21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story By Neil Landau

09.06.2013 21:58

21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story

By Neil Landau

Excerpted from The Screenwriter’s Roadmap:


Screenwriters always want to be finished, to get the script just right and reach their intended destination: The End.   But what’s the best way to get there?  I originally created these “21 Questions To Keep You On Track” as a handout in my screenwriting classes at UCLA to help demystify the basics of screenplay structure and character development with a step-by-step approach.  My rules.  My way.   But little did I suspect when I decided to ask these questions to 21 of the best screenwriters in the business (several of them my former students) that their collective points of view would substantially influence the way I teach and write. The author/professor became the journeyman/pupil.  And now, in true Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey” fashion, I am “returning with the elixir” for you.



This book does not deign to guarantee how to write a great screenplay in 21 easy steps.  But it will show you many viable navigational routes and tools to manifest your screenplay’s greatest potential. 

 When I began to compile my interview wish list, I had three main criteria: 1) a respected body of work; 2) a proven track record that has garnered significant critical and/or box office success; and 3) screenwriters whose movies have withstood the test of time and/or effectively captured the times in which they were written. 


Each self-contained chapter offers an interview with a screenwriter whose work is emblematic of the specific topic.  The book can be read chronologically or randomly.   The movies cited are as current as possible and include films from multiple genres, with some timeless classics and a few of my personal favorites sprinkled in.  My one caveat: the many plot spoilers within these covers.  I apologize in advance, but such are the occupational hazards for citing and analyzing movies.  Rosebud was the sled.  Get over it.

From chapter to chapter, you’ll find as much common ground as conflicting viewpoints.  This was intentional on my part.  From the outset, I’ve welcomed dissension.    For some of the interviewed screenwriters, the pre-planning/outlining phase is sacrosanct, while many others don’t outline at all.  Some believe that research is essential and integral to the discovery process, while others eschew getting too bogged down in facts and stats. 

By far, the most polarizing topic was theme – with about half the interviewees in favor of defining and writing in service of theme, and the other half assiduously avoiding any kind of overarching universal truth to refrain from being pretentious and/or preachy.   For the record, my position on theme is that it is dependent on a screenwriter’s individual creative process, the specific challenges of that screenplay and, ultimately, what works via connecting with an audience.

Even though the thesis of this book is that there is no absolute formula when it comes to writing a successful screenplay, I still had to establish an accessible, baseline vocabulary.  For this reason, I have utilized the terms “act one” to refer to the first quarter of the screenplay; “act two” to refer to the middle two quarters; and “act three” to refer to the final quarter of the screenplay.  This continues to be the most popular structure utilized by the major Hollywood studios today, but it is, by no means, compulsory.  

 The use of this basic terminology, initially theorized and propagated by the very wise and astute Syd Field, is not intended to imply that I subscribe to this one structural paradigm.  Still, I believe it’s valuable to learn the fundamental rules before endeavoring to break them.  Innovators usually learn from their predecessors.  If you want to build a better mousetrap, it’s probably a good idea to learn how to build a basic one first. 

 At the same time, this book will present numerous perspectives on the various types of screenplay structures.  As you will discern from the accompanying 21 interviews, many of the most prosperous and highly-regarded screenwriters in the entertainment business rigidly adhere to the basic three-act structural paradigm, others do not, and a few actively rally against it.

After you’ve read the myriad approaches and examples of storytelling models, only you can decide which mode of construction best suits your screenplay.   If you’re waffling between possibilities, don’t over-think it.  Just choose the structure that most creatively excites and inspires you – and go for it.  

 I tell my students to write the script that only you, based on your unique perspective and life experience, could write.   Let this book be your field guide to writing movies that are both entertaining and enlightening.   Today’s viewers are savvy and tend to take their entertainment seriously – even when it’s pure escapism.  We want movies to reflect us, provoke us, inform us, and inspire us.   A great movie resonates and leaves an indelible impression.  

 As you embark on your screenwriting journey, pack a lunch and plan for the long haul.  Expect delays and detours – during which time you may (temporarily) come to hate your work-in-progress, your premise and, by extension, yourself for having ever thought of it.  But assuming you have talent and perseverance, whether you're just starting out or have ventured down this road before, rest assured that you can get there from here.

 * The ideal tool to perfect your screenplay, with cutting insight from a 20+ year Hollywood screenwriting veteran on what it takes to write a successful screenplay * Revealing interviews with Hollywood screenwriting and directing heavyweights sprinkled throughout * The book also includes end of chapter exercises and examples from the latest Hollywood hits, providing practical and inspirational confidence.