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John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 474 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. This episode is coming out Tuesday, November 3, 2020. So if you’re listening to this while standing in line to vote, thank you.
Craig: And if you’ve already voted, thank you also.
John: And that’s the last we’re going to talk about the election in this episode. Instead, we’re going to try to lessen any anxiety you may be feeling today.
Craig: Think of this episode as a much of hot chocolate with the little mini marshmallows.
John: Or a dog sleeping in a sun beam.
Craig: Or that song you hear that takes you back to a fun night in college.
John: Let this episode be a half a Xanax and a glass of red wine. Not that you should ever do that. But people have.
Craig: Or if you’re more risk adverse a fuzzy blanket and a good book.
John: It’s Bob Ross painting fluffy little clouds for an hour.
Craig: It’s the Monday New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s just so easy to fill out.
John: It’s McDonald’s French fries that you don’t have to share.
Craig: It’s a lost episode Ted Lasso where he goes grocery shopping with Nate.
John: It’s Elmo from Sesame Street giving you a hug.
Craig: It’s your high school coach saying he’s proud of you.
John: It’s a marshmallow roasted over a campfire to just the right shade.
Craig: AKA completely burnt. It’s a hot shower you can stay in for an hour.
John: It’s hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock and then realizing it’s Sunday and you can just sleep in.
Craig: It’s an episode where we answer some listener questions. We help a writer figure out how to his agent. We discuss the quiet moments before the big set pieces. And we just keep things calm.
John: Yeah. And, in our bonus episode for Premium members, we’ll talk about dogs.
Craig: I mean, dogs.
John: In the spirit of keeping things calm and quiet the only bit of news is that I’m going to be doing a panel for YALL Fest. So, if you’re a person who is interested in middle grade writing or YA writing, either reading those books or writing those books, I’m doing a panel on November 13. YALL Fest is great. And it’s all organized by middle grade and YA authors. And so it’s a national thing. It’s all online. It’s all free. My panel is on November 13 at 3pm Eastern, 12pm Pacific, with a bunch of other middle grade authors. But if you’re interested in writing in that space at all you should sign up for it because it looks to be a great, great program this year.
So there will be a link in the show notes to that.
John: Now, Craig, why don’t you start us off? You suggested this topic of the calm before the storm.
Craig: I wonder why. I wonder why this came to mind. So, in movies and television shows we have all experienced this moment and it’s something that I think we write a lot without being even conscious that we’re writing specifically this moment. It comes before the end. Pretty much right before the end. Something big is about to happen. The final movement of the story. And right before the final movement of the story whereas the normal order of business is to propel things constantly forward everything just stops. The whole thing stops. It’s like everyone takes a break. Which theoretically is anti-dramatic and disrupts flow.
But in fact the calm before the storm moment, and I’m talking about right before the verdict of a big case, or right before the big battle in the war movie, or right before the performance in the singing movie, or right before the big final game in a sports movie, in the moment before that everybody has this quiet night before/moment before moment. And I wanted to talk about why we have those moments and what’s supposed to happen in them and what the value is.
John: Yeah. What is the dramatic purpose of these moments? Because as you describe them, yeah, I see them in all of these stories. In all of these movies. And I feel like it’s true because in real life there is a buildup and a buildup in anticipation, but there is also a moment before the thing that I know is going to happen is going to happen. And it can be a moment of anxiety but it can also be a moment of coming together. It can be a moment of synthesis of sort of what I’ve learned so far. So talk to me about this moment. What do you see there?
Craig: Well, it’s usually at a point in your story where all of the things the characters needed to do, all the things they were capable of doing, they have done. So, there’s a sense of you’ve earned a break. We need to know as the audience that you have done all the preparations. And then you have this moment that we right now as people are listening to this are probably experiencing. Because we are in it right now. On Tuesday we wait to see how this all turns out. We’ve done it. We voted. We did what we could do. And all of the phone-banking and all that stuff is over and now you have a moment of reflection. And before the big final action typically there is a shared moment.
It is shared between our main characters. There is some sense of a relationship that is completing. Oftentimes these moments are a drink or a celebration. In the last season of Game of Thrones, before the big huge crazy battel began there was an episode that was basically a long party. And in the party people were drinking and celebrating. They were essentially reconciled. All of the “family business” had been completed. What happens in those sequences? People give each other advice. People consummate relationships that maybe were meant to go to a higher level. And they have a moment where they can help define for us watching who they actually are. Because in those moments – I think when I watch those moments at least – what I’m seeing is something that most closely approximates those moments in real life where things feel slowed down.
Where everything just slows down to a stop.
John: Classically in a story we’re looking at a protagonist/antagonist relationship. And so there’s still going to be a battle, a final moment to come. There’s going to be that big showdown is going to happen. But then a lot of smaller protagonist/antagonist relationships along the way. And so talk about those family relationships, how the team has come together, those other smaller tensions are hopefully resolved in this moment so we can basically concentrate all of our energy and all our force on this last thing.
So it is that backstage moment where the two rivals finally sort of come together to do this thing. Or the two people on the team who were always fighting and bickering are now united in a common cause. This is the moment where that happens so it doesn’t have to happen in that final set piece.
Craig: Right. In fact, it needs to happen here because it can’t happen in the final set piece. The problem with those things happening in the final set piece is that they feel circumstantial. When you make an alliance in a moment where if you don’t make the alliance your head is going to come off that’s not a dramatically fulfilling alliance. That’s just an alliance of convenience. But in these moments before what happens is we do take a minute to quietly talk to each other about where we went wrong and how it can be better and right and how we are now unbreakable.
