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 265 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we are going to be discussing obstacles, those things your characters hate but desperately need. We’ll also be doing some follow-up on previous episodes and answering a bunch of listener questions.
So, Craig, we should come clean, we are recording this before I actually hop on the plane to Paris. And so while I may sound tired and jetlagged, it’s just because I’m tired and jetlagged from packing, not from actually traveling halfway across the world.
Craig: This is theoretically the last podcast for about a year where one of us isn’t absurdly exhausted.
John: Yes. We have not quite figured out how we’re going to manage the schedule issue. We’re recording this on Skype, like we always do, so that won’t change at all. What will change is that one of us is going to be either about to go to bed, or waking up very early.
So, Craig, you’re happy to get up at like seven in the morning, right?
Craig: I’m going to go ahead and offer myself for the late shift, John.
Craig: I would prefer that greatly.
John: All right. So, Craig will be burning the midnight oil and I will be bright eyed and croissant’d in the morning as we record these future episodes.
But, the episode that aired last week, which we actually recorded yesterday, was the episode with Peter Dodd, the agent, and I thought it was just terrific.
Craig: Yeah. I was thrilled. I don’t know Peter. And I’ve never dealt with him professionally, so it was a total question mark on my end, plus you know me, I just immediately assume that everyone is terrible. So how delightful it was to meet him on the air and he did a fantastic job I thought. Not only of elaborating on how you become an agent and what an agent, but he was very specific in answering questions that I think people are constantly asking and getting the wrong answers to.
So, he was great. We should have him back again. I could easily see him joining us for a live episode where people can ask him questions, because I think they’d be fascinated by this sort of thing.
John: But then they’d rush the stage, and that would be bad.
Craig: We will surround him with your staff, each of them holding a pugil stick.
John: Indeed. We’ll surround him with managers, so that the agent can escape. So, what I thought was great about having him on is that we can say certain things, but they’re not necessarily true – not that they’re not true, but you would not necessarily believe them. But when an actual says, “No, I don’t care about that,” then you can take heart that like agents don’t really care about that.
He reminded people not to worry about log lines. So, maybe log lines are important for a competition, but no agent cares about log lines. Or query letters. He doesn’t sign people off of query letters. I mean, there are whole workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter. Does not work on him. Not a bit.
Craig: And those workshops, are they free?
John: I don’t think those are free workshops. I think those are highly paid workshops where people are burning their money unnecessarily.
Craig: Garbage. Garbage.
John: I was talking with my own agent today, David Kramer, and told him that Peter Dodd had done a fantastic job. And he was mentioning that there’s one person who emails him every single day with a new subject heading about this new script he’s working on. It’s like the same person emails every day. And so then David Kramer went up to see Jeremy Zimmer, and Jeremy Zimmer said like, “Oh, that guys’ really persistent. He emails me every day also.”
John: And they laughed. But they don’t read the emails. They just delete the emails, which is what Peter Dodd does, too. That’s not an effective way of getting anyone to read your script.
Craig: No. I thought it was particularly interesting to hear from him that he basically signs people through recommendations. And, again, I want to reiterate how clear the culture is – for me at least, and I’m sure it is for you – on our side of the business where it’s not like your job as an aspiring writer is to convince someone to represent you. That you’ve got to really make them see and make a great argument for it.
No, no, hardly that at all. The only way they’re ever going to represent you is if they’re in a position where they want you so much, they’re trying to convince you.
John: Yeah, I thought it was so great when he was talking about how he will call like on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon if he just read something that he loves, and he will hunt that person down. He will Facebook stalk them. He won’t like bother to try to go back to the original person and get the contact information. He will find that person and call them and tell them that he loved the script, because everyone loves to get that call.
And so I think so often writers are trying to chase down an agent. Well, in the real world, and this is actually what I found, a lot of times the agent is chasing you down. And that’s a scenario you really want to be in.
Craig: It’s kind of the only one that results in success. Because there are a million people trying to get representation, trying to make a sale, trying to get a job, and it’s not possible for anyone I think on the other side of the equation to succumb to things like, well, long, carefully thought out, well-argued debates about why you should or shouldn’t take on someone.
It’s entirely about saying, “I must have this person.” And then they find you.
John: And what they’re responding to, it was very clear from what he is talking about with his reads, is by page 30 he wants to know does this person have a voice. He kind of doesn’t really care that much about the story, or the plot. He’s looking at this as a thing, maybe he can sell this one item, but he’s more like is this a fascinating writer who I’m going to be able to market to the town and get hired to do other things. That’s what he’s looking for. He’s looking for a brilliant voice, not a competent pusher-around of words.
And that can be dispiriting, but it can also be encouraging, because it lets you know that, yes, there a zillion people trying to do what you’re trying to do, but if you are brilliant at it, there’s a good shot that he will see that and respond to it.
Craig: We always said, well, it’s not so big of a deal or a problem if you write an original screenplay and it doesn’t fit into a category or an easy genre, and it isn’t seemingly the kind of movie that studios are making, because they’ll read your script and think, “OK, you’re a really good writer. Now let’s hire you to write what we do want to make.” We always thought of that as a “see, it’s not so bad.” In fact, apparently that’s the only thing they want.
They only want writers who are original and fascinating and unique. They’re not really looking to sell anyone’s screenplay. They’re looking to get you hired.
John: On our last Three Page Challenge, one of the scripts we had, it was a long title that involved Huck Finn. And we weren’t so enraptured with the writing of it, but we were intrigued by the title of it because it was the kind of title which suggested that the writer might have the kind of voice that would be clutter-busting, would be distinctive. That a person would remember and that you could sort of understand why they were recommending you read this script.
That’s sort of what we’re talking about. So just the 19th version of Die Hard in-a-something is not going to be the thing that’s going to get Peter Dodd excited about signing you. And that’s the reality.
