John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 307 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, Craig, what are we talking about?
Craig: Today on the podcast, John, we’re going to be answering some listener questions as we often do. We’ve got some exciting follow up to cover from our prior podcast. And our main topic today is going to be talking about how characters can drive story instead of the other way around. Should be a good episode, John.
John: It should be a great episode. Craig winged that and did a fantastic job. In our follow up we’ll start with something that has been long promised but is finally now here. The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide is now available. There is a link in the show notes. Or you can just go to johnaugust.com/guide. So this was the thing that Craig wanted to call Scriptdecks. But no.
John: This is a 113-page document, a PDF you can download for free, that has the listener recommendations on the best episodes of Scriptnotes in case you are catching up on the show late in the game.
Craig: That sounds like, what, $19.99? Or…?
John: No, I already said it was free. It’s a free PDF download.
Craig: So like about $8 maybe?
John: Yeah, so less than that. It’s actually all the way down to $0.
Craig: Not including shipping and handling, or?
John: The shipping and handling is handled, we email it to you. So essentially if you are already on the Scriptnotes mailing list, we’re just going to send it to you, so you will have already gotten it.
Craig: Oh, like that U2 album that Apple gave us, and they just gave it to us.
John: No, but, no, they forced it upon you. This we’re not forcing upon you.
Craig: Oh, OK. OK.
John: So I guess we’re emailing it to you, but it’s like not already – I guess it’s in your email system. In some ways, Craig, your analogy is completely appropriate. I feel bad.
Craig: Well, no, it’s more like if people used Kindle or iBooks and this just showed up in it. That would be the U2.
John: That’s probably the more accurate thing.
Craig: What a weird thing, right? Like they gave us a free album from one of the best bands in the world and everyone was like, “Screw you. Get this out of here.”
John: Here’s the thing. Nobody really wanted the album. Like nobody was into U2 for new music at that point and just it felt intrusive. It was tone deaf. Weirdly tone deaf for Apple.
Craig: I think there’s also this psychological thing. When someone says to you, “Hey, by the way, I’m going to give you something that you would normally consider paying for, or certainly somebody would have to pay for, I’m just going to give it to you for free.” You look at it like, oh, well, it’s not very good then, is it?
John: Well here’s the thing I would also say like let’s say you like fish, you like to eat a nice piece of fish, but someone just shows up and hands you a fish. No. I don’t want a piece of fish. I want a fish when I want a fish, not when you want to give me a fish.
Craig: I like that you use the article A. When you order fish you have A fish. You ask for an entire fish. Not some fish. You ask for, I would like, you know what I’m in the mood for some fish tonight. No, I want A Fish.
John: I live in France where they serve you a fish. They serve you a whole fish. It’s got its head on it. It’s got all the pieces.
Craig: Un fish? Un pechine? What is it, pechine? What is it? No, it’s poisson. Poisson.
John: Le poisson. Le poisson.
Craig: Oh, so it’s un poisson.
Craig: Very good.
John: And fish is always delightful here. Once you have this PDF of the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide, and by the way Craig I thought of you often because I went through so many debates about where to put the apostrophe for the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide. So you will see in the notes, so that’s wrong here. So in the notes I listed it with apostrophe-S, but in the real thing I put the apostrophe after the S.
Craig: Thank you. Because otherwise it’s the guide of one Scriptnotes listener. And we’re really implying that we only have one also. You know, the Scriptnotes listener? This is her guide. [laughs]
John: The argument in favor of apostrophe-S was that it’s good for a listener.
Craig: That would be A Scriptnotes Listener’s Guide.
John: It’s true. It could be read that way. So this is the guide belonging to and a product of the listeners of Scriptnotes. Once you have this in your hands, you can use it to listen to the back episodes. Well, you might choose to listen to the back episodes. You could find those at Scriptnotes.net, but also on the brand new 300-episode USB drives.
John: Craig, have you clicked through to see what these drives look like?
Craig: I’m doing it right now. Because, you know, I like to wing things. That’s my style. I find that I’m more exciting. Whoa. Look at that. This thing looks like a little mini-grenade.
John: Yeah. It’s a grenade full of knowledge.
Craig: Yeah. It looks like a little mini-mag light. It looks like so many little mini things. It’s very cool. Is it metal?
John: It is chrome-plated, apparently. I’ve not actually touched these. Etah had them and they were all in our office for a while before we shipped them off to the fulfillment company. But yeah, so we have a bunch of them, so people can buy them. They are $29. It has all the back episodes, including the bonus episodes, the dirty show. Has all the transcripts. It has all of the Three Page Challenge scripts. So, it’s handy. It’s got it all there. And it’s waterproof, or at least strongly water resistant.
John: It will survive a lot. We had to bump up to the 16GB, because we just talked so much on the show.
Craig: Well, the good news is that the price per GB goes down far faster than we can talk. So by the time we hit the, what, 400-episode flash drive, or 500-episode flash drive, we’ll need a Terabyte and it will cost $0.04.
John: Yeah. Moore’s Law is in our favor.
Craig: Yeah. And how much is this? $80? $100? Something like that?
John: This is a $29 USB drive.
Craig: Wow. Unreal. And of that $29, I presume the customary amount comes to me of nothing?
John: 100% of the customary amount goes to Craig Mazin.
John: Yeah. So good.
Craig: You know what? Buy them. Please, everyone, just buy them so I can get thousands and thousands of nothings.
John: Another thing Craig will be making no money on is our live show. July 25 in Hollywood. Tickets are on sale now. It’s a benefit for the Writers Guild Foundation which does great work on behalf of writers and people who are aspiring to become writers. Megan Amram is our fantastic guest. We have other guests to be announced soon. It’s 8PM July 25 in Hollywood, so come see us there. And then I think we’re going to do some other special little event kind of things there. Some little games. Some stuff that you’ll benefit from being there in person. I want a little more audience participation in this one, not just questions. So, I think we’re going to get our people involved more.
Craig: Like a big Simon Says kind of thing? Or something more screenwritery?
