One word. Primal.
It is a very simple, extremely obvious, and universal principle that is elusive at virtually every turn. All human endeavors grow out of the soil of humanity. One would think that reading a book on “script writing” or “movies” is only for those who want to write movies. It is not. It is also for those who wish to learn more about our humanity. Script writers and movie makers have tapped into a formula–a heuristic–and some guiding principles for success, all of which illuminate further who we are as a species, and how we operate. This is, for me, why reading such a wide swath of diverse books is enthralling and wisdom-gaining. The best of any discipline, be it movies, sports, business, music, religion, neuroscience, etc., are all tapping into the common denominator, the question of what makes us human.
Perhaps we could say that virtually all human endeavors, all human organizations, and all human behaviors are merely emergent derivatives of our most primal urges and inclinations. At least, that the story I’m telling.
Advice like: “Follow your heart!” and “Be true to your vision!” is fine if you’re in therapy. Me? I really want to improve my odds. (152)
…liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story. (176)
Save the what?
I call it the “ Save the Cat ” scene. They don’t put it into movies anymore. And it’s basic. It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him. (178)
That’s why the name of this book is Save The Cat! It’s emblematic of the kind of common sense basics I want to get across to you, and to some in the movie business, about the laws of physics that govern good storytelling. (189)
CHAPTER ONE: WHAT IS IT? (204)
“What is it?” is the name of the game. “What is it?” is the movie. A good “What is it?” is the coin of the realm. (216)
Because if you can learn how to tell me “what is it?” better, faster, and with more creativity, you’ll keep me interested. And incidentally, by doing so before you start writing your script, you’ll make the story better, too. (247)
The number one thing a good logline must have, the single most important element, is: irony. (274)
It’s what we who struggle with loglines like to call the hook, because that’s what it does. It hooks your interest. (281)
…a good logline must be emotionally intriguing, like an itch you have to scratch. (285)
The second most important element that a good logline has is that you must be able to see a whole movie in it. (291)
Like the irony in a good logline, a great title must have irony and tell the tale. (322)
ALl good screenwriters are bullheads. (346)
To be a screenwriter is to deal with an ongoing tug of war between breathtaking megalomania and insecurity so deep it takes years of therapy just to be able to say “I’m a writer” out loud. (348)
I always spill my guts when it comes to discussing what I’m working on, because:
a. I have no fear that anyone will steal my idea (and anyone who has that fear is an amateur) and…
b. You find out more about your movie by talking to people one-on-one than having them read it.
This is what I mean by “test marketing.” (372)
…talk to “civilians.” I talk to them and I look in their eyes as I’m talking. When they start to drift, when they look away, I’ve lost them. And I know my pitch has problems. So I make sure that when I pitch to my next victim, I’ve corrected whatever slow spot or confusing element I overlooked the first time out. And most of all, it’s really fun to do. (377)
Along with a good “What is it?” a movie must have a clear sense of what it’s about and who it’s for. Its tone, potential, the dilemma of its characters, and the type of characters they are, should be easy to understand and compelling. (425)
In order to better create a good “What is it?” the spec screenwriter must be able to tell a good one-line or logline — a one- or two-sentence grabber that tells us everything. It must satisfy four basic elements to be effective:
- Irony. It must be in some way ironic and emotionally involving — a dramatic situation that is like an itch you have to scratch.
- A compelling mental picture. It must bloom in your mind when you hear it. A whole movie must be implied, often including a time frame.
- Audience and cost. It must demarcate the tone, the target audience, and the sense of cost, so buyers will know if it can make a profit.
- A killer title. The one-two punch of a good logline must include a great title, one that “says what it is” and does so in a clever way. (427)
CHAPTER TWO: GIVE ME THE SAME THING…ONLY DIFFERENT! (465)
A screenwriter’s daily conundrum is how to avoid cliché.
| You can be near the cliché, you can dance around it, you can run right up to it and almost embrace it.
| But at the last second you must turn away.
| You must give it a twist. (465)
To quote the studio executive who first blurted out this rule to me, Sam Goldwyn-like, during a development meeting: “Give me the same thing… only different!” (470)
Movies are intricately made emotion machines. (479)
Which leads me to the subject of genre. You are about to embark on the next step of writing a successful screenplay and that is the categorizing of your movie idea. But no! you think. My movie is new! It’s like nothing ever seen before! I will not be put into a category! Sorry. Too late. (482)
Because to explode the clichés, to give us the same thing… only different, you have to know what genre your movie is part of, and how to invent the twists that avoid pat elements. If you can do that, you have a better chance to sell. (487)
…before you start writing I want you to think a little bit about the question after “What is it?” — and that’s “What is it… most like?” (494)
The 10 types of movies I have categorized here are:
- Monster in the House – Of which Jaws, Tremors, Alien, The Exorcist, Fatal Attraction, and Panic Room are examples.
- Golden Fleece – This is the category of movie best exemplified by Star Wars; The Wizard of Oz; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Back To The Future; and most “heist movies.”
- Out of the Bottle – This incorporates films like Liar, Liar; Bruce Almighty; Love Potion #9; Freaky Friday; Flubber; and even my own little kid hit from Disney, Blank Check.
