|Alex Epstein is a screenwriter for television and movies, and author of the book Crafty Screenwriting. He co-created the comic drama television series Naked Josh, which is now running on the Oxygen Network (U.S.A.) and on Showcase (in Canada); the pilot episode was just nominated for a Canadian Screenwriting Award. He was most recently Head Writer for a new science fiction TV series, Charlie Jade, which premiered on April 16, 2005, on Space. Previously, he was the executive story editor for the science fiction series Galidor (on Fox Kids and YTV). He has freelanced on various other shows. A feature film he co-wrote, Warriors, starred Gary Busey.
Before devoting himself to writing, Epstein was a development executive at various production companies in Los Angeles, working with such directors as Lord Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) and John Badham (Saturday Night Fever), and helped develop many independent pictures.
- Does Spelling Count?
- Basic Format
- Screenplay Length
- Basic Style
- No Camera Direction
- Only Write What You Can See/Hear
- Cut To’s and William Goldman
- Character Names
- Voice Overs
- Read Your Script Out Loud
- Never Make Your Characters Stupider Than You Are
- On the Nose Dialogue
- No Unnecessary Bad Language
- Using Songs and Music in your Script
- Random Thoughts on Fleshing Out Characters
- Never write from hunger!
- Horror and Thriller Don’t's
- Science Fiction and Fantasy Don’t's
- Some thoughts on Period Pieces
- A Brief Rant About Readers
- Words to Live By
- Screenwriting is a Craft, not Art
- Query first
- The First Reel Contract
- Pitch Your Movie To Yourself
- Cast Your Movie
- Development Exec Myths
- The Rubber Ducky
- How We Know Character
- Pat the Dog Scene
- Secret Lives of Characters
- It’s Episodic
- Love Thy Enemy
- External Antagonist, Intimate Opponent and Tragic (or Comic) Flaw
- Literary Names
- How to Adapt a Book (Hitchcock Method)
- How to Write a Script Based on a True Story
- Editing Your Scenes
- Foreign Language Dialogue
Similarly, development execs as “why do we like the hero? In response, writers like to throw in a “pat the dog” scene to appease development execs. In the PTD scene, the hero is nice to a stray dog, orphan child, pet iguana, etc., something to show that although he is a hard bitten squinty eyed sonofabitch, he’s warm and fuzzy inside. Almost every successful mainstream movie will give you several moments where we see a human side to even the toughest hero.
Pat the dog scenes are easier than doing the hard work of making the story so compelling, and the segues from scene to scene so seamless, that the reader never has a moment to wonder why he likes or doesn’t like the main character.
But it’s not necessary. In All That Jazz, for example, Joe Gideon is not a likeable guy; in fact he’s a shit. But he’s honest about what a shit he is, and he really does care about creating. Instead of a PTD scene, give your hero a dream, something s/he really wants to do but can’t because of his/her circumstances. Dorothy dreams of a place “over the rainbow.”
Or a driving goal. Dorothy needs to get back home to Kansas. In Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino’s character holds up a bank in order to get his gay transvestite lover enough money for the operation to make him a woman. A weird goal, but a driving one.
Or, give the hero a big problem that makes us care about him. In Lethal Weapon, Riggs puts a gun in his mouth every morning and tries to think of a reason not to pull the trigger. Dorothy is going to lose her dog Toto. Rick Deckard has to kill five replicants, even though he wants to quit blade running.
Or, as above, give the hero things to do, say and feel that are integral to the story that make us know him for a hero.
Villains, it is generally thought, should be fun to be around. Richard III is a gas; he’s really whooping it up being a rat bastard. Darth Vader is cool, in a horrible way. Likewise, the sheer intensity of a hero or antihero can carry him through the “likeability” hurdle – see Night of the Hunter – although don’t hold your breath for the “Look Back In Anger” remake.
What do you do when your hero has no redeeming qualities as in, say Leaving Las Vegas? Make him/her as unique, human, truthful and fascinating as you can, and then convince a likeable actor to play him. Many actors love to play unlikeable characters, because they
- can pull out the stops
- think it’s harder, and
- don’t like themselves.
In no case can your hero have a trace of self-pity. (Don’t talk to me about Albert Brooks, I don’t want to hear it.)
As an aside, there are a lot of writers who feel that you should know much more about your characters than your audience will. There is a school of thought that says you should write full backstories for all your characters, i.e. where they went to school, what they majored in, what mom did for a living, where they live etc. The theory is that this will help you give your characters life.
The danger in this technique, as I see it, is that your audience will only absorb what is actually on the screen. The reader will only absorb what is on the page. If there is something youÕre not telling us, how do we know it?
