MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

A CLEVER DIVERSION

stir of echoes - Buy it!

Tticket buyers seemed to have said "bye bye" to THE BYE BYE MAN, so I thought we'd say hello to a scary David Koepp movie...THE SECRET WINDOW based on a story by Stephen King and written and directed by Koepp. In case you don't know, Koepp began as the writer of small thriller films like APARTMENT ZERO and BAD INFLUENCE and soon became the first guy on the list for any big budget summer blockbuster. He wrote the scripts for JURASSIC PARK, THE LOST WORLD, and the first MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie and the first SPIDER-MAN. Writing those huge films opened the door for Koepp to sit in the director's chair, starting with the low budget dramatic thriller THE TRIGGER EFFECT (about a massive power outage that triggers what may be the end of the world) - shot in Sacramento, and that lead to the under-rated supernatural flick STIR OF ECHOES (based on the novel by Richard Matheson). Many critics thought ECHOES was superior to THE SIXTH SENSE (which came out at about the same time, starred Bruce Willis, and was released through a major studio).

After seeing SECRET WINDOW, I think Koepp is a much better director than he is a writer. He finds interesting and imaginative ways to film scenes, and he really knows how to *use cinematic techniques* to pull the audience into the story. He's such a good director, I think we've been deprived of his true talents for all of those years he was trying to connect a bunch of action set pieces into something that makes sense for a movie like MISSION IMPOSSIBLE.

SECRET WINDOW has some of the most imaginatively shot scenes of the year, another great performance by Johnny Depp, but it also has a twist ending you can see from a mile away. So let's take a look at how plot twists work, and how SECRET WINDOW's twist end might have been made to work better. Even though the film was #1 on DVD last week, so many of you have probably seen it, I need to warn you that there are spoilers in this tip! I'm going to try to be discrete and only talk about things you may have seen in the trailer or TV ad, but we're still going to be looking at the end of the movie.

Plot twists work by diversion.

sixth sense - Buy it!

When the twist comes at the end of a movie, there really isn't any time to explain the twist - and we're in Act 3 (too late to set up story information). So when the twist is revealed, it has to make complete sense. When a good plot twist is revealed, we wonder why we didn't see it earlier. It's *obvious*.

The end twist of THE SIXTH SENSE is so obvious we should have seen it coming from a mile away. I mean, Bruce Willis gets shot, the kid tells him he sees dead people, no body else seems able to see Willis (his own wife completely ignores him during their anniversary dinner), and he never seems to change clothes. How come we never figured it out? The minute the truth about Bruce is revealed we don't need any more explanation - it was right there in front of us the entire times. How could we miss it?

There was this clever little diversion. Like a magician who shows you that there s nothing up his sleeve while he palms a quarter with the other hand, the key to a good plot twist is to make the audience look in the wrong direction. In THE SIXTH SENSE we are so focused on that kid who sees dead people that we don't notice Bruce Willis doesn't seem to connect or communicate with anyone except that kid who sees dead people. The kid diversion leads to other diversions - like that murdered little girl and the people hanging around at school. If you watch THE SIXTH SENSE and concentrate on Bruce Willis' character, the twist end is pretty obvious... but the story uses the kid and the other dead people as diversions so you never see it coming.

Because your twist needs to be obvious (no time for explaining) you need powerful diversions to keep the audience from seeing that twist coming from a mile away... and here is where SECRET WINDOWS could use a little work.

CAUTION: SECRET WINDOW SPOILERS!

secret window - Buy it!

THE SECRET WINDOW is about a burned out writer (Johnny Depp) who seems to be suffering from permanent writer's block. Divorced, maybe close to broke, he sleeps on the sofa of his summer cabin in a ratty bathrobe, surrounded by junk... waiting for that elusive inspiration to strike. A crazy guy named Shooter (John Turturo) knocks on his door one day and accuses him of plagiarism - claiming that Depp stole his most famous story, THE SECRET WINDOW. From that point on, Depp's life goes to hell - Shooter continues to threaten him, Depp's ex-wife (Maria Bello) and her new boyfriend (Tim Hutton) flaunt their relationship, and people keep dying in unusual and unexpected ways. Who knew being a writer could be so exciting?

Sometimes your twist end can be telegraphed by things outside of your control. The combination of Tim Hutton and Stephen King made me remember THE DARK HALF - a previous film based on a King story about a writer with a split personality... and that's too danged close to the end of SECRET WINDOW.

