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Here on the ScriptAWish.com blog, we've broken down the individual components of screenwriting to illustrate how to write like the studio professionals. Dialogue, Action Lines, Story World, and various other tips and tricks. This time, we're going to talk about how it all comes together by showing clips from one of my favorite TV series: Game of Thrones. We're going to examine some of the little touches that make GAME OF THRONES work so well, and how you can use those same concepts to make your own screenwriting shine just as brightly. I'm going to be using a lot of video clips, so if you're reading on your iPad you may not be getting the full learning experience.
Just as a side note, I'm going to try to stay away from any major spoilers, but rest assured that I will warn you of any ahead of time - for those of you who haven't had a chance to see the series yet.
I want to start with this clip, which is the very first thing you see in the series. It's the first 14 minutes of the entire show, and it's a doozy:
This opening 14 minutes is a very interesting way to open the series, and accomplishes a whole hell of a lot in a very short amount of time. First - let's talk about the White Walkers. As anyone will tell you, if you open with something exciting - an action scene or set piece of some sort, you will get your reader/audience excited. Grab your audience early, and you can buy time to slow things down. What GAME OF THRONES does so well is not only open on an exciting set piece, but it introduces the audience to the level of potential danger and mayhem that lurks among the shadows of this world. A danger that is EVER present, a danger that threatens our beloved characters (that we will soon meet) at all times - AND THEY HAVE NO IDEA it's there. We know that the White Walkers are real, and that all the enemies our characters THINK they have are nothing compared to what's actually lurking in the shadows. This is the power of starting with the White Walkers, that even though we don't see them again FOR HALF THE SEASON, because its the first thing we saw, it sticks with us and informs THE AUDIENCE'S perspective throughout the show. Giving the audience information that is withheld from our main characters is always an excellent device, and it's used perfectly here.
And while the show is hitting you with the exciting dead bodies and zombie-esque monsters, you are introduced to how unique this world is merely via dialogue. Using it's own terms, language, and way of speaking, we immediately know "we aren't in kansas anymore, toto". Through the dialogue of minor characters that get killed off, you learn about the idea of “The Wall”, “Wildlings”, and other information about the world in a way that diminishes it's exposition-y nature.
Notice too that in order to get us to care about the guy who ultimately gets beheaded for deserting, the writers created a mini villain within the scene (matt damon’s cousin) to pose as an obstacle. The opening is a short film that has it's own beginning, middle, and end.
There is a great economy of story at play in the first 14 minutes, but particularly once we get to Winterfell. The writers:
1. Put all the main characters in one place to introduce them
2. Gives them something visually interesting to do (archery),
3. And then finds ways to reveal little details about each character quickly
Arya looks bored sewing and jealous of an accomplished Sansa, the fairness/encouragement of Lord Stark to an obviously trying too hard to please Bran, etc. etc. etc.
When writing an opening, introduce your characters quickly, and help us get to know them quickly with a detail or two right out of the gate.
For instance, we like our protagonist Ned Stark immediately just for defending his youngest son from the laughter of his older brothers (his save the cat moment).
There's also a nice REVERSAL moment when the brothers finally encourage their youngest sibling, and he pulls back his arrow...then BULLSEYE. Except - Surprise! It was Arya, the sister. This tells us a lot about her character, but it also gives a neat little surprise for the audience. Peppering these types of small pay offs, reveals, and surprises throughout your work will also help elevate your writing.
The opening 14 minutes also did a fantastic job of setting up many of the themes and motifs in the show - growing up, mortality, winter is coming, brutality vs. mercy, truth and law, etc. Some key dialogue:
“law is law”/“our way is the old way”/“the man who passes the sentence, should swing the sword”
Those bits of dialogue very quickly establish these people, and their lord, and our protagonist, as people of honor. It differentiates them from other characters we will meet later, and we very quickly identify with this family of Starks because they display the qualities we love seeing in our heroes.
"10 is too young to see such things"
"He won’t be a boy forever"
Again, not only showing the family's honor and tradition, but also introducing one of the main themes of the show
“don’t look away – father will know if you do”
“is it true he saw the white walkers?”
“the white walkers have been gone for thousands of years”
“so he was lying?”
“a madman sees what he sees”
These four lines say so much with so little. It reinforces that even among characters we trust, and whose judgement we trust, "white walkers" are thought of to be extinct (as opposed to fictional, which the Lannisters believe). It also tells us that there is a history here, that they were a danger at one point in the past. The facial expressions/acting that go along with these lines sell that even Ned is afraid of the danger they might pose.
Notice too how the audience is introduced both to the world and specifically to the main character of Ned by the speech he gives just prior to swinging the sword that beheads the deserter:
“I, Eddard, of the House Stark. Lord of Winterfell, and ward of the north…”
That tells us volumes, and it's done while the audience is waiting in gruesome suspense over what he is about to do. That's how you slyly fit in exposition.
