The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
How are you, Craig?
Craig: Um, I’m doing spectacularly well.
John: Good. You and I are both taking trips to go off and write projects, and so we’re recording this a week ahead of its launch. So, by the time this episode comes out, everything in Hollywood might have changed.
Craig: That’s right. But I feel like that’s the case normally. I mean, anytime we do a podcast there’s always at least a day or two.
John: Just a flag.
Craig: Everything can… — I mean, you know at some point we’re going to do a podcast and the world will end.
John: Mm-hmm. But the question is, if the world ends will Stuart still be around to push the little button that makes the podcast go up on the Internet?
Craig: Again, this is not scientific, but I’m going to say yes.
John: So, if a podcast goes out in the world and there’s no one to hear it, was it ever really podcasted?
Craig: Well, somebody will be out there. I do see Stuart covered in radiation burns, slowly crawling over the course of 24 hours, to finally push the button with a finger that is more bone than flesh. And then dying with a smile on his face. “I did my duty!”
John: It really is an inspiring moment. It’s sort of like The Postman, that sort of post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner delivering mail.
John: Except it’s Stuart Friedel, so it’s automatically 10% better.
Craig: That’s right. Everything is 10% better with Stuart.
John: Well, today on the podcast we’re going to talk about making things worse, and how making things worse for your characters is honestly the best way to get your story working in many cases.
We’re also going to talk about what I call the organization of narrative information, which is sort of how you structure your story so that people know the things they need to know when they need to know them. So, that’s our podcast today.
But first we need to tell people about Austin. So, you and I are both going back to the Austin Film Festival this year.
Craig: Going back.
John: We had a very fun time last year. We will have a fun time this year. We are going to do a live Scriptnotes show there with an audience and questions and things.
John: We might do a live Three Page Challenge. There will be other fun things. There will be drinking. So, it’ll be a good, fun time.
Craig: Will there be a dunking booth?
John: I have never seen a dunking booth, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a dunking booth.
Craig: Well, I’ll hold out hope.
John: Yes. There’s always hope.
So, Austin Film Festival this year is October 23 through the 26. If you register for it and you use the promo code Scriptnotes, all one word — Scriptnotes — they’ll give you $25 off your conference and producer’s badge. So, there’s a limited number of those Scriptnotes little special pass things, so if you know you’re going and you want to use that promo code, absolutely, why not use it? $25 saved.
Craig: That’s great. It’s getting a little, I mean, not only do we not ask you people for money. Now we’re just trying to give you money.
John: We’re basically just giving things away.
Craig: We’re just giving you money now. What is it — what do we got to do?
John: I don’t know what we’ve got to do. I think we need a stronger business sense or something.
Craig: Something. I mean, we’re not getting it from Stuart, that’s for sure.
John: Well, in many ways we are a classic startup though. We’re trying to get big and then we will figure out monetization later on.
Craig: Step one, start podcast. Step two, question mark. Step three, profit.
John: So, I will say in the monetization front, since we’ve ended this little side bar topic here, we make a little bit of money on the show. And how we make money is some people subscribe to the premium channel through scriptnotes.net. That gets you all the back episodes and occasional bonus content. That’s $2 a month and so once we split that with Libsyn who hosts us, it’s about $1 a month for each person who subscribes to that. And it’s not honestly a lot, but it helps pay for the transcripts, so we do transcripts for every episode. And it pays for Matthew who cuts things.
It doesn’t really pay for Stuart, but Stuart would be part of this enterprise anyway because Stuart is Stuart, he’s my assistant. So, it is useful. So, if you do want to support us in that way, we do really appreciate that, so that’s good.
Craig: When you say we make money, you mean we gross money. We have revenue but we don’t we actually profit.
John: Exactly. So, there’s money coming in the door to do that. Sometimes it works out enough money to actually pay for things. But, eh.
Craig: Cause you know it’s a big point of pride for me that this will always be a money-losing operation.
John: It will always be a money-losing podcast. Trust us on that.
Craig: Yes. We will never — we promise our shareholders that they will never, ever see a profit.
John: But I have asked Craig, like Craig used to have to write a check every once and awhile, because hosting was costing us so much. But we’ve taken care of those things, so we’ve made some smart business choices. But we’re sort of like one of those non-profits, like where you’re just trying to balance the books.
Craig: We’re like a church.
John: We’re like a church.
Craig: We’re like a church. And, John, you’re like our Jesus.
John: Thank you! And you are like the angry — are you the St. Augustine? Like are you the, who are you?
Craig: Oh, I like that. Yeah, I can see that. Actually, that does make sense. St. Augustine, I just wander off into the desert, super angry and shaking my fist. Although you could also suggest that perhaps I’m John and I’m having just whacked out schizophrenic hallucinations about hell and the beast and all the rest. That’s probably what I am.
Was that John in Revelations? I think it was, yeah.
John: Yeah, I think it was. Hmm, I’m not good at remembering Revelations. But I think it’s interesting that you picked both John and Augustine which would both be really good choices for me.
Craig: Wait a second. I think we, honestly, we just wrote the sequel to Angels and Demons. What was that — is it Dan Brown?
John: Dan Brown. Yeah, Dan Brown is listening to this podcast right now and he’s taking notes.
Craig: Somewhere Dan Brown is like that is a story I want to write with a lot of adverbs.
John: So, let’s give Dan Brown some helpful thoughts about creating a good movie narrative, because really essentially what he’s writing is books that will become movies starring Tom Hanks. So, let’s give him some help here.
John: You’re going off to write your movie, I’m going off to write my movie. And so I’ve been working through some stuff on my movie this week and it was stuff we haven’t really talked about on the show. The movie I’m writing is a two-hander. And I should define a two-hander for people who don’t work in our weird little business.
