Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #45: Introducing too many characters at once

Sometimes I see scripts that introduce a lot of characters all at the same time. These tend to involve scenes that take place in restaurants or at parties early on in the story. It’s okay to add maybe two or three new characters in a single scene, but if you have any more than that, you’ll need a good reason why it’s important to introduce them all at once. The main problem, of course, is that the reader and the audience will have trouble remembering all those new people that you just threw at them in rapid succession. Think about what it’s like if you’re at a party and meet a bunch of new people all at once. Chances are you won’t remember all of their names unless you use a specific mnemonic technique to make it easier. That’s exactly what it’s like to see a bunch of new characters all at the same time in a script.

Since using a mnemonic device is a good way for people to remember names, you should provide your reader with ones that they can use to remember your characters’ names, whenever you think it will be helpful. Some people call this the “limp and eye patch” rule. For each new character that you introduce, give the reader a strong visual image that will help him remember who that character is. The scene in “Goodfellas” where Henry walks through the bar introducing characters is a good example of this. For most of the characters, he gives this kind of vivid description that makes the characters easy to remember: “Fat Andy,” “Freddy No Nose,” “Nicky Eyes,” “Jimmy Two Times.” You don’t need to do this with your main characters, but it’s always a good idea to make the other characters as memorable as possible.

In addition to giving your minor characters a useful mnemonic, it’s also a good idea to remind the reader who your characters are when you haven’t involved them in the script for a while. For instance, you could say “Johnny the bartender” or “Marissa from the park” or “Alfred’s cousin, Gwen.” If it’s been more than 15 pages or so since you’ve mentioned a minor character, just add a couple of words of description like that to make sure that the reader knows who you’re talking about. (Okay, “about whom you’re talking,” but does that really sound better? Really?) If a reader has to flip back through a script to figure out who one of your characters is, that’s not going to bode well for your script since the audience won’t have the luxury of rewinding the movie at the theater. I’m sure that technology is in the works but, until that magical day, we'll just have to keep writing clearly.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #44: Protagonist not sympathetic

For those of you who have read Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide, Save the Cat!, you know how important it is to do something early on in your script to make the audience care about your protagonist. For those of you who haven’t read Save the Cat!, you should seriously stop what you’re doing and go read it right now. I don’t agree with every single point in this book and it does tend to oversimplify things a bit, but it contains so much practical advice that any aspiring screenwriter should give it a look. Go ahead and read it now – I’ll wait.

Okay, now that you’ve read Snyder’s book, you know that the specific example that he gave about how to make a protagonist sympathetic was from the movie “Alien” where the Sigourney Weaver character, Ripley, is portrayed as a cold-hearted bitch. Since that type of character tends to be unsympathetic, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon did something early on in the story to force the audience to like her – he had her save a cat. I think that might have something to do with the title of Snyder's book, but don’t quote me on that. (Smiley face. Or wink. Or whatever.) The point is that anyone who goes through the trouble to rescue a cat can’t be all bad, so we develop a bond with Ripley that will last throughout the rest of the story. It's fun to manipulate the audience like this!

Another good example of a character who is sympathetic, despite being completely unlikable, is Melvin Udall, the Jack Nicholson character in “As Good As It Gets.” (N.B. – The first time I wrote that sentence, I accidentally typed the word “unlickable” instead of "unlikable." It still made sense, but that wasn’t the point I was trying to get across. Moving on.) He’s not just unsympathetic, he’s staggeringly cruel and thoughtless to every single person he meets. In order to get the audience to sympathize with Melvin, screenwriters James L. Brooks and Mark Andrus take several specific steps: First, they show that Melvin actually has a mental disorder, which lets the audience know that his cruelty is not entirely within his control. Second, we find out that Melvin is actually a best-selling romance author, which means that somewhere behind that evil façade, lies the heart of a romantic. Third, Melvin does something extraordinarily kind for his waitress/love interest, Carol, by getting her son the medical attention that he needs. And finally, Brooks and Andrus show Melvin being mean to a dog at first, then bonding with that dog later.

The big takeaway is that if you want to make a character sympathetic, have him do something nice for an animal; if you want to make him unsympathetic, have him do something mean to an animal. See how easy screenwriting is?

The Adjustment Bureau

Before posting my next tip, I wanted to take a moment to recommend the movie “The Adjustment Bureau.” Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, this script (adapted and directed by George Nolfi) is an excellent example of how to structure a screenplay and how to use early scenes to set up the action to follow. There were a handful of things that I didn't like about the script (the closing voiceover leaps to mind), but overall the screenplay is so well done that it’s very much worth the price of admission.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #43: Predictable dialogue

I mentioned stilted dialogue in my last tip, but another problem that I see sometimes in dialogue is that it can be too predictable. When dialogue is predictable, it comes across as flat and boring, as if the character is just in the scene to help move things along instead of to stir things up. It’s easy to get into a rut of just writing down whatever words would be natural for your characters to say, but your screenplay will really stand out if you give some thought to what your characters could say that would bring new energy and even unpredictability to the scene.

