As the story goes, several hundred aspiring writers came to hear a lecture one night, given by a world-famous author. These students of writing gathered in an auditorium, excited, anxious, hoping for insights, words of wisdom and inspiration from this man of great accomplishment.
The appointed hour came, and a hush fell over the crowd. Warm applause filled the building when the author appeared. He ambled across the stage to the lectern and squinted in the glare of the bright lights, gazing out over the people, allowing the silence to linger.
Finally he coughed, cleared his voice and asked:
"Why aren't you all home writing?"
The author then turned and walked off the stage, his lecture for that night completed.
The point being, of course, that at some point, you have to set aside all this theory stuff and go bang out a rip-roarin' tale. We're very tempted to end the column right here, like the lecturer, with the admonishment that everybody should just go home and write.
Well, heck, it does turn out that after writing 20 screenplays or so (and rewriting a few of them 30 times) some common patterns do show up. One develops descriptions of those patterns, and a small arsenal of techniques to deal with them.
So we theorize on. Gathered here are a whole bunch of our concepts and devices and ideas we've come up with over the years. Ways to think about stories and writing, that may be of help. (The original title of this column was "Plot-pourri," but then cooler heads prevailed.)
All of these ideas at one point were considered as topics for individual columns. But, the little tikes just wouldn't grow up. So if some of these are slight, we'll try to make up for it with quantity:
THE WANG THEORY
We came up with this out of frustration in dealing with studio executives. We'd write a situation or line of dialogue that was a bit obscure or intellectual, and the exec would complain, "The audience is not going to get that." Our response: the audience didn't have to get it. Story content has an effect beyond its literal meaning. We called it the Wang Theory, in honor of a series of commercials presented in the eighties by Wang Laboratories.
In the ads, a computer consultant would describe a solution to a group of contemporaries, all of whom shared the common trade language. To the rest of us, it was just gobbledygook. "We took the ISDN line direct to the server, and hooked up a wide and fast array. This gave us a 12 gig-per-second throughput to the PCI slot, and when we showed it to the client, her eyes bugged out." Nobody knew what the heck was being said, but the scenes still had an effect: you knew that these guys were experts.
It bothered us that we were precluded from using in a screenplay a technique that was playing on television every night in commercials, all across the country. By allowing characters to speak and behave smarter than the audience, you at least establish that they're experts. The technique is also effective at creating a sense of authenticity. And it's also interesting -- most people like that feeling of being exposed to the 'inside stuff,' even if they don't fully understand it.
This is Alfred Hitchcock's term for, 'The item of importance that everyone wants, upon which the plot turns.' The classic example is the 'microfilm' from NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Does anything ever really happen with the microfilm? Not really. It is truly a just plot device, something to help organize the events of the movie. The microfilm is the MacGuffin.
A slightly different example are the 'letters of transit' in CASABLANCA. There, the MacGuffin had an actual story function -- by possessing the papers, you can safely get out of town. That added function is nice, but it was Hitchcock's idea that the MacGuffin could be just about anything, and it didn't have to have a function other than simply being of value.
PLAY THE BEATS
Quite often the process of improving a story doesn't involve adding new twists and turns. It's more like those pretty computer-generated Mandlebrot sets, where the large design contains within it smaller, intricate versions of the larger design, on down to infinity. Instead of adding new aspects to a story, look to make the story more full and more satisfying by delving into the already existing moments, and making sure each aspect of every moment is played out fully.
(Pick up and read a chapter of any Stephen King book for a great refresher on this. No matter what you think of his writing, King is a master at playing out his beats to full effect.)
A corollary to this is the idea of a 'single moving moment.' Bad scripts give the impression of clumps of unfocused action. Good scripts seem to unfold moment by individual-delicate-moment. Every gesture, every line, every action is clear and beautiful, like pearls on a string. It's a full story, but you experience it one tiny limited moment at a time -- the more limited and particular, it seems, the better.
THE CLONE WARS
Studio executives love to cut stuff out of scripts. "Do we really need this?" is the challenge. And the answer is, well, usually, in point of fact -- no.
But that's when Ted and I invoke 'The Clone Wars' theory. It's that line from STAR WARS where Obi-Wan tells Luke, "He fought with your father in the Clone Wars." In the whole rest of the movie, there isn't another reference to the Clone Wars. Does it really have to be there? Not really. But it's that kind of touch that made the Star Wars universe so real, to so many people. For years afterwards, fans speculated and wrote stories on what might have gone on in the Clone Wars -- all from just that one throwaway line.
