Screenwriting and Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories are a part of life. Any high profile story that has unanswered questions or holes if you will would likely be queued up in this category. A definition of conspiracy is entertaining in itself… To conspire means “to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or to use such means to accomplish a lawful end.”  The term “conspiracy theory” is frequently used by scholars and in popular culture to identify secret military, banking, or political actions aimed at stealing power, money, or freedom, from “the people”.

Writing a good story with a multi-layered conspiracy is complicated and takes most of the movie’s plot to figure out. Keep in mind, you’ll still want to ensure that your setup, conflict and resolution are tight, just don’t give away any crucial details or answers early on. Instead you’ll want to drop hints throughout your story that fuels the readers’ paranoia but also creates doubt.

Do you already know of a real conspiracy? Are you also a writer? Well, that would be the best case scenario, right? You’d have all the details, it would be a passion project and you’d know how to assemble all of the many complicated layers that makes for a great movie thriller. However, if you were that close to a real conspiracy you wouldn’t have any time to write because the guys that look suspiciously like your local gas or electric company would be paying you a visit. Hell, I don’t think you’d even make it to act two before you were missing a nipple or a finger. And forget about penning act three if you were lucky enough to get away… doing a hundred miles an hour through your city with duct tape still over your mouth, looking for the nearest police station.

Well, take a breath and rest easy because ninety-nine point nine percent of us will just have to create a story or borrow ideas from stories that are already known. When searching for ideas or a place to start, think of information that, if it got out to the general public, it would cause great concern or even mass hysteria, and would mean the end for the individual or organization attempting to suppress it. Regardless of the ideas you pull together or the story or choose to write, the stakes have to be so high that your hero would be killed to keep any secrets from becoming public.

A good example of a story that has many unanswered questions took place April 2, 1997 – Phoenix AZ Military A-10 Pilot Craig D. Button Disappears.

When asked to describe the mysterious disappearance of A-10 “Warthog” Pilot Craig Button. The U.S. Secretary of Defense – William Cohen Replied: “It is a Mystery, Wrapped in an Enigma, Inside a Riddle.”

My generation was brought up to believe news reports on television were true, but what if they weren’t? This is the mindset you need to have if you’re going to write a good conspiracy story.

On Wednesday, April 2nd, Davis-Monthan AFB in southern Arizona reported that one of its A-10 aircraft went down on a training mission, somewhere near Lake Roosevelt and the Superstition mountains in Arizona. However, a detailed chronology of events was later made available to the media. The timeline included many sightings that placed the plane in a flight path crossing the northwest corner of New Mexico and into Colorado. The last reported sighting placed Button northeast of Aspen, near Craig’s Peak and New York Mountain.

An unanswered question that stands out… Why did the USAF originally report that one of its A-10 aircraft went down somewhere near Lake Roosevelt and the Superstition Mountains, and then days later release a timeline of events that included sightings placing the aircraft in Colorado? The story changed… something changed.

So, where are the holes to work with? Looking at the chronology of events, the times are too well-ordered; almost to keep the plane in the air until it reached a mountain peak in Colorado. After all, the high altitude and inclement weather would make any recovery efforts almost impossible. Buying time?

If you really scrutinize the timeline of events, the elapse time between the sighting South of Lake Roosevelt and North of Lake Roosevelt is eighteen minutes. Would this be enough time for Craig Button to land the A-10? This would be consistent with the USAF first report that one of its A-10 aircraft went down on a training mission, somewhere near Lake Roosevelt and the Superstition mountains in Arizona.

Did Craig Button land the A-10, offload the four 500-pound bombs, and then take off again? Or, did he leave the A-10 near Lake Roosevelt and simply walk away…? Did the USAF recover the A-10 intact minus the four 500-pound bombs?

There are many unanswered questions regarding this story and many ideas to pull from. This is just an example of the kind of story you’ll want to pick apart in order to generate ideas. To start, do the research and ensure you’re acquainted with the subject matter. Keep in mind, a conspiracy theory is a story, not a scientific work, so you are entitled to an Artistic License (within reasonable constraints).

Screenwriting is a wonderful opportunity to tell a story that will resonate with an audience and leave lasting memories. Make it count.