- Dude with a Problem – This is a genre that ranges in style, tone, and emotional substance from Breakdown and Die Hard to Titanic and Schindler’s List.
- Rites Of Passage – Every change-of-life story from 10 to Ordinary People to Days of Wine and Roses makes this category.
- Buddy Love – This genre is about more than the buddy movie dynamic as seen in cop buddy pictures, Dumb & Dumber, and Rain Man — but also every love story ever made!
- Whydunit – Who cares who, it’s why that counts. Includes Chinatown, China Syndrome, JFK, and The Insider.
- The Fool Triumphant – One of the oldest story types, this category includes Being There, Forrest Gump, Dave, The Jerk, Amadeus, and the work of silent clowns like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.
- Institutionalized – Just like it sounds, this is about groups: Animal House, M*A*S*H, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and “family” sagas such as American Beauty and The Godfather.
- Superhero – This isn’t just about the obvious tales you’d think of, like Superman and Batman, but also includes Dracula, Frankenstein, even Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind.
MONSTER IN THE HOUSE
What do Jaws, The Exorcist, and Alien have in common? They’re examples of the genre I call “Monster in the House.” This genre has a long track record and was probably the first tale Man ever told. It has two working parts: A monster. A house. And when you add people into that house, desperate to kill the monster, you’ve got a movie type so primal that it translates to everyone, everywhere. It’s the type of movie that I like to say, “You can pitch to a caveman.” It’s not about being dumb, it’s about being primal. And everyone understands the simple, primal commandment: Don’t… Get… Eaten! (538)
THE GOLDEN FLEECE
And if your screenplay can in any way be categorized as a “Road Movie,” then you must know the rules of a genre I call “The Golden Fleece.” The name comes from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and yet it’s always about the same thing: A hero goes “on the road” in search of one thing and winds up discovering something else — himself. (568)
Like the twists of any story, the milestones of The Golden Fleece are the people and incidents that our hero or heroes encounter along the way. … The theme of every Golden Fleece movie is internal growth; how the incidents affect the hero is, in fact, the plot. It is the way we know that we are truly making forward progress — it’s not the mileage we’re racking up that makes a good Golden Fleece, it’s the way the hero changes as he goes. And forcing those milestones to mean something to the hero is your job. (572)
OUT OF THE BOTTLE
This type of wish-fulfillment is so common because it’s a big part of the human psyche. “I wish I had a _________” is probably the single most frequently spoken prayer since Adam. And stories that tell a good “what if” tale that exploits these wish fulfillment fantasies are good, primal, easy-for-a-caveman-to-understand stories — which is why they’re so many of them. And why they’re so successful. (593)
The rules of Out of the Bottle then are this: If it’s a wish-fulfillment tale, the hero must be a put-upon Cinderella who is so under the thumb of those around him that we are really rooting for anyone, or anything, to get him a little happiness. And yet, so the rules tell us and human nature dictates, we don’t want to see anyone, even the most underdog character, succeed for too long. And eventually, the hero must learn that magic isn’t everything, it’s better to be just like us — us members of the audience — because in the end we know this will never happen to us. Thus a lesson must be in the offing; a good moral must be included at the end. (613)
DUDE WITH A PROBLEM
This genre is defined by the phrase: “An ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.” (623)
Like Monster in the House, this genre also has two very simple working parts: a dude, meaning an average guy or gal just like ourselves. And a problem: something that this average guy must dig deep inside himself to conquer. From these simple components, an infinite number of mix-and-match situations can bloom and grow. (630)
RITES OF PASSAGE
…growing-pain stories register because they are the most sensitive times in our lives. It’s what makes us human, and what makes for excellent, poignant, and even hilarious storytelling. (642)
In a good Rites of Passage tale, everybody’s in on “the joke” except the person who’s going through it–the story’s hero. And only the experience can offer a solution. (650)
In the end, these tales are about surrendering, the victory won by giving up to forces stronger than ourselves. The end point is acceptance of our humanity and the moral of the story is always the same: That’s Life! (653)
The secret of a good buddy movie is that it is actually a love story in disguise. And, likewise, all love stories are just buddy movies with the potential for sex. (668)
We all know that evil lurks in the hearts of men. Greed happens. Murder happens. And unseen evildoers are responsible for it all. But the “ who ” is never as interesting as the “why.” Unlike the Golden Fleece, a good Whydunit isn’t about the hero changing, it’s about the audience discovering something about human nature they did not think was possible before the “crime” was committed and the “case” began. (688)
They take us to the shadowy part of the street. And the rules are simple. We in the audience are the detectives, ultimately. While we have a surrogate or surrogates onscreen doing the work for us, it’s we who must ultimately sift through the information and we who must be shocked by what we find. (697)
That’s what a good Whydunit does — it turns the x-ray machine back on ourselves and asks: “Are we this evil?” (701)
THE FOOL TRIUMPHANT
The operating principal [sic]of “The Fool Triumphant” is to set the underdog Fool against a bigger, more powerful, and often “ establishment ” bad guy. Watching a so-called “ idiot ” get the goat of those society deems to be the winners in life gives us all hope, and pokes fun at the structures we take so seriously in our day-to-day lives. (709)
