All posts in Action & Adventure

  • Gloves off with the Fight Club script

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon


    Why I chose this script

    C’mon, do I really need to answer this? It’s the Fight Club script!

    Start as you mean to continue

    I’m going to start this post at the start of the script, because the Fight Club script has one of the greatest openings ever:


    JACK (V.O.)

    People were always asking me, did I know Tyler Durden.

    FADE IN:


    TYLER has one arm around Jack’s shoulder; the other hand holds a HANDGUN with the barrel lodged in JACK’S MOUTH. Tyler is sitting in Jack’s lap.

    They are both sweating and disheveled, both around 30; Tyler is blond, handsome; and Jack, brunette, is appealing in a dry sort of way. Tyler looks at his watch.

    If you want to talk about grabbing your reader’s attention right from the start, it doesn’t get much better than that.

    I don’t think I have to tell you that the first few pages of your script are incredibly important. If you’re a frequent listener to Script Notes then you know that John and Craig feel that three pages is all it takes to judge the quality of a script, and they’re far from the only ones. So, just like in life, a good first impression is key.

    The first thing I love about the Fight Club script’s opening is how much conflict it contains. There’s the obvious conflict of Tyler (Pitt) sticking a gun into Jack’s (Norton) mouth. There’s also the more “meta” conflict of the arm around Jack’s shoulder and sitting in Jack’s lap, very familiar acts, with the aforementioned gun. You don’t have to have weapons in your script opening to create conflict like this, all you have to do is juxtapose two concepts that don’t naturally occur together.

    Secondly, there’s an element of confusion and mystery there that draws us in. Are we listening to Jack’s thoughts in the moment? If we are, why is he so calm with a gun in his mouth? If people are always asking about Tyler, does that make him someone important?

    That mystery is created by implying details about the relationship between things and people before it’s been established what that relationship is based on. We know that there’s some conflict between Jack and Tyler, but we don’t know why. We guess that Tyler means something to a group of people, but we don’t know what.

    If you want to keep people reading, load the opening of your script up with all the conflict and mystery that your story concept has to offer.

    A character by any other name

    The more scripts I read the more fascinated I become by the different approaches writers take to naming their characters. The Fight Club script is an interesting case where Jim Uhls clearly wanted to keep the named characters to a minimum.

    The fourth character we meet is Jack’s employer. He’s a recurring character in some big scenes and gets a fair bit of dialogue, so by many screenwriters’ standards he’d usually get a name. Not here though:

    Jack looks up as a pudgy man, Jack’s BOSS, enters, Starbucks cup in hand, and slides a stack of reports on Jack’s desk.


    I’m going to need you out-of-town a little more this week. We’ve got some “red-flags” to cover.

    Even when characters are given a name, they don’t always get to keep it for the credits:


    Well, she had her first child a month ago, a girl, with her new husband… And, Thank God. I’m glad for her, because she deserves…

    The speaker breaks down, WEEPS UNCONTROLLABLY.

    Jack watches. A couple of the men go up to the speaker, comforting him, leading him away. A LEADER takes the stand.


    Everyone, let’s thank Thomas for sharing himself with us.

    The lack of names does make for some curious exchanges, especially later on in the script when Tyler’s army starts to grow:


    They shot Bob… they shot him in the head. Those fuckers…

    Jack walks away from Bob’s corpse, distraught, holds his head, turns to look back, his eyes filling with tears.


    We gotta do something.


    We got to get rid of the evidence. We have to get rid of this body.


    Bury him…

    Jack looks around in disbelief.


    What… ?

    What makes the process of denying a name to a character especially interesting in the Fight Club script is how it ties in thematically to the story. On the one hand it fits with Tyler’s ideals for Project Mayhem:


    But, this is Project Mayhem.


    No, no. This is a man — this man has a name…


    But, in Project Mayhem, we have no names.

    But on the other hand it runs counter to Tyler’s ideal for society:

    JACK, Bob, Ricky, Angel Face and another GUY rappel down the side, SPRAYING PAINT. JACK is “TYLER” in demeanor, mannerisms, speech…



    You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank.

