Keith Cunningham



      First, some news...

The web site is currently being updated.  The new material will be posted up in the coming weeks of 2020.

For consultations, simply send me a mail to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

German edition of THE SOUL OF SCREENWRITING is in the bookshops!   The German title is:



The Urgent Imperative for the Media

While I am still busy with consultations and seminars at a number of film schools and professional organizations in Europe and elsewhere, there is a new imperative, and I am responding to it.

I have been addressing the urgent issue of climate change and the associated environmental crises to my colleagues in the media world since 2007.  At the UNESCO 'Climate Change and the Media' conference in Paris, 2009, and at the Global Media Forum in Bonn, 2010, I entered into dialogue with scientists, government officials, and NGOs.  

It was clear at that time that the representatives of real climate science were at a great disadvantage in the 'war for influence' waged by fossil fuel and related interests.  It was also clear that media people had little or no natural rapport with the scientists.  Their ways of thinking are poles apart.  In the 10 intervening years, the situation in the media concerning climate change has grown more complex, but not better.  The science is clear.  The situation is urgent.  But even today the public is more distracted and neutralized than ever.  

We are faced with competing data sets, misinformation and disinformation, outright lies, and thousands of 'messages' competing daily for our attention. Analyses of years of reporting on climate change in newspapers, radio and TV show that even when reports did focus on climate change, they were cleverly edited to soften or deflect the existential level of consequences at risk——and, especially, what societies can and must do differently on a systemic level.  

In reality, recent studies have shown that, parallel to growing wealth inequality, the legislatures of the leading democracies pay attention almost exclusively to the wishes of the most wealthy 10%.  Populations are both underinformed and disempowered.   

A real information crisis is preventing us from addressing the climate and related environmental crises effectively.  The consequences could be, at the very least, a 'hard landing' in a post fossil-fuel world, with many casualties, and bereft of many resources and comforts, or, in a less rosy scenario, up to and including collective suicide.  The latest UN-IPCC reports show that climate change is accelerating faster than the 'worst-case' scenarios of only a few years ago.  Planetary tipping points are approaching, in the oceans, in the Arctic and Antarctic, and in biodiversity, to name a few.  Clearly, society needs the crucial, salient information focused in a way that penetrates through the daily fog of 'messages'.  

Society needs the media, now more than ever, but NOT the media as they are currently configured.  An echo chamber of what is 'liked' or 'likeable' is not what we need.  A media landscape of behemoth corporations battling over market share with 'lowest common denominator' appeals to sex, violence, status and attention-seeking, and plain old narcissism is not what we need.  AI algorithms predicting and determining our behavior for corporate profit are not what we need.  The failed ideology of 'enlightened self-interest' is not what we need.  These are the tropes that helped create the collective crisis we find ourselves in.  

What we DO need is accurate information distilled into UNDERSTANDING.  What we DO need is understanding channelled into collective motivation, collective courage, and collective ambition for change.  What we DO need is a forceful and articulated VISION of how we get from 'here', a human and natural world on the verge of collapse, to 'there': a new and desirable world that is not only 'sustainable', but is REGENERATIVE——and is actively regenerating itself before our eyes!      

Stories that Matter

From stories today, we need three qualities urgently:  

The first is to TELL THE TRUTH.  Telling the truth is more complex that simply not lying.  It means placing the climate stories on page one, according to their immense consequence, rather than burying them on page 18.  It means getting behind the spectacular fires and storms that will be gone from tomorrow's headlines to bring out the ongoing and long-term battle for a viable future that we must face.  It also means having integrity with reality—and with each other—in our communications: not approaching our real crisis as just another way to gain market share by scaring the audience with lurid exaggerations or soothing with photos of baby seals. It further means abandoning the false equivalence of 'equal time' for a one percent minority of 'dissenting views', most often paid for by the fossil-fuel industry and designed to sow doubt and generate passivity.

The second quality urgently needed in our stories is to GENERATE REAL COURAGE AND PERSEVERENCE.  Real courage does not come from grandiose fantasy; nor does it come from fatalism.  Nor does it come from pandering, telling people 'what they want to hear'.  Real courage in the face of a collective—indeed global—crisis cannot be an individual attainment.  Alone, we are too small.  Divided against ourselves, we are impotent and self-destructive.  Generating courage implies, and demands, GENERATING SOLIDARITY AND COMMUNITY.

