Sunday, November 3, 2013

The 25 Shows That Changed Television

In 2011, Variety published an awesome article chronicling the evolution of the television show.

The 25 shows that changed television

Road to the Emmys: Emmy Commemorative - Innovative Sensations


Here are 25 series, in chronological order, that changed the smallscreen:

Ed Sullivan Show1948-71
"The Ed Sullivan Show"
His variety show wasn't unique even when it started and Ed Sullivan himself, a newspaper columnist who wrote about show business, was far from gifted as a TV host. Nonetheless, during the 23 years this show ran, it was America's foremost star-making machine. Among those who made their American television debut on Sullivan's show (initially called "Toast of the Town") were Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Eddie Fisher, Charles Laughton, the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and, of course, the Beatles. In an era of few viewing options, Sullivan selected guests to please all constituencies, even including excerpts from opera and ballet. Little wonder that he dominated Sunday night in a way today's TV execs can only dream about.
Your Show of Shows1950-54
"Your Show of Shows"
When TV was in its infancy, this live 90-minute weekly program, originally titled "Admiral Broadway Revue," laid the foundation for nearly every comedy-variety show for generations to come. Regulars Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris formed the nucleus of a cast that pioneered sketch comedy and cultural satire. The characters they developed returned time and again to the delight of the studio audience and the growing number of Americans with TV sets. Although the show featured singers and dancers, it continues to be remembered most for the way it redefined comedy to take full advantage of the visual element of the new medium.
I Love Lucy Show1951-57
"I Love Lucy"
Before "I Love Lucy," TV sitcoms were either live from New York, or filmed with a single camera and sweetened with canned laughter. But Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball broke ground by filming before a live aud with three cameras at once. Not only was a new style of L.A.-based TV production born, but the 35mm quality of the prints led to heretofore unseen levels of syndicated success. It's impossible to overstate the impact of "Lucy" beyond its well-established popularity as great comedy, but it even inaugurated the notion of event television when Ball's character gave birth to Little Ricky on the show the same night Ball herself gave birth to her second child.
Gunsmoke Show1955-75
John Wayne's stamp of approval marked the premiere episode of "Gunsmoke" in 1955, the first adult Western to hit the air. This series offered complex depiction of ethnic groups, not the standard good vs. bad shown in countless films. With his slow drawl and fast gun, the iconic Marshal Dillon became the face of the American West. The series inspired a different take on the standard horse opera, paving the way for series such as "Have Gun, Will Travel" and "Maverick" during its record run spanning 20 seasons and 635 episodes.
Playhouse 90 Show1956-60
"Playhouse 90"
CBS produced what became the crown jewel of live television anthologies with "Playhouse 90." Using a considerable budget and a top-drawer approach to talent that included writers Rod Serling, Horton Foote and Abby Mann, as well as frequent director John Frankenheimer, the series introduced teleplays that have since become dramatic classics: Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight"; "The Miracle Worker," which would go on to stage and screen success; and "Judgment at Nuremberg," plus countless literary adaptations. Though it couldn't outlast a changing trend toward filmed or pre-taped shows, its commitment to quality weekly drama was unique for its time.
The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson1962-92
"The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson"
Without Carson, there's no Letterman, no Leno, no Ferguson, no Fallon. They'll be the first to tell you that. But Carson's influence extends well beyond the latenight landscape. He taught two generations of comedians how to tell a joke and, many, including Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher and Roseanne Barr, received their first national exposure on his show. Carson's brilliance transcended his monologues and self-deprecating sketches. He knew how to listen, which endeared him to guests and inspired innumerable off-the-cuff moments. His presence was singular. As Letterman put it: For 30 years, people wanted to end their day being "tucked in by Johnny."
I-Spy Show1965-68
"I Spy"
"I Spy" made the history books for its ground-breaking casting of African-American Bill Cosby in a lead dramatic role (that won Cosby three Emmys), but the 1960s drama deserves a chapter in chemistry texts as well. The give and take between Cosby and Robert Culp, wry but deeply felt, stands against any two-person combo in TV history. Combined with its global, James Bond-caliber playing field, its keen sense of humor and suspense and one of the best damn opening credit sequences you'll ever find, the Sheldon Leonard-produced "Spy" ranks among TV's most important concoctions.
The Carol Burnett Show1967-78
"The Carol Burnett Show"
Burnett could do it all: Sing, dance, tug her viewers' hearts as effortlessly as she tugged on her ear. But the genius of her long-running variety show burned brightest in its comedy sketches that showcased the impeccable chemistry between the star and series regulars Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner and Vicki Lawrence. There were plenty of smart parodies, but slapstick ruled the day -- a big reason why the show's appeal cut across generations. Jimmy Stewart served as the series' final guest star in 1978. George Carlin worked the prior episode. Burnett's generosity as a comic ringmaster can be seen in the way Tina Fey and Amy Poehler lead their own inspired ensembles today.
60 Minutes Show1968-present
"60 Minutes"
The end of the 1960s was a pivotal time for television news. The hourlong docu, once the crown jewel of network news departments, had become nearly extinct amid increasing pressure for ratings and demands that news divisions pay their own way. Then along came "60 Minutes" and the birth of the TV newsmagazine. Its relatively short feature stories and interviews attracted a broad demographic even as it provided CBS with another outlet for its star reporters. A decade after it first aired, the show became the top-rated primetime series. It remained among the top 10 for the next 20 years, with its ticking stopwatch, musings by Andy Rooney and exec producer Don Hewitt's requirement that each segment tell an engaging story.
Monday Night Football1970-present
"Monday Night Football"
Football was just football before ABC impresario Roone Arledge made it a weekly primetime event. While the games were entertaining, it was the guys in the booth -- Hall of Famer Frank Gifford, "Dandy" Don Meredith and former attorney Howard Cosell -- whom fans either loved or hated. That type of fervor, of course, led to major ratings, meaning it wasn't only pigskin fans watching. Meredith's end-of-game refrain, "Turn out the lights, the party's over," and Cosell's general disdain for those whom he felt to be beneath him were often much more fun to watch than a 2-yard touchdown run and a cloud of dust.
All in the Family Show1971-79
"All in the Family"
Before Norman Lear, television would occasionally touch upon hot-button topics such as racism, women's rights, abortion and homosexuality. Yet Lear's "All in the Family" examined these issues on a weekly basis, using humor instead of sloganeering to look at the seismic changes rocking American society. When the show began in 1971, CBS included a disclaimer, warning audiences of its frank approach. A year later, "All in the Family" hit No. 1 in the ratings, launching Lear's empire that included topical spinoffs "Maude" and "The Jeffersons." After Archie Bunker, nothing was off limits.
Saturday Night Live1975-present
"Saturday Night Live"
NBC's latenight comedy-variety series was a groundbreaking success upon its arrival in 1975, bringing counterculture laughs to network television and reintroducing the thrill of live performance to viewers. Mixing up-to-the-minute and often controversial satire, surreal humor, hip musical acts and whatever game laugh-getting skills its weekly guest hosts brought, producer Lorne Michaels' edgy jamboree made household names (and movie stars) out of many cast members, from John Belushi and Bill Murray, to Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers, to Will Ferrell and Tina Fey. It quickly became television's premier showcase for emerging comedy talent, and one of the last bastions for sketch humor on the smallscreen.
Roots Show1977
The miniseries that should have been called a maxiseries. For eight consecutive nights "Roots" riveted the U.S. to its TV, to absorb nothing more than the history of a previously anonymous (save for the Alex Haley book on which the program was based) black family -- and nothing less than the history of America. The premiere episode had a 61 share; the finale, which to this day remains the No. 3 all-time scripted program in overall viewers, a 71. "Roots" spawned a fervor for ancestral research along with an eye-opening appreciation for the lives and trials of slaves and their descendants, and it remains TV's most unforgettable miniseries.
Hill Street Blues Show1981-87
"Hill Street Blues"
TV's modern age dawned with the two-hour premiere of "Hill Street Blues," which changed the face of television with unprecedented mix of serialized storytelling, an overflowing ensemble cast, stark themes and docu-style cinemato-graphy with scripts that were critically unsurpassed. Though auds initially withheld their embrace, leaving it among the least-watched series in its first season, the TV Academy rewarded "Hill Street" with a record 21 Emmy noms and eight wins, justifying NBC's faith and setting the series up for a seven-season run that produced 98 Emmy noms in all.
The Cosby Show1984-92
"The Cosby Show"
From TV's earliest days, the family-based sitcom had been one of its most popular genres. In the 1970s, viewers bestowed No. 1 status on "All in the Family" and "Happy Days." In the early 1980s, though, the genre struggled and people fretted that America had lost its appetite for family comedies. That notion was quickly put to rest with the premiere of "The Cosby Show," which ranked first for five seasons in a row (1985-90). Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad starred as Cliff and Clair Huxtable, upper-middle-class parents of five children, each with his or her own issues. Funny and hip, the show was guided by Cosby's trademark gentle humor and his doctorate in education.
The Simpsons Show1989-present
"The Simpsons"
"South Park" co-creator Trey Parker once wrote an episode titled " 'Simpsons' Already Did It," paying tribute to the longevity of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and the other denizens of Springfield. The episode aired … nearly a decade ago. "The Simpsons" is now entering its 23rd season and early next year, probably during sweeps, will air its 500th episode. Its success paved the way for primetime animated series such as "King of the Hill," "Family Guy," "Futurama" and, yes, "South Park," showing there was a huge adult audience hungry for irreverent humor unshackled by the limitations of the live-action format. Best. Show. Ever? One could make the argument.
Seinfeld Show1989-98
The most dangerous myth about "Seinfeld" is its self-propelled claim to be "a show about nothing." If anything, the NBC laffer was a show about everything, able to comment on attitudes, relationships, world events and whatever else Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and friends could think of. "Seinfeld" also became a structural trendsetter in TV comedy with its Superman ability to leap multiple storylines in a single bound. In a landscape where having a B plot might have seemed par for the course, a typical "Seinfeld" episode might have C, D and even E plots, all of them coming together in a fashion that meant everything to its fans.
Law & Order Show1990-2010
"Law & Order"
Like a combo pack of beloved formats, producer Dick Wolf's bifurcated 1990 NBC crime series was half cop show -- detectives investigated a murder -- and half law drama as the prosecution's case made its way through a twisty legal system. The fast-paced, facts-only episodes revived both the procedural as a genre, and New York as a gritty, mood-setting location for tough-minded police shows. De-emphasizing the core characters' personal lives also allowed Wolf to change departing (or fired) cast members without losing viewers, who kept coming back -- often in marathon sessions during its ubiquitous syndicated life on cable -- for stories that were often shrewdly transparent mirrors of true-life cases.
Civil War Show1990
"The Civil War"
Ken Burns turned the nation's TV sets into a virtual campfires and classrooms. In examining the bloody War Between the States, stories were told in vivid detail using personal photos and letters. The docu, which aired over five days in 1990, still holds the record as the most-watched PBS series with more than 40 million tuning in for the initial broadcast. Burns turned history into a living, breathing organism that sparked an interest in how America came to be. Its widespread popularity proved that TV docus were a vitally important programming element that had a place among all other genres.
The Real World Show1992-present
"The Real World"
Before there was a "Big Brother," there was "The Real World." Premiering in 1992, the Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray documentary-style series took the MTV generation into a house where eight strangers lived in a hip spot "when people stop being polite and start getting real." And the next phase of reality television was born. In the third season, the show came into its own with a cast in San Francisco that included Pedro, a young man struggling with AIDS. That story helped put a face on the disease and was more of a teaching tool than anything else on TV that year.
The Sopranos Show1999-2007
"The Sopranos"
An early promotional tagline for the HBO series said it all: "Hell hath no fury like the Family." The beauty of "The Sopranos" lies in the fact that the ad could have been talking about mobster Tony Soprano's crew, his Mafia rivals or his own blood relations. That kind of complexity had rarely been seen on television before and certainly not with the kind of artfulness that creator David Chase brought to each episode. After Tony Soprano, television embraced serial storytelling and conflicted antiheroes with a passion i.e. "Dexter," "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men." We could go on. It's a long list full of brilliant shows, none of which would have been made without the success of "The Sopranos."
Survivor Show2000-present
CBS' summer 2000 "reality" experiment in alternative programming -stranded contestants in a remote location battling the elements and each other for $1 million -- spawned a massive franchise hit worldwide, countless copycats and a whole new programming genre that, for the first time, threatened the impenetrable hegemony of scripted primetime TV. It forever set high bars for casting (having produced memorable good guys and bad guys from its many contestants), iconic touches ("The tribe has spoken"), memorable moments (Susan Hawk's season one "rats and snakes" speech) and the efficacy of a good host (globe-trotting tribe-wrangler Jeff Probst). That it's still going strong is a tribute to its unique mix of gameshow suspense, beautiful scenery and outsized personalities in stressful situations.
The Wire Show2002-08
"The Wire"
David Simon and Ed Burns' sharply written, brilliantly acted Baltimore-set drama for HBO about cops and criminals barely made a dent in visibility when it premiered in 2003. But its fans were talkative, its network was loyal and by the end of its run "The Wire" had set a television benchmark for complex longform storytelling, realistic portrayals of urban life, emphasis on African-American characters, location verisimilitude and the thematic possibilities for an hourlong drama. Simon and Burns didn't care to repeat plot points to placate distracted viewers the way TV shows often do, but they did care about novelistic sweep (creating dozens of memorable characters) and depicting -detail by detail -- how heartbreakingly easy it is for modern institutions to fail us.
American Idol Show2002-present
"American Idol"
No one expected much from the singing competition series searching for the next big pop superstar, especially when the judges were faded pop queen Paula Abdul, obscure music producer and bassist Randy Jackson and unknown Brit Simon Cowell. Yet, the series captured something in the zeitgeist that drove viewers to their sets, turning it into a ratings behemoth. Critics dubbed it "The Death Star" as would-be timeslot competitors had little or no chance of capturing eyeballs. And when the series felt tired after nine seasons, a new judging panel gave it renewed freshness that still makes it a nearly indestructible force.
Mad Men Show2007-present
"Mad Men"
Notice those billboards for the upcoming series "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club"? Seem familiar? That's because "Mad Men" got there first. For a show sporting fantastic drama and a compelling, smoke-filled reexamination of recent American history, "Mad Men" has been most influential with its arresting visual style. The series is the antidote to casual Fridays, launching its own clothing line at Banana Republic and reviving interest in the politically incorrect early '60s. Its attention to period detail is amazing, but the fashion never takes precedence over the storytelling. Fill a tumbler with your favorite beverage and raise a glass.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Theme Worksheet

