A Good Dialogue (Part 2)

Diction is the main component of dialogue, the building blocks if you will. But what are you building?

Lego Fail

(Seriously. What is that?) In part two of my post on dialogue, I’m going to cover some of dialogue’s broader structural challenges.

Originality

Your characters should all sound unique. In part, this is to separate them from the panoply of movie characters who ever have and ever will exist. But it’s also to give your own characters depth and clarity. I can’t tell you the number of scenes I’ve had to re-read because the characters all sound the same, and I couldn’t follow the dialogue. (Wait. Who said what, now?)

It’s not difficult to identify a line of dialogue from Yoda or R2-D2, but the majority of your characters will likely be human. They may even have similar socio-economic backgrounds and come from the same regions. So how do you make them sound different?

Even close friends don’t have the same parents. They don’t have the same siblings. They may have different tastes in food, music, or movies. They may be different ethnicities. All of these differences will affect their diction, which will in turn define them and shape their character. In Stranger Things, Finn, as the main character “everyman,” has the least noteworthy diction. Dustin has a lisp and is more likely to offer some comic relief, Lucas is notably more cautious than his friends, and El’s vocabulary is decidedly limited. The friends have similar backgrounds, ages and interests, but they are different characters with different diction. No matter how similar your characters are, they should always sound at least a little bit different.

Diction is the primary tool that will define your character’s voice. An easy exercise is to pick some common phrase (a reprimand, thank you, greeting, etc.) and figure out how each of your character’s would say it differently. (“Hello.” “Hi.” “Howdy.” “‘Sup.” “Good morning.” “Shut up. Where’s the coffee?”)

Realism

This one’s a little harder. Hamlet does not sound like anyone you’d meet on the street today, but hopefully he sounds like someone from sixteenth century England (or what someone from sixteenth century England thought someone from thirteenth century Denmark sounded like). You get some leeway for writing dialogue for characters from different times or places, but remember my admonition about accents. Don’t overdo it!

Assuming you’re writing a contemporary script or at least want contemporary audiences to understand it, you’ll want to capture contemporary diction. You can wander around with a tape recorder like Carol Solomon from In a World…, but you’ll find that “real” dialogue often doesn’t sound that good.

Another option is to pick a person, whether that’s a fictional character or an actual human that you know, and base your character’s diction on them. Would your mother actually say that? Would Michael Corleone? It’s a reasonable tool, but it, too, involves a lot of research and a strong understanding of your subject’s use of language.

The best thing you can do is read your dialogue out loud. Better yet, have some friends read it. Even better, have some actors read it. Does it flow? Does it make sense? Is it engaging? Does it sound authentic to the characters? If not, you’ve got some more work to do. And you may want to consider adding…

Motivation

Bad dialogue is often described as “wooden.” It lacks emotion (which may be the actor’s fault), but it also lacks motivation (which is completely the writer’s fault). Lines like “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine,” are boring! They don’t progress the plot. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls these lines “hi how are you I’m fine” lines. It really emphasizes the total waste of space and time that they are.

In this penultimate example of bad dialogue from The Room, Johnny buys some flowers (first 17 seconds).

That’s it. He doesn’t grow as a character. He doesn’t overcome any adversity. He doesn’t discover that his mild-mannered local florist is actually a sociopath. Despite the fact that the flower shop owner claims “You’re my favorite customer,” she doesn’t recognize him when he comes in. It doesn’t even feel like they’re speaking to each other. Now, perhaps in some brilliant way we mere mortals can’t fully understand, Tommy Wisseau is commenting on the superficiality and meaninglessness of relationships in a service economy where our existential aloneness is defined by endless “friendly” conversation. More likely, it’s just a terribly written scene.

The great Pulitzer Prize winning and Tony nominated writer David Mamet said, “People only speak to get something.” What does Johnny want from the florist? What does the florist want from Johnny? Sadly the answer seems to just be flowers. If Johnny fails to get flowers here, he can probably just go somewhere else. And the florist doesn’t seem to be hurting for business. Her bizarre dialogue attempts to impart some meaning into the scene, but ends up just confusing things. “You’re my favorite customer.” Who says that? Is she in love with him? Is she a serial killer? Is there some subplot I missed? The dialogue (in fact the scene as a whole) really isn’t necessary to the plot of the movie. The scene could have started at the end of the transaction (Johnny has just purchased flowers) or better yet, just showed Johnny arriving at the next location with flowers. The audience would assume he has purchased them. The dialogue doesn’t achieve anything.

