Every screenwriter wants to receive approval from the unseen story analyst, or “reader,” who often determines the fate of a screenplay submitted to an agency, production company, or studio. To make a strong first impression, most writers focus on strengthening the structure of the piece while cleaning up format so the material looks professional. While these aspects are certainly important, there are additional ones I call “in-between details” – specific yet vital aspects of writing that apply to just about every narrative screenplay. The more you can display them to your favor, the more your material, and you as a writer, will gain respect and interest.
Knowing how a story analyst works is the first step to understanding why these details are so important. When training students as story analysts for film companies, one of the primary things I teach is the necessity of doing the job quickly. Covering a screenplay at a professional level (reading the script and writing the log line, synopsis, and comments) should be done in under four hours – ideally closer to three. The reasons are both aesthetic and practical. Covering a screenplay expediently means the underlying strengths or weaknesses of premise, theme, plot, characterization, and dialogue should jump out once the story analyst knows what to look for.
From a practical standpoint, I teach efficiency because covering screenplays is simply a tough job to do well. In order to develop a solid reputation as a reader at various production companies, one has to be fast. Turnaround times are often a day or two, sometimes overnight, and if coverage comes in late, a story analyst may suddenly find others getting material that would have gone to him or her. Last but not least, a story analyst is paid by the script, not the hour, so spending an inordinate amount of time on any one piece of material is simply not good business. That may sound harsh and monetary, but I guarantee this is how any story analyst thinks, whether freelance or on staff. One of the first things a reader will do when receiving a screenplay to cover is check the number of pages, whether in hard copy or pdf format (the latter is fast becoming the norm in the industry). The page count doesn’t tell a lot, since a well-written screenplay of 125 pages will read faster and be easier to cover than a poorly written one of 90 pages, but the fact that this kind of checking occurs indicates time is on the story analyst’s mind before the first page is even read.
All this adds up to an adage I teach early on to future story analysts: “You test the screenplay, it doesn’t test you.” That may sound intimidating and even unfair to writers who feel the story analyst should be making an effort to understand or appreciate their material, but sending out material with this sort of agenda is extremely risky. Perhaps if you’re an established name, such as Charlie Kaufman, you can get away with it, but for those starting out, it’s best to assume your reader doesn’t care if he or she gets the point of your story, or if it succeeds. In the best-case scenario, an open-minded story analyst wants to be engaged — ideally, floored — by your original take on the premise, plot and characters. A more jaded reader is concerned that if a good screenplay is not recognized by him or her, someone at another company may grab it, with explanations having to be given as to how it slipped away.
If you’re totally despondent at this point, here’s a sage Chinese proverb (loosely paraphrased) which may help: “Know yourself and your opponent, win all your battles. Know only yourself or your opponent, win half your battles. Know neither yourself nor your opponent, lose all your battles.” I’m assuming at this point you know what you want to bring across in a screenplay and the cinematic language to convey it. If you don’t, I believe that’s why courses in screenwriting exist. But let’s assume you do know. A reader can be your friend or foe depending on how well you satisfy certain criteria he or she will be looking for in a professionally written screenplay. The good news is, when you know what these key criteria are, you’re a long way toward disarming the most jaded readers.
To help my students in story analysis, I created a ‘top ten’ list of the in-between details that stand out in a screenplay written by someone fluent in what I call “the language of film.” It can serve as a useful checklist for writers as well. Again, satisfying these criteria does not mean a story analyst is going to love your premise, plot, or characters. But addressing them effectively sends a subtle yet distinct message to the story analyst: “I know what I’m doing.” That kind of message is not to be minimized. It can mean receiving a “consider” instead of “pass,” along with consideration as a writer-for-hire on projects the company may be developing.
Here are a few examples of how points from the list can be quickly utilized in either the outlining or writing stages:
Does the screenplay grab you by bottom of the first page, ideally the first sentence? It doesn’t have to be bomb going off, but some aspect of characterization or plot which foreshadows or puts into motion a larger hook to come (mother packing bags at outset of Kramer vs. Kramer sets up walking out on marriage). Also, does it begin in the right place? Sometimes the perfect opening may be buried pages into the text – keep an eye out for it.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the Joker robbing a bank or a shark eating a girl – it can be a much more personal yet dramatic action, such as the mother leaving her son in “Kramer vs. Kramer”. There are two main ways to achieve this on either scale. First, distill your opening scenes as much as possible. Sometimes writers start with a three page scene that could be much more powerful if condensed to just one. Occasionally, the opposite is the case – certain scenes are rushed through that could use more time and detail. Usually however the trend is to overwrite in early drafts, so I’d suggest be on the lookout for that occurrence, particularly in opening pages.