Now that you've got a better idea of the importance of theme, here's a worksheet concocted by Crickett Rumley to help you solidify the theme in your screenplay.

Theme Worksheet
Writing with Crickett Rumley

  1. Take a look at your entire story.  What do you think the main theme is?

  2. How does the central conflict explore that theme throughout the screenplay?

  3. Do you think the central conflict is adequately exploring the theme?  If not, how can you fix it?

  4. What is your protagonist's take on the theme?  Your antagonist's?

  5. Identify your subplots. How is each related to the central conflict?  Does each subplot impact the central conflict or reflect it?  Or both?

  6. How does each subplot reveal or explore the main theme?  (NOTE: not all subplots need to.)

  7. What are the secondary themes?  How do the plot and subplots explore it adequately?

  8. Does your film have a "message"?  If so, what is it?

  9. How will the audience know what the message is?

  10. Do you think the climax of your film is effectively delivering that message?   If not, how 'can you fix it?

  11. Examine your characters closely.  Do they represent various aspects of your screenplay's themes? How do their actions explore the themes?

  12. In general, is your film saying what you want it to say?  If not, how can you fix it?


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Developing Theme

While written directly for romantic comedies, the lessons on theme pulled from Chapter Five of Billy Mernit's excellent book Writing the Romantic Comedy are universally applicable. The full chapter is available in PDF at the end of the post.

Developing Theme

You've got to know what you think you're writing about. I mean what the damn thing is about, first of all. In some cases you never quite decide and then you get into trouble.
Buck Henry

Themes that I like to explore have to do with questions and problems I have about myself.
Richard Lagravenese

What do you want to know, in the writing of it?
Deena Metzger

   A former student recently came to me for consultation on a romantic comedy she'd written that wasn't getting a good response. Here was her pitch: Joe, an American, orders himself a foreign bride via an Internet service. For both Joe and his prospective wife Jan, the marriage isn't about love, it's about practicalities, with both of them hoping to satisfy pragmatic needs. But when Jan arrives to marry Joe, she finds that he's misrepresented his appearance and his circumstances, and they don't get along at all. So Jan angrily demands that Joe now find her a legitimate mate.
   As Joe helps Jan, "they fall in love and end up together," I supplied. The writer resignedly agreed that yes, of course, that's how the story went, and this seemed to be her problem: no matter how she tried to twist and tweak it, her romantic comedy always seemed to end up on a pat and predictable course. Since by now she herself seemed fairly unenthusiastic about the story, my logical question was, "What got you interested in the idea in the first place?"
   Well, this guy Joe, she allowed; she knew such men existed, and she was fascinated to know: What kind of a person would do a thing like that—enter into such a clinically arranged marriage? Good question. Some of the feedback she'd gotten made her wonder if such a man could really be the hero of a romantic comedy. Depends on his motivations for making such a seemingly unromantic choice, I conjectured, and the specifics of his life situation. Did the writer know anyone who was like this guy? How about within the marriages she saw around her?
   Instead of trying to solve plot problems, we began a freewheeling discussion of marriage in general, and the writer's marriage in specific. Although she at first resisted delving into "personal stuff," the more we talked, the more interesting the talk became. Because it turned out the writer had strong opinions on the subject. It turned out she wasn't sure if she believed that a successful marriage was predicated on a storybook romance. Her own marriage hadn't been wildly romantic in origin, but had lasted twenty years and was still going strong, while she'd seen a lot of brides and grooms who'd started out madly in love quickly crash and burn. So the question we found ourselves pursuing was, "What is the vital ingredient that makes a marriage work?" Is it honesty? teamwork? a trust fund?
   Whatever the real answer was, the question challenged us. Once we got onto this track, we were both more enthusiastic about her material, and we were able to start thinking about her characters in fresher, more intriguing ways. Maybe Joe thought x was the key and Jan thought it was y. Maybe they both had to discover that the secret marital ingredient was actually z.
   Within the hour, the writer had a more well-defined protagonist, an antiromantic antihero with real issues to resolve. And suddenly the whole trajectory of her story was anything but predictable. The writer left our discussion no longer knowing if Joe and Jan would end up together, but she knew something much more vital: she knew the reason she was telling this story. She'd connected with what was important about it for her, and in doing so, she'd gotten me hooked. As a newly married man, I was genuinely curious to see where a story that tackled this issue would lead.
   A screenwriter's resistance to getting into "personal stuff" is absurd. It's got to be personal, if anyone's going to care about your story, and theme is the arena where your personal experience, attitudes, and insights come into play. Experienced writers understand that what's universal comes out of what's most personal—out of a fiercely personal, passionate point of view. Just as we relate to characters who have strong wants, we relate to writing that's strongly felt.
   A good romantic comedy doesn't only show us how a couple gets together, it explores what their getting together means. What is it about this couple's conflict that has something to do with us? Answering that question has proven to be one of the most important ingredients in making a contemporary romantic comedy work. Theme, premise, point—whatever you call it, this slippery extra-special something has got to be there.
   What's it about?
   Describing your plot doesn't necessarily answer the question. When people in the business pose it, they really want to know why the plot goes the way it goes—and why you think your story needs to be told. What's an audience going to relate to in it? What will they take away from it after the lights come on? What'll make them come back to it for another viewing?
   What's it about?
   Do you really know, so clearly and so fully you don't even have to think about it? If you do, bless you, but you might want to read this chapter anyway, even if it's just so you can pat yourself on the back afterward and say I told you so. Because the theme issue in screenwriting is probably the trickiest one of all. Many a potentially great romantic comedy has fallen on this particular sword and died without ever feeling or seeing the fatal wound. When a movie fails, it's hardly ever blamed on the lack of a theme—yet no A-list writers in Hollywood ever go into a draft unless they're armed with one that works.
   One that works for them is what bears emphasizing. A theme isn't some outside-in element, a message that needs to be pasted onto a story to make it more meaningful for the world at large. It's a personal idea that becomes a powerful storytelling tool. Once the writer of "Joe and Jan" knew she was trying to define the secret of a successful marriage, she was able to shape her characters and plot accordingly. The writer had something to learn, and her characters were going to help her learn it.
Something to learn. A point of view. A meaning. These are all pretty general notions. So let's begin with a definition.


