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 402 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the program we’re going to be talking about the idea of stakes, what it means for a writer, and what it means for a character. We’ll also talk a little bit about Aladdin, fandom, and of course some agency stuff.
John: But first we got to hype up our live show again. That’s coming up really soon, June 13, at the Ace Hotel. It’s a Thursday night.
It is a benefit for the amazing charity called Hollywood Heart. Our guests include Alec Berg of Silicon Valley and Barry, Rob McElhenney of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and his new Apple show, but also we’ve added Kourtney Kang of Fresh off the Boat and a new show coming up. She is fantastic. I got to work with her on a project. So we’re so excited to have these TV moguls up on stage with us.
And there will be more stuff to do too. We have some prizes. We have giveaways. We have special shirts we’re making just for that night so people buy your tickets if you have not bought your tickets yet.
Craig: Yeah. And correct me if I’m wrong, and I’m not wrong so you can’t correct me.
John: You’re never wrong.
Craig: I’m never wrong. Not about these things. And we have McQuarrie on a loop saying, “I hate to say it but Craig is right.” Hollywood Heart, which is the charity that this benefits, is a legal charity. Meaning if you buy tickets you can deduct them from your taxes.
John: I suspect that’s true. Because – and the actual value you’ll receive is just knowledge and joy.
Craig: And power.
John: Power. Yes.
Craig: And love.
John: We’re giving away power. Yeah. Love.
Craig: Yeah. So I mean why wouldn’t you come to this? It’s a great cause. And you know what? We’re in a bigger place. We got ambitious here. We need to fill a bigger venue so we need you listeners. If you are in the Los Angeles area–
John: We need your physical bodies in that space.
Craig: Yeah, we need you.
John: So that we will feel together.
Craig: I mean, look, in all seriousness, you know me. I’m perfectly happy talking to an empty room. In fact, I’m happier talking to an empty room. In fact, no one come. But really here’s the thing: it’s for charity. We’re trying to help kids. So, that’s why you need to show up. It’s not so much for me. Show up for John and the kids.
John: Yep. And our guests because our guests are phenomenal.
Craig: And our guests.
John: And there could be one or two more coming, but we can’t say that yet.
Craig: We’re always full of surprises.
John: Great. So hyping is done. I had my showing up at a place experience this week. This was the premiere for Aladdin. So Aladdin came out this past weekend in the US and most of the world. So I went to the premiere on Tuesday and it was weird. So I don’t think we’ve really talked about movie premieres so I thought we could spend a few minutes talking about what it’s like to go to a premiere as a writer.
So I guess, let me start how the day begin, because obviously I don’t need hair and makeup because I look just the same no matter what.
Craig: Well, makeup. [laughs] You could use a little makeup.
John: I get a little blush – no, I do nothing. So basically I get in a car, the studio sends a car, so me, Mike, and my friend Dan, we all went to the premiere together. We hop in a car. We got to Hollywood. This is at the El Capitan. They block off streets around it because they actually have blocked off all of Hollywood Boulevard for this premiere. So it’s actually difficult to get there.
They try – the publicists try to get you there so early. So the premiere started at 6:30. They wanted the car to leave my house at 4:30.
Craig: Oh god. Come on.
John: I’m like 10 minutes away. And so I said, no, 5:30 at the earliest. So we get in the car there. We get to the place where they’re dropping us off. There’s a greeter there who was fantastic. She took us around and did everything. And I specifically said that I wanted to skip the red carpet, so we’ll get into why I wanted to skip the red carpet, but Craig what’s been your experience when you do a premiere and doing the red carpet? Do you actually answer questions along that red carpet?
Craig: I have. It’s only been for certain movies, but I have. It’s weird. Definitely – it was less weird for Chernobyl because they seem to want to ask a writer questions in television. [laughs] When you’re in the movie business, so you walk down this red carpet and all these – you know, people have seen this I suppose in movies. The red carpet and all those people have their cameras and they’re like, “Look over here. Look over here.” And then the writer walks down and it gets real quiet all of a sudden.
John: Yeah. So there’s usually a handler beside you saying like, “This is Craig Mazin, the writer of the film.” Or they point to specific people who are already going to be asking you questions. Sometimes there’s little video crews.
John: Sometimes it’s just a person with a microphone there to talk with you. And, hey, can you tell everyone at Cat Fancy Magazine about Frankenweenie? And it’s like, are there any cats in Frankenweenie? I’m like, yes, there is. Let me tell you about Mr. Whiskers.
Craig: Yeah. And sometimes you speak to people who are from other countries. And, look, it’s all part of the machine. I mean, the thing to remember about these premieres, which I think a lot of writers don’t quite get early on, is that the purpose of the premiere is not to celebrate you, or the director, or the cast, or the movie. The purpose of the premiere is to sell tickets. It is designed to create stuffing for magazines and websites.
And so the parts that get the most stuffing generated that’s where they care. Meaning typically actors.
John: Yeah. Because those are the ones who are going to actually move copies of magazines if there were still magazines, but like clicks on websites.
Craig: Correct. Like if Will Smith for some reason was not able to go that day, because he had something else going on, they would move the premiere. [laughs] You know, it’s like he’s the thing that’s going to get all of the attention, right? I mean, he is the biggest name. So, it becomes that.
I mean, I watched it first hand at The Hangover 2 premiere. It was extraordinary. And it was right across the street. So Disney runs its family premieres at El Capitan and across the street you have Mann’s Chinese where a lot of big premieres take place. And they close off the street and it’s madness and people are there to see – they’re there to see Bradley Cooper.
John: Yeah. They’re not there to see Craig Mazin.
Craig: No! No. No one even in my house is there to see Craig Mazin.
John: So, approaching this premiere, this is a movie that I had worked on, very hard. I had stopped working on the movie. I had seen it several times. I had given notes on it. But it was not fundamentally my movie. And I knew I did not want to be answering a lot of press questions along the way because I can smile and sort of like, “I’m so excited to be here,” give those generic answers. But it was just going to be awkward and weird.