John: I think one lucky listener will get something.
Craig: And you get a car. And you get a car.
John: So the danger is like all the listeners of that show are going to be checking underneath their seat to see if there is something because you’ll remember at our very first live show–
Craig: That’s right.
John: There was something hidden underneath a seat. And we read their script. That’s right. We read their script.
Craig: And we read their script. And it was good. So, what will be under the seat this time, John?
John: I don’t know.
Craig: Oh, that would ruin it. Plus, there’s not going to be anything under the seat.
John: We’ll have to see. You’ll have to come to find out. So, Craig, please do show up July 25.
Craig: How about as people are coming in we microchip them?
John: Oh, nice.
Craig: Yeah, OK. There will be a little soreness, a little redness at the spot of insertion. However, at the end of the show, we will scan the audience and somebody with the lucky serial number will receive a prize.
John: That could be good.
Craig: And then we can track them for the rest of their lives.
John: Yeah. I mean, that’s really the thing. I mean, Mail Chimp is a start. But I think beyond Mail Chimp we really want to have some full knowledge about our listeners, because that’s how you monetize, Craig. That’s how you monetize.
Craig: Oh, you know what? I got an idea for a new thing that we can start.
John: Tell me.
Craig: It’s called Chip Chimp. OK? I know that Mail Chimp doesn’t have real chimps, but Chip Chimp will. And Chip Chimp’s name is Chim-Chim, you know, like from Speed Racer.
John: So Chim-Chim, the Chip Chimp. Oh, I think it’s great.
Craig: Chim-Chim, the Chip Chimp. Well, he obviously roller skates through the audience and just – and then ka-donk right to your upper arm. Right in the fleshy part of the upper arm. Moves around. You know, doesn’t necessarily do it in order, because I mean, folks, he’s a chimp. OK? Let’s not get crazy. He can roller skate. He knows how to do essentially a medical procedure, which is the sterile insertion of a microchip into your arm. So, if he doesn’t quite go in the order you’d like, I don’t want to get any complaints.
Anyway, it’s a great idea.
John: I think it’s important to keep in mind though when we selected this monkey, I guess it’s not really fair to call him a monkey.
John: He’s a primate ambassador to a greater world view.
Craig: He’s a chimp.
John: We had to really compete against a bunch of other possible candidates, but this is the one who won. This is Chim-Chim, the Chip Chimp champ. And he’s going to be there live in the audience.
Craig: Honestly, it came down to him and Chris McQuarrie. [laughs]
John: Chris McQuarrie? He was busy shooting a movie.
Craig: He wasn’t so busy that he couldn’t apply. And honestly, you know, I was not expecting the tears that we got when we told him that he just didn’t quite get it.
John: It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Because there have been, what, like 19 Mission: Impossible movies?
John: There’s only one Chip Chimp.
Craig: Chim-Chim Chip Chimp. Yeah. And it’s not McQuarrie. You know what though? I got to say so much spirit from him. So much spirit.
John: We got a listener review from Pedro Lisbow. So, I wanted to read this aloud because I thought it was so revealing. So, at the end you’re going to find out what he does for a living, but I want to see if you can figure out what he does for a living before we get to that point. So, let’s listen carefully, OK?
He says, “This is my favorite podcast. I found it by chance. And though I’m not a writer, I find the discussions pleasant and illuminating.”
Craig: All right. Clues. Clues.
John: “More than once, I’ve applied the advice they give to writers on my profession. You would be surprised how much of it is universal, provided you adapt the boundary conditions on it.”
Craig: Huge clue.
John: “Recently I entered a small screenwriting competition. Might as well test one’s self, right? And got honorable mention on my first short.”
John: “In summary, if this back office quant can benefit from listening to the podcast, so can you.”
Craig: Is quant supposed to be a giveaway? Because I don’t know what that means.
John: Quant is a number cruncher who generally works for a financial services industry. So, sometimes they have degrees in physics or like really esoteric mathematics, but they end up working generally for financial services.
Craig: It’s shot for like a quantifier?
John: Quantitative Analysis.
Craig: Got it. So did you just give away the answer of what he is?
John: I did. I did. But hopefully people along the way – you figured out that he was some sort of number cruncher nerd.
Craig: Yeah, boundary conditions is very mathematical. Very codey sort of term.
John: All right. Last week we punted on a question. So, we are going to jump on that ball and continue our sports metaphors into this week’s discussion.
Craig: Jump on that ball! You know, most games require it. Jump on it.
John: They do. Jumping on the ball.
Craig: Jump on the ball.
John: That’s the game I made up. Going to answer a question from Ferris. He was asking about – he was actually sort of demanding that we give him some new answers about how to truly get into the mind of a character, understand their motivations, and how they’ll react in certain situations. How do you go about making the character drive the story instead of the other way around?
So, Craig, tell us. How do you do that?
Craig: So this is a big one. I remember we brought this up towards the end of our last podcast and thought, oh no, no, no, we can’t short thrift this. You need two things, I think, to make this work right. The function of having a character drive the story. One, you need an actual character. We say character to cover anybody that has a name ranging from a real name to Cop Number 3 and who says stuff and does stuff. That’s actually not a character. That’s the loosest term of the phrase.
A character is a person, a persona that you are creating, that feels realistic. That feels like an actual person. That’s a character. Otherwise, you have a characterization. I don’t know how else to put it.
John: I think it’s great that you’re focusing on that character, because I also want to define these terms as well. So, let’s define story. If a character is going to define a story, let’s make sure we’re talking about the right things in terms of a story. For story, let’s talk about a sequence of events, a sequence of narrative events that feels greater than the sum of its parts. So it’s not just a bunch of “and then this, and then this, and then this.” It feels like it adds up to something bigger and that ideally, especially in movie stories, it’s the journey of that character from one place to another, either literally or metaphorically. That’s what we’re watching.
So, when we say we want this character we’ve created to be driving the story, we’re talking about what Craig is saying. A very distinct individual person driving a very distinct individual series of events that’s happening, at least for movies, just once.