The working parts of a Fool Triumphant movie are simple: an underdog — who is seemingly so inept and so unequipped for life that everyone around him discounts his odds for success ( and does so repeatedly in the set – up ) — and an institution for that underdog to attack. (713)
Where would we be without each other? And when we band together as a group with a common cause, we reveal the ups and downs of sacrificing the goals of the few for those of the many. Thus, the genre I call “ Institutionalized ” tells stories about groups, institutions, and “families.” These stories are special because they both honor the institution and expose the problems of losing one’s identity to it. (722)
“Suicide Is Painless,” the theme song of M*A*S*H, isn’t so much about the insanity of war as the insanity of the herd mentality. When we put on a uniform, be it the uniform of the Army or a comfortable cotton shirt with a little polo player over the pocket, we give up who we are to a certain extent. And these movies are all about the pros and cons of putting the group ahead of ourselves. (729)
Ultimately, all the stories in this category come down to a question: Who’s crazier, me or them? (739)
The “Superhero” genre is the exact opposite of Dude with a Problem and can best be defined by its opposite definition: An extraordinary person finds himself in an ordinary world. (746)
In truth, we will never truly understand the Superhero. Indeed our identification with him must come from sympathy for the plight of being misunderstood. If you are writing a Superhero movie, a wide range of tales are available for dissection. It’s a long-standing story type for a reason: It gives flight to our greatest fantasies about our potential while tempering those fantasies with a dose of reality. (765)
HOLLYWOOD’S DIRTY LITTLE SECRET
…the laws of physics that govern storytelling work every time, in every situation. Your job is to learn why it works and how these story cogs fit together. When it seems like you’re stealing — don’t. When it feels like a cliché — give it a twist. When you think it’s familiar — it probably is, so you’ve got to find a new way. But at least understand why you’re tempted to use the cliché and the familiar story. The rules are there for a reason. Once you get over feeling confined by these rules, you’ll be amazed at how freeing they are. True originality can’t begin until you know what you’re breaking away from. (779)
CHAPTER THREE: IT’S ABOUT A GUY WHO… (822)
The next step in figuring out what your movie is about is to figure out whom it’s about. As my wise old father used to say, “Tell me a story about a guy who…” (822)
…let’s add a few things to our list of what the “perfect” logline must include to be truly compelling:
> An adjective to describe the hero
> An adjective to describe the bad guy, and…
> A compelling goal we identify with as human beings (838)
Every movie, even ensemble pieces…has to have a lead character. It has to be about someone. It has to have one or two main people we can focus our attention on, identify with, and want to root for — and someone who can carry the movie’s theme. (846)
The point is that amping up a great logline with the hero who makes the idea work best is how the idea comes to life. And let’s be clear, the trick is to create heroes who:
Offer the most conflict in that situation
> Have the longest way to go emotionally and…
> Are the most demographically pleasing! (903)
What does X want? … Why? | It’s because primal urges get our attention. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death grab us. | The best ideas and the best characters in the lead roles must have basic needs, wants, and desires. Basic, basic! (928)
The reason is that these archetypes exist to satisfy our inner need to see these shadow creations in our brains played out onscreen. It’s the Jungian archetypes these actors represent that we’re interested in seeing. (980)
Your job, your simple task, is to foget the stars, concentrate on the archetypes, and strive to make them new. (1003)
The rule of thumb in all these cases is to stick to the basics no matter what. Tell me a story about a guy who…
- I can identify with.
- I can learn from.
- I have compelling reason to follow.
- I believe deserves to win and…
- Has stakes that are primal and ring true for me. (1044)
The logline is your story’s code, its DNA, the one constant that has to be true. (1053)
Finding the hero of your story is the second most important part of coming up with a winning movie concept — winning meaning “one that will sell.” Cast and concept is, in fact, the starting point of getting any movie made. “What’s it about?” and “Who’s in it?” are the first two questions any moviegoer asks, and that goes for everyone else as well, from agent and producer to studio executive. It’s how the “who” and the “what is it?” come together in an intriguing combination that makes us want to see this story unfold. The perfect hero is the one who offers the most conflict in the situation, has the longest emotional journey, and has a primal goal we can all root for. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, and fear of death grab us. It is usually someone we can identify with primally, too, and that’s why mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives make better characters than mere strangers facing the same situations and storylines. When committing these discoveries to your logline, you must have an adjective to describe the hero, an adjective to describe the bad guy, and a definite and primal goal or setting. (1065)
CHAPTER FOUR: LET’S BEAT IT OUT! (1084)
After coming up with the idea, and identifying the “who” in your movie–and who it’s for–the strufture is the single most important element in writing and selling a screenplay (1096)
THE BLAKE SNYDER BEAT SHEET
- Opening Image (1):
- Theme Stated (5):
- Set-up (1-10):
- Catalyst (12):
- Debate (12-25):
- Break into Two (25)
- B Story (30):
- Fun and Games (30-55):
- Midpoint (55):
- Bad Guys Close In (55-75):
- All Is Lost (75):
- Dark Night of the Soul (75-85):
- Break into Three (85):
- Finale (85-110):
- Final Image (110):
Don’t each of these opneing images set the tone, type, style, and stakes of the movie as a whole? (1153)
[via: Forrest Gump’s feather.]
