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Screenwriting For Dummies

What I found interesting and worth taking away from this book is a lot. This is by no means a plagiarism or an attempt to summarize the entire book. This is simply my notes during my reading of this book.



Think about how and why you discovered the idea of the story in the first place.

Ask yourself: Was the idea inspired by an event? A person? A conversation? An image or location? then, Look into that more. Why? What interest/ pulled me?


  • Write it down. Record it. Take a picture. Acquire the source.
  • Knowing how the idea began & learning how to document that idea – you may start noticing a pattern in subjects that you are drawn into.
  • Writing is a form of communication. So, it’s important to determine who you’re talking to and why they might want to listen.
  • What do you like about your story? “Those 3 things” that keep you excited about the story.
  • Who shares your taste? Know the audience.


  • LOVE (infatuation, lust, obsession)
  • HATE
  • JOY
  • HOPE
  • AWE
  • FEAR (confusion, distrust, panic)

Mystery occurs when you know generally what is going on but want to know details. It occurs when you’ve set the scene but left out reasoning behind and action or a conversation.


  • Convictions & Beliefs
  • Education
  • Family Background
  • Geographic Location
  • Key Past Events
  • Quirks
  • System of Values
  • Talents
  • Time Period
  • Phobias


What a writer is depicting.


How is the writer depicting it. How does the film make you feel?

  1. PACE: length of the scene; how fast the action moves; quick or slow provision of information
  2. TEXTURE: colors & sounds; their sensory details
  3. TENSION: mental; emotional; psychological thread between characters


Begin the film on the verge of a grand shift, and that shift, propels the ensuing action.


  1. PLOT: events that cause something to occur
  2. CHARACTER: performs or causes another to do so
  3. THOUGHT: character’s thought; overall thought; theme
  4. DICTION: reveals character’s background
  5. MUSIC: music; words; soundscapes
  6. SPECTACLE: what makes the story screen-worthy


  1. CHARACTER: Who? Where?
  2. GOAL: Wants more than anything to find…
  3. JOURNEY: Journey begins when (event) and he/she decides to (action)
  4. CONFLICT: He/she runs into trouble when/with (conflicts) which he/she tackles be (action)
  5. RESOLUTION: The story ends when (event) and he/she discovers that (conclusion)

My story is about a (insert character type here) in (insert location here). He/She wants more than anything to find (insert hope/dream/passion). His/Her journey begins when (initial event here) and he/she decides to (character action). He/She runs into trouble when/with (insert conflicts), which he/she tackles by (character action here). The story ends when (insert event here) and he/she discovers that (conclusion).

Always ask yourself: “What’s the story about?”


  1. Introduce main character
  2. Establish routine; pattern of life
  3. Suggest a conflict that might break the routine
  4. Introduce your subplots; suggest their conflicts
  5. Set the tone; style of the piece
  6. Suggest a villain or opposing force in the story
  7. Suggest something important at risk
  8. Raise a compelling question
Opening Sequence
  • Platform: It provides a brief look at the story’s platform (safe; stable prior to a life-altering event) so, the audience can feel a sense of relief when the platform shifts.
  • Mid-conflict: It starts the story mid-conflict.

Note: Always try one with a platform and another mid-conflict.

Opening Choices
  1. A long first scene
  2. Fleeting moments
  3. A narrator
  4. A montage

Remember: Visualize a scene —> Write it down quickly —> Polish later

Avoid opening credits (unless celebrities are involved).

Use the first sequence to grab attention (mystery, key moment)

Cold Open: Jumping right into it.


A smaller storyline that supports the film’s main plot. It comes equipped with its own set of characters, conflicts and actions. Characters may or may not be moving towards the same objective(s).

Think what you want the present first. The people? The location? (whether the physical or esoteric location) The time? (one concentrated time span or jumping between time periods) The atmosphere? The stakes?

Whatever technique you employ in the first 10 to 20 pages you can use again later because the audience will be prepared.


  • Increasing tensions & threats
  • Revealing character secrets at opportune times
  • Willing the audience to root for each success
  • Keeping the audience guessing as the writer barrels toward a conclusion


  • PIECE MEAL: Going with the character bit-buy-bit to see what happens, unveiling as you go.
  • DOT TO DOT: Preselecting 3-5 pivotal events and drawing out scenes to carry us from point-to-point.
  • FULL ROAD MAP: Preferred method. Spend more time planning and less time writing.


Differentiate between Action and Activity.

Activity embellish the plot.

Action propel the plot forwards.


Two casually linked events.

Event #1 —(action 1)—> Event #2 —(action 2)—> Event #3

Differentiate between Action and Activity.

ACTIONS speak louder than WORDS; when in doubt, rely on ACTION.

