Pauline Kiernan on Unique Screenwriting

This month's Cinema and Fiction interviewee is writer, scholar and screenwriting consultant Dr Pauline Kiernan. For more on Pauline, you can visit,, and for details on her own screenplays

You have a lot of experience as a Shakespeare scholar. Why did you switch to screenwriting?

Well, I was a playwright before I went to Oxford as a mature student and went on to become a University Lecturer, so I guess in sense it was more a case of switching back to writing drama when I started screenwriting. I still work on Shakespeare, but decided to leave Academia to concentrate on my writing.

What caused you to encourage screenwriters to find unique stories and ways of telling them rather than take the easy option of using a structural approach?

The books – and the classes.

I mean, you’re an award-playing playwright, you’ve written some spec scripts which have been praised quite a lot by people like Norma Heyman of Dangerous Liaisons fame, you’ve spent twenty years in deep relationship with the greatest dramatist of all time, you’ve worked years with A-List theatre directors and actors exploring every nuance, every breath of the greatest plays ever written, and I’m staring at a blank screen, trembling.

My mistake was to believe I’d get to improve my screenwriting by all these books. All those diagrams and prescriptive rules that were bullying me to get my Inciting Incident on page 5. It’s an anxiety industry created by people who cobble together rehashed ‘formulas’, quote Aristotle howlingly, profoundly wrongly and are making a fortune out of inflicting misery and confidence-destroying despair on hapless writers.

They’ve either never written a screenplay in their life, or if they have, they’re popcorn movies no-one’s ever heard of or 1970s TV cop shows. But there’s a very practical reason for pulping these books apart from the material being put to better use, and it’s that if you follow these ‘experts’ what do end up with? No one I know wants to buy tent-pole scripts.

What would you say makes your style of screenwriting and teaching screenwriting more appealing than other approaches?

Not sure I have a style of screenwriting. I tend to get so passionate about an idea I have to follow it. I did experiment with the straitjacket approach, but I always need to just write the character’s story and see how that goes. Your character pretty much tells you how to shape the story. If I have a ‘rule’ at all, it’s to focus on the character’s emotional needs. It’s what’s going on inside her or him that drives the story. I call it Emotional Pull. It must always be in motion, and usually it is, without you have to do the generating.

As for my approach to helping other writers, I think first, I treat the writer as an intelligent human being! I assume the writer is absolutely passionate to tell their story – otherwise what’s the point? (And not writing in the hope of getting Hollywood megabucks). I try to understand why the writer wants to tell this story. Too often this aspect is ignored. I don’t mean an in-depth psychological profile of them, but what’s intriguing them about this story of theirs?

This is why I stress the way I hope to help a writer realise their unique vision. I’m not telling someone how to write. I approach my work with writers the same way I did my Oxford students. I never told them what to think, but I got them to ask the kind of questions of their work and thoughts that would lead them to original thinking. If someone’s sent me a script that’s all over the place, I’m more likely get them thinking about what’s making your character feel this Now? And now? And now? That way the dynamic thrust of the story starts to shape the dramatic arc and you don’t have to keep imposing structure onto the story.

Of course, there are technical constraints but I just find they’re of no use until you let the story grow organically from your imagination.

What one piece of advice would you like to give to new screenwriters?

Don’t let the ‘gurus’ beat you down! With every story, start by creating the emotional world with all your senses. Read 5 scripts a week.

What is one of your favourite screenplays and what makes it so good?

Brokeback Mountain - What makes it so good? In a word: Restraint.

What is something you think people can learn from theatre to improve their screenwriting or filmmaking?

How to let your script breathe. Read Chekhov. Consummate master of Tension>Release

Character: Forget ‘three dimensional’, ‘fully rounded’ – meaningless.

Moral Ambiguity is key. Read Hamlet – at least 65 times.

Tone, Mood, Rhythm, Non-Verbal Subtext To Make Meaning: Read A Streetcar Named Desire, and then watch how Williams’ hot, sensual, erotic world pulses with deep emotion and drenches you in its power.

This year, Katherine Bigelow's The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture rather than Avatar. Are you willing to make a call which film you personally think was better and why?

I just wish I could have been immersed in Cameron’s visceral, visual feast and made to think about something as well! Why do these big films have to have cringe-making clichés and simplistic notions about complex issues? The thing cost millions to make – couldn’t they have stretched the budget to a brilliant screenwriter who knows how to explore questions about the human condition with intelligence?

So it’s The Hurt Locker for me. The almost unbearable tension in the scenes was beautifully choreographed, but above all, the non-judgmental take – a welcome change from the political sledgehammer approach of other Iraqi-set films.

