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 437 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, sure, we’ll talk about screenplays, but we’ll also focus on other things that screenwriters write, including outlines and treatments, because Craig you and I, we’ve been doing a lot of that recently.
Craig: Good lord have we.
John: Then we’ll be answering questions from listeners just like you. And in our bonus segment Craig and I are going to discuss the Myers-Briggs personality test. And we will reveal which four letters tell everything you need to know about us.
Craig: Uh, I don’t know why anybody listening to this show hasn’t kicked in the whatever it costs to get these bonus segments. They’re better than the show. They’re the best. [laughs] They’re really better.
John: Sometimes they are really quite delightful. So, if you want to sign up for these it’s obviously at Scriptnotes.net and you can get in on all the bonus action.
All right, a little bit of news. I’m doing a criminal justice panel called Beyond Bars: Changing the Narrative on Criminal Justice. That’s February 26. This is one of those special little panels that will hopefully livestream, but if you want to be there live in the audience you should come to it. So, I’ll put a link in the show notes to that. It’s going to be me and some TV showrunners and some criminal justice experts talking about our portrayals of the whole system on screen and what the realities are and how we can do a better job making those things match up.
So, it’s sort of a companion piece to the mental health and addiction panel that I did last year.
Craig: And where is this panel taking place?
John: It’ll be at the SAG building, so on Wilshire.
Craig: Got it. Got it.
John: Pretty small space. So a lot smaller space than what we do for our live Scriptnotes shows. But if you want to come see that that is available to you on February 26.
Craig: You know what I wish in terms of follow up and news and all the rest, I will there was something you could tell us about Highland 2.
John: Oh, thank you. I was even going to omit that for this week, but now I’ll say it.
Craig: No, I refuse. Say it.
John: A couple shows ago I talked about student licenses. So if you are a student who needs to use Highland 2 we do have the capability of adding your whole school so that if you have a .edu address for that we can sign you up for that. You need to give us the contact information for your program or professor. I didn’t really explain very well this first time. I’ll try to explain better now.
But you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. Say what program you’re in, but most importantly who the instructor is who teaches your writing program so that we can contact them and they can actually send out the form for signing everybody up. So it’s not just like a “hey I’m a student, give me the license.” We actually need to get your program signed up so we can see that you genuinely are part of that writing program.
Craig: On behalf of the public school district in my town of La Canada, I’m curious do you also offer this to public school districts, for high school maybe?
John: At this moment we don’t because we need to have somebody who has a .edu address. And high school kids generally don’t. College kids generally do. So, if we can expand at any point down the road we will, but it’s kind of a manpower problem. We need to actually verify who these people are.
Craig: I was thinking more of like the schoolwide thing, you know. If a district called you and said we want to purchase a school license.
John: Oh yeah. That’s very doable. And that’s already doable sort of in existing plans.
John: Totally possible.
Craig: All right. Great.
John: Let’s segue to the main topic today which is the stuff that we write that is not screenplays. So we’ve talked a lot about screenplays obviously over the course of 400-and-a-zillion episodes. All the words on the page. The format. How to best convey things. But this last couple months I’ve found myself having to write treatments for things. And I’ve sometimes written a treatment for myself which is basically a set of notes, a plan for how I’m going to attack a movie. But this was the first time in a decade that I’ve had to write a treatment that is being turned in. It is like the plan before the plan for the movie. And I found it difficult to write. I found it difficult to convey some of the stuff I would normally be able to do in a scene in just paragraph form, especially when it comes to conveying the inner thoughts of characters. Why they’re doing what they’re doing. A sense of tone. The comedy. The decision about when to move into italics for suggestion of dialogue.
I found it kind of a frustrating form. And you’ve done a little bit more of this than I have, so I wanted to talk through why we write outlines and treatments and sort of best ways to use that document form to convey the movie you hope to write.
Craig: Let’s do it. Because I’ve written a lot of treatments and my treatments are very scriptment like. The last one I wrote I think was about 70 pages. And so I believe in them, but I also find them painful for so many reasons. But ultimately a good pain.
So, I’ve done it all for all sorts of things. And it’s not something that is necessary unless you’re being commanded to do it as a condition of employment, which is rare.
John: Is rare but actually the thing I’m doing right now, one of the steps was a treatment.
Craig: Well there you go. Then you’ve got to do it.
John: And so to have a document that is going to be judged based on how well they can understand the movie in this was new for me.
Craig: Well, then this is a good opportunity for us to kind of talk about some best practices and some techniques that make things a little bit easier. And also some tips and tricks, because there are some pitfalls. You can get trapped inside of a treatment pretty easily trying to achieve an effect that ultimately is not really achievable inside that format.
So, I guess maybe the first thing to sort of ask is how do you even define one of these documents.
John: I think that’s a great place to start, because I would say you scale up from sort of a beat sheet, to an outline, to a treatment, to a scriptment. And the first time I ever heard the term scriptment was in relation to James Cameron who writes these very long, sort of 70-page scriptments that actually do have some dialogue in there and are almost – if you squint you can sort of see the screenplay in them.
But let’s start with that smallest form. Do you have any different levels of document that you would describe?
Craig: No. And the truth is I’ve never done a beat sheet because once I start thinking that specifically then I’m already kind of writing an outline.
John: I would define a beat sheet, and these are much more common in procedural television, but I would define a beat sheet as not necessarily single sentences but really kind of bullet points that sort of talk through these are the moments in the story, especially in television leading up to act breaks to sort of show you – it’s almost like just the index cards of how you would get through the story. And so they’re very minimal and you’re just sort of looking at the big actions that happen there, or the big reversals, the big moments.
An outline is a much more flexible term, and you’ll see things that I would describe as really kind of a treatment but they call it an outline. An outline is, to me, a much more – a better fleshed out version of the beat sheet that actually shows – tends to show scene by scene, definitely sequence by sequence how you’re getting from point A to point B, what is introduced where, the callbacks to things. It’s a longer document. So to me an outline is probably a 10-page document. What are you thinking?