John: And I didn’t sort of want to give some honest answers on certain things. And so I said like, OK, I will go but we’re going to skip the whole red carpet thing. And my handler was fantastic. She whisked me through this little back way so I didn’t have to do any of the red carpet stuff.
And then you get into the theater, which the El Capitan Theater is beautiful inside.
John: Intimate but beautiful. And there’s like two other people inside the theater. And so even after delaying going there so early we had about an hour to kill.
Craig: I know. I know.
John: For everyone who was on the red carpet to start it.
Craig: I know. The timing of it all is so weird. At some point they start yelling at everybody to go into the theater, but no one is going in. I’ve got to be honest with you. I do not like these events at all. And if I can avoid them I do. If I don’t have credit on a movie but I’ve worked on the movie and I get an invitation to go–
John: I don’t go.
Craig: I can’t remember the last time I went. I do not like premieres because they’re actually not fun ways to see a movie. It’s so much of a hassle. And I just care about the movie.
John: I’ll take that back. The one time I did go was the first Iron Man. And it was a fun premiere and I was happy for everyone involved. And so I was there to celebrate them, but I just loved that it was not about me at all.
Craig: And, you know what? I’ll take it back, too. There was one. I went to Hail Caesar, because I was just really excited. I wanted to see it early. And you know what? I was not disappointed at all. I love that movie.
John: That feels like a good movie to see with a big crowd and with a group around you. And that is actually genuinely the fun of seeing these movies is because in the previous incarnations where I’d seen Aladdin I’d seen it in a screening room by myself, or nearly by myself, and so I’m watching this thing that is supposed to be a comedy and it is not funny to me because I’m sitting here scribbling into a notebook about things that I would encourage them to work on.
And then to see it with a crowd it’s like, oh, yeah, those are jokes that I wrote. And those jokes are getting laughs. And you actually get spontaneous applause at moments. Yes, the crowd is sort of extra hyped up because they know the folks involved and they’re applauding people’s credits as they show up. But it’s also a joyous moment because also it’s new for people because none of them have been spoiled by reviews or other bits of spoilers that have come out about what actually happens in the movie. So it was genuinely fun to see it with that group.
I met one of the composers who did the great new song for it, so that was cool. So, I’m glad I went to the premiere of Aladdin is the short summary.
Craig: I’m glad you went, too. It’s good. I’m glad. You know what? We’ve got to stay positive.
John: We got to stay positive. And it looks like, you know, we’re recording this on a Friday but it looks like the movie is going to do pretty well for the weekend and that’s a good thing, too.
Craig: It’s Aladdin from Disney.
John: It is Aladdin from Disney. That was kind of built in to the whole thing.
Craig: Yeah, I mean not to take anything away from the accomplishment, but we’re talking about degrees of success at that point. There’s no chance that people aren’t going to show up. It’s Aladdin. It’s A Whole New World. For You and Me.
John: Basically thank you everyone who went out to see it over the weekend. I hope you enjoy it. I’m happy it actually turned out in sort of the right kind of PG. It’s truly a PG that you can take younger kids to. And I’m happy with a lot of how stuff went in the movie.
Craig: How many murders, onscreen murders, do you get before you get bumped into PG-13?
John: I don’t know. There is one onscreen murder that I really, really argued to cut. Sidebar here for a moment. It’s a thing that you encountered in so many different cuts of movies you’ve seen before where there’s a scene that is wedged in there to establish a character and it breaks the flow of everything else around it. Just like, oh no, this guy is a bad guy. See how bad he is? And I really, really wanted that scene to go and they didn’t listen to me.
Craig: Yeah. Well, you know, this is – it’s what happens. You see, I mean–
John: It’s a collaborative medium. Yeah.
Craig: It’s a collaborative medium and maybe – I think what you should do is maneuver yourself into a position where you don’t have to collaborate that much. [laughs] And I’ve said this on the show many times. There is a way of doing something where you are going to do it mostly by yourself. You are going to make mistakes but the mistakes will be consistent with everything else because it all came from one brain.
It’s the mix and match of it all. Somebody may have a great idea. You know what the problem is? That character we’re supposed to be scared of him, but we haven’t seen him do anything bad. We should establish how evil he is. Great idea. Execution-ally there’s no chance of success because that came from somewhere else. It’s like throwing some weird instrument into the middle of another song.
John: And that’s a thing that happens in the writing stage all the time, too. Even what I’m writing right now, there’s a scene that I would kind of love to establish a little bit earlier in the script but like there’s no place to put that without breaking everything else around it. So, you know what? I have to do the hard work of figuring out, OK, if it is coming in at this later moment how can I make it work as this later moment beat. Because it’s not the same scene that would be happening earlier in the movie.
Craig: This is the life of the writer.
John: Mm-hmm. Writing and editing. They’re closely tied together.
We need to talk about the WGA and the ATA. But I would propose Craig, because last week it went on a long time, maybe could I set a three-minute timer and when the timer goes off we’re just done talking about it?
Craig: I need ten seconds.
John: All right. I’m starting three minutes, but if it goes less than that that’s great. And go.
Craig: Well, last week I was praying to the skies that everybody get back to the table. And they’re getting back to the table. Can’t claim causality there. I’m just happy that it happened. I’m optimistic and I’m very hopeful that you guys in leadership and the agency people can find a deal together.
John: Craig, you said you prayed to the skies and heaven, so this is a religious conversion for you is what I’m hearing. That you now understand that there is an all-powerful creator behind these things?
Craig: Sort of. By the skies and the heavens I’m referring to myself. So I’m the member of a new religion. The religion of–
Craig: It’s Craigism. And our lord’s prayer, “I hate to say it, but Craig is right.” [laughs]
John: [laughs] Yeah, wouldn’t it be so funny if your first disciple was Chris McQuarrie?
Craig: My only disciple.
John: We should also briefly mention, because we have two minutes left on this time, which we didn’t even need. So another thing that happened this week was – I saw you single this out on Twitter – a writer who had been represented at Gersh shows up for a meeting at Fox. They say like, “Oh, no, your meeting was canceled.” And Gersh confirmed that they had canceled the meeting after he had fired them. That was not a god look for that agency.
