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 332 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast, we’ll be discussing suspense, and how to use it in your script. We’ll also be answering listener questions on titling scripts, alternative sluglines, and creative paralysis.
John: But, Craig, first, Happy New Year.
Craig: Happy New Year to you, John. And, you know, while I was in fact making fun of how nasally you are in my introduction there, I am a little concerned because you do have a bit of a cold. I don’t want people to freak out.
John: I will be OK. So, I had a cold. The cold has passed. Dr. Craig has now diagnosed me with a sinus infection, which is what I suspect it will be. So, listeners might not be aware that I’ve actually been traveling for 17 days. I’ve spent the last 17 days in a hotel room with my family.
Craig: Oh god.
John: Which is very tight quarters. And I’m looking forward to be back in Los Angeles in my normal environment, but it has been lovely to spend so much time with my family.
Craig: Listen, I love spending time with the family, too. My family, we will be on the road ourselves next week for a little post-Christmas vacation, before they go back to school.
John: That’s nice.
Craig: But the whole one room thing, see, you have one kid, so the one room thing still makes sense. I have the two kids, a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old. No.
John: No, they’ve got to have their own room.
Craig: Now we’re either conjoining rooms or we’re Airbnbs, because you know what, honestly, they don’t want to be in a room with us and we definitely do not want to be in a room with them.
John: Yeah. I definitely understand that split and the necessity of that, although I grew up with – in my family we had a trailer originally, and then a motorhome, and so I spent a tremendous amount of time with just me, my parents, and my brother in a very, very small environments. And I think it was actually helpful. I certainly have learned to share space better because of that.
Craig: Well, you had probably a much nicer childhood than I did. When we did go on vacations, they were always – I was not on a plane until I was in college. Did you know that?
John: Yeah. I did not know that. Not a flyer before then.
Craig: Believe me, I wanted to. I was desperate to fly. Now, of course, I look back at those days and I think, oh, how sweet. All I want to do now is not get on planes. But, we would drive. So we would drive from Staten Island to Hershey, Pennsylvania, or we would take Amtrak. We took Amtrak to Disney World. I do not recommend this. But wherever we would go, or we would drive to Washington, DC. And then we would always be in one hotel room, with the two double beds, and I would get into bed with dad, and my sister Karen would get into bed with mom. And we’re still talking about this.
My mother had this thing about — there could be no motion in the bed, or she would get very, very angry. And Karen, of course, would occasionally have to turn over. You know? Or move. And then my mother would say, and we would all hear it, “Stop shaking the bed. You’re making me nauseous.” And to this day, anytime my sister and I happen to pass by a bed, a mattress, a bed store, it doesn’t matter, one of us will say, “Stop shaking the bed. You’re making me nauseous.”
John: Ugh, yeah.
Craig: Yeah, that was vacation.
John: Yeah, my problem is, of course, because of this nasal infection I am snoring a bit. And so I have my Breathe Right strips and I’m doing my best, but I do annoy my daughter with my snores.
Before we hit to the main topic, Craig, what is your next year going to be like? Because you have a whole TV show that you have to start shooting this year?
Craig: Yeah. It’s going to be gnarly. I was just looking at my travel schedule for late January into February, and the next leg of my journeys goes LA, Amsterdam, Vilnius, London, Vilnius, London, Los Angeles. That’s going to be fun.
So, for scouting, and casting, and all this other stuff. And then we start in earnest in April, so I’ll be out probably late March for rehearsals, read-throughs. And then I’ll be staying for a while as well for shooting. I don’t think I’m going to stay for the whole thing, but we’ll see. We’ll see how it goes. I don’t think I’m going to need to. It’s the pleasure of having, A, a director that I love, and B, one director for everything.
If you have different directors doing different episodes, as you know, the executive producer/show creator kind of needs to be there a lot because you’re supervising multiple directors doing multiple episodes. And it’s difficult. Dan and Dave, for instance, who do Game of Thrones, they have different directors doing their episodes. I mean, occasionally they’ll have one director doing multiples. But they’ve never had a season where one did all of them. That would be impossible. They’d never get the show done.
In fact, because of the amount of locations they have and the sort of parallel shooting they do, Dan and Dave I think oftentimes will split up. And one of them will be on one continent, like Iceland, I know that’s not a continent but it’s part of a continent. And the other one will be in another one in wherever they’re doing, I don’t know, Bravos. And in this way they get the show done.
I won’t have that issue because we’re not doing quite as many episodes. It’s not quite as absurd a size of production, of course. And we don’t have that insane multiplicity of locations. But, yeah, it’s going to be a trick. I’ve done a bunch of the LA to London trips where you go and you land and you start working for four days, and then you come back. And those are rough.
John: They are rough. Yeah, I did a lot of that for Big Fish this past year. So, my 2018 is very busy at the start. So my book Arlo Finch comes out the first week of February, and then I go on a two-week book tour. So I will be flying from LA to San Francisco, to Denver, to Dallas, to Chicago, to New York, to Philadelphia, to Detroit, and then I think I’m done after two weeks of that.
Craig: Weird. You seem to be missing the Deep South.
John: I have Dallas. Well, that’s not the Deep South. It’s south-ish.
Craig: No Atlanta?
John: There’s no Atlanta in this trip. I’m sure there will be some in the future. But I do have trips in January down to Tennessee. So, that counts.
Craig: That does in deed count. Well, that’s going to be quite the journey for you. I’m really interested to see, because we as screenwriters, we don’t really ever have to do these things – like for instance, friend-of-the-podcast, Mike Birbiglia, as a professional standup comedian, part of his life is the road. These tours. We don’t really do these things, but every now and then people like you, or Derek Haas, write novels, and you have to do the book tour.
And when you do the book tour, John, out of curiosity, does the publisher, do they kind of – how does this work economically?
John: Oh, the publishers pay for everything. So the publishers fly me places and there’s going to be a person who is there helping me through every day and getting me on the next plane. So that is – god bless them, because I would not be able to do that myself.
Craig: That’s amazing.
John: But my days will be very busy because I will be doing elementary school visits in the morning, and then I have live events most nights. And then in the morning I fly to a new place and start the whole process again. So, probably next week’s episode I’ll have all the details about all the live shows I’ll be doing. I know there will be ones in San Francisco and Denver and Chicago and New York. So, if you want to come out and see me, you’ll have your chance.
