Have you seen PARASITE? Soooooo well directed. If you’re interested in directing, spend a fruitful week carefully analyzing Bong Joon Ho’s camera placement and staging of camera and actors. His blocking is second to none. Effortless. Invisible. Seemingly simple. It’s not.
However, this blog’s not about directing, but about writers’ problems. One I see over and over is writers wasting time getting their story going. Set up. Dithering. Set up. Explaining. No conflict. Set up. No clear desire from the hero. No hero’s overwhelming desire.
In PARASITE, the story starts right away. I mean, instantly. Zero time wasted. No explaino. Problems, problems, problems. Big ones! And we’re hooked. Were it a script, we’d turn the page. Which is your goal.
The story opens with a view of a city street through the narrow window of a grotty below-ground-level apartment. BOOM DOWN to reveal a boy on his phone, texting. 20 seconds into that shot, the Wi-Fi goes out. First line of dialogue: “We’re screwed.” That piques your interest. A character with a problem. “No more free Wi-Fi.”
A big problem, because they’re poor. Important information delivered to the audience! “The lady upstairs put a password on ‘iptime’.” Problem gets worse. There’s no character set up. There’s no explanation about who these people are. A two hour and ten minute movie and the story starts, with a bang, halfway down page one.
Then their problem gets even worse.
The mother is worried because they don’t have WhatsApp. This is not an idle line of dialogue. It’s story. While the boy and his sister are dashing around figuring out how to get Internet, we learn their phones were shut off. Wife asks Husband what his plan is to deal with this problem. Again, not a waste of dialogue because “having a plan” is a theme for the whole story. Melancholy, he eats a piece of bread and finds a stinkbug.
They’re poor! They need Wi-Fi! Their home is infested with nasty insects!
Just below the ceiling in a grim overcrowded bathroom that feels worse than any bathroom I’ve ever imagined, Brother and Sister locate Wi-Fi. Mom asks them to check WhatsApp. “Pizza Generation said they would contact me.” She’s only talking about problems. Son checks his phone, “Here it is. Pizza Generation.”
The family folds pizza boxes. As fast as they can. Son shows up with a video of a master pizza box folder. They pay close attention. If they go as fast as she can, they can finish today and get paid. So, they need WhatsApp and Wi-Fi to make money! All they have to eat is old bread. It’s awful. We’re less than two minutes in.
Up on the street, a fumigation man blows white fog everywhere. They leave the windows open because that will get rid of the stinkbugs. They’re clever at problem solving and we’re reminded they’re broke! As with all good writing, it gets worse. Clouds of pesticide roll into their living area, making them cough and choke. Despite near zero visibility, Father watches the video and, lost in the swirling fog, folds pizza boxes as fast as he can.
Lots of story! We’re less than three minutes in. That’s three pages! Remember, it’s a two hour movie. Look at your first three pages. Have you moved your characters this far down the road?
A nasty young woman from Pizza Generation snidely tells them they messed up and are getting their pay cut by 10%. Conflict! A quarter of their boxes are done wrong. The family is heartsick and feels terrible. So do we. Conflict! “You know what one shitty box can do to our brand image?!”
The stakes are as high as can possibly be imagined! Are you exhausted from reading about this family’s worse-and-worse problems? I am! Good writing!
I teach a class where students write a five page script that they will direct the next semester. Five pages. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. That’s not a lot of pages. End of Act I is bottom of page 1. Mid-point is middle of page 3. End of Act II is bottom of page 4. Page 5 is final conflict and resolution. That’s it! Simple.
You’d be astounded how many times their stories don’t start until the middle of page 3. For two and a half pages, nothing happens! Half their movie. People have conflict-free dialogue. They walk around. They look at things. We see stuff in their apartment. No conflict. No problems. No prayer of our connecting with a character who desperately wants something more than anything in the world.
Mere words on a page do not constitute story. You have to hook our emotional wagon to the main character as fast as possible. Pour on problems and striving and more problems and bigger ones and give them to us soon!
I keep learning the same things over and over. This writing, it’s difficult. I figure, if I make the same mistakes constantly, and I’m a reasonably decent writer, then EVERYbody is making the same mistakes. It’s fine to make mistakes as long as you eventually fix them. That’s what multiple drafts are all about.
I find my college students and to a lesser extent, clients, have to be taught that their first draft is not perfect. Takes a lot of hot pokers, electroshock, and thumb screws to get them to pay attention. Some never do. The ones that get it, are thrilled to have been shown a tiny secret door to an unseen section of the universe.
