Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Last week I cautioned that it's not often a good idea to let the audience get too far ahead of the characters in the story. Many times, it can be frustrating for a viewer to have to wait for the characters to "catch up" to them, resulting in a less compelling viewing experience. However, I'd say there's at least one very good exception to that rule. I'll yield the floor to Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense.

"There's no emotion in a who-dun-it because you withhold information from an audience. The element of suspense is giving them information.

"[Suppose] you and I are sitting here . . . . suddenly a bomb goes off and up we go, blown to smithereens. What have the audience had while watching this scene? Five or ten seconds of shock. Now we do the scene over again, it's a five minute scene. You and I are talking about football, something very innocuous, but the audience are informed by a method unknown to us that there's a bomb under the table and it's going to go off in five minutes.

"Now this innocuous conversation about football becomes very potent. 'Don't talk about football, there's a bomb under there,' that's what they want to tell us, as the bomb ticks away and we keep telling the audience there's a minute to go; half a minute and finally ten seconds. That is when it must not go off. If we let it go off, the audience will be as mad as hell with us, they'll be disgusted. They'll say, "Don't go and see that movie or that play".Your toe MUST touch the bomb at the last minute, you must look under the table, grab the bomb and throw it out of the window, then it can go off; but you and I must be saved. An audience needs that relief after you've put them through the ringer."

(Source: http://www.on-cue.org.uk/articles16.html, originally published in 'Heard in the Wings" edited by Roderick Bloomfield, 1971.)

The key thing to remember here is to take advantage of the suspense that is generated when the audience is ahead of the characters. One such example I remember well is the reaction the multiplex crowd had the first time I saw Air Force One. The premise is that terrorists have taken over the President's plane, and unbeknownst to anyone, one of the Secret Service agents is a turncoat who has aided the terrorists in taking over the plane. For much of the first half, this agent is with all the other hostages, as if he was one of them.

Then comes the moment when Harrison Ford, playing the President, gets to the hostages. Guess who he gives his extra weapon to? The Turncoat Agent. I don't think I've ever heard an audience react so aggressively as when Ford gives his enemy a weapon. It felt like the whole room was shouting "NO!" They knew that it wouldn't end well.

Basically, if your viewer is ahead of the audience, craft scenes that has characters making fatal mistakes that they wouldn't make if they knew what the audience did.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Apparently John August and I are on the same wavelength

I found this post from John August amusing considering I gave very similar advice recently in this post. I think he also makes some good points that I didn't touch on.

"Something I try to remind myself when writing epic-themed stories — which is a lot, recently — is that my hero doesn’t have to fix The Big World Problem by the time the end credits roll. Rather, he just needs to achieve the small, specific goal I’ve set out for him. He only has to destroy the Death Star...You don’t get to make a trilogy unless the first one works. So make the first one at human scale."

Dare I say that great minds think alike? The comments on that entry are worth reading too.

Sorry the posting has been slightly sparcer lately. I'm working on a rewrite of one of my scripts. I'll try to pick up the slack this week.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Cliches I'm tired of seeing - Part Four

There's a tendency among first-time screenwriters to not have faith in the openings of their scripts. They're told to grab the audience from the start, but often first-time writers have a hard time beginning their story with an strong opening scene. My gut is that a lot of this has to do with early writers placing too much emphasis on backstory and exposition. Usually the audience needs a lot less exposition than the writer assumes.

In any event, it seems like an unwinable paradox to Mr. First Timer. They wonder,"How can I write an opening scene that will get an audience excited if they don't know anything about these characters?" Often, they'll go for a trick that J.J. Abrams both used effectively and beat into the ground - open the script with a scene from the climax, then flashback and tell the story of how things got to this high point.

As a reader, I find this trick usually has the opposite effect. When I see it deployed, I heave a heavy sigh because I now know exactly where this script is going and usually I'm going to have to sit through another 100 pages before the characters catch up to me. A good writer might be able to make the journey to this point interesting... but I think you can guess how often Mr. First Timer makes that work.