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Screenwriting and Remembering Our Heroes

Memorial Day is a day to reflect and give thanks to all service members that have served and continue to serve our great nation. Most of us will never come close to knowing the sacrifices that are made by our military personnel and the people that love them. It may be hard for some to really understand how deep their sacrifices run unless they have a personal connection to a service member. We can only hope and pray that those who selflessly dedicate their lives to protecting our freedom find peace and feel gratitude from the rest of us.

On this somber, rainy Monday, our family spent the afternoon at the Tahoma National Cemetery, paying respect to all those that have served and continue to serve today. It was apparent that many in the crowd of people had personal ties to service members; Fathers, Husbands, Sisters, Uncles, Grandparents. You could see it on their faces, so wet with pain. I can’t imagine waking up one day and finding out that I would never see a family member again, that their lives have been given on some far away soil in a place so different from their home.

Although I don’t have any family members with recent service in the military, there is a long and fascinating history of military service in my family. During WWII, my grandfather and his four brothers all served in the Navy simultaneously. My great-grandmother, Mary Hery, was an Inspector at Eastman Kodak Company’s war-working camera division. Unfortunately, her husband left one day when their boys were really young, and he never came home. Mary continued her own war effort with her work at Kodak and supporting all five sons on her own, including an adoptive son, Larry Reis.

At age 17, my grandfather and his twin brother, Robert, both joined the Navy and initially served on the USS Farragut together. They saw sixteen major engagements in the Pacific. My grandfather was transferred off the USS Farragut and assigned shore duty for a brief time in Bremerton, Washington. He eventually received orders to report to the USS Hopewell.  His twin brother, Robert Hery, continued his service on the USS Farragut. His ship was positioned in Pearl Harbor at Buoy X14 East Loch on Dec 7, 1941. Robert Hery was recognized by his Commanding Officer for courage, coolness and steadfast performance of duty throughout engagement with over thirty Japanese aircraft during which his ship was subjected to torpedo, bombing and strafing attack.

The youngest of the Hery brothers, John James Hery (Jack) was a Seaman Second Class and assigned to a fleet oiler USS Neshanic. Jack saw 14 major engagements, the most terrifying of which involved his ship suffering a direct bomb hit and plagued by fire which persisted for two days.

Francis Paul Hery (Frank) was the oldest of the Hery brothers. He joined the Navy at 18 and served for eight years. Frank Hery was a Motor Machinist’s Mate Second Class. Frank taught as an engine instructor at Annapolis for three years, though he always wanted to serve on a submarine. In 1942, Frank volunteered for submarine duty and eventually got his wish. Frank served on the USS Pickerel in the Pacific. Frank saw his final engagement off the Island of Honshu, Japan, when the Pickerel was likely sunk by depth charges. Frank never made it home. Frank loved his ship life so much; he convinced all of his younger brothers that Navy life was the only life.

After the ceremony concluded, we made our way around the outside perimeter of the cemetery. We were stunned by how many newer headstones were now situated across the expansive turf. As we made our way around to the exit, we paused at the last group of headstones. There was a twenty-something man sitting next to a headstone, rocking back and forth, letting all of his emotion out. He was distraught and his pain was raw and unrestrained.

A well-known quote from one of the speakers at the ceremony reminded us that “Freedom is not free.” The cost is great and the grief endures. The depth of the commitment and the risk of loss endured by those who are willing to serve their country can be difficult for the rest of us to comprehend. In simple, quiet or active ways, we need to ensure that we take care of the Veterans who return home, take care of families struggling through loss and continue to work for a post- active duty culture that welcomes and supports our returning military heroes as they move forward.

– David Spies

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Screenwriting The Organic Method

You have all of the tools you need to write. However, the time needed to write isn’t necessarily decided. Anyone can set aside blocks of time in their busy schedule to write but inspiration doesn’t work that way. Some say that having the discipline to schedule time to write will help your writing process. However, creativity is not something that can be forced into a pre-set block of time, wedged somewhere between a 12 hour work day and walking the dog.

It doesn’t matter what your situation is when it comes to a desire to write, unless you have creative inspiration, the time to write is irrelevant.  Most creative writers understand this. Writers block is not a mystery or something writers pass to each other while meeting for a drink to talk about their latest project. Writers block is simply a lack of inspiration.

Overlay a lack of inspiration with an already busy schedule and a writer will be dead in the water for a long time.  Many ideas can come and go, but if a writer does not have an intimate attachment to their work, inspiration will remain further and further away.  It’s only natural to push ourselves to find solutions that fill the gaps in our creative endeavors.  Sometimes, it’s best to just let our own thoughts run their course.

