All posts tagged character

  • 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.

  • Coming of age with the Boyhood 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

    Does this question even need answering? Boyhood is one of the most ambitious film projects to come out of Hollywood in as long as I can remember, and deserves to be thought through and discussed on every level. Of course the 12 year production process also required a unique approach to screenwriting, so all the more reason for us to learn as much as we can from the Boyhood script.

    In defense of fluff

    Coming of age stories aren’t exactly untrodden turf in the realms of film. When Richard Linklater decided to tell the story of a young boy’s life, there were any number of stories out there that he could’ve looked to for inspiration.

    But he chose to strike out on his own for the Boyhood script and not tell a story, per se, but instead offer a window into a life with nary a three act structure to be found. This decision manifests itself in a few ways, including what I came to call “pointless” scenes.

    A case in point would be one scene where Dad (Hawke) drops Mason (Coltrane) and Samantha (Linklater) off at their mom’s after spending the weekend with him. Loosely, the scene beats are:

    • Dad offers the kids a loving goodbye.
    • Mason goes inside.
    • Samantha tells Dad about a sleepover during the next weekend they’re supposed to see each other.
    • Samantha thanks Dad for a great weekend and goes inside.

    Now, neither Samantha’s sleepover nor the mentioned weekend actually figure in the rest of the Boyhood script in any way, shape or form. Yes, we see that Dad clearly loves his kids, and that the feeling is mutual, but it doesn’t rally move the ball forward in terms of plot. A “pointless” scene.

    I use quotation marks because, of course, these moments are not pointless. They’re the fabric of life. It is entirely fitting that Linklater’s chronical of a young man’s life be made up of such moments. It’s also really quite revolutionary.

    Although Hollywood is known for spectacle and bombast, what it really strives for (like any commercial activity) is efficiency. How to tell the tightest possible story without any fluff or dead weight. It’s a noble pursuit, because it keeps films lively and entertaining from start to finish. It’s also a pursuit I wish they would relent on sometimes.

    I actually wish there was little more of that fluff in movies because, as the Boyhood script shows, it’s the stuff that life is made of. If you strip all of it out, what you end up with is a situation where everything is important. Every line of dialogue is either setting up or paying off some aspect of the plot. Every camera move is meaningful. Sounds great on paper, but it removes any kind of contrast. If all moments are important, none of them are. It also makes for very predictable films.

    Before my soapbox carries me away completely, let me offer the only piece of advice that I can for writers to improve this state of affairs. It uses a loophole which I alluded to in discussing the scene above. I think “fluff” is still moderately tolerable if it furthers our understanding of the characters and they, in turn, drive the plot. I’m not saying that you should stick 30 pages of character exploration in your next script, but a vignette or two that tells us something we don’t know about the character is probably palatable and might do wonders for reducing telegraphing in your writing.

    Leaps in time

    This isn’t a short film, and the Boyhood script is no pamphlet either. But it condenses 12 years of living down into two and a half hours of film, so that didn’t really come as a surprise. However the jumps in time that the film makes as it follows Mason’s life had a few interesting effects on the reading experience.

    Most notably, it hugely magnified this sense of being an omniscient outsider who occasionally dipped into Mason’s world to see what had changed. It got me thinking about why that feeling was so much stronger in the Boyhood script and what it stands in contrast to when reading other stories.

    Most films don’t track their characters in real time, but usually cuts happen when the next step logically follows on from the current scene. Character decides to go somewhere, we cut to them getting out of their car. Characters show a romantic interest in each other, we cut to one of them asking the other out or maybe their first date.

    The Boyhood script doesn’t tread quite that lightly though. Using that last example: at one point we see Mom (Arquette) flirting with her college professor and then we cut to them arriving back from their honeymoon. While the difference may only be the amount of time elapsed during the cut, that difference is meaningful.

    The way it feels is the difference between a good friend who you see on a regular basis and an equally good friend who you only get to catch up with a few times per year. In the first instance, your conversations aren’t dominated by what’s happened in your lives, because the other person was there for a lot of it. It’s more about how things happen. But with the distant friend you’re not able to get to that level because they weren’t there, weren’t a part of it.

    So it’s worth thinking about the relationship you want your audience to have with your story. If you want them to feel like they’re a part of it and to get immersed, don’t go for big jumps in time and expect them to infer details. If, on the other hand, you want to foster more of an omniscient watcher relationship, feel free to take long strides through the time and space of your world.

    Spartan scene description

    Around page 130 I started noticing how little scene description was being used. It was one of those “can’t be unseen” things, where suddenly I was seeing it everywhere. The thing is, I can’t figure out whether I just didn’t notice it for the first two thirds of the script or whether Richard Linklater’s writing changed during the 12 years of production.

    Linklater’s scene description wasn’t as verbose as, for example, Jeff Nichols’ from the start, but I really think I would’ve noticed it had it been this extreme. To show you what I’m talking about, here’s a two page scene that I’ve removed all the dialogue from, leaving only the scene description:


    Mom sits at the kitchen table surrounded by bills and papers. Mason comes down the stairs.


    Mason prepares cereal.


    Mason starts to walk away.


    Mason walks over to the sink.

    It’s not just that scene either, this one was three and a half pages long:


    Mason sits on the stairs video chatting with Dad on his phone.


    Mason laughs.


    Dad pans the phone to Annie and baby.


    Mom comes down the stairs and drops a bag at Mason’s feet.


    She kisses his forehead.


    Mason exits.

    I tend to write pretty dialogue heavy pieces, but even I’m not that frugal with my scene description. I definitely would’ve noticed if it had been like that from page one. So I do believe that Linklater’s style of writing changed over the course of production.

    I think that what you see on the page when you read the Boyhood script is the process of someone becoming an experienced Hollywood filmmaker. I mentioned, in my post about Locke, how the pros play by a different rulebook than we do and I think this is a prime example of what that means in real terms.

