MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
A CLEVER DIVERSION
Stephen King is suddenly popular on film again, so I thought we'd say hello to THE SECRET WINDOW based on a story by 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 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.
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, nobody 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!
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.
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.
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
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.
Your Screenplay Checklist:
1) If you have a plot twist, what is the diversion to focus attention away from the twist?
2) Does your diversion create a strong conflict?
3) Do you play fair with the audience? Is the twist something that was always present?
4) Does your twist require no explanation?
5) Do you need a secondary diversion conflict?
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Expanded version with more ways to create interesting dialogue! How to remove bad dialogue (and what *is* bad dialogue), First Hand Dialogue, Awful Exposition, Realism, 50 Professional Dialogue Techniques you can use *today*, Subtext, Subtitles, Humor, Sizzling Banter, *Anti-Dialogue*, Speeches, and more. Tools you can use to make your dialogue sizzle! Special sections that use dialogue examples from movies as diverse as "Bringing Up Baby", "Psycho", "Double Indemnity", "Notorious", the Oscar nominated "You Can Count On Me", "His Girl Friday", and many more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 175 pages!
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Use your creative energy to focus on the content; let Final Draft take care of the style. Final Draft is the number-one selling application specifically designed for writing movie scripts, television episodics and stage plays. Its ease-of-use and time-saving features have attracted writers for almost two decades positioning Final Draft as the Professional Screenwriters Choice. Final Draft power users include Academy, Emmy and BAFTA award winning writers like Oliver Stone, Tom Hanks, Alan Ball, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron and more.
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SCRIPT SECRETS STORE
SCRIPT SECRETS STORE
From Typing Monkey coffee cups to messenger bags to T shirts - everything a screenwriter needs to look sharp while working on that Oscar nomination!
Get your Script Secrets Coffee Cup today!
E BOOKS PAGE
E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of
text to around 200 pages! Some are over 250 pages! See what is availabale and what is coming soon!Also, I've been writing Novelletes and there
will soon be novels.
E BOOKS: BLUE BOOKS & NOVELLETES
MY OTHER SITES
B MOVIE WORLD
Cult Films, Exploitation, Bikers & Women In Prison, Monster Movies.
FIRST STRIKE PRODUCTIONS
Producing my own scripts, investment possibilities, pipe dreams.
NAKED SCREENWRITING CDs
The NAKED SCREENWRITING CLASS ON CD!
The 2001 London Class on 8 CDs! Recorded *live* the morning after the Raindance Film Festival
wrapped. The two day class on 8CDs, plus a workbook, plus a bonus CD with PDFs.
The 2 Day Class on CD!
Every screenwriting book in the world!
In Association With Amazon.com
From the latest screenwriting book to
guides for finding agents and producers... all with at the
BOOKLETS & PRODUCTS
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
nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines,
several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
CLASSES ON CD
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!