Monday, November 23, 2009

In Depth Analysis: E.T. - Part One

I'm going to try something a little different for the next month or so. I want to do an in-depth analysis of the story structure, characters and scene work of one movie. In each post I'll analyze how that movie uses one or two of the techniques I've covered in this blog.

The movie I've chosen for this purpose is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial written by Melissa Mathison.

I picked this particular movie for several reasons. First, I wanted a movie that was popular but also creatively respected. Second, I wanted a movie that succeeded at least in part because of its writing (not in spite of its writing). And I wanted an original screenplay as opposed to something based on pre-existing material. Plus, E.T. has stood the test of's still popular twenty-seven years after its release. The one downside is it's not a particularly recent movie, but I think its enduring popularity makes up for that.

I'm not going to start the analysis yet to give you a chance to watch the movie again if you like (I suspect most of my readers have probably seen it, but if you haven't here's a great excuse). I'll just note some of the facts about the movie: E.T. is a family film with light adventure and sci-fi elements. It was released in 1982 and grossed almost $350 million in its first run. It was nominated for a best screenplay Academy Award. And (as you may know) it was directed by Steven Spielberg.

(Please note: I'll analyze the original theatrical release version, not the revised cut re-released in 2002...though I might mention some of the differences in terms of the effect of editing decisions and the original script.)

Next week I'll begin the analysis with a break down of E.T.'s three-act structure. If this goes well I'll do it every few months with a different movie, trying to cross genres and types. So let me know if you like it!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


(Spoilers: Halloween, Aliens, Star Wars, Children of Men, The Hangover)

Last post I talked about suspense. This post I want to discuss what is in some ways the opposite side of the same coin: surprise.

Suspense builds tension through anticipation. The audience knows what could be coming and watches to see if the character can avoid it. With surprise the audience is caught completely off guard by the event. Surprise gives you a big bang in one moment of a scene where suspense gives you impact throughout the scene. Good movies tend to use both techniques to great effect.

The most obvious examples of surprise are when things jump out at the audience unexpectedly in a horror movie. It’s the old cliché…we think the killer’s dead, the character relaxes, and then BAM – Michael Myers jumps up from behind the couch in Halloween (screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill).

There’s a similar example in the opening scene from Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby). A terrorist bomb goes off at a completely unexpected moment, causing the audience to jump out of their seat – and immediately engaging us with the story in a very visceral way.

Surprise isn't just used to startle or scare the audience. Remember the scene in The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) where Alan walks into the bathroom, starts to urinate, then hears a growl? He looks over to see a tiger lounging on the bathroom floor. Surprising and hilarious.

Effective surprise often requires balancing two competing needs. Naturally, the audience must not see the event coming or it won’t be a surprise. However, the event must be believable or the audience won’t buy it – you’ll lose them instead of drawing them deeper into the story. So often you have to plant the surprise but distract the audience from both the plant and the surprise itself.

For example, there’s a great surprise moment at the end of Star Wars (written by George Lucas): Han Solo sweeps in from out of nowhere to blast some pesky tie fighters just before they can shoot down Luke’s X-wing in the Death Star trench. It’s surprising because we’ve been told Han Solo has left to pay off the price on his head. But we believe it because throughout the movie Han has been impulsive, and we’ve seen the growing bond of friendship and duty that has grown inside of him. We believe he’s the kind of guy who might change his mind and race back to help.

Another example I like is at the ending of Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron). We think Ripley and Bishop have made it safely back to their ship. Bishop apologizes for appearing to abandon Ripley and she assures him he did well. Then there’s a drip of acid…and suddenly an alien tail spikes through Bishop’s chest, tearing him in half. Mama Alien climbs out of the landing gear of the drop ship.

This is a more elegant version of “the killer’s not really dead.” It’s set up in an earlier scene when we see the drop ship’s landing gear get tangled in a bunch of debris on a platform near where we know the Mama Alien is lurking. At the time, we don’t think much of it, but it gives us a logical explanation for how the alien got where it was.

This moment also demonstrates another good surprise technique: preparation in opposition. The Mama Alien attack comes in the midst of a calm scene where two characters who have been fighting are making peace. The audience is lulled into relaxing, thinking the action is over. If Mama Alien had attacked when they were in the middle of an alien nest it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

Preparation in Opposition can also be used to heighten emotional impact. If a character is going to get bad news, deliver it in a scene where they’re exceptionally happy, and vice versa. This is why the cliché developed that whenever a cop is going to die he’s always two weeks from retirement.

Not every surprise requires preparation in opposition or a disguised plant, but they do need to be unexpected yet believable. There’s a screenwriting axiom: coincidence that works against your main character is okay, but coincidence that works in his favor is unacceptable.