Craig: Yeah. I mean, outline is basically a very thorough beat sheet, where you’re not just saying things like “police station, they interrogate the suspect.” And outline would say “Police station. This person and this person interrogate the suspect. They want to know this. She says this. They’re not sure. They decide to go talk to somebody else. Next bit.” That’s kind of like how you would scale up I would imagine from beat sheet to outline.
John: I find outlines very difficult to read if I’m not actually familiar with the story itself. I’m thinking back to an arbitration I did a year or two years ago and where one of the documents in it was an outline. And I would say it was 15 pages. And it was almost incomprehensible. It was very hard to follow bullet point to bullet point, paragraph to paragraph sort of what was happening. It was in this weird middle ground where it wasn’t kind of telling the story. It was just sort of saying – it was just giving the scene without enough of the transitions and segues between moments to really help me understand what movie I was watching.
Craig: I agree with you. I find outlines to be in a kind of useless no man’s land. I mean, I understand the value of a beat sheet. It’s this minimal organizational tool. It’s sort of the equivalent of continuity. So when you’re making a movie or a television show and you’re in editorial at some point someone will generate a continuity which is just literally a list of scenes in order with their numbers and the briefest description of what happens in them.
But as a plan, an outline kind of falls in between. It’s almost like so if a beat sheet is the plan for tonight is chicken with rice and string beans, an outline is chicken, butter, parsley, string beans, this thing. But there’s no instructions of like how long do you cook, how do you cook it, are there any other ingredients. When? It’s just not enough. It’s not enough to be anything.
Once I decide – this is personal – but once I decide to flesh something out it’s going to be a treatment or a scriptment. Those are really where I find myself living.
John: So this project I was writing this treatment for was going to be one of those longer form things. And so I wasn’t stuck in this sort of no man’s land. I really was sort of writing up the whole thing. I really looked at it as this is a prose document that is describing the movie that you’re going to be watching. And so it’s not trying to be an approximation of the screenplay. It’s really describing sort of sequence by sequence this is what’s happening in this sequence but told in really prose form. And when I needed to use dialogue I would move into italics, which is sort of a common choice. Then it always becomes awkward when you have two characters who need to talk to each other. Generally one person is in italics, one person is not in italics. It’s not perfect. But it works.
The other thing I will say about this treatment that I turned in, it had a lot of preamble that was not filmable material but was really talking you through this is the world, these are the characters, these are the challenges, this is what you expect, this is what you don’t expect. So there was quite a bit before we actually got to the story part of the treatment which is a luxury you generally don’t have when you’re turning in the screenplay. You don’t have five pages to talk through the plan for the thing. You’re actually delivering the actual object itself.
Craig: And how many pages did that – you’re describing this as a treatment.
John: This whole treatment was 26 pages altogether.
Craig: Perfect. So this about makes sense to me. To me, the only difference between a treatment and a scriptment is that in a treatment you are prose-ifying the plan for the movie, but you’re not saying everything. You don’t have to explain every transition or every tiny little thing. You can compress a couple scenes into one descriptive paragraph about the sort of thing that happens. For instance, if there’s a battle you can kind of summarize the battle and explain what matters. And as scriptment you’re doing it like a script, where you just now will say everything. Every moment, every little detail, every little transition. It’s all being spelled out in prose.
Prose is more efficient than screenplay to an extent. Although what I suspect is that I probably have written more words in the 70-page scriptment than I am in the 110-page script because in a script it’s just the description is, I don’t know, it’s just a little bit more efficient. And dialogue is a little punchier.
So, do you have to do – there’s no reason to do a scriptment, by the way. I’m one of the few people that does them. I guess James Cameron is one of the other ones. They’re a bear. It’s just that what happens with me is if you said to me, “Hey, I need you to write the classic 25-page treatment,” I’d start and I’d end up with a 70-page scriptment. Because that’s just kind of how my process goes.
John: Yeah. It was everything I could do to stop myself from doing that and to actually not keep expanding, keep expanding, keep expanding from the inside-out, but actually sort of limit myself to, OK, in this section, about ten minutes of screen time, it’s going to be about this much page count in my treatment and I’m not going to keep expanding and keep expanding. It was a real danger at certain points.
Craig: I mean, the benefit of the scriptment is, well, there are two main benefits. One I think is pretty much a wash with the treatment. The other one isn’t. Both a treatment and a scriptment will provide your collaborators with a very clear picture of your intentions. It’s very hard for them to say afterward, “Why did you do this? Or why did you do that?” You told them you would. It was incredibly clear, in fact. They can disagree. Meaning they can read your script later and go, “OK, we know you said you would do that, and you did it, and we now realize we don’t like it.” That’s fine.
But they can’t be surprised. The benefit, the special benefit of a scriptment, is that you are that much more prepared to write the script. The script becomes that much easier because you’ve kind of written it. You haven’t written all of it. There’s all those wonderful nuances and bits and bobs that come out in scene-crafting. But you’re never wondering, well, OK, now how am I going to get from this to this? Every question has essentially been answered. And so the writing becomes a little bit more of an extension of the scriptment as opposed to just starting up a new process.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk some pros and cons here. I would say a con for the treatment is that as a screenwriter you don’t have all of your tools. Like you don’t have your ability to easily do dialogue, to do transitions, to do a lot of – the film craft of this is not available when you’re just doing sort of prose form. And so you don’t get all the magic you get in writing a screenplay.
John: An advantage I would say though is as I head in now to get notes on this I’m probably a little less protective of what I’ve written because it’s not sort of the finished versions of things. And so it will hopefully be a conversation about this is what I’m trying to go for in this scene, this thing that is not fully written yet. So, while it’s frustrating that I cannot give them the full version of what that scene would be or what that sequence would be like, it’s going to be very easy to change my plan for it based on their feedback and their reactions and get the director’s input into these moments before we’ve even written the scene.
Craig: No question. There is a rigidity that is implied in a scriptment. That said, what I have discovered is that producers have no problem blasting through that rigidity.
John: Of course.