Craig: No. That’s just dishonorable behavior. And even worse it is ignorant. This is not – in theory this will have an end. And we will want to return to agencies. And new writers are going to want to go to agencies. And Gersh will be one of those agencies, except now if anybody were to ask me about Gersh I would say they’re not great because as an institution they thought that would be a good idea. That’s a terrible idea.
That implies a poor sense of judgment. And that’s shameful. Shameful and stupid.
John: I knew almost nothing about Gersh, but this is the only thing I’m associating with Gersh right now is this incident. And so that ain’t great.
Craig: Just a huge error on their part and petty. And revealing. This is the problem. You reveal something about yourselves. Why in god’s name would they have done – what did they think they were going to accomplish? It’s the judgment thing that makes me – so it’s not a question of like, boo, you’re anti-writer. If they want to be anti-writer and somehow manage to be successful at the same time I guess OK. But there’s no successful strategy encased in that move. None.
John: Nope. None. And also it speaks to the question of who owns a meeting. And so if a meeting is set up between a writer and the studio, to my thinking is a social contract between the two of them that is not a thing that the agency owns in any meaningful way. I don’t think you can own an intangible thing. That’s the frustration to me, too, is that they felt that they controlled that meeting rather than the writer.
Craig: I’m sorry. It’s so arrogant. And you’re Gersh. No offense—
[Alarm timer sounds off]
John: I literally set a timer. That’s three minutes. We’re done. We can’t talk anything more about it.
Craig: That’s good. The people at Gersh are so happy. They literally got saved by the bell. [laughs]
John: Literally saved by the iPhone bell. Let’s get to some questions from listeners. We have not answered listener questions for a bit.
Craig: Somebody at Gersh was like shorten that timer. All right, listener questions. Are we doing listener questions or we doing stakes? What would you like to do first?
John: Well, our first listener question is about stakes so I thought we might start with this. Why don’t you take Vera’s question here?
Craig: Sure. Vera from Germany, welcome Vera, asks, “How do I raise the stakes in a true story? I’m involved in writing a feature film based on real events. Our producers are worried there may not be enough personal jeopardy in the story and I worry there may not be enough potential for it. The story is about young researchers who learn something of global consequence. They are ridiculed once published and their lives changed drastically after, but they didn’t know that beforehand.
“Almost all our main characters are alive today and still relatively well-known. We’re even in touch with them and they’re supportive of our project. So we can’t make their past selves look worse than they are and wouldn’t want to. They were good. How can I raise the stakes for the characters beginning early in this story?”
John, what do you think?
John: Well, first off, Vera, this is a fantastic question because it’s the kind of thing you’re going to face all the time. You have the extra difficulty of having real life people in there so you can’t manipulate backstories in ways that sort of get to reverse engineer what you want them to have.
But let’s talk about stakes overall, because we’ve talked about stakes in previous episodes but it’s good to have a refresher about what we mean by stakes, what development executives mean by stakes, why you hear this term used so much, particularly in features. You hear it some in TV, but you really hear it in features.
I think there’s two main questions you’re asking when you talk about stakes. First is what is the character risking by taking this action? By making a choice to do a thing what are they putting at risk? The second question is what are the consequences if this character or these characters don’t succeed? So it’s both the action that they’re taking and also the consequences of failure. How bad is the failure if they don’t succeed?
Chernobyl, of course, has remarkable stakes throughout the three episodes I’ve seen so far. Characters are faced with these kind of stakes questions all the time. Craig, anything else about the definition of stakes we want to tackle before we get into it?
Craig: No, it’s a very simple concept. What are you risking and what happens if we don’t succeed? It’s as simple as that.
John: Yeah. So you’re trying to pick the answers to those questions and to me what’s so crucial and so often missing is proportionality. You have to pick stakes that feel right for these characters, this world, this situation. Not everything can literally be life or death. Not everything is the end of the world. And so often I think especially in our blockbusters we try to make everything be the end of the world. Superhero movies especially have to sort of be saving the whole world and they probably shouldn’t be so often.
If you think about the world of the characters, it could be the end of the world to those characters. And so then you have to carefully define, you know, what is their world consisting of. Is it their social grouping? Their standing? Is it their family? Is it their dreams, their hopes, their wishes, their goals? What is at risk for them that isn’t necessarily of global consequence?
Craig: Yeah. We are currently in a state of stakesflation in Hollywood where everything gets upped. It’s not enough to destroy a planet, now you must destroy the galaxy. No, now you have to destroy multiple galaxies. Now you have to destroy half of everything that is alive which I assume at some point someone is going to say, “Well, we have to move that up to next time Thanos snaps his fingers it needs to be three-quarters.”
But when you think back to the first blockbuster, generally Jaws is considered to be the first blockbuster film, and the stakes in Jaws are there people on an island that are being eaten by a shark. And our heroes have to stop the shark before it eats another person. That’s it. That’s it. And it captivates to this very day because the stakes there are really not so much about random people getting chewed up, it’s about a man who has a certain sense of self and purpose and that self and purpose is being challenged to the extreme by a creature that seemingly is beyond his ability to handle. That’s stakes. It’s personal. I love it.
John: That’s stakes. So obviously when we talk about stakes our key focus has to be our hero, our protagonist, and what are the stakes for that character. But it’s important to remember that there should be stakes for most of these characters and they don’t have to be the same stakes. In the case of Jaws there’s the stakes of if we do this then we could hurt tourism. If we acknowledge this problem there could be issues.
I’m thinking to Chernobyl. So, we have your scientists explaining, no, if we don’t do this thing the next thing is going to blow up and it’s going to be worse. And we have another scientist who is saying if we don’t figure out exactly what happened these other reactors could blow up. But we also have government officials who are saying we can’t let this get out because if we do let this get out then there will be a panic.
Everyone has a different sense of what the stakes are and they’re taking actions that match their own understanding of what are the most important stakes.
Craig: Yeah. For some characters in the show the stakes are love. I want to be with the person that I love. I don’t want to abandon them, even though it puts my own life at risk. For other people the stakes are I have to keep this government together. And if I fail to then there’s going to be chaos. Right. Everybody had their different competing interests. And in those moments, for instance in Chernobyl there’s a moment in Episode 2 where Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård’s characters are on a helicopter and they’re approaching the power plant. And they both have stakes.
