Swingers is a fascinating pastiche of a movie. Its well-chronicled history includes the actors doing years of table reads to drum up interest and funding for the movie. It was eventually shot on the tip of a shoestring with Doug Liman (The Bourne Identify) directing the film. It was a box-office dud, but word-of-mouth made it a DVD sensation. It started Vince Vaughn’s career and eventually led to John Favreau becoming one of the top directors in Hollywood. Script-wise, it’s basically a laundry list of things I tell you NOT to do. You know I hate scripts with “guys talking in rooms.” Well, this script is basically one revolving room with characters talking in it. Goal-wise, there isn’t much there. I guess you could say the goal is for Mike (Favreau) to get over his ex-girlfriend. The script sends its characters off to Vegas, where we assume the remainder of the story will take place, only to send them back to LA twenty minutes later – leaving us confused and disoriented. You know how I hate Woe-Is-Me characters? Well Mikey is the quintessential woe-is-me protag. On top of this, the script is one long string of dialogue. It’s a non-stop talkfest. So why does it all work? Well, that’s hard to say. I have a saying: “Funny trumps everything.” Even if you break every rule in the book, if the audience is laughing, they’ll stick with you. And the dialogue in Swingers is realllllyyyyy funny. Still, this is one of the trickiest scripts I’ve ever broken down. It shouldn’t work. It has no business working. And yet it does. Let’s see if we can’t find out why.

1) The Sympathy Card – One of the reasons we love Mike despite how pathetic and depressed he is (Woe-is-me!), is because he’s earned his “sympathy card.” Give your protag a sympathy card by having something bad happen to him. Two of the most popular ways to do this are through the death of a loved one or getting dumped by your significant other. If you show how devastated your protag is, we’ll have sympathy for him and follow him through anything. Mike’s obsessive yet honest depression resulting from his girlfriend leaving him ensures we’ll be Team Mikey all the way.

2) For good dialogue, give each character a directive in the scene – When bad writers try to ape a movie like Swingers, they focus their scenes on “humorous” observations about life with no real focus or structure (i.e. they’ll have their characters discuss for seven minutes why they believe Dr. Seuss was gay). For dialogue to work, the scene needs to have direction. You achieve this by giving each character a directive they’re trying to achieve. You then look for humor within the evolution of that discussion, as opposed to trying to find the comedy first and building a scene on top of that. Look no further than the very first scene in Swingers to see this in action. Mike is talking to his friend Rob. His directive is to figure out if it’s okay to call his ex. Rob’s directive is get Mike to stop thinking about his ex. It’s a simple and humorous discussion, anchored by both characters having clear directives in the conversation.

3) CONFLICT ALERT – Remember guys, movies rarely work unless there’s some element of conflict between the two leads. If the characters are always on the same page, we’re going to be bored! Mike is all about respecting girls and being honest. Trent is about telling girls whatever he needs to to get them in bed. He has no respect for them. This is the basis for 75% of their conversations. They always butt heads on this issue. That push and pull is what makes their dialogue so fun.

4) Disagreement Is A Comedy’s Best Friend – There isn’t a single scene in Swingers where characters agree. Every scene is two people disagreeing about something. It’s that simple. The intensity of these disagreements varies. But it’s always there. The first scene has Mike and Rob disagreeing about whether he should call his ex. The second scene has Trent and Mike disagreeing on whether to go to Vegas. The blackjack scene has Trent and Mike disagreeing on whether to double down. Then Mike and Trent disagree on how to treat a waitress. In the girls’ trailer, Trent wants to hook up with a girl while Mike wants to check his voicemail to see if his ex called. It’s one of the simplest ways to create comedy people. Just have people disagree.