Can you share with us anything about what will be in your upcoming screenwriting book?

Well, I’m on a bit of a mission and I’m passionate about this. I’m sticking my head out and expect some howls of derision from the ‘experts’.

But writing a screenplay is an act of the imagination. It’s about nuances and mysteries and facing the unknown. I’ve tried to encourage writers to step back from the narrow constraints of those dead, lifeless labels like Structure, Plot etc.

To try to see the story elements all working together simultaneously, because actually, you don’t write in discrete elements.

If you’re working on structure, you’ll be working on character and so on. If you’re working on character you (should be) working on visuals.

A script certainly requires strict disciplines to shape and hone and perfect the piece. But first, let’s see where this story takes you.

All through the book there are sections called ‘The Workout’ which are for analysing produced scripts, and the reader’s own scripts. The idea is to get the writer to learn for themselves how to develop an outstanding screenplay.

But there are also quite a few sections called ‘Think Outside the Box’ – but I won’t say anymore about them! Wait and see!

Thanks for inviting me, Steve. Great questions that made me think!

Thanks Pauline. I look forward to reading the new book when it comes out.

Sources of interviews with cinema and fiction related people

This month, in addition to my interview with Dr Pauline Kiernan on unique screenwriting, I have compiled some sources for interviews with people involved in making cinema and fiction - from authors to screenwriters to directors to cinematographers, etc.

Video interviews on

Video interviews on

Audio nterviews on

Audio interviews on

Video interviews on

Written director interviews on

Written interviews on

Written interviews with Japanese documentarists on

Video interviews with children's book authors and illustrators

Audio author interviews on

Video screenwriter interviews on

Written filmmaker interviews on

Screenwriter and novelist Lee Goldberg

My interviewee this month is long-established screenwriter for TV and film and novelist Lee Goldberg. You may have seen his work on TV shows like Monk, Psych and Diagnosis Murder (or The New Adventures of Flipper :)). You can find out more about Lee from his website, his blog, and on IMDB.

I bought a copy of Successful Television Writing from Amazon in 2008 and to my surprise it had your signature inside. I thought that was a nice personal touch. Do you sign a lot of copies or did I get lucky?

Both. I do a lot of signings, usually hand-in-hand with some sort of seminar or speaking event. But there are also a lot of signed copies floating around out there that were returned unsold to the publisher then sent out again to other bookstores.

You have discussed how to ‘read a producer’s mind’ through the main title sequence to gain insights into aspects of a show; such as format, mood and character(s). For example, you mention how the opening sequence of Walker: Texas Ranger sets up both character and format – Walker is a man of action; an almost omnipotent mighty Texas Ranger “who, like a gun-toting Santa Claus is always watching you, knows if you’ve been bad or good, and will be right there to catch you if you commit a crime.” Do you have any tips on how screenwriters can best identify the key elements of a show and how they fit together?

The best way is to watch a lot of episodes of the show and, if possible, to get your hands on some of the scripts. In particular, try to identify how the franchise is reiterated in each scene and how conflict is handled in the show.

You have suggested that someone writing a spec TV script should ask themselves, within the franchise of the show: what conflicts haven’t been explored by the regular characters yet and why haven’t they been explored? Can you describe an example of how you have used this technique successfully to create an original premise for a TV episode?

Bill Rabkin and I wrote an episode of the series Psych before it went on the air. All we had to go on was the pilot. The hero, Sean Spencer, is a guy with a remarkable eye for detail who pretends to be a psychic. He sees little details that everybody else misses. His father is a veteran cop who finds his son very annoying. So we pitched a story in which an old, retired cop comes to Sean for help on the case. The old cop has solved a murder -- he's just unclear a couple of key details to tie it all up and needs Sean's psychic help. Sean says "No problem, what sort of details are we talking about?” And the old cop says “How she was killed, where she was killed, and whodunnit." The thing is that the old guy has Alzheimer's. He knows he solved the case, he has that undeniable feeling of completion, but he took a nap afterwards and forgot everything. We thought it would be interesting to pair up a guy who has an incredible eye for details with someone who is losing his grasp of them. It would be a great way to explore, comedically and dramatically, the central franchise of the show and Sean's character. It also would be a way to explore his relationship with his Dad, who is the old cop's former partner.

You have written that storylines for spec screenplays should be character-based and conflict-driven. Do you draw on much psychology or hypothetically putting yourself in the mind of character when coming up with a character-based conflict, or do you approach each character more as a cluster of storytelling components?

