Thursday, September 02, 2010

615 - 5 Tips for Aspiring Screenwriters

Why should you heed my screenwriting advice?

Maybe you shouldn't. I’ve never had a screenplay filmed, nor have I sold one for any amount of money worth mentioning. I’ve only entered one competitively, and it lost to a short story about futuristic abortion. I don’t live or work in the film industry and I’ve never taken a scriptwriting class.

On the other hand, I have written a few scripts of my own. I’ve got a Master’s in Creative Writing and not only do I watch and write about countless movies, I’ve read more than my share of screenplays (and even a book or two on the subject). There’s not much I have to say that a veteran of the trade would find enlightening, but on the other hand, a lot of what I cover is underemployed by those same vets. I got to writing this when I considered that after years of study, I must have learned something that could be helpful to one who is either considering screenwriting or has started but could use some pointers. Here are five, in no particular order.

1. The Most Important Important Question:

Storywriting 101 will challenge the authors to ask “What does the protagonist want?” It’s key, for obvious reasons.

Luke Skywalker wants an adventurous life battling the Empire.

Forrest Gump wants to be with his beloved Jenny.

Benjamin Braddock wants purpose in a world filled with alienation.

John McClane wants to be with his wife.

Dorothy Gale wants to return to Kansas.

Woody wants to be Andy’s favorite toy.

And so on. These can even change as a film goes on. For example, Woody’s goal goes from being Andy’s favorite toy to returning home.

A natural extension of this question is “What is keeping the protagonist from his/her goal?”

Luke Skywalker encounters some droids with invaluable military information and must avoid Imperial agents to get the data into the right hands.

Forrest Gump’s lady love is a wild tramp that actively resists his attempts to be close to her.

Benjamin Braddock’s struck with an existential crisis and finds no solace in a remote, distant world.

John McClane comes to visit his wife, but her office building is stormed by terrorists, forcing him to rescue her and a large group of hostages.

Dorothy Gale is placed in a fantastical land whose peace is threatened by an evil witch determined to halt her progress.

Woody is separated from Andy and must survive the experiments of a child miscreant.

Going through descriptions like that are useful for understanding how story works. But on the other hand, I’ve long felt that yet another question is vastly underutilized by writing instructors, and is even more important to a story. That question is “What is the protagonist doing about it?”

Everybody has desires, and everybody has an obstacle to easing their wants. But it’s what a person actually does about these wants that determines audience sympathy. Just as one gets frustrated with a friend or family member who does nothing to clear up their problems, an audience member will rarely sympathize with a screen character who takes no action.

Luke Skywalker enlists a motley assortment of team members to help deliver the data and defeat the Empire.

Forrest Gump, using his limited intellect and bountiful positivity and athleticism, wins many personal victories while awaiting Jenny’s return.

Benjamin Braddock begins an affair with an older woman, and later lunges for a chance at happiness with her daughter.

John McClane uses his police skills to thwart the terrorists’ plans and reunite with his wife.

Dorothy Gale, amassing an offbeat group of friends, journeys to find the land’s most powerful force in the hope of returning home.

Woody works together with his archrival to return to Andy and regain the affection of the other toys.

All of these characters are doing something. Consider some alternative paths:
Luke Skywalker, dejected over the death of his aunt and uncle, goes into hiding and opens a small droid repair shop.

Forrest Gump, well aware of his pathetic intellectual acumen, decides to cut grass and collect government assistance for the remainder of his life.

Benjamin Braddock, sick of a society he doesn’t belong in, takes his own life by tying weights around his waist and dropping into his parents’ pool.

John McClane, terrified of what could happen should he intervene, finds a cozy hiding spot and waits the crisis out.

Dorothy Gale, flummoxed by her arrival in Oz, breaks down into tears and refuses to move.

Woody, facing certain death at the hands of cruel Sid, submits to fate, allowing himself to be blown up via firecracker.

OK, none of the above sound like better movies than the ones that were actually made, right? This isn’t to say there aren’t places for stories where the protagonist refuses to even try to help themselves, because there are. But you won’t see many in the local multiplex, because few people care about stories like that. A picture about the Holocaust will involve concentration camp revolts and great acts of kindness. Movies about battered women will see the lady go on the run or take revenge on her abuser. A film about a man who needs money to pay for his son’s operation will see him rob a bank or master the world of poker.

