Screenwriting 101: Why the Story Structure Aerodynamics Matter, by Christopher Riley

The first of a five-part series on the laws of screenwriting aerodynamics: Whether you’re writing your first or fiftieth screenplay

The magic of flying isn’t the laws of aerodynamics any more than the magic of cinema is the principles of film structure. But those laws and those principles make the magic possible, enabling mere mortals to harness the power of flight.

by Christopher Riley, author of The Hollywood Standard

Beginning screenwriters hate structure. My students inevitably inform me of such predictable certainties as…

Screenwriter and Author Christopher Riley

Structure chafes.

Structure kills creativity.

Structure is for paint-by-the-numbers hacks, mindless, slavish screenwriting hordes laboring in the sweatshops of Snyder, Aristotle, and McKee.

Structure is a four-letter word. Count ‘em. Str-uc-tu-re. Four toxic letters that spell death to art.

So let’s not talk about structure. Let’s talk about hummingbirds, or, better yet, airplanes.

I wonder if airplane designers debate whether the laws of aerodynamics matter. If they entertain the notion of casting aside those outmoded, restrictive physical laws that mandate things like thrust and lift, and that result in a dull sameness among aircraft, each with some form of motor and wing.

I wonder if any of those free-thinking designers build flying machines without regard for the rigid and stultifying laws of aerodynamics, build them in bright colors and novel, bulbous shapes without wings, without motors, then wrap silk scarves around their necks and take their machines to the skies.

I wonder if they die in pain.

The good news: no one dies when a screenwriter defies the principles of screenplay structure. What terrible thing does happen? The story loses its way. The audience loses interest. The film bombs.

I have no interest in propounding rules for rules’ sake. I’m a screenwriter. I aspire to create films that explore and expand the boundaries of cinema in all its forms. If I could craft a story with no structure, or with some radically new structure heretofore unknown to humankind, I’d love to do it and take home the Nobel in Screenwriting.

But I don’t want to commit the cardinal sin of the would-be entertainer, boring the audience. And I must tell you that having read thousands of scripts, and watched many, many films, and worked with hundreds of students on their stories, and written an award-winning European film, and written scripts for Hollywood studios, and written scripts for the Web, I’ve made this observation.

Stories without structure don’t work.

They don’t sustain audience interest from beginning to end.

They bore.

Here’s why.

Screenwriting Laws of Aerodynamics
Houston, we have a problem. ‘Structure is the rope that pulls the audience through the story.’ -Ron Howard, Apollo 13 Director

A movie is a delicate thing, typically consumed by a viewer in one sitting, dependent on a story that constantly moves forward, upping the emotional ante, riveting us in our plush seats. Without a sound structure capable of grabbing audience interest at the start and holding it until the end, a two-hour film collapses under its own weight. It sags in the middle. It fails to provide the setups and payoffs, the emotional ups and downs, that create a cinema experience that satisfies.

We know this from observing films that work, the same way we know about the laws of aerodynamics by observing planes that fly. That’s where Aristotle got his material. He didn’t make it up. He wasn’t a structure czar. He was a scientist. He observed the stories that worked best and then described what he saw. Same with Robert McKee and Chris Vogler and Syd Field. Same with Blake Snyder. They observed the common structural characteristics of stories that manage to hold audience interest all the way to the end, which is the most fundamental definition of what it means to entertain. Then they described the principles that shape those stories. And despite the variances in terminology and details, their descriptions are remarkably similar.That shouldn’t surprise us. They all looked at the same thing.

Dummies and Ropes
Chris wrote the book on screenplay formatting… literally!

Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has described structure as being like the clothing dummy used by the fashion designer. It always looks the same. If you don’t understand the shape of the clothing dummy, which is the shape of the human body, you’re not going to make clothes that any humans can wear. You might congratulate yourself on your innovation, having sewn a pair of pants that are all puff sleeve, but you’re not going to clothe anyone.

Director Ron Howard offers his own elegant definition. Structure, he says, is the rope that pulls the audience through the story. It’s the one-thing-leads-to-the-next, the-answer-to-one-question-raises-an-even-more-compelling-question quality of films that makes us want to stick around and find out what happens next. And so it is.

Look closely at successful films that appear to defy the principles of story construction and you’ll see that in fact they conform. Memento is a hummingbird of a story, appearing to defy gravity even as it obeys the aerodynamics of story structure. You’ve got a beginning, ingeniously built of stuff that happens last chronologically, and this beginning, as in all good film beginnings, is where we meet and begin to root for the main character. It’s where we’re introduced to the world of the story. It’s where we discover what the situation is, what problem our hero faces, and what he wants.

Three Acts are Three Acts
Falling with style. Whether he’d admit it or not, he discovered that structure by gut, because he’s a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

How could it possibly be otherwise? You have a middle, where the main character pursues a plan to get what he wants, where he tries his best against all obstacles to reach his goal. And you’ve got a decisive, cataclysmic ending, even though it’s built of stuff that actually happens first chronologically.

That’s three acts, structure at its simplest and most irreducible. Want four acts? Split the middle act into two. Five acts? Split the second act into thirds. Have as many acts as you like, only don’t tell your producer or studio executive, because that’s not the language they speak.

Now you don’t necessarily need to study film structure or even believe it exists in order to make a film that works. It’s true. This is because you don’t have to understand structure in an explicit way to write or make a well-structured film. Some storytellers simply know structure implicitly, the way some people always know which way is north.

We Need a Compass
‘Memento’ is a hummingbird of a story, appearing to defy gravity even as it obeys the aerodynamics of story structure. It flies because its structure, not in spite of it.

I think that for most of us, however, an explicit mastery of the principles of structure saves weeks and months of wandering in the jungle without a compass. It certainly makes it easier to describe our stories to other Hollywood professionals, nearly all of whom speak the language of structure. But, to be fair, I have to tell you about the case I know in which a writer-director of a high-profile film publicly announced that he’d disregarded the whole three-act structure conceit and simply shot his movie. I saw this infidel’s movie in his presence at a Writers Guild screening in Beverly Hills.

The thing worked beautifully. It wasn’t boring. It didn’t collapse under its own weight. It grabbed my attention at the beginning and held it all the way to the end. Which seems to contradict everything I’ve just told you. Except…

In the Q&A following the screening, the filmmaker described the first, bloated, four-hour cut of his film, and the months of sitting in the editing room sifting through his story, discovering his movie, which ultimately came in at around two hours and had a classical three-act structure. Whether he’d admit it or not, he discovered that structure by gut, because he’s a gifted filmmaker and storyteller. He felt his way to it in the darkness of the editing bay. He might have saved himself some of those months in post, and he might have saved his investors some of the dollars he spent shooting scenes he didn’t need, if he’d discovered his structure at the writing stage.

