This is the second video from Dr Allen, Film Studies Professor, Pittsburgh, PA, where he explains the last 5 of his 10 principles of writing a movie script. You can see the first video here.
Number six – this is something where it’s almost like icing on the cake. You want to ground each scene through things that you add that are relatable, quirky and unique to your own voice.
These are those little touches that go beyond cliche, that go beyond the work of an amateur and that add just that special something, that special detail that separates you from an average writer and shows evidence of you being a great writer.
So an example of that would be the dialogue scene between Jules and Vinnie Vega in Pulp Fiction. They’re talking about a Royale with cheese and what things are called in Europe versus America and it’s a it’s a very quirky scene. It’s also a scene that’s unique in Tarantino’s voice, because the year before with Reservoir Dogs Quentin Tarantino got to go to the Khans Film Festival and he got to go to Europe.
While he was there clearly he made certain observations about these fast-food joints and about where you could take up here in a movie theater, and where you could get drugs and things like that. These details then spill over into the dialogue between Vincent Vega and Jules, between John Travolta and Samuel Jackson.
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These are quirky details that ground the scene, that make these characters more realistic, more relatable and it gives an edge of believability and uniqueness to Tarantino’s writing. That John Travolta and Samuel Jackson would both be nominated for Oscars for their performance is just another indicator that these subtle touches took Tarantino’s writing of Pulp Fiction from being average to extraordinary.
If you do these things in your own writing, add those little details that personalize it that that somehow put your own touch, whether it’s a note about how a character dresses or a note about just those little things, that you observe in your day-to-day life – it has to be something that only you can put in.
It can’t be something that you got from somebody else or something that you’re copying. It has to be unique observations that you’ve made yourself. After all this is your story, not somebody else’s. So these that I’m talking about are extra touches and details that only you could add because you have a unique perspective that no one else has.
So these ways of grounding your scenes. These are going to be things, that if you do it, it’s going to appear one way, but if someone else did it it’s gonna appear another way. But it’s not like one way’s right and another way is wrong. It’s just that you need to add those little moments that only you can add to each scene through your observations of everyday life.
Number seven – you have to play on your reader, on your viewers fantasies. Why do I say this? Well a great movie, a great screenplay is always going to have a fantasy element. Even a drama, even a true-to-life drama has to have a fantasy element.
You’ve got to take your reader, your viewer somewhere that they wouldn’t ordinarily get to go. So for instance 1991’s Boys in the Hood. Wow! It’s a realistic drama about urban life for african-american youth in the summer of 91. It’s still a fantasy because that’s a life that most people don’t live.
There’s a sense of vicariously living through Ice Cube’s character, through Ricky’s character, through Trey’s character and a sense of vicariously living through their world. Even though it’s a real-life situation, it’s still a fantasy because it’s a complete world.
Through the music, the milieu, things like that – you are on a journey. Well you want to make sure you’re, you have a sense of that. You want to make sure that you give your reader, your viewer a complete sense of that world.
This is why I think boys in the hood was such a successful film, earning fifty seven million dollars in 1991, even though it only costs seven million dollars, because John Singleton does an excellent job of painting that world.
You get a sense of the music, you get a sense of the style, you get a sense of the the apprehensions, the aspirations of each character. You just feel it. It’s not like it’s a story that’s action-packed from beginning to end, but you get so caught up in the characters and in their world.
You really care when Ricky gets killed at the end, because singleton is completely painting a picture of a world. It’s a fantasy world with gangsters, with drugs, with crack moms with prostitutes, but also with with with a young man trying to make it in the NFL or at least trying to make it to usc’s football team.
A young man trying to make it to college, you know furious styles, as played by Laurence Fishburne, you know he’s the dad that everybody wants. He’s tough. He says the right things. He can break things down. He’s wise. It’s a fantasy even though at the same time it’s set in a realistic situation.
This is also why James Bond is such an enduring character, because the average male wants to be able to woo the females and be able to do any sport imaginable, whether skiing or boating, or horseback riding. You know there’s not any athletic sport that James Bond can’t do.
He has all the clothes, he has all the the gadgets, the cars, you know. This is a fantasy figure and then he goes to all the exotic locales and things like that.
James Bond is more like a commercial than it really is like a narrative. You take this male figure and it’s where is he going to go next and the viewer follows him on his adventures. It’s not important who the villain is. It’s not even important who the girl is.
