Karl Iglesias on Screenwriting
Karl Iglesias discusses the elements of a well-written screenplay, today’s movie landscape, and writing for emotional impact.
- "The emotional response of the audience is the most paramount and important thing when it comes to storytelling."
Karl Iglesias is an author, script consultant, and much sought-after screenwriting teacher. He also has a habit of being at the right place at the right time.
A son of flamenco dancers, Iglesias travelled throughout Europe as a child before moving to the United States. He earned a B.A. in Psychology from Cornell, but wanted to be an actor. He followed a friend out to L.A. to “try the acting thing,” only to discover the screenplay, and never looked back.
“When I realized that I didn’t have a lot of control as an actor, but I had more control with a screenplay, I fell in love with screenwriting,” he says. “I felt more in control. Then everything fell into place from there, in terms of my interest in psychology, and my love of storytelling, and, of course, my love for films.”
After working as a screenwriter for while, Iglesias was hired as a writer for actor Edward James Olmos’ production company. His experience working for Olmos led him going to various moviemaking conferences, which is how he eventually ended up writing his first book, 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, which, in turn, led to teaching and writing a regular column for Creative Screenwriting (and his best-selling DVDs), and his second book, the successful Writing for Emotional Impact.
“Again that was being at the right place and right time,” he admits. From there, Iglesias began working as a speaker and consultant, and as screenwriting teacher.
What is it about story-telling, particularly screenwriting, that resonates with you the most?
Who doesn’t like movies, right? It’s the most popular art form for the last 100 years. One of the things that I think movies have over any other art form – we all like stories, whether it’s a joke, a commercial or a three-minute short film – we love stories. That’s ingrained in us as human beings. But movies specifically, it encompasses all other art forms. You have cinematography for photography, drama for theatre, writing, music, so all of the other art forms that people love come together in movies, and TV. So I think that’s really the appeal of it. Plus, it’s a short time commitment. Even these days with the popularity of binge-watching TV shows on Netflix, people like to grasp an entire story in one sitting.
Do you think anyone can be taught to write a screenplay? That any writer can learn the technicalities of a good screenplay?
Yes, absolutely. And my teaching has proved that to me. But here’s the thing: there’s this wonderful quote that I always talk about and that I love. It’s by the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, and he said, “Art is fire plus algebra.” And what I think he meant by that is it’s a combination of technique and craft, which is very teachable and anyone can learn that. And “fire” is the creativity and the originality and the talent of the writer. But I think anyone can learn how to write a screenplay, but it’s not a guarantee that it’s going to be good because of the originality.
In other words, you can write a technically perfect screenplay, but it might not be original and creative, which won’t make it ultimately satisfying. So you have to have the two. I always give this quote because the only thing I can provide as a teacher is the algebra part, the craft part. And this is something that I’m good at in terms of analyzing what works, what creates that emotional connection that people look for. Not everyone teaches that because they’re not able to see what I see in terms of how to teach it. But teaching screenwriting in terms of form is doable. Just not the originality part.
Writers are grilled about the three-act structure. Do you agree that certain elements should appear at certain times in the screenplay?
Not exactly. The whole Save The Cat thing, I knew Blake (Snyder) personally, and he was a very nice guy, good teacher, passionate about the craft. But I kind of disagreed with his specific page counts. “The theme is stated on page five, not page three,” I mean that’s ridiculous. But there’s a little bit of truth to that. But it doesn’t have to do with page numbers. It has to do with timing.
There’s also another script guru, Michael Hauge, who talks about percentages, which I think is more accurate than page numbers. He talks about the 10% mark of your project is when the inciting event should happen, which is around page 10 or so of your screenplay, and that’s mostly accurate.
And the reason why I ascribe to that has to do with the way we absorb stories, the way we expect things to happen. If something takes too long, like the introduction of a character or an event, we begin to wonder when things are going to start. The inciting event could happen five minutes in, ten minutes in, but if it happens twenty minutes in, that’s when we’re going to disconnect.
The movement of a story definitely has specific proportions that have been shown to be satisfying to audiences since the beginning of time. For example, the movement of story in three acts – the beginning, the middle and the end. That’s something you can’t disagree with. Whether people are talking about 22 steps or 15 beats or four or five acts, or whatever, it comes down to three movements. So I definitely believe in three acts. Although I do say the second act is usually two parts plus the midpoint, so it’s technically four acts. But that just confuses people.
I’d like to talk about your book about writing for emotional impact. That’s a different perspective that’s not really talked about even though I think that’s why people watch movies whether or not they realize it.
Absolutely. I don’t want to call it a secret, but it is really important in terms of appreciating a story or not. Why you are bored or excited by movies. When you say “I love this movie” or “I hated this movie” is because of emotions. So if the writer or director didn’t make you have specific positive motions then they failed as a storyteller. So it’s all about that. The emotional response of the audience is the most paramount and important thing when it comes to storytelling.
What moved you to write a book about it?
That came about through the first book, the 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters. In 101 Habits, there’s one section about craft where I talk about the reason why screenwriters are successful is their ability to create a character or create suspense, etc. So habit 69 is evoking emotion on the page, and that’s really what it came down to. Unless you evoke emotion on the page to the reader, you will not be successful. And the reason why successful screenwriters are successful is because they can. And that’s craft. So people were starting to asking more about the craft at these conferences where I was talking. And when I was talking about emotional impact in my presentations, people were asking, “Well, do you have a book about it?” So I wrote it because people wanted to know more about it. And luckily no one else teaches about it, so I kind of have that niche. Although they kind of do, they all want to say it but no one teaches it as specifically as I do.