Reaction

A dialogue involves two (or more) people. It’s important that characters react (verbally) to each other. When Darth Vader says, “I am your father,” how does Luke react? “That’s great, but can you give me a hand?” (Ha!) No! He says, “No. No, that’s not true. It’s impossible.” He’s in denial. It’s an organic, realistic reaction to learning that the man who just tried to kill you and may be committing war crimes across the galaxy is also your father. It is stage one on the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. It feels real because it’s based in reality.

Monologues don’t make good dialogue. When are the other characters supposed to respond to someone who won’t shut their gob? Will they be writing strongly worded letters of complaint after the screening? When one character says something that merits a response, it’s important that your characters respond to each other (visually, if not verbally) to keep the characters and audience engaged.

Exposition

While you want to avoid all of that pesky pontification, at some point, you’ve got to explain why Luke is shooting proton torpedoes down an exhaust chute or how John Hammond managed to clone dinosaurs. But how do you do that without boring your audience to tears?

First, minimize it! If it takes ten pages to explain the backstory, your plot is too complex! Even if you’ve created some mind-blowing fantasy world, you’re going to have to ground it in our reality. After all, you want humans (not hobbits) to watch it. Keep the critical fantasy elements and make everything else as realistic as possible. Then you have less explaining to do. (This is one of the reasons I think Game of Thrones is so successful. While Westeros is fake, the medieval detail feels wonderfully authentic. And true fans will know many of the plots and characters are based on actual history.)

Second, find a way to explain things organically. There’s the classic briefing room scene.

Jarhead Briefing

Then there’s the neophyte character: the intern, new recruit, or padawan. This guy always needs things explained to them! But it’s a natural part of the story. Whether your story takes place in a scifi universe or just a technical field like undersea exploration, the neophyte character serves as a go-between for the audience. They get to ask all of the stupid questions the audience cannot.

If all else fails, put the Pope in the pool. I explain that in more detail here. Remember, film is a visual medium. If you absolutely can’t get away from a page of exposition, give us something interesting to look at: floor charts, a power point, a time lapse of corn growing. Set your scene someplace visually interesting. Ever wonder why detectives are always interviewing people in strip clubs? It’s not for the buffet.

Subtext

You may have heard of dialogue being “on the nose.” This happens when characters say exactly what they’re thinking. In reality, people rarely say what they’re thinking. They measure their words carefully to cater to their audience and evoke a particular response. People also exhibit a lot of denial and avoidance. If they didn’t, we would have no need for self-help books and alcoholics anonymous.

To give a more concrete example, spouses in failing marriages dn’t argue about the fact that their marriages are failing. They argue about finances, the children, and taking the trash out because their marriage is failing. The nagging wife doesn’t say, “Trash night’s Tuesday, right?” because she can’t remember when the trash goes out. She says it to mean, “You forgot to take the trash out again. I caught you asleep at the wheel. You are a failure, and I could totally marry someone better.” That’s not what she says, but that’s what she means. Well written and acted dialogue will have the motivation behind the line. That’s subtext.

In this scene from Game of Thrones, Littlefinger sweetens up his nephew, the Lord of the Vale, with a gift.

Then he proceeds to threaten Lord Royce. But he never actually threatens Lord Royce. Nor does Lord Royce threaten him back, merely saying that a hypothetical man may “cross swords” with another hypothetical man. Yet everyone in the scene knows what’s really happening. The soldiers all reach for their swords and the Lord of the Vale suggests his favorite form of execution: the “moon door.” Littlefinger could have said, “You betrayed me, Lord Royce. Lord of the Vale, should we execute him?” But he doesn’t. That wouldn’t have any subtext, and it wouldn’t make a very good scene.

The movie Hot Rod hilariously flips subtext on it’s head, making Rod Kimble abundantly aware of his inner feelings, shortcomings and completely ridiculous goals. “One day I’ll punch you right in the face, and then you’ll respect me.” Great comedy, terrible subtext.

