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.
I’m working on scenes right now. So I’m thinking about scenes as discrete units, like jokes. A mentor taught me this, and a showrunner he worked for taught it to him.
A good scene is pithy like a good joke. It takes leaps and accomplishes its mission in shorter than expected time and distance. It doesn’t explain itself, doesn’t tip its hand — it leaves its most important points unsaid, to the imagination, to be completed by the audience. Any time you let the audience step in to fill in the space you’ve supplied between Set-Up A and Punchline B, they’ll love you for it. Because you’ve let them become the heroes of the telling.
Whether you’re writing a joke or a scene — you wanna get in there as late as possible, get out early. But not too late, not too early. Finding those right moments to jump in and out of scenes (or jokes) is an art. A great scene will have a beginning, a middle and an end, turned like a little three-act play, as will a great joke (even a one-liner, if you look hard enough).
Think of the beginning of the scene (Act 1) as the set-up of the joke: Why does this person need something, here, right now? The set-up builds expectations.
Middle of the scene (Act 2): a reversal happens, a set-back. The twist in the joke. The moment we realize all is not right in joke-world.
End of the scene (Act 3): the character is thwarted or spun a new direction. Surprise! Punchline.
The punchline is the most important part of the joke. Your punchline lands your joke and lands your scene. Scenes finish with a twist, a turn, another obstacle for the character — they finish dramatically, and whatever you go out on is your punchline. The body of your scene was the setup, so you made it pithy and tight and turned it, then you killed with your punchline. Maybe it’s the hero’s final line as he blows out, maybe it’s what the hero does, maybe it’s what you reveal, maybe it’s an explosion. Whatever it is, it’s a punchline, something we lock onto, digest, understand what’s being turned or thwarted or revealed and then wonder what happens next.
Set ’em up. Knock ’em down. Always leave ’em wanting more.
Because in both joke-telling and scene-writing, the business we’re really in is keeping them wondering what happens next.
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 was watching this show that had a character with a damaged, gravelly voice. But they didn’t explain it at first, and I thought it was great. It was subtle, textured storytelling. Because it opened up this little mystery within the show that could have lead in many different directions — but the point is it was sticky. It was another little surface to grab our attention, to make us think and wonder and fill in our own explanations. It was a little hook that didn’t matter that much at all, but it did, because it added up to the whole. Immediately I was like “huh, this battle-hardened commander guy has a ruined voice. Is that typical? Was he gassed in Vietnam? Do years of being exposed to the toxins of war do that to your voice? Is that supposed to symbolize the character?” A tiny moment lead me down a long path.
Then later, one of the voice-guy’s soldiers: “What happened to your voice?” “Throat cancer.” “Were you a smoker?” “Nope. Just lucky I guess.”
Clunk. They solved the mystery for us, instead of leaving it for us to do. They explained too much. They acted as journalists, rather than storytellers.
Here are ten different ways they could have handled that information better (not to be used in combination):
1. Never explain the character’s voice. This is the boldest choice, and one that probably wouldn’t fly with the network. But it’s most interesting because it allows us to fill in the gaps. When no explanation is given, the possibilities we come up with are far more dramatic than reality.
2. The character drops frequent references to throat cancer in a conscious manner. When this guy says something like “those insurgents are gonna feel like they just had chemo rammed down their throats” we’ll get it.
3. The character makes reference to throat cancer in an unconscious manner. Voice-guy would be talking about the situation and say something like “they’re like parasites that invade the organism. You don’t even know they’re there. You’ve always got to be on patrol.” We catch a reaction shot on the men to see if this registers on any of them — see them glancing at his throat, and wondering what happened to him.
4. Voice-guy speaks in a manner that really strains his voice. Juxtapose with other characters wondering if you can get throat cancer from the toxic chemicals associated with war. Never explicitly link the two, because that’s dull.
5. Voice-guy’s wife seems very concerned about his health. We don’t know why, or don’t find out why until she reveals it bit by bit.
6. Voice-guy takes medicine compulsively — or someone has to remind him to.
7. Voice-guy seems hyper-aware of certain elements in the environment that non-cancer survivors wouldn’t be aware of. Like, ducking below clouds of toxic smoke.
8. Take the other tack as the one above — voice-guy seems to have a death wish. He’s a Marine and he resents any reminders of his mortality. He rushes head-on into the fray, cancer be damned. Little reminders of his illness crop up, however, like his damaged voice and other physical reminders — getting winded, being unable to stand long periods — that tell us SOMETHING IS WRONG without having to say “I have cancer.” We get it.
9. Voice-guy lectures his men about not smoking and looking after their health. He even mentions that he never smoked, but that’s not the only thing you have to worry about.
