THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
My new script is about this guy who goes to this place and meets this girl
and then this thing happens and after that some other things happen, and he gets kinda messed up,
but then he fixes everything and then he and the girl leave that place and the script is over.
What do you think? Wanna buy it?
When you write scripts intended to be filmed, you walk a tight-rope between vague and specific.
I have an old article about it somewhere (needs a rewrite) about walking that tight-rope. The
problem is, no matter where your script takes place, chances are they will film it in Vancouver.
So you need a script that isn't so specific that it can't be shot in Vancouver or Romania or
wherever the good film deal is this week. At the same time, you don't want your script to be bland
and take place in Generic City. You want distinctive, interesting locations... that can be filmed
The same is true with characters. We don't want to do anything that will limit casting - like
create a character with specific physical characteristic (there's a great series of mysteries
about a circus dwarf who now works as a private eye - though Tom Cruise is short, he's not
*that* short). Our lead characters need to be playable by anyone on that big list of movie stars -
from Tom Hanks to Denzel Washington to Seth Rogen to Antonio Banderas. So the physical elements
of the character will depend on who they cast... but the characters still need to be *characters*.
They need to be distinctive and interesting and *individual* - not Generic People.
21, starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess is based on a true story...
which probably wasn't as boring as the film. It couldn't have been this generic. The story seems
completely by the numbers, with the only real thing to recommend it being the fantasy element -
college kids suddenly become high rollers in Vegas and get comped into everything. That's a
"dream fulfilment" concept... unfortunately, the rest of the film will probably put you to sleep.
21 is so generic, it seems like the outline for a screenplay instead of a movie -
everything is sketchy, and many of the characters and scenes seem like those place holders you
may dash off when you're writing a first draft against the clock. Later you'll come back and
make the scene or character distinctive and interesting. Except no one ever came back to fix
We start out with some tin-ear dialogue - awful OTN stuff. Completely generic stuff. The story
is about whiter-than-white college kid Ben who goes to MIT and *dreams* of going to Harvard Med.
That's his motivation - he has this dream. He doesn't want to be a doctor to help people or be a
doctor to cure cancer or be a doctor to make lots of money... he just dreams of going to Harvard
Med. End of goal. He seems to have *no goal* after he graduates from Harvard Med. Just this completely generic
goal for a completely generic character. He has no personality. He has a goal that's sketchy.
He has no personality. He isn't interesting. The only thing that makes him different than some
plastic mannequin is that he's freaky good with numbers... which isn't all that interesting, but
does kind of explain how he got into MIT. Here's the problem with having the *one* character
trait given to your MIT student be that he's good with numbers... it's MIT, everyone here is good
with numbers! One of the weird things is that this guy has this generic need to go to Harvard Med,
when he's already at one of the top universities in the world. It kind of negates that generic
goal - he's already in a top college. And what's he doing at MIT if he wants to go to Harvard Med? Never explained.
You need to know as much about your characters as is humanly possible - focusing on the things
that define them and make them different than any other character in any other movie. Because that
thing probably isn't going to be something physical (that would limit casting) you need to focus
on the *character* of the character: their attitude, background, goals, fears, influences,
personality, hobbies, pasts, quirks and anything else that makes them unique. What makes your lead character
different? Focus on those elements and make sure they come out through actions and dialogue. If
we can't *see* or *hear* the difference, it doesn't exist.
If you don't show it, the audience
can't know it.
Generic Ben has these two fake friends, who seem like place holders for characters to be created
later. They are generic nerds, who have a generic science project.... and here's the thing - they
look completely different than our hero (though exactly the same as each other). He's a handsome
guy, they are cliche chubby nerdy guys. So you *know* that he's going to dump them and move up.
Both of the generic nerdy placeholder friends look and act exactly alike - making one of them
redundant. Whenever you have any characters that spend a bunch of screen time together, you need
to accentuate the differences between them and make sure that each fulfills a different *story
purpose*. If both best friends serve the same purpose in your story - combine them into one
character. Here we have two generic nerd friends who are working on the same science project with
Ben - and he will abandon them and the science project (which is even a generic plot point).
You don't want to litter your script with hundreds of little details about your character -
find the one detail that defines the character, the main thing that makes this person, place,
scene, or thing different and focus on that. Use that element to influence dialogue, actions,
props, and everything else. If there are a million little things that make two characters different,
it will be difficult for the audience to see all of those little things in a 2 hour movie. Instead, find the one
big thing and use that. This may not be easy, but it's our job.
Generic Ben works at a retail job in a clothing store... that is pure hell. Except, it's not.