    You hear a lot about the need for new writers to ‘find their voice’ in order to make themselves stand out, and it’s a good point. What you hear less of is how styles change over time. It’s ok, and even a good thing, for personal style to change over time. It’s usually the result of growth and experience as to what’s extraneous and not. Your voice as a writer can survive these changes as long as they’re made consciously and deliberately.

    Names versus roles

    One last point that I want to make is another one about naming characters. The more I read and write for this site the more I become fascinated by how different writers approach this decision.

    The Boyhood script is an interesting case because of two characters: Mom and Dad. Despite the fact that the characters’ names are revealed in dialogue, they are referred to by their roles as seen by the kids throughout the script. This also goes for characters such as Grandma (Villari), Grandpa Cliff (Richard Andrew Jones) and Nana (Karen Jones).

    This decision certainly doesn’t do us readers any favors (it took me forever to remember that Grandma at Mason’s graduation party was Mom’s mother) so it must serve some other purpose. I would hazard a guess that it was to force Mason’s perspective of the characters onto us, but that’s nothing more than a hunch.

    In summation

    Films have become so lean that it’s starting to make them predictable. One way to get around that is to add in a touch more character exploration to contrast the major plot points. To make your audience feel like part of the story, avoid large leaps in time that cause them to fill in blanks on their own. Your style of writing will likely change over the years and that’s a sign of growth, just don’t let it detract from your voice as a writer. When to name characters or not is not a cut and dry subject, Boyhood provides an interesting example by obfuscating the character names to serve the protagonist’s perspective.

  • Going, going, Gone Girl script analysis

    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 kind of hoped this script was going to be badly written. Not in a spiteful sort of way, it’s just that I had a theory about the main character and I was hoping that Gillian Flynn might expound a bit on his inner motivations in the scene description. I wasn’t able to confirm or refute my theory, but I did pick up on a few other things during my read. So, let’s take a look at lessons we can learn from the Gone Girl script.

    Death of a slugline?

    This point isn’t so much a lesson learned as a discussion I’d like to hear more views on. Throughout the film we get fragments of Amy (Pike) writing in her diary. The shots are close in on the diary to the exclusion of the surroundings. These scenes are sluglined in the Gone Girl script as:


    CLOSEUP on a PEN, cursiving across a DIARY. The pen is GIRLY, topped with pink feathers. We see at the top: January 8, 2005. We hear the words as we see them written in pink.

    This is understandable because not knowing the time and place that these diary entries are written is part of the story. But is that understandable? Take a moment and think about what sluglines were originally meant to be – tools to aid in the planning of production. So making them a slave to the narrative is actually quite a big shift.

    Even when you’re aware of the role that these scenes play in the Gone Girl script, it’s not unfeasible that they take place in different locations or under different lighting conditions. Those could all impact the way the scenes are shot. This is the kind of information which would typically be gleaned from a slugline, but now has to either be inferred from the scene or put as a direct question to the writer during production.

    If you’re a fan of the Scriptnotes podcast (and really, if you’re reading this blog you have no reason not to be) you’ve no doubt heard John and Craig talking about what the screenplay format would look like if it were reinvented for the modern Hollywood. One of their basic points is that the scene is no longer really the fundamental unit of film, and I think that this shift towards making sluglines a narrative tool is a part of that.

    I didn’t mention it in my post about Gravity, but one thing you’ll notice if you pick up that script is there are almost no sluglines in it. Of course this makes sense not only from a narrative, but also from a production point of view because where they shot the scenes had nothing to do with the locations of the story.

    So what do we think, folks? Are we witnessing the death of sluglines in the screenplay format? Do we need to talk about a new way to convey the information they were made for in other means? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    The right moment for a moment

    So you’re mid-way through your story and your plot is humming along nicely. You arrive at a pivotal moment for your protagonist and let it unfurl across the page. Bask in the glow of your genius, start writing your Oscar acceptance, your job is done. Right? Maybe, maybe not.

    One of the moments I loved in the Gone Girl script is when Nick (Affleck) sits down to a TV interview about the disappearance of Amy. We see the reporter and her crew setting up and just as we’re about to see the interview happen… Flynn cuts to the aftermath.


    NICK goes to his seat. A makeup person powders his sweaty brow. A sound guy threads the lavaliere up his shirt. Sharon and her producer confer in intense whispers. The rest of the staff are glaring at Nick. He catches one woman’s EYE and her look is VENOMOUS. The makeup person re-powders him.


    And it’s 3, 2, 1….


    Go, Tanner and Nick driving home. Tanner is working his phone, answering emails, etc.


    Seriously, I can’t believe how fucking good you were.

    We’re given an idea of how the interview went, which is important for Nick’s character, but we don’t see what happened. Why? Flynn cuts past the interview for a very good reason, and it’s one worth keeping in mind for our own stories.

    The interview serves a couple of purposes in the plot. From the point of view of Nick’s character, it’s one of the few chances he gets to turn the tide of public opinion back in his favor. From Amy’s point of view, it’s the reason she decides to return to Nick instead of keep running. Which of those two is more important in the overall plot of the film? You guessed it – Amy’s revelation.

    So how do we see the interview in the end? We watch it with Amy, where we get to see that reaction which is going to cause a huge twist in the plot. It’s a very smart move on Flynn’s part and an easy one for us to learn from.

    When you’ve got a big plot point in your story, take a moment to think what it means to all of your main characters. Which reaction is most important for the direction of your plot? Is there a way that you can experience it through that characters perspective even if they’re not present when it happens? Try writing out a bullet point version of the scene/sequence from different characters’ perspectives and see which one gives you the most inspiration.

    Finding character in small moments

    From ‘how characters propel the plot’ to ‘how the plot can service the characters’, now. In the Gone Girl script there is a lovely little moment while Amy plays a game of minigolf with her new ‘friends’.


    A red golf ball rolls into a hungry CROCODILE’S mouth. AMY, GRETA and JEFF are putting through a vacant, decrepit mini golf course. They hold plastic cups of beer.


    Shouldn’t we keep score?

    No one listens.