Let's look at a different scene:
Jamie and Jon Snow talk in the courtyard
scene introduces the idea to the audience that Jon Snow will be be joining the group of soldiers at The Wall that we met in the opening (and by extension the dangers of the white walkers they face). It also introduces us to the antagonism that the Lannisters have towards the Starks. It also introduces us further to the motif of mortality ("sacks of meat"), as well as giving the audience more clues that the world at large is not as scared of the white walkers as they should be (since we know they exist). Subtly, this scene also helps to endear Jon Snow to the audience very quickly as we see Jamie condescend to him and his ideals. Not to keep hitting the nail on the head, but precisely because we know that he is right to fear and want to fight the white walkers, this is really effective. Throughout the first few episodes actually, Jon Snow continually gets teased by Jamie and Tyrion, who think the stories of white walkers to be fictional.
This is one of the best scenes in the first episode, and tells us so much about these two characters, and the history between these two families. This is the first interaction we see between the two characters who have been set up as the "villain" and the "hero", and it lives up to the moment. After all, the entire series will be one big boxing match between these two families, and this is where it starts. So many great lines of dialogue, and all of them are fantastic because they are full of subtext. The exposition that is used (sparingly, and well) gives us a full picture of the history between these two families. It's just enough exposition to tell us what we need to know, and then we never have to get into it again. That's how you use exposition - to get everything off to the races between these two. It's expertly crafted dialogue, so let's take a closer look:
"What's the saying? The king shits, and The Hand wipes"
This is a great way for Jamie to both show his irreverent side, but also his utter disdain for Ned. He does this, all while hiding behind a supposed saying/joke. In just two sentences, we "get it". Such a great line.
This is my favorite interaction in the pilot:
"Very handsome armor, not a scratch on it."
Ned talking crap about the Lannister's wealth, and privilege
"People have been swinging at me for years, but they always seem to miss."
Jamie taking Ned's barb, and turning it around to talk about how great of a fighter he us, and warning Ned at the same time
"You've chosen your opponents wisely, then."
Ned basically telling Jamie he's no match for him
"I have a knack for it."
Jamie letting him know he's not afraid of Ned/bring it on.
This next scene is the culmination of 4 episodes of struggle for the character of Daenerys, who goes from meek and seemingly weak, to becoming a powerful woman who leads an army. This transition, from married off sibling to warlord's wife, is one of the most engaging throughlines of the series. This moment, when Daenerys stands up to her supposedly domineering brother and shows him to be the true weakling, is one of those "stand up and cheer" moments that you also want to pepper into your stories. The moment you make the character that's been put upon - the underdog - finally shine, takes time to build. Game of Thrones took it's time, and really put Daenerys through the ringer, in order to earn this great moment:
This next scene has a death in it, so MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. Skip this section and go down to the next video if you want to avoid a major death spoiled that will be discussed here. This scene you're about to watch expertly builds tension, piece by piece, until the final climax and death. From the moment he crashes the party, drunk, we know this isn't going to end well for someone.
It takes 6 episodes for Viserys to finally get his, but when he does, the build up is worth it. Notice how they don't subtitle what Khal Drogo says, and how this builds suspense for the audience.
At first we wonder how Viserys can be so bold with his sword when going up against these obviously bigger and stronger warriors. Soon, it all makes sense, and it takes just one line of dialogue: "they can't shed blood in their sacred city...but I can". And now all of a sudden we've gone from fearing what will happen to a drunk Viserys, and now we are worried about what he might do to Daenerys. Because the Khal and his warriors can't fight him, as the scene moves forward, we wonder how the tables will turn on Viserys. The writers (and Khal Drogo) find a unique way around that pesky rule (just introduced minutes prior), and save Daenerys and the day.
Reversal of fortune is a recurring motif in the series, and happens even within scenes themselves quite frequently in GAME OF THRONES. Shifting power within a scene is another way to add texture to your scenes and dialogue when you're writing.
This next scene is another scene that illustrates perfectly the idea of dialogue that shifts who has the power/upper hand, and it's between Little Finger and Lord Varys:
For those of you who have no watched the series, this is the first time we meet these two characters. Littlefinger and Lord Varys in the throne chamber, attacking each other using the weapons they use best - their minds. One upping each other, trying to poke and prod and gain the upper hand - like a sword fight of words. Who has the power here? It goes back and forth, even up until the last line "Hadn't you heard?". Let's take a closer look at some of the great lines in this scene:
"All those birds who whisper in your ears, such pretty little things." - cluing the audience in to the fact that these two have spies everywhere
"Tell me, does someone somewhere keep your balls in a little box?" - in the series, prior to this scene, we've heard others talk about "the eunuch", but we have yet to meet that character as an audience member. We are clued into the fact that we have met "the eunuch" through this joke/dig at Lord Varys expense. A clever and subtle feeding of information to the audience.
"Do you know that I have no idea where they are, and we had been so close" - this line is funny, and definitely gives us a sense of both his character and sensibility about his predicament in this overly sexual world.
"How have you been since we last saw each other?"
"Since you last saw me, or since I last saw you?"
"Saw me with your own eyes?"