Craft

Ultimately, crafting great dialogue is an artistic endeavor. It involves a lot of listening, careful word choice, research, and revision. But it’s not a mystery. These last two posts are intended to give you the tools necessary to break down and analyze dialogue. Now if you hear something that is “wooden” or “on the nose,” you know what that means, and, more importantly, you can craft it into something beautiful.

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A Good Dialogue (Part 1)

Most screenwriting books and teachers put their effort into story and structure. And rightly so. Story is the heart of the beast. But what if you have a fantastic story and terrible, wooden dialogue? My next two posts aim to give you some tools for understanding and crafting great dialogue. To start, I’m tackling the most important and least understood facet of dialogue: diction.

What is diction?

 Simply explained, diction is how someone speaks. Like a fingerprint, everyone has unique diction. Here are three obvious examples.

“Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was thirty-five years ago…”

“I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”

“I’m not saying I invented the turtleneck, but I was the first person to realize its potential as a tactical garment. The tactical turtleneck! The… tactleneck.”

The answers are, of course, the always rambling and frequently incoherent 45th President of the United States, Shakespeare (specifically Hamlet), and Sterling Archer.

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You’re never going to confuse Trump for Shakespeare or Shakespeare for Archer, but what are the components of diction? How do you give your characters unique, memorable voices? How do you complete a logical syllogism? Read on.

Syntax

 Syntax is the structure of sentences. Long? Short? Proper? Inquisitive? Rambling? Take our fearless (clueless?) leader, for example. He generally speaks in rambling, vocabulary-challenged, run-on sentences. The first part of his quote has no subject (Who went to Wharton? Who was a good student?), is repetitive (Went to Wharton…went there, went there), and quickly jumps into a non-sequitur (Are we talking about Wharton or nuclear power?).

Hamlet, too, is a bit long-winded, but he does form a complete thought with subjects, verbs, objects, and the whole English 101 tool-kit. He’s speaking about one thing the whole time: his depression (buck up emo boy!) and how the entire world seems like a “foul and pestilent” collection of vapors.

Archer is a bit long winded, too, but only has one compound sentence. Then he has a sentence fragment, and for the final punch line, one word. His entire quotation is a setup for one joke. He also starts from a defensive position (“I’m not saying I invented the turtleneck”)—a place Archer frequently finds himself—and turns his misfortune into an opportunity—“The… tackleneck.”

An English teacher would probably yell at you if you wrote anything like any of these “characters.” That’s not the point. A character’s syntax doesn’t need to be “proper” or “correct,” but it does need to be consistent. As you analyze the sentence structure of real people or well-written characters, you’ll pick up on the unique things that create their individual syntax.

Now syntax can get tricky. When people are excited or angry, for example, they tend to speak in shorter sentences. A character giving a formal presentation will sound different than the same character drinking with her girlfriends at happy hour. But these differences show the depth of the character and your writing ability. Your job, as a writer, is to be sure that your character can encompass both voices.

Word Choice

Trump, of course, has “the best words.” An English professor may have an “exhaustive vocabulary.” A foreigner may have, “How do you say, limited talking options?” The point is, their word choice defines their character. Their background, level of education, job (think technical lingo), and age all affect word choice.

In the quotes I provided, Hamlet and Archer both make up words. Hamlet, who uses the phrases “pestilent congregation” and “ sterile promontory” struggles to describe the heavens, inventing the rather grand, but superfluous adjective “majestical.” Archer, however, invents a cheeky portmanteau for tactical and turtleneck: “tacktleneck.” Reeking of consumerism and brand identity, it’s in a decidedly different category than “majestical,” but totally in line with Archer’s character.

Word choice is pretty simple. Pull out the ol’ thesaurus to find just the right word for the occasion. And don’t limit yourself to nouns! Stephen King hates adverbs. Want a character to sound like Stephen King? Never give them an adverb. Use action verbs instead of “is.” “Is” is the most boring verb in English, yet most people will say, “I am running late.” Shankar, an aloof supervisor in my script Out of Time, would say, “I will not arrive on time.” He also refuses to contract words. “Can’t” won’t ever come out of his mouth.

Idiom

Idioms are the specific phrases and constructions unique to your character. What are the things that your character would say that no one else would even think of?