    TWO WINDOWS SHATTER OUTWARD — TWO MEN look out and yell:


    I am not my job!

    I don’t mean to start a debate about whether this practice of denying names rhymes with the theme of the Fight Club script or not, though. What interests me is the fact that the decision to name characters or not was linked to the theme at all. It points out that asking when you should name characters, might not be the right question at all. Maybe you should be asking why you should name characters.

    Writing visually

    When you get into screenwriting you hear a lot about the importance of writing visually. Your goal is to help the reader watch a movie in their head, or so you’re told. But there’s not a lot of detail on what visual writing really is.

    Once again this is a topic that needs to be experienced to be understood, and I found a great example in the Fight Club script to learn from:


    Jack’s finger squeezes the trigger…

    KABLAM! — Jack’s cheeks INFLATE with gas. His eyes bulge. BLOOD flies out from his head. The WINDOW behind him SHATTERS. SMOKE wafts out of his mouth and tear ducts.


    Tyler stands, in gunsmoke, eyes glazed, sniffs the air…


    What’s that smell… ?

    Jack slumps to the floor… Tyler falls…

    Tyler hits the ground. The back of TYLER’S HEAD is BLOWN OPEN, revealing blood, skull and brain.

    Suddenly, a GROUP of SPACE MONKEYS burst into the room, moving forward to Jack. TYLER’S BODY IS GONE.

    Yes, this is a gory moment and no, moments like that might not take place in your period drama. But what you can take away from this to create visual moments in your story are the details and intricacies that Uhls puts into this shot.

    Does smoke really come out the tear ducts when a gun is fired in the mouth? Would you be able to film that? Who cares! It adds to the immediacy and the impact of the moment and you can’t help but form some kind of mental image. That’s visual writing.

    Flashback formatting

    On a less conceptual note, the Fight Club script also offers some examples of formatting that are worth looking at. The one I want to look at here is how Uhls formats his flashbacks.

    Flashbacks are a bit of a hackneyed solution in storytelling, but they became that way because they do have their uses. Chances are you will write a flashback into a story at some point, so it’s worth thinking about how to format them.

    In the Fight Club script flashbacks are pointed out in sluglines in two slightly different ways:


    Tyler, a wry smile on his face, ambles up the stiars, looking at the rotting walls. He reaches the top of the stairs and heads for Marla’s room. Before he can knock, Marla’s hand shoots out and grabs him…

    The second variant puts the flashback connotation at the front of the slug:


    Commissioner Jacobs checks his tie in a mirror, goes to open the door of the MEN’S BATHROOM — face to face with JACK.


    JACK stands surrounded by eager fight club MEMBERS, under the bare bulb, talking and behaving like Tyler…


    The first rule of fight club is — you don’t talk about fight club.

    There are things I like and dislike about this approach. One thing I like is that it gets the need to establish the flashback out of the scene description where it would be an awkward bedfellow at best. A single word addition to a slugline is nice and neat and doesn’t get in the way.

    Not getting in the way is also the basis for my disliking of the Fight Club script’s method. As I’ve mentioned before on this site after any amount of time reading a script you start to skip over sluglines to an extent. Squirreling the fact that a scene is a flashback into the slug might make your reader double back if they get confused by the time line, and that’s generally not a good thing.

    Taken on the whole, though, I think the practice works and I plan to use it whenever I need to write a flashback scene.

    Establishing precedent

    There’s one last take-away in the Fight Club script that I wanted to call out, establishing a precedent for (group) identities.

    In a recent episode of Script Notes John and Craig talked about the difficulty of writing about a group who act as a single entity. Craig mentioned how, for the Hangover movies, he would refer to the four main characters simply as ‘the guys’.

    In the Fight Club script Uhls establishes a name for people in Tyler’s army like you often see done in a legal contract:


    Tyler and Jack stand in bathroom doorway, watching Ricky finish SHAVING off all of his HAIR. Tyler comes to give the top of Ricky’s head a sharp SLAP.