We see him goofing off in the back room, and his job is dealing with upscale people buying upscale
clothes. We never see him actually doing any *work* - he sells some clothes, using that freaky
numbers thing, but the customer is a nice generic customer. Nothing is more generic than working
retail when you're a college kid character. Though that may be a *realistic* job for a collage kid,
there's lots of room to customize "retail" - a clothing store is pretty bland. Why not a hardware
store? A plumbing supply store? A hunting & fishing store? Or have him work in a rest home? And if the
character was more distinctive and had a less generic background, he might work in some other
industry - some people do work non-retail jobs to get through college.
Ben hates his cushy retail job selling upscale clothes to rich people... When I worked at Safeway
Grocery, they would send me to other stores to fill in for people on vacation sometimes... and no
matter how much seniority I had at my store, in the other stores I was the guy they gave the crap
jobs to - and that usually meant cleaning the public restrooms, an *actual* crap job. I scrubbed
toilets. That's the kind of job you learn to dislike. That's the kind of job that makes you say
"Yes" when someone asks if you'd like to do something on the fringe of illegal. But he's got a
nice, clean job selling upscale suits. It's a bland generic job - and doesn't seem like anything
that you would hate. Too generic to have *any* real feelings about.
In fact, when Ben complains about his job, instead of feeling sympathy... I think he's a wuss complainer and I actively dislike him. I'm not sure that's why the writer intended.
Then comes a scene in this generic movie where you think there may be some kinky (interesting!)
subplot. Our bland hero Ben starts to flirt with an older diner waitress... then he says he's
coming home with her! Heck, she's old enough to be his mother! Is this some aspect of his
character that makes him different and interesting? But then we figure out she *is* his mother.
It was a bad way to introduce her... but after that, his relationship with his mom? Bland. She
loves and supports him... no drama, nothing interesting - she's kind of a generic, place holder
character. The generic mom - would you like some milk and cookies?
She works in a diner, and they live in a completely generic suburban home. They could have done
something interesting here - since they were hinting that Ben is some kid at MIT on a full
scholarship. They could have made Ben into a poor kid from a working class background - and had
his day job been something where his hands get dirty. Manual labor. A blue collar job of some sort.
And instead of that suburban house, mom could have lived in some slum apartment. That might have
been interesting - gritty kid from the streets works as a janitor but is really a brainiac...
wait, that's GOOD WILL HUNTING (a much better movie). How do you like them apples?
The plot comes from Kevin Spacey's character, an MIT professor who brings our generic hero
Ben onto his team of card counters who fly to Vegas on weekends to make lots of money. Ben says
he's only interested in making enough to pay for his dream of going to Harvard Med, then he quits.
The other members on the team are all place holders - they have no characters. Sure, one is a
klepto, and one is a pretty boy and one likes to wear wigs... but none of these are *characters* -
they are sketches waiting to be filled in and shaded. Externals with nothing under their skin.
Kate Bosworth plays the girl - and that's pretty much what her role is. Our generic hero Ben
has the hots for her, and there are scenes where they talk for a moment - this is supposed to
show the relationship progressing. Except they don't have a relationship. It's almost as if the
talk scenes are placeholders, and the writers planned to come back and actually write a romantic
subplot... then forgot. Eventually she invites him to a comped room in Vegas, and you're thinking
- they have no relationship at all! We know *nothing* about her - in fact, we know so little about
her that I thought for a while she might be Spacey's daughter. Through all of those talk scenes,
we never learned a single thing about her! Is she Spacey's daughter? Is she Spacey's lover? Is she
Spacey's TA? At no time are any of the *relationships* between characters defined in any way.
That's why that scene in the diner where Ben seems to be picking up the frumpy woman old enough to
be his mother is so strange - they never did anything to show us what the relationship was,
allowing us to jump to a strange conclusion.
Generic Ben and Kate don't have anything in common, other than they're in the same movie and
on the same card counting team... hey, why doesn't she hook up with one of the other guys? Or
Spacey? There is no relationship - other than the generic boy and girl thing. So our generic
hero Ben goes up to her room, and they kiss in front of a penthouse window overlooking Vegas....
but they have no conversation! They have no characters! Afterwards, they don't act like slept
together - they treat each other like strangers... which is pretty much how they treated each
other before. It's bland. No drama. No real characters. It's a placeholder scene - an outline of
a scene, but not a scene.
Okay, if I were some math nerd who just slept with Kate Bosworth, I'd be dancing on the ceiling
like Fred Astaire. My whole character would change... and I'd be kinda nervous that I might say
or do the wrong thing and it would never happen again... at the same time as I'd worry that she
might read too much into it and be pricing wedding gowns. But that wouldn't stop me from grinning
like an idiot all day. When you're a college kid, you have your whole future ahead of you - and
sometimes that weighs on you in strange ways. Sometimes you worry about the consequences of your
actions at the same time you're excited about those actions... especially if you've had zero
conversations about relationships. But our generic hero Ben just acts as if he never had sex
with Kate Bosworth. I find that unrealistic - which is a big problem when everything is generic...
nothing is real. Kate doesn't act like she just had sex with Ben, either... she's just the generic
hot chick placeholder character in this story.
