Saturday, March 26, 2011


 Vague is the enemy of good screenwriting. The ability to communicate with clear, expressive language rather than vague words is a factor that separates the professional from the amateur.

Cinema is a medium dependent on concrete existence. That means, the content of a film or movie must be made up solely of things that physically exist in some form (whether they be people, props, locations, etc). Otherwise, they could not be photographed with a camera and shown to an audience (or in the case of modern cinema, at least brought into visual existence within the realm of CGI.) So, a movie is made of of specific and concrete visuals. The script may only mention that the scene contains “a man.” But the audience does not see a generic man, they see Matt Damon. The script may mention “a car,” but the audience sees a specific car, a yellow 1978 Datsun.

The goal of the writer must be to use the written word to communicate the actions and images of a scene to the reader, and do so with sufficient visual detail to allow the reader to visualize the scene as close as possible to how the audience will experience it on the screen. A good story can either succeed or fail with the reader, all depending on how well the writer achieves this. If the writer lays out the action in vague, wishy-washy words, what the writer wishes to be interesting and/or emotionally charged will come off flat. Consider this example:

'Mark walks down the street. It is a cold autumn morning. Mark stops at his car and gets in.'

Given that this description lacks much visual detail, the reader has no choice but to imagine the action in the most generic manner possible. To the reader, this piece of action feels unimaginative, bland, and dull. Compare it to this improved version:

'Mark walks slump-shouldered down a sidewalk lined with small New England-style homes. He shivers as a gust of wind blows dead leaves across his feet. Mark pulls open the unlocked door of a shiny black Mercedes CL and climbs inside.'

This version, while longer, not only has the benefit of allowing the reader to visualize the scene with more detail, but also communicates information to the reader about Mark and his environment in the process. Merely saying “autumn” doesn't indicate much. Autumn looks different depending on where you are and how late in the year it is. This passage helps us zero in on that. We learn information about Mark since rather than having a generic “car”, we see he can afford a six-figure luxury vehicle, and for some reason has the confidence to leave it unlocked.

First and second drafts always start out rather vague. This is expected, since the writer's focus at this point should be on figuring out the best way to make this scene do what it needs to do according to its place in the narrative. But once this has been worked out, scenes should be brought into clearer and clearer focus with each revision, like an optometrist putting a series of lenses in front of the eye. It all comes down to knowing your scene and knowing your characters. If the writer has worked to get to a point where he or she knows his/her story and characters down to the most intimate detail, this becomes easy. Once the writer has become this familiar with their story world, they can see it inside their head to the smallest detail and know exactly how their characters will behave in any situation down to where they choose to stand, where they feel comfortable putting their hands, and where they would choose to look. The only challenge that remains is communicating those nuances on the page in a manner that is clear and efficient.

The point where a writer reaches such a level of intimate knowledge and can communicate it within the text is the moment his or her work makes the jump from just being a good script, to becoming a potential movie. There are a lot of good scripts out there, but very few potential movies. Good scripts may work on paper, but they are still not ready for the screen. Only once the script attains a required level of visual detail does it cross the threshold. What is needed is not only a great story, but a great story that directors, cinematographers, actors, and the like can pick up, visualize, and right away understand what they must do to make the story happen.

Vagary is a hallmark of an amateur screenwriter. Everything in the script seems typical, average, or generic*. The locations are all treated like stock settings. The characters are little more than names on a page. Geography is unclear. Character actions are hazy. We cannot visualize where the characters exist spatially in comparison to each other and the environment around them- instead characters seem to float in some kind of limbo space. Usually this lack of visual details occurs because the writer is still not exactly sure what is going on in the scene in his or her own head! The scene is hazy on the page because it is still a fog in the writer's imagination. The writer still has not made the effort to know his or her story and characters well enough to tell the story with a VOICE OF AUTHORITY.

(* btw, never describe your protagonist, or any other character for that matter, as “an average 20-something,” or “a typical high school teacher.” WTF is interesting about a character who is average? Why would an audience want to spend two hours of their life caring about a person who has nothing unique or special about them? “Average” means “boring.” This is lazy characterization. It is also unnatural characterization. There is no such thing as an “average” person in real life. There are no identical clone pods walking around with the same brains and personalities. Everyone has something about them that makes them unique. Find it and communicate it. No one wants the watch “The Underwhelming Adventures of Nobody Special.”)