The hummingbird doesn’t need to know how he flies. But to hedge your bets, just in case you’re more human than hummingbird, I say read up on the observations of Aristotle, Field, McKee, and Snyder before you take to the air. The magic of flying isn’t the laws of aerodynamics any more than the magic of cinema is the principles of film structure. But those laws and those principles make the magic possible, enabling mere mortals to harness the power of flight.

Next Post in Series: Screenwriting 101: A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Steps 1-3, by Christopher Riley


Christopher Riley is the author of The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style.  He wrote the German-language courtroom thriller After the Truth with his wife and writing partner Kathleen Riley, and executive produced the provocative web series Bump+. This article originally appeared on Used by permission.

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking by Living Better Stories

Part of ongoing series: Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By (See also,  The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking)

The Blind Side is not so much the story of a Christian family who transformed the life of a homeless teenager as much as it is the story of a homeless teenager who transformed the faith of a Christian family

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“Wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.” —Sandra Bullock, speaking of Leigh Anne Tuohy, whom Bullock portrayed in her first Oscar-winning performance

blind-side-poster-0In the aftermath of the runaway success of The Blind Side, Hollywood has become more open to Christians’ stories. I don’t mean “Christian” stories, but rather human stories about Christians whose faith has been an element in their facing universal human struggles.

The Blind Side was unlike anything normally accepted by the Church as a “Christian Film.” It is neither an evangelistic message about Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) witnessing about her faith, nor Michael Oher  (Quinton Aaron) coming to faith, nor a missionary appeal for how Christian families should adopt disadvantaged youth, nor a white-washed tale about perfect Christians, living perfect lives, with perfect motives, and everything turning out perfectly.

O, the Humanity!

Sandra Bullock as the highly flawed and genuinely Christian, Leigh Anne Tuohy.

Instead, it is a very human story about a very human woman whose Christian faith informed and motivated a series of radical decisions that transformed her life, her family, and the young man they adopted.  The story is not about her faith, but her faith is clearly part of the story.

This approach works only because The Blind Side wasn’t made like a typical “Christian film.” Although director John Lee Hancock describes himself as a Christian and there are a number of other talented Christians working at Alcon Entertainment who helped guide the project, Hancock made The Blind Side because he thought the story the Tuohys lived was so compelling. Period!

“The fact that the Tuohys are Christians played absolutely no part in me doing it or not doing it…. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s an incredibly charitable act that yields rewards for this family. It would have been an also amazingly charitable act had the Tuohys been atheists. A good deed is a good deed… I thought it was a great story.”

Hancock goes on to explain: “I think that if I set out to do stories based on that (Christianity or even inspiration) then it will probably be like the cart leading the horse… You set out to tell a good story. You don’t do it because there is a deep message involved because the movie is almost always bad when you do that…”[1]

The Future of “Christian” Filmmaking

Michael Oher is a most unlikely hero in the most unlikely “Christian” film in recent memory.

It is the very humanness of the film that makes it so approachable. Leigh Anne Tuohy is a flawed individual. She is a stubborn control freak, still struggling to stay in control even in the very last scene of the movie.  Yet when motivated by her Christian faith Leigh Anne’s  flaws propel her to make decisions that few other women would even consider.  Her character is complicated (which is why Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award for portraying her), and therefore very compelling. We like her precisely because she represents our highest aspirations and our worst self-sabotaging realities.

Hancock’s approach points toward a compelling future for “Christian” filmmaking in Hollywood — If you live it, they will come (to the theater, that is). Audiences don’t want to watch “Christian” films. They want to see good films about good stories. Compelling stories about real life human beings who overcome tremendous obstacles and who are transformed into better human beings in the process.  (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of WorldviewCrash Goes the Worldview.)

If the story happens to be about someone whose faith informed and motivated their journey then who’s to argue? Their story earned them the right to let their faith be part of the film. (And opened up the “plausibility structure” for audiences accepting that not all Christians are the preachy, bigoted hypocrites so often portrayed by the media.)

In the end, The Blind Side isn’t so much the story of a Christian family who transformed the life of a homeless teenager so much as it is the story of a homeless teenager who transformed the faith of a Christian family: all because one woman made the radical decision to actually live out her faith.

As Sandra Bullock opined about Leigh Anne and the Tuohy family:

“[S]he has no idea the path she’s begun, in terms of adoption and fostering. It’s not been on the forefront of people’s minds. It is on the forefront of my mind every day now when I get up. When I look around I go, ‘Is he, is she, what is their situation?’ And it’s because of this family, and I think what they are going to do for our country in terms of being aware of that is – I don’t think they realize the profound affect that they are going to have…. [Y]ou see this family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return… I said, ‘Wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.’ ” (Italics mine.)[2]

In other words, if Christians actually lived better stories then we might have a litany of heroic stories to draw upon and films to make that real people in real theaters actually want to see and A-list actors want to play. Stories about men and women (and teenagers) whose faith motivated and informed their choices to live remarkable lives by making remarkable decisions and overcome remarkable obstacles.

Living a Better Story

If more Christians actually lived compelling stories then we might have a litany of heroic movies.

Every believer (and not just filmmakers) ought to be asking themselves ‘Am I living the kind of story that, in Donald Miller’s words, “leaves a beautiful feeling even as the credits role”? As Miller discovered in writing his book subtitled How I Learned to Live a Better Story, few Christians are living stories that come remotely close to living out the full implications of their faith.

What story are we writing with our lives? Leigh Anne Tuohy’s story is deeply heroic precisely because her faith motivated her to take action toward the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. Will we?

Heaven is looking for heroic stories even more than Hollywood. Will this generation overwhelm the world with stories of very human Christ followers whose faith motivates and informs the heroic lives they live?  The world is watching…

If you live it, they will come!


Next post in series: Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category, by Gary David Stratton

See Also:

Conversations On The Blind Side – Sandra Bullock and Leigh Anne Tuohy Go One-On-One, by Rebecca Murray

Michael Oher and Tuohy Family Celebrate Super Bowl Victory (ABC)

Hollywood and Higher Education, by Gary David Stratton

Why Story Structure Matters: Even if you don’t want it to, by Christopher Riley

Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Writer-Director Brian Bird, by Gary David Stratton

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by Ron Austin



[1] Interview: ‘The Blind Side’ Director John Lee Hancock, Michelle A. Vu

[2] Bullock Quotations from:  Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw Discuss ‘The Blind Side’ 

Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections

Part IV of 2017 Lenten Series: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python
The inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life, or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

by Gary David Stratton 

Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her own children.
Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley.

