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 Episode 239 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today’s episode is 100% craft, there will be no follow-up, there will be no questions, no discussion of etiquette. We are going to try to answer the question of what is good writing before we take a look at three new Three Page Challenges.
A warning that one of the Three Page Challenges has some bad words in it, so if you’re driving in the car with your kids, you may want to turn down the dial before you get to the Three Page Challenges. But other than that, it should be a pretty clean show.
Craig: I’m glad for it. I feel like while it was fun to wander around a bit, we need to focus. We need to refocus on our mission.
John: We need to focus on our mission, which is to talk about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
John: Mm-hmm. So the idea for this topic came up because I read this piece in Slate and which is originally from Quora. It was by this guy, Marcus Geduld. And he was trying to answer the question, how do you differentiate good acting from bad acting? So I’ll put a link to the show notes for his original piece but I thought it was actually a really nicely designed explanation of sort of what he’s looking for in good acting.
And what I especially liked about it is he says, “If anyone tells you there are objective standards, they’re full of crap. This is a matter of personal taste. There are trends — there are many people who love Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting but if you don’t, you’re not wrong.”
And so, as we get into the succession of acting and writing, I would back up what he says. It’s not there’s a one objective standard, but there’s things that I tend to notice when I’m saying like, well, that’s really good acting or really good writing and it may be useful to point them out.
Craig: This is a large philosophical discussion but I do agree with this gentleman as well. When it comes to writing, it’s not possible to say that this is capital G good and this is capital G bad. What you can say is that this is to my taste or it is not and here’s why. We do know that there are certain kinds of writing and the writing of certain writers that tends to be toward to most people’s taste, to a lot of people’s taste. There are some writers who appeal to the taste of those who consider themselves refined. There are some that appeal to the average man or woman.
But I’m with this guy completely. That’s why anytime I talk about a movie, I’m like, “It wasn’t for me.” That’s the best I could do.
John: Let’s take a look at his criteria for good acting. He says, “Good actors make me believe that the actor is going through whatever his character is actually going through.” So there’s a believability. You really believe that he has been shot, that he is terrified in this moment. And he singles out sort of like if you can tell they’re faking it, then it’s honestly kind of worse. Like you can sense that they’re acting.
And that’s very true. I mean, the performances that I admire the most, I genuinely believe that they are experiencing — obviously you know there’s artifice, you know that they’re in a movie — and yet the moment feels incredibly real because they’re responding to things in a very real way.
Craig: And ultimately verisimilitude is kind of what we do, right?
Craig: We’re trying to create a fake world that at least seems real to you while you’re experiencing it or is real enough that you can suspend your disbelief. And this advice I think is perfect for actors or writers.
Craig: Actors, obviously it’s immediate. We see and hear them and so we know that they’re believable or not. But for us as writers, believability, that probably is my number one problem with most screenplays I read. I read something, I read a character’s line or I witness their choice and I think, “I just don’t believe that that’s what a person would do in that circumstance.”
John: Absolutely. You say like, “I don’t believe it. I don’t buy it. I don’t get it. It doesn’t connect for me.”
John: That’s because you don’t believe that character is performing that way in that moment. But very related to that, Geduld is looking for surprise. The great actors surprise him. So out of all the choices they could make, they are making really interesting choices.
So he singles out sort of like if there’s a bank teller, you sort of want that bank teller just to be believable as a bank teller and not draw any attention or draw any focus to himself. But your main actors in your piece, they should be making really fascinating and interesting choices at times so you don’t know what they’re going to do next. Because if you can predict perfectly what they’re going to do next, you get bored.
I think I see the same thing with writing. If I can tell you what’s going to happen three pages later or three sentences later, then I stop being so intrigued. I’m not curious what’s going to happen next.
Craig: Yeah, that’s where the boredom happens. And when we see characters doing these things that are sort of obvious, right, there’s the lack of surprise, this is when you tend to hear things like, well, tropey or just sort of, “I’ve seen it before.” The element of surprise isn’t so much about leaping out and going boo at the audience as much as it is delighting them with something that they were not expecting.
All comedy is surprise. You cannot get a laugh if there’s no surprise, right?
Craig: Everybody knows that. If you tell somebody a joke and they’re like, “I’ve heard it before,” don’t keep telling the joke. There will be no surprise. All actors surprise, all emotion I think is surprise. It creeps up on you. Even when you are not surprised by the thing that happens, the intensity of it surprises you, and thus, the tears come.
John: And there’s no surprise without expectation. So the reason why a joke works is because you set up an expectation for what the natural outcome is and the punch line is a surprise.
The same thing happens in drama. You set an expectation for what is going to happen next and the surprise is something different happens or a different choice is made. So you don’t get those moments of surprise unless you’ve set expectation really well.
That’s one of the things I enjoyed most about Drew Goddard’s adaptation of The Martian is he was very clever about setting up expectations about what was going to happen next so that all the calamities that would happen to poor Matt Damon on Mars can still be surprising. You don’t get those surprises unless you’ve very carefully laid out for the audience what he thinks is going to happen next.
Craig: It’s remarkable how similar what we do is to what magicians do, because there is no surprise for the magician and there’s none for us. We know how it ends. We know everything. So there’s this careful craft of misdirection and misleading and setting up one expectation only to deliver something else. It’s all very crafted.
You know, if you spend any time reading Agatha Christie, she is just a master of this because in her case, think about what she has to do. She has to surprise the reader at the end and the entire time they are battling her.
Craig: They are not surprised that there’s a surprise. So it’s a bit like watching a close-up magician at work. You know he or she is trying to fool you. And then they fool you anyway.
John: Yeah. I think the other crucial thing to remember about surprise is if everything is surprising, nothing is surprising. And so if you don’t allow characters to behave in a way that we can have some ability to predict what’s going to happen next, we will stop caring or just stop trying to put our confidence in you that they are going to do something worthwhile. That there’s going to be a payoff to this.
And you see that sometimes in writing as well, where it’s just such a scramble of different things, it’s going in so many different directions. The rug is always being pulled out from underneath you to the point where like, “You know what, I’m not going to stand on that rug because I just know you’re going to pull it out from under me.”
Craig: No question. And in acting, we know this feeling when we’re watching a movie and we want to turn to somebody next to us and say, “Do you have any idea what this person is doing or talking about?” I love Apocalypse Now. I love that movie and my favorite book is Heart of Darkness. And I think there’s more great performances in that movie than practically any other movie I can think of.
But Marlon Brando’s performance is essentially surprising constantly to the point where I can’t quite get a handle on him at all as Kurtz. For me at least, that performance, it’s just all surprises and nothing to push against.
John: Yeah. It can be the real frustration. And of course, when you talk about an actor’s performance, we really are balancing what was written, what was the scripted performance and what was the actor actually doing. And in the case of Apocalypse Now, that was just a huge jumble.
Craig: Oh, yeah. [laughs]
John: But there’s times where, you know, you’re trying to look at a character in a movie and it becomes very hard to tell, like, did that not work because it was bad on the page or did that not work because the actor made bizarre choices that made it impossible for that to function? And it’s one of the reasons why it can be so crucial to have a writer around on a set to sort of be that set of eyes to let the director know and everybody else know, like, “Okay, what they’re doing is fascinating but it will not actually add up and you’re going to be in real trouble when you get to the editing room.”