Craig: But the nice thing is even then revising a scriptment as I just did last week is also relatively academic. Because so much of what is there is there. And even when they are saying, well, OK, it seems like a better version of this would be this, or we would prefer if this would happen, that it’s all still within the context of the scriptment. That they’re sort of subconsciously working within the framework that you’ve created. They are aware that there are certain things that if you knock down are a much bigger deal. That is an added benefit of the scriptment. It is a little harder for them to fall into the trap of “we’re making a small thing, a tiny suggestion,” that in fact would unravel the rug. They kind of can see that it would unravel the rug, and so they’re a little more crafty about how they’re going to approach things, presuming that they want the script done within some reasonable amount of time.
John: Also, you can talk about the story as a story rather than the execution. So you can talk about this is why we think this is not going to work. Or this is why we’re not happy with how the story is tracking here. As opposed to we are not happy with the dialogue you wrote in this scene. And so it is a chance to sort of focus on story without the question of is the problem what happens in the scene or is the problem the words that I used to describe the scene.
Craig: For people who might be hearing a strange noise it’s in my office. The heat system sometimes does this little rattle-y thing. It’s a very old building. This building is like from 1908.
John: Yeah. I’ve not been to your new offices yet, but based on everything I’ve heard on my side of the microphone I think it’s like a steampunk kind of collective place.
Craig: It is.
John: And that there’s artists and people living together in this big giant space. And they sometimes have a drum circle going.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah. We all wear top hats with goggles on them. And–
John: A lot of unicycles. A surprising number of unicycles.
Craig: Unicycles powered by little flamethrowers. Yeah, that’s how it is over here. It’s very steampunk. Steampunk is the nerdiest of nerd stuff.
John: I love how nerdy it is.
Craig: It’s so nerdy.
John: I mean, I don’t enjoy it for myself, but I really enjoy that people enjoy it so much.
Craig: Like do you like science fiction? And Victorian England? It’s such a weird combo. Anyway, you were talking earlier and you said something interesting that I kind of filed away that I wanted to circle back around to. And that was the issue of comedy. It is very difficult to be funny in a treatment or an outline or certainly a beat sheet. To the extent that I don’t really try too much. The only kind of comedy I will ever try and include in a scriptment is if it’s the kind of comedy that could be neatly encapsulated in a three-sentence exchange between two people.
But beyond that you can just sort of vaguely say an insane thing ensues, or something like this, and describe it. But if you’re trying to get laughs with this thing you’re going to be sorely disappointed. And you probably will risk seeming a bit sweaty.
John: Yeah. I would agree. Both of the things I’ve been writing in treatment form recently have been comedies. And there’s moments in which like I’ll put in the right line that sort of indicates what the tone of the dialogue is. But more I think I’m indicating like these are funny elements that will be together. Like you can see why these characters in this situation will be funny and what the specific moments are that can happen. But I’m not trying to get you down to the granular joke level, because it’s just not the right medium for it.
Craig: Yes. And, so balancing out the fact that comedy is really difficult, one thing that’s actually very easy to do in a treatment or scriptment, which is very helpful I think for us as writers to both prepare for ourselves and also share with our collaborators, is subtext. Because there are things that characters can be thinking. And as you know from writing a novel prose is brilliant at letting us know what someone is thinking. Whereas in movies and television, the entire point of the process is for us in the audience to discern what someone is thinking through their behavior, their choices, their performance, and so we write toward that. We write to create subtext.
A treatment or an outline or a scriptment allows you to make that subtext clear. So nobody has to wonder what someone is thinking. They know because you’ve told them. Now, whether or not you execute that correctly in the script, who knows. And rewriting is always necessary. But there can be a discussion about intention. Because what happens is a lot of times is without this step, without the treatment or the outline, you turn in a script, it comes back, and they go, “Well we don’t like this scene.” Well why? “Because she’s being mean.” And you go, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, she’s actually being gray. See, here’s what’s going on. And I thought that was clear. It wasn’t clear to you. But this is what’s going on. This is how it should be done on the day. And they go, “OK, OK, OK, we see that, we see that, we see that. Got it. Got it. Got it. Maybe you could just throw another word in or something just so we…” Because people get confused and draw the wrong conclusion all the time. I do it as a reader, too.
Scriptment kind of helps pave the way for that.
John: Yeah. Because you essentially can cheat in that the scriptment form doesn’t have the same rules in that you can only write what can be seen or heard. You can sort of veer into character’s thoughts to make it clear why they’re doing what they’re doing. It comes with the territory there. It’s nice.
Craig: Absolutely. So, it is an exhausting process. I find it very exhausting. And I had to do two of them recently for complicated reasons. I mean, not one and then the same one again, but rather two different ones, but somewhat related. And it’s exhausting. It is as exhausting as writing a screenplay.
But it is really helpful. It is the kind of I think most useful homework you can do. It will always save you from fundamental problems of not knowing where you’re writing to. I think some people get concerned that it may limit them somehow. That it will limit their imagination. But my response to that is always twofold. One, once you’re writing the script if you want to deviate from your scriptment or your outline, do it. And, two, you are perfectly free when you’re writing the scriptment. In other words, you can’t argue that it’s restraining or anti-imagination. You’re using your imagination when you’re writing that. It’s just a question of when do you start making decisions. Do you start then or now? I personally like to do it before I start writing the script because writing a script is really hard and I get very anxious when I have no clue what’s coming next.
John: Yeah. See, I’m generally not a planner ahead. I generally start writing the script without any sort of detailed outline or treatment going into it. So this will be the first time I’ll be doing that based on my treatment. And I will say I am looking forward to the fact that some complicated decisions will have already been made about like how I’m going to get all these things together. That’s great.
But thinking back to Arlo Finch, you know, with Arlo Finch I started the first book with a pretty detailed plan. The second book I didn’t go into it with a specific plan for how I was going to achieve all the things I wanted to achieve. And I really loved that process of discovery. And I discovered the villain who I thought was going to be the series villain was not the series villain and there’s a whole different character. And so I respect that like my not having a very good plan going into the second book probably freed me up in some ways.
