Eric Edson’s Screenwriting Tips

One of my favorite YouTube channels is one called Film Courage, which is a channel basically dedicated to interviewing screenwriters and screenwriting teachers. There are some fantastic interviews on there if you’re interested in writing in general, but especially screenwriting.

Case in point this interview with writing teacher Eric Edson 12 Useful Tools To Help Beginning Screenwriters Write A Better Screenplay.

Now, the title is total click bait, in that Edson really doesn’t offer anything resembling tools in this video except in the broadest sense. He opens with a semi-controversial statement that plot and story are the same thing and calls anyone who disagrees idiots (which some like John Truby and Martin Scorsese would argue with, but it comes down to definitions) and then goes on to offer some random screenwriting tips. Among these are some pithy observations that I think are worth talking about.

The first one is that main characters in film should always have one of four broad goals:

  • Win
  • Stop
  • Escape
  • Retrieve

His reasoning for those categories is that main characters in film need an easily identifiable goal that includes a physical endpoint that the audience can visually see. Are there more possible goals? Yes. But these are all things that can happen up on the screen in front of the audience’s eyes, which Edson argues makes them the perfect goals for visual storytelling.

Let’s look at each.

Win– Technically, all movies have a character trying to “win” if the character has a goal, but in this case I think Edson is referring to a situation where there is a clear contest of some kind involved. This could be a naval engagement, making a relationship work, finding a killer, or trying to pass fifth grade, but there is a clear identifiable endpoint of victory involved. In a lot of ways, this is the catch-all category of the four.

Stop– The character wants to stop someone else from doing something or something from happening. This would be Armageddon, Independence Day, and even Star Wars: A New Hope could be considered a “stop” movie (since the goal is to stop the Death Star from wreaking havoc.)

Escape– The main character wants to escape from a bad situation. While there is a lot of bleed over with Stop, I guess the key here is that the main character isn’t trying to stop the opponent from achieving their goals, they’re just trying to get away from a situation. So this would include Titanic, Jurassic Park and Towering Inferno type disaster movies, but also include films about characters trying to get out of small town life, or kick a drug addiction. Their life sucks and they want out, however they can manage it.

Retrieve– The main character wants to get something (or someone) and bring it back. This could be personal (Apocalypse Now), physical (Raiders of the Lost Ark), emotional (rekindling a relationship), mental (finding lost knowledge), or even social (restoring a way of life). The key here is that the goal is simply to find something and then use it.

 

This ties in with Blake Snyder’s advice that a movie’s main character’s goal(s) should be primal in nature- something that human beings can all relate to because its part of our experience as people. Also, it’s very easy to visualize most of these goals, and they’re finite in nature, which gives structure to the story through the goal itself. (Once you win, stop, escape, or retrieve, the story is now over.)

On the flipside, this can lead to very simple stories where the main characters don’t have complex goals, but instead are acting like animals in a way. Yes, that lets us relate to them, but it also doesn’t go very far in plumbing the depths of the human experience. I mean, yes, you need to keep things simple in a two hour (or less) film, but this may be too simple at times.

 

Edson also argues that there are four emotions that characters display on screen:

  • Mad
  • Glad
  • Sad
  • Scared

These again being universal and easily identifiable emotions that audiences can react to and understand easily no matter who they are.  They are also strong emotions, so they’re more likely to resonate with the audience and make the scene more interesting while being easier for the actor to display. He says that each main character should enter a scene feeling one of these emotions and then leave it feeling another to show that change has happened in the scene.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with this list, and plan to think about it more and watch to see if that’s what’s happening in the films/tv I watch. What I can say is that there should be a fifth one on that list – Neutral – a state where a character is feeling no particular emotion at all. Sometimes character’s emotions aren’t strong, or are hidden from the audience, and this could be at the start of a scene or at the end of one. Of course, if your characters are always in neutral, it might be hard to get a reaction out of the audience, unless you have other supporting characters making up for it.