Craig: Yeah, there’s no question. I think Brando famously showed up on that set like 100 pounds overweight, hadn’t read the book, probably hadn’t read the script, didn’t know any of his lines. [laughs] Yeah, that one was a disaster.
John: Geduld’s next point is that great actors are vulnerable, which is very true. You feel like the great actors are letting you see parts of themselves that they might be embarrassed by or essentially that they’re not embarrassed to show you those things that are sort of icky inside them and they’re not trying to be perfectly put together at all moments. They’re letting you in and showing you the cracks.
And good writing does that, too. Good writing isn’t trying to impress you at all moments. Good writing is trying to explore uncomfortable emotions and uncomfortable feelings.
Craig: Yeah. This can be a little bit of a trap for writers who work in comedy because comedy is one of the great defense mechanisms of all time. And there are very funny movies that essentially truck entirely in comedy and they never show vulnerability and they never get you in a moment where suddenly you feel, you deeply feel. You’re there to laugh. And by the way, it’s perfectly fine. I mean, you know, there are a lot of terrific movies that are just there to make you laugh.
But if you are trying to do a certain kind of comedy, you need to be able to access your vulnerable side and put aside your humor armor and just be real. Sometimes, it’s those moments inside of comedies that are the most touching because of the contrast.
John: Absolutely. I mean, you obviously had that moment with Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief but I’m also thinking about Melissa McCarthy in Spy. And I think one of the reasons why Spy worked so well is you definitely see what she is longing for and sort of her obsession with her boss that she doesn’t really want to own up to and her own fears and frustrations sort of bubbling out. And so they find great comedic moments for it but they also really let you deep inside. And that’s why you can sort of identify so closely with her character.
Craig: And Melissa’s really good at that. I mean, Melissa, you know, she has one of those faces, like Zach Galifianakis and Steve Carell, these are people that you want to take home and hug, and yet they’re also so funny.
Craig: Then there are some really funny people that I don’t want to take home and hug. Like Ryan Reynolds is really funny. But he doesn’t seem to need my emotional support. [laughs] He seems to be just fine, you know what I mean?
Craig: Whereas like Zach or Steve Carell or Melissa, I’m like, “Okay, come here, here’s some soup. Let’s talk it out.”
Craig: You know, let me take care of you.
John: Yeah. His next point is listening, that the great actors watch them when they’re listening to other characters speak, which is a thing I’ve definitely noticed is that there are some people who just seem to be waiting for their turn to act next and there’s other actors who you feel like everything they’re saying is in response to the previous character, that they’re engaged in this moment, they’re engaged in listening. And those actors help the other person’s performance so much because they direct your attention back to what the other character is saying.
It’s such a simple and kind of obvious thing, but if you look at scenes that aren’t working, it’s often because you don’t believe that the other character is actually listening to what the first character is saying.
Craig: Yeah. This is acting school 101, you know. Sometimes all you do is just sit and listen and learning how to listen seems weird. Like why would it be so hard for me to do something I’m constantly doing anyway? But in the moment, when you are required to say things that you didn’t think and they are not extemporaneous, they were written down and studied, the act of listening in and of itself is a challenge, because suddenly you’ve lost yourself listening to this other person and you forgot you have something to say. That’s really tricky but what it comes down to is essentially putting your ego aside and not feeling like it’s more important for you to be in command of your moment when you say words.
Sometimes the big moments are the ones where you listen. Film actors, the ones who’ve been around the block a lot, they know that oftentimes the camera is on them more when they’re not talking.
Craig: So listening becomes crucial.
John: From the writer’s point of view, you are often writing those words that they are saying. And so if you are just batting a ball back and forth, it’s unlikely that you’re writing your very best dialogue for those actors because it doesn’t feel like they had to hear what the previous person said to respond to it, didn’t actually need to process it, but rather is like, funny line, funny line, funny line, funny line, that scene is not going to work or this is not going to work as well as it could. And the actors are not going to be able to bring anything special to it because you’re not giving them any things to hold on to. There’s just no handholds in that kind of dialogue.
Craig: There are exceptions. Sorkin is very good at putting lots of dialogue and not giving his characters a lot of time to listen because he demands that they’re fast and smart. So I think of the first scene of Social Network, it’s very ratatat. It’s very verbal. But then in that scene, when there is a moment where somebody suddenly stops, it means something.
Craig: You realize that they’ve been knocked back on their feet a little bit. Those are very challenging scenes for actors to do.
John: Yeah. Well, you know, if you’re writing things where the point is that they actually sort of aren’t listening, where they are basically two simultaneous monologues directed towards each other, that can be great and be fascinating. But if your whole movie is built of that, you better be Aaron Sorkin.
Craig: Well, yeah, and even Aaron Sorkin understands that after a scene like that, you need a break.
John: Yeah. His next point, the great actors use their instruments to their best effect. So by instruments, he means their body, their voice, basically what they came to the show with. And so it’s recognizing what you have and how to make the most of what you have.
So his example is Philip Seymour Hoffman who was overweight and not conventionally attractive but definitely knew how to use his body to best effect to, you know, be that character or sort of provide that character a reality within that world. And I think that’s something we’re always looking for with our own writing and with the characters we’re creating is how do you use who they are and what they bring to best effect.
Craig: And also for ourselves, there are things that we know we do well. John Lee Hancock, he always says that when he is sent something, a script for consideration to direct, the first question he asks while reading it or after reading it is, “Is this a pitch I can hit?”
John: Ah, yes.
Craig: You know, and the truth is, not everyone can do everything. And there are things that sometimes we want to do for a change because they’re exciting, and those are terrific. But there are also things we know we can do. And this is why some great actors have been bad in movies because they were miscast. That’s what miscasting is, right? So for us as well, we have to kind of cast ourselves into what we write to make sure that we’re writing with the wind at our back and not in our face.
John: For sure. So let’s go on beyond his suggestions and think of some of our own suggestions for the things we notice about good writing that are sometimes lacking in writing that is not so good. Do you want to start?
Craig: Sure. For me, just a few things that came to mind that don’t really apply for the acting model of things. One is layers. Good writing I think is accomplishing more than one thing at a time. Usually, I’m watching plot happen while I’m also watching a relationship change or watching a character grow. There’s just layers to things. I think audiences appreciate those complexities when it’s very — okay, this, now we stop doing and we talk and we have a relationship. Now we do talking again. It starts to feel very simple to me.
John: Yeah. And sometimes in procedural dramas on television, you’ll notice this, like they’re just doing the one thing. They’re basically like just putting out information about the next thing they’re going to do. And that’s sometimes how procedural dramas need to work but it’s not sort of the best writing we could aspire to in other forms.
Craig: Agreed. The other thing I think is a hallmark of good writing is hidden scenes because, you know, we are trying to create the illusion of something that is whole and of one piece because it really happened even though it didn’t. Of course, that requires us to stitch things together. And sometimes we have to do things in our stories to make them work that aren’t completely organic to what happened before. And I think good writing knows how to hide those scenes so that they’re not even visible at all. It’s like a good tile guy knows how to fit two slabs together so you don’t even notice that it’s two pieces and it looks like one.
John: Yeah. You brought up magic before and I think of sort of what David Kwong does in his close-up work. And I don’t ever want to ask him how he does what he does because I’m never going to be able to do it. It’s sort of more fun for me not to know. But I’m sure some of the misdirection is a real vigilance about where the audience’s attention is going to be.