THREE GREAT SCENES, NO BAD ONES
Jack Nicholson is reported to have said that he'd do a movie if his character had "three great scenes, and no bad ones." It's not a bad idea to consider your screenplay from the strict -- and let's even say, ego-driven -- point of view of the actors who must play the roles. Can you actually point out the 'three great scenes' that you've designed for each of your leads? Are you sure that you haven't given any of them any bad scenes?
DON'T CUT THE LAST THING FOR A CHARACTER
It seems like this should go without saying, but all characters should actually do something that has an impact in your story. At least one point where they significantly affect the outcome of events. Again, you should be able to point to the exact spot where you can say, "If we lost this secondary character, then the story falls apart right here."
If you've gone through and cut everything that a character does in the picture, then go ahead and cut the character, too. (In some scripts, this would mean cutting the leads!)
This rule comes into play quite often in story meetings, where secondary characters lose their story moments to two forces: the desire to shorten the script, and the desire to 'give the good stuff to the hero.' Now, if the hero has five things to do in a sequence, and the sidekick two, yes, you can go ahead and cut one from each. This leaves us at four and one, respectively. But now, when they come to cut that last thing from the sidekick, or take the last thing and give to the hero that's where you invoke the rule, and draw the line.
EXTERNALIZE THE STORY
While it's great for characters to have strong inner lives, it's a mistake to organize a plot around the drama of a character deciding to change their thinking. Consider how non-cinematic a change of heart truly is, without the actions taken as a result of the change.
Instead, it's the task of the screenwriter to take that inner journey of the character and give it a playing area. Externalize the issues, either into situations or other characters, and let the protagonist work things out where we all can see and hear it.
This is a basic step, common to almost all good storytelling. In ROCKY, Stallone's quest for self-worth was dramatized through his quest for the championship. In LIAR, LIAR, Jim Carrey's internal struggles become manifest in the world when he's cursed to tell the truth. In CASABLANCA, Rick's inner struggles play out in a series of scenes, as his lost love, then his rival, arrive into his life, and he gains the opportunity to play out his inner turmoil.
"ALL THE STANDARD DISCLAIMERS APPLY"
This isn't a writing technique, more for story meetings and partnerships. Instead of prefacing a your lame idea with a long list of caveats, excuses, and apologies, just say, "All the standard disclaimers apply" and go for it. Another phrase is, "Here's the bad version," or "This is the placeholder version." It's a way to get those halfway-decent ideas into play, so you can stepping-stone your way across them to the good stuff.
Subtext doesn't happen automatically as a side effect of telling a good story. Quite often you consciously design it in.
Take, for example, a character who is despondent over the loss of a loved one. The straightforward approach would be to show a scene of the character crying. But a more powerful approach might be to show the character's inappropriate response to the loss -- say, for example, by risking his life, or hurting someone he loves. The emotional response to the loss has been moved off center stage, and can become the powerful subtext to any number of other scenes.
And while we're talking sub-stuff... the neatest thing we heard Robert Zemeckis say was (quoting from memory), "Your sub-plot is where you can overtly play out your theme." Consider BACK TO THE FUTURE, and the sub-plot of Marty helping his mom and dad fall in love. One big obstacle was his father's lack of courage, which Marty helped him overcome. Overall, summoning the will to carpe diem was indeed the theme of the movie. What might have been too clunky for the main story worked great as a subplot.
AUDIENCE SUPERIOR, AUDIENCE INFERIOR
One useful technique is to track your plot from the point of view of each character. The idea is, if the story works from the perspective of each character, then you've got a plot that hangs together and probably doesn't have any major holes.
When doing that, we like to add another 'character' to the list -- the audience. What the audience knows and believes at different points of the story, relative to what the characters know, is crucial to the believability of each scene. Sometimes a scene doesn't work not because it's not true to the character, but because the audience knows too much (or too little) at that point. Moving the audience from 'audience superior' to 'audience inferior'-- or vice-versa -- might be enough to fix the problem scene.
This is also known as 'visceral logic.' It's dangerous to play with, but a powerful tool. Beyond strict story logic, there is the emotional logic of the film. For example, if the audience wants something to happen, it's easier to make them believe that it can happen.
