Wednesday, September 30, 2009


(SPOILERS: The Sixth Sense, The Silence of the Lambs, The Usual Suspects)

Mystery is both a technique and a genre in movies. As a genre, I believe pure mysteries are a unique type of story. They do not follow the typical rules of narrative. Rather, they are more like puzzles – like Sudoku or crosswords.

True mysteries are stories where the main character is acting as a detective (professional or amateur doesn’t matter) who is trying to solve a crime. The main conflict of a true mystery story is always “will the detective solve the mystery?”

Often there is no character arc or even much emotional content to the story. Think of the typical Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes stories, or TV detective stories ranging from CSI to Murder She Wrote. Mystery seems to be the only genre that can thrive without these elements. It does this by offering the audience a game.

The game of a true mystery is for the audience to try to figure out the solution before the film reveals it. If the mystery is to be successful, the audience better not win this contest – but they should feel like they could have if they were just a little smarter.

Like any game, there are rules to mysteries. In this case the rules are an unspoken contract with the audience. If we don’t play by the rules, the audience feels cheated and won’t like the film.

The main rule is the audience must see all the clues the detective sees. In the classic mystery where the detective gathers a group of suspects in a room and reveals the solution, it would be very unsatisfying if the detective revealed he had found a clue that wasn’t shown to the audience. In the game where the audience tries to out-think the writer, that’s cheating.

It works both ways, though. In most true mysteries the audience only sees what the detective (or detectives) see. Though they might not turn against the story entirely, it would be a little unsatisfying if we had information the detective did not.

Another rule is, except in rare cases, the guilty party must be a character we have met. If the killer turns out to be someone who lives down the road who doesn’t make an appearance until the final scene, it’s unsatisfying. Think of the movie The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie). Though logically Keyser Sose could be anyone or not exist at all, there is an implied understanding with the audience that he will turn out to be one of the characters we’ve met. Trying to guess which is what makes the movie fun.

(The exceptions to the above rule would usually be cases in which a character is unseen but present in other ways – someone the other characters talk about frequently, for example.)

The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) would seem to break the above rule. But I would argue that though the movie uses mystery and the main conflict is about whether Clarice will find Buffalo Bill before he kills again, the movie is not really about figuring out Buffalo Bill’s identity. It’s about Clarice and her battle of wits with Hannibal Lecter. The mystery about Buffalo Bill simply provides stakes to the Clarice/Lecter storyline. The Silence of the Lambs is a psychological thriller.

Planting and payoff are key to making a mystery work. “Clues” are another word for things that are planted. Sometimes the plant is made obvious – when the detective finds a murder weapon, for example. Other times they are hidden. This helps us outsmart the audience. If you plant a clue in such a way that the audience sees it but is distracted by something else, the audience hopefully won’t make the appropriate connections until it’s too late.

The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan) does this exceptionally well. Clues to Malcolm’s true nature are introduced often but disguised. Think of the scene where he goes to the restaurant to meet his wife on their anniversary. We think the scene is about the breakdown of their marriage. It is only later that we realize her failure to respond to him was a clue to a whole different mystery.

The Sixth Sense and The Silence of the Lambs are examples of movies that use mystery extensively but are not true mystery movies. They follow traditional narrative rules about characters on an emotional journey. When you’re doing a movie that revolves around a mystery it’s important to determine whether you are doing a true mystery in the classic sense or using techniques of mystery in another type of storyline.

But these two movies also demonstrate how combining mystery with another genre can result in powerful stories. Thrillers are a traditional narrative genre that often use a lot of mystery elements. Mystery can also be useful in science fiction, horror, drama, farce and many others.

“Red Herring” is a term for a clue that points to a different solution than the correct one. These are important to mislead the audience and offer alternative scenarios. It’s key that the red herrings not feel gimmicky, though. When the solution is finally revealed, the red herrings must be organic to the story. Sometimes you can accomplish this by using planting and payoff. Other times the key to making the red herring feel organic can be found in character motivation.

For example, in The Usual Suspects there are several red herrings pointing to Dean Keaton as Keyser Sose. Agent Kujan maps out the scenario that implicates Dean Keaton. This feels organic because of Agent Kujan’s personal animosity toward Dean Keaton from an unrelated event.

One of the best things about using mystery is when it’s done well you create real engagement with your audience. Just be sure to play by the rules!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Planting and Payoff

(SPOILERS: Jaws, The Matrix, Aliens, Vacation)

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.

Anton Chekhov

What Chekhov is talking about in the above quote is planting and payoff. It is a powerful tool in the screenwriter’s toolbox (though screenwriters are more likely to fail to plant something than to fail to pay something off.) Simply put, planting is setting up an object, idea, or piece of information early in the story for use later (the payoff).

