Friday, February 27, 2015

How to Know if Your Idea is Marketable

My friend and fellow screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar Liar, Heartbreakers) has a Venn diagram he uses to determine whether a spec script idea is worth his time. There are three circles on the diagram – the ideas he loves, the ideas he thinks he can do well, and the ideas he thinks he can sell. He only wants to put in time and energy on the ideas that fall in the intersection of these three circles. (I might add a fourth circle – whether the idea will advance my brand/reputation.)

It takes a lot of time and energy to write a spec script. Why would you want to invest that time on an idea you don’t love? And why would you want to invest that time on an idea that you can’t sell?

It’s pretty easy to figure out whether you love an idea, and only a little harder to figure out if it’s something you can do well. However it can be quite tricky to figure out if an idea is something you can sell.

Here’s an exercise that can help: Think of five movies that are similar to yours in terms of genre, tone and scope that have been released in the last three years. Go ahead, do it now.

If you have difficulty coming up with five movies, it may be an indication that there isn’t really a market for that type of movie. (It could also be an indication that you haven’t really developed your idea enough.) Perhaps you should move on to a new idea.

If you were able to come up with five movies, you’re not done yet.

Do you love all the movies on your list? If not, it could be an indication that you aren’t working in the right genre. You should really love the type of movie you're trying to write. Try coming up with replacements for any movies on your list that you didn’t like.

Now, dig a little deeper into your analysis by asking these questions:

Were the movies successful? Don’t rely on your impression or memory, check And don’t just look at gross, compare gross to budget (also available on boxofficemojo). Generally, a movie has to gross at least 2.5 times its budget worldwide to be profitable. Not all five of your movies have to be hits, but if none of them were, it might be a bad sign for your idea.

Now it gets a little trickier. You will have to do some subjective analysis, and you will be tempted to reach conclusions that support the idea you want to write. Try to be as clear eyed as possible as you ask:

What do the five movies have in common? Are they all star vehicles? Are they all within a certain budget range? Do they all have the same rating? Are they all set in a contemporary time period? If your concept does not share the things the five movies have in common, it could be a warning sign. You might want to adjust your idea (for example, if you were envisioning an R rated movie but all five comparison movies were PG-13, consider toning yours down). Or, maybe the movies weren't as similar to your idea as you first thought. You might need to find five different movies to justify sticking with your approach.

(Edited to add: Additionally, if all of the movies you picked are based on underlying material, it might be a warning that your idea will be a tough sell if it's an original story.)

The Same but Different

Now, ask yourself how your idea is different from the five. There is good different and bad different. Bad is when you are ignoring a factor that was relevant to the other movies’ success (e.g. they all had movie star leads while you envision an ensemble). Good is when your idea has something fresh and original about it that is compelling.

Hollywood is not famous for originality and risk taking, but it isn’t looking for carbon copy movies either. If your idea is marketable, there will likely be hundreds of similar scripts floating around at the same time. How is yours fresh? What are you adding to the genre? Again, it can’t be so different than you lose what is marketable about the type of movie, but it has to be different enough that it will interest fans of that type of movie.

This type of analysis is helpful to prevent you from wasting time on an idea that has no potential for selling, or to allow you to adjust your idea in a more marketable direction before you start writing. However, remember that marketability is only one circle on Paul’s Venn diagram. You also need to love the idea and feel you can write it well. If the idea doesn’t fit the sweet spot, it is probably worth spending time looking for a new idea.

And before you get too enamored with the fact that you found the perfect idea, read this post on the value of ideas.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The One Miracle Rule

Let's Schmooze is on vacation this week. This post originally ran in 2012

(SPOILERS: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spider-Man 3)

One of the common rules of thumb we have in filmmaking is “The One Miracle Rule.” What this means is that the audience will suspend their disbelief for one improbable or even impossible thing, but not more than that. So, for example, we’ll believe aliens exist. Or we’ll believe ghosts exist. But we won’t believe both aliens and ghosts exist.

Accepting a miracle is the agreement we make when we buy a ticket for a particular story premise. So when we buy a ticket for Singing in the Rain (screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden), we agree to believe people break into song on the street, at least for the duration of the film. When we buy a ticket for Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), we agree to believe that people can enter other people’s dreams.

