Monday, October 26, 2009

Screenplays I love: Four Weddings and a Funeral

I don't know if this will become a regular feature or not, but I find myself wanting to say a few things about Four Weddings and a Funeral, one of my favorite movies/screenplays of all time. Paradoxically, Richard Curtis's script breaks many conventions of cinematic storytelling while, at the same time, exemplifying a story that could only be told as a movie. (It was beaten at the Oscars by a screenplay to which similar praise could be ascribed: Pulp Fiction.) The strict limitations it imposes on itself work so perfectly that they end up seeming like advantages, and the result is a highly accurate, endlessly satisfying portrayal of the hazards of love and romance.

Charles (Hugh Grant) is one of the most memorable protagonists in the history of romantic comedies. Much like John Cusack's portrayal of Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, the role came to define not only what we expect from a Hugh Grant movie, but what we expect from Hugh Grant as a human being. And yet for the most part, the screenplay tells us shockingly little about this character. We don't know what his job is, what his typical day is like, or even his last name. Up until the final minutes of the film, we only see him in the context of -- more to the point, in the shadow of -- other people's formal social events. (The one sequence in the movie that isn't a wedding or a funeral centers around shopping for one.)

To many writers, this kind of structure would be an uphill battle in terms of effectively setting up a character, but they'd deal with it as best they could -- seizing upon every possible opportunity to smoothly inject some exposition into the proceedings. Weddings, they might reason, are occasions where people are always introducing themselves and discussing their outside lives with strangers and rarely-seen acquaintances. But Curtis refuses to take advantage of any such loophole; Charles practically never talks about himself, and steers most conversations away from personal details. The few tidbits he drops here and there (saying that he could never get married, or that "[m]ost of the time I don't think at all. I just potter along" in relationships) are telling but vague.

So how does it work? How does Richard Curtis get away with all this? How does a vaguely defined protagonist walking through the same situation over and over add up to a great movie?

Well, first of all, it's a situation we all understand: not merely the experience of going to a wedding, but the period in our lives where it seems like everyone we know is getting married left and right. (Curtis himself apparently went to 72 weddings in ten years, so he knew whereof he spoke.) And as much as we might trivialize them as boring, useless social obligations, all weddings are powerful events that heighten our emotions. Even the wedding of someone we barely know (or wish we barely knew) is bound to serve as an occasion for some serious pondering of our life choices to that point. Attending multiple weddings in a short span amplifies those feelings. The writer knows this, the movie knows it, and the audience knows it -- without needing to be told. The same universal relevance applies when Charles falls in love with Carrie (quite literally at first sight) and deals with the difficulties, many of them hilarious, that their short-term romance entails.

Second, the structure of the screenplay gives it the kind of temporal scope that isn't typically feasible in a romantic comedy. Profound changes in characters' lives -- engagement, divorce -- happen offscreen between chapters, continually altering Charles's experience and perspective as time goes on. Months go by between Charles's first and second encounters with Carrie, though only minutes have passed on screen. He's still in love with her, but now she's engaged to a wealthy old Scot. Hope and joy immediately turns to heartbreak and painful rumination: a classic dramatic reversal made possible, again, by the film's atypical structure. By the third sequence, wherein Charles runs into Carrie while shopping for a wedding gift, enough time has passed that he's ready to let his feelings burst forth in a famously awkward confession... but it's both too late and too early for anything to come of it. Juxtaposing these scenes in a conventional script would never work; the drama would feel arbitrary and manufactured. But the film earns these compelling transitions by pinning its structure to the events that surround life changes, rather than the changes themselves.

Finally, the incredible cast of supporting characters serves to take some of the pressure off Charles without turning the film into an outright ensemble piece. (Curtis did attempt the latter in Love Actually, and the result, like many multistory ensemble films, was thinner and less memorable.) Even if we never completely know who Charles is, we're constantly presented with examples of who he isn't; thus, we form an impression based on the visible differences between him and his friends (and acquaintances, and strangers he bumps into, and so forth) and his reactions to their behavior. We also get occasional commentary from them on Charles's personality and life choices. Yet, they never seem to exist simply to fill these needs in the script; Curtis draws each one so vividly and specifically that they all feel like protagonists of their own individual movies -- an object lesson in writing secondary roles.

Four Weddings and a Funeral has aged well in the 15 years since its release, especially compared with the swath of wedding-porn embarrassments that the studios have churned out of late. It's clever, insightful, funny, and touching without trying too hard to achieve any of those characteristics. And best of all, it proves that screenwriting rules were made to be broken.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Useful scripts to read

When I started learning screenwriting in the late 90s, copies of screenplays weren't easy to find. There was the bookstore (for mostly older scripts in that annoying book-sized format), there were movie memorabilia stores and conventions, and there was the Internet, but the online pickings were slim (especially since PDFs weren't widely used yet). In 2009, however, screenplays are all over the place. Where once I tried to read pretty much every script I could find (since I couldn't find that many), these days I have the luxury of being selective. I try to read scripts that interest me, of course, but I also want them to enrich my knowledge of both the craft of writing and the current spectrum of work being done by professionals.

That said, here's a list of all the different types of screenplays that are out there, in ascending order from least useful to most useful (in my opinion/experience).

1. Commercially available screenplays of already-released films. The biggest problem with many of these: they're not really screenplays. They're transcripts of the finished movies, written (arbitrarily) in screenplay format. They describe what was on the screen, not what was in a writer's head. Most other scripts of this type are at least shooting scripts, which, again, often have little to do with the work of the original screenwriter. Instead, they probably reflect months or years of doctoring by other writers; preparatory revisions by the director/producers; and overly specific instructions to various departments (camera, sound, etc.). Meanwhile, that great screenplay that one person (or team) actually sat down and wrote -- the one that led to the movie getting made in the first place -- is nowhere to be found.

2. Screenplays for movies I've seen (often coincides with #1). A screenplay needs to create a vivid, compelling movie in the reader's mind. If the movie is already in my mind, then I can't gauge how well the screenplay accomplishes that goal. The language of the script can only serve to trigger existing memories, which isn't the same as creating new ones. On the other hand, reading earlier drafts can be both interesting and useful, as it enables me to see what changes were made along the way. I've done this with the recent movies Whip It and An Education, and it's clear that a lot of adjustments were made to both prior to (or possibly during) filming. In the case of An Education, many scenes were re-ordered or cut out entirely, all for the better (although Nick Hornby's ever-impeccable dialogue remained untouched).

3. Screenplays for not-yet-released (or unproduced) movies that were written on assignment. These days, this is most of them; spec scripts rarely get bought and even more rarely get made. But assigned scripts are less useful to me, because I don't know all the behind-the-scenes. With some of them, the writer is simply given a title and premise and then sent off on her own; with others, the writer may have 50 pages of outlines and sketches and notes to which he absolutely must adhere. The bottom line is that there are bound to be a lot of decisions in that script that weren't up to the writer; and the flipside of that is that there's no way to know how that script would have been received as a spec. Still, they can be good lessons on the art of working within someone else's framework, which is pretty much what professional screenwriting is all about. And they can showcase some pretty great writing regardless of the circumstances.

4. Spec screenplays that either sold or got the writer an assignment. The Holy Grail. These are the scripts that took aspiring writers from the sidelines to the big game -- that forced some executive somewhere to open her checkbook and give a chance to someone new. They're the best examples of what Hollywood is looking for in new writers... and they're becoming harder and harder to find as the studio system contracts and 90% of all movies appear to be written by the same four or five guys. Nonetheless, they're out there, and many of them are pretty thrilling reads from exciting new voices. These people made it; now it's up to me to work my ass off enough to follow in their footsteps.

Monday, October 19, 2009


When I was starting out as a screenwriter, I tended to write movies as if they were plays: a scene would begin when two characters entered a room, continue through their entire conversation, and then end when they were finished. I wrote them that way because I wasn't thinking like an editor.

Generally speaking, editors try to use the minimum amount of footage possible to tell the story. They're not likely to keep an unnecessary shot simply because it's beautiful, or to leave in a lengthy monologue for the sole purpose of enhancing the actor's chances of an Oscar. Their goal is efficiency, not indulgence. "Efficiency" isn't a sexy word. It might well sound anathema to the whole idea of artistic expression -- but it isn't. In fact, it can make for some truly beautiful and effective scenes.

Example #1:

FADE IN: On a college lecture hall. The PROFESSOR, a balding man in his sixties, walks up to the podium. He sighs and introduces himself to the class. As he goes over his plan for the semester, we can hear in his voice that his heart is no longer in this. Students eagerly raise their hands to ask questions but are dismissed with brief, vague answers. CUT TO next scene.