Also in Vegas, we have the place holder for a villain, played by Larry Fishburne... who seems
like he belongs in some other movie - some 1950s mob flick. He's a cliche leg breaker... but in
modern Vegas. Completely out of place! They keep trying to find ways to Scotch tape him into
the story - but he seems like he stumbled in from some other film. Since card counting is not
illegal, just frowned upon, they needed some physical threat - and that's Fish. He beats people
up just for fun - because modern Vegas isn't mobbed up anymore. He seems to have no purpose,
no motivation, no real employer. It's as if someone gave him a card that says "Bad Guy" and
he's stuck playing it.
The film just goes through the motions, ticking off scenes until they reach the running time...
but none of it adds up to anything. The characters seem like sketches, there is no drama, there
is no actual conflict, and we don't care. The film has no "juice" - we feel nothing at all.
There is no suspense or mystery or romance or excitement or anything. One character says "In
Vegas you can be anybody" - except none of these people live a fantasy life. Sure, they put on
wigs or moustaches and go to strip clubs - but they don't live any fantasy. They just play cards.
This was a major fumble, because the dream this concept sells to the audience is that fantasy
life. You can be anything you want in Vegas, I want to see the characters becoming their
fantasies - living their fantasy lives. Doing more than just pasting on a fake moustache.
Real life is full of amazing con men and women who created whole personalities for themselves -
from royalty to adventurers to the illegitimate spawn of the famous and the infamous. If you
could be anyone or anything - what would you be? Your imagination is the only limit!
But in 21, the kids just stick on fake moustaches and pretend to be generic high rollers.
None of these characters are defined clearly enough to know who they are in their regular life,
let alone some fantasy life. So the audience's fantasies are not fulfilled. We don't get to live
vicariously through these characters, and the story lets us down.
Eventually Spacey gets to say, "You know what I'm capable of!" as a threat... but we don't know
what he's talking about, so it's an empty threat - even a silly threat. They never defined what
Spacey is capable of - they never really defined who Spacey is. Why is he running this card
counting team? Does he dream of going to Harvard Med, too? None of the characters have any
motivations, none of them have any *character*. When Spacey makes his threat, it's because the
generic story needs a generic threat at that time to keep things moving. But the threat is
meaningless and silly.
When they come to the end of the list of generic scenes with generic characters and we get
the closing credits... I didn't feel anything. I didn't care... and I didn't really believe any
of these people or events ever existed, even though it's based on a true story.
When you are writing your script, you need to know: What makes this scene different? What
makes this character unique? Make sure every line of dialogue in your script has never been used
in any other movie. What defines this relationship? What *is* this relationship? You don't want
to ever have a placeholder or generic element in your finished screenplay. Everything needs
to be unique - one of a kind. For every scene of your screenplay you should know - what do you
want the audience to feel? And how are you making them feel that? If they aren't feeling anything,
they are just sitting there... wondering when the damned movie is going to be over. 21 is
a placeholder of a movie...
Just say no to generics... give us the details that make your characters and your script come
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*** YOUR IDEA MACHINE *** - For Kindle!
*** YOUR IDEA MACHINE *** - For Nook!
Expanded version with more ways to find great ideas! Your screenplay is going to begin with an idea. There are good ideas and bad ideas and commercial ideas and personal ideas. But where do you find ideas in the first place? This handbook explores different methods for finding or generating ideas, and combining those ideas into concepts that sell. The Idea Bank, Fifteen Places To Find Ideas, Good Ideas And Bad Ideas, Ideas From Locations And Elements, Keeping Track Of Your Ideas, Idea Theft - What Can You Do? Weird Ways To Connect Ideas, Combing Ideas To Create Concepts, High Concepts - What Are They? Creating The Killer Concept, Substitution - Lion Tamers & Hitmen, Creating Blockbuster Concepts, Magnification And The Matrix, Conflict Within Concept, Concepts With Visual Conflict, Avoiding Episodic Concepts, much more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 175 pages!
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PRO DIALOGUE TECHNIQUES!
*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Kindle!
*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Nook!
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!
Only $4.99 - and no postage!
Movie Magic Screenwriter is the best selling screenplay formatting software and the choice of Hollywood professionals. Screenwriter automatically formats while you write so you can focus on what you're writing, not where it goes on the page. It also formats for television, stage, novels and comic book scripts so you've got an all in one package for any story you want to write. Academy Award Tech Winner!
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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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