Craig: Yeah. The question that Ferris asks, which I will read verbatim, how do you go about making the character drive the story instead of the other way around, implies a kind of Cartesian duality between character and story. When in fact, they are related to each other. They are in a relationship with each other.
Plot, you can define down I think as very much a series of events that flow one to the next, perhaps and hopefully some causality between them. And beginning, middle, and that’s plot. But story to me is the phenomenon that emerges when a character is moving through a plot. Because when we tell the story of a movie we’ve seen, we don’t – like if someone says tell me the story of The Matrix. Machines have enslaved humanity and they are sucking electricity out of them and enslaving them and they make humans think that they’re in the world when they are really not. And they’re defeated.
John: Yeah. So that is a definition of that’s plot. It’s the underlying thing of it, but you’re not talking about Neo. You’re not talking about who is actually in charge of your story. And you’re not talking about the experience of watching your story through that principal character’s eyes and the choices he’s making, the discoveries he’s encountering as these things come to light in the story.
Craig: Yeah. The only interesting way to experience a plot is through a character’s movement through it. And that is the story. The story is humans or sometimes people serving – sorry, animals serving as humans, or machines serving as humans, but human-like creatures moving through a plot. And from that marriage and relationship and synthesis comes story.
So the first thing that’s really important to say is there isn’t one and then the other, because you fall into the trap – if you look at Ferris’s question carefully, you can fall into the trap of thinking, OK, there’s a story that happens. Then my character walks in, hits a thing, that changes what will happen next in the story. My character now reacts to that. Very reactive. Even if your character is reacting, and then hitting a thing, and then causing the next thing, your character is simply becoming a plot mechanic. The way that the cops showing up in a story are a plot mechanic. Or an asteroid is a plot mechanic. Or a blackout is a plot mechanic.
That’s not how it works with characters.
John: When you were talking about moving through a story, the one thing I want to stress though is movement alone is not enough. So if a character is on a rollercoaster, they are moving. And they can be on a rollercoaster that is sort of the plot of the story, but we’re going to be frustrated as the viewer because they’re not making any choices. They’re just on rails. And so they’re being dragged through the story. And when I see scripts that aren’t working, it’s often because that character really has no agency. Has no real decision-making capability on what’s going to happen next.
Either they’re always responding to what the villain is doing, or what other characters are sort of instructing them to do. They’re put upon, they’re directed, they’re instructed, but they’re not actually doing anything themselves. So, you could write the most delightful dialogue ever for that character. It would still be a frustrating movie because you don’t see that character making any choices, having any control of his or her life within that movie.
Craig: And you can see how videogames struggle with this life on rails problem. Because the nature of a videogame – well, I’m only talking really about let’s call them the higher narrative videogames – they tell story. They tell narrative. They aspire to be movie-like. But ultimately the experience is defined primarily by a series of obstacles that you, the player, must overcome. Those are very plot obstacles. They are essentially plot obstacles.
Every now and then you’ll find a game that attempts to pretend that you’re making moral choices. But you’re not because there are only so many choices in their decision tree they can handle. I don’t know if you ever played Mass Effect, for instance.
John: I know of Mass Effect. I never played it myself. But I know that it had a bigger built out set of choices and outcomes. It was a little more like a Choose Your Own Adventure situation than an Uncharted, which you truly are on rails. Like incredibly well disguised rails, but there’s like one way through Uncharted.
Craig: That’s right. Absolutely on rails. No question. And even in Mass Effect, you’re on rails. And that’s where it actually becomes really frustrating, videogames, when they try and pretend you’re not on rails. One of the reasons why Bio Shock was such a wonderful game is because they pointed out that you were on rails. That was the big twist. Surprise. You’re not making any decisions at all. You’re on rails. And that was brilliant because it acknowledged this big thing. In movies, the experience is not one where we are primarily overcoming obstacles and therefore there is a very narrow set of choices and decision trees that are available to us.
In movies, we’re watching someone’s life. What has happened has happened. We are being invited into watch somebody. And that is the experience of our lives in general. What happens, happens. And the excitement, I think, of proper storytelling in movies is not that we’re watching a character going through a story, but rather we are watching an event in this person’s life that needed to happen to them. Because movies are purposeful, and because they are truly intelligently designed, the way that some people wrongly thing the universe was, everything is absolutely fated. It is intentional. It is as if god created all of this in such a way as to make a point and help this person change. Or fail.
John: So, I think you hit on the sort of Cartesian duality here is that you are trying to create a system in which it seems like your protagonist, your hero, is in charge of the decisions he or she is making, when in fact you are – you as the writer are in charge of the decisions that are being made. You are creating a universe where those are the decisions that are going to lead to the most interesting outcomes. And so you’re definitely making it feel like that character is in charge when in fact that character is working for you. That character is working for your story. And so I think the way to sort of back into the answer to Ferris’s question is to be making sure that you have a sense of what the story is you’re trying to tell.
Likewise, have a sense of who the character is in the story and at every moment those stitches have to be working together. That this character needs to go on this journey. This character needs to make these discoveries. Therefore, I will create a universe in which he can have these moments of challenge, these moments of opportunity so that it can change the character. And you’re creating the universe of the story and the character of the story at the same time.
Craig: Right. So, at the core of this, Ferris, is a question of design. When you say how do you go about making the character drive the story, here’s how. You design a character, you design a problem that that character has. A fatal flaw. A primary challenge. You design a story, plot rather I should say, that will repeatedly test that character. That will force them to leave their comfort zone. That will force them to confront terrible truths. That will cause them pain. That will threaten to tear them apart. And the only way that that character is going to be able to survive is if they overcome what has held them back. If they overcome what is wrong with them. And in the end, success.
Or, they fail. Either way, both are fine. I mean, traditionally they succeed. Happy endings and all that. But sometimes they don’t. Either way, you have designed a person and then you have designed a plot that are married together. The person does not understand that that plot is going to lead him or her to something important. They have no idea.
