The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Hi. My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 510 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today we are revisiting earlier conversations about the craft of screenwriting, start with what characters want, then looking at establishing point of view, and finally how we get our characters driving the story.
Craig, this is a clip show.
John: Some of our younger listeners I’m realizing they may have never experienced the joy of a broadcast clip show.
John: Talk to us about what clip shows are.
Craig: Back in the day when we were young lads in the ‘70s and ‘80s the only television shows were network television shows. And the network pumped out, what, 22 something?
John: Sometimes 24. Sometimes 30. Yeah.
Craig: And enormous amount – for people who are young now – an enormous amount of episodes a season. And that still happens with shows like for instance our friend Derek’s Chicago Fire. So, what happened eventually is everybody would get exhausted. They would need a break, or they needed time, or an actor needed a break or got sick or something. And so what they would do is a clip show which basically if you were in season four of One Day at a Time you could just do a little thing like we’re doing right now. You and I get stuck in an elevator and we start saying, “Remember when we…”
And then they would show a flashback, but it was really just a clip from a show that had aired previously. And people liked it. That’s the crazy part. If you went to a restaurant expecting to get your usual and they were like, “We don’t have our usual but we have this garbage from six weeks ago,” and you went, “Yay!”
John: Yes! Now, I’m thinking about it and part of the reason why it was probably not so terrible to have clip shows back then is reruns were not the same thing. You couldn’t just go on streaming and find all the back episodes like you can in the Scriptnotes catalog. And so the only chance to see those moments again would be to have a clip show compilation.
So, “We’ve taken a lot of great vacations over the years, haven’t we dear…,” and then a montage of clips of how it all works together.
Craig: Great point. There was no YouTube. So you couldn’t just randomly access them. There was no back catalog to stream. If you missed an episode the only way you were going to see – there wasn’t even a VCR in the ‘70s.
Craig: So that was it. You had to wait for the clip show.
John: Yeah. And the clip show also would be showing you things you maybe never had seen because you just had never seen that episode for whatever reason.
John: So it was somewhat new to you. So for some of our listeners some of this information may be new because we’re stretching all the way back to Episode 279. We’ll have Episode 358, 307. And so we’re going to send people off to listen to these three back-to-back extended segments of clips that Megana has picked out.
But at the end of the show we’ll be back to wrap up and sort of frame some stuff. We’ll do our One Cool Things. And for our premium members stick around after the credits when we’re going to discuss what we want versus what we need in our real lives.
John: So, enjoy the show.
John: So Craig, listening to these segments about craft got me thinking about what elements of craft I’m still learning or still working on or at least have changed for me over the, god, 30 years whatever I’ve been doing as screenwriting. And one of the things that this pointed out to me I think in my conversation with Jen Statsky about Hacks she was talking about this one scene and she had done some kind of defensive writing. Basically it was a little bit overwritten, but it was overwritten to make sure she would have the runway to get the scene to land that way.
And I feel like I’m still sometimes stuck in a little bit of defensive writing, where like I’m trying to write scenes that are kind of idiot proof in a way, or at least are the safest versions of scenes. And I’m trying to get myself out of that defensive writing. Do you ever feel that?
Craig: No. That one I don’t have. I just try and write the scene as I think it should be and I don’t worry about anything else. But that’s if I’m writing for television, because I’ll be there. The difference between writing for something where you know you’ll be there and writing for something where you know you won’t is dramatic.
John: And that’s really I think where defensive writing comes in. You and I have both been in situations on features where it needs to be absolutely clear what is going to happen here and everyone knows what is important. And so in some ways you and I are anticipating it’s going to get cut down to this version of the scene, but I need to actually provide those little extra handles on it, then what we get will actually get shot.
Craig: Yeah. I think craft wise I’m probably still struggling a little bit with my need to understand the scene and see the scene and hear the scene completely before I start writing. I don’t know if it’s a struggle. Maybe that’s just the way I have to do it and that’s it. I wish that I could maybe be a little less self-conscious about that and just be willing to kind of sit down and write. But I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a bug or a feature. That’s the god’s honest truth.
John: I completely get that. It’s that sense of like trusting that you’re going to be able to figure that out in the middle of writing it versus having a clear, cohesive plan going into the scene of how to do it.
And I’ve done both and I go through both ways. And sometimes I just know like, you know what, I’ll figure out what that is once I sort of hear the characters talking and sort of see how the jigsaw pieces fit together. But then again you hate jigsaw puzzles, so.
Craig: No, because they’re not puzzles. They’re just broken pictures. But I do find that even when I – really what it comes down to is psychology. I am comforted enough by own certainty that I now feel I can write. Once I start writing then all sorts of improvisation and discovery occurs regardless. But maybe that’s the blend I need is just to know what the rigorous structure, purpose, and place of the scene is and then inside of that safe confine I can play around.