BAD GUYS CLOSE IN (55-75)
The rule is: It’s never as good as it seems to be at the midpoint and it’s never as bad as it seems at the All Is Lost point. Or vice versa! (1317)
ALL IS LOST (75)
Take a look at your dozen movies you’ve screened and find the All Is Lost point. Does it have the whiff of death in some aspect? Most certainly it will. All good, primal stories must have this. It resonates for a reason. (1367)
DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL (75-85)
It’s the point, as the name suggests, that is the darkness right before the dawn. It is the point just before the hero reaches way, deep down and pulls out that last, best idea that will save himself and everyone around him. But at the moment, that idea is nowhere in sight. (1372)
CHAPTER FIVE: BUILDING THE PERFECT BEAST (1472)
The +/- sign represents the emotional change you must execute in each scene. (1634)
Believe it or not, an emotional chang elike this must occur in every scene. And if you don’t have it, you don’t know what the scene is about. (1640)
The other symbol, ><, denotes conflict. (1645)
Only one conflict per scene, please. One is plenty. And whether it’s a large issue or a small one, something physical or something psychological, it must be there. Every scene. Every time. If you can’t find a confclit, figure out a way to create one. (1653)
CHAPTER SIX: THE IMMUTABLE LAWS OF SCREENPLAY PHYSICS (1733)
To review, Save the Cat is the screenwriting rule that says: “The hero has to do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win.” (1757)
The adjunct to Save the Cat says: “A screenwriter must be mindful of getting the audience ‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.” (1760)
What these two crafty writers did was give Aladdin an introduction that solved the problem and was a classic example of Save the Cat. In that $100+ million hit, the first thing we see Aladdin do is impishly steal food because, well, he’s hungry. Chased by Palace Guards with scimitars all over the market square (a great way to introduce where we are too, btw), Aladdin finally eludes them. Safe in an alley, he is about to chow down on his stolen pita, when he spots two starving kids. And, what a guy! Aladdin gives his falafel snack to them. Well now we’re “with” Aladdin. And even though he’s not quite the original thieving, layabout character, we’re rooting for him. Because Rossio and Elliott took time to get us in sync with the plight of this unlikely hero, we want to see him win. (1782)
The point of all this is: Care! Though you don’t have to have a scene in every movie where the hero literally saves a cat, helps an old lady across the street, or gets splashed by water at the street corner to make us love him, you must take the audience by the hand every time out and get them in sync with your main character and your story. You must take time to frame the hero’s situation in a way that makes us root for him, no matter who he is or what he does. If you don’t, if you go the Lara Croft route and assume we’ll like your main character — just cuz — you’re not doing your job. And even though some movies do this and get away with it, it doesn’t make it okay. Or good and careful storytelling. (1788)
…the Pope in the Pool gives us something to look at that takes the sting out of telling us what we need to know. And does so in a lively and entertaining way. (1825)
I propose to you that, for some reason, audiences will only accept one piece of magic per movie. It’s The Law. You cannot see aliens from outerspace land in a UFO and then be bitten by a Vampire and now be both aliens and undead. That, my friends, is Double Mumbo Jumbo. (1828)
Audiences can only stand so much “pipe.” (1863)
The point is if you find yourself with a set-up that takes more than 25 pages to introduce, you’ve got problems. We call it “laying pipe;” the audience calls it “I want my money back!” (1891)
Simple is better. Once concept at a time, please. You cannot digest too much information or pile on more to make it better. If you do, you get confused. If you do….stop. (1919)
That’s how the “danger” is coming toward your hero: s-l-o-w-l-y! One inch per year. That’s how unthreatening your supposedly threatening horror is. (1924)
Danger must be present danger. Stakes must be stakes for people we care about. And what might happen to them must be shown from the get-go so we know the consequences of the imminent threat. (1942)
THE COVENANT OF THE AR
The Covenant of the Arc is the screenwriting law that says: Every single character in your movie must change in the course of your story. The only characters who don’t change are the bad guys. But the hero and his friends change a lot. And it’s true. (1950)
Arc is a term that means “the change that occurs to any character from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end of each character’s ‘journey’” (another est-y kind of term). But when it’s done well, when we can chart the growth and change each character undergoes in the course of a movie, it’s a poem. What you are saying in essence is: This story, this experience, is so important, so life-changing for all involved — even you, the audience — it affects every single person that is in its orbit. From time immemorial, all good stories show growth and track change in all its characters. Why is this? I think the reason that characters must change in the course of a movie is because if your story is worth telling, it must be vitally important to everyone involved. (1954)
Hint, hint. In a sense, stories are about change. And the measuring stick that tells us who succeeds and who doesn’t is seen in the ability to change. Good guys are those who willingly accept change and see it as a positive force. Bad guys are those who refuse to change, who will curl up and die in their own juices, unable to move out of the rut their lives represent. To succeed in life is to be able to transform. That’s why it’s the basis not only of good storytelling but also the world’s best-known religions. Change is good because it represents re-birth, the promise of a fresh start. The Covenant of the Arc. And don’t we all want to believe that? Don’t we all want to jump into the swim of life after seeing a good movie? Don’t we want to get out of our ruts, try something new, and be open to the healing power of change after experiencing a movie in which everybody arcs? Yes, we do. (1965)