The miracles need not be that miraculous. They can be coincidences. They can be an unusual but plausible situation, such as a man is wrongly accused of a crime. Spectacular skills the main character has would also count. I might believe a character is the greatest marksman in the world, but I won’t believe that he’s the greatest marksman and the world’s leading physicist… unless one thing explains the other. Similarly, if the world’s greatest marksman is wrongly accused of a crime, it better be because he’s a marksman, not just random coincidence.

I had this problem in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (screenplay by Steven Zaillian). I could believe in the unusual situation that Lisbeth would be recruited to help uncover a brilliant, sadistic, serial killer. But at the end of the movie when they ask me to believe that Lisbeth also was able to pilfer millions and millions of dollars from our hero’s corrupt enemy, an enemy completely unrelated to the killer, I had a hard time accepting that additional unlikely situation.

Obviously Lisbeth’s computer skills were formidable – that wasn’t the problem. It was the implausibility that such a character would get both the opportunity to solve an incredibly spectacular murder and the opportunity to pilfer such a huge sum of money. It was one miracle too many.

Some people have that problem with the Marvel superhero movies. They have a hard time accepting that Tony Stark could invent the Iron Man armor and that Bruce Banner could become the Hulk in the same world. Personally, this doesn’t bother me – I feel like the miracle I’m being asked to accept is that “superheroes exist.” But that is the advantage of the X-men: all the heroes in that world have the same source of power – mutation. It’s a single miracle.

The Harry Potter movies work similarly. There would seem to be a lot of miracles in those – everything from wizards to dragons to time travel to ghosts. But all of it stems from the concept that “magic exists secretly in our world.” That’s the miracle that we’re asked to accept, and everything else extends from it. That allows for a lot of latitude, but an alien invasion in the Harry Potter books would probably break the reality.

That doesn’t mean these kinds of “broad miracle” movies can’t fail the rule in other ways. Double coincidence also counts as two miracles. Spider-Man 3 (screen story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi, screenplay by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent) fails on this count. I can accept that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider that gave him superpowers. But then an asteroid crashes near him and he’s infected by Venom.

I can believe Venom exists in this superhero world – I accepted Doc Oc and the Green Goblin – but it’s too coincidental that both the radioactive spider miracle and the asteroid miracle happen to the same person completely independently. Sadly, the solution is glaringly obvious. If Peter Parker encountered Venom because he was investigating an asteroid crash in his guise as Spider-Man, then I’d buy it. The first miracle explains the second.

By now you may be thinking of movies like Star Wars (written by George Lucas) or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson). There are a lot of miracles in those. In Star Wars, you have the force, faster than light travel, lightsabers, aliens, etc. How do they get away with it?

These kinds of movies take us to another world. That other world can have many things that are different from our world. But they can’t do just anything. They have to have an internal consistency. You have to set up the rules of the new world – then anything that violates those rules counts as a miracle. So elves and magic swords don’t bother us in Lord of the Rings, but a car would… even though we know in reality cars exist and elves and magic swords don’t!

Most of Star Wars can be excused with the idea that it’s set in a technologically very advanced world. The few elements that are not a given – the aliens and especially the force – are established as part of the world early. We’re told up front this is the world and we either accept it or we walk out of the movie. But once the rules of the world are laid down, they can’t be violated. The world is the first miracle. No more are allowed.

If you find yourself in a situation where two miracles have to be present for your story to work, try to figure out a way for one miracle to lead to the other, a la my fix for Spider-Man 3. Otherwise, the audience may find the whole thing too implausible.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Four Secrets for Better Exposition

(SPOILERS: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator, The Matrix, Inception, Little Miss Sunshine)

One of the most difficult things to handle well in a screenplay is exposition. Exposition is the stuff the audience needs to know to understand the story but isn’t particularly interested in. Because the audience doesn’t inherently care about exposition it is, by definition, boring. Your job as writer is to find ways to make it palatable. Here are four ways to help exposition go down easier:

1. Timing

When you deliver your exposition is as important as how you deliver it. Never, ever start your script with exposition. Readers will toss it aside before they even get to the meat of the story. Instead, place the information somewhere the audience will appreciate it. Often it’s best to dribble the exposition out, slipping it into scenes that have other purposes. But sometimes, especially in stories with complex or fantastic settings or mythology, it can be better to have a scene that is solely for exposition.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) has a very expository scene in Act One. Two FBI agents tell Indiana Jones and his boss at the university about the clues they’ve uncovered regarding the Nazi’s search for the Ark, and then Indy explains the Ark’s history and a bit about the Staff of Ra. It lays out almost everything the audience needs to know to understand the rest of the movie.

