The Long Short Screenplay

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For the past four screenplays, you've focused on essential elements of drama—discovery, decision, conflict, connection—and you've created and crafted these in short screenplays. In the process, ideally, you've learned to write vivid and economical descriptions of setting, character, action, using higher and more significant detail, and you've learned to sharpen your dialogue, letting your characters say far more with less. And along the way, you've probably noticed that these elements of drama—slippery little devils—are tricky to isolate. They tend to hang out together in screenplays— a discovery precipitating a decision, a conflict giving way to connection, and vice versa.

A dance.

So now it's time to clear the creative floor and let these dramatic elements rip in your long short screenplay.


Write the best ten-page (or shorter) screenplay you can—using the techniques you've learned to tell a good story that makes us connect—a pattern of human change that makes a difference to your main character. And to us.

And follow these guidelines:

1. Choose an idea that has rich resonance for you, that on some (perhaps not obvious) level, is important to you. If you need inspiration, take a look at the seven award-winning screenplays in Part III (and their films) or screen your favorite film of all time, if you have one. Why did you connect? What story could you tell that would connect to others?

2. Make your story simple and your character complex.

3. Make sure the story makes a difference to your main character (otherwise you'll face the dreaded so what?).

4. Articulate a clear surface action and a deep action (character arc) for your screenplay. Make sure that they are, in some way, interrelated. How do external events in your story create inner change in your character?

5. Make sure your surface and deep action are made of specific moments of change—discoveries and decisions—that we can see happen on paper/screen.

6. Explore, develop, and weave together—in whatever proportions are right for your story—conflict and connection. In Slow Dancin' Down the Aisles of the Quickcheck, the conflict grows out of a need for connection (wanting Maybelline but not being able to tell her), as it does in Kosher and A Work In Progress. In The Making of "Killer Kite"—a send-up of the horrors of film-making—there's no connection at all. That's one of the hilarious points the story is making. And in My Josephine there's only connection, though the film is richly resonant with the underlying conflict and disconnection Muslim-Americans have felt in this culture since September 11, and their attempt to connect by washing American flags for free.

7. Make sure your story checks out with the Screenplay Paradox: Is it unique and universal? A story only you can tell us, but one that we want to see?

8. Don't forget, in case you already have (I do all the time) that the last word in screenplay is play. Enjoy the freedom of the form: the power of the image (a picture really does speak a thousand words, so let your images do most of the talking); the story leap (hit your scenes late, leave them early); and emotional flow (done well, it will connect your scenes and your audience to the story you tell). Use the freedom of the form to take your charac-ter—and your audience—on a magic carpet ride.

9. Stick to the ten-page limit, unless your instructor and budget allow your script to be longer.

10. Write the film you want to see.


As you know all too well by now, so much depends upon a good idea. And the best ones—comic or dramatic or a mixture of both—as you also know, come from a deep place inside us:

A passion.

An obsession.

An emotion.

A person.

An experience.

An image.

A perception.

A principle.

You've already tapped some of these in your menu and your four previous screenplays, but now dig even deeper. Explore these deeply felt areas of yourself and your life. What are you yearning to say about life? What stories are you dying to tell? What themes keep recurring? As Wes Ball said about

A Work In Progress:

The theme of loneliness has always been a part of my stories. I'm not sure why; I wasn't a lonely kid or anything. Although I wasn't conscious of it at first, I began seeing a pattern in my films. It was a very profound, important realization for me. Once I pinpointed the types of stories that appealed to me, I could quickly dream up concepts for stories that I knew I would be passionate about later, and passion is key to seeing the making of a film through.

"Creating begins typically with a vague, even a confused excitement, some sort of yearning, hunch, or other preverbal intimation of approaching or potential resolution," Brewster Ghiselin says in The Creative Process. "[The poet] Stephen Spender's expression is exact: 'a dim cloud of an idea which I feel must be condensed into a shower of words.'"

And, for the screenwriter, pictures—like an American flag tumbling slowly in a washing machine.