Inspiration is not something we can track down and give chase. It’s not a mystical force that will come looking for us. Inspiration just happens, most of the time by accident. Step outside of your comfort zone and explore. If you look at things differently you will have a new appreciation for the things around you. What you see, hear, and touch will begin to inspire you.

When was the last time you took a walk in a park? Summer is right around the corner and with it, the opportunity to plan many outdoor activities. Working on a dramatic piece with outdoor scenes? Take a hike in an area that resembles your vision for those scenes. If you’re working on a romantic-comedy, head downtown and walk around the city streets. Wander around the shops and pick up on conversations that could spark any number of ideas. Life is unfolding all around us; we just need to reach out feel it. Find inspiration in other people, and more importantly find inspiration in yourself.

– Inspiration can come from the most unexpected places. Just remember to bring along a notebook and pen.

– David Spies

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Screenwriting and the letter

Correct formatting of your screenplay is essential to be taken seriously by the decision makers in the film industry. Incorporating a letter in a screenplay can be tricky, though formatted correctly; it can make your scene stand out.

The most straightforward way to depict a letter in a screenplay is to show a character reading the letter and to use dialogue. A character that just reads a letter out loud in any film would be boring. However, there are ways to insert some energy into your writing and avoid the monotony that could hinder the development of your screenplay.

The character change/flashback – A character in present day finds a letter in an old dresser in a garage and begins to read out loud. Their voice fades… This is where the sender, in a different year, a different town, takes over reading before fading back to the receiver at the end of the letter. See how we were brought full circle after the discovery of the letter?

This kind of action on the screen will capture an audience. Most will be curious and want to know who wrote the letter, where it came from and most importantly, what the letter is about. Your script can be written to include that and so much more.

An alternate style; format your script so your character reads the letter out loud where he/she is, then as their voice fades, the letter is read (V.O.) while we see the sender as they are writing the letter.

Example of when a screenplay reveals the contents of a letter:

Tom takes the envelope, pulls out a letter, and reads:

It’s much easier for me to talk on paper.
I am very hurt about the time you spend away
from home and the fact that it seems like you
have no time for us. I’m sorry if I’ve been
neglecting you. I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you and
I think that maybe I shouldn’t be living here?
I know I haven’t appreciated all the little things
that you do for me all the time. I think that I take
advantage of your kindness. I love you and
every part of you. I know I would never find
anyone else like you. I’m sorry for not giving
you the love you deserve for so long. I know
I could never replace you, but I feel like I’m
missing something in my life. Maybe if we live
separate lives for a while I would appreciate
you and want you. I’m so sorry.”

Notice that our character’s dialogue is enclosed in quotes. This shows that he’s using someone else’s words. We would also see him reading the letter. Additionally, when a character reads a letter to himself, a voice-over (V.O.) is used.

Another formatting tip is using an INSERT to bring the element of the scene (the letter) into full frame.

Tom lifts the letter from the kitchen table.


“It’s much easier for me to talk on paper.
          I am very hurt about the time you spend away
from home and the fact that it seems like you
      have no time for us. I’m sorry if I’ve been …”


Tom crumples the letter and tosses it on the table.


Filmmaking is this rare responsibility. A chance to tell a story that will resonate with an audience and leave lasting memories. Make it count. – David Spies

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Screenwriting and the Budget-Conscious Script

When you’re writing your own script, one thing that must be considered is budget. You can have a fantastic original story, but if your script is not written with budget in mind, you’ll be putting your script in the category of a Studio option. Even if your script receives a “green light” a producer may impose budget-conscious rewrites on your script that differ considerably from your original vision.

A writer doesn’t necessarily need to be budget-conscious when writing their script unless their intent is to have their screenplay made into an indie film. However, the road to indie is a lot greener than knocking on studio doors. For most first-time screenwriters, a budget-conscious script is a good way to get your foot in the door. A writer looking to successfully move into filmmaking should focus on the independent film industry.  If you’re a writer that needs to see your vision to completion, you’ll have a much better chance of keeping your vision whole if you choose the indie film route. The digital revolution has spawned the budget-conscious feature film. Indie filmmakers with the smallest of budgets can now see their vision make it to the screen.