The argument is that the knowledge somehow seeps into the character as you write him or her. Somehow, your secondary character takes on a greater fleshiness by virtue of your knowing him or her better.
It is certainly true that actors must know their characters better than the audience does, or they will not seem real. They should know what the character was doing before the scene began, what he would be doing if the scene never happened, what the characterÕs goals in life are, and so on.
Personally, I like to discover things about the characters as I write what they say and do. That way I am not suckered into writing bland ordinary characters whom I think are exceptional because of the wonderful offscreen life I have created for them. I also am freer to give my characters details that are relevant to their function in the script.
The risk with my approach is that characters may seem well-wrought but no more than functional. They wonÕt have the depth of life.
The flip side of that is that the audience does not always want truly deep secondary characters, or heros for that matter. A good stock character can be great fun for the audience. The obnoxious store clerk. The befuddled grandfather. Do we really want to know about their angst? No, they wouldn’t be as enjoyable. Take Alan Rickman’s over-the-top Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Did we want to know what made him the way he is? Like fun we did. We wanted him pure unadulterated evil. Any explanation would have made him less fun.
This is true not only of schlock, but of great literature. Take Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, who was so well enjoyed in Henry IV and Henry V that the Bard brought him back for his own play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Do we know anything about his childhood? Did Shakespeare? He is a fat, drunken coward prone equally to bursts of hilarity and melancholy. It is what he does onstage that makes us love him.
Roger Zelazny, a marvelous science fiction writer, has an interesting approach that might prove useful, though. Just for himself, he writes a scene with his character that he does not put in the story. Not backstory, but a scene. He then makes a reference in the story to that scene. That gives the audience the feeling that the character has a life of his own.
But note how this is different from a backstory. What makes this technique meaningful is the allusion to the scene which is never explained to the audience.
Don’t overdo it, but it may be worthwhile for your characters to refer to events outside the story. You don’t have to pay off every set up.
When development execs say this, it means the script lacks what I call inevitability. In other words, one episode follows another without the first one forcing the second one. In the ideal dramatic script, one thing leads to the next; nothing happens by accident, but proceeds inevitably from the circumstances in the beginning.
In some scripts this is hard to do, and one wants to say, “I know the Scarecrow episode doesn’t make the Cowardly Lion episode inevitable, but I like it that way!” But when development execs are looking for reasons to reject (which is all the time unless their boss already likes the project), they’ll use the term “episodic” to describe their not being caught up in the unfolding events.
If it is in the nature of your story that new elements cause surprises in the second and third acts, for example if your characters are on the road, meeting new people and having new adventures every reel or so, a strong dramatic motor may fix the problem. In other words, the human relationships between the characters, or the development in the protagonist’s character arc, will provide sinew to hold together what may otherwise be an episodic skeleton.
Note that a screenplay must have inevitability and yet surprise. This is not really a contradiction. The genre and the “contract” often tell us what the eventual outcome of the movie will be. But we don’t know how we’ll get to that outcome. We know James Bond won’t get killed, but we don’t know that when he skis off the cliff, there’s a parachute in his backpack, or there’s a plane waiting to catch him. We don’t know how.
Similarly, in a drama, we need to be able to look back and see how the eventual outcome was “inevitable.” But we can’t know it’s coming until it’s arrived. We have to feel unsure which way the story will go, knowing that it will go the way that will satisfy us.
From scene to scene, there can be simultaneous surprise (we got here) and satisfaction (of course we got here, it’s the only place we could have got).
Easy? No, of course not. That’s why they pay so much to have it done right.
You must love your villain in one of two ways.
- Cartoon villains, in the best sense. Iago. Darth Vader. The Wicked Witch of the West. He is a truly horrible evil person, and there is a tremendous force and intensity to his personality. You love writing him. The actor will love playing him. Think of Hannibal the Cannibal in Silence of the Lambs or the Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Elmira Gulch.
- Realistic villains. Give him tremendous sympathy and self-justification. He believes he has his reasons. Hitler thought he was ridding the world of evil Jews, and taking the world for the Master Race, as was their right. Claudius really loves Gertrude, and has convinced himself he loves Hamlet, too. He feels terribly guilty for murdering Hamlet’s father. O. J. Simpson has convinced himself he is the victim.
The stronger an impression your villain makes, the greater the obstacle for the hero, the better the conflict, the more drama.
So long as you don’t crowd your movie, there’s room for three kinds of conflict. There’s an external antagonist, which may be a person, an organization, or just a situation (beat the clock). There is often also an intimate opponent: someone on the side of the hero who is untrustworthy, or gets in his way, or distracts him. Then there’s the hero’s flaw. In the best drama, the hero’s flaw ties in with the antagonist, so that by confronting the antagonist, he is forced to confront his worst fears. So in a horror movie about werewolves, it might be good for the hero’s deepest fear is to lose control of himself. But all vices have their virtues: the hero may discover that his worst flaw gives him a weapon people without that flaw may not have. In the best drama, everything ties together, but in unexpected ways. Thus your plot can be surprising, yet inevitable: you don’t know how it will turn out, but when it does turn out, you realize that was the only way it could have gone.
