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.

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