So, a writerly thought for the dewy fresh new year…
I’m working on a novel. I’m going to give you some examples of words that repeat. What do I mean by repeat? It’s not obvious like, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it.” That scene, by the way, is a superb use of repetition to great effect. They KNEW they were doing it. While I write, I repeat stuff without noticing. Then I go back and yank it out by the roots.
Eliminate the obvious. You’ll cut the fluff in the editing room. Why shoot it?
If you say it twice, keep the better of the two. Shorter has more punch.
The novel’s a kids’ book about baseball…
“Toby. You been stalling me. You got the dough? You gonna play in the Tri-State Series a Champions or not?”
“Toby. You been stalling me. So, now’s the time. You got the dough? You gonna play in the Tri-State Series a Champions or not?”
Richard said, “Where are you? If Mrs. Dooling finds you, you’re going to be in mega trouble. By the way, where’re you hiding?”
Richard said, “Where are you? You’re not supposed to be here. If Mrs. Dooling finds you, you’re going to be in mega trouble. By the way, where’re you hiding?”
So I stopped. Dead still, six feet from the plate.
So I stopped. Dead still, six feet from the plate. I didn’t move.
DeAngelo said, “Speaking of jelly doughnuts, and we were, confection, like in cake or ice cream or pastry or sugar.” Kid had a sweet tooth big as the Polo Grounds.
DeAngelo said, “Speaking of jelly doughnuts, and we were, confection, like in cake or ice cream or pastry or sugar.” DeAngelo could always be counted on to want to be eating something sweet. Kid had a sweet tooth big as the Polo Grounds.
As my grandma’d say, if she was above dirt, “They jumped around like a bunch a wild Injuns.” Well, except for Larry Dooling, the crabby crybaby. He had the long face on.
As my grandma’d say, if she was above dirt, “They jumped around like a bunch a wild Injuns.” I never saw so much hooping and hollering in all a my born days. Well, except for Larry Dooling, the crabby crybaby. He had the long face on.
I said, “Hi.” Gee whiz. I’d had plenty a time to think something up. That’s the best I could get?
I said, “Hi.” There’s a killer opening for a conversation. Gee whiz. I’d had plenty a time to think something up. That’s the best I could get?
“You the village idiot?! That’s two strikes in a row! Don’t you know, three strikes and you’re out?!”
“What’s the matter with you, you the village idiot?! That’s two strikes in a row! Don’t you know, three strikes and you’re out?!”
Time kinda stood still.
Time kinda stood still for a long while.
“If we quit, are we playing baseball?! You gotta do what the coach tells you. Even if the coach’s crazy. We’re here to play baseball. We’re not here to yell at each other or scream and run around like a bunch of nine-year-olds.”
“If we quit, are we playing baseball?! We’re here to play baseball! You gotta do what the coach tells you. Even if the coach’s crazy. We’re here to play baseball. We’re not here to yell at each other or scream and run around like a bunch of nine-year-olds.”
Dad and I goofed around until finally it got dark. Dark. I was out after dark! My dad was there, so I knew zombies wouldn’t get me. I said, “shouldn’t we go back? Granny Fireball’s going to kill us.”
Dad and I goofed around, playing catch, hitting balls, yakking about nothing, and finally it got dark. Dark. I was out after dark! My dad was there, so I knew zombies wouldn’t get me. We kept throwing cause there was still a tiny bit of light. I said, “shouldn’t we go back? Granny Fireball’s going to kill us.”
“You want me to play everbody?”
“Let me get this straight. You want me to play everbody?”
Here’s the scene from 2001.
I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.
Yes, I’d like to hear it, Hal. Sing it for me.
It’s called “Daisy.”
[sings while slowing down]
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.
If someone says, “What are you doing?”… in your writing… beware. Unless they are a blind person, they are going to know what the other person is doing. It’s amazing how often that line can just be cut.
Are you hammering nails into the coffee table?
Trust me, she’d know.
Also, a tip that you may want to cut some dialogue is “what?”.
Oven’s ready. Gran gets here in an hour.
I don’t wanna bake these cookies.
I’m not feeling it. We’re outta coconut.
Are you outta your goddamned mind? She pays your tuition!
Could be shorter. Could be better.
Oven’s ready. Gran gets here in an hour.
I’m not feeling it. We’re outta coconut.
Are you outta your goddamned mind? She pays your tuition!
Do your research. Get your dialogue right! When it’s right, no one notices because it’s so smooth and accurate. When it’s wrong, you go to hell.
The film was made in 1964. The musical, 1957. The story takes place in 1912. The dialogue is incredibly specific.
