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 385 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’ll be talking about the plans your characters make and how to share them with the reader. Plus we’ll discuss rule-breakers, the techniques that absolutely no traditional screenwriting program will teach you but how they could elevate and invigorate your script.
But first, some reminders. Craig, we have a live show coming up.
Craig: Yes we do. In Seattle, the great city of Seattle and the great state of Washington. I’m very excited about this one. We’re going to be there February 6th at 7pm. John is going to fill you in on all these extra details. But what I’m really excited about is that we have one special guest, a very dear friend of mine, Emily Zulauf, who is a former development executive at Pixar. You may have heard of Pixar. They’re a small animation company.
John: Little upstart thing. They’re trying to use computer animation. We’ll see if it works.
Craig: And their deal is they at least claim to be good at story, so I suppose she might know something or another. And it’s going to be good. She’s a wonderful person. So I’m very excited to have Emily there. And you guys should – Seattle people come out and see us. Don’t leave us hanging. We’ve got a link. I guess it will be in the show notes. Is that right?
John: Yeah. The link will be in the show notes. So tickets we now know are $20 or $10 if you’re a member of the Northwest Screenwriters Guild, which apparently exists.
John: Or The Film School. So, $20 or $10, but come see us. It is at the AMC Theater Pacific Place 11, I guess. We’re going to show up there and we’re going to have a great time. I’m going to be way deep into an Arlo Finch book tour. Craig is flying up just for the evening. It will be a really fun time.
John: It’ll be sort of an intersectionality of Arlo Finch and Scriptnotes and Seattle. It should be a good time.
Craig: The Film School is the name of a film school.
Craig: TheFilmSchool. All one word.
John: All one word.
Craig: All right. So, don’t think if you are at a film school–
John: Any film school–
Craig: You’re paying $20 if you’re at a film school.
John: But if you’re at The Film School.
John: Definite articles. Indefinite articles.
Craig: Hugely important.
John: Not every language has the distinction between them.
Craig: Interesting. Interesting. I love the distinction between those two things. And I will also say having been to Seattle many times, everything costs $20. Everything.
John: Oh, totally. Absolutely.
Craig: Looking at a fish costs $20. Just standing in that market, looking at a fish, $20.
John: Yeah. Pike Place Market, so expensive just to your eyes, everywhere they look.
Craig: Everywhere you look. $20. So you guys can afford it. Yeah. I love that place.
John: Craig, we need some photos of you catching some fish at the Pike Place Market, because otherwise people won’t believe you’re actually in Seattle.
Craig: I don’t think they let you catch the fish. The deal is you buy the fish and then they throw it to each other. Because otherwise, let’s face, there’s going to be fish everywhere. Have you seen the Gum Wall, John?
John: Oh, I’ve seen the Gum Wall. I have good photos of the Gum Wall.
Craig: I love the Gum Wall. I love it. Anyway, Seattle, one of my favorite places, so please buy some tickets. Come see us. We’re incredibly entertaining in person. You can’t even imagine how much fun we are. Like beyond.
John: We have to cut so much out of the episodes just because it would be too much joy.
Craig: Too much cheering.
John: Yeah. So, that’s February 6, but then on February 9 I will be back in Los Angeles for the Arlo Finch launch party. It’s at Chevalier’s, the bookstore on Larchmont. That’s 12:30 in the afternoon on February 9. So come see me there. I will be signing copies of Arlo Finch. It’s as simple as it can be. You come in, you buy your book, I sign it for you, I talk a little bit, I answer some questions. I think I’m going to have special cool little patches to hand out, so come see me if you want to on February 9.
But if you can’t make it on February 9, preorder the book because, good lord, I would love to hit the charts.
Craig: Wouldn’t that be nice?
John: That’s sort of how you hit the charts on a second book is by people buying it the first week.
Craig: They pre-buy, they load up.
John: They load up.
Craig: Don’t just do it for the patch, people.
John: Do it for – because you know if it does happen to cross over that threshold and show up on the bestsellers list you will know that you were the reason why it did.
Craig: You were the straw.
John: You were the straw that broke the–
Craig: Finch’s back.
John: Yeah. Something. We have a brand new feature that we are rolling out, so not in this episode but we have to prepare for it. This is a new idea that we’re going to try out. It’s called the Pitch Session. And way back in Episode 274 we had Eric Voss who I guess he pitched to you like two years ago at the Austin Film Festival. You thought it was great. You had him record the pitch and so we played it and we discussed it. And we’re going to try to do that again, but opening it up to all of our listeners.
What we’re looking for is a 60 to 90 second pitch. It can be for a TV show. It can be for a feature. But it’s 60 to 90 seconds that sort of sells the idea and you are going to send in an audio recording. We’re going to listen to the recording and put a couple of them up and then discuss them afterwards. So it’s a chance to kind of do what we do on the Three Page Challenge but with audio pitches.
Craig: Pitches. I love it. I think it’s going to be fun. I do this at Austin. I judge the big finals. I mean, I’m just blown away. People show up to this thing every year. It’s amazing. It’s in this big bar. They pack the place. Pack it.
Craig: The thing about it that blows my mind is people are so respectful of the people that are pitching because you know how hard it is to get a roomful of people to just listen. Well, this place will quiet down and listen really well to every single pitch. I think there’s like 20 of them. So, it’s been fun to that and, yeah, I think it’s educational because like it or not sometimes pitches happen.
John: Yeah. So, I would say that the pitch form that we’re looking for, the 60 to 90 second pitch, that’s not the kind of thing that you’re usually going into sit down and really pitch to an executive. But it is the kind of casual thing that you would be doing at a party. It’s a little bit longer than an elevator pitch, but it’s that short distillation of the idea.
