Tuesday, December 5, 2017

GET OUT Analysis Part Three: Integration of Theme

Spoilers: Get Out (of course!)

After considerable delay (sorry), I’m going to conclude my three-part analysis of Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) by discussing the use of theme. The movie has been widely praised for its exploration of race relations in America. It’s unusual to hear people talk about theme in a genre movie. We typically think commentary on social issues as being the opposite of entertainment. But Get Out uses racial issues and tension to provide a context for the dramatic horror story events. This allows Peele to both make more sophisticated comments on race relations and to use those relations to deliver twists and thrills for the main horror plot.

The most overt aspect of race relations in the plot is the idea of Chris, as a Black man, going to the very white world of his girlfriend’s upper-class family. The very real and understandable anxiety this causes Chris helps to establish the creepy tone that I discussed in my first post on the movie. The act one encounter with the traffic cop, who asks for Chris’s ID even though he isn’t the driver, adds to the sense of danger (more about this scene in a bit).

But initially the white people are mostly not played as racists. In fact, they seem very self-aware about the situation and about the optics of having Black servants. Rather, we are given a look at the more subtle aspects of race relations. It’s easy to say racism is bad. Peele wants us to examine the insidious way it works even when white people are well meaning.

This context also helps create story points and dramatic scenes, which can then illuminate thematic issues. Consider when Chris’s TSA buddy, Rod, goes to the police to report that Chris is missing. He talks to a Black detective, who then brings in other Black detectives to hear Rod’s theory about a white sex slave ring. We assume that they will believe him – but it turns out they think he’s a nut job, which gets a laugh.

What Peele is doing here is playing with audience expectations. This is a form of dramatization. Rather than talky pontificating on the theme, he is finding ways to show us how race works in our society. He achieves this by considering what the audience will expect. Our expectation is that the Black cops will believe Rod's theory… because they’re all Black. In order to reinforce that, Rod clearly shares this belief. By undercutting our expectation, the scene causes us to examine why we believed it to begin with. And from an entertainment perspective, it creates an obstacle for one of our heroes, heightening the drama – we establish that no help is coming from the authorities.

We see this approach again in one of the big twists at the end. When Chris is choking Rose and the police car pulls up, we immediately assume the cop is going to believe Rose, and that Chris will be arrested. We are primed for this belief because of Chris’s treatment at the hands of the cop in act one. So when Rod gets out of the police car instead of a racist white cop, it’s a complete surprise, even though it’s also completely plausible – we knew Rod was looking for Chris. This is a great example of building a twist with the kind of planting and payoff I discussed in the second post in this series, but layering in thematic expectations to create a red herring for the audience.

Another way to explore theme in a movie is through the supporting characters. Not everyone in Get Out expresses the same attitude toward race. Rose’s parents are well meaning but also a little condescending. Rose, meanwhile, expresses shame about her family’s behavior when she and Chris are getting ready for bed at her parents’ house. This is a particularly subtle scene because the subtext is that Rose is delighted to be able to feel superior to her parents. And of course we later discover this was all an act (Rose is a classic shape shifter in the mythology structure archetypes).

Other characters with different thematic perspectives include Rod, who warns Chris not to go to the white people’s house, the wealthy people who think being Black is “cool,” and the blind art dealer who buys Chris not because of his race, but because of his photographic skills. This last one is particularly interesting because the movie has set up a slave auction conspiracy where Black people are only valued physically, but one of the most frightening characters is actually one of the least concerned about race. Again, Peele upends our expectations and makes us think.

It’s easy when discussing theme to get into a literary theory mode, but I try to make this a practical, how-to blog, so let me refocus a bit on some of the techniques I’m discussing here. If you want to do a story with a strong exploration of theme, these are some of the things you should consider:

  • Build a context for your story that allows you to dramatize thematic ideas rather than have characters talk about them.
  • If you really want a thematically complex story, avoid binary thematic approaches (“racism is bad”) in favor of nuance. Present contrasting ideas that challenge a binary interpretation.
  • Consider audience expectations and undercut them to create entertaining twists that also cause the audience to think.
  • Give supporting characters different attitudes on the theme.

Most importantly, tell a dramatic story about a real character with a relatable dilemma, and create entertaining scenes. Get Out succeeds because it’s suspenseful, emotional, and funny. The thematic elements heighten the entertainment value rather than bogging the story down. And the audience is open to thinking about the thematic elements because they are enjoying the experience of watching the movie.


