The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August, and this is Episode 554 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show, it is a craft compendium. We are going back to previous segments, in which we talk about how to work with groups of characters. We’ll be looking at how pairs or groups of characters can work on separate pieces of the puzzle, then come together at the end, how to manage different storylines and the dynamics in smaller breakout groups, and how we capture the feeling of community and chemistry between multiple characters.
Our guide in this process is Megana Rao, who is not only a Scriptnotes producer but also a listener. Megana, help us out. Where are we starting?
Megana Rao: We’re starting on Episode 360, called Relationships. Craig often talks about how the most important thing is the central relationship in this story.
John: Not one character, but the relationship between those two characters.
Megana: Exactly. It’s not about the main character. It’s about who that main character’s central relationship is with. In this segment, you guys first of all talk about how to set up characters and establish backstories and the challenge of locating characters and introducing the dynamics that existed before the movie began. Then you get into how you actually evolve those relationships on screen and you go into some technical scene work.
John: Relationship between two characters is almost always about conflict. What is it that they are coming into the scene? What is the problem between the two of them? How are we seeing that grow and evolve and change? How are we exposing the inner life of not just the individual characters, but what their relationship was like before this movie started?
Megana: Yeah, and how you convey that through dialog and how people actually speak to each other.
John: Great. We have that first segment. What’s our next segment.
Megana: Then we get into Episode 395, called All in This Together. In this one, you guys are looking at how you structure a story where the team functions as the central protagonist. There’s a really interesting discussion on POV here where you talk about the challenge of this type of story is that you need to serve several different characters and execute satisfying arcs for each of them.
John: It’s not just The Goonies. It’s any movie in which you have a team of characters who are working together, so the Avengers or the Fast and Furious movies. Yes, each of those characters might have individual arcs or things we know about them, but really it’s the group dynamics that are going to change over the course of the story, so how we handle those.
Megana: Exactly, yeah. It’s not just the individual, but how the whole is going to transform.
John: Fantastic. What’s our third and final segment?
Megana: Our last segment is Episode 383, Splitting the Party. I just want to warn everyone that this is a D and D-heavy chat.
John: As all chats should be, heavy D and D.
Megana: I promise it’s worth it. In this one, you guys are talking about how to split up a group of characters and the questions that writers should be asking themselves so that it’s meaningful when those characters come back together.
John: Fantastic. We will be back together at the end of these three segments to talk about what we’ve learned a little bit but also to do our One Cool Things and all the boilerplate stuff. In our Bonus Segment for Premium Members, we are going to be talking about Stranger Things Season 4.1 I guess we’d call it, which is all about group dynamics. If you’re not a Premium Member, for the love of Steve Harrington, you have to become a Premium Member, because Megana has some very strong opinions about the characters and what’s happened in Stranger Things this first half of Season 4.
Megana: Incredibly strong opinions. By the time this episode airs, everyone should have watched it.
John: You have no excuse for not becoming a Premium Member so you can hear the Bonus Segment. Now, let’s travel back to Episode 360 and get started with our group dynamics.
And so when we first started doing the podcast I remember there was some episode early on where I said like, “Well it’s not like you and I are friends outside of this podcast,” and you were really offended by it. And I remember I was like, oh, I hurt Craig’s feelings. And Craig has feelings. And we’ve become much better friends over the course of doing the podcast, but also–
Craig Mazin: Do I have feelings? I guess I do.
John: You do have feelings.
Craig: I guess I do.
John: But we weren’t playing D&D at the start. Like all that stuff came.
Craig: No, we have become friends through this podcast. I mean, whether I was legitimately hurt or not. You had a fair point. We weren’t really that close or anything. But our relationship is a function of the work that we do together. That’s how it’s happened. And that’s by the way how relationships must happen, if I may Segue Man myself into our main topic–
John: Go for it.
Craig: Relationships have to be functional. I think sometimes people make a mistake and they think a relationship is just two people who like to chat together or sleep together. That in and of itself is not enough function.
John: Yeah. So in framing this conversation about relationships, I think there’s two challenges screenwriters face.
One is how you get the audience up to speed on relationships that began before the movie started. And so this is trying to figure out like literally letting the audience know how these two people are related. Are they siblings? Are they friends? Are they a couple? Are they ex-spouses? Getting a sense of what are the underlying conflicts that started before the movie started. And really who wants what. That’s all stuff that you as the writer hopefully know and you have to find ways to expose to the audience if it’s going to be meaningful to your story.
The second challenge screenwriters face is how do you describe the changes happening in a relationship while the movie is going on. And so it’s really the scene work. What is the nature of the conflicts within the scene? How are we showing both characters’ points of view? What is the dialogue that’s exposing their inner life and exposing the nature of their relationship?
And they’re very related things but they’re not the same things. So what Craig and I just described in terms of our backstory, that’s kind of the first part is setting up the history of who we are. But so much of the writer’s work now is to figure out how within these scenes are we moving those relationships forward and providing new things to study.
Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly right. The screenwriter has certain tasks that are homeworky kind of tasks. You do need convey information. We have this wonderful opportunity when a movie begins to have fun with that. The audience is engaged. They’re leaning forward in their seat. They haven’t yet decided that this movie stinks. So, you can have fun and tease along or misdirect what relationships are. And then reveal them in exciting and fun ways. And that’s I think really enjoyable for people.
So there’s an opportunity to maybe have – maybe it doesn’t have to be quite busy work when we’re establishing how people relate to each other factually. But the real meat of it, as the story progresses, is that fabulous space in between two or three people. The relationship I generally think of as another character. There’s what I imagine this person like alone. There’s what I imagine this person like alone. But when they’re together there’s that other thing between them. And if you think that sounds a little foofy, well, just consider the word chemistry and how often we use it to apply to actors who must perform these relationships. Because when it’s there what do we describe it as? Sparks, or whatever. It’s that thing in between.
And when it’s not there, there’s nothing.
John: Yeah. Chemistry is fundamentally the mixture of two elements that by themselves would be relatively stable. And you put them together and they create something new. And that’s what we’re really talking about in a relationship is that new thing that is created when those characters are interacting and challenging each other.
So, let’s talk about establishing these characters and I think you’re right to describe at the beginning of the movie the audience does lean in because I think partly they’re trying to figure out who these people are and sort of what slots to put them in. People approach movies with a set of expectations and there are certain kind of slots that they want people to fall into. And they’re looking for like, OK, well what slot are they falling into? And if you are aware of what the audience’s expectations are that can be really helpful.
So, some of the slots people are looking for is, well, who is the hero, the protagonist? Who is the love interest? Who is the best friend? Who is the rival? Who is the mentor? Who is the parent? That’s not to say you should have stock characters, but it’s to be aware that the audience is looking for a place to put those folks essentially. A sense of the relationship geography of the central character and the people around them.
And so be aware that the audience is trying to find those things and help them when you can. And if you need to defeat those expectations or change those expectations be aware that’s a job you’re assigning yourself.
John: That you have to make sure that the audience understands this isn’t quite what you think. You think that this person is the father, but he’s actually a step-father who has only been married to the mother for a year. If that’s important, you’re going to have to get that out there quickly so we understand.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And similarly there are times when just like you and the audience, one of the characters onscreen will also not quite understand the nature of the relationship, and so it’s important then to tie back to our perspective and point of view episode. If I’m in the perspective and point of view of somebody who has a basic understanding of what a relationship is, and if I want to subvert that I first must lay the groundwork for their wrong understanding. And create their expectation.
So, in Training Day, we have an understanding because we share a perspective with Ethan Hawke that he’s been assigned the kind of badass older veteran character who is going to train him and be his mentor. And so that’s his understanding. And then the guy just starts doing some things that are a little uh, and he goes eh, OK, and we’re all a little bit like uh. And then it gets much, much, much, much worse. And we understand that we, like Ethan Hawke, completely misunderstood the nature of this relationship. And then a different relationship begins to evolve.
John: Yeah. So, let’s talk about some of these expectations. So Ethan Hawke had a set of expectations going into it. I think so often as I read through Three Page Challenges or moments in scripts that aren’t really working I feel sometimes the screenwriter is trying to do a bunch of work to explain something that could have just been done visually. And so they’re putting a lot of work into describing something that could be done as sort of a snapshot, as an image.