A two-hander is a story with two important characters, where basically both characters are roughly equally important in the progress of the story. So, romantic comedies are generally two-handers, but really it applies to a lot of other kinds of movies, too. Lethal Weapon is a two-hander. The Sixth Sense is a two-hander. Identity Thief is a two-hander.
Craig: Yeah, you’ll see two-handers typically in the buddy cop genre, road trips, if you do a story that’s like a father/son kind of story, or you mentioned one that was also very common, like you see it all the time. There are certain genres that lend themselves to being two-handers, and others that don’t.
Craig: Which is this one of yours? Can you say?
John: This is a drama I’ll see. A drama or a thriller. And thriller two-handers sometimes happens. Like The Bourne Identity is a single hero and that’s very common in thrillers, but there’s two-handers in thrillers you see pretty often as well.
John: So, in a two-hander, generally each of the characters have something that he or she wants. And sometimes they have a shared goal, but they each have their own individual goals. And the work I’ve been doing this week has been each of these characters in my story has his or her own individual goal, and it’s been figuring out sort of which of those goals we sort of publicly state first and we sort of let them get started on achieving their thing.
John: I describe it honestly like a fuse. So, basically once a character has explicitly stated the thing they’re going off to try to do, you’re sort of lighting that fuse for that character. And then if you go off and do something else with the other character, or have to use your character to do something else to the other character’s plot line, you’re like, but wait, that fuse is already burning. Why are we doing this — you already said you’re going to do this. I want to see them do their thing.
John: So, what I was juggling, it’s just sort of at the index card stage, or I’m just doing a little outline in WorkFlowy right now. It was figuring out which character’s storyline was really going to get precedence at the beginning of the story so we could basically get one of their things really going before I dealt with the other character explicitly stating what he was after.
Craig: Right. And sometimes that comes down to examining what is essential to the plot of your story. That will often give you a clue. One person’s story is more interconnected to the plot. They’re the ones that have to begin the adventure and then perhaps another person joins them.
So, for instance, you mention Sixth Sense. It begins with Bruce Willis. So, his want becomes — it lights the fuse in a sense.
John: But take a look at some of our movies. Like let’s take Stolen Identity right there.
Craig: Right. Identity Thiefy.
John: Identity Thiefy. So, we have to know that Bateman is going after Melissa McCarthy first. And he has to go on the road to get to her and actually has to find her before we should know anything about her agenda. Because if you had stopped and given us all sorts of her deal and her life we’d be like, wait, no, no, no, he’s not even met her yet. So, you had to start the story getting it from his side.
Craig: Yeah. And that was something that we ran around and around on. And where we ended up wasn’t exactly what I would have preferred, at least in the beginning, because I knew I wanted to see a hint of her in the beginning. I wanted to essentially show kind of a force of nature out there. And then indicate that she had stolen, she was using somebody else’s identity. And then I wanted to meet that person. And at that point I was happy to just stay with him.
And stay with him all the way through until he goes to find her. You know, in the battles that are fought sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
John: But I would say there’s a difference between meeting a character and like knowing who the character is and having them articulate that thing that is that they’re going for. And in Identity Thiefy, you pushed back her real — you pushed back her danger and sort of what’s at stake in her life until they’re actually together.
Craig: That’s right. Exactly.
John: So, she’s not in danger until they’re together, which I think is a crucial.
Craig: That’s right. Yeah.
John: A similar dynamic happens in Romancing the Stone. So, Kathleen Turner is going down to find her sister I believe who’s missing somewhere in South America. And we do not know that much about Michael Douglas until they meet and until they are together, because if we had done a lot of cross cutting between the two of them it would have really hurt her motivation for getting down there. It would have sort spoiled her perspective on getting down there.
Craig: And this is something that you’ll see all the time in romantic comedies, even though they are movies about relationships, one person has a crisis that pushes them out of their loveless comfort zone and into some kind of arrangement that they have to navigate with another human being, whether it’s While You Were Sleeping, She sits in the toll booth, or the ticket booth at a train station, somebody gets pushed in front of a train. She has to act.
And in Shrek, you know, the kingdom confiscates his beloved swamp. And he has to act. And then they meet these people and, so you’re right, and that’s why you look at the plot — unless, if you don’t know what the plot is, you just know what a relationship is, then it’s kind of wide open. But typically you’ll have some sense of what the hook of the movie is.
John: And so the movies I was talking about are really two-handers where it’s like Character A/Character B and you just have to pick which one you’re going to sort of go with first. But it can also happen in more complicated movies. So, Go, as an example, there’s three basic plotlines, there are three sort of protagonist plotlines. You have Ronna who is trying to make this very tiny drug deal. You have Simon who is trying to get laid in Vegas, and you have Adam and Zack sort of as a group character who are trying to get through their situation with Burke.
And when I wrote that first section with just Ronna and sort of her trying to pull off this tiny drug deal, it was nice and tight and clean because it was very clear like this scene led to this scene led to this scene led to this scene led to this scene. There’s a good sense of consequence of each person’s actions.
When I went back to make the full version of the movie, one of my first decisions was, well, am I going to just try to intercut these scenes between the different plotlines, and I recognized it just wasn’t going to work at all, because once I had started the fuse of Ronna trying to make this drug deal, anything that wasn’t about that was going to not work. And I was going to hurt all of the other storylines by trying to interweave them.
So, being able to keep those storylines separate and let them each be their own chapter let each of those stories actually be the best version of that story.
Craig: Yeah. It’s very hard to do a true, I don’t know how you would describe the kind of Altman or Tarantino approach, or Paul Thomas Anderson does it as well, where it’s almost, I guess it’s like an anthology where you’re following different stories that have similar weights to them and you’re moving in between them.
