Diane Drake on Screenwriting

By Ann Baldwin • August 25, 2021

Diane Drake is one of just four female screenwriters with sole credit who have earned $1 million or more for their screenplays in the United States.

Her first produced script, Only You, sold for $1 million and starred Robert Downey, Jr. and Marisa Tomei. Her second, What Women Want, is the second-highest grossing romantic comedy of all time with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt.

Prior to becoming a screenwriter, Drake served as Vice President of Creative Affairs for Academy Award-winning director/producer Sydney Pollack. Drake has been an instructor/speaker for the Austin Film Festival, UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, Scriptwriters Network, Story Development Group, University Club, and Writer’s Store. She recently published Get Your Story Straight: A Step-By-Step Guide To Screenwriting By a Million Dollar Screenwriter, and has launched her own online screenwriting course and workshops at dianedrake.com.

Drake has a gift for helping screenwriters transform themselves and their screenplays to higher levels in the playing field of the film industry. We asked for some of her most fundamental advice.

You’ve said that writing is “deceptively hard-work, the sort of work that can easily drive one to Margaritaville long before it’s 5 o’clock anywhere.” Why do we write in the first place?

For me writing is not only a great excuse to learn, explore and observe; it’s also a way to both live more and to try to stay sane. The act of putting one’s thoughts, fears or fantasies down on paper helps to both distance yourself from them, see them more objectively, and at the same time, conversely, to vicariously live them.

I wrote the script for my film Only You in a small, characterless apartment on the west side of Los Angeles. I’d been to Italy once before and dreamed of returning. The characters in the movie went to Positano because I wanted to go to Positano. I got to live their fantasy adventure in my mind as I wrote it, and then got to live it—not to mention hang with Robert Downey Jr.—in reality. It doesn’t get much better.

Of course, if you’re really lucky and work really hard, you and your work get to add meaning and enjoyment to the lives of others. That’s a pretty great reward.

Most movies are about change, yet that’s something that in real life most people resist. We tend to accept the status quo, whatever that may be, until something—in screenwriting terms, the Inciting Incident—really forces our hand and triggers a necessity for change in our circumstances, and thus usually a change in ourselves as well.

My guess as to why we love seeing characters challenged over and over again in stories, is that most of us feel challenged by life a lot of the time, and are often wondering if we’re up to the task. To see a character, particularly one whom the world at large may have underestimated or who has been mistreated by the fates, rise to the occasion, struggle, grow, persevere and ultimately overcome is, I think, intrinsically heartening and inspiring. It touches something deep in almost all of us.

What is first advice you give to someone trying to come up with a story?

A wonderful writer from the 1930s, Dorothea Brande, suggested that writers:

“Pay attention to what inspires strong emotion in you; to what you love and what you hate.”

I think that’s excellent advice. What do you really love in life? What do you love in other stories and in movies you’ve seen? What resonates for you? That’s a good place to start. Just brainstorm a bit, see if you can identify some commonalities.

Then perhaps think about what makes you mad. What gets your blood boiling? Also consider what you’re curious about—what life question do you want to know the answer to?

And maybe consider what makes you feel desperate. Movies are often about someone who feels cornered by life, and then desperate times call for desperate measures, which force the person into action. That’s what movies are really about, by the way: the critical point at which somebody’s life changes and what they do about it.

Another thing I mention in my book, in terms of finding and keeping inspiration, are “seed scenes,” a term I recently came across from a writer named Clive Davies-Frayne. These are little snippets of action or bits of dialogue that come to you that become sort of touchstones for the whole.

A critical seed scene in writing What Women Want was the moment when Mel Gibson’s character first realizes what’s happening to him—that he’s hearing the private, innermost thoughts of the women all around him—and it completely freaks him out.

He frantically confides in his best friend, who is the first one to recognize and articulate the true beauty of the situation: that Mel now knows what women want. And then, with a touch of awe in his voice, he adds, “You could rule the world.”

Coming up with that scene was not only fun and inspiring, it was a guiding light for me and kept me going. It not only encapsulated what the movie was about, it felt fun, funny and tonally like what I was aiming for. And I didn’t want to let that scene go to waste.

In your book you talk about the connection between “Plot Point 1” and the logline. Can you explain this?

I actually sort of happened upon this discovery of the connection between the two by chance. I started noticing that the first Plot Point—that first significant action the hero takes at the end of Act I to try to address their problem, or at least what they perceives the problem to be—was often the essence of the movie’s logline. For example:

Tootsie: “A desperately unemployed, self-involved actor puts on a dress in order to get a job. In the process of impersonating a woman, he gradually becomes a better man.”