    A monkey, ready to be shot into space. A Space Monkey, ready to sacrifice himself for Project Mayhem.

    From here on, all those with shaved heads: “SPACE MONKEYS.”

    It establishes a shorthand which is easy to use in either the singular form (as you can see in the section on naming characters) or as a name for any number of the army acting as a group. Very useful stuff.

    In summation

    A good opening is hugely important to any script, grab your reader’s attention by packing yours with conflict and a hint of mystery. Deciding when to name your characters can be an artistic question, so perhaps you should ask yourself why you name certain characters but not others. Writing visually is all about intricacy and detail, force your reader to imagine what the scene looks like in their mind’s eye. Indicating a flashback in your sluglines is a clean way of avoiding awkward scene description. Establishing shorthand for a group that frequently act as a single entity will save you a lot of headaches as you write.

  • Schooled by the Monsters University script

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon


    Why I chose this script

    I made a conscious choice not to talk too much about what makes for a good story on this site and focus more on the technical details of screenwriting. For that reason, I won’t bore you with my thoughts about the Monsters University script’s role in the meta-narrative of children’s stories for the post-millennial generation. I won’t bore you with them, but they are a large part of what made me pick up this script.

    It’s a good thing, then, that the Monsters University script had plenty more learnings to offer, or else this would’ve been a very short post. So, without further ado, let’s see what is worth talking about.

    Should we be reading and writing animated film scripts?

    This was actually the first script for an animated film that I’ve ever read. In my ignorance I must have been expecting it to be slightly different from live-action film scripts because page one came as a bit of a surprise. It looked just like any other film script I’ve ever read. Other than the fact that it opens on a scene starring a two-headed bird, there was nothing to indicate anything unusual was afoot.

    This led me to my first questions. How do writers indicate that their stories are intended to be animated? Do people actually write animation on spec? After all, the big animation houses are renowned for their in-house development.

    On doing a bit more research, there’s a lot of advice out there that says writing animation on spec is a bad idea. As such I’m guessing the answer to my second questions is: not really.

    The advice makes sense, even if it is a bit disheartening if you’ve got a great animated film idea kicking about in your head. If that’s you, then you might be interested in this counter-point by John August.

    I have no horse in this race as none of my ideas would lend themselves to animation (or even be remotely interesting to kids), but given the astronomical odds against a spec sale of any kind in Hollywood these days I tend to think John could be right. If you’ve got a great animated film in you, knock it out and see where it takes you.

    Directing voice actors on the page

    When I started reading the Monsters University script the one of the first things that struck me was the abundance of parentheticals. Some writers use them more than others so at first I attributed their profusion to a stylistic quirk on the part of Scanlon, Gerson and Baird. It actually took me 30 odd pages of reading to figure out what was going on.

    The writers didn’t just use parentheticals for the proverbial ships and giggles, they were actually providing direction for the voice actors on the page. It never dawned on me that the detached nature of voice acting would require that added context.

    This is when I finally got wise to what was happening:

    Mike rides Archie through a dance party.

    He collides with a guy playing football and falls off the pig.


    (impact voc)


    Sulley leaps over Mike as he’s down and continues after Archie.

    One of the things that threw me on the early pages was the frequent use of ‘walla’ in parentheticals. Of course I was aware of the concept of background vocals / crowd noise (although I didn’t know ‘walla’ is the technical term for it in American radio, TV and film) but this was my first time seeing it explicitly scripted:


    Welcome to the scare floor.

    The students are in awe as they see the scare floor.




    Usually a general reaction like that will be covered in scene description rather than dialogue. An action like Mike’s laugh in the following excerpt would usually be covered in scene description too:

    A student on a skateboard whizzes by as a giant monster steps over Mike and moves to catch a frisbee.


    (ground shaking vocs)



    Woo hoo!


    (excited laugh)

    But it seems that Scanlon, Gerson and Baird were keen to lay out a very robust blueprint for the voice acting in the Monsters University script. I’m keen to pick up more animated film scripts in future and seeing if this is commonplace.