John: But I think Tarantino is actually a good counter example, though, because if you look at sort of — Tarantino does tend to clump all of those plotlines together. So, like everything that’s going to be about this one character and what they’re doing here is going to stay together as one chunk, rather than cutting back and forth between a lot of different perspectives on something.
Craig: Yeah. Yes. That is true. I mean, they all tend to turn around a story. But I’m thinking of for instance in Kill Bill Volume 1 when you take a break from the narrative of the movie that’s clearly being driven by The Bride and her desire for revenge, and you watch an animated presentation of the history, the origin of O-Ren Ishii.
Craig: Which is fascinating. It doesn’t really impact what happens in the main narrative, but it is its own side narrative that’s amazing. And it’s a tough thing to pull off. It’s a style choice, but in this case I think when you look at Tarantino’s stuff you’ll see, well, all the side stories actually have very high stakes to them. They are often all about violence, and love, and these deep passions.
If you have a story like that in your framework, and the other ones are just not quite as commanding or as urgent, then yes, the audience will get fussy.
John: They will get fussy. And, again, I have not watched Kill Bill Volume 1 for years, but my recollection is we stay with Bride’s story for a period of time and obviously her journey of revenge is going to take over two movies to get to, so we don’t have the expectation that we’re going to get through all the way to her revenge before we see any of these other stories. But you have to take her a certain distance.
I’m trying to remember what her first obstacle is. I mean, at times she has to get out of the hospital, or she has to get one thing done. And so as long as we sort of know that she was going after one thing, and she got to that one thing, then we’re sort of fine with like, okay, she was trying to do this one thing, she accomplished that one thing, now we can move on, or at least we got her to a place where we understand where she’s at. It’s when you leave something as dot-dot-dot, as a frustrating dot-dot-dot that it gets to be frustrating for the reader, for the viewer.
Craig: Yeah. If you’re going to distract us from a story that you’ve asked us to care about, and that story has elements that demand our concern, if you want to distract us from that, go for it, but you then need to also give us something that will be equally as demanding of our attention and concern. Or we will get fussy.
John: Absolutely. So, when we had Aline on the show two weeks ago we talked through tone which I loved that conversation and it was really great that we talked about that topic. And it got me thinking about sort of the questions we ask about a movie. And those sort of fundamental questions are really the same questions that they taught us in journalism class. And I’m sure you know the fundamental questions you’re supposed to have in a news story. Do you remember what those were?
Craig: Who? What? Where? When? How? Why?
John: Exactly. So, the 5 Ws and 1 H. And those are the thing they teach in every Journalism 1 class and that every news story is supposed to be able to quickly answer those questions so that you could theoretically lop off the news story at any given paragraph and it would still make sense.
I looked it up on Wikipedia and it turns out those questions are actually much, much older. And so it was the rhetor Hermagoras of Temnos who came up with Quis, quid, quando, ubi, cur, quem ad modum, quibus adminiculis, which is who, what, when, where, why, in what way, and by what means. And so our conversation with Aline about tone I think was really those two halves, the in what way and by what means. It’s not what’s happening but what does it feel like? What is the sense of it?
And I think the conversation we’re having right now is really the when question.
John: Structure is really about when things happen and when you reveal certain information. And I get frustrated by screenwriting textbooks because they always talk about structure as when in the sense of like on this page you’re supposed to do this, and on this page you’re supposed to do this, and hitting these page counts, when really it’s so much more subtle than that. It’s when are you giving a piece of information to the audience so that they have — it’s how are you dolling out the information to the audience to get the best sense of what your story is.
Craig: I agree. The endless frustration with the screenwriting textbooks and the prima facie evidence that the people who write them aren’t really practitioners of the craft is that they typically make the mistake of thinking that plot is just about what, and what goes where when, I guess. As if these positions in linear time were there because they’re supposed to be there, because, it’s just a tautological way of thinking about structure.
Things that happened, the whats and the whens are connected to the why, I think. Everything is a choice. Yes, you can certainly see the patterns. Pulling patterns out of movies and saying, “Well, it does seem like typically the hero experiences a low point at the end of whatever we think of as Act 2.” Absolutely. Well noticed.
Here’s another observation: it does certainly appear that as we progress into the summer months that the day grows younger. Neither of those statements, the first statement about screenplays won’t help you write a screenplay. The second statement about the lengthening of days will not help you create a universe.
Craig: It is just an observation. But why? Why? Why?
John: Yeah. When we had the episode about tone, which I thought was a great conversation, there were a couple tweets and a couple of questions that came into the account saying like, “Well how do I get better at tone?” And I was like that’s fundamentally a silly question. But you hear the same thing all the time about how do I get better at structure or how do I get better at character. And people try to answer these questions individually. And I think what I’d like to stress is the answer to all those questions is so deeply interconnected.
So, let’s take a look at those questions. Who. Who are the characters? Well, those characters are the people who are determining the what. They’re determining the plot. They’re determining what is actually going to happen in the course of your story. They’re usually affected by the where, by the locations that you’ve chosen, by the world in which your story is set.
John: The world in which your story is set, if it’s a revenge story set in Westeros versus a revenge story set on Wall Street, those are very different kinds of stories that affects the how in many ways. It affects whether you’re dealing with swords or some sort of stock selling revenge to get back at somebody, some sort of Trading Places kind of revenge.
Craig: Yeah. They’re also defined by the when.
Craig: When do we meet them? What just happened to them? Why are we meeting them now?
John: Yes. Why did the movie decide to start right at this moment versus three days ago or 30 years later? And those are fundamental questions that are all interconnected. You can’t be good at one of those. You can’t say like, and you will hear people talk about like, “Oh, she’s really good at character stuff, but plot is not her strong point.”
