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A sample lesson from our Screenwriting Course...


The screenplay tells a story using character and action. The most common pitfall in writing the screenplay is making it one-dimensional. Stories that concentrate too much on action tend to be shallow, while those that concentrate too much on character tend to be dull. The best stories avoid this by developing clearly defined action and realistic, complex characters. Both of these ingredients are essential to a screenplay's entertainment and thematic value. 

To achieve this balance, the main character, or protagonist, must be involved in two story lines. One story line deals with his/her outer motivation, and the other deals with his/her inner motivation. The inner and outer stories are fleshed out through conflict and theme. Let's take a closer look at these elements:

Outer Motivation

The outer motivation is about the protagonist's outward goal (i.e., desire). This goal must be tangible and manifests itself in physical action. The action need not be high energy, but it must be clear to the audience.  The outer motivation is resolved when the protagonist succeeds or fails at achieving his goal.

The outer motivation is about physical action, so it provides most of the script's entertainment value. It moves the story forward by keeping the audience interested in the outcome. Without a strong outer motivation, there is little momentum and the result is a boring script.

In The Godfather, Michael's outer motivation is to avenge his father's shooting. In Rocky, Rocky's outer motivation is to win the championship fight.


   The outer story is about:
      a tangible goal

Inner Motivation

The inner motivation is about the protagonist's inner need (i.e., character flaw).  It is not fully recognized by the protagonist despite the fact that it governs the negative way he treats himself and the people that care about him. The inner motivation can be guilt, ambition, or selfishness, to name a few. It is resolved when the protagonist recognizes and overcomes it.

The inner motivation is usually caused by a traumatic experience in the protagonist's past. The inner motivation is ultimately about relationships, so it is how character and theme are explored.  

In The Godfather, Michael's inner story is about his transformation into a heartless killer. Although he follows in his father's footsteps to become the Don, he does it without any of his father's compassion, killing family members and enemies alike. Unlike most protagonists, Michael shows negative growth at the end of the story rather than positive.

In Sophie's Choice, Sophie is haunted by guilt after being forced to choose which of her two children must die in a Nazi gas chamber. 

Sophie's Choice

   The inner story is about:
      a character flaw

Inner vs. Outer Motivation - The inner motivation gives depth to the story because it explores character and theme. It is, however, slow moving and depends heavily upon the outer motivation to hook the audience with exciting action. For this reason, the outer motivation is called the spine of the script.


Conflict is opposition between characters.   When faced with conflict, the protagonist is forced to take action. As the story progresses, each new conflict must become seemingly more insurmountable and provocative than the last.  Ultimately, the protagonist must develop a plan of action to succeed.

Both the inner and outer stories must contain conflict. The outer story involves conflict with an opponent who prevents the protagonist from achieving his goal. The inner story involves conflict with an ally, such as a love interest or friend, who is trying to help the protagonist.  The inner story deals with personal struggle so it gives the protagonist depth and realism.

Conflict can be in the form of a dispute, challenge, deficiency, decision, threat, or an obstacle.  It creates tension in the audience and curiosity about the outcome. This makes for a quick moving, interesting story.  Conflict, therefore, is the single most effective story element for keeping the audience involved.  It is the essence of drama!

      is the opposition of characters
      drives the story forward
      keeps the audience interested


Theme is an idea presented in a story about the meaning of life or the human condition. By its nature, theme embodies the writer's opinions about the issues dealt with in the screenplay. All great movies explore one or more themes.

Theme is developed through the inner story line, which deals with character growth and interpersonal relationships. In a properly structured story, action converges as the protagonist encounters increasing conflict. At the same time, theme expands as values of the protagonist are revealed and tested.

If theme is too obvious it will dominate the story and seem pretentious. It must, therefore, be implicit in the action. Any use of symbols, metaphors, and motifs must be woven subtly into the fabric of the story. The least effective way to convey theme is through direct dialogue.

      is a statement about life
      is developed though the inner story
      must be implicit in the action

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If you are interested in learning more about the movies used  in this
 lesson, click on the title or picture (courtesy 20th Century Fox,
MCA/Universal, Paramount, TCM, and Warner Brothers).

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