To simplify, action is where a story is. When writing a script, ask all three questions, but pay special to the third question, because that’s where the action is.

2. End at the Ending

I often ask a rhetorical question to people: “What does every cinematic masterpiece have in common?” There’s a lot of answers, but only one correct: “They all end the moment they need to end.”

What I mean here is that a film needs to end with power, leaving the viewer breathless, enthralled, touched, or whatever reactions you’re going for. A way to dilute those feelings is to keep going after the final punctuation mark has been put in place.

“The Dark Knight” ends immediately after Batman, having killed Harvey Dent, decides to take the blame for the villain’s crimes. Batman drives into distance as Commissioner Gordon powerfully explains society’s need for such a hero. Cue music, wow!

“Sideways” ends as Miles, having received an uplifting message from Maya, goes to her door and knocks, the screen cutting to black, leaving us the knowledge that their relationship can resume and his life can gain purpose. Incredibly moving and touching.

“Blue Velvet” ends as Jeffrey, having stopped the villainous Frank and reunited troubled singer Dorothy with her kidnapped son, leaves the darkness behind, basking in the light with his family and new girlfriend, the world at rest. Simultaneously creepy and uplifting.

“A Clockwork Orange” ends with Alex, now cured of his “cure,” visualizes a fantastic orgy with an adoring crowd. Chilling and provocative.

"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," concludes with the politicians bitterly arguing with how to ensure the continued survival of the human race, followed by a montage of nuclear explosions, suggesting the utter annihilation of the human race courtesy of these buffoons. Kinda makes you think, doesn't it?

And so on. There’s not a frame to add to any of these films, and doing so would substantially reduce their impact. But many films drone on well after what had to be said has been. Consider, for example, any Spike Lee film, which always drone on and on (and on) well after we get the point. Lee’s a talented filmmaker who can’t help but blather. Also consider “Lethal Weapon 4,” the final installment in that series. Riggs and Murtaugh defeat the Chinese Triads and close the case. Then the film goes on another ten minutes or so, proceeding to wrap up every facet of their personal lives. At this point, just about nobody cares. That closing scene could have been shifted ahead of the climax and would have been a better fit, but instead it occurred after the tension had been defused. Another good example is Kevin Costner’s “Open Range.” It’s a good Western that climaxes when Costner and Robert Duvall butcher the evil cattle baron and his goons. Town saved, right? Immediately after we’re treated to an epilogue where Costner professes his love for local lass Annette Benning. He walks into the sunset, only to turn around, come back, and give another monologue. Enough already.

A recent example of a film that ends right as it should and avoids the temptation to meander around is Antoine Fuqua’s cop drama “Brooklyn’s Finest.” The three protagonists, all cops immersed in varying degrees of corruption, resolve their respective stories at a cesspool of a tenement block on the same evening. After the conclusion, the only survivor of the three walks off, splattered in blood, his morality having been put to the test. It would have been easy to add one or more epilogues, but Fuqua just lets it end there, a superb decision.

An example of a film that ends too soon is the recent mocku-horror "The Last Exorcism." Spoiler alert: After spending the film teasing the viewer about whether or not the poor teenage farm girl really is possessed, we're suddenly thrust into a plot about a Satanic cult and a demon child. The protagonist rushes off to confront the demon while his crew is slaughtered. The end. Kinda anti-climatic for the filmmakers to boot up a new plot just to let it last a mere three minutes.

So when’s the right time to end? Pick a point where you’re considering ending and ask a few questions:

Have the characters’ problems been solved? If not in any case, is it necessary that they be?

Does ending at this point end with a kick, or does it let the audience down gently? Which is appropriate for the material?

If there were more scenes after this point, what would they contribute to what we’ve already experienced?

Give those questions a spin, then write your ending accordingly.

3. Let the Story Tell the Story

This is analogous to the literary advice “Show, Don’t Tell.” For books and short stories, this advice is somewhat clichéd and overused. For screenwriting, it’s invaluable. Audiences simply don’t care about being spoon-fed exposition. It slows down the action and thus distracts the script from moving forward.

The best way to handle exposition is to let it come from the mouths of the characters during pertinent discussions that lend themselves to believability. In other words, it has to sound like something they’d actually talk about.