If by some miracle of time-travel you could suddenly transport 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards into the audience of your local cineplex tonight, he might very well declare the entire motion picture industry a work of witchcraft! (And he may very well be right.) Yet, a careful reading of America’s greatest theologian’s most important work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, reveals insight into both the craft of screenwriting and the purpose of Lent. Both point to the importance of paying attention to “inciting events.”

The Inciting Event

Whether in real life or a work of fiction, most stories begin with a hero[1] pursuing largely self-centered goals designed to help them survive in their current circumstances. In Gladiator (2000) Maximus just wants to go home to his family and farm. In Star Wars (1977) Luke Skywalker desires only to get off the planet to be with his friends at school. Erin Brockovich (2000) seeks nothing more than a salaried job to feed her kids. Each lacks both the understanding and the desire to pursue anything beyond the struggles of their day-to-day life.

Then something happens; something screenwriters refer to as the inciting event. Suddenly, a new and bigger story crashes in upon the hero’s carefully constructed world. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story, “At the beginning of the story, when weakness and need are being established, the hero is typically paralyzed in some way. You need some kind of event to jump-start the hero out of his paralysis and force him to act.”[2] Luke accidentally triggers a hidden distress video in the memory of a droid. Erin Brokovich discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is poisoning Hinkley’s small town water supply.  Caesar unexpectedly commissions Maximus as protector of Rome in order to re-establish a true Republic. In each case, the inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

The entire story turns when (and only when) the hero makes this difficult choice. In fact, we don’t even have a story without such a decision. For instance, in The Blind Side (2009) hundreds of “Christian” parents drove past homeless teenager Michael Oher one cold November evening. Any one of them could have stopped to help. Only one did. Everyone faced the same event, yet only Leigh Anne Tuohy was incited by it. We tell her story because she acted.[3] This is why most screenwriters refer to the hero’s decision to act in response to the inciting event as plot point one.  Why? Because without that decision you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story at all.


This is where Edwards’ thought becomes helpful. According to Edwards, our soul is composed of two primary parts: our mind (including both our perceptions and our understanding of those perceptions), and our heart. Our heart is that aspect of our inner being that attracts us toward some people, ideas, or actions and repels us from other people, ideas, and actions.

When our heart’s attraction towards a particular person, idea, or action is particularly strong, Edwards labels these powerful inclinations as our affections. To Edwards, affections are “the moving springs in all the affairs of life, which engage men in all their pursuits; and especially in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigour.”[4] They are the hidden internal reasons why we choose to love some people and not others, to believe some ideas and not others, and take some actions but not others.

Victory in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm, until Caesar's inciting event changes everything.
With victory for the empire in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm . . . until Caesar’s inciting event changes everything.

This makes our affections an extremely important element of any great story. When the hero answers their story question in the affirmative it reveals something deeper in the their soul than any casual observer could notice. Something in Erin Brokovich (compassion? justice?) compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her children (for whom she originally took the job.) Something in Maximus (duty? nobility?) drives him to accept Caesar’s commission, even though it means delaying a comfortable retirement with his wife and son.

Something in the inciting event reveals the hero’s genuine affections. While this single experience never completely transforms the hero–numerous temptations to give up or turn back will come later–something in the inciting event causes them to take their first step of their journey away from a mere longing for comfort and convenience and into something deeper. They want something more and are willing to take action to pursue it.

Awakening or Transformation?

This motivating drive could be an affection that was always present, but “woke up” only when confronted with the inciting event. For instance, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo’s inciting event is an unexpected party of singing Dwarves inviting him to join their quest:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”[5]

It takes a bit no longer for him to act, but soon he is running down the road without so much as a handkerchief in his pocket.

Other times, something in the inciting event itself changes the hero’s heart. For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a chance encounter with an alien spacecraft implants Roy Neary with both vivid images of The Devils Tower in Wyoming as well as the insatiable desire to go there.[6] In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, God not only incites Moses to return to Egypt to free his people, he transforms Moses’ affections (and even his appearance) as well.[7]  Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, is perhaps the ultimate inciting event in the New Testament. His zeal for God is both revealed and transformed by the voice from heaven.

In both inciting event types the hero is confronted with a choice before the story can even begin. As über screenwriting guru Robert McKee declares:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

Obviously, the inciting event is only the beginning of this revelation and transformation, but it is crucial to writing (and living) a great story.

We Are What We Do

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes interesting not only for screenwriters, but for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Edwards rejects the commonly held notion that our affections and our will are two separate components of our inner being, so that our affections might want one thing, but our will chooses another. Not so, says America’s greatest theologian. “Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the inclination, without some effect upon the body…”[8] In other words, while we often profess belief in one direction and act in another, or feel we ought to act one way and then do the opposite, our actions alone reveal the true affections of our heart and mind. We do what we love.

Edwards therefore insists that genuine faith . .

“[C]onsists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart. That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged.”[9]

Lenten Examination

"Then something Tookish woke up inside him..."
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him…”

This is why Lent can be so transformative. The season is designed to help us examine the gap between our professed faith and our lived belief, between our creed and our lifestyle, between the things we tell ourselves we are passionate about and our true motivations revealed by our actions. Jesus instructed his followers, “You will know them by their fruits.”[10] And Edwards reminds us that Jesus viewed most important fruit as a love of God expressed in sacrificial service on behalf of others. “This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you… For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give us life for others.”[11]

The practice of (and not the mere tip of the cap to) sacrificial service reveals the presence of the greatest and highest affection of all: love of God and others for God’s sake. Why? Because much of what passes for religion seems motivated by little more than a self-centered desire to survive in our current circumstances. However, the decision to give up your life in sacrificial service of others is rarely motivated by anything except genuine spiritual affections. In essence, Edwards is saying, if you want to see who the true heroes are around you, don’t look for the most religious, or the most famous, or the most published. Look for those who love

Lent then is a season for honestly asking myself if I might be missing inciting events to love and serve that are happening all around me: a homeless teenager who needs shelter, a town that needs an advocate, a political system that needs reforming, a social injustice that needs a champion. Perhaps they are more than the mere random events. They could be God’s call to wake up and enter our true story. Our true affections are revealed only in our responses to these inciting events that dare us to ask: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

Any screenwriter could tell you that.

Next: The Volcano in Your Backyard: Micro-Worldviews and the Honeymoon from Hell


[1] Or, ‘Main Character,’ as some main characters are clearly not heroic.

[2] 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 276). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition. (2008-10-14).