So our alliances are secure. There’s no more question of where we stand with each other. We solidify our position no only vis-à-vis each other but with the community around us, whether that’s a baseball team, a small town, a city. Or an entire country. Thinking, OK, another classic example, the rah-rah speech is a version of this. The “we will not go gently into the night” speech before you fight the aliens. Everybody is now on the same page finally. All on the same page.
And why? Because symbolically these moments are about preparing for death. We are getting our affairs in order. It’s remarkable how similar these scenes are to pre-death scenes. What do you do? You get your affairs in order. You say your goodbyes. You tell people you love them. You bury the hatchet and squash all beefs. You write your final messages. You complete the circle. And we need this in our drama because if we don’t sense the characters are prepared to die then victory just seems sort of inevitable.
John: Yeah. Now we’re talking about this from the point of view of the characters. We’re talking about it from our point of view as the writer. But let’s think about this from the point of view of the audience. Why does the audience need this moment of calm? Think about your experience watching a movie and if it’s just relentless, you’re on a constant forward march to this finale, you never get to catch your breath yourself. You never sort of get to resettle in the seat and enjoy the movie that you’re watching. It’s just relentlessly pushing at you.
And so it gives you a moment of a tonal break. A moment to pick up the popcorn that you sat down on the floor and get back into it. It’s just changes the dynamic for you so that you have some different textures in your movie, otherwise it can just be the same thing the whole time through.
Craig: Yeah. And it also decouples your feeling about the hero from their potential success. Because I don’t want to love someone simply because they win. I want to love them for who they are in a moment. And when they have finally struggled past their flaws and patched up the conflict between themselves and the people that they should love or protect, or be an ally for, you feel like they’ve earned your love. Before they go into that battle I go, “They get it. They’re good. If they die now they die. But if they win they win. But either way I love them now.”
As opposed to just sort of like, well, let’s see. Because if he wins, then hooray, but if not, screw him. He just didn’t have it. And we don’t like that. We want to know before the big swing happens that they’re good. We want to know they’re good.
John: It’s crazy that you bring this up right now because this is actually the scenes I’m working on this week are in this space of the script. And it is so fascinating that you need to give the story permission to sort of go either way. So that the central characters, we want them to succeed, but we also know that if they don’t succeed, if this thing that we hope happens doesn’t happen that’s also OK. And obviously we’re talking about in general movies where there’s a final set piece, a final sort of thing that needs to happen. But even the thing I’m writing right now which is not so set piece driven there’s a fundamental dramatic question that’s being asked at the start of the story and changes along the way. But it’s a binary choice. What’s going to happen?
And to have this moment of quiet at this place 85% of the way through the story it makes it OK with either answer, which is important.
Craig: It is. It doesn’t have to be right before something large. My own example when I was working on Chernobyl was our big battle is a courtroom case which isn’t even a courtroom case. It’s a show trial. So the verdict has been predetermined. There’s nothing less dramatic than that. But there is a break in the trial and two of our three main characters go outside and they sit on a bench. And essentially what happens is one of them says, “I’m dying. And I didn’t matter. But you did and I’m happy I was with you.” And the other one says, very convincingly, “No, no, no, you mattered the most.” And in that quiet moment where there are no stakes, nothing changes other than that, their feelings about each other, there is a conclusion. And we need it. We just need it so that we understand when they go back into the courtroom whether they both die quickly or slowly. It doesn’t matter. They have settled their affairs with each other. And they have essentially said to each other that they love each other.
If you don’t have it, then what are the symptoms of the story without these moments? A sense of rushing. And it’s so weird because you will feel people complaining about a sense of dragging everywhere except this one spot. This one spot they will accuse you of rushing if you don’t take a pause.
John: Now, a thing that you will sometimes notice as you’re looking through a script that’s not working in its last section is you may be trying to do this either during that last set piece or after the last set piece. We’ve talked before about how in a football movie it’s not really about winning the game. It’s about the quarterback’s wife being proud of him. Then that’s the emotional moment. But don’t mistake that for this quiet before the storm moment where you see important relationships resolve. Important things being solidified and anchored before that last set piece.
And so if you’re having problems in your third act this may be one of the issues is that you’re not getting into that last beat right, or you’re trying to pay off a thing after the movie kind of wants to be over. After the story of the movie kind of wants to be over. So you may need to pull something up earlier on.
Craig: Yes. Exactly. Because once it’s over it’s just a confirmation of what happened in this moment we’re talking about, the moment before. Where typically you look at somebody like across the field you’ll see the person that you had the night before with, that whole discussion. You’ll see them. They’ll smile at you. You’ll smile at them. Because, yup, what we said last night, that was true. That’s all you need.
John: Yeah. You’re establishing the emotional stakes for this last set piece as well. You’re reminding the audience of where the characters started, where they’ve come from, and what literally just happened right before this moment is that they are unified as they’re going into this last thing.
And so you see this on every episode of Glee for example. It’s all the tensions that happen during the course of the episode and then in the final performance there’s a look between two characters and it’s cheesy and you just know it’s going to happen. But if it didn’t happen it would be very frustrating.
Craig: You’d be like where’s my look?
John: There’s your look. So, what lessons do we want people to take away from this quiet before the storm? I think it’s just a reminder not to rush. A reminder that you need to actually plan for this. Because if you didn’t anticipate you need to do this it could just be – if you’re just doing sort of like the note cards of set piece, set piece, set piece, set piece, set piece you won’t think about how important it is to have these transitional moments. Because it’s not flashy. It’s not exciting. There’s no big giant fireworks happening in this moment. And yet the movies you love most probably have this moment and you’re just not paying attention to it.