Well, I'm not a psychologist so I don't take that approach. I just imagine interesting situations to put the characters in that will show us who they are, how they think, and how they are different from the other characters on the show. Remember, I am talking about spec episodic screenplays, not spec feature scripts. I don't approach the story from the mind of the character. I approach it as a storyteller. I don't know what you mean by “cluster of storytelling components.” I just want to tell good stories that are full of conflict, drama, and humor within the unique confines and requirements of a particular show.

Another useful point from the book is the difference between the many people who have ‘a great idea for a show’ and the people who actually develop an idea and deliver compelling screenplays based on it. What is the top piece of advice you would like to share with people about how to get from ‘a great idea’ to compelling screenplays?

No offense but I think you're confusing two different points. When I was talking about people who have “a great idea for a show” I meant aspiring writers who think they are ready to create, sell and run a TV series. That is an opportunity only given to experienced, proven writer/producers and established screenwriters. Your question about how to get from a great idea to compelling screenplay is very different. It's one thing to have an idea, it's another to transform that idea into a story told in three or four acts. It also depends on whether that story is for an episode of an existing TV series or a feature film. In either case, you need to come up with a story that can generate enough conflict between your characters to maintain the humor, the drama, and the forward-motion. As we say in Hollywood; ideas are cheap, execution is everything.

Many new screenwriters are unclear about what stage they should be at before they can realistically expect to break into the industry, or when they should approach agents and producers with a realistic probability of a positive response. While I understand that circumstances will vary for different writers depending on their strategy, ability and areas of interest - What in your judgment should a new screenwriter have in their writing folio before approaching people in the industry expecting a positive response?

Three or four great scripts. I'm not just talking about the stories and the characters. The scripts need to read as if they were written by a professional. Too often, I read scripts by writers who sabotage themselves by not knowing the screenplay form well enough, by adding 10,000 parentheticals, and by directing the movie in every scene description.

Mystery, crime and detectives are a recurring element in your writing. What do you find so appealing about this type of writing?

I guess on a basic level, the great thing about mysteries is they have a lot of conflict and forward momentum. The story is driven by a need to solve the mystery -- that gives you somewhere to go, a ticking clock, and built-in conflict.

You have written for TV and written novels. What do you think are some of the major possibilities and limitations of these different forms of writing?

As you say, they are very different kinds of writing. In scripts you have to show, not tell. Character and story have to be revealed only through action and dialogue. A screenplay is a blueprint, a working document for other professionals, like costume designers, location managers, and of course actors and directors. A book is very different. You can go into people's heads to tell stories and reveal character. You have to set the scene in great detail all the time. You are the director, the location manager, the actor and the director. You're creating a complete world with no limitations all by yourself. That can be exciting and daunting at the same time. I've encountered many screenwriters who simply can't write a book and many authors cannot write scripts. I've only met a few who can do both. They are different ways of telling a story and also different ways of thinking of story.

I have read that you're adapting Victor Gischler's novel Gun Monkeys, set for a 2011 release (according to IMDB). Can you tell us anything about that or, alternatively, what's next for you?

A lot is happening with Gun Monkeys but I can't really talk about it. I can say that a major A-list star is now attached and we're hoping that the financing to make the movie will now come together quickly. In the meantime, I'm writing my 11th Monk novel, and an action movie for the German company Action Concept, and another spec script. I'm also partnered with some producers who are developing a slate of low-budget Western movies, based on books, that will go directly to DVD.

Thanks for your time Lee and best of luck with Gun Monkeys, the latest Monk novel, your other feature scripts and everything else.


Here is a link to a post on Lee's blog in which he has discussed writing adapted screenplays, including some details on his adaptation of Gun Monkeys.

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Screenwriter Michael Elliot

This month's interviewee is established screenwriter Michael Elliot.

To get regular advice from Michael, join his Facebook group THE LADDER: Produced Screenwriters Helping Aspiring Screenwriters.

You have written films including Carmen: A Hip Hopera that launched the film career of Beyonce, starring alongside Mekhi Phifer, as well as popular films such as Like Mike, starring Bow Wow and Jonathan Lipnicki. How did you get into screenwriting as a career?

I had just lost my job. I had moved to LA five months earlier, and had been working for hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs. He started a film/TV production company called Bad Boy Films and hired me to run it. But four months into the job, after the untimely death of his friend and artist Notorious B.I.G., he folded the company (48 hours after Biggie’s death). I had no Hollywood connections, and no job prospects. I had a decision to make: return home to the East coast and get another job, or stay in LA and try to make it on my own. I looked at the computer that Diddy had purchased for me, and decided I’d write and sell a screenplay. I then went to The Writers Store in LA and selected a book on screenwriting. I read it over a weekend, and then went to a local Blockbuster. I re-rented all my favorite films, and watched them, this time from a different perspective. I needed to see how the stuff I just read in my screenwriting book (about 3-Act structure, character arcs, inciting incidents, etc.) was executed in movies I had seen a hundred times. I realized that there was a formula to the whole process, and once I understood the formula, I began to write.

