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Screenwriter Jason Tolsher recommends screen memoirs and talks scriptwriting

Jason Tolsher outlined the nuts and bolts of structuring screenplays at a talk for Women on Oxford, a writers’ group based in Bulimba, Brisbane. He also gave some great tips on books by screenwriters, including some good memoirs, which I’ve listed at the end of this report.

It’s not often you come across the movie equivalent of a page-turner. Not a lot of screenwriters, or any writers, are that good at plotting. Some say that style is more important than plot, and think that a change in character by the end of the story is enough.

Others resort to formulaic plot structures, or clichés, and maybe even try to pass them off as parody.

Jason Tolsher talked about the art of plotting in movie screenwriting. The talk was based on the book Story by Robert McKee. He also recommended some great books on screenwriting and the movie biz.


He said the basic structure of a screenplay started with an inciting incident. Something happens to the protagonist that upsets his world. It kickstarts the story, for example, in the movie Jaws there’s a shark attack and the sheriff discovers the body.

It can have a high impact: like this example, it can be a life and death situation. The character wants to put his world back into balance.


The next phase is one of progressive complications. The character struggles through all the forces of antagonism. For example, he’s got to fight a shark, and deal with a lot of hostile characters on the way, and maybe deal with his own character shortcomings, too.


Mr Tolsher said that conflict evolves when a character’s expectations are not met: when there is a gap between what a character expects to happen, and what does happen.
Mr Tolsher gave an example. Say at the start of the story, when the character’s world gets thrown out of balance, a woman has decided to leave her husband. So, the woman says she wants to meet the husband for lunch. He expects it to be just a get-together.
The gap is that she tells him she wants a divorce. He jokes with her, expecting her to snap out of it. The gap is she spurns him. He pleads with her, expecting her to change her mind; she laughs.

Mr Tolsher said people take the minimal action required to get what they want, so when their expectations are not met by their actions, they put themselves at risk by their second action.


The next phase is the crisis. The character gets to a point where he has to make a final decision or take some final action. For example, Rick in Casablanca has to choose between his romance with Ilsa, or putting Ilsa on the plane with Lazlo so they can fly off and fight the greater fight against fascism in World War 2.


The next phase is the climax, which is the playing out of this decision, to reach the goal in the protagonist’s mind. This is very near the end of the film.

Lastly, there is the resolution where the viewer sees the consequences of the crisis decision and the climax.

Usually any sub-plots are tied up neatly here, too.

Even if a writer does not use a basic structure in a screenplay, Mr Tolsher said that it’s handy to use it to review a screenplay to see if it does have some kind of overall integrity.


He also said to never write dialogue first because you get attached to it and this rules out other creative possibilities. Work out the plot and the scenes first, then come up with the dialogue.


He said he would start by writing a treatment, which was about 160 pages with an examination of every scene. He used a different card for every scene and wrote points on what will happen in the scene and what the scene’s function was. For example, in the scene where the wife was meeting the husband in a restaurant, he’d write the function of the scene was “inciting incident”. He’d rearrange the cards to suit his story.

He said writing a screenplay from a fully developed treatment was a joy.

He recommended the following books on the screen trade: Syd Field, Screenplay. Christopher Vogler, A Writer’s Journey. Michael Hauge, Writing Screenplays that Sell. Making Movies by Sydney Lumet. Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman. He also recommended the site Scriptorama where you could read various scripts.