Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Nadine Labaki - A Benchmark Filmmaker


I screened Nadine Labaki's WHERE DO WE GO NOW for the second time last night with my wife, Pam, and our house guest, Yi Wang from China last night. The two ladies laughed and cried throughout the entire movie. And I thoroughly enjoyed every scene even though I knew the story and film well. 

WHERE DO WE GO NOW was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2012, and a two-time winer at Cannes and People's Choice Award at Toronto.

Nadine is a self-taught, Lebanese filmmaker of incredible talent. She's also a beautiful and talented actor. She says: "I'm bored with my own personality. I want to do so many different things, be so many different people, and live so different lives....(filmmaking) is the only place where you can experiment with so many different natures...(without) people thinking you're crazy."  Those are her words, but to me she's very comfortable being who she is, and she's very good at it.

Do buy a DVD or Bluray of WHERE DO WE GO NOW.  Here is her DP/30 interview recorded in Hollywood as she waited to attend the 2012 Oscars.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Pope in the Pool

 Blake Snyder in his book SAVE THE CAT made "Pope in the Pool" famous. For the few of you who are not familiar with Blake's nomenclature, Pope in the Pool is the name given to foreground exposition (in dialogue) with a background story (in visual). Here is a wonderful example that came across in my Instagram Feed yesterday. 

As a reminder, my 12 lessons (25 webisode videos) Storycraft Training series is available at 50% off until election day, November 8, 2022.  You can download or rent anything by using the discount code "Sales50" or "Sale50." Click on the link below for complete content outline and trailers.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Billy Wilder 9 Screenwriting Tips

Let me expand a bit on this good Instagram list of nine screenwriting tips supposedly from Billy Wilder.


This does not mean, as Will Goldman famously wrote, "NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING" on page 39 of his "Adventures in the Screen Trade."  (BTW: the all caps is Goldman's, not mine.) I don't agree with Goldman on this, but it's instructive.  A drive through parts of Los Angeles or an invite to a home or two will tell you that quite a number of individuals KNOW ALOT. But back to the "instructive" part. Reminding us that the audience is fickle means that you have to stay one step ahead of your audience. Like a good horror script, there should be a surprise (a LOGICAL surprise) at least every five pages, if not three. "Fickle" could mean the audience doesn't know what it likes, but it's more reasonable to understand that the audience comes to be entertained, and that they bore easily. Don't bore. Surprise.


This goes along with No. 1. Another way of saying this is to put your protagonist in jeopardy at the beginning and keep him there until the last frame of the movie. But of course, knowing that the audience is fickle means the jeopardy can rarely be the same from scene to scene. Mary Alice Moore Connealy is the author of over 70 Christian fiction novels. She specializes in romantic comedy set in the cowboy era of the American west. Mary and I were engaged in an email exchange in 2010 that I was careful to save. In it she revealed how she kills off villains. I wrote a blog HERE about it. Her Rule No. 2 is this: "You can judge how bad a bad guy is by the number of times he dies."  We see this is popular movies—the bad guy keeps resurrecting only to be killed in a more horrific way.  Aside from the catharsis rush this gives the audience/reader, it is a perfect example of how not to bore your audience (Wilder No. 1) and how to constantly keep your protagonist is danger (Wilder No. 2). 


 This is often the difference between a story that involves the audience intellectually vs. emotionally. When intelligent writers send me a script to critique I can easily get caught up in the obscure philosophical quest of the protagonist. But when emotional writers send me a script I don't have time to analyze the scenes, I'm too busy turning pages. Guess which movies get made? General audiences aren't looking for intellectual, philosophical, or spiritual quests (at least not explicitly). General audiences want a story that will carry them away emotionally, which means visceral, physical danger to a likable protagonist. This is why Mission Impossible and James Bond stories are always hits. [The special effects and practical stunts are not just eye candy, but rather reinforce the visceral danger as our hero tries, against all odds, to recover the hard-drive (or  similar MacGuffin) with the list of MI6 secret agents (Sky Fall)]. Bond is always in danger, and his goal is one thing get the hard-drive back or stop the release of its secret list of agents.  When we send a protagonist on a philosophical, introspective journey, it's much harder to keep the story emotionally involving.  Action is clean. Philosophy is obscure. 


This is the ultimate issue involving foreshadowing. Everything that happens in Act 3 needs to be set up in Act 1. Everything in Act 3 is the effect of the Act 1 cause. My friend Drew Yanno wrote a good book on this titled, as you might expect, "The 3rd Act." It is evidently now out of print since I can't find it or him on the Internet anymore. It's a bright red cover, 175 pages recommended by Will Smith.  If your hero is afraid of heights which hinders his capture of the bad guy in Act 3, then his vertigo is revealed in Act 1. If your heroine has a problem with commitment in Act 3, then the wound that caused her fear of commitment needs to be shown in Act 1.  If the protagonist risks his life to save a child in Act 3, then in Act 1 he saves a cat. (e.g. Blake Snyder's book, SAVE THE CAT).  Yes, it's often the case that when you're writing Act 3 and inventing all kinds of cliff hangers, you are simultaneously revising Act 1. If you don't do this you risk the disastrous anti-plot point called "Deus ex machina" (link Wikipedia). Deus ex machina is the opposite of the MacGuffin. Use the latter not the former. 