One of the best examples of this kind of unpredictable and fascinating dialogue is from the movie “American Beauty.” Ricky, the drug-dealing neighbor boy, gets into a few fights with his extraordinarily creepy father, Colonel Frank Fits, just like you would expect between any teenage boy and his freakishly controlling father. When this happens, the audience would naturally expect Ricky to lash out at his father, yelling that he’s ruining his life or that he just doesn’t understand him or that he wishes he had never been born or some other clichéd drivel. But Alan Ball is a much better screenwriter than that, so every time Ricky and his dad get into a fight, Alan wrote down the exact opposite of what a typical teenage boy would say in that situation. The end result is a fascinating character with amazing dialogue.

For example, after the gay neighbors, Jim and Jim, drop by the Fits' house to introduce themselves, Frank bitches to his son about gay people having to rub their gayness in everyone’s faces. (Let’s see what kind of search results that gets me!) Ricky tries the expected response first by saying that their neighbors probably don’t feel like they have anything to be ashamed of. When his dad doesn’t buy that reply, Ricky does a complete 180 and says, “Forgive me sir, for speaking so bluntly, but those fags make me want to puke my fucking guts out.” He not only said the opposite of what you would expect an open-minded teenager to say, but he did so with such vehemence that it shut his dad down completely. No matter what you think about the words that Ricky said, there’s no doubt that it was both interesting and unexpected, which is a recipe for great dialogue.

The next time you’re having trouble making a character’s dialogue sound interesting, try writing the exact opposite of what you would expect that character to say instead. Chances are that will give you some ideas on how to make your scene, your character and your screenplay more interesting.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Script Coverage Services

I’m extremely excited to announce my Script Coverage Services to readers of this blog. Until now, I've only read scripts for a specific set of clients, but now I’m offering this service to anyone who wants to improve their screenwriting. If you're serious about improving your script, then contact me at

Before you look at the services I am offering, please check out this page of TESTIMONIALS that my former clients have written.

Here are the two services that I am now offering at limited-time introductory prices:

Basic Coverage - $199

• Logline
• Synopsis
• Numerical rating on six different criteria:
   o Marketability
   o Story
   o Characters
   o Dialogue
   o Visuals
   o Structure
• Checklist of 10 questions
• Detailed comments
• Summary
• Total of 3-4 pages of written feedback
• Resubmission for $129

Comprehensive Coverage - $299

In addition to everything above, comprehensive coverage includes:
• Checklist of 25 questions
• Total of 7-8 pages of written feedback
• Expanded comments section
• First ten pages analysis
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• Resubmission for $199

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- $1 per page over 120 pages.
- Turnaround of two weeks or less.
- Rush service of 3-day turnaround for $50 (if received by 2:00pm PST).
- Next-day service for $80 (if received by 2:00pm PST).

Monday, March 7, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #42: Stilted dialogue

Here’s another simple issue that I see all the time – dialogue that sounds stilted and unrealistic. The most common way that this problem presents itself is with a lack of contractions. People use contractions constantly in their daily lives, so it sounds much more natural to say, “I’ll send you those documents when we’re done with our meeting,” instead of, “I will send you those documents when we are done with our meeting.” You should only write out the separate words instead of their contractions perhaps for emphasis or if you're trying to create a specific effect. But when in doubt, use contractions.

The other way that I see stilted dialogue is when people try to write highly stylized, painstakingly witty conversations instead of more natural-sounding ones. As screenwriters, we have the envious opportunity to write the things that we wish we could say in real life. We can be as witty, clever and even confrontational as we want without having to come up with all those mots justes in real time. (BTW, I wrote "mots justes" to show just how pretentious it sounds to write words like that in dialogue without a specific reason. Yep, that's totally what I was going for. Honest.) However, we have to be careful not to take this cleverness too far because it’s exhausting for a reader to slog through page after page of over-written dialogue. It comes across as fake and unrealistic and makes it seem like the screenwriter is trying way too hard to demonstrate how smart he is. If you want to write clever dialogue, then stick with conversations that are intelligently realistic.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #41: No power exchange in scenes

One of the easiest mistakes to make in screenwriting is to think about just one character’s perspective in each scene. When I first started writing screenplays, all I thought about when approaching a scene was what the protagonist wanted and how he was going to accomplish it. All of the other characters were just props whose sole purpose was to help the protagonist get from one end of the scene to the other. That kind of writing should come with a warning not to drive or operate heavy machinery because it’s more effective than Ambien at putting people to sleep.

The solution to this problem is to plan what each character’s goal will be in every scene and then have them battle it out to see which one of them will end up getting what they want. The first step is to decide which character will have the upper hand at the beginning of the scene and then shift that power to a different character before the end of the scene. Good scenes always have one clear power shift, but the really fun ones show one character starting out with the power, losing it and then gaining it back.

Let’s look at an example from this year’s Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay winner, “The King’s Speech.” In the initial meeting between speech therapist Lionel Logue and Princess Elizabeth, Lionel begins the scene with the clear upper hand. He makes the princess wait while he uses the bathroom and then informs her that she’s late for the appointment. He follows that up by bragging about his skills, complaining that her husband didn’t come with her and even requesting that her “hubby” pop around on Tuesday to give his personal history. The princess is not amused, so she takes the power away from Lionel by revealing who she is and saying that he should address her as “Your Royal Highness.” Lionel is so screwed. But wait! Lionel takes the power back by telling Princess Elizabeth that his method requires total equality – no exceptions – so she agrees to his terms. Lionel had the power, then he lost it and then he gained it back again. That is a perfect scene and one that all of us should try to emulate in our own scripts.