Iron & Bass

The Tools of Screenwriting

David Howard


A comprehensive guide to writing screenplays by an experienced screenwriter and a respected writing teacher. Along with sections on the screenwriter's craft, basic storytelling, and the parts and objectives of a screenplay, the book is distinguished by detailed analysis of sixteen successful films' screenplays, including E.T., Some Like It Hot, North by Northwest, Citizen Kane, and Annie Hall.

View at


Quote from Robert Towne -

A movie is really only 4 or 5 moments between two people; the rest of it exists to give those moments their impact and resonance. The script exists for that. Everything does.

Stage vs Screen:

A stage play relies on the immediacy of the performance, the intimacy between actor and audience. Therefore a play has more dialogue. A film has incredible latitude of time and place, but a lack of contact between actor and audience. Film can focus the audience attention on any specific action or reaction or bit of information.

The camera magnifies every gesture and expression, so an actor's performance on stage would be too big for the screen.

The screenwriter should give the actors more actions that help reveal characters, wants, desires and the whole range of emotion the performance needs to evoke. At the same time, the writer should write for the strengths of cinema, using its ability to change time and place with ease.

The writer is rather similar to the actors in terms of approach. The writer must delve into the inner working of each character. The character need only explore one character, and thus gains a deeper understanding that can be used to inform the writer.

The essential elements of "a good story well told" are:

  1. The story is about somebody with whom we have some empathy.
  2. This somebody wants something very badly.
  3. This something is difficult, but possible, to do, get or achieve.
  4. The story is told for maximum emotional impact and audience participation in the proceedings.
  5. The story must come to a satisfactory ending (which does not necessarily mean a happy ending).

Specificity in the world of a story derives from two sources: the nature of the central character (in most films) and the nature of the storyteller. Much of what is important comes from who the central character is: the qualities of this person and the nature of their predicament. At the same time, what the storyteller has in mind, what the story is really about (at its core, the theme) also has considerable influence over the world of the story. What is emphasized and deemphasized, what goals, fears, aspirations, circumstances, realities, and fantasies make up the people who inhabit the story, all come from within the storyteller. These personal (and sometimes unintentional) prejudices and the conscious choices of the storyteller make subtle changes in the proportions, shadings, and views of the world of the story as it is presented to the audience. Another way to look at this is to accept that the world a writer imagines is, to its very core, part of that writer's style.

Many stories have an antagonist who is another person: a "bad guy." In this sort of story, the protagonist is said to have an external conflict.

In other stories, those with "internal conflict," the central struggle is within the main character. Even when there is internal conflict, there is usually outside opposition as well. Usually there is a balance of both types of conflict.

Casablanca: Rick's internal struggle is to get involved or stay out of it; yet Colonel Strasser is a real manifestation of the pressure on him to take a stand.

The Sting: Redford wants revenge against the antagonist, but there is an internal struggle: is he up to the task?

Jaws: Brody must kill the shark, but he has internal struggles: his fear of water, desire not to fight shark, get a bigger boat

Bonnie and Clyde: main struggle is Clyde's self-destructive impulses but there is a sheriff in pursuit of him and his gang is an external manifestation of his internal struggle

An internal conflict in a story with an outside antagonist helps make the protagonist a more complex and interesting human being. An external source of conflict in a story where the main conflict is essentially internal helps make the two sides of the character visible, palpable; it gives them "lives of their own." In fact this is the nub of the central question of screenwriting, how to show the audience what is going on inside the central - or any - character.

Stories are shallow if we don't get a window into the inner lives of the characters - their joys, torments, secret desires and aspirations, hidden fears. Clearly this is much easier when there is a character in active opposition to the efforts of another character. Unfortunately, this opposition does not always exist. The beginning screenwriter usually rushes to dialogue to fill the gap, but this is not a very satisfactory solution. What we end up with is a whole host of characters who talk openly and honestly about their feelings; the only drama in the theater is in the audience stampeding for the exits.

Finding actions that reveal complex inner emotions is one of the most difficult tasks a screenwriter faces, but it is the difference between a story that works and one that talks about working.

In Annie Hall, on of the happiest moments Alvy and Annie have is when they are trying to cook lobsters. After they have broken up, Alvy tries the same thing with another woman. This dramatizes what he misses, what he wishes to recapture. And when it goes poorly, it tells us a great deal about how he's doing. Dialogue, while present in both scenes, is really unnecessary for our understanding of the actions, the characters, and the outcome.

Even when dialogue is used, it doesn't always say exactly what it appears to say exactly what it appears to say. If we see a caracter sneak up on another with a butcher knife hidden behind his back while he speaks of his undying love for the other person, which do we believe, the the dialogue or the action? In fact it is the juxtaposition of dialogue and action, very often mismatched, that gives us our clearest picture of the inner world of a character. When a character lies to another character and we know the truth, we learn a second thing about the inner world of the lying character: the truth we already knew, plus how and to whom they lied. Often we are able to fathom why the character lied, which is like a snapshot of that character's motivations, a direct inroad to the internal life of the character.

This use of what appears to be going on between characters and what is really going on is called subtext. The clearest example of subtext occurs when a character lies about something while we know the truth, but subtext is much more complicated than that.

By the careful revelation of tidbits of information to the audience, by showing us what various characters know that others do not, by urging us to see an action in a complex light and by making careful choices in how information is revealed on screen - both to the characters and to the audience - the skillful screenwriter can build a scene which is rich in subtext. This not only enriches the scene and reveals a great deal about the characters and how they play with their own knowledge, but it greatly increases the audience's enjoyment and participation in the story. The audience works to understand everything that is happening, and when it grasps the nature of the subtext, it feels like a real participant in the story and understands the inner lives of the characters much more completely.

Put a baby just old enough to crawl alone at the top of a cliff and the circumstance is dramatic in itself, without our knowing anything about the baby and its habits, its wants, or its life. The moment is dramatic on its very surface. Violent weapons, martial arts, huge piles of cash, an alluring woman sashaying past a gaggle of loiterers - all are objectively dramatic. Their dramatic impact does not depend particularly on our knowing and caring about the characters involved.

But there are a great many moments in nearly all well-crafted films that are dramatic solely because we know something about the characters and care about what happens to them. If we know a man has hysterical claustrophobia, simply having him locked in a closet can create a riveting scene. If we add that he must lock himself into that closet as part of achieving something that he wants even more than avoiding this claustrophobia, the drama of the moment escalates exponentially. This situation is subjectively dramatic, because the drama depends on our knowledge of and participation in the story. The distinction between objective and subjective drama is another of Frank Daniels' contributions to dramatic theory.