Craig: Yeah. It’s also why so many of these people that take your money to instruct you on how to writer screenplays and formulas and structures and all of this nonsense, all they’re doing is pushing your work towards some mushy middle, where it can be viewed as an acceptable replicable of a screenplay.
No one needs you for that. No one. They would much rather that you write something fascinating and greatly imperfect than something that is very well-structured and tight and boring.
John: Absolutely true.
Now, we learn things on these podcasts, too, and the thing that was so striking to me is he said that 80% of his clients had managers, which was a much bigger percentage than I would have guessed. But, again, you and I are from a generation that didn’t have managers, at least didn’t keep managers. And his people do.
And so it was interesting watching his reaction as he raised issues about managers, because he clearly – they’re part of his world, they can be really good, they can be really frustrating. I think he would encourage you not to look at a manager as a second agent, but really like what is the manager bringing to the table. And it seemed like some of the best managers he was dealing with could really help writers focus their writing, just deliver the best possible script. And if that’s a function that you can find in a manager, maybe that’s a good thing.
Craig: That’s true. I’m never going to be the person who says there’s no such thing as a good manager because I know some of them. They are good. The ones that I like tend to be more like producers than managers, and they tend to work at the large management firms.
But, I guess the existential question I would ask, if I could, to the agent and management community is if we’ve gone from a place where no writers had managers to 80% of writers have managers, can you tell me, honestly, that things have gotten better for screenwriters? Because it sure seems like they’ve gotten worse. So, life and the business has gotten worse for screenwriters, but at least they get to spend another 10% of the dwindling money they make.
John: Yeah. That is a real concern. And was that function that the managers are performing, was no one doing that function before? Or, were agents performing that function? Were producers doing that function? Who was doing that job before? Or is it a job that needs to be done? Apparently now it is a job that enough people feel like needs to be done. It’s just – it’s a real good question about making sure you’re paying that 10% to someone else who really deserves it.
John: The last thing I thought was good for him to be able to answer for us is do competitions matter. And he said winning the Nicholl Fellowship is great. You should do that. You should be a Nicholls finalist. But they don’t really gather together and discuss all the other award winners or certainly not the quarter finalists.
So, while that may be a way that somebody could notice your script, it’s not the way that agents actually find your script. And so maybe that’s a way that someone else who could send something to an agent might find your script, but it does not feel like that should be a focus of a lot of aspiring screenwriters’ time and ambition.
Craig: Much to the chagrin of the people marketing these contests. But while some of them are probably run by good people, and maybe some of them are run by people that have terrific taste, in the end all of the chatter and traffic and Sturm und Drang about what competitions to enter and how they’re run and how high your finish – all noise. It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares who wins the Blue Cat. Nobody cares who wins Austin, apparently. Nobody cares who almost wins the Nicholl. They care about one thing, sort of. Right?
And when he said “care about,” what he really said was, “We’ll read those.”
Craig: That’s all he really said. He didn’t say, “Oh, you’re getting an agent.” He said, “We’ll read them.” Because in the end, they’ll decide. OK, well, I’m glad the Nicholl’s people thought that this was one of the top ten of all the ones they get. Doesn’t mean we’re going to represent that person.
John: So here’s where I think it’s going to be frustrating to aspiring writers who are not living in Los Angeles is that a competition or a query letter, those were all those things that a person who was living in Boise could say like, “Oh, that’s a way that I can get someone to read my script. How I can get my foot in the door. How things can get started.” Whereas it sounds like what Peter Dodd is saying is that the stuff he’s reading is coming from recommendations from people who are in this business. And generally they’re probably reading people’s scripts that they actually met.
So they’re reading like that intern who worked there. Or they’re reading that person that they knew from someplace that they might have read something as a favor and found that it was really good. It seems like it’s going to be harder to get your script read by anybody in this town if you’re not kind of in this town. Which is why I think we’ve always been upfront about this is a town, sort of like how Nashville is for songwriting. Hollywood is the town you’re in when you’re trying to make movies.
And if that’s really your ambition, coming here and getting those sort of entry-level jobs and meeting a bunch of people who are trying to do the same thing you’re going to do is really important. Probably much more important than if you’re going off to write a book someplace. Because there are novelists who live all across the country. There’s no one central hub for being a novelist. But, for being a screenwriter, this is it.
Craig: We sometimes want to ignore the obvious, because it’s so discouraging. But here’s an obvious point: nobody becomes a screenwriter from outside Los Angeles. Now, you can say, well, that’s not exactly true. It happens here and there. And, yes, that’s a fact. But when I say nobody I mean virtually no one. And the virtually no one thing, you don’t want a business plan for yourself that hinges upon you being the exception to the virtual rule.
John: Yeah. Sorry. This is depressing, and yet also inspiring just because he could provide the real answers that we can sort of only talk about in abstract. Also, I thought it was interesting, he said 80% of what he really is gauging about a client is based on what he read. And while the in person part of it is important, it’s not usually what’s going to make or break it. And so having a great interview, having a great sit-down with him is not going to convince you that you are a writer he should represent. He’s looking at the material.
Craig: Yeah. You love it, I’m sure, as an agent when you find somebody who is writing terrific material and then is fun to be with in a room. You know that person is going to work. But we both know lots of terrific writers who probably aren’t great in a room. I mean, Ted Elliott always said that he and Terry were just the worst, always, from the beginning. Just not very good in a room. Didn’t seem to slow them down one bit.
John: They did just great. All right, let’s reach back two weeks to the episode we did about frequently asked questions about screenwriting. And that was centered around this 81-page PDF that we put out, which is based on Screenwriting.io. A bunch of really basic questions about screenwriting answered mostly by Stuart Friedel. And we looked at a couple of the questions in there.
A couple thousand people have downloaded that PDF now, which is fantastic.
John: And one of the nice things about it being a PDF is we will update it and we will make corrections. There’s lots of typos that people found. So thank you for sending in those typo corrections.