Surprise is especially important in mystery, farce and horror. Those genres rely on unexpected twists and turns that keep the audience off balance. Good surprises puncture any sense the audience may have that they know what’s coming.

As long as you play by the rules surprise can make your scripts seem unpredictable in a good way.

Friday, November 13, 2009


(Spoilers: The Hangover, Children of Men)

I have a secret screenwriting weapon. It’s called suspense. You’ve probably heard the old saying that drama is conflict. True, but I think it's equally true that drama is suspense.

Suspense draws the audience into the movie and builds tension, putting them on the edge of their seat. It creates an intense response that when done well will make people passionate about a script or movie. A good suspense scene will drive readers nuts – and they won’t even know why.

Let's start with defining what suspense is. Suspense is the anticipation of a potential impending disaster for a character we care about. Tension builds as the disaster approaches and the audience wonders whether the character will be able to avoid it or not. There’s a will-it-or-won’t-it-happen aspect to suspense scenes that distinguishes them from action scenes.

For some reason nobody outside of thriller writers really talks about suspense much. But all genres need suspense.

Can the hero make it to the wedding to stop his true love from marrying someone else? That’s suspense. And it’s a common scene in both romantic comedies and romantic dramas.

Remember the scene in The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) when the guys have to get the tiger back to Mike Tyson’s mansion? That’s suspense. Good broad comedies are full of suspense scenes.

How about in The Matrix (written by Andy and Larry Wachowski) when Neo and company find they are trapped in a walled off building due to Cypher’s betrayal with agents closing in? They have to climb down inside the walls without being heard in order to escape. Suspense.

So how do we craft a good suspense scene?

As I mentioned, the key element of suspense is a potential impending disaster. This disaster must be clear to the audience and it must affect a character we care about. In the tiger scenes in The Hangover, the impending disaster is Mike Tyson beating the crap out of our loveable goofballs if they don’t get the tiger back to his place.

Now our characters set about attempting to avoid the disaster. We increase the suspense by throwing ever-greater obstacles in the characters’ path. As they overcome each one, a bigger one appears. We want a roller coaster effect – highs as well as lows. So the characters seem to get closer to their goal only to suddenly find themselves farther away.

In the scene in The Matrix our heroes cleverly climb into the wet wall to avoid detection. It appears they might make it out of the trap. But it's dusty in the wall. One character's foot slips, sending a cascade of dust into another's face. Which leads to a sneeze and the jig is up.

It’s important to take your time in a suspense scene. Usually in screenwriting we want to keep the pace up, keep the story rocketing forward. But you can’t get the audience to go from comfortably munching their popcorn to sitting on the edge of their seat, fingers dug into the armrests, in a few seconds. Tension needs time to build. However, tension doesn’t increase if the character is just kind of hanging out. The idea is to continually ratchet up the tension by gradual degrees as the scene progresses.

Another useful tool to build suspense is the “ticking clock” which I covered in my last post. The impending disaster doesn’t seem threatening unless it’s actually imminent. Put a time limit on your character to solve their problem. In The Hangover Mike Tyson doesn’t tell the buddies to bring the tiger back whenever they feel like it. He gives them a deadline. As that deadline approaches tension increases.

Let’s look at a good suspense scene in Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby). Theo, Kee and Miriam are at a supposed safe house when in the middle of the night Theo overhears the resistance leaders planning to kill him in the morning and hold Kee for their own purposes. Theo finds Kee and Miriam and they try to sneak out of the house.

First, there is a ticking clock – it’s near dawn. They don’t have much time to escape unnoticed. Theo’s in such a hurry he doesn’t even stop to get shoes.

They sneak outside and look for a car with keys in it. They are almost discovered by guards (an obstacle). Theo disables one car and they get in another. But it won’t start (another obstacle). So he pushes it until it’s rolling down the hill. But this alerts the guards and the chase is on.

They reach the bottom of the hill and the car comes to a stop in a big mud puddle. Shoeless Theo has to get out and push so they can jump-start it. The first attempt fails as the bad guys are closing in. Finally they get the car started and escape just in the nick of time.

Notice how the tension in the scene builds to the final escape. There are ups and downs, but as the trio makes their way to freedom, the obstacles and the risk of capture increase. And that causes the tension in the audience to increase. When they finally escape we breathe a big sigh of relief.

(For another example of great suspense, read my post on a submarine scene form The Abyss.)

Note that it’s important to suspense that the audience know what’s going on. They have to see the disaster coming in order to be anxious about it. The opposite of that is surprise. Both are useful tools and particularly powerful when combined in a scene. I’ll talk more about surprise in my next post.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Ticking Clocks

(Very minor spoilers: Alien, Aliens, High Noon, Almost Famous, Notorious, Little Miss Sunshine, Silence of the Lambs.)