And so really we’re going to be responding to does this feel like a movie or a TV show idea. And did we get enough out of this that we can actually see what it is you’re describing that you’re going to be trying to write. So, that’s what we’re looking for. So if you have an idea like this that you want to try to pitch at us the URL you want is johnaugust.com/pitch. And there’s a whole little form you fill out. You click buttons that say that you’re submitting this of your own freewill. That you’re not going to try to sue us. And that this is all–
Craig: Don’t sue us.
John: This is not a contest. This is not a competition. This is just for the learns. So, depending on how it goes we might do it again. If it goes poorly we may deny this ever happened.
Craig: Correct. We erase it from the record.
John: Yep. Speaking of erasing things from the record–
Craig: Segue Man.
John: We have more follow up. So this is Brooke in Los Angeles and Craig can you read what Brooke wrote to us?
Craig: Yes, so we recently had I guess a rerun of our Raiders episode, which is one of my favorites. Here’s what Brooke wrote. “I do have two questions about your episode on Raiders of the Lost Ark. I share your enthusiasm for the movie. It’s one of my favorites. That said, now that I’ve read the screenplay my feelings are decidedly more mixed. I always assumed Marion was being hyperbolic when she angrily accused Indiana Jones of taking advantage of her when she was ‘just a child.’ I hope Karen Allen will forgive me when I say that through my younger eyes I thought she was older than the script reveals she is supposed to be, 26. Doing the math, it turns out Lucas, Kasdan, and Spielberg intended Indy to have sex with her when she was 16 and to be completely blasé about that when confronted with her justified outrage.
“Now at first I was inclined to chalk it up to the times were different. But then on your recommendation I listened to the recorded conversations of Lucas, Kasdan, and Spielberg. And I heard Lucas arguing in favor of making Marion younger, as young as 11 when Indy was to have had sex with her. He thought making her 11 would be it ‘more interesting’ than if she were 16 or 17. Frankly, I was shocked and disgusted. And then confused.
“Here are my questions. One, when you’re creating a character that’s supposed to be a hero, albeit flawed, why would you ever want to so far as to make him a pedophile as Lucas was advocating? Can you please help me understand why these renowned creators thought that audiences would accept that kind of character? Two, why didn’t you address this issue in your podcast? You too are so wonderfully outspoken regarding things you support and don’t. Why didn’t this make the cut?”
Oh boy. You know what, John, just answer this with a yes or a no.
John: [laughs] Oh yeah. Simple yes/no. I’ll answer question two first because it’s the simplest answer. I didn’t know any of that backstory. And so while I had seen parts of the interview and I’d watched the movie a bunch of times I had no idea that there was this issue of how old Marion was, how old she would have been 10 years ago. It never occurred to me and I hadn’t seen that discussion from the transcripts or from the recording from before.
Craig: When I read this question it jogged a memory, like oh yeah, I think I remember reading that. But I had read that thing a long time ago. So, when we did the podcast it was not at all on my internal memory radar.
John: Yeah. So, as to the first question there, I think it’s absurd – I’m horrified. I think it’s bizarre and weird to have a conversation in which the protagonist had sex with a person who was 11 years old. That’s just bizarre and horrifying and I can’t even fathom sort of how that happens. So I can’t answer that in any meaningful way.
What I will say is that I can imagine scenarios, this isn’t apparently how this all happened, but I can imagine scenarios in which you sort of accidentally end up at that place where you didn’t do the math right. And so they knew each other this time and you cast somebody who was a certain age which would have meant they knew each other at a certain time. That is a thing you probably could find in a lot of other movies. When you actually do the math you’re like, wait, that means that she was negative four years old. That happens.
But that doesn’t seem like it would happen here. It sounds like they actually had a conversation where it’s like, oh, she could have been 11. And that is just wrong. And there’s other movies where these problematic things happen. Animal House being an example where that is not cool what happens in Animal House. And in looking at the movies you have to acknowledge that this is a thing which is problematic about the movie.
Craig: Yeah. Obviously Brooke is correct to say that the times were different is a thing. It doesn’t mean that we have to accept anything now about it. But things do require some context of course. I think in this case the one thing I would push back on Brooke is when you say, “Can you help me understand why these three renowned creators thought that audiences would accept that kind of character?” From what I’m reading from your question, because I haven’t actually reviewed that transcript again, so I’m just taking it off of your recollection here, it does seem like Kasdan and Spielberg were not at all in favor of Marion being 11 and in fact advocated that she be 16 or 17, which even now we would consider to be too young but not necessarily in the zone of 11 which is horrifying.
So, really the question is what the hell was Lucas thinking. And the answer is I have no idea. The only thing I can guess is that he was such a total dork that he thought in his mind that that maybe was – I have no idea.
John: I don’t know either and I don’t want to sort of get into places where I’m speculating on his mindset.
John: Or what he was actually saying or that we’re actually understanding him properly here. The larger conversation I think we can have is when you dig back into how things came to be I think you need to be mindful that there’s the movie that finally was made and then there’s the process that led to the movie. And some of the process that led to the movie will have a bunch of false steps and blind alleys and things that were not reflected in the final work.
And so it’s fair to look at sort of where stuff come from and the history of stuff, but in looking at the history of stuff how much influence should that have on your perception of the final work. And that’s an artistic question that is fair to ask, but I think it’s also fair to – if you choose to not dig back into that history I think you’re allowed to not dig back into the history and look at the finished work as well. And not having seen the script to know that she was supposed to be 26 years old and this time factor, you can forgive a person for not doing that math or sort of exploring that.
Craig: Yeah. You’re completely right that the important thing is the choices that were made. Not the choices that were not made. I think that Brooke brings up a reasonable point that the suggestion here is so bizarre as to be disconcerting on its own. And this isn’t a comedy where, I mean, you know, when Todd Phillips and I sat in a room together and just riffed on ideas for the Hangover movies it was – terrible things were said. The point is those movies were transgressive. And of course the point being that you then make choices that you think will work, not choices that won’t or that are going to make people disgusted.