We’ll also update some of the answers. Like Craig had some different better answers for certain things, and so we’ll be updating the PDF and sending out the updates to anybody who downloaded it. So, thank you for downloading it and thank you for sending in those corrections.
But I also think we need to make sure we give an extra big thank you to Stuart Friedel who actually wrote most of those things. And I think if you look back through the transcripts, he got sort of the short shrift of the episode as we were talking through really the heroic work he did on that.
Craig: Yeah. I’m a professional short-shrifter. Stuart did a great job, as he has done with all things we have asked him to do. And it’s – some of these things people are just going to argue over, well, what is a high concept idea. Hey, everybody can debate that till the end of time. And you know I just like to argue. But it’s actually kind of remarkable that he did all of that.
I don’t really know how Stuart did all of those things.
John: Yeah. Stuart did a lot. Basically, I would just tell Stuart like do this thing, and like a machine he would just keep doing it. And so I would sort of forget about Screenwriting.io for months at a time, and then like, oh my gosh, there’s another 60 answers in there. And that’s Stuart. So that’s remarkable.
Craig: It could have been tragic. If you had asked him to do something that you didn’t intend for him to do, at length. And then just forgot to have him stop.
John: Well, classically that’s how AI leads to oblivion. They’ll create a machine, they’ll build AI for it to say like just keep signing this autograph until whenever. And the AI will say, “OK, my job, the goal of the universe is to sign this autograph onto these baseballs, like these fake baseballs, or something.” And so then it will build other machines to keep doing that until the whole world is just a bunch of fake baseball autograph machines.
Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly right. But I’m thinking Stuart probably had a little more agency than that.
John: I think he had a lot more agency than that. So, anyway, I want to make sure that we give proper shout-outs to Stuart for actually doing all of that stuff. And so the book only exists because Stuart did it. So, thank you, Stuart.
Craig: He remains our hero. Even in absentia.
John: Indeed. That’s very noise.
Many people’s hero is Aaron Sorkin. And four or five episodes ago we talked about this Masterclass that Aaron Sorkin is teaching online. It is a series of I think 35 videos. They’re like five minutes long. That are talking through screenwriting.
So, we looked at it. We looked at the promo video. We said, “Hey, if anyone out there is actually going to listen to it, or watch it, tell us what it’s like, because we’re never going to watch it.”
And one of our listeners did that. His name is Rawson Thurber. And he is, in fact, a frequent guest on the podcast. He is an accomplished writer-director. Most recent credit is Central Intelligence. He’s also a fan of Aaron Sorkin, and so I sat down with him and asked him what he thought of the videos.
So, Rawson, tell us what it was like.
Rawson Thurber: It was a walk down memory lane. I really enjoyed it. If you like Aaron Sorkin, like I do – I’m a huge, huge fan – it was super pleasant. It’s five hours cut into 35 bite size episodes, I guess, for lack of a better term. And highly enjoyable. Highly enjoyable. If you like Aaron Sorkin. If you like anecdotes. I guess if you kind of want to get a glimpse into what a writer’s room on a television show might be like. If you don’t know anything about that, that might be helpful.
If you are trying to learn screenwriting, it almost has zero value as an instructive tool. You could pick any five episodes of Scriptnotes at random and be three times as well off in terms of your knowledge.
John: When I saw the promo videos, there were other students who were in the class. And so do you get to know them? Do you see samples? What are they up to?
Rawson: Yeah. There are five other writers. Young writers. I think they selected the group out of various graduate screenwriting programs. I think most of them USC, but I’m not sure on that. There’s a section in which each of them brought in ten pages of either a feature script or a television show that they’re working on. And the table reads it and discusses it. Although they only read the first couple pages, and then it kind of fades out and fades back up and they start talking about the pages that they read.
There is a PDF you can print out, so you can read along. You know, it was hard not to draw a comparison or a parallel between the Three Page Challenges that you and Craig do. The one thing Sorkin does talk about a lot is the tenets of his writing, which is intention and obstacle. That every scene has to have an intention, a clear intention, and an obstacle to achieving that intention. Which I think that is really super helpful.
Yes, it’s a founding principle and a driving force, but it’s also kind of esoteric.
John: So it’s billed as a Masterclass. Do you think it’s maybe more intended for people who have maybe written a script or two and have some experience?
Rawson: Oh, that’s a good point. I never thought of that. I guess I imagined it was called Masterclass because a master is teaching it, as opposed to it is a graduate level program. OK. So, then if you know screenwriting, if you’ve written a few screenplays, if you’ve maybe even been hired on something, or paid for your work, it’s really enjoyable and fun. But if you already are kind of at a “master level” or needing to sort of attain that level, I don’t think there’s anything in here that you don’t already know, or wouldn’t have already sort of messed up enough to figure out on your own.
Maybe there’s a sweet spot where you kind of have done it, but you’re still moonlighting a little bit, and you’ve read a few books, and you’ve written a few screenplays. And, yeah, there might be some value there.
So, just to be clear though, it is really enjoyable. It’s valuable in that I really liked – I watched all 35. I learned some fun stuff about, you know, behind the scenes on The West Wing, and how Sorkin does it, which is kind of interesting, right, because if you think of one of the best baseball players of all time, Willie Mays, like great hitter, great player, I don’t think he was a great coach. Like just because you can do it doesn’t mean you’re the best instructor.
It’s a bit of a feathered fish, I think.
John: So, Rawson liked it, basically.
Craig: Well, I’m not surprised. It is Aaron Sorkin. He is a genius and one of the first ballot hall of famers of what we do.
John: And so one of the things Rawson focused on there was how Sorkin wanted to approach every scene characters have an intention and an obstacle. So I thought we would steal that little bit from Sorkin and really focus in on what we mean by obstacles. And how obstacles help us shape not just scenes but the entire movies that we’re trying to write.
Craig: And how did we miss this? I don’t understand. We’ve spoken about intention four million times, and somehow we forgot obstacles.