Screenwriting is like solving a puzzle over and over. You get faster with practice. The more stories you break, the more outlines you beat out to their completion, the more screenplays you tag with THE END, the better you get. (2022)
CHAPTER SEVEN: WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? (2035)
The hero must be proactive. It’s The Law. If he’s not, he’s not a hero. (2068)
You’ve forgotten that your characters don’t serve you, they serve themselves. They should walk into each scene with their own goals and say what’s on their minds, not yours. You must reveal who they are and what they want, their hopes, dreams, and fears, by how they say it as much as what they say. Good dialogue tells us more about what’s going on in its subtext than on its surface. Subtle is better. (2089)
Movies are stories told in pictures. (2095)
The truth is that movies are so much about what happens that we must learn about characters by what they do, not by what they say. As in Life, character is revealed by action taken, not by words spoken. (2101)
Aren’t the hero and the bad guy of each of these movies the light and dark sides of the same person? Aren’t they the positive and negative x-ray of one soul? And each has something the other wants — even if it’s just an answer to what makes them the way they are. (2122)
The basis of the “Turn, Turn, Turn” rule is: The plot doesn’t just move ahead, it spins and intensifies as it goes. (2132)
If your script feels one-note emotionally, go back and flesh it out using all the colors in the palette. Where is your lust scene? Where is your frustration scene? Where is your scary scene? And if you don’t have these, take a scene that’s just funny or just dramatic and try to play it for one of the missing colors. (2170)
In a good script, every character must speak differently. Every character must have a unique way of saying even the most mundane “Hi How are you I’m fine” kind of chat. (2193)
Make sure every character has “A Limp and an Eyepatch.” (2230)
To ask “Is It Primal?” or “Would a Caveman Understand?” is to ask if you are connecting with the audience at a basic level. Does your plot hinge on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death? (2250)
You may think your story is about something more “sophisticated” than this; it’s not. At its core it must be about something that resonates at a caveman level. (2270)
CHAPTER EIGHT: FINAL FADE IN (2303)
Every Sale Has a Story! The story is you. (2384)
Whatever you do, don’t stop being a bullhead. The powers-that-be can take away a lot of things. They can buy your script and fire you, or rewrite it into oblivion, but they can’t take away your ability to get up off the mat and come back swinging — better and smarter than you were before. (2524)
Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (pp. 180-182). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
FREQUENT TERMS IN USE IN THE 310 AREA CODE
ARC – This denotes the changes a character experiences as tracked from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of a screenplay. Most often heard in development meetings as in: “What’s the arc of the hero?” and “Are these characters arcing enough?” To which you think to yourself: “What is the arc of my patience to sit here and listen to this?”
AT THE END OF THE DAY – A phrase used by agents and managers to indicate they are about to give you bad news, i.e., “We love your script and think it would be great for Julia, but at the end of the day does she really need to do a musical set in the Middle Ages?” Also when you are most likely to be called by said agent or manager with this bad news.
BLACK HOLES – These are the spots in your beat sheet, step outline, or places on The Board that you have no idea how to fill with story. Looking at black holes will cause you to wonder how you got into the business. You could have gone to law school or joined the Army but no, you had to do this!
BLOCK COMEDY – A low budget, domestically oriented, family film. It is so low tech and requires so few company moves, you can shoot it on the backlot — as they did with The ‘Burbs. I first heard this term at Disney when we were discussing a script we had sold to them called Poker Night. And it all takes place — on the block. “We want more of these,” said the executive in charge. “You know, a block comedy!” I had never heard the term before. It may just be his term, but I like it, and now it’s mine.
BOARD, THE – A corkboard, blackboard, or artist’s notebook that divides a screenplay-in-progress into four equal parts: Act One, the first half of Act Two, the second half of Act Two, and Act Three. It is the workout space where, using index cards, pushpins, colored Pentels, etc., you can try your best ideas and see what they look like, and then begin to winnow them down. If done right, you’ll end up with 40 scenes that make a movie, all laid out neatly on The Board in your office or workroom… along with blood, sweat, and tears.
BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL – A filmmaker’s inside joke that makes the audience realize they are watching a film. The fourth wall is an invisible one that allows the audience to look into the lives of characters on stage. And breaking it lets the characters, essentially, look back. This “takes you out of the story.” Sometimes it works, as when Woody Allen speaks to the audience in Annie Hall. But most times it does not, as when Robin Williams “breaks character” (like in Aladdin).
BOOSTER ROCKET – There are spots in any screenplay that are potentially dull stretches. Usually these are found right after “big moments” like after the Act One break and sections where the action is petering out, like at the end of Act Two. This is a time to stick in a booster rocket to get us past these spots. John Candy in Home Alone is the classic example. The tale of a Mom (Catherine O’Hara) getting home to her child is starting to drag around the end of Act Two. So when John Candy and his polka-band cohorts show up, it’s just what the script doctor ordered. Another booster rocket character is the manicurist in Legally Blonde. She arrives just when we’re growing weary of Elle Woods’ law school saga, just after the break into Act Two of that screenplay. Both these characters rocket us past these potential slow spots.