Example #2:

FADE IN: On a college lecture hall. The PROFESSOR, a balding man in his sixties, walks up to the podium. He sighs. CUT TO next scene.

Example #2, of course, is more efficient. There's very little that the longer version tells us about the Professor's state of mind that isn't fully encapsulated in that single sigh. (Plus, ending on the sigh makes it more noticeable than it might be otherwise.) But there's another reason that the shorter version is so much better.

Here's a professor going in to teach his class. This is his job, his livelihood, presumably his life's work. And we're not bothering to show more than a second of it. Implicitly, we're telling the audience that there's nothing in that lecture worth seeing. We're establishing the fact that this guy teaches, yet simultaneously establishing that this movie is not about his teaching. And on top of that, we're hammering home the emptiness of his experience. Guy goes in to teach a class. Whatever. Let's move on.

Example #2 actually comes from the movie The Visitor (written and directed by Thomas McCarthy), which is a model of efficiency throughout. While people often assume that small, character-driven films like this one will be ponderous and boring, it's quite the opposite; a great deal of information gets conveyed in the first ten minutes, and the plot takes several interesting turns before the thirty-minute mark. All of this is made possible by the relentless devotion on the part of McCarthy (and, of course, his editor Tom McArdle) to making sure that no scene is longer than it absolutely needs to be to move the story along and tell us what we need to know about the characters. There are very few "complete" scenes in the movie, but there are a great many beginnings or endings of scenes.

Most of the time, the beginning or ending is all we need. At heart, every scene in a movie needs to convey exposition and emotion: This happened, and this is how the character felt about it. The Visitor example above does both those things in about five seconds of screentime. Seeing the beginning of the scene, the audience is smart enough to hypothesize the middle and ending. Conversely, if we show just the end of the scene -- but that ending contains the necessary elements -- the audience will infer the beginning and middle. This is a good thing, because the job of the filmmaker is to make the audience think, not to do all the thinking for them. By engaging their imagination, we make the movie a deeper and more personal experience.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


We hear the same basic principle about screenwriting all the time -- the protagonist needs to want something and it needs to be hard for him or her to get. If you're not sick to death of this axiom, you probably haven't been writing for long. (And yet it's never a bad thing to hear, because it really is true and a script that ignores it can go off the rails very quickly.)

But that's not the only way to look at a script. That's just the narrative perspective: creating a difficult quest for a character to succeed or fail at. Simultaneously, we're doing something else. We're challenging an idea. It might be a fairly simple idea ("Good triumphs over evil," "The truth will out," "Crime doesn't pay"), but it needs to permeate the story and it needs to be tested every bit as rigorously as the protagonist is. That means stacking the deck against it whenever possible, just like we do with our characters. At every turn, we want it to be easier to embrace the opposite of our idea rather than the idea itself.

An example. Let's see. How about Die Hard? (I know, I always go to that one. One of these days I'll see another movie, I promise.) Like many action movies, this one deals primarily in the principles of "Good triumphs over evil," and "Crime doesn't pay." And it does a great job of testing them. Look at those villains: a crack team of expert thieves with an arsenal of firepower and demolition equipment at their disposal. They're smart, they're ruthless and they've done their homework. Then there's the FBI unit sent to take them down: a bunch of overconfident, shoot-first lunkheads who seem bound and determined to blow the mission at every turn. Halfway through the movie, we have to be thinking... this is going to be the story that teaches us that good heroes triumph over evil criminals? And that's perfect. Like the protagonist, the principle at the heart of the film must always be in jeopardy. Both audience and protagonist must always be tempted to accept the opposite of that idea.

But then -- right in the end, when it counts the most -- the central idea proves its worth, exposing the fatal weaknesses in any arguments against it. And it is stronger for all the challenges it has faced to its validity -- even if we could have accepted it at face value from the beginning.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The first act, and rewriting

This month I've been doing my second page-one rewrite of a script that I started over a year ago. I had considered just giving it up, but the concept and characters still intrigue me enough to take another crack at it. Am I beating a dead horse? Maybe. But it's also a chance to experiment... with the plot, with my writing style, even with my approach to screenwriting in general.

Ordinarily, once I'm writing a draft, I try to plow through and get to the end as quickly as possible. I thought I was going to do that this time. But then something interesting happened: I didn't. Instead, 30 pages into it I've taken a step back to re-examine everything I've done, solicit feedback, and tinker with it at will. The danger in doing something like this is obvious: I'm writing a script, not a 30-page chunk of a script. The longer I spend messing with that section, the harder it could be to get the other 70-odd pages churned out.

I'm aware of all that, though; and right now, this seems like the way to go. The first act of a script is really incredibly important, and very hard to pull off well. It's setup. It's build-up. It's establishing characters and situations. In other words, it's not very sexy -- and yet it has to be if you want anyone to read it. So maybe it's not so crazy to think about spending more time on this part than on any other section of the script. The first page, the first several pages... they might be skimmed impatiently in hopes of getting to the exciting stuff, but if you write them with that in mind, you've lost the game from the beginning.

Another thing: it's a lot easier to rewrite this way, I'm finding. Rewriting discrete chunks of a 100+ page script can be a nightmare. Okay, I changed that. Does this still make sense? Hmm, it doesn't. Better change it. OK, now that doesn't make sense. Let's see. Skip ahead a little... ooh, just realized this is going to completely screw up that monologue on page 20. And so on. But working on 30 pages in a vacuum removes all those issues. It doesn't matter if what I change here affects stuff later on, because I haven't written any of that yet. I have a plot and a basic outline, but I'm flexible. It's pretty liberating.

We'll see how well this works when I'm done. Have I screwed myself over and killed my momentum? Or will polishing off the perfect first act energize me to crank out a great rest of the script?

Monday, September 21, 2009


Usually, the premise of a movie will dictate -- in broad terms -- what its timeline should be.

CIA gunslinger tracks down nuclear terrorist. Probably not a ten-year saga.

Sweatshop toiler pursues an education and becomes a captain of industry. I don't see that one happening in real time.

But within that general framework, there's practically no limit to the freedom we have to fine-tune the temporal boundaries of a script. The amount of time a story takes to unfold (actual time, not screen time or page count), combined with the way we divide and compress that time to fit the length of our script -- i.e., pacing -- can greatly affect the storytelling tools we have available to us, as well as the way our story is ultimately perceived.

As demonstrated by the first hypothetical logline up top, suspenseful movies tend to demand a shorter timeline -- especially those that rely on the classic "ticking clock" element wherein the hero has a very specific amount of time to accomplish his or her task (find the secret formula, rescue the President's daughter, disarm the bomb, etc.). If the deadline is too long or too loose, the sense of danger will diminish and the audience will tune out. You don't see a lot of stories where the hero faces unspeakable danger, goes home and goes to sleep, then gets up the next morning to face more unspeakable danger. (Cop shows excepted.)

On the other hand, we also need to ensure that the audience makes an emotional investment in our characters; there's no suspense without that important bond. In order for that to happen, we need to let our viewers experience the protagonist's rhythms, rituals, and relationships -- which requires another "r" word: repetition. Showing the same character in the same setting repeatedly can be a valuable tool for making viewers feel like they're truly experiencing the life of that character. It's also a great mechanism for demonstrating change. Every week, Pete practices with his band... but this time we can see that his heart's no longer in it. Or: Peggy goes for her daily jog... but now that she's found true love, there's a spring in her step we've never seen.

But repetition takes time, and time drains suspense. How do we reconcile these apparently conflicting story requirements? For example, what if we want to write a really good, character-driven thriller (like I've been trying to do on and off for over a year now)? One solution is to use a sliding temporal scale. Nearly all movies employ this form in one way or another, but in this case we may want to be more specific and deliberate about it. The opening 10-15 pages could go through a week or more in the lives of the main characters -- setting the scene, building familiarity through repetition. Then we'd zoom in closer as key plot events occur more quickly and pressure on our protagonist to act increases; the remainder of the first act might only be a few days. From the second act onward, the timeline would continue tightening as the action picks up, and by the last 30-40 pages we'd be fully in real-time.

Of course, this is only one way to deal with the building suspense/building character dilemma. Time is on our side when we're writing a script (at least in this one regard!); we can bend it to our will. There are ways to pull off an utterly thrilling and engaging story where Act I takes place in real-time and Act II begins five years later. The Informant!, which I just saw last night, frequently skips a year or more between scenes but never loses its thread of intrigue. No matter which route we take, though, we must pay attention to the ways in which our manipulation of time affects the key elements of our storytelling. It's like sound mixing or color correction: no one notices when it's done well; everyone notices when it isn't.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


There tends to be an assumption among both filmgoers and filmmakers that different genres of film are held to different standards of believability. If we were to put them in descending order, from most realistic to least, I imagine the results would look roughly like this:

1. Drama
2. Romantic comedy
3. Comedy
4. Thriller/Suspense
5. Horror
6. Action/Adventure
7. Sci-fi/Fantasy

Sound about right? We're demanding a lot more from Ordinary People or Slumdog Millionaire in terms of believability than we are from Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, whereas Saw or Ocean's Eleven can get away with a decent amount but not too much. We can quibble about the specific order of the list -- maybe horror films have gotten more realistic over the years, while rom-coms have gotten more fantastic -- but that's really not my point here.