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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Get Out Analysis Part Two: Planting and Payoff

(SPOILERS: Get Out – of course!)

This week I continue my analysis of writing techniques in the horror movie Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) by looking at the use of planting and payoff. Planting and payoff is a powerful tool for screenwriters that can serve many purposes.

First, it helps make story points believable. In the third act of Get Out, we discover that the character of Dean is doing surgery to transplant brains from one body to another. We believe he is capable of that because in act one it was established that he is a neurosurgeon. If we got to act three and someone said, “Oh, by the way, Dean’s a neurosurgeon,” it might seem arbitrary and convenient, a cheat by the writer. But planting it earlier makes it part of the reality of the story.

Planting and payoff can also build trust in the audience that the things they are seeing have meaning. It’s helpful to plant something and then pay it off early in the film to build that trust. For example, Rose tells Chris that her father (Dean) would have voted for Obama a third time if he could've, and then Dean tells Chris the same thing shortly after they meet. And on the drive up, Rose throws Chris’s cigarette out of the window, and then Dean notices Chris’s nervous hand and asks if he’s a smoker. Chris replies that he’s trying to quit.

These little early connections between scenes are particularly useful in Get Out considering the long build up to the more explicit horror elements that I discussed in my last post. Because we know the things we see aren’t just random and will pay off in the story, we stay patient, trying to unravel the clues we’re being given, trusting that there is something to unravel.

Planting can also serve to establish a fact that can be used later for dramatic effect. For example, in act one we learn that Rose’s grandfather was an Olympic caliber runner. We later learn that his brain has been put in the body of Walter, the groundskeeper, who we saw running at night. So when Rose says, “Get him, Grandpa” to Walter, we know that Chris probably won’t be able to outrun his pursuer.

Similarly, we learn in the party scene that a camera flash can temporarily restore the original consciousness to a victim. Chris then uses that knowledge to get out of a predicament at the end of the film.

One of the most satisfying things in a story is when the character is put in a seemingly impossible predicament, and then cleverly – and believably – gets out of it. Get Out has a particularly brilliant example of this at the end of act two. Chris is tied to a chair in the basement of the family house as they prepare to operate on him. He’s been hypnotized so that he passes out whenever someone taps a teacup three times with a spoon. He appears completely helpless.

But then Chris turns the tables on his captors by putting cotton in his ears and feigning unconsciousness when the teacup is tapped. And this moment is made possible by two excellent uses of planting and payoff.

One is Chris’s habit of scratching at the arm of a chair when he’s nervous. We learned earlier that this stems from when he was home alone as a child and his mother didn’t return as expected. It’s reinforced when we see Chris scratch at the chair as Missy (Rose’s mother) asks him uncomfortable questions. So we aren’t surprised when we see Chris scratch at the arm of the chair he’s tied to at the end of act two. But it is this scratching that exposes the chair’s cotton stuffing that he uses to plug his ears.

The average viewer may not appreciate how carefully the writer set this up. Almost certainly, Peele had the idea of Chris stopping up his ears with cotton from the chair first, and then went back and planted the scratching behavior to make that plausible. Peele established the behavior so we don’t question it when it happens.

But by setting up the behavior, Peele also distracts us from the twist. We assume the scratching is in the scene merely as a sign of Chris’s anxiety and don’t anticipate how it will save him. When you want to have a twist, you need to lay the expositional groundwork to make the twist believable, but that risks giving it away. By giving the plant another purpose in the scene, you misdirect the audience.

The other great use of plant and payoff that is critical to this scene is the tapping on the cup. The tapping trigger and its effect is established in the hypnotism scene (we actually get a foreshadowing of it when the family is sitting on the deck after Chris first arrives.) It first pays off when he’s trying to leave, and Missy taps the teacup to incapacitate him. We now fully understand the rules of the device.

This device can then be used when Chris escapes from the chair. When we see the teacup in the video, we know what will happen. And when Chris pulls the cotton from his ears later, we understand how he foiled the villains without needing some clunky explanation in dialogue.

The device pays off one more time when Chris encounters Missy on the way out of the house. Both their gazes go to a teacup on the table. They both lunge for it. Chris gets there first and knocks the cup to the floor. Missy is foiled. By establishing the device for the audience, the writer can use it to create interesting drama in later scenes.

Planting and payoff also help establish and explore the racial themes that made Get Out a movie with cultural impact. I’ll explore that more in my next post.