Some new writers may think that writing in broad strokes is good enough, that merely suggesting action and visuals are enough for other creative professionals to take over and fill in the gaps. This is not true. Being vague only manages to leave the writer open to criticism from the reader. Using wishy-washy words communicates a story in a timid voice. Rather than tell us what is happening, the words seem to merely suggest or guess at what should happen, allowing the story to show through as a phoney made-up world. The reader starts to question the storyteller's authority. You're trying to be the Great and Powerful Oz, but your show is so underwhelming it allows us to notice your butt sticking out from behind the curtain. On the other hand, strong, visual words communicate a story with a voice of AUTHORITY. Rather than reading a suggested story, the reader is led to SEE the film, exactly as it should be happening. This is a script that grabs the reader and says, 'This IS what is happening, right NOW. There is no questioning it. This is REAL.'

But how much detail is too much? Overdoing it is just as easy as coming up short. Ironically, the same day I started work on this article, I began reading a spec script that has the exact opposite problem I had planned to lecture on. This script was completely OVERWRITTEN. The description spelled out every little pointless and repetitive detail. Simple actions were described by entire paragraphs. Sentences were cluttered with unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. This script had to have been at least ten pages longer than it had to have been simply from all the unneeded description.

Here's the thing: I can't give you hard and fast rules about how much is too much. You just have to know when to say when. You do not have to tell the reader how many chairs are in the room (unless this information is important to the story). We do not have ti be told about every piece of clothing the character's mom wears (unless these details communicate something about her or the story we need to know.) We do not need to know the exact time of day, all the items in the hero's sock drawer, or how many steps the villain takes to cross the room (unless all of this information has some sort of significance to the story).

Do you see a pattern here? Your script needs visual detail, but only those details that are significant in terms of communicating story or character. Every detail should communicate something. Either something that advances the story, allows the audience a improved understanding of the people, places, and things of the story, or helps deepen character. For example, we have an important character walking his dog, learning the type of dog he chose to own helps us learn more about what type of man this is. Is it a rottweiler? A chihuahua? A shelter-rescued mutt? On the other hand, if a scene takes place in a park with plenty background persons walking their dogs, it would be pointless to give details on these people and their pets. They have nothing to do with the story, so who cares?

Don't be redundant with details. If you establish in Scene 1 that the story takes place in the freezing cold of winter, you don't need to keep telling us it is cold all the way through Scene 114. Audiences/readers only need to be given information once. They don't have that Memento disease where they forget every ten minutes. For example, we only need to call Mark's car (from the example above) a “shiny black Mercedes CL” the first time it is seen. From then on, it can simply be referred to as his “car,” since a proper visual for that car has already been established.

When it comes to describing characters and locations seen for the first time, create only a handful of telling visual details that get the idea across of what type of person/place this is and let the reader's mind fill in the rest. Here is a good example from The Bourne Identity:


        A wreck.  Too small for all the people in here right now --
        SAILORS sweeping off the table -- rough hands laying THE MAN
        down --

        THE CAPTAIN -- brutal and impatient -- watching from the 
        door as --

        GIANCARLO tears through the clutter -- searching for a
        medical kit buried in the shambles.  GIANCARLO is sixty. A bloodshot soul.

There is very little actual information written in this excerpt. Yet still, it is enough for us to see the scene and character in our heads because our minds fill in the rest of the details.

But, all of this aside, there is a far more deadly type of vague that may be lurking about your script. Vague character motivations. This will be the topic of my next article.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

FORCED DECISIONS (and lack of free will)

Throughout this blog, I have made frequent references to characters making choices. At every turning point of your narrative, an obstacle causes characters to choose the new direction they must take in order to continue onward. But the word choose is not entirely accurate. In a well-written cinematic story, these decisions are never much of a choice. In reality, the character has only two options: 1. Escalate the conflict, or 2. Except failure, and/or death.