One guy is I have an order from the supreme leader of the Soviet Union. That is somebody with nearly absolute power. And I have to fulfill that because if I don’t I understand that my life and my position and my authority and everything I have is under severe threat. And the other character’s stakes are that’s going to kill us. Don’t go there. We’ll all die.
Competing stakes. Always a good thing to have.
John: And ultimately the helicopter pilot has to decide.
John: Who does he need to listen to in this moment? And he actually reverts to sort of a lower [unintelligible] hierarchy of needs to sort of get to, OK, I don’t want to die in the next two minutes and so therefore I’m not going to fly over this thing. I’m going to listen to the other person.
But I think that actually points to really the root of stakes which is needs and wants. I mean, wants are generally sort of the better way of thinking about it. But what is the character going after? And is the thing they’re going after a really primal survival kind of thing? In some movies it absolutely will be. In some movies it is life or death. It’s cliffhanger. It’s those movies where at any given moment you could die.
But for most characters in most movies it’s a little bit higher up the chain. So it’s about comfort, family, stability, self-realization, self-actualization. Their sense of identity is at stake if they don’t succeed in this venture and that’s the risk that they’re taking.
Craig: All these levels of things, what it comes down to is what can you make me believe. And when it comes to stakes I don’t really as a writer have to do much to make you believe at home that saving the planet from a space alien is high enough stakes. It’s just sort of baked into the scenario. Strangely, and this is something I wish our friends in the executive suites had a stronger grasp of, that reduces our interest because there isn’t much of a challenge to that question.
John, a space alien, is threatening to blow up the world, and we need you to solve it. OK. I mean, I’m on the world. What am I supposed to do otherwise? I don’t really have a huge choice there. But if I say to you, John, you have a dream of something that means a lot to you but to pursue it will put your relationship with your own family at risk. That is stakes that now I’m leaning forward in my seat and thinking, ooh.
John: So Craig let’s talk about another recent movie that did a great job with stakes and obviously this is a movie that had huge end of the universe kind of stakes but also had very personal stakes which was Avengers: Endgame, which I thought did a really brilliant job of blending the two. Because obviously it’s going to have these big superhero stakes. Half of civilization, half of all living things have been eliminated with a snap. And yet there were very clear personal stories that they focused on. The choices of – we see Hawkeye losing his family and sort of wanted to get his family back and so that was so important. But I thought what they did with Tony Stark and Tony Stark being reluctant to even pursue going after this solution because he didn’t want to risk this family that he’d been able to have in this intervening time. It was really smartly done.
Craig: Yeah. Markus and McFeely are experts at working what I would call understandable, empathizable, if that’s a term, stakes into movies where the apparent stakes are ka-boom and blech and pow, right. What they say is even something as dramatic and huge circumstantially as half of every living person dying in the universe they narrow it in. It’s like they kind of force you to tunnel into a relationship to that event through individuals.
What does this mean for me and the man I love? What does this mean for me and my brother? What does this mean for me and the sacrifices I’ve made in my own life to get to this point? All of it is – they just tunnel you into that so that the two things are enmeshed. And that is super important. I just think these broader stakes of something is going to blow up is ultimately irrelevant. There’s no Die Hard unless there is a man trying to win his wife back. It just doesn’t matter. I don’t care.
John: It doesn’t matter.
Craig: I don’t care about who is in the Nakatomi Building. I want John McClane to kind of earn some redemption and get his life back. That’s, you know, what I’m hoping for.
John: Yeah. And even movies that have similar kinds of plot devices the nature of the stakes is so key in why they work differently. So think about comparing the first Charlie’s Angels to a Mission: Impossible movie. They both have some of the same beats and sort of plot mechanics and sort of set pieces, but the Charlie’s Angels fundamentally like will this family be torn apart. Will they be able to save their father figure character? That’s a very different dynamic than what you see in a Mission: Impossible movie.
It gets down to those really granular details about what is the relationship between these characters. What do they really want beyond just the plot wants?
Craig: Yeah. And this kind of fine-tuning and understanding, this is where unfortunately we do drift out of the area of craft and into the area of instinct which isn’t really teachable. But what I would say to Vera is, in just garnering what I can from your question, Vera, it seems to me that you’re wondering if you have to make them look bad to create stakes and I’m not sure that that’s ever necessary. Those two things aren’t really connected. I think if they were good people but you understood watching it, and you may have to adjust, that they were risking something really important to them to put their research out into the world. And really important it can’t just be my job. Nobody cares. You can get another job.
It has to be how someone they love or admire looks at them. Or how it might disrupt their pursuit of somebody that they love. Or how it might affect who they think they are as a human being and what their value is. It’s got to be something I can feel in my stomach, you know? Then there are stakes. And, by the way, perfectly fine to create a movie with stakes and have a character “bet it all” and lose. That sometimes is the most interesting story at all.
John: Yeah. I think back to Erin Brockovich which this is based on a true life story. This character intervenes in these water poisoning situations. But it was the specificity of like what was in turmoil in her life that made it such a compelling story. And Susannah Grant had to look at all the possible stories to tell and pick the one that had real stakes for that central Erin Brockovich character. And her stakes were not the stakes of the people who were drinking the contaminated water. Her stakes are personal. They’re about her relationships. They involve her kid, her boyfriend, sort of the dynamics of her life.
So I would say look at the characters, the real life people you have in this situation. Try to mine for some interesting ways that they either fit together or that in taking the actions they are doing they’re not just disrupting their own lives or risking their own – I say lives, not their physical lives but their own status or place – but is going to have repercussions on those around them. And the degree to which they understand that, those are stakes.
Craig: Yeah. 100%. I think that that’s kind of what we’re dancing around here as we talk through all this. We’re really talking about character. I think sometimes this notion of stakes gets separated out by people who are analytic or – and by analytic I mean producers and executives who are trying to come up with something easy for us like, “Well what are the stakes?” And the truth is if the character is working, you’ll know what the stakes are. The character and the stakes should be embedded with each other. It should just be one in the same.