My point is that the list is irrelevant -- and internalizing this sliding-scale system of realism can only hurt us as screenwriters, especially when we choose to write scripts that fall toward the bottom of the scale. We can trick ourselves into thinking that we can get away with all sorts of things just because we're writing in a "less believable" genre -- but that's not the case.

Truth applies no matter what, and it must be sacred regardless of genre.

OK, sorry -- that was a little Robert McKee of me, but I promise it was for a good reason. Because this concept isn't just something to worry about; it can also be very helpful. It's a powerful beacon that can guide us through the writing of some really out-there material -- enabling us to take the most far-fetched story imaginable and make it universally appealing and meaningful. It's what makes District 9, a shockingly violent and gory film about repulsive aliens, one of the most heartrending movies of the year (not to mention financially successful and very well-reviewed): every single moment of it rings true.

It's what accounts for the difference between a great superhero movie like Spiderman 2 and a terrible one like Batman & Robin. The former imagines what it would be really like to be a superhero -- focusing on all the worst parts of it -- while the latter uses the superhero/supervillain backdrop as an excuse to dump a bunch of visual nonsense on the audience, never showing us a single character with any recognizable human qualities. B&R progresses arbitrarily from ridiculous set piece to set piece; S2 spins a hugely entertaining story (with no shortage of amazing set pieces) that evolves organically out of decisions made by actual people, all of whom we sympathize with or at least understand.

The screenwriters who worked on Spiderman 2 had the unenviable task of taking a fairly absurd premise -- Web-slinging teenager takes on eight-limbed mad scientist -- and asking themselves, "What would this really be like? How would people really feel in that situation? What would they really do in response?" There's no trick to solving those problems. They're like multiple-choice SAT questions -- there's no right answer, but there's a best answer... and a bunch of wrong ones. Our goal as writers is to weed out the bad choices and zero in on the one that makes the most sense.

It's not easy.

It requires that we reject all the easy, facile solutions that pop up in our brains ("What if the hero just kind of stumbles into the control room where he can defuse the bomb?"). It demands that we crawl inside the minds of our heroes, villains, supporting cast -- even the ice cream cone guy who just has that one line -- and come out with truth. We may not know how to get there, but we always know when we've found it. So will our readers and audiences.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Earlier this year I wrote a lot about what not to do in the first ten pages of a script. Now I want to lend some balance to that by talking about what to do. That's more difficult to sum up, of course, since there are so many elements that need to fall into place very quickly -- and, seemingly, with little effort. But I think there's one concept that can guide us pretty well through that process, no matter what the genre or story.

Make it unsustainable.

Movies are a voyeuristic entertainment. We see them because we enjoy watching other people, and the theater or TV gives us a safe zone in which to do that. The opening minutes of a film must be especially aware of this concept in order to best exploit it, because for the time being, watching our characters is all we're going to let the audience do. That's not a problem... as long as we can demonstrate that something about our characters and their situation is unsustainable. This means planting doubts and fears in the minds of our audience: "There's no way they can afford this lifestyle," or "He thinks she loves him but she clearly doesn't, or "God, she's an inch away from snapping completely." If we start doing this right away -- and doing it repeatedly -- we will absolutely hold the audience's attention for the time it takes us to build up to the first major plot turn.

You Can Count on Me is one of my very favorite movies, and I believe Kenneth Lonergan's screenplay is one of the best ever written. The film opens with some brief flashbacks to Sammy's (Laura Linney) traumatic childhood, and then over the next several minutes it starts showing us her adult life: She's a single mom. She works in a bank. She has a sometimes-boyfriend. These scenes don't simply convey this information, but rather use it to demonstrate how Sammy is trapped in a variety of unsustainable situations. Her son is starting to wonder about the father he's never met; her only relationship with a man is boring and unsatisfying; and her job security is now being threatened by her need to take care of her boy. Although nothing melodramatic happens in these opening scenes, the message to the audience is clear: Something has to change here, or something is going to break -- very soon. That message keeps us in our seats, waiting to see what changes or what breaks, and how.

Nobody goes to the theater to watch happy people being happy, with only more happiness on the horizon. We go to watch people who are headed straight for a brick wall but either can't see it or lack the will and/or ability to change course. Think about it -- when someone tells you about their friends or family, which are the people you're most interested in hearing about? The well-adjusted successful ones, or the ones who are an inch away from a total meltdown? There's no contest. People we know are living unsustainable existences always make for the most interesting stories. So write about one of them.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

You, feeling something

Learning screenwriting for me has been kind of like learning to think like a machine. You take this free-flowing stream of thoughts and images and turn them into a highly specific document that is logical, precise, and organized -- in 12 point Courier, no exceptions. Everything about screenplay craft has a terse, businesslike, unemotional classification. Act I, Act II, Act III. Plot points. Character arcs. Sequences. Set pieces. Forget emotion; you need motivation. You don't write scenes about people feeling things; you write scenes about people doing things -- specific things, for specific reasons. You have to justify every scene in the script, every character, every plot element, in terms of the internal logic of the story.

It's exhausting. And I figured once I was able to sublimate all my creativity into this machine language, I'd be done. But, as it turns out, that's only half the journey.

The other half, ironically, appears to consist of putting back in all that sweeping emotion I've been suppressing up to now in the name of being terse and clinical and adhering to all the cinematic rules and regulations. Except, all the terse, clinical, objective stuff still applies.

Essentially, in other words, I have to think like a machine with feelings.

Sci-fi fans and technology buffs will be aware of the difficulty inherent in this proposition. A machine, by definition, is something that does not feel; and a being with feelings, by definition, is not a machine. Attempts to fuse the two have met with failure in reality and disaster in fiction. But this is exactly what you have to be, I'm convinced, if you want to write a really great screenplay. Logic, motivation, organization... it's not enough. A screenplay in which everything happens for a compelling and justifiable reason will fall flat 99% of the time if it's not also dripping with emotion at every turn.

Am I only talking about dramas, romantic comedies, bodice-ripping period pieces? No. (And I probably won't, because I don't have a lot of interest in writing in those genres.) I'm talking about Die Hard, The Fugitive, Terminator 2, Run Lola Run, Casino Royale, Kill Bill -- each one a great action film that packs an emotional punch into virtually every scene. These movies don't just work because they set up a compelling motivation for the protagonist; they work because they're constantly exploring the protagonist's feelings.

In Die Hard, for example, John McClane has genuine human reactions to every situation he's placed in. He feels pain, exhaustion, desperation, sorrow, panic, even fear. He performs superhuman feats, but we always believe he's human -- because his humanity is not merely implied by the fact that he's taking on incredible risks to save his wife; it's constantly demonstrated. The movie's tactically timed plot turns, efficient exposition, and methodically executed action sequences are all honed with a machine-like precision, and they are no doubt essential to its success -- but the emotions cement the film's status as a leader in its genre, even after 20 years of much more impressively-staged competitors. It's why a movie like Shoot 'Em Up can bombard the senses with scene after scene of ever-more-phenomenal action and yet fail to draw much of an audience even despite its A-list cast.

Don Draper summarizes the essence of advertising in the Season 2 opener of "Mad Men" thusly: "You are the product. You, feeling something. That's what sells." It's a valuable truism for screenwriters to keep in mind. If the writer doesn't feel anything about what he/she is writing, then the characters won't feel anything either, and neither will the audience.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Rewriting again

So, a little less than a year ago I had what I considered a pretty brilliant idea for a movie. A globe-trotting action/adventure ensemble flick with kidnapping, hidden treasures, puzzles, booby-traps, mythical creatures, perhaps even a dirigible or two. The summer movie to end all summer movies. I was in the middle of writing another script at the time, so I put it on the back burner until I was in a position to devote serious time to it.

When it came time to get to work on it, I realized I needed to make some significant changes to the characters and structure. Out went the ensemble cast, a chunk of the first act, and probably half the globe-trotting. The script just wasn't going to work that way, and it was painful to accept that fact since I'd had such a specific vision in my head for so long, but such is the nature of things. Anyway, I did manage to keep a lot of what inspired me to write the script in the first place, and I'm pretty sure that everything that I changed was for the better. I wrote the outline, cranked out the script, and now here I am again in rewrite hell.