A nice turn of phrase, but again cementing in the audience's mind the game these two play behind the scenes.
The great way that they both threaten each other, and then keep each other in check with the information they hold on each other, is brilliant.
Here is another scene with a reversal of fortune, but in a much more interesting way.
Though he is a captive, and tied up and powerless to stop Lady Stark, he holds all the power in this scene. With just his words, he laughs in the face of his captives, death, and anything Lady Stark throws at him. And he knows exactly what to say to jab her weakest spots. MAJOR SPOILER ALERT is revealed in the dialogue of this scene:
Caitlyn Stark and Jamie Lannister talk at night
This scene is long, and you don't need to watch the whole thing, but the key takeway is this: the very first time we see Tywin Lannister, after he's been talked about for many episodes, is him field dressing a deer he's just killed. Talk about a character introduction! When we are writing, and we talk about the need to have your actors DOING something while they talk, this is a prime example of how what you make a character DO can reveal that person's personality. How much more macho/brutal can you be than field dressing a kill? It also shows the relationship between father and son, and how that has and will rule over most of the decisions Jamie Lannister makes.
key line: "A lion doesn't concern himself with the opinions of a sheep"
"the future of our family will be determined in the next few months. We could establish a dynasty that could last a thousand years...or we could collapse into nothing, as the Targaryens did".
Tywin talks to Jamie Lannister
This last scene has a TON of spoilers in it, and it's from one of the later episodes of season one. This scene finally reveals the human side to Cersei (a villain) that we have heretofore yet to see. We start to understand who she is, why she is the way she is, and how her relationship with Robert could have gone so far astray. A number of story lines converge in this one scene, and the fate of so many characters hang in the balance of what these two characters decide in this moment in time. Again with the power shifts within the dialogue, except this time it all comes to a head:
Some key lines:
"We came into this world together, we belong together"
"then that night he crawled on top of me stinking of wine, and did what he did what little he could do, and whispered in my ear "Leanna". Your sister was a corpse and I was a living girl and he loved her more than me"
"I've made many mistakes in my life, but that wasn't one of them"
"Oh, but it was. When you play the Game of Thrones, you win, or you die, there is no middle ground."
If you haven't seen the entire series, get on HBOGo and watch it immediately. You won't regret it - Season Three starts sunday.Winter is coming...
For decades, Television was considered the ugly stepchild to cinema. It was seen as less artistic, with less depth, and less craft. But something funny happened over the last decade of Television – real quality, with real movie stars, and shows aiming for “prestige” and Emmys (much like how in the feature world, “Oscar bait” movies help to buoy the thought of cinema as “classy”) began to populate the landscape. HBO was a tremendous part of this push, with shows like THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS, and they helped usher in the thought that yes, Virginia – cable can be a place for TV to flourish. From shows like BREAKING BAD to GAME OF THRONES to MAD MEN and everything else in between, HBO brought Cable TV out into the light, and now network TV is playing catch up. So sure, quality shows are everywhere now - but isn’t it impossible for aspiring writers to break into TV?
Yes, TV has always been incredibly hard to break into. Any ol’ aspiring writer couldn’t just write a pilot and sell it the way feature specs are sold. Joe Blow Screenwriter couldn’t just write a TV show spec and get a gig writing for a TV show right off the street. It was usually years of working your way up from intern to assistant to staff writer - akin to the path managers, agents, and executives used to rise up the ranks. But with more channels needing more content every day (including HULU and Netflix getting into the game), and with traditional “seasons” going out the window, Pilot season is growing in size every day. Opportunity is in the air for aspiring writers, and that wench’s name is TV.
What’s interesting to me is that most aspiring writers focus so much on features, which means less competition for TV from aspiring writers. But the thing is, Television is where the money is. The pay is more stable as a TV writer, as most feature writers may go years without selling a second script. And if you create a show that makes it on air? You won’t believe how much money those guys make. The money in features is in rewrites, not specs – so there is opportunity in features, but these days it’s become a little stagnant for newbie writers.
But fear not, dear reader – the fastest growing opportunity for you is TV (and so far, no one seems to be talking about it). Last year, more pilots sold than ever before. More specs from aspiring writers are making it through the closed gates, and they are getting repped and staffed like never before. Even Joe Blows are getting staffed, and more and more shows are being created by writers with less and less experience. My screenwriting conference, the Studio Networking and Screenwriting Conference (www.studionetworkingconference.com) was specifically created to take advantage of this new wave and will showcase classes on TV writing for Feature Writers. On top of the classes and training that will be featured at the conference, we're going to create and give you a number of tools that will make writing for TV even easier.
If you’re going to write for TV (and you should), this conference and the tools we're going to give you will make it even easy. Here's just a small sample of what we're going to provide: a list of all the shows agents and managers think are "hot" to spec, easy to follow road maps for those shows, show templates, show scripts, show breakdowns, and much more. From multicam sitcom to one hour drama, we're going to make it very plug and play.