Probably the primary reason to do this is to avoid the cheat of convenience. For example, if a woman has been chased into her attic by a serial killer and finds a loaded gun in an old suitcase, the audience will feel like the writer is cheating. But if five scenes earlier we saw the woman put the gun in the suitcase in the attic because it belonged to her deceased husband and she is afraid of it, we don’t bat an eye when she pulls it out with the killer closing in.

The Matrix (written by Andy & Larry Wachowski) offers us a simple example of this. We see during the training sequence early in Act Two that Tank can load knowledge quickly into Neo’s brain through his link to the Matrix. At this point in the story the skill provided is Kung Fu. However, this sets us up for later when Trinity needs to fly a helicopter. Tank loads that skill into her brain. If they hadn’t planted that technology, it would seem awfully convenient that Trinity happened to know how to fly helicopters.

Another use of planting is to set up information for the climactic scenes so you don’t have to stop the action to explain everything. Jaws (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) gives us a good example of this. Somewhere about the middle of the movie Brody accidentally releases the rope holding the SCUBA tanks in place, causing them to roll across the boat’s deck. Hooper chastises him, warning him that the tanks contain pressurized air and can explode if punctured. This gives us the information we need for the big ending when Brody shoots a SCUBA tank in the shark’s mouth, causing it to explode and kill the beast.

Sometimes you want to make the plant obvious – like in Chekhov’s gun quote. This will create tension in the audience as they wait for the obvious plant to be paid off. For example in the comedy Vacation (screenplay by John Hughes) the Girl in the Ferrari character is planted several times. We just know sooner or later our hero Clark Griswold is going to end up in a compromising situation with her. And sure enough Clark gets caught skinny-dipping with her in a motel pool toward the end of the movie. How disappointing would it have been if they’d simply each gone their separate ways?

More often you’ll want to hide the plant in another context like they do in Jaws. The first scene with the SCUBA tanks is about Brody’s lack of experience on boats. It’s meant to show us how out of place he is. But the bit of info about the possibility of explosion is slyly slipped in there as well. This keeps the audience unaware of the machinations you're using to keep the story going. It all just feels natural.

Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) offers another great example. When the marines are preparing to land on the planet, there is a scene where Ripley wants to help out. When asked what she can do, she says she can operate a loader – a kind of large mechanical exoskeleton. The marine sergeant is skeptical, so Ripley climbs in and demonstrates her ability.

The main point of this scene is about Ripley trying to prove herself to the marines. She wants them to know she’s not some scared little girl. But it also serves to plant the loaders. It demonstrates how they operate and shows us that Ripley is highly skilled in using them. This is paid off at the end when Ripley appears in one of the loaders to face off against the queen alien. There is no need for any explanation – when we see her in that loader we all understand exactly what is about to happen. I remember the audience cheering that moment the first time I saw the movie.

Planting and payoff builds trust with the audience. If you do some early plants and pay them off quickly, the audience will come to believe they are in good hands. Then if something is not explained right away they will stay with the movie figuring it will undoubtedly be taken care of before the credits roll. Planting and payoff ties your story together and makes it feel cohesive and logical.

Planting is a tool most often used in the rewriting process. Often you don’t know what you need to plant until you write the scene with the payoff. As I write my first draft, I always keep a sheet for notes of things from earlier scenes I know I’ll want to go back and change in the second draft. That way I can keep moving forward rather than jumping back to older scenes. It is not uncommon for half the notes I make to be things I need to plant.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mythology Structure in Little Miss Sunshine

(SPOILERS: Little Miss Sunshine)

Last post I analyzed Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) using the three-act structure. Now I want to analyze it with the mythology structure. Let’s start with the phases of the hero’s journey (Remember, Richard is our main character).

Inciting Incident: Olive gets the call that she’s been accepted into the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.

Call to Adventure: They need to get Olive to California. Richard’s the only one who can drive the van.

Resisting the Call: Richard doesn’t want to go. He’s hoping to hear back from Stan Grossman about a book proposal based on his nine-step program.

Accepting the Call: Once it’s clear the only way Olive can get to the competition is if Richard drives, he elicits a guarantee from her that she thinks she can win. Once he gets that, he agrees to the trip.

Meeting the Mentor: It’s a little difficult to identify the mentor character in this movie. Grandpa acts as somewhat of a mentor, challenging Richard’s misguided beliefs and comforting him when he fails. But so does Olive by demonstrating the importance of passion and acceptance of oneself – things Richard definitely needs to learn. Olive wants to win, but she’s more concerned about the joy of competition and rocking her own unique dance routine. So I’d say both these characters are mentors.