What is the main piece of advice you would like to give to people starting out as a screenwriter?

Write about people, situations, or worlds that you know well. Consider story ideas that either come from a place you know well, or could have characters inspired by people you know.

I notice you’ve been on the net helping new screenwriters. What is the most rewarding part of doing this?

Knowing that my help, or my advice, is appreciated by the people that write me feels great. However, as I just started to actively mentor other writers through “The Ladder” the biggest reward hasn’t happened yet. That reward will be finding out that my advice helped another writer sell their first screenplay and launch their screenwriting career.

What do you think makes a good screenplay?

A great story. Complex characters, great dialogue, interesting conflicts don’t matter much if the story itself is great. I know of countless screenplays -- from writers who are unskilled at character development, structure, etc., -- that were good and even sold because of their story.

What is your favourite screenplay or screenwriter and why?

When Harry Met Sally…” by Nora Ephron and “Sleepless in Seattle” also by Nora Ephron. I love improbable romance, and both of these screenplays are the best examples of this idea.

You wrote the film Just Wright, which will be released this year. What was the key to making that screenplay work?

The key to making the screenplay work was being crystal clear about the story’s beginning, middle and end, as well having a clear sense of who my characters were and how they impacted the story. Now the key to selling “Just Wright” which I sold as a pitch to Disney was understanding who the studio wanted to be in business with, and then attaching that person to the project before I even pitched. I knew that Disney wanted to stay in business with Queen Latifah, so pitching Disney a project perfect for Queen Latifah dramatically increased my chances of selling it. It worked. By the time I left the room, the pitch was sold.

What one book do you recommend to screenwriters and why?

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field. This book makes the basic structure of a good screenplay easy to understand.

What kind of filmmaking would you like to see more of, and why?

I’d like to see more love stories, and by that, I don’t mean ‘romantic comedies’ where the focus is comedy.

Can you tell us anything about what’s next for you?

I hope to direct, and I’m currently developing a project that could be my directing vehicle.


If you would like to find out more about Michael's work, you can check out details of his major film work on IMDB or have a look at his Facebook group THE LADDER: Produced Screenwriters Helping Aspiring Screenwriters.

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Final Draft Co-creator Ben Cahan on Screenwriting and His New Project, Talentville

I am pleased to bring you Cinema and Fiction's first interview. You may or may not know him by name but if you have an interest in the film industry, particularly in screenwriting, you will almost certainly know the name of his software Final Draft.

Join me as I chat with Ben Cahan about his opinions on screenwriting and his new project, Talentville.

You founded and co-created Final Draft, probably the most prominent screenwriting software in the world. Have you ever written any screenplays yourself? If so, could you tell us about one of them?

When I wrote Final Draft, I was a computer programmer, not a Hollywood insider. Most would say I’m not a Hollywood insider even now, but at that point I was no more of a writer than anyone else without formal training, and I had never even read a book about how to write a script. I thought I was smart and figured that it couldn’t be that hard. The first script I “sort of” wrote along with my former business partner (the current CEO of Final Draft) got to about 100 pages and I think we made it to the end of Act I. We just kept writing, never thinking structure or character arcs or anything that might have helped us to outline and craft our story before diving in.

In recent years I have found a few screenplays originally written by other authors and helped them to improve the quality of the story and make them more compelling, but then again none of them have been optioned or produced, and I’d rather not think about what that says about my own abilities in the writing arena. I’m not done trying, but in the short term I’ll stick to helping those who are more creative than I am.

What is the top piece of advice you would give to emerging screenwriters?

Don’t make the mistake I made by thinking that it’s easy, and don’t get overly pompous about your stories and abilities. Learn the basics first, then start writing, and use the first script or two as a learning experience by getting outside feedback and listening to the advice of those who have more experience. Criticism is tough for anyone to take, but I took plenty of it at Final Draft and the product and the company was better for it.

For someone who is getting good response on a screenplay they have written, keep in mind that all the top writers realize that a script isn’t done until the film is shot, and the best writers and directors keep tinkering with their script until the last possible second. Give it some time, go back, read it again, make your own notes and make improvements where there are weak elements. I recently revisited a script I co-wrote some time ago; with the time and distance I was able to look at it with fresh eyes and cut out 15 overwritten pages (uggh!) while losing none of the story. Still not ready to get optioned or produced, but it’s a step in the right direction.

