Rather than looking at movies in terms of "two thumbs up" or "two thumbs down" Award Winning Screenwriter Jacob Krueger discusses what you can learn from them as a screenwriter. He looks at good movies, bad movies, movies we love, and movies we hate, exploring how they were built, and how you can apply those lessons to your own writing. More information and full archives at WriteYourScreenplay.com
Archetypes vs. Stereotypes: A New Look At The Hero’s Journey
Archetypes vs. Stereotypes: A New Look At The Hero’s Journey
Archetypes are one of the most valuable and also most challenging concepts in screenwriting.
To understand how to use archetypes effectively, we have to go back all the way to the source, Carl Jung (famously not a screenwriter).
We have to understand where the concept of archetypes comes from, and how it connects to a larger concept called the Collective Unconscious.
And we have to learn how to tap into archetypes intuitively, rather than just intellectually.
If you are trying to tap into archetypes from a purely intellectual perspective in your screenwriting, there’s a good chance that you’re not actually writing archetypes. You’re actually writing stereotypes.
So what is an archetype? How do they work? How do you write them? How do you connect to the archetypes that live inside of you?
That’s what we’re going to be talking about in this podcast.
As I mentioned, archetypes begin with Carl Jung, and his idea of the Collective Unconscious. To vastly oversimplify this very complicated concept:
The idea of the Collective Unconscious is that there’s a fabric that ties all human experience together. That even though in my waking life, I think I am Jake, and you are you, and we think that we are different and separated, in our dreams we can actually tap into a collective fabric, a shared experience, that makes us human.
Jung believed that there were certain metaphors, certain elements, certain aspects of our dreams that actually mean the same thing to everyone who experiences them.
And by using our subconscious mind, by using the power of our dreams, we can tap into the Collective Unconscious and step into experiences that we’ve never yet had, and parts of ourselves we have never yet met.
In doing so, he believed that we could find the universal tie that binds us all together.
A brilliant professor named Joseph Campbell came along and took Jung’s beautiful concept of the Collective Unconscious to the next level for writers, by creating something called The Hero’s Journey
To vastly oversimplify Campbell in the same way we just did Jung, Campbell essentially realized that if there’s such a thing as a Collective Unconscious, there must also be such a thing as a Collective Story, a universal story.
And if we could learn to tell that universal story, that universal story would speak to everyone. Everyone could go on that same journey together; it would mean the same thing for everyone.
And in that way, it could move us all to a place of catharsis, of meaning, of growth, of connecting to who we are as human beings.
He called this The Hero’s Journey.
You’ve probably heard of The Hero’s Journey if you’ve been studying screenwriting, or any kind of writing.
In fact, Campbell’s work spawned hundreds of disciples, from really incredible theorists like James Bonnet and Christopher Vogler, to more surfacy Save the Cat! kinds of approaches.
Almost every screenwriting book, and almost every screenwriting teacher, teaches archetypes in some way, and they’re all tracking back to Campbell, who’s tracking back to Jung.
Sounds like a pretty good idea, right?
There are 21 steps of The Hero’s Journey, and a host of specific archetypal character types, and these theorists suggest that if we simply find those steps and find these characters, then we’ve got a structure and the characters of a screenplay that will have universal appeal.
In other words, if there are certain kinds of archetypal roles in every life, there must also be certain kinds of archetypal characters in every screenplay: The Terrible Father, The Emotional Mother, The Spiritual Father, The Anima or Animus, The Threshold Guardian, etc.
The Gilded Age: 5 Steps To Raise The Stakes in Your Screenplay
The Gilded Age: 5 Steps To Raise The Stakes in Your Screenplay
This week, we are going to be talking about how to raise the stakes in your screenwriting and TV writing. This is probably one of the most confusing notes that writers tend to get from producers, and one of the most popular. “Raise the stakes! Raise the stakes! Raise the stakes!”
But what are stakes? Why is it that you can blow something up, burn $3 million bucks, shoot at a baby, and it can still feel like there are no stakes? And then you can watch a show like The Gilded Age where the stakes are about who’s going to come to what dinner party, and feel like the stakes are really high.
Today, we’re going to be talking about what stakes are and how they work. And I’m going to give you a simple five step process that you can follow to make sure that stakes are happening in your screenplay, without feeling like you have to blow something up every time you get a note from a producer.
One of the biggest confusions about how to raise the stakes in your screenplay or TV pilot is thinking that stakes are about what happens in your script.
The Gilded Age is proof that this is certainly not the case. What happens in your screenplay is actually a lot less important than what it means to the character that the “what happens” is happening to.