“Trouble in River City”
Great scene. You can learn a lot about story structure from this scene! Look how the action builds!
Here’s a guy with a burning desire, for money (as well as the local librarian). He wants to stay in town to court the librarian and, to do that, because he sells band instruments, he must create a need in the townspeople to have a boy’s band. Does the town need a boy’s band? No town needs a boy’s band.
Well, either you are closing your eyes
To a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of a pool table in your community.
Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.
Why sure I’m a billiard player,
Certainly mighty proud I say
I’m always mighty proud to say it.
I consider that the hours I spend
With a cue in my hand are golden.
Help you cultivate horse sense
And a cool head and a keen eye.
Did you ever take and try to give
An iron-clad leave to yourself
From a three-rail billiard shot?
But just as I say,
It takes judgement, brains, and maturity to score
In a balkline game,
I say that any boob can take
And shove a ball in a pocket.
And I call that sloth.
The first big step on the road
To the depths of deg-ra-Day–
I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon,
Then beer from a bottle.
And the next thing ya know,
Your son is playin’ for money
In a pinch-back suit.
And listening to some big out-a-town Jasper
Hearin’ him tell about horse-race gamblin’.
Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no!
But a race where they set down right on the horse!
Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy
Sittin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil?
Well, I should say.
Now, friends, lemme tell you what I mean.
Ya got one, two, three, four, five, six pockets in a table.
Pockets that mark the difference
Between a gentlemen and a bum,
With a capital “B,”
And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
And all week long your River City
Youth’ll be fritterin’ away,
I say your young men’ll be fritterin’!
Fritterin’ away their noontime, suppertime, chore time too!
Get the ball in the pocket,
Never mind gettin’ Dandelions pulled
Or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded.
Never mind pumpin’ any water
‘Till your parents are caught with the cistern empty
On a Saturday night and that’s trouble,
Oh, yes we got lots and lots a’ trouble.
I’m thinkin’ of the kids in the knickerbockers,
Shirt-tail young ones, peekin’ in the pool
Hall window after school
You got trouble, folks!
Right here in River City.
Trouble with a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda parents.
I’m gonna be perfectly frank.
Would ya like to know what kinda conversation goes
On while they’re loafin’ around that hall?
They’re tryin’ out Bevo, tryin’ out cubebs,
Tryin’ out Tailor Mades like Cigarette Fiends!
And braggin’ all about
How they’re gonna cover up a tell-tale breath with Sen-Sen.
One fine night, they leave the pool hall,
Headin’ for the dance at the Armory!
Libertine men and Scarlet women!
And Ragtime, shameless music
That’ll grab your son and your daughter
With the arms of a jungle animal instinct!
Friends, the idle brain is the devil’s playground!
Trouble, oh we got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital “T”
That rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool,
That stands for pool.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City,
Gotta figure out a way
To keep the young ones moral after school!
Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble…
Mothers of River City!
Heed that warning before it’s too late!
Watch for the tell-tale signs of corruption!
The minute your son leaves the house,
Does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee?
Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger?
A dime novel hidden in the corn crib?
Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang?
Are certain words creeping into his conversation?
Words like “swell?”
And “so’s your old man?”
Well, if so my friends,
Ya got trouble,
Right here in River city!
With a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City!
Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock and the Golden Rule!
Oh, we’ve got trouble.
We’re in terrible, terrible trouble.
That game with the fifteen numbered balls is the devil’s tool!
Oh yes we got trouble, trouble, trouble!
With a “T”! That rhymes with “P”!
And that stands for Pool!!!
And here’s the meaning of the specific dialogue that the writer got right.
rig — slang for any carriage or coach
tank town — A small town. So called because trains would stop there only to replenish water.
grip — A suitcase or valise.
Billiards — Also known as caroom (or carom) billiards, played with three balls (one cue ball and two object balls) on a pocketless table
Pool — Developed much later than billiards. Also known as pocket billiards, using a cue ball and 15 object balls on a table with six pockets
iron clad leave to yourself from a three-rail billiard shot — leave is slang for a favorable position for a stroke in billiards (circa 1850). Three-rail billiard shot refers to the fact that in caroom (or carom) billiards, the cue ball must contact at least 3 cushions before it hits the second object ball in order to score any points. This sentence seems to imply that the player has, through excellent strategy and difficult maneuvers, put the balls in such a position as to give him an excellent shot at making points.
balkline — A line parallel to one end of a billiard table, from behind which opening shots with the cue ball are made.
pinch-back suit — from pinchbeck – serving as an imitation or substitute; “pinchbeck heroism” (noun): an alloy of copper and zinc that is used in cheap jewelry to imitate gold. Made of pinchbeck; sham; cheap; spurious; unreal.