John: Over the last few weeks I’ve had a chance to go back through some scripts that I’d written years ago because they’re sort of coming up to be shot now and it’s been interesting watching the decisions I made then versus the decisions I would make right now. And sometimes it’s that I felt I needed all of this connective tissue to make every little point sort of connect. And I was like, wow, I don’t think that’s going to survive through the edit and I don’t think I actually need it right now. So I was able to trim pages out and it wasn’t just like, you know, moving periods around and stretching margins. It’s literally I don’t need that link between those two things because it’s never going to actually make it into the movie.
So I think that’s just a thing you realize over time, too. It’s not even defensive writing, it’s just like I was being a little bit too perfection-y. I was making sure everything was just tied up with a nice little bow and I was like that’s not really what the writing is.
Craig: Yeah. Well, we live and learn. I think we finally figure it all out just as we become completely detached from culture and start to get so old we don’t even know how people talk anymore in the real world. And then we die.
So, there’s probably ten seconds. Ten seconds where we’re perfect.
John: Pinnacle. At the acme.
John: And then it’s all downhill.
Craig: Yup. And then we just fall.
John: Coasting away. Time for our One Cool Things.
John: Speaking of old things, I’m reading this book on extinctions and it’s great, which I’ll probably recommend as a One Cool Thing down the road. But in this last chapter they were talking about monsters from – I shouldn’t call them monsters – they’re creatures/animals from the age before dinosaurs. And the dinosaurs get all the attention because they look so cool, but there were other creatures that existed way before the dinosaurs which were perhaps actually cooler.
The two I’m going to single out are Dunkleosteus and the Carolina Butcher. Craig, you’re clicking through, can you describe what you’re seeing with Dunkleosteus?
Craig: Sure. Dunkleosteus looks a little like the war forged race in Dungeons & Dragons 5E.
John: Very much.
Craig: That of course is the race from Eberron, which is a different plane than your forgotten realms. I know everybody knows this. But it basically looks like a robot turtle fish.
John: Yeah. Or sort of like an armored shark, but if a pug if it were an armored shark, because it doesn’t have the snout. It’s just got an almost completely flat face. What you don’t see probably in this thing if you read the descriptions is it doesn’t actually have teeth. It has these two giant snapping bones. It’s like a nutcracker. It looks absolutely terrifying.
Craig: Yeah. That fish is on ‘roids. It is gorgeous.
Craig: Do not screw with that fish. I bet it tasted good, though.
John: Oh, so good.
Craig: And then there’s the Carolina Butcher.
John: The Carolina Butcher is – give us a description because this also seems like a Dungeons & Dragons creature.
Craig: Right. So the Carolina Butcher has a certain T-Rex like quality but it’s about the size of a very tall person, like the tallest, like Yao Ming-ish. And sort of stands on two feet. So it’s a bit like the lizard folk race from 5E, or maybe even the dragon born.
Craig: So it looks like a man that could run over to you, slap your face with its arms which are somewhat useless, but because it’s so tall it’s about the size or your arms, and then just devour you in three gulps.
John: Yeah. So it is a relative of the crocodile. So the crocodiles are the distant cousins of what these things are, but there are whole species of these. And before there were dinosaurs these were the Apex predators.
John: And they were just running around on their back feet in many cases just chomping down on everything. And they are just wonderful nightmare creatures. And if we didn’t have dinosaurs this is what all the young kids would be playing with.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, this is – again, I just want to point out that’s what’s so cool about Dungeons & Dragons. Megana, you really need to, you know, you just need to start. You just need to start, Megana. You’ve got to just dive in.
John: It’s more fun when everyone does it.
Craig: I feel like Megana just literally disconnected her microphone, threw her headphones off. I just want to hear the sound of a car driving away.
John: [laughs] Craig, do you have any One Cool Things to share with us?
Craig: I do. My One Cool Thing is the town of Fort Macleod in Alberta. We came in – you know, when you’re shooting stuff you just think about yourself the whole time. It’s a selfish act to do. Because you have so much to do and everything is about what you’re going to see onscreen, and so you’re like why is that there, and how do I make this look like that. And it’s easy to forget that when you’re shooting on a location you are disrupting everyone’s lives. Granted, you know, of course we do everything legally and there are permits and permissions and all the rest of it. But you’re still disrupting people’s lives.
So, I just wanted to thank the town of Fort Macleod, Alberta for being such a lovely host. This is a pretty small town. It is closer to Montana than to Calgary. And there is in fact an old fort there. And it’s a lovely place and we came and disrupted their lives for a week plus. And we had a great time there doing what we needed to do and so thank you to Fort Macleod.
John: Very nice. So you arrived there with a village full of trailers and other things. You have to dress stuff. It’s just – I mean, for people who haven’t seen when a film comes to town, especially comes to a small town, it’s huge.