Craig: And speaking of the economics of it, what do I get for providing half of the promotional platform here to you? Is there bartering or money?
John: Craig, I am happy to sign you a copy of Arlo Finch. I’ve been signing a bunch. So, I’m happy to put my little John August on that.
Craig: Well, I always wanted your little John August on something. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Indeed. Indeed.
Craig: You know who piqued up when you said that, like in the background Sexy Craig just sort of lifted his head up a little bit. Like, hmmm?
John: Yeah, there’s Sexy Craig. Sexy Craig, you should keep it down for a little bit, because our first bit of follow up is two episodes ago we talked about the union response to sexual harassment and–
Craig: There goes Sexy Craig. He’s just running as fast as he can.
John: So I had said that the WGA, among the other unions, is coming out with plans and sort of first steps. One of the things I was referring to, but I didn’t actually have a link to it yet because it was not up on the site yet, is a really good new statement on sexual harassment on the WGA website that talks through this is what sexual harassment is, these are the things the WGA can do to get involved. It really talks through the Friends decision, which I hear people bringing up a lot because the Friends decision, to summarize, was this court case in which they found that a writer’s assistant was not able to sue for sexual harassment for a hostile work environment. This really goes into sort of what that means, but also why we shouldn’t take that Friends decision too broadly. There still can be sexual harassment in writer’s rooms as we have seen a lot this past year.
So, I will point everyone to that. That will be a link in the show notes.
Another thing that happened right at the very end of the year was a commission headed up by Kathleen Kennedy and Anita Hill has started gaining traction. I think we’re going to hear a lot about it in the New Year, which is meant to be industry-wide. So, it’s not just the Writers Guild or Directors Guild or the producers, but really the whole industry talking about what is going to be the response to the spectrum of sexual harassment and sexual assault claims we’ve seen this past year, and how to sort of best proceed. So, we’ll definitely be looking forward to that into 2018.
Craig: I think that’s all really good news. I was particularly pleased to see that on the Writers Guild statement they led off with the specific name and phone number of a person for people to call. I think sometimes the first and thus tallest barrier to help is just not knowing who to contact. So we do have an individual and it’s public record here. Her name is Latifah Salom – I’m not sure how you pronounce it – but she is with the Writers Guild of America West Legal Services Department. Obviously she’s not to be called if you’re not a member of the Writers Guild, but if you are and you are experiencing sexual harassment or you’re concerned about a situation in the workplace, that’s who you call. And then she can start to guide you through the process. So that was really great.
And I was also glad to see that the industry as a whole – I mean, listen, the industry is obviously going to do whatever it can to appear to be solving a problem. I will say, though, for anyone who is skeptical or god forbid cynical, sometimes when industries do things to create the appearance of solving a problem they mistakenly solve the problem. Now, I don’t think that this is a problem that can be obviously solved per se, but I do think that there is a real chance that some good codified change can occur as a result here. And when I say change, I mean the way that businesses implement their own policies, the way they handle people’s complaints, and also the way that they treat individuals who have violated the rules and violated other people’s rights.
John: Yeah. So, I’m eager to see what’s going to happen. These are very smart people involved in this and so we’ll hope that as we move into 2018 there will be some real clear plans for addressing things that have happened in the past, and making sure those situations don’t keep recurring.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Amen.
John: Amen. All right, let’s get to our feature marquee topic of this first episode of 2018 which is suspense.
John: Ooh, wait for it.
Craig: Wait for it.
John: So, suspense, actually the word itself is fascinating. So, it’s from a French word “suspendre,” which is pendre, which is to hang, and sus, above. So, to hang above. What a great image that is. It’s like something is dangling above you and you’re waiting for it to fall.
John: That is suspense. And that’s mostly what we’re talking about when we talk about suspense as a narrative device. It is that sense of there is something that is going to happen. You see it’s going to happen. And you are waiting for it. And attention builds because of that. I would define it in a very general sense, suspense is any technique that involves prolonged anticipation. There is a thing that is going to happen. You see it. And you are waiting for it to happen.
Craig: The waiting.
John: Waiting for it. You usually think about suspense in a bad way, like there’s a bomb ticking under the table. But suspense can also be a good thing. If you are waiting for a surprise party, there’s a good suspense, too. So it’s not just thrillers. It’s not just sort of the big action movies that have suspense. It’s a technique that we can use in all of our scripts. And so I thought we’d dig in on that today.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a great idea. I believe this topic was proposed by somebody on Twitter, so thank you for that. And it’s a very crafty thing, and I like talking about these. You know, a lot of times when we discuss writing, and I think a lot of times when we go through Three Page Challenges we’re looking for truth. We’re looking for verisimilitude. We’re talking about how as writers we can create these moments, these people, their words and their actions that ring true to us.
This is not that.
Craig: In general life does not have suspense at all. This is a very artificial thing. It’s as artificial in my mind as a montage, which simply does not exist in life. And yet we find it incredibly gratifying when we experience it. And because it is this technique, a craft, it’s good for us to talk I think about how the nuts and bolts of it actually work, because it’s one of the few times as writers we get to be mathematicians. And I like that.
John: I think it’s also important to focus on this as a writing technique, because so often you see like Hitchcock is a master of suspense, and you think about it as being a director’s tool, and it’s absolutely true that the way a director is choosing to frame shots, to edit a sequence, to build out the world of the film or the TV show, there’s a lot of craft and technique that is a director’s focus in building suspense.
But, none of it would be there unless the writer had planned for that sequence to be suspenseful and really laid out the structure that’s going to create a sequence that is suspenseful. And suspense, I should point out, really is generally a sequence kind of technique. Within a scene maybe there will be some suspense, but generally it’s a course of a couple of scenes together that build a rising sense of suspense. And so that’s going to happen on the page. So, let’s dig into how you might do it.
Craig: Great. Well, I guess to start with, I divide suspense roughly into two categories. Suspense of the unknown, and suspense of the known. Because they’re very different kinds of suspense. When I think about suspense of the unknown, I think about information that is being withheld either from the audience or from a character. Do you know what I mean by those distinctions?