Here are two helpful approaches to defining theme that come from writers of fiction. The first is Stephen Minot's: "Theme comments on the human condition." Though not every screenwriter writes about people exclusively, writers are human and can't help writing about even aliens from a human point of view. Minot's statement implies universality: a writer who has something to say about being human is speaking to all of us.
   The second approach comes from Janet Burroway: "Theme speculates on a possible truth." This has more active phrasing, implying exploration and discovery. It's an attractive idea, borne out by the many enduring movies that came from writers who were writing to learn something.
   Both statements are good for starters, but practically speaking, how do you put a "comment" to work inside a draft? What does "speculation" actually look like on the page?
   The tool I suggest using, when working with theme, is an axiom. A dictionary's definition of an axiom is particularly apt for working screenwriters. To paraphrase Webster, an axiom is a statement, accepted as true, that's used as the basis for an argument.
   "A statement, accepted as true" echoes Burroway's "possible truth." Let's say that after some exploration, a screenwriter decides that the vital ingredient in a successful marriage is trust. She then makes this her "basis for argument," her guideline for the development of story lines. Given this possibly true idea about trust, the screenwriter sees how each of her characters embodies or disproves it. How about an unfaithful husband who abuses the trust in his marriage to keep it going? A couple of acrobats who feud all day and have to catch each other in midair at night? The writer's plot will put her axiom to the test.
   The derivation of the word axiom makes it especially appropriate. It comes from the Latin and Greek, meaning "something worthy." This speaks to the nature of your truth and your plot. Is it truly interesting? intriguing? worth exploring? An audience coming to a romantic comedy is prepared to laugh, perhaps cry, and to have an experience that's meaningful to them. Whatever truth and argument you're choosing to explore should have real relevance and resonance to the culture you're in. What you're talking about when you talk about love is, hopefully, part of a conversation that your contemporaries are already having.
   But where does theme enter a piece, and how? The thrust of your axiom may not be clear to you at the outset. We should never underestimate the importance of our unconscious in the writing process, and sometimes the underlying meaning of a story is discovered as a writer blindly follows her characters. How far in advance do you need to have your theme defined?


One of the past century's most influential screen writing books is not about movies at all. The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lejos Egri is a book on playwriting, but its principles, applicable to movies, have been picked up on by many screenwriting gurus and scribes. This may be partially due to Egri's devotion to the three-act structure and his dogged insistence on observing classic (Aristotelian) rules of dramatization—a novel approach to try in a business that isn't exactly up on rules or classics. (I once heard a junior executive call something "a classic, like Ace Ventura.")
   Egri's word of choice in the theme arena is premise. He insists that a writer can't begin a play, let alone sustain it, without a premise, a clearly defined statement of purpose—an axiom, of sorts. But Egri demands that an axiomatic statement be an active one, made up of three parts. If you want to explore dishonesty, Egri says, it's not enough to say your play is "about dishonesty." What's the problem with dishonesty? Why is it the wrong way to go? Well, for one thing, the truth is bound to come out sooner or later. Fine, then, state your premise as "Dishonesty leads to exposure."
   What's implied in this premise is a protagonist, embodying dishonesty, who gets his comeuppance. And each part of such a statement suggests part of a logical three-act structure. "Dishonesty" is your first act (setup), "leads to" is your second act (conflict and crisis), and "exposure" is your third (resolution). Voilà! Theme and structure, wedded in four words. You can see why such a concept has proved enticing to writers struggling to whip unruly drafts into shape. Having such a premise can certainly keep your major story beats on track.
   Many a screenwriter has gone this tried-and-true route. It works. But personally, I don't agree with Egri. What bothers me about applying an Egri premise to a work in progress is that it aces out discovery. Having your thematic material decided so definitively at the outset effectively sabotages exploration. If all of your conclusions are foregone as you begin telling your story, you risk telling a story that's too pat and familiar. You've closed off your options, which is why I think of this approach as working with a "closed" theme.
   Let's say that what intrigues me about dishonesty is how often it doesn't lead to exposure. Maybe I want to write about a character—not so hard to find in today's ruthless working world—who's routinely dishonest but has nonetheless become hugely successful. I'm interested in exploring the effects of chronic dishonesty on a person's psyche. Is there really such a thing as karma? How do people who are forced to be dishonest (in top secret government employ, for example) deal with truth in their personal lives? How do they make distinctions? Is honesty always the best policy, absolutely? What about an honesty that destroys someone's life? What, then, are the ethics of honesty?
   If in writing my screenplay I'm really trying to learn something about dishonesty, then I don't want to start out with a premise that leads to a neat, predetermined resolution. I want an axiom that's open-ended—an "open" theme. What I've found—evidenced in interview after interview—is that the best screenwriters most often start their spec scripts because they're trying to answer a question that's important to them. And the answers are discovered in the process of writing their drafts.
   Having an axiom expressed in the form of a question is an effective method of defining your thematic turf. "Is selective dishonesty a necessary component of a successful romantic relationship?" or "How honest does a mate have to be?" would be perfectly valid axiomatic questions for the Joe-and-Jan writer to use to begin a first draft. Another contemporary notion of working with an open theme is to take a core idea and put it through variations, much in the manner that a symphony states a musical theme and then develops it. "How is love sustained—through honesty or dishonesty?" Such an exploratory axiom might yield complex, even contradictory conclusions. Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is a masterful example of this kind of theme work, which leaves disturbingly ambiguous questions unanswered at its close.
   The latter approach may come under the don't-try- this-at-home heading for a novice screenwriter; if structure and basic story sense is still your weak area, then employing "an Egri" as you start out might prove far more helpful for your draft. But remaining open to discovery (i.e., allowing the writing to open up your closed premise once you've completed a first pass) is another viable way to go.
   This brings up an oft-debated issue concerning theme. Somewhere between "Don't start without an axiom you can write on the wall" and E. M. Forster's famous "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" is an interesting gray (or rainbow-colored) area. As we've noted, many writers go in with only a question or a character issue to explore. A general rule of thumb would be to have at least an area of interest identified. Richard Curt is has noted that the genesis of Four Weddings came out of his observation that for some years, the only time he was able to get together with a particular group of friends was when he ran into them at weddings. He then became intrigued by the idea of telling the story of this group, using the weddings as a structure. We can say that the intersection of "group of friends" and "weddings" was an area of interest that led him down other thematic paths—the question of what might keep the group's most eligible bachelor from getting married, for example.
   Some writers, who have the time and dedication to let their process be truly organic, follow Forster's lead and write a whole draft with no conscious notion of axiom or theme whatsoever. Then they look at the story they've told to see what comment or question their unconscious has raised within it. Sometimes the repetition of an idiosyncratic action or image is the unconscious waving a flag. What are you telling yourself thematically, for example, if you've written about a free spirit who always finds himself caught in confined spaces?
   But ultimately, at some juncture—be it the end of extensive outlining or the completion of a first draft—the conscious has to join forces with the unconscious and start to shape the material. If your material is going to resonate meaningfully, conveying your personal point of view and speaking to a larger audience, some kind of axiomatic truth has to be expressed.


