No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


... that's the story I'm working on right now.

I'd read much about Capra's beloved IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but I hadn't seen it.  Before I remedied that, I grabbed a copy of the script (transcribed; if you have a scanned copy, please email me!) — written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling — and did a page breakdown.

I work in four acts, being your traditional three-act structure split equally into quarters.  Feel free to lump my Act Two and Act Three into a single Act Two, if that's your model.

The [F] indicates the protagonist's rising or falling fortune at the end of the scene.  Take note how the writers ping-pong George's fortunes during the first half of the story — fortune smiles upon him here and frowns on him there — then they carve out a precipitous, continuous drop in George's fortunes from around page 105 onward, until things finally bottom out at the Climax and his fortunes rapidly ascend during the Resolution.


168 pages


The town prays for George Bailey to be saved.

1. Townsfolk praying for George Bailey.

2 - 4. Angels assign Clarence, a simple soul keen to earn his wings.

5. [F-] George as boy. Saved brother Harry from drowning. Loses hearing in ear.

George saves Mr Gower from his terrible mistake.

7 - 11. [F-] Intro Mr Potter.  George at his job at Mr Gower's store.  Intro Mary.  Intro Violet and her competition with Mary for George's attention.  Mary secretly professes her love in George's bad ear.  Intro George's love of exploring and hopes for great adventures.  George spots Mr Gower's telegram announcing his son's death.  Realises the prescription is mistakenly poison.

12 - 15. [F-] George goes to see his father at the Building and Loan, where Peter Bailey is in heated debate with Mr Henry Potter over paying back a $5000 loan.  Peter ushers his son outside.

16 - 17. [F+] George returns to Mr Gower.  Gower chastises him about failing to make the pill delivery, then realizes George just saved him from a catastrophic mistake.

18 - 22. NINE YEARS LATER.  Older George gets his travel suitcase, gifted from Mr Gower, who is now sober and a pleasant man.  Reintroduction of characters after time cut: Bert the cop, Ernie the taxi driver, bombshell Violet Bick.

23 - 28. George at family home, dinner.  Harry graduating high school.  Antics and high spirits.  George tells his plans for his future, his dream of getting out of that small town.

29 - 34. At the high school graduation party. Reintro older Sam, older Mary.  The Charleston dance contest.  Mary and George dance and fall into the pool.

35 - 42.  [F-] George and Mary walking home.  Intro the old Granville house.  They toss stones and make wishes.  George again professes his lofty plans for his life.  George announced he will "lasso the moon" if she wants it.  Mary loses her robe and hides in the bushes.  George playfully withholds her robe while deliberating.  Dramatic turn when Uncle Billy arrives and announced George's father, Peter, had a stroke.

The death of George’s father wreck’s George’s plans for travel and adventure.

43 - 48. [F-] Board meeting at the Bailey Building and Loan following Peter Bailey's death. We learn George gave up his foreign travel holiday to stay and help with the transition, but now he's heading off to college.  Potter wants to shut down the company.  But the board voted him down, on the condition George stays and takes over from his father.

49 - 52. FOUR YEARS LATER.  [F-] Train station.  Brother Harry returning, now married.  George was counting on Harry to take over at the Bailey Building & Loan, but Harry now has a job lined up with his new father-in-law.  Once more George's dream of escaping the town disappears.

53 - 58. Bailey family home.  George comes to terms with his ill fortune.  His mother encourages him to go see Mary, now returned from college.  We learn Sam Wainwright is wooing Mary but she's disinterested.  On the way he encounters Violet Bick and she snubs his offer to spend the night outdoors.

59 - 67. [F+] George visits with Mary Hatch. They learn of Sam's lucrative business venture.  George fights his desire to be with Mary, which conflicts with his desire to get out of town and find adventure.  Mary wins.

68 - 70. [F+, F-] George and Mary's wedding.  During the cab ride George outlines his elaborate plans for their honeymoon, and he's got the money to back it up.  But they see there's a run on the bank.  George departs to find out what's going on.