In this case that’s not that – I don’t get it and it’s not good at all. [laughs] I don’t like it.
John: But, so you think back to you and Todd Phillips had sort of your writers’ room of two people to talk through doing the Hangover movies. Every TV show has a writers’ room where they’re discussing how to make the show. And a lot of what they’re discussing is things that do not become the final show. And so–
Craig: 100 percent.
John: All those discussions are not – they’re not reflected in what the final thing was, but they probably had some horrible, terrible ideas or plans for like, you know, ultimately it’s going to be revealed that this was the connection and that wasn’t the thing. So that’s not canon. Like the stuff that happens in the writers’ room isn’t canon.
Craig: No, it’s not.
John: You want to be able to separate those things.
Craig: Absolutely. And I guess the only difference here is that if he’s saying that it’s cooler – I am – I hope that he was just maybe tripping on acid that day or something, because that’s just a crazy thing to say. So, I can’t explain it, Brooke. I can’t explain it. But, clearly by the time the movie was made all three of those guys were seeing Marion as the person that Karen Allen is.
John: Who is more of a peer to Harrison Ford’s character.
Craig: She’s a grown woman. And her age difference with Harrison Ford I don’t think was extraordinary at all. So, clearly cooler heads prevailed. Thank god.
John: So, while we’re talking about Indiana Jones, last week on the Slate Culture Gabfest David Plotz was talking about watching Raiders of the Lost Ark with his young kids and he said he found it really problematic racially. That there was a lot of sort of – you look at all of the non-white characters in the film and they are portrayed horribly. And that was not a thing I saw at all when I went back and watched it for this episode a couple of years ago. But I can totally see that. I can totally imagine that watching through it with that in your head you would recognize that like, oh, yeah, it is just a bunch of white people doing stuff and everyone who is not the white person in the movie does not fare well in it. And I think that’s a fair criticism to look at the actual finished work because you’re not looking back at the original intent of things.
Craig: Sure. I mean, at some point I – if we go way far back, every single movie – every single movie – will be problematic because society, it was in our lens of today problematic. Thoroughly. Top to bottom.
John: Yeah. Thoroughly.
Craig: I mean, so what’s the point of the exercise? Yes, the answer is yes. It’s all problematic.
John: Yes. And so I don’t want to sort of go back and remake Raiders of the Lost Ark to take care of that thing. But I think it’s worth noticing that about the movie so that if we’re trying to make a film in that spirit now to be mindful like, oh you know what, we can’t do that thing.
John: If we’re making that movie in 2019 you can’t do that thing. And especially as we go into this era where we’re remaking everything there has to be a thought early on in the process is like, OK, just because we love this thing let’s also be aware of the things that just we cannot be doing in 2019 and beyond.
Craig: You know, maybe this is naïve but I feel like that conversation now is happening consistently across every single project in Hollywood. Am I naïve? Or do you think that it is?
John: You are not naïve. I would say it’s not every single project, but I would say most studio projects at an early stage are being mindful of that. And you and I both worked on some high profile ones where, yes, those conversations happened early on and frequently.
Craig: Yes. Which is good. And so the path of this stuff has been a somewhat promising one. Delayed, sure. Too long? Yes. But it is I think maybe a little easy to tee up some of these older movies and go, “Look, it doesn’t match our enlightened view of now.” Because that’s–
John: Most movies before a certain age are going to have really, really problematic things. What I like about Brooke’s question is she was bringing up a specific thing from the script and from the conversations about stuff and thank you Brooke for writing in about it.
Craig: No question. And really specific answer to you Brooke about question number one. No, you would never want to go so far as to do that. I hate saying blanket things. If your character is a pedophile then we’re not going to like him ever. Period. The end.
John: Nope. Don’t do it.
That would be breaking a rule, wouldn’t it Craig?
Craig: Segue Man.
John: This is Craig’s topic. So, Craig, hit us off with these rule-breakers.
Craig: So I’m working on this script where because of the tone of what the project is it’s very carefree and wild. And lately it seems to me that culture is starting to get a little more comfortable with acknowledging that culture exists, not necessarily dipping into the meta because not everything needs to be meta. But as we write screenplays there’s a formality that we may not necessarily need all the time. And in fact breaking some of these stuffy rules can kind of help bring your script to life and convey your intentions in fun ways if it’s done well. If it’s done for a purpose.
John: So, Craig, are we talking about the stuff that a writer would do physically on the page or things that movies would do or both?
Craig: I’m talking really about the page. This is a super writey topic. I’m not really here to talk in a big way about margins and fonts and stuff like that, although we will get into that a little bit. I guess I want to start with freeing yourself however you want, because we know that, OK, you have been taught at home by your school, or a book, or a “guru”, or the Internet, or people on Reddit that there is a format; you must follow the format; if you don’t follow the format you will be ejected into space. And I’m here to tell you that that’s only true if your script is bad.
If your script is good and it starts being free it can actually be exciting to read. If you are a reader, you are reading the same kind of thing over and over and over and over and over. It must be fun, I would imagine, to suddenly get something that’s wild and great. So, for instance, let’s start with the easiest one: breaking the fourth wall. Talking to the reader in description. If it’s cutesy and annoying, it’s bad. But if you want to have some fun, if you want to play around with their expectations, if you want to say you thought it was this didn’t you, no. You can do these things if it’s that kind of tone that allows it.
Similarly, I think, you can use any page as you want. I believe that you could put one single word on a page if it was a great word and if it required that. I think that would be awesome.
John: All right. So let’s talk about situations where you might want to do these things. What I like about both of these suggestions is they really are about the writing and they’re about sort of what the experience is of reading the script and how the experience of reading the script is meant to match or mimic at least the experience of watching the scene happen on a big screen in front of you.
So, in breaking the fourth wall if you’re writing Deadpool, which is constantly breaking the fourth wall, having that sort of chit-chattiness in there could be good. The Shane Black scripts are notorious for having a lot of chit-chat in them, or talking to you. That can work and that can be fine. If it works right for the tone that’s fantastic.
