By Jennie E. Park.
Jeffrey Kitchen began studying dramatic writing with Irving Fiske before venturing into screenwriting. Based on the techniques in his book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting, he has provided workshops and private consultations on writing for film and television for twenty years.
In this two-part interview he provides an overview of the techniques that might help newly acquainted writers structure a screenplay, and also reflects on the different weaknesses experienced novice writers tend to present, and the greatest piece of advice he’d give to writers of all skill levels.
Can you tell us how you crossed paths with Irving Fiske, and how that mentor relationship developed?
He was one of the founders of a commune in Vermont where I lived for a number of years. He taught us the basics of Aristotle and two old school books on playwriting by William Thomas Price, and one of his students named Krows.
I just went off the deep end on these books. I was a painter before that— came into it knowing that I knew nothing, which is a good place to start. And I just dug and dug and worked to piece it together, and worked on and off with Irving as I chewed through these books. I’m about sixty percent self-taught. Irving taught me some key things here and there which was very helpful; we worked together probably over ten years, on and off.
Then you segued from playwriting to screenwriting?
It was really just an idea that I had for a play, that grew into a screenplay. Somebody said, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of material here, this would make a great movie, why don’t you write that? So I got an old book on screenwriting and just started learning there.
The connection between playwriting and screenwriting is actually quite close because it’s really about dramatic structure. It was really just a matter of learning conventions of screenwriting. In writing for the stage, you have to limit the set, how many times you change sets, all that kind of stuff—you have to think very practically. In movies, you can go a little more off the deep end, which offers a lot more freedom as a creator.
I also got hired as a dramaturg in New York theatre, where I worked for a number of years, as a script doctor. That was a theatre where Ben Stiller was an actor and his parents were on the board. And I also got hired by the Negro Ensemble Company off Broadway, where Denzel Washington came out of, to teach playwriting. I taught there for a couple years.
Did you foresee yourself teaching and consulting on writing as extensively as you have, and would you prefer to do more of your own writing?
I’m doing a fair amount of writing. I was really paying the bills with teaching and doing pretty well with it, so it took a lot of my time. And it was very stimulating because I did small, hands-on classes. I kept the classes down to six people, and each person was required to bring in a story that they would develop. First I was doing intensive weekends, and then I moved into ten-week classes, with still about the same amount of time, thirty hours—it was just broken up differently.
In these weekend intensives I would teach the tools, and then show how they work on The Godfather, Tootsie, and Blade Runner. I even worked with Hamlet in the beginning. Then I would say to the first person in the class, “Let’s now apply this tool I’ve explained and illustrated, let’s get you using it on your script.” Because I recognize that the material is not easy to internalize.
I’d had these two books for three years, and at first, I couldn’t make a lot of sense of it. After a while, I could understand it. And then after a while I understood it pretty well, but then when I went to apply it I still would have a lot of problems applying it—I had to learn it at a yet deeper level.
And it was that gap between where I understood it fairly well, but still couldn’t actively use it in developing my own material, that I was really trying to bridge in my hands-on classes. So, I’d say to you, “What’s your idea,” and I’d never heard it before, and I’m trying to help you apply dilemma to it, and I’d say, “So, does your protagonist seem to have a good, strong dilemma?” And you’d wrestle with it and tell me what you think, and I’d say, “You got that part right, but you missed this whole section of it.” And I’d help get you oriented—then I’d help you see more deep layers and possibilities and complexities in the dilemma. And just kind of get you deeply into using the tool fully and properly on your own story.
And that helps so much, but also, the heat is on you when I’m talking to you: I’m scrambling your ideas, you might be getting flustered, I’m throwing a lot of ideas at you. It’s a workshop, so everybody can participate, and say, “Well, what if the character did this?” Then I go off to the next person, and you get to just watch. While yours might have been a thriller, theirs might be a groovy comedy. The next person might have a horror story, the next person might have a drama, the next person might have a script that they started that morning, and the next person might have a script that they spent two years on.
So, you see all different types of writers, all different genres, all different levels of development, all different temperaments of writers. What I found was that by the time I got to the fifth or sixth person, you might pop up and go, “Hey, I really see what you’re doing here; I get it.” It’s because I’m doing the same thing, but to wildly diverse projects. It’s really getting the class over the hump of using it on their own, which is the whole point of the game: Can you go home and actually use this on your own script?
By the time I’d put everybody’s scripts through this intensive process, where I’m putting them through a number of different tools, and in each one I’m challenging their material, beefing it up, simplifying it, clarifying it, rendering it more complex—all the things that are part and parcel of developing a story and structuring something dramatically—not only have they gotten experiential learning actually using the tools, but their scripts came together so much during the course of the weekend that pretty much everybody left kind of tripping, they were just so excited. All these classes were small, but because they were so intensive and so hands-on the word of mouth was through the roof for many years.