For example, say you’re writing a script about a group of expert hackers. In the script, a new law has been passed that increases prison sentences for convicted hackers. Now look at this dialogue:

MIKE: Did you hear about the new law?
RICK: What law?
MIKE: The president just signed a new law that mandates a ten year prison sentence for convicted hackers. That means us.

A little obvious, isn’t it? That’s just feeding us the info as if we were reading it in the newspaper. And is it likely that one of these hackers won’t be aware of such important news? Let’s try again:

MIKE: We’ll hit it with the XY protocol and see how the firewall holds up.
RICK: Are you sure about that? We don’t even know if it’ll work, and I have better things to do than go to jail.
MIKE: Come on, like you have anything better to do with those ten years.

Better, right? We both learn that they risk a ten year prison sentence and we get an idea of the rapport between the characters at the same time.

I’ll return to “Sideways” as an example that handles this rule well. Miles, its protagonist, is a drunk, an unhappy middle school English teacher, and a failed novelist on the verge of throwing in the towel. In the film’s greatest scene, he tells his love interest why he favors Pinot Noir:

MILES: Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.

Of course, he’s talking about himself as much as he is about wine. What makes the dialogue so poignant is that he’s unveiling his soul, perhaps without even fully realizing it. Imagine the dialogue if he had bluntly said “Let me tell you about myself,” and then proceeded to say the same things. Instead of being poignant, the character would look like a colossal blowhard. Ideal dialogue will both advance the plot and reveal character. In the case of great dialogue, by such masters as Quentin Tarantino or David Mamet, the dialogue very well may itself be the plot.

4. Beware of Dream Sequences

It’s stunning that I even have to write this down, but as a recent film that shall go unnamed demonstrated, the disastrous practice of turning some or all of a movie’s plot into a dream has survived into the 21st century. I’m generally not a fan of dream sequences at all, but they do have their place (Coppola’s “The Conversation” comes to mind). But how much of a rip off is it when we’re told that everything that just transpired onscreen was all just a figment of some character’s imagination? A film is already something dreamed up; why go further? I’m not counting films like “Inception,” in which the fact that the characters are dreaming is key to the action.

5. Don’t Write Yourself

Writers are often told to write what they know. An interesting piece of advice, one that, were we to assume all writers take, would mean that we have a lot of scribes who’ve lead extremely dangerous lives as gun-fighting police detectives, web-slinging superheroes, and psychotic serial murderers. Of course, most real writers tend to be intense and highly introspective folks, and in general don’t have personal experience with shootouts and vampires and other commonly written about subjects.

Thus, don’t worry about writing what you know. In fact, what you know is probably not that exciting. The politics of your workplace? The local bar scene? The odds are that no one will care. What’s important when writing is to get to the human truth of your characters. If your hero is a guilt-wreaked detective, keep in mind that you know what it feels like to feel guilty for your failures and wrongs, even if they’re not as intense as the character’s (unless you’re a sociopath, in which case it’s doubtful that you’d be interested in writing to begin with). We can relate to Forrest Gump because we admire his gentle spirit, kindness, and simple tenacity, though I’m willing to be that the writer wasn’t mentally disabled, nor was he a star football player, a war hero, or a shrimp tycoon.

Of course, this rule offers a lot of room for exceptions. The politics of your workplace could translate into a hilarious satire ala “Office Space.” The local bar scene could offer some insights into the artistic process as seen in “Barfly.” I’m just suggesting that if one wants to be a good storyteller, they’re likely going to need to be able to weave tales that aren’t wholly representative of their own life experience.


Jana said...

This is reeaaally good James. I can so easily recommend your site to my students at

You know, it doesn't make any difference if you've not had any screenplays produced or twenty. What counts is your advice sound... and does it resonate with other writers?

It does for me, and thanks!

Cheers - Jana /

James said...

Thanks, Jana! You obviously know a thing or two (or a thousand) about screenwriting, so it's a thrill that you enjoyed it. I just wanted to channel whatever knowledge I had into something that could potentially be helpful to someone, and I hope this does the trick.

tony said...

Its really good to see this get out there. I know that it has been rattling around for a long time, and I really agree with a lot of it, even though I am but a simple movie entusiast