Inception Screenplay

Listen to the Inception Podcast:


Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan used the Story Maps method to structure the screenplay of Inception. If you analyze the narrative, you will see every one of the elements of the “Basic” and “Full” Story Map.

The most important element in the Inception screenplay is the GOAL of the protagonist, COBB, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It is so important to this particular story that it covers up potentially problematic story decisions and inhabits three of the nine main dramatic elements in the Basic Story Map…

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Dan Calvisi’s Screenwriting Videos

Analysis of Interstellar:

Discussion of X-Men: Days of Future Past:

Cast and Creator of “Justified” on the show’s excellent writing:

Danny Devito and cast of Sunny in Philly talk about what they look for in a script:

Me on the structural secret behind the famous ending in The Sixth Sense:

More Screenwriting Videos.

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8 WEEKS of firm DEADLINES and FEEDBACK on each week’s assignment from myself and your peers, using the simple yet powerful Story Maps method used by 95% of commercial movies.

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The Dark Fields starring Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper and screenwriter Leslie Dixon!

DeNiro and Cooper; photo copyright Paul Froggatt / PR Photos

Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper on the set of "The Dark Fields"

The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn was one of my favorite books I read on the job for Miramax Films back in the heyday of literary development and now it’s in production as a major feature film starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro (from Rogue Pictures and Universal Pictures).  It’s been a long road for screenwriter/producer Leslie Dixon and she deserves a great big hit movie. Of course, she’s no stranger to hit movies with a resume that includes Hairspray, The Thomas Crown Affair and Mrs. Doubtfire.

But even for a hugely successful studio veteran, it was a struggle to get a green-light. It took her years to get this film made. And this is how she did it: when Miramax failed to green-light it, she took the material on her own and never gave up on it. There were several stops and starts, including a big break when Shia LaBeouf signed to star in the thriller [Variety: 4/13/08], but when Shia dropped out the film would have gone back into development hell if not for the tenacity of Leslie Dixon.

So, once again, I tell you…Don’t Give Up.

Harvey is great with ballsy, mouthy bitches like me… The deal was struck.

Since I only knew my side of the origin of this project — I was tasked to do two rounds of notes on the book, the first pre-publication and the second post-publication when there was a script treatment — I emailed Leslie Dixon in ’09 and asked her about her stint with Miramax.  Here was her reply…

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The Great Script: Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby

(2004; Screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on stories by F.X. Toole; Directed by Clint Eastwood)

Million Dollar Baby is an incredibly focused story.  Screenwriter Paul Haggis achieves what I call “story cohesion” by making sure that every element logically flows from strong main dramatic elements while generating conflict.

The first level of focus is on a crucial element in the “Basic” portion of my outline method which is called Story Maps: Theme.

The theme of Million Dollar Baby is “second chances.”

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Act Four Newsletter 07/30/10 – DISCOUNTS, Meta-Structure and Mad Men!

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Congrats to my clients, semi-finalists in the Silver Screenwriting Competition

Congratulations and further good luck to my clients Joe Puterbaugh and Ron Cecchini and fellow The Writers’ Building member Stephen Hoover on making the semi- finals of the Silver Screenwriting Competition, the Top 20 which represents the top 2.5% out of more than 1,000 entries. Silver is quickly becoming one of the premier screenwriting contests so it’s fantastic validation for these hard-working writers and I’m proud to have worked with them.

Good luck to all the semi-finalists!

Building The Dark Knight screenplay

Christian Bale as Batman - The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight is an expert example of building an active story around Theme, one of the main dramatic elements in the “Basic Story Map.”

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In a movie, especially a superhero action thriller, there must be HIGH STAKES with SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES. Life or death. Loyalty or betrayal. Love or Duty.

In The Dark Knight, the screenwriters wisely push the story to the extremes of the conflict. To find those extremes, they began with Bruce Wayne/Batman’s character and mythology and used those elements to push him into an impossible situation.