Writers first encountering your techniques might struggle with how and why they’re distinct and work together. A car might provide a clarifying metaphor: The Dilemma, Crisis, Decision and Action, and Resolution are the core moving parts of a car—engine, transmission, tires—scattered in a garage. The Central Proposition assembles these components into a test-drivable powertrain. Theme, the 36 Dramatic Situations, the Enneagram, and Research and Brainstorming are tools for tinkering with and increasing the power of the components. Finally, Sequence, Proposition, Plot takes your optimal powertrain and builds the rest of a streamlined, efficient car around it.
I work with analogies a lot, because a good analogy can help you go, “Oh that’s how it is, I see that now.”
The Dilemma really is the engine of the drama in any genre. Trapping a protagonist into equally painful choices helps render the core material itself dramatic. Having someone trapped in a situation where you can’t turn in your best friend, but you can’t do the hard time in jail yourself—that’s gripping to an audience. That dilemma tends to happen somewhere around the end of Act I and builds in intensity all through Act II. Somewhere around the end of Act II, that dilemma goes critical: it becomes a Crisis. So the thing that the lead character couldn’t make a choice about has now come to a critical junction where something has to be done.
The Decision and Action is some kind of decision that’s taken about the dilemma, that has gone critical. Decision and action in the face of crisis reveals the true character of the protagonist; it strips the mask off. Audiences really like to see the mask stripped off, because you don’t often see naked human emotional reality. Everybody has so many masks, and pretenses, and pretending to be OK—very rarely do you see somebody saying, “I’m doing terrible, thanks.”
Then, there’s the Resolution of the dilemma which is the end of the story. The protagonist resolves the dilemma one way or the other—either with a creative third way out, picking one of the two unacceptable alternatives—but that really does resolve the dilemma.
So we can use a racecar analogy—you could say there’s the engine and the transmission, and that kind of thing: the major working components.
The Central Proposition enables you to build a powertrain out of those core parts, and test-drive it.
What we’ve done so far with Dilemma, Crisis, Decision and Action, and Resolution is to collect major components with which to build a screenplay. This works for screenwriting, TV writing, stage writing, and I’ve had a lot of novelists use it. To have a good, strong, racecar, you need a great engine, a solid transmission—you need all these things, but they can still just be a good, solid engine on a workbench, a good transmission on a garage floor; you can’t actually drive it around yet.
What the Central Proposition does is uses the power of logic to pull all these diverse components together into one coherent whole. And it forces you to get crystal clear about the one story you’re proposing. That’s where the word “proposition” comes from: it’s a proposal. And what it focuses on is the core conflict in the story. Conflict is central to drama. In fact, they say conflict is to drama as sound is to music. So focusing on the core conflict of your script gets you right down to the core of the story’s drama, in any genre. Because whether you’re writing a psychological thriller or a nutball comedy, it still has to work dramatically.
By focusing on the core conflict, you set up a potential fight early on in the story, and that fight builds in intensity throughout until it comes to the make-or-break point at the two-thirds or three-quarters point, where it now erupts into a fight to the finish. At the point where that fight to the finish has only just started, and the audience doesn’t know how it’s going to turn out, they come up on the edge of their seats wondering how it’s going to turn out. And because they’re watching a highly specific fight, they have a highly specific question in their mind about how it’s going to turn out.
If that dramatic question in the minds of the audience at what is supposed to be the high point of suspense is weak, then the drama, the conflict that you are composing is weak. A good place to discover that your dramatic question is weak is in your workshop. You don’t want to find that out on the opening night of your $30 million movie. And it’ll be painfully obvious, because the audience will be dead in the water right at the point when it’s supposed to be the highest suspense.
And so if you notice that the dramatic question in the mind of the audience at the highest point of suspense is weak, then you can change how you set up the fight and how you touch it off, and how the characters are, and all the various aspects that go into the core conflict of the story. The dramatic question goes up or down depending on how you work it, how intense the conflict is, how much we care about the protagonist, how much we hate the villain. So you might notice that what you proposed at first might’ve been a four on a scale of one to ten, and you’re able to get it up to an eight or a nine. That helps you not only figure out the core conflict of your story, but evaluate its power.
