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 forwardI’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!

  • Poe_Serling

    Ghostbusters = A slew of fond memories

    When I was growing up, it felt like HBO played an endless loop of comedies such as The Blues Brothers, Meatballs, Stripes, and so on.

    So, for me, Ghostbusters was the crowning achievement of the early SNL/Second City crowd of actors/filmmakers.

    The film hit all the right notes from the first frame to the last… the delicate balance of mixing supernatural elements with comedy… engaging storyline… memorable characters… quotable dialogue…cutting edge special effects for its time… etc.

    All good stuff to a young cinephile.

    A couple of other films from the archives worth mentioning here:

    >>The Ghost Breakers (1940).

    Here a ‘radio broadcaster running from the mob helps an heiress deal with her family’s haunted mansion.’

    This one stars Bob Hope at the top of his game and Paulette Goddard. Another nice mix of laughs and chills. It’s a really fun film for all ages. This was later remade as Scared Stiff with Martin and Lewis.

    >>Spook Busters (aka Ghost Busters).

    The ‘Bowery Boys set up shop as exterminators and tangle with some baddies in a spooky haunted house.’

    This ’46 film is definitely for the kids, but it’s still a pleasant time-killer at 60 minutes and some loose change.

    • DrMatt

      This just made me laugh out loud. I do DVD authoring for a day job and Spook Busters is due tomorrow. So it’ll be out on DVD, officially, shortly!

      Small world? Is that appropriate in this context?

      • Poe_Serling

        Cool. It nice to know Spook Busters is coming out on DVD… I remember watching the flick a few times when I was just a kid and it was part of programming block on TV featuring the adventures of the Bowery Boys.

    • Kevin Lenihan

      Nice work!

      • Poe_Serling

        Thanks, man.

    • James Inez

      Don’t forget “Lonesome Ghost” with Mickey, Donald and Goofy. Excellent performances by all three. :)

      • James Inez

        Wow. I am watching “Lonesome Ghost” on Youtube and at one point Goofy says, “I ain’t scared of no ghost!”

        • Poe_Serling

          Coincidence… hmmm.

          If I’m not mistaken, I think Ray Parker Jr. – writer/singer of the Ghostbusters theme song – was sued by Huey Lewis and the gang for similarities between their hit “I Want a New Drug” and the GB tune.

  • BananaDesk

    Ghostbusters totally fits the structural mold for all “superhero” origin stories. In the first half, there is never a clear goal (it’s usually just “become the superhero” — or in this case “become the Ghostbusters”). But at the midpoint, a villain or his/her plot is revealed and finally a goal/urgency emerges (Like you pointed out, Carson, Dana and her neighbor becoming possessed). But you are absolutely right. In these types of screenplays, especially “origin stories”, you can get away with (at first) not having a clear goal, as long as the story is moving toward something.

    • jae kim

      you just blew my mind.

    • Kevin Lenihan

      In many rom coms, the formula involves the two characters meeting in such a way that the audience thinks they are perfect for each other, and wants them to get together, but where neither of the characters themselves want this. So the goal resides in the audience: we want them to get together.

      I think the same can apply here and to the superhero movies you mentioned. In this case, we want them to bust ghosts. As long as everything that happens in the set up is channeled toward that objective, character goal is not an issue.

      In fact, I’m not sure how important the main character’s goal is during the set up period in most films. In the Godfather, Michael’s goal is to have his life outside the family business, which is not even an issue until his father is shot. Even in a simple movie like Taken, the goal of rescuing his daughter does not materialize until she needs to be rescued. Before that he has the related goal of not wanting to lose his relationship with her while he worries about her safety.

      This doesn’t mean a character doesn’t have a goal in each scene, but the goal can be different than the long term story goal.

      Good post, Banana, thought provoking!

      • garrett_h

        I like to think of the Set-Up as a sort of contract between the writer/filmmakers and the audience. It’s like, “Sure, I’m going to give you what you came for. Just give me 30 minutes to get the story going first.” And they want this. Cause without it, the story wouldn’t make sense.