  1. Reveals character info
  2. Establishes location / profession
  3. Offset / Counter the viewing of the action; where humans behave contradictory to their actions


When the audience knows more than the characters. This causes a kind of ‘tension’.



The more important the goal is to the audience/ main character the more terrifying the antagonist’s power becomes.


  • Phobia
  • Addiction
  • Psychological illness
  • Physical ailment
  • Overbearing / embarrassing personality trait
  • A debilitating state of mind (eg. dementia, depression, jealousy, defeat, anger, indecision)


Information the audience needs in order to understand the present story,

  1. Information all characters know.
  2. Information few characters know.
  3. Information none of the characters know, only audience knows (dramatic irony).


  1. Character’s past successes and failures.
  2. Character’s secret feelings / opinions of others.
  3. Character’s secret feelings / opinions of an event.
  4. Character’s personal tenderness, fantasies, addictions, fears, hopes and regrets.
  5. Past the haunts your character.
  6. Basic information about new characters introduced.


Trajectory of a character, community, environment monitored through changes in behavior, in points of view, in moral codes, which in turn alter story’s action.

External Transformation
  • Appearance
  • Status
  • Mode of Expression
  • Profession
  • Circle of Friends / Family
  • Habits
  • Hobbies
  • Personal Tendencies
Internal Transformation
  • Psyche Health
  • Confidence
  • Anxiety
  • Sexuality
  • Beliefs
  • Passions
  • Dreams
  • Awareness of others
  • Compassion (or lack of)
  • Religion
  • Faith


Largest scene. Protagonist makes one last attempt at achieving his/her goal. Final Battlefield.

A strong climax should:

  1. Grandest in weight, scope, action.
  2. Toss your protagonist into a moment of choice.
  3. Begin at moment the protagonist has biggest despair OR hope.
  4. End when the protagonist resolves his/her problems, which doesn’t necessarily mean reaching the goal.


After the climax. Film’s ending. First walk of character as a changed person in this new world.

Final Grace Note. The time to linger with the characters just long enough to feel what’s shifted in the world.

  • Where is your villain now? (Good villains leave marks)
  • What has your protagonist lost/gained?
  • Was it worth the trip?
  • If the audience has gained something or left with an element of hope, you’ve done well.
  • What story might begin the way yours ends?
  • Should be quick. Pervading tension has been released and the epiphany has been reached.
  • What sort of world have I crafted?
  • Why have I led the audience into this world?


Physically, Politically, Socially, Spiritually, Ethically or Sexually.

My story ends in a world where…. is no longer possible/acceptable and where… can occur.


  1. Evolve out of the previous action.
  2. Represent the changes that the protagonist has undergone along the way.
  3. Allow/Prevent characters from achieving their goals and/or solving their problems.
  4. Offer hope in some direction.

Epiphanies are at the heart of strong conclusions.


  1. Historical / Factual errors.
  2. Genre shifts.
  3. Key information comes easily.
  4. Character actions contradict.
  5. Disappearance of character with too much or no explanation.
  6. Character bursting into action with little or no setup.
  7. Problems solved without any kind of combat.

When the writer’s hand in the work becomes apparent, the audience’s belief in the action diminishes.


  1. Research, Research, Research.
  2. Allow a character to express the audience’s disbelief.
  3. Prepare audience for improbabilities.
  4. Make characters work for information.
  5. Let characters solve problems themselves using skills & knowledge that the audience has witnessed them acquiring.


Forgetting to reincorporate knowledge or experience from one action into situations that follow it.


Dialogue in a scene should affect the person, if the person leaves the scene different than when going in, you’ve done well.


Rising Action —> Climax —> Resolution


Characters are built from the outside in and from the inside out.

Character’s Physical Being

Audience like surprises as well as continuity. Physical Appearance is the first piece of the character’s puzzle. You convey years of information in almost 2 hours, so choose wisely.


Length, Sound, Meaning

  • What’s the story behind the name?
  • How does the character feel about the name?
  • Is he/she named after someone?
  • Does he/she live up to the name?
  • Physique
  • Visible Scars
  • Physical Disabilities
  • Wardrobe: What you wear affects how you’re perceived and therefore who you are.
Physical Environment

Where does he/she spend time by choice? out of habit? out of necessity? How does the character feel about being there?

Character’s Work

Keep track of the skills that the job requires, and the benefits it provides. You’ll use both later on.

  • Home/Office?
  • How many jobs?
  • What’s the chain of command?
  • Duties?
  • Rewards/Consequences of success/failure?
  • Immediate/Ultimate professional goals
Character at Rest

Uniquely theirs. Houses their belongings.

  • Suburb? City?
  • Apartment? House? Shelter?
  • Stable? Unstable?
  • Why do they live there?
  • Is he/she proud of it?
  • How much maintenance effort?
  • Live alone? Partner? Roommate?