Thankfully, though, it's not nearly as hellish as it once was. Confidence helps. Starting with better material helps. And, most importantly, having a real handle on your story and characters helps. (Successfully rewriting something you were never all that sure of is a near-impossible task. Believe me, I know; I've tried it. Multiple times.) After a while, it doesn't just start sucking less; it actually becomes liberating. The outline and first draft is largely a negative-feeling process (you have a great idea in your head, and your only real goal is to avoid screwing it up), but the rewrite process reverses that thinking: How much better can I do? How great can I make this? You realize you've blown the ceiling off and are now free to reach for the stars; you're limited only by your willingness to push yourself.

OK, all this hope and enthusiasm is a clear indication that it's been too long since I've done any actual writing. Better get on that.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Earning stuff

I always enjoy looking back at my notes from old writing classes. There's the nostalgia factor, of course, but it can also be quite useful because many of the ideas that I was merely transcribing at the time have much greater meaning to me now. One of the pages to which I often flip my notebook open begins with the line, "Have to earn big scenes." It's an extremely brief way of saying that the "big" scenes in your script -- the scenes that are the most pivotal, and hopefully the most memorable and satisfying -- will fall flat unless you build them up properly via good character work and plotting.

That's one of the most sacred tenets of good screenwriting, and there's little I can add to it (especially since I've covered it in some form many times before). I can, however, use it as a good jumping-off point to another topic -- because the concept of "earning" stuff is actually much more broader and nuanced than the one specific rule I was just talking about. It's actually not a rule at all, but a principle that -- when applied correctly -- can enable you to break all kinds of other rules.

Here's what I'm talking about.

Think about the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark wherein Indy and Marion climb out of the Well of Souls and race to commandeer a plane before the Nazis take off with the Ark. But not so much the second part; think about the specific moment when they make it out of the Well. Indy shoves a stone out of this rickety little structure thingy, they climb through the hole, and they're back on the road.

Now. Really. Think about it. Indy and Sallah had to dig into the sand for hours upon hours to find the entrance to the Well of Souls... but the exit turns out to be a free-standing, easily accessible stone building a few feet off the beaten path? And in thousands of years, no one else figured that out? That's not just a plot hole; it's a giant sucking vacuum. And yet, no one's ever seemed to care. I'm not even sure that many people have noticed.

Why do you suppose that is? Perhaps because that one improbable moment comes on the heels of the amazing scene in which Indy and Marion are trapped in the Well of Souls with all the snakes. If that's not the most frightening, thrilling, skillfully executed scene in the whole damn movie, it's certainly up there. And it's followed by the great fight scene between Indy and the tough but short-lived Nazi mechanic, which itself ends in a magnificent gasoline explosion. And in the final analysis, those two scenes are good enough that the small but necessary bit of connective tissue between them -- which is clearly a cheat by anyone's definition -- turns out to be not such a big deal.

It wouldn't have worked any other way, though. Imagine if Indy and Sallah had found the Well of Souls by wandering around the desert and bumping into that little stone building. "Hey, maybe this is it. Let's take a look!" Viewers would have checked out right then and there; it wouldn't have mattered how brilliant the ensuing scenes were. But by giving us so much great stuff first, the Raiders script earns its right to cheat a little. So, if we want to get away with bending the rules in our own scripts (and there are inevitably times when we need to), this is the way to go about it.

But earning the audience's goodwill isn't only necessary for papering over iffy plot points. (And really, we should endeavor to do that as little as possible so as to minimize the chance of it backfiring.) Consider a good heist movie like Ocean's 11 or Sneakers. These films require the heroes to perform all sorts of feats that the audience really has no idea how to gauge. Sure, everyone knows that it'd be pretty difficult to break into a super-secure vault underneath the Bellagio -- but virtually nobody in the theater knows exactly how difficult, or specifically what would be required to do it. That's okay, from the writer's perspective, because we don't know how to do it either, nor do we need to. We only need to make it seem plausible. And we do that by earning it.

At a crucial point in Sneakers, Robert Redford's crew needs to get past a door that uses a voiceprint identification system. Only the right person's voice, speaking his own name and a short predetermined sentence, will unlock the door. The solution they devise is fairly ingenious (at least it was in 1992; it's probably been ripped off by at least a dozen other movies by now): they send a female friend on a blind date with the man whose office they're breaking into, and through normal conversation she gets him to say his name and the words in the security sentence, all of which are caught on tape. The crew edits the words into the right order, and voila, they've got their way inside.

Would this really work? Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn't matter. It's incredibly clever, and therefore it earns its own plausbility. That's how things work in the movies. You could have a different solution to the same problem that was, in real life, a lot more accurate (maybe all that's really required is to bang the side of the voicebox a few times) -- and audiences would automatically deem it implausible, because the writer didn't do enough to earn their goodwill.

In Ocean's 11, it's the same thing. Who knows if any of the myriad schemes employed by the star-studded cast would actually be sufficient to penetrate a massive casino security operation? (My guess is that virtually none of them would be, or else Vegas would be a lot poorer.) All that matters is that each of them are clever and interesting enough for the audience to accept their plausibility within the context of the film. This principle works both at the micro- level as each feat is pulled off, and at the macro- level as the film concludes and the audience thinks, "Well, that was pretty impressive; I'll buy that they got away with it." Which means the writer got away with it too.

One final note: Tony Gilroy, current god among writers, toys with this principle self-consciously in one scene of The Bourne Identity. Outside of a hotel where Bourne had stayed prior to his amnesia, he and Marie discuss an almost tediously intricate plan for retrieving the necessary information about his stay. Moments later, as Bourne waits pensively in a nearby phone booth for her signal, Marie comes strolling back with a piece of paper in hand. She tells him she just walked up to the hotel clerk, pretended to be Bourne's assistant, and asked for a copy of his hotel bill. On one level it's a clever reversal of expectations of the type Gilroy is known for; on another, it's a subtle jab at the notion that every single plot point in a thriller needs to be suitably convoluted in order to be plausible.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Writing vs. Typing

I still struggle with the issue of how much -- and what kind of -- pre-writing I need to do before firing up the screenwriting software and producing script pages. Certainly I'm doing more of it at this stage in my development than I ever have before. On the script I'm working on now, I did several pages of preliminary idea scribbles and research notes; three one-page character essays for the protagonists; and three progressively longer versions of an outline, the longest of which was ten pages.

After all that was done, and I'd shown the last outline to a couple of people whose opinions I value (fiancee; writing colleague), I typed FADE IN and went off to the races. As of this blogging, I'm 33 pages into the script. Much of the writing has flown quite easily because -- well, because it's not really writing; it's typing. I'm just giving new, more verbose language to the thoughts that are already in my head. And yes, there's a huge difference between the two concepts.

In previous scripts -- even working from an outline -- I ended up having to do a lot of actual writing during the scripting process. Sometimes it would be obvious that a necessary scene was missing; or a planned scene was unnecessary and needed to be replaced with something more interesting and useful; or an entire plot thread or character just plain didn't work on the script page. All of which frequently put me in the position of writing a scene, then staring at the blinking cursor until I could figure out what needed to happen in the next one. I'll be honest; sometimes this was fun. Because it was writing. It was creating something from nothing.

On the other hand, most writers know what generally happens when you create something from nothing. (Answer: it sucks.) In the pre-writing phase, wiping out the stuff that sucks and replacing it with stuff that doesn't is a fairly straightforward proposition. Why be wedded to the words you're writing in an outline? They're not for public consumption and you're not going to sell them. When you're writing real script pages, though, it's much harder to accept that a scene I've just invented and written needs to be scratched and replaced. For one thing, it's all formatted and pretty, with clever dialogue and description. It looks like a final product even if it's nothing resembling that. For another thing, I don't want to lose momentum. I can sort of take my time and get things right in the outlining stage, but writing the script itself always makes me impatient. When I'm on page 1, I want to be on page 10; when I'm on page 10 I want to be on page 30. By the time I'm on page 60, I desperately want to be done. So, even if pages 13-17 turned out to be absolute waste of time, I'm probably going to keep them and move on. Repeat that enough times and I end up with a final script that represents a writing exercise more than a workable draft.