So, I want to give a couple snapshots of things you might see in a movie and as an audience you see these things and you’re like, OK, I get what’s going on here, so all of that work is being done visually and therefore the dialogue can just be about what’s interesting and new and is not establishing these relationships.
So, here’s the first snapshot. You see four people seated at a table in an airport restaurant. They’re all African American. There’s a woman who is 35 and putting in eye drops. There’s a man who is 40, a little overweight, who is trying to get a six-year-old boy to stay in his seat. There’s a girl who is nine and playing a game on her phone.
So, you see these four people around a table, you’re like, OK, they are a family. They’re traveling someplace. That’s the mom. That’s the dad. Those are the kids. That’s your default assumption based on the visual I described. So therefore anything you want to do beyond that, or if you need to clarify exactly the nature of these relationships between people, that there’s like a step relationship or one is actually a cousin, you can do that but that visual sort of gave you all that stuff for free. And so therefore you can spend your time in dialogue on doing interesting things with those characters rather than establishing that they’re actually a family and they’re traveling someplace.
Craig: Yeah. You suddenly don’t need to do things like have a character say, “Mom, or “Son,” or any of those annoying things that people do to hit us over the head with this sort of thing. But you’ve put some thought into how to create a relationship in a realistic way.
The fact of the matter is that many writers who struggle with this only struggle with it when they’re writing. If I take any of those people and bring them to an airport and walk them through the airport and just say you quietly look around and then describe to me the relationships you infer from what you see, they’ll get it almost all right.
Craig: That’s how it works as humans. Therefore that’s what we need to do when we’re writing. I wish that writers would spend more time in their visual minds, I guess, rather than trying to just begin or stop with words, if they could maybe walk through the space in their heads and experience it. It’s amazing what you see when you do that. And then you don’t have to use dialogue.
John: Yeah. All right, so here’s another snapshot. So, next table over there’s a man and a woman. They’re sitting across from each other. They’re both early 30s in business suits. He’s white. She’s American-born Chinese. He wears a wedding ring which we see as he drinks his scotch. His eyes are red and puffy, maybe from crying. She doesn’t look at him. All her attention focused on the spreadsheet open on her laptop. So that’s the visual we’re giving to an audience at the very start.
We know there’s a conflict there. We know that something has happened. Something is going on. The nature of their relationship between each other is probably fraught. There’s something big happening there. And I think we’re leaning in to see what is the first thing that somebody says. What just happened that got them to this place?
Are they having an affair? Are they business colleagues? Something big has happened there. And you have a little bit of an understanding about their jobs, or sort of that it’s some sort of work travel. So that visual gives us a sense of who those two people are before we’ve had any words spoken.
Again, if you saw those people at the airport you would probably get that basic nature of their relationship and you’d be curious. And so I think the thing about sort of establishing people visually is that you want there to still be curiosity. You’re not trying to answer all the questions. You’re just trying to give a framework so that people are asking interesting questions about these characters in front of them.
Craig: You’re building a mystery. Right? You’re giving us clues. I have clues here. OK, these are the clues you’ve given me and I’m looking at the situation here. OK, I’ve got this man, I’ve got this woman. He’s wearing a wedding ring. He’s drinking scotch. He’s crying. He’s sad. She doesn’t seem sad at all. That’s a huge clue to me. Whatever he’s crying about, it’s not about her, because she’s looking at a spreadsheet. It’s not that she’s looking down nervously and shutting him down. She’s busy. She’s looking at a spreadsheet. This guy seems pathetic. I’m guessing his marriage has blown up and he’s crying about it for the 15th time to his associate who is subordinate to him therefore can’t tell him to shut the hell up.
She meanwhile is trying to get the work done that they need to get done so they both don’t get fired by the boss above both of them. I don’t know if that’s true. And I don’t know if you even thought it through that far.
John: I haven’t.
Craig: Right. It’s just that’s the bunch of clues there. And that’s how fast we start to assemble clues. Here’s the good news for all of you at home. What I just did is something that you can use to your advantage if you want people to get what you want them to get. It’s also what you can use to your advantage if you want people to assume something that is incorrect.
For instance, in the first scenario we see a man, a woman, two kids, they’re all sitting together in the airport, playing on a game. They’re all the same race. They all therefore technically can be related. It feels like a family. And that’s a situation where at some point you could have the nine-year-old, turn, wait, see somebody pass by and then hand 50 bucks to the man and the woman and say, “Thanks. We weren’t here.” And then she takes the six-year-old and they move along, right?
Like what the hell? Who is this little spy? But that’s the point. By giving people clues we know reliably we can get them to sort of start to think in a way. We are doing what magicians do. It’s not magic. It’s misdirection and it’s either purposeful direction or purposeful misdirection. This is the way we have fun.
John: Absolutely. And so the example you gave where they pay the money and leave, it would be very hard to establish the normalcy if you actually had to have characters having dialogue before that. We would be confused. And so by giving it to us just as a visual, like OK we get the reason why everyone around them would just assume they’re a family. But if we had to try to do that with dialogue or have somebody comment on that family, it would have been forced. It would have felt weird.
So, you have to think about sort of like what do you want the audience to know. What do you think the audience will expect based on the image that you’re presenting and how can you use that to your advantage?
Most times you want to give the audience kind of what they’re expecting so the audience feels smart. So they feel like they can trust their instincts. They can trust you as a storyteller. And maybe one time out of five defeat that expectation or sort of surpass that expectation. Give them a surprise. But you don’t want to surprise them constantly because then they won’t know what to be focusing on.
Craig: Right. Then they start to feel like this really is a magic show and they lose the emotional connection to things. So, in the beginning of something you can have fun with the details of a relationship because those are somewhat logical. And you can mess around with that. The more you do it, the more your movie just becomes a bit of a puzzle. And, by the way, that’s how whodunits work. But those are really advertising nothing more than puzzles. And that’s why I recommend all screenwriters spend time reading Agatha Christie. Just pick a sampling of two Poirots and two Marples. And just see how she does it. And see how clever she is. And see how much logical insight and brilliance is involved in designing these things, particularly in such a fashion where it works even though you are trying to figure it out while it’s happening.
John: Yeah. And so it’s not like those characters are realistic, but those characters are created in a very specific way to do a very specific function. And they have to be believable in doing their function the first time through and then when we actually have all the reveals you see like, OK, that’s what they really were doing. And I can understand why everybody else around them had made the wrong assumptions.
Craig: Well, that’s the beauty of it is that you start to realize by reading those whodunits how much stuff you’re filling in that isn’t there. You make these assumptions that that girl must be that woman’s daughter. That’s just a flat assumption you made and at no point was that ever stated clearly and why would you believe that? So, it teaches you all the ways that our minds work in a sense. So, that’s always great. But I think once you get past the technicals of portraying and conveying relationships, then the real magic and the real fun is in watching two people change each other through the act of being together, whether it is by talking, or not talking, or fighting, or regret. Whatever it is, that’s why I think we actually go to see these stories.
I don’t think we go to movies for plots. I think maybe we show up because the plot sounds exciting. We stay in our seat for the relationships. Lindsay Doran has an amazing talk about – did we – that’s going to be my One Cool Thing this week for sure. I mean, I’m sure I’ve said it before, but Lindsay Doran has a Ted Talk she’s done. It’s available online for free. That goes to the very heart of why relationships are what we demand from the stories we see.
John: Yeah. And too often you think about like is this a character moment or is this a story moment. And, of course, there is no difference.
John: You have to make sure that the character moments are married into fundamental aspects of story that are moving the story forward. Because if you have a moment that is just like two character having a witty conversation but it doesn’t have anything to do with the actual forward trajectory of the plot, it’s not going to last. And if you have a moment that just moves the plot forward but doesn’t actually have our characters engaging and interacting and changing and their relationship evolving, it’s not going to be a rewarding scene either. So, moments have to do these two things at the same time. And that’s the challenge of screenwriting. It’s that everything has to do multiple things at once.
Craig: That’s why they’re doing them, right? I mean, the whole point is you’re in charge. You can make anything happen. You can end the movie right now if you want. So, why is this happening? And if your answer is, well, it’s happening because I need it to happen so that something else happens, no. No. Stop. Go backwards. You’re in a bad spot.