Sometimes your convictions are the greatest stumbling blocks to fixing a story problem. It's that thing that you're certain of, that you don't challenge -- that you just know is right about a scene -- that stops you from finding the inventive solution. It's a good idea to have this general rule: challenge everything. Go through the problem scene step by step and consider the effect of doing the exact opposite of all your story decisions.
The audience will come to 'know' the character through their actions. When characters can make decisions that run counter to expectations, bringing reversals into the story, that's of immediate interest. (Once again, look at RAIDERS. When Indiana Jones ties up Marion instead of rescuing her, it's a marvelous reversal, and we gain huge insight into Indy's character by that one action.)
GO TO THE EXTREME
Characters, stories, and story beats fail far more often by not going far enough than by going too far. It is almost a rule that if you push a character, an emotion, or a situation to the absolute extreme, it will play on film. Consider the various, and varied, extreme situations in PULP FICTION. (There are limits, of course, and consider the effect on the tone of the movie, especially concerning sex and violence.) But it's almost always worthwhile to re-evaluate a scene or a sequence with an eye toward, "Did we push that far enough?"
We also call this, simply, the Rick character. In the old "Magnum, P.I." television series starring Tom Selleck, Magnum had an annoying friend named Rick. His function in the series was to serve as a sort of surrogate for the audience on the more outrageous story points. He was always protesting, "C'mon, Magnum..." as in, "C'mon, Magnum, there's no way those crooks would trust us with $7 million dollars in gold coins. It's ludicrous." (And this is exactly what the audience was thinking at that point.)
Magnum would then calmly explain to Rick just exactly why the crooks would, indeed, hand over $7 million in gold. Rick would be convinced, and in theory, the audience protests would have been addressed as well.
SMART VILLAINS, SMARTER HEROES
It's a great temptation to fix a problem not by coming up with a more clever solution on the part of the hero, but by making the villain dumb, so that the hero looks good by comparison. (This is a favorite technique among development executives.)
Don't do it.
Consider STAR WARS, an incredibly elegantly designed movie. After Luke & Company manage their escape from the Death Star (sans Obi-Wan) there is a cut to Darth Vader: "Is the homing beacon in place?" We find out that, despite all appearances, the incredible escape we just witnessed was actually abetted by the villains, in their effort to find the secret Rebel base! (Also an example of an Impressive Failure, to reference an earlier Wordplay column.) Next, we cut to a scene where Han is boasting about his handiwork. Leia clues him in: "They let us escape. It's the only explanation for the ease of our escape." Knowing they are being followed, they have no choice other than to continue on, and hope the stolen plans (a MacGuffin if ever there was one) will allow the destruction of the Death Star. Smart villains, smarter heroes, great plotting.
So -- make your villains as smart as you can make them, even if that paints you and your hero, into an impossible situation. Then get to work!
IF IT'S NOT GOOD, AT LEAST MAKE IT SHORT
You get the idea.
MAKE THE PLOT MOMENT A CHARACTER MOMENT
This goes hand-in-hand with the technique above. Sometimes, the organic nature of a story is such that you're just stuck with a crummy scene, or an unbelievable plot twist. It has to be there, but there's no way to really make it good. So the first rule is, make it short. The second rule is: hide the fact that it's crummy.
Here's how you hide it. Instead of making the scene about the story point (which emphasizes how weak it is) you make the scene about character. A passion, a fear, a desire, an anger -- doesn't matter what it is. Move the weak scene away from the logic-driven arena of plot, and into the emotion-driven arena of character, and you won't believe the story holes you can hide.
I'VE GOT A LITTLE LIST...
Here's my own, private, completely unsubstantiated list of elements I think never work in movies:
1. Cults (think DRAGNET, YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES) 2. Babies in jeopardy (GHOSTBUSTERS II, WILLOW) 3. Snowy locations (who wants to go make a film in the snow, anyway?) 4. Regimented-worker-oppressive-society movies (remember TOYS?) 5. Drug and alcohol addiction tales. 6. Stories that turn on public opinion forcing a character to take action
The sport that always looks bad on film, no matter how much they try to make it interesting: tennis.
The sport that always looks good on film, no matter how badly it gets mangled: baseball.