Typing is better. Having already come up with the scene I'm currently writing, I can add nuances and thematic stuff to it as I go along; the dialogue is better because I've already thought roughly about what people are going to say to each other; and scene length stays manageable because I'm not spinning my wheels trying to figure out the point of the scene as I type. It doesn't have the same feeling of danger and excitement as off-the-cuff writing does, but I don't know of many writers who do it all for the sake of enjoying the process. Besides, any enjoyment gained from the actual keystrokes is fleeting; my true goal is to one day look at a finished product and realize that, for once, it doesn't suck.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Show vs. Tell (but not that kind)

Ira Glass did an interview shortly after the TV version of "This American Life" debuted in which he talked about the difficulties of translating his hugely popular radio show to television. (I wish I could find it online, but I can't; at least, not this specific one.) He said that there were a lot of things he wanted to do with the show that his producers and director assured him couldn't be done (or at least done well) on TV, but that in many cases he couldn't accept their opinions at face value, and they had to show him that these things couldn't be done (presumably by actually attempting them).

I realized the other day that screenwriters go through the exact same process all the time. We figure out an idea that we think is absolutely killer. Could be as big as a whole movie; could be as small as a line of dialogue. Someone else, someone we trust, tells us that it won't fly.

"You're wrong," we say. And we go off and write it.

And it doesn't work.

And we say to ourselves, "Well... at least now I know it doesn't work," and move on.

Sure, this kind of scenario is bound to happen from time to time. And sure, sometimes the other person really is wrong and the thing totally works. But not usually. Only through experience can we develop the instincts that will tell us when to listen to feedback and when to go full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes -- and those instincts are among the most valuable assets a screenwriter can possess.

I recently sent an outline of my latest script to a screenwriter friend. After reading it, he suggested I take a different tone with it. I bristled at the notion at first, because the movie I'd planned was pretty serious and he wanted me to make it funny. But as I thought more about it, and came clean with myself about the problems I knew already existed in my approach, I realized that his idea wasn't just good -- it was very possibly the specific change I needed to make to make the script work. Probably saved myself months of painful rewriting, just because I knew good advice when I saw it.

Ira Glass's second season of the TAL TV show was much better than the first. Hopefully my script will follow suit.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The pad and the pen

I'm a child of the digital age. I've lived with at least one personal computer in the house for most of my life. Although I learned proper handwriting in elementary school, I started typing my assignments as soon as I was allowed (probably around seventh grade -- back then, it was WordPerfect 5.1 on a bright blue MS-DOS screen). From then on, my proficiency with writing on computer increased in direct proportion to my impatience with pen and paper. These days I never hand-write anything at length unless I absolutely have to -- not just because typing is faster and easier, but because my thoughts genuinely flow more smoothly that way.

As a screenwriter, this is hardly abnormal behavior: the profession itself is as dependent on computers as Pixar is. However, in terms of the entire process of screenwriting, the only step that really needs to be typed out is the formatted screenplay itself -- which, as we all know, often represents a relatively small amount of time and energy in the grand scheme of things. Nonetheless, it's natural for a laptop-addicted screenwriter (especially a tech whore like me) to want to hash out the whole thing digitally, from spitballing initial ideas to doing character sketches to outlining to re-outlining to finally -- and thankfully -- firing up Final Draft to crank out the script. (Or CeltX. I use CeltX these days and love it and highly recommend it. Ask your doctor if CeltX is right for you. Member FDIC. Some restrictions apply.)

Are there downsides to that approach, though? For a long time I never thought so -- especially once Google Docs came out, and I could easily resume my brainstorming on any internet-connected computer at any time (even my phone!).

But then, while I was rewriting my last script, a few things hit me:

1. I can't really use my laptop on the couch. Any prolonged period of couch-based typing inevitably causes me back pain later on. (This is because I'm very, very old.)

2. Lugging a laptop to a coffee shop -- despite the highly romanticized nature of doing so in Los Angeles -- sucks. Searching futilely for a seat near an outlet. Struggling to fit your laptop, drink, and arms on a tiny, rickety table. Getting muffin crumbs or water drops on your keyboard. Trying to connect to the WiFi. Debating the need for locking your laptop to the table while you get up to pee. (It's a pain to lock it, but you'd feel like such an idiot if it got stolen just because it was too much of a pain to lock it... or do you just take the laptop in there with you? Or do you just try to hold it until it's time to leave. Screw it, maybe it's time to leave now.)

3. The computer isn't always the greatest medium for just jotting down bits of ideas. Writing on the computer is a relatively formal process. Even if all you're doing is spitballing names for your main character, you still have to create a new document, give it a name, and then save it. (Sure, you have the option of not saving it, but who ever does that in the era of 200 gig hard drives?) You can keep all your scribblings in a single document, but it becomes mighty difficult to parse after a while. So, for the most part I've ended up with a huge list of documents that I have to check out individually each time I resume brainstorming. I'm plagiarizing about a dozen in-flight magazine columnists when I say this, but -- wait for it -- weren't computers supposed to make us more efficient?

* * *

The last point, really, is key. Sometimes I have thoughts that just aren't ready to be typed. But I still need to get them out of my head so I can move on to the next thought. In these cases, I need a pressure-free, nonjudgmental canvas onto which to spill my brain droppings.

Enter the pad and the pen.

I can use the pad and the pen anywhere: on the couch (without back pain), in a coffee shop (who's going to steal some paper and a Bic?), even the backseat of a car. I can map out thoughts in as haphazard a manner as I choose -- circling, crossing out, drawing lines -- and scribble out or crumple up anything that doesn't work. Anything that does work will get transcribed to the computer (probably with some editing along the way).

The pad and the pen can come into play at any point in the creative process, too. Sometimes I need to quickly work out how I'm going to write or rewrite a scene in the final script before I sit down at the keyboard to do that. Or I might want to do a brief scribble on character traits or dynamics to remind myself what the story parameters are. Doesn't matter -- the pad and the pen are always game.

They're a great invention. I wish someone had thought of them sooner.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Virtually all dramatic, emotional, thrilling, or satisfying moments in films center on the protagonist's choosing one course of action over another. In order to deliver these moments effectively, the screenwriter needs to keep the protagonist's decision-making process as clear and understandable as possible -- because if the audience doesn't understand what his or her options are, or if there are simply too many options, then the drama is lost.

Theoretically, we all have an infinite number of options in just about any situation. If a waiter asks if you want coffee, you can also respond with any number of non sequiturs ("White elephants on Tuesday!" for example), or run screaming from the restaurant, or throw your chair across the room, etc., etc. However, most people would consider the only two "real" choices to be "Yes, please" or "No, thank you," and if a scene like this appears in a movie and the protagonist says "Yes, please," we don't need to explain to the audience why he didn't elect to throw his chair or run away.

But there are plenty of other situations where the number of "real" choices is much, much larger. If you're a single person in Los Angeles, how do you decide whom to date? How do you even decide how to look for a date, given the plethora of both real-world and online mate-finding resources? The fact that you can actively search for a decade without exhausting these options is more likely a source of frustration than relief -- and that's true whether we're talking about this scenario as a real-life dilemma or the plot for a romantic comedy.

Let's say we're trying to make a go of the latter (we'll call it Untitled Los Angeles Dating Comedy... or, perhaps, to get some heat behind it, Untitled Rachel McAdams Project). At the start of the movie, Rachel stands at the edge of the nigh-limitless dating pool that is L.A., in the exact situation we've just described. By the end, we assume, she will be paired up with some charming, eligible man. In between, there will be shenanigans, misunderstandings, and soul-searching. Throw in Amanda Seyfried as the acerbic best friend (Mean Girls reunion!), open it against a big action movie, you've got a hit. Easy, right?

Sure. But there's a catch: Even though Rachel will technically be choosing her ideal guy from among an entire city of bachelors, we don't want it to look that way in the movie. Because if we really present it that like that -- as if any of this sea of men were a potential mate, and she just happened to choose this one -- then we've got an exceptionally weak ending on our hands. The audience leaves wondering, "Why him? Why not guy #10273, or the one fifteen down from him, or anyone else?" And we haven't done our job as screenwriters.

This is where the concept of funneling comes in. As the story progresses, we must continually find ways to narrow Rachel's options -- not widen them. And we have to do this in a believable, transparent way. Like this:

Scene 1: Rachel tries speed-dating. The event is full of guys from the investment banking world, and she hears one boring financial story after another. By the end of the night she knows damn well she's never marrying a banker.

Scene 2: Rachel goes with a friend on an Art Walk in Venice. She gets hit on by all manner of starving artists, but can't believe the level of entitlement and smarminess on display, considering most of them couldn't afford to buy her coffee.

Scene 3: Rachel goes on a blind date that her cousin arranged for her. He's a major douche and it's an unmitigated disaster.

Now we're making progress, because we've reduced her choices. The audience isn't going to be left with the nagging feeling that Rachel should really go back and give those i-bankers another shot, or ask her cousin to fix her up with someone else. However, as the dating pool shrinks, the viewers are going to be wondering just what kind of man is finally going to do it for her. In other words, they want to know what happens next -- and that's what we want them to want.

