THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
TWO STORIES, ONE SCRIPT
Novels and screenplays are two entirely different animals. The writer of a
brilliant novel may not have the skills required to write a screenplay... and vice versa. Though,
for the most part, these skills can be learned - so a brilliant novelist can probably write a
brilliant screenplay... and vice versa. But they are different mediums, and require different
skills. Just because I can drive a car doesn't mean I will instantly know how to fly a plane.
And techniques and literary devices that work well in novels often don't work at all in a screenplay
- can you imagine a film that is nothing but correspondence projected on the screen? (Epistolary
Yet writers often attempt to use a technique that works in one medium in another, with varied
degrees of success and failure. Many novels contain multiple plot threads that eventually connect
at the end. When I was offered the job of adapting ANGELS & DEMONS, the main reason why I turned
it down was because it had two separate plots that eventually came together at the end - and that
usually doesn't work on film. We only have a couple of hours to tell a film story, and telling
*one* story in that amount of time is usually a challenge. Plus, the shifting back and forth
between stories can be confusing and often lessens audience identification and involvement.
As I've said in other Script Tips - one movie, one story. Multiple stories is a device that
works well in novels, but is close to impossible to pull off on screen.
But what if you want to give it a try? This Script Tip explores the methods that work
best when you plan on telling two stories in one screenplay...
The great Dalton Trumbo adapted Edward Abbey's novel into LONELY ARE THE BRAVE with two stories
which meet up at the end (with a bang) and it's a great film... but part of that is our foreknowledge
that Carrol O'Conner's truck driver and Kirk Douglas' cowboy are on a collision course. Part of the adaptation was to give
O'Conner's trucker very little screen time. The script focuses on Douglas' story thread - the novel
was called BRAVE COWBOY not TRUCK DRIVER (in a strange way, this movie is the predecessor of FIRST
BLOOD). An entire story thread about a draft dodger never made it to film at all, and the small
town sheriff exists only as part of the cowboy's story in the film. Part of adapting a multiple
story novel is often picking which of the stories to tell... and jettisoning the others.
COP VS. CROOK
So when Steve Zaillian, the closest thing we have to Dalton Trumbo today, came out with his new
film AMERICAN GANGSTER, I was prepared to love it.... but I didn't. People have asked me about the
structure - the idea of cop and crook stories that come together at the end. That's been done many
times, the best of them is Michael Mann's HEAT. In HEAT the cop (Al Pacino) and the crook (Robert
DeNiro) really only have one scene together... and it's one hell of a scene. Compare that scene to
the Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe scene in GANGSTER. Kind of disappointing.
If you look at HEAT, there are three stories:
1) The cop chasing the crook.
From early on Pacino is chasing the wrecking crew guys, trying to get a bead on them, following
them, spying on them... interacting with them in some way. Though Pacino and DeNiro only have the
one scene, the rest of the movie is cat and mouse with Pacino chasing DeNiro and his men - actively
pursuing them. There is direct conflict between Pacino's team and DeNiro's team from the very
beginning of the movie until the very end. That conflict is what *drives* the story.
In AMERICAN GANGSTER Russell Crowe is after drug dealers, and targeting Blue Magic... but we mostly
see the big board and not much actual investigation on his part. And he has no idea Denzel and his
team even exist - until the very end of the movie Crowe believes that Italians are behind the drug
trade, with the African Americans just doing the sales work. The concept that an African American
is the big drug kingpin comes very late in the film. Eventually we have the undercover buy scene...
and that takes us to the dirty cops rather than Denzel and his crew. So it's really a dead end.
Not much actual pursuit or police work in GANGSTER... and no direct conflict between cops and
crooks. Story is conflict - without that direct conflict we have two separate stories until the
2) The crook's life.
Here's where HEAT totally kicks ass over AMERICAN GANGSTER. Early on, DeNiro gives his big rule
for surviving as an armed robber - "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing
to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." This rule makes him a
man alone (who claims he's not lonely, but who does he think he's fooling?). Right after he reveals
this rule he meets a woman in a book store and begins a relationship. This creates a great conflict
- we want DeNiro to find love and have a relationship... but we know this violates his big rule
(and that rule is there for a reason). So we are torn. Should he keep her? Dump her? And as the
police close in - the *relationship* is in jeopardy. The crook's life story is directly tied to
the cop & crook story!
In AMERICAN GANGSTER they attempt to contrast Denzel as the family man with Crowe as the guy
losing his family in a divorce... but there is no *conflict* in either story. Denzel just rises to
power and brings his family along. Sure, there's a quick scene with a brother who screws up, but
there is no drama *built in* to his story. He just rises to power.
If you just compare the Denzel part of the story to a movie like SCARFACE (either version - but Pacino stars in the remake) it's
also the lesser film. In SCARFACE with have Tony coming to America with nothing and struggling to
work his way to the top. Every step to the top is filled with conflict - and chainsaws and bathtubs.
Denzel *starts out* as Bumpy's right hand man - the #2 guy - and after Bumpy is killed, he instantly
becomes the #1 guy. No conflict, no struggle - it's automatic. Now, he's more intelligent than
Bumpy and manages to build his empire... but it's a pre-existing empire. Not as dramatic as starting
with nothing and fighting your way to the top. Hey, I'm not even going to mention the wife/sister
emotional conflicts in SCARFACE. So, even if we just look at the gangster side of the story,
GANGSTER is lacking the drama and emotional conflicts that other gangster movies have. That makes
it difficult to sustain this half of the two story movie. If each story were exciting on its own,
we have something to involve us in each story until they come together at the end.