Craig: An army rolls in and we have, you know, multiple areas where we have our set location. We have our work trucks. We have our base camp which they call the circus up here in Canada.
John: The circus is pretty common.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s a very sizable set and lots of background actors/performers who I believe we pulled in largely from the surrounding area and from Fort Macleod itself. And they were all terrific and worked really hard. And so I don’t know why – this can’t possibly end up being an article on Kotaku, right? What I’m just saying right now. This can’t – IGN, please, you can’t make this into an article. There’s nothing there.
John: Craig, what’s so frustrating is they will go now through old episodes and things you said a zillion years ago and it’s like oh that will become an article now. I just feel like there’s some lazy stringers there who are sifting through the articles, the old transcripts.
Craig: I think they’ve got somebody who is just like whenever he talks about The Last of Us just wave a flag. I mean, I love the attention. It’s just like I have to be so careful now about what I say. I didn’t get yelled at or anything. I yelled at myself. I yelled at myself.
John: That’s what it is.
Craig: I just didn’t realize that the number of episodes would be a story. Anyway, Fort Macleod wonderful. Thank you very much for hosting us. You were lovely folks. And we appreciate it. And I hope that everybody there enjoys what they see on TV when it comes out.
John: That would be great. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao, with segments produced by Godwin Jabangwe and Megan McDonnell. Going back in time.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: It is edited, as always, by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by William Brink. 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. For short questions I am on Twitter @johnaugust.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts and sign up for the weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has lots of links to things about writing. We have t-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau, including the new 10th anniversary shirt.
You can also sign up to become a premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all of the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re about to record on want versus need. And if you were a subscriber to the back episodes you could actually listen to these original segments in their proper episodes and really know what the context was for these conversations. But I’m not going to pressure you.
Craig, thanks for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: All right.
Craig: I’m so relaxed.
John: Craig, what do you want, what do you need? Is that a meaningful question for me to be asking a human being in real life?
Craig: Of course. Of course. Those are maybe the two most important questions we ask people. What do you want and what do you need?
John: I wonder if want vs. need is a thing you see a lot in screenwriting books and a character wants a thing but they actually need a thing. And I wonder if it’s kind of a trap because it suggests that there’s a clean binary between sort of the [speaks French], like what you should – suddenly I’m pulling out the French here. But it’s a murky boundary between want and need. Sometimes it’s sort of hard to know the difference. But you think it is a useful framework sometimes for thinking want vs. need?
Craig: I actually think it’s a useful framework just for moving through life. When you’re dealing with people to understand what it is that they want and what it is that they need. It is important to at least understand where they’re coming from. The most important question to ask is what do you need because it’s going to be hard to do anything if you don’t understand what people need. I’m just talking about life now.
In screenwriting I’m with you. If we get super focused on need and want then we can – the scenes and the moments can get too purposeful. Too purposeful, weirdly.
Craig: Because part of the want and need thing is we actually don’t actually think about it much. We just feel it. It drives us subconsciously. We have to take time to stop and say what it is I want and what it is I need. That’s why people go to therapy.
John: That’s a good point.
Craig: Yeah. The fun part is the gap for me between what people want and need, or what characters want and need, and what they think they want and what they think they need. That’s an interesting space.
John: Absolutely. So it’s sorting out those urges and drives and instincts and behaviors and like what’s really propelling those. And that, I think, is useful analysis both for our characters and for real life. So, think about the decisions you make in your life and especially the bigger decisions about dating, about relationships, about where to go to college and like what do you want to do with your career. Should you stay in this city or should you leave this city?
Ask those questions in wants vs. needs in terms of what are your overall goals. But you also have to be introspective of like why am I even asking the questions. What am I hoping to get out of this decision? What are the real things I’m trying to achieve? Do I want money? Well why do you want money? Are you envious of people who have more money? Do you not feel safety and security? Are there primal things that are driving those decisions? And I think that kind of introspection is useful, divorced from just a clear want vs. need.
Craig: Yeah. We definitely hear from people when we’re writing that we need to know what our character wants. There’s some sort of like large wants, you know, I guess that cover the movie. But that’s really more for us to know. It’s kind of behind the scenes/backstage stuff. A lot of times the character just isn’t aware of it until they become aware of it. I like to look at Shrek because it’s such a clean, elegant storyline. What he thinks he wants is not what he really ends up wanting. It wasn’t even what he wanted in the beginning. What he wanted, of course, was to be loved. He just didn’t know that that was an option so he just went to a new want which is I want to be alone.
That’s not really – so there’s like the pre-want. There’s the want that you’ve lost. There’s the want that you think you want. It changes. I mean, what we want changes as we move through our lives and things smash into us. And maybe that’s what growth is. When we talk about growth it’s redefining what we want and also redefining what it was that we thought we needed, which turns out to be just something we wanted.