John: I think I do. So, the unknown is like we are curious. We’re leaning in to see what is going to happen. Or in some cases, we have more information than the character who we’re watching has. So, we know there’s something dangerous in that room, and so we’re yelling at the screen like don’t go in that room.
John: But the other broad category you’re leaving out there is suspense of the known. Because of the nature of the genre, because of the nature of the kind of story that you’re setting up, we kind of know where it’s going to go. We just don’t know how we’re going to get there. We don’t know what the actual mechanics are. And that is what has us leaning in, has us curious. It’s a question we want answered. And I think almost all cases of suspense, there is that question that we want to see answered.
Craig: Exactly. And I think suspense of the known is far more common and it’s also applicable across every genre – comedy, romance, everything. So, but we tend to think when we hear suspense, at least initially, we think of that Hitchcockian mode which is more of the suspense of the unknown. Or it’s a kind of a whodunit suspense. The key for me when you look inside, OK, for instance there is information that you the writer, and by the way, let me just take a step back for a second. You’re so right in saying that this is something that is important for writers to understand.
We think suspense like we think all technical aspects of cinema, like for instance montage, is from the director. And I argue, as I often do, that that is not true. It’s not that it’s not from them, it’s that it’s from us. The writer must lay out the montage so that it has a purpose, that it has a beginning and an end, that it makes sense for the characters. It’s there for a reason. You don’t just haphazardly decide one day on set, “I think, you know what, let’s have a montage.” It doesn’t work that way.
It is intentional. And it is from the script. Similarly, we must plan our suspense. Otherwise, there’s no opportunity for it. How the director creates it visually, we can even put some clues ourselves into the script. But, yes, certainly directors have an enormous role to play in that. So let’s talk a little bit about that situation where there is information that you the writer have, the director has, but the audience doesn’t have. And also the characters don’t have.
John: Absolutely. So, the most classic example of this is the whodunit, where the character is trying to figure out who killed the person who is the villain in this situation. There’s a fundamental thing which you as the writer know and the audience and the lead character does not know. So, in order to build that suspense you’re probably laying out some clues that will help that person get closer. You will have some misdirects. You’ll have some sort of near misses. You are trying to lead the character and the audience on a path that will take them towards it, but a really fascinating path that will take them towards the answer with a lot of frustrations and delays that are ultimately gratifying.
I mean, the best kind of suspense are kind of like beautiful agony. It’s that moment of delayed gratification and so when you finally get there, ah-ha, it’s there. Other cases, you know, the suspense might be you’re trying to get away from that thing and will you get away from that villain. In those situations, you as the audience might have more information about how close the other person is than the character is.
Craig: Yeah. There’s also another classic kind of suspense of the unknown is what I’ll call for lack of a better phrase Mystery of Circumstance. For instance, Lost, or I don’t know if you ever saw that old show from the ‘60s, The Prisoner.
Craig: Which Lost is basically riffing on.
John: Yeah. What is the nature of this world? What the hell is going on? And you’re waiting for that.
Craig: Exactly. And so now everyone is confused and you’re confused, and you’re confused with them. But they’re making discoveries and episodic television has this wonderful tool of suspense which is show’s over, what will happen next week. That’s the cliffhanger. That is literal – I mean, when you talk about cliffhangers, that is literal suspense. I am suspended over a chasm.
But figuratively these sorts of moments of suspense are happening all the time and all of it is creating this ache to understand because what suspense is playing on is a human fact. And the human fact is that we naturally seek to make sense of and order the world around us. So suspense is playing with that natural desire that every human – babies have it.
So, this is something that’s going right to this primal need that the audience has.
Then on the other hand, we have the other kind of suspense, which I think is more common, and very useful even if it’s not always thought of as suspense, which is suspense of the known.
John: So these are situations where because of the nature of the genre, because of the kind of story that you’re telling, we have a sense of where things are going. We just don’t know how. We don’t know what the path is that is going to leave them there. And we are looking for clues that will get us to that conclusion.
I don’t know if you’ve seen Call Me By Your Name yet, but you start watching Call Me By Your Name and you have a good sense of some of the things that are going to happen, but you just have no idea how you’re going to get those things to connect. And that is the thrill of the movie is watching those things happen.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it? I mean, you’d think that the point of suspense is not knowing. And yet when we sit down and someone says, “Oh, here’s a movie from 1998. It stars Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez. And they bump into each other on the street. And he’s getting married and she’s the wedding planner for the marriage. And you’re like, “Well, I know how that ends.” And you do.
You know exactly how it ends. In fact, you know roughly how the whole movie is going to go, don’t you? Yes. And yet if you sit down and watch it, you will begin to feel great suspense. And this kind of suspense to me is really anticipation more than suspense. It’s a slightly different feeling. It’s the feeling from the old ketchup commercials. Well the ketchup is going to come out of the bottle. Don’t know when. Don’t know how. Is it going to come out in a big blob? Right?
So, this is like watching somebody continually pulling a slingshot back. You know they’re going to let it go, but when? When? And you start to need it. You start to need it.
So, even though we know inside of these movies, like for instance friend-of-the-podcast Tess Morris’s Man Up. Is she going to get him in time? Is he going to get to her in time? Is she going to believe him? Is he going to believe her? Of course. Of course. But how? And will they? And is it going to go the way that we think?
This all creates this enormous suspense. And all of it really, I think you hit upon it earlier in a beautiful way, is kind of sweetly torturing the audience. That’s the point.
John: Yes. And so I will say that even the examples of the rom-coms where we as the audience know, OK, they’re going to eventually connect at the end. We can see what the template basically is that’s going to take us to that place, within those beats there will be moments in which we as the audience have more information than the characters do. And that is part of the joy. Within sequences we might know something about the other guy that she doesn’t know yet, and that is important.
So, or we know that there’s a secret that’s going to come out and we’re wondering when will that secret come out. So it’s not just one kind of suspense. There’s going to be little moments of suspense during the whole time. And even in action sequences, you know, will he get past that part of the cliff before the boulder falls? There’s always going to be little small moments of suspense within the bigger moments of suspense.