It all starts with a screenplay…

Don’t be afraid to venture out and share your talent. Find screenwriting groups in your area and consider collaboration. Discover how other screenwriters approach ultra-low or micro-budgeted filmmaking as a means to realize their artistic ambitions. Start with realistic goals in mind. List resources that you currently have access to, build a story around what you know. You may find other writers/filmmakers that would be willing to share in the financial burden of producing an indie film.

Compile a list of actors that you know and that are eager to work for screen credit. Most actors, especially those who are just starting out, are always on the lookout for roles, whether as lead or as an extra. If you have access to a locally based talent agent or manager, this can be a big help, but you may be looking at some nominal fees for referrals. The best advice is to limit your cast to five or six roles. Remember, the more actors involved in your production, the more likely you’ll incur expenses related to catering and transportation.

Avoid the flashback…

Many writers tend to use flashback in their story as it relates to a character’s recollection or dreams. Frames: (a story within a story) is also a technique that is commonly seen in scripts from beginning writers using this approach in scenes. Writers should avoid using flashbacks in their script as it will rely on backstory too heavily and may result in a bigger budget from an extraordinary set design and or wardrobe. A favorite flashback period is the 1950’s. Would you know where you would locate all of the wardrobe pieces for your flashback scene? The best approach for wardrobe in a low or no-budget indie film is to locate wardrobe items that you have access to that may increase your production value without increasing your budget. Think thrift stores, friends, and relatives when searching out unique wardrobe items. Avoid writing historical dramas that would require elaborate props and costumes.

Write your script with that fewest possible locations in mind. It helps to have access to many of the locations in your immediate area. Maximizing the least amount of locations, gives your actors and crew more time, freedom to create, and less time spent moving an entire crew from one location to the next.

You’ll want to have complete control over any sound (pedestrians, traffic, planes, air conditioning, cell phones, etc.). Huge consideration in the audio levels in each environment will save you from post production hell. It’s also a good idea to perform scouting for some alternate sites in the event that your first choice suddenly becomes unavailable. You’ll also want to consider electrical issues for the lighting of your environment for each scene. If you can’t control the light and sound for each environment don’t write that particular location into the script. If you find yourself stuck writing a particular scene, put yourself at that location and ask yourself “will this work with my budget?” One of your greatest resources would be to secure locations through family, friends and business owners eager to lend their space on your word. In exchange, they get to experience a little filmmaking magic.

Success is more than luck; its commitment, enthusiasm and simply making a good effort.
– David Spies

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Screenwriting and Story Structure

If you’re new to screenwriting or thinking about getting started in the craft, learning the fundamentals of story structure are key to establishing a solid foundation.

Understanding the basics will ensure you’re on the right path before you even begin to write. Certain story elements called “plot points” must be incorporated in the story and fall at specific times within the screenplay to keep the story advancing smoothly. It will also be easier for an audience to stay interested in your story and understand what is happening in front of them.

Stick to a three act formula – act I, II and III, otherwise known as setup, conflict and resolution.
Keep the script to a 120 pages in length. Syd Field, author of Screenplay and The Screen Writer’s Workbook, has outlined a paradigm that most screenplays follow. According to Field, screenplays follow a three-act structure, meaning the standard screenplay can be divided into three parts.

The first act is where all the major characters of the story are introduced, plus the world where they live in, and the conflict that will move the story forward. Everything in the hero’s everyday life appears in balance at the beginning of the hero’s journey. Then something happens called the inciting incident. This is what throws things out of balance, giving the hero a new desire, mission or goal.

Act I comprises the first quarter of the screenplay. (A 2 hour movie, Act I would last approximately 30 minutes.)

What happens in Act I (Setup)?

Exposition – the part of a story that introduces the characters, shows some of their interrelationships, and places them within a time and place.

This part of the story introduces the main character, the dramatic premise, and the dramatic situation.

Main character – (Hero) the person in the story who has a need/objective to fulfill and whose actions drive the story

Dramatic premise – what the story’s about

Dramatic situation – the circumstances surrounding the action

Inciting Incident – an event that sets the plot of the film in motion. It occurs approximately halfway through the first act.

The “Plot Point”–According to Field, the three acts are separated by two plot points. A plot point, often called a reversal, is an event that thrusts the plot in a new direction, leading into a new act of the screenplay.