If we opened with this scene it would be a snooze-fest in the theater. Instead, it comes soon after a long sequence of rip-roaring action. At that point the audience could use a little break. So one way to handle exposition is to place it after a tense, exciting scene when the audience is happy to take a few moments to catch their breath.

The Matrix (written by Andy & Larry Wachowski) demonstrates another way to time exposition for maximum effect. We don’t get the explanation of what the Matrix is and the history of how the machines have taken over the world, until Act Two. Prior to this we’ve seen all kinds of weird things – people with super powers, Neo’s mouth vanishing, and a pill that draws Neo into a strange world. By Act Two we’re desperate for somebody to explain what’s going on and we happily sit through Morpheus’s lecture. If you make the audience want to know the expository information it won’t seem boring.

2. The Character Who Doesn’t Know

It can be particularly painful to see one character tell another character something they already know. It’s obvious the dialogue is just there for the audience’s benefit. Putting someone into the scene who doesn’t know the information can solve the problem. This is why the FBI agents in the Raiders scene don’t know anything about the Ark or its religious history. That gives Indiana Jones a reason to explain it.

In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the character of uncle Frank serves this purpose. He is newly arrived to the family, so he doesn’t know things like why the brother doesn’t speak or why Grandpa got kicked out of the retirement home. He can logically ask these questions. And when the reason is explained to Frank, the audience is let in on it as well.

This is why in movies featuring a team of some kind there is usually one new member. Ariadne serves this purpose in Inception (written by Christopher Nolan). She’s new to the team and new to the process of inception, so the veterans have to explain how everything works to her.

3. Reveal in conflict

If you have to have a character deliver information known to another character, try adding conflict. If characters are arguing, they will bring up things everyone knows to support their point. When Joe and Jerry are introduced in Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) they’re debating what to do with their impending paychecks. This allows Joe to point out that they owe money to a whole bunch of people – something he would never bring up otherwise because Jerry’s well aware of it.

Similarly, when we need to learn the reasons the whole family must go in the van to California in Little Miss Sunshine, they are delivered in an argument between Richard and Sheryl. The exposition about money problems, Sheryl’s inability to drive a stick shift, etc., are necessary for the story, but well known to both characters. But the dialogue doesn't sound false in this scene because the characters are mentioning these issues to support their point of view.

4. Wallpapering

Another trick to make exposition go down easier is known as wallpapering. This is when you set the scene in an interesting locale, or have something visually interesting in the background so the audience doesn’t notice how boring the scene actually is.

Inception does this. Many of the scenes where Cobb explains things to Ariadne are set in dream worlds. We see the environment shift – in one case the city folds up on itself. The cool visual effect hides the lack of drama and conflict in these scenes. Similarly, The Matrix delivers much of its exposition in a mock up matrix on Morpheus's ship that provides interesting visuals.

The Terminator (written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd) has an expository scene very similar to the ones in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Matrix. Reese explains the time travel premise and what the terminators are and the history of the future to Sarah Connor. This happens in a car fleeing an attack on Sarah Connor by the terminator. Throughout the scene, we’ll get a little bit of exposition, then a police car will catch up to them and we’ll get a little bit of car chase. Then Reese will lose the pursuer and it’s back to exposition. The car chase isn't particularly relevant to the story, it's wallpapering.

(It’s also worth noting that this Terminator scene comes about forty minutes into the movie when the audience is desperate for an explanation for what they’ve seen, and includes a character who needs to know the information. It's pulling out all the techniques to keep the exposition from being boring.)

Every script requires exposition. The key is to use these techniques to make it more palatable to the audience.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Always Be Pitching