Craig: Correct. And this kind of suspense fuels genres that we don’t necessarily think of as suspenseful, but definitely are, and in fact require suspense. For instance, comedies of error. A comedy of errors is entirely based on suspense. Someone overhears something, misinterprets it, and then what ensues is a comedy that really is about us going, “Oh my god, would you just ask him the right question? Would you just say what you want to say and then it will all…do it, do it, do it.” And then they finally do it. Every episode of Three’s Company was a suspenseful episode in its own way.
John: Absolutely. So let’s take a look at some of the techniques a writer uses in order build suspense both on a scene or a sequence level, but also on a more macro level for the entire course of the story. The thing I think we’re talking about sort of fundamentally is delay. And in most of these cases the ball could drop immediately. The bomb under the table could just go off. But suspense is the ticking. Suspense is delaying the bomb going off, or having some other obstacle get in the way that is keeping the thing from happening, which you know is going to have to happen next.
So, those two characters finally meeting. The explosion finally happening. The asteroid blowing up. There’s going to be something that has to happen and you’re delaying that and you’re finding good reasons to delay that that are reasonable for the course of the story that you’re telling, but also provide a jolt of energy for the narrative and for the audience.
Craig: That’s right. And in order to create delay, we have to do things purposefully. We have to use our story and find circumstances to frustrate the characters. And we have to use our craft to obstruct. And there are different ways of doing this. The most common way and perhaps the easiest way, but oftentimes the least satisfying way, is coincidence. Coincidence is used all the time to frustrate and obstruct people. Instead of walking into the room and seeing somebody do something, they do it, walk out just as you’re walking in, and you just miss seeing them do it. And the audience goes, “Oooh.” Well, that’s coincidence.
There’s a classic axiom, “You’re allowed to use coincidence to get your characters into trouble or make things harder for them. You’re not allowed to use it to make things easier for them.” And that’s true. But, when we’re creating suspense and we’re trying to delay things, the less you can use coincidence the better. Because no matter how you employ coincidence, the audience will always subconsciously understand you moved pieces on the chessboard in order to achieve an effect. It didn’t happen sort of naturally, or for reasons that were human or understandable. And therefore we’re just a little less excited by the outcome.
John: Absolutely. If we’re talking about two events, if it’s A and then B, if A causes B we’re generally going to be happier. If we can see that there is a causal relationship between those two things, we’re going to be happier. But coincidence, I agree, can be really, really helpful. And the coincidences that get in the way of your character achieving the thing he wants, that’s great. And it’s always nice when the bad guy catches a lucky break, because that’s just great. And so we’re used to having our hero suddenly have this big stroke of luck. So having the hero not get that stroke, or having the villain who you despise just really be lucky, or start to tumble but then save himself, that’s great. It’s surprising. And so it’s not what we expect. It’s going to be a helpful kind of way to keep that suspense going. To keep the sequence running along.
Craig: Yeah. And if you can subvert your coincidences, all the better. For instance, there’s a famous and wonderful moment in Die Hard where our hero coincidentally catches the bad guy. He just catches him. He doesn’t know he’s the bad guy, but he catches him. And we’re like, oh my god, the coincidence of that just made life so much easier for our hero. And then the bad guy pretends, in a way that is very surprising and shocking to us, to not be the bad guy at all, but to be a hostage. And our hero believes him. And now a terrible suspense is created because now we don’t know what will happen. We know he’s going to use – the bad guy is going to use this to his benefit. And we know that our hero is now in terrible danger. We know it. The hero doesn’t know it. Oh, suspense of the unknown. Wonderful.
So in that case, you’re actually taking coincidence and using it in your favor in a way that isn’t even coincidental. So I love that sort of thing.
John: Over the course of Die Hard, which is a suspenseful movie from the core, you have this moment of intense micro suspense. Because we know at some point the gig is going to be up and Bruce Willis is going to recognize what’s really going on. But will it be in time?
There can even be moments within just really small second by second suspense, does he still have a bullet left in his gun?
John: That is a question. A question that you don’t know, he doesn’t know. What is the choice going to be? And as long as you can sort of juggle all of those things, you are going to make a much tighter, stronger sequence.
Craig: As a writer you are looking for opportunities. You are looking for targets in which to create suspense. All the time, in every genre, again every single genre, don’t think of suspense only as when will the bomb go off or who shot Mrs. McGillicuddy. And when you find those opportunities, it’s really important for you to use them. Exploit them. Because they’re little gifts.
When you have a moment of suspense, for instance, the hero doesn’t know that he’s even caught the villain. He thinks the villain is a victim. Wonderful. Use it. And inside of that, now you have free rein to just torture the audience. Do not be afraid to torture the audience. Be afraid of not torturing them. This is where you want to tease them. You want to tantalize them. You want to almost have the hero figure it out and then take it away from the hero. You want to drive them crazy. This is sort of the closest thing writers have to sexual interaction with an audience. Sorry Sexy Craig. I’m going to be unsexy about this.
But it is a bizarre flirtatious sweet kind of torture. All of which is designed to delay release. It is a bit like saying I’m going to give you an itch and I am not going to scratch it. I almost scratched it. Almost did. Oh, you thought I scratched it but I didn’t. Until you finally do it. And in this way something that is as expected an outcome as “itch is scratched” becomes remarkably satisfying. It is a release. And in that sense it is a catharsis.
John: It is a catharsis. And so I think it’s also important to keep in mind we talk about the victory lap, and we talk about sort of the success at the end of that. When you finally do let that person have their success, make sure you give them enough of a scene to celebrate that success. Because there’s nothing more frustrating to me when I see a movie where a character finally does it and then it immediately cuts away to the next thing. Let them actually enjoy it for a moment, because we as the audience need that moment of release as well. We need that moment of celebration, like OK, we finally got to that thing.
You know, throughout this whole sequence, maybe we’ve seen that door in the distance, or we’re running into it and we get there and it just shuts. And the thing we’ve been going to that whole time is no longer an option. Aliens is a movie of tremendous success, where there’s always a plan, and the plan is always getting frustrated. And it finally gives us those moments at the very, very end where like, OK, we’re safe, everything is down, and we can sort of go off “safely into the distance.”
So, make sure that in those teases and all the misdirects, the red herrings, everything you’re doing to set that up, make sure that by the time you get them through that sequence you do get that moment of release.