And so when you talk about hidden seams, you’re really basically being very mindful of like what are they going to see and what are they not going to see. And by putting something over here, they’re not going to be paying attention to this thing that I’m doing over sort of down here on the page. It’s being very aware of like where they are at and their experience of reading the story, of watching this movie so they’re not going to see what you’re actually needing to do.
Craig: Yeah. A lot of times when people talk about good craft, I think this is a big part of it, is just hiding the artifice and avoiding all those — you know, there’s a common thing people say in Hollywood when they want to say they had a problem with something in a script. They’ll say, “This bumped me.” And bumped means, literally, I felt the seam, you know. Like I was in a car, I was on what I thought was a smooth stretch of road and then bump, right? So those are the things we try and hide.
The other thing that I think is part of good writing is a point of view that unlike a performance which is delivering one character and making us believe that character, the writer needs a point of view because otherwise the story isn’t really about anything in particular. The writer needs something interesting to say and they have to have an interesting way of saying it. It doesn’t need to be text, it could be subtext. And it doesn’t have to be grand. It doesn’t have to be unsaid by anyone else before. But we do need a point of view.
John: Yeah. On the blog about two weeks ago, I addressed this article that Michael Tabb had written about — he called it premise and I sort of disagreed with him calling it premise. But what he was really talking about was this idea like what is the point, like what are you actually wrestling with in the story? Even if characters aren’t speaking aloud, even if it’s not even sort of obvious subtext, it’s the reason why you wrote the story, it’s the question you’re trying to answer. It may not even be like the dramatic question that a character is going to ask or resolve. It’s not the plot. It is sort of the point.
It’s like, I want to believe that the story is about more than just the surface plotting of it and that there’s a reason why you wrote this story, there’s a reason why I should be spending my time on it. That even if there’s not necessarily one answer, that you’re going to try to convince me of some point of view.
Craig: Yeah. I call it the central dramatic argument. Everybody’s got a different, you know, phrase for it.
Scott Frank told me he wrote a script once and he sent it to, I won’t say who, but a big screenwriter, to get their opinion and that person’s response was, “This screenplay is well-written but it’s answering a question no one is asking.” And I thought that was a really tough love way of saying that whatever the point of view was there, it wasn’t something that would connect universally.
And we talk about this a lot. When you’re writing movies, you are creating the uncommon and the bizarre and the remarkable and notable because those are the stories worth seeing. But buried in there, something that is the opposite, incredibly common, completely universal, applicable to everyone’s life experience.
So that’s where the point of view comes in. And similarly, I think that connects to another part of what I consider to be good writing, and that’s a general unity, that there’s a cohesion of the narrative, the end feels like a proper resolution of the beginning. The phrase coming full circle. A good movie comes full circle.
John: Yeah. And when we say coming full circle, meaning both in terms of like story and plot. So like we started some place and we got some place, the characters went through a journey, we actually saw them do something, we saw them accomplish something or failed something in an interesting way.
But also, thematically, that there was like these were the themes we were exploring and we succeeded in exploring these themes through different characters, through different situations and we got someplace. And it all feels like it’s of one piece and it’s not just like a bunch of things that happened and now the credits are rolling.
Craig: Yeah. Ideally, the beginning informs what the end is and the end informs what the beginning is, the two of them are yin and yang. And those pieces fit together gorgeously. By the time you get to the end of the movie, you go, “Yes, it had to start that way, it had to end that way.”
John: And yet, at the same time, ideally, starting at that place, you should not have been able to predict that it got to that place.
John: And that’s the narrative trick. That’s good writing.
Craig: That’s good writing. And the way to, I think, your best friend in achieving that trick is having a point of view, because that’s what you’re bringing that the audience doesn’t walk in with.
John: Yeah. The thing that I think I’ve noticed about good writing is confidence and that the writer has confidence in his or her words and that his or her story is going to be interesting enough that me as the reader should be spending my time to follow them on this journey. And it’s a hard thing to describe because you don’t sort of see it, you just feel it. You feel like, okay, this writer is confident, I am confident in this writer that this is going to be an interesting journey worth taking.
Some of the things that make me lose confidence at times are simple mistakes. And so, you know, a typo here and there isn’t going to kill you. But a lot of typos makes me wonder like, “Wow, are you really that dedicated to your story? Did you not even proofread this?” And sometimes it’s sort of more they’re not typos but they’re just like things they didn’t think through, like logic flaws that make me question whether this is going to end well.
And so, confidence is a thing I look for in writing. And when I see it, I sort of lean into it. I’m excited to see where they’re going to go next.
Craig: Yeah. You know, you say that the idea that the writer is in control of the story and that’s exactly right. When you read a well-written script, you’re turning the pages knowing full well that when you turn the page, the next one is not going to be the one that makes you go, “Oh, god, really?” Whereas in bad writing, I’m feeling that on almost every page.
I mean, all of your triggers that you mentioned are correct. The one that always gets me is when I see the writer solving a problem in an evident way. And then I go, “Okay, I get that you had a problem and I get you needed to get out of that problem so that you could do blah, blah, blah, blah, but I don’t want to see that. Now I have no confidence in your story. Now I see the artifice.”
You know, I’ve been starting to create crossword puzzles because I’m not a dork enough, I guess. And when you’re building crossword puzzles, you have your big theme answers and then you’re going to fill in words around it. And sometimes you get jammed in a spot where, in order to make everything work, you need to stick a word in that’s just a really bad dumb crossword word.
John: What’s an example of a bad crossword word?
Craig: Well, there are so many. Well, there’s the crossword ease words like Etui and Esai and, you know, ero. And then there’s ones that are just like, you know, NGP and then you’re like, “What the heck’s an NGP?” And then it’s like, okay, one person once said it and it’s like this bizzaro thing or some foreign capital no one even knows.
And people do it because they have to solve their problem. But the good crossword puzzle creators, they just go, “Nope, let me undo this section and do it again because I don’t want people to hit that thing where they go, ‘Oh, that’s right, this is fake and you just magneted a solution on here so you could get to the next page.'”
John: Yeah. So things that make me lose confidence — typos, those kind of just like hacky solutions to things, and clichés which is a general kind of hackiness where it’s like, okay, that’s a really obvious tropey either plotting device or just a bad phrase that you just didn’t spend the time to think of a better way to say that thing.
And so, cliché can be great if you’re going to explode the cliché or sort of like play against the cliché. And if I have a lot of confidence in your story, in your writing, I will see that cliché and like, “You know what, that’s fine because they’re going to do something great with it. I’m going to keep turning pages because it’s going to be awesome.”
But if I was starting to lose confidence and then I encounter one of those cliché’s, I’m like, “Oh, it’s dipping low.” And remember in our last live show or two live shows ago, we had Riki Lindhome up. She was talking about when they were staffing for Another Period. And it’s like, oh, how many pages of a script do you read before you say yes or no? It’s like, well, about three.
John: And so, if she encounters a really hacky cliché on page three, she’s done. And that’s what you have to be so vigilant about.
Craig: Yeah. This idea of confidence in what the writer is doing is going to come up in one of our Three Page Challenges. I think we’ll see it pretty clearly. Part of what happens is when you feel good about the writing and then something comes along that’s a little squidgy, you give the writer the benefit of the doubt, “This must be intentional, it will work out.” And then, in well-written scripts, it does.
Think of like a script as the Titanic and it’s sailing along and it’s got its watertight compartments. You can hit, you know, one or two things and if you fill one or two watertight compartments, you can stay afloat for a while. But when you’re dragging something across all of them, you’re going to sink.