Jasper — any male fellow or chum, usually a stranger
Trotting race — A horse that trots, especially one trained for harness racing. Very genteel pastime.
Horse race — With a jockey on the horses back, running much quicker than the trotting race.
Dan Patch — (1897-1916) Most famous trotting horse ever, from Indiana. Dan Patch was a pacer, under his second owner he lost only five heats in 56 starts. Dan Patch had his own private railway car to travel in, and at home he lived in a huge barn that was so grand it was called the “Taj Mahal.” There is still a trotting competition named for him, and an historical railroad line because “Dan Patch was a famous race horse a hundred years ago, and the railroad was named after him because its tracks between Minneapolis and Northfield passed very close to his owner’s farm.” There seem to be whole districts in Indiana still named after this horse, and there was a movie called The Great Dan Patch (1949)
Frittering away their time — To reduce or squander little by little; frittered his inheritance away. To waste.
cistern — A receptacle for holding water or other liquid, especially a tank for catching and storing rainwater.
knickerbockers — Full breeches gathered and banded just below the knee (which is why moving them above the knee is such a shocking thing to do)
shirt-tail young ones — 1) Very young; shirttail kids. 2) Of little value; inadequate or small; a shirttail cabin in the woods
Bevo — From Anheuser-Busch. A non-alcoholic drink that tasted like beer. “Anheuser-Busch introduced Bevo, its new nonalcoholic beverage, in 1916 and elsewhere the flood of cereal beverages (near beer) were introduced during the 1917-18 period.”
Cubebs — the dried unripe berry of a tropical shrub (Piper cubeba) of the pepper family that is crushed and smoked in cigarettes for as a medicine for catarrh, an inflammation of the nose and throat with increased production of mucus. There were several cubeb cigarettes made–Marshall’s Prepared Cubeb
Cigarettes are perhaps the best known.
Tailor Mades — A tailor-made cigarette referred to any cigarette made in a factory on a cigarette making machine. A roll-your-own cigarette was made by the smoker from a sack of Bull Durham or the like. James Jones in From Here to Eternity mentioned tailor-mades being smoked by soldiers when they had money. Until 1883 cigarettes were handmade. In 1880 a 21 year old Virginian named James Bonsack invented a cigarette making machine that dramatically increased production. A skilled cigarette roller made 4 cigarettes a minute, whereas Mr. Bonsack’s machine turned out 200 a minute. These were called “tailor mades” to distinguish them from handmade cigarettes.
NOTE: This section talking about the boys down at the pool hall means they are trying to mimic adults, and look as if they are drinking beer and smoking tobacco, although they are drinking fake beer and smoking fake cigarettes.
Sen Sen — When a country swain went courting his rural sweetheart, he often carried in his pocket an unobtrusive little envelope of Sen-Sen. When his younger brother indulged in smoking behind the barn, he too, had use for the exotic little pellets. For Sen-Sen was to the 19th century what breath mints are to our time. Any country store worth its salt, prominently displayed a box of the handy little packets within easy reach of its customers.
Rag-time — A style of jazz characterized by elaborately syncopated rhythm in the melody and a steadily accented accompaniment.
corn crib — A structure for storing and drying ears of corn.
Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang — Started in 1919 (too late for Music Man, but I guess Wilson wasn’t worried about that!). From the book Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals, “Few periodicals reflect the post-World War I cultural change in American life as well as Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. To some people [it] represented the decline of morality and the flaunting of sexual immodesty; to others it signified an increase in openness. For much of the 1920’s, Captain Billy’s was the most prominent comic magazine in America with its mix of racy poetry and naughty jokes and puns, aimed at a small-town audience with pretensions of ‘sophistication’” This publication was to the male adolescent culture of the 1920s what Playboy was in the 1960s. Quit publishing sometime from 1932-36. This magazine created the foundation for Fawcett Publications, the publishing company that later created True Confessions and Mechanix Illustrated.
so’s your old man — catch phrase from 1900. An exclamation, used as a retort to an insult or slur.
The Maine — U.S. battleship sunk (Feb. 15, 1898) in Havana harbor, killing 260, in an incident that helped precipitate the Spanish-American War. The cause of the explosion was never satisfactorily explained, and separate American and Spanish inquiries produced different results. But the American jingoistic press blamed the Spanish government, and Remember the Maine became the rallying cry of the war.
Plymouth Rock — Plymouth, Massachusetts, is the oldest settlement in New England, founded in 1620. Plymouth Rock is on the beach where the Mayflower landed.