These early scenes are particularly important, as they signal to the reader whether the pacing throughout is going to be appropriate for a particular genre. If you’re writing what should be a fast paced action vehicle, but each scene is three to five pages, something is probably wrong. On the other hand, if you’re whizzing through a small character drama at the pace of “Dark Knight”, once again, something may be off. Of course, if one wants to intentionally break from tradition by pacing an action vehicle like a character drama (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Poseidon Adventure”), or a character drama like an action vehicle (“Run, Lola, Run”, “Trainspotting”), by all means, go for it. Just be sure to use scene transitions clearly indicating from the outset that the unusual pacing for the genre is deliberate, so the reader will be with you on this point.
Also, look carefully at the first five to ten pages of your screenplay, or equivalent in the outline. It’s amazing how many scripts I’ve seen where just starting on page five for instance can make a huge difference. When Frank Capra screened “Lost Horizon”, the audience was bored throughout the first ten minutes of expository scenes, so he took the first reel (each reel equals ten minutes) and threw it into the studio incinerator, literally blowing it up. Don’t wait so long to get to that point of realization if such is the case with your screenplay. If the opening pages contain potentially extraneous scenes or information, consider hitting the delete key.
Writing should make the most of a lead’s entrance (Bugs Bunny leaning on Elmer Fudd’s shotgun; back of Sean Connery’s head in first James Bond film). The opening line of dialogue from the lead should let us know much about the character (“What’s up, Doc?”; “Bond… James Bond”). Even if someone is just commenting on the weather, ideally it should reveal something (sees storm clouds coming when there aren’t any – pessimist; expects sun when pouring – optimist).
There are several ways to check and possibly strengthen a lead’s entrance. First, look at various lines and actions of your lead character in the first few pages after he or she is introduced. See if any could simply be deleted, with the most dramatic moved up (similar to, or in some cases the same as, omitting needless opening scenes). Second, see if a mundane line of dialogue can be sharpened to bring more characterization to it. A hero who walks into a bar and says, “I’ll have a beer” isn’t as dynamic as one who walks in and says, “Cold in a bottle”. The latter shows he’s familiar with the bar scene, and probably has a richer inner life. He’s likely the type to talk in a more colorful manner, not spelling everything out overtly (meaning less risk of overwritten dialogue, which the reader appreciates). He also seems tougher, as his request doesn’t open itself up as much to the inevitable question from the bartender, “Which beer?” The hero probably doesn’t care. Add even small actions to his entrance, so much the better. If he walks in, grabs a bottle from a man being served, hands the bartender ten bucks and says to both, “I’m in a hurry”, now you’ve really grabbed our attention. There’s an element of mystery to the man and his circumstances we want to know more about.
Finally, juxtaposing a dynamic scene with a mundane one can create an entirely new context. If we’ve just seen a masked man in a black body suit pull off an elaborate jewel robbery a la James Bond, then walk into a bar in jeans and T-shirt, casually asking for a beer as police outside comb the crime scene, his opening line possesses an irony and humor that give it entirely new meaning.
Just showing something about your lead in his or her introduction isn’t enough. Creating an element of mystery is critical in introducing major characters. Any opening line or action should make us eager to learn more about your leads and their situations. Too often, this is a critical opportunity beginning writers, and sometimes pros, overlook.
Do secondary characters and even minor ones speak with their own distinct voices? Not every extra or store clerk must have something witty or profound to offer, but whenever appropriate, supporting or minor characters with distinct points of view should be adding color to the mosaic (i.e. Oracle’s musings in “The Matrix”; “plastics” touted by materialistic party guest in “The Graduate”). Secondary characters who interact with your lead throughout the plot should ideally bring out some inner quality in your hero we might not see otherwise.
Watch a musical or epic with lots of well directed extras but a weak leading man or woman – the experience won’t be wholly satisfying, but the overall production will seem much more professional than the other way around: a terrific lead but poorly written and directed supporting cast. The same can be said for your screenplay. Even if the story analyst has some issues regarding your hero or plot, if minor characters are written with vitality and engaging, unique details, it goes a long way toward promoting your work.
One way to approach minor characters is to go scene by scene once the screenplay is written, polishing lines of dialogue and actions, giving distinct points of view to characters your hero bumps into. Better yet, when writing minor characters initially, or thinking them up for an outline, consider situations or points of view on their behalf which may intensify, enhance, or conflict with the overall scene. A woman who sells tickets at a metro train station, for instance, may love her job, and with each ticket sold offers every bit of information about the fare, platform, departure and arrival times. Perhaps the ticket line for her booth is twice as long as others due to this quirk in her personality, and the hero on the run has to hide in this line, slowing down his escape. Now you’ve used a minor character to add suspense and possibly new twists to the plot. On the other hand, if she’s a character who clearly wishes to be elsewhere and sees customers as annoyances, she can be a minor comic character in the opposite way, as she mutters answers and barely looks up from her tabloid magazine – not even noticing the hero is on the run. Or perhaps she holds him up by not giving him the information he needs – your call. Any of these scenarios could be fascinating and a lot of fun.