    That one line of dialogue does absolutely nothing to the way the scene progresses (as Flynn points out), but it says so much about Amy’s character and her outlook on life. These are the moments in your story that you’re going to have to dig to find, but as small as they are they’re absolutely worth that effort.

    Whether your exposition comes across as on-the-nose or not is entirely down to your ability to go from ‘characters talk so you understand’ to ‘characters talk and you understand’. The way you do that is by putting them in situations that will draw their character out (even if it’s only momentarily) and then letting them be themselves.

    Shootable inner thoughts

    On the subject of how characters think; I talked in my last post on the Locke script about how we should avoid scenarios of facts not in evidence. I used this phrase for all things which the viewer cannot be aware of, including the inner thoughts of a character. But I came across an example in the Gone Girl script of a thought which is absolutely filmable and I wanted to highlight it here:


    Every day, Nick. Or I’ll go crazy.


    I’ll call you. Every day. Hurry.

    She gives him a KISS that is more meaningful for her (“farewell, my love”) than him (“get out”). She leaves. He shuts the door, leans back.. .to see GO in the kitchen.

    So it’s not that all internal processing cannot be shot and should therefore be avoided if at all possible. If the thought is something that an actor can express facially, through behavior or timing then I see no reason to not include it. It can also keep the description moving along nicely, as you see in the example above.

    In summation

    We might very well be living and writing through the death of the slugline. The moment a plot point happens in your story might not be the best moment for your audience to see it, take into account whose perspective on the point matters the most. Natural character exposition comes from ‘characters talk and you understand them’ rather than ‘characters talk so you understand them’, so find situations where that can happen – even if they’re small. Some inner thoughts are shootable and if they help your scene description move at pace, it’s absolutely fine to include them.

  • 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>’.

  • Digging for lessons in the Mud 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

    Despite now being a big fan of the McConnaughey-ssance, I was slow to catch on to it. Mud, arguably the film that started the revolution, had a short run in my local cinema and by the time I started hearing the buzz, it was gone. I found it an honest and enjoyable piece when I did get round to it, but I didn’t quite get all the hype. So I decided to dive into the Mud script and see if it would cause me to see the film in a new light.

    Individual style within a fixed format

    As you learn about screenwriting it’s easy to get caught up in the strictures of the format. If you’re anything like me, one of the first things you were told was “If your script isn’t properly formatted, no reader will even touch it.” So you spent ages poring over textbooks and websites in fear that if you didn’t get it right, it wouldn’t matter how good your story-telling was.

    I completely understand that fear, and that’s why I created this site. If, in some small way, I can remove any of that fear and help someone get their story down on paper I will consider this whole endeavor a success.

    Why do I bring this up in context of the Mud script? Well, the first thing that struck me about it is Jeff Nichols’ style of writing. It is very similar to my own and quite distinct from many other scripts I’ve read. This got me thinking about how, no matter how strict the rules are for the format, there’s still room for individual styles.

    Nichols’ style is most apparent in the scene description of the Mud script, where he goes into great detail in describing even the simplest of interactions. For example:

    Mary Lee sits down across from Senior, who doesn’t look up from his paper. Her eyes narrow and she extends a finger toward him.


    If you don’t look up from that goddamn paper…

    She stops before completing the thought.

    After a moment, Senior lowers his paper. He stares across the table at his wife. He looks at her with true disdain.

    His eyes trace down her face and robe before finally settling on his cup of coffee. He picks up the cup, takes a sip, and sets it back on the table. He raises the paper up.

    Mary Lee’s eyes soften. She bites the inside of her cheek to keep from crying. Her eyes move to the kitchen window.

    Contrast the above fragment with pretty much any excerpt in my Requiem for a Dream analysis and you’ll see what I mean by the screenplay format leaving plenty of room for individual styles.

    Being a consummate writer, though, Nichols is aware that his style needs to adapt to the circumstances of the Mud script. When the scene calls for it, his description picks up the pace too:


    Both boys flinch at the sharp sounds. Neckbone’s hand flies to cover the alarm on his wristwatch.




    We gotta go. I can’t be late.


    They drop out of the tree and hit the ground running.



    The boys’ feet rush across the tree trunk bridging the creek.


    They launch out of the treeline and sprint to their boat.

    Neckbone grabs the side and starts pushing the boat to the water. Ellis slings his backpack in and joins him.

    So, what’s the lesson we can learn from the Mud script? Well, I mentioned the fear of getting things wrong earlier, and I think the lesson here is that having a style of your own isn’t wrong. In fact, it’s an important part of finding your voice as a writer. Just as important as knowing, for example, what kinds of stories you want to tell.

    So how do you know where the border lies between style and stricture? Unfortunately that’s a question of experience. Reading what people do differently and what they toe the line on is the only surefire way. The good news is that I’m already doing that work for you and putting my findings on this site, and you’re welcome to ask me questions in the comments or through the contact form.

    Ramping up the stakes

    What the Mud script is an absolutely shining example of, is a story that continuously ramps up the stakes for its protagonist. It builds seamlessly from the story of two young boys leading a simple life in the American South to a gangster shootout that wouldn’t feel out of place in something like Pulp Fiction.

    That’s a big shift for a film to make and it’s only something you can get away with if you’re constantly shoring up your characters’ motivations. To illustrate this point, let’s juxtapose the motivation for the protagonist at the start of the story with the outcome of his actions at the end:


    When they show up, you’ll leave?

    Mud begins fishing again.




    And when you leave, that boat’s ours?



    To a boy of 14, a boat of your own is probably worth lifting some foodstuffs from your mother’s cupboard. Low risk, pretty big reward – even if you’re not 100% sure of the person you’re dealing with. If Ellis (Sheridan) knew that the outcome for his father, Senior (Shepard), would be shotgun pellets in the face then I’m guessing he’d walk away from that boat with the quickness:

    Senior, in a robe, rushes from his bedroom with a pistol leveled. He’s met with a shotgun blast just above his head. Pellets nick his face. Senior hits the ground and elbows his way back inside his bedroom door.

