Ghostbusters has one of the best comedy movie hooks ever. Dudes. Busting ghosts. It makes me nostalgic for the days of the high concept comedy. Nowadays, we’re inundated with all these low-concept comedies. A guy and a girl having relationship troubles? Welcome to the next big comedy starring Paul Rudd and Reese Witherspoon: THE RELATIONSHIP! I figure it’s only a matter of time before the high concept comedy makes a comeback. So I’ll just deal with it for now. Originally written by Dan Akroyd (eventually Ivan Reitman came on), the original concept for Ghostbusters was much bigger, with the Ghostbusters travelling through time and battling much more ambitious ghosts. But when Akroyd brought the script to Reitman, Reitman noted that it would be way too expensive to make, so Akroyd dialed the story back. Reitman also (wisely) encouraged Akroyd to ground the story in reality. Akroyd originally conceived of a dream cast that included Eddie Murphy, John Candy, and John Belushi. Belushi then died during the writing of the script, and Candy and Murphy weren’t interested. I’d say it turned out okay though, with Bill Murray coming in, and Akroyd and Harold Ramis filling out the roles of the other Ghostbusters. Now, as much as this script thrived due to its special effects and great performances, there are still a few things we can learn from the script itself. Let’s take a look…
1) Introduce MULTIPLE FACETS of your character in their intro scene – The more you can tell us about your character right away, the better. So with Venkman (Bill Murray) performing bogus telepathy tests on a couple of college coeds, we’re not just learning he’s a selfish womanizing jerk, we’re also establishing that he’s involved in the supernatural (telepathy), which is obviously a key element in our story. A lesser writer would’ve established Venkman at a fast food restaurant or in his car. By placing him in his element when we first meet him, we learn a lot more about the guy.
2) It’s okay to state the relationship of your characters in the descriptive text – Oftentimes in scripts, I struggle to understand one character’s relationship to another. The writer knows, but since it’s never been clearly stated, I don’t. Even though it’s technically a cheat, go ahead and DIRECTLY TELL US the relationship in the descriptive text. So here, when Stantz (Dan Akroyd) is introduced, we get this text: He is Venkman’s colleague and best friend. It’s blunt but it saves me a lot of confusion and possible assumption. You want to use this trick sparingly and only for your important relationships. But know that it’s there for you if you need it.
3) Science-Fiction Comedies are one of the most undervalued genres out there – Men In Black, Back To The Future, Ghostbusters, Hancock, Night At The Museum. These movies make tons of money and yet it’s still a genre I don’t see a lot of writers writing in. Take advantage of this niche market if possible.
4) If you don’t have an immediate goal, at least make sure things are moving forward – I’m all about the story goal. But I admit not every story fits perfectly into that model at all times. Like here, the initial goal for the Ghostbusters is vague: “Become paranormal investigators and start earning a living at it.” If that’s the case, just make sure your characters continue to WORK TOWARDS SOMETHING. As long as they’re moving forward, we’ll feel like the story is moving forward. Here, the Ghostbusters get office space, they get a car, they create a commercial. They’re not going after anything specific yet, but they’re still ACTIVE.
5) Comedies are one of the last remaining genres purely for spec writers – All the big fantasy stuff is adapted these days. Period pieces are often derived from books. Dramas as well. The occasional sci-fi spec will get through, but that too, studios prefer to be adapted. The only genres studios are always looking for in the spec market these days are basically comedies and thrillers. Another reason to dust off that comedy spec.
6) As soon as you hit your characters with a huge up, hit them with a huge down – This is a tried and true story device and seems to always work. After the Ghostbusters hit their first breakthrough – seeing a ghost for the first time, they get back to the University to find out they’ve been fired. Audiences love having their emotions ripped from one extreme to another. It’s the theme park equivalent of a roller coaster ride.
7) MID-POINT TWIST ALERT – Ghostbusters has a great mid-point twist. Remember, a mid-point twist should slightly twist the story in a new direction so it doesn’t get stale. Here, it’s when Dana (Sigourney Weaver) and Louis (her neighbor) become possessed. This sets the movie off in a much bigger and more dangerous direction (and as any good mid-point twist should do, it severely ups the stakes!).
8) Don’t tell us in the descriptive text that something is going to happen, then repeat that same information in the dialogue that follows – Ugh, this is such a distracting amateur move! So I was surprised to see it in the Ghostbusters screenplay. Akroyd writes in the description: Stantz is immediately intrigued by the idea but voices his reservations. Then STANTZ says: “I don’t know. That costs money. And the ecto-containment system we have in mind will require a load of bread to capitalize.” Why did you tell us he was voicing his reservations when we just saw him voice his reservations?? Try something like this description instead: Stantz is immediately intrigued by the idea but then— Then cut to the dialogue.
9) To spice up a scene, add an ulterior motive – Rarely are scenes any good when they’re ONLY about what’s going on. Typically, there needs to be something going on underneath the surface as well. An “ulterior motive” is a tried and true tool that automatically ups the entertainment level of a scene. For example, early on, Venkman goes to Dana’s apartment to check out the ghost activity she says she experienced. Alone this scene would’ve been pretty straight-forward. But Akroyd adds Venkman’s ulterior motive of trying to snag Dana, and all of a sudden this scene becomes fun. Take note that the “ulterior motive scene” doesn’t just work for comedy. It works in any genre.
10) Build quirks into your character for better dialogue – Venkman’s a sarcastic smart-ass. So he has fun little smartass comments. “May I see this storage facility?” our villain asks, in reference to the facility holding the captured ghosts. “No, you may not.” “And why not, Mr. Venkman?” “Because you didn’t say the magic word.” That dialogue derives directly from Venkman being a smartass. Spengler (Harold Ramis), on the other hand, is socially inept, unable to process sarcasm. When he’s looking for a ghost in the hotel and encounters a woman in her room wearing a towel, he asks, “Were you recently in the bathroom?” “What on earth gave you that idea?” she retorts sarcastically. “The wet towels, residual moisture on your lower limbs and hair, the redness in your cheeks.” Build those little quirks into your character from the get go and they’ll feed you good dialogue without you having to work for it.
BONUS TIP: Ellipses indicate a pause. Dashes indicate a character being cut off. – Elipses at the end of dialogue (…) are meant to indicate a pause. Dashes (–) at the end of dialogue are meant to show someone being cut off. I see these getting mixed up all the time and since they basically mean the opposite of each other, getting it wrong can really hurt your screenplay.
These are 10 tips from the movie “Ghostbusters.” To get 500 more screenwriting tips from movies as varied as “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!