Carving Your Story

by Julia Keefer, Ph.D.



1) Think big and courageously and plan enormous projects. 2) Use all your logic and imagination to draft them out first to avoid disorganization all the while being open to inspiration. Learn structure, but develop your own methodology. 3) Do the research but be careful of plagiarism and the balance between fiction and nonfiction. 4) If it hurts, it's probably great. Allow yourself to fantasize about the best that could happen, as well as the worst. 5) Develop the patience, discipline, focus and skill to edit your own work as if it is not yours. Listen to someone who knows but be careful what you change. Most people cannot edit themselves to publication and hence they never develop their own style. 6) Listen to your characters, learn from other writers but be careful of critics or trying to impress or please people or being afraid of hurting or shocking people. It doesn't matter. Write as if everyone is dead, including you. 7) Do the irritating questions and problems exercise every morning about what isn't working, not matter how much it bothers you and even if you have no solution.


Make two documents-- one for addition, one for subtraction. Addition is where you throw everything-- prose, poetry, drama, cut and paste, clippings from everywhere. It is the SOURCE where you go when you need inspiration. Subtraction is the sculpture that is edited daily, the loglines and plot points and brief descriptions to make sure you do not get lost in your jungle.

But the ten document procedure is what will eventually give you a professional script:

Writing the first draft of a screenplay is best done as passionately, intensively, quickly as possible, in a rush, like the film itself that overpowers life and sweeps the spectators into and out of its world. But this can only happen if you plan and plot for months beforehand. You must also research. By research I mean digging for primary and secondary sources as you would for a research article or news story, but also digging into your memory of the past, your intensification of real senses and feelings into universal drama and your imagination of the future, of the worst and best that could possibly happen. Professional screenwriters usually research legal cases, trial strategies and rhetoric to write courtroom drama, pathology, psychology, ER, the course of specific diseases for many drama shows, technology and science for sci fi, history for period screenplays, and geography and travel to establish locations. Much of this research can be done online, but sometimes it is good to just visit a city or country, to interview doctors and lawyers, to read history and literature in a library. However, you can't let the research make your screenplay more didactic than dramatic; you should always personalize, humanize, dramatize the hard facts, creating explosive stories with coherent dramatic structure out of the facts you find.

I suggest that while preparing your screenplay, you have the following five documents:

1) The Treatment where you revise your story every few days, chiselling away, reducing it to a pristine dramatic structure, cutting into the slab of reality and imagination the way a sculptor would chisel into a marble slab to cut his figure. Try to write a complete, compound sentence for your a) premise, b) credit-rolling attention-grabbing scenes, c) theme with recurrent image, d) inciting incident, e) central dramatic question, f) plot point one and beginning journey with threshold guardian, g) midpoint confrontation, belly of the whale, h) plot point two, lowest point re-entry, i) crisis, j) climax, k) resolution-- question answered. This should also include genre, mixture of genres and market. Example: An adjunct professor who survives financially by doing wrestling videos and falls in love with a young student whose twin brother is an al Qaeda terrorist intent on blowing up Indian Point and destroying NYC's water supply achieves international recognition when she wrestles the terrorist and thwarts the plot after she is taken hostage just before the planned attack on July 4, 2002. Because of the structure of the sentence we see that the main verb is "achieves international recognition" after she has subverted the deadly plot, and that the love story and the teaching and the wrestling are all background, situation and subplot. That is why it is important to write the logline in a complex, compound sentence with qualifiers rather than two or more sentences. Hollywood often prefers a simple sentence with monosyllabic words, but the complex, compound sentence gives it originality and specificity and hints at subplots.

The theme is about freedom. To be free you often have to be chained or imprisoned or violated in some way. The law of dialectics. To be successful Jan gives up much of her freedom, by spending more time with students, by surrendering to love, by developing her courses, and finally by getting kidnapped, invaded, packaged, almost killed, until she outwits her captors, thwarts the plot, and saves the country. Freedom is the concept to which everyone must relate, the imagery that recurs through the scenes.II: Towers crash, destroying American freedom. Will Jan survive, her students, the world? Mary, Dan, Nature, anthrax,

PP1: Jalal and Jan realize they are attracted to each other. Ground Zero is the Special world, the underworld. Cats, plants, more projects, terrorism journal etc. Trip to Cairo , Islamic Cairo , Gold, Giza . Belly dancing.

Midpoint: Jalal's family is furious about Jan.Tariq finds out that his beloved brother is in love with an infidel. Break up. Despondency. Tranformation. Losing jobs--losing ordinary world. Falling into death. There is something in America in life in freedom that brings her out of it.

PP2: Laurel tree--out of underworld. Engagement. Tariq is furious. His plot thickens. Audience knows now but not blissful, ignorant lovers.

Crisis: Kidnapping and Contamination of Site

Climax: Indian Point

Resolution: Cyborg is restored, Jan elevated, Tariq in jail, Mary Fired, Dan rich, Jalal married.

