Thursday, December 29, 2011

In the beginning : THE ATONAL SCREENPLAY

Any one that has written a screenplay, especially a feature-length screenplay, and is familiar with the constituent elements of musical form will be aware of the relationship that exists between the realisation of a screen story and the composition and performance of a piece of music. Both are essentially time-arts distinguished by the way in which their common elements contribute - in both - to building and releasing emotional energy in time.

Both screenplays and musical compositions have tempo, texture, tonality and dynamics, as well as beat and meter, timbre, harmony, and dissonance. They are differentiated by the fact that the musical experience is fundamentally conjured out of sound and silence; whereas the dramatic experience proceeds by way of images and cuts.

Another element central to both is voice, which references character. On a rudimentary level, you can delineate the musical “characters” in terms of percussion, string, brass, woodwind and keyboard instruments, as well as the human voice. In the creation of a musical experience, each participates and contributes to the Voice of the whole. Likewise, with the screen story, one encounters the voices of the individual characters, as well as the voice (or attitude) of the character that is writing the screenplay, and/or directing it, who also gives voice to his or her tribes, allowing them to have their life in the act of speaking through the story.

The best screenplays and the best films have a voice. Some might refer to it as style. When crystallised and associated with the specific obsessions of a particular director it some times becomes a genre. It is more than anything else, an attitude, a way of looking at and listening to the world. This filmic voice is not merely composed of the many, individual voices of the dramatis personae; it is the voice of all of the musical elements of the story in concert with each other, and includes both what is both visible and perceivably invisible through context and subtext.

Any screenwriter that has ever worked as a medium, that has undergone the initiation of channelling characters and story, understands the essential musicality of the act. Images have tone and weight; scenes have pitch; a character’s contradictions create texture and subtext; the close-up screams. For the medium it is not enough to simply grasp this intellectually, it is important that he/she feels it bodily, the same way you feel music when immersed in it. You cannot enter the drama unless you also enter its music.

The experience of momentum, which is absolutely essential to the creative process, is the dance one does to the music one hears in act of finding the story. By “momentum”, I mean the bodily sense that one is being carried along by forces more powerful and compelling than one’s will. As one enters into the music of the story one tunes in to the inherent rhythms of the characters, images, and sounds. And as one returns again and again, the sluggishness, begins to dissipate. To act or not to act is no longer the question. One participates in the dance. And in the swirl of activity one is captured by movement, by action, by change – and the experience is exhilarating.

Too many film schools, as well as any number of screenwriting gurus and an obscene number of how-to-write tomes, have made a business of catering for fledging screenwriters and filmmakers by exploiting their belief that the only thing standing between them and an Oscar is the right kind of knowledge. If only one knew enough, one could easily become rich and famous. Unfortunately, almost all are susceptible to that eternal malady – “that last great infirmity of the soul” – which is FAME. And whilst I don’t deny the value of technical knowledge, such knowledge matters very little if the story one is trying to tell doesn’t matter, either because it’s incoherent or because it simply fails to make us care.

What most schools encourage is the uncritical use of jargon, embodied in “recipes, grounded in information, knowledge and choice. For those that embrace such wisdom there is no shorter path to success than through someone else’s advice. Alas, there are few things more pathetic than the sight of an eager screenwriting student hopefully doing the rounds of any number of teacher/script editors looking for validation of his or her undiscovered genius. While not the rule, generally, I have met enough of them to make me more than little squeamish about some of the well-meaning but misguided philosophies that inform the film school industry.

Where are the schools, the teachers, the gurus that understand the creative potential and opportunities afforded by the accidental, the chaotic, the anxiety of exposure and the way in which the unexpected insinuates itself into the creative process? These are the elements that make magic possible, and in most film schools they are mostly ignored, played down or, at best, equated with mistakes and shortcomings.

Certainly, the screenwriting enterprise involves choices; that is not at issue. What is at issue is the screenwriter’s uninformed belief that the writer is the only one entitled to make those choices. This can never be the case, not even when the writer insists upon it.

During the 1960s, I was enrolled in a music course at university where the professor argued that the major difference between tonal and atonal music was predictability. Remembering this, I wondered if this notion might not offer an important insight into the process of dramatic screen story-finding, both in its conception and in its realisation.

Screenwriting is often a lonely, isolated occupation. Cooped up in a room, keeping company with disembodied beings, is not the sort of activity most humans would find appealing. It is easy for the writer to lose sight of his or her own validity. “What are you doing?” someone asks. “Writing a screenplay.” They look back, slightly suspicious or confused. “Oh, but what do you really do?” I have long believed that the insecurity of screenwriters stems largely from their inability to prove their existence. In fact, one might say they don’t exist at all until their screenplay is made into a film, and even then it is the screenplay that exists and not the writer, not unless the film wins an Oscar, in which case the award invariably goes to the producer. Sigh...

What most writers want – though few of them would admit to it – is a guarantee. They want to believe that what they are doing is going to amount to something – like a bad parent: all this blood and sweat and tears poured into this “kid” – he better go out there and make something of himself. Ah, if only one could predict the outcome of one’s efforts! Predictability offers security. Indeed, our ability to predict the future and to have it occur in the way in which we predicted is always a source of great comfort to us. Imagine how disturbing it would be to go to sleep in one’s bed tonight, and, without knowing why or how, wake up in someone else’s in the morning. This is the kind of thing that happens to writers all the time, especially the good ones. So, wouldn’t it be better, safer, and less nerve-wracking if there were some way that the screenwriting process could be made more predictable – some plan that made it possible to see where we were, where we’d been and, most importantly, where we were going? Of course, it is better if the screenplays themselves aren’t predictable, but what about the process of writing one? How predictable is that? And if predictability is not possible, or even wanted, what implications might this have in terms of choice?