There’s this wonderful analogy. I think it was in Slaughterhouse Five. Where the Tralfamadorians, the aliens, they don’t experience time the way we do. And so they’re describing it, it’s like as humans the way we experience time is we’re on a train and there’s a window. And what we see in the window is our present. And when it leaves the window, because the train is moving, that’s our past. And then the future rolls into our present and we see that.
But what we cannot see is what’s coming. We’re only looking out the window. The Tralfamadorians, they’re outside the train. Right? They know where the train is going. They can see it all. Very clear to understand.
You, Ferris, are outside of the train. Your character is inside the train looking out the window. Your job is to create a path for that train which you can see that is going to cause problems for this character. And then your job is in a very strange psychological exercise to exit outside, go into the train, put yourself right in that little train car, and ask, “What do I see out the window? What does this mean to me?” I don’t know anything other than what I have seen and what I’m seeing now.
So there’s two of you, Ferris. There’s the outside guy who can see it all, and there’s the inside guy who can only see what’s there. And your job is to make sure that you can do both of those jobs perfectly well so that they work in harmony and this exciting story emerges.
John: Yeah. Screenwriting is always about that shifting your frame of reference. And you’re trying to see only what your characters know and then also know everything that your characters don’t know. It’s ridding yourself of the curse of knowledge of what’s to come, of the motivations of other characters that they couldn’t possibly see.
So, the questions to fundamentally ask is – and we can put a link in the show notes to an earlier episode where we talk about what characters want – but really ask yourself what does this character want right now. And when I say right now, like what are his basic motivations? The primal kind of things they’re going after. What are their higher aspirations? Are they hungry? Are they frustrated? Are they sleepy? Ask yourself all those questions. Look at their sort of near term. Like what are they trying to do in the next ten minutes, in the next two hours, and then also be able to ask the question like where do they see themselves a week from now, a year from now.
Not every scene is going to address those things, then you have to have a sense of what those are for that character, so you can get inside his or her shoes and really understand the world from their point of view. And then when you start to ask those questions, make sure you check in on those motivations, those general goals and wants and wishes throughout the story. And you may need to find excuses and reasons to have your characters expose those to us so that we can see them and so we can remember them.
Because unlike the novelist who can just get inside a character’s head and just tell us what that character is thinking, in screenwriting we are very limited. We don’t really have insight on characters unless they say something or if they’re in a musical they can sing something. So, make sure that we really understand what this character is experiencing in case we can’t see it just by what’s being put on screen.
Craig: You know, I went through this whole Sherlock binge. There’s a moment in one of the episodes where I believe its Mycroft, my favorite character, Mycroft Holmes, tells this little story called the Appointment in Samarra, which it’s an old story but it was most famously told by Somerset Maugham. So I’m going to read this story to you. It’s very short.
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he came to Death and said, Why did you make a threating gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, Death said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
Now, I love that story. So, you, Ferris, or any screenwriter, you’re death. You know where people are supposed to be. You know exactly what’s going to happen to them and they cannot avoid it because you’re writing it. But, your characters have no concept of this. They are, therefore, free to make choices. And this is a very kind of strange, Calvinistic, pre-deterministic way of looking at life. I don’t think this is actually how reality functions happily, but it does function this way for your universe you’re creating.
Your characters must react. They must have agency. They must have free will. They make choices. But in the end, the movie that will happen to them must happen to them. So, part of what makes “character drive story” is the dramatic tension and often the irony that is connected to characters making decisions and then dealing with the circumstances of those decisions as you create them.
If you know what’s going to happen to them, you have all of the opportunity in the world to make it seem to them that they have succeeded. In fact, it’s a very common dramatic trope in movies to give the characters everything they do want, only for them to discover they no longer want it because of the journey they have been on. And then they must turn away from that to want something more, or something better, or the thing they should have wanted in the first place.
It’s a very difficult thing to do. But once you understand that the plot is there to serve the character’s life, so that when the movie is over the character is either healed or broken, then you understand there’s no other result than to have the “character drive the story.” The character is the story.
John: I would refer him back to our episodes on The Little Mermaid, which is of course a mermaid makes a very dumb choice and deals with the consequences, or Groundhog Day, which is nothing but a character getting what he always wanted and then suffering for it, and having to learn how to overcome it and his ongoing struggle.
We’ve never talked about Aliens, but the second Aliens is a great example of a movie that feels like it could just be on rails, and yet isn’t because it’s so carefully constructed that Ripley is on a journey. That she’s on a journey – that she’s making choices herself the whole time through and you really feel her making those choices. They’re not easy choices. There’s continual consequences. And it works so well because of the marriage of plot and character to create story.
Craig: Yeah. You have this remarkable tool as a writer. And for lack of a better word I call it torture. You can and should torture your protagonist. No one wants to see somebody very easily arrive at a solution. That’s a boring and short movie. So, you know that there’s a problem in them. And you know that you need them to be the opposite of that when they finish this journey. Torture them. That’s how you make the character drive the story. The story becomes painful for them. It’s hard. When they have to do the right thing, it comes with terrible costs. When they try and do the right thing, punish them for it.
This constant pushback, this constant torture, this crucible that you create is what we want to see because that creates empathy in the audience and a desire for the character to succeed.
The worst possible outcome is for a character to make this large, grand change in their lives and you don’t feel like it was that hard for them to do. You want it to be the hardest thing, because after all, this is the movie. Their lives – they don’t really have lives, but we imagine they do. Clarice Starling had a life before she shows up at the FBI and gets the Buffalo Bill case and has to go talk to Hannibal Lecter. And she has a life afterwards. But that stretch of time where she’s dealing with that case and Hannibal Lecter, that’s the most important time in her life.
So, for her to finally get to the end has to be excruciating for her. Otherwise it didn’t deserve to be a movie. We should have found some other part in her life that was a movie, or maybe her life isn’t a movie at all.