The 40-Year-Old Virgin: “A painfully shy 40-year-old virgin is determined to finally get laid.”

The King’s Speech: “The Duke of York, who suffers from a severe speech impediment, is unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight and the position of king of England when his father, King George V, dies, and his brother abdicates to marry an American divorcee.”

And to cite one of my own movies, What Women Want: “A chauvinistic advertising executive has a freak accident that enables him to read women’s minds. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, he truly knows what women want.”

Now, I don’t mean for people to take from this that the logline and Plot Point 1 need always match, but if you’re having trouble with one or the other, it can be helpful to examine them both and see if there’s a connection.

If you’re struggling with your logline, check your Plot Point 1. And assuming it is a significant first turning point of action for your hero, see if that element is effectively captured and communicated in your logline.

Conversely, if you think your logline is solid, check to see if Plot Point 1 is where the story you described is really kicking in, if that’s the point at which the thing that most made you want to write the script in the first place is front and center.

Act Two can be a real challenge for writers, as their story can often start to drag at this point. What do you recommend to help writers re-energize as they head into Act Two?

It’s helpful to remember that Act Two is really your Murphy’s Law act. It’s also about character development. One good way to approach writing this act is to dream up all that can possibly go wrong for your hero or heroine, then brainstorm some inventive ways for them to deal with and overcome these obstacles. Ideally ways that will ultimately enable them to somehow grow as a human being.

Also, the first half of Act Two is usually the point at which the movie turns in something of a new direction and really starts to kick into high gear. You’ve come to what is often the main reason you wanted to write a particular story in the first place, and the main thing the audience has paid to see.

A few examples of first portions of Act Two:

Tootsie: It’s where Dustin Hoffman first puts on the dress.

Toy Story: It’s where the Woody and Buzz first find themselves lost out in the big, bad world alone.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin: It’s where Andy first leaves his comfort zone, ventures into the dating world and begins to interact with women.

Argo: It’s where Tony Mendez heads to Hollywood to put his phony movie/escape plan into action.

Iron Man: It’s where Tony Stark becomes Iron Man, first flies in the prototype suit, then returns home and announces he wants out of the weapons trade, and sets about building an even more elaborate version.

Little Miss Sunshine: It’s where the whole family piles into the van and hits the road together for the beauty pageant.

You get the idea. It’s where you, as the writer, get to have some fun and play a little with what you’ve set up in Act One, before the going gets even tougher and you have to wrap things up in Act Three.

How should a writer approach villains, challenges and obstacles within a story?

First, drama is conflict. You need some sort of conflict somewhere in order to have a functioning story in the first place. But equally important, the other real purpose of these challenges to the hero or heroine is that they force them to realise their own highest potential.

These difficulties may seem to be making the hero’s life miserable, and in many cases they are, but it is in the process of striving to overcome them that the hero is forced to change, to grow and ultimately to become a more fully self-realized human being.

All of which means that if you’re creating villains and obstacles for your story, you’ll want to think about what qualities these challenges might bring out in your hero that have thus far laid dormant or been undeveloped. Think about how they might need to grow and what might effectively put the most pressure on them in this regard.

Moviemakers have the opportunity to be change-makers in regard to Hollywood’s gender, racial and pay inequality. What advice can you give to those of us who want to help create an equal playing field for all, and make a positive difference in our world?

I suppose artists have always had something of a responsibility, or at least an inclination, to somehow enhance the lives of others. I think the most we can ask of them, or of ourselves, is to do their best original work, and to be brave enough to continue to put that work out there, even when the odds seem highly stacked against it.

I think there’s something rather noble in that effort, whether or not it ultimately meets with great commercial success.

Finally, what is your ultimate goal in working with your students and clients through your online screenwriting courses and workshops?

Well, obviously everybody wants to sell a script. That’s a great goal to have. But I believe the creative process itself is equally, if not more, important.

The creative path in life can sometimes feel like the path of most resistance, and it takes real courage to pursue. But as the Zen proverb tells us, “The obstacles are the path.”

It is in the process of striving to overcome the challenges in life that we—and not at all incidentally our fictional heroes—grow. My goal is to provide screenwriters with some useful tools with which to share their own unique voices and visions. So that, as Tolstoy advised, they can “add their light to the sum of light.”

Ann Baldwin