 

This is basically all I think is worth taking from this video. Edson follows this by trying to briefly discuss some Hero’s Journey archetypes, but slightly flubs them and if you want to know more about that go read Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey or Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. (The Shapeshifter is not the Opponent, for example, they can be, but are often not the main opponent but a secondary one.)

Not one of Film Courage’s best videos (it mostly seems like a disguised pitch for Edson’s book), but it did have some interesting points I thought were worth noting. I’ll probably annotate some of their other videos in the future as well.

Rob

 

3 thoughts on “Eric Edson’s Screenwriting Tips

  1. Hmmmm….

    There are a few things I’m leary of with this one. It gets dangerously close to a “Save the Cat” sort of formula.

    I think the “Goals” thing is best summated by the idea “the hero should do something.” That idea encompasses everything noted here, and then some…. without directing the ideas of a would-be author. A specific list is great in academic retrospect, but it’s too easy for it to become a writer’s checklist. To that end, I think you could add “MAINTAIN” to this list. It splits the dif between “Stop” and “Retrieve.”

    The “emotion” bit seems limited. There’s about a dozen generally considered emotions in animation, and if that’s not visual I don’t know what is. Again; limiting the list like this limits the thinking of anyone looking to improve their writing. The better an artist/writer/director is, the MORE emotion they can wring out of their work ‘cos the expression of emotion is the transmission of data; either as cues that indicate the emotion they characters are feeling, or (even better) cues the trigger emotions in the audience.

    You can also consider the INTENSITY of the emotion as another mitigating factor. “Frustrated,” “Enraged” and “Seething” are all “Mad;” but they have TOTALLY different connotations in context.

    The character type bit always rankles me. Too many folks use it as a framework. Case in point; you can get away with more than one antagonist. The rest don’t have to be agents. Superhero comics work on that principle.

    Having watched “G Fighter,” (and a LOT of Chop-Sockey kung-fu movies) I gotta say that sometimes violence and direct confrontation IS how you beat the gate keeper. (“The true martial artist can only express his feelings with his fists.” -every character in G-Fighter.)

    I also want to know how the romantic interest is an UNDERUSED archetype?!?!

    Don C.

    • Hmmmm….

      There are a few things I’m leary of with this one. It gets dangerously close to a “Save the Cat” sort of formula.

      I would argue that things like this are meant as training wheels for writers who are trying to find their way. Save the Cat! is similar.

      I think the “Goals” thing is best summated by the idea “the hero should do something.” That idea encompasses everything noted here, and then some…. without directing the ideas of a would-be author. A specific list is great in academic retrospect, but it’s too easy for it to become a writer’s checklist. To that end, I think you could add “MAINTAIN” to this list. It splits the dif between “Stop” and “Retrieve.”

      The trick here is that if you want to be super reductionist, you could grind all goals in stories down to “attain” and “maintain”- they’re either trying to attain something (victory, freedom, love, revenge) or maintain something (stop change, restore what was lost, or keep what they have). The problem is that for new writers that might not be very useful because it’s too simple to provide inspiration or let them see the possibilities. Thus you get lists like this where the most common goals are listed are simple enough to cover a lot of ground yet still specific enough to show their differences.

      The “emotion” bit seems limited. There’s about a dozen generally considered emotions in animation, and if that’s not visual I don’t know what is. Again; limiting the list like this limits the thinking of anyone looking to improve their writing. The better an artist/writer/director is, the MORE emotion they can wring out of their work ‘cos the expression of emotion is the transmission of data; either as cues that indicate the emotion they characters are feeling, or (even better) cues the trigger emotions in the audience.

      Your point about the dozen or so emotions in animation is an excellent one! You’re right! More writers should be taking a wider range of emotions into account. I’m going to have the find that list of standard animation character emotions, since they’re visual and relevant.