And the third quality we must demand from stories today is to POINT A WAY FORWARD to concrete actions that we can take, individually and together, to become part of the REGENERATIVE FORCE.  This requires that we jettison the toxic and destructive worldview that grew up in the West beginning 800 years ago, jettison it in all its manifestations, from narrow-minded materialism to overwrought social-Darwinism, from exalted egoism to trendy, dead-end nihilism.  

Over the past 50 years, a confluence of sciences (systems theory, cybernetics, ecology, genetics, etc.) has established that ALL LIFE ON EARTH IS INTERRELATED. What we do to our home, we do to ourselves.  There is no fantasy escape, no VIP lounge of safety and comfort.  In escapism is death, but in engagement is the potential for new life.  This new scientific tradition has generated a NEW STORY!  It is a hopeful story of a new set of principles and relationships to bring the FAMILY OF LIFE back into a better harmony.

These urgently needed qualities are the basis for the stories that will matter now and into our future.  Primarily, they will be non-fiction, to bring us back down to the ground and to the real conditions that we find ourselves in.  We cannot escape our biological nature and limits——and we do not need such an escape.  We should not have the temptation to escape placed before us.  That temptation is demonic.

But there is still an important place for drama.  THE TIMELESS FUNCTION OF DRAMA IS TO CONVEY INSIGHT AND WISDOM through 'the fictions that reveal deeper truths'.  Drama uncovers the causes, dynamics, and outcomes of human conflict, and, especially, how conflict may be resolved through a 'metanoia', a profound change of heart or perspective.  Clearly, humanity needs more than 'data'. We need insight into human nature, because we ourselves are the source of the crisis!        

 Reacting and Responding

Our hot-button reactions, such as to crisis, release adrenaline which, virtually immediately, activates our 'fight or flight' instincts.  A considered response to a complex problem engages much more of the brain and takes longer to activate. Reactions, which are virtually autonomous reflexes, tend to be highly generalized, while considered responses, passing through our cognitive and analytical faculties, are much more individual.      

It is hardly surprising that the mainstream media, whether cinema, TV, or online, has learned how to trigger dopamine and adrenaline reactions in audiences: they are collective, predictable, and largely bypass conscious evaluating processes.  Everyone will react to an explosion, a fast car-chase shootout, or the expectation of sex on the screen.  It is controllable and predictable, something that everyone marketing a product wants in relation to their consumers.    

But...constantly being triggered has a broader conditioning effect on the audience, ergo, on society: people become conditioned to being triggered.  Their nervous systems become 'wired' to expect triggering, and to accept the triggered adrenaline or dopamine states as 'normal'—perhaps so far as to 'desire' to be triggered!  Once the adrenaline starts pumping, people enter a quasi-intoxicated state.  They can no longer think clearly.  It becomes very much harder to muster up the inner calm and centered conditions that make critical thinking possible.    

This has led me to propose THREE AXIOMS that concern the how the MEDIA IMPACT SOCIETY:    

1.  Whatever we put up on the screen MODELS attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors for the audience.    

2.  Whatever is modeled repeatedly is REINFORCED.  The reinforcement mechanism is subconscious and relatively autonomous, meaning, it happens without our being aware of it.   

3.  Whatever is reinforced repeatedly becomes INCORPORATED: it re-patterns the nervous system and becomes 'somaticized' in the body.  Eventually, over time, it becomes invisible, just 'the way things are'.    

Something we desperately need today is to have more critical thinking, more insight, more understanding, more wisdom to find the way through the crisis that we have created.  How do stories fit in?  What positive role could drama play in increasing our critical thinking, insight, and understanding?      

In fact, that last sentence accurately describes the original role of drama in relation to society.  Drama was, from its beginnings, a structured, trans-rational experience of complexity where thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition all came into play in the service of insight. 

This is because drama makes us identify, not with one character or position, but with all characters and positions, as well as with elements and resonances that come in through décor, perspective, and all of the tools of the art.  When a dramatist (or advertising executive, pundit, celebrity, propagandist, etc., etc.) violates this foundational principle of drama to elicit simple and predictable reactions rather than complex responses, he or she cheats the audience, producing only an imitation of drama, full of sound and fury perhaps, but signifying nothing.    