Things don't necessarily work this way in real life. If the above three scenarios actually happened, it's unlikely that each of them would be so clearly negative. Chances are better that they'd all have their high points and low points, and that afterwards, if Rachel were honest with herself, she'd say that there were legitimate reasons to keep all three options open in the future. But if we wrote the movie that way, it would be an incredible bore. No progress, no momentum, nobody awake by the time the credits roll. To keep the audience's attention, we have to keep forcing Rachel down a narrower and narrower path. Thus, a million guys becomes a thousand; a thousand becomes a dozen; a dozen becomes one.

But wait! There's a catch. Once that dozen has become one -- once the Best Guy in L.A. has been revealed -- we are absolutely within our rights to turn the entire funneling principle on its head and introduce another seemingly perfect guy (someone from Rachel's past, someone who's previously rejected her, someone she rejected who's changed, etc.). In this case, widening Rachel's options works to create drama rather than kill it -- and this is really the only time we can get away with doing so.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Fuck you" is bad dialogue

The title is a quote from a TV writing teacher I had several years ago. It's accurate on the face of it, but it also points to a larger truth about dialogue in general.

Screenwriters are always looking for quick ways to convey things. And quicker usually equals better. For example, the single sentence, "STEVE JACKSON exits a massive Hummer limousine, flanked by an anxious ENTOURAGE, and walks toward hundreds of screaming FANS," does the same work as a page and a half of expository dialogue about how famous he is. However, this shortcutting principle only extends so far -- and it doesn't give us license to be lazy.

Unfortunately, many writers tend to be the laziest when it comes to writing dialogue. And laziness in that department often leads to the overuse of profanity. It leads to the misguided idea that curse words somehow make characters funnier, or more clever, or more menacing. Which they usually don't. In fact, they often make for some of the least interesting dialogue possible -- whereas the avoidance of profanity can lead to some truly memorable lines.

I've been reading the script for Duplicity lately, after seeing the film and loving it. Its high points are many, but one that is likely to be overlooked is the fact that it has no guns, no real violence, and very little cursing. Yet, it's a hugely entertaining, even thrilling movie that has some of the best dialogue in years. Here's a sampling.


BAUER: (muffled through the glass) I want a lawyer!


Okay, it's not entirely clean, but it's nothing you couldn't air at 10 PM on network television. And look at all the great uses of non-swears. Isn't "weasel" a million times better than "shithead" or "motherfucker"? Isn't the line about the net a million times better than some generic cold-blooded murder threat? (This isn't even a scene between main characters; the interplay between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts deserves its own essay.)

Putting on the studio hat for a minute, let's also remember that multiple uses of "fuck" pretty much guarantees that a film will be R-rated, and an R-rated film is less marketable than a PG-13. I know it makes writers throw up in our mouths a little to even think about anything like that, but if you want to work within the studio system (i.e., make a living), it has to be a consideration. Duplicity slid by with a PG-13, even though its tone and intelligence clearly make it a film for adults; and I wouldn't be surprised if that gave Tony Gilroy more creative freedom (or even made the difference in getting a greenlight).

Understand, I'm not attacking the use of profanity in general. Obviously, there are plenty of cases where it's genuinely warranted. The constant streams of obscenities in Glengarry Glen Ross and Boyz N the Hood are organic to the worlds those films inhabit -- worlds of endless frustration, exhaustion, even abject misery. Characters curse their way through sentences as a means of both venting and masking their true feelings, and there's no doubt that the films are more effective for it. But very, very few of the movies that trade in that level of profanity really earn it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Setup-and-payoff is probably one of the most important concepts to be mastered on the road to producing professional-grade screenplays. Some writers equate it with cause-and-effect, but in fact cause-and-effect is only one type of setup-and-payoff -- and it's the most obvious type to boot. A script that uses only cause-and-effect may succeed in telling its story, but it won't be as effective as one that mines the full potential of setup/payoff.

Let's take a step back and define each term as it relates to a movie. Cause-and-effect means that one event happens as a direct result of a previous event; the audience is either explicitly made aware of the connection, or can piece the two halves together if they think about it. Setup-and-payoff means that the impact of an event is amplified by a previous event.

Sounds complicated and academic, I know. Probably better to put it into context. We'll look at two versions of a hypothetical sequence, taking place somewhere in the middle of a hypothetical movie. The first will simply use cause-and-effect; the second will add setup-and-payoff.

* * *

Version 1:

Scene 1: A masked man sneaks into a house through the kitchen window and rigs the toaster with an explosive.

Scene 2: Steve wakes up in the morning, makes his coffee, and puts his bread in the toaster. When he presses the button: Kaboom.

* * *

Version 2:

Scene 1: Steve wakes up in the morning, makes his coffee, and puts his bread in the toaster.

Scene 2: The next morning. Steve wakes up, makes his coffee, and puts his bread in the toaster.

Scene 3: A masked man sneaks into the house through the kitchen window and rigs the toaster with an explosive.

Scene 4: Steve wakes up, makes his coffee, and puts his bread in the toaster. When he presses the button: Kaboom.

* * *

So let's compare the two.

In the first version, Scene 1 is obviously a cause waiting for an effect. Then in Scene 2, suspense builds as the audience wonders whether Steve's going to use the toaster.

In the second version, the bomb-planting scene becomes much more frightening. What was obvious setup in Version 1 becomes a payoff of its own in Version 2. Having seen Steve's morning routine, they'll be biting their nails because they know he's going to use that toaster.

There's a catch here, of course: We're not going to get away with writing a screenplay that devotes two entire scenes to a guy making coffee and toast. Therefore, we'll need to find other ways to justify their existence in the narrative. Perhaps in the first scene, Steve is excited about starting a new job, going about his morning tasks with a nervous energy; but in the second scene, he's been dumped by his girlfriend -- so he trudges around the kitchen halfheartedly, debating with himself over whether to call her. Now these scenes have a legitimate purpose: major life changes dramatized through breakfast preparation.

That's better, but still not perfect -- because we're really working in the wrong direction. Rather than coming up with interesting elements to insert into Scenes 1 and 2, what we should really be doing is examining our earlier scenes in the script (remember, this sequence takes place somewhere in the middle of the movie) and figuring out how to re-stage a couple of them in the kitchen. Since those scenes already exist, we know they're essential to the story and they won't feel shoehorned in.

So, if there's a scene wherein a friend from Steve's past confronts him at work, we can rewrite it such that the friend bangs on Steve's door first thing in the morning, interrupting his carefully regimented routine. They argue while a frazzled Steve tries to maneuver around the friend to make his coffee and toast. Or, we could take a scene about Steve trying to buy flowers for his girlfriend and change it so he's doing that while making breakfast -- because he forgot about their anniversary until the morning-of. Now, rather than struggling to justify scenes that are pure setup, we've incorporated setup into scenes we already needed.

I realize that all this barely scratches the surface of setup-and-payoff, so I'm sure I'll have more to say on the topic at a later date.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


In practically every aspect of life, we're constantly having conversations whose sole purpose is to provide information. We wouldn't dream of trying to "hide" an explanation in some other, unrelated conversation. In film, though, that's exactly what we have to do.

And let's be frank here. It's a major pain in the ass.

But it's also essential. No matter how seamlessly we weave our narratives, there are moments where we sit back and realize the audience doesn't know something that we need them to know, and we need to find a way to tell them.

In general, screenwriting is a swing-for-the-fences kind of pursuit. You put your all into it and try to deliver your very best, and in doing so you accept the possibility of abject failure. Writing exposition? Not so much. This is an area where you're actively trying to not screw up. No one's going to say, "Holy shit, that was some awesome exposition!" if you do it right, but people will most definitely say, "That exposition was fucking terrible!" if you do it wrong. In other words, it's better to aim for okay exposition and land on target than to aim for incredible exposition and miss.

And let me clarify here, because there are two ways to "miss" -- by being too obvious, or by not being obvious enough. It really behooves us to avoid both these landmines, because the former exposes our writing as amateurish, while the latter will result in mass confusion due to the reader/audience missing important information.

I think the easiest way to screw up exposition is by failing to couch it in any kind of conflict between characters. No normal person would greet a friend by saying, "Hey! If it isn't my favorite Harvard-educated psychiatrist!" On the other hand, given the right argument, that person might choose to throw that piece of information in his friend's face. "You're calling me a loser? You, the Harvard-educated psychiatrist who still lives with his mother?"

Another common technique is bragging-as-exposition. "Look, you don't need to dumb it down for me. I'm a Harvard-educated psychiatrist." I'm not as much of a fan of this method, but in the right context it's not so bad.

