Category Archives: Scenes

Action / Reaction… and the lack thereof.

Good thing I’m a teacher. Good thing I’m a script consultant. Good thing my clients make mistakes on which I can capitalize and earn money based on what I learn!

Here’s my most recent discovery. I make this mistake too. That’s one of the wonderful things about teaching… you automatically become a better writer. Good news! While your students drive you to the looney bin, at the same time, you can make money.

So, Action / Reaction. What the heck is that?

Well, dumbass, for one thing, it’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” “Yeah, so?” you say. “How does this apply to writing? Dude’s been dead, for like three hundred years. Were movies even invented then? Duuh.”

In story, something happens. That’s the Action. It causes something else to happen, the Reaction. What’s bad is if you have an Action with no Reaction. This is something to be wary of in your work.

Writers often have Actions in their stories without Reactions. Forget equal and opposite! What works in physics doesn’t always work in drama. In fiction, sometimes an Action has an opposite Reaction that is way, WAY unequal to the Action. Like in BREAKING BAD, when Walter White is about to have surgery and is under pre-anesthesia… kinda stoned, actually, and his wife asks him a simple little question… “Did you pack your cell phone?” He says, “Which one?” A tiny little answer. A tiny little Action. But hoo boy, does it have a Reaction! A giant one. The size of the Bikini atomic bomb test, if not Krakatoa. After all, that tiny Action, “Which one?” led to the cataclysmic Season Two finale.

But, because it was good writing, the Action had a Reaction. It doesn’t always happen in early drafts.

If you introduce a character on page 1 and she’s got a half finished tattoo across her back… well, that’s an Action. The reader takes note and waits for a Reaction. If you don’t have one, the reader / gate keeper / intern / agent / producer / studio head (if your Actions have no Reactions, forget that one) will make a little black mark by your name…

If you have a character who phones his elderly mother and gets no answer… that’s an Action. Any normal human being is going to go over there to check on her, or call a neighbor, or the cops or something. If the character does nothing, it’s going to be a bump for the reader. An Action with no Reaction.

If a character says, “Five years ago, I tried to kill myself.” that’s an Action. The reader is straining at the leash, asking, “Why did she try to kill herself?” If you don’t give that information, you deny the reader the promised Reaction.

The opposite is also true. You can make the mistake of having a Reaction with no Action to make it happen. If, late in a story, you have a character whose father moves into a nursing home, without the requisite argument, anger, conversations, agony, etc. to force the father out of his house… you have a Reaction with no Action that would force it to happen. An old guy doesn’t just move into a nursing home without a lot of blood on the walls. Don’t have a Reaction without an Action to force it into being. Remember Bikini?

The guys who were at the Able and Baker Atomic bomb tests were just over the horizon from the explosions. That’s an Action. A lot of them got cancer. At twice the normal rate. That’s a Reaction.

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CHINATOWN’s opening scenes… cutting fat…

t doesn’tBeen wanting to do this for a long time.

It’s difficult for beginning writers to understand the value of cutting, much less the value of cutting really good stuff they took the time and trouble to write. The more you see how a scene improves by slicing away fat, the happier you’ll be to pull out your flensing knife.

The first draft of CHINATOWN is different from the one you’ve probably read.

It opens on Hollis Mulwray, Chief Engineer for the Department of Water and Power, driving to the dried up L.A. River.  THAT’s different!  Conversely, the movie opens on a scene between Jake Gittes, the P.I. hero, and client, Curly.  It’s generally a good idea to attach our emotional wagon to the good guy right off the bat…

The movie is all about water, so opening on a dried river and Q & A with a Mexican boy about when the water comes make sense but it doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into the film.  Then Mulwray talks to a character we never meet in the movie, and after that we go to Gittes’ office and meet his associates, Walsh and Duffy.  Still haven’t laid eyes on the hero…!  They chit chat about the client in Jake’s office, a tuna boat skipper.  They’re telling us what, later, the film shows us.