"Why are you leaving me?" Joe beseeches Jan. "I was only telling you the truth." Jan pauses on the threshold. "Well, honesty isn't always the best policy!" she retorts, and the door slams. All that's missing is the subtitle: Get It?
   The first and foremost, most obvious rule of working with theme is that it can't be artificially imposed on the material—or artificially expressed. Writers have to avoid what's been dubbed the "Fortune Cookie Fallacy," meaning, if one of your characters verbalizes your axiom as banally as it's expressed in one of Hung Fat's fortunes, your theme may be just as disposable.
   Actually, if you're working with a viable theme in your screenplay, it's already being expressed without such on-the-nose soapbox pronouncements. Your characters are embodiments of thematic concerns; they're the ones arguing the sides of your possible truth. And who wins the argument is crucial. A writer's attitude, belief system, and/or point of view gets expressed in three places: in the growth of the main character, in the resolution of the story, and in the storylines of its subplots.
   Theme in character growth: A quote from yet another fiction writer, Robert Penn Warren, is pinned to my writing room wall: "The secret subject of any story is what we learn, or fail to learn, over time."
   As we've noted, the transformative power of love is an underlying, long-abiding romantic comedy idea; it's the übertheme of the genre itself. In the most involving romantic comedies, how the main character is affected by love, what the main character chooses to do when love enters his/her life, or whether the character is changed by love is often the point of the story. What has your character learned by meeting, losing, getting? Answer that question and you enter the realm of theme.
   Theme in story resolution: It Happened One Night ends with its upper-class heroine (Claudette Colbert) running out on her society wedding to be happily reunited with the working-class good guy played by Clark Gable. This bride's flight signifies her embrace of better values. Contrast the climax of Runaway Bride: when Julia Roberts leaves Richard Gere at the altar, it means she hasn't gotten over her neurosis; when she later suggests they have another kind of wedding, it signifies that she's worked through (rather patly and off-camera) her self-actualization issues. Two different thematic takes, but a common testing ground: where your protagonists end up is the clearest indication of the point you're trying to make.
   Theme in subplots: Similarly, the subplots of a romantic comedy are another arena where theme is played out. Moonstruck's concerns about "settling or not settling"—central to the romance between Ronny and Loretta—are acted out in the secondary story lines featuring Loretta's parents. Tootsie's preoccupation with the meaning of friendship, slipped deftly but clearly into the final scene between Michael and Julie ("We've done the hard part," he tells her, "we're already good friends"), is echoed throughout the movie in its various subplots (e.g., an angry Sandy telling Michael, "I'd take [your lying] from a lover, Michael—I don't take it from my friends!").
   Note that a vital corollary to all this is thematic consistency. If our "Joe and Jan" writer reaches the conclusion that trust is the essential foundation of a successful marriage, than we'd better see a resolution that illustrates the triumph of trust—not an ending that emphasizes, say, great sexual chemistry or the amassing of wealth. In fact, any storytelling component that doesn't conform to a screenplay's theme confuses and diffuses a movie; an audience intuitively feels the wrong turn taken. One of your jobs as a writer is to test every character arc, image, and story line in your script against your axiom. If the same theme is being expressed in some way throughout, your story will have the integrity it needs.
   To see how theme is developed through characters, plot resolution and subplot, let's turn to a case study.


When Harry Met Sally

Screenplay:  Nora Ephron
Director:  Rob Reiner
Leads:  Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan
Released by Castle Rock in 1989 (96 min.)

Log line: Over many years, two seeming opposites forge a male-female friendship—which nearly ends disastrously when they become lovers.

Harry Burns and Sally Albright meet in the late 1970s when they share a drive from their Chicago University campus to New York City after graduation. Cynical Harry doesn't believe that men and women can be friends because sexual attraction always gets in the way, and bright-eyed optimist Sally is appalled when Harry makes a pass at her, since he's supposedly in love with her good friend Amanda. They part when they arrive in Manhattan.
   Five years later they briefly meet again on an airplane. Sally's surprised to hear that Harry's getting married, but his determinedly male point of view alienates her once more. Five years after this, they run into each other in a New York City bookstore; Sally's just broken up with her longtime boyfriend Joe, and Harry's being divorced by his wife Helen. Both have matured, and they become friends. This is a new experience for Harry, but he warms to it; they support each other through a difficult period of single life. Still, their unspoken attraction is a subliminal threat, especially after Sally exhibits her sexuality in an argument, proving to Harry that women can successfully fake orgasms.
   Harry's best friend Jess and Sally's best friend Marie fall in love, move in together, and are preparing to marry. Sally, devastated to learn that Joe's getting married, turns to Harry for consolation… and the two end up making love. Harry, scared by this turn, alienates Sally with his in-denial behavior. After a big blowout, she refuses to see him anymore. Harry slowly but surely comes to the realization that he's in love with Sally, and he runs to find her at a New Year's party, where his fervent love declaration and tacit marriage proposal win her back. The friends become mates for life.

   When Harry Met Sally, a huge success upon its release, seems to be one of the few romantic comedies that men wholeheartedly embrace. This is probably because it unashamedly expresses a quintessentially male, antiromantic point of view. Nora Ephron's script gets away with this by having Harry's dark sentiments instantly countered by sunny Sally's more expected and accepted female point of view and, of course, by having Harry ultimately embrace that POV in a love-conquers-all finale.
   What most people remember about the movie, besides its justly celebrated orgasm-in-a-deli centerpiece, is its ostensible subject matter: the question of whether a man and a woman can sustain a friendship without sex. While the script itself is a model of economy and clarity that belongs on any romantic comedy writer's shelf, in the published edition of the screenplay, Nora Ephron has provided us with an uncommonly honest, informative, and useful analysis of the creation of a movie from a screenwriter's POV. And interestingly, her introduction reveals that—according to its author, at least—the gender-friendship question is not what Harry is about.
   The genesis of the movie stems from an idea that Rob Reiner brought to Ephron (and we should all be so lucky):

He wanted to make a movie about a man and a woman who become friends, as opposed to lovers; they make a deliberate decision not to have sex because sex ruins everything; and then they have sex and it ruins everything. And I said, let's do it.

   In the course of discussing the story, Ephron sits with Reiner and his producing partner Andrew Scheinman and learns about how men perceive and deal with the opposite sex. She's appalled ("sort of my wildest nightmares of what men thought"), but soon puts the news to good use, as she realizes ("long before I had any idea of what was actually going to happen in the movie itself") that she can model her male protagonist on Rob Reiner.

So I began with Harry, based on Rob. And because Harry was bleak and depressed, it followed absolutely that Sally would be cheerful and chirpy and relentlessly, pointlessly, unrealistically, idiotically optimistic. Which is, it turns out, very much like me.

   Note that Ephron starts with character, not plot. And what she assumes, in developing her story concept ("it followed absolutely"), is not only good romantic comedy conflict (she's making her leads as dynamically opposed as possible), it's an example of what we've identified as a means of expressing theme: her two main characters are going to represent two sides of the argument she's beginning to explore. Finally, note her comment that Sally is much like herself. Will this script get personal for the writer? It already has. Ephron goes on to say that as she began her first draft, she did have a subject in mind,

...which was not, by the way, whether men and women could be friends. The movie instead was a way for me to write about being single—about the difficult, frustrating, awful, funny search for happiness in an American city where the primary emotion is unrequited love.

   And there we have it, from the write r's mouth. Given the concept suggested by Reiner and Scheinman, and characters based on Reiner and herself, Ephron began to use the story as a means to express her experience, insights, and point of view about being single. The beauty part, in terms of seeding conflict, is that she had an ally. While she explored the single life from a woman's POV, she had Reiner on board to express the man's.

Movies generally start out belonging to the writer and end up belonging to the director ... what made this movie different was that Rob had a character who could say whatever he believed, and if I disagreed, I had Sally to say so for me.

   This is the dialectic that's been largely responsible for the movie's universal appeal. Harry couldn't have ended up being a chick flick with Reiner at the helm—who was, remember, the man who seeded the idea in the first place. Following Reiner's lead, Ephron worked out a story in which Harry and Sally become lovers after being friends and then decide to go their separate ways; what they've learned has prepared them both for the next important romance in their lives:

I wrote a first draft about two people who get each other from the breakup of the first big relationship in their lives to the beginning of the second. Rob went off and made Stand By Me. We met again and decided that Harry and Sally belonged together.

   Note here an important factor in working with theme and story: flexibility. While such changes in intent don't erase Ephron's original thematic area of interest (i.e., urban single life), we can read between the lines; evidently Ephron and Reiner realized that with two such lovable not-quite lovers on their hands, a happier ending would be more satisfying. This decision has significant repercussions for the finished film's ultimate meaning, as we'll see, but for now, observe Ephron's admirable willingness to keep shaping and redefining her story arc. She goes on to describe writing an additional half-dozen drafts.
   Ephron is unusually gracious in crediting her creative team and the actors. Late in the process it was Meg Ryan, for example, who suggested actually faking the orgasm in the deli, and comedian Billy Crystal came up with the scene's topper (given to an older customer played by Rob's mother, Estelle Reiner): "I'll have what she's having." Again, we should all have such an ideal collaborative process in our work.
   Ephron goes on to describe how the finished film reflects everyone's input, and her conclusions show how much her own conception of the movie's theme has shifted over four years of rewriting (plus the shooting of the actual picture):

Rob believes that men and women can't be friends… I disagree... and both of us are right. Which brings me to what When Harry Met Sally is really about—not, as I said, whether men and women can be friends, but about how different men and women are.