John: So often I think we have an expectation of what the trajectory are going to be for these characters also. Because we’ve seen movies before, so we know that the hero and love interest will have a fight at some point. They will break up. They’ll get back together. We can see some of these things happening. And that doesn’t mean you have to avoid all those things happening but you have to avoid all those things happening but you have to be aware that the audience sees it coming. And so if the audience sees it coming and kind of feels that you’re doing that beat just because you’re doing that beat, like, oh, now they’re going to break up because of this misunderstanding and, ugh, I saw that happening way ahead of time, that’s not going to be rewarding.
They’re going to have an expectation that attractive people will fall in love. That families will fight and splinter but ultimately come back together. So, all that stuff is sort of baked into our expectation of these stories from the start. So, be aware of that and so if you get to those moments understand what the stock version of that moment is and figure out how you push past that. How do you get to a new moment between these two very specific characters, not the generic archetypes of these characters? What is it about them that makes this scene, these two people being in the scene, so unique and special?
And when you see those things happen, that’s what makes your movie not every other movie.
Craig: It strikes me that nobody really talks about relationships when they’re doing their clunky, boring screenwriting classes and lectures. I mean, I’m sure some people out there do. But so often when I skim through these books they talk about characters and plot. They don’t talk about relationships. And I guess my point is I don’t care about character at all. I only care about relationship, which encompasses character. In short, it doesn’t matter what the character of Woody is until Buzz shows up.
Craig: Woody, until Buzz shows up, is – well, his character I could neatly fit it on a very small index card. Woody is the guy who is in charge and has sort of a healthy ego because he knows he’s the chosen one. So he’s kind of the benevolent dictator. OK. Boring. Don’t care. That’s why movies happen. We don’t want that to keep on going. What we want is for Shrek to leave the swamp and meet Fiona. Then the characters become things that matter because there in – go back to our conflict episode. Everything is about relationship. They should only talk about plot and relationships as far as I’m concerned. We should just stop talking about character. It’s a thing that’s separate and apart.
I think a lot of studio executives make this mistake when they take about character arcs. I hate talking about character arcs. The only arcs I’m interested in are relationship arcs.
John: Yeah. Shrek is not a character, but Shrek and Donkey together is a thing. Like that’s–
John: There’s no way to expose what’s interesting about Shrek unless you have Donkey around to be annoying to him. So you have to have some thing or person to interact with. Yes, there are – of course, there exceptions. There are movies where one solo character is on a mission by him or herself and that’s the only thing you see. But those are real exceptions. And I agree with you that so many screenwriting books treat like, “Oh, this is the hero’s journey and this is the arc of the hero,” as if he or she is alone in the entire story. And they never are. And it’s always about the people around them and the challenges.
Craig: Or an animal.
John: Or an animal.
Craig: You know what I mean? There’s some relationship that mattes. And the only place I think you can kind of get away with learning and experiencing something from a character in the absence of a relationship in a kind of impressive way is in theater and on stage and through song, but in that sense you’re there with that person, the relationship is between – so when Shrek sings his wonderful song at the beginning of “A Big, Bright, Beautiful World,” the beginning of Shrek the Musical which as you know I’m obsessed with, he’s singing it to you in the audience. And you’re with him in a room. So that’s a different experience.
But on screen, then when you watch – OK, great example if I can get Broadway for a second, Fiddler on the Roof opens in the most bizarre way any musical has ever opened. The main character walks out and starts talking to you in the audience, immediately breaking the fourth wall. And he does it occasionally and then sometimes he talks to God. And he’s alone. And then there’s the song If I Were a Rich Man. He’s alone the entire time and he’s singing it to himself and to God, who is not visible.
And when you’re in a theater watching it it’s fun, and it’s great, and you get it. Then you watch the movie, which is not a bad movie at all. I like the Fiddler on the Roof movie, but when that song comes around you’re like what is happening.
John: Yeah. Who is he talking to?
Craig: Why is he? Who are you talking to? Why are you doing this? Why are you standing in a field singing? It’s bizarre. It doesn’t work in a movie. You need a relationship.
John: Yep. You do.
John: So our main topic this week came up because yesterday I did a roundtable on a project and this project we were working on had not one hero but a big group of heroes. Or, not a big group, but four people who were sort of the central heroes of the story. And that wasn’t a mistake. That really was how the movie needed to work.
And it got me thinking that we so often talk about movies being a journey that happens to one character only once, and we always talk about sort of that hero and that hero protagonates over the course of the story and sort of those things. Even though we are not big fans of those classic templates and sort of everything has to match the three-act structure that tends to be the experience of movies is that you’re following a character on a journey. But there are a lot of movies that have these groups of heroes in them and I thought we’d spend some time talking about movies that have groups and the unique challenges of movies that have groups as their central heroes.
Craig: Smart topic because I think it’s quickly becoming the norm actually as everybody in the studio world tries to universe-ize everything. You end up, even if you start with movies with the traditional independent protagonist, sooner or later you’re going to be smooshing everybody together in some sort of team up. So it’s inevitable.
John: We’ve talked before about two-handers where you have two main characters who are doing most of the work in the movie. And sometimes it’s a classic protagonist/antagonist situation. So movies like Big Fish, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Romancing the Stone, Chicago, while there are other characters there’s two central characters you’re following and you could say either one of them is the main character of the story.
But what you’re describing in terms of there’s a big group of characters is more on the order of Charlie’s Angels, The Breakfast Club, X-Men, Avengers, Scooby Doo, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Lord of the Rings, Goonies, Go, all The Fast and Furious movies. These are movies where characters need to have journeys and make progress over the course of the story but they’re a part of a much larger team. And we really haven’t done a lot of talking about how those teams of characters work in movies.
Craig: Yeah. I actually wasn’t really a team movie writer until I guess The Hangovers, because those three guys kind of operated as a team. And then when you throw Mr. Chow in there it’s a team of four. It’s a crew. Now you’ve got a crew.
John: You’ve got a crew.
Craig: You got a crew.
John: We’re putting together a crew.
Craig: And you got to figure out how that crew works, because it is very different than just – even like a typical two-hander like Identity Thief. I mean, there are other characters but it’s just the two of them on a road trip. That’s pretty traditional stuff.
John: The movie is about their relationship. And so I’m sure people can argue that one is the protagonist and one is the antagonist. And, great, but really it’s about the two of them and how they are changing each other. Wicked is a two-hander.
Craig: Right. When you say, OK, now it’s really about three, or four, or five, or in Fast and Furious there’s like 12 of them at this point now, you kind of have to present them as this team. It’s a team sport now. So writing for a team requires a very different kind of thinking I think than writing for a traditional protagonist and let’s call them a sub-protagonist or something like that.
John: Yeah. So if you think about them as a group, if you think about them as one entity this should still be a one-time transformational event for this group of characters, for this team of characters, for whatever this party is that is going through this journey that has to be transformational to them as a group.
But within that bigger story there’s probably individual stories. And in those individual stories those characters are probably the protagonist of that subplot or at least that sub-story. So they’re all going to have relationships with each other, with the greater question, the greater theme, the greater plot of the movie, and it’s making sure that each of those characters feels adequately served by what the needs are. Bigger characters are going to have more screen time and probably take bigger arcs. Minor characters are at least going to enter into a place and exit a place that they hopefully have contributed to the overall success or failure of not just the plot that the characters are wrestling with but the thematic issues that the movie is trying to bring up and tackle.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a kind of a Robert Altman-y trick where you take an event and he would do this a lot in very good Robert Altman movies, but we see it in all sorts of movies, where there’s an event. And the event is so big it encompasses everyone. And so we kind of – we play a little bit of the soap opera game. So soap operas traditionally would have about three or four plots going at once. You would see a little bit of one, then it would switch over to the next one. And you’d have to wait to get back to the one you liked. At least that was my experience when I was home sick with grandma.
So in say a movie like Independence Day there are multiple stories. There is a president. There is his wife. There’s an adviser to the president who has an ex-wife. There’s his dad. There’s Will Smith. There’s a bunch of stories going on. And each one of them gets a little slice of the story pie, but ultimately it’s all viewed through the prism of this event. And in the end everybody kind of comes together in some sort of unifying act which in Magnolia was a frog rain.
John: Yes. Yes.