And every reader of this blog will be able to buy tickets to the conference for 50% off - making it just $249. All you have to do is email firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know you'd like the ticket discount.
The greatest opportunity for aspiring screenwriters today lies in Television – are you going to grasp it while you can?
After a long conversation with an agent friend of mine, he gave me the age old lament ?all the scripts I?ve been reading are crap?. He reminisced about past scripts, ones that ?really grabbed you by the balls ? and I?m not talking action scripts either?. Of course, because he was talking to me, he recounted the first time he read Travis Beacham?s script THE GLOAMING, which was later renamed KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW when it sold to New Line.
I thought a lot about that conversation, and after going back and reading Travis? first script, I understood both what he was saying, and what other writers could do to emulate that same ?hair standing up on the back of the neck? feeling that reading a fantastic script can give you.
It?s the same feeling Hollywood had when they read JUNO, where the dialogue POPPED off the page.
It?s the same feeling they got reading Zach Helm?s scripts, whose whimsical description, action lines, and plot turns POPPED off the page (unfortunately though, they didn?t translate so well to the screen).
It?s the same feeling they got reading THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, which for a long time was at the top of many people?s ?best scripts that have never been made? list.
Regardless of what happened after the script became a movie, the common theme here is that these scripts POPPED off the page. They grabbed you by the scruff of your neck with their writing, and didn?t let you go until they were done with you.
In many cases, they launched careers ? which is what you guys want, right? So let?s talk about some key elements you can incorporate into your scripts that will give that same ?goosebumps? feeling.
Too often, writers believe that, unless a story is science-fiction or fantasy, they don?t need to worry about building a unique or compelling story world. Nothing could be further from the truth ? audiences adore being thrust into unique but everyday worlds they would otherwise not encounter ? so really work to make your story world more vividly described.
It doesn?t matter if your movie takes place in an intergalactic space empire, modern day Los Angeles, or a motel in Iowa ? you need to make the setting and world, time and place, POP off the page.
Even if it?s Suburbia, USA it needs to not only FEEL like a unique and interesting place, but one that puts on emphasis on WHY this place for THIS movie.
To take the Suburbia, USA example to its extreme, think about EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. It used the typical "homogenized suburbia" and put it through a colorful prism in order to contrast with the dark, foreboding feel of Edward?s home on the hill.
Thematically, it fits so perfectly ? the arrival of this seemingly dark character into this cheery, colorful suburban neighborhood is what it needed to ?wake up? from it?s dream. It also took the classic ?Beauty and the Beast? story and turned it on it?s head ? bringing the beast to the village, rather than the other way around. But most importantly, the setting (suburbia) popped off the page (and screen) because it was unique, interesting, and answered the question of ?why here?? perfectly. There could be no better setting than the one that was chosen.
When choosing a setting, or when going back through an already written script ? ask yourself ?why this time and place??. If there isn?t a definitive, absolute answer as to why you?ve set your story where you have, and when you have, then your story world will be lacking. And it will definitely be reflected on the page.
Let?s say you do have a definitive answer as to ?why here and now??. Great. Now ask yourself ?is it showing up on the page??. This is extremely important ? as writers we know everything there is to know about our stories, characters, and scripts ? it?s all in our heads. But for the convenience of everyone not living in our heads, are all of those things showing up on the page? Many times, the answer is no.
Another sign of great writing is when your setting is so well drawn, that it becomes another character in the story. Think about how in the movie DRIVE, Los Angeles is portrayed in an almost noir-ish 80?s vibe, and the city at night becomes a character The Driver interacts with. It feels alive and part of the action - rather than a boring background to get the protagonist from scene to scene.
In GAME OF THRONES, many of the different settings are like characters themselves, and even come to represent the entire population of the people who live in them. The Wall defines The Rangers. King?s Landing signifies wealth, and The Iron Islands (2nd season) are just as strong and immovable as it?s people.
Getting to this point with your settings, whether it?s on the tapestry of a fantasy or sci-fi script, on the streets of a gritty New York, a laid back Los Angeles, or a small town called Fargo ? is all about BRINGING IT TO LIFE.
Here are a couple examples from Travis Beacham?s script, THE GLOAMING:
EXT. OBERON SQUARE -- LATER
In all its decaying, imperial splendor.
Philostrate ascends the stairs of the underground station,
out into a plaza of crumbling marble sculptures.
He walks past TOURISTS feeding a thick flock of pigeons.
The black dome of Parliament looms in the distance.
An OLD FAERIE with withered wings pushes a cart piled high
with trinkets. Laughing SCHOOLBOYS sneak up behind her and
throw pigeon food at her.
If you?ve never heard of KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW, it?s about a serial killer that preys on faeries in a dark, Victorian steam punk thriller. It?s fantastic, and hopefully it actually gets made.
So, let?s look at the scene excerpt. First, notice how the little details not only set up where we are very quickly, but we can SEE it in our mind (the crumbling marble sculptures), can HEAR it (the LAUGHING schoolboys), and can smell it (a flock of pigeons). Also notice how quickly the scene is set. Quick, short action lines. Economy of words.