CALLBACKS – Bits, images, character traits, and metaphors that are set up in Act One and then recalled later in the movie. Often the callback explains what that obvious set-up was about. In Back to the Future, the flier upon which Marty McFly’s girlfriend writes “I Love You” reminds Marty of the clock tower and the electric storm in 1955 that he needs to power his DeLorean back to 1985. This is a nice callback. Other callbacks are less plot-oriented and remind us of a character’s growth, harkening the past to show change or to re-emphasize a joke by reminding us of its origins.
CREDIT JUMPER – You have sold your script to the studio. Then, after your contracted rewrite, you are fired. And when the movie goes into production, and you are sent drafts of the rewritten version of your script, you are suddenly appalled to find that… it’s been altered!! Often in stupid ways: Your hero Bob is now named Carl. Instead of a Pontiac, he drives a Buick. Congratulations, you’ve been victimized by a credit jumper, a guy or gal who is gunning for writing credit on your movie and thinks by making these tweaks it will become his or her own. This is why we have WGA credit-arbitration committees to decide who did what. The advantage of writing on spec and being the originator now becomes clear. You have more rights than the average credit jumper. It’s up to you to say why specifically this is still your script. And you must! (Isn’t Hollywood a great town?)
EXPOSITION – Give me the facts, ma’am, just the facts, but please do it in a way that won’t put me to sleep. Thus, exposition — like annoying plot details, heist plans, and backstories — can’t be just laid out, it must be entertainingly told by crafty screenwriters. To “bury” said exposition is to deal with it in a way that is not deadly dull. The masters of the craft make these irritating facts and figures go down as easily as a spoonful of Maypo.
FIRST REEL – During the era of silent films, film reels were 10 minutes long, thus the end of the first reel was 10 minutes into the movie. Flash forward to Joel Silver, genius producer of such action pictures as Die Hard and Matrix, who wisely suggests that you have a “whammy” or a big action set piece at the end of every “reel.” The First Reel still denotes the first 10 minutes of a movie and I suggest it be used to introduce every A-story character.
FOUR-QUADRANT PICTURE – The big magilla. The whole ball of wax. The mother lode. Audience-wise, if you have a four-quadrant hit, you have won the lottery. The four quadrants are Men Over 25, Men Under 25, Women Over 25, and Woman Under 25. If you can draw audience from all those quadrants, you are guaranteeing yourself a hit. Why isn’t every movie a four-quadrant movie? Everyone targets different groups for different reasons. As I write today, the single most desirable group is Men Under 25. Most movies are geared to them because they go, with or without their girlfriends. They are more likely to bring others to their movies than they are likely to be brought to other movies. They are the leading indicators of “who goes.” This may change, but it explains the movie selections at the mall on any given weekend. Have a complaint no one’s making movies for you? That’s why. But for the spec screenwriters of the world trying to make a sale, this is invaluable information.
GENRE – After we get past the main headings of, say, Comedy and Drama, genre breaks down into more specific groupings. If it’s a comedy, then what type of comedy is it? Is it a family film, romantic comedy, spoof, or teen comedy? If it’s a drama, is it an action, romance, thriller, or horror movie? Each of these is a genre that has its own rules, history, and expectations from an audience. And though the fusion of different genres is now de rigueur in short-attention-span Hollywood (Ron Howard’s The Missing is a Gothic/Western), I suggest one genre per movie, please. Any more and I personally don’t know what it is, or why I go see it.
HIGH CONCEPT – No one knows exactly how to explain this unwieldy term. I know. I’ve asked. What is “high” about a high concept? The term is fuzzy regarding what it’s trying to describe. Also, I’ve asked about the exact place and time this phrase was coined and have come up short. That said, we know what it means: Die Hard is a high concept movie; English Patient is not. Miss Congeniality is a high concept movie; Under The Tuscan Sun is not. Mostly you can divide it into American (high concept) and European (non-high concept), which also explains why American movies do well and European movies do not — well, everywhere but Europe. I advise you to write as high a high concept movie as you can the first time out, and if you know of the exact terminology or origin of the term “high concept” e-mail me… I’ll be in Europe.
HOOK – Ah, le hook! This is the encapsulation of a movie, be it displayed on the poster or in the logline, which grabs your attention and makes you want to run, not walk, to the theatre. And when mentioned in Variety, it is the thing that makes you hit yourself on the head and say: “Why didn’t I think of that?” Like Proust’s madeleine, the hook must blossom in your mind with possibility and “hook” you into wanting more — thus the name. It is a simple mental picture that promises fun and gives you enough of a peek into the storyline that you can see the potential. A good hook is gold for this reason: It works on anyone who hears it, be it agent, producer, studio head, or ticket buyer. A good hook answers: “What is it?”