A great variation on this type of minor character can be seen in “A Few Good Men”, when Tom Cruise picks up a magazine from a news vendor on the street. Rather than mundane pleasantries, each keeps trying to top the other with time worn phrases such as, “A rolling stone gathers no moss”, “Catch you later,” “Unless I catch you first,” etc. The playful banter with this minor character quickly makes us like Cruise’s character as an unpretentious attorney with a sense of humor, while the news vendor adds texture and appropriate comic relief to an otherwise intense drama. One needs to be careful though and not make every minor character too distinct. Too much spice, so to speak, with minor characters can be detrimental in its own way. Finding a balance between creating background characters who stand out or blend in with the scenery is the key.
As to supporting characters interacting with your hero, such as a sidekick, parent, coworker, or neighbor, deciding what effect this person will have on your lead can go a long way in determining his or her character. What hidden strengths, weaknesses or other sides to your lead’s personality does this character ultimately bring out? Whether it be a friend of Harry Potter, a pal of James Bond, or the female neighbor in “Kramer vs. Kramer”, the relationship of your lead character with a secondary one should have a specific purpose in revealing sides to your protagonist we otherwise couldn’t see as dramatically. Knowing in the outline stage what these characters reveal about your protagonist can make a huge difference in fully developing them. Even if much of what you know about them never actually shows up on screen or in their dialogue, subtle moments of their interactions with the hero may reveal this knowledge. When screenwriter Frank Pierson came up unexpectedly with the comment, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” from a sadistic warden in “Cool Hand Luke” to his incalcitrant prisoner, he realized just the phrasing of that single line gave the sinister overseer an intelligence and even education that made him much more formidable. It’s no coincidence the Paul Newman as Luke mocks it at the climax, strengthening our impression of Luke’s intellect and resilience, as he throws the line back at his tormenter.
Look for strong set ups, or what I call “planted seeds”, and their payoffs. An additional tip here: the greater the irony in the payoff, the better. The warden in “Shawshank Redemption”, a man who perverts use of religion, discovers Andy’s Bible to contain a small pick ax, explaining how Andy escaped. Luke not believing in the Force at first, but using it at the climax to defeat the Death Star. Air tanks and their volatility are referred to several times throughout “Jaws”, but it’s the cop, the one man scared of the ocean, who resourcefully uses a tank to destroy the shark. Ruby slippers – cinema’s greatest MacGuffin – are touted from the outset as possessing mysterious powers which endanger Dorothy, their magic revealed at the climax as they help bring her home. When a writer offers these types of setups and ironic payoffs, even if the structure of the material isn’t perfect, he or she is more likely to improve it in development.
Determining what I call “planted seeds” can occur in one of two main ways: foresight or hindsight. For example, in “Back to the Future”, writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale knew they wanted Marty McFly to invent the skateboard once back in the 1950’s. As they didn’t want this feat to occur out of the blue, they set up Marty as an expert skateboarder early in the script, hitching onto various vans and pickup trucks to get to school.
Sometimes however a detail established early on may jump out later in ways not even expected. At the end of “Paper Moon”, director Peter Bogdanovich wasn’t sure how to end the film, then realized his characters had a broken down truck, photograph taken by the girl at a carnival, and running joke about her wanting $200 the con man father stole from her at the outset. Utilizing all of them created a great ending, as her father tries to leave her behind with an aunt, stops on the road to look at the photograph, gets out as she runs toward the truck to demand her money, with the failed brakes causing the truck to roll down a hill, the two misfits running after it and on to a new adventure… Or the brilliant use of the diary at the end of “Bridget Jones”, where entries throughout the film are paid off by Mark Darcy reading them and apparently storming out – only to reveal he’s fallen in love with Bridget that much more, now that he’s seen the truth.
Finally, many seeds often get planted in hindsight. A writer gets to the third act or climax, realizes he or she wants something particular to occur, then sets it up by planting specific seeds prior. If near the end you suddenly want your heroine to recognize the right man for her by a specific detail or remark, you may want to go back and plant the line earlier on. For example, a running line about Monty Python from Gwyneth Paltrow’s true love in the supernatural “Sliding Doors” pops up at the fade out, suggesting the beginning of their relationship as the film ends. Again, the more ironic one can make the payoff, the more satisfying it usually is to the reader.
Remember that not everyone is going to like your screenplay, no matter how well written. “Star Wars” and “Home Alone” were passed on by just about everyone in town. Harry Potter was initially rejected by a dozen publishers, who have probably since started their own private recovery group. The metaphor I like to use is that showing your work is like planting seeds – when it hits the right soil, it will take root. Yet selling yourself as a writer goes beyond any one story, and showing your professionalism by addressing details a story analyst admires in a well written screenplay can only bring you that much closer to making a great first impression, as you find the right company for your project.
See Barney’s Top Ten List for Story Analysts in the Jan/Feb issue of Creative Screenwriting. Visit creativescreenwriting.com for more screenwriting information.