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Sunday, October 22, 2017

“Get Out” Analysis Part One: Building and Maintaining Psychological Horror

(SPOILERS: Get Out – of course!)

In the spirit of Halloween, I’m going to do several posts analyzing some of the writing techniques that made the horror movie Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) so successful earlier this year. How successful? It made more than $175 million on a budget of less than $5 million… and that’s just the domestic box office! It also scored a stunning 99% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps more significantly, it became part of the cultural conversation due to its integration of themes of race in America.

One thing that I found interesting about Get Out was that for most of the movie, the main character, Chris, was only vaguely aware of the danger he was in. He sensed that creepy thins were happening, but mostly chalked it up to being a Black man entering a very white world. (This added thematic depth to the movie, something I will discuss in a future post.) The audience experienced the story primarily from Chris’s point of view and was thus also kept in the dark about what was truly going on until well past the halfway mark.

Yet this was a horror movie. The desire to save twists for later in the film posed a challenge for Peele: how to provide the kind of scares that the audience was expecting while believably maintaining the façade for the character that this was simply a visit to his girlfriend’s parents?

One of the first techniques the script employed was using a prologue to set the tone. We see a scene of a young Black man walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Soon a car starts to follow him. He tries to avoid the car, but ultimately he is jumped and abducted. This abduction connects to events later in the film, but from a plot standpoint, we don’t really need to see it. However, without this scene, the movie would seem more like a character drama for a good thirty minutes. Using a prologue establishes for the audience that this is a scary movie, and that colors how we read later unsettling events.

There are a few jump scares scattered throughout the movie to keep us on edge – some admittedly a bit cheap. One good one, though, comes about ten minutes in, when Chris and Rose are driving to her parents’ place and a deer jumps in front of the car. This event leads to an encounter with a cop that sets up the danger to Chris in this community. By associating the scare with a relevant story point, it feels integral to the film, as opposed to a cheesy gimmick.

Other moments are designed to make us feel that something sinister is going on at the house. For example, the groundskeeper running at Chris in the middle of the night, and the fact that Georgina, the maid, keeps unplugging his phone while it’s charging and starts crying inexplicably when apologizing to him about it. This sense that there is a secret conspiracy in the house is expanded in the scene when the party goes silent after Chris walks upstairs, and the scene of the strange auction.

The two creepiest moments in acts one and two come at major structural points: At the end of act one, Missy hypnotizes Chris against his will, sending him plummeting into the floor. When he wakes up, he can’t really remember this clearly – allowing the writer to have his cake and eat it too. The audience knows what Missy has done, but understands why Chris doesn’t take action. This serves the purpose of act one by locking Chris into the story – we know he can no longer leave without dealing with whatever’s been done to him.

The next big structural point is the Midpoint, and this comes when Chris tries to take a picture of the young Black man at the party. The flash does something to the man, and he tells Chris to “Get out!” Now things start moving a little more quickly. Chris decides he wants to leave the house, though that will not prove as easy as he expects. The threat finally comes into the open when he discovers the pictures of Rose with a parade of other Black men, revealing she is in on the secret plot. The danger becomes even more explicit as we move to the Act Two Turning Point – when Chris wakes up tied to the chair and a video reveals what’s in store for him. From there, things unfold more like most horror movies.

It is important to deliver on the genre promises of your stories. And it’s important that you deliver on the genre throughout the film. Peele wanted to save the real suspense and action for act three, so he had to find ways to create and build tension as he was building to that point. He walked a careful balance between keeping the psychological horror present without giving away the twists.

It’s important that most of the creepy, inexplicable moments scattered through the first two thirds of Get Out end up paying off in Act Three. They aren’t just random scares created for tone; they grow out of the story. This kind of planting and payoff is one of the strengths of the script. I’ll delve into that topic in part two of my analysis.


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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Abuse in Hollywood

The Harvey Weinstein scandal is appalling, not just because of the sleazy things he did, but because most everyone recognizes it is not an isolated case in Hollywood. There’s even a slang term for it – “casting couch.” There has been a lot of focus on how willing Hollywood is to look away from bad behavior if the villain is successful. Unfortunately, that’s often true, at least as long as the villain is helping your career. (Hollywood is also well known for schadenfreude, and I’m sure many people are secretly delighted to see Harvey fall.)

But I think there’s an even bigger root cause to the problem: the fact that far more people want to be actors, writers, directors, or producers than there are acting, writing, directing, and producing jobs. This gives those with power to grant those jobs an incredible weapon for abuse. You don’t dare speak up for fear of damaging your career.

