Monday, March 19, 2012

21 Jump Street - a lesson in economical story set-up

I've talked before about how important the first ten pages of a script are.  One of the biggest issues I seen in amateur writing is writers taking too long to get their story in motion.  A bad writer thinks he needs 30 pages to set up his premise; a good writer can explain a lot in a third of that time.

I saw 21 Jump Street this weekend, and was impressed at how much the writers packed into the first ten minutes or so.  These are the plot-points that the script blows through:

- Jonah Hill was an awkward dork in high school.  Girls didn't like him (we see one hot girl rather cruely reject him) and Channing Tatum's popular jock character often teased him.
- Tatum's character couldn't go to prom because of bad grades, leaving him as humiliated as he made Hill feel.
- After graduation, the two re-encounter each other at the police academy.  It turns out, Hill is an ace at the academic stuff while Tatum is equally gifted at the physical challenges.  The two become friends and help each other through it.
- The two are assigned to bike patrol in the park.
- After botching a drug bust, the two are reassigned to an undercover unit at 21 Jump Street.

All of that only takes about a minute of time to set up in the trailer, and to be honest, in the movie, it feels like there's not much else added into those scenes.  I could easily imagine the hack writer version of this idea dragging its feet and not arriving at the church on Jump Street until p. 25.

Hack Writer would have insisted on a full 10-minute prologue in the school, driving home the point again and again that Jonah's a nerdy outcast and that Channing's big man on campus.  Here the point is made quickly - Jonah tries to ask out a girl way out his league, she crushes him, and Channing taunts him.  We don't need three scenes of bullying, we don't need to see Channing treated as the star athlete who has girls practically throwing their panties at him.  Their characters are such understandable archetypes that the script need only suggest these aspects of their characters and let us fill in the blanks.

Ditto for the police academy scenes.  The dynamic there really is established as fast as it is in the trailer.  We don't need a whole classroom scene to show off Jonah's smarts - just have him get back an A+ grade.  Similarly, two shots of Jonah being taken down by Channing in a wrestling match easily establishes the dichotomy.  From there, all it takes is a montage of them helping each other and we're off an running.

Why is it okay to do this ADD version?  Because as important as the set-up is, it's not the point of the story.  The story is about two guys who go back to high school while undercover and find that all the rules have changed.  It's about how it affects their friendship.  It would mess with the pacing to establish them as enemies, spend a whole act making them friends, then spend most of the movie with them breaking up only to make up at the end.  We just need a hint of how they became friends so we can take it as a given, and then enjoy how the rest of the story challenges that.

So when setting up your story, trust the audience to fill in the blanks.  Brevity reigns when getting to the main hook of your story.


  1. Yes! So true. I once did a script analysis where the main characters weten't introduced till page 80! I skimmed to find them.

  2. "Amateur writer" and "hack writer" aren't necessarily the same. That's quite the "jump" you made there.

    1. Not so big a jump when you've read thousands of amateur and pro scripts and are well-versed in the typical disparity between them.

  3. Great post! Even though most of what you stated is common sense. If you're a screenwriter, you should obviously understand cinematic story structure. So, you should know that the inciting incident needs to appear around the 15 page mark, which in 21 Jump Street's case is the Church. Personally, if I had written 21 Jump Street, I would have done the same thing knowing that I only had 10-15 pages of exposition before the premise is set in stone.