The Return of the Hero's Journey

We do live in a globalized world today.  Globalized trade and wealth extraction have come with globalized air, water, climate, and biodiversity degradations, globalized inequality, and a global crisis that requires a global response.    

The Hero's Journey is, and has always been, a journey into the unknown to find a solution to a seemingly unsolvable dilemma, to penetrate life's mystery, and to bring to light a new way of being.  The Hero's Journey archetype is triggered into action by an existential threat; it is the psychological expression of our survival instinct.    

If ALL OF LIFE IS INTERCONNECTED, and life on Earth is facing an existential threat (called the 'Sixth Mass Extinction Event', etc.), then we can assert that it is life on Earth——Gaia, and specifically the human relation to Gaia——that has an urgent call to adventure: to abandon a deadly status quo and, passing through danger, to undergo a descent into the unknown, an experience of death and rebirth, and a return to life and action with a new perspective: new values, new ways of being, and the foundations of a new culture.  As with every hero's journey, there is no guarantee that we, or life on Earth, will succeed, though life has proven enduring and resourceful over more than 2 billion years.  The one thing that is certain is that refusing the call will mean surrender to extinction.    

There is a story that comes from the Inuit people who lived in the region of Greenland.  They told of an island long, long ago where, one winter, the sea ice was so thick, and the storms so ferocious, that hunting was impossible and the people were starving to death.  Various shamans were praying to the spirits of the sea and the walruses to bring them food, when one man came forth and declared that he had had a vision: they must all abandon the island and go to the mainland.  Now, this island was so far out, and up to now so self-sufficient, that no one had been to the mainland for generations.  No one knew exactly where it was anymore.  The head of the group said no, it would be impossible to cross all that open ocean in the winter, and many agreed with him.  Whatever would come, the island was their home and safety.  But the man with the vision also has his adherents, so the group was split.  In the end, half the group stayed, and half followed the man with the vision.  Somehow, always following his vision, he navigated the people over the ice and across the open sea until they finally arrived to the mainland and founded a new home.  The storytellers claimed they were the descendants of those who made the successful journey.  They were the survivors.     

For some time, the Hero's Journey has been utilized in the media industry as an extra 'flavor enhancer' for blockbuster entertainment.  It became a formula that could be constantly twisted to be kept fresh.  But the broader effect of this has been sort of like the boy who cried wolf....  The Hero's Journey evokes deep energies, something like a hit of adrenaline, but on a more profound level of the mind/body system.  The first time the boy cried, 'Wolf!  Wolf!', everybody got excited.  They got the adrenaline rush of danger.  But after the tenth time, nobody cared anymore: the adrenaline had been used up carelessly and apathy had set in.  Likewise, when every movie, show, advertisement, and sales pitch tries to hook into the Hero's Journey to induce us to buy more pasta or a new brand of deodorant, the abused system becomes dulled.    

Again, this is for those who work with drama and who care about society to correct the degradations and excesses, in order for drama once again to serve INSIGHT in a time of crisis.  It will be a new hero's journey for those who take up that call, because no one in the media at this point knows how to transform exploitation into service——though there is probably a fairy tale someplace that gives some clues!    

The New Heroes 

Who are the new heroes?    

It's obvious that Captain America and the rest of the Marvel crew, formidable box office giants as they are, are not cut out for dealing with the real world in which climate change has real consequences.    

Let's begin with the real nature of climate change as a threat, and then with the real world heroes.  Climate change is such that it is happening everywhere and always. That makes it difficult to localize, and thus to locate in awareness.  We all contribute to it.  It is also so complex that it has taken thousands of scientists decades, generations, to accurately describe its dynamics.  From the point of view of the human nervous system, until very recently climate change happened so slowly, on a geological timescale, that it was easy not to notice it.  It was easy to be in denial. 

Yet, many scientists, naturalists, farmers, and indigenous peoples all over the world saw that something was happening.  People saw that the health of their forests, rivers, their land and sea and wildlife, was declining.  Everywhere the birdsong was growing fainter.  Those people sounded early-warning alarms decades ago.  What happened was that those warnings were drowned in a sea of 'messages', the bubble of self-affirmative feedback on which society has been taught to feed.      