The thing about having a single word on a page that might be exactly the right choice if you’re making A Quiet Place. If you’re making something that actually is all about how disorienting the experience is, great. If you’re making a fast-paced thriller, a single word on a page might not be the right choice.
Craig: That’s right. It’s a little bit of what poets do at times. And sometimes people interestingly that write books for children will be incredibly inventive with the page and the way words are laid out. Sometimes in our scripts we need to depict disorientation or madness or the voice of an all-powerful being. Well, you could just put it in 12-point Courier. Or not. You know? You have some choices. You aren’t locked into this very dry format that was created in the, what, ‘40s?
I mean, we live in a bit of a freer time. Set yourself free a little bit.
John: Yeah. So the quick history of screenplays is that they were originally just a shot list basically. They morphed into what we kind of think as the modern screenplay is around the Casablanca time where it’s not just a series of camera shots. It really has a better feel for what the movie actually is like. But they were all typed. And so the reason they were 12-point Courier is because they were all typed at a certain point. No one is typing them anymore.
We still use 12-point Courier because it is – Courier Prime if you’re fancy – we use Courier because – because it’s standard it sort of takes away distraction. And we sort of know what it’s like. We have sense of how much time it’s going to take because we’re used to it. But if you are doing something where you have a voice of god or something that is intruding and bold isn’t getting it there or italics isn’t getting it there, there could be a case to be made for using a different font for certain things.
I remember early on as I was doing lyrics in scripts I would put them in Verdana italic, partly so the lines wouldn’t break, but also so it would feel different because they were singing. In Courier Prime we added the special italics that look really cool and different largely for lyrics so you really can see that like, oh, this is a different feel. It kind of feels like it’s singing.
So, it is fine to mix it up somewhat. I remember reading a Gus Van Sant script maybe for My Own Private Idaho, or something else, where it was in a bunch of different fonts and colors. And it was annoying. I did not find it a joyful experience. But that’s not to say that you couldn’t make something great and joyful that way.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. And listen one person’s excitement is another person’s annoyance. But I think that there is something that translates beyond the script if you do this in a way that is effective. By freeing yourself of the rigid formatting rules here and there you’re also allowing your mind to kind of be a little freer about what could possibly happen in this movie.
So, Pulp Fiction works like a regular movie. Yes, it plays around with time and all that, but other movies have played around with time. It’s basically a regular movie. Until at one point when Uma Thurman says, “Don’t be a…” and then she makes, well, weirdly a rectangle, not a square on screen. And a square appears on screen. Which is bizarre. But if I read that in a script and her dialogue said, “Don’t be a…” And then there was just a picture of a square. I’d be like, what the – ooh. This is somebody who is not necessarily bound by limitations. They’re thinking kind of wildly. The other thing that I am really enjoying doing is lying.
Because we have this thing where when we’re writing scripts our action description is telling you what you see on screen. But so much of what we try and do when we’re shooting is misdirect. It’s magic tricks. We are essentially visually lying to you and then revealing something else. There’s this – may I read a short paragraph from my favorite book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?
John: Go for it.
Craig: “The side of his head hit the wheel twice and the end of what appeared to be a long cane clattered round and knocked over a little camp stool. It looked as though after wrenching that thing from somebody assure he had lost his balance in the effort. The thin smoke had blown away and we were clear of the snag and looking ahead I could see that in another 100 yards or so I would be free to sheer off, away from the bank, but my feet felt so very warm and wet that I had to look down. The man had rolled on his back and stared straight at me. Both his hands clutched that cane. It was the shaft of a spear that either thrown or lunged through the opening had caught him in the side just below the ribs.”
So, we have this wonderful impressionistic lying, because our eyes lie to us, and people lie to us. And in experiences somebody gets stabbed through the chest with a spear and what we see is a guy is holding a cane. And what is in fact a man bleeding to death we just feel warm wet on our feet. That’s wonderful.
You can lie to people in description. You can say this is what happened. And then somebody says something and then you can say in description, oh wait, no, it’s this. And that is an effective rule-breaking way to actually relay what is a very common and completely accepted cinematic technique.
John: Absolutely. So what you’re describing though is the case of is a movie supposed reality, like what you see is exactly what it is, or is it a subjective reality. And the nature of your script may lend itself to you don’t quite know. The movie Memento is full of that. You’re not quite sure how much to trust your narrator. And so the kinds of things you’re seeing in the script description would make sense for that, because you just don’t know how much to trust the narrator and therefore the script that you’re reading in terms of what’s really going on here.
So, again, the right kind of script that makes sense. And it’s a question we’ve answered before on the podcast about like should you reveal who somebody is in the script if they’re not going to be able to see who that person is in the movie?
John: I always think like remember that you are the person in the theater watching this. And so what is your experience watching this? If it is ambiguous to you, you can use that ambiguity on the page as long as it doesn’t feel like you’re cheating in a bad way. If you’re cheating in a good way like this description from Heart of Darkness, go for it.
Craig: Yeah. Will this help the people making the movie deliver what you want them to deliver? Simple as that.
John: So here is a complicated thing I did – this is way back on the first Charlie’s Angels. And so it was a sequence we didn’t end up shooting the way I wanted us to shoot. But here was the idea. So, in the final sort of castle fight Lucy Liu’s character is on one side of a gate and the Thin Man is on the other side of the gate and they are running in opposite directions. And we basically split screen and we see them running in opposite directions trying to get to each other. And so it’s done in sort of real time simultaneous. You’re trying to figure out where they are. And they will punch each other through openings in this castle wall as they’re doing it.
And it was really fun to do. But to try to do that normally on the page really wouldn’t have made sense, because it really wasn’t meant to be split-screened. So what I did is at the bottom page I said, “Now turn your script counterclockwise,” and I had two parallel blocks of text running on the next two pages that were talking through what was happening. And so these are the simultaneous actions.
