MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
KNOW WHEN TO HOLD 'EM
Life isn't the cards you've been dealt, it's how you play them. Though we're all looking for a great story to tell, once we find that story we still have to find the best way to *tell it*. You could take a very simple story and tell it in a fascinating way - look at Christopher Nolan's MEMENTO. A husband searching for his wife's killer is a fairly mundane story - it's the way that story is told that makes that film exciting and innovative. Or Nolan's DUNKIRK. The story of the same incident told from different points of view. Telling a story is just relating information to the audience - but the method we use to relate that information is what will make that story a page turner or a bore. That doesn't mean we need to tell our stories backwards or sideways or upside down, but it does mean we have to find the most interesting way to give the audience the information.
Nolan's INCEPTION tells the story of a dream thief Dom Cobb who pulls heists in your mind. Mostly as part of corporate espionage, If your company wants to know their competitor's secrets he will assemble a team, break into your dreams (when your mind is vulnerable) and create a dream with the intent of tricking you into revealing the information. You wake up thinking you just feel asleep on a train, no idea that you've been robbed.
But Cobb's memories - his dreams - are beginning to interfere with their heists. He keeps having dreams of his wife and his two children. At the beginning of the film, we don't even know who this woman in his dreams is... but soon we discover it is his wife... his *dead* wife... and he can not go back to America and visit his children because he has been accused of her murder and is a fugitive. This information is parceled out in the early scenes of the film a bit at a time, and makes us all wonder - what really happened with his wife? Did he kill her? How did she die? What do these dreams and fragments of dreams of her mean? Instead of being given a big information dump and find out everything at once, the backstory with his wife is treated as a mystery and we get one clue at a time and try to piece together the solution. Some clues makes us think one thing, other clues make us think something else... and each clue makes us want to know more - which maintains our interest. If we were just given all of the information at once, there would be no mystery to keep us *involved* in the mystery of his dead wife. But we are dealt pieces of the answer throughout the movie that keep us interested in his personal story as the complex new heist plot also unfolds... saving that last card for close to the end when it will have the most impact on the story (and on the viewer).
Nolan's earlier film INSOMNIA tells the story of Los Angeles detective Will Dormer who is sent to Nightmute, Alaska with his partner to help them solve a murder. Instead of telling us everything about Dormer up front, screenwriter Hillary Seitz parcels out the information a little bit at a time - treating the character of Dormer as a mystery and each new bit of information about him as a clue. We know if they're flying him up from Los Angeles he must be an expert... but on the plane his partner hints that Dormer may have had other reasons for leaving Los Angeles. Bit by bit we find out that there's an Internal Affairs investigation underway - with Dormer as one of the targets. What the heck did he do?
Instead of telling us, the script continues to give us one clue after another - allowing us to assemble the character of Dormer a little bit at a time. Every clue exposes a little more about the man. Some clues make him look like a good cop who may be wrongly accused of something... others make us wonder if he isn't the one who crossed the line without even blinking. Each clue helps build the mystery and make us wonder what - exactly - happened in Los Angeles?
Every time we think we may know who Dormer is, another clue is revealed which strips off another layer and allows us deeper into his character. Instead of a static character - one we know everything about - Dormer seems to be constantly evolving... we seem to learn something new about him in every scene.
What happened in Los Angeles? Why is Dormer's entire career on the line? In one scene we find out the name of the actual case that Internal Affairs is investigating. In another scene Dormer tells his partner that Internal Affairs won't really want to dig too deep into that case - no one wants to find anything that would overturn the verdict... but his tone tells us he isn't quite sure. Dormer worries that what he did was bad enough that they WILL overturn the verdict and let this scumbag back on the streets.
What the hell did Dormer do? The mystery surrounding his character INVOLVES us. We want to know! By the end of the film we will discover the secret of Dormer's past - we will learn what happened in Los Angeles... and we'll be able to decide for ourselves if he's a good cop or a bad cop.
Another thing to consider is - do you really need to give us ALL of the *story* information up front? Can some of it be held back and uncovered later? Give us the basics up front, and give us new information as the story progresses. The story "unfolds". Two ways new writers can err are to have no backstory at all and no information about who the characters are and what's going on... or to have all of the information up front in a huge info-dump of backstory. The best thing to do is be somewhere in the middle - enough information that we know who these people are and what's involved, but still hold back information so that the story can unfold with new information. Audiences like finding out new information, getting a new clue to what happened in the past or see the past through the eyes of a different character who may have a different take on the events. Give us the basic information and tease us that there's more - telling us that there are secrets which will be revealed later. That creates suspense and intrigue - we want to know what those secrets are. All of the films you mentioned have secrets that are revealed and "facts" that change with every new bit of information.
In David Mamet's SPANISH PRISONER we know exactly who Campbell Scott is... but we are constantly given new information about who Steve Martin and Rebecca Pidgeon are. We have a character that we know (our identification character) and the others are revealed a little bit at a time. Same thing in HOUSE OF GAMES - we know Lindsay Crouse (our identification character) but don't really know Mantegna or Ricky or any of the other guys. New information is revealed about them as the story unfolds, and one minute they may be friends and the next foe. We learn the details of who they are one little piece at a time (and by the end we may know less about them then at the beginning). One of the things that's fun about movies like this (and USUAL SUSPECTS, etc) is the way information revealed in one scene may change our perception of a previous scene. As an audience we're constantly adding a new piece to the puzzle and trying to guess what the puzzle will show us when all of the pieces have been put together.
