Screenwriter's Compass

For those who believe screenwriters need to know exactly where the story's going to go, Columbia University screenwriting professor Guy Gallo says: Nonsense. In this excerpt from his new book, "Screenwriter's Compass: Character as True North," Gallo explains how exploring your story as you're going through the writing process will help guarantee that your screenplay has a unique voice and a real story to tell. 


Prior to actually doing the dirty work of composing a scene we have an amorphous idea of story. We hold in our heads an amalgam of images and thematic urgencies and story elements. As we sit down to actually put the characters in motion, enacting needs and desires, describing the behavior of the scene’s actors, we often, too often, do so with the story needs dictating the limits and shape of the scene. This is what I would call writing from the top down, writing from the story and plot down to the character and behavior and gesture. Too often, when this approach is taken (and it is by far the easier or more obvious method) the scene feels stilted or, worse, forced.

Composition creates story. If you trust your vision, if you trust your characters—then you can write the scene first and foremost with an eye to the needs of the scene. And the story will find expression. It may even find new or different expression than the one you expected. But it will be true to the characters. It will tell, in every given instant of your screenplay, what needs to be told. Not what you thought needed to be told. There is a difference.

The details of character gesture and speech, the minutia of behavior and background action, are not simply texture and color, they are not simply illustrations of character and story. Discovering truly authentic and compelling details actually generates story, reveals character. When we discover the correct word, the correct gesture or movement, location or weather, we are not filling in the blanks of some preexisting idea of plot and story. We are, in fact, creating the story in its articulation.

What follows will give you ways of thinking about scene construction and character development that will help you move from story to event to plot—creating the arena, the landscape, in which dramatic action can occur. And ways to begin the colloquy between author and character.