How does Jan do this? Not only her unexpected physical strength, her unpredictability, but her ability to imagine the worst, put scenarios together, lie, and eventually kill. So to succeed, not only must you give up freedom but be willing to destroy the freedom of another. How ironical. Question: What happens from midpoint to pp2 to actualize the tranformation necessary for Jan's victory? II: Towers crash, destroying American freedom. Will Jan survive, her students, the world? Mary, Dan, Nature, anthrax,

PP1: Jalal and Jan realize they are attracted to each other. Ground Zero is the Special world, the underworld. Cats, plants, more projects, terrorism journal etc. Trip to Cairo , Islamic Cairo , Gold, Giza . Belly dancing.

Midpoint: Jalal's family is furious about Jan.Tariq finds out that his beloved brother is in love with an infidel. Break up. Despondency. Tranformation. Losing jobs--losing ordinary world. Falling into death. There is something in America in life in freedom that brings her out of it.

PP2: Laurel tree--out of underworld. Engagement. Tariq is furious. His plot thickens. Audience knows now but not blissful, ignorant lovers.

Crisis: Kidnapping and Contamination of Site

Climax: Indian Point

Resolution: Cyborg is restored, Jan elevated, Tariq in jail, Mary Fired, Dan rich, Jalal married.

A screenplay is four acts. 30 pages each, although Syd Field et al say there is simply a long Act II.

2) The Monologues where you write in first person in the voice of each of your main characters, 3 to 7 maximum humans, but you should also pick some inanimate objects or animals that you will use for thematic purposes, planting and payoff etc. and personify them. For example, in a recent screenplay I personified 4 cats, The Sphinx of Giza in Egypt , a Laurel Tree, and the nuclear domes in Indian Point. This helps develop your locations and focus your action. Make sure you use different syntax, word choice, rhythm for each character and that their opinions, goals, longings and personalities really clash with each other over central issues. Those issues should be actions in the plot, political, ethical, romantic splits--anything people would argue over. Sometimes it is useful to begin with the monologue of the antagonist looking back over the story from the resolution. Feel free to speak in any voice at any time, an assurance against writer's block, and a way to keep your imagination feeding the structure.

3) Transformation/Seesaw document. Many writers have a good plot and interesting characters but they aren't connected enough. How do your characters change with the action of the plot? Write short bios of each character and chart their transformation in terms of the plot. All characters do not have to transform, but if they don't show how they retain their characters in spite of onslaughts from dramatic action. Start with simple adjectives like lazy, greedy etc and move to energetic, generous etc even though you will complicate this with the ambiguity of human interaction as you begin to write.

Character Exercises
1) Describe each character in detail, physically, mentally and spiritually; 2) Articulate their primary and secondary objectives; 3) The relationship of their principal flaw to their fantasies; 4) Their most embarrassing secret; 5) Recurring nightmare connected to flaw and objective; 6) How, why and with whom they would have their greatest fight; 7) Transformation through specific actions connected to flaw and objective; 8) Culture they would most hate to be in; 9) Musical instrument they most resemble when they talk; 9) A practical tool, like scissors or vacuum cleaner that best defines their actions; 10) The animal most connected to their sexuality and biological life; 11) The flower, tree etc that best describes their growth; 12) How they would spend their best vacation; 13) How they would plan their wedding; 14) Their morning ritual of getting up, shaving, grooming, brushing their teeth etc.; 15) How their obituary would read.

4) Free Writing is the document where you put down all those irritating questions and puzzles that usually prevent you from writing. Sometimes writers say, "I can't write act II today because I just don't know how the main character can transform or what happens when she does." Write down new questions and puzzles at the top of your free writing document every day when you get up, and let your unconscious unravel the puzzle throughout the day. Or, better yet, structure your scenes so that the audience asks these questions. Make the audience work and worry; don't give everything to them the way a professor would spell out a traditional lecture. Free Writing is also where you write dreams, images, ideas about a new adventure or character before it is clarified. While the Treatment document is the one where you keep erasing as you clarify your structure; the Free Writing is the document that keeps growing with more ideas so that when you get stuck for ideas you turn here; when you get overwhelmed with disorganization, you go back to the Treatment document.

5) Sets: Before you get into Macro and Micro Sequencing, the last thing you do before actually writing, you want to imagine, research and describe your world. Start with the major locations and describe them in prose. Savor the sights, sounds, and smells, live in these worlds and see your characters there. If you have a novelist's talent for description, stay focused, and don't let the details of the location overwhelm the dramatic focus. See how the sets contrast each other, for example ground zero Manhattan with the tranquility of preserves in the Hudson River valley, the spectacular, colorful, unreal world of cyberspace with the tiny, torpid, fetid, filthy studio apartment of a lower Manhattan professor, the linear skyscrapers of Manhattan contrasting with the pyramids, Sphinx and mosques of Egypt. Decide where how your Special and Ordinary Worlds contrast with each other.