John: Well, we’ve talked about obstacles in a lot of episodes. So I did a Google search of previous transcripts, and so we bring obstacles, and especially in terms of conflict, and I think that’s a really good way to look at it. Because conflict is what drives scenes.
John: But it’s really obstacles are the structure on which you hang conflict. If you just have conflict without a visible obstacle, then it’s just people bickering at each other. The obstacle is really that thing is preventing the hero from going from where they are right now to what their goal is.
Obstacles can be physical. They can be emotional. They can be mental. They can be just other narrative devices. But there’s got to be something that keeps it from being a straight line from, hey, we are going to stop these terrorists to like, oh, we caught the terrorists. There have to be obstacles along the way. And I thought we dig into sort of what kinds of obstacles there are out there.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a good idea. Because I don’t know if people ever really think about these things. You know, what would happen if you took obstacles out. Well, what happens if you take obstacles out is you have your day, today, for most people. I mean, we don’t really deal with obstacles through our day. The obstacles that we do deal with we actually work very hard to build pads around them.
That’s why the coffee machine was invented, so that you didn’t have the obstacle of making the coffee in the morning. So, in our lives we’re constantly trying to avoid obstacles. Which is why our stories require them, because our stories are only interesting because they’re not what our lives are.
And young writers or new writers are constantly being told to throw obstacles in there. Well, sure, but how? And what? And why?
John: Exactly. So, obstacles can be both the big sort of macro issue, so the thing that is sort of the point of the movie. The hero has to get past this thing in order to achieve his or her goal. But a lot of times you’re really talking about the obstacle within a scene. And so the scene starts and there has to be thing that needs to be accomplished for the scene to be over. There’s something the hero needs to overcome in order to get to the next moment.
But sometimes you can break it even smaller, and the obstacle is like how do I convince this person of the next thing. The obstacle could be a very small little thing. How do I get this person to see what it is I’m trying to do? How do I like pick this little lock without them seeing me? What’s weird is they’re all sort of the same thing. Whether you’re looking at the little micro thing, or the big thing, it is what in this moment is stopping the hero from taking the easy way through this path.
Craig: Yeah. And the real answer, the answer every single time, no matter what your situation is, is you, the writer, are the obstacle because you are thinking very carefully about what the worst situation would be here. It doesn’t have to be the worst as in the most calamitous, but rather the most dramatically deserving.
If I want to slow Shawna down, I can slow her down all sorts of ways. I can have a truck drive by and some stuff falls off of it. That’s not what she deserves, though. That’s not what she needs. Because Shawna must be punished by the drama gods for her failures as a character. And so you begin to think about how to craft the world and the circumstances you have in such a way that the obstacles that are put in front of your character are suiting them, challenging them in an extraordinary way, and hopefully also changing them. That would be nice.
John: Yeah. We always talk about world-building as being sort of this big metaphorical like fantastical land, so it’s J.R.R. Tolkien. Like you’re building this whole constructed universe. But really even in stories that are taking place in present day normal life, the screenwriter is doing a tremendous amount of world-building to create a structure around that character to make it challenging. You’re basically putting in obstacles. You’re essentially building the puzzles for the escape room that this character is going to have to go through in order to make this an exciting adventure for us to be following, because otherwise they would just float right through it.
And so sometimes those obstacles are physical. You’re literally preventing them from going to the next place. Sometimes those obstacles are characters. They are characters who are either in direct opposition or are just hindering in some way. It could be the clingy girlfriend who is lovely but is not letting the character do what he needs to do in the moment.
They can be the meddlesome sister-in-law. They can be the principal in any sort of like high school movie. Those are the characters we’re used to seeing as obstacles. But so often the character themselves is the obstacle. There’s something about the character that is preventing them from doing the thing they need to be able to do. It could be a fear, it could be a phobia. It could be something the character himself is not even quite aware of that he needs to learn he has a problem in himself so he can overcome it. There’s something about that character that is making this much more difficult for him than it would be for any other character in the situation.
Craig: Well there you go. So, it’s tailor-made, in a sense, and you should just keep thinking as you are engaging in the “I must create obstacles for my character exercise” how to tailor make your obstacles for that character. And, ideally what you’ll find is that the obstacles that are tailor-made for your character also provide opportunities for your character in success. That’s what we want. We don’t really care if a character has to get something and a pipe bursts and so they have to spend some time mopping up water. Because there’s no opportunity for real success there. Anyone can mop up the water. It’s just annoying.
So, you’re tailoring your obstacles so that they are particularly challenging for this character for some reason or another, and then by definition once they are overcome, particularly rewarding.
John: Exactly. So ideally the obstacle should be related to something the character has done, or the character is partially responsible for having constructed the obstacle. So an example I can think of from my own movies, in the first part of Go Ronna is trying to pull off this very small drug deal. Well, why is she trying to do that? Well, she’s about to get evicted. So, essentially all she needs to do is make a couple hundred dollars. That’s her only real need. And she can do that any number of ways. But she has this sort of clever idea of like, oh, I could try to pull off this really tiny drug deal. And so her first obstacles are her friends who are trying to convince her it’s not a good idea. She’s able to kind of win them over. She ends up sort of leaving Katie Holmes behind as kind of a hostage until she gets back with the money.
She ends up falling into the wrong trap for this drug deal that goes sort of awry. Her best friend, who she’s relying on, ends up taking a bunch of the ecstasy. All sorts of things end up unfolding, but they unfold because she started the chain of events. And she was so cocky, in a way, about her ability to do this thing that she’s set off this whole chain of events and has to figure a way out of them.
The obstacles are created by her initially and then they feel natural to the world. If I threw in a mountain lion, that would not be a natural obstacle. But throwing in the kinds of characters and kinds of situations that believably could exist within this universe, those feel like honest obstacles.
Craig: Yeah, so I call those kinds “self-inflicted wounds,” because that’s basically – and good characters are constantly self-inflicting wounds. And those are very real obstacles. We never question whether or not they are tailor-made for our hero, because it’s our hero that’s creating them in the first place. How could they not be tailor-made?