In the pitching class I teach with producer Ken Aguado at Art Center College, and in the book we wrote, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, we encourage screenwriters to think of pitching in the broadest sense. When one talks about pitching, most people think of the classic Hollywood meeting where a writer presents an original idea (or their take on underlying material) to a producer or executive. But really, you will be pitching your ideas all the time in all kinds of situations in Hollywood. Pitching in the broadest sense is the process of getting a story idea that’s in your head into the head of someone else. Here are a few examples of pitching situations:
  • You meet a producer, agent, or filmmaker at a party or industry event and they ask what your screenplay is about.
  • You are presenting ideas for possible spec scripts to your agent.
  • You are proposing a project to your co-writer.
  • You are trying to convince a director or star or financier to sign on to your independent film.
  • You are sending out a query letter or creating a “leave-behind.” These are pitches on paper and should be crafted with many of the same principles as a verbal pitch.
  • You are presenting a treatment to your producer or executive. It’s a mistake to simply do a dry plot recitation in a treatment. The reader will worry you have lost the spark of interest of the idea. Craft a treatment much like you craft a pitch.
  • You are summarizing a screenplay for a contest application. Another pitch on paper.
  • You are at a pitch fest event trying to convince a buyer to read your script.
  • You are in a general meeting and the producer or executive asks what you are working on.
  • You are in a general meeting and the producer or executive says they are in the market for a certain type of movie. You have such a script and want to tell them about it.
  • And of course, you are in an actual pitch meeting attempting to sell your original idea or get a job on an assignment.
The different kinds of pitches can generally be categorized by length. The goal of the pitch tends to dictate how long the pitch is. And each length/goal has different requirements.

I’m fond of saying that you should craft the best version of your story for the form you are presenting. A pitch is different than a script and a log line is another thing entirely. They won’t contain the same items and won’t present them in the same way. You won’t be able to include your cool subplot in the log line and it is a mistake to try to cram it in. If you have an elaborate science fiction or fantasy world, you will have to find a way to condense it to only the most salient elements in anything less than a full-length pitch.

So let’s look at the different lengths of pitches and the unique requirements of each:

The stand-alone log line. A log line is a one or two sentence description of your concept, ideally less than 50 words long. It will be a component of any pitch. When you present the log line by itself, you should also mention things like the title, genre, tone and anticipated MPAA rating (in a longer pitch these things might be separated from the log line.) This form requires a tight focus on the concept. It must include the character, their goal, what’s at stake, and what the primary obstacle is. There usually isn’t room for much else. Your one and only goal is to convey what kind of movie you’re talking about, what the concept is, and what’s compelling about that concept.

Stand-alone log lines are by far the most common type of pitch. They would be used in any casual or social situation where someone asks what your script is about. In these situations the listener DOES NOT want you to launch into a thirty-minute description of your idea! Stand-alone log lines are also used when you are presenting ideas to your representatives and a stand-alone log line is how you describe your script in a query letter. There are many other situations that call for stand-alone log lines and it’s wise to have them memorized and ready to go at a moment’s notice. (For more on log lines, see this post.)

Two-minute pitch. A two-minute pitch is most commonly used when you are trying to get someone to read an existing script or hear a longer pitch at a later time. This is what you use in pitch fests. You might use them in a general meeting to discuss an older script that you think the buyer might like. They can also serve as a “door knob” pitch (A pitch you do “on your way out” of the office after you’ve failed with a bigger pitch, though usually you aren’t literally standing at the door. You phrase it as, “there’s one other idea I’ve been kicking around…”)

The big thing about a two-minute pitch is you won’t be able to cover much plot. After you do your “personal connection” and give the log line, you’ll just have time to describe the character(s), give the set-up, and then tee off the story in a way that suggests there’s plenty of material for a feature. You don’t give the ending – remember, the goal is to get them to read the script or hear a longer pitch. They just need to know what the story’s about and why it’s interesting; they don’t need all the plot details.

Five-minute pitch. This is the kind of pitch you do in a general meeting when they ask what you’re working on. Essentially, this is a two-minute pitch with three more minutes of story added on, including an ending.

The danger here is trying to cram too much plot into those three minutes. Plot doesn’t sell your idea. I’ll repeat that because it’s so important: Plot doesn’t sell your idea. In a five-minute pitch you have to tell a compelling condensed version of your story, and it needs to emphasize character (i.e. how the characters evolve through the story). That means you have to identify the crucial beats of the plot, and may even have to alter some of them to make the story work in this time frame (remember, best version for the medium). You’ll want to give the set up, then focus only on the major arcs and obstacles of act two, then wrap up in a compelling climax. You do not want to go scene-by-scene through the story.

Full-length pitch. You pretty much only do this when you have set up a meeting specifically to pitch an original idea that you want to be paid to write, or to get a job on an assignment. Typically these pitches are 12-15 minutes long, though up to 20 minutes is acceptable. I usually find the shorter end of the range is best, depending on the listener. Hopefully you will have some advance notice as to whether the person you’re pitching to has a short attention span or likes to obsess over details. I’ve heard of pitches running as long as 45 minutes, but I can’t imagine that’s ever really necessary.