    So, how does Nichols keep Ellis motivated in such a way that the stakes of the story can grow without it feeling forced? He plays some nifty tricks with love and authority, two of the big psychological factors in a teenager’s life.

    The story takes place just as Ellis’ interest in love starts to become personal and his role-models for romance, his parents’ marriage, hits the rocks. Into these confusing times the story brings Mud (McConnaughey) and Juniper (Witherspoon), a fantasy of pure romance that seems to defy the inconvenient truths of the real world. If only Ellis can keep that dream alive, maybe there’ll be hope for his parents too.

    When that illusion fades and Mud loses stature in Ellis’ eyes, Nichols offers Ellis friendship and family as a trade for romance. Ellis also learns that there are different paths he can walk in love to Mud’s and his parents’. A lesson which outvalues a boat stuck in a tree.

    Whenever you make things worse for your characters, it’s worth taking a moment and asking yourself “Why wouldn’t my character just walk away from this obstacle?” If you struggle to formulate an answer, then realize that ramping up the stakes at that point might alienate your audience.

    When to name characters – a redux

    In my analysis of the Prisoners script I mentioned how naming characters can sometimes make a scene easier to describe. Well, in the Mud script I came across an example of when that really doesn’t work in your favor.

    Nichols names some of the gangsters in the story and during the climactic shootout, refers to them by name. He also tries to remind us of the moment they were introduced to us, though, and that’s where it goes awry. The problem is, those moments are so far back that it totally extracts you from the moment. For example:


    Mud crashes headfirst onto the edge of the houseboat grasping for anything to keep from sliding off. His hand catches a metal deck cleat. It bends under his weight but holds.

    Mud gets to his feet and is met by the tip of a rifle. Miller, the man from the cafe, stands poised to fire.

    That café is actually a bar scene and it takes place 30 pages before the scene we’re reading. That’s an awfully long way to expect your reader to cast their mind back when what you really want is them feverishly devouring your action sequence.

    So, as a caveat to the lesson I described in the Prisoners analysis, only use character names to simplify your scene description if you don’t have to interrupt the action to re-introduce the character.

    Be mindful of your world

    There’s a really nice little moment in the Mud script which caught my eye when Ellis and his partner in crime, Neckbone (Lofland), ask for some information at a motel:


    We’re lookin’ for the girl in room 212. You seen her?


    I’ve seen her.


    You see her today.


    Yeah, she came down askin’ for directions to the nearest bar. I told her to head out to a place on 61.

    Ellis digests this. They turn to leave.


    Wait a second, are ya’ll the little bastards tryin’ to sell fish to the guests?

    They’re already out the door.

    The clerk is referring to the scene where the boys went door-to-door with a cooler-box full of frozen fish looking for Juniper, the same girl mentioned here.

    The reason I liked this moment so much is because the clerk’s last comment serves no purpose in the story, but is both absolutely in keeping with the world that the story takes place in and a great exit from the scene.

    Being mindful of the world around your story and the people that inhabit it opens up doors for you. They’re not just useful for transitions either, you can also use them to perk up moments where you feel your plot is lagging. If there’s a subplot or character that you haven’t visited in your story for a while, take a look around your scene and see if there are any ‘world elements’ that can bring them back to the forefront.

    For example, in the story of Mud, the clerk could have offered some tidbit about the relationship between Neckbone and the uncle who raises him, Galen. Maybe the clerk had seen Galen perform with a band before Neckbone came along and asks Neckbone if they ever had any success. Maybe Galen gave up that dream and dives the river so he could take care of Neckbone. This is just brainstorming obviously, but you can see how a random encounter can serve to explore that relationship.

    In summation

    Though the screenplay format has many rules, there is room enough for individual styles of writing and finding yours is important. If you’re going to ramp up the stakes of your story, your characters need to be motivated to stick with it as things get worse. Naming characters to simplify scene description is fine, as long as you don’t have to interrupt the action to re-introduce them. Be mindful of the world your story takes place in, it could offer you opportunities for transitions, to refresh a sub-plot or to give a new spin to a character.

  • Captivated by the Prisoners 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

    Much like The Place Beyond the Pines, I wanted to look into the Prisoners script because I thought I missed something about symbolism and religion. But, unlike The Place Beyond the Pines, the Prisoners script was an absolute pleasure to read. Possibly even more so than any other screenplay I’ve read for this site.

    All of my original questions about the story went out the window and I just sat and enjoyed a great piece of writing from Aaron Guzikowski. So let’s take a look at what we can purloin to make our own screenplays as good.

    Of characters and change

    Let me knock this first point out of the park before I get onto something meatier. If you want to see a great example of showing character development in a story, grab the Prisoners script and take a look at Keller’s (Jackman) attitude towards religion.

    It starts on page one, where we see his go-to in car entertainment:


    Keller drives. Ralph sits in the passenger seat. The Everyday Testament is playing while Keller talks over it.

    So we know from the outset, Keller is a religious man, though it’s not overtly mentioned. Guzikowski takes another chance to highlight this visually when Keller pauses for a moment, looking at the toothbrush of his (by now) kidnapped daughter:


    Keller splashes water on his face. A little gold crucifix hangs around his neck.

    His eyes drift to the toothbrush holder. The little toothbrush with the cartoon character on it.

    But as the strain of the situation starts to wear on Keller, his faith begins to chip. First we notice it in his language when he takes the lord’s name in vain:


    You sure you heard him right?


    Jesus Christ — you think I’m making this up?

    Loki observes Keller’s hands are shaking…

    Then he starts creating justifications for his actions which don’t rhyme with his beliefs. When Franklin (Howard) questions Keller on his treatment of Alex (Danes), Keller feels no compulsion to do unto his neighbor…


    We hurt him until he talks or they’re going to die. That’s the choice. I know what I heard.

    Franklin looks back inside at Jones, perhaps thinking on what horrible things he might have done to his daughter, rage starting to take hold –

    KELLER (O.S.) (CONT’D)

    He’s not a person anymore. He stopped being a person when he took our daughters.