We all understand that when we wound ourselves we’re doing it for some deep-seeded reason. There is a broken thought process going on, but there’s certainly no lack of intention. So, self-inflicted wounds are great. Another kind of obstacle that I like to think about are ironic obstacles. And they’re ironic because the circumstance seems so outlandish and odd for the character, and yet that’s what makes them interesting.
In my sheep movie, my movie about detective sheep, at some point they realize they have to leave the meadow, which they’ve never left in their lives, and go into the town to start gathering clues. But to do that, they have to cross the road. And it turns out that that is horrifying for sheep. It’s something they’ve never, ever contemplated the world beyond that road suddenly – it’s agoraphobia to the maximum.
So, their great obstacle is taking ten free steps across some dirt path. But, we understand why. It’s made clear why that’s a real obstacle. And so when they do it, you have the ironic enjoyment of watching people do something that should have been easy to do, but clearly wasn’t.
John: Absolutely. So, again, you’re matching specificity to, you know, the nature of the characters, and therefore it’s a good obstacle for them. And so, yeah, an obstacle doesn’t have to be the same obstacle for any normal character. Like, crossing the road would not be an obstacle for Batman, but it’s completely appropriate for the characters you’re describing.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s something to think about that the nature of an obstacle itself, play with it. You know, there’s nothing wrong with playing with it. If I had taken that road and made it a slightly dangerous road, or a road with lots of things in it that make hooves hard to go through, that wouldn’t have been good. That just would have been like, yeah, no, I can see why any – that’s not surprising to me. And that’s another thing you want to try and do with your obstacles is make them surprising, because that’s where we find delight, I think, as an audience.
John: The other thing I want to make sure people understand is that an obstacle doesn’t necessarily mean the main villain of your story. If you look at Ripley in Aliens, so obviously she’s going to face Mother Alien there at the end, but the obstacles are all of the roadblocks that are thrown in her way. She has Newt, they’re about to go off, and then Newt is snatched away. She falls through. And she has to decide whether she’s going to go to the jump ship and go back up to the big ship in the sky, or is she going to go after Newt.
And so she has to make a choice. Choices are always good. Choices are an obstacle. They’re forcing her to choose between two options. And then she has to find a way down to her, and then all the way back up. And there are structural obstacles put in there both structural not just narratively, but literally like she has to get the elevators to work, and the elevators won’t work. She has to figure out how she’s going to find her. There are all these things that are being put in there that feel very natural to the world of Aliens.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s great that you mentioned that she has to make a choice. Because choices can be obstacles, particularly when they’re dilemmas. This is, Sophie’s Choice, you know, talk about an obstacle that a character has to face at some point.
Dilemmas are terrific because they feel like proper obstacles. If it’s a choice that isn’t quite so torturous, then again, probably not that big of an obstacle.
John: Yeah. So, is there any sort of bigger box we can put around obstacles? I think it’s just that when you’re conceiving a story, you really have to conceive of the story in terms of the obstacles. Obviously, you’re going to have a character, you’re going to have a world and a situation, but quite early on you have to figure out what is the thing that they’re going to have to overcome. Because if it’s just a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, well, there’s no obstacles there. But, if it is a – once you get into the specifics of what is it that she needs to overcome. What are the obstacles that are going to prevent her from having that moment of self-discovery? What are the obstacles that are going to keep her from pursuing her dream of ballet? Then you can start to figure out what your actual story is.
Until you know what those obstacles are, you sort of have nothing. And that is the reality of trying to create a cinematic narrative.
Craig: Yeah. I think we have a choice. Some people start with a character and some kind of dramatic/thematic problem. Other people start with an idea. If you start with a thematic problem of, say, a parent who is clinging too hard to their child, then you may ask yourself what would be some obstacles best suited for that. And really what I’m saying is what would be the meanest thing we can do to that person.
But, you could also say we had this idea for a fish who has to find his son and his son is lost in the ocean. OK. So now that I have an obstacle, who is that obstacle the worst for? Either way, however you’re working it, you have to think about your obstacles in context of character. And your character in context with obstacles. So that the obstacles that you put in your movie aren’t merely roadblocks or inconveniences, but rather direct challenges to that character’s state of mind, emotional state, status quo, everything. And obstacles that exist in such a way that when they are overcome, we understand that some kind of dramatic uplift has been achieved.
John: Yeah. Your point about Nemo is great, because a fish lost in the ocean, that’s a huge, great, big idea. But it’s all the little small detours along the way, all the little challenges, the little obstacles of how you’re going to get to that next step, and how he’s going to get a little bit closer and what’s going to happen next – those are the obstacles that you spend months in front of a whiteboard trying to figure out and go through multiple revisions. That underlying idea, that was a great sort of general obstacle, but it’s the specifics, it’s what’s going to happen beat by beat and how is it overcoming each of these obstacles going to really change those characters and make it feel like we are moving forward as a character and not just moving forward towards a destination.
Craig: Et voila.
John: Et voila. All right, let’s get to some questions from listeners. Our first question comes from Matthew Gentile who sent us audio. So, let’s listen to his question.
Question: I’ve written a script for an ultra-low budget feature that I’m directing and producing. The story was in part inspired by a true anecdote I heard over a year ago from a couple friends in the industry. This anecdote inspired me to write a feature script and now functions as a pivotal part in the third act. I recently learned, however, a high profile book has just been published with said anecdote in it. While the script and story has evolved since I heard this anecdote, there are some key elements that still bear resemblance to what I heard and what happened.
The film as of now is not being billed as based on a true story or inspired by true events. And I did register my script with the WGA almost a year before this book’s copyright. However, I wanted to ask you your opinion on what happens if you use a story someone told you in passing about someone and then that someone’s story becomes published. Is it public domain if it’s out there? Can someone claim to have the rights to that? What would you do if something like this happened to a script you were writing? Thank you.