   Aha. Somewhere between "the single life" and "the male-female friendship issue," we've landed on a third thematic through-line: gender difference. So what do you think? Is Harry true to Ephron's original area of interest? Reiner's axiomatic question? Ephron's hindsight conclusion? I believe that the movie has all three things embedded in it and that, cumulatively, these thematic strains add up to something else again.
   While Reiner's contribution forms the backbone of the central story line (remaining true to his original concept in everything but the ending), Ephron's thematic subject is evidenced in the dialogue throughout and in some nonverbal montages—it fills out the canvas of the movie. Every time Harry and Sally aren't debating or enacting the difficulties of forging a friendship with someone of the opposite sex, the "funny, awful" aspects of single life pick up the slack. Thus, in between what we'll call for the moment "Reiner's stuff"—the scene of Harry and Sally's second meeting (airplane) and their third (bookstore)—we have "Ephron's stuff": a scene where Sally and her female friends discuss the travails of singledom in the context of Sally's recent breakup (Marie, reacting in horror, "But you guys were a couple. You had someone to go places with. You had a date on national holidays!").
   The third thematic strain, "differences between men and women," surfaces wherever Reiner's focus and Ephron's focus intersect. A scene in which Harry and Jess discuss Harry's meaningless sexual encounter of the previous night has Harry marveling that he and Sally can openly discuss such a date, while Jess remains fixated on Harry's conquest: "You made a woman meow?!" This cuts to Sally and Harry at the deli and Sally's incredulous/disgusted interrogation of Harry on what she finds significant: How did he manage his quick exit from the date?
   Man impressed, woman appalled; the catalyst for Sally's orgasm demonstration comes out of this collision of differences. When Harry smugly insists that no woman has ever faked an orgasm with him, Sally notes bitterly: "Oh right, I forgot. You're a man." And she proceeds to prove him wrong.
   Alrighty, then—single life, men-women friendships, gender differences ... but does this stew of thematic ideas ever cohere? What, after all, is the theme of When Harry Met Sally?
   Let's test our theories. We said that character growth is one area in which theme is expressed. So what does Harry learn over the course of the story? It's laid out for us in the penultimate scene, when Harry rushes to Sally's side and declares his love, only to be initially rejected. "You can't just show up here," she informs him, "tell me you love me, and expect to make everything all right. It doesn't work that way." Harry rallies:

How about this way? I love how you get cold when it's seventy-one degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle right there when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you're the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night…

   Harry goes on to say he wants to spend the rest of his life with Sally, but what's most important about his wonderfully specific enumeration of what makes her lovable is this subtext: the very things that used to rankle Harry about Sally have turned into her most endearing attributes. Harry used to couch all his pronouncements about gender differences in negative, hostile terms. But falling in love with her has created a shift. Harry now accepts and appreciates the differences between them.
   Now check the story resolution. When Ephron and Reiner decided they wanted Harry and Sally to end up together, they were pointing their disparate thematic materials in one direction. To have let these two lovers drift apart would have been to embrace the tyranny of difference. You see, the movie would've said, men and women are deeply incompatible, they can't be friends because they're too damn different. Instead, the joyful defeat in the finished product tells us, vive la différence, or, to put it more soberly: accept the inevitable compromise.
   Here's a hypothetical "Egri" for it: Embracing gender differences leads to romantic happiness. An axiomatic question could've been: How can two such different genders achieve compatibility? As a last spot check, consider the subplot: the mirror personalities of the two protagonists, Jess and Marie, do in fact quickly hurtle past their gender differences and achieve domestic harmony by dealing with them equitably. The one low-key fight between them that we're witness to shows Marie, in time-honored gender role tradition, correcting Jess's bad taste by ridding their home of his wagon-wheel coffee table. His capitulation after her show of good faith (she's suffered with the table thus far and will continue to suffer should he insist) indicates that they'll still live happily ever after.
   Right after the movie's ominous second-act climax (Harry and Sally make love), Ephron neatly underlines this point with a deft recapitulation of her favored thematic strain, as Jess and Marie, cocooned in their premarital bed, end their respective phone calls from the traumatized postcoital Harry and Sally. "Tell me I'll never have to be out there again," Marie says. "You'll never have to be out there again," Jess says, and they kiss. Thus, with a shudder in the direction of that "awful, funny" single life, the movie subtly nudges us in the direction of its conclusion: Getting past those differences is worth it.
   I specifically chose Harry for this case study because—in spite of variants on its "man versus woman" issue being sounded in the dialogue, images and beats of nearly every scene—its theme remains in some respects entertainingly elastic. There are many other romantic comedies built on more straight-up, textbook axioms, but Harry (and Ephron's discourse) demonstrates how a good theme is a flexible, ever growing entity and, unlike fortune cookie slogans, is so much an organic part of the whole that it can't be patly extracted. When a writer is working theme into every element, the movie itself is what best expresses it.
   One interesting thing about the unconscious aspect of theme work is that a movie may mean different things to its creators—and to its audiences. But the point is its presence, which unifies character and story development and adds to the substance and power of a romantic comedy. Though what I'm positing as Harry's theme was never articulated as such by its creators, its ultimately positive spin on the singles/gender-friendship/difference issues can be palpably felt in the finished film. And whether or not you agree with my specific take on the axiomatic truth at its heart, there's no denying that the presence of When Harry Met Sally's theme is what made it one of the most distinctive romantic comedies of the modern era.



Theme is the arena in which our personal passions get expressed. The most compelling stories come out of a writer's personal exploration of human experience, and this is especially true in our character-driven genre.
   A good tool to use in working with theme is an axiom—a possible truth that's going to be argued or explored in the working out of your story. Some writers like to work with a predetermined (closed) premise, a statement that lays out the entire trajectory of a story in thematic terms. It's often more rewarding for a writer to approach material with a question that the writer would like to explore; this kind of open thematic approach allows more room for discovery.
   Whether one begins with an axiom or arrives at one after an exploratory first draft, a romantic comedy's theme is generally expressed through the growth of its central character, the resolution of the story, and the nature of the subplots employed. It's important that the same theme be consistently expressed throughout. Working with universally resonant material elevates the movie's significance and accessibility, whether or not the ultimate message its audience comes away with is exactly the one originally intended.

Exercise: Developing Theme

   1. Making it personal (intended for those beginning a first draft): Think of one of the most painful, humiliating, embarrassing things that ever happened to you with someone of the opposite sex.
   Now take a deep breath, and see if by writing a brief paragraph or two about the experience you can find the humor in retrospect.
   Once you've done this, identify a question or two that the experience raised. Can you fashion your question into an axiomatic theme?
   Now do a more freely fictionalized rewrite on your true-life incident, making it more clearly illustrate that theme.
   This is the screenplay theme process in microcosm. You might want to try it with your lead character. Is there an Incident in your outlined story that lends itself to such exploration? Something in the character's backstory?

   2. Listening to your draft (intended for those who have a completed draft and are approaching a rewrite): Analyze the arc of your protagonist(s) over the course of the story. Does your lead character learn something and/or grow in some way, however incremental? Define that lesson or growth in a simple sentence.
   Similarly, what does the resolution of your story express in thematic terms? Write the sentence.
   Address your subplot(s). How does your subplot echo, contrast, or play out the issues evinced in your "character growth" and "resolution" sentences? Write the sentence.
   Now combine the essence of all three sentences into one axiomatic statement or question that speaks to the heart of your thematic intent. If that proves difficult, pay close attention to where anyone of the three statements diverges. Play what-if to see how a character, story ending, and/or subplot could be altered so that it better expresses your master sentence, or working axiom.

   3a. Theme in imagery (for all writers still in search of a viable axiom): Identify an area of interest for your piece. Free associate around it (e.g., from the word weddings, what do you see in your mind's eye?). Now jot down whatever images and phrases come to mind. Do any of these speak to theme?

   3b. Set your working title aside and brainstorm a short list that addresses theme (my favorite is Enemies: A Love Story).

   3c. Look through your piece and see if there are any recurring motifs—in story beat, dialogue, and imagery. Are people always on the run? Stuck in the same place? What is a movie short on physical contact but full of recording devices, phones, and TVs (e.g., sex, lies and videotape) trying to say?

Mernit, Billy. Writing the Romantic Comedy. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001. 87-106

Full Chapter

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Journey Through the History of Film

