Whenever I get stuck working on a script (which is often), I remind myself of the only two things that matter:
Screenwriting is that simple.
You can find a way to make any story beat more visual. If you’re stuck, ask yourself — what’s the silent movie version? (that’s Mamet’s advice) — how can I see what I want to say here.
And every story beat should be emotional. That means it matters to the characters, on a gut level. And we should empathize enough with the characters that it matters to us. So if you’re stuck, ask yourself — what matters here? why? how can it matter more, and more, and more …. Emotion can be fear or anger or love or contempt or pride or despair or — whatever matters to them and to you and to us.
Then repeat these steps a bunch of times, and you’ve got a script.
My first T.V. job was writing for a show called “The Dish” on Style and E! — a spin-off of “The Soup” with Joel McHale, a clip show where a host stands in front of a green screen and shows clips of other shows and says jokes about them. Occasionally we did little sketches and trailer re-cuts, and we had characters (played by the writers or production staff) who would come out and do very stupid stuff. It was fun and low-budget, and there was a lot of room to try wacky stuff. Pitch Jerry the Fashion Crab on Monday and on Thursday the prop guy is spray-painting a foam cut-out in the shape of a crab — and the writer wearing it is dizzy from the fumes.
Once during punch-up we wrote a joke about a commercial for a female stand-up urinator — I don’t remember the exact punchline, but the commercial had a line like “I learned it in Europe.” So then we cut out of the commercial on that line, had our host Danielle look like she’s peeing while standing there. Then she said “I learned it from the host of The European Dish.” (Then the window over her shoulder flashed to a mocked-up photo of Danielle with a huge wart and a unibrow, in a gypsy costume, pushing a plough through a rutted field in Transylvania — with the logo of The European Dish superimposed over the whole thing.)
The joke killed in taping. We the writers loved this joke and laughed really hard when she did it. But the powers that be killed it in the booth because they didn’t want to seem “xenophobic.” We came up with something else on the floor. But I was sad to see the Host of the European Dish get iced, because building mythology is important.
Whether you’re writing a tiny little clip show on a cable channel somewhere in the upper 300’s or a huge-budget space opera on one of the antenna channels, mythology is what makes your show sticky.
Seeing the Host of the European Dish — or Jerry the Fashion Crab — or any other dumb little one-note characters we did on that show — once is funny. But then if European Danielle comes back — and this time she’s there to talk about the Paris runway shows, say in a tape segment, and then she pees herself again … now you’ve got a bit. But then say every time European Danielle comes back on the show, she drops little tidbits about how she got her gig as Host of the European Dish — maybe she was coyoted by a band of gypsies and she has to pay off her debt to them by hosting this clip show … Then we cut back to Danielle in the studio with fake tears rolling down her cheeks, going “They said there’d be opportunity in America … I didn’t know I was going to be a clip show host ….” You’re building the mythology of this character, populating the world of this clip-show, and creating a narrative myth that gives fans an armature to congregate around. Suddenly they don’t just love watching stupid Real Housewives clips, but they also love when European Danielle comes on, and it seems like no matter how outrageous things in Europe are, they’re gonna be more outrageous back in the home studio . . . . It brings people back. It makes you feel like you’re part of it. Fans know they’re fans by knowing that European Danielle became a clip show host via indentured servitude. Late Night with Conan O’Brien did this so well.
Human beings like stories. Tuning into a clip show is fun, mindless entertainment. But if there’s a chance that a character I recognize from a few weeks back will make a surprise appearance, even just to toss off a stray line that may add to his weird back-story — even if that character is just a foam spray-painted crab played by one of the writers — it’s satisfying. It makes us want to stick around, tune in again, see what happens next. Because what if we find out that European Danielle and Jerry the Fashion Crab know each other — what if European Danielle caught a case of Jerry the Fashion Crabs during her time working the Marseilles docks and now she won’t even look at him in the studio for fear of them being recognized together?
This is pure silliness because that’s what that show is. But the principles are the same, no matter what kind of show you’re writing. If you’re writing a serialized drama, mythology is that much more important. Every time you introduce one character or artifact or motif, and then bring it back — you’ve given it a story that has the potential to impact other stories. Tracing the pattern of these collisions, what impacts what and how that changes what can happen next — who has collided into whom in the past, and what that has produced — it becomes a puzzle for the audience to solve. It pulls them in, putting connections together and being rewarded when connections and histories are revealed. It turns your show sticky, holding onto eyeballs.
Because who wants to watch plot? We want to watch stories. We come back to create myths.
Your target is the moment you build to — that big reveal, big stand-off, joke on the scene, revealing look, twist — whatever pushes us stumbling forward, searching our hearts for more. This is the last moment in the novel, last beat in the scene, last beat in the act.
Drive the arrow of your story through the target where you want it to land. Find that last beat — of the story, of the scene, of the act — start with where you’re going.