But then in the third book I did end up writing an outline and it was helpful. So I’m saying I guess it really does depend on your situation, how much time you have, and sort of which way you work best.
Craig: I’m not surprised that that’s how it went for you. Because if you think about it, you planned chapter one, you planned act one. And you planned act three. And then act two you let yourself roam around a little bit. And that makes sense to me actually. The areas where you get the most screwed when you kind of don’t know what you’re doing is in the beginning and in the end. And it’s only because, look, the inherent risk to full-on freedom, the kind of freedom that comes with the fog of war, of not knowing necessarily right off the bat what comes next, the cost is that you may suddenly realize, oh god, I’ve literally written myself into this terrible corner.
If you’ve planned your beginning and you’ve planned your end, then I think makes total sense – give yourself some license to roam around in the middle.
John: I agree. At some point we will have Michael Arndt on the show. Michael Arndt I think is still in the process of this movie that he’s written that I think he’s directed several versions of along the way. He is the ne plus ultra of what Craig is describing where by making a plan and then sort of building on a plan and building on a plan and building on the plan you can make something hopefully terrific. So, we’ll get Michael on the show at some point because I’m curious to see – he’s probably the most extreme version of this process.
Craig: Yeah. He’s a big planner, isn’t he?
John: He is. All right. Let’s get to some questions. And the first question is actually about that planning. So Michael writes in, “I’m wondering how long the Chernobyl bible that Craig delivered with his pilot was for his development deal. I’m about to start pitching an historical series with a similar scope. And I’m curious to know what kind of deal my reps should be asking for and what kind of document was sufficient for the pickup.”
Craig: OK. Good questions. So I’m looking at it right now. And it was 65 pages. The 64 pages included, let me just give you a sense of it so you have a basic sense of the range, an overview, which was basically a mission statement. This is why I’m writing this. And this is ultimately what it’s about. Then were a number of pages that were about the characters. So the main characters would each get their own page and a description. And then the sort of sub-characters, secondary and tertiary characters would maybe get bundled onto a page together. And then each episode would get its own outline. And those outlines were not scriptments.
So, I’m going to pick a random episode. Episode two is about 12 pages.
John: And these are paragraph pages. And your paragraphs are five to nine sentences maybe?
Craig: Well, you know me, I’m a big white space guy. So typically the average would be three I would say. So I like lots of white space. I also would include photos to kind of help people have references as I was talking through things. And so that was it. I kind of did it that way. And laid it all out in that regard.
Now in terms of the deal, the deal that I made which I think was fairly standard was that I would provide them with a show bible, and then I would provide them with a pilot script. That’s kind of what they do. I think that’s pretty standard. I mean, Michael I’m not sure if you’re going to places like HBO or streamers, or if this is a network thing. I don’t know. Probably not network because you’re saying it’s a six-hour miniseries, so I assume it’s like an HBO kind of thing. That’s basically what you’re going to get. I mean, that’s how they do it.
Now, I had never written a show bible before. I asked Carolyn Strauss to get me an example. She sent me one. And lo and behold I did mine much longer. It’s just what I do. So I’ve written the longest show bible ever and probably ruined it for people after me who are going to be like, “Well, you know, Craig’s show bible was…” Sorry. Sorry other writers.
John: I do hear other folks who are doing shows for streamers find that they are being asked to write a bunch of additional stuff that was sort of not in their original contract between delivery of the pilot script and the decision to actually pick up the series. And that can be incredibly frustrating. And that is a situation which you do want to stand up for yourself and say like, “OK, I’m doing this because it’s helpful for me, but at a certain point you need to start paying me for the things I’m writing.”
It sounds like your show bible was already part of your contract which is great, which is how it should be.
Craig: Yeah. And honestly it’s all about get the show or don’t get the show. And I’m going to do that anyway. I mean, it’s just part of my process regardless. So the thing about the term show bible is it’s incredibly flexible. It can be, I suppose, whatever you want it to be. I saw one sample that was like five pages long. And I’m like I don’t know how this is a bible per se. So it’s really what you make of it. Just like same in features. Same deal.
All right. Next question. Anonymous writes, “I have a short film that I’ve birthed.” Oh, I like that. “I hired a writer.” Wait, so did you birth it or, OK?
“I hired a writer to write a 14-page script and now after a year of revisions a team of people are helping produce the film on a very small scale. A producer came onboard to help, non-paid, and they are insisting that you can’t have the word ‘I’ in the title. Apparently they are OK with the letter ‘I’ but not the word “I.” They say you are asking the audience to be in the position of a character before knowing anything about them. They have taught screenwriting in college and won screenplay competitions and apparently this is a big sticking point for them. Am I missing something? Is there filmmaking gospel that I missed about the word ‘I’ in titles? I am Legend. And I, Tonya seemed to do just fine. I acknowledge the word ‘I’ sounds weird in a title but I think the uniqueness helps it stand out. And there is some logic to using I am blank based on our story.”
John, this is a puzzling question.
John: It is a puzzling question. So, Anonymous, you are not crazy. It is absolutely fine to use “I” in the title. The reason why I picked this question and put it here is because it comes down to the issue of what is rules and what is taste. And the producer has certain taste, and the producer does not like the word “I” in a title. That’s fine. That producer can have that opinion. That does not make it gospel. It does not make it right. You can freely debate that person on whether “I” can be there. But there certainly is no rule.
And people have tastes. People have opinions. And I remember on Charlie’s Angels one of the producers was really obsesses with – she wanted to see the Angels eat to make sure that it was clear that for all the physical activity that they’re doing they do actually eat food. But didn’t want them to eat food in a messy way. And she had a problem with any sort of like Carl’s Jr kind of messiness. And I get that. That’s taste. That’s not actually a story point. It is just her taste and her opinion. And when you are bringing somebody in on your project you do want their taste and their opinion. But it does not mean that you always have to follow it or treat that as being gospel.
Craig: Yeah. First of all, Anonymous, if you hire a writer to write a 14-page script I just want to caution you to not write into a screenwriting podcast and say that you have a short film that you birthed. My problem with “I” is that. It’s when you say I’ve birthed. How about you and the writer birthed it, since the writer wrote the 14-page script.