    Being funny on a page

    The Monsters University script was also the first comedic script I had ever read. I’m more of melancholic drama type of writer and I mostly pick up scripts that are in a similar vein.

    My single biggest take-away from the Monsters University script on this point is a respect for the foresight it takes to write a funny film. I think I’ve mentioned before on this site how I have respect for somebody who can see right through to the end product while staring at a blank page and blinking cursor. That seems to be especially true with jokes.

    Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:


    (big laugh)

    No! And what about you with all your shedding!


    I don’t shed.



    Mike punches the bottom of Sulley’s mattress, and blue hair comes cascading down off the mattress.

    Now let’s see the on-screen version:

    It’s a solid joke which, if I remember correctly, got a good chuckle from the audience. But when you read it on the page it’s pretty flat. The page doesn’t give you the timing, which is such a huge part of what makes the joke. If it’s tough for us to imagine that as a reader, it must be even tougher to have to come up with it from scratch.

    That said, I find I have a sense for the dramatic which I can’t quite explain rationally, so maybe it’s the same with a sense of humor. Maybe when the joke is right, comedy writers just know. I think this is the stuff that cuts writers from one type of cloth or another.

    I know, from my time in theater, that I have the ability to deliver a comedic performance. I also think I could do a decent job of writing a comedy. But I think I have a much better chance of being a great drama writer than being a great comedy writer. That thought comes from the inexplicable connection that I have with the material when I’m writing drama.

    So ask yourself this, do you have a sense for when your writing is hitting the spot? If not, have you tried mixing up the genre and seeing if you get a different result?

    Scripting versus ad-libbing in background dialogue

    One last point to finish up, and one which is related to the take-away on voice acting that I mentioned above. I mentioned how it is unusual to see crowd reactions and background conversation scripted so thoroughly where a bit of scene description would normally suffice.

    I attributed it, in this case, to the atypical requirements of voice acting, but when you think about it it’s unusual that it doesn’t happen more often. Anybody who’s ever tried to get a clear dialogue recording knows that it doesn’t happen without a lot of effort by very experienced technicians. That being the case, why aren’t we expected to be very explicit whenever a human voice is intended to be a part of the final scene?

    My guess is it’s because much of this audio is added in post either from stock audio or by recording a “walla group” separately and layering them over the audio recorded during principal. As long as the character is in the scene, they’re likely to be micced up and so any ad-libbing can be coordinated between the actor and director on the day.

    I just find it odd that, on the surface, voice acting and live-action audio recording might appear to be sufficiently different that you would have to write to accommodate one or the other, but really the differences are only skin deep. Yet you would never see a live-action screenwriter consider a fragment like this in their script:



    Slow and steady.



    Slow and steady.



    Slow and steady.



    Slow and steady.



    Slow and steady.

    The misfits relay the exact message down the line to Sulley the exact way Mike did. They continue to move really slowly as Sulley is increasingly frustrated.

    Sulley can’t take it. He bolts forward, leaving his teammates behind.

    Mike’s eye goes wide.


    (gasp, whispered)














    Mike shushes the misfits.




    But they shush him back exactly as he did.



























    In summation

    Hollywood basically doesn’t buy any spec animation scripts, but if you write a blindingly good one it might have other benefits, like attention. Writing for voice-actors seems to require much more direction in parentheticals than you would normally provide for actors performing with a scene around them. That feeling of confidence when you know your writing is hitting the mark is a good sign that you’re writing in the right genre for you. Isn’t it a little odd that we’re not as specific about vocals in live-action scripts as animations scripts seem to be? After all, the process of recording them isn’t that different.

  • The Looper script isn’t running in circles

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon


    Why I chose this script

    I make no bones about my love of everything that Rian Johnson does. The inaugural post for this site was an analysis of his first film, Brick, and it was inevitable that the Looper script wasn’t going to be far behind. Johnson’s ability to have a complex but heartfelt story drive a pace-y, action-packed sci-fi flick like this is astounding. So let’s dig right in and see if we can tease out some lessons for our own writing.