This does not translate well, but here's what it means. Narrative is better than didactic. Narrative shows  what happens when a protagonist makes a moral decisions and acts on it. A protagonist can make any decision and take any action he wants. But the consequences of that decision and action are always the result of natural law, and totally out of the hands and control of the protagonist. I have written much on this topic...some blog posts are here.  This process in storytelling is much like real life. We lean lessons by such a decision-action-consequence paradigm. We learn by experience, or by the stories told of the experience of others. WE DO NOT LEARN HOW TO LIVE A BETTER LIFE BY ARBITRARY RULES, which is what didactic storytelling suffers from. You may think the Bible is full of didactic rules (e.g. The Ten Commandments). But in reality the Bible is 75% Narrative, which reveals the consequence of not following the rules. Rules shortcut your learning, but you really only learn from experience or stories. This is why Stories are the Crux of Civilization. 

A bit more of a didactic (😟) explanation is needed here. Narrative shows what happens and requires the audience in figure out the rule involved (or the moral premise at work). A didactic story reveals the rule but does not necessarily demonstrate the natural law consequence of following the rule or not.  NOT HIDING YOUR PLOT POINTS is didactic. HIDING YOUR PLOT POINTS is narrative.  The rule here is "Make your audience work. Do not tell them. Show them. Let them figure it out." Audiences love intrigue even if it means trying to figure out what the movie is really about.  (Hopefully it's about something like a true, and consistently applied moral premise.)


This is actually a repeat of No. 5. 'Nuff said. 

By the way, Ernst Lubitsch was a German-born American film director et al. He co-wrote the Greta Garbo film Ninotchka with Billy Wilder. I'm sorry I don't know anything about this movie, but I will shortly when I screen it. What I do know about Lubitsch is that he made the audience work to figure out what was going on in the character's heart and head. This no doubt came about because Lubitsch's career began in the silent film era when directors were required to SHOW and dialogue was limited to a few dialogue cards. 


At the risk of repeating perhaps the best known Hollywood adage, SHOW DON'T TELL. Movies are not novels, but even novel writers know how to show and not didactically tell what's happening.  The study of non-verbal communication suggests that 80% of the message is communicated non-verbally, not with the actual words. Thus ,"I could kill you," has many different meanings.  

But back to No. 7.

I would add that you don't just want to add to what is being seen, but describe something ironic and quite different from what is being seen.  This is also the role of subtext in dialogue. Subtext, of course, is ironic in that it communicates what is not being literally heard, or it is the opposite of the literal words being used. (See this blog post on "Borders and Quarantines, the Essence of Successful Stories", and  Lesson 12 of my on-line Storycraft Training Series on "Writing Convincing Movie Dialogue." for examples.)  But back to the V.O. point: While we see a protagonist courageously and fearlessly rescue a child from a raging river, the voice over might add an ironic and intriguing twist if we hear the hero's retrospective thoughts of fear and cowardice. This adds dimension and depth to the character and makes him more believable and real like us. 

A similar occurrence takes place when you write a "Pope in the Pool" scene (see Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT.) A critical aspect of a Pope in the Pool scene is that the background action (the Pope trying to swim in a pool dressed in his vestments), metaphors what is being didactically discussed in the foreground dialogue. The background action ADDS TO WHAT WE'RE HEARING, or the foreground dialogue can be considered V.O. that explains didactically what is happening in the background. 

Every element adds to the narrative or its meaning.


The end of Act 2 plot point is also known as "NEAR DEATH," "FAUX ENDING," "NO GOING BACK," "ACT 2 CLIMAX," and "ALL IS LOST."  (Here is a link to ten (10) blog posts that describe the classical major beats of a story as diagramed on The Story Diamond.)   The Story Diamond simply overlays multiple story structures, paralleling the labels to reveal that all successful story structures are simply different ways to describe the same thing. Thus, the second act curtain (or Act 2 Climax) is a critical and very important turning point beat that converts our warrior protagonist/hero into a martyr, who is willing to die for the noble cause, thus endearing the audience to him.  The "end of the movie" is all of Act 3, which is 25% of the story. Structure is important here. Audiences love never ending stories...that is a story that seems to have multiple endings, and the Act 2 curtain is the FIRST of multiple endings that come at the audience rapid fire and give catharsis its due.  Also related to the importance of the ending is Michael Arndt's Insanely Great Endings in a guest post by The Other Chris Pratt, followed by my analysis of Arndt's "Little Miss Sunshine."


I've written enough about Act 3 so 'nuff said about that.

But "don't hang around," is the Denouement (or "Life After") and it should be very short. Use Act 3 to tie up loose narrative ends in dramatic fashion before you get to the Denouement. See again Michael Arndt's Insanely Great Endings, and my notes on the structure of Act 3. Lesson 9 of my Storycraft Training also covers the important and fast occurring beats of Act 3. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Terrence Malick and A-List Actors

I was asked if I could explain why a friend had difficulty maintaining his focus while watching Terrence Malick's A HIDDEN LIFE (2019). 

Pam and I screened the Blu-ray of it tonight and I will proffer an answer, by first commenting about the movie in general, it's structure, and its moral premise.