John: Craig, what do you think? What would you do if something like that happened?
Craig: Well, something that is a fact that happens in life is not property that an individual can possess. What somebody can possess is their written version of it. Somebody can say, “Look, this is my telling of this anecdote, so you can’t just start lifting phrases and sentences and things from it.” But I suspect that Matthew is going to be just fine, however, this is an area where, as always, you need to be listening to the LawyerNotes podcast and getting legal advice from lawyers.
Even if you are on the safest of technical grounds, you always have to be aware that our justice system is not as simple as that. And if a studio wants to restrain you, they can make your life difficult. So, my guess is you’re in fine shape, but you should talk to an attorney.
John: Yeah. I think you’re going to be fine as well. So, an anecdote is sort of a weird thing to describe, because like how big is an anecdote. I can think of many examples in my life of like, oh, this little story I heard. That’s not really a story in the sense that there’s a plot, there’s a character, and a whole thing that happens. It’s just like, no, oh, the ice cream shop blew up and that was so strange. That’s not a protectable element. Like an ice cream shop blowing up is not a thing.
So, Craig is covering the legal side of it. And sometimes there’s a legal issue, but most times there’s not really a legal issue. More often, though, there’s sort of an ethical issue. And what happens a lot is – you heard this anecdote from friends – and you need to make sure that they weren’t planning on using that anecdote in anything.
An example, again, from Go is my friend Tom told me about he was working at a hotel and the hotel room caught on fire. And like that’s so strange that this hotel room caught on fire. And he told me the whole scenario. And it’s like, well, that’s kind of great, and I didn’t need anything else from his story but the sense of his hotel room caught on fire and sort of what he did as a manager when his hotel room caught on fire, that was great.
And so when I wrote the scene in Go where Simon is having sex with the two women and the hotel room catches on fire and he doesn’t even notice it, I thought like, man, I hope Tom is not planning on using a hotel room catching on fire, because I’m going to feel really crappy if I’m taking his bit.
And so I emailed him, or I think this is even pre-email. So I called him and said like, hey, were you planning on using a hotel room on fire as of your scenes, because I don’t want to step on that. And he’s like, no, no, no, no, that’s fine, it’s good.
And there’s been a couple things in my life where I’ve been at a place with other writers and something has happened. And we’ve had to have sort of a discussion of like is anyone planning on using that, because that’s a great little moment.
Craig: [laughs] Who gets this?
John: There’s a great episode of Riki Lindhome’s show, Garfunkel and Oats, where she’s starting to date this guy who is also a writer, and something comes up and he like basically takes her joke as a tweet and like tweets it out. And that’s crappy. You got to be really mindful of that.
And so I’m less concerned about Matthew’s question as a legal question and more sort of as an ethical question. Let’s make sure you’re not taking something that someone else really wrote and was planning on using themselves.
Craig: You know what we’re doing, Matthew? We’re helping you keep your friends, OK? I mean, come on. All right, we got a question from John from the UK. And he asks, or writes in, “I was interested in the discussion you had about the John Carpenter court case and the implications it had for an individual screenwriter. Let’s say you sell an original script to a studio. If another party claimed you had infringed copyright on a released film like Carpenter is claiming here, could you personally be found liable for the case?” Very good question.
John, what is your answer to this excellent question?
John: So, I will tell you that when you are selling your script, you’re going to be signing a bunch of legal documents. And one of those legal documents will be saying like I did not steal this from anybody. And they do that to sort of help protect themselves.
At the same time, you know, it can be really murky. I can’t promise you that they would never come after you, but I can promise you that it’s not a common scenario. Craig, you know more about this than I do. What is the thing that you’re signing when you sell that script?
Craig: You’re signing simultaneously two of the strangest comments, separately not strange, together bizarre. On the one hand, you are absolutely warranting that this is entirely your work. So, just as you said, you’re not ripping anybody off. Anything that you are writing for them, or any literary material you are selling to them is wholly yours and not pilfered from anyone else.
At the same time, you are saying, “But, the studio is the author.” So, I swear to god I’m the author, but I’m not the author.
Now, the studio as part of the deal will indemnify you, the writer, from lawsuits presuming that you haven’t ripped somebody off. So, you know, in the case of – I can’t remember which of the Hangovers, some nut job sued and said we had stolen his life story, which still cracks me up. I didn’t have to pay anything to defend myself. The studio sent – I never even had to do a deposition or anything, because it was a ridiculous case. But the studio handled that. They indemnify you.
In the specific question here, John, my guess is that if the concern is that there’s another movie out there that you have somehow infringed upon, the studio would know about that movie. And the studio would have made the determination at this point that the story you’re writing does not infringe upon that.
John: Here’s an example I can imagine, though. Like let’s say that John wrote this script and he was really ripping off this Korean film that no one had ever seen. Like he was just wholesale ripping it off, because I can imagine a scenario in which the studio buying it had no idea that he stole it. That’s a grim scenario. I don’t know what would happen there.
Craig: Well, I think in that case the studio would probably hold the writer in breach of contract, and rightfully so. The studio would probably not have to indemnify the writer from lawsuit, because the writer had breached the contract. The studio would attempt to collect damages from the writer. It would be very, very bad.
What you’re talking about is fraud. I mean, that’s fraud. You’re taking something that someone else wrote and then turning around and selling it to someone else for money. Fraud.
John: Yeah. So what I think would become the murky middle terrible case there is the thing where like you’re really just riffing on a genre, or you’re riffing on a kind of film. And somebody comes who says, “No, no, that’s quoting my film. That’s really a reference to my film.” The way that Tarantino really is quoting a lot of other films. And if somebody came after him and said, “No, no, you stole my movie there,” that’s a challenge. And I’m sure those cases are out there. I’m just not aware of which ones they are.