It was really fun. It was really cool to read. It was really fun to write because just like you have dual dialogue and there can be reasons why dual dialogue is so effective, this was really a cool way to do it. It was torturous for the line producers. And I think they didn’t like it. But it really gave you the experience of why this was going to be a cool moment that you hadn’t seen before. And ultimately when they did get back together and they were both in the same frame it was exciting.
That’s the kind of thing that I think if you were to do that in a spec script people would notice. And if they were digging your script and they got to that it would pop out to them as like this person has an interesting idea and a cinematic eye for what is interesting and possible.
Craig: Totally. I love that. And you know what else? It immediately informs me that you care. You cared enough to say, you know what, I have a better way of doing this. And I don’t mind talking to you because I’m confident that my way is awesome. And that confidence is something that I think frankly helps people buy into your work.
John: Yeah. So, to wrap this up I would say an important thing to understand about rule-breaking is you can’t break rules if you don’t understand rules to begin with. And so I think having an understanding of what the screenplay format is is essential because otherwise you could just generate chaos that isn’t doing the basic jobs of what a screenplay needs to do.
But once you understand how screenplays basically work then to break the rules or bend the rules or do things that are unexpected can be great. It can be sort of provocative and make people lean in and be excited to see what you’re going to do next. Is that a fair assessment from you, Craig?
Craig: It absolutely is. The only caution I would put out there to our listeners: if you are a reader at a company, please do not email us complaining that you already get thousands of screenplays that are poorly formatted or the people that write them think they’re so damn clever and are doing all this crazy stuff. Because I don’t care about those people. They’re bad writers anyway. The format is irrelevant. They’re bad. You weren’t going to buy their script. You’re not not recommending this script because the formatting was weird. You’re not recommending it because it stank. So, just – I don’t care about that complaint. Keep that complaint to yourself. It is boring to me.
John: Yeah. And all the rule-breaking in the world will not help you if your writing is not fantastic.
John: So the writing is still always paramount. We should ask our friend Kevin who is a reader how much of this he sees. How much he sees people doing clever, innovative things on the page.
Craig: You know what? We should have Kevin on the show.
John: I’ve asked Kevin and he said no.
Craig: Oh really? Interesting. Maybe because – well, first of all Kevin is not his real name. [laughs] His real name is–
Craig: Thaddeus. Because he is a working reader and perhaps that would violate some sort of thing.
John: Yeah. Maybe it would. So my topic for the week is planning. And I actually had this idea two weeks ago because I had a lunch with Ben Wittes who runs this great blog called Lawfare, which is all about federal policy and state security and does a lot of stuff about the Trump Administration and sort of the Russia stuff.
And I asked him a question and basically I wanted to know of all the people involved in this whole Russia mess who there do you think actually has a plan, actually sort of knows what’s going on and has a plan for what’s going to happen next. And how many of those people are just scrambling and just going one thing to the next thing to the next thing. And he said that he believed that almost everybody was scrambling.
John: Because nobody sort of knows enough to actually make a good plan. And so that same week I was also writing the third Arlo Finch and in the third Arlo Finch it starts with the characters having this plan. And I had to sort of reveal to the reader kind of what the plan was, but it got me thinking well how do you reveal the plan and how much plan does the reader really need to know. And how much can you hold back which is more exciting for the reader. So I thought we’d talk about characters and plans and motivation and how you share them with the reader.
Craig: Yeah. I would imagine that the first question you have to ask is is my character a planner or not, because there are some characters that their hallmark is that they move through the day in a kind of bizarre fashion. The Big Lebowski has no plan. Ever. And that’s part of why that character works. But if they do have a plan, then yeah, you need to figure out how much people need to know and specifically if it’s helpful to conceal part of the plan from them.
John: Yep. Absolutely. Sometimes you want to kind of pre-answer some questions that are naturally going to come up like why is this character doing this. What is their aim? What are they actually going after? Sometimes you need to just take away the questions. And so a script I just turned in I didn’t need a big plan for this thing, I just needed to know – the character would say, “No, I can get you in the club because my uncle is the manager.” That’s all I needed to know. I didn’t have to hear the whole plan or how we’re going to get there or what the whole set was going to be. As long as I knew you could get through the door and that everybody would believe they could get through the door that was enough. And the surprises that could come up because people didn’t really know the whole rest of the plan, that was fun.
So, it’s recognizing the minimum that an audience needs to know about the plan going forward. And by plan I don’t necessarily mean like here’s how we’re going to do the heist. It often is just the character says like, “We’ll be in Denver in two hours.” It’s like, OK, as long as I know a destination that’s great. Or, “Finals are next week.” Ok, great, you set a time and so I know that finals are a thing that’s out there. It’s kind of setting a framework for what’s going to happen in the next little bit of your story.
Craig: And it’s hopefully telling us a little bit about this character’s method of interacting with the world. Some people are incredibly cautious. Prudent. Methodical. Planning can become an interesting aspect of your personality. Over-planning is an aspect of a certain kind of personality, just as under-planning is. Sometimes your plans frustrate people. What you really want to avoid are situations where your character comes up with a plan. The plan is flawed. People point out the flaws. And the character says, “Don’t worry about it. It will be fine.” And then it kind of is. You think, well, was it just that you needed the character to do that and then you realized it was a flawed plan so you had somebody say it to take the curse off of it but you didn’t actually – it makes that character into an idiot. And we do not like that at all.
John: Yeah. The other crucial thing about showing the plan is so that the plan can go wrong. So if we as a reader, we as an audience don’t understand what they were trying to do, or sort of what the steps were they were attempting to do then when things go amiss we won’t know that they’re going amiss. And so if we don’t know the basic requirements of what they have to do to get into this facility then we won’t know that something has gone wrong. We won’t know what they’re waiting for. So by showing the overall plan, the overall goal, we can frustrate them and a lot of plotting is frustrating your hero’s plans.
