The Most Obvious Career Strategy No One Uses


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting, story analysis

“Kobe Bryant became one of the best basketball players in the world not because he mastered a lot of fancy moves.

He became one of the best basketball players in the world because he mastered the basics, over and over and over again. He then took those basics to a whole new level of executional perfection.”

^^This is something I read recently and – I’ll be honest – I have no idea if this is true. (I’m an occasional basketball viewer, at best.) But what I immediately thought when I read this was just how true it is of screenwriting.

Sure, sometimes there’s a screenplay that does something groundbreaking and flashy – Memento comes to mind, probably Inception too, for that matter. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Also any of the occasional scripts that are written in first person (and manage to pull it off).

But most of the time, the scripts we really, truly love? Tell a good story. A good story, not necessarily a flashy one. A good story first, and then maybe it’s flashy too – but that’s icing.

(And to be fair, the movies I named above are – in my opinion – all good stories in addition to doing something I’d put into the “fancy move” category.)

A good story is one that’s sound. It’s able to engage our minds and hearts and evoke emotion because it’s built on a solid foundation. And it may have flashy scenes – we’re talking about movies, after all; we want an entertaining, cinematic experience, which flashy scenes can help provide. But those exciting scenes kind of have to be in service to the good story itself, otherwise they don’t really matter.

Fancy moves won’t get you very far without a foundation of the basics to back them up. But for some reason, practicing the basics gets overlooked. It’s probably the most obvious career strategy that no one uses.

You know the basics, but do you know the basics?

First, what basics are we talking about? For this conversation, I’m specifically talking about the foundation elements: protagonist, story goal, antagonist/conflict, and stakes.

There are other screenwriting basics that are important to master – building and developing characters, effective dialogue, etc. But let’s start with the foundation elements, because they’re more likely to get neglected for some reason.

You might be thinking that focusing on the basics will result in a basic, boring, or cliched script. But not so, my friend. It doesn’t guarantee a stand-out script either – that’s why they are basics. They’re the foundation your script needs in order to work at all.

But if you nail these elements, your script will be better than at least 80% of scripts written by pre-professional writers. Really. (And I think I’m being conservative there.) Because even though it seems obvious, many newer writers forget about the basics.

And I don’t say that with any judgment, toward myself or anyone else. I applaud writers who are trying to learn the craft, working hard at figuring out what they need to know to write a script that works. (I’ve been there too.) But in that process, whether we’re aware of it or not, the basics don’t always get the attention they deserve.

Maybe it’s because there’s just so much to remember, so many skill sets to juggle while you’re writing, something is bound to slip through the cracks. Maybe it’s because the basics seem kinda boring so we hurry past them to get to more exciting things. Maybe it’s because they are so basic that it’s easy to assume we don’t need to worry about them.

And yet… there’s a difference between knowing the basics and executing them. That’s where the real challenge comes in, right? Putting it on the page.

Let’s practice putting it on the page

Most of the early drafts I’ve read by writers who are still in the learning-the-craft stage have some kind of struggle in one of the foundation element areas. And that’s not because the writers don’t know or understand the basics. But when we’re new (or new-ish) to writing, by definition we’ve had less experience executing. It usually takes some time to get good at it.

By the time a writer is writing professionally consistently, they’ve figured out how to construct a story. That doesn’t mean they nail it every time, and certainly not on the first try, but they know what it takes and they can get there.

But along the way there’s a lot of trial and error. Writing a script. Seeing if you nailed it. No? Trying to understand why not. Figuring out what isn’t working.

There can be a lot of frustration. Feeling like you understand the concepts. But finding that what’s in your head isn’t making it out onto the page in a way that readers pick up on. Your intentions aren’t getting through.

When you realize that – if you’re motivated – then you start trying to figure out what the ideas and all the theory actually looks like in practice.

So that’s want I want to do over the next few weeks: look at how to successfully execute the foundation elements – those basics we need to master, but that often get overlooked.

Each of the next few weekly emails you get from me will focus on one of the foundation elements, specifically identifying the tricks and techniques a few different screenplays have used to establish or convey these elements on the page.

My hope is that by the end of this series, you’ll have a clear understanding of how to make sure your story’s foundation is in place AND that it’s actually showing up in the script. (Because it’s no good to you if it’s just in your head! 😄)

The protagonist on the page

Let’s dive in today with what tends to be the most straightforward foundation element to establish: the protagonist.

Even though it’s the foundation element you’re least likely to struggle with establishing clearly on the page, there are a couple of patterns I’ve noticed that are worth mentioning (since we are diligently practicing the basics, here).

  1. If it’s unclear who the protagonist is, it may be because the writer is unsure or undecided about who the protagonist is.
  2. Or it may be because the writer isn’t yet conveying that information clearly.

In other words, it’s either a problem of not knowing, or not showing. 😂

If the writer hasn’t yet decided or landed on a clear protagonist, then that needs to be addressed in some pre-writing work before writing or fixing any screenplay pages. But in this series I want to focus on the second type: when you know what you want to convey, but you’re still figuring out how to do so.