Plot Point #1, which leads into Act II, is the moment when the hero takes on the problem.

The second act is by far the longest and for some screenwriters, Act II is the hardest one to write. Act II is also the development stage of the story. This is where the paramount part of the story takes place. The characters are faced with more conflict, challenges known as progressive complications. This leads to the end of act II, the “crisis”; the place in the story where everything that can go wrong, goes wrong.

Act II comprises the next two quarters of the film. (A 2 hour movie, Act II would last approximately 60 minutes.)

What happens in Act II (Confrontation)?

Obstacles–In the second act, the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle that prevent him from achieving his dramatic need.

First Culmination – a point just before the halfway point of the film where the main character seems close to achieving his or her goal/objective. Then, everything falls apart, leading to the midpoint.

Midpoint – a point approximately halfway through the film where the main character reaches his/her lowest point and seems farthest from fulfilling the dramatic need or objective.

The “Plot Point” – According to Field, the three acts are separated by two plot points. A plot point, often called a reversal, is an event that thrusts the plot in a new direction, leading into a new act of the screenplay.

The last act, Act III presents the final confrontation in the story; the hero decides that he/she can go on, usually with greater resolve because he/she solved the inner problem that was holding them back. Thus, showing us the ultimate climax followed by the dénouement. This act is generally the shortest in length and must resolve the story one way or another. The protagonist must go head-to-head with the villain and either achieves his or her goal or fails. Think showdown then conclusion.

Act III comprises the final quarter of the film. (A 2 hour movie, Act III would be the final 30 minutes.)

What happens in Act III (Resolution)?

Climax (Second Culmination) – The point at which the plot reaches its maximum tension and the forces in opposition confront each other at a peak of physical or emotional action.

Denouement – The brief period of calm at the end of a film where a state of equilibrium returns.

When you think of the story’s line of events, they can be broken down into three parts. If your story structure has a solid foundation, you’ll have a much better chance of having your work read and eventually accepted. If the reader can relate to the main character in some way, your screenplay is likely to generate interest and leave a good impression.

It is believed that 98% of all the screenwriters fail. Why the others succeed is something to explore if you want to be part of the 2%.

Creativity comes from an open mind; good work is generated from a steady hand.

–          David Spies

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Screenwriting and Groundhog Day

Some people at one time or another… have had a sensation that they’ve done certain things before, but can’t really explain as to why? Whenever I experience this unique emotional state, I’m always reminded of Bill Murray and Groundhog Day. These unique experiences have such an intriguing impact and experienced by so many, that some people were motivated to make a movie about the subject.

Déjà vu is an experience most of us have from time to time and it usually presents itself as something mysterious or magical. Déjà vu usually occurs when a dream scene becomes a real-life scene. This creates the sensation that you’ve experienced this particular event at a previous time; however, the previous experience occurred in a dream state and not a real state. Some say it could be a glimpse and an opportunity to change a particular direction in our life. Paranormal theorists propose that a déjà vu experience is evidence for reincarnation, “that experiencing something for a second time around indicates your soul experienced this event in a previous life.”

Déjà vu usually sets in without notice. All of a sudden you have that feeling you’ve been to a certain house, city, event or you’ve met people that are strangely familiar. Though, you had no prior connection to these places or people. A clue that you’re experiencing déjà vu; if you know your way around someplace that you’ve never been before…

Most of us will just brush off these experiences with the definition of a coincidence or “I should not have taken that extra melatonin last night”. If déjà vu were only an illusion, how can our mind distinguish between this illusion and the story it is creating? Albert Einstein suggested that “space and time” were simply human conceptual constructs, abstracted for discussion and intellectualizing, but not actual defined components of our reality.

The moment when an idea for a story comes to you is a similar experience, almost magical. The best ideas often seem to come out of nowhere… all of a sudden you’re inspired and motivated to write and not stop until your pen runs out of ink. Writers should pay particular attention to these experiences as they can serve as great material for story ideas.

Sometimes when we least expect it someone touches our lives in totally unanticipated ways. Paths tend to cross with so many shared experiences, thoughts, and feelings in common that it seems impossible to understand. How many times have you thought about someone that you had not thought of for years… and the very next day, you receive an email from that person or the phone rings?

Déjà vu is a sensation which usually lasts only for moments but the magical emotional connection remains, lingering and irrefutable.

Original ideas are born from an open mind – David Spies

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