Craig: Yeah. One of the best planning sequences ever is in Ocean’s 11, the 1990s version of Ocean’s 11, written by Ted Griffin. And it’s so wonderful because like most heist movies you get a chance to actually just stop and literally say, OK, here is the plan. I will announce the plan. I will take you step by step through the plan. And as Brad Pitt and George Clooney relay this plan step by step part of the way they tell it is to say every single thing we’re telling you we’re going to do there doesn’t seem to be a way to do it. And they keep listing one problem after another that makes this entire thing impossible.
And that is fascinating because everybody still agrees to do it. And when that happens you realize, OK, these people are a little crazy. They’re not like you and me. They kind of like the challenge of the impossible. And also they trust these two guys. They suspect that these two guys already do have the answers, they’re just not letting on yet. And that creates a wonderful expectation in us.
So, Ted managed to set up these beautiful obstacles. He created this lovely magic trick prelude. And then left us sitting in the seats going, well, OK, I know what their plan – how would I do the plan? I don’t see how this plan will ever work. Great. That’s exactly what you want to do with a spelled-out plan.
John: Agreed. So Craig, I’m curious about Chernobyl. Because Chernobyl obviously the overall plan would be for things not to go horribly wrong and for nuclear waste not to be spilling out every place. But I suspect throughout your story we are seeing characters like trying to deal with the situation. And we’re hearing what they’re trying to do. And seeing those things not work properly. Is that a fair assessment? Did I spoil too much about Chernobyl?
Craig: Well, clearly some things go wrong. That’s not a spoiler. There are levels of plans in a story like Chernobyl. There are the plans of what was supposed to happen on the night of the accident which clearly wasn’t an accident. That was not part of the plan at all. And that’s an interesting plan because you get to explain where a plan went wrong. And you get to show how people made certain assumptions or bad decisions that started to poke holes in this plan and make it fall apart.
But the other thing that happens quite a bit with a story like Chernobyl, and I think this is very common to any kind of telling of a historical disaster, is that no matter what you do to try and fix it after it happens there are unintended consequences. And that’s always fascinating to watch characters be confronted with the truth that there is no perfect plan. That the only way ahead is to create a plan that not very well might but certainly will backfire on you at some point. And then you’re going to have to deal with that problem and there’s no way out of it.
John: Yep. I mean, my movie Go was all about plans, simple plans, that go very, very awry. And sort of scrambling to fix the plan that went awry. But if we didn’t understand what the original plan was there would be no movie. So Ronna is going to try to pull off this very tiny drug deal and small things keep going wrong and keep going wrong and she has to scramble to keep ahead of it. And the sort of theme of the movie is that you can’t stop and really think about it. You just have to keep plowing forward. Everyone has to just go and move forward.
Same with the guys in Vegas. It’s just going to be a fun weekend in Vegas until one character just goes too far and the idea of how to get out of Vegas just keeps going wrong.
So, none of those storylines work though if we don’t understand what the characters want, what the characters are trying to achieve, and if they haven’t articulated a basic idea of what they’re going to try to do next. It goes back to sort of trust and confidence. Do we believe that the characters actually have a notion of what they’re going to try to do next? And that the characters around them would sign off on that plan?
Craig: That’s exactly right. And if you’re working on a story right now and you’re listening to this and you’re thinking, oh no, my characters don’t have a plan, I assure you they do. When there isn’t the presence of a clear identified plan usually the plan is better described as routine.
Craig: So, very typical film noir story is woman shows up at a private detective’s office and says, “I think my husband has been cheating on me. Can you find out?” So the detective engages in his routine. That’s the deal. It’s not a plan. It’s your job. You stake the place out. You take the picture. You go inside. You check the thing. Except, oh, he’s dead.
So, your routine is disrupted. And now you are thrown off of your normal plan and you have to come up with a new plan on the fly. So don’t be afraid. You don’t necessarily need to start off with somebody going, “We’re going to A, B, C, D, and E.” Your story may just be one of a disrupted routine.
John: Yeah. So a great example of a disrupted routine would be Roma from this year. So your central character has no big plans. She’s not a classic protagonist who is like I’m going to achieve this thing. She’s just trying to keep normal life together and she can’t. And so she’s having to react to the stuff that’s happening around her. But the degree to which she has a plan is to keep things together. And you see her reacting to try to do that.
Compare that with Can You Ever Forgive Me? And so Melissa McCarthy’s character has to make a plan and so she sort of stumbles into this first bit of forgery, but then she has a plan for how she is going to keep it going and how she’s going to enlist other folks help her do this. It has to deal with the unintended consequences of this going a little too well.
And so characters are always making plans and they’re always – as an audience we’re always looking for what are they trying to do next. And if you don’t have a sense of that at a certain point you stop kind of following the movie.
Craig: Yeah. And one last thing to avoid. There are times when you may think the interesting way to tell a story is to have a character do a whole bunch of things without letting the audience in on it. Because you would think, well, if I tell you what I’m going to do before I do it while I’m doing it you will be bored. So what I’ll do is I’ll have the character do it and then afterwards someone will say, “How did you do that?” And then the character will say, “Well,” and – see not particularly effective unless what they’ve done is really amazing. Because it feels a little bit like, mm, they could have actually told us the plan, they just wouldn’t have had a very good movie if they had.
John: Yeah. I would also say as you get notes back from producers, from studio executives, sometimes they’re pushing for people to over-articulate the plan. Sometimes in TV, especially in TV dramas, you see people way over-articulate the plan. It’s about finding that balance. Giving the audience enough information that they are excited to see what happens next and they’re excited to see if things work out well.
Chris McQuarrie had a great piece that I linked to this last week called How Can This Possibly End Well? That in any action sequence you always know that somehow it’s going to resolve, but the question you should be asking is how can this possibly end well. And so there’s always this sense of like given enough information we can see like, OK, I get where this is going but I’m really curious to see if this is all going to fit properly.