In the narrowest sense, this can include catchphrases: “Did I do that?” “Phrasing!” “Winter is coming.” “Wubba lubba dub dub!”

wubba lubba dub dub

But idioms are not restricted to specific phrases. The Brain, from Pinky and the Brain, had a handful of classic catchphrases, notably, “The same thing we do every night, Pinky, try to take over the world,” and “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Pinky’s responses, however, varied wildly. “I think so, Brain, but Zero Mostel times anything will still give you Zero Mostel.” “I think so, Brain, but wouldn’t anything lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?” “I think so, Brain, but then it would be Snow White and the Seven Samurai…” Although the specifics change, the shtick, taken as a whole, is part of Pinky and the Brain’s idiom.

In a broader sense, idioms are about style. Woody Allen and the late Don Rickles are both great comics with decidedly different styles. Woody Allen’s humor is always self deprecating. “Most of the time I don’t have much fun. The rest of the time I don’t have any fun at all.” Don Rickles, however, was always going after the other guy. “Who picks your clothes – Stevie Wonder?”

Trump is always talking about himself. Hamlet is full of angst and woe. He’s educated and playful, but one can never be sure if he’s serious. (One of the biggest questions about Hamlet to this day is whether he was actually crazy or merely pretending to be crazy.) Archer is also educated and playful. But he’s been educated in tactical weaponry not Greek mythology. His playfulness, which leans heavily on the sexual side, lacks Hamlet’s archaic language and moral ponderings.

Your characters, too, must present themselves in a particular way. Samwell Tarly, from Game of Thrones, can barely stutter through introducing himself. Danaerys Targaryen, however, has no issue going through that whole “Mother of Dragons…Breaker of Chains…” spiel. Darth Vader does not tell jokes. Kimmy Schmidt from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt will never let you down. Everybody has their own style, their own linguistic toolbox to fall on that defines them as a person.

Accents

 Accents certainly define a person’s background. They can be a great source of comedy or drama.

french knight“I’m French. Why do you think I have this outrageous accent?”

If you remember Jaguar’s 2015 Superbowl commercial, “All the villains are played by Brits. Maybe [they] just sound right.” And Frank Underwood from House of Cards has that down home, aw shucks, drawl that creeps into his voice whenever he’s speaking to the press. But it’s noticeably absent when he turns the screws on an uncooperative congressman. He drops the accent to chilling effect.

Don’t overdo accents in your writing! In Angela’s Ashes, the world’s most depressingly hilarious memoir, Frank McCourt perfects writing the accent. You’re not Frank McCourt. Don’t be a fecking eejit and overdo it. Your script may benefit from a “lobstah” or “verevolf” here or there, but frankly it’s difficult and annoying “readin’ lang passages ay text in some a bampot brogue.” Furthermore, word choices (howdy vs. hello, car park vs. parking lot, danke vs. thank you) will suggest an accent without getting overbearing.

So what?

Diction is more than a party trick. Smalls instigates the climax of The Sandlot (and reconfirms his general cluelessness) by mistaking Babe Ruth for “Some lady named Ruth.” Lieutenant MacDonald is killed in The Great Escape when he says “Thank you” in English to the Gestapo agent. Although only specifically addressed at the end, The Artist, a silent film, was about George Valentin’s inability to overcome his accent. And, of course, My Fair Lady is an entire musical about diction.

Diction may not play a critical part in your story, but it will help you craft unique, memorable characters. Character is defined by action, but choosing to speak is an action that cannot be undone. So when you give dialogue to your characters, pull out the old thesaurus and choose your words carefully… or wisely… or discreetly… or

eric idle

Whatever’s right for their own particular idiom.

P.S. I case you missed that last reference, here’s the whole clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s 7:30 in.

When it Comes to Characters, Fewer is More

I recently sat down to work on another draft of a script. I had an idea for a new character, a professional mentor for my protagonist, someone who was really in his corner. And the kicker was, right when the going got tough, she would die, leaving our hero on his own. It’s a pretty standard movie trope (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Vitruvius, Mufasa), but I ultimately decided against it.

The problem is, it would have required me adding three more characters: the mentor, who was our hero’s boss, the mentor’s replacement, and the person who would appoint the replacement. Yes, I would have gained something, but at what cost? Like the timeframe of your plot, which I discuss in my previous post, you want your script to achieve its goal with as few characters as necessary.

Aristotle didn’t discuss a “Unity of Character,” but Greek theater had other conventions to restrict the number of characters in a play. Unity of Action also implies some Unity of Character. In any event, Unity of Character or the “fewer the better” has become an unofficial rule of thumb for effective screenwriting.

