This morning, someone asked me about scriptwrtiting. He asked:
“Am I correct in assuming that boy loses girl three quarters of the way though almost every movie?”
This sounds like one of those formulae I don’t believe from one of those people who charge $800 for seminars in which they say Casablanca is the perfect way to write a script – in which case, the perfect way to write a script is to not know the ending while you’re shooting, have a cast of completely flummoxed actors and to write the script virtually day-by-day-by-night as shooting progresses. I have also heard Alien held up as a perfect piece of movie-making and, having met several crew members, I can tell you shooting on that film was an unhappy utter nightmare. So creating a nightmare situation for cast and crew would be the best way to make a film… Not.
The classic story, allegedly, is a ‘three act’ screenplay and the classic story is “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl”, but I think those three stages can happen anywhere you feel like in percentage terms.
As far as I’m concerned, there are only two rules of thumb. One is something I was told ages ago…
In the standard US TV movie, the entire basis of the plot and all the central characters at the heart of that plot are introduced in the first three minutes.
The best example I’ve ever seen of this is actually the first Die Hard big-screen movie in which, by the end of the opening credits – before the movie even starts properly – you know that Bruce Willis is a New York cop who has come to LA to see his ex-wife whom he still has affection for and who works for a Japanese multinational company in a large building, it is Christmas and there is a party in the building and (if my memory serves me) you are also introduced to the lead villain who has a team of baddies heading towards the building. All this before the opening credits end. It is a brilliant piece of scriptwriting.
It is done very efficiently by Bruce Willis’ apparently insignificant chit-chat with a taxi driver (whose character also runs through the movie) and by simple intercutting.
Last night, I accidentally saw the beginning of the Pixar animated movie The Incredibles and the central characters, situation and tone of the movie are, just like Die Hard, introduced clearly and concisely before the opening credits. I was interrupted by a phone call so never saw the rest of the movie, but I could tell I wanted to know more and to see more. I was hooked at the very start of the film, which is a big thing…
Because the second movie structure rule-of-thumb is that there has to be a ‘hook’ at the very beginning. If there isn’t a hook at the start of a film, I am never involved either emotionally or intellectually.
Setting up the atmosphere/tone at the start sounds good but doesn’t work.
You have to set up the atmosphere/tone but ALSO introduce the central characters and situation very quickly and succinctly. Another great example of this is the opening of my favourite film The Wild Bunch – everything is set up during the opening credits with dramatic music which sets the atmosphere/tone – you are shown the central characters, the bounty hunters waiting, the start of the opening bank robbery, the physical set-up for an upcoming massacre of the innocents… it is a giant hook of expectation built-up by great music… and even the director’s movie-making philosophy is established.
As the final credit DIRECTED BY SAM PECKINPAH appears on screen, William Holden barks out: “If they move… kill ’em!”
To my mind, the best films and TV episodes and the best novels have this structure… They start with an unresolved problem and end with the resolution of that problem; the plot is the unravelling of the problem and, during the story, you cannot yourself see how it can possibly be resolved so you have to keep watching to find out.
In the case of Die Hard, the unresolved problem is actually that the central character’s marriage has fallen apart plus there is going to be an attack on the skyscraper in which the ex-wife is working/partying. Along the way, bit by bit, there are other little hooks, each of which have to be straightened out. A couple of them are when the wife’s identity is revealed to the ‘terrorists’ and another the point at which the Bruce Willis character (armed) comes face-to-face with the lead ‘terrorist’ (unarmed) who pretends to be a hostage. So the hook running through the movie is Can he save his wife? and Can he save his marriage? And, along the way, there are a succession of little hooks.
At the very beginning, even on the first page, there is a hook; I defy anyone who reads the closing paragraphs of the first chapter not to read the second chapter. And this happens throughout the book. She constantly tells the reader not-quite-enough facts to be satisfied. They have to read on a little more to find the resolution of each particular hook and, by the time they understand what is going on and/or are satisfied with the resolution of that problem, another hook has been set up. The book is also full of page-turning “Jesus fucking Christ almighty!” moments. Thunderbolts come out of the blue without any warning at all. And she intercuts multiple narrative strands throughout – this was nothing to do with me; she did it. It is an extraordinary narrative.
It reminded me, oddly, of Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien separates the central characters, then intercuts between the narrative strands, leaving the story strands dangling so you have to keep reading to find out what happened. Janey doesn’t have separate plot strands in that sense, but she intercuts her narrative. And the ending simultaneously is the biggest cliff-hanger since the climax of the original Italian Job and also satisfyingly emotionally rounded-off. A neat trick she pulled there.
So my three golden rules for writing a film script (the third one echoes the late Malcolm Hardee‘s Third Golden Rule of Comedy) are:
3) if all else fails, clothes off and knob out!