    Keeping the heart at the heart of your story

    I’ve mentioned before how even the most spectacle driven films, such as Gravity, need to have an emotional core in order to sustain an audience’s interest. We create these worlds with our writing which are often totally alien to our viewers own experiences and lives. To get audiences “in” to those stories we need to give them an emotional hook to grab onto.

    The Looper script contains as fine an example of this as you’re going to find anywhere. Despite being full of high concept sci-fi, action sequences and socio-economic musings, the film doesn’t expect its viewers to get by on spectacle alone. In fact, just when the questions around the mechanics of time travel start to pile up, Johnson hangs a lantern on them to keep everyone focused on the important parts:


    Do you know what’s going to happen? Have you already done all this, right now, as me?


    I don’t want to talk about time travel shit, because we’ll start talking about it and then we’ll be here all day making diagrams with straws. It doesn’t matter.


    When I hurt myself now, it changes your body. Do my actions change your memories?


    It doesn’t matter.

    What does matter is establishing an emotional connection with your viewers. Doing that requires characters for your audience to relate to. They need to feel like real human beings that people can live vicariously through. Johnson does some stellar work in the Looper script of fleshing out his characters, even the smaller ones.

    Abe (Daniels) is the head of the mob who orders bloody torture and murder on a daily basis and only appears on a handful of occasions in the story. Despite that, Johnson makes sure that he’s given enough humanity to prevent him becoming a caricature:


    Please just give me one more chance, I’ll bring him here alive and hold him and you can put a bullet in his brain yourself-

    Abe grabs the hammer. SLAMS it on Kid’s bad hand, crushing it. Kid howls, the Gat Men grab him. Drag him out.

    Abe’s head droops, weight of the world.

    You’ll note, from that last example, that I don’t consider relatability to be the same as likability. In fact, in the world of the Looper script, there’s not a lot of likability to go around. Even our “hero” – Joe (Gordon-Levitt) – is far from a saint:


    If he comes here will you stop him? If I believed all this – I’m asking can I trust you


    I don’t care if you trust me, I don’t care about your son. I’ve lost my life. I kill this man, I get it back.

    His future self – Old Joe (Willis) – is probably even less likable. But you can see how the bones of his psychology are set in young Joe (i.e. “I will hold on to what’s mine”) and then just allowed to mature through age, love and potential loss. This drives him to kill a child in order to reclaim what is his. Then Johnson shows us his reaction:

    Old Joe emerges from a backyard fence, walks across a park. Map in his hand. Children play in the distance. Children’s voices all around.

    Old Joe spins, his breath up into his head.

    The map falls to the ground. The park around him, green and full of children.

    He keels over onto his knees and cries. Grabs the grass, holds it in his fingers, thick and green.

    This is the difference between relatable and likeable characters. The first is about understanding the relative costs and benefits of the actions that they take, the latter is more about whether you would make the same decisions in those circumstances.

    Before having read the Looper script, I thought Brick was the most complex of Johnson’s works by quite a large margin. I based that opinion on the layers of story that were used to build up the mystery for Brendan to solve. Now, having read the Looper script, I’m not so sure. The depth of character development and the way their motivations interact to push the story to its end is nothing short of spectacular, and every bit as complex as all the intrigue and plotting in Brick.

    To turn all of the above into a lesson for our own writing, I’ll say this: no matter how rich in character you think your piece is, I’m willing to bet there are opportunities to stuff even more of it in. To find them, step through your script scene by scene and ask yourself questions like “How does each character here feel about what just happened? Is that reflected in something they say, do or decide? If another character had to fulfill the same role in the scene, how would it change?”

    Cultivating clarity of vision

    I hope you’ll indulge my fan-boy-ism for Rian Johnson’s work for one more point before I get down to some more concrete lessons from the Looper script. As someone who, outside of writing, dabbles in photography and videography I am always incredibly impressed by people who don’t just capture things which exist in the world, but can visualize and create before capturing it.