To be clear, you want the worlds you create to feel authentic. Your protagonist needs a family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, cashiers, and bank tellers. But it’s going to be easier to create that realistic world inhabited by three-dimensional characters if you have fewer, not more characters.

There’s a basic math problem. With any script, you’ve only got so much screen time. Do you want it to go to your main characters or a bunch of walk-on roles? Let me illustrate my point with two pictures of Amy Adams.

The first is an absolutely enchanting photo of Amy staring dreamily into space.

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Then we have a shot of her in the background(?!), out of focus, crowded out by extras, and upstaged by a bunch of Muppets!

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Both pictures are the same size. One is a great photo of Amy Adams. In the other, you can barely see her. Fewer characters means more screen time for your lead roles.

The problem isn’t so much with secondary characters (the best friend, the love interest) or tertiary characters (the boss, the comic relief), but with bit parts (the valet, the cashier, the security guard). How important is the line, “Here’s your receipt. Have a nice day.” or “Place all metallic items in the plastic dish.”? Blake Snyder calls this “place holder” or “Hi how are you I’m fine” dialogue. It’s the kind of thing anyone can say, and it contributes nothing to the story. Unless the receipt or the items going through the metal detector are critical to the plot, you don’t need to mention them. What if your security guard has some critical piece of information to deliver to your hero? Consider giving that line to a more important character. It gives them more screen time and makes them more integral to the plot.

Fewer characters makes the writing and acting better as well. Say your valet has one line. “Your car is ready, Mr. Anderson.” How do they deliver it? Earnestly? Concerned? Full of contempt? Deferentially? What kind of valet is this? A kindly old man who loves cars? A college kid with a summer job? An undercover secret agent?

The thing is, if your actor imbues this character with any personality, it will detract from the scene. The movie is not about them! But why would you write a character who you want to be as bland and forgettable as possible?

“But my protagonist is a rich snob who always stiffs the valet!” you’re saying. “I need that dialogue.”

Aha! Well, in this case, your “bit part” has a bigger role to play in your story. The way your protagonist treats your valet is a defining character trait. Gauging this interaction throughout the course of the script will show the audience how your protagonist has changed. Is he still stiffing the valet in the middle of the script? What about when the love interest is present? How does he treat the valet at the end?

Now that your valet has three or four scenes, it’s no longer a bit part. You have the opportunity to give him some personality. Maybe he even plays a role in your protagonist’s journey. Either way, the actor has something to work with, and your world is going to feel a little more realistic.

For my script, it wasn’t feasible to create three more fully fleshed out characters. I would have needed to add another ten pages or take screen time away from my main characters. For what it would have added to my script, it wasn’t worth it.

For your script, you’ll have to make your own judgment call. But remember, fewer characters means more screen time for the characters who matter. It’s going to make a more realistic world and engaging story. When it comes to good screenwriting, there are no small parts, only poorly written walk-on roles.

Unity of Time (or why biopics have good acting, but are really boring)

A few years ago, a biopic about Magaret Thatcher came out. Merryl Streep did a fantastic job in the titular role of The Iron Lady. She won several awards including the Oscar for Best Actress. But as a whole, the movie was virtually unwatchable. Halfway through, I started folding laundry, and by the end, I was scrolling through Twitter. The reason is that The Iron Lady violated an ancient, very clearly spelled out screenwriting rule: the Unity of Time.

Remember, drama isn’t real life. Your real life is probably pretty boring. You wake up. You commute. You suffer through work. You commute home. You play with your kids, watch TV, go to bed, and do it all over again. Not that gripping. When something out-of-the-ordinary happens (your daughter is abducted, you see dead people, an alien lands in your back yard) we have a story. Or at least the beginning of one. But in order to keep that drama, we also need a sense of urgency.

Imminent, terminal cancer like we saw in Breaking Bad (even if it’s mostly manifested as a cough) launched one of the best television shows ever made. An increased risk of Alzheimer’s at some vague future point probably won’t. Film happens now! That’s why it’s written in the present tense. And if nothing’s happening, your audience will tune out. The audience’s ordinary lives (i.e. Twitter) have just become more interesting than your movie.