Craig: Uh-huh. [laughs]
John: Or you’ll more hear about this about sort of beginning screenwriter people, but like, “I just need somebody who is good at structure. I’m really good at story, I’m just not really good at structure.” Well, that’s fundamentally a deep component of it.
Craig: Oh yeah. My favorite is, “He writes great dialogue, but the characters and the story…” Well what is the dialogue, what would be the purpose of that? That’s like a painter just throwing paint into the air. What?
No, this is what we do. No one has ever said to a sculptor, “Well, you know, what you’re really good at is curves. Not so good at the straight lines.” Nobody cares.
John: No. Now, is it absolutely — to me it’s absolutely true that you can read a script and say, “These are some aspects that were not working. And they weren’t working because of… I feel like you have the possibility of a good story here. But these are the things that are getting in the way.”
And then you might talk about some of the character issues that are getting in the way. You might talk about, “I think you’re setting this in a really boring location that’s not giving you the best potential.” But you can’t spray on a better location and suddenly everything is going to make — it’s not going to fix all the problems.
Craig: I totally agree. And similarly, you can’t wipe off something to reveal something great underneath. I’ve heard some people say, “Listen, it’s a really god script, it’s just that the dialogue isn’t very good.” So, if you just wipe that part off and then put new dialogue on top of this very good thing, but in fact, no, because what dialogue is is an expression of tone, of what the character wants, what the character is thinking. It is an expression of the relationship between two characters or three and how it is progressing.
No, there’s no such thing. Unfortunately, this is where the books that analyze these things analyze them as everyone analyzes everything. The idea is to take something that seems complicated and break it down into constituent pieces. And talk about how those constituent pieces all exist and then must be assembled like Lego bricks into this gestalt. But in fact while that is a useful thing for a beginner to do simply to understand what is roughly going on, it is very quickly useless to you. It is as useless to you writing an actual screenplay as, oh, I don’t know, fundamental arithmetic is useless to somebody who is trying to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. You’re beyond that and that point. Way beyond that.
John: Yes. It’s a beginning math textbook talking about like these are the rules of how you add two numbers together, but then ignoring the actual execution of it. Basically, ignoring that you actually have to do that work, as if execution doesn’t matter. As long as you follow these simple steps and simple guideline, here is the net result.
Craig: Which is why these people make money. It’s the same, you know, how should I lose weight? Follow these steps. How should I get a boyfriend? Follow these steps. How can I get a better job? How can I win friends? How can I win influence? Follow these simple steps.
Nothing that is worth anything can be achieved through simple steps. It is the children in us that are looking for parents to give us instructions to follow. And we are all children looking for parents everywhere. In the end, however, in order to achieve anything of value you have to be your own parent and you have to be a grown up and you have to confront the messiness of it. And the messiness of screenwriting is this: the plot is the character, is the theme, is the dialogue, is the narrative, is the choices.
John: Is the location.
Craig: Is the location. The how is the what is the why is the when is the where is the how. Isn’t that awful, but that’s the way it is.
John: It’s just the worst.
Craig: It’s the worst.
John: I can’t believe you have taken something that was so simple and made it so complicated, Craig.
Craig: I’m a terrible person.
John: You’ve really been a huge disservice to screenwriters everywhere.
Craig: That’s right.
John: Because this is a thing that should be straightforward and you made it completely un-straightforward.
Craig: You know my favorite objection whenever I go on about these charlatans who take your money in exchange for nonsense, people will say, “Well, it’s easy for him to say because he works already.” Which is my favorite like, yeah, and how did that happen, through what? What, did I win a lottery or something?
And then the other one is, “He’s trying to keep us out by taking away the things that would give us the secrets that let us…” Oh, okay.
John: How dare you take their magic beans, Craig.
Craig: Yeah, there’s secrets. That’s it. It’s really just a secret. That’s like a lot of times when I’m in a restaurant I think, “I could make this food, I just need the secret.”
Craig: Just need the secret.
John: Whenever I watch one of those home improvement shows, or especially if I watch the New Yankee Workshop, it’s like I could do what Norm Abram does. I just need that table saw and those spinning spindle things, the lave. God, if I had a lave there’s no end to what I could do.
Craig: That’s why my favorite thing to watch when I was a kid was Bob Ross.
John: Oh yeah, so good. Happy Little Clouds.
Craig: Happy Little Clouds. And I have no ability to illustrate, to draw or paint. None. I can see things in my head, but my brain connecting to my hand is incapable of reproducing anything that is true in terms of painting or drawing or anything like that. I’m just terrible.
So, I watched Bob Ross and what I always was struck by was that for awhile, oh, and there was another guy, even better than Bob Ross. There was a guy named Robbins, I believe. There was a show on PBS, it was a reading show, and while somebody read a children’s story —
John: Oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about, Craig.
Craig: He would illustrate it, right? You remember that guy?
John: Absolutely. Because that’s actually where I learned sort of like forced perspective. Yes.
Craig: That guy, what always blew my mind about that guy was I had no idea what he was drawing for awhile. He would start making these lines, and curves, and shades, and shapes and I would think, well, this is just a mess. It’s a mishmash of nonsense. And then suddenly in a moment the image would appear. And it was just remarkable how integrated it all was to the point where — the way he broke it down, and was able to then construct it, what made no sense from a post-analysis way, none. You would have never thought to break it out.
And, by the way, I feel it’s the same thing. Like if people saw how you built something or I built something, they would say, “Well that’s not applicable to a book for other people. And then we would say, yeah, that’s right. It’s not. Go figure your own way out.
