All posts tagged scene description

  • 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:

    INT. MOM’S HOUSE – DAY

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

    Dialogue

    Mason prepares cereal.

    Dialogue

    Mason starts to walk away.

    Dialogue

    Mason walks over to the sink.

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

    INT. MOM’S HOUSE – DAY

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

    Dialogue

    Mason laughs.

    Dialogue

    Dad pans the phone to Annie and baby.

    Dialogue

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

    Dialogue

    She kisses his forehead.

    Dialogue

    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:

    INT. SOMEWHERE – SOMETIME

    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.

    INT. HOTEL CONFERENCE ROOM – NIGHT

    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.

    PRODUCER

    And it’s 3, 2, 1….

    INT. TANNER’S CAR – NIGHT

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

    GO

    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’.

    EXT. MINIGOLF COURSE – NIGHT

    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.

    AMY

    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:

    ANDIE (CONT’D)

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

    NICK

    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.

  • Locke script and two smoking barrels

    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

    As I mentioned in my post about Warrior, I’m a big fan of Tom Hardy’s work. So when I heard about Locke, a feature film that would focus solely on him driving and talking, I thought it stood a good chance of being pure genius. The movie didn’t disappoint, and it was a captivating watch from start to finish despite its narrow focus. So I had to pick up the Locke script to see how Steven Knight pulled this trick off.

    Seeing a script for what it is

    Something funny happened after I finished reading the Locke script. I had a moment of realization that turned my perspective on its head. To explain the change, let me first show you something.

    When I read scripts for this site I take notes and, amongst other things, categorize my notes by sentiment into ‘Positive’, ‘Neutral’ and ‘Negative’. Here’s a chart of what that looks like for a script that I had some real problems with:

    Locke image 1

    Here’s a script that I am an unabashed fan of:

    Locke image 2

    Now, here’s the same chart for the Locke script:

    Locke image 3

    At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking I am going to tell you the Locke script is terrible. But, like I said, upon further reflection, I had a change of heart.

    You see, I read the Locke script like any other screenplay – a written description of a movie that played in the writer’s (Steven Knight) head. But that’s not what it is. It’s actually director Steven Knight’s personal production notes, which just so happens to be printed in 12 point courier.

    By far the biggest portion of negative notes I took on the Locke script were to do with facts not being in evidence. This covers all cases where something is included in the script, usually in the scene description, which cannot be recorded on film. A couple of examples from the Locke script:

    Ivan is now confronting the crisis in his head. On the site he was in a familiar place but now he is on a journey and must necessarily begin to consider the destination and the place he is leaving.

    And:

    IVAN LOCKE

    I have no choice.

    DONAL (OOV)

    Is it a bereavement?

    Ivan never lies. Silence. A long pause.

    Side note: OOV is used here instead of OS, this belies Knight’s time in the UK filmmaking industry. It seems that writers in the UK are switching to OS to denote a character speaking off-screen, so just use that.

    I touched on this point in my post about Warrior, it’s what I like to call the writer/director prerogative. It’s the freedom to include reminders on how to direct a scene in the script. In that same post I left a cautionary note, saying that as writers we shouldn’t do too much of it. If you want to know how much is too much, pick up a copy of the Locke script. This is my favorite example:

    IVAN LOCKE

    Donal, are you drinking something? What are you drinking?

    DONAL (OOV)

    Bottle of fizzy pop.

    Ivan reacts inside.

    Not only are we not told what Locke’s reaction is (something Knight does a lot in this script), we’re also told explicitly that it can’t be seen – it’s internal.

    One day you might be in a position to demand the right to direct your own work. A position where your name carries such weight that the fact you’ve written anything is more important than its quality. But as you are reading this blog, I’m guessing today is not that day. Until it comes along, please don’t follow Steven Knight’s example of directing on the page.

    My change of heart was to realize that the Locke script isn’t bad, it’s simply written by someone who plays by a different set of rules to you and me.