  • As with other Malick directed pictures, A HIDDEN LIFE (AHL) is driven by powerful visuals that if they don't directly and overwhelmingly evoke human emotion, they metaphor it with the purest example cinematic images of nature.  Movies, like all good stories, should command attention to the human condition through emotional portrayals. AHL succeeds in this endeavor where most other films fail. 
  • Ironically, while AHL succeeds in a film's most important category (emotional connection with the audience) it fails at being commercial. Consequently, it will not be seen by nearly as many as a commercial picture that fails to connect emotionally. I cannot imagine thousands flocking to movie theaters to screen AHL, but every minute kept me riveted by his wide-angle portrayal of the fragile human condition.
  • Why is it not commercial? (1) The straight ahead, non-clever, obvious from the start plot is revealed in slow motion. It goes exactly where you expect it to go. There are no surprises; no reveals that enlighten. It is exactly like the many shots of the strongly flowing river—there is no escape from its historic pull to destiny. (2) The protagonist (Franz) is a hero character with incredible inner strength and no weakness, as a protagonist character would exhibit. Successful movies, however, even with a strong hero will still arc a little. Franz is not even tempted. (3) Its nearly 3 hour length seems every bit that long, and even for Malick there are sequences that are much longer than they should be. It seems obsessive and repetitive.
  • What is right with the movie: (1) The cinematography is masterful. (2) The structure follows mostly classical lines. (3) AHL shows and rarely does it tell. (4) The moral premise is true and consistent: Executing injustice and brutality leads to enslavement; but hidden goodness while quietly suffering injustice leads to freedom. [Of course "enlsavement" and "freedom" here are spiritual, not physical, which may be another reason the movie is not commercial. Commercial films metaphor the spiritual or psychological by first being physical.] (5) The movie well examples the closing moral theme on a George Eliot title card:
“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
For any movie goer used to a fast-paced plot and surprises, reverses, and reveals on every page, AHL will put you to sleep and it will be hard to focus. AHL is a very spiritual and contemplative movie. While the photography is captivating and at times stunning, the story is very much internal, and requires a lot more thinking than the typically Hollywood fare.  The characters spend a great deal of time in prayer and self-examination. Such on-screen actions, however, fall far from the cheap, cringe-worthy, virtue signaling we would see in a cheesy Christian faith film. Why? Because in AHL their prayers and self-reflection is not answered in a blaze of glory or narrative reversal.  In fact, although AHL is very explicitly Christian and Catholic in many ways, it breaks the mold of a "faith film" in numerous, refreshing ways. One in particular is that in a Christian faith film when the main character consults with his pastor the pastor is always the good guy who pontificates a cheesy, sanctified, Bible perfect truism. In AHL the pastor sides with the Nazis. 

Why all the A-List Actors in a Non-Commercial Film?

AHL has no A-List Hollywood actors, but the acting is amazing to watch and reveals Terrence Malick's masterful touch at directing. Upon scanning through Malick's nine directed narrative features on IMDB that he had completed as of this posting -- and I know that IMDB is often derelict in being up to date -- it appears that everyone of the pictures failed to produce any significant earnings for the investors, and most bombed, at least in their theatrical outings, and I'm including THIN RED LINE in that claim. 

Why is it then that Terrence Malick can attach a host of A-list actors, when they have a pretty good idea that there will be no backend points coming their way? 

I have a theory, but it's an infant one since I am not a Terrence Malick aficionado. Perhaps I should be. I suspect it's because a Terrence Malick directed movie will be cinematically beautiful if not stunning, and A-listers want to be associated with anything that is beautiful if not stunning....the story and its structure being less important.

[If you don't know, the only real requirement to attaching money to a project is attaching known names. So if Malick can attract a few names, the money will come.]

I also wonder if Malick the director is motivated more by poetic beauty and intrigued by philosophical contradictions and moral dilemmas evident in AHL (Malick taught philosophy for a while before launching his film career) and thus neglects the essentials of narrative that create a successful story structure and a catharsis necessary to produce word of mouth praise and provoke ticket sales. Some of his movies with huge stars attached have not even broken $1M at the domestic B.O.  (according to IMDB.)

Does anyone have a good answer to this question? Please comment.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Ordeals and Redemption - Video Blog

Below is a video blog post for my Moral Premise followers based on a recent trip to Europe scouting for a documentary titled The Sword of St. Michael. The content is about the important concepts of Ordeals and Redemption in successful stories. But the visuals are all from the doc project. Enjoy. (stan williams)

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

You Can't Twist the Fabric of Reality

This short segment of a Jordan Peterson talk is an excellent description of The Heart of The Moral Premise concept. "You Can't Twist the Fabric of Reality and Get Away with it."

Peterson's point is summarized by an adage I first heard from my good friend Dan Glovak (R.I.P). Dan reminded his daughter and my son of this before they married: 

You can make any choice you want,
but you have no control over the consequences.

In my Moral Premise workshops I use this diagram, which I explain below.

The Decision Cycle in Pursuit of a Goal

A character (or real person, on the left) has a goal they want to achieve (the red star on the right). Typically the path to achieving the goal requires some sort of personal transformation.  In reality (Peterson's "fabric of reality") the transformation takes place through a series of cycles through the following four steps.

1. VALUE. The person possess certain values and reside deep in their psyche. The person may consciously recognize and be able to articulate those values, or they may not. The values may be either righteous, good, banal, bad, or evil. Regardless, the values are  the inner motivations that control the person's decisions and actions. 

2. DECISION. When a person observes something outside themselves, such as the goal they want to achieve, or an anti-goal they want to avoid, their values kick into action. They may do this consciously or subconsciously, but they nonetheless evaluate, compare, and contrast what they observe (perhaps a behavior of a person or an event in the physical world) outside themselves to their motivational values. Depending on the strength of their values and the largeness or smallness of the observation, the person makes a decision to interact with the observation, or thing outside them. The person decides, perhaps, to change what they observe, or to come alongside it and encourage the behavior or presence of whatever it is. 

Both steps 1. and 2. occur inside a person's psyche. They are invisible. But they are real events that happen in the person's mind. 

3. ACTION. Based on numerous factors and conditions, the person translates their values and decisions into the physical realm and takes some action, which as just mentioned either attempts to change or encourage the outside observation....or path the person wants to take toward their goal or anti-goal. 