5) If your plot is all over the place, make sure your protag’s throughline is strong – Like I mentioned in the setup, this plot (when there is one) is all over the place. We start in LA, then Trent convinces Mike to come to Vegas, then we come back to LA, then we start randomly going to clubs and parties, then there’s a weird showdown with a group of gangbangers, then we go back to the bar scene. There’s virtually no plot here! However, the reason the movie’s able to stay together is because Mikey’s throughline is so strong. He is OBSESSED with his ex. He’s obsessed with if she called. He’s obsessed with whether he should call her. The first two scenes (the first with Rob and the second checking his answering machine) barrel home the issue that Mike is not over his girlfriend. This issue is a part of every single scene, which saves this script from wandering aimlessly into the Nevada desert.

6) STAKES ALERT – Remember guys, heighten scenes by setting up the stakes AHEAD OF TIME. One of the reasons the classic blackjack scene works so well is because we establish beforehand (in the car ride) that Mike only has $300 bucks to his name. Therefore, when he accidentally gets stuck at the high roller table (100 dollar minimum), and has to double down (so the bet is $200), we know this is 2/3 of all the money he has. The stakes for winning this hand are now HUGE. Had we not established this beforehand, this scene wouldn’t have played nearly as well.

7) SMASH CUT TO – The “Smash Cut To” has sort of been forgotten but is still a viable alternative to “Cut To” that can be used for comedic effect. Use it any time you’re cutting to another scene that’s the payoff of a joke. For example, when Mike and Trent are arguing on the phone about going to Vegas and Mike keeps saying, “I’m not going to Vegas.” “We’re going to Vegas.” “I’m not going to Vegas.” “We’re going to Vegas.” “I’m not going to Vegas.” “SMASH CUT TO: Mike and Trent in car going to Vegas.” Or after Mike’s been wiped out at the high stakes blackjack table. “SMASH CUT TO: Mike and Trent are wedged between the BLUEHAIR and the BIKER at the FIVE DOLLAR TABLE.”

8) Use friendship to make an asshole character likable – Trent is a huge asshole. He’s selfish. He’s a dick. He has zero respect for women. He makes jokes at others’ expense. So why do we like him? Because Trent would take a bullet for Mike, our protag. You have no doubt, in any scene, how much Trent loves Mike. It’s that love, that friendship, that helps us overlook all those negative traits. If Trent was as much of a jerk to Mikey as he was to everyone else? We’d hate him.

9) Milk your characters’ dominant traits for better dialogue – Whoever your characters are, particularly in comedy, look for any way to milk their dominant traits within the dialogue. Mike’s dominant traits are his lack of confidence, his nervousness, his indecisiveness. So whenever Mike talks, he’s always stuttering, repeating things, overcompensating (He bumbles to the dealer at the high stakes table. He bumbles to the girls they meet at the Vegas bar). Trent, on the other hand, loves himself. So a lot of his dialogue is in the third person (“Daddy’s going to get the Rainman suite.” “Now listen to Tee. We’ll stop at a gas station right away.”). So many writers write friends who sound the same. This is one of the easiest ways to make them sound different.

10) The Choice – Remember, the most emotionally gripping scripts have “The Choice” at the end. That’s when your main character has a choice he must make near the end which is directly related to his flaw. Swingers does a great job of this. Mike’s flaw is that he can’t move on from his girlfriend. So in the end, his ex-girlfriend calls, and then on the other line, the girl he met the previous night calls. He literally has the choice of a) talking to the new girl (and therefore overcoming his flaw), or b) talking to his ex (failing to overcome his flaw). He of course chooses A and we’re happy because Mike has finally changed!

These are 10 tips from the movie “Swingers.” To get 500 more tips from movies as varied as “Aliens,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!

  • scribbler

    perspicacious breaks. way to roll, carson!