[3] This is not to say that sometimes a hero requires numerous inciting events to jar them into action. For instance, Luke learning that a beautiful princess needs rescue, that his father was really a Jedi fighter pilot, or even that a Jedi master needs his help, isn’t enough to overcome his earth-bound (er, Tatooine-bound) inertia. It is only after imperial Stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle that he finally decides to go with Obi-wan to Alderaan and, “Learn the ways of the force like my father.”

[4] Edwards, Jonathan (1745) A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (In Three Parts) (Kindle Edition, 2011) Locations 332-333.

[5] The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Mariner books, 2012), p. 83. (Italics mine.)

[6] This same alien transformation motif is also subtly evident in Spielberg’s more famous E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982).

[7] Actually, in this nearly four-hour long epic, one could argue that Moses transformation is the midpoint of the film. However, in the biblical account, Moses’ encounter with THWH at the burning bush is clearly the inciting event for his personal journey at the Exodus itself.

[8] Affections, 270-271.

[9] Ibid., 297-300.

[10] Matthew 7:16

[11] John 15:12, Mark 10:45

Inside Out Screenwriting: What’s My Final Image? by Jeremy Casper

Part of ongoing series: Screenwriting 101: Why the Story Structure Aerodynamics Matter

Your final image serves as the bullseye for your film. With every scene you write, you can ask yourself, “Am I moving my main character closer to that final image or further away?”

by Jeremy Casper • Los Angeles Film Study Center


If my students were allowed to write down and take with them only one point from my lectures, I would have them write down this simple statement:

A story is… a narrative about a single character who must overcome some sort of conflict in order to solve a very specific problem.

This statement might seem elementary, but if I had a dollar for every script I’ve read that failed to follow this basic tenant of storytelling, I’d be a rich man.

Many times my students think they’ve successfully executed the above statement, but here is where most writers fail. Most writers have a difficult time grasping the concept of “…a very specific problem.” I cannot emphasize how important it is for you as a writer to give your main character a very clearly defined, measurable problem with a cinematic solution.  And, by “cinematic,” I mean a solution that is external and visual.

The solution should be revealed through images not through dialogue. This is why sports stories work so well – there is always a tangible finish line or a physical trophy to win. I can show a team winning the national tournament without ever uttering a single line of dialogue. YOUR stories should work the same way. We know Frodo accomplished his goal at the end of The Return of the King, because the solution to the problem was so clearly defined – the story isn’t over until the One Ring of Power is cast into the fiery pits of Mount Doom – can you get any more cinematic than that?

Where most writers fail is by making the central problem of their story too internal.  Let’s look at a specific example. The following statement is a poor example of a central story problem:

A man wants to find true love.

There are a thousand stories I could write about a man wanting to find true love. In fact, there are so many possibilities that I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start, so I walk away from my laptop and claim I have “writer’s block.”

The above problem is a great “internal” problem for a story, but it’s not strong enough to drive the narrative.  By externalizing the above problem and making it cinematic, I narrow my options and suddenly the writing process doesn’t seem so daunting. So, instead of trying to operate from a vague premise with endless possibilities, let’s tell a story about a man waiting to find true love but make our central story problem more specific and measurable:

A man must propose to a girl before his 30th birthday…

which is only two weeks away!

I don’t even fully know my story yet, but I already know what my final image is going to be…

Continue reading

s200_jeremy.casperJeremy Casper is a writer/director/producer and recently completed Vacant House, winner of the Silver Screen Award at the Nevada Film Festival.  He teaches cinematography and narrative storytelling at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center (which he also attended 1996). Jeremy has worked professionally in the film industry at Warner Brothers and did his internship at James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment during the production of Titanic.  As a film professor, he has helped develop over 600 short films and is currently co-writing “The Inside Out Story” with filmmaker John K. Bucher, Jr.  He also leads filmmaking seminars all over the world, most recently in Egypt, Ukraine, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Australia, and Italy.  He has several projects currently in development, including his next feature film, which he also plans to direct.

See also: How to Write Everyday Without Missing Your Life, by Genevieve Parker Hill



Act One Hollywood Screenwriting Program: Coming Soon to a Computer Near You, by Chris Dalton

Inaugural Online Cohort Begins February 19

“Mentoring Act One students is my way of encouraging and empowering the next generation of screenwriters.”  – Monica Macer, Writer, Lost (ABC), Prison Break (Fox); Producer, Nashville (ABC)

by Chris Dalton • Vice President, Act One: Training for Hollywood

Ralph Winter Act One QuoteThis spring, Act One is offering its world-class screenwriting course online. Over the course of 10 weeks, writers can immerse themselves in 40 plus hours of video courses, Skype group writing sessions, and interactive one-on-one exercises with a skilled master teacher. Our goal: to launch you on the path of becoming a top-notch screenwriter.

The program kicks off February 19 with a 3-day intensive writing workshop in Hollywood, California. Students will sit with Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and executives and engage in high-level discussions on film, story, faith and contemporary culture. Lectures and workshops will focus on the vision and creativity needed to succeed in today’s Industry. Participants will leave spiritually challenged and refreshed, ready to dive into the 10-week video-based, online courses running the week of March 2 through the week of May 4.

We are seeing amazing things come out of our online program. Here is what one alum had to say:

“Here’s my story… I left in the personal parts because they’re true. I was truly, truly blessed this summer to be part of act one and welcomed into the family of this amazing program…You guys were a life saver for me in a difficult time where the grief of losing my mom could have easily brought me to a dark place where I gave up my passion and dreams of writing for television, for good. Getting accepted into act one and taking part of the writing program this summer gave me hope, took my writing to the next level, and allowed me to get a glimpse of Hollywood. It also brought wonderful new friends into my life…All through act one. God is doing so much more through this program, this beacon of light than just reaching Hollywood, He’s doing a deep work in the people He chooses to take part of the program. For that, I say: thank you.” – Joey C.

Right now, Act One is offering a discounted rate on the tuition. Apply by January 30, get accepted and pay the tuition in full by February 10, and you will get $250 off the current rate. On top of that, the registration fee is waived.

Visit for more information.

“If you were to walk into an Act One class, it wouldn’t feel any different than being at UCLA or USC. But from a Christian perspective, it’s a community where people can think out loud.”  –Kurt Schemper, Emmy Award-winning Act One Alumnus

“Whoever tells the best story shapes the culture. Act One is training Christian writers and producers to be the very best.” –David McFadzean, Act One Faculty, Co-Creator, Home Improvement with Tim Allen

Watch Act One Video

Why Christian Filmmakers Should be BREAKING BAD, by Marcus Pittman

Why on earth would anyone want to watch a show where they despise and ultimately reject the main character? To watch a descent into evil of Biblical proportions.