So, that was just a basic example of "introducing a setting". We get where we are, and it pops off the page. This next one is a little more interesting, and is one of my favorite moments in the script:
Two CONSTABLES slide the body into a black body bag.
Philostrate passes them, looking out over the gray, fog choked
A distant tall masted ship floats by. Obscured
creatures move about the deck. Bottom approaches him.
Where's the girl who found the body?
Name's Moira. She's in her skin, in
the water over there.
A slick, supple seal-esque creature emerges from the tide.
It climbs up onto a rock in the distance. Stretching,
contorting, opening its mouth impossibly wide.
This bit still gives me the creeps.
A human face pushes through the open mouth. A whole head
emerges. Curly red hair. A hand. An arm. A shoulder.
The girl underneath pulls off the dark sealskin as if she's
sliding out of a tight leather skirt.
MOIRA stands on the rock in her "human" form, completely
nude. Slim fair-skinned body flecked in a blizzard of light
pink freckles. Her ears pointed like a faerie's.
Philostrate politely turns away. Bottom stares slack-jawed
with a mix of morbid fascination and disgust.
It is very important to first mention that this is the only time we see both this character AND this kind of creature in the entire movie. She's just a small little detail of the entire story world. The scene that follows, a short Q and A to get some information, is no different than any good cop show. But it?s amazing to read because of the vivid SETTING. Because of the vivid CHARACTER. Because of the vivid STORY WORLD. Because of the writing and creativity and above all ? economy of words.
You could have the most amazing story world described in your script, but if it reads like a novel, it's going in the trash. No matter how vivid you make your world, make sure we dont get lost in the details, make sure it doesn't distract from the story, and make sure it doesn't delay the story moving forward. And as always, make sure it's a quick read.
Imagine if someone had told you to write a scene where you introduce a fantastical creature that looks like a seal, and then a woman comes out of its mouth - whole. Would you have been able to describe it in 3 lines or less? Would you have been able to keep the story moving despite needing to take the time to introduce a brand new SPECIES? I know I wouldn?t.
An extreme example to be sure ? but it illustrates perfectly what a well written, unique, perfectly fitting setting can look like.
So, here are some questions you need to think about when writing, and/or rewriting your script to make sure the story world is popping off the page:
Why did you choose this setting?
What are some characteristics of the setting that stand out? What can we SEE, what can we HEAR, what can we SMELL in the background that will bring it to life? What is happening in the background? What are some tertiary things we might see out of the corner of our eye, if we were paying attention?
How does the scenery change and develop over the time?
What are the Landmarks of the place?
You need to feed all of the senses of the reader, to depict a clear setting and location. You may not describe every little thing (in fact, you shouldn?t), but if you can convey a little interesting detail here, or a unique detail there, you will quickly build a unique story world.
What is it that makes your setting easily identifiable as YOURS? This doesn?t even have to be on a national scale (like setting it at the Washington monument, or the pyramids of giza), but when we see it, either in our heads or on the page, we immediately associate it with your movie/script. Think of the TV series THE MISFITS (hulu). When I see that skyline of concrete low income housing, I think of the show and the characters and all the emotions the show brings out of me. If you can write a movie that makes an executive ACTUALLY remember it, just because of the story world, that?s huge.
Now that you?ve started thinking about interesting landmarks or unique locations of where you?ve decided to set your movie, think about this on the scene level. Does this scene have to be in a restaurant? Does that scene have to be in a bedroom? The more you can get your characters out into the world, interacting with it and within it, the more your script and story world comes ALIVE.
Even if characters have to be inside a restaurant, or some other ?boring? location, be specific about where that scene takes place, and what that setting feels like, so that the reader can feel like they?re in this setting with these characters.
Simple exercise: imagine you?ve set a script in modern day Los Angeles ? think of all the landmarks of the city ? the getty, the observatory, the la brea tar pits, or other places that are unique to Los Angeles. Put a ?dinner scene? there. What does that do? Unless your script is about cooking, it forces you to cut out all the BS, and focus the scene on JUST the information you need to move the story forward and give the characters depth.
So all of those are just a few questions to ask yourself when building your story world in order to make it POP. Now let?s talk about characters.
While great dialogue with unique voices is a major force behind making your characters POP (as I?ve written about in the past), one very simple change you can make to your writing (or rewriting) that will help them pop off the page even more is using this simple tip:
Reveal a bit about your characters through a quirky or unique piece of action that speaks volumes about who they are.
?What does that even mean?? you say. ?I?m not writing an indie film, there?s no need for any quirkiness here!? you say. Well, bear with me.
One example I like to use that sets up a character very quickly (almost effortlessly) in the audience?s mind was in the movie UNFAITHFUL, with Diane Lane and Richard Gere. As you may already know, that movie is about an average, suburban housewife who meets a mysterious man and has an affair. Since she?s the protagonist, and she?s the one doing the cheating, it?s a highwire act because we have to LIKE her, we have to SYMPATHIZE with her, and we have to root for her ? an adulterous wife. So how do you pull that off?