In a cinematic story, there can be no such thing as FREE WILL. Every single thing a character does during his or her pursuit of the Story Goal should not be done by choice, not because the character wants to take these actions, but only because the story situation has forced them to. The story situation has painted them into a corner, and their only way out is to take on more risk and more danger with an action they would NEVER take under normal circumstances. The best story actions are those someone would have to be crazy to take if it weren't for the outside forces bearing down on them from of the story situation. Would a sane person jump off a skyscraper with nothing but a firehouse tied around their waist to keep them alive? Of course not. But that is what John McClane is forced to do in Die Hard. Not because he is crazy, but because this has become his only option due to the situation he has become trapped within.

These are called FORCED DECISIONS. Forced decisions are the most common, and often the most effective way to advance a plotline, while keeping actions plausible and maintaining character integrity.

To explain:

Human beings naturally seek the path of least resistance. If an easier, simpler, less risky way to do things is known, we will always choose it. This is part of our survival mechanism. Why take a larger risk than we have to? Why expel more energy than needed? If one option has potential for conflict, we will try to avoid it. If something may result in a negative outcome, we avoid that too. That is called common sense.

Since following the path of least resistance is natural human behavior, if a character should have the path of least resistance open to them and choose not to take it, the audience will not find that character's actions believable. People often mock horror movies where the victim being chased by a killer chooses to run up the stairs instead of out the front door to safety. This is because there was an easier, more common sense option open to the character, and instead the character willingly chose to riskier, more dangerous path. The audience then turns their back on the character for being stupid.

However, here is the thing about human instinct: It makes boring cinema. Nothing could be less exciting than watching people pick the least risky, most conflict-free option.

Forced decisions help the storyteller reconcile the contradiction between the natural human instinct to avoid conflict (found in believable characters), and the necessity for situations filled with conflict in order to create an exciting story.

The goal of the writer must be to take away the path of least resistance in order to force the character into riskier choices. If the horror movie victim was being chased by one killer, and a second killer arrives to block the front door, then running up the stairs would become the character's only option. In this case, no one in the audience can say a word to criticize the character's actions.

There are some risky or dangerous actions a character simply must take in order to move the story to where the writer needs it to go. Forced decisions are often the only way to make such actions plausible. In Star Wars, when Luke, Obi Wan, and the rest first encounter the Death Star aboard the Millennium Falcon, the story requires them to go into the Death Star so they might later find and rescue the Princess. However, only a fool would do this voluntarily. At this point in the story, the heroes have no pressing reason to take on the risk of infiltrating an enemy base. The common sense decision would be to get out of there as quick as possible and alert the Rebel Army. But instead, the story FORCES them onboard when a tractor beam locks onto their ship. They now have no choice but to come on board and somehow deal with the corner they have been painted into. Likewise, Back to the Future's Marty McFly does not choose to jump into the time machine and travel back to 1955. It happens as a result of Marty being forced to use the Deloreon to escape from the Libyan terrorists.

Any time a character needs to take action, the storyteller must constantly be aware of all alternative options available to the character. If the storyteller does not realize easier options exist, the audience definitely will, making the audience lose faith in the storyteller's capability. If the protagonist chooses to confront the bad guys in a one on one gun battle, when he could have simply solved things by calling the police, it creates a LOGICAL HOLE in the story. Logical holes make both you, the storyteller, and your characters look stupid. It becomes hard to keep the audience on your side once this has happened.

It is the storyteller's job is to understand all possible options for action a character could take at any moment, and then force them down the most dramatic road by providing physical evidence that explains to the audience why the character cannot take an easier path. If a character does not take a more reasonable option, there should be a good reason why. There must be an obstacle blocking the way.

The invention of the cellular phone has become somewhat of a bane to screenwriters. Before cell phones became ubiquitous, all a writer needed to do to keep a character in a threatening situation is to simply put them in a place where the character could not reach a phone to call for help. But now in the twenty-first century, all someone needs to do to get help is reach into their pocket. Because of this, modern scripts are filled cell phones that get lost, broken, or have dead batteries, as evidence to the audience as to why the character cannot follow the path of least resistance when in danger.