I hate to be the one to break the news, not that it should be news, but predictability breeds predictability. You can’t plan for surprise, or freshness, or originality. You can consciously choose those things either. The choice is not to be or not to be; the choice is to dance or not to dance. And when it comes to dancing (read: the adventure of finding a story and its characters), the best choices are hardly ever the result of conscious decision-making.
Let me break it to you this way : the best choices are those that are made by the story, by its music, atonal though it may be at first. What the story shows us and what it goads us towards is openness, effortlessness, spontaneity. It is never the story that resists these impulses, but only ourselves, clutched by an unmanaged fear that were we free enough to let the story become whatever it will we might expose something better left hidden, or open ourselves in ways that leaves us vulnerable to attack. No, we must not let this happen. Story is our fortress, not an escape plan.

For many, the surprising and credible dramatic story beckons almost inaudibly from beyond the ramparts of ego, teasing and tempting us with some faint hope for what lies beyond the walled-city of our prejudices. There, near the vanishing point of a self-important perspective, it is easier to hear than to see. Attend to the music, to the voices, atonal though they may be. If one is to become part of the dynamic musical chemistry of story one must stop tampering with the energies that are at play. Instead of operating from the mistaken belief that you are creating the music (or the drama) become one among many free players that are allowing their playfulness to be, and dance.


All visible objects... are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! ”     - Herman Melville

Okay, the bad news is: you exist. Whoever you is. You auditioned for the part you're playing, remember? No? Well, Central Casting gave it to you. You said you wanted it. You said you wanted it so bad you'd die for it, remember? No? Give it some time; you will.

Okay, I know there are times - plenty of times - when you find it difficult separating the character you're playing from the YOU that's playing it. Everyone needs a break from the melodrama now and then - that, or turn it into tragedy - or a comedy if you prefer, tho everyone I know reckons comedy is more difficult. I reckon a great story is always difficult, especially if you're struggling to find your character, and even your closest friends don't know you're acting. Luckily, like all characters, your character - like mine (Billy) and her's (Maya) and theirs (you know who you are) - has a use-by date. One way or the other your character's gonna be written out of the script. And eventually it will disappear from the story altogether, though there might be one or two remaining characters that'll preserve the memory of who and what you were in the backstory (tho most probably they'll employ the most heavy-handed exposition).

Your character won't go on forever, despite the fact that YOU exist, and that YOU will always exist, and that will never change. The character you play will change, but the fact that you exist won't.

Existence doesn't become non-existence, mainly because non-existence is already full of all the things that will never exist, and there's no room in non-existence for the things that DO exist.Understand? No? All right then, let's put it this way: existence is the only quality that existence has to be. And that' that. The bad news - and I really hate to break it to you - is that we are all condemned to exist.

And the good news... oh yeah. Well, the good news is entirely up to you.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Journey through the eccentric and dramatic life of the mysterious and reclusive outsider artist, Christina Conrad. The film, in keeping with the artist herself, is an exception to most of the rules - a surprising and confronting mix of odd and original characters, tragic/comic monologues and bizarre improvisations counterpointed by fetishes, masks, icons, paintings, sculptures and photographs, punctuated by an original soundtrack by C.W. Stoneking and Steve Grant.

Accompany Conrad on an unforgettable odyssey of discovery as she exposes the characters behind the legend of her multifarious personality – the child, the barbarian, the earth mother, the misogynist and visionary. Conrad's life-long rebellion against "the art world", conventional wisdom and phony respectability, is waged with a freshness and humour that makes talent - though rare - seem so usual a thing.

For anyone that has ever struggled with the competing demands of domesticity and the tearing ruthlessness of the obsessed artist, here is a saga to inspire courage and confirm the insight that the creative life is always within reach so long as one is prepared to hoe the wilderness of one's own heart and mind. For Conrad it has never been a matter of choice. Indeed, at times, her life has been something of a sentence, she muses; made more difficult by the plight of being a woman.

Midst a seemingly endless juxtaposition of words, images and music, carried along by the on-going avalanche that is her life, Conrad strives to find the means to express and conduct the tumultuous energy that has torn through her since birth. In the process, she conjures a startling and unforgettable documentary that proves once again that the best nonfiction films are "best" not because they are the most informative, or most persuasive, or the most useful, but because they are the most creative, effective, and valuable human documents that can be made from the circumstances represented in them. Running time: 75 mins
Directed by Agnieszka Baginska & Christina Conrad
Written, Produced & Designed by Christina Conrad
Cinematography by Zachary Peel-Mcgregor
Edited by Agnieszka Baginska
Original Music by C.W. Stoneking

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Plot : The First 5 to 10 Minutes

Effective screenwriting involves a certain degree of promiscuity fuelled by an unerring obsession to seduce and be seduced. The initial dalliances with character and story might not take place on a computer screen, but at some stage that becomes the metaphorical boudoir in which a lot of the creative energies are developed and exchanged. When it comes to producing a compelling set of relationships, The first evidence of a compelling relationship or set of relationships should occur as early as possible in the script, hooking in the audience with a collection of images and actions that is conventionally referred to as “the set-up”.

The setup is simply the situation, person, entity, institution, or event that gives provide hints about the nature of the of the story world and what the protagonist will ultimately have to contend with in striving to achieve his/her objective or goal.

Take for instance, The Verdict. It is during the set-up we meet the protagonist, the lawyer, Frank Galvin, who plays a desultory game of pinball whilst sipping what’s left of a beer. The outside world through the windows of the bar is cold, grey, and Galvin plays with a complete absence of enjoyment and enthusiasm. He is in fact a layer, down on his luck – a virtual ambulance chaser with a bleak past and a seemingly bleaker future.

