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It will help if you translate your idea into a premise—a brief encapsulation of what the movie will be about. It’s a good to have a premise before you actually start writing. You’re free to tinker with your premise throughout the writing process, but it’ll go easier if you have one at the outset.
It also helps to keep your premise brief. Brief, meaning you can put it down in no more than three sentences. This will force you to focus your idea. You’ll have to do this anyway when it comes time to market your script because then your premise will be turned into a one or two-sentence pitch, known as a logline. We’re using the terms “premise” and “logline” as pretty much the same thing, the only real difference being that a logline will be perfectly composed to attract the most interest with the fewest words. For now though, don’t worry about perfect wording so much as just crystallizing the idea. Here’s a sample premise:
Vertigo – A private investigator is hired to shadow a mysterious woman with suicidal tendencies and he becomes obsessed by her. When he is unable to stop her from plunging to her death (due to his vertigo), his obsession only intensifies. He finds another woman who looks strikingly like the first and attempts to transform her into the first woman in appearance and spirit.
There is no formula for a perfect story but here are some elements you would be wise to include:
Take another look at that Vertigo premise and notice how well the premise offers promise on all of those things. Even without Hitchcock aboard, that would be a good point from which to start writing a movie.
At the center of every good movie there is a single driving force around which all other elements gather. It has the rage of a hurricane, the focus of a cougar, the horsepower of a Lamborghini. It’s not the movie’s star. It’s not a special effect. It’s not the most awe-inspiring action sequence or the most tear-jerking dialogue. It is deceptively simple, so sly and stealthy, you don’t even know it’s there.
It’s a question.
Sure, a good story raises lots of intriguing questions, but there is one question at the white hot center of all the others. This is the “Major Dramatic Question,” or MDQ for short. Every good story has its unique MDQ. Think of it as the story’s nucleus. It’s a centrifugal force that propels the story along its path of action, accelerating it steadily and breathlessly toward a climactic conclusion. And once the MDQ is answered… the story is over.
You want one of these for your story, don’t you? Let me show you how to find it.
Characters that are faultless in every way may be admirable, but they can also be boring, perhaps even irritating. If you’re writing a character who seems “too good,” look for ways to give the character a rough edge or two. Not all characters require huge faults but they need some flaws or weaknesses. John McClane is a hero in every way: courageous, resourceful, quick-witted, champion of the common man, on the right side of the law. The guy would be just a little too wonderful to bear, except that he’s pig-headed when it comes to his wife’s success. It’s also a nice little touch that he’s nervous about flying. These traits make him human, which makes him more believable and appealing.
A character who is totally evil, though perhaps not dull (villainy does have its undeniable pleasures), will be made even more compelling when given some mitigating qualities. Hans Gruber in Die Hard is a ruthless villain who thinks nothing of committing mass murder in the name of profit, but at least he’s remarkably clever and even kind of charming. He would be less intriguing if were dim-witted and dull. The ultimate evil guy, Hannibal Lector has a whole slew of appealing traits: he’s brilliant, cultured, witty, polite, intolerant of rudeness (boy, is he intolerant of rudeness—just ask Miggs, in the neighboring cell), intellectually curious, and sincerely fond of Clarice. These fellows are bad, way bad, but they, too, have some hints of humanity and, interestingly, it’s their good qualities that make them all the more dangerous.
Of course, contrasts within a character go far beyond questions of good and evil.
Most dimensional characters, like most people, lie somewhere in the middle of the good/evil spectrum, far from saintly, far from demonic. They contain a very human mixture of appealing traits and those that are less than appealing.
The best screenwriters make you see a movie on the page. This aspect of screenwriting isn’t discussed nearly as much as the other elements (plot, character, etc.) but it’s no less important. When you read a beautifully written screenplay, you fly through it, flipping pages, experiencing the story. That script isn’t just a bunch of words lying there on the white paper. Those words move. They are alive with all the motion and emotion of the movie inside the writer’s imagination.
Took me a while to figure this out. I spent seven years bartending by night in Santa Monica, writing screenplays by day. People in the business read my scripts, liked the characters, dialogue, blah blah blah, but invariably their verdict went something like: “We’re just not sure that it’s a movie.” Finally I realized that they weren’t sure it was a movie because I hadn’t made them see the movie, see it right there on the frickin’ page. The very next script I wrote sold in one day.
Making them see the movie is probably even more important if you’re not a pro, if you’re an unknown shopping a spec, like all the other bartenders in Santa Monica. Nobody knows your work or your story or anything about you. If your script’s lucky enough to get inside the door, it’s probably lying in a high stack to be skimmed through by some overworked/underpaid reader who’s already weary of the job. If that script wants a shot at being made—or making a sale, or even getting them to jot down your phone number— you better not just write a screenplay. You better write a movie.
That’s the subject of this chapter—how to capture a movie on the page.
As important as it is to build an effective scene, it’s just as important to build clear and engaging links from one scene to the next. Oddly enough, we have to pay attention to the unwritten space between our scenes.