To avoid logical holes, the rule is CYA (“cover your ass”). Look back in your script and try to find all the logical actions your character could have taken, but chose not to, and then make sure you have provided good logical evidence as to why not. There is a lot of CYA going on in Hans Gruber's first sequence in Die Hard. Before the villains even make their presence known, we see them cutting phone lines, shutting down elevators, eliminating security guards, etc. The audience needs to be shown this evidence in order for them to understand that the hero does not have the traditional methods available to get help. He is forced to do something more extreme. If storytellers do their jobs correctly, if he or she forces characters down paths of action that escalate the conflict (by necessity, not choice), and provides physical evidence along the way as to why these are the only choices, the storyteller will create narratives where, no matter what happens in the story, no matter how crazy or far flung the premise, all events will appear completely inevitable and necessary. The path to the climax must seem like it were the only possible path, thanks to all the obstacles that blocked every alternative choice.

THE EXCEPTION (but not really)

One caveat must be made. Often, the most dramatic story moment arises when the character DOES have a choice between more than one option. However, this a choice the character does not want, because no matter what the character chooses, it will only make the situation worse. This is called the DILEMMA – a forced choice between two or more equally undesirable outcomes. You're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't. No matter what the hero chooses, he loses.

A common example is found in countless action films and television programs. The hero has something the villain wants. The hero must keep the villain from taking this thing from her. But, the villain grabs the hero's friend/lover/child/etc, and puts a gun to that person's head. The hero is offered a dilemma. Either give the villain what he wants, or allow the villain to kill her friend/lover/child. Both outcomes are disastrous. The hero does not want either option. But, the hero MUST decide. She must pick the lesser of two evils and give the villain what he wants. (Or maybe the hero allows the villain to blow the innocent person's brains out. Wouldn't that be a surprise?)

The dilemma is the worst choice you could ever force upon a character, (from the character's perspective, that is). In a regular forced decision, the character still has hope that the path they are forced to take, though undesirable, will still lead to success. With a dilemma, the character knows they are screwed no matter what. Yet still, the choice must be made. It is usually the most important decision the character will make. Everything hinges on this moment. Choose right, and the character may still find a way to overcome the conflict and get to his or her goal. Choose wrong, and the character will doom themselves to complete and utter failure.

The Matrix features a classic case of dilemma at the end of its second act. Neo and Trinity have just escaped from the matrix, but their mentor Morpheus has been captured by evil agents. They know that given time, the agents will “hack into” Morpheus's brain and retrieve a secret code that will mean a quick end to humanity's hopes for freedom. Neo faces a dilemma: he can either let that happen, or he can unplug Morpheus's brain from his body, killing him before he can be cracked. The idea of killing his mentor is unthinkable, but if he does not do it, he will doom them all. Neo and Trinity must choose the lesser of two evils. However, at the last moment, Neo discovers a third option to the dilemma. They could go back into the matrix and rescue Morpheus. This option is no more appealing than the other two. Two fighters against a building filled with agents is suicide. And if they can't reach Morpheus before he surrenders the code, it will all be for nothing. All three options are unappealing, yet Neo chooses the third. The rest of the story hinges on whether Neo chose correctly.

Dilemmas over what action to take can make extremely powerful turning points. In addition, a good ethical dilemma can also work wonders to communicate character and theme. Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan faces an ethical dilemma at the story's midpoint when his squad captures a German machine gunner. Most of the squad want to execute the German, but the Corporal considers it murder. It is up to the Captain to decide. Both sides make strong arguments, and no matter what the Captain chooses, he will lose the respect of his men. Captain Miller decides to let the German go, communicating information on his inner character and providing evidence on the story's theme.

Dilemmas are not found in every story. A story can be fine and dandy without one. However, if dilemmas are used, they must be used sparingly. One or two per story is enough, ideally at the end of the second act, or just prior to the climax. Dilemmas are one of the most powerful tools at the storyteller's disposal, so overuse results in overkill. Anything of power loses its ability to shock and surprise if used too much. Save your big bombs for when you need them the most.


Dilemmas and forced decisions allow the storyteller to naturally advance the plot while retaining the integrity of the characters. A storyteller naturally wants to put characters into more and more extreme situations as the story advances, but the characters, being sensible people, would rather not put themselves at risk. By creating forced decisions and dilemmas, the storyteller manipulates the character's universe so the character is forced down roads they do not want to travel, leading them ultimately to the dramatic climax. Looking back, the story's climax should seem necessary and inevitable, since there was never any other option along the way.