Every screen story begins with plot, the course by which the characters – including the writer – navigate the action of the story that is being dramatised. Plot is what we see – it is the structure by which we move from one part of the story to the next.

The thing about structure is that over-plotting will stagnate your creativity and spontaneity, whilst lack of it might very well create confusion. The way to find the middle ground is to follow the characters. It is their journey, a journey in which the writer and audience and tribe have an interest to be sure, but not to the degree that their hopes, expectations and fears usurp the convictions, values and needs of the dramatis personae.

With that said, the set-up generally occurs during the first three minutes or three percent of a script. The set-up allows the audience to get their bearings as they develop a feel for the tone, setting, and pace of the story. It occurs in many forms, but some common ones are:

Back story – think John Carpenter’s The Fog, When A Stranger Calls (1979), Vertical Limit
Present-Life Problem – Inner or Outer conflict. For example, the abusive husband in Sleeping With The Enemy
A hook – intense, dynamic action or situation 
Theme – The pimp’s opening monologue in Hustle and Flow, and the intro to Magnolia
Impending Danger – War Of The Worlds, Arachnophobia, The Conversation
A question to be answered/mystery to be solved as in Breakdown, Nature of the Beast 

Like a first date, the set-up will get you through the door with your audience. Intrigue them enough and they will stick around…for a bit. Like the props used in a first date, the set-up will get you through the door, but a good story will keep you there.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The 12

Stoneking's adaptation for screenwriters
of Michael Shurtleff's "12 Guideposts"

Not dissimilar to the actor's quest to "build a character" is the screenwriter's quest to inhabit, and be inhabited by, those characters whose story is slowly coming to life in the evolving screenplay.

Fundamental to this task is the writer's willingness to surrender all claims to preeminence over the action as well as the power to manipulate the characters as he/she sees fit solely in service of the writer's particular needs including the "needs" of the plot as the writer alone understands them. The chauvinism perpetrated by insecurities that preclude a living relationship with the characters, and the writer's refusal to be open to the characters and entering into an authentic engagement with them, is the most common vice of the complacent, mediocre screenwriter. The avoidance of such emotional honesty (or emotional intelligence) is almost always characterised by writing that is actionless, stale, and predictable.

Part of the job of every dramatic screenwriter is to re-write him/herself as ruthlessly as he/she re-writes the characters in the script, which means transcending his/her own prejudices, assumptions and expectations - maladies that mask or dissipate the emotional energy implicit in the characters' problems, goals and actions.

In cultivating ever more intimate relationships with one's characters, one can usefully apply some guideposts. Here are 12 formulated by casting director, writer and teacher, Michael Shurtleff, and adapted so that they might better serve the needs of writers and dramatic filmmakers.

1. Relationship - based on NOW.

a. What is the character's relationship with the other characters?
b. What is the character's emotional attitude toward each of the other characters?
  • Does the character love him/her?
  • Does the character hate him/her?
  • Does the character resent him/her? How much?
  • Does the character want to help him/her?
  • Does the character want to get in his/her way?
  • What does the character want from him/her?
  • What does the character want him/her to him or her?

2. Conflict: what is the character fighting for? Same as "beats" or motivation.

a. What is the positive the character is seeking?
b. What is the character DOING to get it? Find as many ways as possible.
c. What actions might the character perform in order to get what he/she wants?


3. The Moment Before: each scene is the "emotional middle" of something.

a. What was the character just doing - BEFORE - that provoked or stimulated the action that is NOW occurring?
b. What does the character do that shows he/she is committed to his/her objective?

4. Humor/Hope: what is it that keeps teh character from giving in to despair?

a. What gets the character through the day?
b. What does the character find absurd about the other character or the situation?
c. Is there a moment where the character attempts to lighten the burden for him/herself or the other character?

5. Opposites: is the other end of the spectrum present?

a. Where are both the love and the hate?
b. What extremes does the character feel about the other character?

6. Discoveries: things that happen for the first time. Surprise

a. Avoid the routine, the humdrum. What makes this moment different?
b. What does a character learn about him/herself in the scene?
c. What does the character learn about the other character/s?
d. What did the character learn about the situation, both now and before?

7. Communication and Competition: communication is a circle.

a. Is the character sending out and getting back feelings?
b. Is the character "just talking at"?
c. Is the character open to hearing the other character/s?
d. What does the character DO to show he/she disagrees with the other character/s?
e. Where/when does the character show "I am right and you are wrong"?
f. How does the character say you should change from what you are to what I want you to be?


8. Importance: the truth is not enough if it is neither dramatic, nor interesting, nor unique.

a. What is important to the character right at this moment?
b. Is that the same or different as a moment ago?
c. Is the character making the trivial important?
d. Is the character making the important trivial?

9. Find the Events: what happens in the Screenplay?

a. Is this a change?
b. Is this a confrontation?
c. Is this a turning point?
d. Could the character win or lose something right here and now?

10. Place: where is the character and what does he/she feel about it?

a. Can he/she see it?
b. Can he/she feel it?
c. Can he/she smell it?
d. Is he/she comfortable with it?
e. Why is he/she here/there?

11. Game Playing and Role Playing: the "me" I am now.

a. What role is the character playing?
b. What is the game the character is playing?
c. Who does the character need to be to win the game?
d. How far will thge character go to win?

12. Mystery and Secret: what we don’t know.

a. What can’t be explained?
b. What would the character never tell another?
c. To what lengths would the character go to keep it a secret?
d. Why might it hurt me - the character - if they found out?

Thursday, July 7, 2011


"If you can't say it in three sentences, you don't know what your script is about."