But, yeah, you’ve got to be really mindful that if you’re referencing something, reference it in a way that is not going to feel like you’re stealing it. And that’s easy to say and sometimes hard to do.
Craig: And be as transparent as you can with the person that’s giving you money. There’s nothing wrong with saying to them, “Listen, before we all do this, here are a bunch of things you need to know. So let’s all have a discussion. Make sure that we collectively don’t get into any trouble here.” Which is perfectly valid. And they now have fair warning. And they can make their own determination about whether they feel that it’s a gray area, or something that they’re happy to defend.
The goal for you is to be honest, to not surprise anybody with any malfeasance, and to therefore protect that clause that says I’m not responsible for the legal defense of the work that you have now said you are the legal author of.
John: Absolutely. Let’s do a simple question. Joe writes, “Can you be a member of both the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild? Do you have to choose one? Is it advisable to choose one over the other? I believe for the Academy voting you have to pick only branch to belong to.”
Craig: Joe, let me unconfuse you here. It is not a question of can you be a member of both the WGA and the DGA. If you meet the membership requirements for either one, you must become a member of either one. So, I’m a member of the WGA. I am a member of the DGA. I’m a member of SAG/AFTRA. I am a member of IATSE. Because in various cases and in various capacities I met their requirements and therefore was compelled to join those unions.
It is a very different situation than a non-union voting body like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That is a club, essentially. And a club can set whatever rules they want, but the unions that you’re describing are not clubs. They’re federally chartered unions and they follow federal labor law.
John: Absolutely. So I can tell you about the Academy Awards club. The Academy has a writer’s branch and it has a director’s branch. And in the Academy you are a member of exactly one branch. And so that is why sometimes you’ll see a person who is in the writer’s branch, but they’re also a director, or they’re directors but they’re also writers. That’s because they had to pick one branch to join. Essentially, one branch invited them to join. They said yes. And then from that point forward they are always in that branch. And so that’s how it works.
So like Julie Delpy, for example, is in the writer’s branch rather than the actor’s branch because she was a writer on Before Sunrise and that was what got her into the Academy.
Craig: And it makes sense because you don’t want individuals to have more than one vote.
Craig: So, I get that completely. James asks, “Would you ever write the action line ‘John doesn’t react’?” I feel like that action line happens to me in every podcast. “My gut tells me no, as this is a non-action action line. But how else would you describe it when a character does not react to something that any other normal person would react to? An example would be if an alien bursts from someone’s stomach, most people would react. But how would you write it if they didn’t?”
John: So no reaction is a reaction. It’s absolutely fine to say John doesn’t react. It’s a scene description. It’s saying – the function of scene description is describing what a character is doing or what an audience would see on the screen. So, no reaction is a reaction.
Craig: No question. Action line is a misnomer. It doesn’t mean Action. It means Not Dialogue. It means stuff you’re seeing, but not hearing. So, yes, not reacting is absolutely appropriate for it. Let’s call it a description line, and I think that probably would make this a lot easier of a discussion.
If you have somebody who is making, or you as a writer, making a point of having a character not react where other people would, you might even want to say, “Oddly, John doesn’t react. Doesn’t even seem to care.” You can make a moment out of it, so people really get the intention there, as opposed to sort of a passing minor, oh, okay, well, is that important that he didn’t react?
But, no, no question. Not doing something, if it is meaningful not doing something, put it in there.
John: Yeah. I’m going to put a link in the show notes to this video analysis of Gillian Flynn’s screenplay for Gone Girl, which I’ve never actually read the screenplay of it. I’ve read the book, but never read the screenplay. But he sort of shows what the actual stuff looks like on the page. And she actually does a great job with scene description. And she uses colons a lot to indicate those ways that characters are interacting with eye lines. And it’s a great version of sort of how you show someone not reacting to something.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, I love that part of screenwriting personally. That’s my favorite part is storytelling in the description line, which is probably why I get so angry when these ding-a-lings and know-nothings and frauds keep telling people “don’t direct inside your script.” No, go ahead. Direct inside your script. I want to see everything.
It’s insane to suggest to anyone that the only thing screenwriters are allowed to convey are the spoken word and action. No. ridiculous.
John: Kate Powers writes, “Craig, when are you going to do another one of those WGA Finances for Screenwriters talks at the Guild?” She also says, “Also, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, starting listening as an assistant, got bumped to staff writer on Rectify. Now on a Sony Crackle show. Scriptnotes has been invaluable to me every step along the way. Thank you so much. Also, I effen loved Duly Noted.”
Craig: I’m struggling to remember the first time I did a WGA Finances for Screenwriters talk.
John: Didn’t you? I kind of thought you did.
Craig: Did I?
John: Or was it part of like an overall panel? Did you go in to like new screenwriters?
Craig: It may have been. I mean, I do a talk about how to survive the psychological turmoil of development. I do that once a year, typically. I don’t remember doing one on finances.
John: Maybe she was hallucinating. Or maybe she misremembered. I think you would do a great job for a talk on finances. What would be your three bullet points for new Guild members about their finances?
Craig: Well, bullet point number one: save. Save as much as you can save.
Bullet point number two: if you are incorporated, which you will be if you’re earning above a certain amount of money, you have to prepare for your tax bill, which will come due all in one big swift hurrah. They’re not withholding taxes from you and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of spending money that is not actually yours to spend.
And then third, I would strongly recommend to any writer to learn how to use Quicken. Because there are a lot of writers, most big writers I know employ people to handle their finances for them. Not investments and things like that, but I’m saying paying bills and making payments on things, and dealing with the health fund, you know, and sending in forms. Not me.
I’m not paying 1% of my income for that. Hell no. I can do it myself on Quicken and it takes me an hour a week. So, those would be my three big bullet points.
John: That’s great. I do pay somebody. I don’t pay them 1%. One-hour a week is worth more than it costs me to pay that person. So, that’s why I end up doing that.
Craig: I love my one hour. It’s so relaxing.
John: Oh, so you like that stuff.