The Golden Rule — saying of Jesus, from the Bible — As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. Evolved into modern saying — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
One thing to look at, when you read the script — or at least, the first 20 pages — is how little dialogue there is. One person speaks, says A FEW WORDS and the next person speaks, also with A FEW WORDS. Far less than I have in MY first drafts. What about yours?
It’s interesting to see how few words they need to say. It passes you by when you watch on screen, but when you see it written down, it’s like: “Wow. There’s almost no dialogue there!”
And it works just fine.
In the theater, you sure don’t say, “My my, most of this dialogue is less than one line long. Isn’t that fascinating, dear?”
I’ve been a Tintin fan since I was 12, so they had pretty high standards to maintain. I enjoyed the heck out of it. It was different from the books, but there was plenty that was “Just like the books!” to keep me content. The story works. The characters are fine. Snowy doesn’t do any talking, but I didn’t even notice. I highly recommend it.
SHERLOCK HOLMES is a train wreck.
It’s a silly mess from the get-go. The plot never makes sense. The dialogue is too “witty and rapid paced” to mean anything. It’s just people yakking at each other for no real reason other than that the writer never quite got around to making it coherent. It seems that the filmmakers thought that if stuff happened fast enough with enough bon mots, that the poor viewer wouldn’t notice it all basically sucked.
I loved Mycroft. He seemed like he knew what movie he was in. Everyone else, with the exception of Mad Men’s Moriarty, was kinda lost and confused.
I came out of there thinking I’d watched a big mish mash of nothing. Nothing hung together. Nothing made sense. It is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
Yet, some of the people I went with, loved it.
I guess I need a better class of friends.
When I had my first screenwriting class, the teacher would lock the doors at class time. If you were late, you came back the next week. Lots of banging on the door that first class. After that, no one was late. I have been DYING to do that with my students, but the doors don’t have locks!
I still remember turning in my first set of pages. Naturally, he’d bled red ink all over them… much like a set of pages I give back to my students. He scratched through tons and tons of my dialogue… my fantastic dialogue that I’d labored over for so long. He said it was “naturalistic.” Like it was a disease.
I said, naively, “But isn’t that the way people talk?”
“Not in movies.”
And wow, was he right.
It’s hard to explain, though.
You want it to SOUND like people talk in real life (Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins being two of my favorites in the world of novels) but you want to to move on at an incredible clip. Leaving out anything that is not essential to yanking the plot forward…
You can’t shilly shally around with yakking back and forth like people do in real life, wasting pages and pages with talking like people really talk.
This is a bit complex, and requires a bit of study.
I do have an example that will make sense to everybody.
Everybody has seen a wedding in a movie. They ALL go something like this.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together to unite this man and this woman in holy matrimony.
David, do you solemnly swear to take Eloise to have and to hold from this day forward, for as long as you both shall live?
Eloise, do you solemnly swear to take David to have and to hold from this day forward, for as long as you both shall live?
If there is any person here who feels these two people should not be joined together, speak now or forever hold thy peace.
I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride.
And, in a movie, they’re married! Zip, zip, zip.
If you’ve ever been to a Catholic wedding with a full mass, you know it doesn’t go zip, zip, zip. John Paul I was Pope less time than some Catholic weddings.
A real wedding has lots and lots of stuff that I left out. Movie dialogue is shorthand for the real thing, but it gets the point across and helps move the story from A to B in the scene.
Just because real people take 45 minutes (or two hours) to get married, doesn’t mean your wedding scene has to last five pages.
Guess who this is?
You know just by the choice of words.
No one in the history of the universe talks like this person, and you can tell who it is just by reading their dialogue…
Just like every single character in your script!
“not real enthused about what it is that’s being done on a national level and from (Washington) in regards to understanding all the situation there in Egypt.”
“nobody yet has explained to the American public yet what they know, and surely they know more than the rest of us … who will be taking the place of (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak.”
“In these areas that are so volatile right now because obviously it’s not just Egypt but the other countries too where we are seeing uprisings, we know that now more than ever, we need strength and sound mind there in the White House,”
“We want to be able to trust those who are screaming for democracy there in Egypt, that there is a true sincere desire for freedoms. And the challenge that we have, though, is how do we verify that what we are told, what it is that the American public are being fed via media, via protesters, via the government there in Egypt in order for us to have some sound information to make wise decisions on what our position is.”
“Any radical Islamists, no, that is not who we should be supporting or standing by. So we need to find out who was behind all the turmoil and the revolt and the protests so that good decisions can be made in terms of who we will stand by and support.”