And even that is much less important than what is driving the character that it’s happening to.
Because if something’s happening to a character, but we’re not actually connected to what matters to that character and the journey of that character, then what happens doesn’t really matter.
And that’s why you can do a lot of big spectacular things to your character and still have the feeling that there are no stakes in your screenplay.
Stakes begin with empathy. Raising the stakes in your screenplay begins with developing empathy for your characters.
We feel stakes when we connect to a character on the big screen or little screen, and we see a tiny piece of ourselves up there, we connect to them, we empathize with them, we feel what it would feel like to be in their shoes.
This is why we cringe when we watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. And this is why we care when we watch The Gilded Age.
It’s not because of the “what’s happens” to your character. It’s because of the “what does it mean?” to the character.
And in order to develop that “what does it mean?” to the character, there are a couple steps that you can follow.
STEP #1: To raise the stakes in your screenplay or pilot, make sure you know what the character wants.
The more specific you can be about what they want, the better.
Notice, I’m not talking about the audience yet. There’s a whole other level of structure that I call secondary structure that we build, which is about how you communicate this stuff to the audience. And that stuff is really complicated; that takes a long time to learn, a lot of practice and experience.
Whereas these skills that I’m giving you are skills that you can actually use right now, very intuitively, without having a tremendous amount of craft behind you.
Start out by asking yourself: “do I know what the character wants?”
You’ll be surprised how often you realize that you don’t!
And if you don’t know, don’t freak out!
If you realize “okay, I’ve got a bunch of cool stuff happening, I got some cool images, I got some cool lines of dialogue, but I actually don’t know what the character wants…”
Okay, well, choose something!
When building stakes in your screenplay, the “what” of what your character wants matters much less than the fact that your character wants something.
It’s that want that is going to create the feeling of movement for the...
Character Traits vs Character Development: Is Your Character an Adjective or a Verb?
Character Traits vs Character Development
Today we are going to be talking about character traits, character development and how to write great characters in your screenplay.
Basically, all of character development comes down to one really simple concept:
A lot of people think that characters are adjectives. They think that a character is “funny,” “responsible,” “smart,” “kind” or “hard-working.” But characters are actually verbs.
When developing characters, writers often think that characters are their traits. But what makes a character feel like a character is actually the verbs that they do.
If you want to understand if you are building great characters, or if you are simply building what I call characteristics, all you have to do is ask yourself: is my character an adjective or is my character a verb?
If your character is an adjective, there’s a really good chance that you are not writing a character, but a stereotype.
In other words, that you’re writing “a funny best friend,” as opposed to this funny best friend, that you are writing “a brilliant scientist” rather than this brilliant scientist.
It’s not our traits that make us who we are. It’s our actions.
If you think about your best friend, I’m sure they have a lot of the same traits as any other best friend.
They may be caring. They may be reliable, smart, dependable, fun to hang out with. They have a bunch of character traits of adjectives that describe them, and all these adjectives are true.
But at the same time, you probably wouldn’t trade your best friend for my best friend.
Even if they have the same trades. Even if my best friend is also reliable, dependable, smart, fun to hang out with… you still wouldn’t want to trade. And the reason you wouldn’t trade is that your best friend does stuff, has done stuff and continues to do stuff. They continue to take actions with you, towards you and around you that makes you fall in love with them. That makes you remember them. That makes you say, “that is so them.”
It’s not the adjectives that lead to character development, it’s the verbs. It’s the things your characters are doing.
In my Write Your Screenplay class, I call this concept the how of the character: how is this character slightly different than any other character?
But the how is never independent of the action. The how is how the character does the verbs that make them, them.
When you’re developing characters in a screenplay, there are usually four elements in play.
The first element: does the character want anything?
How tangible is the want? The less tangible the want is, the harder your character development is going to be. Because the less tangible the want is, the less specific the actions that the character is going to take to get the want.
If the character wants a Starbucks, for example, it’s a relatively tangible want. But if the character wants a venti latte with oat milk, that’s a more specific want. And just in the want, we’re already starting to understand that character. Because the venti latte with oat milk character is completely different than the whole milk with whipped cream character, who is completely different than the frappuccino character.
If the character is not pursuing anything, or if the thing they’re pursuing is too general, it becomes harder and harder to write them. Whereas the more specific they are, the more specific their want is, the easier it is to write them.
How to Sell Your Screenplay Part 5: Learn from Indie Producer, Noah Lang
How to Sell Your Screenplay: Learn from Indie Producer, Noah Lang
Jake: My special guest today is Noah Lang. You just finished a really interesting film, This Is Not A War Story. I thought this would be a wonderful interview for our final podcast in the Sell Your Screenplay Series, because this film is not what most people would traditionally consider a “likely” movie to reach production, much less a release on HBO Max.