“I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good?” –Breaking Bad creator, Vince Gilligan

by Marcus Pittman

Desperate to provide for his family, mild-mannered terminal cancer patient Walter White ends up an unimaginatively violent drug lord.
Desperate to provide for his family, mild-mannered terminal cancer patient Walter White ends up a violent drug lord.
AMC’s Breaking Bad will end it’s six year, five season run in the next few weeks, and what a run it has been.
Walter White, your average Government school Chemistry teacher, has a good job, an intact family and a happy life. Until, that is, he finds out he has cancer.
Desperate for a way to provide for his family, and pay the medical bills, Walter White seeks out the help of a former student, now drug dealer and addict Jesse Pinkman, and together they develop a drug empire.
It’s been called one of the best shows ever made. Ever.
It’s won multiple Emmys and Golden Globes and has built up a fan base that will rival the cosplay of Star Wars at Comic Con’s for years to come.
But why on earth should Christians take notice, and dare I say, learn some things about a story revolving around sin, violence, drugs, and death?


The Moral Premise of an Immoral World
Before we answer that question, we need to know the author’s intention of the series. His name is Vince Gilligan, who is not by any stretch of the imagination a Christian.
He said in an interview with the NY Times:

“I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?” – Vince Gilligan

Continue reading

Considered by many to be the greatest television show ever, it all comes crashing down September 22 & 29.
Considered by many to be the greatest television show ever made, it all comes crashing down September 22 & 29.

Continue reading

Screenwriting 101: A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Step 6, by Christopher Riley

“There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”                                                                                   –Louis D. Brandeis

Part of ongoing series: Screenwriting 101: Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To

Step 6: Rewrite

by Christopher Riley, Author of The Hollywood Standard

The only note you really want to hear from your readers is one that prominently features the word “brilliant.” (Shakespeare in Love, Universal, 1998)

Having finished your first draft, you now possess a tangible expression of your movie, something you can throw down in front of a film-loving friend or a fellow screenwriter whose wisdom and taste you trust.

Step 6a: Getting notes.

If you’re as insecure as I am, the only note you want to hear from your readers is one that prominently features the words “brilliant” and “don’t change a word.” Nonetheless, you now ask your trusted pals to read your script and give you something you must learn to draw out of them and treasure: a frank and accurate description of what your movie looks and feels like to them. You’ve designed your story to surprise your audience, or to throw suspicion on a red herring and divert it away from the true culprit, or you’ve crafted a joke or action sequence or dramatic confrontation to evoke laughter or adrenaline or tears.

You only know if you’ve succeeded when actual readers become your first audience and tell you what they experience when they take in your movie page by page. Find out where they’re confused. Make them tell you where they’re bored. Do they root for your hero, willing to trade their lives for his, or do they hope he sinks in a tar pit? Where did they laugh? Did you, um, want them to laugh at that point?

Gather notes from as many trusted readers as you can recruit. The number should be no smaller than three. Four or five wouldn’t be too many. (An important caveat:  If you know Scorsese or the Coen boys, don’t bring them into the mix yet. Save your industry connections for later in the process, after your baby learns to walk. You only get one shot with the pros so you want to make it your best.) Either get your readers to put their notes in writing or you put their notes in writing for them, the good and the bad, what works and what doesn’t.  Make a neat stack.

Step 6b: Digest and evaluate the notes.

Hollywood screenwriter, Gil (Owen Wilson) refuses to take notes on his novel until fate provides him with the best beta-readers in history. (Midnight in Paris, Sony Pictures, 2011)

Read through the notes thoughtfully, remembering that your worth doesn’t derive from what you write and what others think about what you’ve written. If you’re going to be a screenwriter, you’d best solve that riddle now. Understand that you possess worth because you’re a human being, loved and loving despite your many imperfections. Cling to that as you read these notes. Where do you find consensus? Writers often say if one person gives a note, they can ignore it. If two people give the same note, they have to think about it. And if three people give the same note, they have to make the fix.

An important caution when dealing with notes: listen not so much for solutions as for the problem the suggestion is intended to remedy. You’re the writer so you will often know a better solution that is truer to your characters than will your readers. But notes come from somewhere and as farfetched as some notes will sound, they usually point to a problem in the script. That’s because readers who are breathlessly turning pages to find out what happens next to a character about whom they’re desperately worried forget they’re reading a script. They think they’re watching a great movie. And people watching a great movie don’t stop to write notes. (Note to self: Stop hating people who give me notes.)

Step 6c: Read your own script.

If you’ve had the luxury of letting some time pass since you finished the draft, you’ll see with fresh eyes things about your script that will surprise you. You’ll groan at bits that don’t work at all. And you may well experience the wonderful surprise of reading something that works so well you can’t quite believe you wrote it. Write down your reactions to the script, including the stuff that works really well. As important as knowing what to jettison is knowing what to hold onto. Decide, based on your own reading of your script, your opinion of each of the notes you’ve received. Where do the real problems lie? What makes this script work? What needs to change? Where can you make it better?

Step 6d: Make a rewrite plan.

Once you’ve identified the problems you’re going to fix and the weaknesses you’re going to strengthen, list them in some orderly manner. Go back to your prep documents: beat sheet, treatment, Eight Essential Story Points, character work. Brainstorm solutions to each problem and add those to your list of problems to be fixed.

Step 6e: Execute your plan.

His friends may be psychopaths, but their notes help Marty the screenwriter (Colin Farrell) finish his script. (7 Psychopaths, BFI, 2012)

Sometimes you’ll implement all your notes in a single, global pass through the script. If the work is extensive, this amounts to what is commonly called a page one rewrite. Other times, you’ll make several separate passes through the script, with a different focus for each. I recently completed a theme pass on a film I’m writing, giving my complete attention to understanding and clarifying what the story is about, what it means both to my characters and to me. You might do the same for page count. Or for budget. Or for a character’s arc, charting the moments where she grows and changes throughout the script. You could do a dialogue polish or a comedy punch-up. Or you might give your attention to subplots, maybe the romance that’s threaded through the action.

I make a habit of going through my scripts last of all to remove needless words, hoping to please Mssrs. Strunk and White and improve the force and clarity of my writing in the bargain. Remember to proofread your script for format, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and typos.

Rewrite and Rewrite Again

When you’ve done all you know to do, it’s time to return to step 6a, looping through this stage, rewriting, polishing and wordsmithing until your readers sit up all night because they can’t put your script down and when the sun comes up they begin cold-calling agents and producers on your behalf, begging them to read you because your story and storytelling are simply that good. It can happen. But only to those who stick with the meal bite by bite until they’ve eaten the whole shoe.

