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Guest Post: Screenplay Design with Diane Drake

by Ann Baldwin
March 21, 2013 11:00 AM
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AB: Where do you usually include your 'Inciting Incident' in your scripts?

DD: The inciting incident or what Michael Arndt, the writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, calls 'the bolt from the blue' happens at about page 10. Ideally, it somehow changes the status quo for the hero. It shakes things up. 

AB: In the three Act Structure script, where do you usually put Plot Point #1 and what is its purpose?

DD: I put Plot Point #1 at page 25, give or take, and have my own, admittedly rather wordy, but I think quite useful definition of it:   Plot Point #1 is the ACTION the main character takes to try to solve what he perceives his problem to be, which then results in unexpected consequences. 

By the way, some people consider the Inciting Incident, which happens at about page 10, to be "Plot Point #1"; but, this is just semantics. I call the plot point that happens on page 10 or so the Inciting Incident, and use the phrase "Plot Point #1" to describe what happens at the end of the first act. Regardless, these are both critical elements, and intertwined. The "problem" that the main character seeks to solve is by taking action at the first plot point, which is usually an outgrowth of the Inciting Incident.  

Here's an example to illustrate those two points:

In Toy Story, the main character is Woody and the inciting incident is the arrival of Buzz Lightyear. Buzz is almost literally a 'bolt from the blue' and represents a significant change in the status quo for our hero. His arrival creates a problem for Woody who has, heretofore, always been the leader and favorite. But Buzz is stealing his thunder and Woody grows increasingly jealous, so Woody decides to 'get rid' of him. Woody's intention is simply to knock Buzz behind Andy's desk, but things go awry and Buzz is accidentally knocked out the window and into the evil neighbor kid's yard, setting the stage for all sorts of further predicaments and action in Act II. So, Inciting Incident:  The arrival of Buzz. Plot Point #1: the ACTION Woody takes to try to get rid of him, which results in unexpected consequences.

Just a few more examples of Plot Point 1 to help illustrate my point:  In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman puts on the dress. In Thelma & Louise, Louise shoots the rapist. In The King's Speech, Colin Firth's King George VI & his wife hire Geoffrey Rush, the speech therapist. You get the idea. It's usually pretty drastic action, taken to solve a specific problem, which then has all sorts of unanticipated consequences and side effects in Act II. 

AB: What is the 'Murphy's Law' Act? 

DD: I call Act II the 'Murphy's Law' Act. Whatever can go wrong, will and usually at the worst possible time. You know, the monster's coming and the car won't start. Keep the obstacles and threats coming, pile them on, and let your lead create a way out of it. ("If I can't find a way, I'll make one.")

AB: Do you have any tips for keeping your story moving in Act II? 

DD: Act II can be a slog. I think there are two things which are helpful in dealing with this challenge. First, the midpoint, which as plot points go is probably the most nebulous. There are lots of different definitions for this out there, but the one I like best is that something is different after this point; there's no going back. As Thelma in Thelma & Louise says, "something's crossed over in me".   

The thing to remember about Act II is it's about twists and turns, hills and valleys, and the lead's encountering and figuring out ways to overcome unanticipated obstacles. And generally, the more obstacles a character faces on the road to achieving their goal, the more invested we become. If it's all just easy, a cakewalk, well, then who really cares? Where's the story in that? Action movies do this in very obvious, big, and loud ways. But all stories benefit from, dare I say, require it. 

A great example of these principles in action in a more "quiet" movie is Sideways. There's hope for Miles, there's no hope, there's promise, and it's dashed. Up and down, up and down. I've recently realized that, from a certain angle, the reason we go to movies is to watch people struggle and, more importantly, to see them overcome their challenges and in the process somehow transcend themselves. So, Act II should be filled with moments of triumph and moments of despair, the greatest of which is Plot Point #2, at which point all should look lost and leads to Act III.

AB: What can you tell us about the 'Or Else' Act?