“Ticking Clock” is a screenwriting term that refers to some kind of time limit on a story arc. It can be used for a scene, a sequence or the whole movie. The most obvious (and fairly cliché) example is a bomb with a countdown timer on it. The hero has to defuse the bomb before that timer gets to zero!

We can see plenty of similar examples in a wide variety of movies:

In High Noon (screenplay by Carl Foreman) the ticking clock is in the title. The bad guys are coming to town at noon. As the sheriff tries to gather allies to help him face down the villains, we constantly cut to shots of the clock getting closer and closer to noon.

Throughout the third act in both Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) and Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) we hear a computerized voice reading a countdown to imminent destruction – in the first movie the self-destruct sequence of the ship, and in the second movie that nuclear detonation of the facility’s failing power plant.

In The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) we know that the serial killer keeps his victims alive for several days – thus when a new victim is kidnapped, Clarice suddenly has a time limit to solve the case.

In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) the family must get Olive to the beauty pageant before registration closes. As they get closer to that deadline, they get more and more desperate.

And that is the purpose of a ticking clock: to inject urgency and tension into the story or an individual scene. The ticking clock is related to the stakes. We know something good will happen if the character succeeds and something bad will happen if the character fails. A ticking clock gives the character a deadline to achieve success or failure.

Consider Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe). It is a coming of age story about young William going on tour with a rock band to write an article for Rolling Stone. Like many road movies it’s a bit episodic. But as the deadline for delivering the article approaches and William repeatedly fails to convince the lead guitarist to give him a crucial interview, the tension ratchets up. William can’t just go along enjoying the adventure – he has to get his article done!

A ticking clock needn’t be a literal clock, of course. The deadline doesn’t even have to be at a specific time. We just need to know that at some point the opportunity for the hero to succeed will come to an end, and we need some way to measure how close we are to that point. For example in Speed (written by Graham Yost) the ticking clock is the gas gauge on the bus running down toward empty.

There’s a very clever ticking clock in one scene in Notorious (written by Ben Hecht). The spy characters played by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman have to get down to the wine cellar to look for a clue during a big party at the Nazi mansion. They’ve stolen a key to get access. But the champagne is running out. They have to do the job before the butler needs to go to the wine cellar for more champagne.

As Grant and Bergman make their way down to the cellar we keep cutting back to the ice bin filled with champagne bottles. Each time the number of bottles is getting smaller and smaller. The popping of champagne corks are like nails in our heroes’ coffins.

At first it seems like there is plenty of time. But then one obstacle after another interferes – a jealous husband, chatty guests, a broken bottle – and next thing we know the last champagne bottles are coming out of that bin and our heroes are still in harms way.

In this case we don’t have a specific time on the clock – like high noon – when the jig is up. Hitchcock is using intercutting to show us the window of opportunity slowly closing. This technique goes back to the days of silent film – the woman on the ice floe heading for the waterfall or the woman tied to the train tracks as the train approaches.

And imagine how much less exciting the scene would be if there was enough champagne in that bin to last the whole party.

Perhaps you've already realized that what we're talking about here is suspense. Ticking clocks are critical to building suspense. And I'll talk in more detail about suspense in my next post.

Does your story suffer from a lack of urgency? Try adding a ticking clock. Got a scene that lacks intensity? Ticking clock. It’s a powerful screenwriting tool.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Review of "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder

One of the hottest screenwriting books of the last few years is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It came out in 2005 so I’m a little late getting around to reading it. (And unfortunately Mr. Snyder passed away recently.)

Snyder was a successful screenwriter (always a good sign when you’re looking for a how-to book). His genre was studio family comedy. And the book pretty much assumes, whether Snyder intended it or not, that you want to write something similar.

The book is billed as “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” which I think is a bit of an exaggeration. The biggest problem is that, like many “gurus,” Snyder thinks that his way is the only way. For example, he insists that you break your story out on index cards. That’s a common approach and I’ve done it for several scripts, but many professional screenwriters turn out perfectly good scripts without using index cards. However if you consider Snyder’s rules to be suggestions then I think you’ll find a lot of pretty useful ideas in there.

The book is an easy, thought provoking read. And I really like that it gives exercises at the end of each chapter. For a beginner you could do worse than working through the book.

The first three chapters are on honing your film’s concept and researching the genre. These chapters are excellent and too many books and classes breeze past these critical topics.

I’m less a fan of the sections on structure. Snyder introduces his own beat sheet that is pretty much a variation on the three-act theory (and he acknowledges Syd Field, the father of three act). I do like Snyder's addition of a few thematic beats.