The power of a film resides in the response of the audience. A movie playing to an empty theatre has no power, it’s just shadows on a wall. Now, look at movies where you hated it, you were like, “I truly don’t care about this character, I don’t care about the conflict, none of it engages me.” And it may be a movie where the whole fate of the world is at stake, and you couldn’t care less. And the next movie you see might be two people in a living room arguing, and you’re absolutely riveted; they couldn’t pay you to leave, you’ve got to stay and see how it turns out. It’s about dramatic action, it’s about how much you draw the audience to the edge of their seats—it’s not about mere action, mere action is just car chases and shootouts and that can be bloody boring, depending on how you handle it. So focusing on the core conflict of your story has the tremendous power to pull all the components into one coherent proposition, one coherent proposal, for your story.
And the problem with working intensively on a story is that it is very easy to lose objectivity. A tool like this forces you to get really crystal clear about the core mechanics of the story. You can really stand back from it and go, “Wow, there it is,” in really simple terms. You can really say the whole movie in a couple sentences. And I often find that when it comes time for me to apply the Central Proposition to a script I’m working on, I resist it because I don’t want to give up my fuzzy thinking, I don’t want to give up the intuitive aspects of the storytelling. I don’t want to have to get clear. But then once I’ve done it, I’m like, “Wow, that’s so helpful.” And it gets me so much clarity.
Once you’ve got a proposition you’re satisfied with, then you beef it up some more, until you really get that engine screaming.
Theme, the 36 Dramatic Situations, the Enneagram, and Research and Brainstorming are tools you can experiment with to add power to those core components.
If you look at the resolution, and look at the way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma, you can put your finger on the Theme, which is not easy to do, but that’s something very specific that Irving taught me. I can count on one hand the times when he turned to me and said, “Look, this is really critical, learn this.” And that was one of them. Theme is the way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma.
For instance, say it’s a tragedy, which is a very rare type of story these days, but in which the character, believing himself to be very intelligent, and able to outsmart the situation, makes a really catastrophic choice in the ending. His best friend gets killed because of what he did. What he did was that he thought, “I can pull the wool over these people’s eyes, I’m always the smartest person in the room, I can definitely pull this out of the fire and make it work.”
Yet he’s also got probably self-deception going on, so then he’s not honest with himself, and there’s a kind of malfunction in the person’s own brain that the way in which he lies to himself about how he can pull this off—all of that is part of the mechanics of his failure. So the theme is that he was not assessing the situation clearly, and overvaluing his own intentions. A good tragedy well done can really sting the audience, because you see yourself up there; it’s like, “Oh God, I do the same type of thing on a smaller scale, but there are the mechanics of my own failure wide open, for me to get kind of a good, hard, ugly look at.”
The 36 Dramatic Situations are really just a brainstorming tool. It’s kind of like playing mad scientist, and you say, “Well, what if my character was crazy? And to what degree?” You can go all the way from a little neurotic to being in a straightjacket in a padded cell. It’s kind of like trying on shoes, like, “OK, what if he was mildly neurotic? What if he was seriously crazy? What if he was in the middle of a nervous breakdown? What if he was permanently institutionalized?” So if he was crazy, he’d be doing this and this, and the people around him would be thinking this and this could happen to him, and he’d react badly to this and this. It’s really just a catalyst that suggests raw possibilities for the story. As it triggers ideas, you put them down in your notebook if you like them. So you’re really just playing, “What if?” It’s a way to break up a stagnant story, to shatter your own storytelling rut.
Part of what you do with it is you really see what already exists in the story that you’re working with. In other words, there are going to be some elements that are already active in your material before you even touch it, if you have a good premise for a story. You want to see what elements are active in that premise and then see, what if you threw in madness, what if you threw in disaster, what if you threw in ambition: does that change the chemical makeup of the material, does that make it more dynamic, that creates something unexpected, that dimensionalizes your character? Does that give you a possible ending?
The Enneagram is a system of personality profiling that is a mixture of ancient wisdom about human nature and cutting edge psychology. One of my friends in New York was a high-end psychiatrist, and I would call him for psychological profiles of different characters I was writing about, and at one point he said, “Ever heard of the Enneagram? It’s the best thing out there.” I started studying it, and it’s quite amazing: it’s succinct, compact, and very much on the money about people.
So there are nine basic human personality types, and each has strengths and weaknesses. It’s a way to quickly and efficiently put your finger on what makes your protagonist tick. Similar to the 36 Dramatic Situations, you could play, “What if?” You could say, “Well, what if my character really had to be a controlling type of person? That’s going to influence the story this way. So it’s a comprehensive look at personality from a top-of-the-line system that enables you to look quickly and efficiently through the various possibilities as you build and develop the character. In other words, you’re either playing, “Well, what if I made him a ‘Three’ where he’s really focused on how he looks, or what if I made him an ‘Eight’ where he’s really focused on controlling others and the loyalty of others?” Those are going to shift the story. Or, if you already have a good solid sense of your character, then this can take you much deeper, into a much more comprehensive, complex understanding of who your character is.