What in your experience seems to be the most common mistake that holds new screenwriters back from succeeding?

Thinking too much of themselves. I’ve talked with writers who insist they are going to direct and produce and star in the movie. They have no credits and want to rocket to the top. Great dream, tough to do in the real world. Also, while I am not an agent, manager or producer, I think many new writers pick stories that are very low concept (thus tough to sell as a new writer) or they pick a tired plot line that everyone is writing (can you say “internet dating experiences?”). If the story isn’t clever and something that is going to get noticed, even a well written script will likely go nowhere.

Is not living in LA a handicap to new screenwriters; especially for those as far from LA as my own country of Australia?

Right now, sure. There are contests, there are some internet sites, but living so far from LA will always be something of a handicap. It is not easy to go to lunch with a prospective LA-based agent when you are in Brisbane. My feeling is that some of that disadvantage can be overcome by creating a “virtual agency”, if you will, and that is part of the idea behind Talentville. The tough part, which I don’t think has been done effectively until now, is to attract the buyers to the site by developing a comprehensive community where everyone goes to improve their writing and showcase their work to the Industry. Even if Talentville does everything I want it to do, it will still be up to the members to get involved, to critique the work of others and to put in the time to get better. It is true that only a small percentage of all the scripts written will ever get produced or even represented, but everyone should at least be able to have the right people take a look when the script is ready for prime time.

You have recently launched a new screenwriting site ( What does your site offer for screenwriters, particularly for those who are not already established in the industry?

Perhaps there are scripts out there collecting dust that are great and should be made immediately. I would love it if those scripts were in the Talentville Library, we’re happy to take the credit for getting the right producer to see it and write a big check to the author, then to make it with big stars and huge box office. Just be sure the Talentville staff is invited to the Oscar party when you win! As for the reality, there are many talented writers out there with great story ideas and with scripts that can get to that point with if they put in the effort. Having a sophisticated peer review system combined with some more professional feedback from the Industry partners we will be seeking is a starting point. That will have to be combined with our ability to get the agents, managers and producers to also join and keep their eyes out for that special project. I take that responsibility seriously and will do what I can to get those eyeballs scanning the Library and reading the reviews.

What is your ultimate goal for the site?

I have a lot of goals down the line for the company but first and foremost is to create a brand name that does for unproduced screenplays what Final Draft has done for the technical side of screenwriting. Final Draft is known as the tool to use to write the script, I intend for Talentville to be the place you have to put that script after you have worked tirelessly to write it. All other goals I have for the site stem from getting there first.

Who is your favorite screenwriter and why?

That may be a risky question for me to answer as I know quite a number of extremely talented and successful screenwriters, but I will give you one name since you asked: Richard Curtis. I do not know him personally and it is not only for his big blockbuster movies such as “Notting Hill” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” that I picked him, although both are extremely well written. He just seems to have a great command of sly humor and an ability to craft characters that come alive and jump off the screen. I’ve never actually read any of his actual screenplays, but his great dialogue and deep characterizations show up clearly on the screen. I would encourage anyone to see “The Girl in the Café”, a moving story he wrote with top notch dialogue and engaging characters which I believe was an HBO film but is still one of my all time favorites. It also has a good moral message which was a bonus to me personally.

What sort of movies do you enjoy most, and are there any movies that have been such a catalyst in your own life that you would consider them to be a life-changing experience?

I tend to like movies with character depth, which often go unnoticed and don’t often make the box office that big action and slasher movies make. Dialogue is critical to me, and seeing movies that let me believe I am that character for 90 minutes is one thing that keeps me inspired to do my best to find more of those.

What do you think the future holds for filmic storytelling (including TV)? Are you willing to predict any trends, or express your hope for future directions and possibilities in filmic storytelling?

I’m actually the wrong person to ask that question, although I do think times are changing. All I will say is that in the near future, I believe that theaters and movies as we know them now are not going away any time soon, regardless of the size of HDTV’s and other types of media which are gaining traction. Of course, when things change I will do my best to keep Talentville flexible enough to showcase any new types of storytelling methods and project formats as they gain a wider audience. In some sense, a story is a story, so that part of the recipe is not likely to change dramatically.

Thanks for your time Ben and I look forward to seeing how Talentville grows into a fully functional 'virtual city'.


So if you've got a screenplay gathering dust or sitting unread on your computer, check out Talentville. It may be the catalyst you've needed to get your work read, get some feedback and maybe get a sale. Be sure to say hi to me while you're there.

Click on the link for an interview with Ben Cahan at

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