It’s just important that there’s gonna be a villain, that there’s going to be a girl, that there’s gonna be exotic locales, that there’s gonna be lots of money spent, great cars, cool gadgets you know, and a little bit of sex thrown in.
This is the fantasy element and this is why James Bond up until recently has been the most successful franchise. Now it’s been beat by Harry Potter, although Harry Potter still hasn’t beaten James Bond if you adjust for inflation, but how can you provide your reader your viewer with a sense of fantasy?
You’ve got to take them to a world that they can’t otherwise get access to. Then you’ve got to paint that world so completely that it’s like they’re there. You’ve got to establish it through every little detail because even if this is your everyday world like, for instance, clerks with Kevin Smith, it’s an everyday world.
Its clerks working in a convenience store. He’s able to play in a world that for most people that’s not their life, so there’s a fantasy element to it. Play on that get your characters to do things that your audience, if they were in that situation, would want to do, but wouldn’t have the guts to do.
So that’s why the clerks are being so mean to the customers and they’re able to take a break and play hockey on the roof and you know use all kinds of fouling. These are things that you can only do in your fantasies if you work in that kind of job, because if you did it in real life you would lose your job.
So you want to figure out ways to create a fantasy for your viewers, for your readers and then you just want to have fun with it. Create a world painted in detail and then do things with your characters in that world that your readers would only dream about doing if they were really stuck in that world. You have an opportunity to let your readers vicariously do things through the characters that you’re creating.
Number eight – work hard to make every one of your scenes memorable. I know this is gonna be hard but you got to work hard. Do your best to make every single scene in your film in your script memorable, but certainly, even if you can’t make every scene memorable, you’ve got to make at least four scenes unforgettable.
Every great movie has at least three to four unforgettable scenes. If you look at the 100 greatest movies, these are all not just great characters, these are all not just great fantasies, these are movies with unforgettable scenes.
Matter of fact, I think one of the things that AFI should do are the 100 most memorable scenes but anyway think about great movies. The Godfather – you don’t just think about The Godfather, you don’t just think about Brando and Pacino.
Although you think about these things, you think about the horse’s head, you think about Sonny getting shot at the Tollbooth, you think about ‘leave the gun take the cannolis’, you think about all these different components that make the movie great.
These are memorable scenes, unforgettable scenes. You have to have memorable scenes. A great film just has to have that but it’s imperative that you have four unforgettable scenes. Pulp fiction has unforgettable scenes. There’s stuff that happens in Pulp Fiction that you will never forget.
You’ve got to be shocking. You’ve got to be different. You’ve got to be over-the-top sometimes but you got to make sure that you’ve got at least four scenes that are unforgettable. If you leave the audience with four scenes that they’ll never forget, they’re never gonna forget your movie.
If a person is reading your script and you leave them with four scenes that they’re never gonna forget, they’re never gonna forget your script. So that’s important. You want to work hard to make sure that every scene is memorable but you’ve got to have at least four scenes that are unforgettable.
Number nine – you’ve got to make sure that you take your reader, your viewer on a journey. One thing I love in a film is where by the end I feel like I’ve gone on a journey. I’m gonna latch on to that protagonist, to that main character and go on a journey.
I love that and I absolutely love a film that takes me to a place that’s unexpected. The first 30 minutes of the film, it’s establishing an ordinary world. I love it where I end up in the third act, is someplace totally unexpected by the first act. I love that.
It’s just there’s a great sense of it if I already know where the film is going, and I already have a sense of what to expect in the first act. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the film’s gonna be terrible but I love to be pleasantly surprised.
There are a great number of films that have done that for me but I think it’s important for you as a writer, for you as a filmmaker, to have a story that takes your viewers, takes your readers on a journey. How does that work?
Well as I said earlier, the first 30 minutes of your film, if we’re dealing with a two-hour feature, are the establishment of your ordinary world. In keeping with Joseph Campbell’s sense of the hero’s journey, the hero, the main character, the protagonist, has to receive a call that more than likely he’s going to initially refuse.
But then he accepts and he goes on a journey. He goes to what’s called an extraordinary world. That extraordinary world should be where you create the fantasy. Then he comes out of that extraordinary world into where he’s going to resolve things for this story, and that’s where things can really get exciting and can really get unexpected.
