1. There is always one character too many.
Changing a character’s gender or ethnicity can often unlock a story. More often, eliminating a character is the answer, and better to do it now and save the editors a lot of unnecessary work.
When I taught screenwriting, I used to recommend taking an acting class instead. Acting class drove home the principle that every character has to have something to do in a scene, otherwise they’re just furniture. And if I couldn’t find enough things for a character to do, that was a sign that maybe that character should be dropped.
2. Every movie contains its own review.
“This is terrible.” “I don’t believe this.” “Why are we here?” Lines like this should be avoided, even if appropriate to the scene, lest the viewer be tempted to answer, “Yes, it is.” “Neither do I.” “Good question, let’s go.”
In Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40,” both Albert Brooks and John Lithgow play men who’ve married young women and had children late in life. It’s a minor flaw in a movie with many flaws and much genius, but duplications like this are often a sign that an obsession hasn’t been fully worked through, especially if the screenwriter has failed to hang a light on the situation—i.e., have the characters themselves note the coincidence.
4. “I don’t want to be the guy who learns. I want to be the guy who knows.”
Before 1980 I heard very little talk in the movie business about arcs, journeys, stakes, engines, motors, notes, and ticking clocks.
The “arc” concept comes from actors. Actors want to have somewhere to go with their performance. But not every character needs to grow and change, except maybe in a Lifetime movie. Steve McQueen, the author of the above quote, knew people came to see Steve McQueen.
“Engines” and “motors” and “stakes” are big in Playwriting 101. They’re often transparently artificial. As Henry James said, the writer’s only obligation is to be interesting.
There have always been “notes” in the theater, but the first time I ever heard the term was when, during an intermission of “Burn This,” Gordon Davidson visited the audience to ask Ulu Grosbard for his notes. And I’d been writing screenplays for more than 15 years. After “Jaws,” the studios made a lot of money, hired a lot more development execs, and twenty-somethings swarmed into Hollywood, many boasting Ivy League degrees. (Before 1980, people in Hollywood didn’t talk about where they went to college, except for David Begelman, who lied about going to Yale; Peter Bart kept his stint at the London School of Economics securely under wraps.) Hearing pitches and giving notes—according to formulas laid down by Robert McKee et al–became part of the industry, as they never had before. And the totally predictable romcom was born.
If a bomb has to be defused or the entire Eastern seaboard will expire in a mushroom cloud, that’s a legitimate “ticking clock.” In the otherwise lovely “Quartet,” Dustin Hoffman’s first feature as a director, the over-the-hill musicians have to put together a gala that brings in a lot of money, or their rest home will go under—and this is only the most recent example of a “ticking clock” that actually gets in the way of the movie.
5. Invisible Martians.
Jorge Luis Borges observed that H.G. Wells wrote one novella about Martians attacking the Earth, and another novella about an Invisible Man. What he didn’t write was a novella about Invisible Martians attacking the Earth. (He also didn’t write “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”)
There are “A” stories and “B” stories, and then there are “A” stories competing with each other. On the one hand, “Flight” is the story of a pilot who, because of his substance abuse, safely lands an out-of-control plane. On the other, it’s a conventional story of a man who comes to realize he has a substance-abuse problem. The script cleverly knits the two stories when Denzel Washington has to get high in order to make an appearance before an investigating committee. But for the most part, the two tracks run in parallel, pulling focus from each other, and failing to answer the question, “Should William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize be taken away because he wrote his books under the influence of bourbon?”
In Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Sissy Spacek, playing Kevin Costner’s wife, accuses him of caring more about John Kennedy’s assassination than he does about his own family. Yes, and so does the audience. That’s what we’ve come to see, so can we please get on with it? The premise-fighting function mainly falls on wives in movies, roles that are often thankless to begin with.
When the protagonist is the premise-fighter, the situation is even more annoying. Once “Manhattan Murder Mystery” gets down to business, the results are amusing, but Woody Allen wastes a lot of screen time telling Diane Keaton she’s crazy for suspecting their neighbor has killed his wife.
7. Naming names.
The screenwriter knows the characters’ names. So does the director, and the actors. The audience doesn’t. All too often, characters will talk about “Bill” or “Emily” or “Jimarcus,” and the people watching the movie (except for the very attentive) have to guess who’s being referred to. (Sometimes, owing to cuts in the editing room, the character’s name has never been spoken.)
Same goes for dates and times. We’ll be informed that something happened “a month ago” or “last week” or “this morning,” and our own sense of how much time has elapsed is totally different. Movies create their own sense of time, and screenwriters get specific at their peril, often cramming several scenes into one “longest day,” when they could easily have been spaced over a week or more.
8. Auteur, auteur?
Screenwriters often complain that directors get credit for things that are spelled out in the script. (In the old Z Channel magazine, F.X. Feeney described a sequence in “The Sender” as “one of the most bizarre scenes in movie history,” and gave sole credit to the director. When I told him the director had pretty much shot what I’d written, he apologized—but with a shrug.) If William Holden’s character in “Sunset Boulevard” is to be believed, audiences used to think the actors made up their lines as they went along. Yes, but for the most part, the screenwriter’s relative anonymity is well-deserved, and screenwriters who yearn for fame (as screenwriters) are living in a dream world.