Craig: And when I read scripts where characters are, their voices are changing from scene to scene, characters are behaving in the middle of situations that are just bizarre and not realistic at all or inconsistent with what they did before, suddenly, the Titanic is being ripped in half, Jack is drowning, Rose is on the piece of door.
Craig: Oh, yeah, the Titanic does go down.
John: Sorry, man.
Craig: Yeah, spoiler.
John: It’s good to bring up voices because voice is one of those things — we talk about characters having voices and making sure the voices sound believable. But writers also have voices. And good writing, that writer has a voice. And so I don’t care if it’s a non-fiction piece in Slate or something in The New Yorker or a Hemingway short story or Faulkner, or just any screenplay. You know, you read a Tarantino screenplay versus an episode of Game of Thrones, you read one of their things, they’re all very different but they all have a voice. They all sound like they’re written by a person who is confident about the words that they’re using to describe their world.
And as we get to the Three Pages, I think this sense of voice is really crucial. It’s a thing that keeps you turning pages because like, “Oh, even if I don’t necessarily love the story, I love hearing this person’s voice.”
John: And there are writers who like, I’m not actually nuts about some of their plotting but their voices are just so fantastic. You want to talk about an amazing writer, someone we both follow on Twitter, Paul Rudnick.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs]
John: What an amazing voice he has.
John: So Paul Rudnick wrote In & Out and lots of other movies.
Craig: Addams Family.
John: Was it Addams Family or —
John: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. But he also used to write as Libby Gelman-Waxner. It was a column for Premiere Magazine which was the big film magazine at the time. And it was written for the point of view of this film critic kind of. She would review two movies in every issue. But it was mostly about her life and sort of her daughter and her dentist husband, Josh, I think.
John: And basically, it was all about sort of her even though she was technically reviewing these films. And it was all just a wonderful exercise in voice.
Craig: Yeah. I’m just such a fan of his. In & Out is such a good movie. I love that movie. I mean, that’s a great movie, by the way, for anyone to study in terms of structure because it’s structured perfectly. And talk about, it’s loaded with surprise. I mean, you have a movie where someone is gay but isn’t ready to come out of the closet and you’re like, okay, it’s going to end with him coming out of the closet. Yeah, but that’s not where the surprise is, you know.
And then his voice, look, he’s one of the wittiest people ever. [laughs] He’s like Dorothy Parker witty. That guy is, he’s great.
John: He’s fantastic.
John: My last little thing I’ll say about good writing, and this is not an exhaustive list, there’s probably other things you can think of, but I want to talk about finesse. And this is a thing that you maybe only kind of recognize when you have written a lot. But when I see a writer doing something that’s actually really difficult and they make it look so easy, you’re like, “Wait, how did you do that?”
John: And that’s the thing that I start to really appreciate. And so, two recent examples I can think of, over the Christmas break I read To Kill a Mockingbird. And obviously the book is great on many levels and that’s why you study it in high school.
But looking at it now, Harper Lee was able to do these things, these transitions where she was in a scene and it was like really a detailed scene and like every moment, every sort of gasp and every, you know, scratch on the floor, and then like within just a few sentences, several months could pass and then we’re off to something completely new. She was able to transition in and out of these sort of close-up moments in ways that were just remarkably subtle and clever and adept that you didn’t even sort of notice. Like, “Oh, wow, just months passed and now Scout’s older and like two sentences have gone by.”
John: That’s a really remarkable thing.
Craig: It is. I think that the idea of making the difficult scene easy is more a hallmark of great writing. You know, the person that confounds me time and time again is Neil Gaiman. I read this guy and I’m like, “How did you just do that? How did you pull that off?”
You know, just reading through the entire Sandman series at least once in every issue, I’d go, “Wow. Wow. How did you — ” especially later on when you’re like, “Wait, did you set up something three years ago and it just paid off?” [laughs] I mean, his mind is just remarkable and he makes it look so easy.
John: Yeah. And I had this filed underneath the finesse category but it speaks back to sort of all these things, so maybe my final example will sort of talk about how well she did on all these different levels.
So Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl, both in the book and in the movie, and different ways how she did it in both the book and the movie, there’s this narrative handoff that has to happen halfway through. And when you see what she did, we’re talking about the layers, there was actually much more going on than you sort of thought was going on. There were these hidden scenes that she was just masterful.
She had a point of view as an author about what she was trying to express but also very clearly you could understand the characters’ points of view on this. There was a unity, there was a deeper thing that this was all sort of connected to. And she had confidence and it’s only because I had confidence in her writing and sort of what she was doing that I was able to take this giant leap halfway through the book and halfway through the movie that like, “Okay, everything has completely changed and I’m so excited to see where this is going next.”
Craig: It’s such a good feeling knowing that every page you’re reading has been thought out and is part of a larger plan.
Craig: And you never get that sense of — because I’ve read some novels where — I read one in particular recently where I was so happy halfway through. And then I got into the second half and it just seemed to me that the author had kind of gone, “Okay, that’s enough craft. Let’s just wing it.” [laughs] And it just fell apart.
John: I will tell you quite honestly, there was a book I was sent as an adaptation, I had this two years ago maybe, maybe even more than that. And it had sold for a fair amount and then I heard back — so I read it, it’s like, “Well, the first half is really good and the second half is not really good at all.” And the backstory was like, yeah, people only read the first half. They bought it at an auction, they only read the first half. And so no one sort of knew how it ended. And then they got the rest of it and they’re like, “Oh, oh, no. Oh, no.” And it just wasn’t a good ending.
Craig: No. And that’s a real challenge for us when we’re adapting these things because, like I said before, the ending must be fundamentally there in the beginning. So it means that the beginning that you like so much, you might have to change that a little bit.
John: That’s the frustration. And as we start these Three Page Challenges, we are just looking at the beginning. So we have to be mindful of, the first three pages are so crucial but in some ways they’re so easy because you’re not responsible for like the next 90 pages as you’re writing these three pages and giving them to us. But of course, if you’re writing the full script, these three pages would actually have to set up the things you want to do for, you know, another two hours of the movie.
Craig: Yeah, they’re crucial. Crucial.
John: They’re crucial.
John: All right, let’s get started with this. Which one should we do first?
Craig: Here, I’ll do Brewed.
Craig: Brewed is written by Joey Perotti.
John: So as always, if you’re new to the podcast, you may not know that there are links to the PDFs of these Three Page Challenges in the show notes, so you can read along with us if you’d like to. So these are people who have written in to johnaugust.com/threepages and they said that we could talk about their pages on the air. So these are willing participants in this and they’re all very brave to give us their pages.
Craig: Indeed they are. So we summarize them and then we discuss and you can play along with the home game. And for those of you listening and you don’t have the pages in front of you, Brewed is B-R-E-W-E-D, not B-R-O-O-D. Brewed by Joey Perotti.
So we open in the brew house which is a small, moderately busy coffee shop and we’re listening to Chuck, an overweight buffoon and manager, and he’s holding up a journal and he’s basically instructing his employees, it seems. And he’s talking to Henry who’s in his late teens and giving him this information. And then Henry notices Robert, he’s a homeless man. The homeless man is talking to Jude who works behind the register. And the homeless man, Robert, is asking to use the bathroom. Jude says, “No, it’s for customers only.” Robert then walks up to Henry and says, “Hey, can I get some change?” Henry gives him some money.