This isn’t a new idea. Aristotle pointed it out over two thousand years ago. (I did say ancient.) For those of who you like classical learning, check out Aristotle’s Poetics. And if ancient Greek is a bit much for you, Michael Tierno did an excellent job updating it in Aristotle’s Poetics for the Screenwriter.

The key thing for this article is Aristotle’s Unity of Time. To sum it up, the action of the drama (screenplay), should take place in as little time as possible. I think it was Robert McKee who said that a script should be as long as it needs to be, then it should end. Fox’s 24 with Kiefer Sutherland took this to the extreme when each episode happened in real time. One season of twenty-four episodes covered a single day.

That’s a little over the top and the premise wore thin as the seasons went on. But you’ll notice many of your favorite thrillers take place over the course of a few hours or days. If your daughter’s been abducted and we see the seasons changing, it’s hard to hold suspense throughout the script. If the bad guys haven’t done her in over the past few months, she’ll probably be okay for another fifteen minutes. Sounds like a good time to check Twitter.

This is also the reason montages are generally weak storytelling. The “learning to play baseball,” “series of quirky dates,” “watching your business grow” montages get the point across, but aren’t good drama. Are you telling me that your emotionally immature love interests who fought like cats and dogs for the first twenty pages suddenly went on a series of fun, carefree dates to a musical montage and nothing interesting happened? That’s kind of whacky. I thought they were more interesting than that. And yes, you will see these kinds of montages all the time. That doesn’t mean you should do them. You’re better than that.

And of course, this is why biopics tend to be kind of boring. It’s hard to condense someone’s entire life (Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar) into a compelling story arc. (The first half of Life of Pi literally made me want to throw a TV. In another post, I may tell you how that movie could have been immeasurably better.) At the same time, these movies often have fantastic performances. Now you know why those two things aren’t necessarily related.

Just this Thursday, I heard NPR’s Eric Deggans review the amazing true story of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In it he praises Oprah Winfrey’s performance as “one of her best roles yet,” but criticizes the film for being “uneven” with “deeply affecting moments” that “don’t quite knit together into a consistently powerful film.” Does not surprise me in the least.

If you’re writing a script, and it’s not keeping readers on the edge of their seats, Unity of Time may be your problem. Add a concrete deadline. “Get that report on my desk by tomorrow morning.” “You have until midnight to deliver the money.” “Death Star approaching. Estimated time to firing range: fifteen minutes.” The added pressure tests your characters’ mettle and focuses your story. No time to stop and smell the roses with a Death Star on the horizon.

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Aristotle also advocated for unity of space and action, theories I may discuss in another post. But right now I think I’m going to advocate unity of blog subjects and see you in the next post.

A Good Premise

The hook, or my preferred term “premise,” is what “hooks” your audience. It’s also what hooks your investors, your producers, your significant other if you’re looking for a movie to watch, and what’s going to drive your script. If you’ve got a good premise, you’ve got a marketable idea. If not, well, keep writing. Below are some things to keep in mind when you’re working on a premise.

Potential

When you say your premise, people should immediately think of the possibilities. If you’re writing a comedy, the potential for humor should be obvious. (Two men join an all-girl band to avoid the mob.) Thrillers should sound, well, thrilling.

Your premise is the reason you’re writing this script! Not everyone has the same idea of a premise. Use the word alien, dragon, or time travel and some people will immediately tune out. If I hear “struggling with cancer,” I’m probably going to pass. (I’ve had enough real-life experience with cancer.) At the same time, I think a cancer subplot is a requirement of most Lifetime scripts. And plenty of people watch those. Whatever genre you’re going for, your audience needs to see potential.

One of my friends came up with a fantastic premise a few years ago: Killer Cardboard Box. It’s ridiculously straightforward and even conveys that genre blend of horror and comedy. (There’s a killer—terrifying, but it’s a cardboard box—laughable.) You can visualize it, too. Box flaps clamping onto an unsuspecting victim’s head, or the heroine fighting for her life with a dollar-store box cutter. It’s brilliant. The script (penned by yours truly) hasn’t been produced for a few reasons, but potential isn’t one of them.

Jurassic Box

Short

On the other side of the spectrum is this heaping pile of beauty: six frenemies are trapped in a shopping mall with a killer. Another (amazing) script penned by me, but I’ve found it hard to explain to others. It’s a little too clunky. What’s a frenemy? Why are they trapped in the mall? Why not just text 911? All great questions, which are revealed in the thrilling final act, but not necessarily a great way to get people excited. Lord of the Flies in a shopping mall? Not necessarily any better.