My writer Pantheon includes Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Jean-Luc Godard, the Coen Brothers, Clifford Odets, Whit Stillman, Mike Leigh, Joseph Manciewicz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Kenneth Lonergan, David Gordon Green, Woody Allen, Judd Apatow, Wes Anderson, Steve Conrad, and Richard Curtis. Of those, how many have truly original (i.e., recognizable in a blind test) voices, apart from their directorial personalities? In my book, only Sturges (whose dialogue brings tears of appreciation to our eyes—mine and my wife’s), Wilder, Godard, Odets (not for nothing did a character in “Diner” know “Sweet Smell of Success” by heart), Stillman, Manciewicz, Tarantino, Woody Allen (for better or worse; much of his post-Marshall Brickman dialogue, when he’s not writing for himself or a Woody stand-in, is recognizably stilted), and in TV (but not in their movies), David Kelley, Aaron Sorkin, and Larry David. There’s a stretch in “Magnolia,” when the rain starts to fall, that for my money is the greatest thirty minutes in movie history, but I don’t know how purely distinctive Paul Thomas Anderson’s voice is, and that’s the defining key to auteurship. Oh, and Ed Wood.
When Jack Palance, in Godard’s “Contempt,” complains that Fritz Lang’s dailies aren’t following the script, Fritz Lang has the final word on this subject. “That’s because there,” he says, pointing to the script, “it’s words, and up there it’s pictures.”
9. Scenus interruptus.
Quentin Tarantino got started writing scenes for himself to act in acting class, and in addition to his visual gifts, and his comic sense of violence, he’s a born playwright. His long scenes—the bar scene in “Inglourious Basterds,” the dinner table scene in “Django Unchained”—are masterpieces of discursive tension, and a far better model for today’s screenwriters than the old-school laconic style perfected by Robert Towne.
“If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Pretty-much-yes to the first, not-all-that-often to the second. Offhand, the only non-dialogue scene I can think of that actually advances a story is in “Stalag 17,” where William Holden realizes, from seeing the swinging light bulb cord, how word of the barrack’s plans are being leaked to the Nazis. (Peter Graves, the Nazi masquerading as an American, adds sublime ironic counterpoint as he leads a march to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”) And in far too many screenplays, the scene stops just as it’s getting underway, leaving the viewer to wonder, “Well, what did he say to that?” (“Downton Abbey” is a typical offender—in an effort to keep a bunch of stories going, it skimps on each one.)
Less used to be more, when people kept things to themselves. Now, in the Facebook Era, they’re eager to say whatever’s on their minds. Subtext is in retreat.
10. “The gloom of the first draft.”
“I hate writing,” said Dorothy Parker. “I love having written.” Wes Craven quoted this to me, approvingly, and I could sort of sympathize. When I was starting out, as a novelist, I used to have a good day followed by a bad day, and sometimes fell into the trap of thinking that if only I could solve some writing problem that was plaguing me, my anxiety, depression, or bad temper would evaporate at least for a while. Maybe it was all those years of psychoanalysis, but I no longer funnel my neuroses through my writing; now writing is my heroin, and I’m easier to live with. I used to console myself with the knowledge that Norman Mailer suffered gloom in the early stages of a project–“Il faut souffrir,” Fritz Lang tells Michel Piccoli in “Contempt”—but I’m happy to say I no longer suffer.
And I no longer make the mistake of trying to get things right the first time. Sometimes I hit on a line that will last through the first readable draft, but usually it’s the idea of the line and not the lyric, and my first drafts have three dots after most of the dialogue. I don’t really think in terms of “drafts”—it’s more like those scenes in “No Way Out” where a 1980s-era computer is gradually revealing Kevin Costner’s face by going over it again and again and again.
Of course you have to get something useful down. Harold Pinter used to claim he started with a first line, and then just let things fly. I tried that when I was writing my first hardcover novel, “Counterparts.” When I handed in the manuscript, my editor, the late Joyce Engelson, gave me the best note I’ve ever gotten: “Start over with a fresh stack of paper.” I started over, and forced myself to write an outline. That, I recall, was painful. Writing outlines was too much like school. (At USC Film School, and especially at UCLA Extension, I noticed my screenwriting students were resistant to the notion of starting with an outline, and the younger the student, the more resistance.) Now that I’m writing plays, though, I don’t outline…I jump around from scene to scene, and a sort of outline emerges, complete with provisional dialogue.
And I no longer play Socrates with myself: back in the day, whenever I got stuck, I’d write down questions in a notebook: “Why is she leaving the house?” “Why does he confess?” and stare at the questions until something clicked. Now I don’t bother to get stuck—when inspiration flags, I go on to the next scene or the next beat, the way you were told to leave a tricky SAT question and go back to it later. If I don’t know how to end a scene, I write END THING (the way I used to write DESCRIPTION TO COME when I was writing prose). And usually something occurs by the next few times around, without a lot of stress. Stress is neither helpful nor necessary. Writing, like acting, should be fun. And not a substitute for figuring out what’s really bothering you.