In the same way that the character and the story should be embedded with each other and be one in the same. And the dialogue and the character should be – character is the hub. Character is the hub of the wheel my friends. And stakes is just one more spoke emanating out of it. It’s all baked into character.
In the case of adapting real life, Vera, it’s OK to make changes in order to create some stakes. Sometimes you have to alter that but do it within the spirit of what you know really happened. And if in the spirit of what really happened there are no stakes at all, maybe it’s not a thing. But I suspect that there are some there.
John: I think there are. The last little bit I want to add on stakes is there’s a second kind of stakes which is not this overall story/character arch-y kind of stakes, but is very specific to a scene or sequence. And so an action sequence is the easiest way to think about that where if the character doesn’t succeed in this moment these are the consequences or the possible consequences. In those cases it is a little bit more craft, where you actually have to understand that the audience needs to be able to see what could go wrong or what the downfalls are of a mistake or a less than perfect performance in that moment.
When we had Chris McQuarrie on to talk about – on Episode 300 – to talk about the Mission: Impossible movies, he gets a lot into that. Which is basically how can this possibly end well. And to get the audience asking that question you have to make it clear what the jeopardy is. And sometimes as I’ve rewritten my own stuff or rewritten other people’s stuff it’s because it wasn’t clear in that moment, in that scene, what was the thing that could tip one way or the other.
So making sure that in those moments that is really clear to an audience.
Craig: Every scene is its own movie. And that means every scene has its own stakes. And all of that is connected back to a simple question: what is it you want? What do you want? Even if the scene is if that fiery gasoline trail hits that fuel tank then all those people are going to die, well, I want to stop that. It still has to come back to somebody wanting something. And ideally there’s somebody else saying, “No, I want it to explode.” And now we’ve got ourselves a scene. But even if the scene is I’m sitting down to tell someone that the nature of our relationship is changing there are stakes.
Craig: So it’s always there.
John: All right. Let’s move onto another question. This is from Daniel in Israel who writes, “I’ve been offered to write a TV pilot episode for a local production company. The thing I’m supposed to write the pilot around is essentially only a main plot point. Something someone might call an inciting incident. What I am lacking is the protagonist. Not his identity, but what he wants and what he needs in his life. What I’m trying to figure out is how to create this protagonist in light of this ‘inciting incident.” How would you construct a screenplay and its protagonist when all that you have to work with is this main plot point?”
So, a related question here really. Here Daniel is facing a situation where the plot of it, or at least the start of the plot is really clear. He’s trying to figure out who is the character to drive through this doorway into a story.
Craig: Great question, Daniel. And first of all, if we’re in a situation where somebody was just sitting around the house and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I have a great idea for a plot, but how do I come up with a character?” I would say you don’t have a great idea for a plot. Start with character.
But this kind of thing where somebody comes to you and here are your own stakes – there’s money. You’re trying to earn money as a writer.
John: There’s money, yes.
Craig: And they’re giving you an assignment. You have to figure it out. This happens all the time. I cannot tell you how many times I get a call where someone says, “We’ve got a script. It needs a little bit of work. Story works great. We just need characters. We need character work.” And I just think the story can’t be that great. If the characters aren’t good how is the story good?
So, Daniel, here is I guess the only practical advice I have for you is take your main plot point and ask this question: to whom would it be most interesting for this to apply? Because any random person can go into a situation and be confronted by a problem. But there are certain people who the nature of their lives and the position that they’re in and their past and what they want – they’re the best people to do this to. And typically it’s because this is the thing that will torture them the most. So, think of who that is and you may be off and running.
John: I agree. I think back to the How Would This Be a Movie segments we’ve done and they fall into two camps. There’s ones that have a really fascinating character and then you have to figure out like how would you actually build a story around that character. The other ones are the sort of plot machines. Oh, that is a really crazy thing that happened in the real world and you have to then approach it with like, OK, who is the character that should really be driving that story. So, it might be a real life event and there’s myriad characters around it, but you have to figure out whose point of view is actually the interesting point of view.
And I think Craig nailed it. It’s the character for whom the story is especially suited. Either because they are perfect for it, like they are the one person who could be the expert in the situation, or more often and more interestingly the person who is the least well-equipped to be doing this and is out of their element. And that is going to give you more conflict, more comedy if you’re going for comedy. It’s going to be the person who is relatable to the audience because they’re probably a good proxy for the audience in that they don’t have the information or the expertise to be grappling with this situation.
Craig: Yeah. Let’s call it the A side of things. In movies we talk about the A side and the B side. It’s sort of like an editorial term. Like the stuff that happens before, the stuff that happens after. So that’s the A side of it. And then the B side of it is for whom would the resolution of this plot point be the most interesting and satisfying? Think about it from forward and backward and you just might have yourself a solution there.
All right, let’s move along to Alex from New York, shall we?
Craig: All right. Alice writes, “I’m in a script writing class and I’m trying to pitch a story where there is no three-act structure. My professor responded by saying that for this class we can only make something that follows the structure. She then pulled out a book with the title How to Write a Great Screenplay.” [laughs]
“And said our script had to contain the six key moments. Of course there are many great movies that follow the three-act structure, but I also know that many of my favorite movies don’t – Boyhood, Nashville, A Serious Man come to mind. I guess my question is do you need a three-act structure to write a great movie or is this a sign that I should drop out of this overpriced school?” [laughs]
John: [laughs] I love people who answer their own questions. Obviously the answer Alice is you’re not in a very good screenwriting program. But I want to sort of move past that moment to talk about this idea of how you teach writing. Because it occurred to me this last week, my daughter for her English class has to write these five-paragraph essays. And Craig you remember these five-paragraph essays.
Craig: I sure do.
John: They have to have–
John: The thesis and then you have to–
Craig: The examples.
John: Exactly. Each paragraph has to be about a different thing of those things and has to summarize and have the evidence within them and then a conclusion. And I find it just a torturous form. And I want to push back against it, and yet I do feel like it’s important that she learn how to write this ridiculous form now so that she understands what it is and will hopefully never have to write it quite the same way again.