A good full-length pitch will cover the entire story in detail. The plot will be completely laid out. However, you must be sure to present the plot in a compelling fashion, focusing on the character and emotion and capturing the tone of the film (e.g. if it's a comedy your pitch should be funny!) Reciting boring plot points in a "this-happens-then-that-happens" fashion is a sure path to a pass. This is really about understanding the difference between plot and story.

The ability to tailor your story to different lengths and situations is crucial to success as a professional screenwriter. You must understand what’s appropriate for the situation you are going into and prepare your pitch accordingly.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Five Questions About Your Story to Answer Before You Start Writing

Movie ideas typically don’t pop into screenwriter’s heads as fully formed, complete and compelling log lines. Rather, they tend to grow from some initial inspiration, sometimes taking years to really gel.

Perhaps you encounter an interesting person that would make a great character, or read about a technological advance that might be the basis of a science fiction story, or come across an unusual environment that would be a good setting for a dramatic tale. Then you noodle with this inspiration over time, possibly combining it with other ideas, until it comes into focus. If you’re like me, you may fill pages with notes and ideas and research as you explore the terrain of your story. Finally, one day the core concept emerges and you can start to outline.

Except it can be difficult to know if that core concept has really developed enough to be a complete and compelling story. Start writing too early, and you set yourself up for frustration and multiple drafts spent just figuring out what the story actually is. For many writers, this can end up in an abandoned screenplay and months or even years of wasted effort.

This is why it’s helpful to craft a great log line before you start outlining. If you aren’t able to craft a great log line, you haven’t really cracked your story yet. It’s why it’s also helpful to work up a pitch for your idea before you write it. Creating a good pitch forces you to figure out what your idea is really about and exposes any holes. It also allows you to bounce the story off trusted friends to get feedback.

But that still doesn’t really explain how you know whether your idea is fully baked. There are five questions to which you should be able to provide good answers that will tell you if your idea’s ready. I’ll get to what I mean by “good” answers in a moment. Here are the questions:

1. Who is the main character?

2. Why do we care what happens to them?

3. What do they want?

4. What is at stake for them?

5. What is the main thing that stands in the way of them achieving their goal?

Let’s look at these one at a time:

Who is the main character?

Structurally there is one main character in every story. Even if it’s an ensemble piece or buddy film, there will be one main character among two or more major characters. The main character is the one whose decisions are driving the action of the story. In a buddy or ensemble movie, you can pick which character is going to be the main character for structural purposes. Even if you don’t believe me on this (although I’m right), pick only one character for this exercise.

Why do we care what happens to them?

It’s not a given that we will care what happens to your main character. And we only care about your story to the extent we care about the main character. This doesn’t mean they have to be likeable or heroic – there are plenty of great, popular, successful films with main characters who are unlikeable and un-heroic. Of course if your character is likeable and heroic, then you’ve answered this question and your job is done. It’s certainly easier to go that route, which is why most characters fit this mold. (Note that simply being a “regular guy” does not make a character likeable.)

If you’re dealing with a character we don’t naturally root for, then you have to figure out why we care what happens to them. There are ways to make this work. We’ll root for an unlikeable character if we support their goal. A petty thief who’s trying to bring down a vicious crime lord who killed the thief’s brother is a sympathetic character even if he isn’t likeable. Or sometimes the unlikeable character will be responsible for a likeable character – like in The Professional (screenplay by Jacques Audiard & Michel Audiard & Georges Lautner), when the hit man takes in a young girl whose parents were murdered. Answering the next two questions can help you figure out why we might root for your character.

What do they want?

People want all kinds of things all at the same time. You might want to be a great screenwriter and also want a sandwich. We’re talking here about the want that is driving the character through the story. It’s what your story is about. The petty thief may want a date with the waitress at the corner coffee shop, but if your story is about him getting revenge, then that is the want we’re focusing on.

What makes the answer to this question good is if the want is specific, significant and visual. It’s hard to write a story about a character who wants something vague, like “fulfillment” or “happiness.” We all want that stuff – but what does it mean to this character? You need to have a clear, specific goal. We need to be able to see on screen when they have or haven’t achieved it. We can see whether the boy got the girl or the criminal escaped prison or the cop caught the bad guy. We can see if Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code or if Martin Luther King, Jr. got the Voting Rights Act passed.