John: Well, it’s interesting you bring up these drawing examples, because you look at Bob Ross or this other perspective guy, or, you know, that simple like paint-by-numbers kind of thing, where draw from here, to here, to hear, the simple little instructions. You know, on some level it’s good if it’s getting somebody to actually sit down and do the work. I full commend that. And if it gets somebody who may actually have an aptitude for it to get started, and try it, and sort of keep working at it, then that’s not a bad thing necessarily.
But it’s when they’re selling you on the idea that all you have to do is exactly what I’m doing and you will be able to make great art, that’s incredibly unlikely.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. I found the guy by the way, just so you know. His name is John Robbins.
John: John Robbins. Very good. We’ll have a link —
Craig: It was called Cover to Cover and the Wishful Artist. Oh, god, so cool. Anyway.
John: Well, I do remember, I think he basically had like a big white board and he would just have a little marker and he would draw little things. And there would be little creatures coming out. It was great. I loved it.
Craig: Yeah, awesome.
John: This also reminds me of the conversation we were having about the — I think it was a New Yorker critic who was writing about how screenwriting is not really writing.
John: Eh. Because if you were to try to tell someone like, “You can write a great American novel, just follow these simple steps.” Everyone would say, well that’s crazy. You can’t be Steinbeck. You can’t be Faulkner. There’s not a way you can reduce that to a simple pattern. Yet, we want to be able to do that for screenwriting because it seems like, well, it should be that way because I’ve seen a lot of movies. You can look at a script, it doesn’t seem that complicated. How challenging could it really be?
Craig: Well, yeah, I mean, this is where unfortunately the reason that these people exist and the reason they push this nonsense is because there is still a Gold Rush mentality about screenwriting.
John: That’s true.
Craig: You know, people still think that this is — the deal is that you’re going to sell you spec, make $4 million, hobnob with movie stars, marry an actress, and live happily ever after. And, no.
John: But I think we’ve also, helping the novelist, or what keeps people from going for that novelist dream so much is we’ve romanticized the idea of writing a novel as suffering.
John: And people don’t want to suffer. People just want to get it done and then like be a success. And we don’t have the idea that screenwriting is suffering. We have the idea that screenwriting is that lottery, like it was really so easy, I sat down, two weeks later, in 21 days I wrote my script. And then I sold it and now I’m a huge success and I have a pool.
John: And that is the dream but that’s the image that is being put out there in the world for people who aspire to write movies. People who aspire to write novels, we’ve not given them that dream. We’ve given them the dream of misery, and heartache, and at the very best maybe you’re David Foster Wallace, but then you still kill yourself.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. It’s true that there is a certain economic benefit to screenwriting that maybe isn’t there for the vast majority of novels. Individual novels obviously will break through. But people think, well, you know, every year somebody goes and sells a thing and they make a thing. And that’s true, but then saying that you’re five times more likely to make money as a screenwriter than you are as a novelist — so?
They’re both really, really small probabilities. And the only way you’re going to succeed as a novelist or as a screenwriter is if you have some innate talent and you understand how to integrate these various things and that you… — If you start approaching this stuff in a workman like way with these books, you’ll never integrate. You’ll never understand. You won’t be honest. The material just won’t be honest and true. And, by the way, I’ve gone through it. You know, there have been times where I just felt like I’m just plotting through this. I’m painting by numbers. This isn’t honest.
And I’ve really been making an effort over the last few years to be as honest as I can, even at the risk of somebody saying, “Well, but you know, we wanted the fake thing. We didn’t want you…”
John: Or, “We expected. We expected what we expected and you didn’t give us what we expected and therefore we’re confused.”
Craig: Yeah, like cherry flavor when you’re a kid is red. It’s that red fake cherry flavor. And then occasionally you would run into somebody who is like, “No, no, no, this is made with real cherries.” And you think, ew, it’s so gross. They’re like, “No, this actually costs money and it’s far, far better.” But I wanted the fake thing. I understand that impulse, but I can’t do it anymore, so.
John: My mom was telling me that this summer in Colorado they’ve had a lot of hikers killed by lightning strikes, so there are these storms that will pick up in the mountains late in the afternoon and if you don’t get off the mountain by two in the afternoon there’s a really good chance that you’ll encounter a lightning storm. And so they’ve had several hikers killed already this summer.
I could look up the real statistics, but it’s actually entirely possible that you’re more likely to be killed by lighting than sell a spec script.
Craig: I would imagine there’s a whole rafter of things, dying of viral meningitis. I know, it just seems like there’s so many things that happen more frequently than selling a screenplay. You should write screenplays because you love writing screenplays. And not for any other reason because, you know, any energy that you slop out in expense of any other thing is wasted energy. You know, caring about breaking in and all the rest of that, you should — you could do that, I guess, when you’ve finished your writing for the day, but better to just concentrate on writing well.
John: I agree. The other topic I wanted to talk about today was making things worse. And it occurred to me because I’ve been catching up on other TV shows over the summer and as you watch one-hour dramas especially, but also half-hours, you recognize that while the one-hour form especially has gotten so good lately and so many wonderful things have happened, there’s a fundamental challenge in television is that you have to be able to create stories that can repeat themselves. You have to be able to create something that can duplicate itself, so that you can actually have multiple episodes.
And, yes, there may be an overall journey over the course of episodes, but you kind of cant burn down the house every week. You can’t make things as bad for the characters as you can in a movie.
John: And that may be actually one of the fundamental characteristics of a movie is that a movie is something that should theoretically be able to happen to these characters only once in their lives, versus a TV show which is theoretically going to be happening over the course of their lives, or over many years of their lives. So, it’s a very different nature of story.
And as I’ve read some scripts recently, I really approach them from the perspective of are the writers willing to make things as difficult as they can for their heroes, for their protagonists. And in many cases I think they’re sometimes too sympathetic to their characters.
John: They don’t want their — they love their characters They don’t want them to suffer. But it’s only through making things awful for them that they’re going to actually be able to overcome the real challenges you want them to overcome.