John: One last note before we wrap up this topic is we’re both screenwriters. We mostly talk about movies, which are two hours of entertainment, and you’re following one character’s life. But I will say in great TV, like the TV that we get to watch every day now, you do see characters driving story in ways that they probably didn’t do so much ten years ago. And so you see characters making difficult choices in everything from Game of Thrones to The Americans. They’re not simply responding to things. And they’re not trying to just recreate the normalcy of the routine. They are being challenged and they’re pushing beyond those challenges to get to new things.
And so I really do believe that most of the advice we’re talking about can apply to one-hour of television, and two hours of movie, it’s just you have to find ways that you can use those characters and let them continue to grow over the course of a season rather than just one two-hour movie.
Craig: 100%. It gets really complicated in television because you do have to now prioritize your characters and your story and television shows do it in so many different ways. There’s a method by which there is an A character and that is the primary story. That character drives the major portion of the story. But there are other characters who have smaller stories inside of the stories that really are driven by them.
And when we say “driven by,” what we really mean is a function of. OK, I think Ferris that will be the cleanest way to kind of resolve your problem. Characters don’t really drive story. Story is a function of character.
So you have a lot of choices about how you handle these things. But ultimately whatever you choose, you do make a choice. And you know your story is a function of character.
John: All of our TV writer friends are back in the room now writing the next season of their shows that come in the fall, or come in midseason, and that first week, those first two weeks they do a lot of big whiteboard stuff where they figure out where are all the characters going this season. And that’s what we’re talking about here. They’re figuring out the broad arcs for these characters over the course of the season. And then within episodes how far can they take them within this episode. And that’s great. And that’s the kind of thing that is amazing about the TV we make right now.
So, a lot of this advice can apply to TV as well.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, imagine how backwards it would be if you showed up on day one for a season and the showrunner said, “OK, we have three characters and we got to kind of arc out how the season is going to work. But here are a few things I definitely know. There should be a train crash somewhere in the middle of the season. I want a huge train crash. And you know what? I’ve always wanted to do a thing where an airplane – it’s like a car chase but with two little small twin-engine planes.”
John: Little Cessnas? Yeah.
Craig: “Through a city. I want to do that. So those are on the board. So let’s figure out how we can kind of make…”
No. That would be the worst. No.
John: Yeah. You and I have both worked on movies that have had that kind of situation. Oh, it is the worst.
Craig: It’s the worst. Because in the end you’re just now I guess retrofitting characters that would then have the ability to find meaning in those sequences. But, oh god, it starts getting bad real fast. But if you sit in a room and someone is like, “Here’s the situation. These two guys are best friends. At the end of this season, one is going to kill the other. Now, let’s talk about how that happens.” OK. Now we’re on to something.
John: All right, let’s wrap that up. And Craig could you read us our next question?
Craig: So, a person whose name is the same name as a famous person’s name writes, “I share the exact same name as a remarkably famous celebrity. I won’t mention who, but I will say he is a household name and sadly one of the most famous people on the planet. It just so happens that this particular celebrity is a total cretin who is very well known for being a major douchebag. My concern is that sharing my name with this incredibly talentless parasite will negatively affect people’s opinions of my screenplay before they’ve even read it. What are my options here?
“Should I use a pen name, so I’m not mistaken for this bungling idiot? Or should I keep my name and dedicate a line on the title page to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that I am definitely not him? Or since he’s famous as hell, should I just keep the name and just roll with it? A famous name might generate more interest, I guess.”
John: This is a really easy answer. Do not use that famous person’s name. It will only be confusing and will not help you in your career or your life. Pick a pen name. Use your initials. Do something else. But you will benefit not at all by sharing a name with whoever that is.
Craig: Slam dunk of slam dunks here. There’s no point, really. Let me be honest with you, whoever you are. Let’s just call you Donald Trump. That’s not who it is, but it would be funny. Even if the celebrity that you shared a name with was a fantastic person that everyone loved, it still wouldn’t be–
John: Like Tom Hanks. Let’s say your name is Tom Hanks. Not helpful.
Craig: No. It’s just going to be an endlessly annoying discussion you have with people that will start a lot like this. “Is that really your name? What’s that like?” Every meeting you have. Every – look, you already now. You deal with this in your life anyway.
So, no, John is absolutely right. Get a pen name. I believe you have to register those with the Writers Guild, right?
John: Yeah. I think you’re supposed to register pen names. I legally changed my name before I moved to Los Angeles. So, for people who don’t know the backstory, my original last name is German and it looks pronounceable, but we pronounced it weird. It was a challenging last name. And so I was deciding as I went through high school, like I think I’m going to use a different name for my career. And I think I might go be a screenwriter, so it was like my mom’s maiden name is Peters. And I’m like, Peters is a good name. I could be John Peters.
John: But, nope, there’s a famous movie producer named Jon Peters. He’s J-O-N Peters, but that would have been confusing as heck. And so I’m really glad I didn’t pick that. So I picked my dad’s middle name, August, and it’s worked out for me very, very well.
So, Kanye West, or whatever your name is, I think you should make a similar choice and pick a name that you like. It could be your legal name, if you want to change your name legally.
You know, if you got an annoying name like that, just change your name legally. It’s not going to help you at all to have a weird name.
Craig: I agree. If it’s really bumming you out, just change it. What’s your actual – what’s your middle name, John?
John: Tilton. T-I-L-T-O-N.
Craig: And you didn’t want to be John Tilton?
John: To me it always felt like I was missing a name there. Like Tilton didn’t feel like enough of a last name to me.
Craig: Because you just knew it as your middle name.
John: I knew it as my middle name. And it feels like a cheese.
Craig: John Tilton?
John: Like Tilton cheese.
Craig: No, that’s Stilton.
John: It’s Stilton. I know. But it’s close enough. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t love it.
Craig: God. You are just so WASP-y. John Tilton August.
John: Yeah, but the Tilton is gone completely. It’s been banished. It hasn’t been part of my name for 25 years.
John: Tilton. Ben in LA wrote in and he sent audio, so let’s take a listen to what Ben wrote.