What’s at stake for them?

This is what we mean by a significant want. What does achieving this goal, or failing to achieve it, mean to the character? How will it affect their life? If it doesn’t have an impact, why should we care? We’re looking for big stakes, but what we mean by this is stakes that are really important to the character. Finding a little boy lost on a train can be bigger stakes than saving the world. Make sure the outcome of your story matters to the character. It should really be the most important thing in their lives – otherwise, why are you telling this story? (Note that this is why it's very difficult to do stories that end up being "all just a dream" - why does it matter once the character wakes up?)

What is the main thing standing in the way of them achieving their goal?

This is the obstacle to the character’s success. There may be many obstacles - should be, in fact - but you should be able to identify the one major obstacle that must be overcome. Often this is an antagonist, another character in the story that doesn’t want the main character to succeed for some reason. It could also be a situation. Much more difficult, the primary obstacle could be internal – some character flaw our hero must overcome. (Often heroes must overcome a character flaw, but typically this isn’t the main obstacle.) If this main obstacle is good, it will then generate many smaller obstacles.

A good obstacle will be something that takes an hour or more of screen time to overcome. This obstacle is going to be the focus of most of the scenes in acts two and three, and it can't get repetitive. The solution can’t be simple or transitory. That’s why antagonists make such good obstacles – they act and react to the main character's actions. And defeating the obstacle should require action on the part of the character. It’s difficult to make a film about a character not doing things. Also, the obstacle should be challenging. We measure our heroes by the size of the obstacles they overcome. Finally, the best obstacles play against the main character’s weaknesses.

You may be tempted to accept mediocre answers to these questions. Don’t. It will only lead to problems when you start outlining your story. Make sure you are absolutely confident you have good answers to these questions before you commit to the story.


Want to work on your pitching skills? Check out The Hollywood Pitching Bible.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Writing Good Villains

(Spoliers: Die Hard, Sunset Blvd., Selma, The Silence of the Lambs, The Apartment, The Matrix)

Of course we love our great heroes – Die Hard’s resourceful and charming John McClane, farm boy dreamer Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, and Clarice Starling, the determined rookie in Silence of the Lambs. But don’t we kind of like our great villains – villains like Hans Gruber, Darth Vadar, and Hannibal Lecter – even more?

Creating a great villain can really boost the power of a story with a human antagonist. Besides just the entertainment value of a compelling character, our heroes are really only as great as the villains they overcome. If Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) was about John McClane stopping a teenage shoplifter, would McClane be so impressive?

So how does one create a great villain? First, you should lavish the same attention on the villain as you do the hero. And that starts with the villain’s motivation. One of the traps of screenwriting is to make your hero villainous because they’re just naturally evil. But people rarely see themselves as the bad guy. They have goals that they can justify to themselves. A good villain may even see themselves as the real hero of the story!

The Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) weren’t trying to be evil. They were looking for the Ark because Germany was at war and they thought the Ark might be a weapon that could help them win. From their perspective, they were patriots.

So be sure your villain’s motivation is plausible. Doing a treatment of your story from your villain’s point of view, with them as the “hero,” can be a good way to ensure their behavior is believable. (See this post for more on that technique.)

Considering and justifying the antagonist’s goals can also help you create villains who are not overtly villainous. If the antagonist and the hero each have a goal, but the goals are mutually exclusive, then there is conflict.

Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman Jr.) is a great “villain,” but her motivation isn’t evil. She wants to reclaim her lost movie star glory. She even helps our hero, Joe Gillis, quite a bit, paying off his debts, giving him a writing job, and buying him nice things. However Joe doesn’t want to become Norma’s arm candy and pet screenwriter. He wants to write a different script with young development exec Betty. And he’s also interested in romance with Betty – and decidedly not with Norma. Thus Joe’s goals are mutually exclusive to Norma’s goals, and that is what makes her a villain from Joe’s point of view.

There has been some controversy about the new movie Selma (written by Paul Webb) because it portrays President Lyndon Johnson as an obstacle to the voting rights act, a take which history does not support. Let’s leave aside the question of historical accuracy for now and look at the nature of the villains in the movie.

First of all, Johnson is not the real villain of Selma. Governor Wallace and the Selma Sheriff are the bad guys. But even they are motivated by a desire to protect a way of life they enjoy, and to a lesser extent what they see as the rule of law. Yes they are racists, and yes they encourage brutal, inhuman acts. But they justify these things as their duty as protectors of society. We may not agree – that’s not the point. Their motivation is plausible.