I'm sorry to say that even Abrams overindulged in this gag. It was a trick that was really effective once on Alias, during the Super Bowl episode. At the time, the low-rated show was hoping to pull in viewers who felt that the show's plots were often too complicated and inaccessible. So what did they do? They put Jennifer Garner in black lingerie and had her strut in front of the camera. It was a typical set-up for the show. She had to go undercover as a prostitute in order to get access to a crucial agent in the enemy camp. After a scene showcasing Garner in two separate sexy outfits, which lead to an action scene where the plane she's in loses pressure, the episode flashed back 24 hours.

The trick here is that despite the eye candy both Garner and the action provided, there were very few plot twists exposed in this opening scene. The audience didn't know why Garner was on this mission, what she was after, who this guy was, or really anything. As the episode progresses, it's soon exposed that this mission is the key to bringing down the entire enemy agency. However, J.J. didn't give that twist away in the opening. There was still something for the audience to be surprised by later. Jennifer Garner in lingerie was just the bait.

In other words, if you're using a non-chronological structure to get the audience hooked early on, make sure you're just baiting the hook - not dumping your whole supply of worms into the lake. I feel this sort of gimmick is overused anyway, but if you're determined to use it, use it well.

But before you open your film with a scene from late in the story, ask yourself it is absolutely necessary and if it's an asset to the story you're telling.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cliches I'm tired of seeing - Part Three

This week's cliche alert is a public service to every writer who thinks they're being clever when they stage a dramatic gunpoint confrontation between their protagonist and their antagonist. One of the most overused tropes plays out as follows:

Two combatants, one gun. Usually one character draws and the other one lunges at them, setting off the attack.

A brief hand-to-hand struggle ensues. The characters wrestle, each one trying to get the upper hand and the gun.

Two shot. The characters inevitably end up framed in a profile shot towards the climax of this fight.

BANG! The gun goes off. Both men look shocked.

DRAMATIC PAUSE. OMG?!!!! Who took the bullet?

Fake out. the hero seems to wince.

Victory. the bad guy falls down dead. The hero breathes a sigh of relief.

At that point, I groan and roll my eyes at the hundredth use of this cliche, wondering how anyone found it original to begin with. Take note, it's no longer clever to use the dramatic device of the gun going off with the actual victim being unclear initially.

An alternate version of the same trope has the bad guy getting the draw on the good guy and just about to pull the trigger. If this happens with the bad guy moving closer to the foreground, thus blocking out a decent section of the background, get ready. It means that the hero is about to be saved when his buddy (who will be revealed when the villain falls down) gets off a fatal shot from behind the bad guy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pilot scripts galore

Thanks to John August's blog, I stumbled across this link to dozens upon dozens of pilot scripts. For those of you interested in TV writing, this could be a great resource.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Writing animated specs

A quick bit of advice for first-time screenwriters working on animated movies – Don’t.

The unfortunate reality is that it’s probably ten times harder to sell an animated spec script than it is to sell a live action one. A live-action screenplay can be purchased by any studio in town; an animated script doesn’t have that wide a base. Disney and Dreamworks Animation might not be the only game in town, but they might as well be. On top of that, those two studios tend to develop their stories in house. As a result, an animated screenplay has the odds stacked against it from the start.

However, if you have an “in” at one of those companies, or the resources to do your own animation, then I say go for it. Just keep in mind the fact that animated movies tend to do better when they aim for a broad audience. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to pander to young children, but the content should be acceptable for younger viewing, while not so juvenile that it alienates older audiences. Usually, this is accomplished by developing the story with a comedic tone. Sharper, more sophisticated humor can appeal to older viewers while younger viewers may be entertained by sight gags and sillier moments. It’s a formula that has served Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks Animation well.

I’m always disappointed when I read an animated script – usually they’re full of talking animals - that doesn’t even try for humor. I’m hard pressed to think of a single successful animated film that wasn’t a comedy. Beowulf is the only one that comes to mind and that’s so significant an exception that it isn’t even worth noting.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Including extra materials

So you’ve just finished your awesome script and are ready to send it off to an agent. It took several dozen query letters but finally someone requested the script and you just know that once they read it, they’ll be bowled over with your brilliance. However, you happen to have written a sci-fi film with lots of weird-looking aliens and ships, and you want to make sure they visualize everything properly. In that instance, there’s no harm in including a little conceptual art to give the agent something to work from, right?