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.blackman.948 Michael Blackman

    Dude c’mon. Praising the most hacky of all hack screenwriting moves. The Cut-to joke. As in a character says they’re not going to do something particular then CUT-TO them doing the exact thing they said they wouldn’t. Genius! See Almost Famous,Wedding Crashers or any other mainstream comedy or sitcom from last thirty years for examples. Like I’m not even making this up. So many movies use this. It’s actually become a running joke whenever my friends and I see it in a film, so the fact that you would list it as some kind of innovative screenwriter trait just kind blew my mind. Whenever I see it always feel like an amateur comedy writer or something who’s just not naturally a funny writer on page resorting to humor “jokes” that rely solely on content and form (I.E. “I PROMISE I’M NOT GONNA DRINK TONIGHT… CUT TO…)

    • carsonreeves1

      I know a lot of people hate “Smash Cut To” but I think when used well, it’s hilarious. Perfect example is how it was used in this movie. Both examples I used were perfectly executed and great laughs in the movie.

      • DD

        LOVE the smash cut to. It’s underutilized and actually shows some respect for EDITING. Scripts are for movies. Movies have cuts. So we should use them! (sparingly and judiciously)

        Great breakdown. I’ve read this script literally dozens of times. It’s a great piece of writing. Full of rich characters and insights into real relationships. Best movie for getting over a bad relationship. Also, Forgetting Sarah Marshall apes the shit out of it.

        • carsonreeves1

          yeah, why the hate on “Smash Cut To?” If used well, it rocks.

          • IgorWasTaken

            I hated “SMASH CUT TO” from the first time I saw it. Just as a matter of language. Better to kinda never use “CUT TO”, except when you might otherwise want to write “SMASH CUT TO”, then just use “CUT TO”.

            BTW, I use related cuts all the time. But I try to make them not as explicit punchlines. Just “SMASH CUT TO” is like “And then, BAM! We cut to…”

          • Guest

            I u crest and what you are saying but I promise you, any producer reading a script is going to read CUT TO and ask what kind of cut it is supposed to be.

          • Magnus McCullagh

            I never heard of smash cut hatred before. What’s up with people? Everything has its place if used right. Though they’re mosly used for comedy they can have some great other uses too. In ‘The Diving Bell & The Butterfly’ a smash cut out of a gorgeous and rousing flashback into a bleak and sterile present is one of the most devastating points in the film. It makes you want to die inside (in a good way).

      • Murphy

        I never get the hate for using transitions in scripts. If used properly they can enhance a script, especially for comedic effect.

        I guess, like everything in life, there were a bunch of people misusing them and so the rules changed to say “none at all”. Which is bonkers. As long as they are used to good effect then they should of course be used. A screenplay is more than just a story, it is the blueprint for what the movie will look like.

        • garrett_h

          I don’t mind transitions either, when done well. If done badly, it can be confusing. But if done well, it does enhance the “movieness” of the script. And if the director or editor(s) don’t want to use it, they can just leave it out.

          Killing On Carnival Row had some pretty good transitions. Also, I remember the original Salt script having some transitions.

      • JakeBarnes12

        Now the “screeching record needle” — that’s comedy gold.

    • scribbler

      i was similarly surprised by that, too, michael. but carson seems to be telling amateurs all the time to use conceits normally reserved for shooting scripts. i partially understand his reckoning, being that he wants to “discover” his next great writer who writes everything in his preferred style. seems this community is geared towards fan boys and girls. you can’t even get the guy to answer a simple question if you’re not using klingon or quoting some unprofitable movie from the bottom of the razzies list.

      • carsonreeves1

        Everybody’s gotta find their own voice and style. Hopefully articles like these will help them find their way.

  • gazrow

    Some great tips here! I particularly liked 9) “Milk your characters’ dominant traits for better dialogue.”

  • AstralAmerican

    You forgot option C): Keep both girls… Kidding.

  • Poe_Serling

    “Swingers … it started Vince Vaughn’s career…”

    My first cinematic encounter with Vaughn was a film called Clay Pigeons from ’98. It’s a dark comedy/thriller. Here a guy is mistakenly viewed as a serial killer by the FBI.