Techniques for establishing the protagonist in your screenplay

Let’s think for a second about an ineffective example. If you’re reading a script that hasn’t properly established the protagonist, you’ll feel a little confused or disoriented. You’ll be unsure which character to focus on, who is important, which character’s story it is.

If there are a few characters who could be the protagonist, you might feel unsure if one of them is meant to be the center of the story, or if it’s supposed to be an ensemble.

And maybe these seem like minor considerations. But, again – we’re talking about the basics, the fundamentals.

If the first significant impression of your screenplay is that we can’t tell who the main character is, your reader begins to lose confidence in the script and the writing.

I know. I’m sorry.

So how do we avoid this confusion?

This (and so much of screenwriting) comes down to pointing the reader’s mind-camera at the right thing. When your movie is still in screenplay form, the writer is essentially the director – you’re creating the movie in our minds as we read.

And just like a movie wouldn’t use only one wide shot with no specific purpose or emphasis to capture all of the action in a scene, what you put on the page should be more deliberate about directing our attention where it needs to be in order to consume your story. In this case, showing us who the protagonist is by directing our attention that way.

Alright, let’s get to the specifics. The concrete examples. Let’s see it on the page!

Midsommar, written by Ari Aster

When you read these pages, who do you see as the protagonist and why?

By the bottom of page 1, we meet Dani. She’s the first character to be given a name; the characters who appear prior are only referred to as Man and Woman. This lets us know who’s important, who to focus on.

We get more of a sense of Dani than the other two characters. For the Man and Woman, we’re given ages and told they’re “extremely still.” On the other hand, we’re told Dani is “beautiful but delicate,” which creates a more detailed visual image in our minds.

Maybe most importantly, we’re brought into Dani’s point of view and into her emotional experience as she finds the ominous email and “stares at this, anxiety rising.” So we’re aligning closely with her; she’s getting our focus.

When Dani next calls Christian – he gets a name, so perhaps this skews our impression of who’s important? But, no. Before we could even wonder if we have the right character pegged as protagonist, the camera stays on Dani – so our attention stays on Dani and what she’s going through, her experience of the events. Because it’s her story.

CODA, screenplay by Sian Heder, based on La Famille Belier

In CODA, it’s true that Ruby is the first character we meet – but if that was the only thing the script did to indicate who the protagonist was, it wouldn’t be enough. There are plenty of other techniques being used here.

Ruby is introduced first but very quickly followed by two more characters: Frank, her dad, and Leo, her brother. But even in this situation, where the three characters are engaged in the same activity, working alongside each other, Ruby is still set apart from the men.

She’s singing, they’re not. Her role in this operation is separate from theirs, while the other two are doing the same thing. She’s the one to break up the work with bit of humor.

And then, at the bottom of page 1, you can see that we’re brought into her point of view as she “leans over the rail, watching the rocky granite shoreline.”

Again, these are all small details and choices that the writer made, but they all help direct our attention at the character at the center of this story.

The Chip ‘N Dale’s Rescue Rangers Reboot No One Asked For, written by Dan Gregor & Doug Mand

I wanted to include this example because it’s so different from the first two. Even if you had no idea who Chip and Dale are, and didn’t know this was a movie about them, you’d still know from these pages who to focus on.

Here, we set up the world first, because that’s context that we need for this story. But it’s also telling us about the protagonist (or one of them) even if we don’t know it yet.

We see Dale on page 5, but by then we already know that he’s been run through the grinder of the Hollywood system and he’s now having the last bit squeezed out of him. That’s where he is in life – at the “Autograph and Nostalgia Expo.” Clearly aged, but fighting it.

So everything leading up to meeting Dale is really informing our understanding of him. And even though we meet several other characters before him, we don’t linger on any of them. They’re blips on the screen but Dale gets a scene – even if it’s a punchline at his expense! Which reinforces how past his prime he is, but doesn’t take away from the emphasis and focus that we’re getting on the character.

The camera (in our minds) is clearly pointed at Dale, he has a strong desire which we know will translate to drive, and – like the earlier examples – bringing us into Dale’s point of view and experience of what’s going on helps us identify him as important in (and the focus of) this story.

Who is your protagonist?

Now that you’ve seen some techniques in action, take a look at your own script pages. What do you think?

  • Which of these strategies are you already using to direct our attention to the protagonist?
  • Are there any that could make your pages even stronger?

It’s all about guiding our attention, showing us what’s important in this story. When characters are all introduced with equal weight – as in, all or multiple characters are named and get the same amount of screen time and none of their points of view are being emphasized – it’s confusing and disorienting to the reader.

When everything is emphasized, nothing is emphasized, and when nothing is emphasized, nothing is emphasized. 😂

So find ways to show us what to focus on so that we understand what you want us to see, and in that way we take in the story you want to tell.

This is just the first of our Focus on the Basics series, and next week I’ll direct your attention to the story goal and how to make sure it established clearly.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.