THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
MAN WITH A PLAN
Every once in a while, I get "caught in a whirlwind". A dozen things happen to me at the same time, and I lose track of my goals. The day comes to an end, and I haven't written any pages on my script. I feel like that guy who used to spin plates on the tips of pool cues on the Ed Sullivan show, running from one small emergency to the next but never getting anything done.
This happens frequently to protagonists in action scripts and farce comedies. They can get caught in the whirlwind of a scene; lots of action, but they end up exactly where they started out. Instead of making progress, they seem to be pointlessly running around - lots of action but nothing to show for it. The problem with scenes like this is that they are just as pointless as the character's actions...
A waste of the audience's time.
The key is to give your protagonist small goals within the scene which combine into the larger goal of solving the current problems and moving your lead into the next scene. It's a bunch of baby steps which get the character across the room. Even if your protagonist has a plan that fails, they need to come up with another plan... instead of just running around pointlessly. They need to always be moving forward - and moving the story forward - even if there are so many set backs that they aren't making much actual progress. Let's take two characters who are standing in the middle of the street in front of a speeding truck. One character just stands there - panicked. The other character jumps out of the way of the truck. Which character do you like more? Which do you understand? Which character would you like to be for 2 hours? A character with a plan, who acts on their plan, is more interesting and likeable than one with no plan.
In a wild action sequence where a million things are happening, instead of having the character panic because they are overwhelmed, you need to show us the "baby steps" - the little plans that add up to the big plan: "If I can only get that fallen gun... I can shoot the guy on the platform... run past the three guards in the confusion... shoot them if I have to... and get out that door." This is a plan of action which will let your hero escape (whether it works or not is another thing entirely). But the audience (and reader) must be able to see the plan of action step-by-step and understand it. Even if they can't see the entire plan, there must be small understandable goals which build to a solution. This gives your hero purpose within the scene. A character without purpose is boring.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL opens beautifully with the Paramount mountain... as a prairie dog hill. Gets a laugh... then we get our introduction to Indiana Jones - the hat and the traditional silhouette - that's still cool. We get a line reffing that fact the Harrison Ford is old, and that's okay.
In the first three films, Indy is sarcastic, witty, clever. Here, he just says stuff. Every once in a while he makes some reference to his age - which is funny for a while, but part of being an action hero - even a self depreciating one - is to say the things we wish we were clever enough to come up with.
Eventually Indy is dumped by Russians Agents in that 1950s town full of mannequins from the remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, and we know what that means. Soon they will test a nuclear weapon, and Indy will be toast. So what does our hero do? Indy runs around the town pointlessly for about five minutes. He runs left for a while, then runs right for a while, then runs some other way for a while. He isn't running *to* anywhere and he also isn't getting away from the town... he's just running around like a chicken with its head cut off. In a pointless panic. Not making any progress - because there is no plan that we can see and no plan he can see. That makes the *scene* pointless and boring. Okay, imagine our hero trapped in a nuclear test site - and it's boring!
Eventually Indy finds a refrigerator with a massive sticker that proclaims "Lead Lined!" - because come moving day, refrigerators aren't heavy enough already - we gotta add a layer of lead for no reason whatsoever. Oh, wait - to give Indy someplace to hide during a nuclear blast.
There's a massive nuclear explosion - houses disintegrate - but that danged lead lined fridge goes flying like something from a Road Runner cartoon, then bounces around the desert for a while until the door opens and Indy falls out... and you half expect little animated birds to fly around his head. It's so cartoonish and impossible and silly.
And I know we're in big trouble.
I also start to wonder if Michael Bay directed this mess.
Let's compare this early action scene to the one from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK - where we had that giant boulder... but what we really had were a whole bunch of little things that create reversals in that scene. Every time Indy was faced with a problem he came up with a solution - a plan - and we understood that plan. And even though that plan worked for that specific problem, some other problem would pop up that required a new plan... but Indy was always *doing something* and never just running around in a panic.
From the moment he swaps the bag of sand for the gold idol... and it's just a little bit too heavy, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Dozens of things. It's not just running around some town pointlessly until he finds a fridge - it's a few dozen different challenges where Indy comes up with a plan to get out of it... then there's the reversal and it looks like he's going to die... then he finds the solution to that problem which lands him right in the middle of the next problem. That's what makes it exciting. The details. My favorite part of that great sequence - Alfred Molina swings across this bottomless pit (bottomless was legal back then) and leaves Indy behind. There's a stone door slowly closing - it will trap them. Molina makes a deal - he'll throw the whip (so Indy can swing across the pit) if Indy will throw the idol. Indy throws the idol, Molina drops the whip and splits with the idol. Indy looks at the pit... looks at the slowly closing door. He jumps. Doesn't quite make it. His hands grab the crumbling dirt at the edge of the pit. He scrambles, looking for purchase as gravity pulls at him. Then he sees a vine coming out of the ground and grabs it, pulling himself up... but the vine starts coming out of the ground! Crap, he's falling again! He lets go of the vine and grabs the edge, pulling himself up the side... and onto solid ground... but the stone door has almost descended all the way! Only a few inches before he's trapped!