Johnson is more interesting. He is certainly an antagonist to Martin Luther King, Jr. in this story. But his motivation, even in the inaccurate portrayal in the movie, is not to prevent blacks from voting. He supports King’s goals. He simply wishes to delay and focus on problems he thinks will make more of a difference to the average black person in America. He believes King will bring violence on his followers with little to show for it. Here is a case of mutually exclusive goals – the characters are in conflict, though neither is a "bad guy."

Let’s look at a few more great movie villains.

Hans Gruber in Die Hard: Hans is extremely clever. He also has a cadre of henchmen and weaponry, but it is really his intelligence that makes him such a challenge for John McClane. He’s always one step ahead of our hero. This forces McClane to be even cleverer, making his success more impressive. Gruber also matches McClane’s working class charm with erudite wit. And though Gruber is a thief, he makes it clear that he is no ordinary thief – he’s an exceptional thief. He’s proud of his skills and believes they entitle him to his rewards.

Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally): Through most of the movie, Hannibal is behind bars and not an apparent physical threat to Clarice. But it is made clear that his danger is still real – he likes to psychologically torture and manipulate people. Clarice is repeatedly warned not to tell him anything personal or let him get into her head. And the danger is illustrated when Lecter talks a prisoner in the next cell into suicide. Hannibal is an unusual villain in that he is actually helping Clarice with her case. But he wants something in return. Hannibal’s goal is to learn Clarice’s secrets. In other words, he wants to get inside her head… the very thing she is trying to avoid. Clarice is racing against a clock to find the killer Buffalo Bill, and the only way she can succeed is to win the battle of wits with Hannibal.

Sheldrake in The Apartment (written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond): Here we have a villain who is not a criminal or a psychopath, but is still a bad guy. He is using and mistreating poor Miss Kubelik, promising her he will leave his wife when he actually has no intention of doing so. He justifies his actions by saying women like Miss Kubelik are unreasonable, that they should know these things are just flings and not get so attached. Sheldrake is brought into conflict with our hero, C.C. Baxter, because Baxter is in love with Miss Kubelik. As long as Miss Kubelik is under Sheldrake’s spell, Baxter cannot achieve his goal. It’s hero and villain in a very grounded, common story.

Agent Smith in The Matrix (screenplay by Andy & Lana Wachowski): Smith is a powerful foe. Neo is told repeatedly that the Agents are unbeatable – and in fact we see this when Morpheus, Neo’s mentor, is forced to fight Smith and is quickly defeated. In the end, we know Neo is “the One” precisely because he’s able to beat an Agent – powerful villain equals great hero. Though Smith may be the most “evil” of the villains I’ve mentioned, he still is motivated by what he sees as a heroic goal: protecting the Matrix from the human rebels. The machines need the Matrix and Smith is a machine. He’s simply trying to protect his people.

Notice also that all of these villains (except perhaps Agent Smith due to the nature of the story) are well rounded, three dimensional characters. Again, you want to give the villain or antagonist just as much thought and attention as the hero.

Who’s the villain of your story? Are they powerful and plausible? Because your hero’s greatness depends on them!

Friday, January 16, 2015

How to Control Pace in a Screenplay

(SPOILERS: The Abyss, Inherent Vice)

Pace is important in movies, so it should be no surprise that it’s important in screenplays. One of the major goals of a screenplay is to give a sense of the experience of watching the final film. But it can be tough to match the pace of film with words on a page. A bit of action that might take two seconds on screen might require many words to convey, even when it’s done well. An image can convey so much information – thus the phrase “a picture is worth 1000 words.” In screenplays, we don’t get 1000 words to describe a frame.

This means we have to be very efficient in our writing. We have to pick which details we choose to describe carefully, and we have to deliver those details with as few words as possible. In the polishing stage of the script, a good writer will go through every line and cut anything that isn’t absolutely necessary.

When writing description, pick highly specific, evocative, representative details. So rather than writing:


Sam enters the grocery store. There are three cash registers, though only one is occupied. The store is small, with a dozen cluttered aisles. The canned goods are stacked several feet high on top of the shelves. The fruit is piled in pyramids. Refrigerators
for dairy products and drinks line the outside walls. Fluorescent light casts a sickly glow over everything. Everything is dusty. There are cobwebs in the corners.