Unless you experiment with rhythm and timing by placing your big moments in the middle or the beginning, your biggest moments should go last. Your end beats stand as booster rockets pushing us forward, constantly building tension and emotion, propelling us all the way past THE END to continue the story in our minds and in our hearts.
Instead of loading up your arrow and launching it, hoping it will stay on course and land where you want it, target these end beats first. Then, pull back — what happened right before the arrow nailed the target? What happened right before that? Follow the line of the arrow back all the way from where it hit its target to where you loaded your bow. You’ll find the path between target and pulling the string a lot shorter than it might have been had you started with the quiver.
I’ve been writing back to front for a long time — both within scenes and over entire scripts and novels — but it didn’t occur to me to write a post about it until I read this post at Screenwriting Foxhole in which Michael Lee discusses how to structure a scene — from back to front. Ensuring the last beat is caused by the beat immediately preceding it, which is caused by the beat preceding it, and so on. Like a director organizing a shot list, ensuring that every beat has a shot and that these shots flow in a tight, inter-dependent chain like a spine through the back of the scene.
Begin where you want to go. You’ll get there fast.
I used to write slowly. As a novelist, I would meander, let myself go, simmer, get stopped up, go around in circles, find my way again and again. I still do that, I just do it very fast now.
If you’re on a deadline, but want to write a rich story fast, here’s a shorthand:
Every character gets an arc that hits at least three beats:
We meet them when they’re low — or don’t know yet they’re about to take a big fall.
They struggle with a new challenge.
They change as a result.
Show each of these beats in a scene or scenes consisting of:
a visual image
a question in the mind of the audience — what comes next?
Weave these scenes together like a building conversation: each scene interviews the next, asking a more insistent question that’s only partially answered by the next, which answers a question with its own question in turn. Building in speed and intensity.
Every moment in your story is a great moment — if it’s not, lose it.
If you’re on a tight deadline, you can use this shorthand to develop a pretty tight story. Once you’ve got the story down, you can get profound.
I love motifs. If there’s some physical law where the number of motifs in your story threatens to reverse the chemical ratio of metaphor to action, I’m the person to test it.
A motif is a detail that repeats through a story to draw attention to an idea or theme. The motif can be a word, phrase, color, character, monster, sign, place, image, way of describing something, way of talking, alliteration, simile, character trait, situation, anything. The point is that it repeats. Once it repeats it becomes a trail of breadcrumbs we leave to help the reader or viewer find depth and meaning in our stories. When motifs cross and combine, they reflect and magnify each other, drawing a map that points the audience down paths of allusions, partly inherent in the story and partly supplied by the audience’s experience. This is the theme.
I’ll use my Iraq pilot LIONESS as an example to show how I use motifs. I decided to introduce a new motif in each act, like a recurring chord in a symphony, that, once introduced, would blend together in the end. Each act’s motif shapes the act, giving it a guiding metaphor to direct the action.
These are the ideas that take root in the imaginations of my characters in each act. They discuss them, they see evidence of them all around themselves, they see parallels to them in their environment, more importantly, they DON’T see parallels to them in their environment. These motifs show up in both subtle and un-subtle ways, as jokes, as images, as plot points, as looping topics of conversation.
Act 1: Motif: Bloodshed.
Act 2: Motif: University of Texas Cheerleaders.
Act 3: Motif: Missing Humvee and Suicided Soldier.
Act 4: Motif: We Don’t Leave A Man Behind.
Act 5: Motif: Innards.
You don’t have to tell a serious story to use motifs — my sitcom pilot was standard network fare but also very motif-driven. You can bury them beneath the surface or not. What they give you is a deeper, more meaningful, more textural world.
I often assume people mean the opposite of what they say.
A mother furious at her daughter as she packs boxes of her things before leaving for college: “I can’t have your stuff cluttering up my house any longer. You need to get it out of here so I can get on with my life.”
Translation: I’m angry because I feel like I need to have your stuff cluttering up my house. I’m afraid if you get it out of here, I’ll have to get on with my life.
One friend to another whom she hasn’t seen in a long time: “Wow. You look really good. I mean, since I saw you last … You’re like, a completely different person. I’m so happy for you.”
Translation: Wow. You look really different. Remember the last time I saw you? No matter how much you think you can change, I’ll keep reminding you of who you were. I’m not happy for you at all.
Roman Polanski to Martin Amis, in an interview in 1979: “If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But … fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls. Everyone wants to fuck young girls!” (via Telegraph UK)
Translation: If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? Judges don’t want to fuck young girls. Juries don’t want to fuck young girls. Not everyone wants to fuck young girls. But I do. That’s the kind of thing that makes me special, above judgement, and worthy of all the attention I receive.
We still get the point. Because human communication is subtle and complicated and interesting. And we’re crack detectives on the case.
