Tag Archives: storyline

“If not now, when?” Who was Hillel the Elder?

… and what does he have to do with the goals of JCAD (American Friends of the Jerusalem Center for Artistic Development)?

Hillel the Elder, born in Babylon, in 110 BCE, lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus. Both Hillel and Moses lived 120 years!! Unlike Moses, at the age of forty, Hillel went to the Land of Israel; forty years he spent in study; and the last third of his life he was the spiritual head of the Jewish people. His activity of forty years likely covered the period of 30 BCE to 10 CE, when he died.

Hillel the Elder contributed to a famous treatise called the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot).

The book was a compilation of famous rabbis’ wisdom for mankind to aspire to the highest level of ethical and moral behavior.  Hillel is credited with the following thought-provoking questions, which have been passed down for more than 2,000 years:

If I am not for myself, who is for me?” Hillel tells us that we must love ourselves enough to be “for” ourselves, since there is no one else who would or could do this on our behalf.

And when I am only for myself, what am I?” We should not be tempted to be self-absorbed and forget about the Almighty and our fellow man.

And if not now, when?” We need to get going and soar like birds and take leaps of faith!

All you have to do is take a walk on the stone streets of Jerusalem and read the street signs, the door posts; see the indentations in the doorways where ancient Mazzuzot were affixed; gaze at the rooftops in certain sections of town, and walk down the narrow alleyways where only a donkey and a cart can still pass.  Today you will see young people with their Smart Phones and cellphones; you will see wine glasses and hear the laughter of crowds on a warm summer evening; or see a mound of snow caressing a stone wall that is a thousands years old; or walk into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and smell the incense; step out onto a wide piazza and buy fresh-baked pita or laffa bread spread thick with chummous.

  • The stones upon which Jesus walked and preached during the Second Temple period (538 BCE-   70 AD) are located on an enormous mount, now called the Temple Mount.
  • The stones upon which Avraham offered Itzhak to God, (an area called Mount Moriah in the Bible), are on the Temple Mount.
  • The stones where The Holy of Holies is buried are under the Temple Mount!
  • The stones leading to King David’s tomb are in Jerusalem and close to the Temple Mount.
  • And the City of David, where King David’s palace is under excavation is in Jerusalem, close to the Temple Mount!
  • The remains of The First Temple and The Second Temple are in Jerusalem, under the Temple Mount.
  • The retaining wall of the First and Second Temple is part of the foundation of the Temple Mount.
  • And cisterns, sarcophagi, tunnels, pottery, coins, artifacts, jewelry, human and animal remains from thousands of years ago are in Jerusalem!

If you have a story to tell, “If not now, when?” is what you might ask yourself.  Walking amongst the stones of the Bible may inspire you.  A character in the Bible might inspire you to tell a modern parable; think up an action/adventure story; come up with a political intrigue or drama or love story.  It’s all under your feet.  Those stones all tell a story.  It’s time!!

The Writer’s Goal of Peeling the Onion©

With our belief in the process of “taking the mystery out of the mystique” of film making and story telling, it is the hope of JCAD that anyone who has the passion to tell stories will do so in an educated and thoughtful, but highly passionate manner!  Whether a person tells his/her story through a screenplay, stage play, novel, or documentary, storytelling is an art that is one part pure imagination; a dash of risk and daring to be different; several cups of technical prowess and bending to a paradigm that goes back to Aristotle; many teaspoonfuls of psychological introspection and a pinch of willingness to hold a mirror to the writer’s soul.  Truth-telling from the heart comes out loud and clear as the writer’s voice that can be heard and felt in the hearts and minds of the movie audience or novel reader.

The Hollywood film industry churns out many films a year, oftentimes films that are “forgettable.”  It is not easy to design a story that will translate to the screen and end up being a “Blockbuster.”  In addition, not all “Blockbusters” are liked or admired by a segment of the population, who would prefer independently produced films that are on a much smaller budget, speak to a particular niche of an audience, and have a defined message to impart.  No matter what the outcome of the writer’s art or craft, whether it is a Blockbuster or Indie screenplay, stage play, novel, or documentary, the point is that with the insight into one’s soul, one can reach heights that never seemed possible.  Even if the story never makes millions of dollars, the internal satisfaction of writing a great story is an amazingly cathartic experience.

You can succeed in taking the mystery out of the mystique of storytelling and film production and then tell your own unique story, one page at a time.  The “High Concept” idea is important to remember though.  For example, you may think you’ve got a novel to write, as the result of a bitter divorce, but this might better lend itself to journal writing.  A divorce, per se, is not a story.  It certainly has story elements, but it is not a story that anyone would want to read about or go see a film about.