When you go back to “why” I wrote this film, it was because I wanted to do a teen horror movie in a shopping mall where no one was sure who they could trust. Unfortunately, the premise shows that the production considerations were just as important to me as the story considerations. And unfortunately, I think the script suffered for that reason.

 Unique

A friend of mine challenged himself to watch 366 movies last year. I asked him what the worst one was. He answered that, by far, Thor: The Dark World was the most bland and boring. He said he actually forgot he watched it.

The problem is, there are just so many superhero movies now. They’re predictable. They run together. So if you’re writing a script for Lifetime (and it has the obligatory cancer subplot) how do you make it interesting? What is it about your script that we’ve never seen before? How will your gangster movie stand out from The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Untouchables, etc? How will your Superhero movie stand out from X-Men, Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and Birdman? How about you make it ridiculously gory and full of profanity? Poke fun at the other superhero movies and break the fourth wall. Sounds a lot like the best selling R-rated movie of all time (Deadpool).

Are there going to be any dinosaurs in this, uh, dinosaur film?

When you actually get to writing, you need to fulfill the premise. It’s one of the most common mistakes I’ve found with first time screenwriters. If you write a script “about” outer space and your characters don’t make it into space until the script is three quarters over, well, your script isn’t really about space, is it? If you write a script about dinosaurs, you better have some dinosaurs in it. Jurassic Park expertly mocks this mistake when they fail to see any dinosaurs on their “dinosaur” tour.

Writers of horror films have probably heard the adage “Don’t show the monster.” Psychologically, once you see and identify something, it loses its fear factor. Practically, if you don’t have a budget, your monster probably isn’t very scary looking. But just because you can’t show your monster doesn’t mean it’s not there!

Creepy sounds, footprints, and severed limbs should litter your script. Remember, the premise is the reason why you wrote your script. You better include that reason early and often.

A great premise sets your script up for success. What drama, comedy, or horror does your premise bring to mind? How many ways can a cardboard box kill a person (eat them, paper cuts, fall on them)? What kind of weapon would you use to fight a cardboard box (box cutter, fire, box crusher)? Who’s the best protagonist to fight this unlikely killer of yours (Dwight Schrute)?

The premise is only the germ of an idea. It can come from watching another movie, a news article, a conversation with a friend. Depending on your genre, some things may be more appropriate than others. Hostage situations are a bit of a stretch for RomComs. Alzheimers doesn’t work that well for comedies. But no matter what, if it’s unique, short, and full of potential, you’re on the right track. And a good premise is going to make writing your script a little easier and a lot more fun.

Extraordinary Worlds

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Movies take us to worlds and times we could never see on our own. It’s one of the hallmarks of performance drama: spectacle. But writers must also deal with another world to make their characters engaging: the extraordinary world. The two occasionally overlap and coincide, but it’s critical to know the difference.

Right now, you and I are living fairly ordinary lives. We get up, regret our life decisions while fighting rush hour, play on our phones at work, come home, procrastinate from writing or working out, and do it all over again. It’s not particularly interesting. In fact, from a screenplay perspective, we call this the “ordinary world.” Then something happens. You get a mysterious phone call. You meet that special someone. An asteroid is discovered hurtling toward earth. All of a sudden, your routine has changed.

This event—usually called the inciting incident—is what makes your story. Without it, your script is just another, ordinary day in the office. When you decide to take action, you have left the ordinary world and moved to your “extraordinary world.” This transition or turning point also moves the script into Act II.

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But it’s important that you don’t mistake an extraordinary setting with an extraordinary world. What might seem extraordinary to us may be quite mundane to our characters. Luke Skywalker lives on a desert planet orbiting two stars. He’s a moisture farmer who works with droids and Jawas. He has a hovercraft. It’s all pretty incredible to us. But to him, it’s quite ordinary. If Luke never gets R2-D2’s message, there is no story. Two hours of moisture farming does not a good movie make.

On the other side of the coin, contemporary, realistic movies have much subtler extraordinary worlds. In Nebraska, David Grant takes his father on a road trip to Nebraska to claim his sweepstakes prize. It’s fairly mundane, and some people found the film boring. But Will and his father’s lives change significantly the moment they hit the road.