And this does not just come into play in sexual harassment. We’ve all heard stories about verbally and physically abusive executives and producers. It also causes pressure on production crews to keep their mouths shut when working conditions become abusive. If you complain, you could be out of a job. Even worse, you could be branded a “troublemaker” and have difficulty finding another job.

This can have horrible consequences. A stuntwoman was killed on the set of Deadpool 2. The investigation is ongoing, but apparently a crewmember had warned producers that the stuntwoman was not qualified for that particular stunt, and the warning was ignored. Recently an actor from Riverdale got into a serious car accident driving home after an extremely long day on set. He was okay, but more than one crew person has been killed or seriously injured in the last few years because they fell asleep at the wheel after a marathon shoot.

Writers also face abuse, though typically with less serious consequences. It comes in the form of things like free rewrites – when the writer has been contracted for a draft, but the producer demands multiple rewrites before they will “accept” the draft and trigger final payment. The writer can refuse, of course, and if it’s a WGA contract, the producer must pay up. But then you might get that “troublemaker” label.

How do the abusers get away with this behavior? They know there’s always someone willing to step into your place and take the abuse.

At this point I want to state very clearly: Anybody who tells you they can destroy your career is lying. Many people may be able to cost you a job, though in the scheme of your career, that job is probably not going to make much difference (and as you rise through the ranks, the number of people with that kind of power will decline). There are a handful of people who can do serious damage to your career, but really only about a dozen in the whole industry (Unfortunately, at one time, Harvey Weinstein was on that list).

The reality is most people who make those kinds of threats are bluffing and counting on you being too afraid or naïve to doubt them. I once saw a third-rate reality TV producer tell a roomful of tape loggers they would “never work in Hollywood again” if they revealed secrets of the show. It was all I could do not to laugh. Unless their career goals were to log tapes on niche cable reality shows the rest of their lives, there was not much this producer could do to them. But I noticed one kid who looked terrified – this was his first job and he believed her.

So what can we do about abuse in Hollywood?

First, stand up for yourself. I wish I could say this came without costs. If nothing else, you probably won’t be able to work for the abuser anymore (though perhaps that’s not such a bad thing). And Hollywood is a small town – word spreads, and people can damage your reputation if they choose. Fortunately, as people like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes discovered, we’ve reached a point where the victim of sexual harassment may have just as much power to destroy the abuser’s career. From now on, if you reject a power figure’s sexual advance and they threaten your career, I would just say the words, “Harvey Weinstein.” I imagine they’ll change their tune very quickly.

In other areas, like pressure on stuntmen to do stunts they aren’t comfortable with, or pressure on writers to do free rewrites, the more people who stand up for themselves, the harder it becomes for abusers to just fire someone and move on to the next willing victim. This is hard, because it takes individual courage in hopes the collective will back you up. But if you don’t stand up for yourself, then how will things ever change?

That brings me to the second thing we can do: stand up for each other. When you see someone being put in an unacceptable situation, back them up. Be the person who spoke up on the Deadpool 2 set. If someone refuses to do something dangerous, or complains about a production running over legal working hours, join their complaint. Sometimes AD's and producers and so on really don't intend to endanger people, but their job is hard. It's easy to dismiss one person as a whiner, but if multiple people speak up, it just might cause that supervisor to reconsider what they're asking.

Third, we should look to the unions. Unions have working rules to prevent most kinds of abuse, but they do depend on members reporting that abuse (see “stand up for yourself.”) IATSE has rules about working hours and turnaround times. The WGA has rules about free rewrites.

Of course not all productions are union. A lot of times you have to do non-union jobs in order to reach the point where you can join the union. I would suggest that if you are going to take a crew position on a non-union production, you ask that the crew deal memo specify that the appropriate union’s workplace rules apply. The union won’t be able to enforce it, but at least you’ll establish expectations, and you’ll have some legal recourse if the contract is violated.

Back around 2006, a message board called “Writer Action” formed. It was for WGA members only, but was not part of the WGA. Part of that message board allowed members to anonymously rate the behavior of producers, agents, and executives, including on things like “Did they demand free rewrites?”

Many producers and executives freaked out when they heard this. They did not like the idea that they might be held accountable for their behavior. They called in "unfair" - which is hilarious, when you think about it.

Maybe all Hollywood unions should institute public databases of complaints. Allow members to register complaints anonymously on anyone they work for. Then post a database of those complaints online that anyone could check. One or two complaints against someone wouldn’t have much effect, but if you saw that a producer had dozens of complaints against them, you might think twice about working for them.