These first three steps are all within the control of the individual. 

But once step 3. ACTION occurs, the person is at the mercy of Natural Law, or the fabric of reality. 

4. CONSEQUENCE. For every action there is a re-action. It could be an opposite and equal action as we know about in the realm of physics. Or, in the psychological realm it could be an alignment or encouraging, reinforcing action. But either one is not for the individual to decide or control. The consequence is entirely regulated by Natural Law. It may be a law of  physics, like gravity—you can't step off a cliff without falling and hurting or killing yourself.  Or, it could be a law of human psychology. If you are disloyal to a friend, Natural Law indicates you have a good chance of losing that friendship. 

The result?

After the person experiences the Consequence (and depending on the severity of it or them), the person may adjust their values, hopefully driving them closer to an alignment with Natural Law (The Fabric of Reality), where they will find true peace and happiness. If the person is malleable in this way, given enough of the cycles through those four steps, Natural Law will nudge the person toward what is good, true, and beautiful...unless the person is particularly belligerent and meets a tragic end—the true villains among us. 

This diagram and explanation is all very nice, but it's missing the sizzle of Peterson's passion and insight.. 

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Storytelling and Pop Music

 Here is a YouTube episode from the popular musical theorist Adam Neely about Céline Dion's performance of All by Myself, a live performance on February 23, 2016. Neely breaks down the music, the physicality, and the storytelling elements in an astounding analysis of why songs and music work.  It's meaty, sit up straight and listen carefully. Secrets are about to be revealed.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Tips on Reading and Understanding Screenplays

Here are some tips for folks who want to read a screenplay but find it confusing and unconventional. If I miss something important, tell me and I'll add it to this post. 

1. SCREENPLAYS (SP) ARE NECESSARILY SUCCINCT. They're charged with creating emotionally ladened stories and engaging characters in as few words as possible. There are mechanical and well as creative reasons for this:

Mechanically, the SP should represent the length of the film such that one page equals one minute of screen time. This does not leave room for elaborate descriptions.

Creatively the succinctness leaves plenty of room for the creative input for actors, directors, art directors, costumers, and the composer. 

2. SCENE HEADINGS.  Every new location or new time begins with a SCENE HEADING, also called a SLUG LINE. The slug line always begins with INT. for interior scene, or EXT. for exterior scene. Sometimes the actions begins inside and ends outside,  INT./EXT. is used. Following this is the location of the scene, and at the end of the line is the time of day in simple terms: DAY or NIGHT, or sometimes SUNSET, or DUSK, etc.  Slug lines are always ALL CAPS, sometimes they are also underlined and bolded.

At the end of some slug lines is the word ESTABLISHING. This means the shot is a WIDE view of the location, usually a building with no principal actors visible. It's a short scene that establishes where the next action takes place, usually an interior room of the building.

3. ACTION DESCRIPTION immediately follows the slug line. These short sentences describe what is seen and heard, but never what is spoken. SUPER: "TEXT ON SCREEN" indicates text on screen. Sounds created in post-production are always CAPITALIZED, but not sounds that can be recorded on the set. ACTION is always written in present-active voice, never past-tense. SPECIAL EFFECTS are often ALL CAPS as well.

4. DIALOGUE is preceded by the name of the CHARACTER. Both are indented from the margin.

Following the CHARACTER'S NAME, that precedes the words spoken are often abbreviations. If the abbreviations do not follow then the voice is spoken on camera and we see the actor's lips move, although often in the editing room that changes. Lips that move in sync with the picture are in SYNC, a term rarely used in screenplays, but sometimes necessary for clarity. 

  • V.O. = Voice Over (a voice that is NOT in the scene)
  • O.C. = Off Camera (a voice from an actor in the scene but not seen by the camera.
  • O.S. = Off Screen is an alternative for O.C.
  • SOTTO = the actor speaks the lines softly to him or herself
  • CONT'D. = the line that follows is a continuation of the line before separated by an action description of a page break.
  • FILTERED = processed voice, possibly to make it sound as if it's coming over a phone.
  • SINGS = the lines are sung
  • (PRE-LAP) = the line spoken comes from the following scene (after the next slug line). A pre-lap line is concluded after the visual transistion to the next scene. 

5. SPECIAL DENOTATIONS usually justified left:

INSERT and END INSERT (or BACK TO SCENE) sets off a close up shot of something in the set that needs to be seen up close. An insert does not require a slug line.

POV and BACK TO SCENE indicates beginning and end of a character's POINT OF VIEW or what the character sees. The camera becomes the character's eyes for a few moments. JAKE'S POV - THE BRACELET. A POV does not require a slug line. 

FLASHBACK followed lines later by END FLASHBACK indicates a scene that jumps back in time. FLASHFORWARD does the opposite. Flashbacks require a new slug line.

DREAMS and VISIONS are formatted just like FLASHBACKS.

6. TRANSITIONS are justified RIGHT and include CUT TO, DISSOLVE, FADE IN, FADE OUT, etc.

If no transition is noted, the assumption is a CUT.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

How Invisible Moral Decisions Effect Visible Physical Plots

I'm helping a friend who has ALS write his memoir. He's a retired automotive design engineer who side-lined as arm-chair philosopher. For years he's been active on a few Internet forums that discuss politics, religion, philosophy, and language. He is always reminding people to "check your premise." 

Now he's not a story writer, so when he says "check your premise" he's not consciously referring to my book The Moral Premise, this blog, nor is he referring to writers crafting a story. 