Read all of Christopher Riley’s Series: Screenwriting 101: Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To

See Also: My Writing Rules: How to Write Everyday Without Missing Your Life, by Genevieve Parker Hill

How to Write Everyday Without Missing Your Life, by Genevieve Parker Hill

“The earlier in the day I write, the more likely I am to: a) write that day, and b) write more that day.”
…………………………….-Genevieve Parker Hill

by Author and World Traveler, Genevieve Parker Hill

“Life is bigger than writing. And that’s the way I like it.”  -Genevieve Parker Hill

I’m deep in the thickets of drafting my first book, Minimalism for Grandparents: Decluttering for Health, Happiness, and Connection in the Golden Years, and some of you may be wondering just how I manage to write with such prolificacy while also traveling the world. At least my writer friend Jared was.

So for Jared and anyone else who may be wondering, the answer (besides that I’m lucky enough to be able to design my life this way) is that I’m easily bored and possibly just a touch ADD. Therefore, having multiple projects going at once is a must for me. I don’t seem to be capable of working on one project until it’s done and then picking up another one.*

Maintaining a Writing Schedule: The Importance of Structure

I’ve learned through the years that I need some sort of schedule for myself. Writing is solitary and there’s no boss looking over my shoulder, making sure I’ve done pages for the day. I’ve experimented with many different  tactics:

  • Writing in the morning
  • Writing at night
  • Writing in the afternoon
  • Writing every day
  • Wearing  a special hat to write
  • Writing only when inspired late at night on caffeine
  • Writing for eight hours a day on weekdays
  • Writing on my lunch break at an office job
  • Asking friends to ask me about my writing regularly
  • Promising  people completed scripts upon certain deadlines
  • Writing carefully
  • Writing heedlessly
  •  Setting yearly writing goals
  • Setting monthly writing goals
  • Scheduling out each day down to the minute
  • Setting a timer and writing until it goes off

Whew. I’ve learned a few things in general about how to make myself write. For me, the earlier in the day that I write, the more likely I am to a) write that day and b) write more that day. Writing at the beginning of the day seems to set a tone of creative production for the whole day and to keep my muse happy and coming back for more.

Capturing Your Muse: The Inconvenience of Inspiration

Genevieve’s early career as a Hollywood Fairy Princess helps her recognize a good muse when she sees one

The muse shows up unannounced and usually at the most inconvenient times.  The best writing comes from the muse: what you can also think of as the holy spirit, or the creative subconscious.  The ability to write when the muse shows up takes the same kind of discipline that waking up early – the moment your alarm goes off–  takes. It’s hard and I rarely do it. But I’m glad when I do.

The best feeling when writing, and when the best writing comes, is when the creative subconscious gets though in kind of a sly way. I’m relaxed, well fed, and not worried about the well-being of any of my loved ones. There’s quiet around me – no music or conversation or fear of interruption.  I’m not trying too hard; it’s flow. Time passes without my awareness of how much has gone by.

However, most times, I’m trying hard. Because in an almost cruel reality, the muse  is somehow  summoned and nourished by my trying hard — by thinking a lot about the writing and the topics. I can relate it to something I heard in an interview with actor James Franco. He prepares and prepares very hard, then when the cameras roll, he just relaxes and lets whatever comes out come out.

Balancing Structure and Inspiration: Rules for Dancing the Creative Dance

Travel: The world’s best office.

What has worked for me to get my writing done every day while still leaving time to experience where I am, is daily goals. Also, I have more time to write now than I did in LA. I have fewer friends here to hang out with, and I don’t have another job to take any of my creative energy (as much as I liked faerie princess-ing).

After trying to schedule my days, I found out that one of my big values is freedom. I won’t stick to a schedule because it can feel like a tyrant boss.

So I have simple two rules for myself:

1) Write everyday.

2) Write for at least an hour, five days a week. Usually I end up writing for more than one hour, but it’s kind of like telling yourself before a morning jog that you are just going to run for five minutes. Once you get out there, feel the wind in your nose and see the birds fluttering by, you’ll be enjoying it and you’ll probably run for the whole thirty minutes.

Set Goals to Guide Your Daily Writing

Goals help you focus when the muse just won’t bite.

On top of my writing rules, at the beginning of the year I had a couple of big writing goals. One was to write six first drafts (feature-length scripts) this year. Another was to write and publish my first book. I have other smaller projects too, but those are in addition to my major goals.

So that I keep my projects straight and work on each project enough to complete my goals on time, I created one goal for each remaining work day of 2012. I did this a couple months ago, and this system is working for me so far. It allows me to focus on one project a day,  to trust that they will all get done because I can see it on the schedule, and to not get bored because I can see ahead that I will get to work on a different project soon.

For example, here is what my first ten days looked like:

    • Day 1 Blogsville — book project ask for help and weekend trip
    • Day 2 Character work on script #3.
    • Day 3  Plot work on script #3.
    • Day 4  Character work on script #3
    • Day 5 Research details for the script.
    • Day 6 Blogsville
    • Day 7 Outline #3 in Final Draft
    • Day 8 New script idea generating
    • Day 9  Outline #3 in Final Draft
    • Day 10 Go to script: Write 10 pages today on script #3.

It goes on until the end of the year…

I don’t add a date to when I should be doing each goal because sometimes I move them around or work on a weekend or maybe I took a mental health day or a sick day. (I have a great boss who lets me take off whenever I want.) Life is bigger than writing. And that’s the way I like it.

Making Your Own Rules

Travel provides its own unique perks for those writing breaks called, “life.”

I think each writer (or any person who wants to create something without an office and a boss) must experiment and figure out what works for him or her.

If you are trying to write (or paint, or whatever) and you are also working a full-time job or have some other major drain on your time, my only advice is to write first thing in the morning. I didn’t have the willpower to do it regularly when I had a full-time job, but if I had one now, I’d find a way to make it work. I’d reward myself with ice cream of something, anything, but I would make it work.

If you are trying to write while traveling, the advice is the same. Bring a small laptop computer or a notebook, and do it early. You never know what the day will bring, and you have most control over you time and willpower in the morning.

If you have felt for a long time that you want to write, that you have something to say, you are weakening the tender fabric of your soul with each day that you do not write.

Let me know if these tips help you and please leave any helpful tips that have worked for you in the area of self-motivated creative work.


* In the same vein, I’m currently reading (hang on, let me count them) seven books. Probably more, but I stopped counting at seven since I thought it was a suitably impressive number. That’s useful for me since whatever I’m reading tends to come out in pure form when I converse. If I was just reading one book, it could get tiring to hear about revolutionary Iran in the 80’s over and over. With my brain in seven books, however, I can talk about how Nabokov appears to have been read by students at Tehran university who were  not exactly fifty shades of Zionism which came during and after Audrey Hepburn’s early film career.