Great dialogue happens in the spaces between the notes, when what the audience gets to fill in on our own is far richer than anything we hammer home on the page. Because the audience are always the smartest people in the room, and whenever we let them rise to the occasion to fill in the gaps, leap leaps, imagine what’s left unsaid and bridge the ineffable, our stories live.
Anyone want to chime in with more examples of opposite-talk?
Jaime Weinman is a critic (and my friend) who has an astonishing knowledge and understanding of TV and pop culture. I love this post about “comedy writer jokes” in The Simpsons, prompted by the DVD release of Season 12 this week.
Most comedy writers loathe analyzing jokes, feeling you kill the magic by dissecting it. But I find it really interesting, especially when, as here, there’s trenchant analysis of jokes — that comment on jokes — for an audience of joke writers.
Jaime points out that by Season 12 on The Simpsons, writer George Meyer’s style was predominant, and that style had less to do with the character-based situational comedy that sit-coms are founded upon and more to do with a quirky, meta, layered, self-reflexive, post-modern wordplay.
It’s sort of a joke about a joke, where the humour is supposed to come not from the characters and their reactions to their situations, but from the writer’s attempt to put his own ironic twist on the thing you might expect to hear in that situation.
The example I always use from season 12 of The Simpsons – I don’t know if Meyer came up with it, but it certainly is a Meyeresque joke — is when Grandpa Simpson says that he was such a great grifter in his youth that “They used to call me Grifty McGrift.” The line is supposed to be funny because it’s not funny, because in a spot that normally calls for a funny turn of phrase, the writer could not come up with any turn of phrase at all, and just repeated the word “Grift” twice. Another favourite George Meyer joke technique is to have a character describe a plan as “Operation ______” and then fill in something that’s just a straight, prosaic description of whatever he’s going to do: “Time for Operation Mail-Take.” “Now for Operation Strike Make-O Longer.” “Now for Operation Christmas-Remind-Her-Of-How-Good-Is.” (A George Meyer line that was cut from an early episode, according to a commentary, was “You couldn’t find Mr. Burns’ inner goodness with a Mr. Burns’ inner-goodness-finding-machine.”) It is not really a joke, it’s, as someone else put it, a parody of bad writing. And that’s why I think of it as comedy-writer comedy, because it references their own struggles in coming up with jokes and their own intimate knowledge of old joke structures. It never once sounds like anything an actual human being might say. This also applies to jokes that are based on the assumption that it’s funny to hear a deliberately awkward turn of phrase, like “Don’t worry, I’m not a stabbing hobo, I’m a singing hobo,” or “She changed her name to Appleseed and her family changed theirs to Buffalkill.” The main joke there is just that it sounds a little weird.
Battlestar/Buffy writer Jane Espenson’s blog about writing specs is still incredibly useful, even though she’s not updating it anymore. I perused it over a break today and saw this entry in which she discussed her friend Jeff Greenstein’s advice that pilots’ opening images should contain the series in microcosm. Following is the very persuasive list he composed. (I agree with this idea and would argue it’s a pretty good idea for novels as well.)
In the Cheers pilot, the teaser is Sam with an underage kid who’s trying to get a drink using a fake military ID. Kid says he was in the war. Sam asks what it was like. “It was gross,” the kid replies with a shudder. “Yeah, that’s what they say — war is gross,” Sam replies. The teaser gives you a sense of the place and the guy.
The Battlestar pilot has that great opening scene with Number Six and the emissary from Earth. The scene says, “Remember those metal robots? They look like humans now. And they’re going to fucking kill you.”
The Lost pilot starts with a close-up of an eye opening, and the aftermath of the plane crash. This show is about consciousness and strandedness and tragedy.
Will & Grace starts with Grace in bed with her sleeping fiancé, yet on the phone dishing with Will about George Clooney’s hotness. It’s the perfect encapsulation of their odd relationship.
The Desperate Housewives teaser: In the midst of tranquil suburban splendor, Mary Alice blows her head off.
The West Wing pilot: In a bar, talking off-the-record with a reporter, Sam Seaborn is distracted by a hot girl who’s giving him the eye. This show is about politics and sex (well, it started out that way), and the “backstage” lives of people in government.
Paul Feig–writer/producer of Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, The Office–gives The Guardian some great comedy writing lessons. Here’s one:
“3. Make them cringe
“Regardless of where or when your story is set, it’s important for the people in any comedy to act just like real people act. That means not speaking in a constant stream of pithy one-liners. It means getting into the same sort of horrible, awkward situations we all get into every day. Easily the most funny, fascinating and cringeworthy time in anyone’s life is school. It’s the only time that you get lumped in with a whole bunch of people without any filter; it’s not to do with skills or interests, just age. And you’re forced to spend every day with them for years. With Freaks And Geeks I wanted to write scenes that people would squirm while watching because it would seem so familiar. Seeing people cringe is the jackpot for me. The thing is, not everyone wants to sit through the exact same situations they already had to go through at school. So it’s the jackpot that nobody wants to win!””