I consider myself a viable movie buff. I know a great deal about movies on the screen and behind the scenes. But I also know that I can't claim to be a true cultured movie maestro until I have truly enveloped myself in the history of film... meaning that I need to be familiar with the movies that are considered the greatest films in history. So after some study, I have compiled a list of 226 "great" films that I still need to watch/re-watch. After seeing a film, I will post my brief review/rating of it to the right, and later these reviews will become a full post - 50 or so at a time. Here's the list:
  1. 12 Angry Men (1957)
  2. 42nd Street (1933)
  3. 9 To 5 (1980)
  4. Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
  5. Adam's Rib (1949)
  6. Adventures Of Robin Hood, The (1938)
  7. Affair To Remember, An (1957)
  8. African Queen, The (1951)
  9. All About Eve (1950)
  10. All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
  11. All That Jazz (1979)
  12. Amadeus (1984) (Theatrical Cut)
  13. American Graffiti (1973)
  14. American In Paris, An (1951)
  15. American President, The (1995)
  16. Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)
  17. Anna Karenina (1935)
  18. Annie Hall (1977)
  19. Apartment, The (1960)
  20. Arthur (1981)
  21. Awful Truth, The (1937)
  22. Babe (1995)
  23. Ball Of Fire (1941)
  24. Bananas (1971)
  25. Band Wagon, The (1953)
  26. Barefoot In The Park (1967)
  27. Being There (1979)
  28. Ben-Hur (1959)
  29. Best Years Of Our Lives, The (1946)
  30. Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962)
  31. Birds, The (1963)
  32. Birth Of A Nation, The (1915)
  33. Black Stallion, The (1979)
  34. Born Yesterday (1950)
  35. Boys Town (1938)
  36. Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)
  37. Breaking Away (1979)
  38. Bridge On The River Kwai, The (1957)
  39. Bridges Of Madison County, The (1995)
  40. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
  41. Cabaret (1972)
  42. Camille (1937)
  43. Cape Fear (1962)
  44. Casablanca (1942)
  45. Cat Ballou (1965)
  46. China Syndrome, The (1979)
  47. Citizen Kane (1941)
  48. City Lights (1931)
  49. City Slickers (1991)
  50. Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
  51. Color Purple, The (1985)
  52. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
  53. Dances With Wolves (1990)
  54. Dark Victory (1939)
  55. Day At The Races, A (1937)
  56. Day The Earth Stood Still, The (1951)
  57. Dead Poets Society (1989)
  58. Defiant Ones, The (1958)
  59. Dial M For Murder (1954)
  60. Diary Of Anne Frank, The (1959)
  61. Dinner At Eight (1933)
  62. Dirty Dancing (1987)
  63. Dirty Dozen, The (1967)
  64. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
  65. Duck Soup (1933)
  66. Father Of The Bride (1950)
  67. Fiddler On The Roof (1971)
  68. Frankenstein (1931)
  69. Freshman, The (1925)
  70. From Here To Eternity (1953)
  71. Funny Girl (1968)
  72. Gandhi (1982)
  73. Gaslight (1944)
  74. General, The (1927)
  75. Ghost And Mrs. Muir, The (1947)
  76. Giant (1956)
  77. Gold Rush, The (1925)
  78. Goldfinger (1964)
  79. Gone With The Wind (1939)
  80. Goodbye Girl, The (1977)
  81. Graduate, The (1967)
  82. Grapes Of Wrath, The (1940)
  83. Great Dictator, The (1940)
  84. Great Escape, The (1963)
  85. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)
  86. Gunga Din (1939)
  87. Guns Of Navarone, The (1961)
  88. Harold And Maude (1972)
  89. Heartbreak Kid, The (1972)
  90. High Noon (1952)
  91. Hoosiers (1986)
  92. Horse Feathers (1932)
  93. Hunchback Of Notre Dame, The (1939)
  94. Hustler, The (1961)
  95. In The Heat Of The Night (1967)
  96. Intolerance (1916)
  97. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)
  98. It Happened One Night (1934)
  99. It's A Gift (1934)
  100. It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
  101. Jazz Singer, The (1927)
  102. Jezebel (1939)
  103. Judgment At Nuremberg (1961)
  104. King And I, The (1956)
  105. Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
  106. Lady Eve, The (1941)
  107. Laura (1944)
  108. Lilies Of The Field (1963)
  109. Little Caesar (1931)
  110. Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (1955)
  111. Love Story (1970)
  112. Magnificent Seven, The (1960)
  113. Maltese Falcon, The (1941)
  114. Manchurian Candidate, The (1962)
  115. Marty (1955)
  116. Meet John Doe (1941)
  117. Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
  118. Miracle Of Morgan's Creek, The (1944)
  119. Miracle Worker, The (1962)
  120. Modern Times (1936)
  121. Monkey Business (1931)
  122. Moonstruck (1987)
  123. Morocco (1930)
  124. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
  125. Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936)
  126. Mrs. Miniver (1942)
  127. Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)
  128. My Man Godfrey (1936)
  129. National Velvet (1944)
  130. Navigator, The (1924)
  131. Night At The Opera, A (1935)
  132. Night Of The Hunter, The (1955)
  133. Night Of The Living Dead (1968) (Cut)
  134. Ninotchka (1939)
  135. Norma Rae (1979)
  136. North By Northwest (1959)
  137. Notorious (1946)
  138. Now, Voyager (1942)
  139. Nutty Professor, The (1963)
  140. On Golden Pond (1981)
  141. On The Town (1949)
  142. Out Of Africa (1985)
  143. Palm Beach Story, The (1942)
  144. Patton (1970)
  145. Phantom Of The Opera, The (1925)
  146. Philadelphia (1993)
  147. Philadelphia Story, The(1940)
  148. Picnic (1955)
  149. Picture Of Dorian Gray, The (1945)
  150. Pillow Talk (1959)
  151. Place In The Sun, A(1951)
  152. Planet Of The Apes (1968)
  153. Porgy And Bess (1959)
  154. Poseidon Adventure, The (1972)
  155. Postman Always Rings Twice, The (1946)
  156. Pride Of The Yankees, The (1942)
  157. Producers, The (1968)
  158. Public Enemy, The (1931)
  159. Quiet Man, The (1952)
  160. Raisin In The Sun, A (1961)
  161. Raising Arizona (1987)
  162. Random Harvest (1942)
  163. Rebecca (1940)
  164. Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
  165. Red River (1948)
  166. Right Stuff, The (1983)
  167. Road To Morocco (1942)
  168. Rocky (1976)
  169. Roman Holiday (1953)
  170. Roxanne (1987)
  171. Sabrina (1954)
  172. Safety Last (1923)
  173. Scarface: The Shame Of A Nation (1932)
  174. Seabiscuit (2003)
  175. Searchers, The (1956)
  176. Sergeant York (1941)
  177. Seven Year Itch, The (1955)
  178. Shane (1953)
  179. She Done Him Wrong (1933)
  180. Sheik, The (1921)
  181. Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
  182. Shot In The Dark, A (1964)
  183. Show Boat (1936)
  184. Silver Streak (1976)
  185. Sleeper (1973)
  186. Sleepless In Seattle (1993)
  187. Some Like It Hot (1959)
  188. Sons Of The Desert (1933)
  189. Sound Of Music, The (1965)
  190. Sounder (1972)
  191. Spartacus (1960)
  192. Spirit Of St. Louis, The (1957)
  193. Splendor In The Grass (1961)
  194. Stagecoach (1939)
  195. Star Is Born, A (1954)
  196. Strangers On A Train (1951)
  197. Streetcar Named Desire, A (1951)
  198. Sullivan's Travels (1941)
  199. Sunrise (1927)
  200. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  201. Swing Time (1936)
  202. Take The Money And Run (1969)
  203. Ten Commandments, The (1956)
  204. Thief Of Bagdad, The (1924)
  205. Thin Man, The (1934)
  206. Thing From Another World, The (1951)
  207. Third Man, The (1949)
  208. To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
  209. To Catch A Thief (1955)
  210. To Have And Have Not (1944)
  211. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
  212. Topper (1937)
  213. Touch Of Evil (1958)
  214. Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)
  215. Two For The Road (1967)
  216. Victor/Victoria (1982)
  217. Way Down East (1920)
  218. Way We Were, The (1973)
  219. What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)
  220. What's Up, Doc? (1972)
  221. White Heat (1949)
  222. Witness For The Prosecution (1958)
  223. Woman Of The Year (1942)
  224. Wuthering Heights (1939)
  225. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
  226. Young Frankenstein (1974)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Writers on Writing; Let Your Characters Tell You the Story

Joyce Maynard, a popular columnist and novelist, wrote the following article for The New York Times back in February of 2003. Download the text at the end of the post.

WRITERS ON WRITING; Let Your Characters Tell You the Story

Published: February 24, 2003
A number of years back, a murder took place near where I lived in New Hampshire that left the citizens of the state riveted to their televisions. A young teacher at a small town high school -- married, in her 20's, with aspirations to become a television journalist -- was accused of plotting the murder of her husband.

Part of what attracted people to following the case was that the accused woman, Pamela Smart, seemed so unlikely a killer. Pretty and well spoken, she had appeared on our television screens many times in the weeks before her arrest, making impassioned pleas that anyone who might know something come forward to assist the police in locating her husband's killer.

That person turned out to be Pamela Smart herself, with the assistance of a 15-year-old boy from the school where she taught, who said he was her lover.

I had so many questions. If in fact she had committed the crime as charged, what was the motive? What would inspire a teenager to put a gun to the head of a man he'd never met before and pull the trigger?

In my years as a journalist I'd conducted my share of interviews. But even if I could gain entrance to the jail, I knew that the questions I most burned to ask would never find their answers there.

I believed the best hope for locating my answers lay in the creation of fictional characters, modeled in some ways after the principals in the real case. And so, without a clear idea of where my story was headed -- only a knowledge borne from living much of my life in small New Hampshire towns where I'd known boys not unlike the one now sitting in the county jail accused of murder -- I began to write.

The first voice I adopted was that of the boy -- a leap of imagination, you might say, for a woman then in her late 30's whose contact with 15-year-old boys, when she was herself that age, was only as a quiet and shy observer in my high school classroom and my own small town. I became the boy for a while, then I was his mother, then I was the schoolteacher, and then the disaffected girl who would ultimately win favor with the boy and the teacher by providing them with a gun.

Here's what I believe happens when a writer begins her story with an authentically realized character (as opposed to one from central casting, formed out of the necessity to see a certain preordained action take place). If she allows him to take shape slowly on the page, if she resists the urge to make assumptions based on what she thinks he should do, he'll take on a life of his own and very nearly reveal the direction of the story.

The process that comes to mind here, that most resembles the one I undergo when I embark on bringing a character to life on the page, is that old art class exercise I still love, the contour drawing. You set your pencil on the paper and keep your eye firmly locked on the face of your subject, and then you let the pencil begin to move. You don't look down at the paper. You don't allow yourself to tidy up the image, and because of that, the image you create is likely to be a strange one.