Ben: I have a quick question. It’s about writing for humor. Now, there’s a thought that “you can’t teach funny,” which I believe to be fairly true. But, is there a method you use to improve, construct, workshop humor in your scripts? I have my own script that I’m trying to break right now that has a decent character and set up, but trying to find all these possible and best scenarios it could go. For TV, you have the audience of the writers’ room, but on features you tend to work alone and I don’t necessarily laugh at all my own jokes.
So, anyways, any advice you have would be greatly appreciated. And, again, thank you very much.
John: Craig, what advice do you have for Ben?
Craig: Well, this is a tough one. I mean, so no, you can’t teach funny. But certainly funny people can get funnier. And I think that every funny person starts out as an amateur funny person, a class clown, or someone who writes funny emails to their friends, or funny texts. And then hits the rubber and road of being a professional funny person, where you are now not just being paid to make people laugh. You are accountable for people laughing. And that is a whole different world.
The demands of that take some time to develop. Any standup comedian will tell you that time is required. And I doubt any standup comedian’s first set went particularly well. And it’s the same for comedy writing in movies. The first scripts you write tend to be broad. I think basically there’s a lot of insecurity. You know, you’re so worried about people laughing that you try and make them laugh every three seconds and it gets really big and really broad.
The only practical tip I have, other than going through the experience of seeing people react to your work, which is easy enough to do. Have a little reading with some actors and see if people laugh. Is to always keep in mind that surprise is at the heart of laugh out loud comedy. You can’t really get it without surprise. So think about how to surprise people.
John: Yeah. I think sometimes we over emphasize this “you can’t teach funny” idea. And we sort of generalize it to like you can’t learn funny. And I think the funny people I know, they definitely spent some time learning about funny. I just finished reading Lindy West’s book, Shrill, which I really liked a lot. And she was talking about how growing up she used to tape Saturday Night Live and SCTV and basically anything she could possibly find. This is back in the days of VHS tape. And she would tape them all, and she would rewatch them, and she transcribed them, and she cut them together into super cuts. And she was really just trying to study and break down how it all worked.
And so she was a funny person, but she was also studying her craft. The same way I think people have musical talent but they also work really hard at it and they sort of – they study it. They really pick it apart to see how it all functions so they can do it themselves. And so I don’t want anyone to sort of think like, oh, because you can’t teach funny no one can learn. People definitely do learn. And it’s important to sort of keep that in mind.
I think one of the first things you’re going to learn is the difference between something being funny situationally and funny because the character is saying funny things. And they’re really different things and we sometimes conflate them. So, situationally funny things are that sense of a mismatch between the character and the environment they’re in. The bull in the china shop kind of stuff. Funny situation is a character trying to keep a secret, physical absurdities. The stuff that’s situationally funny will tend to work even if the sound was turned off, or a language you don’t speak, you could sort of get situationally why it’s funny.
The ability to write funny dialogue is a different thing. The ability to write jokes is a different thing. And you have to understand more what’s happening in the listener’s mind to get a funny line, to get a joke to work. And that, again, takes practice. It’s a different kind of thing.
You know, we talked about shifting frames of reference. Being funny is you as the person telling the joke or setting up the comedy, you know where it’s going to go, but you have to be able to put yourself in the mind of the person who doesn’t know where it’s going to go to see exactly where they’re at, and then be able to surprise them with where you took them. And that takes skill and talent, but also practice. And so you have to dedicate yourself to that.
Craig: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I mean, comparing it to music. You can carry a tune, so you can sing. OK, you want to be a professional singer, here are 5,000 technical things you need to learn that are all the way from breath control to different kinds of bravado to how to transition from your chest voice to your head voice. It’s the same with comedy. You do have to be a funny person. You have to know how to sing. But the technicality of comedy is extraordinary. It is far and away the most technical aspect of any writing I think that’s done.
And the rules and the constraints that you set up for yourself are really important. I mean, I can’t tell you how much I learned from David Zucker. And it’s not that I generally even write in that vein of comedy, but I learned technically an enormous amount from him. I also learned a lot technically from Todd Phillips. It was a very different style of comedy. But you have to be an endless student of the technique of comedy because it is rigorous.
Nobody – well, I’m not going to say that. I will say this. There are people that make comedies and they think that the easy part is the joke parts and they’re wrong. Those are the hardest parts. It is a rare thing to find a director that can shoot a funny movie. There’s just not that many of them because that’s where all the technique has to happen. Even if all the technique is in the script. So, what I would say, Ben, is practice. And look at it rigorously. And like John says, study technique. Watch funny movies, that are funny to you, and then stop every time you laugh and go, OK, hold on. Back up. How was that set up? Where did I laugh? Did I laugh when they said the thing, or did I laugh when they cut to that person reacting?
Was it all in one shot? Was it physical? If it was physical, were the elements in play before that physical occurrence blew up? All these things. Analyze them carefully. Analyze them really, really carefully. Because that’s the physics of comedy. And it’s hard. I find it hard, obviously.
John: I think the other thing to watch is to watch for trends and watch sort of what’s happening out there. Because something that was funny ten years ago may not play funny now. Watch where the puck is headed. Like I watch Catastrophe, which I think is a terrific show, and smart on so many levels, but one of the choices they’ve made which I’ve seen them talk about is if I’m saying something that’s really funny, you’re going to laugh about it because it’s weird that people don’t laugh in comedies. And so a choice they made in that show is that if he says something funny, she’s going to laugh, and vice versa. They’re going to acknowledge that they’re saying funny things at times. That’s the rules of their universe. That’s the rules of their world. And I can see that happening probably outside of that sort of indie sensibility. I think it’s going to bleed out.
So, look for that kind of stuff. Look for what is out there and what’s possible.
Now, yes, if you’re writing on a TV show, there’s people around you and there’s other people who are going to help you sort of find that funny, which is great. And also to be writing for established actors playing those characters, which is also great. But in most of my experiences I’ve just been like the one guy alone in a room. And how do I know if something is funny? Well, you just kind of know. And to me what I’ve found to be most useful is if I’ve written a scene one day and I can go back a week later, a month later, and that scene is still funny, it’s probably actually funny.