The new heroes are legion——and they must be.  The crisis is systemic and the way out must be systemic.  Therefore, by definition, the heroic individual is necessary but not sufficient.  A certain heroism will be required of all, as today it is already required of the millions who struggle with the direct and indirect damages related to our industrial world's overshoot of the Earth's carrying capacity: the climate and resource refugees, those caught in regional conflicts driven by resource exploitation, and the victims of global inequality aggravated by exploitation and toxic dumping.     

The new heroes include everyone who has begun to face the anxiety and grief, and yet has decided to play a positive role in the needed transformation of the human presence on the Earth.  These are heroes of consciousness.  Some have called humanity that aspect or organ of Gaia that has become self-aware.  The new heroes are the living, creative edge of that self-awareness, whether they are inventing new energy sources, re-discovering the value of traditional water and agricultural systems, protesting against the poisoning of the land, or defending the rainforests.   

And, the new heroes are not exclusively human.  If life only exists in ecologies, in complex communities of beings, then it is no longer a question of humans succeeding against nature.  It is no longer about seeing nature as an enemy to be conquered or as a prize to be won, building dams to 'tame' rivers and clear-cutting forests to lay eight-lane freeways over the landscape.  Around 10 years ago, cameraman John D. Liu documented the large scale restoration of China's Loess Plateau, an area the size of the Netherlands.  His film has since inspired people all around the world, and has helped give birth to a global landscape restoration movement.  Now, people who would like to give of themselves can learn how to have a positive impact at landscape restoration camps.  And yes, the restoration of the Loess Plateau is a great achievement of human scientific analysis, political insight and will, logistical organization, and the physical labor of the region's inhabitants.  

But it is more than this: it is a TRIUMPH OF LIFE ITSELF, of green over the desert, of life over death.    

So, the new heroes are everywhere among us.  They are potentially ourselves, to the extent that we say yes to the fullness of life and the task at hand.  It is NOT one hero in one place at one time.  That is something that makes the new heroism hard to put on the screen.

Not exactly true, as thousands of videos on YouTube attest.  The problem is that the media industry has not YET found the way to tell these stories...and make huge profits at the same time.      

Who is going to tell those stories, the beginning chapters of THE NEW STORY?  Who are those special storytellers who will move the stories society needs from the fringes to the center of our social discourse?  They are out there, at the Post-Carbon Institute, Transition Movement,, and many other locations.    

Why are these storytellers so far ahead of the media people, the screenwriters, playwrights, ad execs, and game designers?  Because they have embraced the new worldview, the NEW STORY OF INTERCONNECTED LIFE.  

The new worldview is not about new technologies, new platforms, or new marketing strategies.  It is about the paradigm shift from the delusion of inexhaustible resources and infinite growth to an attitude of caring stewardship for the biosphere that sustains us.  The new heroes embody the values of this new, hopeful worldview.  

 A TASK FORCE: 'The Media Council for the Future'

You would think that, with all of its global power, the LEAST the media industry could do would be to create a TASK FORCE to design a proactive transition for the media, from the unsustainable, dying status quo to a new vision of how media relates to society and, growing out of that, a new mission.  

From a simply pragmatic point of view, it makes sense to disinvest from dysfunctional and dying systems and to invest where growth will surely occur.  We see this happening in the energy sector today: fracking companies are going bankrupt because the cost of production is greater than the value of the product, while renewable energy companies are booming.  This is true for energy investments, and I believe something analogous is true for information and communications investments.  

Our concept of mass media entertainment contained a number of unexamined assumptions.  To make it simple, one large assumption, which governed many others, was the assumption that the real world would never interfere with market growth in entertainment spending.  People would always be able to spend on flat screens and other hardware upgrades, would always respond to the adrenaline hit of the new game launch or the new blockbuster at the cinema.  Resource scarcity, exploding debt bubbles, or other spending priorities in the real world would not be allowed to interfere.  

This core assumption, always dubious, has become, in 2020, delusional.  As the sunset of fossil fuels is upon us, so is the sunset of fossil fuel produced plastics, and with the sunset of plastics and fossil fuels will come an end to the brief era of cheap energy and throwaway stuff.    