Well, that's not exactly true. He IS referring to the person he's dialoguing with and the story they are writing about themselves with their the same way a writer makes "life" decisions for a fictional character. 

In this idea of making moral decisions and checking your premise is the mechanical process that allows audiences to emotionally connect with fictional characters. The moral premises of our characters must accurately reflect how real people interact with the unchangeable laws of the universe. The laws of the universe include both physical and psychological laws—or metaphysical laws often referred to as spiritual and moral. Don't let anyone tell you naturally sourced spiritual and moral laws are relative. Governments can make laws and try to enforce them, but such "laws" are subject to the immutable laws of the universe and human nature. 

Back to my friend.

His advice to...


lives alongside the concept that


Neither can your characters live in contradiction to reality. But of course they try. That's the foundation of drama. A character can willfully walk off the edge of a 100-foot rocky cliff, as he attempts to force reality to contradict itself. But since reality does not and cannot contradict itself, your character falls to his death. 

In the same way, if a character lives by a moral premise that lying is a virtue (as some of our legislators believe) reality will catch up with them. Oh, for a time, a law that contracts reality may be passed and enforced, but eventually there will be a reckoning. Reality will have the last say.

When plotting out the physical beats of a story you must include in the plotting the moral premise (or the value system invisible in the character's head) for the character's physical actions. Mental decisions are part of the plot. Without the mental process you cannot have physical action. Of course, I'm assuming you're writing a story about a moral agent, a person who has the psychological will to act...either in cooperation with reality (natural law) or contrary to it. In every case, the internal, invisible decision, based on a motivating moral premise or value, will determine whether or not the physical consequences will bring pleasure or pain to your character. In order to connect with audiences that consequence must agree with reality. It cannot be in contradiction to reality. 


Now, let's take this one level deeper into the sub-conscience, as Christopher Nolan (Inception) might do. Let's assume a character (like a person in real life) commits some contradiction to reality. He breaks a law, or commits a sin, or embraces some vice that is invisible to those around him. Yet it's not something brazen that will eventually be discovered is the physical realm, like an illegal pyramid scheme. Let's assume the contradiction (or vice) is entirely mental on the part of the character—envy, greed, lust, bitterness, hate, arrogance. Of course, any of these can easily be personified, and take the form of physical action. Your character participates in the mental game of envy, greed, lust, bitterness, hate, or arrogance because they believe (perhaps subconsciously) that harboring such thoughts will bring them pleasure. But reality does not allow pleasure to flow from vice. 

What happens is subtle. The character knows (consciously or subconsciously) that thoughts of envy, greed, etc. can lead to physical actions that others will quickly regard as wrong. This is where the age-old adage "what you think is what you are" comes into play. Such thoughts lead to guilt, and guilt leads to distraction, or perhaps evil thoughts lead to distraction first, and then guilt. Eventually, the character becomes obsessed with the thoughts and the potential ramifications that even without acting on the thoughts, other activities, even seemingly insignificant ones, like house keeping (making bed), hygiene (brushing teeth), and financial (no tips at a restaurant), lead to a lack of self-esteem, which leads to depression, which leads to some physical act that is seemingly totally unrelated to the original thoughts of envy, greed, etc. Perhaps it's an argument with the lawn service because the grass was cut too short. Perhaps your character drops a jug of milk and it spills all over the kitchen floor.  He's late for an appointment (due to multiple distractions that build up) and gets a ticket for speeding, and then argues with the cop and ends up in jail overnight. 

In this way even mental lapses with reality, and just thinking about living in contradiction with reality, can lead to a character's detriment. In this way a complex character can enter into a plot that may at first seem disjointed, until the real problem, a psychological, mental, moral, or spiritual mind set is revealed. 


...his moral values. Is he attempting to live in contradiction with reality, even if only inside his mind? Remember:


Only the government can contradict reality...although not for long. 

Friday, October 1, 2021

Movie Material: The Captain's Wife

Here's a post that reinforces what we all know as writers: Write What You Know...or can research and know second hand. 

On Instagram I follow HistoryHustleOfficial, which posts short blurbs about fascinating but forgotten (or nearly so) events in history. Being a recreational sailor, with two ship builders in my ancestry, I've had a fascination with the age of sail, the ships and the men that risked their lives to make nearly impossible passages and establish worldwide trade and communication. 

When the post at right from History Hustle appeared in their feed, I immediately went on-line, found and purchased two books. One was the non-fiction account of the large clipper ship Neptune's Car by Paul Simpson. It was well written and included the story of Mary Patten (below). The second was a meticulously researched, well-written, edited, and dramatic novel The Captain's Wife by Douglas Kelley.

For the last several weeks Pam and I read Kelley's book to each other after dinner, a few chapters at a time. It captured our imagination and often we didn't want to stop reading. Not only is the story amazing, but Douglas Kelley, who seems to have disappeared from the Internet after this book was published by Penguin/Dutton, did a fantastic job researching the story, the era, and the working of the ships. He rarely tacks or wears from the true story documented by Simpson.  

Yes, the book held our attention because we are sailors on the Great Lakes and have been through some storms and bad weather aboard our 41-foot Islander Freeport ketch, which is a heavy, blue-water vessel. But the story appeals to both to men and women since the characters are mostly men (of the roughest breed). Yet it's a quiet but resolved woman who saves them from death on the high-seas while rounding Cape Horn in the winter. Who would do such a thing? Well, many did, and others died trying. 

Pam and I have often read to each other aloud rather than watching movies. We love both. But books last longer than a movie. LOL!  And since I'm working on a novel right now (which includes a couple chapters aboard a 1788 square rigger in a storm) it's good to read well-written material similar to what you're trying to write.