DD: I call Act III the "Or Else..." act. What's the 'or else' for your main character if they don't succeed at whatever it is they're after? Another way of putting this is - what's at stake? A clue to the answer lies in the fact that I believe Act III should come down to either a literal or figurative matter of life or death. So, in what way will your lead's life be over-- at least in their eyes-- if they don't manage to achieve their goal? What exactly is the 'or else'? What's to become of them? Why must they succeed or die trying?

AB: Do you try to incorporate symbolism into your scripts?

DD: No, it's not something I set out to consciously do ahead of time, maybe because I think it might wind up too precious. But if it happens organically, if something occurs along the way, then that's great.

AB: Any secrets for writing dialogue?

DD: It's helpful to have a sense of rhythm and I think to a certain extent you either have an ear for it or you don't. But you can certainly improve and train your ear. Again, I recommend reading work that is similar in tone to what it is you're trying to create, particularly if it's comedic. Get those rhythms in your head and they will bleed into your own work. Another suggestion is to allow yourself to forget trying to be clever, trying to be profound, etc. Instead, simply ask yourself, under the given circumstances-- and ideally the circumstances you've set up are inherently somewhat interesting-- what would someone actually say?

AB: Do you have any helpful editing techniques?

DD: I love editing. It's one of my favorite parts of the writing process. If I can make something better and stronger by simply cutting out what's extraneous, by eliminating the chaff, I'm a happy camper. In order to be able to do this most effectively, sometimes it's helpful to take a break from your work and/or to get fresh eyes on it. 

Regarding editing the script as a whole, remember that, ideally, you want your scenes to build a cause & effect chain, one pushing into the next. The more you can do this, the better the flow and the stronger the forward momentum will feel. 

As for editing within a scene itself, I tell my students it's like a party where you want to make a cool impression, "Arrive fashionably late and leave early". Get into the scene at the last possible moment, do what you need to do, and then get out at the earliest opportunity, unless you have a very good reason for sticking around. Don't wear out your welcome.

AB: Who are some of your favorite heroines or strong female lead characters in past films and what about those characters do you feel made them strong, likable, and memorable?

DD: Thelma & Louise -- there is something still so liberating, real, and potent about that movie. Thelma's line, after she robs the liquor store and jumps back in the car, "I think I've got a knack for this shit." is probably one of my all time favorite lines of dialogue. Erin Brockovich; Sigourney Weaver in Aliens; All the women in Enchanted April; Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday; Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith; Jamie Leigh Curtis in True Lies. I love that these women are willing to really FIGHT for what they want. And of course, Scarlett, in Gone with the Wind; for all her faults, she is the personification of Winston Churchill's dictum, "Never, ever give up". 

AB: Can you share any current or future projects you're working on that we can look forward to?

DD: I'm currently working on a book on writing, a screenplay which is set at Christmastime, and plan to offer an online course soon. Please check my website for updates at . You can also find me on Twitter at  or Facebook at


Ann Baldwin is a screenwriter (The Power of Dreams, Scent of a Trail, Dream Catcher) with several spec scripts in development. She reviews books on screenwriting and filmmaking, writes articles, interviews, and has several books (fiction & non-fiction) in-progress. Prior to launching her writing career, she was a special event coordinator and manager in the hospitality and entertainment industries for over 25 years. 

You can visit her website at and her blog page at 

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  • Kim | March 27, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    Diane is smart!

  • Ann Baldwin | March 27, 2013 8:34 PM

    Yes and she's funny too, which makes working with & learning from her a fun & enjoyable experience ~

  • Julie Walke | March 27, 2013 4:28 PMReply

    Diane, thank you for your valuable insight. You have a great tone that ressonates with writers and I can see why you have been successful. The piece of advice that I most loved, is the editing suggestion of, "Arrive fashionably late and leave early" so many times people leave their scenes with sloppy entrances and exits. Finally, I completely love your list of heroines.

  • Ann Baldwin | March 27, 2013 8:29 PM

    Thank you Julie for sharing your gratitude; Diane has an abundance of helpful tips that she's putting together to include in her first book on writing ~ Stay-tuned!!!

  • James McCarthy | March 27, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    Terrific stuff here. Thank you.