    My favorite sequence in Looper is the moment where Cid (Gagnon) manifests his telekinetic powers and kills one of the gangsters who comes after Joe. It is a stunning piece of filmmaking in every respect – editing, sound, cinematography, special effects, etc. A sequence like this no doubt requires a great production crew firing on all cylinders, but you really get the impression here that it was Johnson’s hand on the tiller that guided this masterpiece.

    This is further evidenced when you look at the script and you realize that so much of the end product was envisioned by Johnson before they even started production. Here’s a snippet:


    Sara pulls Joe through the front door, and he looks back and sees Jesse suspended in the air and Cid on the ground screaming like an animal


    Old Joe’s face. Remembering.


    Sara pulls Joe across the threshold, and looking back he sees this:

    Jesse explodes in a bright red fan of blood.

    Frozen in a tableau – Cid screaming, raw power. Jesse EXPLODING. A bright red fan.

    This is part of the reason I wish that readers and other industry types who evaluate scripts would be more tolerant of a little directing on the page. This talent is a rare and beautiful thing, and it shouldn’t be discouraged just because of some archaic perception that it’s not the writer’s job.

    Establishing shots

    Ok, I’ve made it abundantly clear why I think Rian Johnson is one of the most exciting filmmakers active today, now I’ll get back to some tangible lessons from his Looper script.

    If you’ve read a few scripts already you might’ve come across the concept of an establishing shot. Usually this is a short scene which serves to show where the characters are after a cut, or how the location of the following scene fits into its environment.

    Establishing shots used to be called out in sluglines much like this:


    Helicopters sweep by.


    Abe stands fuming, flanked by two Gat Men. Kid Blue sits like a kid in detention.

    Now if writers like Rian Johnson are still using a notation like that, it’s certainly not a wrong thing to do. But the fashion in Hollywood scripts seems to be going towards letting shots and scenes speak for themselves. An extreme example would be the scene on the I-95 which I mentioned in my Requiem for a Dream analysis.

    So, do use establishing shots in your writing to set the scene, but you don’t necessarily have to describe them as such.

    Moving perspective within a scene

    One thing that comes up fairly frequently in screenwriting is the necessity to shift perspective within a scene. I haven’t entirely decided on my favorite way to do this, but at the moment I tend to use the character’s name who I’m shifting to by itself in a slugline. For example:

    The creature’s foot breaks through the door.


    sets his back to a table and pushes it in front of the door.


    gathers heavy items to put on it.

    In the Looper script, Johnson goes about it as follows:


    The wide bare field. Cid runs ahead towards the cane, Sara not far behind. The earth soft, their feet sink in, like a nightmare.


    Old Joe crosses the road and chases them onto the field, firing at them on the run.


    Bullets thunk in the earth. Sara stumbles, exhausted. Cid turns, about thirty feet ahead of her.

    My only issue with that way of doing things is how much of the information is redundant. As I mentioned in my Requiem for a Dream analysis, I’m a big fan of anything which gets sluglines out of the way of the reader.

    On the other hand, you’re probably going to have to move your cameras, lights and crew to get those other shots, so maybe it’s better to be clearer about that shift.

    I haven’t quite made up my mind on this one yet, so I’m going to take a note to pay specific attention to it in future scripts. For now you’ve at least got Rian Johnson’s example to go off and that’s not a bad place to start, in many respects.

    In summation

    Creating an emotional hook for your audience is all about creating characters who are relatable, even if they aren’t necessarily likeable. If you can clearly visualize every last detail of a scene before anyone even touches a camera, you have a rare and great talent which will stand you well if you ever decide to become a director. Establishing shots serve a useful purpose in a script, but these days it’s not expected that you label them as such. One way of moving perspective in a scene is to split it out by shots with a slugline like ‘INT. <LOCATION> –  WITH <CHARACTER>’.