But that said, you say a producer came onboard to help, nonpaid. So I’m not really sure what that means. But what you’re describing that they’re doing is this – it’s called appeal to authority. Rather than expressing their opinion as an opinion, they say it’s not an opinion because, A, I have taught screenwriting in college, and B, I have won screenplay competitions. Well, that in fact represents zero authority I’m sorry to say to that particular individual. Also, this is art. It has nothing to do with authority whatsoever. Either it’s good or it’s not, depending on who you are and where you’re standing and how you see it.
No, there’s no rule. And anybody that starts to do stuff like that needs to go away. Especially when they’re tossing out rules that you know are wrong. I mean, you just know that’s wrong. How is this person walking around in a world where this is plenty of stuff that has the word “I” in it and thinking that somehow you’re going to be fooled? That’s the part about this that I find vaguely sociopathic.
John: Yeah. That they’re holding onto their opinions so strongly even despite evidence to the contrary.
Craig: Right. Like clear evidence. And they presume that somehow you won’t unearth it? You will.
John: Oh no! They have IMDb.
Craig: Wait a second. Before I say what I’m about to say, do you have or have you ever heard of the Internet? You haven’t, great. So you can never say “I” in a title. Yeah, no, that’s just silly.
John: Not true. Salvatore from Australia writes, “Listening to Episode 436 with Liz Hannah you mentioned that the writer should always focus on what their own unique perspective is when writing a project. But what exactly does that mean in this context? I’ve heard that a lot but I’ve never actually heard it defined. For example, what did Craig recognize as his own unique perspective in the Chernobyl disaster? Was it the theme that lies always incur a debt of truth? In other words, how do I answer the question of why should I be the one to tell this story?”
Craig: Those are two different questions.
John: OK. Different questions. But let’s try to answer both.
Craig: Yes. So, you have one question, Salvatore, which is what does it mean to have a unique perspective on something. And then the other question is why should I be the one to tell this story. There is no answer to the second question. Nobody should be somebody to tell any story. You want to, you are compelled to, you feel a need to. It would give you artistic pleasure to do so. That’s why. I don’t believe in this kind of notion that one person or another is specifically anointed by fate or the universe to tell a particular story.
What is your unique perspective? The way your mind works. That’s it. Meaning when we say that to people what we’re really saying is do this the way that feels instinctively beautiful to you. Don’t do it the way you think other people do it or would want you to do it. So, when I sit down and I think I’m going to write something like Chernobyl, what I don’t do is go and watch a bunch of other limited series based on historical events and go, OK, oh, that’s good, I should do it like that. Or obviously I wanted to do it like this, but they do it like that. I should really do it like that.
No. I just follow my gut. So that’s what we really mean. Every writer has some sort of instinctive understanding of what they want to do. And that’s the part that you provide that nobody else can. So, let that be your loadstone.
John: Yeah. Salvatore is asking about unique perspective. I think what we tend to look for is unique vision and unique voice. And those are things you can find in writing, both writing on the page and sort of what the ultimate thing is that gets made. But it’s sometimes easier to think about that in terms of other media. So like with a composer, like composers have very distinct styles. You could imagine sort of a Danny Elfman score on this movie versus a – I cannot pronounce Craig’s Chernobyl composer, but–
Craig: Hildur Guðnadóttir.
John: They would be very different approaches. And they have different ears, different visions, different voices when it comes to how they are going to do their work and do their art. And so it’s a question of like what are you brining about your art and your perspective, your vision to this material. And that’s why Aaron Sorkin writing about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is going to be very different than Craig writing about that or me writing about that. There’s different things that interest us and there’s different things we’re going to highlight. It’s just going to be a different thing.
And so you are inevitably going to be coming into a project with all of your priors. All your history. Your tastes. Your fears. That is going to make it unique. I think what Craig is arguing is don’t try to minimize what makes you unique in order to write the version of the movie that someone else could write, because that’s pointless.
Craig: Exactly. That’s exactly right.
John: Cool. Do you want to take Breton Zinger?
Craig: All right. Our next question is from Breton Zinger, which is awesome.
John: It’s a great name.
Craig: I want to be Breton Zinger. Breton Zinger writes – this is not a question. This is an order. “You should do a segment on how to be productive writing wise while traveling. I always have grand plans to get X, Y, and Z done, and then I only get X started.” Yeah, what do you think? You’ve done a lot of traveling. I’ve done a lot of traveling. How do you manage this?
John: A recent thing I’ve started doing while traveling, and I went to Korea and Japan, and I had very long flights ahead of me. And so a thing I’ve started doing which I really recommend for everybody is you know you’re going to have two, five, 13 hours on a plane. That’s great time where no one is going to interrupt you. While we’re in the plane before we’ve taken off I make a list of here’s all the things I want to do on this flight. And that’s stuff I want to actually accomplish, but also I want to watch that movie I’ve been meaning to watch. I’ll go through and figure out what movies are on the seat back that I’ve not seen yet that I do want to see.
I have books and it’s like I want to read two chapters in this book. So not just the stuff that I have to get done, but the stuff I’ve always kind of wanted to get done. Because to me there’s nothing more dispiriting than having spent 13 hours on a plane and realize like, oh, I got kind of nothing done in that 13 hours. Or I played games on my phone that I could have done anywhere.
So, I try to make that time really productive. And so whether it’s travel, whether it’s jury service, whether it’s some other thing where you have a block of time that is uncommitted, use that time.
The other thing that I’ve been much better about in the last few years, especially with writing the books, is that I need to have at least an hour of uninterrupted writing time every day. And so I claim that with my family saying I’m going to need this time. And so I can go downstairs to the lobby. I can go somewhere else. But I need to be uninterrupted for one hour to do my work. And that’s been great. And I’ve actually been pretty productive during breaks because I’ve sort of blocked off that time.
Craig: Those are all very strong notions. Yeah, long flights are nice because you actually get so bored that the notion of doing work becomes attractive.