Write something more like:


Sam enters, eying the precarious towers of dusty soup cans and rice boxes leaning over the dim and dingy aisles.

Assuming nothing else from the former description is necessary to the story, this single sentence captures the flavor of the store without slowing the screenplay.

For dialogue, police yourself for the niceties that make up real speech but can bog down dramatic scenes. Avoid greetings, introductions, farewells and small talk. Often it is possible to simply cut into the scene later, just before the actual conflict starts, or even in the midst of the conflict.

Most of our concern with pace in screenwriting is about speeding things up, keeping the story moving. But there are times when you want to slow things down. Sometimes you want to draw the action out to build anticipation.

For example, it is common to slow the pace in suspense scenes. Suspense is about building tension in the audience. The “building” aspect is important. You can’t take your reader from relaxed to tense in a few sentences. Think about how horror movies do this – the long takes of a character entering a darkened basement, creeping ever so slowly forward. The writer wants to capture that feeling on the page.

One of my favorite suspense scenes is from The Abyss (written by James Cameron). Two characters are trapped in a disabled mini-sub with a leak. But the scene doesn’t start with the characters in a panic, worried about how they’ll survive. Instead, they think the problem’s solvable and begin talking about other things. Then slowly, as the water rises and help doesn’t come, they begin to get concerned. They try to find a way to fix the leak, but are stymied. Now the water is up to their chests. Tension is at its height – for both the characters and the audience. But only because the scene has taken its time to let that tension build.

There are other situations where you might want to purposefully build anticipation. There’s a scene in Inherent Vice (screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson) that is incredibly erotic. But it doesn’t throw graphic, acrobatic, shocking sex at the audience. Instead, it controls pace to build sexual tension.

In the scene, Shasta is visiting Doc (her ex-boyfriend and the main character). She enters the room naked, startling Doc. Then she sits near him on the couch and describes, in a long monologue, why she became the mistress of a wealthy and powerful developer, and how being in that position was a turn on. As she’s talking, she slowly works a foot up Doc’s leg, until it reaches his crotch at the very end of her story. She lies across his lap, and finally Doc can take it no more – he must have her. The eroticism of the scene comes from that long, slow build of anticipation for Doc and for the audience.

Of course, you can’t do this with every scene or your story will feel like it’s plodding along at a snail’s pace. You have to pick and choose when you slow things down. And you don’t want to slow a scene down with boring, mundane dialogue or business. Shasta’s monologue in Inherent Vice is interesting and revealing and sets the tone of sensuality for the scene. The discussion on the mini-sub in The Abyss is about important story issues and what’s at stake for the characters.

Though a screenplay is not a final product – it’s a blueprint for the movie, which is the final product – it is still important for the screenwriter to be aware of how the words play on the page. Not only do you want to set the tone, you also often have to convince someone to make the film! That means a good reading experience that captures the feeling of watching the movie.

You can affect the pace and the perception of pace in the way you write your action and description. Consider these two versions of a hypothetical scene:

Version 1:


Sam descends the wooden stairs – CREAK, CREAK – arriving in a long hallway. A single bare light bulb flickers on the ceiling. At the far end is a door, smudged with handprints.

Sam studies that door. Readjusts his grip on his gun.

He creeps down the hall, eyes on the door. Feeling his way along, trying not to make a sound.

Sweat drips into his eyes. He pauses, wipes it away with the back of his hand.

He hears a CREAK – spins back toward the stairs. Nothing there. His imagination?

Sam turns back, refocuses on that door. Resumes moving toward it. Quiet. Cautious. Ready.

He reaches the door. Grips the knob. Steels himself.

He eases the door open...

On the other side is Mandy, tied to a chair, gagged, mascara streaks running down her cheeks.

And behind her is Joan… with a pistol pressed against Mandy’s temple.

Version 2:


Sam descends the stairs, reaches a hallway. At the far end, a door, smudged with handprints. A single bulb flickers.

Sam stalks toward the door, gun ready. Wipes sweat from his eyes.

He yanks the door open–

And finds Mandy – tied to a chair. Joan behind her–

With a gun pressed to Mandy’s temple.

Which is better? It depends on what the purpose of the scene is. The first builds tension, the second is more active and exciting. The second is also shorter and will occupy less of the total length of the screenplay. The point is, you have the power to control the pace of the scene with your writing style. Use it.