The Craft of Writing: Externalizing the Internal, Part 1

The Craft of Writing: Externalizing the Internal, Part 1

By Jacob Krueger


The lesson we take from it is actually going to be a different lesson than what we usually take from this podcast. Rather than looking at the structure of There Will Be Blood we’re actually going to be looking at There Will Be Blood in terms of a concept called externalizing the internal.

So, what the heck does that mean?


We work in this really exciting medium called film. What’s the exciting thing about working in film? We tell stories with images. And the challenging thing about working in film is that half of the things that exist in the world, we can’t see. We can’t see thoughts and we can’t see feelings.

And that means, as screenwriters, our job is to externalize these internal things. To take them outside of the mind and put them into the body and the action of our screenplay. To translate the emotional language of our writing into action.

You Can’t Rely On Great Actors

The way I like to know if I’ve externalized the internal, in my screenplay, is I like to think of my least favorite actor. If I’ve written a line of action and my least favorite actor can’t act it, I have not externalized the internal. In other words, if my writing requires my least favorite actor to show disappointment, surprise, shock, sadness, or just to be able to act in general, then I have not externalized the internal.

If I am lucky enough to have great actors such as Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis, I don’t need to externalize the internal because they will do it for me. A great actor will deliver what you have failed to deliver. A great actor will look at the line and find the action underneath. They will look at the emotion and translate that emotion into action.

If I happen to be lucky enough to get a great director, that director will look underneath my crappy explanation and find the beautiful image or the brilliant action. If I’m lucky enough to get a great actor or director, they will make me look good.

But the fact of the matter is: I can’t depend on that.

You Can’t Rely On Great Directors

A lot of working directors are not that good and many Hollywood stars are completely untrained as actors. You go to a theater and you’ve got trained actors. But many of these Hollywood stars — as compelling as they are — are not trained in acting; they’re trained in being celebrities. And sometimes you need one of those celebrities because you won’t get your movie made without one.

ptSo, on a practical level, we need to externalize the internal so that our moderately talented director can look at our work and say, “You know, I know exactly how to shoot this.” But even if you have a hugely talented director, you would like your movie to somewhat resemble the thing you imagined when you sat down to write it.

As one of my great mentors, Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili, who is a world-renowned set designer, used to say, “If you want a director to do what you want, you must make him think it is his idea.” And one of the ways we allow directors to do what we want (by thinking it’s their idea) is by externalizing the internal. We must capture our story in images the way that we are seeing it in our heads, so that we can director-proof our films without ever calling a single shot.

We must able to actor-proof our films so that even if you had Keanu Reeves instead of Daniel Day Lewis trying to play Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, the director knows to say “Ok, Keanu, grab for that shovel,” as opposed to “look angry.” So that you have actions there that will protect you from the emoting actor.

That’s the practical reason to externalize the internal.

Seeing is Believing

But here is an even deeper artistic reason we want to externalize the internal, which is that often times when we’re not externalizing the internal it’s because we have not actually seen it yet in our own mind’s eyes.

On a purely artistic level, we haven’t looked closely enough yet to see it exactly the way it needs to play out on screen. We’ve got a kind of sense of it and we think it’s “something like this” or “something like that”. But we haven’t taken the time to step inside and let it play frame by frame in the little movie screen in our mind, until we know exactly what we’re seeing and exactly how we’re seeing it.

To do this is valuable for two reasons.

1) It makes your writing more real to you.

2) It gives you little gifts that you could never have anticipated and that you’re going to use later in your script.

When you have vague action and when you haven’t fully seen something, it doesn’t only affect the scene you’re writing. It actually affects all of the scenes that come after.

There Will Be Blood And The Magic Moment

I want to talk about There Will Be Blood not just because it is a great movie, perhaps one of my favorites, but also because it’s a flawed movie. It’s an example of the movie where the writer/director brilliantly externalized the internal for almost the entire screenplay, but failed to fully visualize the last part of the movie in the script the way he ultimately would in the movie—and suffered the consequences.

You get to the end of that script and suddenly there’s a random voiceover. It’s not in the film, but it’s in the script. There’s suddenly a random voiceover and things get a little mushy for about ten pages, and then he gets to that amazing monologue at the very end about “a bastard in a basket” and everything is wonderful again.

But there’s that mushy section. In the script it’s even mushier than in the film. And I’m pretty sure that what happened was he didn’t see it yet. And he figured, “You know what? I’m so close. I kind of know the gist of it and I know what’s really happening. And I’m going to figure it out as I shoot.”

How many independent film makers have made that mistake? It’s probably the most common problem that you see in independent films. People believe that their script is good enough and it’s only later, in post, that they realize that they don’t have what they need for their film to truly cut together and tell the story they want to tell. And suddenly they’re spending thousands of dollars in reshoots and months of extra time editing. Instead of fixing it in pre-production, when it was cheap, they are now trying to fix it in post-production, when it’s expensive.