Define the character’s dreams & passions & wants, their talent and expertise and the internal obstacles.

  • Character must have an overriding passion.
  • Character must be compelling, not necessarily likeable.
  • Audiences love to see characters learning.


  1. What they say
  2. What others say about them
  3. What they do

Note: Characters don’t just share. What’s in it for them?

With reveal, always reveal pieces of the puzzle when you know the audience is after it. Make them work to acquire it.

Set a concrete goal (avoid general abstractions). Audience need to know when/if the character is winning/losing.

Equip your characters with some original talent, prepare them to acquire more, and then decide what opportunities might reveal and eventually test these skills.

Habits and Routine provide instant access to a character’s true nature.

Let your characters have choices and make decisions.

Craft options that test the character’s strength, ethics and spirit throughout your script.


He/She know something that the character wants and needs to know. The Mentor is wiser. A strong mentor considers the character’s weaknesses and strengths.

A way for the audience to know the character at his core.


if need be, then give reason to speak, a unique voice, and a vibrant perspective.



Character’s distinct choice and use of words. It shows his/her education, profession, geographic location and overriding emotion.

  • What sort of intelligence? (academic, intuitive, acquired)
  • A character’s jargon suggests their line of work.
  • A character’s slang suggests region, locale and geography.
  • What’s the character’s overriding emotion? Their default state of mind, which affects how they communicate.
    • Dominant emotional states: Anger, Fear, Hope, Wonder, Joy, Greed

Knowing what base diction he/she will return to when the facade deteriorates is helpful to you as a writer.

Allowing characters to speak against expectation is a quick way to grab an audience’s attention.

Notice: Punctuation, Repetition & Use of silence.

Interruptions ()

Trail-offs ()


  • Which roles are your characters playing now?
  • What is the status or the perceived status between the characters?
  • What does each character want?
  • What will change during or as a result of the exchange?


Good Dialogue
  • Combining distinct voices.
  • Reveals characters and their relationships.
  • Propels the action forward.
  • Conveys pertinent information / exposition.
  • Prepares and audience for upcoming events.
  • Grows out of events in the past.
Avoid Bad Dialogue
  • Too “on the money” —> Telling rather rather suggesting.
  • Too “repetitious
  • Too “similar” —> not distinct enough for the characters.
  • Too “long” and “wordy
  • Too “contradictory
  • Too “reflective

The screenwriter’s objective is not to mirror reality but to design a recreation of life.

Ask Yourself:

  • What kind of world do I want to design?
  • Why design that world in place of others?

Because film is a social medium designed to elicit audience response, screenwriting is an inherently ethical craft.

A 3-fold responsibility:

  • Consider themselves
  • Consider the material
  • Consider the audience

Questions to Ask:

  1. What is sacred in my script?
  2. Depth of character
  3. Thoughts and opinions expressed?
  4. Why certain events transpire


Producers often ask:

  1. What’s the hook?
  2. Does it have audience appeal?
  3. Remind me again, it’s like what 2 films?
  4. Where’s the big event?
  5. Yeah, but what’s it about?


3-act structure paradigm
  • ACT I – 25%
  • ACT II – 50%
  • ACT III – 25%


“What does he/she want?”


The eye picks up details more quickly than the ear. Pictures are a lot stronger.

First 10 pages
  1. Introduce main characters
  2. Establish primary environment
  3. Convey a distinct mood/atmosphere
  4. Establish time period
  5. Illustrate routine – way of life
  6. Provide any relevant backstory
  7. Introduce the Antagonist

The Inciting Incident

AKA Catalyst – Tilts the story from order to chaos.

  • What do your characters want?
  • What might prevent then from getting it?
  • Will the Protagonist succeed?

Usually occurs with:

  1. Action plunging characters into conflict.
  2. Piece of critical information arises.
  3. Sequence of small events prepare audience for story.
Plot Point #1

First big turning point. End of Act I. It must:

  • Push action in a new direction.
  • Force Protagonist to make a choice / take a risk.
  • Raise central question for 1st or 2nd time.
  • Raise the stakes.


“What will he/she do to get it?”

  • Make the conflict personal.
  • Test his/her abilities.
  • Let Protagonist fail at least once.
  • Further explore subplot.
  • Allow the Antagonist to succeed several times.
  • Teach the Protagonist a new skill.

Create scenes that result in other scenes (causality).

Create strong impediments: Let the Protagonist change his/her plans NOT tactics.

Note:Plants” are conflicts that you foreshadow in an early scene and to bring to fruition later with a “pay-off“.


“Will the Protagonist succeed?”