In real life, there’s nothing left out from one moment to the next. A person open their eyes, gets out of bed, puts on clothes, goes downstairs, makes coffee, waits for the coffee, guzzles the coffee, drives to the office, hurries to their desk, and gets to work.
But that’s not what normally happens on film; its boring, too literal. The art of cinematic storytelling really comes from the choices we make about what to leave out, offscreen. The meanings we create by connecting scenes that don’t happen in a continuous flow… A person opens their eyes in bed, then gets to work at their desk. The meaning created via those two linked scenes might be: “every waking moment is about work.” The flow of events still makes sense, and that’s certainly a key function of transitions: maintaining logic as we leap through time and space. But just as important is engaging the audience, allowing them to piece the story together on their own.
The Tootsie scene is a classic example. The agent tells Michael his career is doomed, he retorts: “Oh yeah?” and then we see him in drag. We piece together his whole process of coming up with the drag scheme, and imagining that sequence in our head is great fun.
So you want to bring subtext to your dialogue, at least a good part of the time. To break it down: Text is what a character says. Subtext is what is truly meant.
Let’s illustrate with a brief exchange from Sideways. Miles and Jack are at the bar of a winery. Jack begins flirting with Stephanie, the pourer. When Miles shows disapproval, Stephanie attempts to shut him up with a hefty pour of wine. Then…
You’re a bad, bad girl, Stephanie.
I know. I need to be spanked.
What’s really going on here? Simple. Jack is coming on to Stephanie, she’s letting him know that she’d be up for an evening with him (and she’s up for more intriguing things than the standard missionary position). They don’t come right out and say these things, but the subtext is pretty clear.
Subtext achieves three crucial things. One, it makes the dialogue more realistic. Two, it adds a layer of dramatic tension, tension between the spoken and unspoken. Three, it makes the audience an active part of the drama; they have to really listen and piece things together for themselves, as you would do if you were eavesdropping from nearby. This last reason treats the audience as if they have a little intelligence while also giving them some real voyeuristic fun. The above passage would fail miserably on all three counts if it were written too On the Nose, like so:
I’d love to sleep with you, Stephanie.
Okay, tiger, that could probably be arranged.
So what is a subplot? A subplot is a storyline that is somewhat separated from the main action. If your main plot—the protagonist’s quest to achieve his or her goal—is the super highway, then subplots are the scenic byways, the side roads. They typically intersect the main plot at some point, but they can also wend their own way.
Here’s how to tell if something is a true subplot: If you can remove most or all of it from the movie and still leave the basic story intact, it’s a subplot. Here’s how to tell if something is a good subplot: If you were to remove most or all of it from the movie, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as memorable. For example, look at John McClane’s friendship with the patrol cop, Powell, in Die Hard. Powell serves the plot, briefly, by calling in the police when the body falls on his car. But McClane’s CB radio friendship with Powell is a subplot that you could cut and still be left with Die Hard. Die Hard, however, wouldn’t be nearly as strong without it.
Though subplots are somewhat separate from the main plot, they shouldn’t careen off to a parallel universe. They are not there to tell a separate story, but to enhance the main story. They usually accomplish this in one or more of these ways:
The best subplots connect to the main plot in all three areas—character, plot, and theme. The more a subplot meshes with the story, the more the movie feels like that “organic whole” Aristotle was talking about. By reinforcing character/plot/theme, subplots give films more dimension. And subplots offer diversity by giving us a detour from the hero’s journey, letting us experience some new scenery along the way.
It’s not so easy to find exactly the right ending for your story. It must have been pretty tough to find the right ending for Thelma & Louise. Think about it. We’ve got these two wonderful women running from the law because one of them has killed a man and the other has robbed a convenience store. So they’re hoping to get to the border of Mexico.
Couldn’t they just get away? With half the cops in America chasing them? This isn’t a fantasy movie. But we sure as hell don’t want to see these women caught, handcuffed, and hauled off to jail. That would go against their journey of liberation. And we definitely don’t want to see them gunned down ala Butch and Sundance. What about somehow reuniting with the dopey men in their life? Forget about it.
What’s a writer to do?
Well, in this case, the writer found the perfect solution. Their green Thunderbird is forced to stop when they come to the gaping mouth of the Grand Canyon. An armada of squad cars barrel down from behind them. An FBI chopper soars overhead like a gigantic hawk. In a glorious burst of liberation they hold hands and floor that Thunderbird into the splendor of the canyon. They die, sure, but they choose the way to go. And what a way it is. (There’s no resolution after this because there ain’t nothing more to show.)
Someone wise (maybe it was Aristotle) said an ending should be inevitable but unexpected. Inevitable means it needs to feel like the right ending, where things have been headed all along. But if it happens just like we expect it to then it’s predictable, perhaps even a cliché. So the inevitable needs to happen in a way that surprises us, catches us off guard. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but it’ll give you the best ending.