A customer named Paul tells Henry he’s made a big mistake. That Jude is going to be mad at him. Paul is a regular, he’s been there all the time. He sees everybody and what he knows is the most important thing in the coffee shop is the bathroom key, it’s for customers only. At which point Robert, the homeless man, says to Jude, “I want the bathroom key, I’m a customer.” And Jude is annoyed.
John: Yes. So we’re going to have I think two really promising things to talk about next. But to me, I felt like that this was one of Joey’s first screenplay exercises. And there was a lot here that didn’t work for me. So this is going to be one of those things where like it sounds like I’m just going to pick and pick and pick and pick. But I think there’s a lot to pick at here.
So we can talk about sort of the concept but I’ll tell you where I had issues on the page and we can work through those and then maybe other ways he could sort of set up this thing which read to me like it was maybe a pilot or an indie com. I wasn’t quite sure what I was reading.
Craig: Right. All right, well, go for it.
John: Go for it. So this is going to be some tough love for Joey, but hopefully helpful. So let’s just look at the first page. There’s a fade in, which you don’t need. You can have it, you can let it go. A lot of typos, just a lot of typos. Buffoon is B-U-F-F-O-O-N. We see the Brew House a lot in this first bit. You could take that out. So Chuck tells a joke and then like laughs hysterically and then like laughs bigger about it. I didn’t believe it. So going back to our discussion, like I didn’t buy that. I don’t think I would buy any actor actually being able to do that. Unless there’s like a meta joke about someone doing that, it felt really strange and weird to me.
I also got lost about like, wait, is he giving instruction to a bunch of people or just to this one new guy because it wasn’t clear. Just the geography of the space was not clear to me.
John: If we’re going to be in a place called the Brew House, are we behind the counter? Are we on one side? Like I had no idea how the layout of this place was working.
Opportunity is misspelled twice.
Craig: Three times.
John: Three times. [laughs]
John: Opportunity is misspelled consistently.
John: Slightly is missing a T. On page 2, a few things, parentheticals. Parenthetical, the first letter is not capitalized. And so if that parenthetical is truly that thing that’s underneath the character name, that first letter is not capitalized. OS when it’s like off screen or voice over, those abbreviations, those are different kinds of things. Those actually go up on the line with the character name. So those are two different things.
John: Page 3, we have the same problem with the capitalization and the parenthetical. I asked Stuart why he picked this and he said that we hadn’t done a lot of things that were just comedy and we hadn’t done things which were just dialogue and that’s why he picked it, which I think is true. So I think it was useful for that reason. But also because there are some things here that people would probably — they might see in their own scripts and fix.
Craig: Yeah. Well, this is the one I was thinking about when we think about confidence in reading. So we look at this line here, Chuck says, “I want you to jot down any time you size an opprotunity. And then Henry goes, “Size?” “Yeah, is the opprotunity big? Is it small?” Okay, so there’s a joke here that Joey is trying for which is that Chuck isn’t good at talking. But now is opprotunity on purpose? Does he not know how to pronounce that word or is that just a typo like all the other typos on this page? This is the point. I don’t know what you’re going for and I have no confidence in it, so now I’m just chucking it up to a typo.
Craig: Since you talked a lot about form and I agree with every single thing you said, I’m going to talk a little bit about content here. I have no idea what a journal is in terms of a manager at a coffee house instructing what appears to be a new employee. Chuck says, “This is your cold beverage journal. And your pastry journal, and your tasting journal, and you’re African coffee journal or as I like to call it, your ‘urban’ journal.” And that’s his joke.
Okay, A, that’s not a very good joke. And not because of racism, it’s just not a very good joke. B, I have no idea what a journal is. So I don’t know what’s going on. Is it an instruction manual? Is that a menu? So journal is a weird word. If I haven’t worked in Starbucks, then I don’t know what that is and I don’t know if that’s a specific word for that.
And Henry isn’t saying anything here at all. He’s just sitting there, so I have no idea who he is, what he’s about, I suspect he’s our hero. This is not good. Chuck ends this conversation on the top of page 2 by saying, “Wait here, I’m going to grab Zoe,” gets up and walks into the back. Great example of not hiding the scenes. [laughs] Character just says, “I have to go away now, bye.”
John: Yeah. Let’s talk about character names. All the characters have very similar names and it was very easy to get them confused. And so when your homeless person is named —
John: Robert. Well, that doesn’t feel like — I’m sorry, that doesn’t feel like the homeless guy to me. I couldn’t tell Robert from Jude from Henry by the bottom of page 2 and that’s really a problem. Particularly if Henry is supposed to be our lead character, he’s not particularly well described or set up. And we don’t see him, going back to our craft thing, we don’t see him listening. We are never given any instruction for sort of what he’s like as he’s listening or sort of how he’s reacting to this crazy stuff that’s he’s being told.
Craig: Yeah. There’s little bits. He nods his head confused. But who wouldn’t nod their head confused at that?
Craig: There’s something particularly unique to him or his responses. Henry looks at all the journals. I still don’t know what those are. Then Robert is having an argument with Jude. Now, Robert’s had this argument many, many times with Jude.
Craig: First of all, in the parenthesis, apathy on the verge of annoyance, you can just substitute the word annoyed, okay? Just bored, annoyed if you wanted to, right? Shorter. You don’t want to ever have two lines of parenthetical. Just indicates that you’re a failure of imagination basically. So Robert says, “Come on man, I just got to take a piss.” And Jude says, “Restroom’s for customers only.” How many times has he said this to this guy? A thousand? So wouldn’t it be, “You know the restrooms are for customers only.” [laughs]. You know right, there’s got to be some indication of a past life. Talk about acting — one of the things they drill into you in acting class is the moment before. So there’s a whole world before this. So that’s a moment where I don’t believe it.
John: So the parenthetical for what Craig is describing could just be in parenthesis, (thousandth time). I mean that gives the actors something to play.
Craig: Right, exactly. And that’s what those things are there for, right? It’s to get them something to play. Apathy on the verge of annoyance is rather wordy. This, by the way, is where parentheticals get a bad rap, you know. And people will say, “Never use — don’t tell what actors what to do, blah, blah, blah.” You know, that nonsense. You know, just don’t do it like this.
Craig: But yeah, for the thousandth time would be a terrific thing. Then we introduce Paul. And Paul delivers this monologue on page 3 that feels very written. And the way he gets into it is so written. I don’t know if Paul is empathetic toward Henry. I don’t know if Paul is a weirdo. I don’t know if Paul is attracted to Henry. I don’t know if Paul is trying to make Henry stay a little bit better. I know nothing. All I know is that he delivers exposition that feels like an announcement about what this movie is.
John: Yeah. Let’s look at Paul’s introduction because there’s potential here. So let’s look at what it says. “Henry turns around to face Paul (60s), a bearded gentleman wearing two sets of eye glasses, drinking from a ceramic mug and holding open a book, Factotum.” So there’s a lot of gerunds happening here kind of. But each of those is sort of individually a good idea. I could sort of see him like as a kind of like he is an NPR tote bag kind of person. And that may be fine. But I don’t know specifically what Craig is going to, like I don’t understand like what he’s trying to do for Henry in this moment.
John: I don’t understand like what’s the moment he’s playing. You give me sort of a physical description, but I don’t get a sense of who he is.