Craig: Absolutely. Just imagine your characters when they have nothing being asked of them. The movie essentially says, oh, normally there’s an event after an event after an event. But unfortunately because of a scheduling problem there’s no event right now. The event will be in one hour. The event will be tomorrow morning. What do you do? What you’re doing is you’re giving them time off. And in their time off they can reflect on what has happened and how it made them feel. And what they think is going to happen tomorrow.
And they can be honest with each other and they can express that they’re afraid. And they can express why it matters more than it might otherwise. All of that stuff is the most important stuff. If you don’t have it your climax will be active. But it may not be meaningful.
John: Agreed. Great. Now in previous episodes we’ve discussed when it makes sense to write something as a spec versus pitching it, but it’s not always a binary choice. In many cases you’re pitching these nascent ideas to your reps, your agent, or your manager who are going to weigh in on what they think they can sell or help get you into rooms to meet.
So my personal experience with this, my first agent was a good guy, a good friend, and I liked him a lot, but he just did not seem to share my taste. I had a hard time expressing to him what it was that I was trying to write. So I wrote this horror western and he just had no idea what to do with it. And I wrote the first part of Go and he’s like, “I don’t get this at all.” And that was a sign that, oh, then maybe you just don’t really get me as a writer and I ended up moving to another agency.
But then I started to realize that in some cases I was having a hard time describing these ideas and sort of why I should write these ideas. And it wasn’t really just the other person’s fault. I was having a hard time communicating what this was just because I was new at this.
And Craig what was your experience as a newer writer? Did you have a hard time describing what it was you were trying to do?
Craig: No. But it took a lot of work. Because I was working exclusively in feature comedy, and this was the ‘90s where everything was generally high concept feature comedy, you had to actually have this really clear concept. You needed to be able to explain out how the movie was actually a movie and not just a comedy sketch. And you needed to give them a sense of set pieces. So there was a lot of rigging and moving parts that needed to be there. And somehow you had to do all of that without boring them to tears. And it’s really hard to pitch comedy – I’m sure Drew can get into that as well – because pitching is not funny. It’s a comedy-killing medium. So it can get sweaty and it’s hard.
John: Yeah. So let’s bring on a guest because he wrote in on Twitter saying that he was running into this exact problem where he’s having a hard time connecting with his agent about the things he was trying to write. Drew Champion is a writer whose animated show Archibald’s Next Big Thing has its first two seasons on Netflix and a third season coming on Peacock soon. Drew, welcome to the program.
Drew Champion: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Craig: Drew Champion is such a good name. I want you to be like one of those huge robots in Pacific Rim. Like Gypsy Danger. Drew Champion.
Drew: It’s a great last name that unfortunately growing up you had a lot of pressure. Like, oh, let’s get him on our team. He’s going to be great.
John: Good omen.
Craig: And then what happened?
Drew: Exactly. Exactly.
Craig: Blew a draft? Take on Champion. Oh god.
John: Now, Drew, talk to us about what you’re writing right now because you have a writing partner but you also write by yourself. So what’s your current situation?
Drew: Right now my writing partner and I we did this show, Archibald’s Next Big Thing, at DreamWorks and we’re kind of between shows right now. We’re doing a little bit of development for DreamWorks Animation. And at the same time together with my partner we are also doing non-animated stuff together. And trying to work that out. And then also I’m doing some solo stuff, non-animated, as well.
John: Great. And so in animation, so it’s DreamWorks Animation, the stuff that you’ve been doing so far is not WGA work. It’s Animation Guild?
Drew: Yeah. It’s all Animation Guild. Yeah.
John: And you have an agent and a manager? What’s your representation situation?
Drew: Just an agent. No manager right now.
John: Great. So what stuff are you having a hard time with right now. Is it stuff you’re working on with your partner? Or stuff you’re trying to pitch that’s just you? Or figure out if it’s just you.
Drew: The stuff that I mentioned when I messaged you on Twitter was just my personal stuff. It’s like this fine balance of writing a pilot and sending it to my agent and having it not really connect very well. And then thinking, OK, maybe writing the full pilot was too much work. Maybe I’ll just write an outline. So I wrote an outline, a comedy, and sent it to him and didn’t really connect. And so it’s like, OK, what’s even less work than an outline? Let’s just try a logline. And so my loglines haven’t been landing as well. I feel kind of like I want to – I need my agent to be on my side. It’s the gatekeeper. And I need to write something that he’s excited about so that he would be able to take it around and do those things. But at the same time I feel like it’s kind of wearing down some of my enthusiasm on some of my projects.
So it’s like this push and pull of where should I put the effort into and should I just write it anyway? At most one of these outlines could be a sample. So, yeah, that’s kind of where my situation is at.
Craig: That’s a situation. Well, a lot of times there is some sort of systematic best practices answer. In the case like this, and I don’t mean your specific case, but just the experience of trying to convince a partner of yours, whether it’s a writing partner or an agent that what you’re doing is worth pursuing, I think the best practice is what fills your sail with wind. And if someone is not filling your sail with wind then it’s just no good.
Now that’s not to say that agents should just read things and go, “Great!” Because then that’s patronizing and it’s not real wind. But it does seem like maybe what’s happening is the dynamic has become I show up and I’m like here, what do you think about this, and he goes, “Yeah, it’s OK. I don’t know.” All right, well what about this? “Meh, I don’t know.”