An eye may show up on a cheek, the brow intersecting an ear. The strange thing is, an honestly executed contour drawing, created by a patient hand and a more patient eye, often conveys a more accurate rendering of the subject than one of some more deftly executed suitable-for-framing likeness.

In every novel I've written, I began with character, and allowed the drama to emerge out of human nature and relationships. Whether or not the story I constructed in my novel ''To Die For'' ultimately answered the questions posed by the real Smart case never seemed of import to me. I didn't write a novel about that case, and the only authenticity I cared about was that I remain true to the nature and motivations of the characters I'd invented. By the time I reached the point in my telling of the story where the boy entered the condo and shot the husband, I didn't hesitate or agonize over the scene. I knew what he would do and say, same as I knew the woman would turn on him after.

It doesn't always work, this practice of ceding one's control to one's character out of the faith that he will lead you to the story. A while back, shortly after a high school shooting in San Diego in which the gunman had been a 14-year-old boy, I embarked again on a quest to locate the answers rarely uncovered by journalists in cases like that one: Why?

Once again I took on the voice of a boy (a different kind of boy this time: wisecracking child of divorce, abandoned by his mother, taunted at his school) and let him start talking. I constructed a world for him: the apartment complex where he lived, with the TV always on, the skate park where a bunch of boys stole his board, the first day he showed up with it. Two hundred pages later I'd located ample evidence for understanding his pain and sense of isolation, his longing to be heard.

I wrote his story right up to the morning he was due to go to school and open fire. But when the moment came to write the scene in which he put the gun in his backpack, I knew I'd failed. I still couldn't find believable motivation for that one small act, so crucial to everything else. I put the novel in a drawer.

In the fall of 2001 -- a couple hundred pages into a different work of fiction -- I stopped through New York City to see my older son for a few days. My plane landed on Sept. 9.

After the events of that week, the novel I thought I was writing no longer made sense to me. Or at least it seemed impossible at that moment to immerse myself in a story that did not in some way take into account the experiences of those days and the ones that followed, the sense of loss and the questions: What do we do now? Where does hope lie?

I spent close to a month in New York, walking for miles, studying the faces on fliers, listening to people on the street. I found myself focused in particular on the experience of young people during that time, tried to imagine my own children, if they had seen me go out the door that morning and never return.

Sometime over the course of those weeks I heard the story of a woman killed in the towers who had left two children, one by a former husband, one the child of the husband she'd been married to the day she died. Now the older child would be leaving the home of her little brother and stepfather to go live with her father.

I didn't know the particulars of that family's story and would not have invaded their terrible grief to ask. But as a parent, divorced many years, whose own children had navigated the territory between the worlds of divided parents, and as the mother of three nearly-grown children whose greatest source of strength outside themselves lay with one another, I knew some things about divisions in families and connections among sibling, and what I didn't know I believed the process of creating characters might reveal to me.

The novel I ended up writing that fall, winter and spring (''The Usual Rules,'' which has just been published) was not the one I was embarked on, that I'd planned to write that fall. My story was not, in the end, about Sept. 11 at all, and certainly not about the family whose story I heard mentioned that day.

To my surprise and relief, the novel I wrote turned out not to be a tragic one either, though the story I told was touched off by tragedy. The girl I created on the page, faced with the death of her mother, separation from a brother and stepfather she loved and the prospect of going to live with a father she barely knew, turned out to be a strong and ultimately hopeful person. I would not have been able to imagine, when I embarked on her story, how it might be that a young person could rebuild a life after the events of that day. My character told me.

Maynard, Joyce. "WRITERS ON WRITING; Let Your Characters Tell You the Story." The New York Times 24 Feb. 2003. Web. 21 Jul. 2013.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Getting to Know Your Characters

Focusing mainly on piecing together your protagonist and antagonist, Crickett Rumley offers 8 questions and an exercise to test your character in action.

Getting to Know Your Characters
Screenwriting with Crickett Rumley

It's worth getting to know all of your characters. After all, they are ALL involved in telling your story. But the most important ones to get to know, at least initially, are the protagonist and the antagonist. Keep them in mind as you address the following questions.
  1. If you were going to write a one paragraph biography about him, what would you write? Where was he born, raised, educated? Who is his family? What's his greatest accomplishment?
  2. What is your character like on the inside? 'What does he think about himself? What are his fears, strengths, weaknesses? List five elements of the ESSENCE of the character.
  3. What does your character want out of life? List his goals, dreams, ambitions. Does your character actively pursue goals, or does something hold him back?
  4. What are your character's special skills? Greatest talent?
  5. What is your character's pet peeve? What annoys him the most?
  6. What is your character's greatest failure? Biggest loss? How have these affected him?
  7. Describe the current situation of your character's life. Does he have a job? Between jobs? Recently fired? Is the character in school? What are the important relationships in his life? How are those going? How does the character feel about his current situation? Is he satisfied? Does he want to change something? What? How?
  8. Given the characteristics, qualities, and goals you've developed for your character, which ones uniquely qualify him to be involved in the story you are creating? Why does this character get to be in this movie?
EXERCISE: Pick 5 of the characteristics you identified. Write a scene in which you introduce this character to your audience for the first time, revealing these characteristics through character actions, interactions, reactions to do so.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Character Bio Questions

To help in simplifying the character development process, Sonny Calderon has put together a series of questions that you can use to get the creative juices flowing and really dig deep into who your characters are. Download the file on the bottom of the post for offline reference.

By Sonny Calderon
  1. What does she think of her father? What does she hate / like about him? What kind of influence did he have on her?
  2. Her mother?
  3. Her brothers, sisters?
  4. What type of discipline did she receive at home? Strict? Lenient?
  5. Was she overprotected? Did she feel rejection or affection growing up?
  6. What was the economic status of the family? Any adverse situations? Divorce, illness, alcoholism, etc?
  7. What was the religious atmosphere of the family? How does she herself feel about religion?
  8. Is she smart, intelligent, slow-witted?
  9. From what grade did she graduate? How does she see herself - as smart, intelligent, uneducated? How does this education and intelligence manifest itself in her speech, vocabulary, pronunciation?
  10. Did she like school, teachers, schoolmates? What was she interested and involved in most? What are her political interests?
  11. What does she do for a living? How does she see her profession? What does she like about it or hate about it?
  12. Did she ever travel? Where? Why? What does she remember of her time abroad?
  13. What were her deepest disillusionments in life?
  14. What are her manners like? What is her type of hero? Whom does she hate?
  15. Who are her friends? Her life mates? Her cohabitators? What is her type of ideal partner?
  16. What does she want from her partner? What does she think and feel about sex?
  17. What are her hobbies and interests?
  18. How is her imagination? Daydreaming a lot? Worried most of the time? Living in memories?
  19. What does her room look like? Her taste? Her furniture, hair, clothes, the quality of her house?
  20. What role does she play at home? What role would she like to play?
  21. Does she take drugs, drink? Does she feel self-righteous? Revengeful? Does she always rationalize her errors? How does she accept disasters and failures? Does she like to suffer? Does she like to see others suffer?
  22. When facing new things is she basically negative, positive, suspicious, hostile, enthusiastic? What does she find stupid? How is her sense of humor? Is she aware of herself, her weak spots, idiosyncrasies? Is she capable of self-irony?
  23. How badly does she want to get what she claims are her life objectives? How does she pursue them?
  24. How is her health? What does she do for it?
  25. What is her self-image like? How does she feel about her weight, size, figure? What kind of walk does she have? Does she want to be visible or invisible? Does she want to be younger, older, more important, etc.?
  26. How are her gestures? Vigorous, weak, controlled, compulsive? Is she energetic or sluggish?
  27. Is her voice shrill, weak, strong? What kind of pitch and rhythm?
  28. Do you like her? Hate her? Why do you need to write about her? Why should people be excited about her?
  29. What does she think of children in general? Children of her own?
  30. What are her weaknesses? Real or imagined, known or ignored?
  31. What does she fear most?
  32. What is her life dream?
  33. Does she drive? What kind of car? What does she listen to when driving?
  34. What kind of music does she listen to?
  35. What kind of food does she like?
  36. What does she read?
  37. Does she watch TV? Which shows?
  38. What movies does she like?
  39. What does she do for fun?
  40. What does she say to herself when she's absolutely alone?
  41. What does she dream about (literally, when she's asleep)?
  42. Would she rather get her way by lying or by telling the truth?
  43. Does she feel a sense of joy about her daily life or drudgery?

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Friday, July 5, 2013

Characters and Development

What follows is a hefty but BRILLIANT guide for creating the characters that will populate your story. This text is pulled from the second chapter of The Writer's Partner: 1001 Breakthrough Ideas to Stimulate Your Imagination by Martin Roth. I recommend downloading the PDF at the bottom of the post for further study and use.

