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.