Craig: That’s right. And it’s not necessarily true for real life. You know, it’s quite common that you grow and achieve without suffering. However, that’s not good drama. In good drama we require the suffering. We need the sacrifice. We need blood. Even if it’s all metaphorically done, if the character experiences something early in the movie or in the midpoint of the movie and is surviving and continuing forward then apparently you haven’t hit them hard enough. At some point they need to be disintegrated by you so that they can be reintegrated as something better.
And there are movies that take this to extremes. Mel Gibson tends to do those. He loves to, you know —
John: Yeah. I think it’s written in his contract he must be beaten at a certain point in each of his films. Tortured.
Craig: He must experience a Christ-like, what is the word, the — not the Passion, is it?
John: The passion play aspect of it all.
Craig: The bad experience. So, in Braveheart it’s not enough for him to be poor. It’s not enough for him to be oppressed. It’s not enough that his wife is killed. It’s not enough for him to suffer in battle. It’s not enough for him to even be betrayed by a friend. He must be tortured publicly and humiliated publicly. And sometimes, of course, those characters do die and in dying they are transformed and they succeed. But in all cases, it’s not enough to get them into a bunch of trouble and then have them work their way out of trouble. There is always, and Pixar also, masters of this.
Pixar will punch a character repeatedly, and some of them will be jabs, and some will be nice right hooks, but they’re saving the big one for the end. They’re saving it — like how much more of a beating can Rocky take? Oh, watch this. That’s what’s I think at the heart of a lot of their success is that they have no problem really hurting their heroes.
John: Well, it’s one thing to have the movie hurt the hero, so some external force hurting the hero, but it’s often much more rewarding that the hero’s own choice is a bad choice. And they’re suffering the consequences of their decisions. And that’s a thing I don’t see happening enough in many scripts is where the character has to make a choice, and that choice either by necessity is going to lead them down a darker path, or they think they have made a choice, an easy choice, that has consequences down the road.
Forcing your characters to take action, even when sometimes those actions are more dangerous or sort of more harmful than the normal thing would be.
Again, in real life, if you gave a character a choice they would probably choose to go home, or call the police, or just get out of the situation, which is a reasonable response. So, your challenge as a writer is to find ways to take away the option of those reasonable responses and force them to take bigger actions.
Craig: Right. And Shakespeare, for instance, would typically look to the characters themselves and their tragic flaw as the reason that they make the choice that perhaps you might not. And those choices would get everybody into trouble.
John: Yeah. So, in Aliens, Ripley has no desire to go back to that planet, but she reluctantly agrees. She has no desire to actually go down to the planet itself, but she reluctantly agrees. She doesn’t want to have to be in charge of anything, but she ends up having to step up and take charge of something. She ends up having a relationship with Newt. She’s trying to protect Newt and trying to just get the hell off the base.
The movie very cleverly keeps adding new escalations to things. But it’s ultimately Ripley’s choice to go after Newt that makes the end so incredibly dangerous for herself. It’s her finally sort of coming into her maternal rage that powers the last part of that movie.
The movie makes things worse for her, but she’s also making the movie worse for herself, and that’s when movies are working really well, that’s what can happen.
Craig: Yeah. I also think that there’s something wonderful that can happen as the product of a series of bad choices and bad things. Your character may make mistakes and may make bad choices and get themselves deeper and deeper into trouble. But what that sets you up for in the ending is the realization that they now know what the right thing is to do. And that thing is even harder to do than all of the other stuff they’ve been doing. And then they’re really — they’re really, that’s why endings to feel so much more final than the middle parts of things because we understand that they are now asked to do something that is because it is good for them and because it goes against the grain of who they’ve been all along. It is now the hardest and most painful choice.
John: Yes. They had the opportunity to get the thing they’ve always wanted and they’re going to have to maybe sometimes surrender that thing for what they know is the right thing.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And it can be challenging.
Craig: In fact, that’s oftentimes very clearly the difference between the protagonist and the antagonist. The antagonist will not change. They refuse to let go. They can’t, and that is their downfall. That in some ways is the purpose of stories is to entice us to be brave enough to change.
John: So, I want to take a look at some television shows because my thesis was that it doesn’t often happen in television shows because television shows have to be able to repeat themselves.
So, you look at a show like Homeland, which did you watch Homeland?
Craig: No, you know I watch two shows.
John: You watch two shows. So, Homeland is a spectacular show and it’s essentially a two-hander. There’s other characters, but the Carrie character is fantastic and the show does a brilliant job of making things as incredibly difficult for her. And in many ways does what I’m saying in terms of like continually escalating and forcing her to make choices that make things much, much worse for herself. And she’s constantly losing allies and things are melting away.
But it ultimately paints that show into a very challenging corner because you can only destroy everything a certain number of times before it just becomes kind of silly.
John: Another counter example is Game of Thrones, which you do watch, and Game of Thrones has the luxury of having so many characters that it can actually sort of make things much, much worse for a character and ultimately kill a character, or kill a lot of characters because there’s room in that world to keep killing characters.
Craig: Well, I will say, answer this question for me about Homeland. Do you think in watching Homeland that the people who created it and currently make it, do you think that they conceive of it as something that will go on as long as it can go on? Or is there a story that they have with an absolute ending and when they get to that ending they’re going to say, “We’re not making Homeland anymore, no matter what our ratings are.”
John: I assumed that was going to be the end of season two. And I have not watched season three. So, there is a plan to continue into now season four, but they’ve made some fundamental character changes. I don’t know what those are ultimately going to be.
Craig: Because I look at Game of Thrones which has an endpoint. It’s moving towards an end. Breaking Bad is an even better example because it’s shorter, so there are five seasons of Breaking Bad, I think, is that correct, five?