Craig: Yeah. Look, characters always want something. Always, even the littlest things. But they want something. I have no idea what Paul wants when he said — by the way, they’re not gerunds. I actually realized, the gerunds are the noun like the wearing of clothes, right, yeah.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Craig: But Paul has no motivation to deliver this, so that means the writer is forcing it in there and now I’m aware once again that we have a problem.
John: Yeah. Paul’s big block of dialogue — I’ll just read it for people who are not reading along with us. He says, “I’ve been coming to the Brew House for seven years. You see a lot of strange stuff, all walks of life: bums, businessmen, commuters, teens, hippies, hipsters, wanna-be writers, wanna-be intellectuals, druggies, psychos, stressed-out mothers, cat ladies, and creeps. And they all want the same thing.” “Coffee?” “The bathroom key.”
And so let’s get back to sort of the idea of the scene that I think there’s a good idea underneath all of this where it’s just like, okay, no, the most important thing in this entire place is the bathroom key. That’s actually a good comedic idea behind a scene. And so if the scene around it were sort of like, you know, talking about sort of like the training and all the stuff, or like how to do this and how to — the temperature you have to do for these kind of beans and stuff like that, but the most important thing in this entire place is the bathroom key. That’s a comedic premise which I don’t think this achieved.
Craig: No. I mean there’s a way of redoing this where we begin with Henry sitting with Chuck, his manager, and Chuck is like, “Okay, so I graded your test and it’s 100. So you scored a 100 which is really remarkable. You obviously studied the manual. So now I’m just going to ask you a question that isn’t on the test. What is the most important thing here in this coffee shop?”
John: And so the natural answers you could give is like respect.
Craig: Hard work, coffee, equality. [laughs] Cleanliness.
Craig: There’s a million things and for him to go, “No.” And then he just holds up this thing. “This is. This is the bathroom key. This is the one thing, this key, that separates this store from civility and success and absolute chaos.”
Craig: And then you go, okay, there’s a point of view, right, instead of somebody just being this guy that just says, and now a monologue that is unmotivated by anything to a person I do not know for no reason. [laughs]
John: What we didn’t put on our list of good writing, but what this describes is you’re in and you’re out. Sort of like what is the first thing we’re going to see in the scene and what’s the last thing we’re going to see in the scene. And what we’re pitching is like how are you going to open this moment? And if you’re going to open this moment with the manager guy, that should get you to the comedic payoff here and that probably is the key.
Craig: I agree. And that’s why you can really see the gears turning and hear the metal on metal noise when Chuck says, “Wait here, I’m going to grab Zoe.”
Craig: That’s just bad showmanship, you know, as a writer. The other thing is that Paul’s speech doesn’t really tell us anything that we haven’t heard before. We’ve all been to coffee shops. We know who goes in and out of there.
John: Also, if you’re going to make a list in a comedy, you have to throw in some wild things there. Like, you know, like Frisbee duelists, you know, something that’s just like really absurd or like, you know, something to break it. Because you’re setting a pattern — and in comedy you set a pattern and then you break it wildly and so break that pattern.
Craig: Yeah. So lot of trouble here. And this does feel like early work. This feels like the beginning of something. Maybe Joey’s first attempt at something. There are a lot mistakes here. And I think that you need to — this is one where I feel like you need to do a little bit more homework. You need to watch and think more about how the things that you like are and then ask yourself if you can rise to that standard.
John: I think it’s worth looking at your favorite comedies and pulling up those scripts and going through it scene by scene looking at sort of how they work and really figure out where the ins and the outs are, how — the economy of those scenes.
John: All right, let’s go to our next one. This is HALCYON by Amanda Mar”n. We are in Gus’s sporting goods store in Dartmouth, New Hampshire. It’s day. There’s a revolving stair-climber caught in an endless cycle climbing to nowhere.
Paul Adam (50s) shuffles in. His preppy, upper class clothes are wrinkled and stained. Goes up to the counter where he talks to a sales woman and he’s thinking about buying a new gun for the hunting season. She says, “Well, hunting season doesn’t start till fall,” but there’s some stuff on sale so she’s showing him options for guns. Shows one that might be a good fit for him. He clearly doesn’t actually know a lot about hunting. He doesn’t know a lot about the geography of the place. He wants something that takes a 3.5, a 3.5 magnum. So she shows him that gun. She’s very clear about like we don’t have ammunition here, so you’re not going to be able to load the gun. She seems suspicious and weary, but is also still trying to sell him the gun.
He ultimately takes the gun, loads it with a single bullet that he has, and puts it to his forehead and he says, “I have not changed the world. I’ve destroyed it.” Steels himself, finger on the trigger, face tight and closed, as we end on the bottom of page 3.
Craig: Okay. Well, Amanda, this is I think a good idea for an opening scene. It does all the things that opening scenes should do. I just have major issues with the way you’ve executed it. So I’ll begin with the simplest thing and then I’ll go to content. You begin by saying over blackness. No. Over black, yeah. Unnecessary-ness. But already it’s shaking my confidence because it’s such a clunky word and it’s unnecessary.
But let’s talk about what’s going on here. Paul wants to commit suicide. Paul is walking into a store that sells guns. He has a bullet in his pocket. The store does not sell ammunition. They’re going to give him a gun to look at. He’s going to take his bullet out, load it or in this case, a shotgun, shall load into the weapon. He’s going to say these very creepy things. And then presumably he’s going to die. We didn’t get quite there at the end of page 3. That’s terrific. I really love the idea of somebody going gun shopping, having somebody be nervous and say, by the way, we don’t sell ammo here. And the guy would be like, “No, no. No problem.” And then taking out his own ammo. Very clever, very smart. Here’s my —
John: Yeah, it’s a surprise.
Craig: It’s a surprise. Here’s my problem. You make way too much of Paul being scary. So this woman knows he’s scary. We all know he’s scary. So all of the juiciness and creepiness at the end you have diminished greatly.
Craig: Whereas if this man walks in and is maybe a little bit off but almost a little too chirpy, then suddenly there’s that other thing like, hmm, does anybody in the audience or the people in my row get the same creepy feeling from this guy? Probably not. He’s overtly okay.
Craig: There is two pages solid of back and forth about guns. And it’s boring. It just goes on too long. The idea is he would like to buy a gun and he should be talking and she should say, “Okay, what kind of gun are you interested in?” “Well, I was thinking about this or this, but, you know, what about this? Do you have that?” “Yeah, we do. I should let you know that we don’t have ammunition.” “No problem.” Can you just show me how to — how do you open it? Does it like — do you have one with this?” “Yes.” So much. I mean the saleswoman does this enormous chunk of dialogue on page 2 where she’s trying to sell him the shotgun and it just was, it just kept going. So just too much.
Lastly, gun choice. He goes in there to kill himself. He has a shotgun shell and he needs a shotgun. Shotguns are not great ways to kill yourself. I mean they’re long. So it’s really hard to do and it’s very easy for somebody to stop you from doing it because you’ve like got to wrestle it into position and everything. [laughs] Why wouldn’t he just be in there with a 9mm bullet asking to see a Glock and then load it and put it in his mouth? That’s one where I was struggling with his choice.
John: I was struggling a little bit with the bullet and sort of the issue of sort of the size caliber of it all. I got confused about that, too. But I felt the idea that like, “Oh, this isn’t for the size bullet I have,” is actually really good. He actually knows nothing about guns at all so he just happened to find one bullet.