  • Cause and effect in the Zero Dark Thirty script

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon


    Why I chose this script

    What I loved about this film is how it capitalized on its audiences’ emotional state to tell part of the story. The slow, drawn out pace of the film made you feel the protagonist’s frustration over the hunt for Bin Laden in a way that, when the film ended, made her loss of purpose your own. It was a masterful and supremely confident act of filmmaking, and I wanted to see if I could find traces of it in the Zero Dark Thirty script.

    Of course there were a few more things that stood out while I was reading, so let’s see what we can learn from Mr. Boal for our own writing.

    Why causes make for bad characters. Usually.

    I mentioned in my analysis of the Place Beyond the Pines script that a large cast can stand in the way of developing any one given character. This might make you think that the Zero Dark Thirty script, with its singular focus on protagonist Maya (Chastain), would showcase a lot of development in her. Think again. When you get down to it, Maya doesn’t actually develop as a character at all through the course of the film.

    The reason for this is that Maya isn’t really a character. She’s a cause, like retribution, or justice or chaos. Essentially she’s the anthropomorphization of the United States’ desire to kill or capture Bin Laden. We basically learn nothing about her and never see her in an environment that’s not related to her hunt.

    Maya turns her attention back to the WHITE BOARD and as Debbie keeps talking we follow Maya’s gaze across the row of MUG SHOTS of Al Qaeda personnel. While a few of the men are African or are distinctive looking for other reasons, most of them look fairly similar in that they’re all wearing the same type of clothes and have the same trademark long gnarly beards.


    (pressing on)

    Anyway I thought you should know about it.


    I just want to say I’ve heard a lot about you. You inspired me to come to Pakistan.

    Maya’s eyes narrow. She keeps looking at the WHITE BOARD


    Maybe you’ll let me buy you a kabob sometime?



    Don’t eat out. It’s too dangerous.

    Maya stares at the Al Quaeda mugshots – a thought crosses her mind.

    The weird thing about this is, as a character, Maya works in this story. Under normal circumstances, causes make for terrible characters. They give an actor very little to work with in shaping their performance, they can only develop along one dimension – intensity, they give an audience very little to empathize with, they’re predictable, they can’t be influenced much by external factors… The list goes on and on.

    So how does the Zero Dark Thirty script get away with focusing so intently on a protagonist who is a cause rather than a character? I think it works for two reasons.

    First of all, the hunt for Bin Laden and its conclusion was of global interest. How could the most sought after man in the world evade capture with relatively few resources for so long? What undid him in the end? Everyone was intrigued by these questions, and they hadn’t been around for all that long when the film came out. Only 19 months elapsed between his death and Zero Dark Thirty’s release. For a Hollywood blockbuster that’s a pretty damn quick turn-around. That would probably have been reason enough to draw an audience in and hold on to them for the duration of a feature length film. That’s just my gut feeling, I obviously can’t speak on behalf of audiences worldwide.

    Secondly, right at the moment that the audience realize the ending was inevitable, and that they already knew it walking into the cinema, they get hit with one of only two interesting questions that can be asked about a cause. Those two interesting questions are how a cause comes to be, and what happens when it ceases to exist.

    I’d like to say at this point that you shouldn’t make causes into your protagonists, but I’ve just pointed out that there are circumstances where it can work. So I guess the best advice I can give here is to be aware of this happening and make sure it’s what your story needs to happen.

    Questions to help you tell if your character is a cause:

    • Can you list a handful of distinct ‘wants’ for your character? (Note: they don’t need to pursue them all in your story)
    • Can your character’s goal be partially achieved?
    • Take the protagonist from the last film you watched and give them the same goal as your protagonist. Does your story have to change in any fundamental way?

    If you answered “no” to most of those questions, you might have a cause on your hands.

    Show me character

    On a related note, I want to call out something which the Zero Dark Thirty script only does ‘wrong’ once or twice, but which I want to call out nonetheless.

    They remove their masks and we see that one is a beautiful young woman in her mid-twenties.

    She has a pale, milky innocence and bright blue eyes, thin and somewhat frail looking, yet possessing a steely core that we will come to realize is off-the-charts. This is MAYA, a CIA targeter and subject-matter expert on her first overseas assignment.