    Chewing your actors’ food for them

    This point is actually part of the writer/director prerogative, but it’s not something I’ve mentioned in previous posts so I want to separate it out here.

    We rely on the craft of numerous individuals when it comes time to transfer our vision from paper to celluloid (or bits and bytes, these days). That craft isn’t all behind the camera, it’s important to remember the actors’ contribution too. When you’re responsible for what those actors must say, as we are, it’s easy to also start writing how it should be said. But doing that too much is a mistake, I believe.

    Typically you see this in the form of emphasis in dialogue lines. This is an example from the Locke script which I think is too heavy-handed with emphasis:

    IVAN LOCKE (CONT’D)

    You listen to me you fucking piece of worthless shit. I want you to watch…

    A pause. His face harder and harder…

    IVAN LOCKE (CONT’D)

    In fact I’d like to take a fucking shovel and dig you up out of the fucking ground and make you watch me tonight.

    He stares into the mirror.

    IVAN LOCKE (CONT’D)

    I’d pull open your eyes and kick the mud and worms and shit out your ears. Just for the duration of this fucking journey. Because it’s me driving not you.

    I think this is a bad habit for us, as writers, to get into for a few reasons. One, if the dialogue line (and its role in the context of the script) is clear, any actor worth their salt is going to know where the emphasis goes. Two, actors and directors can (between them) come up with readings that can surprise us in positive ways and they should be allowed to do so. Three, it’s disrespectful to the craft of acting; we don’t tell a DP where all the lights go in a scene and we should give actors their dues too.

    By all means, use emphasis if a non-natural reading is required (though a parenthetical could be called for if your character is saying one thing but means another) or to highlight a line that a reader might otherwise skim over. Just beware that, like so many things, emphasis is subject to diminishing returns.

    A character in a box

    I try and steer clear of talking too much about the structure of stories on this site. I don’t think I can teach anyone what makes a good story, or what makes a story good. But there’s something I want to point out about the group of stories that Locke falls into. It’s the group of character-in-a-box stories that Gravity falls into, even though the box is pretty damn big in the latter case.

    The medium of film is one of pictures and words and doesn’t lend itself well to portraying the machinations of the human mind as well as, say, a novel does. In a lot of cases, filmmakers who create a story like this end up having to contrive some kind of communication quirk that allows the protagonist to air their inner demons.

    In Gravity it was a series of things (talking to Houston in case someone was listening, followed by the ham radio operator, finished with Bullock’s character simply talking to herself). In Locke it was the specter of Ivan Locke’s (Hardy) father on the backseat of his BMW.

    I wouldn’t dream of saying “Don’t write stories like this,” but I do have one request. These contrivances seem almost unavoidable, so please do everyone a favor and make sure that yours is at least in line with something your character would do.

    Much is made, in the Locke script, of Ivan’s practicality and levelheadedness. So much so, that when he confesses infidelity to his wife, he almost immediately follows it up with:

    IVAN LOCKE

    Katrina…

    KATRINA (OOV)

    That didn’t happen. I’m not believing it…

    IVAN LOCKE

    Katrina, I want to move to a practical next step…

    KATRINA (OOV)

    I’m here in the dark in our bedroom and nothing looks the same…

    A man like this talking to his dead father in the rear view mirror as he drives along is quite incongruous. Was there no better way to handle this exposition? One example might have been to have his wife press him for more details on his decision to go to Bethan. It might’ve detracted from the realism of their interactions, but on the whole I think it would’ve still been the more credible of the two options.

    In summation

    Established writers (especially ones who direct their own work) play by a different set of rules than those of us starting out. We can still learn from their scripts, but there’s a lot we shouldn’t seek to emulate. Actors are crafts-men and women who deserve our respect just as much as anyone else on the crew so we should take care when telling them how to do their job on the page. If you’re writing a character-in-a-box story and have contrived some way for your character to speak their mind, make sure it fits in with their personality.