It’s the thing that I wrote and the next day I’m like, ugh, this is just not funny at all, I trust myself in those situations and I rip them up. But I go back and start again.
Craig: This is a process that if you are a professional writer, Ben, you will be studying this changing it and perfecting it, whatever you want to call it, for your entire career. It never stops. Comedy is like magic. So, somebody comes along like David Kwong and says pick a card, and you pick it, and then he effortlessly pulls it out of your butt and you go how the hell did you do that? That’s amazing. It’s like magic.
It’s not like magic. It’s actually the result of thousands of hours of practice. And very careful misdirection and a ton of setup. And physics. Literally physics. So, that’s kind of the gig is you got to work at it.
John: The other reason why I think that magic metaphor is good is that there are different kinds of magicians. And so there’s people who do really great close up work, or sort of like Kwong does amazing things with numbers and words which are all great. But he’s not making planes disappear. He’s not doing that sort of big look at this giant stadium I have full of stuff. There’s different kinds of magic that are out there. And there’s different kinds of comedy also.
So, a person may be tremendously funny and really good at the jokey-joke stuff, and we love them for that, or the little sketch things, but they don’t really thrive in situations where they have to play the longer game, or they have to figure out the bigger movie. And that’s OK. I think it’s great that there’s people who are good at different kinds of things. And so as you’re writing, and you’re figuring it out what it is you like to do and what you’re good at, you may find that you have a strength. And play to your strengths. Go for what makes you happy.
Craig: I agree.
John: Cool. I think it’s time for our One Cool Things. I actually have two this week, so I’m sorry, I’m going to cheat. So my first one has been on my list as a One Cool Thing for a long time, but this week it’s especially relevant. So it’s McMansion Hell. Do you know this site, Craig?
Craig: Yeah, it’s the best.
John: It’s just the best. And so it’s only because it’s this last week that I know that it’s actually run by this 23-year-old. Her name Kate Wagner. And the blog is great. So McMansion Hell, it’s actually a Tumblr and just every week or sometimes twice a week she goes through and she pulls all the listings of these McMansions across America in different states and she takes like the relator listings and draws on them like little captions for all the horrible stuff you sort of see there, and like the bad architectural decisions. And so it’s really funny, but it’s also really good criticism of the choices that we make to make these giant monstrosities of houses. And how unlivable they are and how just impersonal they are.
So I’ve really learned a lot from this 23-year-old woman who does this great analysis of McMansions. And so I’ve loved the site for months and I should have mentioned this earlier on. But this last week, Zillow, the real estate company, sort of the online relator listings company, sent a letter basically cease and desist. You cannot be using our photos anymore. And basically she pulled down her blog.
So lucky the EFF stepped in and responded to her lawsuit. I’ll put a link in the show notes to what they wrote. And Zillow backed down. And so the site is back up. So you should go. You should enjoy it. You should support her on Patreon like I do. It’s a great site and I’m so happy that this – it’s one of those rare things that it just turned out the way it should have turned out.
Craig: I love that site. Where I live in La Cañada, there are a lot of McMansions. I do not live in one. I live in a very – I don’t know if you’re an architecture guy, but there’s an architect named Cliff May who kind of invented the California ranch home. And we live in one of the homes that he designed. It’s old and it’s rambly and it’s not at all a McMansion. It’s the opposite of a McMansion, which is why we love it.
But I look and see the real estate listings in La Cañada and so many of the homes that were built in the ‘90s and 2000s, they are essentially the same. They have this bizarre – I only like to talk about the interiors – this bizarre Italian great entry hall. There’s a sweeping staircase.
John: Well, it’s called the Lawyer Foyer.
Craig: OK, the Lawyer Foyer. That’s fantastic. There’s a sweeping staircase. Sometimes two. There is a very formal dining room. There is an oversized kitchen with an oversized island. There’s always a wood paneled study and then some weird creepy wine drinking thing with bad Tuscany kind of vibe. And it’s always the same. And it’s over, and over, and over.
John: Always the same.
Craig: Always. But you know what’s not interesting at all? The ceilings and the walls are just bland and flat. And they all use the same lighting. And it’s just, I don’t get it. I don’t get it. Why people look at that and go, yeah, this is amazing. I want to live here. It’s like that’s their idea of what a mansion looks like, the way that for some people Trump is their idea of what a rich person is.
John: Yeah. I was going to use that same metaphor. Yeah, it’s very much that. It’s a weird obsession. An aspirational idea of like if I have this kind of house I will be happy. But, I don’t think those people are happy.
Craig: No. No.
John: And if you a Patreon subscriber to her blog, she sends you a link to a slide show that has abandoned McMansions, which is just an extra kind of thing. And so at first you’re like, well, how can you tell they’re abandoned. But then you actually start to look. The yards are completely overgrown and sometimes the windows are like busted out. And it’s just like, oh, it’s great and sad.
Craig: It’s a real mess.
John: So my other One Cool Thing has also been on my list for a while, so I’m just going to knock it out. It’s call Yoink. And I’ve managed to use it quite a lot while I’ve been here in Paris because I’m on a 13-inch MacBook for this whole year. And mostly it’s been good, but there have been times where I needed to drag files around and just do organizational stuff, which on a bigger screen is easy, but on a small screen, man, it just bites.
And so what Yoink is, it’s a little docky kind of thing that you just drag something over to the edge of the screen and it just holds on to it for you, so then you can navigate to the next thing you need to go to and just drag it back out. It’s so simple, but I use it like nine times a day for putting stuff together. Even for doing the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide. It was so helpful for just dragging stuff in and out and around.
So, Yoink. It’s a utility. You’ll love it. So, I’ll link in the show notes for that.
Craig: I purchased it. I purchased it and now I just have to remind myself to use it. Sometimes I get these very handy utilities and then I forget that they’re there and I keep doing my old stupid way of things. So, I’m going to do my best to Yoink it up.