Here are three “essential truths” of Bruce Wayne/Batman:

  • Bruce Wayne has sworn to protect the people of Gotham City.
  • Bruce’s alter-ego Batman is the only thing that can protect them.
  • Bruce’s one rule is not to kill.

The screenwriters will push Bruce into a position where he has only two options:

  1. Give up his identity as Batman and turn himself in to the authorities, or
  2. Kill The Joker.

In other words: an impossible choice.  This is what great drama is built upon.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

The glue that holds it together is Theme.

The Theme of The Dark Knight is “Desperation pushes men to act in self-destructive and chaotic ways.”

The writers use theme to create Bruce’s actions and the trials that he will face in his fight to achieve his goal. This is why I call it the “controlling” theme, because it can be used to essentially control a character’s actions and dialogue and guide the plot of your story. It maintains your crucial “story focus” that holds a Reader’s attention.

When in doubt about where to take the plot and what to make your character do…look for the answer in your theme.

  • Download the FULL STORY MAP FOR THE DARK KNIGHT Here. For revised analyses and maps of the complete Dark Knight Trilogy and Christopher Nolan’s other films, see our E-Book:

The writers began by making a list of extreme actions (things that Bruce Wayne would normally never do) that would express this theme:

  • Bruce puts faith in a politician: District Attorney Harvey Dent.
  • Bruce ignores the advice of Jim Gordon, Alfred, Harvey Dent, Lucius Fox and Rachel and decides to give up his identity.
  • Bruce tortures a suspect in an interrogation.
  • Bruce steals Lucius’ technology and uses it to infringe on the privacy of all of Gotham’s citizens, whom he has sworn to protect with honor.
  • Bruce lets Batman take the fall for murder.

It then becomes the screenwriters’ job to get Bruce into a position where he would logically (within the heightened “world” of a Batman movie) perform these actions. Since a great script focuses on a Protagonist that drives the story with their active decisions, it’s not hard to think that the above list of actions formed the basic spine of the plot, the signpost story beats that make up the “Full Story Map.”

This theme also forces other characters to take irrational action, for example:

  • Harvey Dent tortures a paranoid schizophrenic for information.
  • Jim Gordon fakes his own death, keeping the truth from his family.

And it “controls” the goal of the Antagonist, The Joker:

  • The Joker hatches an intricate terrorist plot based on fear that pushes the mob, Batman and the civilians of Gotham City to the point of desperation.

Click on image to read excerpts

Ultimately, the screenwriters used their unique theme to construct an active story with multiple lines of action and a large ensemble of characters that fills 2 hours and 24 minutes of screen time.

It also seems likely that it was a theme relevant to the times; the post-9/11 “War on Terror” era in America and abroad. The theme had urgency. And it took a well-known character that we’ve seen portrayed in several films into new dramatic territory.

In closing, if you know what your story is about – the idea you want to explore or what you want to say – then the blank page will not seem so daunting.

Good luck and happy writing!

Dan Calvisi

P.S. For more detailed analysis and lessons from the pros, please see my Story Maps book series…

The E-Books Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay and Story Maps: 12 Great Screenplays include Full Story Map analyses of 20 hit movies, primarily from the last decade.

These successful films are great examples of professional screenwriting in many different genres and budget levels aimed at varied audiences. I stand by each title as a strong example of its genre and as a primer to learn the screenwriting craft at the level that you need to be: the “submission ready” tier that makes a good script into a GREAT script.
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Purchase the Story Maps E-Books at a special bundled rate and get a free Story Map.


Screenplay Meta-Structure or “the way into the story”

You know who your story is about and what it’s about and why you’re telling the story…but HOW are you going to tell it?

Think about the general way that you’re going to tell the story before you start to lay out the scene list. What’s your way into this story?

E.T. was crafted to be told from the perspective of a young boy, Elliot. We pretty much only see what he sees, know what he knows. The film even employs low angles to give the audience the perspective of a child.