But casting Tim Hutton creates another diversion problem - because he's not menacing enough to work as a diversion. I had trouble believing that he might have hired Shooter - and trouble believing that he was a threat to Depp. Every time they are in a scene together, Depp bests him - outsmarts him or outmaneuvers him. Hutton is constantly being ridiculed by Depp, and when he gets violent and tries to punch the writer... Depp moves faster than Ali and Hutton slams his hand into a car door. This is not the way it should be! Hutton should be constantly besting Depp - this is the guy who stole his wife and now has hired this psycho to threaten Depp. We need the diversion to be a threat - a problem that sticks in the front of our minds and clouds us from seeing that obvious twist. Imagine if Michael Madsen had played the Hutton role: this big, mean, violent guy... who turns on the charm whenever the wife is around. Depp can clearly see the guy is evil, but his wife just thinks he's not a wimp like Depp.

Though screenwriters can't do anything about casting, we can make sure the character's actions are so threatening to our protagonist that it creates a strong diversion. The problem is - if Hutton isn't the bad guy, who is? The key to a good plot twist is a STRONG diversion, and Hutton is a weak diversion.

Lack of diversion is also the problem with Act 2...

Shooter claims Depp stole his story, so part of Act 2 should be Depp trying to find proof that he wrote the story first. The Secret Window story was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine - and a copy of the magazine with the copyright notice should resolve the conflict with Shooter. That will create a *story based* diversion - we'll be so focused on the Depp's quest to prove that he's innocent of the charges that we don't notice that obvious twist. If the story is about a writer accused of plagiarism - that's what the story should be about! But the film doesn't spend much time on Depp proving that the plagiarism charges are false - and that gives us a lot of time to think... and we can't help but figure out that twist end.

bad influence - Buy it!

Also in the film a *past* plagiarism is hinted at, and it needs to be focused on. Why? Because trying to find out who else knew about his previous act of plagiarism will focus us away from that end twist! We need enough suspects in our story to keep us from figuring out who the real killer is. What if Shooter was hired by the writer that Depp previously stole story material from?

In fact - why isn't that other writer a suspect in this story? I would think that's the first place Depp would go (if he thought Shooter was hired). And wht incident made him think Shooter was hired? Nothing! That needed to be part of Act 2 - proving that Shooter just isn't a writer. This would have been fun, because it gets into what makes someone talented as a writer. Education? Nope! Knowledge of literature? Nope! It all comes down to the writing. So Depp might have devised some secret tests for Shooter - and he keeps failing them. That's when Shooter springs *his story's* ending on Depp - the one that's better than Depp's version. Crap - this guy may have really be a writer!

But meanwhile, Depp is exploring the idea that Shooter is just hired muscle. Hired by that writer he plagerized or by Hutton.

the hook - Buy it!

Since the whole movie is about Shooter claiming that Depp stole his story, we really need to get into that past event. Why did Depp steal that past story? How? I know - we're treading into DEATHRAP territory, here, but isn't that the scenario? There's a Don Westlake novel called THE HOOK about a pair of writers who steal stories from each other, too. If our story is about plagiarism, we need to dive head-first into that issue... so that we aren't thinking about our story's obvious ending. We could have had another suspect! We could have had more investigation for Depp's character, which focuses us on the investigation instead of the obvious ending.

The other Act 2 problem - all of the bodies came at once... and the cop never investigated! To create a good diversion, we need to keep the audience thinking about the diversion material - and that means spreading it out. Stringing along the audience so that they believe the diversion is the real story, when it's really just a clever diversion that keeps you from noticing that obvious ending.

So all of these exciting incidents in Act 2 needed to be spread out, and the cop needed to be another diversion.

After telling the private eye (Charles Dutton, not Tim Hutton) about the witness, Depp should have had a visist from Shooter who told him that no one saw them together. When Depp says that's not true, Shooter smiles and says "Yes it is." As if Shooter knows something. When Shooter leaves, Depp goes to the witnesses house, finds the body (and we should know the murder weapon is Depp's without Shooter telling us - you want to set things up before they happen so that the audience *knows* - that's the difference between having an emotional impact and a verbal explanation which needs to be processed intellectually). Now Depp has been framed by Shooter! We're so busy worrying about the frame that we forget never notice the twist being set up. Depp has to get rid of the body, so he puts it in the victim's truck and rolls the truck off the cliff... and loses his watch!

Now Dutton goes to meet the witness, who isn't there. He tells Depp the witness disappeared, but he's going to do a massive search for the witness, since that witness may be able to clear Depp. Crap! Now Depp's own private investigator is looking for the dead witness, killed with Depp's screwdriver, with Depp's watch with the dead body! The suspense this generates will create an amazing diversion! Also, we have some great irony - and writers love irony.