So many new writers think that selling a script is about “selling out” or doing something commercial, when in fact, often the exact opposite is the case. So I’m curious, what’s the origin story of This Is Not a War Story? How did this happen?
Noah: There are a couple of parts here that’ll be fun to unpack. The first thing is that Talia Lugacy, who wrote, directed, and is one of the leads in it, produced it with me. She’s a force of nature. I love her. She’s so talented.
We met in New York and Brooklyn years ago. She was developing it– this was called 8000 Shots at the time– and just the rawness of it, the realness of it all.
My family has a history of interest in veterans issues, and as a person of progressive political leaning, I was interested in it.
But more so than anything was this: this filmmaker is going to get this done and come hell or high water.
As a producer, that’s what you’re looking for, those people that are unstoppable. That was the impetus for diving in, and we were in the fortunate position that there was private financing to do it, at a very small level. In terms of what you were saying, we made it for the number that the market could sustain doing a film like this.
There are massive exceptions for dramas, justifying much larger budgets. Those tend to be star-driven: A-list directors, Academy Award stars, and things like that. In this case, the calculus for someone like me is that this is a filmmaker I want to work with. I love this project and I think we can grow and keep doing things together.
She also had the benefit that her first film, which was a Tribeca Film Festival selection and a New York Times critics pick up, starred Rosario Dawson, who then Executive Produced this with us.
We had some kind of good strategic elements to be able to play with, so kind of jumped into the deep end on that one rather quickly. It’s a film that we’re incredibly proud of. We’ve managed to sell it to HBO, an Independent Spirit Award nomination, good reviews in The New York Times, Roger Ebert, Film Threat, Hammer To Nail, all sorts of nice places.
Now that we’re heading towards the end of its initial life cycle, it’s also the tool we use for the next thing, which still has Talia’s identity, but it’s slightly more commercial and has a different set of ambitions.
In terms of what you talk about in this series, there are different benchmarks for selling your script. In a way, it’s almost like making your script can be one step towards doing more things that you’d like to do. A lot of writers have very disparate interests, others have very similar ones.
I admire [Justin] Benson and [Aaron] Morehead, who made The Endless, Resolution and Spring. What I saw there was that they were very deliberate about a progression in the size of the movie they were producing, so that they could keep taking those steps to be able to get to the place that they ultimately want it to be and do interesting things along the way.
This Is Not a War Story is a good example of what we can do, and a lot of our greater ambitions, within the framework of a film of this size. And it stands as a testament to what we think is possible for...
How to Sell Your Screenplay Part 4: Getting Past the Gatekeepers
How to Sell Your Screenplay Pt. 4: Getting Past the Gatekeepers
Today we’re going to be talking about how to get past the gatekeepers, so that you can pitch your script to the producers, agents, managers, directors, and stars that you need to reach in this industry.
First, a warning, these techniques actually work. So before you use them, please make sure you have a pitch that is actually at a professional level. And even more importantly, please make sure you have a script that is at a professional level.
You don’t want to do all this work of getting past the gatekeepers to pitch your screenplay, only to finally get into that meeting of a lifetime and realize you’re not wearing any pants.
I’ve seen so many talented writers make this mistake. I’ve judged so many pitchfests, watching writers with really great stories pitch them in ways that made them seem unreliable and unprofessional.
And during my previous life as a producer, I’ve also seen so many writers show up with an incredible pitch, and then a screenplay that does not back it up.
If you make this mistake, you’re not only wasting your time, you’re wasting the time of every single person that you pitch. So if you have not yet gotten professional feedback on your pitch, and on your script, if you are not 100% convinced that your pitch and your script are at a professional level, hit pause on this podcast. It is not time for you to make a full time job of getting to the right people. Because all you’re going to do is end up burning your contacts.
First, it’s your job to make sure your content is incredible, so that when you pitch those right people, they actually respond.
Unless you are already famous, you are not going to sell a great idea, what you’re going to sell is a great screenplay.
So get professional feedback. And when I say professional, please, this is not development notes from a coverage reader. This is not a bunch of written development notes from a contest. This is not feedback the lovely writers in your writers group who have not yet sold a script. This is not your mom, your friend, your family. This is feedback you want from a professional writer, somebody who has done this more than you have, who knows what an industry-ready script actually looks like and what an industry-ready pitch actually sounds like.
And if you need help with that, that’s what we do here at the studio. So you’re welcome to call us. And we will hook you up with somebody amazing who can help you develop your project.