Craig: And to guide you on this journey, dear writer, is your best tool – your empathy with the audience. Suspense really needs to be a function of your empathy with an audience. You already know the movie. You’ve seen it. You know everything. Now put yourself in their shoes. Do it over and over and over. Weirdly they’re the most important character in your movie, even though they’re not in the movie. You’re thinking about them all the time. And it is especially important to think about the audience when we are talking about these – let’s call them artifices. Because that’s what these kinds of craft works are.
If you do, then you’ll know, OK, in the moment where you finally do the reveal and you release the tension and the ketchup comes out of the bottle, well again, put yourself in their shoes and ask what do I want here? And, of course, what you want to do is just wallow in the joy of it. Just let them wallow.
John: So let’s wrap this up by talking about what does this actually look like on the page. Because we say like, OK, obviously film and TV directors are responsible for a lot of the visuals we’re seeing on screen, but the choice of what we’re overall going to be seeing there is the writer’s choice. And so let’s look at what those techniques look like on the page, because so much of successful suspense really is the scene description. Like those are the words that are going to give you the feeling of what it’s going to feel like when you see it visually.
And so it’s cross-cutting. We’re with this character, and then we cross-cut to the other person who is getting close. It’s finding honestly the adverbs and the short-clipped sentences that gives us a sense of like how close they are to each other. Or like he’s almost at the door. But then, no, it slams shut.
These are the cases where you may want to break out that sort of heavy artillery of the underlines, the boldfaced words, the exclamation points. Maybe even double exclamation points when it really is a stopper. So that we as the reader get a real sense of what it’s going to feel like to be the audience in the seat watching that up on the screen.
And that’s also why I’m so conservative with using those big guns when I don’t need them in action and writing. Because when you really do need them they need to be fresh. You can’t – you got to have some dry powder for when you really need to sell those big moments. Like, hey, pay attention to this thing because this is what it’s going to feel like.
Craig: 100%. And I also think the great weapon in our arsenal when we are creating suspense on the page, and you’re absolutely right, it has to be done with action, well, if suspense is delay, and suspense is waiting, delay and waiting for us in terms of text and page is white space.
Craig: When I am about to – when I want people to feel as if it’s an agonizing wait, I use a lot of white space. Burn it up. Because that’s what it tells you.
Sometimes I’ll do three, four, five things in a row. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Boom. It’s amazing how cinematic that can be when 99% of the script is just line, line, line, line, line, you know, double space, line, line, line, line.
So white space becomes essentially your timeline. It’s your way of expanding that moment to agony and it’s not something that you can get away with more than I think once in a script. And you may not need to do it at all. But if you do have that moment where it’s the big reveal, burn up some space. And let people feel it on the page.
John: 100% agree. All right, so that is a look at suspense. Thank you whatever Twitter writer wrote in and said, “Hey, let’s talk about suspense,” because that’s a good topic. Thank you.
Craig: Oh, you know what? It wasn’t a Twitter. I know who it was.
John: Tell me.
Craig: It was Katie Dippold.
John: Oh, Katie Dippold is the best.
Craig: Yeah, it was Katie Dippold. It wasn’t some random Twitter person. Katie Dippold, great screenwriter, has been on our podcast before. Wrote The Heat and wrote Ghostbusters and many other things.
John: Katie Dippold, you’re the best.
Craig: She is.
John: You’re my favorite writer of 2018 as we’re recording this podcast.
Craig: Is she your favorite writer from Freehold, New Jersey?
John: I’m going to say yes. I’m going to boldly say yes, unless that’s you. You’re also from Freehold?
John: Well, she’s my favorite female writer from Freehold, New Jersey.
Craig: Fair enough. I’ll take it.
John: All right. Let’s go to a question from St. Paul. Deborah writes, “Almost four years ago I registered a short screenplay with the WGA. I recently finished a full length version of the same script. I tried hard to think of a different title for the longer script, but the title I used for the short version fits it best. I was just about to register the longer script with the WGA when I realized I probably can’t register two scripts with the same title, or can I? The registration of the short version expires this coming April. I could wait to register the longer version until then, but I’d like to get the full length version sent out to competitions now.
“To complicate matters, the short script placed well in a few competitions, and that might cause confusion. Is it simply a bad idea to have two versions of a script with the same title?”
So, I left this question whole because there’s so much to sort of pick apart here that I thought we’d just talk through all of it.
Craig: Yeah, well, I mean, they’re all understandable questions, Deborah, but they all stem from some false premises. So let us go into those false premises. First of all, the title is not an issue. Believe it or not, other people are also writing scripts with the same title you’re using. I mean, unless it’s a truly bizarre title. But, you know, let’s just come up with a random title here. Early Dawn. That’s the title. I’m going to write a script called Early Dawn.
There’s 400 other Early Dawns registered. Doesn’t matter. None of that matters. The process of title claiming comes down to the MPAA, the Motion Picture Association of America. All the studios register with their title database and it really is just a trade organization in which the big companies have agreed to not step on each other’s titles. It is a not a question of copyright. I don’t even think you can copyright a title.
John: You can’t. You can trademark things in very limited circumstances.
Craig: So trademarking really is about saying this has a recognizable value in a marketplace. But as a title, you know, I read a great book. Scott Frank said, hey, you should read this book. It’s called The Power of the Dog. But this one, not this one. There are two different Powers of the Dog. And both of those novels take their title from a Rudyard Kipling poem called “The Power of the Dog.” So, yeah, that’s not an issue whatsoever. Nor do I think it’s going to be an issue that a competition is going to be confused. I don’t think they really work that way. There’s millions of things coming in and out. Again, I assume they’ve dealt with multiple titles within one round of submissions. They’re just going by date and name. Title, date, name. That’s enough of a fingerprint. I don’t think it’s a problem to have two versions of a script with the same title at all, personally. I think you’re just trying to get your stuff read at this point.
And, lastly, and most importantly, I don’t really think registering with the WGA makes any sense at all.
John: I agree with you. And as a WGA board member, the WGA registration process frustrates me greatly. And I don’t have the energy to go after it as a larger thing, but it is essentially a service that you send in your script, they seal it in an envelope and they put it on a shelf. And it can prove that you actually had turned something in at that date. But it does not really mean anything beyond that point.