    Guzikowski then gives us a nice little visual portrayal of his waning reliance on spiritual guidance:


    Keller listens to the Everyday Testament while he drives, fast forwarding, looking for something he’s not finding, until it EATS THE TAPE.

    But, even though his faith gets cut to the bone, he doesn’t let it go. He doesn’t let his rage and desperation consume him completely:


    Don’t make me do this anymore.

    Keller reaches to turn the water back on, but he can’t — tears crawling down his face as he mouths: I’m sorry –

    He kneels down. Squeezes his hands together. And after a moment starts to mutter what sounds like a prayer –

    It’s exactly for this reason that Keller had to be the protagonist, rather than anyone else who lost a child in the same way in this story. It’s that mixture of indestructible faith and ferocity. Without the former, the latter would’ve played into the hands of the kidnappers:

    He was the first kid we ever took. His real name was Jimmy or Barry — I can’t remember. I doubt he can either. So many names. I forgot all about Bobby until I read about him in the paper. He never forgot us though — neither will your neighbor’s bitch daughter. They never really get away, their minds I mean. Making children disappear is how we wage war with God. Makes people lose their faith. Breeds demons like you.

    Remember when I mentioned in my Zero Dark Thirty analysis that causes make for bad characters because they can only develop along one dimension? This is the contrast to that. Religion is one facet of Keller’s character and throughout the course of the story he changes along that dimension. Other dimensions include his relationship with his family, his issues with alcohol, his issues with control… They all change as the story unwinds and that’s what makes for a rich, rounded character.

    Directing on the page

    This is another subject I wanted to talk about after having read the Prisoners script, but it’s a bit of a tricky one. The problem is not only that I don’t have an answer to the question “How much directing can I do on the page?” it’s that nobody seems to have one.

    First, let’s define some terms. When I say directing on the page, I’m talking about things like choosing camera angles, including unshootable directions (usually mental processes of characters), inserting delivery instructions for dialogue lines (ellipses for pauses, emphasis on words or phrases, etc), providing blocking for the scenes, etc.

    Next, let’s talk about the example set by the Prisoners script. Guzikowski directs on the page quite a lot. I wouldn’t have found it unusual if this was a writer/director script but Dennis Villeneuve wasn’t even the first director on this project, let alone the scribe.


    An AERIAL VIEW of LOKI’S SEDAN heading down the street toward the Dover House.

    In the example above and the one that follows, Guzikowski is stepping beyond the realms of talking about what’s happening and giving very clear instructions on how we see it play out.


    Loki walks to his car — angle widens to reveal the downtown area. Strip malls, gas stations — cars whizzing by — blurred faces in car windows –

    He also doesn’t restrict himself to the visual aspects of the film. Among other forms of directing on the page, he includes guidelines on how to deliver specific lines of dialogue:


    He’ll just clam up and act crazy like he did last time. Someone has to make him talk.

    I’ll get onto my overall views on the subject of directing on the page in a moment, but before I do, let me just point out where I think it got to be too much in the Prisoners script. The following two lines of dialogue are on consecutive pages:


    You wasted time — you wasted time following ME! YOU LET THIS HAPPEN!


    I want you to listen to me. I need you to stay around the house for the next couple days, make sure she doesn’t see the news — when the paper comes throw it the fuck away. We don’t give up on your sister — I’m gonna find her and bring her home.

    I understand the desire to emphasize certain words, but when you’re throwing around formatting like that it both tends to reduce its impact and it just confuses matters. Was that underlined phrase supposed to be delivered in a certain why? Or did Guzikowski just intend for the reader to pay extra attention to it?

    So, after all that, what are my thoughts on directing on the page? I think the idea of it being verboten is an old-world hang-up that hasn’t taken into account how times have changed.

    I think the shrinking number of films that go into production in the modern movie business has done nothing to reduce the stress of directing a film. It is an unimaginably demanding task and I simply can’t believe that assistance in completing it will cause all directors to get up in arms.

    Also, as John August is fond of saying, when you go in to pitch a film, you’re the only person in the room who’s already seen it in your head. We humans are simple creatures who are tied to a perspective from the day we’re born, it is only natural that our imaginations work in the same way and so do our stories. It would be impossible to tell a story without any perspective, it would have no focus.

    Lastly, advice for aspiring screenwriters these days is rife with suggestions to shoot some material of your own and slap it online so you can gain feedback, experience and (if you’re extremely lucky) attention. It’s good advice, because there’s a lot to learn that can and will help your writing. Screenwriters have also, often, gone through some kind of film school where they’ve gained production experience. To then expect all writers to throw out that know-how when they’re writing for a studio is wasteful and counter-productive.

    So I don’t have any particular advice on this point (other than my note above regarding over-use of formatting for emphasis), I just wanted to use this space for an impassioned plea to the readers of the world. Please don’t shoot us down for a little direction on the page, we’re just trying to tell a story.

    When to name characters

    Enough soapbox talk, let’s bring this post back down to earth with some concrete learnings. One question we as writers are faced with is when to name characters and when to leave them as ‘The Girl’.

    I can’t offer you any hard and fast guidelines on this subject like “If a character has more than two lines of dialogue, they should be named”, but I will point out two noteworthy examples in the Prisoners script.

    The first is a forensics expert who has quite a lot of dialogue in a scene with Loki (Gyllenhaal). I felt that he really should’ve been named, just as recognition for the actor who worked for the part to deliver those lines. After all, a named part is going to carry more weight in their next audition.


    There you go. Probably read this book and decided he was taken by the Invisible Man. Now he’s doing his best imitation.


    Did his best imitation. He shot himself last night.

    Forensics Guy shakes his head.


    How did he do that? I thought he was in custody.

    Loki ignores the question and takes a photocopy of Bob’s map out of his pocket.


    Taylor drew this. It was supposed to be a map to the bodies. We found a corpse last week wearing a pendant with the same design on it.