Although weddings are fraught with multiple stories and angst and worry that it’s all going to “go off” like a calibrated marching band, a wedding is not a story.  A death is not a story.  A Bar Mitzvah is not a story.  A pregnancy is not a story, even if there were complications and the baby died at birth.  Missing the train, which ended up getting derailed and killing a hundred people is not a story.  Missing a bus, which ended up getting blown up in a terror attack is not a story.  Missing one of the planes that ended up being highjacked by Islamic terrorists who directed the planes into skyscrapers and murdered thousands of innocent people is not a story.  ISIS beheading hundreds of human beings is not a story.  A little girl getting hit by a car and surviving is not a story.

What is missing from the above examples is a High Concept, a raison d’etre, or a spine or a theme or a moral or conflict or a protagonist or an antagonist or a reason as to why an audience or a reader should see this film or read this book. There are certainly compelling, horrific elements to some of the examples given in the above paragraph, but they are components of a newspaper article, or a journal entry, or an op-ed piece.  The idea of making “a wedding” into a story can germinate into a story if the elements of a story are incorporated with compelling characters and conflict and a crisis moment or resolution which is what the audience or reader is waiting to find out about.

At JCAD, it is therefore our goal to teach the writer how to peel the layers of the onion and get at the truth in storytelling.  In other words, we want the writer to get to the core of issues and not just develop a “catchy” plot line with an interesting twist that could be defined as “original.”  To scratch the surface is not enough for great storytelling.  We therefore get down to value systems and goals, both internal and external.  This leads to the creation of compelling characters who are living in 3-D format and who have flaws, most of which are usually not discernable to the characters themselves.  Through the storytelling, the flaws will actually come into play when the protagonist seeks to reach his/her goal.  And the result will be rewarding for both the main character and the audience.

So peeling the onion can be a rewarding experience for the writer and for the audience.  Maybe with tears?  Maybe with a greater understanding of the human condition?  Maybe with a feeling that all is well with the world?  Or all is horrific, but somehow we survive?  Or saving others with no regard for our own safety is a pretty decent goal, one which just might inspire us to do better with our lives after we get home and realize that home is not really a movie, but just plain old home.

The Character Bio Can Be Tricky©

When doing a character bio the trickiest thing to do is to create an area of misunderstanding or misguided belief in your protagonist, (the one who changes the most) and in your antagonists (the characters who obstruct, impede, challenge, love, hate, annoy and generally impact the protagonist.) It means you have to know the difference between what they actually need, and what they believe they need. They need to believe that if only they had this, or were that, or could get the other, or weren’t this that or the other, then their worlds would be hunky dory and they wouldn’t have any problems. This barking up the wrong tree is the basis of all desire in your characters, and desire is the motive energy behind all action.

This is where the next question comes in:

What does the protagonist think will happen if he/she doesn’t get what they want?

In books (and to a much greater extent in movies) your protagonist needs to want something really badly. They want it more than we do. In our lives we make compromises. We usually follow the path of least resistance because we can’t endure the conflict. We generally want easy lives.  In stories, characters want stuff so badly that they actually go about getting it, doing whatever it takes to get it, in ways we probably wouldn’t. If a protagonist doesn’t want something badly enough, he or she won’t do anything about trying to get it, and then there won’t be any story.

A “play” with the words “want” and “need” and “think you need”:

But when your character reaches the climax of the story, will he actually get what he thought he needed?  Maybe so.  But maybe not.  Here’s where the epiphany comes in.  It’s the realization that at the final moment the character has been fighting for, working toward, racing forward, jumping over highways and byways to get to…Maybe it was what he wanted, but maybe there’s something that he needed but he didn’t realize that he needed it, but now that he has achieved the end goal, he just may get what he needs, as opposed to what he thought he needed!!

So when you are creating your character, he/she must have a history that is not perfect by any means.  There are triumphs and there are flaws; highs and lows; good days and bad.  You need to describe these in as much detail as you can.  Make pages of this information.  Have fun.  What did your character have for breakfast when he/she was little? Where did he/she live? Describe the house/apartment/street.  Maybe your character lived in a shelter.  Describe.  Did your character go to school? If not, what did he/she do during childhood?  Maybe like Charles Dickens’ Oliver, he stole for a living and lived under the thumb of a ruthless Fagan character.  Maybe your character was an orphan.  Maybe from a family of ten.  Were they religious?  Did they go to a house of worship with their family?  Or did the parents send the kids and stay home?  Or did the parents go and leave the kids home? Was your character rich, poor, or somewhere in-between?

