You may remember Trainspotting as one of those 90s movies that was changing the guard in Hollywood. Writer-directors Tarantino and Rodriquez were rewriting the rules on how stories should be told. Screenwriters like Shane Black were changing the way screenplays were written. And then this British heroin-addict flick came along and landed perfectly within that counter-Hollywood culture that many assumed would change the way films were made forever. Well, that change both happened and didn’t happen. There’s definitely more of a “do-it-yourself” attitude in today’s filmmaking community. But that brash no-holds-barred way of writing and shooting died off with the folding of most of the indie companies. It just wasn’t as easy to find money outside of the studio system anymore. So everyone started playing it safe again, and we really haven’t had a Pulp Fiction or Trainspotting for a long time. Frowney face. Based on the novel by Irving Welsh, adapted for the screen by John Hodge, and directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later), Trainspotting was nominated for a screenwriting Academy Award in 1996. It’s also ranked 10th by the British Film Institute in its list of the top 100 British films of all time. It just so happens that Hodge and Boyle have reteamed for the new James Mcavoy flick, Trance, which comes out soon. There have been persistent rumors that a sequel to Trainspotting will be made, with Boyle leading the charge, but Ewan McGregor has stated he wants to protect his character, and therefore doesn’t want to make an inferior second film.

1) When you have a lot of characters to set up, create a situation/scene that allows you to show us their differences – Here we have Sick Boy, Begbie, Spud, Tommy and Renton. Instead of giving them each their own individual scenes to set them up, which would’ve taken forever, Hodge throws them all into a soccer (football) game. We see Sick Boy commit a sneaky foul and deny it. Begbie commits an obvious foul and makes no effort to deny it. Spud, the goalie, lets the ball go between his legs. Tommy kicks the ball as hard as he can. This game allows each of the characters an individual action that tells us exactly what kind of character they are.

2) Voice over tends to work better when the pace is fast – When the story’s slow, it draws attention to the voice over, which in turn sounds preachy, as if it’s trying to carry a boring story. Trainspotting has one of the best voice overs in history (“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.”). And a big reason it works is because the story’s moving fast (we open on our characters running from the cops). It’s not that you can’t use voice over with slow material. It just seems to fit better when the pace is quick.

3) Write a story that’s opposite in pace and tone from the subject matter – One of the cool things about Trainspotting is that it’s about one of the most depressing subject matters out there – heroin addiction – and yet the story is fast and fun a lot of the time. This contrast in expected pace and actual pace gives the story an unpredictable exciting feel. I mean imagine if Trainspotting would’ve been slow-paced and focused on all the depressing moments related to heroin addiction. It probably would’ve sucked, right?

4) CONFLICT ALERT – Remember, movies do not work without conflict. You need to mine it wherever you can. Conflict between characters is a given, but not always a necessity IF you have a strong inner conflict with one of your main characters. Here, it’s addiction. That’s what Renton (Ewan McGregor) is fighting. That’s his battle throughout the movie. Without it, this movie doesn’t work.

5) Once again, use voice over to help a story in need – We saw this with Fight Club, but here it’s even more evident. The more you shun structure, the more you need voice over. The opening of this movie is guys trying to steal items to sell so they can buy dope. Then a sequence where they come off heroin. Then they try to get a job. Then they’re all hanging out, going to bars. Then they’re back on dope. 30 pages in and no story (no goal) has emerged. But it all flows pretty seamlessly because Renton’s voice over is guiding us along. Use voice-over to patch up a patchy story.

6) Talky friend movies need a theme or a unifying element – In these types of movies that don’t have much of a plot and are basically a bunch of friends hanging out, you need a unifying element – something the story can keep coming back to. Failure to do so leaves you with a bunch of friends talking, and those scripts are both boring and concept-less. The way to make these movies work is to add that BIG unifying element. Fight Club had fighting. Trainspotting has heroin (or addiction). It turns a situation that really isn’t about anything and makes it about something.

7) Give your characters personalities – I think one of the problems with writers is they’re so focused on creating character backstory, character flaws, and character relationships, that they forget to give their characters an actual personality. You technically have an “interesting” character, and yet the reader thinks all your characters are boring. So after you’ve added those elements, simply ask yourself if your character has a personality. Are they someone who people would find interesting in real life? Take Sick Boy, for example. He can’t stop talking about those damn Bond films. His obsession with them is a dominant personality trait that helps define him. A personality is what ensures your characters will be memorable.

8) In non-traditional storylines (stories without goals), try to give your characters problems – While your story won’t have the same drive as a goal-fueled story, a strong character problem will ensure that the reader will want to keep reading. Take Renton, for example. He has sex with a girl and it turns out she’s 14. She then threatens to tell the police if he doesn’t continue seeing her. The less structured your storylines are, the more in need they are of problems for your characters.

9) If you’re going to do dream sequences, make sure they’re motivated – There’s nothing more amateur than a trippy dream sequence slapped into a script. They’re often weird, random and pointless. One way to write a dream sequence that actually works is to make sure it’s motivated. That way, it’s no longer pointless. A great example of this is towards the middle of Trainspotting when Renton is coming down off his addiction. He’s locked in his childhood bedroom and has an intense dream that includes babies on the ceiling and his doctor as a cheesy game show host. The dream sequence works because it’s motivated. The character would obviously have these delusions when coming down off his addiction.