  • Ann Baldwin | March 27, 2013 8:17 PM

    You're welcome & Thank you for taking the time & the generous compliment ~

  • Diane Drake | March 24, 2013 10:26 AMReply

    Just wanted to say thanks, ladies, for your kind words. I'm really pleased to hear you enjoyed the piece. And thanks again to Ann for contacting me and the great questions.

  • Ann Baldwin | March 27, 2013 8:20 PM

    You're welcome Diane ~ You're a pleasure to work with and thank you for the compliment ~

  • andie | March 22, 2013 4:08 PMReply

    As a professional screenwriter who happens to be female, I found this article so refreshing because at no point did it veer into the usual self-defeating nonsense you usually see when feminist-oriented sites interview "women screenwriters." (I put that in quotes because I hate the term -- it implies there are "regular screenwriters" and "other screenwriters.") So often I see us ghettoized by those who claim that women are best at "small, relationship movies" whereas men write "big movies." I especially cringe whenever I hear women brag that they don't write those big summer "boys' movies" -- in other words, popular, highly successful movies. I cringe because they're feeding Hollywood's biases with such statements.

    There is this outdated notion in Hollywood that male screenwriters (specifically, white male screenwriters) can write ANY kind of movie, whereas if you want a little niche movie about relationships or a romantic comedy it's okay to hire a woman, and if you want a movie about African-American characters it's okay to hire an African American, etc. This makes it REALLY hard for those of us who WANT to write the next tentpole blockbuster summer action/comedy. Most of my calling card scripts are thrillers and action/comedies; it was a big action spec that initially got me repped by a big agency and two different "hot" managers, but every time I take a meeting it's the same story -- the only OWA anyone wants to talk about are very clearly niche "relationship" movies, even when I pitch big actioners or talk about my favorite comic books. And my buddy action-comedy spec has led only to jobs writing romantic comedies and family my resume now further pigeonholes me in that area.

    You look at the BlackList every year and the few women included on it are almost exclusively there for romantic comedies with "edgy" titles, even though I know many women who are writing superb thrillers and political dramas and such. I ask them what's up, and they all tell me a similar story: their manager told them they should try to write a raunchy rom-com, because that's their best bet to land a spot on the BlackList. Funny, my manager told me the same thing. Hmm.

    My experience seems to match that of other "female screenwriters" I know, whereas my "male screenwriter" friends have very different experiences in terms of pitching, advice from reps, etc. Is it just a coincidence? Am I just being paranoid? And if not, how do we get out of this ghetto?

  • Ann Baldwin | March 22, 2013 11:28 PM

    Andie, Thank you for the compliment; it means a lot to know that it was beneficial for you in a positive light~ Mother Teresa said, "I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there." ~ Whatever we focus our attention on will grow ~ My best advice, Andie, is for you to continue to visualize what it is that you want; nurture that positive vision & goal.

  • Aitch CS | March 22, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    Awesome advice on screenwriting! And an enlightening inspiring and interesting interview.

  • Ann Baldwin | March 22, 2013 3:33 PM

    Thank you so much for taking the time & your encouraging words of gratitude ~ Diane has a wealth of knowledge & successful experience, as well as being an incredibly supportive mentor ~

  • Loretta Paraguassu | March 21, 2013 4:48 PMReply

    Thank you, Diane...and Ann. I'm struggling the writer's struggle, trying to get several projects moving at the same time. "Hearing" you say all the right things is a great warm-up. Thank you for being right on. Your comment about playing the right music in the background hit a very special chord...I remember writing an hour special for Motown in a weekend -- playing my Chicago album in the background over and over and over...It did work. Among other things, it kept me awake. Thanks again. I will be following both of your websites. Good luck.

  • Ann Baldwin | March 21, 2013 7:02 PM

    Thank you Loretta for the lovely compliment ~ music is a very powerful tool for creative writing ~ especially for screenwriting, since most movies have background music to heighten the audience's experience ~ Music really moves through a writer and onto the page as well ~ All the best of success to you with your writing projects ~ Meditation is also very helpful to stay focused & creative ~

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