  • Describe the neighborhood, town, country where your character grew up.

  • Describe physical and emotional characteristics, including age.

** Note:  All characters in your story should have a bio.  The main character (protagonist) and the antagonist and the point of view character will get the widest amount of attention.  Round them out and make them as real as possible.  Try to employ empathy when creating them.  Get into their skin!!  If they did something that was unusual that was not something you would have done, it is important to go with this.  This character is not you.  This character has a life of his/her own.

** Come up with some very high and some very low points of each character’s “back story.” Sometimes, people say that “a certain high point” or “low point” defined them for the rest of their life.  Whether or not this ends up being true, the character may think or believe this!

Character Development – The End Goal vs. The Desire for the End Goal©

After you have decided on the genre of your story, or concurrent with deciding on the genre, you must decide on who your protagonist/hero will be.  Whether it’s a male or female protagonist, you need to decide on what your character’s goal/outer motivation in the story is.  Without the goal, the audience is left “hanging,” confused, irritated, and wondering why they paid their $15 to see this movie in the first place.  And remember, the protagonist’s goal is not your goal.  You need to step back and let your character do the talking and the walking.

You must decide what you want to do with this character you want to create—Someone who is waiting to jump off the page into a reader’s consciousness or jump onto the screen so the audience can view his/her story.  It’s time to give the protagonist a goal and an outer motivation.  And he/she must want this goal VERY BADLY.  Maybe you don’t want this goal because you’d rather sit home and avoid confrontation, BUT THE PROTAGONIST WANTS THIS GOAL AND JUST MIGHT BE READY TO DIE FOR IT.

Goal and Outer Motivation

When the protagonist (hero) is motivated to reach his/her “end goal,” this is the physical or tangible goal: To find the killer; to find a way out of prison; to survive a hurricane at sea; to survive a sinking ship and save as many people as possible; to find one’s identity that has been lost due to amnesia; to save as many people as possible from tyranny or genocide; to find the way home; to get the right to see one’s children when the wife has custody; to give a speech that will bolster a nation on the brink of war and destruction.

Desire to Reach the Goal

It is the protagonist’s desire to reach the goal that will drive the story.

The goal of the protagonist defines the story and carries us all the way to the end.  The desire to reach that goal will drive the story.  The outer motivation is the “finish line.” Ie. The hero wins a medal.  This is visible, tangible.  It would not be: “To achieve success.”  In The Fugitive, the goal for Dr. Kimble is to find the one-armed man.  In Titanic, the goal for Jack is Rose’s safety, for which he is willing to die.  In The Bourne Identity, the amnesic hero Jason wants to find his identity.  In Schindler’s List, Oscar Schindler wants to save Jews from the Nazis by keeping his company going under false and dangerous pretenses.  In Gravity, Sandra Bullock wants to survive a mission gone awry and get back to earth without getting killed.  In Mrs. Doubtfire, the hero wants to get the right to see his kids.  In The Imitation Game, the hero wants to break Enigma, the Nazi Code. In Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins wants to escape from prison and avenge the crimes and punishment of the evil warden.  In The Firm, Tom Cruise wants to save his life and the life of his wife and disentangle himself from the mafia firm where nobody ever quits. In The King’s Speech, George has to give a speech and overcome his life-long stuttering, and lead his country into WWII, after his brother abdicates the throne.


The Worm Who Could Cut Stone © Or The Importance of Doing Your H.W.!!

When writing a novel, screenplay, stage play, or documentary, the importance of research is paramount.  In order for your story to have credence, depth, originality, believability, you must do your homework!!

It is one thing to come up with a salable high concept that is clever, unique, never-before produced. HOWEVER, your audience is not stupid.  They hate to be swindled.  No matter where your setting is, you need to do your H.W. and get down the “where, when, why, and how” part of your story.  Even the “who” part will become more clear as you do your research.

Let’s say, you’ve got an idea of a modern-day character, an archaeologist, who lives in Jerusalem, but who is giving a lecture in Switzerland.  Your genre is action adventure.  Your character has discovered a stone that is 5,000 years old, but was not affixed to other stones with metal of any kind, yet was laid in a perfect line, with cement, and the walls of a particular structure are thirty feet high.