      You can also consider the INTENSITY of the emotion as another mitigating factor. “Frustrated,” “Enraged” and “Seething” are all “Mad;” but they have TOTALLY different connotations in context.

      An excellent point. I personally think Edson is trying too hard to come off as a guru by giving simple yet seemingly profound pieces of writing advice. New writers tend to eat them up because they make it all seem so simple, and it promotes Edson and his book. Hague, McKee, and the other writing gurus tend to do this too.

      The character type bit always rankles me. Too many folks use it as a framework. Case in point; you can get away with more than one antagonist. The rest don’t have to be agents. Superhero comics work on that principle.

      This depends on how you want to look at it. You can definitely have more than a single antagonist in a story, however there does tend to be a single major antagonist in most stories. In superhero stories you could argue that the in each story there is always a main antagonist, but it’s being changed in each of Spiderman or Batman’s adventures. There’s always a main antagonist for that story, but when that story is over the next one is swapped in. That said, you’re right, the Penguin isn’t the main antagonist for The Joker, they’re separate villains with their own agendas.

      Having watched “G Fighter,” (and a LOT of Chop-Sockey kung-fu movies) I gotta say that sometimes violence and direct confrontation IS how you beat the gate keeper. (“The true martial artist can only express his feelings with his fists.” -every character in G-Fighter.)

      As a fellow enthusiast of the way of the fist, I will totally agree. A main character needs to overcome their challenges in a way which best suits the story, including beating the crap out of people. It doesn’t make it less of a story, just another kind of conflict.

      I also want to know how the romantic interest is an UNDERUSED archetype?!?!

      I scratched my head over that one too, but if I had to guess I’d say he doesn’t mean “underused” but “underutilized”- he’s saying that the Love Interest is more than often just an organic plot device
      when they should be used in ways which more deeply show the main character’s cycle of accomplishment and change. At least, that’s what I’d assume. Maybe he’s just wrong.

      Rob

  2. >I would argue that things like this are meant as training wheels for writers who are trying to find their way. Save the Cat! is similar.

    I think you’re right, but I think it falls into the category of students who use a quick hit of speed as a pick me up just to “get through these term papers.” It WORKS, it’s SUPPOSED to be a limited, temp solution, but it’s WAY too easy to get hooked.

    > The problem is that for new writers that might not be very useful because it’s too simple to provide inspiration or let them see the possibilities.

    Well…. I dunno. I think it’s a case of teaching the student facts, or how to think. Sure; it illustrates the point, but I very seldom seen any analysis into WHY this sort of thing works. Reducing it to a really stripped down, simple idea seems more useful to me ‘cos it’s more universal, and less likely to direct the writer instead of inspire or polish. The “have the character DO something” formula seems better than a specific list of what they CAN do.

    Eventually it becomes an echo chamber: the writer follows the list of “acceptable” actions, the audience gets climatized to said list, and it gets a lot harder to do anything that’s actually new or different.

    >I’m going to have the find that list of standard animation character emotions, since they’re visual and relevant.

    If only we knew someone who worked in animation….

    >Hague, McKee, and the other writing gurus tend to do this too.

    I think a lot of these guys are “true believers,” and really do have conviction in their positions…. but their perspective is different from mine. These folks write guides to educate the writer in ways to write more sellable material; not “better” material. Stuff like novelty are secondary, at best.

    >There’s always a main antagonist for that story, but when that story is over the next one is swapped in.

    Sometimes, but the old superhero stuff (especially Bronze Age comics) had a habit of running more than one plot concurrently, and entwining them as things went on. Most of the well known epic plots featured multiple sides competing. “The antagonist of my antagonist is my protagonist.”

    >he’s saying that the Love Interest is more than often just an organic plot device
    when they should be used in ways which more deeply show the main character’s cycle of accomplishment and change

    Optimistic. But sure, that goes with my idea that there should be a REASON the characters in a romantic entanglement feel the way they do…. other than “‘cos they’re the leads.”

    Don C.

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