  • Protagonist abandons hope and must be inspired back into action.
  • Protagonist makes a breakthrough discovery.
  • Protagonist gains/acquires a final necessary skill.
  • Villain forces Hero into combat.
  • Protagonist overcomes an internal obstacle that enables him to fight a physical Antagonist.
  • Character should be an active participant.
  • Villain should be equally formidable.
  • Something personal is now at stake.
  • There should be little time to think.
  • Something unexpected should occur.
  • Character should use some acquired skill in his/her attempt to succeed.
  • Suggest a future life for the Protagonist.
  • Illustrate the repercussions of the climax.
  • Establish any changes in Protagonist.
  • Suggest a just/unjust world.


How to work when you’re NOT working?
  • Immerse yourself in the timeframe (books, clippings, music, exposure).
  • Return to other visual mediums.
  • Visit appropriate locations.
  • Observe human behavior.
  • See lots and lots of films.
When are you ready for a rewrite?
  • When you consider/begin another project.
  • When you stop worrying about your script everyday.
  • When you’ve forgotten character/plot details.

Writing down action and their corresponding results. Use that as a revision roadmap. Cross checking actions and pay-offs.

Characters in Your Story
  • What’s their backstory?
  • Create conflict that requires a new skill or new plan.
  • Strengthen your Antagonist.

Great drama doesn’t preach – it persuades, seduces, explores and most importantly it asks. Nobody likes to be told what to think.

Thought / Theme
  • Which characters share your beliefs?
  • Which characters oppose your beliefs?
  • Have you given then opportunities to share their views?
  • Are their arguments clear?
  • Have you portrayed both sides of the argument?
Getting The Right Tone / Pace
  • Compare the length and look of character dialogue.
  • Reconsider location.
  • Consider character intent and emotion.
Criticism for your Draft from Readers


  • Criticism more than once.
  • Anything confusing / unclear.
  • Anything you already suspected.
  • Anything eliciting a surprising or unintentional response.
  • Anything supporting the original intention.


  • Anything deemed bad or good without explanation.
  • Differing comments.
  • Pretty much everything else.

How to Approach Original Work
  • Follow the form: Characters (who?) Plot (what?)
  • Work from key scenes then write what’s in-between.
  • Use the story as a launching point: That one scene.
    1. Read the original piece at least 3 times.
    2. Write an Outline of pivotal scenes and actions.
    3. Make a list of ALL characters.
    4. Reduce the story to a 3-4 line premise.
    5. Determine the question, concept, or point-of-view.
    6. Find the holes.
    7. Choose several key moments, put them in order and begin.
What to do when Stuck in Adaptation
  • Imagine the story in a different time period or location.
  • Imagine the work from a different point-of-view.
  • Eliminate flashbacks or memories.
  • Condense and Expand.
  • Determine your main characters and their goals.
Questions to Ask Collaborators / Writing Partners
  • What interest you about the project? What does not?
  • Who do you believe the script is about?
  • What do characters want?
  • General premise?
  • Why does this piece have to be written?
Working with Partners
  • Decide on a schedule.
  • Kill the Ego.
  • Divide the work evenly.
  • Discuss problems as they arise.

Selling Your Script

Putting on a happy face (the art of attitude)

  • A Professional Air: poise, assurance, open to critique
  • Enthusiasm: communicate that enthusiasm, it is contagious.
  • Intelligence: knowledge is power.
  • Patience: Don’t let frustration affect your work quality.
  • Persistence: Rejection is a given. Disregard it and keep going.
Common Universal Elements
  • Coming of Age
  • Family Reunion
  • Story of Revenge / Betrayal
  • Quest for Redemption
  • Story of love in the face of hate
  • A triumph of human will and ingenuity
  • Fight to preserve integrity, reputation or personal freedom
  • A rags-to-riches adventure

An Agent Wants
  • Someone who’s work can sell.
  • Someone who understands the business.
  • Someone pursuing a career.
  • Someone who won’t make their job more difficult.
You Want
  • Someone who enjoys your work.
  • Someone influential.
  • Someone committed.
  • Someone professional.

Pitch / Letter Format

Send in a query (pitch in letter form) before sending your scripts to directors, agents or producers. Your query should be written in 3 paragraphs as follows:


  • Personal reference
  • Writing programs
  • Previous writing work
  • Contests or writing awards
  • Compliment (only if genuine)


  • Screenplay title
  • Teaser pitch
  • Emphasize hook
  • Your protagonists
    The conflict
  • The genre


  • How he/she can contact you
  • Let him/her know how you want him/her to respond

STORY is what happens. A narrative of event in their time sequence.

PLOT is how it happens. A narration of events with an emphasis on causality (cause/effect)

NO Story = NO Emotional value


STORY gives meaning to PLOT.

PLOT gives action to STORY.

.the end.

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