Allies and Enemies: In this story Richard meets his allies and enemies – his family – before he enters the special world. (This is unusual, but one of the things to keep in mind about the mythology structure is that it’s very flexible.) The one exception is the van which is introduced upon entrance into the special world – and is very much a character.

Entering the Special World: The family embarks on the trip. The special world here is represented by the van. It is a world of family togetherness, something not present in the opening scenes when we see each character involved in their own worlds, barely communicating, unable to even sit at the table together for more than a couple minutes. The multi-state journey crammed together in a little yellow van is a very different “world” for this particular family.

Visiting the Oracle: I see Stan Grossman as an oracle in this story. Richard makes a journey to Scottsdale to confront Stan about the future of his nine-step program. Stan tells Richard that the program is not going to be bought. The important message for Richard is that he has failed – and he better figure out a way to deal with that.

Innermost Cave: The hospital. This is the location of one of the most intense elements of familial relations – the loss of a loved one. Richard has to deal with the reality of this.

Supreme Ordeal: Stealing Grandpa’s body when the death counselor tells them they cannot continue to California until they make funeral arrangements.

Seizing the Elixir: The elixir in this movie is Richard learning to care more about his family than about winning and losing. By stealing Grandpa’s body and continuing the journey to California, Richard is making a commitment to Olive, one that trumps what might be in his own interests.

Let me pause here for a minute and say I'm a little torn on the last three. I can see Richard's journey to Scottsdale as an alternative Innermost Cave where he faces the Supreme Ordeal of learning he's failed at his nine-step program and Seizes the Elixir of accepting that he doesn't have all the answers. But the reason I'm placing the innermost cave at the hospital is that the cave is meant to be the deepest part of the special world. Scottsdale is more a part of the old, normal world for Richard. In Scottsdale he's left the family to pursue his misplaced dream. So I'm calling that a visit to the oracle.

It's a point worth arguing, though, in terms of story analysis. However as writers we could pick whichever interpretation is most useful to us. I might even consider it a double innermost cave where Richard receives two separate pieces of the elixir he needs to find happiness.

Death and Resurrection: The hospital scene. In addition to Grandpa’s death, we see Olive's hopes for pageant success apparently die – and then be reborn when Richard demonstrates his character change by stealing the body. Remember, the purpose of the death and resurrection stage is to metaphorically reflect the death of the old character and the birth of the new.

Return: The family arrives at the competition and is released from the van.

Final Conflict: Olive’s dance performance. Richard is faced with his daughter’s unique performance, one sure to lose her the contest, and must deal with the anger of the pageant organizers. Richard chooses to join Olive on stage rather than succumb to the contest’s ideas of success and failure.

Master of Both Worlds: By joining Olive, Richard has mastered the special world of family togetherness. And he has also mastered his original world of success and failure, one it turns out he was not as much a master of as he thought.


Hero: Richard. He is the one going on a journey of change.

Shadow: Olive. In this case the shadow is not a villain. But Olive’s innocence and joy is in direct contrast to Richard’s cold evaluation of success and failure.

Mentor: Both Grandpa and Olive as mentioned.

Shape shifter: Sheryl. Though she loves him, she is at times an unreliable ally.

Oracle: Stan Grossman, as mentioned.

Trickster: Frank, the suicidal brother-in-law with a wry comment always at the ready.

Threshold Guardians: The mechanic, challenging Richard’s commitment to the journey. The death counselor at the hospital who tries to prevent his progress in the innermost cave. The pageant worker who won’t enter their information because they are a couple minutes late for registration on the threshold of the Final Conflict.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Three Act Structure of Little Miss Sunshine

(SPOILERS: Little Miss Sunshine)

Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) is an interesting movie on which to break down three-act structure. It’s an independent film with a very strong ensemble. The first question we have is which character is the main character?

It might appear to be Olive since it is her desire to win Little Miss Sunshine that underlies the whole story. However, Olive is not really making any of the decisions that determine the outcome of the story beats. That character is the father, Richard. So Richard is our main character and his mission is to get Olive to the Little Miss Sunshine competition in California. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have several other very strong major characters in the movie. Richard is defined as the main character because he’s driving the structure.

Catalyst: Olive gets the news that she’s been accepted into the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. However it’s in California and she has to get there in a relatively short period of time. This is a dilemma for Richard, because the only way she can get there is if he drives the whole family in the van.

Main Conflict: Will Olive win Little Miss Sunshine? The question is implicitly asked by the audience when we learn she has been chosen as a contestant.

Act I Break: The family, led by Richard, embarks on the journey to California. (Will they get to California in time is the second act tension.)

Midpoint: Grandpa dies. This would seem to end the trip to California. Then Richard decides to steal the body and continue the journey.

Act II Break: They make it to the pageant a few minutes late but convince a contest employee to let Olive compete anyway.

