The Emotional Engine

“After writing movies for thirty-five years I am more convinced than ever it is only about story.

Want to read a good story? Pick up The Little Engine That Could. Sappy and primitive, sure, but…let me tell you, you are rooting with all your heart for that crummy two-bit nothing of a train to get those toys over that mountain.

That’s all it is, this business of writing. Just getting the fucking toys over the mountain.”
-Bill Goldman:

I’m basically trying to get you to look at the emotion that is at the heart of your story – what emotionally drives it? Often times it is simply the pain that a character feels because of a deeper character problem.  This translates viscerally to the audience – and the audience “feels” it and wants the character to remedy it.  This resonant sensation engages the audience and makes them emotional collaborators in the narrative experience. Therefore we root all the more for our characters to ‘feel better’ – and that desire that we share for the character creates a tension that actually helps to push and pull the story forward – like an engine: emotional engine.

Process and Structure

I teach (and I am a super strong proponent for) getting the entire story down in what I call a basic “beat-sheet” before launching into the actual writing of the script. Think of this beat-sheet as an outline-roadmap, ultimately scene by scene, of your entire filmscript.

Working with cards can function the same way as making a vertical outline list.  I often do both. The main advantage for the cards is so I can lay them all out on the floor or on the wall…. and in doing so, I can get a visual time sense of the whole story and be able to easily change the order, delete, add, etc…again, while still getting a sense of the whole.  I can also visually begin to see patterns, repeats, and deficiencies. I often color code each character’s scenes.

The information per beat may start out with just the basic info of the “text” (i.e.: “boy overhears parents talking about divorcing”) —  but then, as I learn more about the whole story while still in this outlining phase I begin adding more to the beat, such as the “sub-text” (ex: “as the boy overhears parents talking about divorcing — he finds that it oddly compels him to think about sex”).  I also like to, as much as possible, include what the physical action and/or the “picture” of the beat might be, (ex: “as boy overhears parents he’s doodling a picture of women’s breasts,” etc.). Additionally, I often begin hearing bits of dialogue as I visualize the beats, and so I also include those bits of dialogue on my cards (and/or vertical outline).

It’s great if I can understand the purpose of each scene while still in the outlining phase: Why is it there!?  What is its function?

NOTE: clearly, many of these things are “discovered” and created and found in the actual writing process of the script. … But it’s common for pros to spend a great deal of time on this pre-writing “outlining” process (starting with the basics and then filling it out as they understand it more and more).  And once all these details are down, then the actual writing of  the whole first draft might happen as fast as a few weeks or less (especially if you binge write.)

A “beat” can be a scene or what may turn out to be a sequence of scenes. I think of a beat as that section or unit of time that pushes the story forward toward its conclusion. I also begin with attempting to make act one and act 3 about 25% each and act 2 about 50% of the whole. — this symmetry, 25%, 50%, 25%, again and again appears in the majority of popular films.

Act one often consists of:

  • Meeting the main characters.
  • An Inciting Incident: reason why we’re watching this movie today in the lives of the characters, as opposed to yesterday.
  • It also includes the reason why we are going to go on this journey, or why the character is: what is the situation/problem.
  • There is often a Turning Point defining EVENT by the end of act one that seems to push the progress of the story to the next plateau.

Joss Whedon’s Top 10 Writing Tips

Here’s Joss Whedon’s Top 10 Writing Tips, which was initially published in Channel 4′s talent magazine by Catherine Bray, who has kindly given me permission to reproduce the article in full here. Thanks, Catherine!

Joss Whedon is most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and the short-lived but much-loved Firefly series. But the writer and director has also worked unseen as a script doctor on movies ranging from Speed to Toy Story. Here, he shares his tips on the art of screenwriting.

Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.

Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.

This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys?’

Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue: you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny; not everybody has to be cute; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.

Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.

When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.

You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.

Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet?’

Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show.

The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie: if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are: that’s called whoring.”

Dramatic Situation

DRAMATIC SITUATION: Often multi-leveled situation(s) that will inevitably lead to future conflict.

  1. who is your main character?
  2. what does the main character want?
  3. what’s stopping the main character from reaching his/her goal?

Characters are what they DO.

If drama is conflict, character is action: Doing things to achieve that goal—even if they are psychological actions to prevent him from achieving the goal— because achieving the goal is his ISSUE.

Some Methods (Devices) For Creating Interest from a Viewer:

  1. Dog & Truck
  2. Lit Fuse
  3. Mystery/ Something’s not normal
  4. Posed Question
  5. Unresolved Emotion
  6. Fear of discovery
  7. Sex factor
  8. Unjust punishment
  9. Undelivered expectations
  10. Audience knows crucial info that character doesn’t
  11. Incredible Dialogue


And Maybe:


  1. Creep/Gore Factor
  2. Surprise  (The Boo! Factor)
  3. Reverse expectations
  4. Cliff Hanger
  5. Fascinating Subject
  6. Extreme Fish Out of Water?

Bonding with Characters

  • Oppressed
  • Misfortune
  • Meeting someone who is compassionate or selfless
  • An Outsider
  • Some who is funny.
  • Someone in Pain/suffering (of nearly any kind that’s relatable)
  • A character tries to help/improve themselves
  • A character has a dream/tries/aspires
  • A Passionate person
  • An heroic person
  • A stylish/cool/hip person … maybe.



A great theme, allegorical, not only does it have to be a good story, but it has to tell you something about humanity.  You need a great villain and you need great music that moves you from one place in the story to the next.”

Allegory: 1. a story in which people, things, and happenings have a hidden or symbolic meaning:  allegories are used for teaching or explaining ideas, moral principals, etc.  2. the presenting of ideas by means of such stories; symbolical narration or description.  3. and symbol or emblem.