The one thing to keep in mind, Breton, is that when you are traveling you’re going to be more tired than you normally are. So I think possibly just lower the expectations. There’s possibly going to be some jetlag. Also, you’re traveling, so that means you’re probably there for some purpose. To see things, or do things. So you’re going to have less time and your mind is going to be a little more distracted. And also the writing is something that is contextualized within your normal life at home and you’re not in your normal life at home.
So, I would say also give yourself a little bit of a break and maybe don’t make grand plans to get X, Y, and Z done. Since you only get X started, how about next time just make a plan, a non-grand plan to get X done. And see if you can do a little bit more on X, and then you don’t have Y and Z staring down at you going, “You suck.” And see if that works. If that works then maybe next time you could do, OK, do X and start Y. Just manage your expectations. It’s hard.
John: Yeah. Agreed. Patrick Tebow writes, “During the Three Page Challenge section of Episode 434 you two briefly touched on the use of pictures in a scene, such as when a character looks at a photo on a desk. Is this prop and avoid at all cost kind of situation? Or is it mostly a problem when a picture is used as a cheap way to start a conversation between two characters?” Craig, what do you think? Is it always a bad idea to be referencing a photo or a picture in movies?
Craig: It’s mostly always a bad idea.
John: I agree with you.
Craig: I never want to say anything is always wrong, but somebody using a photo to start a conversation between two characters, that’s easily avoidable. The bigger issue is when a character is alone and looking at a photograph. Because that’s a cheap way for the people making something to externalize a thought. I need to know that they miss mom. Or, you know, the classic one is some guy picks up a photo and it’s him and this woman and he’s sad. And we realize that she’s either dead or left him. And it’s just pretty tropey. It’s pretty clunky. And it’s kind of incumbent upon us to come up with interesting new ways to do that. I think at this point in 2020 pulling the old staring at a photo thing is going to feel a little soap opera. A little The Young and the Restless.
John: I agree with you. Because I’ve never actually had the experience of wanting to pull out a photo and stare at it. It’s just not a thing I’ve ever done. And I don’t believe it. The movie 1917 which I enjoyed very much does have that as an element. I think it gets away with it to a larger degree than you’d expect because it’s set up in the plot and also because we have an expectation that these soldiers actually would have been carrying those photos with them and it’s a prop that is actually handed off and sort of useful story wise in the course of the movie.
So I believed the characters more when they are referencing photos because that’s a thing that soldiers do.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. So if it’s appropriate to the time then it makes total sense. I mean, but if you’re telling a story now you’re right. I mean, I don’t look at photos ever by the way. That’s a whole other side conversation. What’s happened to our culture with photos, I just don’t understand it. I mean, do you ever just sit there and start looking through old photos?
John: No, I look through Instagram to look at other people’s photos.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs]
John: Photos are about what’s happening right now, not about history.
Craig: Right. So that’s also insane, by the way. So it’s all crazy. But when people are like we have to get a photo of ourselves I’m like, OK. Why? Are we going to – I mean, I’m becoming that guy who is like, fine, I’ll do it, but will this ever be looked at again? Why are we doing it? It’s so weird. Anyway.
John: Let’s do one last letter. This is from Mark who is actually Mike. So this is the guy who wrote in saying that he is moving to Los Angeles and wanted advice and people wrote in with advice. His real name is actually Mike. We changed it to Mark because we’ve sort of gotten in the habit of changing everyone’s names unless there’s a real reason to keep their real name because of all the assistant stuff we’ve been doing. We just don’t want to accidentally put people’s real names in things. But his name is actually Mike even though we called him Mark early on.
Craig, would you read this for us?
Craig: Yeah. This is his update. He says, “Thank you so much for airing my question about moving to LA. I’d also like to thank the listeners for their fantastic advice. I especially appreciate how widely the advice has ranged from esoteric to practical. Passion, enthusiasm, patience, and consistency will still with me for years. But don’t write at home and get a California driver’s license are going to be equally useful.
“Here’s my update. I landed yesterday after a hectic month of packing my Brooklyn apartment, quitting my job, and using up every last drop of healthcare I could squeeze out of my employer-sponsored plan.” Oh America. “It’s a huge relief to finally be here. All I’ve seen of the city so far has been the freeway from LAX and the two-block radius surrounding my North Hollywood apartment.” Ah, that’s where I was.
“And I can’t wait to get a car so I can continue to explore. I’m heading to a D&D game tonight.” What? This guy is amazing. “And I’m hoping to meet a bunch of fellow nerds and writers. Would it be possible for you to put me in contact with Eric from Episode 432? If he’s comfortable sharing his contact info with me I’d like to reach out regarding writer’s groups. Thanks again for your time and everything you do. I’m hoping to make it out to a live event soon. Best, Mike.”
Well that’s, I mean–
John: That’s lovely.
Craig: He sounds like us.
John: He does. So I did put him in contact with Eric. Eric wrote back and said, “Sure,” and so they are going to be talking about a writer’s group.
Craig: Three months later we’re going to be doing a How Would This Be a Movie. Eric has murdered Mike.
John: [laughs] Wouldn’t that be fantastic? So it’s really two outcomes. Either like the same way that Megan McDonnell was hired to write Captain Marvel 2, it could be that Mike was hired to write another Marvel movie, or he killed Eric.
Craig: Or Mike and Eric met and fell in love. And then just started doing crimes like–
Craig: Just like Bonnie & Clyde. Listen, there’s a lot that we can do with this.
John: It’s a ripe story area.
Craig: We really got to see how this turns out. This is exciting.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a Reddit thread called r/imsorryjon. It is told from the perspective of Garfield, sort of. Basically it’s a re-imagination of Garfield in which Garfield is a Lovecraftian monster who kills and possessed Jon Arbuckle and does horrible, horrible things. It is a dark, disturbing thread to go down. And I just greatly enjoyed it. I just love appropriation of cultural elements and twisting them into wild shapes.
I particularly like this idea that Garfield is sort of one of those lantern fish that sort of like lures people in. So I would just say if you want to see some disturbing Garfield imagery I would point you to this Reddit thread.