Musing about Muses, Rob McCaffrey came up with a funny perception about being alive: If Muses inspire us, is there a comparable spirit that aggravates and undermines us? Rob came up with the Buse, the cosmic creature who makes us spill coffee down our shirt front, lock our keys in the car, have bad-hair days. To share his perception with others, Rob developed a story about a day in the life of a new Buse, a unique story, to say the least, with universal underpinnings because it's a story about finding one's place in the universe, the subject of all great drama, as Arthur Miller once said.

And to write his film After Life, writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda mined his experience and fascination with memory and his unique perception about its role in our lives—and after. "I developed this idea, at a young age, that you forget everything, and then you die." This belief came from his childhood, seeing his grandfather develop dementia and senility. "One day, he no longer recognized our faces. Finally, he could not recognize his own."

So Kore-eda began asking himself the question, "What if you got to hold onto one thing?"2

"Dance your own dance," Frank McCourt always tells writers, and he followed his own advice when he wrote his luminous memoir, Angela's Ashes.

So create your own version of the previous list. Add and subtract categories. Then dive deep into each one. Explore your own experiences, fascinations, perceptions. And play (that word again!) creative pinball, bouncing from one item on your list to another. The richest ideas often occur when categories cross-fertilize. It's called homospatial thinking, bringing two disparate ideas together, like Gutenberg inventing the printing press when he connected the functions of a signet ring and a wine press.

My short play Propinquity sprang from such a cross-fertilization. My father's father used to say that people fell in love for only one reason— propinquity. Proximity of bodies. There was no sweet mystery to it, no affinity of human nature, just proximity. I disagreed passionately. I believed— and still believe—that there are deeper forces at work, or we'd fall in love with every shlub we squeeze next to on the subway or bus. And so, when Actors Theatre of Louisville commissioned me to write a ten-minute play, this belief bubbled back up. But it was only half an idea. Luckily, though, the same week a friend and teaching assistant in English said she was sick and damn tired of other teaching assistants complaining about teaching freshmen. She loved teaching freshmen because they were young, impressionable, open.

These two passions—hers and mine—intersected, and my play Propinquity bloomed whole. I wrote the play in an hour ("Good writing doesn't always come hard," Sam Smiley assured me). A simple story: A shy, love-struck freshman, Dale Bender, is trying to tell his T.A. in English, Alexis, that he loves her, while her significant other, Marshall, is trying to leave her. Crossed lines of action. A ten-minute story told in six scenes that I hit late and left early, each with a small but significant moment of change that swept the story onto the next ("A tender and effortless glissando sweeping gracefully from moment to wistful moment," Sylvia Drake wrote—God bless her—in The Los Angeles Times).

In one scene, Marshall tells Alexis that the only reason people fall in love is propinquity. Simple proximity. Alexis passionately disagrees. And so does Dale at the end of the play when he delivers his final essay to Alexis:


Here's my essay. Revised. Very asshole, but it has a climax, Miss Saunders. You won't believe the climax it has. (beat)

I didn't write about the House of Usher. I wrote an essay on propinquity, what you said the other day in your office—that it was the cause of love. I hate to tell you this, Miss Saunders, because I like and respect you, but that's a crock, a real crock. Except possibly for meaning number three—I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary— which defines propinquity as an affinity of natures and not simple proximity—

She takes his face in her hands and kisses him.3

It is their own affinity of natures that brings them together for this brief moment, and both are changed in the process.

I wrote this short comedy to prove that people fall in love for deeper reasons than proximity, and perhaps I succeeded (the Irish Times said "Propinquity offers great hope and humanity"), but a play or screenplay cannot succeed on message alone.

"If you want to send a message, call Western Union," Samuel Goldwyn once growled, and I agree, but as Anne Lamott wisely reminds us, "A moral position is not a message." You can find wonderful ideas for your screenplay by examining your own beliefs, passion, vision, whatever has the deepest meaning for you, then making a story that shows what you want to say.

"A true plot is an assertion of meaning," asserts Arthur Miller. But it's the plot that must assert. Preaching is deadly in drama—I hate preaching—and, the truth is, it rarely works anyway.

"You can't tell another," Shelby Foote said, "but with hard work and luck, maybe you can show him."

You must show others by creating flesh-and-blood characters going through significant change in specific time-and-place scenes. Screenwriting is an incarnational art. Don't ever lose sight of that.

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