71 - 81. [F-, F+] At the Building & Loan, George learns the bank has called in their loan.  The townsfolk want their money.  Potter is offering 50c on the dollar, but George talks the people into taking a small loan each from his honeymoon money until the bank reopens in a week.   If George can avoid going bankrupt by 6pm then the company is safe.  They make it with $2 to spare.  Potter is once again thwarted from destroying the Bailey Building & Loan.

82 - 84. [F+] Mary has prepared their honeymoon at the old Granville house.  It's a travel theme.  George is delighted.  Mary reveals this was her wish from that night long ago.

85 - 86. TWO YEARS LATER.  George assists Martini and family to move from his slum home in Potter's Field to new upscale development Bailey Park.  They spot Sam Wainwright and his trophy wife watching.

Mr Potter vows to destroy George and the Building & Loan.

87 - 88. [F-] Mr Potter's accountant warns Potter of George's rising fortunes.  Potter resolves to remove the "boil on his neck" that is the Bailey Building & Loan.

88 - 89. Bailey Park. Sam and wife, George and Mary. We learn George turned down Sam's business deal with the plastics venture.

90 - 92. [F+, F-] Potter offers George a job at an astronomical salary.  Initially tempted, George turns him down flat, disgusted with himself that he almost sold himself out.

93 - 94. [F+] Uneasy, George returns home and recalls his lifelong plans and his promises to Mary to "lasso the moon" for her.  She breaks his funk by telling him she's pregnant.

95 - 99. MONTAGE. Mary and George's growing family. Restoring the Granville house.  The war and how each of the main characters plays their part.  Harry Bailey's success as a pilot and how he saved two troop carriers.  George at home in the town -- unable to join up due to his bad ear -- doing his bit in various capacities.  The end of the war.

100 - 101. [F+] BACK TO CHRISTMAS EVE, PRESENT.  George learns Harry to get the Congressional Medal of Honor from the president, and will receive a parade.  The town prepares for Harry's return.

102 - 104. At the Bailey Building and Loan, George takes a call with Harry.  The bank examiner is there to do the books.  Uncle Billy is away making a deposit at the bank.

105 - 107. [F-] At the bank, Uncle Billy absent-mindedly slips the deposit envelope to Potter, folded in a newspaper.  Billy leaves the bank in a panic to search for the money.

108 - 113. [F-] Uncle Billy returns to the Building & Loan, where George gives Violet a loan for her to leave town for New York.  Billy ransacks his office looking for the envelope with the money.  Billy tells George about the money and George joins the search.  They check the street and Uncle Billy's home.

114 - 117. [F-] George returns home, depressed and despairing.  Mary knows something's wrong.  George rails against his perceived woes.

118 - 119. George goes upstairs to visit youngest daughter Zuzu, who has the flu.  He pockets some flower petals that fell from Zuzu's prized flower.

120 - 123.  [F-] Back in the parlor, George rails on the phone to Zuzu's teacher, then to the teacher's husband.  It's all too much and finally George snaps savagely at his family.  He quickly leaves.

124 - 126.  [F-] George visits Potter, hoping for financial help.  Potter enjoys the turnabout. "You're worth more dead than alive," he says when evaluating George's life insurance as collateral for a loan.  Potter phones to get an arrest warrant sworn on George.

127 - 129. [F-] George goes to Martini's bar on the outskirts of town and gets a little drunk.  He prays for help.  Here he encounters Zuzu's teacher's husband, who punches him.  George leaves and drunkenly crashes his car into a tree.  He staggers away on foot.

George feels worthless and a failure. Only one way out...

130 - 137.  [F+] At the bridge.  Considering his ill fortune.  He readies to jump... but there's a splash. Somebody else just jumped.  George jumps in and rescues Clarence.  Recovering in the toll house later, Clarence reveals to George his identity and mission: to save George.  George still doesn't quite believe the story.  George says, "It would have been better if I'd never been born at all..." And Clarence realizes that's his ticket to his wings.  Like that, George is now unborn.  The hearing returns to his trick ear, and their clothes are mysteriously all dry.  They leave to find George's car.

138 - 139. [F-] George and Clarence return to the scene of the car crash but the car is gone and the tree is unharmed.  Discovery that Bedford Falls is now Pottersville.