John: Got it. Craig, that’s very spiritual of you. I think you could be a spiritual adviser.
Craig: Oh god no. Is that what spirituality is?
John: That’s what spirituality is.
John: I think you actually just delivered some spirituality right there.
Craig: There’s just psychology. There’s no energy. There’s no god or purple quartz.
John: So, I think about people who have obsessions or who try to optimize things and I feel like I really question why they’re optimizing. I’m thinking about my friend, Yurgin, who for the last 20 years has always been obsessed with getting the perfect audio setup for his home. And so it’s not just the turntable, but it’s like oh this speaker and this thing. And why are you doing this? Because I don’t think you will be able to hear the difference. And you’re not going to be able to enjoy the difference. Instead you’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars and a lot of time and aggravation for something that is not going to bring you extra joy. And that’s sort of a fundamental framework for thinking about why you’re doing this thing that you’re doing. Is it actually increasing the joy in your life? Because that’s all you can sort of get out of doing that.
Craig: Yeah. There is something that we need or want with a character let’s say, and then there’s the manifestation of it. Sometimes what we need or want is something that we don’t understand or it’s socially unacceptable or it’s wrapped up in a weird self-loathing that we cannot acknowledge. And so it just comes out in this other strange way.
A character who is chasing the perfect audio sound that’s basically Moby Dick. It’s the same thing. And it’s a wonderful character to contemplate. And it’s a wonderful problem to contemplate. I love that sort of thing. Sometimes I think obsession is you want or need A but you can’t acknowledge it or understand it, so you decide you want to need B, which is unattainable by definition. And then you pursue it. That’s lovely.
John: Have you ever tried this reframing where instead of saying I have to do blank it’s like I want to do blank? And I do find it useful and sometimes just saying it aloud reveals sometimes that if I want to do something it’s actually stupid because I don’t actually want to do that. I don’t have to do that. I’m just doing this because either I feel like I have to or there’s some extrinsic force that’s telling me to do it even though it’s not important. I think reframing have-tos as choices can be useful for real life situations you’re encountering.
Craig: Yeah. I worry about if I start doing that I’ll never stop. Well, if you’re saying I’m only going to do it if I want to do it.
John: So here’s an example. I have to work out tonight. And it’s like, no, I want to work out tonight. And if I say I want to work out tonight the question is like well why do I want to work out tonight. Well, these are the reasons why. Great. It makes sense to do it. And therefore I enter into the workout with a different headspace.
Craig: A different space. There are certain parts of things where like I want to do a particular project, I truly, truly do. but while I’m doing it there are going to be days where I’m just like I don’t want to do it.
Craig: So there’s like the large want, there’s the mini wants inside, and sometimes you just have to discipline yourself because, you know, you got to.
John: We’ve talked about this a hundred times on the show about our characters. That you have the grand I Want song stuff, but within scenes, within the actual choices you’re making minute-by-minute in real life you’re making smaller want decisions. And those are right there.
Craig: Yeah. And sometimes the little wants smash into the big wants and they contradict. And so that’s, you know, conflict.
John: Yeah. You want to be healthy and thin and you also want to eat five chocolate donuts. And that’s the tension.
Craig: That doesn’t actually seem like a real problem for me. I don’t see healthy and – we’re going to die. Right? We’re going to die. But, donuts.
Craig: Donuts are good right now.
John: Donuts are delicious.
Craig: Five is a lot.
John: If we go back to a really early episode, like Episode 5, How Not to be Fat as a Screenwriter, so you yourself have made certain choices to limit certain things.
Craig: Yes. I just want to live a little bit longer. That’s all. Just a little bit.
John: Last bit of advice I would offer to people is consider the value of satisfying, which is basically deciding what is good enough, and like good enough is good. And better is not generally better. And so look for what is the standard you want to hit and hit that standard and then not try to exceed it unless there’s a real good reason to exceed it.
Craig: I think we’ve done that with this bonus episode.
John: That’s really, for example, this was a clip show that was good for the people who wanted this stuff, but it met our time constraint needs. Craig, we’ve done it again.
Craig: We’ve done it again.
John: Thank you, sir.
Craig: Thanks, John. See you next time.
- Episode 279, What Do They Want?
- Episode 358, Point of View
- Episode 307, Teaching Your Heroes to Drive
- For more on character wants check out John’s blogposts: Rethinking Motivation and What Does He Want.
- Creatures before Dinosaurs: Dunkleosteus and the Carolina Butcher
- Fort Macleod
- Get our new 10th Anniversary T-Shirts
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by William Brink (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao (with segments by Godwin Jabangwe and Megan McDonnell!) and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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You can download the episode here.