Here's one we've all seen ad infinitum: the "I've done my homework" speech. "You think I don't know you, wise guy? Two years of community college in Indiana, medical school in Barbados, cheated your way through the boards. Not only is that Harvard diploma in your office a fake -- I can even tell you the website you ordered it from. Wanna hear what else I've got?"

A close relative is the "emphasizing a point" technique. "I can't lie to him about being pregnant! He's a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, he'll see right through it!"

These examples are some of the old reliables. They're not entirely subtle, but they get the job done. There's no chance we would miss the information that this character is a Harvard-educated psychiatrist (or at least claims to be).

And these are by no means our only choices. They're fallbacks -- relatively painless ways to shoehorn in a bit of information without changing too much else or creating a new scene. It's okay to use them once in a while, but if all our important exposition is coming out through one of these methods, the whiff of amateur is going to be in the air pretty quickly. The best way to convey exposition is almost always visually, and in this case it wouldn't be hard to do that (one five-second shot of the character sitting in a chair across from a patient on a couch with a Harvard diploma in the background takes care of it).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The first ten pages

Anyone who's taken a screenwriting class, read a screenwriting book, or listened in on any given conversation at the Coffee Bean on Sunset is familiar with some pearl of conventional wisdom about The First Ten Pages of a script. One of the best versions goes something like, "Studio executives only read the first ten pages!" (As far as I know, that estimate is at least ten pages too high.)

Thus, aspiring screenwriters everywhere work themselves into a lather trying to come up with the best First Ten Pages ever written, leading to scripts that look like this:

ACTION/ADVENTURE: Screenplay starts with a breathless ten-page action sequence, then segues into 15-20 pages of exposition.

COMEDY: Screenplay starts with ten pages of laughter upon laughter, each bit funnier than the last, then segues into 15-20 pages of establishing characters and situation.

DRAMA/THRILLER: Screenplay starts with shocking ten-page flashback scene, then segues into 15-20 pages of exposition and establishing characters.

Generally, this approach fails miserably. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. The writer has set up unmeetable expectations for the rest of the script. It starts on such a high note that everything else is disappointing by comparison -- especially those next 15-20 pages.

2. The writer has delayed the actual storytelling. Since the opening scene/sequence is only intended to entertain the reader, it has little or no connection to the main plot of the screenplay -- it doesn't set anything up. Now the writer has to work overtime to cram in plot exposition and tell us who the characters are, which makes the ensuing scenes slow and boring.

3. The opening sequence itself is hamstrung. If the reader doesn't know anything about the characters involved, there's a limit to how exciting, funny, or otherwise compelling the opening sequence can be. It's not paying anything off, because nothing's been set up, and therefore it can only resonate on the most generic level -- meaning broad comedy, meaningless action, cheap thrills. No matter how good you think you are at executing this stuff, an intelligent reader will look past the glitz and see the lack of substance.

Regardless of the evidence to the contrary, many writers still attempt to go this route -- and why? Because they're afraid of setup. They have no confidence in their ability to write an opening that lays the groundwork for the story in an interesting manner, so their solution is just to make the first ten pages as entertaining as possible, then jam in all the exposition later. The result is an opening sequence that could be cut from the script without affecting the story. Ironically, then, in their rush to come up with the ten pages they'd most want this theoretical studio executive to read, they've written the ten pages that he or she could most easily skip.

So let's not do that. Screenwriters read lots of screenplays too, and we know what we're looking for when we pick one up, and it's not an immediate all-out sensory assault. Here are some of the things I want out of the opening pages of a script (and I doubt I'm alone in this):

- I want to meet the characters I'm going to be spending 100 pages with, and get to know them quickly so I can decide how I feel about them.

- I want to get a feel for the world the script takes place in -- time, place, circumstances.

- I want some hints about what to expect from the rest of the story. Is this a great situation that will come crashing down? A horrible situation that will be transformed for the better? What's unsustainable in this scenario? By page ten I should have an idea.

Since these are the things I'm looking for, they're also the things I'll try to deliver in the first ten pages. Another thing I try to be aware of is the fact that as soon as I read the words "Fade in:", an enormous information vacuum is created in my mind. I know nothing, and want to know everything. So that information vacuum will suck up every available bit of data scattered throughout the opening scenes of a script -- and I'm going to assume that information is important and will be paid off later.

If a character changes the subject when sex is brought up, I'll be waiting for the scene when those past issues are revealed. If someone looks at an overdue bill, I'll be waiting for money problems to come front and center. And like Chekov so aptly put it, if I see a gun I'll be waiting for it to go off.

These kinds of moments aren't just about setup. They're about anticipation. The power to build anticipation in the reader/audience is one of the screenwriter's greatest assets. It forces the reader's hand to keep turning the pages, fixes the audience's eyes to the screen. If we exploit this principle to the full, we can easily front-load the script with introductions and exposition without being the least bit boring.

I mean, look at Julian Fellowes's script for Gosford Park. (It won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, so I guess it's an okay example.) The opening minutes of the film do nothing but introduce the enormous cast of characters and set up the situation they're in. But what a compelling setup! Fellowes drops the audience right into an unfamiliar world, and it's up to us to decipher the rules and customs based on the interactions we're permitted to observe. There's no opening crawl, no voiceover, no Greek-chorus-like mechanism to explain the setting to us. By the time we've figured out the landscape, the story is well on its way.

But -- going back to several paragraphs ago -- if you are absolutely intent on starting your story with a literal bang, there's a right way to do it. Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with one of the most iconic treasure-hunting action sequences of all time, and it doesn't technically relate to the central plot of the film -- but it still works as setup. We get a feel for Indiana Jones and his world. We meet his nemesis, a ruthless guy who has Indy's number. We see the fear of snakes. This isn't a lot of setup for the first ten pages, but for this movie it's just enough -- and anyone who thinks that Raiders proves that you can get away with starting a movie with a disconnected action scene is missing the point. Without those elements of setup, the opening (and quite possibly the rest of the script) wouldn't work. There's entertainment, yes, but beyond that there's intrigue -- and intrigue is what sustains the reader/viewer long after the excitement of a set piece has worn off.

First and foremost, we need to use the first ten pages (along with much of the first act) to plant nagging questions, doubts, and fears in the mind of the reader. If we do that effectively, reading the 11th page and beyond will be a foregone conclusion; and then we're all set, provided all those elements are satisfactorily followed up.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The meaning of adventure

As I struggle to finish the second draft of my current screenplay, part of my brain is already drifting (as it is often does) toward my next project. With that script, I'm planning to delve head-first into the Adventure genre -- an area in which I haven't exactly written before, even though it's the source of some of my favorite movie memories.

I've blogged before about genres and how important they are to both writers and audiences. For me, a crucial step in developing a script is to study the genre it lives in. What are this genre's strengths and limitations? What characters are best suited to it? What kinds of scenes, sequences, and individual moments are only possible in this genre (and therefore should be taken advantage of as much as possible)?

As I work on my plot and characters, I'll look at movies (and TV shows, and books) that I consider the best of the genre and use them to help me answer the above questions. But that other media only tells part of the story (no pun intended); I also have to think long and hard about what the genre means to me -- and how I'm going to choose to define it.

The word "Adventure" probably conjures up a whole host of stock images in most people's minds. Jungles. Cliffs. Rickety bridges. Roaring seas. Mountains. Ancient castles. Secret chambers. Mythical monsters. (Many of those are also Time-Life books, I believe.)

On the other hand, the actual Merriam-Webster's definition of the word "adventure" is simply this: an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks.

What about those examples above, though? Don't they also suffice as a definition, or at least a decent synopsis? I would say no. In fact, you could include every single one of those elements in a script and still miss the point (and meaning) of adventure. Here's how.

Fade in on JAKE, an intrepid treasure-hunter. Jake seeks the ancient relic to end all ancient relics: the GOLDEN CHALICE. He meets a very old SAGE who tells him how to find it. "First," the Sage says, "you will have to trek through the jungles of Maatu to reach the cliffs of Zadar. From there you'll cross a long and precarious bridge to get to Mount Seku, which you must go all the way over to find Gilan Harbor and book passage on a ship to the island of Castle Hutah (beware of the high seas and giant serpents on the way). Within Castle Hutah, you must defeat the ravenous Flakka monster that guards the entrance to the secret catacombs -- which contain the Golden Chalice."

Undeterred by the challenges before him, Jake sets out on his journey. He trudges through the sweltering jungle, makes it to the cliffs, barely survives the rickety bridge. The mountain is steep and cold, but he summons all his strength and stamina and climbs all the way over it. He gets to the harbor, sets sail on an available vessel, crosses the angry ocean without getting eaten by any of the serpents. Then Jake enters the castle, engages in a death-defying battle with the Flakka and defeats it using a combination of brawn and trickery. Finally, he makes his way through the maze of catacombs to retrieve the Golden Chalice. Fade out.