    It’s not a map, it’s the last maze in the maze book. Unsolvable. No way out. Corpse is probably just another wannabe who read the book.

    The other example is a scene where two uniformed police officers are given names despite only appearing twice in the script and delivering minimal dialogue. I suspect that Guzikowski did this because of the following passage, in which two other cops join in and the group gets divided. It sentences like ‘the third cop puts the prisoner in the car while the second and fourth enter the woods’.


    Seal all this off, the entrance — all of it.

    (to one of the cops)

    You — come on –

    Loki rushes into the woods, Carter and one of the two uniformed cops following after, the other uniformed cop gets on his radio, watching as Wedge puts Jones in the squad car –

    Convincing someone to change course

    There’s one last thing I want to pull out of the Prisoners script, a scene where Keller entreats Loki to hang on to a suspect in the kidnapping. It is a brilliant example of how hard it should be to change a character’s mind.

    I really enjoyed The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I thought it was a great film and a big improvement on the first movie in the series. The only issue I had with it was that some deeply held beliefs had to be overturned in very little time. I think this was the result of having to squeeze a lot of story into a single film. The worst example of it was this scene, where Katniss is literally running for her life, but this 39 second clip is all that’s needed to turn her back into the face of danger.

    Now look at this scene, in which Keller is asking Loki for a favor (a relatively small one in comparison to asking Katniss to put her life on the line):


    He stays in custody until my daughter is found, right?


    We’ve got a forty-eight hour hold on him. Ends tomorrow unless we bring charges.


    Then charge him with something.


    Mr. Dover, let me worry about –


    Detective, two little girls gotta be worth whatever rules you have to break to keep that asshole in custody.

    Loki considers for a moment while Keller’s desperate eyes bore into him…


    I know you can’t promise me anything — I’m just asking you to be sure.

    Loki doesn’t answer.


    Thank you, Detective. I appreciate it.

    Loki nods and drives off –

    A sense of duty is a strong motivation for a character’s actions, it shouldn’t be an easy thing to get them to ignore. This repeated battering from Keller not only tells you how seriously Loki takes his job, it also goes a long way to showing how determined Keller is to get his daughter back. It’s good stuff!

    In summation

    Rounded characters have many dimensions in which they can develop – the Prisoners script has a great example of this wherein the protagonist loses and re-finds his faith. The old maxim that writers shouldn’t direct on the page is something which, I wish, would disappear from readers’ minds. If characters are going to deliver a significant number of lines or naming them will help you describe a scene more succinctly, give them that name. It should be difficult to change your characters minds – it shows character on their part and on the part of their antagonist.

  • 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.

  • Struggling to see The Place Beyond the Pines script for the trees

    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

    Unlike some of my previous picks, I decided to analyze the Place Beyond the Pines script because I felt a bit ambivalent about the film. I felt like there was something that Derek Cianfrance was trying to get at which just didn’t materialize on screen for me. So I thought I’d look into the script and see if I could find the thing which I missed on screen.

    In hindsight, I’m glad I did it, because I have some real issues with this script and that obviously means there’s a lot to learn from it. So let’s dive right in and see where the Place Beyond the Pines script and I clashed.

    I’m only going to touch on two themes in this post, because they’re both very important and I want to do them both justice.

    An ensemble cast doesn’t excuse poorly motivated characters

    One of the reasons I picked this one was because I wanted to know what the star studded cast of Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Mahershala Ali and Ray Liotta saw in The Place Beyond the Pines script. What attracted them to the project?

    With a lot of big names to service the stories of ensemble pieces sometimes struggle to deliver a great amount of character depth across the board. This doesn’t mean that a big cast is a bad thing, it could be that each of these characters is necessary for the story you’re telling. Just be aware that that’s a trade-off you’re making.

    The larger cast of The Place Beyond the Pines might be one reason for the shallow characters on display here, but I’m not going to let Cianfrance, Coccio and Marder off the hook that easily.

    For example, let’s look at the moment where Scott tries to recruit Avery into his shady use of material stored in evidence.

    Scott puts his hand up and waves for Romina. “Ma’am!”


    We’re dealing with a case, DeLuca and me. And it’s pretty sensitive. I’m hoping this can stay private.

    Avery is listening. Romina comes back to the table, trembling with fear and rage. She pours Avery’s coffee.


    Tuna melt. Large iced tea.

    Scott hands her the menu, notices who she is, makes big eyes at Avery. She turns to Avery, waits for his order. Avery can’t tell if she is terrified or angry. Probably both.


    I’m fine with coffee.

    She takes his menu, walks away. Scott looks at Avery like a kid who has just gotten away with something.


    You trying to fuck her? You sick fuck…


    What’d you want to talk about?


    Right. I knew I could come to you. You could really help us bust this thing wide open.

    Remember, this takes place at a location of Avery’s choosing and relatively soon after he, Scott and the others force their way into Romina’s house and essentially steal from her. Surely Scott would be more cautious about bringing Avery in after seeing that he still has some unknown connection to her?

    Or how about this little encounter:


    Okay shitbag, walk ahead of us and stand by that tree.

    The Coke-head is petrified. Deluca takes Avery aside.


    Okay hero, go find out who his source is.


    This is crazy. What are we doing here?


    This is the fucking job.

    Avery looks at Scott. Unspoken, Scott urges him on. Avery walks to the Coke-head, tries to be a human being.


    What’s your name?


    Fuck you motherfucker.

    Avery leans in and whispers.


    Listen. You have any idea what kind of trouble you’re in here? I need to know the name of your source so I can get you outta here.

    Junkie doesn’t say anything. He’s not scared of Avery.


    What’s taking so long? Do the right thing, hero.


    This is your last chance.


    Or what? Fuck you bitch.

    The other cops hoot with laughter. Avery is mortified by the man’s defiance and the ultimate ghetto insult – no man calls another man a bitch without a fight.

    Did you notice the character name change half way through the scene? That’s sloppy writing, at best, but the real issue here is how the character behaves. How does he go from petrified to using “the ultimate ghetto insult” to a cop in the space of half a page?