Craig: And we see that in fact as different as all these stories were everyone was connected and kind of working as a team. So individuals are the heroes of their mini-stories. And that’s in fact how those movies tell the story of the big story through mini-stories.
John: Yeah. Now, in some of these stories the characters enter in as some kind of family. They have a pre-existing relationship. In other movies they are thrown together by circumstances and therefore have to sort of figure out what the relationships are between them. In either situation you want those relationships to have changed by the end of the story. So just like as in a two-hander, their relationship needs to have changed by the end. In a team story the relationships need to have changed by the end and you need to see the impact they’ve had on each other over the course of this. So independent of a villain, independent of outside plot, the choices that they individually made impacted the people around them.
Craig: And that’s the matrix of relevance. So in a traditional movie it is about me. I have a problem. And I go through a course of action and at the end of the movie my problem is solved. In this kind of story the group has a problem. And what we’re rooting for is the group to survive. And in that sense very much it is a family. And we know that about the Fast and Furious, because they’re always telling us.
John: [laughs] It’s family.
Craig: They always tell us. This is a family. But it is. And so the hero of those movies is the joined relationship of them all in the family. And what the problem is in the beginning of the story is not a problem with one individual. It is a problem of family dynamic. And that is what needs to be figured out by the end of the movie.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk about the real pitfalls and challenges of doing a story with a team protagonist or with a big group at its center. The first and most obvious one is that sometimes certain characters just end up being purely functional. You see what their role is within this group and what their role is within this plot, but their character isn’t actually interesting in and of itself at all. And sometimes if it’s a minor character, OK, but if it’s a character who we’re putting some emotional weight in that we actually want to see their journey at all, they have to be more than purely functional.
The challenge is the more you – in a normal movie you can say like, oh OK, well I need to build in some back story for this character. I need to see them interact with other people and get a better sense of who this person is and what they’re trying to do, but you can’t do that for every character because the movie would just keep starting again and again. It would never get anywhere. So, finding ways that one character’s progress is impacting another character, which is sending the next thing forward. The jigsaw puzzle aspect of getting all those characters’ changes to happen over the course of the story can be really difficult.
Craig: It can be. Because, you know, the movie starts to turn into a stop-and-start. Action, quiet talk, backstory, my inner feelings. Action, quiet talk, backstory, your inner feelings. And it’s one of the reasons by the way these movies are so long. They are so long because everybody needs a story. It’s hard to justify why you have seven characters when only three really have lives and inner worlds and the other four are standing around doing stuff.
Craig: So everybody has to have it. And they can get really long. You know, it wouldn’t kill these people to maybe, you know, kill one of them. If it’s not going well we’ll just kill them. No big deal.
John: I’m going to argue without a lot of supporting evidence that Alien is essentially one of these kind of group movies, and a lot of horror movies are those kind of group movie, and they winnow down the characters so that one person is left standing. But you couldn’t necessarily say that that person was the protagonist at the very start of the story.
Aliens is not really kind of what we’re talking about with the team movie. Even though there’s a team of great people in it, it is Ripley’s movie and it is her journey. You can clearly see her protagonist arc over the course of it. So, that’s a distinction. Even within the same franchise those are two different kind of setups. I would say – I’m arguing that the first Alien movie is kind of what we’re describing in this episode whereas Aliens is much more a classic, here is one character on a one-time journey.
Craig: Yeah. Don’t be afraid, if you need to write fodder characters you write fodder characters.
John: Oh, go for it.
Craig: I mean, people need to die. Somebody has to be the red shirt. But when you think about – Star Trek is a pretty good example I think of a kind of team story. All their movies feel like team stories to me. And in part it’s because, I mean, take away the science fiction aspect, they’re just sailors on a boat. And so we’re rooting for the boat to survive. That means everybody on the boat is important. However, if something blows up, a few people on the boat can die and we won’t miss them. It’s the people that we have invested in emotionally. Those need to be justifiable to us. They all need to be important. They’re all doing jobs that are really important. I don’t care about the janitor on USS Enterprise. They do have an important job. Really important. But not during your crisis.
John: Absolutely. And we should distinguish between, in television shows by their nature tend to have big casts with a lot of people doing stuff, so Star Trek as a TV show you say, oh well of course, there’s a big cast, there’s a team. But the Star Trek movies which I also love, that is what we’re talking about here because it’s a family. It is a group of characters, the five or six key people. They are the ones that we care about. And we don’t care about the red shirts. We want to see them come through this and survive and change and interact with each other. That’s why we’re buying our ticket for these movies.
Craig: You know what? I just had an idea.
Craig: You know, so occasionally we do a deep dive into a movie. And I do like the idea of surprising people. I don’t think we’ve necessarily been particularly surprising in our choices. They’ve all been kind of classics. But you know what’s a really, really, really well-written movie?
John: Wrath of Khan?
Craig: It is. But that’s not the one I’m thinking of.
John: Tell me.
Craig: Star Trek: First Contact.
John: Oh great.
Craig: First Contact is a brilliantly written script. It is a gorgeous story where everything clicks and works together in the most lovely way.
Craig: I would deep dive that. I’d deep dive the hell out of it.
John: It’s on the list. Nice.
Craig: Put it on the list. Put it on the list.
John: Put it on the list. Getting back to this idea that there’s sort of a jigsaw puzzle, there’s a lot of things happening at once, you and I have both worked on Charlie’s Angels films. I found that to be some of the most difficult writing I ever had to do because you have three protagonists, three angels, who each need their own storylines. They need to be interacting with each other a lot. They have to have a pretty complicated A-plot generally. So every scene ends up having to do work on more than just one of those aspects. If it’s just talking plot then you’re missing opportunity to do Angel B-story stuff, but you can’t do two or three Angel B-story scenes back to back because then you’ve lost the A-plot. They’re challenging movies for those reasons. And more challenging than you might guess from an outsider’s perspective.
Craig: Well, you’re spinning plates, right?
Craig: You watch them when they’re actually spinning plates. They spin the plate and then they move over and they keep this plate. This plate is slowing down, spin that one faster. The one you were just spinning, it’s in middle. That one over there is slowing down, get to that one. It’s the same thing. You kind of service these things in waves. When you feel like you’ve had a good satisfying amount of this person, leave them and move onto another side story or another aspect of this group. That person can hang for a while.
If you have left somebody for a while when you come back to them it’s got to be really good.
Craig: You’ve got to go, oh, you know what, it wasn’t like we were away from that person because there was nothing for them to do. We were away from them because they have a bomb to drop on us. And so that works, too. But just think of it as just servicing plates. Spinning plates and looking for the ones that have kind of been a little bit neglected for a little too long. Because you can’t do them all at once. It’s not possible.
John: Yeah. And so this, we talk about art and craft a lot. Some of that is just craft. It’s recognizing having built a bunch of cabinets you recognize like, OK, this is what I need to do to make these cabinet doors work properly. And I can’t, if I don’t measure this carefully those cabinet doors are going to bump into each other and you’re not going to be able to open them. It’s a design aspect that’s kind of hard to learn how to do until you’ve just done it a bunch. And recognizing the ins and outs of scenes and how long it’s been since we’ve seen this careful. What are we expecting to happen next?
And while doing all of that remembering like, OK, what is it thematically these storylines are all about. What is the bigger picture that these can all – how are we going to get everybody to the same place not just physically but emotionally for this moment.
Craig: Yeah. You find as you do these things that you can get away with almost nothing. I think early on you think, well, it’s been a little while and this person hasn’t said anything, but whatever, it’s fine. These scenes are good. And then you give it to people and they go, “So why is this dead weight hanging around here? That was weird.” And you go, well, you can’t actually get away with anything.
John: Yeah. We talked before about how a character who doesn’t talk in a scene can be a challenge, especially if they haven’t talked – if they’re just hanging in the background of a scene for a long time and haven’t said anything that becomes a problem. But if a character has been offstage for too long and then they come back it has to be meaningful when they come back and you have to remember who they are. There’s not a clear formula or math, but sometimes you will actually just do a list of scenes and recognize like, wow, I have not seen this character for so long that I won’t remember who they are. And so I’m going to have to remind people who they are when they come back. It’s challenging. And you’re trying to do this all at script stage, but then of course you shoot a movie and then you’re seeing it and you’re like, oh man, we dropped that scene and now this doesn’t make sense. That’s the jigsaw puzzle of it all.