        Imagine Die Hard, if John is running from random guys with European accents right from minute one. We’d be disoriented. Instead, we have the scene with him and the limo driver, him and his wife, the party starting… Then BOOM, almost right at 30 minutes, the bad guys take over the building.

        Even in a movie like Paranormal Activity, which doesn’t really need a bunch of set up, they take 20 or so minutes to get the story laid out before things start going bump in the night.

        But you don’t want to take too long. Or else the audience starts to rebel. “WTF is going on? When is something going to happen? This movie sucks. I’m leaving.” You’ve betrayed their trust. And chances are you won’t get it back.

        • BananaDesk

          Yes absolutely. You need time to set up your story with the “promise” that you’ll take the audience somewhere. That’s why a “story” or “goal/urgency” appears at the end of Act One, bringing you into Act Two. But for these superhero origin stories, an actual story doesn’t happen till the MIDPOINT. Think Spider-Man — The Green Goblin doesn’t attack till the midpoint. Batman Begins — the water evaporator-thing (still not sure what the hell was happening there) is stolen from the cargo ship etc.

          The reason these stories can wait till the midpoint is because it’s fun for the audience to watch their beloved characters learning to become the superheroes they’re destined to become. We love watching Peter Parker learn how to shoot his webs and swing from building to building just as we love watching Peter, Egon and Ray learning to “harness their powers” aka their proton packs.

          • garrett_h

            Good points. In the super hero origin story, you can’t have Spiderman swinging through skyscrapers in the first 5 minutes. You gotta meet Uncle Ben and Aunt Mae, Mary Jane, the Osborne’s, etc. The audience came to see him swing from spiderwebs, and you gotta tell them, “We’ll get to that in a minute. Trust me.”

            Also, I noticed a lot of times the Villain will be set up right around 30. Sometimes we meet them sooner, but they always show up (Ra’s al Ghul training Bruce, Dr. Octopus & Norman Osborne with Spidey, the “spike” in paranormal activity in NYC for GB etc.). They’re the B-Story (external obstacle), while the Hero’s flaw (internal obstacle) is the A-Story (and both meet in the third act).

            We will meet the Villain, find out their story, but they won’t actually put on the evildoer mask until the midpoint. This gives the audience what they want – wish fulfillment of flying or using cool gadgets and busting random bad guys – all while you have this Villain gearing up ready to pounce. The audience knows they’re going to collide at some point, then BAM you hit them with the midpoint.

          • BananaDesk

            Couldn’t agree more. Villain is created at page 30. Begin to execute his plan at the Midpoint.

          • witwoud

            The first Harry Potter story is another good example. We spend a long time getting to know Harry, the Dursleys, Hagrid, Ron, Hermione, Malfoy, Hogwarts, Dumbledore, the Sorting Hat … and FINALLY the actual story begins, with the return of Voldemort. By which stage (in the novel, at least) we’re already halfway through.

          • BananaDesk

            Now that I’m thinking about it — this type of structure SHOULD only work if the audience already knows/loves the characters from the source material. Ghostbusters takes a risk in that we don’t know these guys yet. But it works because it’s just so much fun watching them learn how to bust ghosts.

  • Citizen M

    Dan Aykroyd has probably the most misspelled name in Hollywood.

    • Kay Bryen

      Yeah, and Ralph Fiennes has the most mispronounced name in Hollywood. Hell, even HE can’t even pronounce it :-)

      Let’s just hope Quvenzhane Wallis doesn’t marry Mia Wasikowska’s brother.

  • jae kim

    I do miss high concept movies. is hollywood just saying no to high concept because of budget problems? if ghostbusters were to be written today by an unknown, would it still be made?

    what is the highest concept movie ever made? I’d think starwars.

    • Malibo Jackk

      “If GBs were to be written today by an unknown, would it still be made?”

      Ghostbusters was written by three well known comedians.
      There’s your answer.

      (Readers always have more of an open mind when they seen three names that they know.)

    • garrett_h

      Malibo is right. You’d really have to have some clout behind it to get it made. I doubt it’d get made as a spec from an unknown, then or now.