Also, many union members are responsible for hiring and supervising other union members. Cinematographers generally pick their own camera operators and gaffers, for example. Showrunners hire their writing staffs. So when someone files a complaint, the union could look to see if there was another union member who should have been protecting them. Then they could send that person a friendly reminder note of the union’s rules and the obligation of supervisors to protect the rights of those they supervise.

It won’t be easy to change the culture in Hollywood. But as Harvey Weinstein's fall shows, it is possible.


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Sunday, August 13, 2017

On the Beginnings of Scenes

Screenplays are a very formal type of writing with a highly specific format and rules. This is because they are not just a way to tell a story, they are blueprints for making a movie. Sure, spec scripts are sometimes more sales tools than blueprints – designed to interest executives, directors, and cast in making the film. But they still have to look like a plan for production of a movie. After all, that’s the ultimate goal.

With this in mind, today I want to focus on what the screenwriter must do when they open a scene. I read many scripts that fail to do this properly. Let’s start with the very first part of the scene: the slug line.

First, I should address when you need a new slug line. It can be more complicated than it seems. The simple answer is that you need a new slug line any time the location changes or there is a jump in time. This indicates a new scene. Occasionally, this can get tricky. What if the characters are walking from the bedroom of their house to the living room, talking continuously? Is this a new scene?

In order to make these decisions, it’s important to understand the purpose of a slug line. The slug line is really there to help the production manager schedule the shoot. Movies are often shot out of order. The production manager decides which scenes to shoot on which days, and they identify these scenes by slug line. So any time the crew might move to a new set, there should be a new slug line. Since the bedroom and the living room might actually be in different locations, moving from one to the other indicates a new scene.

Slug lines have three parts:

Part one is whether they are interior (INT.) or exterior (EXT.). Again, this is to help the production manager decide whether they require a location or could be built on a soundstage. Sometimes, of course, exterior locations are built on soundstages and interiors are shot on location, but this is not the screenwriter’s concern. There is also a designation (I/E.) for when the scene takes place both inside and outside at the same time, such as someone looking out their window into the yard.

Next is the location. Try to call the same location by the same name throughout the script. This not only makes the production manager’s job easier, it makes it easier for the reader to follow the script. So don’t call a single location SAM’S DINER in one scene, DINER in another scene, and THE COFFEE SHOP in a third scene.

Finally, slug lines indicate whether it is a day shoot (DAY) or night shoot (NIGHT). Again, this is for scheduling. Sometimes writers get cute here and say something like MORNING or 3 P.M. But how will we know what time of day it is on screen? Besides, like I said, the real purpose of the slug line is scheduling, and all the production manager cares about is whether it’s day or night. It is acceptable to use CONTINUOUS if we are moving from one location to another without a break in the action. And if you must, you can identify SUNSET or SUNRISE or GOLDEN HOUR – just be aware you are making the crew’s job hard, since they will have to film the scene in a very limited time frame!

You may read some scripts that don’t follow all the rules for slug lines. Perhaps they drop DAY at the end of the slug line until they change to NIGHT, for example. In a selling script, you might get away with that (it will be fixed for the shooting script). But if you are not an established screenwriter, I recommend sticking to proper slug lines. It shows that you know what you’re doing.

Next we have the description of the location. While perhaps not technically a rule, it’s generally considered a “best practice” to open every scene with some basic description of where we are, even if you’re just cutting back to a scene in progress after a cutaway. In those situations, put in something simple like, “Alicia and Kim continue their discussion.”

When describing the setting of the scene, you want to be brief and evocative, creating a picture of the room with a minimum of words. Here are some tips:
  • Don’t repeat information that’s in the slug line. If the slug line is INT. ITALIAN RESTAURANT – NIGHT, you don’t need to start your scene with, “Fatimah is sitting in an Italian restaurant.
  • Don’t describe everything in the room. Instead, pick one or two details that give the reader (and the production designer) the flavor of the setting.
  • Be specific. Like almost anything else in writing, specific is better than general or vague.
  • If possible, open with action – a character doing something that reveals the space. So rather than saying, “Fatimah is sitting at a table with white tablecloths and candles,” say, “The hostess seats Fatimah and lights the candle on the table, brushing a stray crumb from the white tablecloth.”

Probably the most common mistake I see is writers failing to identify who is in the room. Consider this scene opening:


Alicia enters with a tray of used breakfast dishes. She loads the dishwasher.