A thesis is important. A thesis, you know, a central idea behind which all of your essay hangs together – that’s important. And for screenplays an understanding of a three-act structure I think is important. That sense that movies do have beginnings, middles, and ends. And there is a natural flow through which you move through story.
But I don’t want to be as an adult be forced to pay money to take a class where someone holds up a terrible screenwriting book and says that you have to follow this template.
Craig: Someone has written a book How to Write a Great Screenplay. I’m going to go out on a limb here. Because I have not heard of this book. Therefore my conclusion, this is just supposition, is that the individual who has written the book How to Write a Great Screenplay has not written a great screenplay. What else do you need to know?
Now, when it comes to surviving classes and things like that, you can take any movie and slap a three-act structure on it. If you put a gun in my mouth and say, A Serious Man, divvy that up into three acts. I’ll do it for you. No problem.
John: Totally. Yeah.
Craig: That’s also a sign that it’s useless. It is a very fundamental thing. It’s a little bit like in math class when you were moving ahead and your teacher said, “No, sorry. You need to show all your work. You need to show me the 15 plus 24 equals, carry, the whole thing.” Can’t I just do it in my head? “No.” OK, fine. So that’s what it is. It’s a little remedial.
Our script had to contain the six key moments. Hey, Alice from New York, I don’t know what those are. John, do you know what those are?
John: I don’t know what they are.
Craig: Well, we’re doing all right. [laughs] You got Aladdin out. I got Chernobyl running. Things are going OK. Somehow we made it without not only reading How to Write a Great Screenplay. We’ve never even heard of it.
John: So, here’s what I will try to defend about this idea about teaching people this template-y thing. if the teacher were requiring you to just do an outline, like a one or two-page outline that talked about your story in those beats or like come up with a new story and make it fit those beats, that I could see being a valuable exercise because it might get you to think about whatever these elements are I suspect they are, you know, what is that transition between the first act and second act, which real life screenwriters do talk about. Where you’re really – you’re not in Kansas anymore moment. Where a character has crossed a threshold into a new part of the story. That does tend to happen in most places.
John: One of these other elements could be kind of a reversal where the thing that looks like it was close is now actually much further away. That things have gotten much worse. That is probably a meaningful beat. And so if it was an outline thing, but to make you write and entire 100-page screenplay following this template I don’t think is a fair thing to ask.
Craig: No. Perfectly fine to suggest that this is how beginners can learn. This is an intro to screenwriting. But if somebody like you says, “Listen, as a paying customer of this institution I would like to attempt to do it this way.” Why in god’s name would they tell you no? Listen, do it that way. And if it stinks, and by the way, higher probability it will stink, because you’re trying something – you’re doing like a degree of difficulty dive here that’s different than the other dives – then people will tell you it stunk and you’ll learn something and you’ll move on. It doesn’t mean that three acts are going to save you from stinking, nor does it mean that not three acts condemns you to stinking. It’s just part of the learning process.
But I would say to your professor stop that. Just cut it out. That’s just bizarrely pedantic.
John: I agree. Chris writes, “I recently swapped scripts with a writer friend. Instead of offering me story notes he called out formatting ‘errors’ in my first couple pages such as how I bold slug lines, reference a song, italicize dialogue for emphasis instead of underlining, etc. I explained how I was under the impression that all these things were stylistic choices rather than hard and fast rules. That a writer should use anything to better paint a movie in the reader’s mind.
“As an underwriter he argued that script formatting must be much tighter so as not to give anyone reading it a reason to throw it away. Is this true or is my friend simply being overly nitpicky on things that are really a writer’s choice? I’ve read dozens of screenplays at this point and feel no two really format exactly the same way.”
Craig, where are you at?
Craig: This is guy is swapping with his friend. You know who likes that?
John: That guy, yes. That guy.
Craig: Sexy Craig. So we’re talking about swapping, huh Chris? You going to swap?
John: Apparently they’re talking.
Craig: Get out of here, Sexy Craig. You can’t answer this question. Angry Craig can answer this question. Umbrage Craig is here. How many times do we have to kill this? This zombie won’t – we shoot it in the brain. We cut off its head. We light its heart on fire. What do we need to do to stop this from happening, John? I’m at my wit’s end. What do we do?
John: I don’t know. So I feel like a lot of people do listen to the show, but I’m also aware when people like Chris writes in that not everyone listens to the show.
Craig: Wait, what?
John: There are a few people who don’t listen to the show, although I’ll say that I had some meetings this past week and I was just surprised like folks who aren’t writers who listen to the show. So shout out to those folks who are not writers who listen to the show.
But, yeah, I don’t know how we’re going to win them over. I think all we can hope to do is to our listeners remind them that, listen, the standard screenplay formatting is helpful. It’s helpful because it creates an expectation about how stuff is supposed to look and if you go wildly off of it we are going to wonder does this person really know what they’re doing. Even as we do the Three Page Challenges when we see things that are like that’s not how it’s done we will comment on that because it is useful because it can slow a reader. It gives a reader an excuse for putting it aside.
I don’t think that’s what you were doing, Chris. The things you were singling out are reasonable choices. Some bold slug lines. I like to bold slug lines. I didn’t always, but now I do. So I use italics fairly liberally. It’s OK.
I think we just need to always remind folks that the standards are there because they’re helpful and they’re sort of standard but they’re not hard fast rules. And anyone who tells you otherwise probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Craig: Yeah. Just stop giving your friends scripts. They’re useless. Sorry. Your friend is useless. I don’t know how else to put it. I mean–
John: Also, your friend is useless because your friend did not give you constructive notes about the actual story.
Craig: Exactly. Correct. All they did was demand that you conform to a system that they insist is real but I can assure you is utter nonsense. Nonsense. That’s what they did. You were looking for advice on the story, the characters, the theme, the dialogue, and they came back and said here are a bunch of things you’re doing that are incorrect factually.
And the only person that was doing something factually incorrect is your friend, who maybe shouldn’t be your friend anymore. Because, I’m sorry, I bold slug lines. And like you, John, used to not bold slug lines. I reference songs all the time. I italicize dialogue for emphasis all the time. I also underline. I use We See. I do all these stupid things.