As opposed to sitting down and saying, “I’m not going to pitch you anything. I’m going to tell you how I see things going. And what I want. And how I want to get there. I want to tell you about why I’m passionate about certain things and how I think it would connect to other people and why.” And rather than serve up some food, explain the theory and the desire. And also explain the context of what you want from them. Because, I mean, just as a side note, agents don’t know what good is. I mean, apologies to all of them, but that’s not their job.
Their job is to get you as much money as possible or as much work as possible. They generally figure out what good is based on what everybody else says good is. Generally. I mean, some of them really do have excellent taste. But that’s not their primary function.
Think about maybe like a tête-à-tête I guess is what I’m suggesting.
John: Yeah. I think Craig’s suggestion in terms of having a general discussion about where you want to be working in the next two years is a good way to sort of start this rather than focusing on this one thing that’s going to go out as a pitch versus that thing that you’re going to try to write as a spec. Talk about the kinds of things you want to be doing so that he gets the sense of what you’re looking at with your partner and what you want to be looking at doing yourself.
One thing to think about in terms of agents and managers is it’s cleaner when we think about like a real estate agent, because that real estate agent you don’t go to them for advice on what color should I paint this wall. They’re just there to help you sell your house or to help you buy a house. That’s their function. And our literary agents are really good at that and they have a good sense of what the market is and all that. But you’re not necessarily paying them for their taste or their ability to predict this is the thing that’s going to be the one that’s going to set you on artistic success. Based on their experience this is the kind of thing that’s going to make it pretty easy for me to get you in rooms to talk about stuff.
And so in addition to having a general sit down with your reps I would say imagine those hypothetical general meetings you’re going into and what are the projects that you want to be able to pitch to those executives you’re meeting with rather than thinking about what it is – how you’re going to pitch it to your agent.
John: Do you want to pitch any of the stuff that you’re thinking about to us? Is there anything that you’re working on that feels like–?
Craig: Good lord.
John: Well is there any sort of general spaces, like talk to me about – imagine that we are the agent where you’re having the sort of general conversation. What kind of stuff do you want to be writing?
Drew: Well part of my situation is that I come from kid’s animation. And this is the first show I’ve ever worked on. So I feel like I have a good foundation and then breaking out of animation might be – it’ll be a struggle. It might be a little difficult. But with conversations with my agent it sounds like that doing half hour comedies is probably the most adjacent thing to animated TV, especially in the kids space, rather than trying to do a broody period piece drama feature. That might be a little bit more difficult to get me on. But to do something in comedy.
So that’s where I’ve been kind of focusing right now is half hour comedies.
Craig: Let’s put aside what maybe structurally seems like the business appropriate move. What do you actually want to do?
Drew: I want to do those brooding—
Craig: Great. We just got somewhere.
Drew: That’s what I want to do.
Craig: Do you think going from Archibald’s Next Big Thing to a brooding drama, do you think that that is impossible? Ask the guy who went from Hangover 3 to Chernobyl.
Drew: No. I mean, it doesn’t sound impossible. It just feels, well, it doesn’t sound impossible, but then it does sound impossible. Because then it’s like well who the hell is this guy? He was just writing about a talking Chicken for Tony Hale. Why is he doing such-and-such?
Craig: Well, you know, I’ll just say that there are a lot of examples of this. Sometimes we miss them. Or we forget that Walter White was the silly dad on Malcolm in the Middle. There is a lot of this. In acting and in writing and in directing. And the beautiful part of doing what you truly want to do as opposed to trying to fit into some scaffolding is that it’s actually much easier. Believe it or not it’s easy.
It’s really hard to wake up in the morning and write what you’re supposed to write. It is incredibly easy to wake up in the morning and write what you want to write.
Craig: And it will open doors in a way that – look, if it’s good. Right? It will open doors in remarkable ways for you. What happens is they tell you you can’t go through any of those doors. You have to go through this one door. You write something else, you come in, and all those other doors fling open. Fling open. It’s like they just didn’t believe it until they saw it.
John: So, Craig, a very specific example that I can offer Drew from my own experience. My first paid jobs as a writer were A Wrinkle in Time and How to Eat Fried Worms. They’re both kid’s books adaptations. And the only things I was getting sent at my old agent was movies about gnomes, elves, dwarves, and Christmas. I was very, very typecast as the guy who writes those kinds of things. I was typecast and I was pigeonholed. That’s what I was getting sent.
And so I wrote Go largely as a kind of middle finger to I can write other things. Don’t just think of me as this one kind of writer. And I ended up using that as the script that got me a new agent and sort of got me started on a new thing.
What was great about Go is it was the movie I most wanted to see. It’s the movie that didn’t exist that I really wanted to see. And happily people could read that script and apply it to whatever they wanted to be. Some people said like, “Oh, he can write an action movie. He can write a comedy. He can write serious stuff.” It was a very useful script for me on that level, even if it hadn’t ever gotten made. It would have gotten me plenty of work.
And so I would say be thinking about what is the movie that you, Drew, specifically could write that best shows the kind of movie that you could deliver to the world. You also do have a fallback plan. You do have a writing partner and you have a deal at DreamWorks Animation so you can keep doing that stuff. That’s the kind of great situation you find yourself in is you can always just do another animated kids show. Take this opportunity to write the thing that you really wish could exist. And I don’t think it is about pitching it, honestly. I think it is just going to be a brand new thing that you write that shows that you are a different kind of writer. And a writer who can do this by himself without the partner.
Craig: It’s scary.
John: It is scary. But exciting.
Drew: I’m terrified.