John: That was really interesting to me. So it wasn’t that he magically had the right — he had a bullet and this was his plan from the very start. Like somehow he came across a bullet and decided that this is what he was going to do.
Craig: Right. That would be cool.
John: So I liked this a lot more than you did. And I agree with you that I think most of page 2 should be greatly compressed because I can imagine filming all this. And if you filmed the scene as written, you would take out most of it because you sort of get it. Like you get like — what I love about the saleswoman is like she’s trying to do her job, she’s trying to sell the gun. At the same time, she’s like, but just so you know, we don’t sell the stuff. The natural red flags are going up for her and I was so happy to see that she was aware of the situation. But there’s just too much of it.
Craig: Too much.
John: Too much awareness. And so we were ahead of the story and if we’re ahead of your story, that’s not good.
Craig: Yeah, I struggled with the saleswoman. There’s red flags and there’s red flags. Somebody walks in, here’s how Amanda describes this character, Paul. His clothes are wrinkled and stained. His hair is matted with something dark and sticky. His eyes are blood shot. He is unblinking. He answers with no emotion each time she speaks. That to me is more than a red flag. And that I think was putting stress on it. It started to make me hate her for like not just going, you know what, I’m sorry, you should probably talk to my manager. Like there’s got to be some way to bail out of this discussion. [laughs] This guy is off, really off, as opposed to curiously off and then we are surprised.
John: Craig, as an exercise, on page 1, if we take — so once the dialogue starts, if we took out all of the scene description, I think you actually have a better flow. So, “Help you hun?” “Thinking of a new one for hunting season.” “Well season doesn’t start till fall, but you’re in luck we got a few on sale cause of that.” Like essentially like, if we stop stopping so often for the scene description, I think there’s a flow there that might just give it a little bit more energy there and make it feel like, you know, she’s just not so vigilant from the very start.
Craig: I agree. I agree. There’s a lot of — all that I think exacerbated my problem that things were overwritten here. And I’m such a believer that the first 10 pages are precious, precious real estate. There shouldn’t be one wasted letter on those 10 pages. So, you know, your job should be to be ruthless about weeding out the unnecessary.
There’s a couple of other things I’ll mention and then I’ll turn it back over. There are some typos here. Holds it’s weight, I-T apostrophe S, there should be no apostrophe there. Feel it’s cold steel, same there. Its-it’s thing, your-you’re, there’s just no excuse anymore. It makes me upset.
And in the moment, here’s what happens on page 3. He’s looking at the gun and then he says to her, “I’m sorry. I have no choice. Then he pulls his hand out of his pocket, a shell casing gripped in his palm.” Then he says, “I’ve done a terrible thing.” Then he shoves it into the shotgun, closing it with a pump. Then he says, “Without our suffering we are no longer human. We become monsters.”
Then the saleswoman lets out a scream. This is the latest scream in movie history, right? So he says, “I’m sorry. I have no choice.” He pulls out a shell casing. We all go, oh, and she needs to go, gun, gun, right, and just go. [laughs]
Craig: And he can do all the rest of his lines to himself but that was crazy.
John: Yeah. Take out all those lines there and I think it’s actually a stronger moment. Going back to sort of typos and other things. On page 1 again. So we’re inside Gus’s sporting goods store. The sound of a revolving stair climber caught in an endless cycle. The sound happened beforehand so if you’re going to show it, then it’s not the sound. I think you probably want to show it because that’s a great image. So take the sound of out of there. Bloodshot is one word or hyphenated. You can make your choice. So this is the fifth sentence of the scene. “A long expired in summer banner exclaims — New Year New You! With a woman in a bikini.” I doesn’t actually make sense. I get what she’s going for but it was very hard to read. And it stopped me three times. So get rid of anything that is hard to read basically.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. Also, beeline is a wonderful word for somebody that’s walking quickly or running quickly towards something he’s not. He’s shuffling, so you can’t beeline while you’re shuffling
John: Yeah. But I do like that he had single focus on something. That’s a great description for where he’s headed.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. So there’s other words you can do to accomplish the same thing so that you’re not confused. Is he running suddenly? We have the same thing where Amanda capitalizes “whispering,” the first word inside a parenthetical, which generally you don’t do. I mean it’s not the end of the world.
Craig: If these were three terrific pages, I wouldn’t care.
Craig: So, okay, well, John liked that one a bit better than I did. But I love the idea, Amanda. I thought it was really creative, really smart. So, you know, basically even though John and I seem like we’re slightly different on this, I think we’re king of saying the same thing. Just tighter. Tighter.
John: Tighter. Tighter.
Craig: Tighter, tighter. All right. Well, let’s go to our last one. This one is called Blue Forty-Four. And it’s written by Josh Corbin. All right. So here we go. So this one begins outside a field in morning. And it’s the kind of day that was shitty twenty minutes ago. Gray overcast split open by a blast of early-morning sun. We’re behind a dog. And the dog looks like he’s been beat up a bit and then he hears somebody whistling. He stands at attention and then in audio we hear a phone ringing. Somebody is yelling for Benny, or Benny is yelling over the phone to somebody named Daniel that he needs cavalry.
And then we are now in a chase. Benny Miller is in a car and he’s speeding down the road on the phone with Daniel trying to get help because some guys are chasing him. And each one of them is wearing a monster mask. There’s a wolfman and then there’s a skeleton and a zombie and they’re shooting at him. They’re not cops and Benny is shooting back at them. And then Benny gets a moment where he can actually kill one of the guys but he can’t actually take the shot and kill the guy.
And then Benny’s rear window explodes because it’s been shot by the wolfman character and Benny loses control of the car.
John: And we should say that he’s on the phone with Daniel throughout this so it’s a speaker phone we’re hearing this other voice who is not actually in the scene.
John: I thought these pages were really strong. There were some problems but I dug the moment. I could see it. I believe that the writer could see it. I believe that it could be shot. I believe that it would probably be exciting. And it read like the kind of action sequence I like to read on the page when I’m going to see a movie.
Craig: I completely agree. I have no idea what’s going on with this dog.
John: I don’t really either. And honestly, my confidence was flagging from the very first sentence. “The kind of day that was shitty twenty minutes ago.” What does that mean? I have no idea what that means.
Craig: Well, I actually understood it because the next sentence — I agree, like when I first read that I’m like, “What?” And then he says, “Gray overcast split open by a blast of early-morning sun.” I’m like, oh yeah, I know what that is. That’s that thing where it was like the sky looks like it was just raining and now it’s not.
John: All right. So flip those two sentences and I understand it.
Craig: Right. Exactly, exactly. Very good advice. The thing about the dog, maybe I assume it will eventually make sense. And that’s fine. But it was well-written.
John: But it was confusing at times. And here’s where I got confused. “Until someone whistles from afar. He stops, alert as we angle on him.” So the dog suddenly was a he but I thought that he was referring to the someone whistling. And so I just got confused. And so either keep the dog the dog. I just felt like it was overwritten for what was actually happening here. And I just don’t even quite know what I was seeing there.
John: I think you could have just set up the dog staring, looking at something, and then got me to the chase faster. I bet you could have lost two-eighths of this page.
Craig: Yeah. But the meat of it is obviously this chase. And once I was into the chase, I was really happy. I believe that we should be allowed to write things to match the feeling we want the audience to feel. The feeling that Josh wants me to feel in this chase is panic. And so even his slug lines are panicky. A cutlass. Moving. Fast as fuck. Day. The car engine working its ass off because Benny is fucking panicking. And Josh is capitalizing. He’s bolding. He’s italicizing. Which, you know, in a scene where people are just moving through a space and talking is incredibly annoying. In a scene where it’s life and death and cars are screaming down a road and people are shooting, that’s right.