  • 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.

    MARY LEE (CONT’D)

    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:

    BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

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

    NECKBONE

    Shit.

    ELLIS

    We gotta go. I can’t be late.

    EXT. BASE OF BOAT TREE – MOMENTS LATER

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

    EXT. ISLAND WOODS

    REEK – MOMENTS LATER

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

    EXT. ISLAND SHORE – MOMENTS LATER

    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:

    ELLIS

    When they show up, you’ll leave?

    Mud begins fishing again.

    MUD

    Yeah.

    ELLIS

    And when you leave, that boat’s ours?

    MUD

    Yeah.

    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:

    EXT. ELLIS’ HOUSEBOAT – CONTINUOUS

    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:

    ELLIS

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

    MOTEL CLERK

    I’ve seen her.

    ELLIS

    You see her today.

    MOTEL CLERK

    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.

    MOTEL CLERK (CONT’D)

    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.

  • More uppers than downers in the Requiem for a Dream 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

    This is another one of my favorite films for its sheer emotional impact. Especially in the early part of his career, Aronofsky was one of the most unapologetic film makers around. His films put audiences through an emotional wringer and I wanted to look for traces of that crushing pressure in the Requiem for a Dream script.

    Not all scene description is made equal

    The scene description or action parts of a script are one of the defining characteristics of screenwriting. They are words which we as writers spend a great amount of time on, only to watch them be subsumed into camera angles, blocking, set design, score and all other aspects of the final film.

    The dialogue is usually what critics focus on when evaluating the quality of a script, but there’s a lot of quality to be found in scene description. I, myself, have focused in on the action in a number of previous posts. In Zero Dark Thirty I looked at hiding character in description. In Warrior I highlighted questions around unshootable action and the writer/director prerogative. In Gravity I picked out instances of suiting the prose to the situation.

    So even if the scene description is intended to ‘disappear’, it deserves attention and there are good and… less good ways of writing it.

    The Requiem for a Dream script contains some stellar scene description, and other examples that I was less enthused by. The first example I made a note of was a short action sequence as Harry (Leto) and Marion (Connelly) escape from the Seacoast Tower.

    Harry, who’s already inside, looks at his girl’s mischievous eyes.

    HARRY

    Marion!

    Harry gets it. He smiles. Then, Marion yanks the wire.

    ALARMS SCREAM!!!

    Harry and Marion bolt to the -

    TOP FLOOR

    - where both elevators charge the top floor.

    MARION

    They’re coming.

    Harry grabs Marion’s hand and pulls her down the hallway.

    Dead end.

    Harry and Marion squeeze against the doorway — fighting the urge to crack-up. Then:

    PING! — the elevator. A Security Guard charges out.

    Harry and Marion hold their breath. The Guard heads straight for the staircase.

    Then our criminals charge –

    THE ELEVATOR

    – and in black-and-white video make out all the way down.

    THEN:

    EXT. SEACOAST TOWER – DAY

    Harry and Marion burst out of the front door laughing, alarms ringing behind them.

    This is a great example of keeping pace in the action, you can see how even the cuts and sluglines are woven in to keep up the momentum. This is not an action based story, so to come across this excellently written sequence in the Requiem for a Dream script was a pleasant surprise.

    In general, though, Aronofsky’s description is probably best described as economical. Even sparse at times. Sometimes I really liked the irreverent way that worked to communicate his thinking, such as:

    INT. MARION’S APARTMENT – DAY

    (Post-sex) + (pre-sleep) = (intimate talk)

    HARRY

    You know something? I’ve always thought you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

    MARION

    Really?

    I also liked when he didn’t feel the need to include any description of the scene/shot at all:

    Then, we look into her face as she screams. Air bubbles shoot to the surface.

    CUT TO:

    EXT. I-95 – MAYBE GEORGIA

    CUT TO:

    INT. PONTIAC VENTURA

    Tyrone still drives.