So, copyright is a real protection. WGA registration is not the same as copyright. You automatically have copyright when you write stuff. Don’t worry about WGA registration at all, Deborah. It is not meaningful at all.
I will say in terms of short scripts and longer scripts that have the same title, having worked for many years at the Sundance Film Institute, so many of those projects started as short films that were shot and now they’re longer films. They have the same title. It doesn’t matter. And so if you have the right title, use the right title. And really I would say to everybody, if you have a great title, use that title, unless it’s like also Star Wars. Don’t title your thing Star Wars.
John: But beyond that, like if you have a great title, celebrate your great title. Use your great title. Do not worry about whether you’ve used it before. It just does not matter.
Craig: Correct. And for those of you who are concerned about copyright and protection, I understand. I’m not, but if you are, much, much better idea to register with the United States Copyright Office. You can do it online. It’s a little bit more expensive than the Writers Guild, but on the other hand it actually does provide legal protection in certain cases, or at least legal options that the Writers Guild does not and cannot. Because only the US Copyright Office can do that. So, check that out.
We have a question from Winston in Los Angeles. He says, “I’m a 28-year-old aspiring TV writer living in LA and I’ve been experiencing writer’s block for the past few months.” Oh-oh, all right, hang on, Winston. We’ll help.
“Though I’ve yet to staff on a show or sell a pilot, I’ve been signed to a reputable agent for the better part of a year and I’ve written several pilots that have gotten me a handful of meetings with executives. However, my material has yet to find a home and it seems that some of the main reasons why is because it’s either too culturally specific, racially, or would be too expensive to make. Period pieces.
“I’ve now gotten to a point where I either don’t know what to write, or I’m too scared to write what I want to write for fear that I will produce something that my agent will not like, or not think is viable. This has given me a tremendous amount of anxiety and I feel both paralyzed by fear and creatively lost. Is there any advice you can give me on how to recover?”
Oof. John, we got to help this guy.
John: Winston, we’ve all been there. So, here’s what I’ll say about where I think your situation is in general and some advice about what you should be writing next. It sounds like you want to staff on a TV show. It sounds like you are a person who is writing these pilots with the hope that people will read these pilots and say, “This is a good writer. I will hire them on my TV show to be a staff writer on my TV show.” I take that as your general plan and goal, and I think that’s a good plan and a good goal.
So, you say that you’re worried your stuff is too culturally specific racially, or too expensive to make, I don’t think that really matters that much based on the kinds of things you’re trying to do. You are writing these really basically samples to show. This is how well I can write. I am a writer you should meet with and therefore staff me on your TV show.
Yes, it would be fantastic if someone were to read your pilot and say, “You know what? This is so good. We want to make this. We want to find another producer to partner you up with and make that.” But that doesn’t seem like the first priority. The priority should be how does Winston get staffed. And I think the next step for Winston getting staffed is to write something else that is just great and groundbreaking that really shows who you are as a writer and what you would be able to bring into the room if they were to hire you to work on their show.
So, I don’t know if you are a candidate who would be great for making the room more diverse. Based on what you said, it sounds like maybe you are the writer who they could be looking to to bring a different voice. So write something that is that different voice and write the thing we say so much on the show, but write the thing you wish existed in the world. That TV show that, wow, you would watch every episode the minute it launched because that is the show that you want to see on the air. That’s the thing that’s going to get you excited to write again. It’s probably going to be the thing that gets them excited to staff you on a TV show.
Craig: Yeah, Winston, I really, really feel for you here because you are experiencing a feeling that I agree with John every writer has felt, and yet I think you’re probably experiencing it in a far more complicated and pernicious way because of the circumstances involved.
I have a gay friend who is a writer and he’s written some things that were gay themed. Some movies that were gay themed. And at some point he sort of ran into the, you know, we don’t want to do these and maybe don’t do another gay themed thing. And what starts to happen is you start to think, wait, A, why, and B, I write what I write, and C, what if in six months people just sort of wake up and say, yeah, we want to make those kinds of movies and that’s weird. Am I now succumbing to some sort of internalized homophobia? Are they right? Is this all I can write? Can I not write non-gay themed?
And you begin to drown in your self-doubt and your questions because what’s happening is, as you put it, you are beginning to doubt your own basic instincts. That is a terrible feeling. Anyone, Winston, would immediately begin to feel terrible anxiety and fear, and of course, you’re paralyzed. And of course you’re creatively lost. So let’s start there.
Your writer’s block makes total sense. You are responding to this the way every human pretty much would and should. So, the good news is therefore there is a pathway out here. And I think the first thing to do is look at the work you’ve done so far and give yourself permission and thanks for having written it, whether other people want to make it or not.
The making of it, not important. And the did they hire me for it or not, not important. Don’t question the value of what you’ve done to this point. Don’t question the instincts that led you to it. They were perfect and wonderful. They’re you. OK?
That doesn’t ever equate to “and now you will become rich.” That’s not the way the world works. But you did what you wanted to do the best you could do it. Great. So stop there first of all and thank yourself for that. Now, ask yourself going forward, “Is there something else that I’m interested in doing, honestly, just as honestly as I did those things, that would show another avenue for me, not to please the masters of Hollywood, but rather to get me work, so that I can show them all the other things I can do?” And if there is, as John said, pursue that. If there isn’t, that’s OK, too. Then you write what you write. The world is full of people who do a certain thing. And a lot of people have told them we don’t want it, until they do.
So, you kind of – I guess what I’m saying is, Winston, you’ve got to be you. You have no other choice. The anxiety and the fear you’re feeling right now isn’t really writer’s block. It’s a disconnection from yourself. You just don’t know if you can be the person they want you to be and I’m here to tell you you can’t. You can only be who you can be. So the only question to ask yourself Winston is, “Is there more to me than this?” And if there isn’t, that’s OK. And if there is, go for it.
John: Yeah. A general thing I would talk about in terms of the writer’s block that you’re feeling, I follow a lot of artists on Instagram. And some of the artists were people who have helped me out on One Hit Kill, this game I did a couple years ago. They’re really great artists and what I find so fascinating is I’ll watch them practice. Basically every day they sit down and they just do some work. And they try sketching some different things. They’re not only doing the work that they’re being paid to do, they’re doing the work that lets them develop themselves and the things that are interesting to them. And that may be what Winston needs to do as we come into the start of 2018 is to write some different stuff, to write some little sketchy kind of things. Just sit down and get back into the joy of actually writing for a bit. And not be so stressed out about writing that next thing that’s going to get him to the next step.