Craig: And they played out as a long movie, a very long movie, and over the course of that long movie Walter White changes dramatically and irrevocably. There’s no kind of backing up the way, you know, in soap opera characters become evil, then they become good, then they become evil, and then they become good. That’s kind of the fun of it.
But in Breaking Bad there is a descent. It is a little bit like Heart of Darkness set in Albuquerque. Marlow goes down the river and is inexorably changed. And we watch those — so maybe that’s why, I mean, look, I love Breaking Bad for so many reasons, but I think as a television show I really appreciated it, but in a way by the way — I love The Sopranos, but The Sopranos was never laid out that way.
The Sopranos kind of just existed and did its stuff and then suddenly said, “Okay, we’ve got to bring this to an end,” so there was almost like a rush of changes that occurred. But not so Breaking Bad. It felt deliberate and like a very long movie.
John: Yeah. And I would say that many TV series, and many successful series are kind of all middle. And a given episode could happen anywhere in the order of the show and it basically feels the same. Possibly one of the reasons why a show like Heroes was a little bit frustrating is that a big super hero story doesn’t feel like it should all be middle. It’s meant to have beginnings, middles, and ends, and it just got to be weird that you were suddenly in the middle of this thing for so long.
John: I think our expectations of a super hero story is more a feature kind of expectation. Even in comic books they have those arcs and, yes, Heroes would try to have those little chapters or those little arcs, but it always just sort of felt like you were bound to what TV was supposed to be doing which is giving you the middle.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s why, for instance, I think it’s very smart what Nick Pizzolatto is doing with True Detective or what they do with American Horror Story. Okay, we’re going to do a season and we’ll do as many seasons as you give us, but each season is a story. So, we get to actually change people and have a beginning, middle, and an end.
This is a problem that sitcoms have because they are not designed to deliver story per se, they’re designed to deliver situations and laughs. They are literally defined as, you can call a situation comedy middle comedy. It’s second act comedy. And so what you’ll see in a long-running sitcom, take Friends for example. So, this one likes this one, but this one likes that one, but then they switch, but then they get married, but then they get divorced, but then somebody has a baby, then somebody does not have a baby.
It’s like you could see them just every year they’re like, “Well, let’s just go with this one and this one and make a new middle.” But you never get anywhere until at long last there’s some emotional farewell. But even those emotional farewells aren’t about story. They’re just about saying goodbye to people that we really liked hanging out with.
John: Absolutely. It’s like you were with them for five years of college and then now you’re done and you’re all doing your separate directions. So, you fell in love with the characters, but it was never about the journey that they had together.
Craig: By the way, that’s why I’m going to be an iconoclast here and say that my favorite final episode of a sitcom is Seinfeld’s last episode, which I know at the time was derided, but what I loved about it is it didn’t do — every other sitcom as far as I can tell, most of them, would turn into kind of a maudlin goodbye. And Seinfeld, [laughs], Seinfeld is great because it basically was like we’re now going to judge you. The series was not about hanging out with people that we now have to wistfully say goodbye to. The series was essentially we the audience are god, we’ve watched these people live on earth, and we will now judge them. And we judge them to be lacking.
Craig: And they are now to spend the rest of eternity like the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos together. Together. In their own hell. How about that? How about that for fancy?
John: That is fancy. I’m trying to think of my favorite last episode of a sitcom. I don’t know that I necessarily have one.
Craig: They’re often forgettable.
John: They’re often forgettable. They’re often just like, you know, I remember Cheers ending, I remember Frasier ending, I remember liking all those characters but not feeling necessarily like, well, that was a transcendent episode of what they were supposed to be, partly because the nature of a sitcom is they’re designed to deliver laughs. They’re designed to deliver this situation. And then that situation is resolved and then you come back next week and you see the new situation. So, it’s a very different experience.
Craig: Yeah. Everybody loves the ending, that famous Newhart ending where it was all a dream and they bring back Suzanne Pleshette, and that was great because it was so clever, but —
John: It wasn’t part of the series. It wasn’t —
John: It didn’t have anything to do with that.
Craig: Yeah. It was clever.
John: Yeah, it was clever.
Craig: Usually those, it’s interesting how sitcoms try and become about story in their end. Suddenly they rush to grow up and become adults at the end of their series because they feel like that’s the only significance that those characters can actually have. And essentially they’re a movie that has been a second act for ten years and then five minutes of third act.
By then we don’t really care.
John: We’re done.
Craig: Yeah, we’re done.
John: Cool. All right. Well, let’s wrap this up. Do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I do have a One Cool Thing this week. And my One Cool — well, I guess I have two now, because John Robbins is one of my Cool Things and we’ll find — I’m sure there’s some great videos and you can just watch how this guy makes an illustration out of a bunch of garbled up lines. Ah, what a genius.
John: I kind or remember him having like a number seven line. Like did he have names for the different lines he was doing?
Craig: I don’t know. I can’t remember that. I just remember that he had that very soft voice and a mustache and he was super ’70s out in a kind of like cool high all the time way. And he was just so talented.
My One Cool Thing this week, I’m taking a class at my son’s school, the headmaster has a summer great books class for adults who wanted to take it. And so I took it and it was great. And I read a short story that I had not read before that I thought was just amazing. And I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t read it before, because then when I did a little research, it’s sort of a seminal short story that I suppose I should read at some point. And it truly is short. It’s by an author named Delmore Schwartz who was something of a celebrated literary figure of the ’30s and ’40s. A poet and a short story author and editor. But by his own account never really was able to top his big debut which was this short story that he wrote when he was 23, I believe, called In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.