Craig: Yeah. Good. I mean, you’d be kind of sociopathic if you weren’t. I mean, I was scared. But also there’s a freedom to it. I was talking to Alec Berg the other day about how as you go on in your career you get better at writing. It’s inevitable. You get way better at writing. I’m a much better writer now than I was when I started. But he did point out something that was absolutely true that when you look back at the stuff you wrote way, way back in the beginning you were probably – you meaning all of us – were freer. We were freer in our writing. We were less constrained by our fears or what we were trying to do. Ambitions. The market. Other movies. Insecurities. Whatever the hell it was, we were too stupid to know that you shouldn’t write some things. And in that we were wonderful.
And, after all, it’s that writer that got into Hollywood, right? So, they were doing something right. So in something like this the nice thing is you get to be completely free. There are no notes. There’s no rubric. There’s no syllabus. There’s nothing. You do whatever you want. It’s amazing. It’s free. And stick it in at the end of the day if you want. It could be a little side job for you.
Craig: And if it goes nowhere it goes nowhere. But what I would say is, and this is the meeting that I had with my agent way, way back. We sat down and I said, OK, so here’s the situation. I think that I’m a better writer than the opportunities I’m getting. And so I want to concentrate on that now. And we don’t have to worry about, if it’s OK with you, I don’t want to worry about money. I don’t want to worry about this or that.
Now, we can’t always not worry about money. But in that instance I said I just want to work with better material. I want to work on better material. Because I want to use what I have. I had been stuck in the same – working the same aisle in the same store for too long. I wanted a new position.
So it’s fair to sit down with that person and say, “I’m still doing the comedy. I’m still doing this. Let’s make some money. But also I want you to know I’m doing this and this is exciting because we can go out and make some fresh kills.” You know what I mean? We can open up a new front in this war.
John: Drew, how are you feeling right now?
Drew: I mean, my mind is just racing. This has all just been really interesting, really good stuff. I think this is really helpful and I feel energized to kind of open my mind to a different level of just being open and free to just explore some of this other stuff. That’s really exciting.
Craig: It’s crazy. Listening to you say that, it does strike me, because I’ve had the same feeling, that this business convinces you that you’re not free.
John: There’s a Stockholm syndrome that sort of kicks in.
Craig: Yeah. But we are. That’s the crazy part. We are. They just put blinders on us. And they’re very effective blinders. And of course, you know, we have obligations that we have to meet, and so we do have to work on things that we get paid for. But I guess what I’m saying is we’re giving you permission. And you don’t have to worry that you’re being self-indulgent. Because I’m guessing that you’re a lot like me in that you’ve always been the far opposite of self-indulgent. You’ve always been terrified as coming off as self-indulgent.
Drew: Bingo. Bingo.
Craig: Well then you know what? Indulge a little. You’ve earned it.
John: Cool. Drew, we are going to be looking for your credits. We’re going to be looking for the announcement of the project that you set up that you’re going to write now. And check back in with us and let us know what you do next, OK?
Drew: Yeah. You guys, this has been so helpful. Thank you so very much.
Craig: Our pleasure. Thank you for coming on.
Drew: Thanks for having me.
John: Thank you, Drew. Suddenly we’re in a call-in advice show.
Craig: I like that.
Craig: Putting people’s lives back together. It’s lovely.
John: These call-in advice shows, they also sometimes have producers who come on who are reading questions. So let’s bring our producer on, Megana Rao.
Megana Rao: Hey guys.
John: We are so excited to have you here with us. And you, how many questions do you get in at firstname.lastname@example.org per week?
Megana: Oh lord. Probably like 20 to 30.
John: All right. And what is your criteria for sorting through the questions? And which ones make it on to the Workflowy?
Megana: So I think about questions that we have answered recently. Things that I think are unique and interesting and personally curious about. Yeah, and then I think things that are broadly applicable or if there’s a specific situation that seems, I don’t know, like you guys would have an interesting take on it. I kind of send all of that to you guys, get your feedback, and then the winners are in the Workflowy.
Craig: I mean, you know I don’t actually give any feedback. I accept what you guys do completely. Openly. Happily. I try and be as happy as I can. You do a great job.
Megana: But like cryptic puzzles from last week was definitely a Craig question.
Craig: I know. I know. And I was so – thank you for this.
John: Yeah, we kind of wedged that in at the end there.
Craig: I really appreciated it.
John: What do we have this week?
Megana: So Lisa wrote in about misdirection. And she asked, “I’ve noticed that mystery writers, particularly Agatha Christie, use confirmation bias to trick the reader into ignoring what’s actually happening. The reader gets a couple of clues that lead to a red herring, then happily ignores or downplays contrary evidence until the big denouement.
“Similarly, one of the meta clues in a mystery is the unnecessary-necessary character. The villain is introduced early on as a minor character who the reader ignores because their appearance seems normal to the plot. Then, when they are revealed, the audience doesn’t feel cheated that the villain came from left field. It feels fair.
“Any thoughts on how screenwriters can best use these techniques of misdirection?”
John: What a good question from Lisa.
Craig: An excellent question from Lisa.
John: Yeah, so what you’re doing with a misdirection is very classically like a magic trick. And magic tricks rely on expectation. What you expect is going to happen next and then defeating that expectation. Surpassing that expectation.
So in any misdirection, in a mystery, or whatever you’re trying to do, you’re leading the audience into making reasonable assumptions about what’s going to happen. So assuming that the protagonist isn’t actually the villain, that the movie is a reliable narrator, that the story is taking place on earth or in a specific decade. Basically that you’re not doing an M. Night Shyamalan on them. That things you are assuming are true are actually true. And I like that phrase the unnecessary-necessary character. Because that’s a thing I see a lot, Craig, is that the character who well naturally is going to be there because of sort of the situation and then they have a role beyond what you expect them to be doing in the story.