The most significant difference I see is that he puts his “All is Lost” moment a sequence ahead of the “Break into Three.” Typically the end of Act II is the moment of the character’s biggest failing. But Snyder has that be the moment the character figures out how to overcome the obstacle. Act III is about putting the plan into action.

I’m always open to new ideas on structure but I don’t think this one really holds up. Once the character knows how to defeat the bad guy it seems like Act III will get pretty perfunctory. You can do a lot of spectacular showdown stuff but we’re talking about a quarter of the movie here. How do you keep it interesting once the main character has found his solution? Moreover in all my years of analyzing movies I’ve rarely seen actual films play out this way.

One spot that annoyed me was Snyder using Miss Congeniality (a film in his chosen genre, I noted) as proof that his system is superior…and using Memento as an example of where varying from it fails. I think this argument is worth a little digression.

The first problem with Snyder’s claim is that he’s comparing apples and oranges. He uses boxoffice gross to assert that Miss Congeniality is more successful. While it’s true that Miss Congeniality grossed $106 million to Memento’s $25 million, it also cost $45 million versus $9 million. And I’m sure the advertising budget on Miss Congeniality was a lot higher, too. Any businessman knows gross does not equal success. “Return on Investment” is the far better metric. And Memento’s Return on Investment crushes Miss Congeniality’s.

I'd also take exception to the idea that financial success means the audience liked the movie better. Miss Congeniality was a big studio movie with a major star while Memento was a small indie film with a lesser known - though respected - actor in the lead. I bet a lot of the people who went to Miss Congeniality hadn't even heard of Memento. For a little indie film to do $25 million means that word of mouth had to be fantastic.

The second big issue is that Memento actually follows Snyder’s fifteen beat structure! Some of the beats come a few pages later, but the script is also 119 pages long and Snyder’s page numbers are based on 110 page script. (And the "All is Lost" comes even later, but I’ve already pointed out my quibble with his page count on that one.) Check it out:

1) Opening Image – The slowly fading Polaroid image of the dead body.

2) Theme Stated – (On p.3 instead of Snyder’s preferred p. 5) “You don’t know me. You don’t even know who you are.” The theme of Memento is about how we know anything for certain and how memory is unreliable yet all we have.

3) Set-Up (pp. 1-10) – We learn about Leonard’s condition and that he’s seeking revenge for his wife’s murder.

4) Catalyst – (on p. 15 compared to Snyder’s preferred p. 12) Leonard discovers Teddy is John G., the man who raped and murdered his wife. Writes “Kill Him” on the back of the photo.

5) Debate (p. 12-25) – Leonard discusses with Natalie why he’s doing what he’s doing and why he’s sure he’s right.

6) Break into Two – (p. 29 instead of 25) Teddy suggests someone is trying to get Leonard to kill the wrong guy.

7) B-Story – (p. 32 instead of p. 30) we get Leonard waking up next to Natalie. Hello B-story!

8) Fun and Games (p. 30-55) Playing with the implications of Leonard’s condition – he finds Dodd in the closet; he realizes he’s running but doesn’t know why.

9) Midpoint – (p. 56 instead of 55) Leonard burns his wife’s stuff.

10) Bad Guys Close In (p. 55-75) – Teddy and Natalie are clearly not being straight with him, each trying to get him to do what they want.

11) All is Lost – On p. 79 Natalie tricks Leonard, saying “I’m gonna use you.”

12) Dark Night of the Soul – (pp. 79 - 95 instead of 75-85) – We see how Natalie sets Leonard up, shows how easy it is to exploit him in his condition, that he can’t rely on his “facts” after all.

13) Break into Three – (p. 96 instead of 85 using Snyder’s definition of Act Three) Leonard Tattoos license number on his leg – the clue that will lead him to Teddy.

14) Finale – We learn that Teddy had been using Leonard and Leonard sets things up so he will end up killing Teddy.

15) Final Image – Leonard arriving at Tattoo parlor to tattoo false fact on himself.

Sorry Blake, I think your argument against Memento is specious. However, this does show the validity of Blake’s beat sheet (with the Act III exception)…if you keep a bit of an open mind about how you can use them.

It’s in chapter six that the book really shines – and Snyder even admits it’s this chapter that motivated him to write the book. It’s also where the title comes from. “Save the Cat” is one of several screenwriting tricks Snyder describes. I’ve heard of most of them (often by different names) but rarely seen them written down. Kudos to Snyder for spelling them out in a book!

Chapter seven is a fair guide to rewriting. Chapter eight is about breaking into the business and is a little dated considering the major changes that have happened in the last couple years.

Overall I’d say Save the Cat is a great addition to your screenwriting book collection for the sections on prepping your script and chapter six. But I wouldn’t say it’s either the first or last screenwriting book you’ll ever need.