Craig: Yeah. It’s why writers should be in charge of movies.
John: Yeah. I think so.
Craig: Just telling it like it is.
John: Well, we go back to the sort of writer-plus that you’re always pitching which is that aspect of writers sort of functioning as showrunners for films is especially important for these really complicated narratives where there’s just a lot of plate-spinning to be done.
Craig: Yeah. I think television has proven this. Really it’s empirical at this point. The other thing I wanted to mention, one last pitfall, when you’re dealing with a group dynamic and you’re writing for a family you have to make sure that no one person – no one person’s personal stakes outweigh the group stakes. We want to be rooting for this whole team to survive. And they’re working together. But if you tell me also that one of their little mini-stories is that they’ve discovered the cure for cancer now I just mostly care about that person. That person has to get out of the burning building. Everybody else should just light themselves on fire so that person can get out.
So you just want to make sure that no one person’s stakes overshadow or obliterate the other ones in the group. And really the biggest stake of all which is us staying together.
John: Yep. 100%. So some takeaways. I would say if you’re approaching a story that you think is going to be a team story I would stop and ask yourself is it really a team story or is it more Aliens where it’s one character’s story and there’s a bunch of other characters as well? Because if it is one character’s story that’s most movies and that is actually a good thing. So always ask yourself is there really one central character and everyone else is supporting that one central character? If that’s not the case and you really do genuinely have a family, a group, a series of characters who are addressing the same thing you’ve made your life more difficult but god bless you. That could be a great script. But recognize the challenges you’re going to have ahead for yourself and be thinking about how do you make this group feel like the protagonist so you feel like there has been a transformation of this group by the end of the movie.
Craig: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. And I do believe that after this episode people should be able to do this. All of them.
John: Oh, all of them. Easy-peasy. Nothing hard to do there.
Craig: I mean, what else do you people want? We’ve almost done 400 of these.
Craig: They should all be at the top of their game. There should be 400 Oscars a year for screenplay as far as I’m concerned.
John: Moving on, our feature topic today is splitting up the party, dividing the party. It’s that trope that you often see in – well originally in sort of Scooby Doo things. Let’s split up so we can cover more ground and so therefore everyone gets into trouble because they split the party. But it also happens a lot in D&D where it’s that idea of you don’t want to divide up the party because if you divide up the party you’re weaker separately than you are together. And it’s also just really annoying for players because then you’re not – you’re just sort of waiting around for it to be your turn again.
But as I thought about it like dividing the party is actually a crucial thing that we end up having to do in movies and especially now in the second Arlo Finch just so that we can actually tell the story the best way possible. So I want to talk about situations where it’s good to keep characters together, more importantly situations where you really want to keep the characters separated, apart, and why you might want to do that.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a really smart idea for a topic because it’s incredibly relevant to how we present challenges to our characters. And the reason that they always say – and it’s maybe the only real rule, meaning only real unwritten rule of roleplaying games – is don’t split up the party. Don’t split the party is really in response to just a phalanx of idiots who have split the party in the past and inevitably it doesn’t work because as you point out you are putting yourselves in more danger that way. But that is precisely what we want to do to the characters in our fixed concluding narratives because it is the very nature of that jeopardy that is going to test them and challenge them the most. And therefore their success will feel the most meaningful to us.
John: Absolutely. So let’s talk about some of the problems with big groups. And so one of the things you start to realize if you have eight characters in a scene is it’s very hard to keep them alive. And by alive I mean do they actually have a function in that scene? Have they said a line? What are they doing there? And if characters don’t talk every once and a while they really do tend to disappear. I mean, radio dramas is the most extreme example where if a character doesn’t speak they are not actually in the scene. But if a character is just in the background of a scene and just nodding or saying uh-huh that’s not going to be very rewarding for that actor. It’s going to pull focus from what you probably actually want to be doing.
Craig: Whenever I see it it kills me, because I notice it immediately. And it’s so fascinating to me when it happens and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this great video. Patton Oswalt was a character on King of Queens. He was – I didn’t really watch the show, but I think he was a neighbor or something, or a coworker, so smaller part.
So there were many times I think where he was included in the scene in their living room, which was their main set for the sitcom, but other than his one thing to say at the beginning or the end he had nothing to do. And he apparently did this thing where through this very long scene he held himself perfectly still like a statue on purpose in the background. And you can see it on YouTube. It’s great. He’s amusing himself because the show has absolutely no use for him in that scene other than the beginning or the end.
John: That’s amazing. A situation we ran into with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is in Roald Dahl’s book Charlie Bucket gets the Golden Ticket and you’re allowed to bring two parents with you. And so Charlie only brings his uncle, but all the other characters, all the other little spoiled kids bring both parents. And that would be a disaster onscreen because you would have 15 people at the start of the factory tour. And trying to keep 15 people in a frame is really a challenge of cinema and television. There’s no good way to keep them all physically in a frame.
John: And that is a real problem. So what we did is basically everyone could bring one parent and it turned out the original Gene Wilder movie did the same thing. We made different choices about which parent. But then even when you get into like the big chocolate river room I’m splitting up those people and so they’re not all together as a pack because you just can’t keep them alive. You can’t get a group of more than four or five people together and actually have that moment be about something. And so they’re immediately splitting apart and going in different directions just so that you can have individual moments.
Craig: Even inside a group of characters where you haven’t technically split the party in terms of physical location, as a writer you begin to carve out a weird party split anyway because someone is inevitably going to lean in and have a quieter exchange with somebody else, or whisper to somebody else, or take somebody aside, even though they’re all still in the same room, because ultimately it is impossible to feel any kind of intimacy when you do have 15 co-equals all yammering at each other. Or, god forbid, three people yammering at each other and then 12 other people just standing there watching. That’s creepy.
John: Yep. The last thing I’ll say, the problem in big groups, is that there are conversations, there’s conflicts that you can really only see between two characters, maybe three characters, that just would not exist as part of a larger group. You’re not going to have an argument with your wife in a certain public place, but you would if it’s just the two of you. And so by breaking off those other people you allow for there to be moments that just couldn’t exist in a public setting.
And so that’s another reason why big groups just have a dampening effect often on what the natural conflicts you really want to see are in a story.
Craig: Even beyond the nature of certain conversations, there are certain aspects of basic character itself that change based on the context of who you’re around. Sometimes we don’t really get to know somebody properly until they’re alone with someone else. And then they say or do something that kind of surprises us because they are the sort of person that just blends in or shies away when there’s a lot going on. And they only kind of come out or blossom in intimacy.
Quiet characters are wonderful characters to kind of split off with because suddenly they can say something that matters. And you get to know who they really are. By the way, I think people work this way, too. We are brought up to think of ourselves as one person, right, that you’re John. But there’s many Johns. We are all many of us and we change based on how big of a group we’re in and who is in the group. So don’t be afraid to do that with your characters.
John: Yeah. So that ability to be specific to who that character is with that certain crowd and sort of the specificity of the conflicts that’s something you get in the smaller groups. But one of the other sort of hidden advantages you start to realize when you split the party up is that enables you to cut between the two groups. And that is amazingly useful for time compression. So basically getting through a bunch of stuff more quickly and sort of like if you were sticking with the same group you would have to just keep jumping forward in time. But by being able to ping pong back and forth between different groups and see where they’re at you can compress a lot of time down together. You can sort of short hand through some stuff. Giving yourself something to cut to is often the thing you’re looking for most as a screenwriter.
Craig: It is incredibly helpful for the movie once you get into the editing room of course, because you do have the certain flexibility there. You’re not trapped. There is a joy in the contrast, I think. If you’re going back and forth between let’s call them contemporaneous scenes. So they’re occurring at the same time, but they’re in different places, they can kind of comment on each other. It doesn’t have to be overt or meta, but there’s an interesting game of contrasts that you can play between two people who are enjoying a delicious meal in a beautiful restaurant and then a third person who is slogging her way through a rainy mud field. That’s a pretty broad example. It can be the tiniest of things.
But it gives you a chance to contrast which movie and film does really well and reality does poorly, because we are always stuck in one linear timeline in our lives. We never get that gift of I guess I’ll call it simultaneous perspective.