INACTIVE HERO – What lays there like a lox on a plate? Who can’t be bothered to get up out of his chair and go answer the door? Why, the inactive hero, of course. And since the very definition of a hero is to be proactive, the inactive kind must not be a very good thing. Heroes seek, strive, and reach for the stars; they don’t wait for the phone to ring. So if your hero is inactive, tell him to get off the dime!
IN PLAY – When we say that someone is in play, we mean that they have so much “heat” and are so “desirable” that the news they are looking for new representation makes the town jump up and down with hysteric joy. For actors who want to leave their agents, for directors and producers who have eschewed their studios when their on-the-lot deal ends and are looking for a new “home,” being in play means lots of buzz, money, and attention is about to be paid. If you are a screenwriter, this term does not apply to you. While you very well may be “in play,” to the town it just means you are “available.”
LOGLINE OR ONE-LINE – A logline is the one- or two-sentence description of your movie that tells us what it is. It must contain a type of hero (that means a type of person plus an adjective that describes him), the antagonist (ditto), and the hero’s primal goal. It must have irony, and it must bloom in our brains with potential. A good logline is the coin of the realm in Hollywood and can be traded like currency with those who appreciate it.
MAJOR TURNS – The break into Act One, the midpoint, and the break into Act Three are the major turns of a script. These are conveniently found at the end of each horizontal row on The Board. These are also the places that need to be paid the most attention. In a pitch you will hang your hat on these major turns and if you’re lucky, executives will remember one of them. But you must always have them nailed before you pitch and before you can “beat out” a screenplay.
ONE-SHEET – This is the old timer’s phrase for “the poster.” I have no idea where this term originated, only that it has to do with printing size. A one-sheet is the broad sheet that shows the stars, title, and tone of the film. A good one is gold. One-sheets sell DVDs in the aftermarket, too.
ON THE NOSE a.k.a. A Little Too on the Nose – This is one of my favorite development executive phrases, uttered when a suggestion is obvious, unfunny, or something “we’ve seen before.” Instead of saying “That’s obvious, unfunny, and something we’ve seen before,” they say, “It feels a little on the nose.” You, who have been up all night trying not to be “on the nose,” now think of this as a target suggestion.
PAGE ONE – “It’s a Page One!” This is the despairing cry of the development executive who has been handed a script with a good idea and maybe some good characters and little else. It means that some poor schmuck will be assigned to give this a “page one rewrite.” It is the equivalent of an auto body repairman telling the owner of a damaged car: “It’s totaled.”
PRE-SOLD FRANCHISE – When a book, comic book, cartoon, or old TV series has a built-in group of fans, it is considered to be a pre-sold franchise. It presumes that a certain number of people are already “sold” on the property and will turn up to see it when the movie comes out. This is not always the case — just ask the producers of The Avengers and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Still, having any group of potential ticket buyers aware of your movie before you go into production is a head start. Even obscure beginnings, like the comic book that spawned Men In Black, got started from the belief that even a small fan base will get buzz started with moviegoers. But a pre-sold franchise is also something a spec screenwriter is not likely to own. That should not stop you from creating your own franchises, and I encourage you to create the biggest franchise possible.
PRIMAL – What is basic about a story, a character’s goal, or a movie premise is its relation to our inner drives as human beings. Stories of survival, sex, hunger, and revenge connote immediate interest on our part. We will stop and look when these themes are presented to us. We can’t help it. We have to look. It’s primal. To you, the screenwriter, this means you must ground every action and story in its primal-ness. When characters are not acting like human beings, when they are not being driven primally, odds are you are testing the patience of the audience. To ask “Is it primal?” is to ask “Is this relevant to a caveman?” The answer must be: Yes!
PROMISE OF THE PREMISE – The premise of a movie, its “What is it?,” can only be proven to be satisfying when we see it in action. What is fun, catchy, or hooks our interest about a movie’s poster must be paid off once we get inside the theater. If it is not paid off, we the audience will consider it to be a bad experience. We will feel cheated. The promise of the premise are those scenes or scene sequences that exploit the premise to its maximum and are usually found in the fun and games section (pages 30-55) of a screenplay. This is the point where we understand fully what this movie is about. This is why we bought our tickets.
RESIDUALS – Lovely lime-green envelopes come through the mail to the homes of lucky screenwriters on a quarterly basis. We know what’s inside: money! That explains the desire to get a movie made, for its every appearance on TV, every VHS or DVD sale, every foreign manifestation will be tracked by the WGA Residual Department and result in… more residuals! And the amounts are nothing to sneeze at: I have earned over $100,000 in residuals in my career for two movies. And the checks haven’t stopped coming. Get enough movies in production and you will be showered in these bonus checks for the rest of your natural life.
RUNNING GAGS – As opposed to callbacks, which are reminders of plot and character moments in Act One that are paid off later, running gags are repeating themes, character tics, or bits that are interspersed throughout a movie or a screenplay. As an audience, our appreciation for these gags grows with each use because we feel smart for remembering them and feel more a part of the story because of it. If a character is set up as liking coffee, then whenever he or she walks into a restaurant and orders coffee — we love it! It’s nothing. But we laugh with recognition that we know this character. Running gags can be found in both dramas and comedies as repeating jokes we notice and remember. Note: The running gag must be given a twist later in the film when a character, by now ready to change, goes into a café and orders… tea.