10. Voice-guy envies a guy his age/rank who is in perfect health. We see that there is no reason for him to have a damaged voice. We see him feel the loss of his perfect health. We see him lose the attention and respect of his troops as he feels unable to speak to them. We intuit that he has a disease.
These may be too oblique, depending on the piece. But there are many ways the information could have been delivered that would have held our attention and kept us guessing. Telling us outright helps us change the channel.
We watch for the mystery. All stories have a mystery. Sometimes we don’t notice because the mystery sucks.
Love stories — The mystery is who is going to love who in the end, and why? There should be genuine doubt about who is going to wind up together, and why, and how. If there isn’t, you’re writing porn. We should care about this mystery — this is the pleasure of love stories. See Jane Austen.
Dramas — The mystery here lies in who the characters really are versus who they say they are and who they think they are — see Mad Men — or in us making discoveries about the character’s world at the same time she does. The protagonist is in trouble — how is she going to get herself out of it?
Crime/Thrillers/Action/Sci Fi — These have mystery built in, or they should. How are we going to solve this big fucking problem? What’s really going on here? Good to have competing mysteries — say, the overarching mystery of the situation and the mysteries of characters’ identities and the mysteries of love stories. As for the overarching mystery, see my joke’s on them post — the joke is always on the main characters, and the mystery here is figuring out how to get them out from under the punchline.
Our mission as detectives is to solve the mystery — by finding out what happens next. If the story doesn’t compel us on this journey, doesn’t send us racing to the finish, we need to shave clutter and bulk up clues and foreshadow and raise the stakes so that nothing matters more than solving this big, interesting mess.
Here’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction: fiction evokes emotion. Non-fiction conveys information.
As storytellers, we side with fiction.
Even if you write articles or blog posts or biographies or State Department briefings, you convey information by transporting your reader emotionally. You sacrifice telling them everything in favor of telling them enough, in the right way, so they’ll be moved. Or engaged. Or entertained.
Here’s what got me thinking about this: I put aside the pilot for a few days because I wanted to do a quick pass on this novel before sending it to some people. I cut and resisted cutting and finally realized that in fiction — if it doesn’t follow the emotional throughline, it doesn’t belong there. No matter how interesting or informative or important-seeming or beautifully written — if the writing doesn’t build to the emotional whole, it must be cut.
All stories are fiction.
The purpose of story is not to inform. It’s to transport. We don’t engage the heart and senses when we fill someone in on everything they need to know. If it’s important, they’ll get it because it comes attached to something a character cares about. Descriptions of place don’t matter, but a character might be devastated then notice her vicinity in a way that echoes what she’s feeling. That’s the only way that descriptions of place matter: how they reflect our insides.
We’re not reading travel guides. We’re reading metaphor guides, travel guides inward. This is the function of story.
New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell was kidnapped by the Taliban and held for four days in Afghanistan, along with his translator Sultan M. Munadi. Munadi and an unnamed British soldier were killed in the British-led rescue.
Farrell filed this devastating account of their four-day imprisonment and rescue the day he returned.
I was struck by the following moment, which occurred soon after the initial capture:
Once away from immediate pursuit, they transferred me to a waiting car and drove into the dusty back roads of Char Dara District at high speed. “Russian?” one asked me, a question that seemed so out of recent historical context that it made my heart sink.
I see this as an example of the turning point before the turning point: a subtle signpost of foreshadowing that contains in microcosm what lies ahead. It’s like a little crystal ball in the story, there to foretell the future by containing inside it in miniature everything that’s about to happen.
In this instance, Farrell’s being rapidly driven away from safety by his captors, knowing his chances of surviving diminish the further they go. When his captor, his enemy, thinks he’s Russian (the enemy of twenty years ago), he’s overwhelmed with the feeling that he’s been captured by people who don’t know anything about which war is happening or who they’re fighting against. As it turns out, these captors will spend the next four days moving from house to house with seemingly no plan, no purpose, before finally bringing the brunt of the British military on them all, losing two good men their lives. And they don’t even know who they’re fighting against, or why.
All of this is neatly foreshadowed in the captor’s “Russian?” comment — and Farrell’s heart-sinking reaction. If I were dramatizing this story, I would careen towards this moment jarringly, out of control, then dwell on this “Russian?” beat to underscore its sickening, foretelling quality. Just an extra couple viscous beats too long, making it snag the pace the way it does Farrell’s heart. And then speed up the chase again, now with Farrell having caught a glimpse of what lies ahead.
The turning point in a story is an important structural support, giving us something to build to, react to, creating new energy and direction for the story. However, these mini turning points before the turning point — these moments of foreshadowing — can have the same effect without changing the course of the story over-all. Like a twig propping the outer edge of the tent leading up to the tentpole. When Farrell heard the word “Russian?” he knew his story had just changed for the worse, but it took the next four days to watch it unfold until the real turning point when he was rescued and saw his friend killed in front of him.