Craig: It feels good.
John: I can’t agree more about saving. The thing which is so hard to understand is when you first start making money as a writer you’re like, wow, I have some money. This is crazy that I’m actually being paid to do what I love. But, that won’t always be there, and there will be ups and there will be downs. So, you need to have a great big rainy day fund, if possible. But also really be thinking about your retirement, because you’re not going to be doing this forever. And while there is a pension, it’s not going to be adequate. So, you’ve got to save money.
Craig: Well, first of all, you may not get your pension. You have to be vested to get it, which means you need I think five years of pension earnings before they’ll let you get a dime. That’s not coming until you’re sixty-something anyway.
You’re absolutely right. The benefits for saving for retirement go beyond just saving and not spending. That’s also money that you get a terrific tax break on. Anything that you can do to reduce your taxation, which is going to be very high as a screenwriter, is helpful to you and your family.
John: Cool. All right, let’s do our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a media post by Sara Benincasa.
Craig: So great.
John: Which she answers this anonymous question, “Why did you gain so much weight?” And what I love about her answer, and it’s a long post, she really goes for it. She really explains out her boyfriend who was deployed overseas in the army and then her switch to a different antidepressant and how that caused some weight gain. And she really sort of explains all the steps of how she put on weight. And the whole time it’s very, very funny. She’s a really very funny writer.
But what I love about it is throughout the whole thing she’s sort of like apologizing for being heavy, like it’s this horrible thing that she’s inflicting upon the world by being heavy. And the punchline is that she comes to Hollywood, she expects to have the worst issues with weight and such, and she does great. And so she sets up with Diablo Cody and Red Hour and she gets a lot of work done. And she does really well.
And, again, she’s constantly in her head apologizing for her weight. Like how do they not notice that I’m heavy? And it’s a good reminder that so often the things that we think are problems about ourselves are really just things we are creating in ourselves. We’re sort of creating people’s expectations about what we’re supposed to be like, and what we’re supposed to be doing. And when you sort of get past those, and just do your work, sometimes that work is rewarded in wonderful ways. So, it was a great essay. I know a lot of people have shared it. So, by the time this episode comes out, it will probably have won the Pulitzer in media.
But it’s just a great post.
Craig: I loved it, too. I loved it. It was so fearless. And that’s the thing. Basically everyone that gets wrapped up in these things, some idiot sends you an anonymous question like this. And really it may not be what they’re hoping for, but the worst outcome is you get scared. You get scared that people are seeing you a certain way. You get scared that you’re too this, or too that.
She’s so not scared, or even when she is scared, she’s OK to talk about being scared. So, to me, there was just this wonderful bravery to everything. And she also linked to a video piece she did that’s even braver than what she wrote. I mean, really just like I’m so impressed with her and kind of want to – I would be OK with maybe a 20th of her courage. Because I have none. [laughs] So, I’ll take – a 20th seems like it’s a fair ask. I’m not being greedy there.
I’m saying courage is a zero sum game. She would have to be reduced down by 1/20th. But I would take 1/20th of her courage. It would a big improvement for me. So, highly recommend that as well.
My One Cool Thing is coming up in, well, I don’t know when this – well, probably around when this is airing. August 30th or something like that, Nuka World! The final and presumably largest DLC for Fallout 4 will be available. And it looks awesome. It looks so great.
So, you get to explore the post-apocalyptic ruins of a horrible theme park that was built by the Nuke World Company to celebrate their products. It looks awesome.
John: That’s great.
Craig: So we’ll include a link to the trailer. You need Fallout 4 to play it, but you should have gotten Fallout 4. That’s my feeling.
John: Yeah, it was a previously One Cool Thing. So, people are way behind if they’re not doing it. I did not play Fallout 4. I did play the Fallout iPad game, the thing where you’re like managing the little – it was like the SIMS.
Craig: Oh yeah, the shelter.
John: And it was fun. And then it got really, really tedious. But it was fun for a while. And I do enjoy all the little details in their world that build so well together.
Craig: Yeah. Those guys are great. I mean, that whole company is fantastic. The two video game companies that I always perk up when I hear their names are Naughty Dog, which did The Last of Us, and the Unchartered Games, and the folks at Bethesda.
John: Yeah. They’re talented.
Craig: They’re just really good. And they also do Elder Scrolls. So, awesome.
John: Hooray. That’s our show for this week. So, as always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe. We are edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Matt Davis. If you have an outro for us, you can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also where you can send questions like the ones we answered. You can also reach us on Twitter for shorter questions. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
You’ll find the show on iTunes. If you leave us a review there, those are wonderful. And I actually read through them and they were just delightful. So, thank you for that. That’s also where we have the Scriptnotes app where you can download the back episodes all the way back to Episode 1. You can also find those at Scriptnotes.net. And on the USB drive we sell, which has all 250 episodes. Those are at the store, so you can get those.
That’s it. So, Craig, next time I speak with you I’ll actually be in Paris. And we will be tired.
Craig: You’re going to be tired, man. I’m going to be freaking awesome.
John: That’s going to be great. You’ll be sober, I hope.
Craig: Uh…bon voyage. [laughs]
John: It’ll be the first time for anything. So.
Craig: I’ve never done this drunk.
John: I’ve never done this drunk either. Well, I’ve done it with a glass and a half of wine at our live show.
Craig: That’s perfect. We want that.
John: You got to be a little loosened up. But, no, not drunk-drunk.
Craig: Well, there’s a first for everything. Maybe when you’re over there we’ll do it. I’m actually looking forward to it. I think something wonderful will come out of this.
John: Which would be great. Craig, I will see you next week.
Craig: You got it. Bye.
- Scriptnotes, 264: The One With the Agent
- The 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting
- Rawson Thurber on IMDB
- Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass
- Gone Girl Screenplay Analysis
- Sara Benincasa: Why Am I So Fat?
- Nuka World!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Outro by Matt Davis (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.