     How did Dan like his breakfast? 

     Cleaned the plate.

     Good. I told you that recipe would work.

     I still think you should have made French toast.

As you read along, you might be thinking, “Wait, where did Kim come from? Wait, Steve’s there too? Who else is in this kitchen?” The scene may be clear in the writer's head, but the reader will feel confused, and if it’s someone to whom you’re trying to sell your screenplay, you’ve probably just lost that sale. Always establish all the characters in the room at the start of the scene, and indicate when someone comes and goes.

This goes for unusual objects, too. If at some point in the above scene Kim uses a toaster, the reader won’t think twice. But if she hops on a riding lawnmower, the reader will be thoroughly confused. If there’s a riding lawnmower in the kitchen, you need to tell us up front!

This doesn’t mean you have to cram everything into the first paragraph. Especially when you are going to introduce characters for the first time, you might spread out the introductions. But they still shouldn’t come as a surprise. You need to indicate there are other people in the room. Here’s an example that would be okay:


Arthur and Ali enter the locker room. Various boys are showering, changing, snapping towels at each other.

Arthur and Ali make their way to their lockers. Begin changing.

A skinny sophomore approaches. This is HOWARD.

     Do you guys have any extra clothes? 
     Someone stole mine.

Since you’ve established there are other boys in the locker room, there is no need to specifically mention Howard until he becomes important.

When your polishing your last draft, it pays to ensure your scene openings follow these guidelines. It will help the reader follow your story and show that you know how a screenplay works. And if your film should go to production, the production manager will be very grateful!


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Friday, August 4, 2017

The Three Important Questions Your Story Should Answer

(Spoilers: Gravity, Little Miss Sunshine)

In my book, The Three Stages of Screenwriting, I describe what I refer to as the “Dramatic Question” of the story. This is the question that is asked by the Catalyst (also known as the Inciting Incident) and answered in the Resolution. At its most basic, the question is some form of: “Will the main character achieve their goal?” This question defines the scope of your story. On an unconscious level, the Catalyst lets the audience know what the plot is about by posing this question. The audience knows the story will be over when they get the answer.

The Dramatic Question relates to plot. When I ask my students to define the Dramatic Question of their screenplays, they sometimes give me an answer along the lines of: “Will Keisha overcome her fear of intimacy?” Now, this could possibly be the Dramatic Question of a story, but usually this kind of internal question relates to the character arc, not the plot.

Other times a student will give me an answer like: “Is humanity worth saving?” This is also not really a Dramatic Question. It’s a thematic question.

I demand the students form their Dramatic Questions in relation to the plot because they will be using this question to structure their story. The act breaks and other structural beats will be related to this question. Since this is film, it’s important to make it external and measurable. And I encourage questions with a yes or no answer because it’s easier to figure out what should be happening at each structural beat.

But I’ve been thinking lately that the other types of questions the students provide are also important, just perhaps not to structuring the plot. After all, the best stories typically have strong character arcs and deal with powerful thematic ideas. So maybe we should really be looking at defining three different questions in our stories:

The Dramatic Question

The Character Question

The Thematic Question

One of the films I use as an example in The Three Stages of Screenwriting is Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron). The Dramatic Question in that movie is “Can Ryan make it back to Earth?” This is a good dramatic question that drives the plot, and the movie ends when we get the answer. So let’s consider what the other questions would be and try to determine how they work in the story.

The Character Question in Gravity would probably be: “Can Ryan find the will to survive?” This question is set up when Ryan tells Matt about the death of her daughter. We see that she has lost her reason for living. This happens in the beginning of act two. It comes to a head near the Second Act Turning Point when Ryan decides to give up and turns off the oxygen in her capsule. It is resolved when she has her vision of Matt and he asks if she wants to live or die. She chooses life, and figures out how to solve her problem. This coincides with the Epiphany stage of the structure.

Building from this, I would say the Thematic Question of Gravity is: “What keeps us going in the face of death and danger?” Though there is an answer to this question in the story, I will note that this is not a yes or no question. Perhaps that is what makes a thematic question different than the other types of questions. Maybe good Thematic Questions have more complicated answers.

Let’s consider another film I use as an example in the book: Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt). The Dramatic Question of Little Miss Sunshine is: “Will Richard enable his daughter to win the beauty pageant?” (Richard is the main character of Little Miss Sunshine. If you want to know my justification for this statement, read the book!)