Craig: Yeah. I like the Shyamalaning – I mean, there’s a difference between a joke and a prank. Practical jokes, which are not jokes, are just things that rely on someone’s ignorance of something that they shouldn’t know anyway. And that’s Shyamalaning. Whereas a proper joke or a proper trick or misdirection it’s legitimately fooling you. Because you could see it if you were able to. It’s right there.
So what Agatha Christie does, and I study her so carefully, is she is in fact using things like confirmation bias. She is allowing you to make conclusions that you don’t even realize you’re making. And she uses all of the tricks that we’ve talked about before. The ways that we are irrational. And the study of Kahneman and Tversky who sort of established the science of human irrationality. Agatha Christie before the scientists ever got ahold of this concept was preying upon all of those things. Anchoring, for instance. We tend to be influenced by the first thing that we see. But we shouldn’t. It’s just the first. It doesn’t mean it’s the best or the most important. But she’ll use things like that all the time.
So, part of the trickery of it, Lisa, is actually studying how humans think wrongly about things. It is fair game to take advantage of that. Because whose fault is it for overemphasizing the first thing you read? Or for presuming that if a coin spins three heads in a row that it’s more likely that the next spin will be tails as opposed to heads. Well, it’s our fault. It’s not the writer’s fault.
So the writer is allowed to take advantage of that. It’s not just about our skill in being sneaky. It’s about our awareness of how our audience is broken.
John: And I would say there’s a difference between what writers can get away with in prose fiction versus screenwriting. And the central difference is that in a book characters can disappear. Basically unless the writer actually puts that character in front of your face they can disappear back into the woodwork. So a character can be mentioned and then sort of not mentioned for a while. And because you’re just getting information from the writer you don’t have a sense of like, oh, this character is important or not important. Versus in a screenplay and therefore in a movie there’s going to be a physical actor there in the frame, in the shot. And if you’re trying to do a misdirect where that person who doesn’t seem important is actually very important, or that waiter is actually secretly complicit in the whole thing, that person is going to physically be there.
So as a screenwriter you may have to put in a substitute reason for why that character is showing up there so much. So you might be thinking about this is the guy who won’t stop freaking out during the robbery. And so he’s panicked. And so we think that he’s just a guy who is in the bank during the robbery but he’s actually part of the villains. Or the hacker who can get you through into that secure zone. So the reason why that guy is always sitting there at the computer is because he’s on our side. He’s one of our hackers, but he’s actually that guy.
You’re going to need to think of some reason for why that character is around so much and it’s a bigger issue for a screenwriter than it would be for the novelist.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a great example. Are you guys Agatha Christie fans?
John: In high school I read through all the books and I’ve seen some of the movies but not in a while. So not nearly the fan you are.
Craig: What about you, Megana?
Megana: Yeah, I’d say so. I was like very much so a Nancy Drew person growing up. So I feel like that followed a similar sort of format.
Craig: No question. The example I like to cite is Agatha Christie’s, I think it’s her first novel, her first full mystery. It’s called The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. And so this is super early. I think we’re talking like 1915 or something like that. And here’s how it works. It’s a first person narrator, which is odd. It’s not typical for a murder mystery.
But this guy lives in a small town and Poirot rents a summer house next to him. And so he becomes sort of fascinated by Poirot, because Poirot is such an oddball. And lo and behold what happens? A murder. There’s like a big super rich family in town. And the rich guy is murdered. And so our narrator basically accompanies Poirot and sort of tails along as Poirot begins to take the mystery part and solve it.
And there was at the time a mystery writers club, I think, in London. And I believe either they did or almost kicked Agatha Christie out because of this. Because, sorry for spoilers for a book that’s about a hundred years old. What happens you find out is that the murderer is the narrator.
Craig: And she’s brilliant. He never really lies. He just leaves a few things out. And it’s astonishing. In fact, and what’s so astonishing is that he was not unreliable as a narrator. He was reliable. He told you everything. But that’s the kind of thing that takes advantage of a natural bias that we are not even aware of. So as we’re reading and trying to figure out, or as we’re watching a movie like Knives Out, which is obviously a little different because you kind of know technically who did it early. But we know the audience is trying to figure it out. We know they’re doing the math. So, how do you beat them?
Well, somebody has got to be innocent. That’s probably the one who is not.
John: The only other thing I’d urge Lisa to think about is obviously misdirection in mystery is crucial to it, but misdirection is important for other genres of films as well. As an audience we are always approaching a movie with a set of expectations about the genre, about the world, the kinds of things we expect to happen in this movie. And most of the times as writers our goal is to meet and exceed those expectations. And so the audience feels smart. The audience is with you. I thought this was going to happen and it did happen and so I trust this movie.
But if you can build enough trust you can then also surprise people. And surprise relies on misdirects. This thing that you didn’t think could happen in this movie did happen. And it shakes you and it gets you really excited because you’re suddenly on a ride you didn’t expect.
So it’s the romantic comedy where they actually do break up and they never get back together again. That’s exciting. But you would need to lay in the possibilities for those misdirections early on.
Megana, another question for us, please.
Megana: OK, awesome. So I feel like this one is a great follow up. Brian asks, “How much should you reveal during a pitch meeting? If your script has a unique twist that you’ve never seen done would you reveal that twist or try to entice your audience by mentioning all the other things that make this script great without revealing the one thing that no one has ever done before? Because to do this would be giving away an idea for free. And I know how adamant you are about leaving no writing behind without payment. It seems there’s a tightrope you must walk by selling your script or idea without giving away ever single detail.”