    Spelling out the nature of a character like this is clearly cheating. Either your character’s actions are going to reveal that aspect of their essence (in which case you didn’t have to waste the page space) or they won’t (in which case your description isn’t going to change anything). Either way, including it isn’t serving a useful purpose.

    Worse than that though, I think it lulls you into a false sense of security. The more you include of these hidden character descriptions, the harder it’ll be to judge how clearly your characters’ actions show their nature on a quick read-through.

    It’s a small risk, I’ll admit, but I basically don’t see there being any reward to justify taking it. So just play it straight, show your character through their actions and choices and not in the scene description.

    Let bullets fly in action sequences, not bullet points

    This is a point which comes up more frequently in the Zero Dark Thirty script than the last one, but it’s less severe. In fact, it’s downright nitpicky because it’s purely a stylistic issue. But it really grates on me so I want to call it out.


    - The man enters the hallway of the KHOBAR RESIDENTIAL TOWERS

    - And immediately opens fire on TWO WESTERN MEN he happens to find inside, killing them both.

    TITLE OVER: MAY 29, 2004

    - The CRACK of the shots sends the rest of the residents into a panicky, screaming dash for cover

    - As he strides quickly down the hall, he finds three other RESIDENTS scrambling for safety, and shoots and kills them all.

    I’m all in favor of suiting your scene description to the content. Like I mentioned in my Gravity analysis, if some flowing elegant prose is called for, then go for it. Or if it’s a fast moving action scene, keep the description tight and punchy. But using bullet points here is just all wrong in my book.






    As alarms wail, Maya struggles to her feet, grabs Jessica by the arm, and they stumble to safety.

    I think the intention is to create a kind of choppy, stop-motion effect in the description, but to me it’s just jarring enough to pull me out of the reading experience. That’s something we should be trying to avoid at all times.

    The hero’s resolution versus the audience’s resolution

    Other than successfully using a cause as a main character, the Zero Dark Thirty script does another thing which is unusual and noteworthy. First of all remember how I said I think audiences went into this film to learn more about the events that lead to Bin Laden’s death? Now look at how much Maya cares about how those events unfold:


    Bin Laden uses a courier to interact with the outside world. By locating the courier, we’ve located bin Laden.


    That’s really the intel? That’s it?


    Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and your velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb but people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb, so they’re using you guys as canaries on the theory that if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser.


    But bin Laden is there – and you’re going to kill him for me.



    Bullets are cheap.

    If you accept these premises, what Mark Boal has now done is create a gap between the audience’s resolution of the story and the protagonist’s. Widening that gap even further is the fact that Maya isn’t even there for the climactic raid on the compound.

    What this does is create a kind of dissonance and then uses it in a very creative way. In Zero Dark Thirty the dissonance prompts that question I mentioned earlier – now that he’s dead, what’s left for Maya? What’s she supposed to do next? Forget about Maya, after two hours and 40 minutes of this slowly paced but relentless film, what am I supposed to do next? This is what I meant when I said the film uses the audiences’ emotional state to tell part of the story. It’s a double punch that lands square on the jaw and, as I said, was the reason I wanted to delve into the Zero Dark Thirty script.

    The dissonance of separating the hero from the resolution of a story can also be used in other ways, for example to highlight that the hero is done with whatever the sequence of events is. For example, look at The Usual Suspects. Verbal Kint puts a sequence of events into play and walks away as the inevitable result resolves the story for the audience – he is done with this chapter of his life. If you have a story where you want to show that your hero has finished a chapter in their life, consider removing them from the resolution and see how it feels in your story.

    In summation

    Causes usually (but not always) make for bad protagonists. If you’re not one hundred percent certain that your story requires your protagonist to be one, then you’re better off revisiting the character.

    Exposing character in scene description doesn’t serve much purpose and could make you think your job’s done before it really is, so avoid overusing it.

    Don’t use bullet points in action description.

    Separating the hero’s resolution from the audience’s resolution creates tension which can be used in creative ways, for example to prompt the audience to ask what the hero will do next.