Craig: I mean, yeah, I do want to see that. How could I not want to see that? My One Cool Thing this week is a person. And I don’t know if you know him, John, but I certainly do very well. His name is Scott Silver. Scott is a screenwriter like you and I and Scott is nominated for the second time for an Academy Award. This time around it’s for co-writing Joker with Todd Phillips. He was also nominated for 8 Mile.
And I just want to call him out because I think a lot of times what ends up happening, especially when you’re writing with a director is that suddenly the other writer kind of starts to disappear a little bit for whatever reason.
Craig: And weirdly the reverse happens in television where I notice that suddenly – like Johan just started disappearing from things. And even sometimes people would say “Chernobyl director Craig Mazin” and I would have to be like, no, for the love of – let me right it and tell you why that’s not true.
But Scott has been doing fantastic work forever. He wrote and directed Johns. That was his first movie, which is a really cool movie. He wrote 8 Mile. And he also wrote The Fighter which is awesome. And now Joker. And so he’s had a very long, very productive career. And he’s a terrific guy and an excellent writer. And so I just thought, yeah, I’m going to give this guy a little extra love because, you know, a lot of times when this stuff is going on you can get easily overshadowed by the actors, and the directors, especially in features. And so my One Cool Thing this week is Scott Silver.
John: And also Scott is an east coast based writer as well I believe. Right? He’s not living in Los Angeles.
Craig: Yes. He lives in Manhattan.
John: Fantastic. So, again, you can run your career from wherever you choose to live. Easier in Los Angeles, but definitely doable in New York.
Stick around if you’re a Premium member because we will be discussing the Myers-Briggs personality index. But otherwise that’s the end of our show.
Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao, with production assistance this week by Stuart Friedel and Dustin [Box]. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by James Launch and Jim Bond. 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 longer questions like the ones we answered today.
For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. And a reminder, of course, sign up for Premium membership at Scriptnotes.net to get all the back episodes and our bonus segments. Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: OK, Craig. When did you first hear about the Myers-Briggs type indicator?
Craig: Many, many years ago. It was I think literally when I met Melissa. Because–
John: So college?
Craig: College. Because her parents were super into it.
John: So for people who don’t understand what we’re talking about, it is an assessment, it’s a test, it’s a short three to five minute test you take where you answer a bunch of questions and then it scores you. This is back in the days of pencil and paper when I was doing this in college. It scores you and you get a four letter code that sort of indicates your personality type.
So there’s four criteria. There’s four sort of characteristics. And it comes out to be a grid of 16 personality types.
Craig: Yeah. So this is all based roughly on Jungian stuff. Jung, how will I say this as charitably as possible, was wrong about a billion things.
John: As was Freud.
Craig: Correct. But that’s the point. They were early. They were wrong the way that a lot of people thought the world was flat and yet they were brilliant. So, Aristotle did not know that the world was round, but he’s a pretty brilliant guy. So they were, you know, at the forefront of things. Did Aristotle not know that the world was round?
John: I don’t think he–
Craig: I don’t think he did.
Craig: Well we’ll put that in the hopper for a later discussion. But so, you know, he had these theories, this kind of collective unconscious and these archetypes and these things that meant something to all of us. Regardless, out of that comes this fascinating way of analyzing personality. And unlike a lot of other ways of analyzing personality which basically come down to asking you are you a this kind of person or a that kind of person, Myers-Briggs uses like a quad-axis formula where there are four different scales. They are binary scales. You go this way or you go that way. So for instance you are extroverted or introverted. The words don’t always mean what they mean colloquially.
What’s fascinating about this is that they take the results of those four things and then analyze each combination. There are 16 in all. And out of the combinations of these things they make inferences which aren’t necessarily intuitive to what the individual parts of the collective four letter descriptor is. But for whatever reason when they look at it and combine those four things and assign this, OK, if you’re this, this, this, and this, you’re going to be this. It’s kind of right. It kind of works.
John: It’s kind of right but it’s also kind of right in the way that horoscopes are kind of right sometimes.
John: Or your astrological sign or a lot of other things that feel like this does apply to me as opposed to the other criteria. So, we’ll put a link to one of these tests so if people want to test for themselves to see what the score would be for their personality type. You told me that you came out as an ENTJ?
Craig: That’s right. Yeah.
John: And so when I took this test in college I also came out as either an ENTJ or an INTJ. Anyone who knows me that I’ve become much more extroverted over time. So, that I became an E over time. When I took the test last night I came out as ENFP, which was different. But honestly I think I messaged you the actual scorecard I got. I was very close to the median on all of these things, and so it really was not a strong thing. Like answering one question slightly differently would have changed my score. So I think I probably am very similar to you on a lot of these things.
Judgment versus perception. I would perceive you to be strongly judgmental. That sounds negative and loaded, but you do tend to have very strong opinions on things.
Craig: Yeah. So it’s not in the Myers-Briggs model, judgment is not necessarily like I’m judge-y.
Craig: It’s rather – and neither is perception more like, oh, I notice lots of things. In the Myers-Briggs model judgment is basically about, well, frankly it’s related to what we were talking about in the main episode about scriptments. Judgment is really about planning, and being decisive, and you’re preference if you are more towards judgment is liking things to be a bit more clear-cut and decided. You don’t do well with a general sense of not knowing what’s going to happen. Uncertainty is not your friend.
Whereas people who are more towards the perception side of things, it’s a little easier for them to adapt to changing circumstances. They’re OK with a kind of I’m not really sure what I’m going to do next. I mean, really what it comes down to is are you the kind of writer that likes to know the next scene or are you not. And that’s kind of cool actually.
John: That does describe the difference between you and me. It’s that I am a little bit more on the seat of my pants. We should I think say that mental health professionals don’t use this test.
John: So it really is a thing that is interesting for lay people to do and explore. Have you ever tried to use anything like this for the characters that you’re writing?