And here's a list of sequences or story elements that always seem to work gangbusters on screen:
1. Poker games 2. Seductions 3. Bidding/auction scenes (think Alfred Hitchcock) 4. An execution 5. Sunny, tropical locations (consider setting your film in a location you want to visit) 6. Maps and treasure hunts 7. A race of any type
And to top off this list of arbitrary claims, here's "Wordplay's Iron-Clad Rule of Box Office Success": let your hero smile. Most films, and all bad ones, have the hero striding along wearing dour expressions, looking like their teeth hurt. But think of any movie you love, and I bet you can remember a shot of the hero breaking out in a grin. And hey, if you want a really big hit, let your hero smile in Act I, Act II and Act III. Works every time.
HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES
Consider what sort of hero is demanded by your story genre. The DRAMATIC HERO succeeds due to his best efforts. The TRAGIC HERO fails despite his best efforts. And the COMIC HERO succeeds despite his best efforts -- usually to avoid heroism.
Rick in CASABLANCA is an example of a dramatic hero. Oedipus is the classic tragic hero, doomed from the start, no matter what he does. Bilbo Baggins of "The Hobbit" is a great comic hero, resisting the hero's call nearly to the end. (At the very end of a comedy, it's quite satisfying to let the comic hero have the same victory of the dramatic hero; another example, consider the ending of GHOSTBUSTERS.)
60 TWO-MINUTE SCENES
George Lucas once said that a film is "Sixty great two-minute scenes." When it comes down to actually shooting the picture, Lucas is absolutely correct. The director, actors, set designers, cinematographers -- they're all going to be thinking of the picture in terms of individual scenes, and there's only room for about 60 of them. Keep this structure in your head as you plot, and the content of your screenplay will naturally focus on the true, necessary beats of your story.
THE GILLIGAN CUT
This is a classic staple of comedy. A character protests vehemently, "What, you expect me to wear a grass skirt, stand up on top of Empire State Building and belt out the chorus of 'New York, New York'? Well, I'm not gonna... I'm just not gonna..." And then you cut, and see the character doing just that. The Gilligan Cut. Comedy ain't pretty.
STORY VS. PLOT
The plot of your screenplay is what happens. The story is the particular way you choose to reveal to the audience what happens. The two don't have to be the same. The tendency is to be a slave to presenting the plot -- you think "It happens this way, so that's how I have to tell it this way."
But consider shifting the point of view, learning information through flashback, holding back information, or even revealing events to the audience out of order. Very rarely is telling the plot the most effective way to tell the story.
A couple of films to reference on this point: COURAGE UNDER FIRE, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, CITIZEN KANE.
The last ten minutes of SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION are particularly masterful. What you have is a narrator telling a story, then within the story telling a flashback, and within that another flashback, then a jump forward, and another jump forward, then back to the main narrative -- all the while keeping dramatic tension. It's amazing.
WIDOWS, ORPHANS, & KILLING YOUR BABIES
Widows are setups that have no payoffs, because the payoffs have been cut. Orphans are payoffs that have no setups. Often they're still there because, even though they don't make any sense, they're still cool scenes.
That's where 'killing your babies' comes in. No matter how great any individual scene is, you have to be willing to kill it for the greater good of the whole script. You must be ruthless. And you must have faith that you can come up with something equally as good.
THE MAIN RELATIONSHIP THEORY
One way to evaluate a story is to ask -- what is the main relationship presented in the story, and how effective is it? Most great films have one, or several, great relationships at their heart. (Try this -- think of your favorite film, and note how quickly you can identify the film's main relationships, and how interesting they were to watch.) The main relationships of a film are how the issues and themes of the story are played out on screen.
So ask yourself -- do you have a main relationship, or series of relationships? Are they fascinating to watch?
When F. Scott Fitzgerald came to Hollywood, he had an immediate insight in writing for the cinema. He described scenes as being (paraphrasing from memory, here): "... carefully written and ordered in such a way so that the audience has no choice but to feel exactly what the filmmakers want them to feel."
Screenwriting, unlike prose writing, attempts to force the audience to feel one specific way. I use the term 'kidnapping' for effect here -- quite often, you want to grab the reader, blindfold 'em, tie 'em up, and decisively take them somewhere -- whether they really want to go there or not.
Every word, every line, every moment of a screenplay will create a response in the person that reads it. A great artist has absolute control over those responses.
When the writer loses focus, and does not write to a set purpose -- that's when trouble happens. The audience is allowed to think for themselves... and they might even think, "Hey, this is no good." And then they've escaped.
When you get your audience kidnapped, tie the bonds tight, and don't let them go.
So there you go, a whole grab-bag of plot devices, a handy tool kit for your many story writing needs.