This falls into the category of one of those seemingly arbitrary no-nos that everyone in the biz knows about, but no one is sure where the rule came from. Including supplementary materials is usually seen as the mistake of an amateur, and as we’ve often discussed, the last thing you want is for your audience to think they’re dealing with an amateur. It gets you off on the wrong foot with your reader.

Now, I’m sure that no one ever got a PASS just because they dared include a few conceptual drawings. I can say that over the years I’ve gotten more than a few scripts with such supplements, and the corollary usually holds that the greater the quantity of the supplements, the worse the quality of the script.

On the other side of the fence, I read an interview with Kate Beckinsale years ago and she said that when her agent sent her the script for Underworld, Len Wiseman’s had included a drawing of the character Selene. Apparently it got her attention and the look of the character helped sell her on the idea of doing the movie.

The worst supplement I ever got with a submission was a 20 minute CD presentation that I was instructed to play on my computer. The notes suggested that I might find it more engaging if I turned off the lights in my room and had a strong speaker set-up, so before I even put the disc in, I was rolling my eyes. Then, it refused to work on either of the two PCs put it into first attempted on, and only ran on my roommate’s MacBook.

What followed was one of the most laughable efforts at self-promotion that I have ever seen. Not only was the music akin to what one might hear in a planetarium, but the narrator’s voice was narcolepsy-inducing. The images themselves were an odd and inconsistent mix of actual photographs taken in space, and draw clip-art that were clearly cobbled from several different sources. Not only did this make for an inconsistent patchwork of art design, but I recognized the sources of many of the drawings. A few seemed to have been taken from technical books inspired by the Star Wars trilogy, while images of other creatures like bears and dragons appeared to have been scanned in from drawings in children’s books.

On top of that, this 22-minute presentation wasn’t just an introduction to the story – it told the whole story! All 140 pages of it. Have you ever listened to someone give a 22 minute verbal description of a screenplay? For most people, five minutes would be testing their limits and a few might check out at three. If it takes this much explaining for someone to understand a story, no one will want to buy it. When it comes time to sell this movie to an audience, the concept will need to be explainable within the time allotted to a movie trailer – three minutes tops.

Then, just to top off the experience, the writer included a timeline of historical events (this film took place in the far future and involved some time travel.) Guess what? The written timeline didn’t match the timeline of the events on the CD.

So in this case, I hadn’t even read one word of the screenplay, hadn’t even turned back the cover page, and I already knew it was going to be bad. That’s not a fun feeling.

Don’t waste your time making these supplements. Most of the time, this material will never be read if it’s submitted to a production company or an agency. Having worked in those places during both internships and paid jobs, this reader can state that the supplementary materials are immediately cast aside 99 times out of a hundred. Furthermore, that remaining 1% of the time, it’s likely that your material will be an annoyance rather than an asset.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

ER Week - Day 4

Continuing a weeklong series honoring the departing ER, today’s entry focuses on the Season Six episode “All in the Family,” written by Jack Orman and directed by Joanthan Kaplan. Fans and non-fans might better know this as the one where the ER fights to save Carter and Lucy after a psych patient stabs them. The stabbing actually happened at the conclusion of the previous episode, and due to a loud Valentine’s Day party, none of the staff heard Carter scream for help from Curtain Area 3. (This scene also ensured I will never – EVER – hear the song “Battleflag” without flashing on Carter’s cries for help and Lucy’s hollow, horrified eyes so thanks for that, ER writers.)

Anyway, as the episode opens, Carter and Lucy have yet to be discovered, a detail the writers and the director utilize well for suspense. We as the viewers have access to information the characters don’t – the knowledge that their colleagues are bleeding to death nearby and every second counts. In a nice bit of directing, the show builds up to Dr. Weaver entering Curtain Area 3 and finding the bodies by staging her blocking outside CA3 in a long Stedicam take. Weaver ends up right outside the room, has a conversation with another physician, and then heads down the hall to tend to another patient. While talking to him, the camera swings around, keeping CA3’s access door in the background, reminding the audience – “They’re in here!” Circumstances force Weaver to head towards CA3 for equipment, but just as she’s about to enter, Dr. Chen stops her with a brief bit of business, delaying the discovery slightly longer.

Lesson – while sometimes you want to surprise your audience, this scene was much more intense due to the fact the viewers had one up on the characters.