Write something that you actually just enjoy writing. And you don’t even have to finish it. Just get back into what it is that you like about writing. And that may be the thing that helps you discover what Craig is saying is what is that other thing that I could do that I just haven’t done yet.
Craig: Yeah. It’s scary. Right? I mean, I think sometimes we – I think Dennis Palumbo talked about this on our famous Episode 99 that a lot of times writer’s block is a thing we experience as this latency period before we up our game. And it may be that there’s a comfort level to writing the things you feel you can write. OK, well, I wrote these things. They got me an agent. I will now cling to those like a little life preserver in this scary ocean of Hollywood because that’s what worked so far.
But at some point what’s worked so far isn’t really going to get you where you need to go. All that’s going to do is, well, what it has done for you so far. There may be some scary creative move to make. And it may require you to take a couple steps back in your self-confidence. OK, well I’m not a master of this genre. I’m going to be scared for a little bit. But here’s the beautiful part of writing: no one will see it until you want them to. So, be bold. Be bold.
John: The one last bit of advice I’ll give to Winston is you had some meetings with people, with producers, or other folks who were not your agent. How did those go? And did you feel good about them? Are there things you think you could do better? Because that might be a skill you need to practice on, too. How do you present yourself in the room? Because it’s entirely possible that the stuff you wrote was great, but just for whatever reason it wasn’t connecting between what they read and who they saw in that room. And if you can make that connection work better, maybe you’ll get staffed on the next thing.
Craig: Yeah. That’s great.
John: Last question comes from John in Jackson, Wyoming. He says, “I was looking at the script for Mother! in Weekend Read and downloaded Noah and noticed Darren Aronofsky does not seem to use traditional sluglines. I like it. It flows better as I read. But is that something only he gets away with?”
Craig: Yes, other people have tried and they were summarily executed.
John: Yeah, he’s the last one.
Craig: Yeah, the Writers Guild does every Friday, everybody shows up. We gather at Third and Fairfax and begin shooting writers in the head for not using sluglines. [laughs] It’s bloody, but we all feel better when it’s over because, of course, the orthodoxy must be enforced. Unless you’re Darren Aronofsky, and then no.
John: Yeah. So only he can get away with that. So, technique you’re describing is – if you actually keep reading a bunch of scripts you’ll see that it’s not that uncommon. I would say maybe one out of 100 screenwriters is doing something kind of like that where it’s just kind of a flow of text and there will be things that sort of look slugline-ish, but aren’t really scene headers. And it just basically works.
I’m sure we’ve talked about this on a previous episode, but at some point Darren Aronofsky’s line producer and First AD is going through and adding scene numbers to what that stuff is because fundamentally they are scenes, but it just reads like one continuous flow across the page. It’s fine.
Craig: Yeah, it’s totally fine. If you are someone who is going through some scripts and you pick one up, first of all context matters. So, let’s say I’m a judge in the Austin Screenwriting Competition. So that’s open to anybody who pays the fee. I pick up a script, I open it up, there are no sluglines. Because of the context, in my mind I start thinking, oh, this person has never seen a screenplay before.
And that can be an issue. Of course, if page one is brilliant, not so much. If I get a script and it’s got a cover from WME, all right, well, this person is represented. I open it up. There are no sluglines. Oh, look at who’s fancy.
Craig: That’s what I’ll think. That’s the context. Oh, look at fancy you.
But either way, if page one is good, and page two is good, and page three is good, the rest of it is forgotten because what happens – no matter what you do is you begin to watch the movie in your head. And unless something has changed dramatically in the past day or so, I have never seen INT. HOUSE. DAY flash on the screen of a movie. So, no, no problems here. Everybody – and I’ll also say, John, from Jackson, Wyoming, if you love writing that way, if you find it easier and more pleasurable and you feel more creative, oh for god’s sake, do it.
John: I say do it. The first time I ever read a script that was written that way was Terry Hayes wrote a script for Planet of the Apes. So, Oliver Stone was going to do Planet of the Apes. And I was working for the producers who were going to do it with him. And so Terry Hayes sent in the script and it did not have slug lines. And I was like, whoa, this is crazy. But really three or four pages in you just totally roll with it and it was great.
I should say that script was nuts. And the Oliver Stone Planet of the Apes movie would have been just nuts. And I sort of kind of wished I lived in a timeline where he actually made that move because, wow, it was a hell of a movie.
Craig: The Oliver Stone movie of Blank is just nuts. I think Scott Silver has some kind of funky alternative version of this sort of thing, too.
John: Oh yeah. I’ve seen his scripts, too.
Craig: Listen, this is not super uncommon. And, yeah, you know, sometimes, like I said, when you do see a script from a somewhat established writer you may think initially, oh, how precious. You need to be a poet as you write your screenplay. But, you know, again, to be completely forgiving about it, it really does come down to is this a good movie or not.
John: There was a Gus Van Sant script I read 20 years ago that was – it had different fonts. And like for different scenes it would have different fonts that were sort of meant to capture the style. Yeah, I get that as an experiment, but that was just a step too far for me. You’re not going to be able to film the font. It’s not going to really work for you. So, I’m happy to stay in my 12-point Courier Prime and not try different fonts for it.
Craig: Yeah, again, you know, maybe Gus thought, well, it’s going to be easier for me to write it this way. And so that’s fine. It’s essentially they’re all little crutches that we use to make it through the miserable day of writing. But I’m with you, I’m a pretty simple guy. I don’t really think of formatting as helping me do anything. And therefore I don’t think of it as hurting me in any way. It just is. So I just default to the usual. But then again, look, there are things that as we know these absurd charlatans say like don’t say “we see” and blah. I’ll do whatever I want.
John: I will point out that the INT/EXT, it feels so weird when you first start reading scripts, and then it becomes like he said/she said when you’re reading prose fiction, where like you stop reading those. And so the fact that Aronofsky and some other writers just don’t use them at all, I think part of that is because no one sees EXT/INT anymore anyway. So, maybe they’re just making choices that we will actually read those words that we would otherwise skip past.