    The pic also starred a young Joaquin Phoenix. Directed by David ‘Wedding Crashers’ Dobkin.

    For me, Vaughn has always been a hit or miss actor. I felt he nailed his roles in things like Dodgeball, Anchorman, Be Cool, and so on. Deserved a sleepwalking award for The Dilemma, The Watch, Four Christmases, etc.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Reminds me
      I need to see Clay Pigeons again.

      • Poe_Serling

        If I’m not mistaken, the writer Matt Healy’s script for Clay Pigeons was discovered through the Fade In contest.

        • Malibo Jackk

          I think that’s why I made a point of watching it the first time.

        • carsonreeves1

          Now that there’s some distance from it, what did people think of “Made,” the Favreau/Vaughn reteaming? I thought it was a pretty terrible movie, although people loved it at the time. My theory is that they were blinded by the two together on screen again.

          • garrett_h

            Made was terrible. Almost so bad it’s good. I thought P. Diddy was kinda funny in it though.

          • JakeBarnes12

            “Made” was terrible; I saw it at the time — who the heck liked it?

          • Poe_Serling

            Forget Favreau/Vaughn…

            I’m still waiting for the reteaming of Vince Vaughn and his best friend/producing partner Peter ‘Ralphie from A Christmas Story’ Billingsley.

            The two of them became fast friends after starring together in a 1990 CBS Schoolbreak Special entitled “The Fourth Man.” The story dealt with steriod use.

            If you can find it, the video clip from the show where Vaughn confronts a juiced up Billingsley is an all-time classic TV moment.

          • James Inez

            I didn’t think Made was nearly as money as Swingers is.

  • JNave

    As you point out, this breaks all the “rules” of high-quality screenwriting. I think it proves that if you believe in your ability and script you just have to find your audience, and in that audience a champion (with money, hopefully) for your work. Much easier said than done. But it seems to happen enough that Hollywood is overpopulated with crap movies that all of us think we can do better.

  • 21BelowZero

    I like #9. Another spin on that would be to pepper your character’s dialogue with their hobby (or job). I had a character who loved chess so he always (frequently) used chess terms: To a kiss-ass/used co-worker, “You’re nothing but a pawn.” Sarcastically, to another co-worker after their female boss berated them, “Long live the queen.” He was always calling the office stud a, “knight.”

    Maybe not the best examples, but you get the idea. Dialogue that reflects interests.

  • garrett_h

    Swingers is one of my favorite comedies. And you’re right, it breaks just about every rule in the book. But it still works.

    For me, living in L.A might have had something to do with it. I knew all the areas they went to. And I’m very familiar with that drive to/from Vegas. I also played countless hours of NHLPA and with my bro and we’d have our players fight and hurt each other all the time, and the video game scenes were hilarious to us when we saw them. So a lot of the movie was personal to me.

    Still, there’s many things that they get right in Swingers. And Carson nailed a lot of the points that make it great. The dialogue is the star in this movie. It’s almost like Tarantino, where you have people standing around talking yet it’s still entertaining.

    It’s all because of the characters. Each one has something going on, even beyond Mike and Trent. Sue has a short temper and almost gets them into fights and shot at. Charles thinks every bar they go to is dead. Most writers just make their leads distinct, and maybe the main supporting character. More and more I’m seeing that with great comedies (and great films period) EVERY character is distinct. Even a character that might only be on screen for five minutes. You take those distinct traits and play them against each other and the dialogue practically writes itself. But if all you have is a bunch of stock, interchangeable characters, it’s just people talking randomly, and that’s boring.

    • carsonreeves1

      This is a great point. A big reason for that was that all these guys were working together to get this movie made. So instead of a writer writing a movie, it was a group of actors who all wanted to shine. For that reason, Favreau had no choice but to make all the secondary characters interesting. They were his friends and he wanted them to come out of the movie looking good. This is what I try and tell every writer. Make every character in your movie someone an actor would want to play.