It’s important to do, as I mentioned earlier, to create a last act that’s a commentary on the first act. Like Aristotle says, you don’t want to begin or end your story haphazardly. There’s a reason why your story begins where it begins and there’s a reason why it ends where it ends.
George Lucas has a great quote about how a son’s life is always going to be a commentary on the father’s life, and I think that’s that’s true and his interest and father-and-son relationships plays out in Star Wars.
Luke Skywalker’s life is very much a commentary on Anakin Skywalker’s life, so Star Wars four, five and six is essentially the adventure of Luke Luke Skywalker. Whereas Star Wars one, two and three is The Adventures of Anakin Skywalker. If you take Luke’s life as a commentary on Anakin’s life, it creates something that’s very interesting.
What I’m stressing here is the idea of taking your viewer, your reader on a journey but it can’t just go anywhere. The ultimate place, though unexpected, still has to have a poetic relationship to the beginning. So that even, though the last act is unexpected, when people get there they’re like ‘oh that ties together rather well’.
This was the kind of ‘aha’ moment that I had while watching episode 3, because even though the story was backwards, there was a tremendous poetic relationship. It’s not a coincidence that Yoda’s entering his ship which is shaped like his house at Dagobah with two setting crescent moons.
Well that’s a commentary visually on the end of the Jedi, just like when we first see Luke. He’s in a desert looking at two suns. The two suns are counter to the two setting moons because we’re seeing the twilight of the Jedi as Yoda enters a ship, and then with Luke we’re seeing the rise, a new hope.
In essence, Luke looking at those two suns is the visual motif of that new hope. You have a commentary, so it’s not haphazard try to do something similar. Come up with an unexpected, come up with an unexpected ending for your story, that’s set up by your opening act.
But at the same time give it a poetic relationship so that people can say on their second viewing ‘Wow that does tie together, that makes a lot of sense, even though I had no idea it was going there’. Now that I see where, when – I can see how he was telling me that, or she was telling me that and giving me a hint that that’s where it was going all along.
This is what makes the sixth sense such a great film because when you go back and watch it you realize man the answer was right there in front of us, even though we couldn’t see it.
The last and most important element to great screenwriting is number 10 and that is to be true to yourself. There’s an old saying which says ‘write what you know’. Well that’s a little tricky. Does that mean write only what you know about?
So if you’re not an astronaut you should never write about astronauts? Or if you’re not a drug dealer you should never write about drug dealers? Or if you’re not a minister you should never write about Church?
I think that you can’t look at it that way because part of storytelling is using your imagination. I would rather say be true to yourself meaning write a story that only you can tell. Share a perspective that only you can share. Don’t try to share someone else’s perspective.
Don’t try to write like Lucas or try to write like Tarantino or try to write like Shyamalan or try to write like John Singleton. These are all filmmakers, writers who I admire in one way or another, and all who have been imitated in one way or another. But all who ultimately I’ve had to abandon to some degree in order to come to grips and to come to accept my own voice.
The last most important thing you should do is be true to yourself. Share a story from your perspective. You’ve got to take your viewers, your readers to a unique place that only you can take them. If one person tells the story of being an American, it’s gonna be different from another American’s story of being an American.
If one person tells a story of being a Pittsburgher, it’s going to be different from another person’s story of being a Pittsburgher. If one person tells the story of being an african-american father with a wife and two kids, somebody different from another person’s story of an african-american father with a wife and two kids.
Essentially I’m sharing my own situation. You’ve got to put your spin on it, your twist on it. You’ve got to do that. You’ve got to make sure that your story is essentially loaded with your personality, your perspective. Now some people will disagree with me because there’s a big debate in film studies now about auteur theory and that the film doesn’t really reflect a filmmakers personality etc etc.
In my opinion this was really all just an argument that enabled filmmakers to not have to take responsibility for the work they created, because if viewers were going to constantly be perusing their work to get clues into their personality it made filmmakers self-conscious.
The bottom line is you’re not going to spend six months a year on a work of art if it doesn’t interest you somehow, if it doesn’t appeal to your personality somehow. There’s going to be things that you’re not going to do because they don’t agree with your sensibilities, therefore it stands the reason that the things that you are doing somehow appeal to your sensibilities in some way shape or form.
So since that’s going to be the case, go all out make sure that you’re choosing stories, that you’re choosing narratives, that you’re creating characters and letting viewers and readers in on worlds that are reflective of sensibilities that you ultimately want to disseminate to the world, and give the world access to you.