Craig: Well, that’s right. They’re deleting the things that we tend to skim, right? They’re just removing the skim barriers. So, yeah, I have no problem with it. Be free, you wonderful people. Be free.
John: Be free. I will say John was talking about Weekend Read, and Megan, our producer, she’s also the person who puts up all those For Your Consideration scripts into Weekend Read. And she’s been working her ass off getting those up there. So there’s at least 20, maybe 30 scripts from this year’s Oscar bait movies that are there. So, if you are on iOS, download Weekend Read. It’s free in the app store and you can download all those scripts that the studios have sent out for your consideration. And they are free to put in Weekend Read.
Craig: You people with your apps.
John: With all our apps. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is an app as well. It is called Flipflop Solitaire. It is by Zach Gage. He’s the guy who also did Really Bad Chess, which was a great game. The Solitaire game is super addictive and I’ve been playing it a lot because it works on planes. There’s no Internet connection required. It’s just a delightful version of Solitaire where you’re allowed to build up and down simultaneously.
John: And he does really ingenious things with using the haptic feedback on the phone, so as you move parts around you get that nice little clicky feeling. It is designed to maximize your obsession and addiction. Really, really well done. So, it’s a free download. Just try it. It’s really a great little game.
Craig: And downloaded.
Craig: Wonderful. Excellent. Another thing to waste time on.
OK, you sitting down everyone? I hope you are. Because my One Cool Thing is a podcast.
Craig: I mean, wow. [laughs]
John: I know how this all started, so I know why you’re listening to this podcast.
Craig: It’s not, look, yeah, it’s not like I went, you know what, it’s time to listen to podcasts now. Let’s do some research and see, oh, my favorite podcast. No, of course not.
No, what happened was John and I are friendly with Julia Turner, who is the editor-in-chief of Slate, and she happened to mention to us that they have this new podcast called Slow Burn. And for the life of me it sounded interesting and I was like, oh, OK. I’ll listen to one episode. Well, it’s wonderful. And so far I think there are only four episodes out.
Let me tell you from my non-podcast listening point of view why I loved it. So, I assume most of you don’t listen to podcasts, even though you’re listening to this one.
John: Yeah, you’re only reading the transcripts of this show.
Craig: Yeah, like I don’t really think any of you actually listen to podcasts, but the episodes are about 25 minutes, which is perfect. You just do it in a short drive. So the host, and I assume the author of all of it, is a fellow named Leon Neyfakh, and what Slow Burn is about is Watergate. Oh god, no. Well, here’s the thing, it’s not the Watergate story that we all know that has been told by All the President’s Men, or currently now The Post.
The way he comes at it is a kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern angle where he picks out these individuals that have sort of been lost to time and they’ve been removed from the general narrative of things, but who are actually very important and very critical inside of the story of how Watergate came to be. And he talks about who they were and what happened with them. And it is fascinating because you start to see, well, honestly how nothing has changed. And it’s remarkable.
And very well done. So, if you do want to listen a podcast, and I don’t know why, maybe check out Slow Burn with Leon Neyfakh.
John: Yeah. I think it’s terrific as well. And what is so interesting about the choice they’re making on how they’re telling the story is it’s really like what it looked like up close while you were in that time period. Because we have the benefit of looking back decades to see like, “Oh, this is the overall broad shape of the story.” But while they were in the middle of it, they didn’t know where it was going. And so they were all just like what’s happening. And it feels very much like where we’re at right now in modern society. What is happening? This is crazy. And so the parallels are really natural. And they don’t overdraw them, but like you can’t help but see like, “Oh, this is the press trying to cover this situation. This is the crazy person who is out trying to defend the president in these situations.”
So, it’s really, really well done. Good interviews. A very good mix between the scripted portions and the tape. Just really well done. I also recommend Slow Burn.
If you are a Slate Plus member like I am, there are also bonus episodes that sort of go deeper into some of the interviews which have been great, too.
Craig: Yeah, weirdly I’m not a Slate Plus member.
John: No, because you listen to one podcast.
Craig: Yeah. Pretty much.
John: If you were a Slate Plus member, you’d be able to listen to our friend Julia Turner on Slate Culture Gabfest every week, which is phenomenal, and you get the Slate Plus bonus segments. So, I highly recommend paying for media so that media can continue to do the great work that they’re doing.
Craig: Yeah, I’m sure you do. I’m sure you do want people to pay.
John: I want people to pay. You will pay.
That is our show. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell and is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Travis Newton. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you send questions like the ones we answered today. If you have ideas for topics we should talk about, also write in there for that, or hit us up on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, leave us a review, because that helps other people find the show.
The show notes for this episode and all episodes are at johnaugust.com. That’s where you’ll find a link to the WGA policy on sexual harassment and other stuff we talked about today. Transcripts go up within the week, so if you are a person who would rather read Craig Mazin than listen to him, or my horrible nasal sound, I apologize for everybody, that is the place where you can do that. I hope to be back next week with my nose completely drained and clear and be able to talk like a functional being.
John: Also, all the back episodes, including Episode 99 that we referred to today, those are at Scriptnotes.net, or you can buy the USB drive that has the first 300 episodes of the show. 300 episodes.
John: At store.johnaugust.com.
Craig: What are we going to do when we get to Episode 500? What do you think?
John: I mean, who knows what the technology will be then. There will be some sort of holographic disc thing.
Craig: Oh, that’s a good idea.
John: But let’s plan this now. So we had a big party for our 100th episode. I think our 500th episode deserves a big blowout party.
Craig: Huge party. Like a huge party.
John: Huge party. So if you have a place that could host a huge party that would be great.
Craig: Yeah, for 500. Beautiful.
John: For 500. All right, thanks.
Craig: Thanks John.
John: Have a great week.
Craig: You too.
- The WGA’s page regarding sexual harassment
- The Wedding Planner, Die Hard, Three’s Company, Man Up, and the old ketchup commercials are great examples of suspense
- Thanks to Katie Dippold, who pitched the idea for this episode
- Weekend Read has many of this season’s awards scripts posted for your reading pleasure
- Flipflop Solitaire by Zach Gage, who also made Really Bad Chess
- Slate’s podcast, Slow Burn
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Travis Newton (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.