So, now, we’re going to make the assumption you’ve done all that work. You actually have a script that is ready to go when you show up for your big meeting. You’re not missing your pants, you’re wearing your finest suit.
So how do you get past the gatekeepers to actually get that meeting?
The best way to get past the gatekeepers and sell your script is actually to never deal with the gatekeepers.
Remember the gatekeeper’s job is to keep you out. So if you can go around the gatekeeper, you want to. And there are so many wonderful ways you can do this!
As we talked about in Episode 3 of this Sell Your Script series, you can target very specific producers, directors, agents, managers and stars, and start to talk to everyone you know about them.
Shake the tree of your own social network, and you might be surprised to find out that somebody that you know, happens to know the person you’re trying to get in touch with.
Even if it’s a distant contact,
How to Sell Your Screenplay Part 3: How To Find The Right Producer
How to Sell Your Screenplay Part 3: How To Find The Right Producer
Okay, it’s time to get to the nitty gritty. How do you get to producers? And even more importantly, how do you know which producers to get to?
Well, that’s what we’re going to be talking about in Part 3 of the How to Sell Your Screenplay series.
Before I jump in today, a shout out. Much of the information that I’m giving you today was developed by a wonderful acting teacher, John Dapolito. If you’re an actor, you should check him out. He has some brilliant ideas about how to brand actors and how to use theme to find the roles that actors should play, the people most likely to cast them, and the projects they’re most likely to get cast in.
Today I’m going to build upon John’s work, and show you how you can adapt it for your work as a screenwriter.
When we think about selling a screenplay, it’s very rare that anyone tells us to consider the theme.
Selling a screenplay, that’s business, right? Shouldn’t we be talking about four quadrant finance kind of stuff? Isn’t that all about numbers and what’s hot right now?
It’s easy to overlook the touchy feely emotional part of selling a screenplay.
But having been on both sides of this picture, having been both a writer and a producer, I can tell you that the decision to buy a screenplay is rarely a rational decision.
The decision to invest years of your life into bringing something to the big or the small screen. That’s not a pure numbers decision. That’s an emotional decision.
I’m not saying the producers don’t have numbers in their heads. I’m not saying producers don’t have mandates from their bosses or their CEOs. I’m not saying that there aren’t business concerns involved in the decision. As we talked about in episode one of this How To Sell Your Screenplay series, that’s why it takes some luck to sell a script.
So sure, everyone’s got business concerns. What’s hot right now for this particular producer is always going to factor into any decision. How that lines up with your scripts: that’s the part you can’t control.
But when you’re a producer contemplating two scripts that both fulfill your business needs, which one do you buy? Which one do you fight for? Which one makes you want to dive in?
That’s an emotional decision.
There’s a really simple reason for this: There is no rational reason to spend a million dollars on a script.
Or 10 million dollars, 100 million dollars…
Most likely, if you had 100 million bucks in your bank account, you wouldn’t be thinking, “you know what, let me take all that cash and let me put it into something that very well might not make the money back.” Right?
This is the Hollywood business model: we are going to lose money on five movies, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars. But then on the sixth movie, we’re going to make so much money that it makes all that money back and more.
This is not a traditional business.This isn’t: “we’ve found a niche in auto tires that isn’t filled right now. And a brand new kind of tire everyone wants.”
The finance model for films and TV, whether it’s an indie movie or a huge Hollywood production, is a gambling model.
And since no one ever knows for sure which movie will turn into a blockbuster, Producers have business plans, but they make emotional decisions.
Producers, directors, agents, managers and stars are attracted to very specific scripts.
Perfectly Polished Pedagogical Podarificness!
Jacob Krueger teaches with the generous and empathic heart of a co-trencher who sincerely aims to help fellow screenwriters—at ALL levels. Jacob doesn’t waste time on idle chatter. He gets right to the heart of a topic and stays on course! No matter which episode you listen to, you will hear in his smooth and light-hearted voice just how much Jacob cares about teaching and how passionate he is about screenwriting.
Every one of Jacob’s lessons (and I’ve heard them all!) is a clear, specific, relatable, and thorough presentation of elements we all need) for developing our stories and craft, as well as for discovering our thematic intentions, understanding how the industry works, and for learning how to authentically pitch, reach out to executives, and get a foot in the proverbial door.
Thanks a bunch, Jacob! You are making an extraordinarily positive impact on the world of storytelling!
I appreciate Jacob Kruegers insight so much.
I’ve enjoyed listening to your podcast because it’s gave me new appreciation for character building. Talking about how important the character needs are and what their role is and opening me to see where some films failed and some did it perfectly, thank you.