Here’s some history that is the result of just a tiny bit of research:

In 832 BCE, King David wanted to build the Temple, but because he was Israel’s great warrior and had shed much blood, he could not be the one to build the Temple in Jerusalem.  His son, Solomon (Shlomo), was chosen through one of the prophets to build the Temple.  As part of the process, God told Solomon to not cut the stones with metal utensils or tools because metal symbolizes the sword. Therefore, Solomon had to figure out a way to cut the stones for the construction of the Temple.  In a dream, he saw a unique worm that had the ability to cut away at stone.  Subsequently, God revealed to him this miraculous worm that was able to cut the stones for the Temple.

The worm was called the Ashmodi, in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate of Shabbat.

Now, maybe you don’t “buy” the information that came to Solomon in a dream—But your characters do!  They believe in prophets and dreams and in the ancient men of the period who talked to God.  Why?  Well, you have to give these believers a history that would tie them to such a belief.  Maybe they saw this worm at work.  Maybe there was testimony in texts.

 In any case, a bit more of research about Jerusalem will give you a sense of where your archaeologist character comes from, which in turn, will make your story more believable:

Your character’s home is Jerusalem.

Jerusalem stands on the crest of the Judean hills at an elevation of 2,577 feet above sea-level, 13 miles west of the Dead Sea, 32 miles east of the Mediterranean Sea, and roughly 80 miles south of the Sea of Galilee.  Founded more than 5,000 years ago, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the Jewish people.

 Recommended reading: Traveling With the Bible, by Galia Doron.  Take book in hand and envision a walk through time over stone steps.  Remember that the steps can tell the stories of both ancient and modern mankind in Israel, the Holy Land, and the world.  In the book, suggested hikes with level of difficulty are given for each historical/biblical site.  Quotations from the Bible and references are included for each site you will visit.  Whether you come to Israel or just read about the history, the information will help you with your story lines.

Learn About Values

A JCAD “Learn About Values” Workout

A thought-provoking exercise to hone your characters, your story idea, your theme


First, let’s differentiate between ethics, morals, and values

Ethics = A generally accepted set of moral principles

Morals = The good or bad or right or wrong of actions

Values = Individual or personal standards of what is valuable or important


Next, we decide what our values are.  Sounds elementary?  Take a test:

  • Write down the major challenges (both positive and negative) you have encountered in your lifetime. This could be a page long or ten pages long.  No time limit.  It’s just for your eyes.

  • Now, answer this question: How did you overcome or meet these challenges.  Are you still dealing with them?

  • Next question: If you could be a main character in a story, what challenges (positive and negative) would you like to give to your main character?

  • Next, how do you think your main character could overcome/meet these challenges you have given to him/her?

  • Next, write down some of the values that “speak” to you.  For example,

  1. Honesty

  2. Trust

  3. Kindness

  4. Integrity

  5. Courage

  6. Perseverance

  7. Personal Responsibility

  8. Empathy

  9. Tolerance

  10. Anything else you can come up with!

Now, let’s do a WHAT IF exercise with values:

We know that problems may arise where individuals allow their personal values to interfere with their actions, thereby potentially bringing their actions into conflict with stated ethical standards.

WHAT IF individuals allow their personal values (which are the opposite of what we wrote above) to interfere with their actions? 

For example, let’s say personal values are: Dishonesty, immorality (the opposite of what we wrote).

Now, we have a law firm that specializes in dishonesty and immorality, such as the one in The Firm.  Why?  Because it’s a firm that is a front for the mafia: Nobody ever leaves!!! (except in a coffin)

So we’ve just taken a value system and corrupted it, and what is the result?  We have CONFLICT.  John Grisham, who wrote The Firm, has given the hero (in the film, the Tom Cruise character), a young, idealistic lawyer, CONFLICT.  He doesn’t know about what this firm really does when he takes the job.  His wife has an inkling that all is not quite right, but Tom Cruise, young lawyer, is swayed by the offer of a Mercedes, a home, a mortgage that comes with a nice down payment, and a huge first-year salary with all the perks.  Is it greed on the hero’s part?  Or is it the lure of a poor boy finally “making it” and being accepted by his wife’s wealthy (and snobbish) family?

Then we look at the values of the hero: Integrity, Honesty, the complete opposite of the firm.

And now we know the challenges Tom Cruise’s character is going to have to overcome to SURVIVE because the Firm is going to murder him, as they have done to other attorneys who discovered just who they are.

How many of us are confronted with DISHONESTY AND IMMORALITY?  Do we consider ourselves to be honest and moral?  Are we ever tempted to be dishonest and immoral?  What happens to the Tom Cruise character as he confronts all of his challenges in the story?  Is he tempted by immorality?  Yes.  Is he tempted by dishonesty? Definitely.  So, how does he resolve his challenges?  We find out in the climax, in Act 3!