How do you find out where your movie falls on the reality spectrum? Well, it’s simple, you give the characters the ol’ frying pan test. It goes like this. Imagine you’re in the world of, say, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Ace lives in Miami and it seems like it’s the Miami we know. But how real is this world? Let’s find out. Pick up a cast-iron frying pan. Yes, the one over there. Okay, got it? Now get a good grip on the handle and hit Ace in the face. Hit him hard.
Now, how’s Ace doing? He’s probably hurt. Probably holding his nose. But do we need to rush him to the emergency room? Not likely. This isn’t the Real World. Ace is okay. Ace Ventura is living in a world that is on the far right on our spectrum of reality.
Let’s apply the frying pan test to the following movies:
Sideways – Well, we pretty much know what would happen here. A frying pan is roughly as bad the motorcycle helmet with which Stephanie attacks Jack. Jack would be hurt, have to go to the hospital. But because it’s a comedy we’d see a big, funny bandage on Jack’s face.
Thelma & Louise – What if Louise banged that rapist on the head with the pan instead of putting a bullet through him? He would go down with some serious pain, perhaps even pass out. Of course, if this happened, the rest of the movie would be about the ladies on a fishing trip.
The Shawshank Redemption – Hell, the pan could easily kill someone in this place. If Hadley hit Andy with the pan, Andy would, at the very least, end up in the infirmary for a while. Of course, in the mythically bad world of Shawshank, Hadley wouldn’t stop at just one hit.
Die Hard -- What if Karl lost his machine gun and had to settle for clobbering McClane with the pan? McClane would be hurt. He’d even bleed, But he wouldn’t go down, not like you or me. He’d somehow wrestle the pan from Karl and come right back at him, saying something like, “Let’s iron out our differences, pal.”
Tootsie – What if Dorothy thwacked the lecherous Dr. Brewster with the pan instead of her prop clipboard? He’d be stunned. But not too much pain, certainly no blood. Then he’d probably grab Dorothy and try to kiss her. And he’d probably get the pan again.
Sooner or later, though, it’s time to start that first draft. When you are writing a first draft, you have one fundamental task that trumps all others. Go forward. Build momentum.
One of my teachers, the playwright Connie Congden, once told me that if you are writing a story about five brothers, and you realize on page 85 that there are only two brothers, you still go forward. You go forward with two brothers, as if they were the only ones that ever existed, and you write their ending. Then, you go back to the beginning and kill off the extraneous brothers so that ending fits.
I’ve met lots of people who have never completed a draft, but have a suitcase full of half written screenplays. Sometimes they just run out of steam or enthusiasm. And sometimes it’s because they got sucked into the cycle of rewriting too early. Maybe they showed their first 10 pages to a friend, got some feedback, and set out trying to fix any problems. Then they showed the newly revised 10 pages to a different friend, got some new feedback, and went back to page 1. They refuse to continue writing the rest of the screenplay until those first 10 pages are perfect. What they may not realize is that once they reach page 95, it's possible that those first 10 pages will turn out to have nothing to do with this screenplay. Even the most polished opening will need an overhaul once you have a sense of the whole movie.
Revising as you go not only slows you down, it suggests the false and dangerous notion that you are writing a perfect script. You are not writing a perfect script. You may not even be writing a good script. You have to give yourself permission to write some pretty terrible material in your first draft. You have to try things out, and you can't be afraid of taking a wrong turn. Remember that there will be a time to revise this script, to bring it up to your highest standards. But don't let those standards squelch your momentum as you get the first version of this story onto paper.
It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad business. You hear about the producer with a hair-trigger temper who throws phones at his assistants; the starlet who locks herself in her trailer after discovering a pimple on her chin; the screenwriter who comes on board a project after the first eleven have been dismissed. With so much money riding on every project, so many egos vying for power and control, so much paranoia and glamour and hype in the mix, madness seems a prerequisite. Is there any other business, besides maybe gambling, where fortunes are made or lost in the span of a single weekend? Careers launched or grounded by a single project? And while a critically acclaimed film may bomb at the box office, a brainless teen movie might stay number one for five weeks in a row. It’s inexplicable. It’s mad. It’s a world where, as the master screenwriter William Goldman once proclaimed, “No one knows anything.”
It’s also a world that is extremely difficult to enter. Think of it as an ultra-exclusive nightclub decked out with palm trees, lily ponds, and maybe a few exotic women swinging from trapezes. You saunter up to the entrance, but are quickly stopped by the 300-pound bouncer standing guard at the velvet rope. You look past him and see all these clubbers having a great time inside—dancing, laughing, sipping cocktails that resemble lava lamps. But unless someone on the inside has put your name on his clipboard, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell that bouncer is going to let you in. That’s what it’s like being a new screenwriter. Standing in front of an exclusive club, proudly clutching your new spec, hoping that someone has put your name on the list. Odds are, your name’s not there. You may have to wait a long, long time. You and the hundreds of other screenwriters standing in line with you.
But while it may be tough getting into that club, it’s not impossible. This writer did it and I assure you he’s just an ordinary guy from Toledo, Ohio, home of Jeep, the Mud Hens and the Maumee River. So why don’t I tell you what I know about slipping past that velvet rope.