slaley forest from ordley snow 7 jan 2010 IMG_5426I wanted to write this essay because I felt my manner of reviewing was rewarding to me and it seemed to garner me attention in screenwriting circles. I have heard the compliment [more often than any other] that I am one hell of a reader. My initial year of website reviewing focused this faculty for me to the point that I felt I had graduated into being an “elite reader”. My questions worked exceedingly well for me, but I felt like too much of what I was doing when I reviewed a screenplay relied on my intuition. I could see that I was close to a critical framework that would have wide ranging application, but I had not yet “solved” my own method.

Toward this end, I took a few months off from reviewing and scriptwriting and allowed myself to reflect on what it was my intuition was doing when it combed through an author’s story. Out of this effort, the ideas collected here as refabrication, were born, and eventually written down.

If they were worth anything, then I know I’ll see you at the:


Thank you for reading…

Joel Barish


Table of Algorithms:

Algorithm 1 (The Primacy of Theme)

1. Decide what you want to say.
2. State it in 10 words or less.
3. Understand that your theme is the unique causal chain that completes your story.
4. Think of this unique causal chain as an omniscient perspective on your entire story.

Algorithm 2 (Choosing the Right Protagonist)

1. Make your protagonist ride a Story Wave.
2. Think of this Story Wave as a sum of positive and negative events.
3. Have your protagonist strive to convince the audience of the Twin Goals.
4. Imbue her with an inherent contradiction between her agency and her need.

Algorithm 3 (Creating the Right Imbalance)

1. Mold your character from the clay of moral neutrality.
2. Add a special skill or overpowering need.
3. Allow the extraordinary to coagulate around the ordinary.

Algorithm 4 (Respecting the Contract)

1. Give us a protagonist who can be us, all of us.
2. Give us characters with mechanistic behavior patterns.
3. Do this to make sure your story “makes sense”. [No Deus Ex Machina]
4. Match the conquering of the flaw to the successful completion of the story.

Algorithm 5 (From Skepticism to Conviction)

1. Design your protagonist according to “The Spectrum of Ways”.
2. Allow the spectrum you choose to give your protagonist trust in herself.
3. Remember that your character’s movement from doubt to belief is proved through BOTH her successes and her failures.

Algorithm 6 (A Good Antagonist)

1. Your Antagonist ALWAYS believes she can defeat the protagonist.
2. An Antagonist sees no option as a “nuclear option”. Victory is ALWAYS good… no matter the cost.

Algorithm 7 (For Mining Subtext)

1. Know your character.
2. Make sure minor characters grate against major characters.
3. Be your character’s psychological profile.
4. Break your characters into positive and negative traits.
5. Run dialogue through the lens of these positive and negative traits.

Algorithm 8 (Techniques for Easy Exposition)

1. Follow the Iceberg Injunction and crop the exposition to as small a part of your dialogue as you can intelligibly allow.
2. Use the Master/Apprentice Relationship if applicable.
3. Adopt the Cat and Mouse Technique that disguises exposition in a scene with life and death consequences.

Algorithm 9 (Character Individuation)

1. Make sure you give your characters unique verbal tics
2. Make sure you do not dilute the effectiveness of the verbal tic by allowing it to show up in more than one character
3. Begin with characters that have powerful drives and ambitions. If you’re not aiming at Daniel Plainview, why not?

Algorithm 10 – Finding the Unique Premise

1. Keep your production budget under 40 million
2. Think High Concept like Juno rather than High Concept like The Avengers.

Algorithm 11—Writing like a Pro

1. Eliminate all typos.
2. Eliminate all grammatical errors.
3. Make every word a conscious choice.
4. Avoid linguistic clichés.
5. Avoid story clichés [like the Maggot Trope].

Algorithm 12: A Critical Inquiry

1. Choose to consume art objects which are worthy of consumption.
2. Conspire with the author by expecting objective marks of good writing.
3. Champion good stories when you find them.
4. Find the pinch point in the Venturi Tube of every story.

Sequence Map: Final Version:

Sequence 1 (Proton) – Story Setup

a. The Handshake
b. A Special Quality
c. A Lack of Confidence
d. Pages 1-7

Sequence 2 (Neutron) – Reason Protagonist is Unsuitable

a. The Deflection
b. The Loser
c. The Island
d. Pages 8-22

Sequence 3 (Proton) – Search for an Advantage

a. The Organizer
b. The Implementer
c. The Waverer
d. Pages 23-37

Sequence 4 (Proton) – False Victory

a. The Attacker
b. The Merciful
c. The Cassandra
d. Pages 38-52

Sequence 5 (Neutron) – Antagonist Defeats the Advantage

a. The Achilles Heel
b. The Act of Selfishness
c. The Gambler
d. Pages 53-67

Sequence 6 (Neutron) – Despair Grants a Superior Advantage

a. The Synthesizer
b. The Beaten
c. The Unbeliever
d. Pages 68-82

Sequence 7 (Proton) – Advantage Mastered and Deployed

a. The Fortunate
b. The Implementer, Again
c. The Unfortunate
d. Pages 83-97

Sequence 8 (Proton) – Victory and Resolution

a. The Brave
b. Not Special Enough
c. The Conqueror/Hero
d. Pages 98-105

List of Key Screenwriting Resources

1. Save the Cat!
2. Screenplay
3. The Anatomy of Story
4. Story
5. The Screenwriter’s Bible
6. AndSoOnAndSoOn

Five Scripts That Will Teach You More

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Twelve Monkeys
3. Misery
4. Passengers
5. Blood Simple


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