      And with the budgets skyrocketing and shareholders demanding ROI, they’re taking fewer and fewer chances on original material with sky high budgets. That’s why we’re stuck with the remakes, sequels and adaptations. They’re a “safer bet.”

  • fragglewriter

    I was talking abou this movie last week. Great analogy.

  • Kevin Lenihan

    Excellent notes. Only one objection.

    I think the story goal is very clear. If one assumes the audience at least knows the title of the film, then they know the goal before the credits roll: busting ghosts. And everything the characters do in the set up is consistent with that. They investigate the supernatural, and as tech geeks they have experimental stuff to deal with it. Always in focus, always clear.

    Great observations, though, very practical and useful. Thanks!

    • Keith Popely

      I don’t know if that’s a goal, dude. That’s kind of like “be happy” or “stay alive.” It’s an infinite state of existence. There’s no way to know if or when the character has accomplished the goal. I think that – for movie purposes – a goal has to be specific and finite.

      • Kevin Lenihan

        Yes, there is usually a distinction between “what’s this story about?” and “what’s the character goal”. Since Carson was referring to the “story goal”, that relates to what the story is about. In Ghostbusters, the goal is always related to the story line of busting ghosts. Early on, in the set up stage, everything leads toward setting up the ghost busting business. I don’t think there is ever a point where that is not clear.

        • Keith Popely

          Keeping in mind what Witwould wrote above, there is a point, if memory serves, when they have established a successful business and are getting calls to bust ghosts all over the city. Am I right? So if bust ghosts in the goal, then the movie should end there. See what I’m saying?

          • Kevin Lenihan

            Eventually the goal here is to bust a specific ghost, or demon. I’m just not convinced that most films have a “story goal” where the character pursues the same objective throughout. There should be a goal in each scene. The characters should want something. But that is separate from the story line driving everything.

            As I said elsewhere in the thread, look at a rom com where the two characters seem to hate each other but where the audience wants them together. So the story goal is for them to end up together, but this is not the goal of the characters.

            Look at Fight Club, which was reviewed last week. Jack’s goal in the first half is to find emotional release which seems to allow relief from his insomnia. Eventually this need causes him to subconsciously create Tyler, but Tyler begins to cause all kinds of problems and the goal becomes to stop him.

            I think changing goals is the norm, not the exception.

  • garrett_h

    Great article once again, Carson.

    It’s hard for me to look at Ghostbusters objectively since it was my favorite movie as a kid. I still watch it any time it comes on. I pop the DVD in from time to time. I’ve screened it for friends who had not seen it before (20-30+ years after its release) and they all loved it. In my mind, it’s a classic. A perfect comedy.

    And it’s the quintessential genre-comedy. It has inspired many other similar films, the most successful of which being Men In Black (which is pretty good as well). Now, if only they’d make ROUNDTABLE so we can get another awesome entry into this beloved subgenre…

    • garrett_h

      Also, the Bonus Tip is a major pet peeve of mine. It’s in so many scripts, books, e-mails, tweets, etc. And even worse, people don’t know an ellipsis is three periods. Not four, not five, not two… THREE.

    • Poe_Serling

      I remember Roundtable… it garnered an impressive from Carson

      • garrett_h

        Just checked IMDb. It’s “In Development” but who knows what stage it’s at. I can see why the studios think it’s a risk, but it’s just too hilarious. I can’t see how it wouldn’t be a hit, both domestic and internationally. Especially if they cast it right.

    • cjob3

      I remember being dissappointed the music video isn’t on that disc. Classic video with a boatload of celebrity cameos. Including Chevy Chase flipping a lit cigarette in his mouth.

  • MWire

    I just love Ghostbusters.

    From a writing standpoint, I’m always amazed at how much complicated story is jammed into the second half of this movie. But it all works, seamlessly. There’s a big back story about a mad architect who designed a gateway building for Gozer, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, arguments with the Mayor, EPA problems, Rick Moranis as the Keymaster. Tons of other stuff. I wonder if you could get away with half of this today?

  • IgorWasTaken

    Carson – A big thumbs-up for #8.

    As for dashes… While to some extent it’s a style choice…

    (Note: In the following, “dash” means a double-hyphen or an en dash/em dash.)