Twist/Epiphany: Richard realizes that the beauty pageant is creepy. He doesn’t want Olive to compete, let alone win. He’s concerned about the impact of either outcome on Olive.

Resolution: Olive loses the competition but the family bonds on stage. The question of the Main Conflict is answered in the negative.

Which brings me to another interesting thing about this movie: in terms of the main conflict, the ending is unhappy. Thus since the resolution is a failure, the Act II break is a moment of success while the midpoint is a negative moment, reversing the usual structural alignment of a happy ending.

But the ending doesn't feel unhappy to the audience. This movie is an example of a fairly common structural form: the character gets what they want at the end of Act II but doesn’t want it anymore.

Let’s examine Richard’s want and need for a moment. At the beginning Richard wants Olive to win Little Miss Sunshine. In fact, he won’t agree to go on the journey until Olive assures him that she has a chance to win. Richard is trying to sell a motivational program he’s invented called the nine steps to success. Winning and losing is very important to him.

His need, however, is to support his family emotionally, win or lose. The family at the beginning is dysfunctional, not communicating, not helping each other achieve their goals. This is in large part because Richard is more focused on his program than on his role as husband and father. Over the course of the journey the family bonds. By the end of the movie, Richard no longer cares about winning or losing, he cares about his daughter’s happiness. When the whole family joins Olive on stage for her stripper dance in defiance of the pageant, it is a sign that Richard may have lost what he wanted but he has gained what he needed.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Treatments, Outlines and Beat Sheets

There’s lots of terminology in screenwriting and something that seems to confuse a lot of people is the difference between treatments, outlines, step outlines, beat sheets and summaries. Probably because those terms aren’t actually all that well defined. While the format for a page of screenplay can easily be found and learned (with a little effort), the format when someone asks for an outline is more ambiguous.


A treatment is a prose telling of the story of your screenplay. It is done in present tense, like a screenplay, but is written in paragraphs like a novel. It usually doesn’t contain dialogue except maybe for a few key lines. It might pontificate a bit on theme or tone but won’t necessarily (although a well written treatment should reflect the tone of the eventual screenplay). And be sure not to ignore character development in the treatment!

Length is the real question with a treatment. The term pretty much refers to anything over a couple pages. I’ve seen treatments that are four pages long and ones that are longer than the eventual screenplay (although why one would do this escapes me.) Generally if you’re asked to submit a treatment as part of a step deal you’re talking about a 12 – 25 page document. Often if you’re asked to provide a treatment the length range will be specified.

A word of warning: if you’re asked to turn a treatment in you’ll want to jazz up the writing. For my own personal use I’m mostly concerned with getting the story down. But if I’m going to show it to someone else I want to make sure it’s a good read. You are always selling yourself and your work any time you show material to a buyer.


A summary is like a treatment but shorter, usually from 100 words to one page. This can be a challenge to write, but it can also be useful to you as a writer. If you can’t summarize your story in less than a page you may not know what story you’re really trying to tell. Often I’ll write a summary for my own use even after I’ve written a much longer treatment or outline – sometimes after I’ve written a whole draft! It helps me refocus on what’s most important in the story.

For industry purposes, summaries are usually attached to scripts for people who don’t have time to read the whole thing. Professional readers create summaries when they do coverage, and they’re often requested by screenplay contests.


This is a new term that refers to something that is a hybrid of script and treatment. Some parts might be written out in detail with dialogue in screenplay format, while other parts are described in prose form.

Outlines and Step Outlines

An outline is an amorphous term that could refer to any number of formats. In screenwriting we most often talk about a “step outline.” A step outline is a detailed document that indicates every scene in the planned screenplay with a few sentences on each, maybe even including some bits of dialogue in the prose. I usually put the slug line for each scene at the top and then write a paragraph or so underneath. Sometimes the scenes are numbered for easy reference. I usually don’t begin my first draft until I have a 15-20 page step outline for my own use.

Beat Sheets

A beat sheet is a bullet point outline of the main actions of the story, written in paragraph form. Length varies dramatically depending on the level of detail. Most beat sheets I’ve seen contain from 12-24 bullet points and are 2-8 pages long. They are often used when designing a pitch.


Of all of these, the ones you will most likely be asked to provide to a producer or exec are a treatment or a summary. If you’re asked for something else, it’s fair to request guidance on what format and length they’d like to see.

There are plusses and minuses to having a treatment step in your contract. On the plus side, you get a bit more of your money a bit earlier in the process (assuming they pay on time) because there’s a payment associated with the treatment. On the minus side, it gives people an opportunity to give you notes on the story. If the treatment doesn’t do an effective job of capturing what your first draft will be, you run the risk of having to incorporate bad ideas before you get a chance to show what you can do.