Craig: And to bring it back to Raiders there’s that amazing scene where Indiana is trying to rescue Marion. She is trapped in a plane. The engines are spinning. The propellers are moving. The plane is moving in a circle. There is gasoline and fire moving toward the plane. And Indiana Jones has to fistfight an enormously muscular prize-fighting bald Nazi while ducking propellers and the gasoline is coming and Marion is stuck. How can that possibly end well?
John: It’s good stuff. All right, let’s get to some questions.
John: Do you want to take Dan in Sherman Oaks?
Craig: I do want to take Dan in Sherman Oaks. Hi Dan. Dan says, “I’ve written a pilot with three other friends of mine and as of right now we have it credited with all of our names on the page as Written by Person 1 and 2 & 3 & 4. We all had room sessions where we broke story and one of us physically wrote the script hence the and/ampersand designations. My question is would an agent or manager or producer balk at a title page with four writers’ names on it? Should we only say it’s written by one of us but created by the four of us?”
John, I see many problems. Layers of problems.
John: I see many problems. So the four of you writing together is really challenging. It may be fine. It may all work out great. But that is a challenging place to start things from. But that’s already been done.
But I want to urge people: title pages should be accurate. Title pages should accurately reflect who actually did the work. Because if they don’t then you have a document that is not sort of properly credited and it’s only going to add more heartbreak down the road.
I don’t think the agent is going to feel more scared, I guess, but yes it’s a lot of names on a title page. It’s a lot of names to be looking at. Craig, do you have solutions for Dan here?
Craig: I think so. First of all, Dan, you say that you had room sessions where all four of you broke story, but then one of you physically wrote the script. So–
John: Which I guess is Person 1.
Craig: Right. But then 2, and 3, and 4 actually write the screenplay, or were you just story? Because there’s story. I mean, you can say Story by and then Written by, or Teleplay by. Created by is a continuation credit that the Writers Guild awards to people that are credited with separated rights and the pilot. None of that matters. None of that matters.
If you want to get all four of your names on, sometimes what you can do is come up with a name for your crew. Just say the Blah-blah-blahs. The Duffer Brothers. There could be 20 Duffer Brothers as far as I know. I mean, it turns out there’s two of them and they’re clones. But, you can do that. And somewhere in the end you can say the Duffer Brothers are and then list your four names. And there’s ways around this sort of thing.
You can be creative because it ultimately doesn’t really matter. You’re not determining the credits.
Now, what you say you do here will be important. What you don’t want to end up with is a situation where down the line Person 1 asks for a WGA pre-arb because his point is, or her point is I wrote the screenplay. All they did with me, I mean, it’s not all they did, it’s an important thing, but they worked on the story. But I wrote the screenplay. Why are they saying they wrote the screenplay when they didn’t?
Stuff like that needs to be hammered out now.
John: Yeah, it does. I’m guessing that Dan in Sherman Oaks is Person 1. And Dan if you wrote this document and everybody else had story sessions and they talked about stuff, you’re going to be the writer because sitting around in a room chit-chatting isn’t probably going to get up to the stuff of having written something.
Craig: Yeah. Story is important. Give people credit for breaking the story. But then the screenplay is whoever wrote it.
John: Yep. Garrett writes in, “What do you make of the writing credits on the new High Life trailer,” which I haven’t seen but fortunately he’s listed them with us. “It says written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau with a collaboration of Geoff Cox and additional writing Andrew Litvak.” So this is not a WGA credit.
Craig: [laughs] No.
John: This is a foreign credit. And this is how credits work in lots of places in the world. It looks weird to us, but it’s not weird other places.
Craig: What I make of it is that the French – and I looked it up, too, just to make sure. But this appears to be a French production through and through. And so they don’t follow the Writers Guild of America credit guidelines. I don’t even think they have work-for-hire for instance over there anyway. So theoretically you should be able to put whatever you want on there unless there’s some kind of gentle folks agreement about these things, like a French Writers Guild or something like that.
So, what I think of it, what I make of it, is what I make of writing credits on all foreign films. That’s what they say the credits are. It’s the same thing I make of the credits on animated movies here in the United States.
Craig: OK. That’s what you say they are. So, you know, cool.
John: As we talked about a lot on the show is that the WGA credits system has frustrations absolutely. But in looking at a credit on a WGA movie you have some sense of what those credits mean. I don’t know what “with the collaboration” means. I don’t know what Geoff Cox did on this. Additional writing by Andrew Litvak. OK, well Andrew Litvak I at least know must have written something because it says additional writing. But I don’t know what collaboration means. So, it is a little bit more confusing.
It’s just different. And so what do I make of it? I make of it as it’s a French film and that’s how they sometimes list credits.
Craig: You know, here’s the thing, Garrett, it’s France man.
Craig: It’s France.
John: It’s France. We call it the Royale with Cheese.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a very, very simple game. It’s called the Domain Name Pricing Game by Martin O’Leary. And it’s a really simple stupid idea, but basically it takes two web domains that are up for sale and lists the two domains and you have to guess which one is more expensive. And it’s surprisingly addictive because who would buy this domain name, but you almost always get it right. You’re always like oh that one, no one would want that. And it’s like, you’re right, that’s $50. But you see the other one and it’s like, oh yeah, I bet somebody would pay $1,700 for that dumb name.
So, it’s just a complete waste of time but also just a fun demonstration of a little web technology.
Craig: Yeah. I liked it. I liked it. Cool.
Craig: My One Cool Thing is an app that’s been out for quite a while but I’ve been making a lot of use of it lately. It is D&D Beyond. This is the official D&D companion app from Wizards of the Coast. And here’s why I love it so much. It really doesn’t do much beyond duplicate the material that’s in the hardcover books they sell. The Player’s Handbook. The Monster Manual. The Dungeon Master’s Guide. Etc. Etc. Etc.