The Thematic Question of Little Miss Sunshine has to do with winning and losing. Richard’s first words are, “There are two kinds of people in the world, winners and losers.” And when deciding whether to take Olive to the pageant, Richard asks her if she thinks she can win, because, “there’s no point in entering a contest unless you think you can win.” The themes of winning and losing are set up early in the script. And near the Midpoint, Olive confides in her grandfather that she fears Richard won’t love her if she doesn’t win. Of course, in the end she doesn’t win… but Richard has realized it’s more important to support his daughter no matter what.

And that reveals the Character Question of Little Miss Sunshine: “Will Richard support his daughter even if she doesn’t win?” And of course the answer there is “Yes.” Here that character question is established at the Catalyst and again answered at the Epiphany when Richard jumps up on stage to join Olive in her crazy dance.

I realize I never proposed an actual Thematic Question for Little Miss Sunshine. Let’s go with: “What is more important – being a winner or having people who love you?” You might notice that all of the subplots about the supporting characters involve that question in some way. Exploring the theme is a common use for subplots.

So from these two examples, the Character Question seems to be important to the Epiphany of the film. This makes sense. We want the character arc to affect the plot, and the plot to cause the character to change. And the Thematic Question seems to be the result of what it means to place this specific character in this specific plot.

As you may gather, I don’t yet have a fully formed theory about these three questions. But I will be watching for them in movies I study in the future, trying to figure out how they work. Stay tuned… there will be future posts on this topic!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Television Writing Insight from Comic-Con 2017

This year I once again attended Comic-Con in San Diego. One of the panels I went to was “Introduction to Television Writing” moderated by my friend Spiro Skentzos (Arrow, Grimm). The panelist were Keto Shimizu (Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow), Sera Gamble (The Magicians), Ryan Condal (Colony), Terry Matalas (12 Monkeys), and Karen Horne (NBC Talent Development executive).

The first question was about what they look for in sample scripts when staffing shows. The list included flawed heroes and new worlds we haven’t seen on television – not necessarily fantasy worlds, but environments or workplaces. The panelists want to see a point-of-view on the page and that the writer has mastered the rudiments of writing. Typos are bad, and they like to see a lot of white on the page – in other words, be economical with your stage direction. Ryan Condal emphasized the importance of tone, saying it “had to be singular and you have to have consistency of tone.”

The panelists confirmed that they now prefer to read original pilots rather than sample specs of existing shows. This is a fairly recent trend in the industry and is the result of there being so many shows these days that showrunners often aren’t familiar with the show you’ve spec’ed and have difficulty judging your work. Karen Horne revealed that though NBC’s talent development program requires submission of specs of existing shows, they are soon going to start asking finalists to provide an original pilot, so you better have one ready.

Everybody stressed the need for good characters. Sera Gamble said that the nature of a character is the defining force for what they do next. Do they fight or fly in the face of a challenge? And when it comes to writing characters well, she says, “Specificity is the most important thing.”

Keto Shimizu pointed out that, “Plot points will feel empty if there’s not emotional stakes attached.”

The subject matter is not really that important. Sera Gamble said, “What I like to see is a simple idea executed really, really well.” She also emphasized the importance of staying true to your voice: “You have to be clear what is your thing and do that thing.” Rather than trying to write for any show, aim for the shows that fit your point of view.

As Terry Matalas stated, you should write material you love, because “if you’re not excited to tell it, it will come through” in the writing.

They also pointed out that they may not have time to read the whole script, so your first five pages have to be fantastic and seduce the reader. They will know what kind of writer you are from those five pages.

During the Q&A section, the topic of diversity came up. The panelists acknowledged the reality that “isms” (racism, sexism, ageism) exist, but encouraged writers to ignore them and fight to be heard. As Sera Gamble put it, “It’s easy to try to shut people up. It’s really hard to speak.” But you have to speak.

Certainly the diversity of the panelists suggests excellent writing can break down the barriers.

You can follow these fascinating panelists on Twitter at:


Spiro Skentzos

Also, if you’re a WGAw member, Spiro is running for the board and would be an excellent pick.


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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The 10 Best Written Movies of 2016

It’s time for my annual list of the ten best-written movies of the last year! Keep in mind, this is a list of the best written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies.

My usual disclaimers apply: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. For example, I haven’t yet seen Moana or Jackie, though I’m anxious to correct those oversights. I may in the future discover other movies from 2016 that would bump some of my selections off the list. Last year, Room probably would have made the list if I’d seen it earlier.

