the opening title card, and the three separate shots that follow – the clock, the sheep, and rushing workers. All of this vital information is conveyed in less than 30 seconds.

Characters’ intentions, agendas, beliefs, feelings, behaviors, and so on, can be conveyed through the careful use of metaphors. In visual storytelling, metaphors can be used to illustrate the theme or themes of your script, a plot point, or a character’s action or behavior.

In Modern Times, the sheep serve as a metaphor of the rushing workers; they are the masses – the humanity.

In a more contemporary example, let’s look at Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, screenplay by Michael Arndt. The 1960’s Volkswagen van in which the Hoover family travels to the children’s beauty pageant, is a metaphor for the 60’s era of rebellion and freedom, and signifies the various family members’ desires and actions. The only way to get the van running is for the family to push it and then jump inside while it’s moving. This van-pushing routine symbolizes the family needing to work together in order to reconcile their differences. The open road, the pageant, and Richard’s get-rich schemes, are metaphors of the American dream.

In Frank S. Nugent’s 1936 review of Modern Times in the New York Times, Nugent writes:




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