In the opening, there?s a scene where Diane Lane is doing the laundry, helping her son get off to school, etc. After she sees her son off to the bus, she passes by a table with a chewed up piece of gum sticking to it. Instead of being disgusted, or angry that her young son left it there, she simply pops it into her mouth and goes about her day cleaning the house.
In a movie where she ultimately cheats on her husband, this little moment in the beginning humanized her, made her real ? like a real mom with real faults and real reactions to the gross things kids leave around the house. It was such a small detail, but so perfect and spoke volumes ? these are the kinds of small details that can bring a character to life quickly.
In a format where you have so little time to set up characters, these small details can be all the difference ? whether in the strength of the material, or how it?s received.
One last thing to think about, along the same lines as having small character details - when you integrate character development into the sequence of action ? what a character is DOING, that?s how cut down on and eliminate exposition. Keeping things moving, keeping characters DOING, while revealing bits about these characters in the process of WHAT they are doing ? helps you write better dialogue and create memorable, CINEMATIC characters.
So whether you?re writing a new script, or going through an existing script, find all the little ways you can enhance your setting, enhance your scene work, and enhance your characters and make them POP off the page.
Today we will continue the "Killer" series with another aspect of a script that ? if you can master it ? will give you a studio worthy piece of material.
As we all know, the name of the game is to write a script so good that anyone who reads it says ?this guy/gal?s got it!? Many times, the dialogue in a script can be the one thing that makes people want to champion your work. The best example being Juno, which got accepted into the Sundance Screenwriter?s program and later turned into a movie based on the strength (and arguably the originality) of the dialogue.
The action lines were serviceable, and the story was fine, but the dialogue ? whoa. When the Sundance list hit agent and manager?s inboxes and Juno first started getting passed around, you would have thought no one in Hollywood had ever read great dialogue until Diablo Cody slapped them upside the head with it. Looking back, it was absolutely ridiculous the hyperbole being thrown around ? but at the end of the day, her voice was so strong and the dialogue so interesting, and yes, full of subtext, that dialogue alone landed her a big career.
So what are the different aspects you need to integrate into your dialogue to make it pop? First, let?s touch on some basics:
1. Too Much Dialogue
A script is not a play ? your goal is NOT to have dialogue that looks like a bunch of monologues. Try to keep 95% of your dialogue to 3 lines or less on the page. Clever dialogue is found in quick back and forth exchanges, not prose-y speeches. Think about one of the best screenwriters known for his dialogue ? Aaron Sorkin. Have you ever watched a scene from The West Wing? Here's an example.
Now, it?s not perfect by any stretch, but it illustrates the point that if you keep it snappy, it keeps it moving. And a fast moving script, like a fast moving story, is entertaining and ? sometimes ? it can move so fast that you don?t have time to realize whether it?s great quality or not. You just know you?re entertained. So, use it to your advantage. Keep the dialogue short, quick back and forths, and you?ll reveal plot and character just as quickly.
Now, a side point I want to make about this, and what Sorkin does so well in one of my other favorite shows, Sports Night, is he uses quick back and forths to set up a brilliant monologue. You don?t get a whole bunch of monologues during the course of one show, but you get one that really sticks you in the gut. And THAT is how you use a monologue like a pro. Here is one of my favorite scenes in the entire series. It?s not perfect, and the first season of Sports Night was just getting some footing and the laugh track was horrible, but it should illustrate my point.
2. Lack of Subtext
We?ve all heard the word. We know what it means. And yet it is the most common reason for bad dialogue. The absolute number one mark of an amateur is dialogue that lacks subtext. Subtext is when a character says something and we (the reader or audience) can tell or know that there is something behind the words of what is being said. For example, let?s take a protagonist we know is hurting from a break up, and he runs into his ex on the street:
The weather?s pretty nice today.
Seems kind of cold to me.
Now, it?s not the world?s best writing. But you get my example. We, the reader, know there?s something behind the protagonist?s words. He?s making a dig at his ex, and referencing their break-up ? all while on the surface talking about the weather. That?s subtext.
When it comes to dialogue and subtext, never ever have a character come out and say what he is thinking or feeling. Brilliant characters have us discover/uncover what?s going on inside their heads by their actions, or how they dance around important topics when they?re talking ? not how they address them head on.
Here is an example of what I?m talking about in a script by Allan Loeb called ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK.
Now, say what you will about Loeb?s produced movies, but his scripts are excellent reads ? and this script, along with Things We Lost in the Fire were low concept indie scripts that got him big writing assignments and truly launched his career. This script in particular has long been on lists of ?the best unproduced scripts,? and has been in development for awhile. Now, onto what you should notice from the script?