Also, some movies age better than others, and because many of the films on my list are awards season movies, I’ve seen most of them pretty recently. My opinions could cool over time. Looking back at last year’s list, all the movies hold up pretty well, though the order would change – Sicario would be lower and The Martian higher today, for example. And though I’m happy to hear your opinions in the comments, this is my list. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to make your own!

So without further ado, here is my list of the 10 Best Written Movies of 2016:

1. Arrival (screenplay by Eric Heisserer) – This was a smart, absorbing, and emotional screenplay with a high degree of difficulty. Heisserer did a great job making linguistic analysis edge-of-your-seat tense. Less heralded, he played with audience expectations to deliver some clever twists that gave the story wrenching thematic depth. Both entertaining and thought provoking, this was a movie unlike anything I've seen before. (Full disclosure: I know Eric socially.)

2. Deadpool (written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick) – This screenplay deserves a lot of credit simply for bringing a fresh spin to the saturated superhero market. But on top of that, it is witty and clever, and delivers raunchy humor that is smart rather than degrading. The action and suspense are also good, and the characters are more complex than in most movies of this genre.

3. 10 Cloverfield Lane (story by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken, screenplay by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle) – This is an intense suspense thriller with great characters, tight plotting, and well-designed set pieces. It builds its twists and turns well to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. Plus, it felt fresh and original for the genre.

4. Hidden Figures (screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi) – The story is fairly straightforward – you know what you’re going to get going in. But it stays engaging by putting three well-drawn characters at the center of things – characters not just defined by their race or their job. Those characters each have distinct voices and enough personal stakes to engage the viewer emotionally. This carries us through the predictability and makes this the best feel good movie of the year.

5. Manchester by the Sea (written by Kenneth Lonergan) – This was a hard movie to watch at times, but it is undeniably well crafted and affecting. It has incredibly complex and believable characters and a good sense of place. The dialogue is naturalistic and distinctive for each character. The flashback scenes are well placed to unveil the story without seeming manipulative. And though it is extremely sad, it has enough hope, humor, and human connection to keep from drowning in its subject matter.

6. Hell or High Water (written by Taylor Sheridan) – This is another well-crafted screenplay with distinctive characters and a strong sense of place, plus it had a lot on its mind thematically, yet is never heavy-handed.

7. Moonlight (story by Tarell McCraney, screenplay by Barry Jenkins) – And yet another screenplay that takes us into a very specific world through well defined characters. This one has the added benefit of a fresh point of view. There are strong tensions within the scenes, but the story meanders at times and I did think it was a touch predictable. But there are characters here that defy expectations in glorious ways.

8. La La Land (written by Damien Chazelle) – This is the second-best feel good movie of the year. As a movie, it would be ranked higher on this list, but many of its better qualities (charming performances, wondrous visuals) do not come from the writing. It’s a bit uneven – it drags in the second half of act two, and it could use more original songs considering it’s a musical – but it gains points for reinventing a classic genre in a fresh way.

9. Captain America: Civil War (screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) – It’s easy to write off these big popcorn movies, but they are not easy to execute well, and this one was especially difficult given the huge number of characters that needed to be serviced. The movie is tight and enjoyable (with enough momentum to paper over a few logic holes) and each character is given a distinctive personality and voice. As a result, this is hands-down the best tentpole movie of the year (I’m not counting Deadpool as it was more of a lower budget B-movie than a tentpole).

10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) – Again, these movies are more difficult to pull off than they appear (witness Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones). This one was a lot of fun with well-drawn characters and some unexpectedly deep thematic elements. It gave good fan service without becoming weighted down with the franchise mythology. It did drag a bit at points, but overall this was an excellent script.

Looking at my list as a whole, this was a year with a lot of competent screenwriting but only Arrival, Deadpool, and La La Land felt necessary and memorable. The other films on my list are all well written, with a mix of intensely personal stories and well-executed entertainment. That actually made it rather hard to order them, so after one and two, I would almost call it an eight-way tie.

I also typically pick a “worst written” movie of the year – though I actually mean a movie that had no business being as badly written as it was. I’m less inclined to do that these days, but for tradition’s sake I’ll call out Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer). The movie was just a mess, with vague characterization, confusing motivation, wild coincidences, and plot holes you could drive a batmobile through. And I realize I’m hardly the first to point any of this out.

And now I’m off to the theater to see what 2017 has to offer!


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"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
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“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")