Meanwhile, I'd have that small town cop begin investigating the missing witness. More things for the audience to worry about - which diverts us from the twist end. The more time the audience spends thinking about other suspects and other sources of conflict for the protagonist, the less time they can think about figuring out that twist end. There are movies that have incredibly stupid plots, but they move so fast you never really have time to figure out they're stupid until a few minutes after the house lights come up. We don't want to write dumb movies, but we can use fast pacing to our advantage to keep the audience from guessing that clever twist end we came up with.

While Depp (and the audience) is worried about that small town cop's investigation, I'd have Dutton discover the truck somehow, and call Depp. But Dutton also has some evidence on Shooter. Something that might absolve Depp. A chance to resolve the conflict and get out of trouble is a great diversion!

So Depp races out to meet Dutton... and finds him dead! And Shooter's there. And we get that great Depp/Shooter scene from the film. Now Shooter leaves him with even more problems - an *escalating* conflict. Depp dumps Dutton's body and car in the same water with the witness' body and car... and just for fun I'd PSYCHO that scene and have Dutton's car land on the dead Witness' car and it doesn't sink... for a while. Suspense always works as a diversion - even just scene suspense. Because it engages the audience's *emotions* they become involved in suspense, and stop trying to figure out your twist ending.

apartment zero - Buy it!

Now the small town cop questions Depp about the private investigator, and Depp says he went back to New York City. But this scene would create lots of suspense. I'd also have Shooter leave his hat in Depp's house, and the cop ask if the hat is Depp's... because a guy wearing a hat like that is prime suspect in the witness' disappearance. Depp says the hat isn't his. The cop wants to know why he has someone else's hat. Depp says someone left it at his house. The cop wants to know *who* - because the hat guy is a suspect. Now Depp tells the cop about Shooter and the threats. He doesn'mention the murders. But guess what? The cop now wants to start an official search for the witness or his body! They're going to comb the woods, search everywhere - even that lake or whatever where the cars and bodies are hidden. Crap! We've just escalated the conflict even more - and that keeps us from thinking about the twist end.

The idea is to create a diversion so strong that we don't have time to figure out the obvious. With more going on in Act 2, and *two* murders instead of one double homicide, we make the diversion seem more real. Shooter is doing *twice as much* evil with the same body count.

And Shooter needs to *actively* plant evidence that points to Depp. It's not just Depp's watch, it's the sleeve of his bathrobe that was used to gag Dutton - and even when he gets it out of Dutton's dead mouth, there are fibers in his throat that can't be removed. And instead of a hatchet as the murder weapon, why not an Edgar Award? (The award given to Best Mystery Fiction - like that Secret Window story in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.) Something that points right to Depp. Shooter can even say "That should have been my award - so I took it and used it to get my story back."

By making the small town cop into a force of antagonism, you have an additional diversion - which actually helps the story! Because not only will the audience feel like Depp is being persecuted, it's secretly pointing out who the real killer is! The audience will feel sorry for Depp because there's all of this false evidence manufactured by Shooter that points to Depp... but that's a two way clue (the evidence really does point to Depp).

If the audience is juggling razor sharp meat cleavers they are less likely to notice a grizzly bear standing right in front of them - their focus is on the meat cleavers. And if you throw another meat cleaver into the mix every time It looks like they're becoming confident enough in their juggling skills to take their eyes off their work, they may not notice the grizzly bear until it's too late.

Hutton, the small town cop, and Act 2 could have been great diversions for that twist end - but they just weren't strong enough. So you figure out the twist right away and the rest of the movie just kind of trudges along. We know where it's going, so we become impatient for it to get there.

Of course, once we get to that twist end, Koepp the director really works some visual magic and saves the film. For a small film with a limited cast, Koepp manages to use special effects in ways I've never seen them used before. He really deserves a chance to direct bigger films...

As long as they have scripts with clever diversions.


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BOOKLETS & PRODUCTS

bluebook FIRST STRIKE BLUE BOOKS
Each Blue Book is 48 pages and focuses on a different aspect of screenwriting. Dialogue. Visual Storytelling. Your First Ten Pages. Act 2 Booster. Protagonists. Great Endings.
Seventeen Blue Books now available!

THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The Market!

BILL'S CORNER

My nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines, several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
...............................BILL'S CORNER


Available Scripts

CLASSES ON CD

Class CDs CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!