The Thing is probably one of the scariest movies ever made. People haven’t always seen it that way since it’s not set strictly in the horror genre. But man, I remember watching this film as a kid and being freaked the hell out. When the spider-legs grew out of that man’s decapitated head and began walking around? That image is still burned into my brain. The screenwriting situation behind “The Thing” is kinda interesting. Bill Lancaster, the writer, is Burt Lancaster’s son. His credits include only 2 other movies, “The Bad News Bears” (the original), and “The Bad News Bears Go To Japan.” He also wrote the Bad News Bears TV series. That was back in 1979. He didn’t write anything after that and died of a heart attack at the age of 49 in 1997. I’m baffled as to why Bill didn’t write anything else when he showed a clear mastery in two completely different genres. Was this his choice? Hollywood’s choice? Did the pressures of having a famous Hollywood father play into it? I’d love to know more. But since I don’t want to depress the hell out of all of you, I’m going to break down The Thing.
1) Use Clip-Writing to spice up action sequences - Clip-Writing is when you write in clips, highlighting primary visual queues. Clip-Writing can be very effective in action scenes as it helps the reader focus on the centerpieces of the battle, fight, or chase. We see it in The Thing when a Scandinavian crew has followed an infected dog into an American base.
CLOSE ON A .357 MAGNUM
As it efficiently breaks through a windowpane and into the cold. A steady hand grips it firmly.
Getting closer. Kablam! Suddenly, his head jerks back. He falls to his knees and then face down into the snow.
NORRIS AND BENNINGS
Stare blankly, but relievedly at the fallen man. The dog whimpers in pain.
2) If Dialogue isn’t your strong suit, look to show more than tell - There’s actually some good news if you’re not a great dialogue writer. It means you’ll be forced to SHOW rather than TELL us things, which is really what you should be doing anyway. I noticed from reading and watching “The Thing” that a lot of the dialogue from the script was cut. Carpenter chose instead to focus on the visuals and the actions. For example, there was a scene early in the script where they’re walking to the helicopter and there’s a lot of explanation going on of what they’re doing. Carpenter cut a lot of that out, focusing instead on them simply getting in the helicopter and leaving. We know what’s going on. We don’t need a big long talky scene to explain it.
3) Only have your characters speak if they have something to say – This is an extension of the previous tip, and an important one. Your characters should be talking because they have something to say, not because you (the writer) have something to say. You might want to write a big monologue about how your character lost his sister or your opinion on the earth’s eroding ecosystem. That’s great. But would YOUR CHARACTER say that? I don’t think enough writers really ask that question. There’s nothing worse than reading a bunch of words coming out of a character’s mouth that you know are only there because the writer wanted to include them.
4) ALWAYS WORKS “There’s something else you should see” – I don’t care how bad of a movie or script it is, variations of this line ALWAYS work: “There’s something I need to show you.” You will have the audience in the palm of your hand until you show them what that character is referring to. With The Thing, that line brings us to a giant mutated gnarled mass of a body. If you can milk the time after the statement until the actual reveal, even better, as our anticipation will grow.
5) MID-POINT SHIFT ALERT – The Thing has a great midpoint shift. The first half of the script is about the discovery of this alien organism invading the base. Remember, a good midpoint shift ups the stakes. So the shift here is when they learn that any one of them could be the alien entity. It’s no coincidence that this is when The Thing really gets good. A great mid-point shift will do that.
6) Carefully plot how you reveal information – Always be aware of what order you reveal your information in and how that affects the reader. One omission or one addition can completely change the way the next 30 pages reads. For example, here, the movie starts with an alien ship crashing. This gives us, the audience, superior knowledge over the characters. We know they’re dealing with an alien. This means we’re waiting for them to catch up. Now imagine had Lancaster NOT included this opening shot. Then, everything that happens is just as much a mystery to us as it is the characters. I don’t want to rewrite a classic, but the opening act may have been a little more exciting had we not received the spaceship information. We’d be equal amounts as baffled and curious as the characters.
7) SHOW DON’T TELL ARLERT – In the script, the characters have about a page and a half dialogue scene talking about how if the alien makes it to civilization, it could destroy the entire world. It’s not a bad scene. But they replaced it in the movie with a simple shot – Blair staring grimly at a computer chart that states: If the organism reaches one of the other continents, the entire world population will be contaminated within 27,000 hours.
8) Foreplays not Climaxes (Aka Don’t reveal all your fun stuff right away) - I see this all the time with amateur writers. They’re so excited about the cool parts of their script that they can’t wait to write them! So when it’s time, they drop all their reveals on you simultaneously, like a giddy kid who’s been waiting to tell you about his trip to Six Flags all day. For example, the Americans find the Norwegian crew’s video tapes from their destroyed camp and start watching them to figure out what happened. An amateur writer might have slammed us with all the crazy reveals immediately (alien ship, alien body). But Lancaster takes his time with it, showing the Norwegians having fun on the tapes, basically being boring. It isn’t until a handful of scenes pass that we see the Norwegians blow up the ice and discover the alien ship. If you throw all your climaxes at us at once, we get bored. Give us some foreplays beforehand.
9) Lack of Trust = Great Drama! – Once characters stop trusting each other, the drama in your story is upped ten-fold. You now have characters who are guarded, suspicious, not saying what they mean, probing. This ESPECIALLY helps dialogue, since it’ll create a lot of subtext. Whether it’s because they think another person is secretly a shape-shifting alien or because they think their husband cheated on them with their best friend, it’s always good to look for situations where characters don’t trust one another.
10) Use Cost/Value Ratio to determine whether a scene is necessary – There was an entire cut sequence in The Thing where the dogs escaped the compound and MacReady went after them with a snowmobile. It was a nice scene but it wasn’t exactly necessary. Producers HATE cutting these sequences after they’ve been shot because it’s cost them millions of dollars. Which is why they try to cut them at the script stage. This is where you can benefit from pretending you’re a producer. Simply ask yourself, “Is the VALUE of this sequence worth the COST of what it would take to shoot?” But Carson, you say, why should I care about the budget? I’m not the director or producer. That’s not the point. The point is, you’ll start to see what is and isn’t necessary for your script. If you say, “Hmm, would I really pay 5 million bucks to shoot this chase scene that doesn’t even need to happen?” you’ll probably get rid of it, and your script will be tighter for it.
These are 10 tips from the movie “The Thing.” 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!