A LOG-LINE presents the “what’s-it-about” of a story – the Set-Up, Conflict, and Resolution - and should include all of the following:

•Reveal the protagonist’s SITUATION

•Reveal the important COMPLICATIONS

•Describe the ACTION the protagonist takes

•Hint at the CLIMAX - the danger, the 'showdown'

•Hint at the protagonist’s potential TRANSFORMATION

•Identify SIZZLE: sex, greed, humour, danger, thrills, satisfaction

•Identify GENRE

•Keep it to three sentences

•Use present tense

How can you pack all that into three sentences? If you think of your logline as a commercial for the movie you've seen in your head as you've been writing the script; then you'll breathe life and personality into those three sentences.

Logline for Rainman:
A self-centered hotshot returns home for his father's funeral and learns the family inheritance goes to an autistic brother he never knew he had. The hotshot kidnaps this older brother and drives him cross-country hoping to gain his confidence and get control of the family money. The journey reveals an unusual dimension to the brother's autism that sparks their relationship and unlocks a dramatic childhood secret that changes everything.

Logline for Some Like It Hot:
Two male musicians accidentally witness the St. Valentines' Day massacre; and to elude the mobsters who pursue them, they dress in drag and join an all-girl band headed for Miami. One of them falls for a sexy singer and poses as a Miami playboy so he can woo her; he convinces his pal to dodge the amorous advances of the rather nearsighted Miami playboy he impersonates. Love conquers all -- till the mobsters show up at the same Miami resort for a convention.

PREMISE – “a proposition antecedently supposed or proved; a basis of argument.”

A premise is something to be proved, something asserted as true; it is the writer’s truth concerning the great issues that confront human existence – the ideas and values that inform and confound us – love, death, loyalty, jealousy, prejudice. A premise states what the story is about, what it means, rather than simply recounting what happens. It conveys in a simple proposition the central truth of the story as that truth is understood by the screenwriter. A cogent premise is supported and validated by the actions of the characters; the story is the evidence that either supports or fails to support the story’s premise. If it does not, then there is either something wrong with the story, or something wrong with the premise.

The search for your story’s premise is a meditation on what the story actually means. As such, a premise – at least in the early stages of finding the characters and the story - is not written in stone. You may massage it; elaborate on it; employ it heuristically to test the effectiveness of both the action and the emotions conveyed. A premise is a guide to how well every part of the story supports or resonates with every other part of the story. It may be a stepping stone or a catalyst in the quest to dig ever deeper into the story’s possibilities and to find something new and unexpected there. Your premise should point the direction and vividly illuminate the ultimate goal and meaning of the actions of the characters.

Screenwriter and teacher, Bill Johnson, has said that a premise is a promise. It articulates for the writer and others the truth for which the screenplay offers evidence. If I say I’m going to tell you a story that proves love conquers everything, including death, I better make sure I’m giving you Romeo and Juliet and not Othello.

By way of example, consider the film, Viva Zapata, written for the screen by John Steinbeck, from a novel (uncredited) by Edgecumb Pinchon.

The log-line of this film might be stated as: “Emile Zapata, a good man, struggles against oppression, and in the end becomes an oppressor himself.”

BUT the premise will be: “Good men who fight against injustice sometimes discover through their actions that they, themselves, become the perpetrators of injustice." (Viva Zapata)

If the premise is borne out by the story, if the story “proves” through what it shows us that the premise is true, then we can say that the story has succeeded in accomplishing what it set out to do.

Premises deal with universals, like love, courage, greed, freedom, justice, death, duty, play, the nature of our responsibilities to ourselves and to others…

A premise is usually wider than a simple statement of a theme (e.g.: all men are brothers, war is hell, etc) because it includes in its expression the fulfillment of the dramatic issue that lies at the core of the story. Thematic statements don’t always contain this fulfillment stage.
Every cohesive and emotionally logical dramatic screen story is capable of articulation in a well-formulated premise of one sentence. When it comes to writing energetic, vital screenplays, there is no idea or situation that is potent and meaningful enough on its own to carry you from beginning to middle to end unless it can be expressed in terms of a clear-cut premise.

(with acknowledgments to Bill Johnson)
Every human being is a bundle of presuppositions. Another word for a presupposition is PREMISE. Hence, every human being is a bundle of premises.

Some of these premises are significant and some aren’t.

A significant presupposition might be: “You can only keep what you are prepared to give away.”

An insignificant presupposition might be : “Broccoli puts hair on your chest.”

The significant ones are the ones that ought to attract our attention as storytellers.

Some times an insignificant presupposition can be made significance by virtue of a story.

One premise can lead to many stories…

Knowing one’s premises is really knowing oneself. And writers, like everybody else, don’t usually know that much about themselves, or they know what is comfortable for them to know and repress or hide the rest. They’ve been “taught” to do this – like everyone else – since they were very young.

It is idiotic to go hunting for a premise OUT THERE, in the world. A best story premises are the ones that are already alive and within you. Find one of these, one that reflects or reveals a powerful conviction that you hold about the nature of human and/or non-human reality.

The act of creating a story becomes – in part - an act of clarification – an opportunity to explore and clarify to yourself (and others) a conviction or value that you hold dear.

Do you know what your convictions are?

Do you ever look them over? Are there any that you would die for?

Anyone who has a few strong convictions is a mine of premises. And a storyteller – or at least, a potential storyteller.

Storytelling is about self-discovery. We tell stories in order to find out what and who we are…


A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of the idea behind the story, and MUST contain the following:

1. The CENTRAL THEME, idea or dramatic ISSUE.
2. The defining ACTION, movement or conflict
3. The FULFILLMENT of the idea or value.

The creation of an inspired story is not possible UNLESS the storyteller commits him/herself to a POINT OF VIEW…

Until the author takes sides there can be no story.

When the author champions one side of an issue or another, a premise becomes possible.