At last, at the top of page 5, we meet our hero in the familiar what-is-now-the-opening scene, with the photos of Curly’s wife breaking her marriage vows while picnicking.

Curly says he wants to kill his wife, which Jake understands but he rants about “you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it.”  A powerful theme that echoes through the whole movie, only it gets cut.

Another interesting thing about CHINATOWN #1 is that the interview with the new client, Mrs. Mulwray, is between her and Walsh and Duffy, not with Jake like in the rewrite.  Give the good stuff to your hero or die trying!  In #1, Walsh and Duffy find out what Jake discovers in the rewrite, and in #1 we never see Jake in the room with her.

Check out how much time is taken up with Curly in #1, and how brief the scene actually is when you get to film.  27 sides of dialogue in #1 vs. 11 in the film!  The “you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it” dialogue is still there in the rewritten script, but not in the movie.

In the rewrite, when Jake says, “Now — what makes you certain that your husband is involved with someone?” she says, “A wife can tell.”  In the first draft she said, “A wife can tell.  I mean I followed him.”  The second line is about her, not Jake.  It doesn’t affect the story at all.  It makes us think about something that isn’t the main railroad track of the tale, Jake’s problem, so it got cut.  A perfectly lovely line, but when it went away, who cared?  Nobody.  The beginning writer would have kept it in.

Finally, the Curly / Mrs. Mulwray scenes are intercut (a lot) in script #1, only once in the rewrite, and none at all in the film.

The reason to take heart from all this fat flensing is that Robert Towne was already one of the finest writers in the business, yet he had a long way to go from Draft #1 to the script they shot.  The best writers in the game make plenty of mistakes… they just don’t leave them in there.

That said, here are the first scenes in CHINATOWN #1 and the same scenes in the rewrite, with the changes marked for your edification…

CHINATOWN 1st two scenes First Draft and Last Draft

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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Writing Process

Badly Written Scene Description Kills Your Actor’s Choices!

You are writing this script to be made. Crew members are going to read it. Heads of departments are going to read it. At least, that’s the theory. Actors are going to read it.

When you write, you imagine a scene, floating in glorious living color above your computer. You watch the scene. Over and over, you replay the scene and redo it. When you’re satisfied, you write it down. Generally, the first draft is exactly what you saw floating above your computer. That’s fine.

The problem comes when you don’t rewrite to make it more actor friendly.

“She sits at the table and puts her face in her hands.”

Actors hate this. You should hate it too.

You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. If you write detailed physical description of action, an actor is going to do precisely what she is told. She may question you about it… but, she may silently acquiesce. Once you tell an actor to “put her face in her hands,” she is going to assume, because it’s in the script, that it is very, very important.

That gesture may have been something from the scene hovering above your computer that you simply transcribed onto paper. It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal.

Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. Now, all she can do is put her face in her hands. Why would you take away an actor’s opportunity to give you a thoroughly nuanced performance? Why would you force an actor to do something that might be considered ham-fisted or lame?

If you wrote…

“Janine feels wretched.”

She can take that feeling and translate it into physical action in countless possible ways. Give your actor the freedom to make the best possible choice for that moment in that scene. Avoid making the choice for them.

If a character runs out of the room and slams the door, and it’s crucial to the story, then of course keep it in. Micromanaging the actor’s physical performance on paper is not a great way to have the most successful experience when you are shooting. Give the actor emotional moments to play not tiny, detailed, “she lifted her eyebrow in suspicion” moments.

If you have a tendency to give an actor precise physical directions, try to figure out a way to un-have that tendency. That’s what rewriting’s for!

Go through your script, all of it!, and see how many times you give the actor specific physical instructions. Ask, “is this something I have to say?” Or “can I turn this action into an emotion and let the actor choose what to do when the camera’s rolling?”

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Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

What I Learned From Seeing FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF in a Crowded Theater!

It’s Ferris and Cameron’s 30th Anniversary! I don’t know if it’s playing in your town. Perhaps it is. Hope so!