    But at times his brevity was also jarring, like when Tyrone (Wayans) gets lucky:

    INT. TYRONE’S NEW PAD

    Alice and Tyrone make some crazy love. Arms flail, teeth bite, mouths scream. Some crazy love.

    CUT TO:

    For reasons I won’t go into here, you could make a very good argument for saying that this impersonal way of portraying (or thinking of) sex is in keeping with Tyrone’s character. If Aronofsky intended for that to be the case then he could’ve hung a lantern on how this was just another ‘fix’ for Tyrone and I would’ve kept right on reading. The only thing that gave me pause was doubting whether Aronofsky meant for the act to come across as impersonal, maybe even perfunctory.

     

    Creating character voice on the page

    So the Requiem for a Dream script contains some great learnings for scene description, what about the dialogue? As I mentioned, dialogue is one of the things that gets picked apart a lot. One of the biggest criticisms of starting screenwriters is that their characters tend to sound the same.

    If you want to see an example of how to avoid that trap, pick up a copy of the Requiem for a Dream script. Aronofsky is crystal clear about his characters’ voices from page one:

    He tries to stop his mother, Sara Goldfarb, from locking herself in the closet.

    HARRY

    Ma! Ma! C’mon, Ma!

    SARA

    Harold. Please. Not again the TV.

    She slams the door closed and Harry talks to the shut door.

    HARRY

    Why do you haveta make such a big deal out of this? Eh? You know you’ll have the set back in a couple of hours.

    Even when there is a significant overlap in two character’s voices, the differences still shine through to make each voice distinctive. For example, Harry Goldfarb’s voice belies his Brooklyn Jewish background, but is still distinctive from his mother Sara’s (Burstyn):

    HARRY

    I don’t know why I do those things. I don’t really want to do them. It just sort’ve happens, I guess. I don’t know. It’s all kinda goofy somehow, but I really do love ya, Ma, and I want you to be happy so I got ya a brand new TV set. It’s gonna be delivered in a couple a days. From Macy’s.

    Sara squeals, but Harry wards her off with his hands. She sits down, grins and grinds her teeth.

    SARA

    Oh, Harry, you’re such a good boy. Your father would be so happy to see what you’re doing for your poor, lonely mother.

    Harry leans over and gives her an honest, open and perfectly beautiful kiss.

    SARA

    You see that, Seymour? You see how good your son is? He knows how lonely his mother is living all alone, no one to make her a visit…

    Harry’s background shapes part of his voice in the Requiem for a Dream script, but his drug-riddled present also has an obvious impact. You would expect there to be some overlap between him and his partner in intoxication – Tyrone. There is some overlap, but Tyrone’s voice is very different to Harry’s and at times, I felt, wandered past distinction and into parody:

    TYRONE

    Ahm glad ah doan’t have no one laying that kind of heavy motha shit on me, Jim. You honkies are too much with that guilt shit.

    Honestly, though, you’re better off going too far in creating voices for your characters because it’s easy for an actor and director to dial it back in production. But a script full of characters that all sound the same isn’t even going to make it into production, so don’t hold back.

    Also, don’t forget that the responsibility of capturing the vernacular of a region or sub-culture rests on you, the writer. An actor can learn how words are pronounced in their character’s home town, but you have to make sure those words would be used there in the first place. For example, would your most recent protagonist call a carbonated beverage soda or pop?

    Capital punishment

    Something else I picked up on while reading through the Requiem for a Dream script was the relative lack of capital letters. It first struck me as a negative thing, because Aronofsky doesn’t even use capitals to introduce new characters:

    EXT. SARA’S APARTMENT – HALLWAY – CONTINUOUS

    Waiting for Harry is Tyrone C. Love, young twenties, leaning against the wall, playing skillfully with a yo-yo.

    There’s a lot of disagreement about many conventions of screenwriting, but the practice of introducing characters with capitals seems to be one thing that everyone agrees on. Well, everyone but Darren Aronofsky if this script is anything to go by.