My One Cool Thing this week is Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest. Can’t believe this hasn’t been one of my One Cool Things before. So Matt Gaffney is a fantastic crossword puzzle constructor. And he has this website – we’ll put a link in the show notes. It’s Xwordcontest.com. And what’s unique about his site, and what he does, there’s only one crossword puzzle a week. It comes out on Friday. But that crossword puzzle is not just a crossword puzzle. It’s a meta puzzle.
In every single one of his crossword puzzles there is a larger meta answer you have to pull out of it somehow. And then you send that in as your contest entry. And as the weeks go on, it gets harder. So there are two kinds of months. There’s the four-week month and then there’s the five-week month, depending on how the calendar is that year.
So, in a four-week month, you get to week four, it’s pretty tough. On a five week month, like for instance the one we are in right now, the fifth puzzle is generally brutal. David Kwong and I are big fans of this. We try and solve them together when we’re stumped. I’ll give you an example, for instance, of a recent one. The puzzle had running through the middle of it this big long answer that was subprime lending. Or subprime borrowing I think is what it was.
And the way to get to the meta answer was to look at all the prime numbers in the crossword puzzle on the grid and then – because it was subprime borrowing, go one letter below that. Take that letter, take all of those, and then unscramble them to get the ultimate answer. That’s the kind of brutality that Matt Gaffney visits upon everybody. Well, I love it.
This week, the entry – this was the first month he had done guest constructors. And this week, the fifth week, the guest constructors are myself and Mr. David Kwong. We have created a puzzle for Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest. And I think it’s going to stump quite a few people.
John: Very nice.
Craig: Yeah. Really happy about that. If you are interested in subscribing, it is a subscription-based service only. You get one month free as a little taster, and then you got to sign on. But it’s $26 for the year. It’s $0.50 a week for, I mean, I don’t want to tell Matt how much I would pay, but it’s 50 of the best cents I spend every single week. I absolutely love the work that he does. He’s a pretty brilliant guy.
So if you like crossword puzzles and you like brain teasers, this is for you.
John: Nice. Craig, I don’t think you know this, but because of you I have started doing the crossword puzzle every day. The New York Times. What? And so including David Kwong’s. This past week he did a New York Times crossword puzzle which was terrific.
Craig: Yes he did.
John: And I got it. And, yeah, so I quite enjoy it. So thank you for turning me on to the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Craig: And are you able to handle the Fridays and Saturdays?
John: I am most Fridays and Saturdays. There’s a couple times where it was like, you know what, I could spend an hour on this, more than an hour, and it’s not going to be rewarding, so I will reveal it. But here’s what I try to do. If I’m going to reveal, I reveal a word at a time so I can use that to help me get other stuff. So I can at least learn from it.
I don’t reveal the whole thing.
Craig: You will get really, really good. It’s just – I mean, I’ve been doing the New York Times now for, I don’t know, 20 years essentially. And you get really good. But it takes time. You pick up things along the way. Some of it is just picking up annoying words like Etui, and Esai, and R, and all that stuff. But some of it is just horse sense. You’re just like, oh, you’re not going for what I think you’re going for. You’re going for this instead.
John: Craig, is there a term for people who are famous only because they are useful in crossword puzzles? So, like Uma Thurman, Esai Morales, Enya, she shows up all the time. There’s a class of people who would seem much more famous than they actually are, but it’s just because their names fit well in crossword puzzles.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, there’s general crossword-ease, and then there are these crossword-ease people. There’s not a specific term for them, but it’s like Uma Thurman, she’s legitimately famous in her own right.
Craig: But I think in today, Friday’s New York Times crossword puzzle, spoiler alert, one of the answers is Anna Sui.
John: Oh yeah, and I did not know who that was, but she felt well in this thing.
Craig: Yeah. Anna Sui is basically only–
John: She’s a designer or perfumer?
Craig: Yes. She’s only famous because of crossword puzzles. Esai Morales, wherever he is ranked on IMDb Pro, he’s ranked number one for actors in crossword puzzles. And when you start to make them, you begin to understand why. When you build, so I’ve started making them now, and you realize that you get – you know, the basic concept is you lay down your answers that need to be there. Your theme answers. And then you start working around. And occasionally you get into a spot where you’re like the only thing that’s going to make this all work is if I can have an E-S-A-I here. So, it looks like Esai. Let’s get him in.
It’s just an incredibly useful name.
John: Yeah. I mean, if we can just make Godwin more famous, Godwin Itai Jabangwe, that Itai could be a useful crossword.
Craig: It would be huge.
Craig: To have Itai would be amazing. I-T-A-I. So, the most valuable words for constructors to make their lives easy are short words full of vowels.
John: Mr. Jabangwe, it will be very lucky to be used in crossword puzzles.
Craig: Oh my god, if he became famous, Itai would revolutionize crossword puzzle construction.
John: That is an immigrant success story. That is Hamilton for all right there.
Craig: That’s right. Immigrants. We get the job done.
John: The job done. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, send us a link at email@example.com. That’s also the place where you send the questions like the ones we answered today. We love it when people send in audio files, so just read your question aloud and attach it to your email. And that is helpful for everyone. Because otherwise Godwin may have to email you and ask you to do it, so just do it the first time.
We are also on Twitter. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. On Facebook, search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a review like the nice one we read aloud today.
Show notes for this episode and all episodes are at johnaugust.com. If you go to johnaugust.com/guide, you will get the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide which you can download. And in the store, store.johnaugust.com, you can get the USB drives.
The other way to get all the back episodes is at Scriptnotes.net. It is $2 a month for the whole back catalog. We’ve got transcripts. We’ve got everything else. So just visit johnaugust.com and see those there.
And, Craig, a fun episode.
Craig: Terrific episode, John. I’ll see you next week. Bye.
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USBs drives!
- McMansion Hell
- Zillow Threatens to Sue
- EFF responds to McMansion Hell lawsuit
- McMansion Hell wins
- Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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