John: Craig, do you reveal it all?
Craig: Yeah. It’s not writing. You’re talking about it. And these theoretically are professionals. So, they’re like, look, I’m going to read it before the audience sees it. I’m going to read it before we cast it, we shoot it, all that stuff. So what exactly are we waiting for? Because if I don’t like how it ends I’m not buying it. I need to know. And if the twist is unique and exciting and kind of mind-wobbling like, oh my god, he was a ghost the whole time. Well, that’s what they’re going to buy. They’re not buying set up, pretty much. I don’t think they are. Unless what makes your movie or your pitch unique the set up itself. In that case, sure.
But otherwise, no, go for it.
John: Yeah. Let me try to rephrase Brian’s question thusly. Hey, John and Craig, so I have a really unique idea but in the pitch meeting should I not actually make it sound unique or cool but make it sound like other things and hide what makes it unique and cool? Is that a good strategy?
Craig: Yes. [laughs]
John: The answer would be no. You should actually do what makes it unique and coo. And here’s the challenge is that obviously how you reveal that twist in the screenplay is going to be different than how you’d probably do it in a pitch. But you figure that out. And that’s the excitement of doing a pitch is figuring out where the listeners are at and how you get them to that moment. But, yes, you absolutely need to do it and so they have something to hang on. So they can really feel what’s going to be special about the project.
So, yes, leave it all on the field. You’ve got to give them what is special and unique about this, because otherwise you’re not going to sell it.
John: Word. Megana, thank you for these questions.
Craig: Thanks, Megana.
John: Now, when people write in to email@example.com with their questions what are some helpful things you’d like them to do in terms of question length? Do you like the audio questions? Help us out?
Megana: Ooh, I love audio questions and I know you do, too. So audio, like if you can record and send me a transcript of the question that’s the ideal. Yeah, otherwise I think keeping it short and sweet and sort of getting to the point. Just like Brian is afraid to reveal too much, I feel like in a lot of questions the person asking is also afraid that I’m going to steal their story idea or that someone would if we read it on air.
Craig: Oh lord.
Megana: But that ends up making for a worse question if it’s really vague because you’re not telling me any details about your situation. So feel free to let me know you don’t want me to use your real name. But otherwise please send some more context and information. That’s always really helpful.
John: And we also love when you include your location because it’s just more fun to say Brian in Massachusetts than just Brian.
Craig: Oh my god. Brian from Massachusetts.
John: Cool. Megana, thank you so much.
Craig: Thanks Megana.
Megana: Thank you guys.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. So my One Cool Thing is actually three books that are all about money and I think I may have mentioned one of them before, which is Debt – The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. It’s a great look at sort of how money came into existence based on just people owing each other stuff and it ultimately becomes money.
Two books I read recently, Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein, and The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood are both really good and very different looks at sort of what it is that we’re doing when we think about money and economies and sort of how stuff works.
Craig, did you have economics in high school or college? When did you first learn about how the “economy” works?
Craig: I actually had a class in eighth grade. I went to an odd school. I was at Hunter College High School in Manhattan until we moved away. And so they kind of did their own funky curriculum. And in eighth grade I remember our social studies class did have a long section on how the economy worked, how the stock market worked, how money worked, loans, interest, compound interest, inflation, all that stuff. It was interesting. I mean, I never had any desire to take Econ in college or anything like that.
But, you know, I think everybody should understand the basics of how corporations function, for instance.
John: Absolutely. How corporations function. Just the idea of supply and demand. And it’s weird because I had micro and macroeconomics in college. And as a journalism major we were required to take both macro and micro and they were really illuminating, but they’re also basically like this is capitalism and it’s almost like a Darwinian theory of how stuff works. But it just happens to work but it’s not kind of the only way things could work. And so it’s fascinating to look at other ideas about sort of how money and economies function together.
We talked in a previous episode, actually one of our first bonus episodes, was about the gold standard and why the gold standard is stupid.
Craig: It is.
John: It’s just so, so dumb.
Craig: So dumb.
John: But it’s hard to explain why it’s dumb unless you have some background in sort of how money comes to be.
John: If people are looking for any sort of starter books I think all three of these – actually the one that’s not about the origin capitalism which is just a little too obscure to start with, but either of these other two books are great ways to be thinking about what money is and how money actually functions in society. Because it never grew out of barter. This myth that people started trading, like I’ll give you two deer for a bushel of corn. That never happened. And it was always just IOUs for things.
Craig: Excellent. My One Cool Thing is America, maybe. [laughs] That’s all I’m going to say. It may be America.
John: It would be great if America were very, very cool.
Craig: I will do a follow up One Cool Thing next week to confirm or deny that America is cool.
John: Yes. All right. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by Peter Hoopes. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you send your longer questions, but for short questions on Twitter Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. We have t-shirts. They’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net were you get all the back episodes and bonus segments and a segment like this where we’re going to talk about dogs. So, stick around if you’re a Premium member because we are going to talk about dogs. Craig, thank you for a very calm episode.
John: Craig, do screenwriters need to have dogs, or is it just highly recommended?
Craig: I’m going to go with need to. I’m going to actually make it mandatory. Of course, everyone needs to have a dog. Everyone.
John: I mean, basically you join the WGA and they give you the little card and they give you a dog. That’s just how it works. You got to have a dog.
Craig: Got to have a dog.
John: Talk to us about your dog situation right now.
Craig: Right now we have Cookie. She is a Labrador who we keep trying to sort of pretty up. We’ll put little ribbons in her hair sometimes when she gets groomed and then she keeps trying to make herself disgusting.