    But both of those examples are minor characters, so what does it matter if they’re inconsistent? It wouldn’t matter, if the main characters were any better fleshed out.

    When we first meet him, Avery is a new cop on the beat. By coincidence he takes down a notorious bank robber and becomes a hero. He fights with (and will eventually divorce) his wife for obscure reasons, loses his beat job on return to the service and gets drafted into a corrupt operation with some other cops. Notice a pattern here? Everything happens to this guy. He is 100% reactive throughout the entire story.

    You could be forgiven for thinking that, as a character, he’s a bit of a wet blanket. It will probably surprise you to find out that he’s actually incredibly ambitious. Even unrealistically ambitious. It certainly surprised me when it first came up on page 54 of a 115 page script:


    The question is can you go back out on patrol anytime soon? And if you went out, could you be effective?


    No, I don’t believe I can.


    I’m glad you’re being clear-eyed about this. A lot of guys think there’s only one way to be a cop. You know, out there busting heads.


    I never saw it like that.


    There are a lot of jobs that need to be done around here that in ways, and you know this, in ways are more important than what happens out on the street.


    Make me a Lieutenant. Put me in charge of special investigations.



    I can’t fucking do that.


    Yes you can.


    You paid too much for your education to act so stupid, kid.


    I have ideas that could turn that whole division around.

    This is a tale of two families, though, so maybe the writers should get the benefit of the doubt. Maybe all the good character development goes on in the other branch of the story. The film opens on Gosling’s character, Luke, the pater familias of the other plot arc. He’s a guy not likely to win awards for his people skills:


    Luke walks into the garage, only to find his bike cut into pieces. Only the engine is intact. Luke can’t believe his eyes.

    Luke reacts as if Robin put down his horse. He storms out of the garage. We follow him to…


    Robin is passed out on the couch. Luke comes in and sticks the barrel of the pistol against Robin’s head. Robin wakes up. Luke is out of his fucking mind here, close to squeezing the trigger.


    We had a good thing going. We kept it up as long as we could, made a nice little score, now it’s over.


    Open your mouth.

    Luke sticks the gun inside Robin’s mouth. Turns it against his teeth. Robin pisses his pants.

    So you wouldn’t blame Robin for not remembering Luke in a kind light. But later, when Luke’s son Jason pays Robin a visit, all seems to be forgotten:

    Robin pulls out a box of papers, memorabilia.


    Gotta be in here somewhere… there we go.

    Robin pulls out dusty newspaper from the stack. Above the fold headline reads, ‘Moto Bandit Killed by Sch’dy Cop.’ He hands it to Jason.


    There he is. That’s him. That’s Luke.

    Jason stares in awe at LUKE’S MUGSHOT. It is the first time he has ever seen his father.

    ROBIN (O.S.) (CONT’D)

    He was a crazy son of a bitch. But he had a big heart.

    Then, a day later, Jason goes to visit Robin again. This time he’s looking to get closer to his father by moving into his father’s old trailer. Suddenly Robin isn’t as welcoming, though. No interaction has happened between the two of them since the last excerpt, but somehow everything has changed:

    ROBIN (O.S.)

    What’re you doing back here?

    Jason turns, SEES: Robin, with cigarette, approach him. Not so cordially this time.


    Sorry. Just coming to say “hi.” I was wondering if anybody was staying in my dad’s old trailer… you might rent it out to me… or something…

    Robin ushers Jason out of the bay with a whistle and a snap of his finger.


    Come on. Let’s get out. Can’t have you back here. Regulations.

    They snake through the office and out into the front of the shop. Robin keeps it moving the whole time.


    I can’t have you just walking in on me like that. It’s not professional. I have a lot of work on my plate, and I am in no position to fall behind. I wish I could spend my days reminiscing and getting all nostalgic with you about your dear old daddy. All misty eyed and shit. But I just can’t. See you down the road, though.

    Robin has walked Jason to the edge of his property.

    This disconnect in tone between one meeting of a pair of characters and the next seems to be an ongoing theme in the Place Beyond the Pines script. Another example:

    A.J. (CONT’D)

    OK. So. Dude, I’m sorry I was kinda a dick to you yesterday and everything. I was just kinda rip shit with you about losing my $500 bucks, you know. But it’s cool. I’m over it. And I hope you’re over it, as well. So, what do you think? We cool?


    Yeah, whatever, man.

    Jason walks off. A.J. gets up along side him.


    Hey dude. Dude. My dad is gone this weekend and so, I’m having a party at my house tonight – my dad’s house is seriously ridiculous. Anyway. I was thinking you should come over. I know you have the sick connection and everything. And I was thinking, if you brought the skittles or something, I could just forget about the money you lost me.


    Yeah? I thought we were cool, bro?


    We are, man. You know. We’re just making it correct.


    I got shit to do tonight, A.J.

    Jason keeps going. He seems in a hurry.


    What do you have to do?

    (to himself)

    Play scrabble with your family?

    I’m not even going to dwell on how on-the-nose that last line is from A.J., the jealous child of a broken home. Instead I want to skip ahead till the next time these two see each other, where Jason suddenly seems to care a quite a bit about what A.J. thinks of him:

    Jason makes it through the crush of dancing bodies, finds A.J. in a crowd of kids. They shout to talk.


    Oh shit! You made it!

    They give hugs. Jason is all wet and sweaty.

    A.J. (CONT’D)

    Damn, bro. You stink!



    A.J. leans in to shout in Jason’s ear.


    You got the Oxy?!

    Jason produces the bottle of OxyContin from his hoodie pockets. A.J. is beyond psyched. He grabs the bottle and immediately shows off the score to friends around him.

    A.J. walks through the party to the back pool, handing out the drugs to party goers. An adoring group forms quickly around him. Jason looks on somewhat dejected. He approaches the group and waits his turn to receive.

    I think it’s safe to say that there are some real issues with character in this story. They’re also about to get worse.