140 - 146. [F-] They go back to the bar, but Martini's bar is now Nick's bar.  Nobody recognizes George.  Gower the druggish enters, now a bum.  George and Clarence get thrown out, and George struggles to understand what's going on.  He declares he's going home alone.

147 - 148. [F-] George sees how Bedford Falls has changed into Pottersville.  He rides Ernie's taxi home.  Of course, Ernie has no idea who he is.

149 - 151. [F-] The old Granville place is the dump it was before Mary and George moved in.  Ernie and cop Bert follow George inside.  Clarence appears.  Bert tries to arrest them both.  George runs off and Clarence dematerializes while Bert tries to cuff him.

152 - 153. [F-] George visits his mother, who's now running a boarding home.  She turns him away like she would any stranger.

154 - 156. [F-] George goes to Bailey Park, which is now a cemetery.  Discovers on headstone that Harry died, because George wasn't there to rescue him from the frozen lake.

157 - 158. [F-] George heads to the library to find Mary.  She runs from him and he chases her to a bar, where the men protect her, and Bert the cop gives chase.

Where there's life there's hope...

159 - 160. [F-] George flees, ending back at the bridge. Transformed, he prays to have his life back.  The snow begins falling again.  Bert's cop car arrives, but now it's the Bert that knows George.  George has his life back.

"No man is a failure who has friends."

161. [F+] George streaks back through Bedford Falls, saluting the buildings and landmarks, thrilled to be alive and have his old life back.  He even cheers a Merry Christmas to Mr Potter.

162 - 168. [F++] George returns home where the bank examiner and sheriff await.  George desperately embraces his kids.  Mary arrives back with incredible news.  Townsfolk arrive in droves to dump their spare cash on the table.  Sam Wainwright cables from London that he will advance George up to 25,000.  Jubilation.  Harry too arrives, having received a cable from Mary.  George finds a thank-you inscription in Clarence's copy of Tom Sawyer.  A bell on the Christmas tree tinkles.  George knows Clarence just got his wings.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Relationships Create Emotion

For a long time I held aloft, above all others, Michael Hauge's one-word answer to the question: What makes a screenplay work?


On the first page of Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael explains:

People do not go to the movies so they can see the characters on the screen laugh, cry, get frightened, or get turned on.  They go to have those experiences themselves.The reason that movies hold such a fascination for us, the reason the art form has been engrossing and involving audiences for close to a century, is because it provides an opportunity to experience emotion.
... All filmmakers, therefore, have a single goal: to elicit emotion in an audience.
That was then; this is now.

Now, I understand there's something loftier.  Something more seminal.  It was there all along.  I just never bothered to follow the breadcrumbs all the way to the source.

It's true: eliciting emotion in your audience makes a screenplay work.

So, how do you create emotion on the page?  How do you make the reader, the filmgoer feel sad, mad, bad, or glad?

Conflict?  Definitely.

A boy goes to war.  A woman sues her boss for denying her promotion.  A dog journeys cross country to find its owner.

Raise a conflict and the audience will pick a side according to the bias of their own life experiences.  They'll feel outrage watching the war turn the boy into a soulless, deadly efficient soldier, despite his oath to his father about becoming an army doctor and saving lives, never taking them.  They'll laugh when the woman wins her case, gets promoted above her former boss, and gives him hell having turned the tables.  They'll cry when, despite every devastating setback along the way, the dog staggers those final few feet into its astonished owner's loving arms.

Notice what happened in that last paragraph.  I gave you conflict, then I gave you something far, far more elemental and powerful.

And here we are. Back where we started: What makes a screenplay work?


The boy and his father and the promise.
The woman and the boss who sues her and the reversal of fortune.
The dog and its owner and the incredible ordeal.

Conflict is meaningful only when there's a relationship.

Relationships channel conflict.  Conflict elicits emotion.  Emotions make your screenplay work.

More than anything during your story development, study and perfect your character relationships — to themselves, to the people around them, to the world.

Then SMASH your characters against each other with all the Creator fury you can summon.

* I use 'screenplay' throughout, but of course you can swap in anything else: story, novel, comic, pop song. Wherever you can plant a relationship you can generate conflict and make an audience feel something.