    The point of the practice, as I see it, is to set readers’ minds at ease. Let them know that they don’t need to try and recall who the character is and how they relate. It has a genuine use, which is why I was disappointed to not see it used in the Requiem for a Dream script. But after a while, the shortage of caps started to grow on me.

    Look back at the first excerpt I included, where Harry and Marion escape the tower. Other than the sound effects (which some writers capitalize at all times as a production aid) there is very little in the way of emphasis through capitals. Pervasive use of capitals starts to annoy me fairly quickly in scripts, so I was happy to see them used sparingly in the scene description. When they’re overused it starts to feel like you’re reading a comic book and every punch should land with a KA-POW!!!

    Cut back to reality

    I’m going to touch on this one really quickly. At one point in the story we follow Harry into a daydream which ends with a snap back to reality. This is not an uncommon device to use in story-telling, and I really liked the way it was handled in the Requiem for a Dream script:

    The Cop chases Tyrone.

    Harry and Tyrone laugh as they toss the gun back and forth just over the frustrated Cop’s head.

    The Cop slips and falls on his ass and we -

    CUT BACK TO:

    REALITY. FIVE MINUTES EARLIER -

    WAITRESS

    Anything else? Huh?

    Tyrone butts Harry. Harry looks up at the Waitress who stares at him. The towering Cop looks over as well.

    The master scene format

    The Requiem for a Dream script does something else which I really like, but which I don’t see used all that much – the master scene format. The idea is simple, you establish a master location for a sequence of scenes and use abbreviated sluglines as you move around the location. In Requiem for a Dream, it looks like this:

    INT. ARNOLD THE SHRINK’S MANHATTAN CRASH PAD – HALLWAY

    At the front door Arnold, wrapped in a sheet, hands Marion some money. She leaves and he quickly locks the door. Down the hallway and into –

    THE ELEVATOR

    – as anger, disgust and who knows what else billow up inside her. Her eyes begin to tear. Then –

    ON THE STREET

    – she leans against the building and vomits.

    In my own writing I use the format described here – INT. APARTMENT/LIVING ROOM – DAY followed by INT. BEDROOM. I don’t think there’s One Right Way to do it, but I think this method makes it clear what you’re doing.

    The benefit of the master scene format, as I see it, is it just gets sluglines a bit further out of the way. After a while your eyes start to gloss over them anyway, but I’m a fan of anything that reduces their footprint, even if it’s only a little.

    Done on the page isn’t done

    So what about the point I raised in my motivation to read this script? Did I feel as emotionally drained from the experience of reading it as I did from watching the film? In short – no. I mean the electric spark of that emotional wringer is there, but paper doesn’t conduct it as well as celluloid. You could take that as damning evidence against the Requiem for a Dream script, but I saw something else in it.

    It’s no secret that writers are often walking baskets of insecurity, tenuously held together with caffeine and misdirection of self. Even if we weren’t, when you spend as much time on any one piece of work as we typically spend on a script, you tend to get too close to see its impact. This can lead to despair when a script is finished and you just can’t tell if it’s any good.

    So the lesson I want to take away from the Requiem for a Dream script is to have a little more faith in the words on the page. Just because it’s Done on the page, doesn’t mean the experience of watching the film is going to be there too. There’s a long journey still ahead and if it results in a movie with as much impact as Requiem for a Dream, then you did a helluva job.

    In summation

    Even if your scene description is intended to disappear into the finished product, it deserves just as much love as your dialogue. Your characters’ individual voices should be established clearly and early and it’s your responsibility to make sure that regional or sub-cultural dialects are captured in your word choice. Do use capital letters to introduce characters, but maintain their value by using them sparingly for emphasis. There are creative ways to use cuts and sluglines to jump out of a daydream. The master scene format is a great aid in condensing sluglines. If your words on the page don’t give you a thrill of emotion, take heart – they could still end up becoming a film like Requiem for a Dream.