      • wlubake

        Whatever happened to Patrick Van Horn? Vince Vaughn gave him a funny role in 4 Christmases, but otherwise, the guy dropped off the face of the earth.

      • garrett_h

        Exactly. I don’t remember if I read it here or on another site, but I remember an interview I believe where someone talking about dialogue/characters and said that as writers we have to remember that someone has to say the lines we write. So make it as good as possible.

        It’s part of the reason actors are falling over each other to be in a Tarantino flick. His dialogue is so entertaining and he has so many cool one-liners, they want to be the one to deliver it.

        Most of us give all the best lines to our leads and nothing to the minor characters, forgetting that somebody has to get in front of the camera and play that role. So if you can think of a creative way for Waitress #1 to take your main character’s order, do it.

  • carsonreeves1

    Yeah, the title definitely didn’t help things.

    • Poe_Serling

      The ultimate bad movie title and equally bad film:

      Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title.

      This 1966 film was about a cook and a waitress who decide to work at a bookstore filled with spies and bank robbers.

      The funny this is… it starred about half the cast from the TV classic The Dick Van Dyke Show – Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, and Richard Deacon.

    • R.Sharp

      Did you like Clerks?

      • carsonreeves1

        The thing with Clerks was, it was impossible to separate it from its rags-to-riches story. I was just so excited about the possibilities of filmmaking at the time that I saw it through rose-colored glasses. But in retrospect, I’m not a huge fan.

  • carsonreeves1

    It’s the secret formula to writing a great script – don’t be boring. If only we could quantify that somehow.

    • http://twitter.com/JLHeadScripts J Lawrence Head

      Hmm what if we attached a blood pressure and heartrate monitor to viewers of a focus group or a reader. Any time levels fall below a certain level is a good note for a script. :)

      • carsonreeves1

        mark my words. somewhere sometime a studio will do something like that.

        • http://twitter.com/JLHeadScripts J Lawrence Head

          Scary thought.

  • Murphy

    I love swingers. I think because you can just tell how much fun they had making it and how much the film means to them. That comes across in their performances and does definitely make a difference. It gives the movie some real heart.

    • carsonreeves1

      You know, I thought about that. “Is this just because they’re all friends and having fun?” Then I look at a movie like that Adam Sandler film, Grown-Ups, where all those guys are clearly having fun together, and it’s horrible. Not saying your’e wrong. I’m just saying I’m constantly looking for the magic formula that made Swingers so great. I still don’t know what it is!

      • RayFinkleLacesOut

        I think the biggest thing that made Swingers so great was the character of Trent. Not saying the other characters weren’t as good, but think about what stuck with you most from Swingers. It was probably Trent’s dialogue. The constant use of “money”, the double down scene, the waiting how many days to call scene, the big scary bear scene.

  • garrett_h

    Yeah, I definitely thought it was referring to sexual promiscuity. It wasn’t until I read a review that I decided to check it out. By then it was on cable.

  • Citizen M

    I never saw Swingers but I’ve just come off a series-watching marathon, and I noticed something series get right that many scripts seem to ignore, and I think it’s one of the reasons TV is so popular.

    Take a series like Suits which I quite enjoyed. The plots and legal stuff were so-so, But the fun thing was, every character was trying to establish dominance over his or her colleague, each in their own way. So the main guy tried to be smarter and more ruthless than everyone else. The youngster tried to be super-smart and use his photographic memory to prove himself. The ambitious but klutzy junior partner had all sorts of sneaky schemes going to boost himself. The women were competing to snag the cute young guy.

    The thing is, none of this was ever spoken. The dialog and action advanced the plot. But done in such a way that each character was at the same time attempting to score points off the other guy.

    In real life we are all trying to carve out our little social niches from which to bombard the opposition. I’m the guy who uses sarcastic humour and knowledge of arcane facts to put people down. I get crushed by people who say they were with billionaire XX who said Y, or were in YY when the revolution broke out, or who can’t believe I don’t know that teal is the new black.