    A dash at the end of a line of dialogue only means someone’s cut off if there is no preceding space.

    What you don’t understand is–

    I told you to leave.

    OTOH, a dash at the end of a line without a preceding space can mean a lead-in of sorts.

    Here, let me –

    Joe opens the door for Jane.

    … YMMV.

  • NajlaAnn

    Thanks for the wonderful tips. I especially like the idea of working in an ulterior motive. To make it work, my gut feeling is that in needs or should be set up in some way beforehand or at least something foreshadowed. Ghostbusters does this nicely. Thus when Venkman goes to Dana’s place it works.

  • peisley

    I’m curious, Carson, how you consider NIght at the Museum to be science fiction and not fantasy.

  • carsonreeves1

    Yeah I don’t really like “infinite state of existence” goals either. They can work for awhile if done well but they’re often so vague that they don’t keep the story focused enough.

  • witwoud

    Excellent notes, Carson. As usual I kept saying to myself, “Damn, that’s so OBVIOUS (so why didn’t I think of it?)”

    It’s interesting to learn that Ghostbusters was scaled down from a bigger scenario, because I’ve always felt that the film as it stands could have done with some scaling down. It’s all good fun, but I find the first half of the movie funnier and more enjoyable than the second. As the story progresses, the comedy gets a bit dwarfed by the Sumerian deities and humungous special effects and whatnot. Is an epic battle between the forces of good and evil really the best way to end a goofy comedy? I honestly don’t know. Maybe it’s just my theory that comedy works best on a small scale. But it seems to me that the real spine of the story is the Ghostbusters’ attempt to make a viable business out of capturing ghosts, and that the more interesting conflict is with the city authorities, not with some city-threatening demon.

  • UrbaneGhoul

    There’s the addition of a little mystery with the buildup with Gozer too. Dana isn’t seen till around 20 mins in and right then there’s some weird stuff happening in her apartment. Even have the Ghostbusters commercial play before it happens. She then goes to see them and you think it’s like the Librarian Ghost but Venkman finds nothing with his equipment. They certainly work since almost right after they use it in the Ballroom scene. Venkman has info on Zuul, ancient demigod, bigger deal than the ordinary ghost they capture, and even then it’s a servant to Gozer. And when they finally confront Gozer, they have to do something even more dangerous than what they were already doing.

  • cjob3

    Might be my favorite film of all time. Man, I’d love to see that Dan Ackroyd original screenplay. Staff-Puft was just one of the ghosts.

    Do you know? We see the Staff Puft man 3 times (almost subliminally) before he shows up in the movie. Once when the eggs are frying on the counter. Once on a billboard when the roof explodes. I forget the third.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Would have made more sense, had he been seen snacking on marshmellows.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Not sure how I missed this yesterday with all the talk about OZ.

    Syfy Channel
    A business man buys his daughter a pet monkey that turns out to be a shape-shifter spawning killer clones at night.

    (If this isn’t screaming for a Carson review… I don’t know what is.)

    • Poe_Serling

      Next Monday’s Script to Screen is still wide open… Flying Monkeys would make the perfect bookend with yesterday’s Oz review. ;-)

  • yeebarr

    Great stuff Carson! Now do Ghostbusters 2!

    Or did you do that already? I have the feeling you might have written a “Sequels that failed” article but I can’t remember…

  • Panos Tsapanidis

    Carson, I really like the fact that you’ve added tips like 3 & 5 that don’t derive directly from the script but from the genre/market it targets. I find this kind of tips very useful.

  • cjob3

    That opening scene sets the tone so perfectly. It just has a charm and atmosphere. The books floating around. The scream leading into the logo. Perfect.

  • carsonreeves1

    that’s why I picked it. I was like, ‘Rich’s probably going to see the Ghostbusters building this week.’ :)

    • Poe_Serling


    • Rich Drees

      Touche sir. :)

  • Tiago Andrade

    Actually, Egon Spengler is what would happen if Sheldon Cooper were actually funny.

  • Mark Zakeri

    One of my all time favourite movies. Great article.