This does not mean that the writer oversees a rigged game. The veracity of the premise is worthless unless it has been actively challenged by formidable and capable opposition.

We, the audience, might not agree with your conviction. BUT through your story, you have a chance to prove the validity of your contention, and make us re-think our own prejudices and assumptions.
To have a chance of changing your audiences attitudes, you must lead them into the sort of world in which YOUR PREMISE can be true, and SHOW them the life of that truth as embodied by characters whose quest we care about.

The story must prove the premise.

The premise is a promise concerning the sort of story you intend to tell.

Monday, June 27, 2011


Is the latest draft of your screenplay giving you a sinking feeling? Don't go down with the ship.

I love the poet, Muriel Rukeyser, because she understood that "the world is made of stories, not atoms". You don't have to be a poet to understand this, but it helps. Have a look around. Stories are a force of nature. We didn't evolve from apes; we sprang into life fully formed and thoroughly anxious, embodied by stories.

Story is our essence, the source and expression of every relationship, ambition, dread, birth, death and discovery. Our humanity and inhumanity is rooted in, tangled in the mystery of "how come?" and the suspense of "what next?"

Story is Nature's way of becoming conscious of itself, and as storytellers we work with it to become conscious of ourselves. One writes a story to find out why one is writing it, and in the process discovers that the story is writing us as much as we are writing it.

When Jackson Pollack spoke of a painting as having a life of its own he underscored the central insight of every mediumistic artist. To work as a medium, the screenwriter/filmmaker must forge intimate and emotionally vivid relationships with ALL of the characters necessary for finding the story, and only some of these characters actually exist in the script. In the act or acts of forming and testing these relationships, the screenwriter/filmmaker begins to realise that the story is neither mine nor theirs, but ours.


WHERE'S THE DRAMA? is the leading question at the heart of the development of every screen story, yet "drama" is usually the very element that many filmmakers leave out. Why is this? And what can be done about it?  Find out what you, the writer - as one "character" among many - can do to revolutionise screen storytelling and the world of screen culture generally. Industry and non-industry film and programme makers - as well as film audiences, reviewers and critics - are invited to become part of the web's most exciting and unique online "conversation". Discover and explore the world of mediumistic, dramatic screen storytelling.

Join today. It's FREE!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

LET'S DO LUNCH : Story & Script Services

Informal Story Consults
with Billy Marshall Stoneking


In the course of writing your next film, there will be times when all you really want is someone you can sit down and talk to about the story, the characters and the process. You don't want a script editor or an exhaustive assessment; you don't want someone who's going to tell you it's great simply because they're your partner or because they like you. What you want is an honest-to-god conversation with someone that understands drama and the journey and terror of writing a dramatic screenplay, someone with whom you can air your anxieties concerning what you're doing, and who will assist you in uncovering some of the as-yet-undiscovered possibilities concerning the story that is trying to get itself told. If you're feeling lost in the project or doubting its worth, or suddenly lacking in the confidence you need to finish the next draft, book yourself in for a conversation and a coffee.

The popularity and success of this informal and inspiring approach to script development has already been phenomenal. Satisfaction guaranteed or you pay NOTHING. So, let's do lunch, eh? and talk about it.

Writers and writer/directors, producers, and others with a project at any stage of development are invited to book a consult now.

USUAL VENUE: In Sydney at the Fundamental Food Co., Glebe Point Road, Glebe (across from Cornstalk Books) Mondays - Fridays (by appointment only - use BUTTON above right to make an appointment)

Special rate: Only $50 per hour

Satisfaction guaranteed or you pay nothing!

SKYPE CONSULTS also available by appointment -
SKYPE ID: billy.marshall.stoneking

BOOK ONLINE using BUTTON above right, or write to


BILLY MARSHALL STONEKING encourages writers to tell the stories that MEAN something to them – that is, stories in which the storyteller has an emotional investment, stories that the storyteller feels passionately connected to and needs to tell.

The role of the script editor is to ILLUMINATE, to assist and guide the cinematic storyteller in uncovering and fully exploring the emotional meanings that lie buried in their characters' actions, and to ensure that that these actions clearly dramatise the storyteller’s understanding of the story world that inhabits him/her.

It is a truism, but probably worth repeating: the journey of the storyteller is a journey of self-discovery. It starts from the known and moves towards the unknown. It isn’t simply a case of the writer writing a story; the story also writes the writer!

Stoneking has consulted on numerous award-winning and commercially successful short and feature films, documentaries and television series, including CHOPPER (Andrew Dominick's AFI award-winning film), THE MAGICIAN (SBS-TV series by Scott Ryan), RICHARD and TWO (Maya Newell), THE SAVIOUR (Academy-award nominated short by Peter Templeman), BIRTHDAY BOY (Academy-Award nominated 3D animation short by Sejong Park), OUT ON THE TILES and ALI AND THE BALL (Dendy and St Kilda Festival award-winning films/scripts by Alex Holmes), and many many others.

You've spent weeks, maybe months or even years, working with your characters and your story and you're no longer sure if it's as good as you "think" it is... why not go the extra distance and be absolutely certain its as good as it can possibly be before you enter it into the next screenplay competition or offer it up to a film school selection panel, or an agent or a production company.
For a new screenwriter, breaking into the motion picture industry is never easy. Some enter screenplay competitions in the hope they'll gain much needed exposure. Others query and submit their original screenplays directly to agents and producers. Whether you choose the screenplay competitions/movie contests or festivals route, or submit your script to agents and producers directly, you only get ONE chance, so make it count!
Stoneking's coverage gives you an opportunity to test your screenplay on an astute and objective "audience", and receive the kind of constructive feedback that will illuminate your script's strengths and weaknesses.
Those who use this service will receive notes covering story, premise, plot, character development, dialogue, structure, format, and production value.