So emotional impact can be taught?
Yes. The book itself is designed to give specific techniques to create the intent that you have. The book is divided into all the single elements of a screenplay — the concept, the theme, the characters, the story, the dialogue, the description – and within those elements I show you how to create emotional response. How do you create a story that has suspense? How do you create characters that you care about? That sort of thing.
Emotional response is something that interests me both as a writer and a viewer, and I think it’s one of those things that everyone relates to, but they just aren’t conscious of it.
Well, I always tell people, if you go to a movie and you feel like laughing and you see a comedy and you don’t laugh a single time, would you say that it’s a great movie? No, the movie failed. But if you laughed every five minutes, then that’s exactly what you want and the emotional laughter is the impact we’re talking about. Same with horror films and action films or romances. Genres are pre-packed elements designed to give you specific emotional responses that people pay money found for. The only time I will say a movie is successful is that if they actually felt those emotions. In fact, genres are subdivided into emotions. From cineplexes and Netflix, they’re all emotions that you want to feel.
What do you think are the elements of a well-written screenplay?
That’s a big question. Well, for sure, emotional impact. The only rule I say that you can never break is: never be boring. So you can basically break every single rule in the book. In fact, Quentin Tarantino breaks every single rule that writers are taught. But he’s entertaining, he’s never boring, so that’s why he’s successful. While you’re watching a movie and you’re feeling suspense or tension about anything, you’re not bored. If you’re anticipating or excited about something, you’re not bored. If you’re curious about something, you’re bored. If you’re afraid of something, or you laugh at something, you’re not bored. All of these emotions I’m talking about, the audience’s emotions, if they’re feeling any of those, then you’ve done your job.
Now obviously there’s another level to your story, which is something that most people don’t talk about, and that’s the cinematic argument of your story. The theme of your story. What is your story trying to say? So it all starts with the beginning in terms of what stories are. Why there’s such a thing as stories for human beings? Why do we love them so much? Why have we had them since the beginning of time? And what they are, they are the how-to manuals of life. We have how-to manuals for everything except for how to live. That’s what stories do.
So stories teach us how to survive, how to hunt, how to love, how to interact with other people. There’s a reason why love is one of the most popular theme to stories because it teaches people that love is more important than things. So a story has a meaning. Stories have purpose. So the writers who feel compelled to write because they want to say something specific, they will be more successful than those who think, “Oh, horror movies are so hot right now,” so I’m going to write a horror movie. It comes down to whether you want to do something that’s never been done before. It always starts with what you want to say. What do you want to teach the world?
So what do you think of the current landscape of films right now, with all the comic books and reboots?
[Laughs.] That’s been surprising. It’s one of those things that obviously they’re looking at what works, and what makes money, so they keep making them. I’m surprised that we haven’t had audience fatigue yet with that genre. Yet you have to remember that comic books tell great stories. And they have great characters, and people love great characters. And the Marvel and D.C. universes have hundreds of characters they can make movies from. But I’m kind of surprised that audiences still like them. I think eventually people will get tired of them. I don’t know when, but I think in the future people will say, “There was a time when there were hundreds and hundreds of comic book movies, and now there’s not anymore.” But they have great characters, so I’m not surprised they’re still being made.
What would you say to the aspiring screenwriter who has finished her first draft?
The very first thing I would advise is to get feedback. Preferably with an odd number of people so that there is a tiebreaker. Two people say something, and then another two people say the opposite, then you don’t know what you should do. So an odd number helps you gain clarity. And obviously if everyone says the same thing, then that’s something to look into. The classes at UCLA Extension are very popular because of that because you get great feedback, not just from the teachers but also from the students. So feedback is key. Then you need to rewrite after the feedback. I’ve met many writers who receive feedback and don’t rewrite their stuff, and they think they can just market it in another way. So after you receive feedback and you rewrite and your script is the best that you can do, then I advise to enter it into any reputable contest. Because that’s sort of a win-win for everyone. If you don’t have good contacts, you’re not a good networker, you can always drop in your script at the Nicholls Fellowship or the Austin, then you’ll have people coming to you. Also, too, the Blacklist is a great opportunity, too.
And, really, learn the craft. A lot of writers think that because they watch a lot of movies, then they’re able to write one. You need to focus on learning as much as what you can and practice as much as you can. There’s a lot of free information out there from free screenplays online and Netflix.
Final question: of the 101 habits of a successful screenwriter, what is the number one habit that a screenwriter should have?
Well, it’s the habit that kicked everything off: evoking emotion on the page. If they’re able to evoke emotion on the page, whether it’s tension, curiosity or humour or suspense or surprise, any of all those emotions, if they’re able to do it on a regular basis, they’re in the one percent. They’re way ahead of everyone else. The 99 percent who are trying to do it are creating boredom on the page. You’re reading it, and you’re bored. It’s not engaging. And when I read work and you’re reading that one writer who is consistently engaging you, then you think, they have a shot. Because that’s what writers do. You engage.