Now, imagine for a moment.  What if, rather than hiding its climate research from the public for 40 years, Exxon/Mobil had invested 10% of its profits into sustainable energy R&D?  Where would Exxon/Mobil be today?  With its enormous capital power, it would have absolute monopoly potential in this expanding new market, and the world would be much further along in the transition toward a sustainable energy future.  Instead, the mammoth corporation is still trying to milk the last drops from the old cash cow of fossil fuels.    

Now, imagine again.  What if the media industry, globally, regionally, or nationally, would invest 10% of its profits, or of its annual production budget, into R&D: to develop a new ethos and ethic, a new relation to society, to discover the needed new stories and how to tell them, and to begin to train writers, directors, producers and executives in a new system that will better address our urgent current needs?    

This is the principle behind my concept of a TASK FORCE.  Task force is apt, because this would be an entity delegated and devoted to accomplishing the task of breaking new ground, of forging the first path across the desert so that others can follow, and, increasingly, more and more would take that path until there would be a paradigm shift in the way the 'media' as an industry views itself and what it is about.    

As a 'working title', I am calling the task force THE MEDIA COUNCIL FOR THE FUTURE.    

How could this work?  

First of all, it has to be VOLUNTARY, at least to get things rolling.  This may appeal to media professionals advanced enough in their careers that they have experience, authority, and the perspective of giving something back and handing on something good to the coming generations.  Gradually, an institution will grow, because institutions, whether broadcasters or the UN, listen to other institutions——but the task force must keep the spirit of offering something from the heart.  

Secondly, the task force has to be DISINTERESTED, meaning, setting aside personal ambition and competition, corporate profitability, and broadcasters' drive for market share.  There is no contradiction here.  Thousands of successful businesspeople invest their time and money into building hospitals, shelters, etc., while in their 9-5 world they remain in business.  However, setting aside egoism, difficult as that may be, is absolutely necessary to begin to gain some objectivity on the real crisis and the potential ways forward toward transformation.    

Thirdly, the task force must be DEMOCRATIC and SECURE.  This is a natural extention of disinterest, of leaving the egoism at the door.  Whoever will be involved, whether a studio executive or a young writer, will have to be absolutely free to speak openly and frankly with each other, to share and develop ideas.  The task force must have the freedom to question everything about how the media works, how it came to be that way, and how it might be reconfigured.  Thus, 'within these walls' professional hierarchies must be laid aside.  No one needs to worry about saying something that might lose them a contract in the 'outer' world.  The work also needs to be secure in both CONFIDENTIALITY and CONTINUITY.  Confidentiality is obvious.  Continuity means that participants need the assurance that the task force has 'legs', the power to go someplace, and that the investment of energy and mind and heart will have an outcome.    

Fourth, the task force will find ways to be INCLUSIVE.  The media impacts everyone, and thus is an issue for everyone.  Those deeply invested in the status quo may not always be the ones with the insights.  Inclusivity, in a pragmatic sense, will mean that creative professionals, media business leaders, and governmental media regulators shall meet together with representatives of the scientific and institutional communities, governments and NGOs, and the public of various age/perspective groups.    

Fifth, the task force will need EXPERTISE and FACILITATION.  There will need to be a general forum aspect, working groups, and agendas.  It is best, in order to maintain the spirit of democratic parity, for outside facilitation experts to be engaged, people who have the demonstrated competence with groups, the long-range vision, and the NEW WORLDVIEW to act as leaders and facilitate the the task force reaching its goals.  Clearly, this will be a PROCESS with many steps.    

Sixth, the task force needs to have both OUTREACH and OUTCOMES.  Outreach means that avenues of influence to both the media industry and to the broader public discourse must be incorporated and cultivated from the beginning.  Outcomes means that the work of the task force must not remain abstract.  New principles and new visions must be made concrete and operational.  This will be true on a policy level, and it must also be true on the level of concrete new stories, new productions, and a growing presence in the media world as a catalyst for paradigm shift.  

Therefore, along with a THINK-TANK/FORUM aspect, there will also be a PROJECT DEVELOPMENT LAB aspect.  One way to approach this could be to offer fellowships to creative individuals, both those with formal media training and fresh minds from outside the traditional media career pathways.  These may include 'outsiders', those who have had little access to media power, but who demonstrate needed insights into the new worldview and regenerative value set, especially indigenous storytellers whose voices and wisdom need to be heard.  