    This is a point I don’t raise lightly. After all of the previous examples of terrible character motivation, I wasn’t sure whether the women in the Place Beyond the Pines script simply suffered under the same yoke. But there is an undertone of sexism in this script which I can’t just explain away as a poor understanding of character.

    The problems of the female characters in this story aren’t just that their actions don’t make sense. They also seem to be restricted in the actions they can take and to always be overruled by the desires of the male characters.

    Luke LOOKS out the window, SEES Kofi hefting many bags of groceries up toward the house.


    He brought a lot of stuff.

    Luke HEARS Romina coming up the stairs.


    (to Jason)

    When your mom comes in here, do you think she’s gonna be bummed? Or do you think she’s gonna be psyched?

    Jason just swings. Romina enters the room.


    What’s this shit? What is all this?


    (to Jason)

    She’s bummed.


    What are you doing here? You are gonna screw up my life.


    Just calm down. Don’t be so dramatic. OK.

    (to Jason)

    You needed this right? You can’t be sleeping at night in a bed with two huge people, worrying about being crushed the whole time if they roll over or something. You need some space to dream, right?

    Romina turns and looks down the stairs, SEES Kofi coming up. She resigns herself to be a spectator.

    You cannot have any character in your story expect their life to be screwed up (her words) and not take any action at all. You especially cannot have that happen because she’s a she and the man-folk are gonna sort things out like men. And then go chop some wood, like men do.

    Then let’s look at how the drama unfolds:


    I want you take all this stuff out of here. All this…

    Kofi, anger building, stands.


    Take it away.

    Kofi reaches down to grab the frame of the crib that Luke is working on and, in an instant, Luke grabs a wrench, springs forward and cracks Kofi’s forehead open with it.

    Kofi is knocked out. He crashes to the floor, hitting the back of his head. Concussion. Romina shoves past Luke to get to Kofi on the ground. Luke watches Romina cradle Kofi’s head. Malena appears in the doorway.


    Mama call an ambulance.

    Malena runs out, dials 911. Luke just stands there, invisible to Romina. She is now unattainable to him.

    Let those last words sink into you. “She is unattainable to him.” Even in the moment where she makes her decision about Luke, those five words manage to deprive her of all agency and relegate her to the status of object. A thing which, up until now, Luke could have reached out and grabbed whenever he wanted.

    In fact it takes 85 pages for us to get to a point in the Place Beyond the Pines script where Romina (or any other female character for that matter) shows any desire to control her own destiny. When it looks like her son is drifting away from her, she asserts herself:


    No call? No nothing? You were afraid we’d be angry?


    Well guess what. We’re angry.




    You need to start acting like you’re a part of this family. Not just some guy who lives in the same house. Okay?



    Say “okay.”



    Jason puts his head down.


    I will not watch this happen.

    She leaves his room, slamming his door shut.

    Once again, let’s jump over to the other story arc and see if there’s any improvement in matters. Here’s Avery telling his wife who she has his permission to talk to:


    Why are you making me feel like I’m doing something wrong? I’m a cop. And I don’t know why I have to apologize for that.


    We are just worried about you…


    Who’s “we?”


    I talked to your dad today…


    There it is. Now I get it. Jesus Christ.


    … and he agrees with me.


    Of course he does. Of course he does.


    We’re all just worried about you.


    Is that what it is? You two are worried about me? Or maybe you’re just worried about yourselves. Maybe you’re just wishing you had a lawyer’s salary now?


    Oh come on…


    No you come on. You go and talk to my fucking dad about my life? What do you expect him to say? Huh? What did you think he was gonna say? And why do you think that it’s OK for you to go and talk to him?


    I’m sorry Avery, I wasn’t…

    Now you could argue of the above excerpt that one character’s views don’t imply any kind of bias on the part of the writer. I totally agree that writers don’t have to hold the same beliefs as their characters. But when there are so many more examples of this bias which aren’t the behaviors or opinions of a character, it becomes much less likely that this is just Avery.

    If we can’t expect much from the main female characters, I suppose it would be foolish to get our hopes up about the minor characters. But this interaction towards the end of the Place Beyond the Pines script still left a bitter taste:

    He goes and sits down on a couch. Watches ASHLEY, a girl with an endless mid-riff, dance before him: so beautiful, so sensual. Jason falls into the spell of everything.

    The girl beckons him up off the couch. He gets up. She keeps dancing so good. She giggles at him. He’s cute to her. She moves closer.

    The room is slowing down around him and her hips and pierced navel swallow his focus. She pulls him towards her and their bodies grind together. A.J. checks them out from across the crowded room.

    A.J.’s friend approaches and starts grinding her from behind. Her movements have changed. She seems to be enjoying the crude grindings of this other guy. Jason can’t get her back. It disgusts him. His moment is being torn from him. Jason lets go and moves away. Leaving his girl in an animal embrace.

    First off, she’s not annoyed by this other guy suddenly getting all hands on with her? After all, it’s not like she’s shown him any attention at all. It’s another example of how, in this world, the men do what they want and the women just go along with it. But ok, this is a drug-fuelled high school crowd, affections are fickle, so I’ll let that slide. Just.

    Second, there’s again this question of objectification or possession in how Jason thinks of her as “his girl”. Now, I don’t think this kind of language is always a problem. For example, a couple can talk about “our song” in the sense of the song having a special meaning to them. This doesn’t imply that they feel any sense of ownership over it. Equally, here it could mean that Ashley has a special meaning to Jason, but given that all they’ve shared is a few minutes grinding at a house party, I struggle to buy that.

    In summation

    • If you expect your film to have an ensemble cast, be aware of how thin you’re spreading character development. Ask yourself whether any characters can be removed to make way for more development of others.
    • If you know you struggle to write rounded characters and scenes in which they’re motivated to act, at a minimum you should check that the tone of interactions matches up from one scene to the next.
    • Bias is a difficult thing to detect in yourself, be hyper-critical when writing characters who differ from you in gender, race, sexuality or religion and call in others to review your work.