John: Yeah. This is as good as I’ve seen it. I mean, I’m not a big fan of like crazy bolding and underlining and all that stuff. But this is a really good version of it. He’s using the double dash to sort of keep connecting thoughts together and sort of single out what shots are. And it works really well for it. And it gives a good feeling. He’s also using a lot of onomatopoeia for shotgun in the hand — SHK-RK — wolfman aims at Benny. Some bwooms, the difference between a blam and a blam, blam. It works.
Craig: Yeah. No, it works and I really appreciated as a reader that I could identify these three people. It’s creative. Look, we’ve seen movies where guys are in kooky masks. That’s a cliché, right? Bad guys wearing masks. And that’s fine. I mean they actually do wear masks so the cliché is fine. What I appreciated was that there was a wolfman, there was a skeleton, and a zombie. And all of a sudden now I can see what’s happening.
Craig: The fact that those were specified unlocks my visual mind. Otherwise, it’s guys and what am I looking at? Guys.
Craig: You know?
John: Thug one, thug two, thug three.
Craig: Exactly. And boring, right? Now, I’m imagining when he says, because he makes a moment here, right? And this is what I also really appreciated about what Josh did. Inside of plot and we talked about layers before, there should be character, right? So here, this is this crazy, hyperactive chase with guys wearing monster masks and then everything slows down for a character choice because he structures this so that Benny is afforded a choice. And the choice is should I shoot this guy wearing a zombie mask in the head and he chooses not to.
So that’s really the payload for this. All of the other stuff is icing. That little moment is why the scene exists in the movie. I assume that is going to be something very meaningful going forward. So I thought that this was done really well.
John: So I have no idea what the rest of the story is. But I would be curious to keep reading the story. I have confidence that he seems to know what he’s doing. That’s a lot sometimes.
John: These were also I think three really good examples because the problems they had were addressable and they were all very different. And they very well illustrated some of the things we’re talking about with like what is good writing and sort of what we’re looking for with good writing and what makes us not think something is as good as it can be which is the moments that stick out in the wrong ways.
Craig: Absolutely. By the way, I should add that I really like this title, Blue Forty-Four. I don’t know what it means, but it grabbed me.
John: Yeah. So as always we want to thank our three very brave listeners who sent in their pages to let us take a look at them. If you would like to send in your own pages for us to look at, the link is in the show notes. You can also find it at johnaugust.com/threepage. And Stuart will take a look through those and occasionally pick three of them to send for us to read through.
All right, it has come time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a very simple little web game. Not even game, it’s like sort of a demonstration. It’s called Creatures Avoiding Planks. And basically it’s these little AI, adorable, little googly eyed things that will try to avoid running into these planks that keep drifting past them. It’s a very good example of sort of like emergent behavior based on changing environment. So each of the little things is just doing its own thing and has very simple rules. But those simple rules sort of act to help keep it alive. And so because we are all malevolent gods, we will inevitably try to put too many little creatures in a space or like too many planks and then they’ll get crushed. But it’s a fun way to pass a few minutes of time.
Craig: Well, that sounds interesting. My One Cool Thing is a substance. There’s no particular product I can endorse here. But it’s a substance I didn’t know existed. I didn’t know why anybody would need it. And now I need it. And it’s very, very good. So John, as you know, I have a beard now.
Craig: A lush, lush beard. And this means now I have to start thinking about hair because like you, not a lot up top. [laughs] So not really that much of a concern for me. But now, it is and beard hair gets really coarse and dry. So there’s this stuff called beard oil. And my whole life, I thought the whole point of hair care was to get oil out of your hair. So the idea of putting oil in your hair sounds gross. But beard hair literally becomes like fire kindling. It’s so dry and nasty. So you put this oil in and it actually is quite lovely. So if you have a beard and it’s getting a little dry, scraggly, scratchy, buy some beard oil. It’s cheap. There’s like a thousand brands. They all have some different stupid smell that’s designed for a man, you know. [laughs] So like what are man smells? This is a whole thing. Like what would you say are man smells?
Craig: Yeah, a lot of wood. A lot of wood.
John: Yeah. Wood, leather.
Craig: Yeah, wood, leather, tobacco.
John: But weirdly, Drakkar Noir has that sort of orange peel smell and you often find that in men’s things as well.
Craig: Yeah, it’s fascinating. Like why do men like the smell of wood and leather? I mean I guess.
John: I’ll also put a link in the show notes to the #masculinitysofragile, which tends to be a bunch of photos of like side by side on the shelves they’ll have like toothbrushes for men and toothbrushes for women and they’re like the men’s packaging is always like, you know, corrugated, steel and stuff like that.
John: I think there was actually a pack of Q-tips, like Q-tips for men and they’re actually the same, but it’s like a corrugated cardboard/sort of metal thing.
Craig: I mean, gendered packaging is so insulting to everyone, to everyone. I mean, you know, like I was standing in the pharmacy like, you know, behind the counter waiting for them to bring some prescription and they had a wall of stuff and I didn’t know — and because it was their, you know, prescription meds, it’s not marketed for consumers, but still there’s packages. And I looked at this wall and I was like this is the wall of either contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy for women or something because every box had some pastel swirl, a butterfly, some tulip opening up. I mean, it was incredible. [laughs]
Craig: And that’s not even for sale to consumers. That’s just for the pharmacist. [laughs]
Craig: And like what do Viagra bottles come in like with like a mushroom cloud on it or a jet fighter? [laugh]
John: They come in solid steel packaging, yeah.
Craig: It comes in a steel cube.
Craig: I mean, like what? Stupid.
John: It’s stupid.
Craig: It’s all stupid.
John: All right. Well, that’s our show for this week. So thank you for joining us for that. Our outro this week comes from Daniel Green who I just saw in New York. And he has a big beard, too, so he can use that beard oil that you recommended, Craig. If you have an outro you’d like us to consider for the show, you can write into email@example.com and send us a link. If you have questions for us, that’s also the great address to send questions. Short things on Twitter are fantastic. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
Our show, as always, is produced by Stuart Friedel and is edited by Matthew Chilelli. You can find us on iTunes. Please subscribe if you’re there because that helps people know that we exist. And, also, leave us a comment because that tells people that you like the show. We have all the back episodes available in the Scriptnotes app which you can download on the applicable app store. Subscriptions to the app and to Scriptnotes.net where all the episodes are stored is $1.99 a month. A steal.
Craig: Come on.
John: We also have a few of the 200 episode USB drives left. And so I’m not sure we’re going to make anymore. So if you’re curious about one those, just go to store.johnaugust.com and get one of those. You can find the show notes for all the things we talked about on the webpage at johnaugust.com. Just look for this episode title. And that’s our show. Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thanks, John.
- Marcus Geduld looks at how you differentiate good acting from bad acting
- Michael Tabb on The Concept of Premise, and John’s response
- Paul Rudnick’s Libby Gelman-Waxner
- Three Pages by Joey Perotti
- Three Pages by Amanda Marín
- Three Pages by Josh Corbin
- Submit your Three Pages here
- Creatures avoiding planks
- AskMen on beard oil
- #masculinitysofragile on Twitter
- Outro by Daniel Green (send us yours!)