Here's the brief story about Mary Patten from History Hustle:

When the Captain Fell Ill, His 19-Year-Old Wife Saved the Ship and Faced Down a Mutiny

In 1856 the captain of an American clipper collapsed of illness, leaving his 19-year-old wife to navigate. Mary Patten commanded for 56 days while pregnant, faced down a mutiny, and studied medicine to keep her husband alive. She earned fame and was awarded $1000 for her heroics. She said she was doing “only the plain duty of a wife.”

In 1853, Mary married a sea captain named Joshua Patten. His ship would take people and cargo from New York to Boston.

When Joshua Patten took over for a captain on another ship bound for San Francisco in 1854, he took his new wife, Mary, along with him.

Mary, was determined to be of help on the ship and she read up on how to sail a ship, and how to navigate, so she could be useful. She also learned “meteorology, the ropes and sails, stowage of cargo, and many other ship’s duties”. And next time, on the second voyage to San Francisco, she again joined her husband, this time pregnant.

As was common in those times, Patten could receive thousands of dollars if he got there in under 100 days. So the captain was pretty angry when his first mate was caught sleeping. He locked him up as punishment. But the second mate was not a great sailor and so the captain had to do the work of multiple men himself.

But he ended up getting sick with a fever. So Mary Patten, in true fashion, read medical books on board and learned how to treat him. She also now had to captain the ship.

The first mate asked her to let him out, but she wanted to respect her husband’s wishes, so she refused. He tried to get the crew to mutiny against her, but she was able to convince them that she could lead the ship and secure the reward money.

When she finally finished the successful voyage, she became a celebrity. She was awarded $1,000, and a fund was created to help out with some costs.

According to Mary Patten she was doing, “only the plain duty of a wife towards a good husband.”

By the way, Douglas Kelley isn't a sailor, but is a corporate pilot, or at least was when he wrote and researched this book. So, the case in point is that if you can't write what you know, you CAN research the topic until you DO know it. Kelley proves the point with The Captain's Wife.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The Virtue of Procrastination

 Been working on a long-form novel for a long-now time. I already know what happens in every scene... I have very long detailed outline. But HOW things happens in a scene seems only to be resolved by procrastination—doing everything else except writing to give more time to psychologically rummage. I'm posting this blog instead of writing. LOVE this meme:

Monday, August 2, 2021

Protecting Film Investors

This from Mark Litwak. I've made use of Mark's digital contracts and a number of his very good books for years. He's a valuable resource. 

Law Offices of Mark Litwak & Associates
201 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 300
Santa Monica, CA 90401

A more comprehensive version of this article by Mark Litwalt appeared in the Vanderbilt Law Journal. Mark made it available as a PDF. It's here for your edification. 

I have a shelf full of Movie Finance related books, and I've written my share of Film Business Plan using Mark's advice as a template. This is good stuff.
Protecting Film Investors

Film investments have a bad reputation, and deservedly so. There are instances where financiers have been cheated and lost their entire investment. Consequently, some investors simply refuse to consider film-related investments. This is unfortunate because an intelligent investment in a motion picture can earn substantial returns. While film investments are risky, the potential return from a hit can be enormous. No only can the film earn revenue from box office receipts, but there are many ancillary sources of income. These sources include revenue from television, home video, merchandising, music publishing, soundtrack albums, sequels and remakes.
As an attorney who represents investors, as well as filmmakers, I have learned that there are ways to reduce the risk of film investments. Here is a checklist to guide investors.


Thoroughly investigate the reputation and track record of any producer or distributor you contemplate doing business with. No contract can adequately protect you against a scoundrel. Speak to filmmakers and investors who have done business with a candidate. Check court records to see if the company has been sued.


Federal and State security laws are designed to protect investors. Offerings to the public generally require prior registration with the SEC or a state agency. Usually private placements are limited to persons with whom the offeror has a pre-existing relationship. Even if registration is not required, the anti-fraud provisions of the security laws require that the offeror make full disclosure of all facts that a reasonably prudent investor would need to know in deciding whether to invest. The information disclosed should include a detailed recitation of all the risks involved in developing, producing and marketing a movie. Avoid any offering that appears to violate this requirement by making less than full and truthful disclosure. Carefully read the private placement memorandum (PPM) and consult your own financial and legal advisors before making a decision to invest.


Do not back a filmmaker or production team that does not possess the proven skill needed to make a professional-looking movie. Avoid first-time filmmakers. You are safer backing filmmakers whose have completed at least one short or a feature-length work. Partner with people of integrity who bring the skills, expertise and resources to the endeavor that you lack. For instance, if you don't have the knowledge necessary to evaluate a script, bring aboard someone who has that expertise, or hire a script doctor.


There is a very limited market, and modest potential revenue, to be earned from short films, documentaries, black and white films, and foreign language pictures. 
Certain themes, topics and genres can be difficult to sell. Religiously-themed pictures can easily offend audiences. Cerebral comedies can be difficult to export because their humor may not translate well. Films with a great deal of violence may be shunned by European television which is a prime market for independents. Films with explicit sex may not pass censorship boards in certain countries.

Independent films without name actors are difficult to sell. Of course, name recognition varies around the world. The star of an American television series may be a big name in the United State but unknown abroad. On the other hand, some actors have large following aboard, yet are relatively unknown in the United States. You can consult a source like for how well known an actor is.