One of the fascinating things in INCEPTION are the layers of story - this is a dense film that requires you to pay attention... almost like 4 hours of film crammed into a 2.5 hour running time. Instead of a straight-forward heist movie, the film features dreams within dreams - each dream taking us deeper into the robbery victim's subconscious and closer to their most private thoughts. Because this time they are not stealing information, they are planting it. The job is to plant an idea in the victim's mind in such a way that they think *they* had the idea themselves. So every time they break into one level of the subconscious mind they are setting up the heist that breaks into the next level... and they keep going deeper and deeper. This creates a story that is complex - and information that is dealt to the audience one piece at a time so that we know the overall mission but do not know what will happen next... and the cool thing is - what happens in a "surface dream" will impact what happens in deeper dreams.
The always great Dileep Rao plays a team member who remains in the surface dream to drive a van filled with the rest of the team and the victim who are all sleeping in the back... dreaming the next level. But there are crazy complications, and what was supposed to be a quiet van ride ends up an insane car chase... and every high speed fish-tail turn impacts the dream the next level down. This is one of the fascinating parts of the film - how something in the surface level of the dream, even something we think is minor, has a *major* impact the deeper into the levels of dreams that we go. There's even a funny reason why it is raining on one dream level.
But instead of giving us all of the story information up front, we only know the ultimate goal (planting the dream) and some key pieces of the plan are given to the viewer on a "need to know" bases - revealed to us at a key point in the story rather than just dumped on us at the beginning of the film. Though, I think one of the flaws of INCEPTION is that the goals for each level of dream are not made clear, so we often don't know if the team is making progress in this level because we have no idea at all what they are trying to do. There is a balance in withholding information - you want to make sure we understand the over-all goal but keep the information on how we get there and what the hidden complications are as cards you turn over throughout the story. The character information about Cobb's wife is a great example of how to do this because it gives us a *question* right up front: why is Cobb accused of killing his wife? and then each card that is flipped over reveals a new piece of information that helps us solve that mystery. If we knew what they were trying to accomplish in the ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE dream, that dream would have worked better within the story. We would have been worried they would not accomplish the mission, instead of wondering what the hell the mission was. Each card flipped over would reveal new information that impacted achieving that goal. Make sure we understand the over-all goal of the story, and use the revealing of information to alter our course to that goal.
Even though Act 1 of a screenplay is the Set Up Act, we do not need to give the audience every single bit of information about the story before Act 2... and we do not *want* to do that. The rest of the script would end up dull! We need to establish the major characters and the main goal of the story and the conflict... and save the story details and characters details and plot complications due to revealed information as cards to play later in the game. We don't want to put all of our cards on the table in Act 1, because then the game would be over. We want to hold on to some cards to keep the audience guessing - does he have that third ace?
In INSOMNIA, Pacino's character's past is revealed a little at a time - making the character interesting because we KNOW he has a secret, we KNOW he's trying to hide the secret, but we aren't sure exactly what that secret might be. We don't have to know everything about your characters up front, we just need one character that we identify with and enough about the others that we THINK we know who they are. As the story goes on, you can add information that add dimension or even change our understanding of the character and their relation to the story.
Creating a mystery around a character or an event and parceling out clues as the story goes on, makes your story interesting and involving. In my PAST LIVES script from a few years ago, the protagonist, child psychologist Penny Temestra is introduced working in a county hospital in the Appalachian Mountains. On page 15 she has been working all night on a case and stops to take a shower. When she takes off her blouse we see a pair of ugly bullet exit wounds on her back. How did a nice girl like her get shot? Shot twice?
You'll have to wait another 50 pages to find out! Throughout those 50 pages there are clues to the incident in her past that lead to her being shot.
I could have explained her past when she was introduced but that would have been boring. A block of exposition where two doctors in the hospital might have discussed how she's almost back to normal since being shot... or maybe have Penny explain herself. Either way would have just dumped information on the audience in the least interesting way... instead of creating a mystery surrounding her character and revealing a little bit of the answer at a time over the course of the story.
I knew exactly what happened to Penny before I began writing the script - her past is what made her the person she is today. The character on page 80 has the same background as the character has on page 2 - revealing the information does not change the *character* it only gives us information about the character. My Penny character's actions on page 2 needed to *include* the information that would be revealed later. I had to know what that secret was and use it to shade the character (and create "clues") from the moment that character was introduced. So I knew Penny's dark past when I was writing page 1... but decided to hold that information back and reveal it at the most interesting time possible - in the most interesting way possible. Penny's past was my ace in the hole - I had it in my hand but I didn't let any of the other players know it was there.
And in INSOMNIA, Hillary Seitz knew all of the details of the IA investigation into Dormer from the very first scene - little clues we are given in that opening scene are critical to the mystery of Dormer's past... plus, the whole darned film is really about his past (but we don't know that until his past is revealed at the end of the film). She held onto that information so that she could tell the story in the most interesting way possible.
Same thing with Nolan's INCEPTION - he had to know what happened to Cobb's wife when he wrote the first scene - because that information impacts every single scene in the film. In one of the early heist dreams a train comes out of nowhere and screws things up, but that train really didn't come out of nowhere - it is part of the mystery of Cobb's wife. A clue that will not play out until close to the end of the film.
Before you can reveal it., you have to conceal it, and before you conceal it you have to know what it is. How you give the audience information is as important as the information itself. It's not just having a great story, it's finding a great way to TELL the story. Knowing when to reveal the cards, and when to hold them until later in the game.
INCEPTION is a film bursting with information, but instead of getting everything up front, the information is played out on a need-to-know basis... revealed at the best possible time for maximum impact. It is flawed, but also fun - how will a card revealed in this level of the dream impact the other levels?
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