It’s a fantastically written short story about the terror of choice and of our own past, our present, and our future. Beautifully written and done. If you Google it you just might find a copy out there that you could read, although of course as content creators we always urge that you purchase it somehow responsibly. But it will take you ten minutes to read and probably the rest of your life to mull over. It’s really, really good.
John: That sounds terrific.
John: My One Cool Thing is a book I’m reading right now called The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David MacLean and has such a good setup. So, it’s a nonfiction. It’s a true story of this guy David MacLean who suddenly found himself in a train station in India with no idea of who he was. Complete amnesia in a way that is sort of what you think about in movies where someone literally has no sense of who they are at all.
So, he believes that he was a drug addict and that he may have hurt somebody and these people sort f take pity on him. He ends up in a mental institution in India, which doesn’t seem like an ideal place to end up in a mental institution.
Craig: No, not a good summer holiday.
John: And then ultimately the book sort of follows him trying to figure out who he is and sort of get his brain back together. So, I’m not spoiling anything to say that it’s based on a real thing that does happen, which is an allergic reaction to Lariam, which is a big malaria drug. And on a previous episode when we talked about Datura and like how no one should ever take Datura because it destroys your psyche, this was fascinating to me because where he was lacking most was a sense of inner narrative. He had no idea who he was because he had no story to sort of connect all these little bits and fragments of pieces.
John: And so when he finally finds his family again he has all these photos that he’s in but he doesn’t know what they really mean, so he’s sort of artificially trying to force the memory, or he’s faking a memory for what these are so that it all makes sense to him. It’s a really well written story, and written in a very fragmented way that seems completely appropriate for the narrative.
Craig: That reminds me of that great line from Her. The past is a story we tell ourselves.
Craig: Just love that.
John: One of the things it brings up is that we have an expectation about memory that’s so strange and specific. So, like we sort of kind of remember what books we read, but you don’t really remember the details about the books we’ve read. There’s like a threshold about what we expect ourselves to remember or not remember. And it’s only when you dip below that threshold that everything just sort of falls apart.
Craig: Deep. We both got a little deep there.
John: We got a little deep there. So, a reminder for folks, we have a few of those USB drives left that have the first 150 episodes of Scriptnotes on them. So, if you are a newcomer to the podcast and want to catch up, it’s a chance to get all those episodes at once. So, you can go to store.johnaugust.com and you will see them there and you can order those if you want to.
Craig: 100 Quatloos on the Newcomer.
Craig: Is that right? Is it 100 Quatloos on the Newcomer? Do you know what I’m talking about?
John: No, I don’t know what that is.
Craig: It’s from Star Trek, the good, the original Star Trek. I’m almost said the good Star Trek and then I realized I was going to start a huge fight because I like Star Trek: The Next Generation, too.
John: Is it in Mudd’s Tavern? What’s going on there?
Craig: No, I think it’s like the thing where they all have to fight each other like —
John: Gladiator style?
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Quatloos.
John: All the best. And do they have the little neck things around them?
Craig: I think, is it 100 Quatloos, or 1,000? I don’t know. [laughs]
John: The exchange rates these days, it’s really so hard. To value the quatloo, it’s really tough.
Craig: I don’t know how many quatloos, yeah, like the dollar to quatloo exchange rate is probably way out of whack at this point.
John: It’s got to be crazy. I started watching the original Star Treks with my daughter on Netflix. And it’s really fascinating because they went back through and they cleaned up the visual effects, which do make the show look a lot better and less cheesy, but the cheesiness is actually an inherent part of how the whole thing works.
So, they can fix the visual effects, but you can still see like, oh wow, you shot this whole thing on just like three sets.
Craig: Oh, yeah, you can change the visual effects, but you can’t change the fact that sometimes like the set seems to be shaking a little bit. [laughs] Yeah, I mean, come on, don’t clean it up.
John: Just leave it.
Craig: No, you should leave it as it is. I don’t understand that.
John: Well, what they did is when the Enterprise is circling a planet, that looks much better now. So, that was a useful thing to cleanup.
Craig: I guess. I guess. I liked it. I think that’s part of the fun.
John: Well, if you have an opinion about Star Trek and its cleaned up visual effects, you can tweet at Craig or John. Craig’s Twitter handle is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust.
If you have a longer question, you can write to email@example.com, and we answer some of those questions on the air. If you are on iTunes at this moment and wish to subscribe, you click that subscribe button. That’s always great and handy. You can also leave us a comment.
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Our episodes are produced by Stuart Friedel. They’re edited by Matthew Chilelli, who also did our outro this week, and that’s it for our show.
Craig: Yeah. How many quatloos is the USB drive?
John: It is, I think, well, in American dollars I think it’s $20 or $19.
Craig: Okay. I see. In quatloos it’s like 0.0001 quatloos.
John: Yeah, I mean you have to use your special quatloo calculator thing because it really changes based on the —
Craig: Well, lately, too, god, the dollar is just being crushed. They say that you don’t want the quatloo to go too high.
John: Well, actually because then it really hurts your export market.
Craig: It does.
John: Then no one can actually afford to buy your domestic tribble grains. Sorry, the quatloo lately, it gets way too expensive.
Craig: It’s really bad.
John: Yeah, it’s really tough.
John: Craig, have a wonderful writing vacation.
Craig: Thank you. You, too, John.
John: And we’ll talk next week.
Craig: Fantastic. Bye.
- Badges for the 2014 Austin Film Festival are available now
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- Two-handers on screenwriting.io
- Scriptnotes, Episode 152: The Rocky Shoals (pages 70-90)
- The Five Ws on Wikipedia
- John Robbins on Wikipedia
- Scriptnotes, Episode 150: Yes, screenwriting is actually writing
- In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories by Delmore Schwartz
- The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David Stuart MacLean
- Outro by Scriptnotes editor Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)