In There Will Be Blood, there is a moment where it starts to get mushy. And it’s actually an amazing moment. Daniel Plainview has abandoned his child. If you haven’t seen it, this is all you need to know: Daniel Plainview has abandoned his child, the one person he loves in the world. He has abandoned his child because his child can no longer hear. And he has chosen his business over his son.son

At the end of Act 5 (in a 7 Act Structure), he brings his child back. And there is this beautiful moment. Daniel Plainview is a very violent man, but there is this beautiful moment where his son hits him. It’s this gorgeous long shot. You probably remember that they’re in the oil fields with the pipeline. His son hits him. And he lets his son to hit him. And finally he just sticks out one hand and the boy stops. And it’s stunningly beautiful, externalized internal emotion: the son’s internal anger, the father’s restraint. The internal emotions are externalized in that one beautiful shot that tells the whole darn story.

After witnessing that brilliant moment, we the audience are telling ourselves a very clear story about a father and son being reunited and letting go of the anger between them.

But we know it’s not going to end on a father and son reunited, is it? It’s going to end on: “You’re a bastard in a basket. You’re my competitor.” It’s going to end with him driving his son away again.

So, the brilliant writer/director, P.T. Anderson, knows that somewhere in this section while he’s shooting, he’s going to have find the moment where the son realizes that his father is never going to be there for him. He’s going to find one more turn for the character.

In the script, he knows he’s cheating by using voiceover and that he hasn’t fully externalized the internal. But he’s aware that he needs to find that moment. And, just like so many independent filmmakers, he’s certain that he’ll find it in production.

But you probably noticed while watching the movie, there was a little bump there. There’s something that just doesn’t feel right as we transition from this powerful moment of connection to the “bastard in a basket” monologue. There is a strange feeling of “how did we get here?”

I’m going to tell you why I believe this happened. And this is not the official version. I don’t know P.T. Anderson, and I have not discussed this shoot with him. But I have a pretty strong guess.

While shooting, his brilliant actor, Daniel Day Lewis, does a brilliant thing.  His brilliant actor puts a napkin over his head. Remember the scene in the restaurant where he’s taunting the other oilmen and he puts a napkin over his head? Who would have expected him to do it? Only Daniel Day Lewis would come up with this action! It’s not in the script.

So, P.T. Anderson shoots him from this direction and that direction, again and again, and he gets really excited. They’re in production and they’ve just found this amazing moment. And what he forgets to get is the reverse shot on his son, H.W., where H.W. realizes that it’s always going to be like this. That his father is never going to change.

And do you see how, if that happens, There Will Be Blood wins the Academy Award? Because that one little bump is probably the only thing missing from that being a perfect film.

The only reason that bump happened, I believe, is because P.T. Anderson didn’t externalize the internal in that moment in the script. He didn’t write that moment. And in the heat of production, even this brilliant director with this brilliant cast just never got the shot (I can only assume), because his actor did something really cool that took his attention away from the moment he needed.


So, when you externalize the internal it also protects you during production. It makes sure that you’re going to get everything you need because it’s all going to be on the page. They’re not going to have to “save it in post” because you’ve already saved it in the writing!

So those are the artistic reasons and the practical reasons. But there is also a totally commercial reason that we want to externalize the internal.

Help Your Reader To Help You

Every production executive, every development executive, every producer, every executive producer, and every coverage reader has the same fear: “What if it doesn’t work? What if I put my name and my reputation and my money on the line and it doesn’t work? What if I like it but nobody else likes it? What if I bring it to my boss and my boss says, ‘what are you an idiot? This is never going to work.’” Everybody involved in the movie has that fear.

When you externalize the internal, what it actually does, is it allows the movie to play in your reader’s mind while they read. Rather than your reader having to be creative and to create the images for themselves, you’ve done the work for them so that they can simply forget that they’re reading and start seeing.

This has two effects:

1) Your reader is more likely to finish your script.

2) Your reader will have seen it like a movie in their mind. They actually will have entered a little bit of a hypnotic state, where they have experienced the film as if it already existed.

When the subconscious mind sees, feels, and hears something it experiences it as if it were real. The reader will have already had the experience of watching the movie, and they will know it will work.

And so when you externalize the internal in this way, you are giving yourself a much better shot at getting past that coverage reader, of getting past the development executive, and all the way up to the person who can say yes. You have a much better shot, because rather than asking themselves “but will it work?” they can say to themselves, “I know this is going to work. I’m going to fight for it!”

What I’m actually trying to train you to do here is to write better than the professionals.

When somebody sees your script I don’t just want them to say “wow, a professional script.” I want them to say, they say “Wow, I saw every moment in my mind. I heard every moment. I believed every moment. I didn’t have to think at all, it just happened.”

That’s what we’re going for when we externalize the internal.

Stay tuned for the next installment where the fabulous Jessica Hinds, creator of our Craft Intensive, will discuss exactly how to do this in your writing.

1 Comment

  1. Jenny 8 years ago

    I’m trying to get my head around the missing shot because I can see how crucial moments like these are to an overall film. So it would be something like a close on the son h.w. Starting with h.w. engaged with his father, then disengaging through an action like Putting his utensils on the plate, pushing it away, pushing away from the table, tilting his chair towards the exit? What would you hack chosen to externalize his realization in that scene so that it pivots into the last act? I’m definitely curious.

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