John: Yeah. So I mean a thing you come to appreciate as a screenwriter is how much energy you get out of a cut. And so you can find ways to get out of a scene and into the next scene that provide you with even more energy. But literally any time you’re cutting from one thing to another thing you get a little bit of momentum from that. And so being able to close a moment off and sort of tell the audience, OK, that thing is done and now we’re here is very useful and provides a pull through the story where if you had to stay with those characters as they were moving through things that could be a challenge.
But let’s talk about some of the downsides because there’s also splitting up the party that’s done poorly or doesn’t actually help.
John: So if you have a strong central protagonist, like it’s really all on this one character’s back, if you’re dividing up then suddenly you’re losing that POV. You’re losing that focus of seeing the story just from their perspective. And so the Harry Potter movies, the books and the movies, are all from Harry’s perspective. He is central to everything. And so if they were to cut off and just have whole subplots with Ron and Hermione where they’re doing stuff by themselves it would be different. There’s a way it could totally work, but it would be different. You know, if you’re making Gravity you really do want to stay with Sandra Bullock the whole time through. If you cut away to like on the ground with the NASA folks that would completely change your experience of that movie. So, there are definitely times where it does make sense to hold a group together so that you can stay with that central character because it’s really about his or her central journey.
Craig: Yeah. In those cases sometimes it’s helpful to think about the perspective character as a free agent. And so you still get to split the party by leaving a party to go to another party. And going back and forth. So Harry Potter has the Ron and Hermione party, and he has the Dumbledore party. And he has the snake party. And so he can move in between those and thus give us kind of different perspectives on things which is really helpful.
I mean, I personally feel like any time you’re writing about a group of people, basically you always are even if it’s a really small group, you should already be thinking about how you’re going to break them apart. Because it’s so valuable. It also helps you reinforce what they get out of the group in the first place. Because a very simple fundamental question every screenwriter should ask about their group of friends in their show or the movie is why are they friends.
We are friends with people who do something for us. Not overtly, but they are giving us something that we like. So, what is that? What are they doing for each other? And once you know that then you know why you have to break up the party. And then if they get back together what it means after that has been shattered.
John: Yep. I think as you’re watching something, if you were to watch an episode of Friends with the sound turned off most of the episode is not going to have the six of them together. They’re going to go off and do their separate things. But generally there’s going to be a moment at which they’re all back together in the course of the thing and that is a natural feeling you want. You want the party to break apart and then come back together. You want that sort of homecoming thing. That sense of completion is to have the group brought back together. That is the journey of your story. And so you’ll see that even in like Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another example of like let’s split up, let’s do different things. But you are expecting to see Xander and Buffy and Willow are all going to come back together at the end because that’s sort of the contract you’ve made with your audience.
Craig: Exactly. And that is something that’s very different about recurring episodic television as opposed to closed end features or closed end limited series. You can’t really break up the party in any kind of permanent way. Whereas in film and limited series television sometimes, and a lot of times, you must. You must split up the party permanently. I mean, there’s a great – if you’re making any kind of family drama it’s really helpful to think about this, the splitting of the party concept. I’m thinking of Ordinary People. Ordinary People ultimately is a movie about what happens, you know, the party and whether or not the party is going to stay together. And, spoiler alert, it breaks up. The party splits up permanently and you understand that is the way it must be.
John: You know, Broadcast News. And so if you want to take that central triangle of those three characters, they could stay all working together as a group, but that would not be dramatically interesting. You have to break them apart and see what they’re like in their separate spaces so you can understand the full journey of the story.
John: So let’s talk about how you split up a party. The simplest and probably hoariest way to do it is just the urgency thing. So the Scooby Doo like we can cover more ground if we split up, or there’s a deadline basically. We won’t get this done unless we split up. There’s too much to do and so therefore we’re going to divide. You do this and then we do that. The Guardians of the Galaxy does that. The Avengers movies tend to do that a lot where they just going off in separate directions and eventually the idea is that they’ll come back together to get that stuff done.
John: That works for certain kinds of movies. It doesn’t work for a lot of movies. But it’s a way to get it done. But I think if you can find the natural rhythms that make it clear why the characters are apart, that’s probably going to be a better solution for most movies. You know, friends aren’t always together. Friends do different stuff. And friends have other friends and so they’re apart from each other.
People work. And so that sense of like you have a work family and a home family. That’s a way of separating things. And there’s people also grouped by common interest, so you can have your hero who is a marathon runner who goes off doing marathon-y stuff, marathon people, marathon-y stuff, who goes running with people which breaks him off from the normal – the group that we’re seeing the rest of the time. You can find ways to let themselves be the person pulling themselves away from the group.
Craig: Yeah. There’s also all sorts of simple easy ways where the world breaks the party apart, walls and doors drop down between people. Somebody is arrested and put in prison. Somebody is pulled away. Someone dies. Dying, by the way, great way to break up a party. That’s a terrific party split. Yeah. There’s all sorts of – somebody falls down, gets hurt, and you have to take them to the hospital. There’s a hundred different things.
And I suppose what I would advise writers is to think about using a split method that will allow you, the writer, to get the most juice out of this new circumstance of this person and this person together, which is different than what we’ve seen before. So where would that be and how would it work and why would it feel a certain way as opposed to a different way.
And you can absolutely do this, even if you have three people. I mean, you mention Broadcast News so let’s talk about James Brooks and As Good as it Gets. Once you start this road trip it’s three characters and the party splits multiple times in different ways.
John: Yeah. The reason I think I was thinking about this this week is I’m writing the third Arlo Finch. And the first Arlo Finch is a boy who comes to this mountain town. He joins the patrol and there are six people in his patrol. His two best friends are sort of the central little triad there. But there’s a big action sequence that has six characters. And supporting six characters in that sequence killed me. It was a lot to do.
In writing the second book, which is off in a summer camp, you got that patrol and that is the main family, but I was deliberately looking for ways to split them apart so that characters could have to make choices by themselves and so that Arlo Finch could have to step up and do stuff without the support of his patrol. But also allow for natural conflicts that would divide the patrol against themselves and surprises that take sort of key members out of patrol.
And that was the central sort of dramatic question of the story is like will this family sort of come back together at the end.
And then the third book is a chance to sort of match people up differently. So you get to go on trips with people who are not the normal people you would bring on a certain trip. And that’s fun to see, too. So, you can go to places that would otherwise be familiar but you’re going into these places with people who would not be the natural people to go in this part of the world.
Craig: Yeah. You get to mix and match and strange bedfellows and all that. That’s part of the fun of this stuff. We probably get a little wrapped up in the individual when we’re talking about character, but I always think about that question that Lindsay Doran is lobbing out to everybody. What is the central relationship of your story? And thereby you immediately stop thinking about individual characters. OK, this character is like this and this character – that’s why maybe more than anything I hate that thing in scripts where people say, you know, “Jim, he’s blah-blah-blah, and he used to be this, and now he’s this.” I don’t care.
I only am interested in Jim and his relationship to another human being. At least one other and hopefully more. So, I try and think about the party and the relationships and the connections between people as the stuff that matters. Because in the end mostly that’s what you’re writing.
John: Absolutely true.
We are back now in 2022. Craig is gone, because Craig was never actually really here. He just, through the magic tape, was here with us. It’s time for our One Cool Things. Megana, do you have a One Cool Thing to share with us?
Megana: I do. My One Cool Thing is the Hydroviv under-the-sink water filtration system.
Megana: I drink a lot of water.
John: I can testify you do drink a lot of water, which is good. It’s healthy.
Megana: I do, yeah. My favorite type of water is room temperature tap water. Living in LA, it’s sometimes hard to drink straight from the tap.
John: To clarify, it is safe to drink from the tap. Sometimes it’s just not what you want.
Megana: In my new apartment, I was drinking from the tap, and it just tasted like I was drinking from a pool. I feel like I always had this metallic tang in my mouth. I was like, “Oh, it’s not great.” I was looking at different options. The Brita filter is just one step too many for me.
John: Absolutely. That’s where you’re filling the pitcher again and again. We used to have those in the house.
Megana: There’s just never enough water. I was looking at under-the-sink systems, because that seemed like the best option. I found this company. I originally found out about them on Shark Tank. Because of that, I wasn’t going to go with that.
John: I wouldn’t.