    Friendly competition. It should be there in the subtext.

    • Malibo Jackk

      I recently watched an episode of Smallville (yeah, I was there when they made it, talked to billionaire XX too). But am not a fan. Story lines were cut and mixed with new story lines to satisfy those with ADD. And previous story lines were sacrificed to wrap them up quickly. In other words, plot wasn’t important.

      But here’s what I found interesting. Manufactured conflict. Many scenes had two characters talking. And at the end of those scenes, whether it made sense or not (and most times it didn’t), someone would snark at the other.

  • Mb

    Carson, you’re so money.

    I don’t think that expression ever caught on, since they only time I’ve ever heard it used was in this movie ;-)

  • fragglewriter

    #2 is a great tip especially in comedies.
    #5 can be a difficult obstacle to achieve for me but I hope to get on the right path.
    #10 is definitely crucial to being able to not only like your character, but to relate to them.

  • DannY

    Great tips! Really helpful! Thank you again Carson! I don’t write comedies but it helps in general with other genres.

  • ff

    Nice!!!!! Good stuff as always! Thanks!

  • Dane Purk

    Okay there is some 20/20 Hindsight going on here. Especially when I know for a FACT that if some amateur wrote “Swingers” word for word and submitted it to you, you would say it wasn’t for you. And the whole SMASH CUT TO thing is, again, Hindsight.

    Most of this Hindsight stems from the fact that you’re breaking down the “script” of a movie that’s already been produced. It does have some GREAT dialogue in it, but I think a lot of the comedy in the film comes from the dynamic between the actors. If you read some of the “funny” scenes on paper, they would probably fall flat without the expressions of the actors behind it.

    And as far as the SMASH CUT TO goes, again seeing it on screen is much more satisfying than reading it. If you read the words SMASH CUT TO on paper, it’s probably going to be a bit of a turn off. Usually when I write a scene like that, I write a shot line that reads “5 minutes later” or “later that night” that way the contrast doesn’t get cut up by a slugline but it also doesn’t feel like a camera is involved.

    However, despite the Hindsight of reviewing the “script” of a produced movie, I think the best lesson of Swingers is that it has a voice. I think plotless talky character pieces can always have a chance if they have a voice. Definitely a 90’s movie. Definitely an “LA” movie. And still one of my favorites. :)

    • ff

      Totally agree. The actors make the movie.

  • TGivens

    Love this movie! Thanks for the tips!

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.bradley.71066 John Bradley

    I feel like this is the type of movie you really shouldn’t write unless you already have an actor (or are an actor) attached. I don’t think this movie would have been as good unless Vince was completely invested in the role.

  • Poe_Serling

    Kinda forgot that Vince Vaughn was even in that flick… that was when JLo was still doing things like Anacoda, etc.

  • jridge32

    I already loved this movie, Carson. But I do believe you’ve made me appreciate it more than I ever had. You’re so right about the disagreements part. It truly is in every single scene, and it’s kind of the reason they are so engaging. That, and each character being unique enough in his or her own right.

  • rosemary

    I enjoyed Swingers.

  • carsonreeves1

    I’ve seen this work outside of Swingers. You’d think being an asshole would be being an asshole and we’d not like the guy. But having the asshole do anything for our main character supersedes that for some reason.

  • El Clandestino

    Thanks for the read, very interesting. However, I don’t think scriptwriters or writers should try to restrict themselves to ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ (unless you want to make a simple, standard movie). Many classics have been made by writers/ directors thinking outside the box and not obeying any set of rules or principles. Quentin Tarantino, Terry Gilliam, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and many others made great movies and didn;t follow any rules (bar their own). Hell, David Lynch wouldn’t even have a career if eeryone had to follow rules. Box tickers would have thought Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury was a mess if they were presented with it before it got published.