I often internally  mourn that my brain is fond of boxes. However, I think this reading of unrelated subject matter fights my waffle-headed tendencies and helps me make creative new connections.

Back to my writing, which is as connected to my reading as Levi’s are to blue thread…


Genevieve Parker Hill is a screenwriter and blogger who travels the world with her husband who works in conflict zones providing humanitarian aid to children.  You can follow Genevieve around the world on her blog Packing Lust.

How do I “break in” as a screenwriter in Hollywood? Phone Seminar Opportunity with Brennan Mark Smith

How do I “break in” as a screenwriter in Hollywood?

It is perhaps the most asked question on the Two Handed Warrior website contact page.

Screenwriter, screenwriting consultant, and Two Handed Warrior contributor Brennan Mark Smith thinks he knows the answer…

You perform like a professional, consistently developing marketable concepts and delivering dynamic scripts.  Otherwise, you might as well be self-publishing or selling insurance.

But how do I get my script to that level?

BREN’S ANSWER: Begin with the right focus, and the right tools to keep you on track

And where do I start? 

Join Bren on a conference call Seminar this Monday night. 

Brennan Mark Smith “Pre-Script Pro-Strategy” Screenwriting Seminar

Bren has studied the craft of screenwriting for over a decade, and as a Story Analyst and mentor for keys2scriptsuccess, Epiphany Space and Act One Program he has provided solid direction (not simply coverage but in-depth analysis and story-shaping tools) for over 100 writers, helping them take their projects to the next level.

In this 90 minute seminar, Bren will deliver practical information to guide your development into a professional screenwriter.  He will help you develop:

  • Your professional mindset (in the new realities of moviemaking)
  • Your “Toybox”  (fuel your passion and screenwriting voice)
  • Your “Toolbox” (consistent screenwriting principles for concept development to basic structure to keep your writing on track)

Bren will also discuss screenwriting for the difficult Christian market.  It will be a fire hose of beginning and advanced concepts you won’t want to miss.

July 23, 6pm PACIFIC TIME  (That’s 9pm EASTERN)

To Register, visit:


See also: 

A Christian Primer for Hollywood, by Brennan Mark Smith

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, and Why It Matters, by Brennan Mark Smith


Screenwriting 101: A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Step 5, by Christopher Riley

Sit down at your keyboard and tackle the script steadily, day by day, knocking down one beat after another.

Part of ongoing series: Screenwriting 101: Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To

Step 5: Writing the first draft

by Christopher Riley

Chris and Kathy Riley

Before you’ve completed steps one through four, you may feel an almost irresistible urge to begin writing script pages. You may feel certain you’re ripe to write. You may know you could plant yourself in front of your MacBook and write your way clean through the movie to fade out.

Don’t do it!

Everyone Needs a Map

You don’t know where you’re going and you’ll invariably run off the road into a ditch. I’ve done it. You may need to do it, too, before you believe me. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re willing to learn from my mistakes and have completed steps one through four. That sensation you’ve got of being ready to write? It’s no longer a delusion. Let it rip. The poultry shears have done their work. A heap of bite-sized morsels lies before you. It’s time to feast.

Sit down at your keyboard and tackle the script one beat at a time. Follow your beat sheet. Draw on your rich period of preparation. Pull out your characters like so many Barbies or G.I. Joes and watch them play and hear them talk. Write down what you see and hear in vivid, economical, specific detail.

How to Complete Your First Draft in Nine Months

Work at it steadily, day by day, knocking down one beat after another. If you work five days a week, writing one beat per day, you’ll blaze through the 40 beats of your first draft in eight weeks.  If you write one beat per week, you’ll finish your first draft in nine months.  Much more could be said about the art and skill of scene writing. For now, I’ll offer these few suggestions:

Write every day, or as close to every day as you can manage. You’ll build up emotional momentum which will carry you from one writing session into the next. That momentum can be destroyed by gaps in your writing schedule during which the emotion of the piece drains out of you and you’re forced to upload the story into your heart and brain almost from scratch.

Set aside a time and a place for your daily writing where you can be protected from whatever distractions you find most difficult to resist. (Stephen King, in his imminently practical On Writing, treats this subject better than anyone I’ve read. See also, Act One alum Genevieve Parker Hill’s: How to Write Everyday Without Missing Your Life.)

Understand that the most difficult part of any writing session is getting started. For that reason, bring all your willpower to bear to begin writing each day, knowing that once you’ve taken the day’s first step, the subsequent steps will come more easily. I find that, though I encounter much internal resistance to beginning, once I get rolling I can lose myself for huge chunks of time as I continue laboring without any great need for exertions of self-control.

Arrange for a little pain. Tell someone about your writing schedule and the goals you intend to meet by some deadline that isn’t too far off, say a week away. Ask them to check in with you as soon as the deadline arrives for evidence that you’ve reached your goal. Ask them to mock you if you haven’t finished your work. Or assess a mutually agreed penalty. Here’s how it works. You say, “If I don’t finish my first draft through beat 10 by next Tuesday, I’ll dig up your old septic tank and replace it.”  Something along those lines will often do the trick.

Keep moving forward 

Especially if you’ve ever displayed perfectionist tendencies, defy the impulse to go back over your first three pages again and again, honing them instead of making progress through your beats.

The above advice notwithstanding, begin each day’s writing by going back over yesterday’s work. I’m frequently amazed by the clarity I have about the previous day’s work simply by virtue of getting a little distance from it. I find that I’m able to polish the scene in a matter of minutes and then launch myself into the next scene carrying speed from the earlier one.

Finish your work.

Forgive yourself when you fall short of your goals. Pick yourself up and go after it again.

Keep going. Bite by bite, the shoe will go down.

Finish your work.

Celebrate milestones.

Finish your work.

The Finish Line

Celebrate completion of your first draft. If it’s your first-ever complete first draft, congratulations. You’ve arrived among the relative few screenwriters who have earned that name by having actually written a draft of a screenplay from beginning to end. Reward yourself with a bar of dark chocolate and a midnight walk in the falling snow.

Next Post in the Series: Screenwriting 101:  A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Step 6, by Christopher Riley

Read Christopher Riley’s entire series: Screenwriting 101: Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To

Are Christians Writing “Edgy” for the Wrong Reasons? by Jeff Goins

Good art tests boundaries. It always has. We artists just need to check our motives (and egos) before we endeavor to create it.

A Conversation with Randy Elrod’s: Why Christians Are Creating More “Edgy” Art, and C.J. Darlington’s, “Writing edgy… for all the wrong reasons.

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Sometimes in our quest to usher art in to the world, we artists can cross the line. Certain projects involving urine and crucifixes come immediately to mind as potential candidates.