The Usual Suspects is literally told to us by Kevin Spacey’s character, who spins a long-winded tale meant to answer the question “Who is Keyser Soze?” The answer is not revealed until the climax when we learn that he is Keyser Soze.

Citizen Kane uses the framing device of a reporter’s investigation, thus motivating a trip through the life of Charles Foster Kane, all in answer to the question “What is Rosebud?”

Slumdog Millionaire uses the questions in the quiz show as catalysts for flashbacks that show us Jamal’s journey from the slums to his lower-class job as a Chai server to his chance to win a million dollars on TV — these scenes show us how he gathered the information to answer the question at hand, a deft use of Cause & Effect. The quiz show becomes the spine of the story, providing the foundation for Jamal’s pursuit of his external and internal goals, which are, put simply, the money and the girl. It’s interesting to note that these two goals represent Jamal’s two worlds: the upper class world of money and the lower class world of danger and desperation.

These examples were the screenwriters’ chosen perspectives and central engines for the story. They could have chosen 100 other devices with which to tell these particular stories, but they chose these narrative devices, probably because they best exemplified the key elements in their Basic Story Map, like Goals, Theme and Arc.

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Just write the BEST SCRIPT you’re capable of writing

Working, professional Reader Carson Reeves runs a site named “Script Shadow” — if you haven’t checked it out, you should do so now.

Script Shadow consistently publishes detailed reviews of spec scripts that have recently sold in Hollywood.  Carson reads and reviews the Black List finalists (in which most of the top scoring scripts have been optioned, sold and/or put into production by the time of publication) and any spec that’s hot and garnered a six to seven figure sale or a greenlight. He also runs small contests (with the prize of a published review from him, not cash, which I like) and publishes articles about what goes into a great screenplay.

I’d like to highlight a particular post from May 2010, titled “Why Bad Scripts Sell and Why It Shouldn’t Matter To You,” which has a lot to say about bad scripts but what I love the most about it are the conclusions drawn about GOOD scripts. From the article…

So now you know Hollywood’s dirty little secret. Bad scripts do sell! But here’s the thing about all of the above examples: THEY DON’T APPLY TO YOU. You don’t have agents or managers or the luxury of pitching movies over lunch to people who can actually make them. The ONLY thing you have…is your screenplay. And that’s why YOUR screenplay DOES have to be great.

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A screenwriter is hired for a negotiated fee to write or rewrite a script within a certain timeframe. The writer is guaranteed of payment if he/she fulfills the terms of the contract (and the employer honors the contract).

A work-for-hire generally consists of steps in which the writer receives a payment for each portion of the script that is delivered on schedule. Steps might include the beat sheet, treatment, first draft, producer’s draft, polish draft, etc.

Unfortunately, it is becoming more commonplace for studios to use “one step deals” in which the writer gets only one payment for one pass then is often asked to do extra drafts for free (usually to incorporate notes from the studio, the producer or talent). (also see Packaging a script) The WGA is trying to crack down on these abuses.

Work-for-Hire is generally only for experienced writers. A newcomer must be known for at least one quality spec script before being considered for work-for-hire jobs (see Spec Script).

A Work-for-Hire is also known as a writing assignment. The screenwriter is writing “on assignment” (with employer) as opposed to “on spec” (on their own).

Unsolicited Submission

An Unsolicited Submission is a screenplay submission that is not coming from a professional source (an agent, lawyer, or manager). Many production companies and studios refuse to read unsolicited submissions, but they all keep a Submission Release Form on hand for when they get tempted by a new writer with a fantastic logline.

Keep in mind that many agencies and management companies also employ a “No Unsolicited Submissions” rule, so you need an agent to get an agent!  The way around this is to network and meet repped writers so they will give you a referral to their agent or manager.

The common wisdom is that managers are more likely to read material from new writers than agents but it is my experience that they can be just as tough to get to. The first step is to win over their assistant and get them to accept your submission.