The director of the film is the key person who will determine whether the final product is marketable. If a filmmaker shows no concern about making a movie with audience appeal, you can expect a film whose exhibition will be limited to the family and friends of the filmmaker. This is not to say that the only films you should invest in are low-brow fare like "Dumb and Dumber." A well-made "art" film like "Elizabeth," can win awards and make a handsome return on investment. Filmmakers should give some thought beforehand as to the nature of the film's intended audience. I once watched a wonderful "Lassie" type film spiced with four-letter words uttered by one character. I explained to the filmmaker that his film would never sell in the family market because of the vulgar language, and it was too soft a story to appeal to teens and adults.


 It is best to invest in an endeavor where everyone shares the same risks and rewards. A filmmaker who takes a large fee from the production budget may financially prosper from a picture that returns nothing to the investors. It is better to back a filmmaker willing to work for a modest wage and share in the success of the endeavor through deferments or profit participation. An investor can take some comfort investing in a motion picture on the same terms as a producer or distributor where all parties recoup at the same time. Beware of investing in a project where other parties benefit when you lose.


Usually, investors are entitled to recoup all of their investment from first revenues before payment of deferments or profits. Many times investors are allowed to recoup 110% or more of their investment in order to compensate them for loss of interest and inflation. Profits are declared after payment of debts, investor recoupment and payment of deferments. Profits are generally split 50/50 between the producer(s) and the investors. Thus, investors who provide 100% of the financing are entitled to 50% of the profits. From the producer's half of net profits are paid any third-party profit participants (e.g. the writer, director and stars).

 1. See section 1268.2, California Code of Civil Procedure.
Mark Litwak is an entertainment attorney, author and expert witness based in Los Angeles, California. His practice includes work in the areas of copyright, trademark, contract, multimedia law, intellectual property, and book publishing. As a Producer's Representative, he assists filmmakers in arranging financing, marketing and distribution of their films. He is an Adjunct Professor at U.S.C. Gould School of Law. 

Saturday, July 31, 2021

25 Flawless Movies?

I clicked on one of those advertising "click-bait" sites: "25 Flawless Movies."  There are way more than 25 films listed, because there are hundreds of sucker advertisers paying the site owner to get their ad exposed to eyeballs. It's a scam. I never look at the ads, which is about the only content on the pages. It's also a scam because some of the movies listed were terrible, and all had flaws at some level.

But I was inspired to attempt an answer to a frequent question, "What is your favorite movie?" 

My answer is simple. It's 2001: A Space Odyssey. During college I saw it 10 times, once with my Senior Philosophy Symposium Class with our instructor that explained Thus Spake Zarathustra to us and what the movie was really about. I still find the special effects the best of any science fiction movie, including Star Wars.

Below is MY list, in alphabetical order.  I tried to cut it down to 25, then to 50, but I couldn't. I think there are 67. I enjoyed all of these too much to eliminate them from the list, even though some did not do well at the box office for some Moral Premise reason, and thus I would claim have flaws. There is really no such thing as a flawless movie, especially since movies (at least the good ones) are works of art and thus subject to subjective judgements.  Nonetheless...

What are some of your favorite movies? Please add them to the comments.

2001: A Space Odyssey (all time favorite)
A Man and a Woman
Aliens I
Annie Hall
As Good As It Gets
Blazing Saddles 
Blind Side
Bruce Almighty
City Slickers I
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Exorcism of Emily Rose
Die Hard
Dr. Zhivago 
George Lucas in Love (short)
Gone With the Wind
Grand Torino
Green Mile
Ground Hog Day
Hail Caesar!
Help, The
Hurt Locker
Incredibles, The
In the Bedroom
Karate Kid V (2010)
Kite Runner
Lawrence of Arabia
Liar! Liar!
Lord of the Rings: (all three)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Noah (Aronofsky)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Passage to India
Passion of the Christ
Pride and Glory (Gavin O'Conner)
Purpose Rose of Cairo
Pursuit of Happyness
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Saving Private Ryan
Silver Linings Playbook
Slumdog Millionaire
St. Vincent
Warrior (Gavin O'Conner)
What Women Want
Where Do We Go Now
Where the Heart Is

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Narrative Theory & Beyond Order

A few minutes ago I finished reading Jordan Peterson's book BEYOND ORDER: 12 More Rules for Life. 

I normally do not write book reviews on this blog, and I hope this post doesn't turn into one. But I mention it here on the Moral Premise Storycraft Blog because Beyond Order has a great deal to say about Storytelling and Narrative Theory

While I enjoyed and heavily endorsed his 12 Rules for Life, Beyond Order is better.  I think Beyond Order is better written and edited, but it also has more explicit things to say about Storytelling and its importance to culture... things I have said for decades.  

Unlike many people who comment on Peterson's work, his writings have not revolutionized my life, but they have reinforced my worldview and how I attempt to live it. The life principles he examines are very much how I was brought up by responsible parents within a Biblical Christian worldview. But yes, Peterson challenges me (he often sounds like St. Paul) in areas of my life where I am weak and need improvement. Don't we all? In that respect, I hope his words will motivate me to change what needs to change. 

Peterson's view of the world in which we live as a frightfully terrible place should have deep resonance with most of us. It does for me, but then I was born, and my Mother exacerbated, my melancholy-choleric temperament. Peterson's understanding of the malevolence in the world, however, dovetails with a story's need for an overpowering antagonist or villain that threatens the protagonist at every turn. 

