Gloves off with the Fight Club script

Spoilers ahead.

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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:

SCREEN BLACK

JACK (V.O.)

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

FADE IN:

INT. SOCIAL ROOM – TOP FLOOR OF HIGH RISE — NIGHT

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.

BOSS

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:

SPEAKER

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.

LEADER

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:

MECHANIC

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.

ANOTHER SPACE MONKEY

We gotta do something.

RICKY

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

ANGEL FACE

Bury him…

Jack looks around in disbelief.

JACK

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:

RICKY

But, this is Project Mayhem.

JACK

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

RICKY

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…

JACK

(shouting)

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:

BRUISED MAN #1

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:

EXTREME SLOW MOTION:

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.

RESUME NORMAL SPEED as the GLASS FALLS behind Jack…

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

TYLER

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:

INT. MARLA’S – 8TH FLOOR LANDING – LATE AFTERNOON (FLASHBACK)

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:

FLASHBACK – HALLWAY – NIGHT

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

FLASHBACK – LOU’S BAR BASEMENT – NIGHT

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

JACK

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:

INT. 2ND FLOOR LANDING – NIGHT

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.

TYLER

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.

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