See how cool that is - out of the frying pan into the fire - things just keep getting worse. And every time he escapes, he ends up in trouble again. It's not pointless running around - it's an exciting sequence of events. A problem, a plan, another problem, another plan... and when the problems get worse, Indy keeps coming up with plans.
This opening scene of CRYSTAL SKULL was more like that diamond kicking musical number from TENTPOLE OF DOOM (the second film)... actually, much of SKULL was like that second film. By the way, had this been my film, Indy would have glowed green in every night scene after the nuclear blast.... in keeping with the Road Runner cartoon feel of the film.
Your protagonist must always be actively DOING SOMETHING to get out of whatever scrape you've put him in... even if they are trapped in a town filled with Vampires.
30 DAYS OF NIGHT has a great idea... blandly executed. Night has fallen on Pt. Barrow, Alaska - a sleepy little town of misfits and recluses where night lasts an entire month. Oh, and with this night comes a pack of vampires with a plan to feed off the townspeople for the next month. How do you survive a vampire attack in the land of always night? Lots of action, but it comes off kind of ho-hum. Two reasons for this:
1) No theme. There's a point in this film where Josh Hartnett says they can defeat the vampires because they know the town and they know the cold. Except that never plays out in the movie at all. There's another point where they talk about how the town is filled with non-conformists like Mark Boone Junior's character... but that really doesn't mean anything either. Maybe it's because there were three screenwriters - and they all may have been working against each other as far as theme was concerned. But the film comes off as being a nice collection of human vs. vampire action scenes that don't really add up to anything. By the end of the film, you feel vaguely unsatisfied, and may not be able to put your finger on what was wrong. Well, the film wasn't about anything. It didn't contrast one set of values with another.
CRYSTAL SKULL also has a lack of theme. When a film is pointless, you don't want to also have the character's actions become pointless.
2) No plan. There's a Terry Rossio article that I haven't read in probably a decade about "magnificent failure". CE who used to post on the Done Deal boards used to call this the "hopes & fears" in a story. Here's my version - your characters need to have a plan, and we need to know what that plan is and really hope that they succeed (and survive the vampires)... and then, as they struggle to make that plan work, things go wrong... and we fear that they will be killed by the vampires. That's what makes a film exciting - the plan that can save them, and how it goes wrong bit-by-bit. Remove the plan, and you have people just doing stuff. Nothing to hope for. And we can't fear the plan will go wrong, if there isn't one.
30 DAYS has characters who kind of make up their plan as they go along. In the beginning, they come up with this idea to go to the power plant place where there's a grinder that seems to exist only so that they can eventually throw a vampire into it... but they decide that's too far. So they go to a local house attic to hide out. And no one discovers them. They say at one point that vampires are searching the houses, but they don't search the house they're in until after other events have happens to bring them there.
Eventually they do decide to go to that power plant place - but that's the end of the movie. It is as if the middle of the movie was just filler - which explains the lack of plans and lack of excitement. The small plans they come up with along the way are so vague we can't tell if the plans worked or not. They need to go to the store to get some "supplies" - but what those supplies are and the gathering of the supplies is just a bland scene. We don't know exactly what they need, nor how things will go really really wrong if they fail - no stakes for that scene. It ends up more of a change of scenery than a scene. Getting there doesn't even have a failure factor or much of a plan.
The way scenes like this work - it is important for one character to survive, and important to retrieve one specific item that will save their lives. The guy who can make that specific item work is the guy who must survive. Now, we have two chances for the plan to fail... and two things for us to worry about in the scene. We get one thing, but not the other. That allows the plan to succeed and fail at the same time. That creates a new conflict which requires a new plan and has a new chance for us to hope and fear that they will fail. They need to have a plan, we need to know what that plan is, so when the plan goes south... we worry. And when the plan fails completely? They'd better come up with a new plan right away before it just becomes a lot of pointless action. Chickens running around with their heads cut off. Silly.
Make sure your protagonist always has a plan - and when that fails, they come up with a new plan. The problem isn't having plans that fail, it's having no plan at all. A man without a plan is a stalled story... or a story stalling for time. No plan means no chance to fail... and no chance to succeed - just stuff happening that wr don't care about. When Indiana Jones is running around pointlessly - without plan or purpose - we lose respect for him... and don't care whether he finds that lead lined refrigerator or not.
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