John: You said she’s a Labrador, but she’s a Labradoodle, right?
Craig: Labradoodle. Yes. Oh, did I say Labrador? Labradoodle. She’s a Labradoodle which is a wonderful breed of dog. Poodles are not my favorite. Labradors are wonderful. Labradors shed all over the place, Poodles don’t. Labradoodle, it’s like a Labrador that doesn’t shed. And they’re adorable. And very sweet and friendly. She’s very, very beta. She’s the most beta dog I think I’ve ever encountered in my life. And we’re actually going to be getting another puppy soon, pretty sure.
John: Oh, very exciting.
Craig: In part because as Cookie gets older I just keep in mind the line of succession.
John: Yes. You have to. You always need a dog. My first dog that was my own dog was my dog Jake who was a Pug who was fantastic and he was very classically a screenwriter’s first dog. I invested in him all of my paternal caring and it was an absolutely ideal dog for me to have. We had another Pug later who looked like a dog but actually had nothing in his brain. It was actually just some sort of weird alien. Who I still loved, but was just really a challenging dog.
But my current dog–
Craig: Ah, Lambert.
John: Lambert is just an absolute dream. You’ve met Lambert several times. And is some sort of Terrier-Poodle kind of mix thing. And has just been an absolute delight and a source of warmth and comfort at all moments.
Craig: Lambert and Cookie have met each other. They get along famously.
John: They have. And Megana brought them up to your house at some point. So I’ve never seen them meet, but I’m sure they were best friends.
Craig: It was too gentle dogs sort of looking at each other and seemingly fine with each other and then they both sort of went their separate ways. It was like, OK, yeah, you’re here, I’m here, great. And then Lambert sat down in his funny way where he just spreads his legs and puts his balls directly on the floor. Or where his balls would be.
John: Yeah. Now, what is – you’re a person who is interested in science and the evolution of things, what is your belief in terms of how dogs came to be and to what degree is it just us wishful thinking that they are so empathetic and they seem to understand us so well? What is your belief about dog evolution?
Craig: I mean, I’m just guessing, because I haven’t studied it or anything, but it seems to me like along the way certain wolves were taken in by groups of people and over time gentler wolves were bred with other gentler wolves and you started to get breeds of dogs that descended from wolves but were like the nice ones. And then it just kept happening. And obviously around the world there are different kinds of wolves that become different kinds of dogs. And then you crossbreed them.
And I think that initially was because they were incredibly useful. Because they domesticate so well. They were helpful for protection back in the day when there was no conceal carry. Your dog was your conceal carry. They protected the family. They helped you hunt. And they obviously also were there for comfort. They were loyal. So they have all of these properties that make them incredibly suitable to live with humans. And I think that is probably why we imprint our own beliefs on what’s happening in their minds.
My dog, for instance, she has a little routine. When I come home from wherever she runs frantically to me, sits down in front of me, gets kind of low, and then starts whimpering as if to say where have you been. She’s crying. And I could think, oh my god, this dog loves me more than anything. In fact, if I put my hand right on her chest I can feel her heart pounding. Like oh my god, this dog loves me more than anything.
But I know actually what she wants is one of those dried chicken strips. And she knows that when I get home and she does this and she starts whining and doing that she gets one. And the second she gets that chicken strip she’s gone. So, it’s mostly chicken, but it’s easy to see – of course, they do love us. I mean, there’s no question about that.
John: Yeah. I always find it fascinating when I look at my dog’s behavior and then I take a step back and look at, OK, in what ways am I behaving like a dog who is really just stimulus and response driven? I think I want a thing but it’s really that I want this other more basic thing. I really am just hungry. Or I really just need to be around somebody but it’s not – I’m creating these elaborate reasons for why I do certain things when really it’s just sort of stimulus-driven behavior.
And yet I look into my dog’s eyes and I see like, oh, well this dog clearly loves me. A strange thing about Lambert I’ve noticed is that Lambert, his favorite thing in the world is a visitor. And anybody who comes to the house he is so obsessed. And I think people come to the house and think like, oh, this dog must not like it here because this dog just seems to desperately like me very much, or want to get away from this house. And, no, it’s any new person who comes to the house, it’s just like come on in. Do you want to take the TV? Take the TV. It’s fine. It’s good.
He’s just so obsessed with that and it’s been one of the hardest things about the pandemic and the lockdown is that Lambert just doesn’t get to see new people. New people don’t get to come to the house. And so he’s stuck with the three of us.
Craig: Same with Cookie. She loves new people. She likes to bark when a new person arrives to let everybody know that a new person is here. And then she just melts.
John: Yeah. Aw, that’s nice. Melty dogs are nice.
Craig: It’s the greatest. Melty dogs.
John: And they’re very calming which is the reason why I thought we’d talk about them here.
Craig: Yes. If you have a dog definitely take moment now to just sit with your dog, turn off everything, sit with your dog and think to yourself how nice it is in their mind because they don’t know any of this.
John: They know nothing. And like when a water bowl gets filled with water, like you did magic. You were able to touch something and water came out of it and you put it there. You were able to do all of these things that a dog can’t do. They live in a world of magic and we are the magicians.
Craig: Right. So you might as well get a little something back and try to get your mind right in the same frequency as your dog’s mind where the rest of the world doesn’t matter. It’s just you and me. Eye contact. Scratches.
John: Great. We’ll end it there. Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- YALL Write John’s panel is on Friday, November 13th at 3pm ET/12pm PT
- Drew Champion and Archibald’s Next Big Thing
- Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein
- The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood
- Debt – The First 5,000 years by David Graeber
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Peter Hoopes (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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