Story Maps: Essential Screenwriting Guide

Introduction by Dan Calvisi

Over a period of years, I developed the Story Map method of structural analysis, which can be used to construct a new narrative or deconstruct an existing one. I discovered the importance of not just hitting page points, but using what I call Active Storytelling, which is making your scenes and your characters’ actions advance the story and bring about change while maintaining a cohesion built on theme and escalating conflict.
The purpose of the book is simple: to help you improve your craft and increase your odds of getting your script to impress a decision-maker in Hollywood. That’s it.
This method is not a guarantee of success, or a way to sidestep the hard work of building your craft and developing your voice. It’s a comprehensive working process that has guided hundreds of writers to craft their best work, and I’m excited and proud to bring it to you. There are tons of books on screenwriting. So why this one?

  • It’s from the perspective of the person on the other side of the desk who evaluates your material. No matter where you’re at in your career or who you know, you still need to blow away the reader, so I’m going to show you the best and most focused way to emulate the many successful scripts and movies that I’ve studied for over two decades.
  • My structure system applies to every genre and the beats are always in the same order. There is no mixing and matching, order changes, or needless categorizing as with other systems. My method is stripped down to the practical essentials—let’s leave the theory and the journal entries and the pats on the back behind—I’m preparing you for the market to get past brutal readers like myself.
  • All of the analysis and guidelines in this book are based on the current, model spec screenplay in Hollywood. Lean, mean and fast-paced, this is not your uncle’s screenplay – this is not a winking holdover from the “Boom-Boom” ‘80s and ‘90s (you know, when they were handing out spec deals at LAX?). This 100-110 page cinematic emotion machine has a very clear and clean set of guidelines, qualities and standards, some of which can be broken, but only if you’ve mastered them first.
  • All of the advice (and the quotations, which you’ll find in the “From The Trenches” sidebars) comes from my direct experience with working professionals in the movie industry. If I quote a source (other than the great Billy Wilder, R.I.P.), then it’s because I personally spoke with them or was in the room when they spoke. These are exclusive bits of wisdom I’ve gathered from living and working in Los Angeles and New York City.

I’m going to strip it down.
I’m going to be tough on you.
I’m going to ask, “Are you a real writer?”

I’m going to show you many examples from produced screenplays written by top professionals. I’m going to keep up the pace and get to the point, with all the

fat trimmed and focused only on the crucial information.

Just as I like my scripts.

Good Luck and Happy Writing!

Dan Calvisi
Four Act Screenplays

Buy The Book here

Put your screenplays to a peer review test here The Writer’s Building, a member site operated by Dan, that I have been an original member of for more years than I care to name.

A god for every thing to a god of everything

Humans are pattern and meaning seeking by our nature; pattern seeking is instinctual, so it is the meaning seeking that sets us apart from other animal species. Meaning and the ability to adapt to living in our own waste, at least.

By pattern seeking, I am referring to understanding and correctly identifying cause and effect. Back in primitive times, hearing the long grass rustle was a sign of a nearby prey or predator, so our ancestors pieced together a variety of clues to understand if they were going to get lunch or become lunch.

In understanding patterns, we are the same as any other animal in that we understand and respond to stimuli in a manner which ensures our continued survival and live to breed another day. We may not always correctly interpret the stimuli and may miss out on having lunch a few times, but it’s better on the balance to miss lunch than to be lunch.

On a low level of magnitude, it is the meaning of the stimuli that determines the correctness of the response and the benefit or loss of the resulting outcome. The rustle in the grass could be a prey animal, a predator or something totally benign. This level of meaning is understood by animals – changes in posture, colour, sounds, all convey meaning of intent, danger, dominance or submission between individual animals and across species.

But the degree of meaning that separates humans from all the rest of the animals is symbolic meaning – okay, we don’t even have that, since some animal species seem to communicate symbolic meaning with external signifiers – like bowering birds –  the males of which build elaborate nests that are highly decorated to attract mates – these structures symbolic of their prowess as hunters.

But the human magnitude of symbolism is more than just strutting one’s hunter/gatherer/fertility capacity; but rather, we understand things not as they are or what they represent – but we can represent symbolically – mathematically, metaphorically, we create fiction to understand ourselves symbolically.

When animals gather materials for display, they are representing their capacity as breeding stock and demonstrating their value as mates. Animals do not gather materials for trade and create relative value between objects – animals material represents a zero sum game – the offerings are good enough or they are not – females do not negotiate with males for a bigger or brighter display – they assess the display and accept or reject the male.

Males who battle each other for the right to mate with females, often inflict fatal wounds and both die in conflict while the female are off mating with lesser alpha males. The breeding season for animals is a yes or no, zero sum proposition.

Humans, not having a breeding season, are unique of all the animals, in that we can breed at any time of the year, and mating is endlessly negotiable. As are all other exchanges between individuals and groups of people. We constantly revise and create value for exchange and, as a result, meaning, of the items of exchange, be they objects or our time, skills, labour and person.

It is understandable then, that as humans lived in increasingly complex societies and developed technology to move from sustenance hunter/gatherers into farmers, potters, builders, engineers and artists, that we needed to give meaning to the patterns we could see –, sunrise and sunset, moon phases, the passing of seasons – why earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and crop harvests happened.

Because we developed and improved technology and produced more food than we immediately needed, we eventually came up with what is probably our most important invention that I don’t think has ever been recognized for its importance and cultural significance: leisure time.