Address initial enquires to Stoneking at

Sunday, June 19, 2011


William Goldman has been quoted as saying that a screenplay is not written, it’s re-written, and most of the screenwriters I know would readily agree with this. Nevertheless, it would seem that many of the writers I work with don’t always work in a way that indicates that they fully appreciate the fine art of re-writing, which is itself a thoroughly creative act or series of acts demanding as much if not more of the writer than the blank page. When considering the nature of the beast, one could do worse than to conceive of re-writing as a re-write of the writer, who – by the way – is also one of the characters whose actions are germane to the success or otherwise of the story-being-found. However, all of this is so much theory until one actually sits down and faces the problems that come with any constructive and useful re-writing of a screen drama. When facing the potential horrors of the next draft, one might do wll to consider the following:

1. Take a break between your last draft and your next one. Walk away from the computer. Clear your thoughts. Take a drive, or a short holiday – break the routine with which you’ve become accustomed. Stay away from the script for at least a couple of days. Or even a week. When you come back to what you are writing, come back fresh, as a virtual stranger.

2. Print the script out on paper.

3. Take the printed copy and find a comfortable place – preferably NOT where you usually write. The more remote the better (a public bus, for example) or a table at the back of an uncrowded café)

4. Read the whole script through, crossing out everything that is not absolutely relevant or emotionally meaningful to the building and releasing of energy. This includes dialogue and BIG PRINT. Get rid of as many “ands” and “buts” as possible. Avoid passive voice and prosaic description. Make it live. Make it lean. Excise everything that is not absolutely essential to the spirit of the characters and their story.

5. Inscribe ALL changes onto the computer, print out new draft. Go for a walk. Leave it for a day.

6. Print out new draft, read through the entire draft, noting all the things you like. Use “ticks” or even take the pages you like and set them in a separate pile. Do the same for those sections or pages that are just ok (use a “+”), and for the pages you hate (use an “X”).

7. Take the first fifteen pages. Check the rhythm and flow of the visual action, shot by shot, scene by scene. Identify the objectives of each character in each scene. Make sure that each one is “fighting” or struggling for something.

8. Using a pen, writing on the script, “blow up” or expand upon those scenes that lack drama ad/or clarity. Delete any scenes that do not instance change in the fortunes of the characters. Make sure that your main characters are active and that their actions are clearly motivated.

9. Identify the "dramatic problem" (disturbance or catalyst) that compels the main character/s to act. What is driving the central character/s and what dramatic question does the existence of this problem prompt one’s audience to ask?

10. Keep working on the first ten to fifteen pages until they work for you - the writer – as well as for your (imagined) audience. (See AUDIENCE)

11. When you are satisfied that you cannot do anything more to improve the opening fifteen pages, go on to the next fifteen pages and repeat the process.

12. Continue to work on the script, fifteen pages at a time until you have reached the end. Under no circumstances must you go on to the next fifteen pages until you are satisfied with the fifteen pages that you are currently working on.

13. When you have reached the end, go for a walk. Take a few days off. Come back to the script fresh and enter ALL the changes you have made to the script into the computer. Relax. Take a few days off.

14. Come back to the computer fresh. Read through the script from the perspective of your audience. Use ticks to check off what you like, pluses to indicate what is ok and X’s to signify what still needs work. An astute audience will be cognizant of many issues simultaneously, e.g.: is the story emotionally logical. Are the actions of the characters clearly motivated? Is the action and dialogue concise? Does it convey the emotional energy that is germane to the characters’ predicament? Does it conduct the audience into a relationship with the characters? What is confusing? Are there unneeded repetitions?

15. For dialogue, read it out loud in the patches where it feels rough. Read it to a stranger. On a bus or a train. You will hear what it is that you don’t need or what sounds inauthentic. Cross out everything that isn’t coming from the character that is actually speaking it. (NOTE: A lot of dialogue that is written performs as internal notes to the writer that the writer has written to him/herself. Beware those “writer-talking-to-himself lines”.

16. After polishing the draft, have some actor friends do a read of the script; pick someone good to do the narration.

17. Fill out a Drama Report. Have everyone who attended the reading fill out a Drama Report (See DRAMA REPORT) – take a few days off.

18. Re-read script. Read reports. Repeat entire process as required.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Film theorist, Richard Barsam has written: “The best nonfiction film is a creative film, not a literal record of some happening or a straightforward piece of argument or a twisted piece of propaganda ... as with all art, the question is one of degree: the degree of creativity ... The best nonfiction films are best not because they are the most informative or the most persuasive or the most useful, but because they are the most creative, effective, and valuable human documents that can be made from the circumstances represented in them ...”

Where's the Drama? is proud to present a unique collection of documentaries that dramatise the veracity of Richard Barsam's observations. Collected together on one site, these documentaries represent a broad cross-section of styles and concerns. Each in its own way tells a dramatic story and provides vigorous evidence that is sure to stay with the viewer long after the film has ended.

Whilst the films collected here do not represent an exhaustive collection of the best or even the most creaive docos (in Barsam's sense of the word), they do provide a rather comprehensive selection of issues, concerns, obsessions and characters that will hold your attention.


For those readers interested in a more comprehensive discussion of the art of documentary, please visit THE DRAMA OF DOCUMENTARY at

Saturday, May 21, 2011



I've known screenwriters that made up all sorts of rules for themselves - writers that couldn't write if there were dishes in the sink, or dirty clothes that needed washing. Others decided they had to indulge in some kind of daily ritual - like jogging down to the local cafe to read the paper and a cuppa coffee - before actually sitting down at the typewriter or computer to work. A playright I knew in Melbourne could write unless he smoked, and when the smoking started affecting his health the only way he could give it up was to stop writing. Go figger.