Characters and Development 

  That's the name of the game.
  No matter how clever, exciting, funny or dramatic your plot may be, the characters that people it are not only indispensable elements of your story, but they are also the most important element in any story.
  They are crucial to the theme and the plot.
  People care about people, not just about things or happenings. The more interesting and fascinating the characters you draw, the better your story will become and the more the reader or viewer will care about what happens to them.
  A good writer will let his characters tell him where they will go, how they will behave, and what they will do to accomplish their aims and goals.
  A character with a college education will think and behave differently than a high school dropout. Someone who has always known wealth will think and behave differently than someone who has always been poor. A character who has grown up in a happy household will think and behave differently than someone who was abused as a child.
  The protagonist in a story should always be someone the reader or viewer likes and cares about. This is not to say that your protagonist must start off as a goody two-shoes. But the spark must be there to make the reader/viewer want to see change occur in that character along the way.
  No matter how harsh or seemingly uncaring your protagonist may appear at the beginning, there must be some redeeming feature that you will ignite at some point. Usually that point is the protagonist's "moment of truth," when he or she decides what the right thing to do is and then does it.
  In many stories, there is a second protagonist, usually the first protagonist's love interest or a character with another relationship to the primary protagonist.
  This character, like other major characters, should be fully drawn for change and growth to take place. At some point in the story, something important happens to further the relationship with the protagonist or conclude, it for better or for worse.
  The protagonist in your story is, naturally, the hero of your piece.
  That does not mean he or she is Superman or Superwoman. The protagonist(s) should have weaknesses and most important, an Achilles' heel. The protagonist must be vulnerable. He or she must be able to lose, be hurt, or even die, depending on the story.

  The three basic elements of storytelling are to get your protagonist up a tree, throw rocks at him or her, and then get your protagonist safely down the tree.
  In other words, get your protagonist into some kind of problem either directly or indirectly (see pages 59-61 on deliberate and nondeliberate involvement), putting him or her in conflict with an antagonist. Place obstacles in the way of the protagonist as he or she attempts to resolve the problem, and then get your protagonist to resolve the problem, achieving his or her original goal.
  Protagonists must have a purpose or goal to attain, whether they set out to accomplish it or it is thrust upon them.
  Examples of purposes might be to live, to love, to be happy, to prosper, to recover, to discover, to reach a goal, for the protagonist or another.
  In developing your protagonist, bear in mind your protagonist's purpose. Who that protagonist will be dictates how that protagonist will accept the challenge, deal with obstacles, and how he or she will manage to overcome those obstacles to reach a satisfactory conclusion. For example, a character with a college education or someone with some specific skill or knowledge would function differently than a character not possessing that education, skill, or knowledge.
  Suppose the protagonist is someone who loved the great outdoors and had camped, hunted, hiked, etc. Wouldn't that individual have a better chance of surviving in the wilderness than a character born and bred in the city, and whose closest encounter with a tree was in a local park?
  Now reverse the situation.
  Wouldn't an urban, street-wise individual survive the city jungle better than a character who was pretty much a country bumpkin?

  Now let's talk about the antagonist in your story.
  In order to create conflict (which every story must have), there must be someone or something working against your protagonist, and that antagonist should always be a worthy adversary.
  The competition and conflict should not be easy to overcome for the protagonist.
  Another thing... although we often refer to our protagonist as the one in the "white hat," and the antagonist as the one in the "black hat," the more human the antagonist is, the more real that antagonist becomes.
  But . . .

  Although most writers think of protagonists and antagonists as humans, protagonists in recent stories included Flipper, Lassie, Gentle Ben, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, Judy the Chimp, Rin Tin Tin, and most recently, The Lion King.
  Although many times the elements are considered obstacles in the path of the protagonist, there are stories where such obstacles are the antagonists.
  Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is an example. The old fisherman's duel was with the sea and not with a human being.
  In Hitchcock's The Birds, the antagonist was the birds, as was the shark in Jaws and the bees In The Swarm.
  Still another consideration is the will to overcome a handicap which again is not the typical human antagonist. Although a handicap could be considered an obstacle, it might be the antagonist of the piece. Some of the following nonhumans or elements might be considered as protagonists or antagonists:

A curse
A domestic pet
Acid rain
Air pollution
Aliens from outer space
An intellectual handicap
Blazing light
Contagious disease
Dust storm
Farm animal
Fears and phobias
Killing coldwave
Killing heatwave
Physical handicap
Race or ethnicity
Sand storm
Sea creature
Spirit from another world
The sea
Tidal wave
Volcanic eruption
Wild animal
Wild but caring animal
  Excluding the elements, of course, you should develop a character bio for nonhuman protagonists and antagonists to have better insight into their behavior and motivation.

  That depends on you.
  Sometimes the writer comes up with a great, fully-developed character and then goes searching for a situation or a plot in which to place that character.
  Then again, and more often than not, the writer comes up with a situation and then seeks to "people" it. The type of character you choose to put into that situation will determine how the plot must be structured and how that character will handle the situation.
  For example, if your protagonist is a police officer assigned to a murder case, that character will face the problem as a police officer, though he or she may take certain liberties that real-life police officers would not take.
  However, if the protagonist you choose to involve in the murder case happens to be a used-car salesman with no investigative experience, naturally the approach that character will take will be worlds apart from the way the law enforcement protagonist would take.
  The choice is yours as to what you start with, the plot or the character.
  Whichever the case, the character you eventually choose must be fully developed. The following list can aid you in developing the characters in your story.
Where was the character born and raised?
Who were the parents?
What was the character's childhood like?
What members of a family does the character have?
What education did the character have?
What kind of student was the character?
What special skills or knowledge does the character possess?
What hobbies did or does the character have?
What are the bad habits of the character?
What are some of the traits of the character-emotional, mental, and physical?
With what kind of job or profession is the character occupied, past and present?
And finally, what are some of the character's past and present relationships?

  If you use the next lists, your characters can easily become people that you and the reader or viewer can come to know and understand.
  Armed with the knowledge of who a character is, let the character help you decide the course he or she will take in your story and what changes in that character will be brought about as the plot develops.
  For example, let us say our protagonist is a young man by the name of Joe Smith.
  Who is Joe Smith?
  Select one or more items from the list titled PLACE OF ORIGIN. For example, Joe was born in a factory town in the northern U.S. From PARENTS, select one or more items. For example, his parents were poor, working, religious, strict, but loving parents.
  From CHILDHOOD, select one or more items. Joe was an only child but came from a close, very happy family.
  From FAMILY MEMBERS, select one or more items. Joe's family consisted of his mother, father, paternal grandfather, and his uncle.
  From EDUCATION, select one or more items. Joe attended public elementary school, public high school, a state college. He also served in the army and received MILITARY TRAINING.
  From EDUCATION BEHAVIOR, select one or more items. Joe was a classroom cut-up but also a good student.
  From SPECIAL SKILLS select one or more items. Over the years, Joe has taken up sky diving, become a sports enthusiast, become a good hunter, learned how to fly in the service, has handled weapons (service), become expert in survival (service), is mechanically inclined, is a good pool player. . .
  From HOBBIES, select one or more items. Joe began collecting baseball cards when he was a kid and still collects them. He's into camping, fishing, sports, and weekly card playing with some close friends.
  From BAD HABITS, select one or more items. Joe doesn't have many bad habits, but he is impatient or short tempered, and he is not the neatest person in his housekeeping.
  From GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS, select one 'or more items. Joe is honest, a romanticist, humorous, a sometimes drinker, happy-go-lucky, nonsmoker, at times impractical, a sensitive man, often curious, and usually optimistic. He's a loyal friend, is danger-loving, can be charming his own way, is not a quitter.
  From MENTAL AND PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS, select one or more items. He is mature, tall and gangly, wears contact lenses in preference eyeglasses, has prematurely graying hair, suffers from a fear of heights, is his own man, strong-willed and downright stubborn at times.
  From PROFESSIONS and JOBS, select one or more items. He worked way through school as a short-order cook and as a part-time security guard. He played pro football but was injured early in his career. He then worked as a salesman but decided to get into law enforcement.
  From RELATIONSHIPS and MARITAL STATUS, select one or more items. Joe is divorced after one marriage. He has one small child he sees often as .he can. He has a number of friends through professional and social contacts. He has no steady girlfriend at present.
  From CURRENT LIFESTYLE, select one or more items. Joe is a bachelor and enjoys doing his own thing, shies away from commitment to another marriage, dates attractive single women, lives a fairly low-key lifestyle.
  From HOME, or DWELLING and VEHICLES, select one or more items. Joe lives in a small, inexpensive, one bedroom rented apartment in a middle class section of the city. He drives an expensive sports car, the one luxury he affords himself.
  We have now developed the skeletal outline of Joe Smith and put some meat on the bones.
  The creativity of the writer should now come into play to further embellish the character of Joe Smith by additional suggestions from the lists or any other ideas the writer can come up with.
  A quick suggestion: to get a good physical description of a character, you might refer to photographs of friends or from magazines.

Place of Origin
At sea
Big city
Eastern U.S
Factory town
Foreign country
Foster home
Great Plains
Lower-class neighborhood
Middle-class neighborhood
Military post
Northern U.S.
On the road (migrant)
River or lake front
Small town
Southern U.S.
Wealthy neighborhood
Western U.S

Middle class
One-parent household

Broken home
Close family
Juvenile delinquent
Large family
Only child
Raised by relative
Religious upbringing
Two sets of parents
Very happy

Family Members
Former husband
Former wife
Foster parent
Maternal grandfather
Maternal grandmother
Paternal grandfather
Paternal grandmother
Paternal son, daughter

Art school
Boarding school
Business college
Dance school
Educated at home
Junior college
Language school
Law school
Medical school
Military school
Military training
No schooling
Parochial or religious school
Post graduate
Prep school
Private elementary
Public high school
Reform school
School dropout
School for the handicapped
Special school
Trade school
War college

Roth, Martin. The Writer's Partner: 1001 Breakthrough Ideas to Stimulate Your Imagination. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2001.

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