Megana: After doing research, I felt like they were the best option. They’re a little bit pricier. Their pitch is that they design filters that respond to city-specific needs. I put in my zip code, and then they would send me a customized thing back. I installed it myself. It’s been a couple of months. My water’s delicious.
John: That’s great. How often do you change the filters on this system?
Megana: Every six months.
John: That’s not so bad. That’s not bad at all. Here at the house, the whole house is on one water filter system, which has been really nice and convenient. We used to do Brita filter pitchers, and we don’t need to anymore. The water in our house though is okay for you, right?
Megana: Yeah, it’s so delicious. It’s one of the many reasons I look forward to coming to work.
John: My One Cool Thing is called BLOT2046. It is a manifesto. I’m really not sure what this website is I’m sending people to. It’s mysterious. There’s a signup for a mailing list. I haven’t signed up for it because I’m not sure if it’s a cult or what it is. Basically, on this page there are 46 bullet points. They were intriguing and sometimes opaque and mysterious. I’ll give you a sampling of three of them. Point 16 is, “Hypnotize yourself or someone else will,” which I get, is that if you’re not able to introspect and see what is it that you would get yourself to focus on, someone else is going to take that attention and pull it through.
“Work in the semi-open. Translucency, not transparency,” which I think is actually applicable to a lot of stuff we do in film and television is that you cannot be completely transparent about the things you’re working on, because they’re not ready to be seen by the world. Yet if you’d want to lock everything down where it’s completely opaque and impossible to see too early on, no one’s going to have a sense of what it is you’re working on. Translucency feels like a good word to be using there.
The final point, point 42, “There’s no away, no elsewhere, not really.” We think, “Oh, if I could ever get away,” but you really can’t get away. You have to find a way to get away within yourself.
Megana: I feel like that’s a strong theme in film and TV. Is this a manifesto for how to live your life, or is that unclear?
John: It’s really unclear. I think some of them are actually about manufacturing and sustainability. Really any of them felt like good prompts for writing, actually, that you could take any of these ideas and use them as a thematic touchpoint for a piece of storytelling.
Megana: Cool. It’s a cool, spooky website.
John: It is a very spooky website.
Megana: I would recommend the click.
John: That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is a vintage track by Rajesh Naroth. 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 on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. We have T-shirts. They’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. We also have hoodies, which are lovely. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts and sign up for our weeklyish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing. You can 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 Stranger Things.
Megana: I cannot wait.
John: Megana Rao, thank you very much for joining me and for putting together this episode.
Megana: Of course. Thank you, John.
John: Speaking of group dynamics, there is one group we love more than any other. It is our Premium Members, so thank you for supporting the show. We are joined for this segment by Drew Marquardt, who is helping us out this summer working on the Scriptnotes book. Drew, welcome to the podcast in audio form, not text form like you’ve been dealing with.
Drew Marquardt: Thank you so much, both of you, for having me.
Drew: Am I Craig now?
John: You are in the Craig spot, so you have to have a lot of umbrage about all things. That’s good. That’s a good sigh.
Megana: That was a great impression.
John: It’s nice. We all just finished watching the first half of Season 4 of Stranger Things. Relevant to this episode about group dynamics, there were a lot of group dynamics at play within this first half of the season. There was a lot of place setting. There was a lot of just groups being put together and pulled apart and spread out all over. I thought, let’s talk about what we think so far of the show. Maybe start with a thumbs up, thumbs down. Megana Rao, are you thumbs up or thumbs down for this first seven episodes?
Megana: I am two thumbs up.
John: Two thumbs up. Drew, where are you?
Drew: I’m more of a single thumbs up, but I’m thumbs up.
John: I’m maybe one and a half thumbs up, if you can split a thumb, if you can divide a thumb. I liked a lot of this. I felt like the episodes were long, and longer than they needed to be in cases. I felt like they could’ve cut many of these 90-minute episodes down into 60 minutes and they would’ve been better episodes. Still, I wasn’t upset with the episodes I was watching.
Megana: I don’t know, it still felt like not enough for me.
John: You want more and more.
Megana: More and more. I love hanging out with these characters.
John: Let’s talk about the characters we’re hanging out with, because obviously this is going to be spoiler-heavy throughout. If you haven’t watched it and you aren’t planning to watch it, maybe pause this right now and come back after you’ve watched 19 hours of television. We start the season with our characters really spread out in very different places than we’ve seen before. They’re not all in our little town of Hawkins. Some are in Hawkins. Some are in California.
Megana: Some are in Russia.
John: Some are in Russia. People are spread out. Megana, controversially, you did not like any of the Russian segments?
Megana: Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I’m ready to publicly air that.
John: I think you were talking about friends of yours who had fast-forwarded through all the Russian stuff.
Megana: Friends of mine did. I watched everything. I did not fast-forward through any of the Russian plot lines. I don’t know, just where we are right now, I’m just not really interested in Russia as a villain. I just wanted everyone to be back together in Hawkins.
John: Drew, how much did they need to catch you up on who the characters were and where they were at the start of the show?
Drew: A little bit. It’s been three years or something like that.
Megana: Oh my gosh.
Drew: I felt like they did a good job jumping you right into the story. I initially felt like I was going to be confused by why Hopper was still alive. Even when Papa comes back, I thought there was going to be quite a lot of… They did a good job, I thought, of just giving you enough information to justify why it’s there and then move the story along, because we don’t really need to dwell on it.
John: I think I had a hard time remembering why was Eleven with Winona Ryder’s family and all that stuff. I knew they had left. That first episode was a lot of just putting the pieces on the table…
John: …and reminding, okay, all these characters are still alive, and this is why they’re spread out. I thought centering it around spring break made a lot of sense, which was great. It was a lot of just reminding us who these characters were and where they are and the dynamics.
Megana: Who’s died and who’s recovering from what trauma.
Drew: I thought Jonathan had died, for some reason. I knew that Billy had died in Season 3. When he was back, I was like, “I thought he was long gone.”
John: I was ready for Jonathan to be long gone. Let’s jump forward then to the end of these seven episodes. One of the things I was talking with Megana about at lunch was I was really impressed by, when we get into Episode 7, the reveal of who the big bad is and how the big bad came to be and all that stuff. They’re actually doing the reveal split across two different plot lines and different timelines.
Megana: And dimensions.
John: And dimensions, basically, just to really expose who this character was and that this character was created by Eleven, and some strong misdirects along the way that Eleven was responsible for this horrible massacre that starts everything off this season.
Megana: I really loved the villain of the season. I think previously the villains from the Upside Down had been just these generic monsters. I love how personal this one is.
John: Keeping the characters separated though, from California to Hawkins, has been a little awkward. Eventually, it looks like they’re going to be trying to bring these characters back together. We have the California crew. Eleven is split off from them and is in a completely different environment. We have the main Hawkins group that’s sometimes in groups of two or three, small groups within there. We’re going to the sanitarium or places. Then we have all the Russia business, which is self-contained, the Alaska Russia business. It was a lot of juggling. I was noticing that most episodes would try to touch on every plot line except for one. There’d always be one group that was dropped out of it. There’d be episodes in which none of the California crew were part of it.
Megana: The one thing that I… Maybe you guys can explain this to me. I had trouble locating the Will-Mike relationship and why there was so much strife there and felt so bad for Will, because he’s been gone in the Upside Down for years.
John: He wasn’t gone for years though. Will? No.
Megana: Wasn’t he gone in the first and second season? Am I misremembering?
Drew: I think just the first season. Then he was a shadow walker in the second season, where it’s going mentally back and forth.
Megana: Got it.
Drew: I think he has a crush on Mike, right?
Drew: That’s what I was being telegraphed.
John: I think they’re trying to tap dance around his being gay or not being gay. It’s left up for audience interpretation. It feels like it’s inevitably going to come out. They’re not afraid of having gay characters, based on other gay characters they have in the show.
Megana: Then why do you think Mike was such a jerk to him?
John: I’m not quite sure why Mike is the way he is in this series at all?
Drew: That was less motivated to me. Mike hasn’t had as strong of a character, but maybe because I felt like they had abandoned Will or they didn’t know what to do with Will after Season 1 for quite a long time. At least in this, there feels like there’s much more a thrust for his character, and he’s going after something. Mike is good. Mike is moving along the plot, but he’s not really.