But what about the importance of uncensored expression? What is a creative to do in this distracted world where sometimes shock value is the only thing that grabs an audience’s attention?

As a person of faith — and a writer — I am constantly struggling with these questions.

Edgy art isn’t enough

Christian author C.J. Darlington wrote an interesting post about this, entitled, “Writing edgy… for all the wrong reasons.” In it, she raises a good point — for Christians and non-Christians alike — calling us writers to check our motives before writing something that is edgy, controversial, or contentious.

I’ve been known to write a provocative article or two in my time (see: “A letter to the Affluent Church“). Once you see a maelstrom of comments flooding in over something you wrote that touched a nerve, it’s hard to stop. The attention is addictive, which can be extremely dangerous.

In her post, Darlington addresses this:

In the last couple of years I’ve noticed a trend in Christian fiction. More and more aspiring authors desire to write edgy fiction. And by edgy I mean pushing the envelope of what has generally been considered acceptable in novels regarding violence, sex, language, etc.

Now I’m all for writing real. I want my characters and situations to be true to life. I don’t want to write about saints. But somewhere there’s a line, and I admit, it’s a gray one. Personally, I think it comes down to motives. Why do we want to write edgy? Is it to shock? To do it because we can?

An alternative to controversy

There is, of course,  an alternative to creating edgy art just because you can:honesty. Some creatives, in their search for understanding and meaning, are creating art that is honest. It just happens to be provocative.

I am completely in favor of work that challenges and pushes our thinking, that calls our core beliefs into question and causes us to dig deeper into what we think we know.

We need more of that kind of writing in this world (and in Christianity).

Photo credit: Frederic Bisson (Creative Commons)

What good art does

Good art tests boundaries. It always has. We artists just need to check our motives (and egos) before we endeavor to create it.

Ultimately, we all want our work to matter. We want our creations to count. And the only way to do that is to approach our crafts with honesty and integrity. To write what is true even when it offends.

There’s nothing wrong with writing edgy, and there’s nothing wrong with writing not edgy. What is wrong — especially for a person of faith — is to write something that isn’t true to your deepest convictions and core beliefs. True to who you are and what you stand for. Denying that creative impulse would be a tragedy.

So whether dark or cheery, we all need to write words that are honest. Anything else would be writing for the wrong reasons, indeed.

Do you write edgy just because you can, or because you hope it will make a difference? Share in the comments.

Called to Hollywood? Act One Screenwriting and Producing Programs Application Deadlines Approaching

The premier training program for filmmakers of faith pursuing careers in mainstream Hollywood


“Act One’s Producing Program understands that apprenticeship is vital in Hollywood. Students are exposed to working producers and executives not only in the classroom, but through hands-on internships as well. If you’re looking for an immersive learning experience, go through the Producing Program!”

– Dan Lin, Act One Faculty and Producer of Sherlock HolmesTerminator Salvation and The Gangster Squad

Are you serious about becoming a better filmmaker? A better writer or producer? Then spend this summer with the premier training program for Christians pursuing a career in mainstream Hollywood.

Located in the heart of Hollywood, Act One offers a variety of programs and services designed to develop artistry, professionalism, meaning and Christian Spirituality — all while fostering connection to, and fellowship with, a vibrant community within the entertainment industry.

Act One graduates include the Emmy Award-winning producer of Intervention (A&E), producing and creative staff for films such as The Blind SideThe Book of Eli, and 2012 Academy Award winner The Artist, as well as writers for shows such as The Unit (CBS), Justified (FX), Leverage (TNT), and Hawaii Five-O (CBS).



Through mentoring and workshops, Act One provides writers with a strong foundational understanding of the entertainment industry, the art and ethics of storytelling, and the realities of living a life of faith in Hollywood. A mentored spiritual formation group experience galvanizes a life of faith while students master the business and craft of storytelling for the global audience. Courses range from 1 week to 14 months and are taught by industry professionals who literally step off studio lots to teach.

This June, Act One is launching their first online screenwriting program, as well as their summer writing workshop.


The Workshop is a series of intensive lectures and workshops focused on the craft of screenwriting, coupled with rigorous writing exercises and individualized weekly feedback on your work from a Hollywood professional. The Workshop kicks off with an allinclusive retreat in the beautiful hills of Malibu, CA, setting you in the midst of Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and executives who will engage you in high-level discussions on film, story, faith and contemporary culture. Classes then move to Hollywood and are taught by top-level, working writers and producers who often step off the studio lots to come teach at Act One. Curriculum includes classes and assignments on structure, character, dialogue, writing for television, the spiritual journey of a writer, screenings, Q&A sessions with filmmakers, and much more.

Program Dates:

  • Kick-Off Retreat: June 11th – June 15th, 2012 (Monday through Friday, 9am to 9pm. All-inclusive and overnight)
  • Saturday Workshops: June 16th – August 25th, 2012 (Classes are held on Saturdays from 9am to 5pm)

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Act One provides a strong foundational understanding of the entertainment industry and real-world experience through interships, workshops, and networking. A mentored spiritual formation group experience galvanizes a life of faith while students master the business and craft of filmmaking for the global audience. Courses range from 2 weeks to 14 months and are taught by industry professionals who literally step off studio lots to teach.

This June, Act One offers a summer long program complete with an industry internship.


Dip your toe in the water or dive right in, as this summer program is the foundation for launching your career.
The Workshop is a series of intensive lectures, discussions and Q&As designed to offer a comprehensive overview of everything a producer or executive needs to know to fast track their career. We kick things off in the beautiful hills of Malibu, CA with an all inclusive, 5-day Retreat that is filled with foundational classes on story, the intersection of faith & film, and the spiritual journey of a Christian in the entertainment industry. For the rest of the summer, classes are held on Saturdays in Hollywood and are taught by top producers and executives working in the industry. Curriculum includes film-finance, creative development, production, marketing, distribution and exhibition.

The Workshop is supplemented with an entertainment-industry Internship at a production company, agency, marketing firm, television network or film studio. Internships are tailored to your career goals and can range from five days a week to just one.

Program Dates:

  • Kick-Off Retreat: June 11th – June 15th, 2012 (Monday through Friday, 9am to 9pm. All-inclusive and overnight)
  • Saturday Workshops: June 16th – August 25th, 2012 (Classes are held on Saturdays from 9am to 5pm)
  • Internship: Throughout the summer – anywhere from 1 to 5 days a week, depending on student’s availability

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 “Every great production starts with the writer. Writers who are interested in the craft of writing should start with Act One!”
– Ralph Winter, Act One Faculty, Executive Producer, WolverineX-Men, and Fantastic Four