Necessity is certainly the mother of invention, but that only deals with the immediate “what” – it is leisure time that allows us to ponder the why and how of the world.

It is logical that the earliest means to explain why crops failed or the rains came was owing to animal spirits or personified forces of nature being pleased or displeased with us. Humans are the centre of our experience, so we view the universe in a human centric manner – we experience the effect by reaping the benefit or paying the price, so we must also cause the benefit or the price, right?

By organizing into more complex societies and freeing up time and even people from having to hunt or gather foods, we were able to dedicate and divide the labour to include extracting mineral resources, improving tools, storage of food resulting in crafts such as pottery, weaving, sewing and artisans to add value and symbolism, to communicate and convey meaning non-verbally – it was the beginning of abstract thinking and representation.

With the division of labour arising from individual aptitude or socially constructs such as birth family and social class ranks, came the rise of the early religious orders.

Shamans, medicine men and women, healers, witches, warlocks, priests, priestesses, people who acted as intermediaries between the human occupied world and the world of the spirits, ancestors and natural forces. These people explained the world beyond ours, and made pleas and offerings on our behalf and told us how to placate the spirits when need be.

Over time and increasingly complex societies, the religious orders gained more wealth, influence and prestige – they were the spiritual leaders and often the same as the political leaders – and woe to the peoples who had these two as separate and in conflict.

Political leaders are limited to being a leader in this life – as long as a leader was mighty enough, he rules. But in order to consolidate perpetual leadership beyond the leader’s own life, the idea of the leader as divine ruler, giving the leaders’ descendants a claim to leadership without having to prove their personal might, the political and religious leader merged into one and the same.

It was just impolite to point out that leader and peasants both died, so the divinity of the leader was passed from parent to child, and the less said about regime changes and close or distantly related people ascending the better.

The supernatural or before/afterlife world of spirits and forces of nature that once was a means to explain the change of seasons and why natural events happened, became over time, a social function of concentrating wealth, conferring status and influence and finally, a self-justifying means to hang onto said power and wealth on no more basis than tradition, fear and superstition.

Like all human inventions, religion became more complex over time in the same way that our economies became more complex and interconnected. The medicine men and women gave way to doctors and priests, and the animal spirits and forces that sought appeasement to personified deities that required sacrifice and worship.

With the rise of modern science from earlier organic and naturalistic applied science – construction, engineering, technology development – religion is simply no longer relevant to explain the natural universe, as evidenced by its own evolution from the organic spirit world beyond to complex social caste to the modern complacent corruption.

Science has displaced religion from its traditional role of explaining why natural disasters occurred, how things work and manifest and is increasingly, providing a better model of social behaviour and ethics than religion with its sex and financial scandals, influence peddling and other corruption and betrayals of its stated values and social role.

In primitive times and small groups, humans who were unable to work and play well with others simply didn’t survive long enough to breed – the increasingly size and complexity of societies meant codifying what working and playing well together meant, and it was often local religions that codified these behaviours – but the rise of political leadership independent of religious leadership meant our societies became defined by civil aka secular behavioral codes.

The signing of the Magna Carta further freed human existence from depending on the good will of political leaders and the US Declaration of Independence began  a new social experiment that made political leaders dependant on the good will of the populace.

Sadly, even this social experiment has become tainted by religious interference, first with the addition of “under god” in the oath of allegiance and continued today by the religious right’s delivering blocks of votes in exchange for policy and funding concessions. Exactly the kind of meddling the founding fathers sought to avoid. Worse, many Americans now believe that the founding fathers were Christians in the modern sensibility of it and that to be a true American, one has to unquestioningly support the government and obey god – the exact opposite of the premise that America was actually founded on which was rejecting absolute authority and freedom of choice.

Early humans believed that there was a spirit, basically a god, for everything – every type of animal, sometimes plant, and for everything in nature, sun, moon, water, fire and early civilizations had pantheons of gods of all human activities, hunting, farming, child birth, war, and with the Abrahamic religions came the god of everything – and it’s telling that the majority of religions practiced today do not have a monotheistic concept, they remain pantheons.

In earlier times, groups of humans went to war for territory to accumulate resources, to empire build. Likely, this will always be a driving force behind wars – but our modern society has a complex system of diplomacy, of holding borders between nations in place and today, borders largely change owing to internal divisions, which diplomacy still plays a role in.

The dangerous unending, bitter and divisive wars are largely owing to religion – religions that posits one group as better than all other groups and it is religion that often collapses a nation or pits two or more against each other.

Religion serves no master nor can it be mastered, it needs to be reigned in and put out to pasture as a failed social experiment. Religion serves only to keep the poor masses poor on a thin promise of an afterlife reward later for submitting to suffering now.

Religion retards social and scientific progresses that make life less miserable and redistributes the wealth and benefits of labour, economic participation that results in a sustainable and less criminal/warlike culture. Social progress means that people matter both literally and symbolically and religion actually takes away that meaning by its premise that this life is a dress rehearsal for what is beyond this life, without being able to prove that there is anything beyond this life.

Religion demands that people submit to suffering, to material and philosophical poverty, all while the priest elite gather wealth and power while crying that they will have a hard time to obtain a favorable afterlife because the poor and suffering are practically guaranteed reservations. Telling then, that the priest elite aren’t interested in sharing the wealth or obeying the same behaviour codes imposed on the masses.