John: He’s not moving along the plot very much. Curious what he does in the second half of this. Let’s talk about the new characters who were added, because it’s already a giant cast, and they add just a lot of new people in. Some of them are going to be like, oh, you were established in this episode, and therefore you’ll be dead by the end of the episode, which is a classic trope. Some of those people look like they are going to be sticking around, which is surprising to me, and yet this is where we’re at.
Megana: I love Argyle. I know some of you have very strong opinions on him.
John: Argyle is pizza guy?
Megana: Pizza guy.
John: I cannot stand Argyle.
Drew: I like Argyle.
John: You like Argyle?
John: To me, he feels like just the broadest stereotype.
Megana: He’s California.
John: He’s California. Tell me why you like Argyle, Drew.
Drew: It might be a fondness for the actor. He was in Booksmart too. He’s great. Something about his personality I just enjoy. For some reason, he feels like a nice foil to that, because they really do make that plot line, especially when the soldiers come into the house in Episode 4 or something like that. It’s nice to have him having a bit of levity, because otherwise I think that would be very heavy.
John: It can be very heavy. I thought these soldiers storming into the house was actually one of the most effective things they’ve done all season, where they’ve established a plan for what they’re going to do, and then suddenly all bets are off, and then suddenly there are people storming in. The thing you did not expect to happen at all suddenly happens, which is nice to see. Do I believe that the army is after their own people in that way and that that one guy’s being tortured? Not really. I did like the surprise of suddenly there’s armed weapons in the house.
Drew: I may be most confused by that little bit of storyline. Then the torturing, the one survived, the guy afterwards, I’m not quite sure what that’s all about.
John: I wasn’t expecting for them to be burying bodies in the desert, that our little high school kids are burying bodies in the desert. That’s a shift there.
Megana: They seemed to move on really quickly from that.
John: These kids have been through a lot of trauma. I think there’s just so much to work through. A thing we were talking about is that in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s a metaphysical explanation for why no one in Sunnydale ever talks about the weird stuff that happens in Sunnydale. There’s not a lot of acknowledgement in Hawkins that they’ve been through a tremendous amount. Somehow, nobody recognizes that something horrible is happening here. The biggest we have is the angry pitchforks mob meeting that happens. It doesn’t feel like they’re acknowledging all the stuff that we’ve seen happen in Hawkins.
Megana: I feel like if I were one of these characters, I would have a harder time keeping up all these lies that my friends and I are telling the rest of the town.
John: It’s true. Also, what’s happened to the mall? Did they rebuild the mall? What’s going on there? We never get back to the mall.
Drew: They mention the mall fire a few times. I couldn’t even remember how Season… I remembered Billy died at the end of Season 3, but I didn’t remember that that burned down.
John: Also, this season, I was impressed by… I felt like Eleven in California was really awkward. It was useful to see that she can’t do normal teen things, and she’s actually not perceived as being gifted there, but actually being slow, and so she’s undereducated and really struggling. The stuff once they actually brought her back into the lab was impressively handled. The handoff between her and the little actress who’s playing the younger version of her was very smartly done.
Drew: Do you feel like they’re challenging her character in a way that they haven’t done before? That was something that struck me but I didn’t remember in Season 2 or Season 3. It feels like this is a good escalation for her character between Vecna and all of these different things and bringing Papa back too.
Megana: I feel like I was most interested in her at school struggling, because I think the stuff with Papa and all of that… I love that she is facing and unearthing that stuff, but it feels like a place we’ve seen her before, where she’s isolated from the rest of the group, figuring stuff out with her own powers.
John: Drew, because we have you on the show, you are an actor, and so you are young enough that you could play one of these teenage characters.
Drew: That’s being very kind.
John: Are you noticing any things that they’re doing to try to seem young? They are considerably older than the characters they’re supposed to be playing.
Drew: I haven’t picked up on anything. I haven’t been acting for a while. I see them as the professionals and letting the professionals do that. I’m trying to remember. I’m really impressed with Lucas’s little sister, who I forget her name.
Megana: Love her.
Drew: She rules. She’s not trying to play… She’s clearly not 11 or however old she’s supposed to be in that. She’s just playing it as her age, which I think is smart, because I think to an 11-year-old too you are at the top of your intelligence all the time. She’s the person who’s coming to mind as an example of doing it correctly. I don’t really notice anyone playing younger in an awkward way or bumbling way.
John: One of the things they have to do in that first episode too is establish the baseline of this is how the characters are and how they’re going to act. We’re getting set that these characters are this age from the rest of this on. The fact that Steve seems a lot older than the rest of them, but he’s only supposed to be two years older than the rest of them, which is just… We’re going with it, for me.
Megana: He’s a couple years out of high school now.
John: He’s that old, supposed to be?
Megana: I thought so, because he graduated and is now working around town, or am I misremembering?
Drew: I’ve also lost the timeline on Steve and on Nancy, because I assumed that she had already graduated, she graduated with him, but that is totally wrong.
Megana: I think she’s still in school.
Drew: She’s still in school, because she’s doing the paper.
John: She’s still supposed to be in high school or in some sort of local college?
Megana: That kid Fred is definitely in high school, the one that she works with. I also have no idea how old Robin is. Do we ever see her at school?
Drew: That’s a good point.
Megana: I love her character.
John: I don’t know if she’s still in school or not. I don’t think we’ve seen her at school at all. We’ve seen her at school, because she is in the marching band. She’s still in school. We’ve now stalled long enough that Megana can talk about Steve Harrington and why the show should entirely be about Steve Harrington and everyone else is just there to pass the time.
Megana: I feel like I had a major funk last week where I was reading fan theories and people were like, “Steve is definitely going to die.” I’m embarrassed by how I processed that. I love Steve Harrington. I think he’s so charming. As I was telling John, he’s a big part of maybe the biggest reason that I watch the show is to get to a Steve scene.
John: Are you hoping that Steve and Nancy get back together? Is that a goal for you, or you just want Steve and whatever?
Megana: That’s interesting. I don’t know. I think Nancy and Jonathan are a good fit. I just love Steve’s friendship with Robin. The Steve-Dustin relationship/Steve and Eddie fighting over Dustin is now my favorite thing to watch.
John: Can you explain Jonathan and why Jonathan’s a character that anyone cares about?
Megana: I don’t know how I’ve gotten myself into this position. He’s a loyal older brother. I think that he’s burdened with this responsibility of taking care of his family, and he’s struggling to do that. He was more of a creep in the first season. I found him really compelling for that reason, just this misunderstood, lovesick boy who’s taking these creepy pictures of Nancy. I feel like we’ve lost that bit. Maybe him being a protective older brother.
John: I get that. Let’s wrap up with our Deadpool. Who do we think is not going to make it through the end of the full Season 4? I’ve got my opinion, but I’m curious what you think.
Drew: I hope we don’t lose Eddie, but I think we might. They’ve done a great job. I don’t know, I fell in love with him from Episode 1. I’m a big Eddie fan. I think that’s only to rip my heart out, which would be too bad, because I think he’s a really good addition to the cast. I might say Steve.
Drew: I know. I’m so sorry. I think they’re going to go for it.
Megana: I think so too. I think that’s why I’m so heartbroken.
John: I’m going to guess Mike, who hasn’t done a lot this season, but I think will actually pick up a little bit. I feel like he wants to leave the show too. It doesn’t seem like he’s going to be sticking around.
Drew: That’s good.
John: I don’t know. We’ll see.
Megana: Anyone but Steve.
John: Anyone but Steve. Dustin they can’t lose. It would be very surprising to lose Dustin. I think they could lose Eleven. It would be a big shock to lose Eleven, but you could.
Drew: Maybe Will, because I think they’ve been vamping with his character for a few seasons. Now they have a little bit, but if we-
John: The problem is, you kill Will, then you’re back into the kill your gays meme, bury your gays, and that’s not good.
Drew: That’s [inaudible 01:19:15].
Megana: I did read an interesting thing about maybe Jonathan dies and then Will becomes evil or turns evil. I think that also would fall into the same meme of having a gay character as the villain.
John: That’s Willow from Buffy.
Megana: As long as Steve’s there.
John: As long as Steve’s there, it doesn’t really matter what happens to the rest of the group. Just the Steve show. Thank you guys.
Megana: Thank you.
Drew: Thank you.
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