First, it?s obvious that Thomas is hopelessly and totally in love with Mimi from the get go, and if you read the entire story the art gallery scene not only does a fantastic job setting up the whole movie, but it sets up the theme brilliantly as well. Notice how the characters dance around the elephant in the room for as long as possible ? and then BAM! Thomas is forced to bring the elephant into play (that they slept together). Even when Thomas is laying out on the table, he?s not really laying it out on the table. We know he?s hopelessly and deeply in love with her ? but does he ever say it? NO. And we can tell from Mimi?s opening line and subsequent dialogue that she knows he?s hopelessly in love with her ? but she never addresses it head on. She uses the critique of the art piece they are looking at to circumvent actually having to SAY what she?s really thinking. This scene is full of all kinds of other subtext, but you get the drift.
3. Characters All Sounding the Same
Now, common culprit that keeps writers from making their work studio quality material is characters that sound exactly alike. Remember, each character in your script is a living, breathing, thinking person with different wants, needs, and point of view from the others.
A good exercise to fleshing out characters is to figure out what each character?s super objective is. It sounds like a hokey term, but in essence you figure out what a character truly wants in life (not necessarily in the story). These are the big things, the ones in our very core ? to love, to be loved, to be powerful, to be respected, etc.
Once you figure that out, realize that this is JUST to determine their core character ? how they approach every situation and character they encounter during the course of your story. It?s the foundation, and while it?s certainly the most important layer, there are more layers: the style, and the details.
A character?s style is not about their fashion, but about how, knowing their core, they approach life and other people. Things like humor, vanity, selfishness, selflessness, etc. You can think of a character?s style as a collection of their coping and defense mechanisms. How they get by on their day to day life.
The details are how, knowing their core and their style, what little actions they take frequently. For instance, if he drinks a lot, or is always fixing his hair or keeps a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve ? even though he never actually smokes. Each person has their own unique tics ? and as they say the devil is in the details. Well, the character is right there with El Diablo (call back!) as well.
So to finish up what you need to notice about the Only Living Boy in New York script, between the character?s roundabout way of parsing out information, their distinct voices from each other (stemming from different wants), and the dialogue feeding into the theme ? each of those individually are subtext, but the fact that all three are present clues the reader in that the writer is a professional.
4. Word Pictures / Visuals Within the Dialogue
As you know, great action lines have visuals that pop and succinct word pictures. Things that when we read it, we can quickly and easily see it in our minds. It?s the difference between:
A. The notebook gets passed over the table
B. The bulging notebook slides across the table
When talking about action lines, it?s obvious why and how to integrate word pictures. But what about dialogue?
Well, obviously if a character is speaking ABOUT something, if they can say it in a visual fashion, the audience will be able to quick and easier see (and depending on how good you are) and feel it in their own heads. Here is another example from Sports Night (I?m a Sports Night machine, I know).
Notice how he describes how his brother was a genius (?the kit he built??), notice ?you deserved better in my hands? (which is a nice use of a metaphorical word picture), notice how we can see in our heads what must have happened that fateful night he ran a red light. THIS is visual dialogue.
5. Leaving the Obvious Out
I?m not going to get too deep into this, as it?s pretty self explanatory and most of you are already doing this well. Basically, another aspect of great dialogue is about leaving the obvious out. This does go hand in hand with subtext, but it comes at it from a different angle. On its most basic level, it?s when we as an audience are expecting a character to say something? and then they dont. Maybe they give a look, or say something else, or don?t say anything at all, but we get it anyway. An easy example would be if we?re in a romantic scene, and we are expecting the Protagonist to finally(!) say ?I love you.? But instead, he looks deep in her (or his) eyes and:
I want you to know-
I know. You too.
They kiss deeply.
So, that?s leaving the obvious out. An extension of that is (drum roll?.)
6. Changing the Obvious Up
This one is pretty self explanatory, but it?s about taking the audience expectations and turning them on it?s head. For instance, if a female protagonist were to ask a male protagonist for his hand in marriage. While it?s the 21st century, this hasn?t been done too often in movies or TV yet, so it?s unexpected.
Lastly, we have one of Sorkin?s (and mine) favorites:
7. Call Backs
When a character references something that was said earlier, either by themselves or another character, it?s a call back. Sorkin?s work is full of this, as is Mamet?s and others. It?s usually used as a way to inject humor, but it can definitely be used for dramatic effect as well. In the Sports Night clip earlier, Dana said ?You?re ruining my show? when she walked into Dan?s office, and then again when she left. That?s a call back.
Now, here?s a script that features call backs, changing the obvious up, leaving the obvious out, and a whole host of other things we?ve highlighted in this article. Ready, here we go.
Now, this scene is about Ben going home with his girlfriend to meet her family. It?s the type of scene we?ve seen many times before, usually played for comedy. Except these pages takes the Meet the Parents set up and turns it into a subtle, beautiful, realistic situation. My favorite moment in these pages is when Ben does a call back to Olivia?s ?I did the math.? That moment is brilliant because not only is it a nice call back for the audience, but the fact that Ben uses it makes this little girl he?s trying to befriend totally go all-in to Ben?s camp. The part where we realize the father is going to accept him when he gives him the glove his father gave him leaves out the obvious ? he doesn?t actually tell Ben he likes him or that he is glad he?s his daughter?s boyfriend. He doesn?t have to because of the ACTION he took. Instead, he just says ?welcome to the family? ? but that line has so much more meaning BECAUSE he didnt come out and praise Ben. How this scene plays out really speaks to ?changing the obvious? as we?ve seen this set up before so many times ? played for broad comedy ? that it?s refreshing to see it played softly.