SET PIECE – A set piece is a stand-alone action scene or sequence. It stands alone in that it does less to move the plot forward or enhance our idea of who the characters are as it exploits the possibilities of the situation or the premise of a movie. Because of this, set pieces are disposable and interchangeable. A “chase scene” that takes place on a freeway and does little, in itself, to move the plot forward, can be set in a supermarket, playground, or racetrack. That’s a set piece — one that can be dropped or changed within the confines of a studio’s slashing of the budget, a director’s “vision,” or a star’s dislike of chase scenes on freeways.
SIX THINGS THAT NEED FIXING – This is my term. And I use it all the time. It is defined as the list of a hero’s minor character flaws, enemies and rivals that bully him, and a wish list that — if we like the hero enough, and think he deserves help — get “fixed” later in the film. I personally find myself going back and forth between Act One (set-up) and Act Two or Three (pay-off) and adding things to the list as I go. We as an audience like to see the Six Things That Need Fixing get paid off later in the script — the more the merrier. It’s thoroughly enjoyable to see those pay-offs. But you have to put the flaw in there in the beginning to make the pay-off work.
STAKES ARE RAISED – This is a term that is frequently heard in development meetings. Also known as the “ticking clock” or the “midpoint bump,” it means the raising of the level of tension. Suddenly from out of nowhere at the midpoint, some new thing — an even bigger and more unexpected thing than we’ve seen before, and one that seems insurmountable — becomes a problem for our hero. You must be sure the stakes are raised at the midpoint to give the hero new challenges and lead him to his ultimate win.
STRUCTURE – After “concept,” the single most important quality of a good screenplay is its structure. Very often a producer or executive will applaud the idea, love the writing, and toss out the script because the structure is a mess.
SUBTEXT – That part of a scene, sequence, or screenplay that lies beneath the surface and is in fact its real meaning. The subtext of an argument between a soon-to-be-divorced couple about buying apples is not whether they choose Macintosh or Pink Lady but the fact that the couple is having problems — and an argument about produce proves it! Do not hit us over the head with what’s really going on, it’s much more subtle — and better screenwritin’— to hide the meaning. It’s not what they’re talking about, it’s what they’re not talking about that makes these moments so rich.
THEMATIC PREMISE – What is this movie about? Yes, even the silliest monster movie or most spastic comedy has to be “about something.” If it’s not, it’s not a good movie. In essence every good movie is a debate about the pros and the cons of a particular point of view. It is a question raised and answered by the movie. The place to stick that question is up front, loud and clear. It is frequently spoken by a minor character to the hero in the form of a question early on, like on page 5, and sets the debate into motion that will be proven, one way or the other, in the course of the movie. This question and debate is the movie’s thematic premise.
THESIS, ANTITHESIS, SYNTHESIS a.k.a. Act One, Act Two, and Act Three – Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis describe the thematic progression of the hero’s journey. In Act One, the hero’s world is set up. In Act Two that world is turned on its head; it is the upside down version of what he left behind. But by mastering this surreal new world, the hero gains the knowledge to combine what was and its opposite to form a synthesis of everything he has learned. That synthesis occurs in Act Three. It is not enough for the hero to survive the journey; he must transform his world in order to truly be great.
TRACKING – If you have a hot script, either on its way out to the town or about to be, odds are it will be “tracked” by development executives who closely follow its progress. They have even set up an inter-studio Intranet to talk to each other about scripts and whether or not the script is worth the effort of pursuing for purchase. Based on the concept, track record of the writer, and word of mouth, the script will be considered either hot or not. Sometimes, executives will try to outfox each other with misinformation on a hot script, but this sort of maneuver can backfire on them next time. This current tracking system is one of several reasons, mostly economic, that the spec sale frenzy has ended in Hollywood. Tracking scripts in this way cuts down on the chances of any of the studios or their buyers getting burned.
WHIFF OF DEATH – The added extra bonus found in the All Is Lost point on page 75 of a well-structured screenplay. It is that very special moment where something metaphorically, or actually, dies. And since this is the place where the mentor bites the big one, the moment when best friends and allies you thought looked sick now kick the bucket, and the spot where Spot is removed, this is the perfect place to put such story beats. The All Is Lost point is rife with the whiff of death because it marks the end of the world as is and the beginning of a new world the hero will create from this seeming end.
+/- – This symbol indicates the emotional change of a good scene. I first heard about this from Robert McKee. He believes that every scene should mark a sea change like this, going from one emotional extreme to another. And he’s right. If you think of each scene as a mini-movie, you must have a before snapshot and an after snapshot to show this change. Deciding what the emotional shift in each of your scenes involves is the key element in making that scene a success. When I am using index cards and my corkboard to work out the structure of a movie, I mark each card with this symbol and make sure I know what the emotional change is in each scene.
>< – This symbol represents the conflict in each scene. When the scene starts, who has a goal, who’s in the way, who wins? These questions can be boiled down into one neat statement using this symbol to denote who’s up against whom. Don’t start a scene unless you have figured out who your players are and what they want.