And your friend, I guarantee you, is going to say, “By the way I heard on Scriptnotes that they were bagging on me, but you know what? They only say that because they’re successful. But if you’re not them then…” this is how he sounds by the way. “And then you’re going to send your script to readers. They’re going to throw it out. If they see that you italicize dialogue they’re going to throw it out.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this. And all I can say is no. No, I’ve been doing it this way since I began when I was nobody. Nobody cared. You know what they cared about? Oh my god, I like a script finally. This month of just sifting through one desperate, soul-crushing failure of a screenplay after another and finally something showed up that was, I don’t know, at least mediocre. It made their day. [laughs] That’s all they care about it. That’s it. They don’t care about the rest of this. For the love of god.
John: So I’ll say if people don’t trust my authority as a screenwriter on this, let me go back to 20 years to when I was a professional reader. My job was to read screenplays. And I would read two a day and I would write up coverage on them. So I read 200 screenplays. And it was my job to be that reader who passed things up or said no to things. And not once – not once in 200 scripts – did I ever single out for formatting. Oh, it’s a really good story but warning executives it’s not formatted exactly the way you’d want.
No one cares about that. If you’ve never seen coverage – it’s only pedants who say this.
Craig: Yes. Yes. Yes. Oh, you know what? John, that – the guy that I was just listening to there, I’m going to call that, that’s Victory John.
John: Victory John.
Craig: Victory John. He knows when he walks into a room victory is assured. Victory John was great there. Nice work Victory John.
Craig: Chris, get rid of your friend.
John: Craig, let’s take one last question. Can you read Garrett for us?
Craig: Absolutely. Garrett asks, oh god, do we have to do this one?
John: I think we can – it actually goes into an interesting place.
Craig: Let’s do it. Fine. Garrett asks, “So many fans are furious about the conclusion of Game of Thrones. I am nowhere near dealing with this problem personally, but how do writers surprise insatiate rabid fans who spend all their time figuring out where a series or movie will go? It seems as though super fans will be disappointed whether the ending is too predictable or completely out of left field.”
All right, John, dig in.
John: Garrett, I think you are correct. Again, I like people who ask a question and then answer the question within their question. There was no way to land that plane that would keep everybody happy. Some people were really upset by how it ended. Some people signed a petition to redo the whole season. That ain’t helpful. That’s not going to happen.
We’re in this weird time where a fan’s ownership of a piece of material and sort of their sense that the culture belongs to them is really challenging and somewhat problematic. As a person who loves the show I was excited to see the show do what the show wanted to do. And I was excited that the creators got to do what they wanted to do. But that’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.
Craig, how do you resolve Garrett’s question?
Craig: I think that the shocking part of it all is that it is impossible to get that angry about an episode of television unless you love that episode or that series. You love it. And the only way you can love it is if the people who made that episode made what you love.
This isn’t a case where some other showrunner came along and took it over and everybody goes, nah, they don’t have the magic. That’s fine. I get that. But in this case Dan and Dave who made this thing you loved, not for one episode or one season, but for years, and who gave up years, a decade of their life, while their children were being born and raised, moving back and forth between Los Angeles and Ireland over and over and over. Doing all of these things and throwing their heart and soul into all of this and keeping a massive cast together and a storyline that involved god knows how many characters. I wish I could impress upon people how many decisions are required to make one episode of television. It is insane.
And they did it into the 70s of episodes of television and they did it in the highest level. And the very same creative ambition and bravery that led them to this material in the first place and allowed them to do it in such a remarkable way in the first place is the very same creative bravery and ambition that led them to deliver an ending that they thought was right.
And if you don’t like it, that’s OK.
Craig: But why – the part that blows my mind, and this is where I agree with you Garrett, it’s a huge problem – is why people would suddenly say things like they’re bad writers. How dare you. How dare you. Not on the level of being insulting to Dan to Dave. They’re geniuses and they’re doing just fine. How dare you insult logic in such a crass and outrageous manner. To say that they are bad writers because they didn’t write a good episode of a show we love because they’re good writers.
I mean, get help. Listen, I get it. You can be super angry in an episode. I’ve seen episodes of things of shows that I love where I watch the episode and said I don’t like this. I don’t like the choices they made. But what I would never do is say because they’re bad writers.
I’m sorry, no one is going to bat 1,000. How about be happy for the good times and the joy they brought you, which is a decade of joy. Can’t we celebrate that? It just bums me out.
John: I don’t know who proposed this, but someone was pitching that HBO should film a reality show, sort of like a Project Greenlight, where they bring together eight of the biggest petition signers about wanting to do a new season and get them all together to write a new final season. And just film the whole thing.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: And what that process is like. Because that would be–
Craig: What a cruel, cruel joke to play.
John: That would be pretty amazing.
Craig: And I do. I see things where people say, “I figured it out. Here’s what they should have done.” And they’ll stick it somewhere and then people go like, “Yeah, amazing.” And I’m reading and I’m like that would have been the stupidest, lamest, who cares episode of nonsense in history.
Remember, again, they are somewhat victims of their own success. This is a show where people would spend a lot of time and energy trying to convince each other that Bran was really the Night King. And that level of engagement is amazing. You don’t get to it if the people making the show haven’t done an incredible job. And they did for so long. And to turn your back on them because you didn’t like the last – well, they betrayed us. No. No, you betrayed them. You betrayed them. You bought into that show. You loved it. You cared about it. You told them how great they were. Because they were. And then the minute they do something that’s slightly a – I mean, oh my god, people lost their minds because Jon Snow didn’t hug his dog, sorry, direwolf. Well, guess what? He does later.
And then I hope people go, oh, oh, if he had hugged him there then this hug wouldn’t have meant as much. Yes. Have a little faith.
John: That’s probably true.
Craig: I’d probably [cut] myself – I’m going to get petitions now to have my head chopped off. I don’t care.
John: Back in Episode 296 I sat down with Damon Lindelof. So we talked through Lost.
Craig: Lost. Sure.
