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.