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Archive for the Category "Plot"

Quick Screenwriting Tip: Deus Ex Machina = Bad Aug 24

Quick Screenwriting Tip

Avoid a deus ex machina ending to your story.

What is deus ex machina? According to Wikipedia:

A deus ex machina (Latin for “god out of the machine”) is a plot device whereby a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new character, ability, or object.

I feel the need to bring up this writing tip after reading Dean Koontz’ recent novel, Relentless. The ending was so contrived, so preposterous, I had to check the spelling of the author’s name twice to make sure it was indeed that Dean Koontz.

The novel was a good reminder of why it’s important to properly establish the rules of your world in the beginning of the story.

For example: If your story’s a western, with no sci-fi components, then it shouldn’t end with the hero saving the day after discovering an alien laser gun hidden inside a spittoon.

Can you think of any movies that use deus ex machina successfully?

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5 Big Things To Sweat About May 30

Sweat The Big StuffSweat The Big Stuff

I’m sure you’ve all heard this inspiring set of rules before:

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  2. It’s all small stuff.

The truth of the matter, however, is that when it comes to screenwriting, that message couldn’t be further from the truth. While the devil may be in the details, your script lives or dies in its broad strokes.

Prom Date

Here’s a quick metaphor to illustrate what I’m trying to say…


Is my prom date’s dress hot or what?


I guess. But dude, your date is a chimp.


Okay now you’re just being rude.


No, I mean your date is literally a chimpanzee. Does your dad work for the circus or something?


The zoo.



Awkward silence.


Smokin’ hot dress though, right?

It doesn’t matter how hot your scenes are, if your script is a chimp!

5 Things

Here are five BIG things you should sweat over, long before worrying about things like correct formatting, clever descriptions or upping the tension in a particular scene:


Concept is probably the most important aspect of your script. If you have a fantastic one, readers/producers will be more likely to forgive minor problems.

When you tell people about your concept, do they ooh and ahh? Do their eyes light up? If it’s a comedy, do they smile or laugh? Do they immediately connect with the material. Make sure you have a winning concept before you start writing your screenplay.

True story. I once had a woman pitch me the following sole movie concept: “It’s about a black Hollywood producer who has a small dick.” FAIL!

Character Motivations

By the time a reader reaches the second act of your script, he/she should be able to answer at least two fundamental questions. The first one is: “What does the protagonist want?” Make sure the answer to this question is clear and primal.

“My protagonist is just kinda going with the flow at this stage of the script.” FAIL!

Rooting Interest for Your Main Character

The second question a reader should be able to answer by the start of the second act is: “What do I want for the protagonist?” Depending on your story, this may, or may not, be the same thing as what the protagonist wants. But either way, at this stage, the reader should be rooting for your main character(s).

Moreover the reader should have an implicit understanding of where the story is going, and care about that direction.

READER: “I hate the protagonist, so I don’t care if he finds his lost doughnut… not that I would have been at all interested in that anyway.” FAIL!

Overarching Story

Have you provided a solid structure and an engaging plot?

Do cool or powerful things happen in your story? Have you fulfilled the promise of the premise? Have you executed a story that maximizes the potential of the concept? Thrilled the audience? Shown them something they’ve never seen before, or in a way they’ve never seen it?

“Yes, it’s a global apocalypse movie, but we learn what happens through first person accounts only. It takes place entirely in one interview room.” FAIL!


Is your movie about something? The movies that leave an impact on us are the ones that teach us something, or, at the very least, have something to say that will resonate with audiences. Something specific.

“The theme is danger.” FAIL!


Do you have all of these bases covered in your script? Or are you taking a chimp in a pretty dress to prom?

Any “big stuff” you would add to the list? Please post in the comments section.

Need someone to review your screenplay? Please take a look at my script services.

Bitter Nugget of Gold Dec 30

The Bitter Script Reader

One of the blogs I follow is The Bitter Script Reader. He offers some great insight into why screenplays work and don’t work, as well as a glimpse into the mindset of a current Hollywood script reader.

Occasionally he’ll offhandedly offer a golden nugget of truth that packs a powerful punch.

Case In Point

In his latest article: A Year at the Movies – Part 1, he discusses a bunch of films he’s seen this year and whether or not they were worth the price of admission. It was in his review of the movie Taken [Amazon | IMDB] that I found the following nugget:

Best of all, throughout the film it felt like the kind of movie that would have had the guts for Neeson to fail in his rescue attempt, a decision that makes either a happy or an unhappy ending much more powerful.


Let’s Dig Into the Nugget

One of the biggest complaints that many screenwriters have is that they don’t want to write an ending that feels formulaic. Quite often that leads them down the dark path of killing their hero or ending their movie on a down note.

Mr. Bitter has hit upon the formula… er, I mean, the recipe — for writing a happy, yet satisfying, ending.

It’s not just about the ending

When screenwriters (and audiences) complain about a contrived happy ending — they’re not really complaining about it because it ends happily — they’re complaining about it because the story was architected to lead us to that forgone conclusion.

Most of our favorite movies have happy endings. But the reason they work so well is because (given the previous events that occurred in the movie) the happy ending, or well-being of a main character at the end of the movie, was in doubt.

Develop a rooting interest for your hero

In E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial [Amazon | IMDB], we see E.T. die in Act 2, so we know that anything is possible. But we love that little alien critter so much, we can’t wait to see him get back to his ship safely.

In the Wizard of Oz [Amazon | IMDB], Dorothy is locked in a castle with an evil witch and (possibly more evil) flying monkeys. Her perilous journey had seen her almost die on several occasions. Even if she makes it out okay, will all her beloved friends? We’re rooting for them every step of the way.

In The Matrix [Amazon | IMDB], several of Neo’s comrades had already died. At the end, Neo had rescued Morpheus (and the Oracle had told Neo that he would need to sacrifice himself) — so we literally don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But we’re sure hoping it will turn out well.

I could go on and on, but the point is clear — put that doubt in your audience’s mind as to the outcome and you’ll have them hoping for a happy ending, instead of expecting one.

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