From there, the entire first act is spent on the efforts in the ER to revive Carter and Lucy. This means lots of the ER medical technobabble, but the entire cast brings their A game and really sells the emotional intensity of the scene. I could list a dozen small moments that work and still not scratch the surface, so instead I’ll center on the big one – Dr. Peter Benton. We don’t see Benton learn what happened to Carter. He makes his first appearance sprinting down the steps, through the hall and barreling into the ER like a mountain lion ready to defend his cubs. In a flash he’s at his former student’s side, demanding “Is he conscious?!” It’s a great example of showing not telling. Not once in the episode is Benton given a dramatic monologue about what Carter means to him, or all the years they spent together, or all the things that he would regret no saying if Carter didn’t wake up. Eriq la Salle’s 100-yard dash sets all that up, and Peter’s actions throughout the episode reinforce that. It’s a good lesson in knowing when to trust the actors and the subtext of the scene and NOT write on-the-nose.

Later, Carter is being prepped for surgery. Conscious for the moment, he’s given the bullet on his condition and is clearly concerned. Looking at Benton, he says, “I’m glad it’s you.” Nothing more, nothing less. That’s all that needs to be said. Firmly, Benton assures him, “I’m getting you through this, man.” This is the sort of scene that could have easily been overwritten. Instead, the writer let the long history these men share fill in the subtext, and the actors knock it out of the park. It’s no surprise later when Peter refuses to leave his protégée’s bedside, to the point that he becomes frantic when Carter goes south and argues for the drastic solution of essentially cutting off the blood to one of Carter’s kidneys. Fortunately a senior doctor asserts his authority and overrides Benton.

Later, Benton is sent to deal with another surgical patient while the operation is still continuing on Carter. Assessing that that patient can keep until another surgeon is free, he immediately leaves to return to Carter’s side. Unfortunately, that patient goes south and Dr. Finch (a robotic Michael Michele – the only member of the cast not to rise to the occasion in this episode) has to do a drastic procedure to keep him alive until Benton can be brought back down. As the writing goes, it’s a bit of an anvil to demonstrate just how emotionally affected Benton is, but I guess it works as a wake-up call to the character. In any event, La Salle really sells his performance in this episode and his only weak moment comes later when Finch tells him of Lucy’s death. (And here I blame Michele for not giving him anything to play off of.)

If I may digress a bit, I know many will disagree, but I’d argue that La Salle’s departure in season eight was the one that fundamentally changed the show. The Carter/Benton relationship was perhaps the strongest one in all the series and Benton had interesting relationships with him, Corday and Romano. When he left, they were all poorer for it, having lost a great dramatic foil. A few weeks ago, all the fans were excited that the episode “Old Time” brought back George Clooney, but frankly, for me the real highlight was seeing Benton and Carter together again. I always thought La Salle was underrated and episodes like this just prove that.

Plus he had the coolest scene in the opening titles – that little karate punch. I’m kinda hoping the finale has a full credits sequence just so they can reprise that bit one more time.

Meanwhile, Lucy is rushed up to surgery and initially seems to be doing better. There’s a nice moment when Corday tells Lucy that the trac tube is keeping her from talking, but if she plugs it, Lucy will be able to whisper. Thus, Kelly Martin utters the first of her three lines in this episode: “Thank you.”

If that scene doesn’t make you a little misty, you’ve got a hard heart indeed.

Perhaps inevitably, Lucy takes a sudden turn for the worse and at this point, you’re likely to realize that it’s got to be horrifying to be able to hear your physicians detailing your vital signs and knowing exactly what all those numbers and multi-syllable words mean – “The patient is doomed.” What’s more, through Lucy’s reactions – an agonizingly mouthed “P.E.?” (Pulmonary embolism) – the audience gets their interpretation of those vitals too. This sequence ends up being Paul McCrane’s time to shine. His Dr. Romano is usually brusque, arrogant, egotistical and downright condescending. As he and Corday treat Lucy, that tough reserve cracks and – well, you see the result:

Lucy dies at the end of the third act, leaving the entire fourth act to show the characters reacting to the news. Eventually I’ll get around to writing a column about my beef with crying scenes, but this will be a preview. I read a lot of scripts where the writers go overboard, making their characters cry at the drop of a hat. Often it comes across as overwrought when a character breaks into tears. As both a writer and a viewer, I find it more haunting when a character doesn’t cry, or tries to hold back the tears rather than weep freely. Check out the reactions all the major characters have to the news of Lucy’s passing.