The extraordinary world often involves a change in venue. In Star Wars, it’s when Luke leaves his “backwater” planet. In Nebraska, it’s when David and his father get on the highway. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s everything outside of the Shire. But this isn’t always the case.

In Office Space, Peter Gibbons doesn’t change his venue, but rather his attitude. In Juno, Juno’s extraordinary world is the world of being a pregnant teenager. In Limitless, Eddie Morra changes his life with a pill. The important thing here is that the character’s normal routine has been interrupted, and rather than crawl under a rock, they’ve committed to living in this new world.

At the end of a movie, characters often return to their ordinary worlds as changed people. Their experience in the extraordinary world has taught them something. The return to the ordinary world also gives the writer an opportunity to show how much a character has changed over the course of their adventure.

In Star Wars (although it happens two films later), Luke returns to Tatooine as a Jedi. In Nebraska, David and his father return home without the sweepstakes winnings, but they have a new truck, a new compressor, and a better relationship. In Office Space, Peter Gibbons returns to work, but this time it’s not in an office. (Limitless has a bad ending.*)

This extraordinary world is really what drives your story. Your protagonist’s reaction to these extraordinary events and circumstances are what define their character. It’s part of the premise: battling an evil galactic empire, taking a road trip with your father, dealing with teen pregnancy. Without that extraordinary event, there is no story.

So remember when you craft your next great script—whether it’s about a Jedi master or a paper pusher—to your characters, the next ninety pages of their story need to be nothing short of extraordinary.

 

*The ending to Limitless was rewritten and reshot multiple times without any improvement. But if you look at the movie from the perspective of Eddie Morra’s extraordinary world, there’s an obvious, satisfying solution.

In the beginning of the movie, he’s a poor, struggling writer. The end of the movie should reflect that point. Ideally, the biggest thing he would have learned from taking NZT was that he shouldn’t be taking NZT. It makes sense. After all, at the midpoint Eddie says, “You know what, let’s not invade Russia in the winter. Let’s go home, let’s pop a beer, and let’s live off the interest.” The movie should end with Eddie working on the great American novel the hard way. Maybe with a bag of cash under his bed.

Instead, there’s this vague ending where Eddie doesn’t really learn anything or change as a person. He’s still on top, but only because of the drug. And the only takeaway for the audience is that apparently mind-enhancing drugs are amazing.

Your Script is Too Long

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I think Robert McKee said, “Your story is as long as it needs to be, and then it ends.” Hopefully (for a feature), this is between 90 and 110 pages. I aim for 100 even. Some people will quibble with that number. They’re wrong.

I’ve read dozens of scripts and never once said, “If only this script were fifteen pages longer, I could recommend it.” Once you hit 90 pages, you’ve proven that your script has enough material to make a feature. Beyond that, you’re just adding days to the shooting schedule.

From a reader’s perspective, 120 pages looks intimidating. It’s thicker and heavier than the last script they read (and the last script they read was probably a heaping pile of garbage). Since most scripts are shorter, it also suggests that you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s two strikes against you before the reader even gets past the title page.

Think about it this way. 120 is 33% more than 90. In minutes, that’s 2 hours versus 1 ½ hours. A reader could already be at happy hour if it weren’t for your extra 30 pages.

All of this may sound arbitrary, but it actually helps your writing. Forcing yourself to choose the most important scenes, the best lines, the critical story beats will give you a tighter, better script. All those decisions you vacillate about in your rough draft will be crystal clear when you force yourself to make cuts. Do your characters really need to take that fifth trip to White Castle?

I’ve included a sample scene from my latest script here so you can see what it looks like before and after I trimmed the fat.

(To give you a visual, if this post were 33% shorter, it would end here.)

What if you are literally writing an epic? Fine. Go for it. But a professor of mine pointed out that you could cut 30 minutes from each Lord of the Rings movie and the ending would still be the same. (Don’t even get me started on The Hobbit.)

If you follow McKee’s story outlines and Snyder’s beat sheet, you’ll find that your script tends to fall in that 90-110 page range pretty easily. That’s what 100 years of filmmaking has taught us. I actually prefer if my rough drafts run 120-130 pages because I know I have more than enough material to work with. But when I trim the fat, that’s when I know I’ve got something worthwhile.