Groups of media artists in various disciplines would go through a story development process guided by the expertise and priorities that emerge from the work of the think-tank.  The goal, however, is not to advance individual careers or to groom new talent for the existing status quo system, but to identify and give 'laboratory trials' to new STORIES THAT MATTER.  This process will build into productions, then into networks of like-minded and trained individuals who can work together to send a wave of change out into the media, society, and the collective consciousness.  Think of this as a 'restoration camp' for our minds, hearts, and spirits, planting the seeds of renewal across the vast landscape of our global civilization.


This is the project I have set for myself for the coming time.  It is at the beginning stages.  A more elaborated proposal will be going out to my trusted media colleagues in the next weeks, as the writing of it is finished.

If, you, reading this, feel the urge to get involved and become part of a network, please, at this stage write me a mail at:  

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or, wait until the site is reconfigured to incorporate direct feedback.

I plan to make some semi-public presentations to my seminar followers and media contacts in the late spring of 2020.  Info on those events will be posted at this web site. 


masterschool-drehbuch dozenten keith-cunningham

Keith Cunningham (born in Philadelphia, PA, USA in 1951) is a global expert in screenwriting, story development, and the transformational power of drama. He began leading professional seminars at the American Film Institute in 1984 with colleague Tom Schlesinger. They went on to work with the Director’s Guild and the Writer’s Guild in Los Angeles and many other institutions.
Since then he has trained thousands of writers, directors, producers, and commissioning editors in hundreds of seminars spanning all aspects of dramatic storytelling, offered from Los Angeles to Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Brazil. MORE ...




The demand for consultations is steadily increasing.  So many of the seminar participants find them exciting and productive and come back for consultations.  Among the recent sessions, I am proud to have consulted on Bottled Life, by Urs Schnell and DokLab of Bern, Switzerland.  Bottled Life is the controversial investigative documentary about the Nestlé corporation’s attempts to commodify the water we drink.  Find out about it at:


 The Soul of Screenwriting — the book! German edition is available!


The Soul of Screenwriting is consistently getting 5 star reviews from readers at and  Here is a recent comment from a writer:

 Dear Keith,

 I want to relay to you my deepest thanks for the amazing help and inspiration your book on the Soul of Screenwriting has been. I am currently adapting my novel, ... set in New Zealand and Samoa, into a film screenplay and have had enormous pleasure in the challenge of structuring along the 16 Story Steps and the Mythic model.  It goes without saying that whatever the final result, it will be immeasurably better with your help than had I not read your book.

And a most amazing thing -- your exposition of "MODE versus NEED" actually helped me resolve a personal psychological crisis. It made me wonder -- How much of me is in my main character, and how much of him in me?  (Shakes head slowly in some consternation).

Thank you for your deep perception into what makes a great story, your fluency in describing your ideas and your compassion to share these with fellow (and in my case, beginner), screenplay writers. 

Serious writers sooner or later want to go beyond following somebody else’s tips and formulas about creating drama for the screen: they want to know what it all has to do with themselves, their own creative process, and their understanding of life.  Sooner or later, they want to go beyond characters who are manipulated like puppets and really get into the creative encounter.  The Soul of Screenwriting was written for these serious writers as well as writers starting out on the path.

In The Soul of Screenwriting, I give the writer a guide to her own creative process as well as the greatest in-depth story paradigms that really work, some of them derived from the insights of all-time top screenwriters such as Waldo Salt and John Sayles.  The fruit of my long years of collaboration with my seminar partner Tom Schlesinger, The Soul of Screenwriting will give you an understanding of why drama has the power to transform people.  You will understand how the dynamics of drama speak the language of deep psychological change so that you will possess understanding.  This will liberate you from mechanically following someone else’s tips—and it will liberate your own deeper creativity. 

I have brought to bear all of my research into the dynamics of the creative process, my insights as a psychologist, and my practical experience as a writer to produce a book that will grow with you through a creative lifetime. 

Many readers find The Soul of Screenwriting a unique treasure among screenwriting books.  At least one person got angry because, as he said, “You actually have to read it!”  If you are not intimidated by reading, this might be the book for you. 

 Buy the book!!