I?m not saying these are perfect pages (it?s from a rough draft of one of my favorite writer?s passion projects), but they do a great job illustrating the last three points I wanted to make.
As always, feel free to email me your questions at email@example.com
Greetings from Ireland. I hope you?re well. I found your latest article on high concept writing in Scriptmag very helpful. I?m currently working on a few feature scripts but have been concentrating on making my own short films up to this point, one of which will screen at the Irish Film Festival of Boston next month.
I was wondering if you could offer some advice? I have gone to festivals in the USA before (horror is my thing and I won an award at a competition in New Jersey and also went to the NYC Horror Film Festival with my last short), and done some good networking, but unfortunately LA has eluded me so far.
I?m torn at the moment between going out to present my latest short in Boston (not LA or even NY, I know), in the hopes of drumming up contacts and interest in my work, or saving the time and money to polish a few scripts and maybe head out to LA for a couple of weeks instead and try and get meetings etc. But, of course, I have no contacts in LA?
I?d really appreciate any help.
Thank you so much for your email and kind words on the article! I truly appreciate it.
To be perfectly blunt, unless a short is in a major festival like Sundance, it?s best to save your money. While networking is important, unless it?s in a major festival, the networking you?ll be able to do will not be beneficial enough to warrant a trip (and certainly not one from Ireland!).
To put this in even starker contrast, when people ask me about short films, I always tell them one thing: unless you?ve got a feature script behind it, nobody in the industry much cares. Even when people get their shorts into Sundance, many times ALL that comes from it is the networking they manage to do while there ? a festival winning short doesn?t launch as many careers as it once did.
On the flip side, if you do create a brilliant short, you will get 100 times more traction and career launching using the internet than you can from a festival. Especially if you?re talking genres like comedy, horror, or sci-fi, which you are.
As well, if someone sees a brilliant short at a festival, they?ll contact you using the email address in the festival program, so you don?t even have be there anymore anyways.
Lastly, if you do have a brilliant short, and people are emailing you about it (whether from a festival or the internet), the ONLY question that every industry person will ask you is: do you have a feature script? Even if it?s not a feature version of the short, the only currency in this business for filmmakers is a feature script.
Now, with all of that said, I would post your short online using vimeo, start trying to get websites and blogs to link to it, and let it take on a life of it?s own. Before, during, and after all of that, I would focus on finishing your features. Again, that?s the only currency you have as an unknown filmmaker, and your biggest asset.
Lastly, I wouldn?t just come out to L.A. and try and drum up interest and meetings while you?re here. I would use the features and short to drum up interest and meetings BEFORE you ever think of buying a plane ticket, so that you guarantee that your trip will be well worth your time when you come.
It sounds to me like you?ve definitely got talent (having been in multiple festivals), so it?s what you do with your talent that will make the difference. The time right now is crucial, because I can?t tell you the number of filmmakers who had a couple great shorts in festivals and then never finished a feature (and thus their festival successes never went anywhere). Getting a short or feature in a festival is the easy part ? the networking you put into the event is the moderately difficult part ? the hard part is finishing a fantastic feature that you can use when drumming up interest with your short.
Hope that helps,
So that?s what I sent Rob. That information was in the context of a FILMMAKER. What is incredibly important to add to the discussion about short films is for WRITERS. And that is this:
If you?re a writer, and you encounter, are friends with, or know a quality director or filmmaker, offer to write as many short films for them as you can. Collaborate and make as many quality shorts as possible (while still writing your features, of course), and put them up on the internet. Why?
You never know which one of those will end up giving you a big break. ESPECIALLY if we?re talking comedy ? these days successful comedy short films and short film series are launching pads for talent. Donald Glover of Community fame (if you?re not watching Community, do yourself a favor and check it out ? the writing during the second season has been fantastic) launched his career making short films on YouTube for derrickcomedy, got his break and was hired to write for 30 Rock, and his star keeps rising every day.
The Lonely Island, i.e. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, who are now on a boat, started in their YouTube backyards.
His story, of using YouTube to get a break, is not unique. For every Donald Glover there?s a Fede Alvarez, who got that 30 million dollar contract off his Sci-Fi short Ataque de Panico. YouTube.com and FunnyorDie.com is becoming a virtual breeding ground for future talent ? so just because you?re ?only? a writer doesn?t mean you can?t take part as well.
And if you can?t find anyone to direct your short masterpieces, go to xtranormal.com and hook yourself up with an online web series ? courtesy of those 3D fuzzballs.
At the end of the day though, don?t neglect your features. Short films are one more avenue to explore towards getting industry attention, but it pales in comparison with having a finished feature screenplay of quality.
If you have any questions of your own, please feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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