Less is more.

The last thing I’ll point out about this episode is the appropriate sprinkling of comic relief in the minor substory involving Dr. Greene and Dr. Corday taking their single parents on an unwilling double date. Act One opens with the parents aghast at their progeny’s horrible karaoke performances, and later the elders are stuck at the hospital while their children tend to their friends. The elder Greene tries to make conversation by saying the elder Corday raised a fine daughter, to which she says, “The boarding school did all the work.” Greene’s father responds with an embarrassed “Oh.” She says she’s teasing, and then when he asks, “Her father’s passed on,” she says with displeasure, “No. He was still alive the last I heard.” It’s a nice moment of levity in an otherwise very intense 44 minutes of TV.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

ER Week - Day 3

Continuing our tour of the ER pilot, now let’s take a look at some of the smaller moments in the script, starting with Nurse Hathaway’s arrival in the hospital after her suicide attempt. I’ve always found this development in the script interesting because there’s virtually no foreshadowing at all. Early in the second half of the pilot, Hathaway is brought in after an overdose, and the staff is as blindsided as we are. There are no hints in the first half of the script – no warning signs, no cries for help. The only thing that might qualify is the mention of a breakup with Dr. Ross, but that’s clearly in the past because she’s already engaged to another man.

I can see some readers/viewers complaining because there is no setup for this development, but it works mostly because Hathaway has been a background character in the rest of the episode. We’re aware of her, but we’re not focusing on her. She doesn’t draw any undue attention, which is as it should be. A scene showing her slip away with some barbiturates, or a small moment showing her leaving work and meaningfully looking at everyone as if it was the last time she’d ever be there would totally tip the script’s hand. Hathaway’s suicide attempt is important largely because of how it affects the other characters – not what it reveals about her character. In that context it’s best that it’s a total surprise.

There are some well-written bits of dialogue that could have just been throwaways, but Crichton makes them meaningful. One nurse asks Hathaway’s roommate why she did it, and Greene cuts her off, saying that they don’t as that question about any other OD that comes into the ER and they’re not going to ask it about Hathaway. Our first indication that it’s grim for Hathaway comes in this exchange:

LEWIS: Her serum-barb is 45.
GREENE (alarmed): Is that a mistake?
LEWIS: I repeated twice.

Context is everything. The average viewer probably won’t know what a serum-barb is, or what a level of 45 means, but Greene’s reaction tells us. Whatever it is, it isn’t good, and it must be REALLY bad because Lewis ran the test three times before reporting it as official. And for the slow kids in the audience, Greene has a conversation with the ER Chief, who asks, “Should we be trying any of this?” As soon as Greene gives him the facts, the Chief starts speaking of Hathaway in the past tense. The message to the audience is clear – it’s hopeless.

Now, here’s a case where the writer’s intent ends up being altered by external factors. Hathaway was supposed to die and I’ve seen several articles and interviews where medical professionals have confirmed that people don’t come back from a diagnosis as presented here. However, Juliana Margulies’s portrayal of Hathaway proved to be popular with focus groups, and so when the show went to series, Hathaway miraculously recovered. The pilot ends with her fate up in the air, but in Crichton’s original vision, the audience was intended to infer she would die.

Also, another nice touch is the use of weather to remind the audience how much time is passing. Characters continuously remark with surprise, “When did it start snowing?” Eventually this turns to noting that the snow has turned into rain, and then later, a mention that the rain has stopped. It’s a small runner, but a notable one.

And a few final bits of trivia several actors in the pilot go on to play other parts later in the series and a few actors became much more famous later. Shiri Appleby has two short scenes as a teenager diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy. She would later star in the WB’s Roswell and return to the show as a med student this past season. Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles star Thomas Dekkar has a small scene as a boy who has eaten his mothers house keys. Troy Evans – who would later play desk clerk Frank is Carter’s first IV patient – a cop who is admitted after a domestic dispute with his wife.

Finally, two of Dr. Greene’s patients – the over-dramatic Mrs. Raskin (Julianna McCarthy) and Al Raskin (Paul Benjamin) – will return during Dr. Greene’s last day on the job in season 8’s “Orion in the Sky.”