But, as much as I love those books, the indexes, sorry, indices of those books are tragically awful. I think we’ve said it before. I think we even said it when we were on Greg Tito’s podcast. I’ll say it to anybody. Like whoever is in charge of the index department at Wizards of the Coast should be, again, ejected into space.
So, what’s great about these things is you have this material now on your iPad, your phone, your laptop and you are able to search through and index through yourself. You can create your own bookmarks. It works beautifully. It’s very quick. It has all the art. It’s just really useful, particularly if you’re DMing kind of the way that a lot of people do DM now with a laptop or an iPad.
So, one bummer is I don’t know – I think if you bought the Player Handbook I don’t know if you can just then get the Player Handbook into – because the idea is you download, you pay for the content. So they give you the structure of it and they give you some freebies, but the big stuff you have to pay for that content, so you may end up paying for things twice. But I’ve lived my entire life paying for things four times, because I forget about them. I have like seven copies of a certain book just because I keep forgetting. So, no big deal for me. For you it may be annoying.
But, if you are a DM or a player and you hate that index, and you should, check out D&D Beyond.
John: Yeah. So you only recently started using it and I was surprised, a little horrified, to see you sitting back there with your iPad. But it does make sense. And it is just much faster to be able to find that stuff in such a thing. So I don’t actually have it yet. You would think I’d be the first person to have used it and I’m not. But I probably will get there.
I enjoy reading my D&D books at night. And I try not to use screens after a certain hour. So, I may still buy the books and buy the additional copies because why not.
Craig: Yeah, why not? There are things where the book is actually a little bit easier, but when someone says, “OK,” this is so nerdy, “Sorry cool people, but some druid says ok I’m wild, I’m taking the wild shape of a grizzly bear,” whatever.
John: Get those stats.
Craig: What are the bear stats? Well, flip, flip, flip, flip, flip through the Monster Manual, because it turns out they’re in the back. They’re not under bear at all.
John: But some of them might actually be in the Player’s Handbook because they’re actually normal animals, they’re not special animals.
Craig: So, this way I just go “bear” and it comes up and it shows me. So, it’s much better. There you go. There you go, Dorks. Be like me. D&D Beyond.
John: Craig, while we’re talking about bears, something I just blogged about today. What is the difference between bear spray and pepper spray?
Craig: I don’t even know what bear spray is.
John: Oh, you’ve never heard of bear spray?
Craig: No, what’s bear spray?
John: Bear spray may be a very Colorado thing, but bear spray is for fending off grizzly bears who are about to attack you.
Craig: That makes sense.
John: It’s like a big can of stuff.
Craig: Well bear spray is maybe like mace? And pepper spray is made of peppers?
John: So, it turns out they’re the same thing. But which do you think is stronger?
Craig: Well, this feels like a trick question. But I’m not meta gaming this. I’m going to say pepper spray and here’s why. Many years ago my wife’s cousin, Joe, he was 14. Joe by the way lives in Seattle. Maybe he’ll come see us at our show.
John: So he’s still alive in this story?
Craig: Oh yeah. A little troublemaker he was. And we were all in his step-father’s house. It was a Christmas. And there were like all the leftover presents. And I think someone had gotten his stepmom a gift of pepper spray, kind of as a gag gift.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: But it was all sitting in a pile. And all the kids were sitting around, you know, the 14 to 28 year olds are sitting around, chatting. And suddenly one of them starts coughing and can’t stop coughing. And I think it’s pretty funny. It’s funny when people start coughing. But then Melissa started coughing. And then I started coughing. And I’m like something is terribly wrong here. And we looked around and there was Joe sitting there with this “ooh, damn” look on his face. And all he had done was one squirt into the air. Not even towards us. He just wanted to put it in the air and see what would happen.
And just a few particles kind of like wafted over. And we were in paroxysms from like the tiniest bit. Joe. So, is that right, is it pepper spray?
John: It is pepper spray. But it turns out they are the exact same ingredients. It’s just the dosage in the bear stuff is much, much lower because you use it for a very different purpose. So you spray this big wide cloud that sort of keeps the bear at bay and keeps the bear from charging. Versus pepper spray which you spray directly at somebody as a targeted thing.
Craig: Yeah. It’s basically bears are smarter than humans. If you just sort of go, “Look bear, this is going to be slightly uncomfortable,” he’s like, eh, I’m good. I’ll go eat someone else. But humans are terrible. If you don’t incapacitate a bad person they’ll keep coming.
John: They will keep coming. That is our show for this week. As always it is produced by Megan McDonnell, edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by James Launch and Jim Bond again. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send questions like the ones we answered today. If you want to find us on Twitter Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. You can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you subscribe to podcasts, wherever you’re listening to this right now. If you leave us a rating that helps people find the show which is great.
People put us on lists of like best podcasts and–
John: That’s so lovely. Thank you for that.
Craig: Yeah. Ooh.
John: You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. I talked to somebody this week who is deaf who reads all the transcripts and so it’s so great that we have a person who gets to experience the podcast that way. So, that’s awesome.
You can find back episodes of this show at Scriptnotes.net. You subscribe there and you can get all the back episodes, the bonus episodes, as well.
John: Our next two shows will be live shows, so we’ll have the William Goldman The Princess Bride conversation and the live show in Seattle.
Craig: Awesome. I will see you at our next event. Bye.
John: Thanks, bye.
- The Seattle Live Show is on February 6th!
- You can now preorder Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon or come to the launch event on February 9th.
- Submit entries for The Scriptnotes Pitch Session here.
- Bear spray is not stronger than pepper spray
- Domain Name Pricing Game
- D&D Beyond
- T-shirts are available here! We’ve got new designs, including Colored Revisions, Karateka, and Highland2.
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Scriptnotes Digital Seasons are also now available!
- Outro by James Llonch and Jim Bond (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.