A common habit of many screenwriters I have known is that they assign to themselves a time for writing. I've known plenty of writers that would swear they couldn't make so much as a sentence unless they did so in the first two or three hours after waking> Others - for various reasons - would never think of attempting so much as a scene until two or three hours after sundown. I've always found these "rules" rather odd because my in my experience - owing, I suspect, to the diversity of unconventional places in which I have lived, has never allowed such regularity. As a result, I have developed a facility for writing at almost any time, even in my sleep.

So I was wondering what other writers might report concerning their "best writing" times. Be honest. What time of the day - or approximate time of the day (or night)do you do your best work?

Free Survey

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Choose from a variety of quality items, including jackets, jerseys, t-shirts, mugs & cups, bags, baby gear, diaries and other unusual and original accessories. Great for gifts and presents for cast & crew. Rare items for discriminating filmmakers and their friends. Custom orders may be placed using your own logo/graphic and/or film/tv project title.

Apply to Stoneking Seminars for special, custom orders, e.g. gifts for cast & crew.


And be sure to check out THE ANNEX while you're at it!

Monday, April 25, 2011



A dramatic story presents an identifiable character (or characters) in pursuit of understandable and emotionally logical objectives. In the quest to attain his/her objectives, the dramatic character encounters increasing opposition and risk tht carry with them even greater stakes, thus heightening the audience's identification and emotional involvement with the character.

Collaboration is a largely intuitive and mutually respectful, creative interaction among skilled individuals working towards a common goal based upon a shared understanding of the nature of the work in which they are engaged.

Given the nature of dramatic stories and the collaborative character of dramatic, screen storytelling, WHERE'S THE DRAMA? posits that filmmakers and film crews have a better chance of succeeding when their actions are guided by a "common understanding" of the nature of the work and the play in which they are engaged. This common understanding is constituted by - though not necessarily limited to - the following:

Dramatic stories are structured presentations of emotional energy that involve characters whose incompatible agendas produce disconnections or conflicts that create meaningful and often substantial risk for the characters’ well being, forcing them to act in the hope of re-establishing some degree of order or control.
The rhythmic and proximate interplay of these conflicting agendas is enacted by characters and is the source of a story’s emotional energy.

A dramatic story proceeds by either building or releasing this energy.

These two elemental tendencies – the building and releasing of emotional energy – are what characterise the movement of all dramatic stories.

A story’s power is proportional to its effectiveness in building and releasing energy in ways that are fresh, unexpected and thoroughly credible.

When a story stops building energy, or is unable to effectively release it, the energy dissipates, which is another way of saying the story becomes undramatic.


Regardless of form, effective storytellers will have a passionate interest in the source, manifestation and transformation of this energy, i.e.: the characters and their actions.

In mastering the language that IS dramatic screen storytelling, the collaborative team of storytellers and their characters become partners in finding the emotional meaning of the story that is to be told.

This partnership also includes the audience and the tribe or tribal groups whose story is being found and shown. In a sense, ALL of the participants, including the filmmakers are characters.

The presentation of characters internal to the script is mediated by the capture of images and sounds relevant to those characters, their world and the dramatic questions that the characters’ problems cause us – as both storyteller and audience – to ask.

All effective dramatic screen stories proceed via the building and the strategic release of emotional energy conveyed through these images and sounds.

Essential to the effective rendering of dramatic screen stories is the compelling selection and ordering of these images and sounds, as guided by the emotional energy generated by the actions of the characters.

A screen story that is dramatic and effective produces fresh, unexpected and credible images and juxtapositions of images by which this energy is built and released.

The finding and the capture of fresh, unexpected and credible images and their juxtaposition is made more possible when the filmmaker/storytellers are working from inside the emotional life of the character.

The images should serve the story, not the other way around.

Therefore, all craft questions are implicitly questions about character and story.[1]


Meaningful dramatic action is, by definition, an expression of a character’s problems, goals and plans. The changes that occur within any dramatic story are the actions of that story, and are predominantly manifested by a story’s characters. A story begins and develops when a character first creates and then transforms or transfers emotional energy. This should happen in every scene, and from one scene to the next, and even between scenes (in the cut). The source of this energy is CHARACTER, hence the success or failure of every dramatic story is inextricably bound up with character, into which, through which and from which the emotional energy of any story is constantly rushing.
[1] E.g.: Coverage implies an understanding of a character’s actions, and the meaning of each scene in which a character acts... remembering that characters also live (and ACT!) in the cut.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


“Coming to meet halfway is possible only between people who are mutually honest and sincere in their way of life.” I Ching

I gave up reading books about the craft of screenwriting a long time ago. The two or three I actually dipped into made my head ache. Forget about inspiring vision or even a modicum of passion; they simply reduced the process of dramatic narrative to a manipulation of events, turning points and positive and negatively charged actions. Fair enough, I guess, if you’ve managed to actually get past the 100 or so blank pages that go into the writing of a feature screenplay. Alas, none of them inspired vision, let alone an ear for character.

In 2001, when Robert McKee came to AFTRS (the Australian Film, Television & Radio School) to present his legendary “medicine shows” on writing the thriller, comedy and feature drama, he managed to do little more than bequeath a lexicon of jargon that would colour and create a semblance of communication and knowledge where in fact there was almost no understanding at all. For a fortnight after his visit the school’s corridors, cafeteria and conference rooms were alive with buzzwords. “Story-arcs”, “turning points” and “inciting incidents” enlivened the discourse, or at least provided a type of delicious gravity and sophistication that had not been there before. The old language game had been renovated into a new language game – somehow more relevant and profound than what had been there before. Armed with this new jargon and encouraged by the dramatic power of a forceful and charismatic speaker, the students attacked the scripts that were being written and rewritten, produced and directed, shot and edited with a renewed sense of creative dedication. But it was just another language game, or rather a differently worded version of the old game with a sense of sophistication that was merely symptomatic of the malady of the usual mind-set in which ego, unmanaged fear and manipulation continue to inform the values of the ambitious, blind and deaf.