Be careful giving names with literary inspiration. Personally, I find it easier to get a grip on a character if he or she has a name that means something. A monster called MEGAERA seems scarier to me than one called TANAKRA, even if many people aren’t going to be sure whether she’s “meg-i-ra” or “meg-ay-ra”. (Megaera is one of the three Furies of Greek Mythology, who hound kinslayers to their doom.) Also, names torn from literature tend to sound more natural than names you make up. Most of J. R. R. Tolkien’s names, believe it or not, are taken from Old English and Old Norse heroic sagas, e.g. Gimli, Eowyn, Gandalf. That’s why they work, and ones created in imitation of his names almost always sound phony.
But “Megaera” won’t necessarily seem scary to a reader without a classical education, which is most readers. For example, I once called a place “Iblis,” which is not only Arabic for “despair,” but the name of the chief djinn, an angel who was ejected from heaven after he refused to reverence Adam, saying, “And shall I worship a lump of clay, I whom Thou didst shape out of smokeless fire?” The exec on the project, an extremely bright and talented woman who had, unfortunately for me, not read the footnotes in Richard Burton’s translation of The Thousand And One Nights, did not think “Iblis” sounded scary enough.
I changed it to Kadesh, which I vaguely recall might be the Hebrew for one of the Ten Plagues in Exodus, or then again, might not be. But it sounds good.
I include the anecdote just to point out that you should do whatever you need to do to tell yourself what the character means, if that’s important to you. But be sure you’re also scoring with a reader who has not read as many books as you have. Even readers who have read as many books as you have will assume that the audience won’t get the allusions they do. Smart, educated studio executives — there are more than you would expect from the stories — regularly assume that the audience is uneducated, intellectually lazy, and scared of anything deep, and that they will resent anything over their heads. They are regularly proved wrong by the success of deep, intelligent, difficult movies. But no one ever got fired for underestimating the audience, and most executives live in fear of being fired during all months with vowels in them.
There is another danger in using clever names. Your readers will periodically understand them perfectly well. They’ll know why you named a character “Janus” and will figure out he’s two-faced before you want them to; or they’ll just be slightly irritated at you. You never want anything that alienates your reader from imagining the movie unspooling in his head.
Read the book once, then throw it away. Figure out what about the book wants to be a movie. Anything that doesn’t stick in your head a day later, shouldn’t be in the outline. Don’t go back to the book for specific dialog or scenes until you’ve written an outline that works as a movie.
The basic problem is, lives don’t have themes, but movies do. Figure out what about the true story wants to be a movie, then write the outline. What is the theme of this life or sequence of events?
Once you’ve decided, write your step outline as you would any other movie. Don’t go back to the source material until you’ve got an outline you’re happy with. If it didn’t stick in your head, it shouldn’t be in the movie.
Get into a scene as late as possible and still make your point, get out of it as soon as possible. What do I mean? On the simplest level, don’t show the guy coming in the door. Start the scene with him slamming the piece of paper on the other guy’s desk and saying “what the hell does this mean?” Then, after a page of brilliant dialog ending in the second guy saying, “what could possibly go wrong?”, cut straight to what goes wrong. Don’t let the scene trail off with the guys shaking hands, etc, etc.. On a practical level, write the scene, then see how much of the head and tail you can lop off without losing anything. Comic books, especially the great ones (Frank Miller, The Dark Night Returns, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, are superb at this, because they only have 16 to 32 pages to tell a story.
- You can get into a scene earlier in order to introduce characters you’ll need later, or to have background information about a character come out, or just to establish the texture of a character’s life. The forward motion of the scene builds as you make your main point, so the exposition you’re doing in the beginning doesn’t feel flabby.
- You can also extend a scene so that it covers two steps, or beats if you will, in which case your scene lengthens. But you still want to get out of the first half of the scene as soon as you can, and into the second half.
If there are going to be subtitles, say so once, then just give the dialogue between parentheses. If there are not going to be subtitles, i.e. we’re not supposed to understand what the Nazis are saying, then try to give the dialogue in the actual language, or a reasonable approximation. Don’t give us the dialogue in English, but tell us in the description that it will be in Spanish. This is distracting and misleading, assuming the reader even notices (many readers skim or ignore the description). If you can’t fake the foreign language, just tell us what it sounds like: “Helmut screams briefly at the soldier, who mutters something apologetic and runs off.”
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