John: Nor have I. But I do feel like it’s the kind of thing where aspiring screenwriters might that that, oh, this will be a great insight. I suspect there are tools out there that will help you figure out the personality types for your characters. And I just do not think it would be a useful way to spend your time on thinking about your characters.
Craig: Not even remotely. Because ultimately what it is is there’s 16 of them. So what are we saying? There’s only 16 kinds of humans in the world? Not at all. It really is just a general sense of how you – the only useful aspect to this as far as I’m concerned, other than just vague curiosity, is that it might help you feel a little bit seen and a little bit normal. Because there’s a description of who you are and it’s kind of cast in the most positive light.
For instance, I think in our society we tend to view extroversion as a very positive thing. You’re a people person. Whereas introverts are a bit suspicious. They’re shy. And maybe they’re afraid. And what Myers-Briggs says is neither of those are two. Extroversion/introversion are simply defined as what energizes you more, being around people or not? And that’s a very positive way of thinking about who you are.
So that part is really helpful. And in that sense it’s fun to do.
Should you use this for writing? No. Should you go to those sites that are like if you’re this type you want to marry that type? No. [laughs] That’s nonsense. That’s all just nonsense.
That said, if you are with someone, as you and I are, not just by the way with our spouses but with each other, and you’re involved with people, and you’re–
John: You have relationships in work relationships, in friendships, everything.
Craig: Exactly. And you’re kind of curious why when you relate to a certain person there are some times where there are conflicts or confusions, doing this could actually give you a little bit of insight. And by insight really what I mean is understanding and empathy. You go, OK, they actually do see the things a bit differently.
So it’s easy to say, ugh, the problem with that person is they’re so rigid. They’re always just trying to quickly decide what we’re doing next. They’re not open-minded. And the other person could say, oh my god, that person literally doesn’t plan ahead or think of anything, they’re just improvising constantly and it’s just this mush. Well, those are negative ways of thinking about those things but there are positive ways of thinking about those things. And I think this helps you do that.
John: Yeah. And the degree to which those could be complementary traits for the other person.
John: In terms of thinking about this with your characters, as I was going through the questions yesterday I would say that some of the questions are worth asking of the characters in your story. So, I would say I don’t think it’s a good idea to come out with what is the four-letter score for this character. But asking question about like does this person seek out parties and social interactions, or does this person want to sort of retreat and build up energy for themselves? Is this person quick to make a decision or want to gather everything in before making a decision? Those are useful metrics that could apply to some characters in your script. And especially if you’re looking at the protagonist in your script and how he or she works then you might decide, OK, you know what’s going to be great and frustrating for this character in this comedy that I’m writing is a person who is going to do the opposite. And that is probably a useful way of thinking about some of these traits in terms of the characters we’re writing.
Craig: Yes. It is a really good way to interrogate your own personality bias that may be getting imposed on your characters. Especially if people say all your characters sound the same. Well my guess is then they all sound like you. And so you have a way of thinking about things and suddenly all of your characters are. So taking a look at the ways other people think about things, not as deficits or failures but rather simply as differences might help you expand some things.
Craig: For instance, one of the axes of the Myers-Briggs test is sensing versus intuition. By the way, their words are terrible.
John: I think they’re bad choices. Because it’s not like sensitive is more sensitive. It’s actually relating to does it have to have data or you’re going on gut feeling.
Craig: Yeah. They didn’t pick great words. But regardless, the sensing side of things are people that are rather detail-oriented. They’re somewhat literal and practical. They like to deal with concrete stuff. And the other side, the opposite on that axis is intuition. These are people who are more conceptual. They’re more abstract. They like to know what the overall theory or big picture is. They like to know what’s the point of this as opposed to how does it function. There’s an interesting dichotomy there.
John: I’m not sure it quite is a dichotomy though. That’s [unintelligible].
Craig: Right. It’s kind of an arbitrary thing that they’ve done. All of it is arbitrary, honestly. But it is a nice way to challenge yourself when you’re writing your characters to say, wait, if they’re all sounding the same is it because they’re all kind of super detail-oriented people? Where’s the person that gets frustrated with that and just wants to know why and how? Just big picture this for me, I’m a dreamer, I’m a conceiver, I’m an imaginer. Whatever it is. Just nice ways to get out of your own head. Weirdly I suppose the tool is designed to get into your own head. But I like to think of it as getting out of your head.
John: So, as I was doing research last night another sort of test that’s done in a similar way is called the Big Five personality traits. So OCEAN is the model they have on call. And those five characteristics are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Craig: [laughs] I’m neuroticism. All of it.
John: Yes. 100%. And I bring it up just because in the traits that the Myers-Briggs is looking at, those aren’t the only meaningful traits that help define how we react in the world.
John: And so I would say just if it’s helpful for you to look at it that way, great. But that’s not going to give you a complete picture of why someone does the things that they do.
Craig: No question. This is just I think more than anything it’s food for thought and a fun party trick to do when you’re – I mean, when I would sit and do this with Melissa’s family, half of the discussion was, “Wait, you say you’re a blah-blah-blah? No you’re not.” The other problem with this is that usually these tests are, well, they’re asking you a question and you’re answering it. But we don’t always know what we are.
John: 100%. And you’re imagining one scenario in which you remember, oh that’s right, I left that party early. But that other time where I stayed out till 4am. Wait, so how do I answer this?
Craig: Correct. Sometimes people also – they think that one way is better than another and so they answer that way.
John: Totally. My personality type is that I want to ace the test.
Craig: Well there you go. So then you’re starting to min-max this thing.
Craig: I think you do, min-maxing the Myers-Briggs. We’re nerds.
John: Craig, thanks.
Craig: Thank you John.
- John will be part of the Beyond Bars: Changing the Narrative on Criminal Justice panel on February 26th
- Contact email@example.com for information on Highland 2 for students and educators
- Outlines and treatments on screenwriting.io, and some examples in the johnaugust.com library
- Scriptnotes, episodes 436, 434, and 432
- Reddit’s r/imsorryjon
- Scott Silver on IMDb and Wikipedia
- The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator on Wikipedia and an online test
- The Big Five personality traits
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by James Llonch (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.