Why isn't this an adventure? Because there are no unknown risks. The threats and challenges Jake faces are exactly what he's told they'll be. What we have here is a long, arduous journey... into the Known. If we executed every one of those plot points skillfully enough, we might be able to wring out an okay-enough action movie; but it still wouldn't be an adventure -- no matter how many adventure-ish trappings the story seems to contain.

On the other hand, if Jake is just crossing the street in Lower Manhattan to get a cup of coffee and the pavement cracks open and drops him into an underground world of sea serpents and sweaty jungles and catacombs and he has to retrieve the Golden Chalice to find his way back home -- now it's an adventure, because Jake had no idea that going out for a double espresso would result in encounters with mazes and ancient monsters.

Actual movie example: Finding Nemo. Marlin has no idea what he'll encounter when he sets out to find his son. He only knows his safe little corner of the ocean. He accepts the unknown risks ahead of him, and his journey is therefore an adventure.

Other actual movie example: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (Yes, I'm picking this one instead of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In a minute I'll explain why.) The inciting incident in the film is Indiana Jones's discovery that his father has gone missing on a trip in search of the Holy Grail. He goes after his father, unaware of why he's disappeared or who else is looking for the Grail. Surprise: it's the Nazis. Now he finds himself on a quest to reach the Grail before Hitler does -- even though that's not what he expected when he went in search of his father. (On the other hand, in Raiders, Indy knows more or less exactly what the risks are -- he knows he's looking for the Ark in Egypt and that the Nazis are already after it. The events that follow are thrilling, but they're not exactly an adventure.)

And if we go way back, we come upon the adventure that started it all -- The Odyssey. Here's a guy who just wants to get home to his wife before she's forced to marry one of the slimy assholes vying for her attention in his absence, but en route he manages to stumble upon every possible trap and monster and magical temptress on the face of the earth. Was he looking for all that stuff? Of course not. He just wanted to be home for dinner. That's an adventure.

In a larger sense, what we're talking about here is a version of what Robert McKee calls the "expectations gap." In Story, he argues that to move a narrative forward, the writer must create gaps between what the protagonist expects to happen and what actually does happen. While it's true that any good movie needs to employ this structure, a good adventure movie needs especially large gaps. These aren't hard to create, provided you have an active imagination; the tricky part is that somehow, even though this new or hidden world is a surprise to the protagonist, he or she must be relatively prepared to navigate it. To pull off that feat, we'll need to be especially adept at matching (or, more to the point, artfully mis-matching) the character to the setting and obstacles. And that's a whole other essay right there.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Logic vs. emotion

There are so many challenges involved in writing a screenplay that solving any one of them feels like a triumph. Surviving the process requires that we embrace that feeling just long enough to keep us going, then take a step back to determine what other issues need to be tackled. Get too excited that you made it to 100 pages and you may not realize (or want to realize) that 15 of those pages are dead weight; spend too much time rejoicing about nailing your underlying theme and you could fail to see how clunky the plot is.

The final screenplay needs to balance all these things (and many more), and that in itself is potentially an even greater challenge. For all the elements of a script to exist in harmony, we need to make creative compromises at every turn; only they can never look like compromises. (Songwriters and poets have been familiar with this principle for ages -- in a good song or poem, you can never tell which words or phrases in one line were changed or sculpted to rhyme with the next one.)

Some of the most difficult compromises spring from the need to reconcile logic with emotion. A screenplay needs to proceed logically -- by which I do not mean that the characters need to behave logically, but rather that the characters' actions must have logical consequences. On the other hand, a screenplay also needs an emotional sweep to it; audiences are most engaged when the characters on screen run through a range of feelings. We don't go to the movies to see a sad person get sadder (Lars von Trier films excepted), or to see a happy person get happier. We want to see desperation turn into hope, mistrust turn into faith, pride turn into humility. And frankly, even that's not enough; that character's newfound feeling/outlook needs to be reversed before the end of the film, pushing the character even further back on the emotional continuum than he was at the beginning, and then, pushed beyond his limit, the character makes a final difficult choice that transforms him for the better.

All of which sounds great until you set out to craft a plot that makes these enormous changes possible. Good luck! Many have tried and failed. We've all seen movies that run the emotional gamut, yet don't make an ounce of sense because the writer left huge logical gaps along the way. Do we excuse the plot holes because the emotions are so powerful? Rarely, and only with the help of hugely talented directors and actors -- the benefits of which our lowly spec scripts do not have.

But if we instead embrace logic, focusing single-mindedly on ensuring that every scene proceeds inevitably from the last and the internal rules of our story are never defied -- then don't we run the risk of writing a flat, boring screenplay? Well, absolutely. Because merely taking a good idea and following it to its logical conclusion is nowhere near enough to make an interesting movie.

So this is where the rubber meets the road. To write a good screenplay, you have to incorporate everything I've described above -- the emotional sweep and the rigid adherence to internal logic.

The bad news is that (unsurprisingly) this is an incredibly difficult task. Really, it can't be overstated. Most people will not be able to do it. (I'm not being elitist when I say that, because as of this writing I am still comfortably ensconced in the category of "most people.")

The good news is that it's possible. How could it not be? As writers we have total control over every detail of our characters and every microscopic turn of the plot. As corny as it is to say, we really are limited only by our imagination. If the plot we've conceived is incompatible with the emotional journey we want to send our characters on, then we can change it -- or we can change the characters -- or we can tinker with both of them, making whatever small or large alterations are necessary to ensure an organic fit between plot progression and character arc, and hence between logic and emotion. We are never locked into any particular path; we only think we are because our brains are naturally lazy and hesitant to abandon anything that we've put any effort into. But we can and should feel free to get rid of anything that doesn't work -- anything that impedes the mission.

The great news is that the payoff is huge. Experiencing a story that delivers on both the emotional and logical levels is deeply satisfying. Watching a character put through the emotional wringer through a series of plot twists and turns that at first surprise us but make perfect sense in retrospect -- this is why we go to the movies. And a screenplay that can pull this off will go places.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The future of screenwriting in the Obama administration not really what I'm going to talk about, but I couldn't think of a good title for my general updates and ramblings. (Note to self: maybe just say "general updates and ramblings" next time.)

In the past few days I came back out of my cocoon of outline-revising, subtext-finding, and central-theme-clarifying, and started on some actual script pages. In my limited experience, the best time to make the transition from outlining to scripting is not when the outline is completely finished, but rather when you're in danger of going insane from doing too many scene summaries without writing an actual scene.

Herein lies one of the constant internal battles that screenwriters face: Outlining sucks, but it's essential; writing real pages is great, but it can end up being a complete waste of time if you don't have the story figured out. But there's a philosophical flipside to this truism -- you can't spend your whole life outlining. You have to write pages eventually, even if you're not entirely ready. Because the outline never tells the whole story (no pun intended). It's a blueprint for a script, just as the script is a blueprint for a movie.

And like the transition from script to film, the segue from outline to script is never completely smooth. A scene that seems easy when written as a sentence (e.g. "Joe decides to tell Marsha it's over") turns out to be incredibly difficult to translate into real dialogue and action. A sequence you'd imagined taking up several pages ends up being easily condensed to a half-page scene. An important transition scene in the outline shows itself to be entirely unnecessary in the script; or two scenes that seemed to flow together just fine turn out to be confusing without a bridge between them.

Fortunately, this process of discovery helps to make the writing process more engaging. Writing a screenplay would be fairly dull if it were simply a matter of taking an outline and filling in the necessary speeches and stage directions. For me, there's a huge difference in the way the story feels when I'm constructing actual dialogue and prose -- for better or worse. All the minutiae is there; the individual moments that get glossed over in the outline are laid bare. If the scene works, those moments add up to much more than I'd even imagined. If it doesn't, every one of them feels painful and out of place. Hence, it makes for a pretty good acid test of the story.

Are there caveats to this methodology? Of course. Like I said, script pages written too early in the process are much more likely to be thrown out as the story evolves. But that's not always the end of the world. It's fun to write movie scenes, even if they might not make it into the movie. It makes you feel like a writer, instead of a person who sits and stares at the ceiling wracking his brain for ideas. We need that sometimes. And as long as you can be philosophical about exiling those recreational pages to the scrap heap later on, there's no harm done.

Anyway, I've really been enjoying the return to banging out pages. The script feels a lot smarter now, more mysterious, less obvious, and I hope I can carry those improvements through to the end. (If not, I'm sure I'll be back here to contradict some of the things I've just said.)