John: We also talked through The Leftovers. And interesting to compare the response to those two endings because they’re both kind of big puzzle box shows and people were incredibly frustrated by the ending of Lost. People seemed to generally love the ending of The Leftovers. And I do wonder if some of it was expectation management. I felt like on The Leftovers Damon did a very good job from season one saying do not expect that you are going to have one answer that will completely resolve everything about what happened and why it happened. That will not come. And I think that softened the – conditioned things a little bit better. And so that may be one of the things that showrunners unfortunately now have to think about is not only how do I get this plane up in the air but how do I land this plane in a way that is going to – basically how do I tell everybody right while the plane is going up where I expect to land the plane and condition them for what they’re going to be getting into.
Craig: It’s hard to stop, especially when the joy of something is in the process of it. I mean, I’m a Game of Thrones fan. I’ve seen every minute of every episode of Game of Thrones. Including every minute of an episode that no one else has ever seen. And I’ve loved the journey. And to me the joy was the process. It was the unfolding of this story over time and the collision of characters and things.
Ending is essentially counter to the purpose of the entire venture. So, of course people are going to be a bit confused or put off by some aspects of it because it goes against the DNA of what that show is. That show, the joy of it, is in that it doesn’t end. The world gets bigger and crazier and wilder as things smash together and the stakes grow higher. That’s the joy.
So, I mean, guys, it’s almost as if you would have preferred that, I don’t know, a piano had fallen on them and there was no final season. Is that what you really want? I shouldn’t have asked that question. Now there’s going to be a petition to drop a piano on them.
John: So, I would say if you are considering writing into me and Craig and telling us why we’re wrong, I would urge you to first listen to Episode 235. That is the one where Benioff and Weiss came on our show at our benefit for Hollywood Heart. They were gracious to fill in for Lawrence Kasdan when he could not make it. And they talked about the making of Game of Thrones and Craig’s involvement in that early pilot process. And how this is mostly Craig’s fault.
Craig: Like most things.
John: Actually, you’re somewhat to blame, Craig. Because if you had not intervened when you had intervened maybe Game of Thrones wouldn’t have become a thing and then we wouldn’t have been frustrated by the events of the end of the last season.
Craig: That’s such a – you know what, John? There you go. You want to save yourself disappointment folks, stop watching things. Stop falling in love with things. Stop opening your heart to things because it’s much better to have never loved than to have loved and lost. Is that what you are saying? I’m sorry. No one can deliver it perfectly. And if you point me to something and say, “Well they did it perfectly,” I’m going to say to you no they didn’t. Because they didn’t. There’s no way to do it perfectly. You just do it.
And years later people will come – I swear to you people will come back to this years later and say, “Well actually, here’s a think piece about why it’s brilliant.” That’s just how our culture works. Inevitably.
John: Yep. Those are the stakes of making a high stakes show.
Craig: Oh wow. Segue Man, that’s beautiful.
John: Got to bring it all back around. It’s time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a book I read this last week which I really enjoyed. It’s by Ryan North. It’s called How to Invent Everything. And the premise of the book is that you are a time traveler, whose rental time travel machine, has broken and this is the manual that comes in the little machine. And so, OK, you’re stranded in the past. Here’s how you have to invent all the things that get you back up to modern civilization.
So it goes down from basics of agriculture to metalsmithing to inventing logic. It’s just a very comprehensive guide to how you would get back up to as close as you can do modern day civilization if you were to be stranded in prehistoric times.
Craig: Before being eaten.
Craig: That is a very smart idea for a book. I like that. My One Cool Thing is also some reading material, but as you know big puzzle buy over here. So there’s a magazine. It’s an online magazine called PANDA Magazine which is short for P and A which is short for Puzzles and Answers. It is published by a gentleman named Foggy Brume. That is his real name.
John: I would not buy that as a character’s name. No–
Craig: It’s his real name.
John: I reject the premise of Foggy Brume.
Craig: Foggy Brume. Very nice guy. I’ve had the joy of puzzling with him myself a few times. And he puts out a monthly edition. And I think this is true frequently he does these big puzzle boats once a year where it’s like a big mega puzzle to do. And then each issue has a little sort of mini mega puzzle where you solve, in this case in this month’s issue there are 12 puzzles that are difficult and each one gives you an answer that you plug into one big puzzle to get a big answer. PANDAMagazine.com is where you can find this if you’re big into that sort of thing. It’s a good challenge.
Each magazine comes with a whole bunch of puzzles where he provides the answers so you’re not miserable. And then there are some that are more of like a contest where he will eventually publish the answers once the submission date comes and goes. So, PANDA Magazine. Foggy Brume. A good subscription for the puzzler in your life.
John: I love it. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. Edited by Matthew Chilelli who also wrote our outro this week in the style of Chernobyl.
John: Who did your Chernobyl music? It’s a woman with a hard to pronounce name.
Craig: So her name is Hildur, well I’m going to pronounce it like an American. She is Icelandic. So the cheap pronunciation is Hildur Gudnadottir. In fact it is like Gudnadottir. I can’t do it because I’m not Icelandic and I think Icelandic is the hardest language in the world to learn and speak or something. It’s hard.
She is brilliant. You’re also going to be able to hear her work in Todd Phillips upcoming movie Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Craig: So she’s amazing. And, good news, I believe that – so HBO has confirmed they are releasing her original soundtrack for Chernobyl for download and other versions of it. And I think it’s coming May 31. I think that’s when it will be available. I believe given the quality of the work she did on Chernobyl that that original soundtrack, that original score, is going to become a staple in editing bays.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: It’s going to be one of those temp scores that’s going to confound other composers for years to come I hope. Because it’s unique.
John: Nice. If you have an outro you’d like us to play you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also a place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. For short questions on Twitter Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
You’ll find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. They go up about a week after the episode has aired.
Some folks have started to do recaps and discussion on Reddit so you can head over there and see what people are talking about for this episode.
You can find the back episodes of this show at Scriptnotes.net or download 50-episode seasons in the store at johnaugust.com.
You may also want to check out the Scriptnotes Listener’s Guide at johnaugust.com/guide to see which episodes listeners recommend most.
Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next time.
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