6) Macro Sequencing is a subtraction document that should not be longer than 4 pages, one for each act. It lists the locations at the major plot points and defines the overall sequencing.

7) Micro Sequencing should be put on index cards, either real, if you travel around a lot, or in FD, if you are always at the computer. On each card, write the location, the main action, the main characters, their objectives, actions, obstacles and outcomes and only write dialogue if it has an hysterically funny one-liner or a brilliant poetic insight. These should be shuffled to create the right dynamics and momentum for the structure. As you work the details of micro-sequencing, go back to the Treatment document and continually tighten the structure.

8) Writing the First Draft: Make sure you have a long stretch of time, quiet, focus and concentration. Keep your micro-sequencing document by your side and ignite your sense of humor, your sex drive, your verbal musicality and your imagination and bring each scene in the sequence to life. If you get a better idea than what you have planned, try it.

Exercise: write a monologue in the voice of your antagonist in jail, hell, heaven or wherever, recounting the story.

Writing is like Sex-- if you do it all the time with everyone, it loses its specialness, its refinement, its resonance. Email destroys grammar, punctuation, paragraphs. Writing becomes so informal that there is no art to it anymore. Yet if you watch TV all the time, your brain is fried and you aren't contributing to anything so email is at least interactive.

Narrative is not the same as drama or even dramatic structure. Sartre isn't that good at narrative-- he puts characters into a combustive situation and blows them up. He structures the beats, the objectives, the conflicts and the character orchestration to create a structure, but that is not the same as a story. With Yusuf al Qa'id I see superb narrative, without dialogue, without description, without structure except from the narrative. I am not good at narrative because I am not linear and practical enough. Think of a story you could tell by the campfire to someone with a beginning, middle and end. Think of someone asking-- "what happens next?" all the time. Woody Allen creates characters out of his narcissim, to justify his pathetic personality type- the nerdy, rather ugly guy who can't get girls. He laughs at himself. He also does it with others but with others it can become too cruel, too jaded, too small. A novel must have a strong narrative, beautiful descriptive language-- and character, structure, humor-- all those things I am good at. We take narrative for granted but it is not easy to do.

Because of Hollywood 's hegemony on film, if I don't write a novel with this screenplay, it won't get produced or optioned.

The Wedding Cake-- 10 Layers of Cream, Fruits, Nuts and Cake

A Homospatial Construct to Encourage Creativity

The Container is the Screen-- is it big (movie houses), medium (TV), and small (computer)? Kinds of formats and rules-- Genres go here?

Source of Inspiration: Experience/Memory, Imagination, Imitation, Research

Suspension of Disbelief: Creating your world, naturalistic (more research and recall), fantasy (more imagination) High (Plot) and Low (Character0 Concepts, Genres go here as well, Ordinary and Special Worlds, Vogler's and Campbell 's Mythology

Story: Tell your tale to a friend. Oral communication. Fall in love or hate with your three main characters, sleep, eat, fight and make love to them. Preliminary treatment, and yes, preliminary pitch, like a hypothesis in a research paper, subject to change.

Setting: Write down major locations and start to imagine what is going on there.

Subplot/Subtext, Secrets, Self-awareness, Self-esteem

Structure plot points, Aristotle, Field, NonLinear, Mythology which is the same as plot points

Sweat/Sounds/Sensuality: Film is almost as kinesthetic as dance and certainly more kinesthetic than most of the other arts. Without sweat, sounds and sensuality, film is dry. It must burst through the present-- it must be too sexy for the screen. Biological rhythms of screenwriting-- not just scenes but strucutre

Sequence: For macro-sequencing, write down 4 sheets with major locations and abbreviated turning points. Then write down each scene on a different colored index card, one color for 4 acts--bridged by the midpoint. Imagine the last shot of one scene and the first shot of the next and do this micro-sequencing to enhance dynamics, the loud and the soft, of your scenes.

Scene: The rhythm of language, character orchestration, one liners, talking with, talking to, talking at and talking against, argumentation, negotiation, listening, lying

Surprise: Throw in a landmine to make it less predictable. After you have planned everything perfectly, do something to mess up your castle, to surprise both yourself and the audience

The focus of this book is on creativity, ways to stimulate imagination and sharpen skills to create exciting screenplays. An analysis of cognitive domains and how they enhance different methodologies of writing is important. Do you want to plan and plot for months and then write the entire script in one day the way I did with my first screenplay? Or do you want to plan nothing and just sit at the computer and type FADE IN the way I did with my first adaptation? In quickness comes truth-- the raw edge of cerebral explosion before it is reworked and rewritten, pondered, flattened and often rendered lifeless. Dramatic writing should be bleeding and breathless.

Professor Keefer's Walk and Wonder



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