In speaking of Friedrich Nietzsche, (who was the philosophical inspiration behind Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, my all time favorite movie) Peterson does a concise and resonant explanation of Nietzsche's famous "God is Dead" pronouncement. Peterson writes: 

[Nietzsche's] fear that all the Judeo-Christian values serving as the foundation of Western Civilization had been made dangerously subject to casual rational criticism, and ... the existence of the transcendent, all-powerful deity—had been fatally challenged.  Nietzsche concluded from this that everything would soon fall apart, in a manner catastrophic both psychologically and socially. (p. 161-162)

I guess Nietzsche was write. Of course God is not dead in a literal sense, unless your POV is the current social-political culture. Least the importance of that to successful storytelling slip by, this fits well with the concept of the Moral Premise—

Ignoring Natural Law (transcendent reality and the values of Western Civilization) leads to psychological and social catastrophe; but Building up Natural Law et al leads to psychological and social harmony. 

If your story deals with the plight of persons trapped in poverty and their grit and determination to claw their way out, Peterson offers this juice fodder for story development.

There are many reasons... why people are poor. Lack of money is the obvious cause—but that hypothetical obviousness is part of the problem with ideology. Lack of education, broken families, crime-ridden neighborhoods, alcoholism, drug abuse, criminality and corruption (and the   political and economic exploitation that accompanies it), mental illness, lack of a life plan (or even failure to realize that formulating such a plan is possible or necessary), low conscientiousness, unfortunate geographical locale, shift in the economic landscape, and the consequent disappearance of entire fields of endeavor, the marked proclivity for those who are rich to get richer still and the poor to get poorer, low creativity/entrepreneurial interest, (and) lack of encouragement.  (p. 169)

Just the statement of Rule XI, Do Not Allow Yourself To Become Resentful, Deceitful, or Arrogant sounds to me like part of a Moral Premise Statement. Not only does it provide several ideas for the negative side of the moral premise, but it suggests that it is within the protagonist's power to change. 

As a further tease, here are the subtitles for the chapter on Rule XI:

The Story is the Thing / The Eternal Characters of the Human Drama / Nature: Creation and Destruction (see the Moral Premise Statement in that) / Culture: Security and Tyranny (more MPS fodder) / The Individual: Hero and Adversary / Resentment / Sins of Commissions / Sins of Omission / The Existential Danger of Arrogance and Deceit vs The Place You Should Be.

It's a long chapter (pp. 303–353) and a wealth of story themes perfectly laid out with motivations for both the hero and villain involved. I wrote in the margins on page 315 one of the great adages of storytelling: "To achieve our greatest desire we must face our greatest fear." That is true of every protagonist and hero. 

In the midst of that same chapter Peterson provides a case study of a real-life Sleeping Beauty. He essentially writes the treatment for a modern day, true life, live action drama. Someone should do the screenplay (pp. 321-328)

In short, read this book if you're serious about understanding character and motivations.


Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Diegesis and Non-Diegetic Sound

Sound Designer at Work
The term "diegesis" refers to the fictional world filmmakers create and everything in it. The word comes from a Greek word that evidently means narration or narrative. I don't know this from any study of Greek. I read it in my film school text books. There is more about the terms here at DailyWritingTips.

I contribute answers now and then to Quora on the film and screenwriting threads. This morning someone asked "How does the non-diegetic sound contribute to the atmosphere in a film?"  This brings up one of those things movie goers take for granted and yet are so important to the experience of going to the movies. 

Screenwriters struggle with communicating the emotional context of a scene. The emotional content of a scene is more important to the movie goers than the intellectual aspects of the diegetic action, although there can be no emotional response without the diegetic making intellectual sense. The interplay between these two is a paradox of communication. Screenwriters must work only (well, 98% of the time) with the intellectual diegetic elements and yet hope to create an emotional response in the audience. 

However, the diegetic intellectual elements by themselves, rarely create the deep emotional response that audiences subliminally crave and that make the movie moment (the diegetic moment) memorable. We can all remember great movie moments and describe them to our friends. But I'll bet you can't remember the non-diegetic elements that triggered your emotional response, which in turn allowed you to remember that scene so well. This is one of the great mysteries of storytelling and especially narrative films.

Perhaps the single most important aspect of transferring the intended emotional response is NON-DIEGETIC SOUND, which is typically NOTHING that the screenwriter can write.  The paradox is that audiences rarely, if ever, can recall non-diegetic sound, unless they buy the Motion Picture Soundtrack CD or tracks and listen to the music. Yes, the music bed that plays in the background (and not from a radio or music source supposedly on the set) is non-diegetic sound. But there is so much more to it, like sound effects and sound mixing of the diegetic sound (e.g. dialogue, Foley sound, and on-camera noise).  Screenwriters try to infer non-diegetic sounds, but generally the ideas for such sounds and the genius of creating them and mixing them is left to suggestions by the Director and expertise of Sound Designers, Supervisors, Editors and Mixers. Sound Design is incredibly important to the success of motion pictures and yet as screenwriters we have very little to say about it. Sad but true. Which is one reason skilled screenwriting that can imply such things is so important. 

All that to say Markus Innocenti (a former Supervising Sound Editor), gives a wonderful answer to the above mentioned Quora question, which is linked HERE

On the linked thread I thanked Markus for his excellent answer and make some remarks, which I have elaborated above. He then wrote this, which should be an encouragement to all screenwriters:

Thank you — and I agree. It is extremely difficult to suggest non-diegetic sound in a screenplay, and to do so is often ‘unwelcome’ given the traditional view that a director interprets a script to conform to a personal ‘vision’. I think it’s true to say that good writers work endlessly on finding ways to “suggest” an interpretation that lies closest to their own — in the full knowledge that, at the end of the day, the emotional impact of the film will rely on the director’s choices as to how the non-diegetic is applied.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Problem and Solution for Bio Pics