The screenwriter working as a medium can find no solace or encouragement in the pronouncements of those for whom story is reducible to what the writer DOES to the story ant the CHARACTERS. This sort of creative chauvinism is anathema to the mediumistic screenwriter and filmmaker. What is important is not so much what you do, but what you don’t do. To understand this better, consider for a moment the Chinese concept of Wu Wei (无为.). Wu Wei is an important tenet of Taoism that involves knowing when to act and when not to act. “Wu” may be translated as “not having” or “not possessing”; and “Wei” (2nd tone) may be translated as “action” or “doing”. The literal meaning of Wu Wei is "without action" or “no action” – a strange concept to be introducing into a dicussion about dramatic storytelling, in which action is central to its movement and meaning. Paradoxically, the application of Wu Wei to dramatic screen storytelling (or story-finding) is expressed more directly by the concept of “wei wu wei” : "action without action."

The practice of wu wei and the efficacy of wei wu wei are fundamentally the achievement of a state of perfect equilibrium, or the alignment of action with intention. In practical terms this alignment manifests as spontaneity, resulting in an irresistible form of "soft and invisible power" over things (the self, others, a country).

Spontaneity is a quality of performance - what sports people refer to when they speak of a player or a team as being “in the zone”. Mediumistic screenwriters write “in the zone”, and they do so not by force of will but by learning to act without acting.

Confucius once compared a virtuous prince to the North Pole, saying that he did not move; everything turned around him. There are magical, occult justifications behind this idea of a power obtained by 'inaction'. In the ancient Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Although water is soft and weak, it has the capacity to slowly erode solid stone. Water is without will (i.e.: the will for a shape), opposing wood, stone, or any solid material that can be broken into pieces. It can therefore fill any container, take any shape, go anywhere, even into the smallest holes. When sprayed in thousands of small drops, water still has the capacity to reunite. Eventually – as is its nature – it returns to its source, to the eternal sea. Furthermore, while always going downward, water rests in the 'dark valley'—where biological life is regenerated. The creative vision of the correspondence of birth with death, youth with age, strength with weakness – the yin and the yang of our being – the situation of irony that is the story of human history – that makes truth out of existence and existence out of the irony inherent in good and evil – enlarges our understanding of the story that we are telling, which is also and equally the story that is telling us.

Several chapters of the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Tze, allude to 'diminishing action', or 'diminishing will', as the key aspect of the sage's success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the universe already works harmoniously according to its own laws; as a person exerts her/his will against the world s/he disrupts the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a screenwriter/filmmaker should not exert will. Rather, it is how s/he acts in relation to the natural processes already extant that is critical. In terms of a story the natural processes involve more than the writer, the writer’s knowledge and the means of notating the writer’s ideas. A story’s natural processes are the actions of the characters and the sources of these actions – and the characters here referred to are not simply those characters that inhabit the screenplay, but also the character that is the story’s audience and the characters whose tribe or tribes are being dramatised by the actions of the dramatis personae.

Wu Wei has also been translated as "creative quietude," or the art of letting-be. It is evidenced in the spontaneous gestures of artists and dancers, sports persons and musicians, acrobats and actors, indeed anyone that instinctively understands the value of getting out of the way of the creative energies that move in and through them. The act of letting go or relinquishing control does not mean sloppiness or any dulling of the mind; in fact, it is the very liberation of thought, an effortlessness that does not strain to be either open or closed, interested or disinterested – it is akin to pure consciousness – a being INSIDE THE MOMENT, inside the drama, naturally open, available and responsive to one's own multifarious nature and the natures of those with whom one shares the finding that is the dramatic story played out in the actions of all of the characters.

As one diminishes doing, one diminishes all those actions committed against the Tao (read: the natures of the characters and the nature of the story itself), which already exists like the sculpture inside the uncarved stone - the already present natural harmony. As one begins to cultivate Tao (or Being), one becomes ever more in harmony with it and, according to Chuang Tze, attains a state of Ming, or 'clear seeing'.

It is in the state of Ming that the Taoist is in full harmony with Tao, and 'having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing that he does not do.'

It is upon achievement of this Chinese equivalent to 'enlightenment' that both the sage and the truly original and revolutionary filmmaker begin to perform wei wu wei, or 'action without action.' Thus the filmmaker – like the sage - will work in harmony with Nature to accomplish what is needed and, working in perfect harmony with the Tao, leave no trace of having done it.

“Coming to meet” is best understood as a contract made between two people. If one is indolent in performing his part, or has mental reservations about what he is willing to do, the contract may fail. Although such a person may have entered the contract without any immediate objections, his attitude may contain objections which arise only at the time his obligations are to be performed. Such a person may secretly feel that contracts are not to be taken seriously, or, on seeing how difficult it is to fulfill his part, he may hedge on doing it because of some idea that all contracts are subject to fitting into his concept of what is “reasonable.”

We must avoid egotistical enthusiasm when we think we are making progress, or discouragement when the dark period ensues. Throughout the cycle we learn to remain detached. Holding steadily to the light within us and within others. The instant we strive to influence, we “push upward blindly.” If we insist on accomplishing the goal at all costs, our inner light is darkened and our will to see things through is damaged.

Inner withdrawal is an action of perseverance that has its own reward, but only when it is modest perseverance, not an attempt to impress others by getting them to notice our withdrawal. In many situations the problem is resolved, not through any external action that arises spontaneously on our part, but by simply “letting it happen,” through letting go of the problem. Our “action” is to “let go".