Okay, and now let's compare the *crimes* these crooks are involved in. In AMERICAN GANGSTER Denzel
is basically on the phone making deals, or in Thailand making deals. Neither is exciting. Though it
may be *interesting* on an intellectual level that he's treating drugs as a business, movies are
visceral. They are emotional rather than intellectual. Watching a businessman do business is...
dull. The most excitement we get in Denzel's story is when he blows away a rival during lunch...
and that's a great scene. It contrasts the concept of business and crime. What we needed were fewer
scenes of Denzel doing deals and more scenes with Denzel doing away with rivals. Except that would
turn him into a gangster instead of a businessman.
There are some cool movies that look at the business of crime, including that GODFATHER movie
starring DeNiro and Pacino. But Michael Corleone wasn't afraid to mix business and murder. That
was the point. When we soft-pedal the crime aspects of a criminal business, we end up removing the
conflict and ending up with a movie about making deals... and that doesn't even have as much
conflict as an episode of THE OFFICE. If Denzel Washington is playing a crook, he needs to act
In HEAT Robert DeNiro is involved in *armed robbery* and we not only get that great set piece
robbery and shoot out, we get all kinds of action along the way. Shoot outs. Suspense. Chases.
You could remove every element of the "Pacino story" and still have a great film. Now, Denzel's
story could have focused on the action side of his business (a previous version of this story,
Larry Cohen's BLACK CAESAR, focused on the war between the black crime lord and the Mafia), but
it focused on the businessman side. You may say, "Hey - that's the story!" but watching a guy
make phone calls is boring. Not the best choice for a story about a crook...
Even though HEAT has that great street shootout, what makes it more involving than GANGSTER
isn't the *action* it's the *conflict*. Sure, that conflict is explored through machinegun fire...
but it could have been dramatic conflict. We need conflict for drama... and then we need to
actually have dramatic scenes. The closest GANGSTER gets to any sort of conflict is that quick scene
when Frank's brother Huey (the always amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor) screws up... but this is resolved
almost immediately. The conflict doesn't build, it's just a quick episode in the gangster's life.
3) The cop's life.
In HEAT Pacino is having the same kind of relationship issues as Crowe in GANGSTER... Both are
dealing with realtionship and family issues. The difficulties of a cop's life on a family. But
those problems are tied to the cop chases crook story in HEAT, and connected to nothing at all
in AMERICAN GANGSTER.. In HEAT, every time Pacino needs to spend time with his wife or daughter,
the case comes up and he has to dump them (creating big dramatic conflicts). He is constantly
having to chose between job and family, and he picks job every time. This escalates his family
problems. Even when he is with his wife, there is conflict about the times he wasn't with her.
The conflict escalates throughout the story - coming to a big breaking point when his daughter
needs to be rushed to the hospital at the moment the case is really breaking. Now there's a dramatic decision!
Compare this to Crowe in AMERICAN GANGSTER, who gets a bunch of fairly dull scenes in court
getting a divorce and then *not* fighting for joint custody of his daughter. Crowe doesn't even
try to keep his relationship going - which makes his life non-dramatic. The relationship is dead
when the film begins - and just stays dead. No conflict, no struggle, no drama.
Now, you may say: "Hey - based on a true story. What choice did they have?" Well, no story on
film is really true - everything gets dramatized... and the other folks who were involved seem to
think Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts exaggerated everything and made them the stars... when there
were two other major black crime lords in New York at the time (one doesn't even get mentioned in
the film - and that is the guy who, up until this film, was seen as the #1 black crime lord of
all time). If they fudged some major things in the story, why not fudge some minor ones and make
it more dramatic? Instead of starting out with Richie's marriage on the rocks, why not show it
disintegrating (more dramatic) throughout the film? If you are going to fudge the facts here and
there, do it to make a better film - a more dramatic film.
Though AMERICAN GANGSTER got a couple of Oscar nominations, HEAT is the movie that people quote
lines from and buy on DVD. I think GANGSTER will end up a forgotten footnote, and HEAT will remain a classic.
The key to any story is conflict. If you have multiple story threads, the key is to make sure
each thread has a strong conflict that escalates throughout that thread, creating dramatic scenes
- you don't need to have cars and buildings exploding, but people's tempers need to explode.
Film is a dramatic medium - so we need to see that drama exploding on screen. A novel can be
internal, a film is only what we can see and hear (externals). We need to bring the conflict to
the surface in dramatic confrontations - with or without automatic weapons. And while each story
thread has its conflict, each story thread *must* impact the other to create conflict and drama.
All of the threads end up part of the big story, so they must be connected - entwined. HEAT and
AMERICAN GANGSTER are similar stories, yet where HEAT is an amazing, exciting, involving epic,
AMERICAN GANGSTER is an epic style film with two great actors that looks good and tells a story...
but comes off like a dull documentary. Uninvolving.
The key to telling *any* story is conflict - the key to telling more than one story in a film
is also conflict. The more you fracture the film, the more important conflict becomes.
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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!