The plot of a screenplay written out in prose form, generally in one to two pages. The story, specifically the action of the story; beginning, middle, and end; very clearly written and meticulously proofread.

The treatment should be very spare and straightforward — it should not contain extraneous emotional or cerebral content nor long excerpts of dialogue. I feel that it is crucial for a screenwriter to write a treatment of their story before they begin writing the actual script to see how it works on the page and how it is balanced to the four act structure, and then also after they’re finished to help market it. Many companies will require a one page treatment sent ahead of time for review before they accept the screenplay.

Also called a synopsis or pitch; not to be confused with a long-form 25 page treatment, or even longer scriptment (a phrase popularized by James Cameron) which includes blocked excerpts of dialogue and can be written moreso in a hybrid screenplay format.

It should also be noted that it is extremely difficult for unestablished writers to sell just a treatment without the accompanying screenplay. Employers want to see your unique concept executed on the screenplay page in your voice before they’ll buy just the idea and general structure in treatment form.

Three Act Structure

Three Act Structure (a.k.a standard structure) is the classical, proven form of storytelling in film. Form, not formula. It does not dictate your story choices, only where you might place the major plot points.

This structure is based on Aristotle’s three act dramatic structure: beginning, middle, and end. Also known as Three Act Restorative Structure, as the story begins with an order that is thrown into chaos, and by the end a new restoration of order is reached.

My estimate is that 95% of modern movies fit into a three-act structure, including most foreign films and seemingly more experimental cinema such as Paranormal Activity, Borat, Being John Malkovich or The Blair Witch Project.

Personally, I break the three acts into four, separating act two into 2A and 2B.

Submission Release Form

A waiver provided by a production company and signed by an un-repped writer who is making an unsolicited submission (see Unsolicited Submission). Protects the production company in the event they produce a film featuring a similar story as the writer’s screenplay and it produces a paper trail for the writer as a record of the submission.

The Submission Release Form is the way around the “no unsolicited submissions” rule if a production company really wants to read your script.

Story Analyst

Also known as a “Reader.” The person who reads a written submission (usually a screenplay or a novel) for a producer or executive and writes up an evaluation report called coverage. Since producers and executives can’t possibly read every submission that comes through the door, they employ story analysts to sift through most of it, and the exec only reads what gets screened and/or what is dubbed high-priority.

Spec Script

A spec script is a screenplay written to be sold on the open market, as opposed to one commissioned by a studio or production company (see Work-for-Hire). No guarantee of payment. The greater risk of a spec script can pay off in a bigger sale.

The only way for a new screenwriter to break in is to have a strong spec screenplay that will establish them by being an impressive writing sample or their first sale.

Shooting Script

The final draft of a screenplay before going into production. Has been given the final okay by the Director, the Producers and Executives and contains scene numbers and possibly camera cues and other visual references.

As a spec screenwriter, you should not be concerned with shooting scripts or formatting your script to look like one.  Keep in mind that many of the produced screenplays you see posted online are shooting scripts, not submission drafts (see Reader’s Script) so you should not necessarily emulate the style and format of these drafts. Many shooting scripts also tend to be much longer than your average spec screenplay, which should be around 110 pages.

Registering your script/book

All screenplays and written material should be registered with the Writer’s Guild of America West or East before submitting to anyone or any professional entity. Your work (anything written may be registered) will be sealed in an envelope (or digitally archived) and date stamped. For non-members, this service currently costs $20 in L.A. (five years registration) and $22 in NY (10 years registration). It may be done online, via mail or in person at the offices in New York or Los Angeles. You should also copyright your work (see Copyright). Titles cannot be protected.

Readers Script

The submission draft. A screenplay written to be submitted to a production company. Should read well and flow; should not contain scene numbers or visual directions. A Reader’s script should feature a dynamic opening, short scenes, fast pacing and never exceed 120 pages in length (see Shooting Script).  I suggest you keep it under 110 pages. HERE is more about what I like to see in a great script.