At my school, we regularly screen movies so students can get a chance to see them on a big screen. The first one we showed was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Very few students had ever seen it. On a big screen, it is breathtaking. One student told me the next day, “After it was over, I couldn’t talk for 45 minutes.”

We don’t just show big spectaculars. Last semester, we showed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which all of them had seen, repeatedly. Not only had none of them seen it on a big screen, none had seen it in a crowded theater.

Watching a comedy with 250 people is a completely different experience than watching it at home with five people, or on your smartphone, or on an airplane with headphones, in a cocoon of loneliness. Movies, one must remind oneself, were created to be witnessed and enjoyed with other people. Filmgoing is not supposed to be a solitary art, yet, we forget this.

Watching Ferris Bueller with 250 other people taught me something important: physical humor is a lot funnier than witty dialogue.

I noticed this fairly quickly. When 250 people are laughing, things that are not funny when you’re alone become hilarious. The tone of the room is different. Lots of people laughing get you laughing. Moments that get glossed over when you watch alone, are actually funny. How do you know it’s funny? Because people laugh.

A funny moment in Ferris Bueller was much funnier when done physically. Once I noticed this phenomenon, I began to pay attention. The laughs that came from physical comedy were much deeper, more emotional, more enjoyable, and lasted longer than the laughs that came from dialogue.

For the first time, I deeply understood why filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s lamented the arrival of sound. It’s easier to think up funny dialogue that it is to think up a funny moments for physical action. But, it’s worth it. But after my Ferris Bueller screening, I understood and I hope you do too, that physical funny is a much better and more satisfying laugh than word funny.

Keep this in mind as you write your script.

I suggest watching shorts by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. There is a lot to learn from the guys who did it at the beginning, before they could write witty dialogue.

In honor of Ferris’ 30th Anniversary… “Oh Yeah,” by Yello.


Oh Yeah by Mello

And, one of the finest scenes in all of movies… sorry for the synch problem.


1961 Ferrari GT California

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Work on the big stuff first.

Don’t waste time on sentences if you haven’t fixed your paragraphs. Don’t waste time on the paragraph if you haven’t fixed the page. Worry about big picture first, then the details.

If you spend a monumental amount of time tweaking sentences and then cut the whole scene, you will feel like an idiot.

This is true in editing as well as writing. Get the story structure right, then start worrying about what’s happening in the scenes.

What you don’t want to do, ever, ever, ever, ever, is spend one second on something you’re going to throw away later.

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A tad more on happy endings.

Yesterday, watched a very old movie with Gerard Depardieu. At the end, he’s dead. It’s very sad. I felt awful.

But.

They bury him outside the walls of a lonely fort in a Saharan desert hell, with a ton of his loyal soldiers looking on. And his young and elegant wife. And their little boy, holding her hand… His adoring commander says wonderful things about dead Depardieu. It made me feel a little better. Then, the little boy looks to one side and there, standing on the edge of the desert is the Arab soldier whose life Depardieu had saved long ago.

The boy runs over and takes his hand. They tell each other their names. I got choked up.

Then the Arab puts the boy on a camel and they take a ride. Wonderfully moving. I felt great.

And that’s all the happy ending I needed. Just a bit to make me fee there is hope for us all. And as I felt that jolt of a feeling, I thought I should share it.

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Beware your tics!

One thing you must hunt down are your own writing quirks. Like weeds in the yard, they just show up uninvited.

One of mine is “And”.

I start sentences with “And” ALL THE TIME. In dialogue. In action description. It’s just something I do, like breathing. Can’t help it. Where’s James Whitmore with the Miracle Gro weed killer when I need him?!

The good news is that I’m aware of my flaw. Wish it were the only one. What are writing tics you find yourself in need of eradicating?

Just went through a script I’m working on. Searched for “And” and made it case sensitive. Twenty of the little devils, or more, in the draft.

And they’re sure not there now.

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