Research and Brainstorming just enable you to get deeply into your material; I think research can often meet you halfway and take you places that might never have occurred to you. Once you have a sense of where your story’s going with Dilemma, Crisis, Decision and Action, and Resolution, that enables you to do focused research. Because the more laser you can make your research without getting tunnel vision, the more you can work aggressively and clearly. If you’re writing about bank robbers who help catch bank robbers, that’s going to give you much more targeted research than just, “bank robbers.” In other words, you’re just taking one section of it and going deep and hard into that.
Great research can give you huge quantum leaps in your material. I’ve been developing a screenplay with a client, and we’re also going to develop it into a TV series, because we have so much phenomenal material. And much of that was just from the research kind of exploding under our touch. We stumbled into multiple universes of phenomenal stuff, and into completely unexpected realms. Things that we didn’t know existed, or we did know existed but didn’t know how they interconnected with other things—these worlds just kept opening up to us. So instead of 120 minutes of movie, all of a sudden we’ve got eight seasons of amazing TV, and the people I’ve talked to about it have said, “That’s a really ass-kicking idea, they’ll eat that alive.” So it’s more than just trying to figure out the mechanics of the world that you’re trying to create on paper—it’s really about quantum-leaping the raw material for your story.
And then brainstorming with that level of great material can help you go even further. Because if you’re really a fearless brainstormer, then you’re not afraid to try crazy possibilities. You don’t want to be safe, you don’t want to just make the safe choices because that makes it easy to write. You want to be brave enough to get out there and get yourself in trouble, get in over your head. Because then, you can find the movie that everybody hasn’t seen already a dozen times. And that’s what I did with the client’s screenplay that’s turning into a TV series; yes, it’s familiar, but it’s also very fresh. And that’s what producers say—they want something familiar that they know works, but they want you to bring a fresh take to it. They want you to knock their socks off.
The 36 Dramatic Situations, Enneagram, and Theme are just dynamic, radioactive things that you can add to the story and complicate the story with.
So, it’s a cyclical, dynamic process: Choosing the major moving parts—Dilemma, Crisis, Decision and Action, and Resolution—test-driving them via the Central Proposition, and experimenting with ways to increase their power using Theme, the 36 Dramatic Situations, the Enneagram, and Research and Brainstorming.
Exactly. The more you spend time with the dilemma, trapping your protagonist into two equally painful choices, the deeper it gets, the more complex it gets, the more you understand it, the more dramatic power you bring to your material. The crisis can keep getting more complex, more involved, more multilayered, because the crisis is often the worst possible stuff happening at the worst possible moment. How bad can it get, how much can you crush this protagonist?
And you keep building and amplifying, and the 36 Dramatic Situations give you ways to amplify the power of dilemma, and amplify decision and action in the face of crisis. Who the character is, which the Enneagram helps you with, informs what kind of decision they make, what kind of action they take, what kind of dilemma they’re trapped in, what their tendencies will be, what their failures will be, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. So all of this stuff is ongoing—developing it, thinking about it, wrestling with it, forgetting about it, and coming back to it fresh.
Then when you come to apply the Central Proposition, to pull all these diverse components into one thing, it may not be the perfect racecar, but now you’ve got a chassis and engine and you can drive it around the yard. And you get out there and field test it and go, “I don’t think the engine has enough power yet, let’s get another one; let’s get a better transmission, let’s get better tires.” That’s why it’s called a proposition, you’re proposing one possible take on your story and evaluating it. It’s like, “Here’s a working prototype, here’s what I’ve been talking about cooked all down into one thing, and you know, I think I can do better.” So you go back and you amp up certain parts of it and come back and try it again, and that may be much better. Then you come back and do it again, and it’s even better.
You want to be really tough on yourself, because everybody else in the film industry will be. Nobody’s going to go, “Well, that almost worked, we love it!” It either works or it doesn’t, and they don’t care that you killed yourself creating it. They want it to just magically appear and be right.
For more on the Central Propsition, don’t miss the second part in this fascinating interview, where Jeffrey also discusses Sequence, Proposition and Plot, reflects on the weaknesses of both experienced and novice writers, and offers his greatest piece of advice to writers of all levels.
And before you go, don’t forget to take a look at our Shop, where we have several DVD lectures and seminars from Jeffrey covering his screenwriting techniques.