10) For better dialogue, look for a playful alternative to a predictable conversation – After a court appearance where he agrees to rehabilitation, Renton heads to his dealer’s apartment. Now this conversation could’ve gone like this: “Give me the hit of all hits.” “That’s going to cost you.” “I don’t care. I need it.” Borrrr-ing. Instead, we get this, RENTON: What’s on the menu this evening?” SWANNEY (DEALER): “Your favourite dish.” “Excellent.” “Your usual table, sir?” “Why, thank you.” “And would sir care to settle his bill in advance?” “Stick it on my tab.” “Regret to inform, sir, that your credit limit was reached and breached a long time ago.” “In that case –“ He produces twenty pounds. “Oh, hard currency, why, sir, that’ll do nicely.” Renton prepares. SWANNEY: “Would sir care for a starter? Some garlic bread perhaps?” “No, thank you. I’ll proceed directly to the intravenous injection of hard drugs, please.” Way more fun of a scene, right?

  • Poe_Serling

    A great double bill with Trainspotting is Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

    Though different storylines, the two films do share a few thematic elements, some visual touches here and there, main character voiceovers, and similar stomping grounds.

  • Maggie Clancy

    Love LOVE this, Carson. I needed this right now – thanks!

  • ripleyy

    I tried to read the book and it was really difficult but luckily the film gives me what I want in a sizable chunk and it’s brilliant, though I haven’t watched it in years.

    Another great article!

    • Murphy

      Yeah, not an easy read at all. The same with the sequel. Interesting method to write in a Scottish accent but bloody difficult to read.

  • Citizen M

    Try and have a couple of really memorable scenes. Carson mentioned the baby on the ceiling. There’s also The Worst Toilet in Scotland. And one that sticks in my mind for some reason is the old folks watching TV and the ruffians just pick it up and walk out with it.

  • Paddy

    This is one of my favorite films but I’ve still no idea what makes it so great. I think it’s probably a combination of the brilliant dialogue, unforgettable scenes and the great characters combined with an awesome director and soundtrack.

    • carsonreeves1

      you nailed it. Dialogue, character, and great scenes. All of those here are top notch.

      • Paddy

        It is almost like a collection of great scenes and dialogue rather than a standard story. It also goes against the advice of making your protagonist sympathetic with Mark being just as selfish(or worse) as Begbie and Sick Boy.

  • craigfeag

    Great review, Carson! One of my all time favorite films — and yeah, they don’t make ‘em that twisted-good much anymore!

    • true blue

      they might not make them but they’re still being written – fatties is a good example.

  • tobban

    Truly one of the grossest moments in movie history.
    And what was he diving for? A pack of heroin. And he found it.
    Trainspotting, where did they get the name from?
    Loved the way they talked. Loved the way they walked.
    Heroin chic has never looked better.

    • Graham

      ‘Trainspotting’ comes from a moment in the novel that isn’t shown in the movie (although some might argue that the aborted train trip to the fresh air of ‘the Highlands’ does a reasonable job of standing in……In fact I remember the promo trailers having a sequence with McGregor’s character lying on the tracks, with the implication that he’s been tied there by his ‘mates’ – you can hear them laughing irrc – as you hear the sound of an approaching train.)….

      Anyway, in the novel Renton (McGregor’s character) and Begbie are passing through Leith train station (which is not in use and is about to be demolished) and they encounter someone they both recognise as Begbie’s father – a serious alcoholic who lives a life barely above that of a tramp. Begbie’s father – who has been absent for years, doesn’t even recognise them. Instead, he jokes that they must be there to do some ‘Trainspotting’. Begbie’s discomfort is acute and neither he nor Renton actually discuss the encounter….. It’s a small moment but a pretty telling one.

  • klmn

    I love this movie but I don’t think spec script writers can learn much from it. This was based on a novel, shepherded by a successful director, set in Scotland.

    If this was a spec script it wouldn’t be read past the logline, at least in America.

    • Citizen M

      Write dialogue like this. It’s irresistible.

      The door opens and Renton enters carrying shopping bags. He empties them on to a mattress beside three buckets and a television.

      RENTON (V.O.)
      Relinquishing junk. Stage One:
      preparation. For this you will
      need: one room which you will not
      leave; one mattress; tomato soup,
      ten tins of; mushroom soup, eight
      tins of, for consumption cold;
      ice cream, vanilla, one large tub
      of; Magnesia, Milk of, one bottle;
      paracetamol; mouth wash; vitamins;
      mineral water; Lucozade;
      pornography; one bucket for urine,
      one for feces, and one for vomitus;
      one television; and one bottle of
      Valium, which I have already
      procured, from my mother, who is,
      in her own domestic and socially
      acceptable way, also a drug addict.

      • John Bradley

        I should read this screenplay for the dialogue alone! Thats entertaining!

    • Marija ZombiGirl

      You’re right up to a point : Boyle wasn’t succesful back then. He’d only worked in TV and had only made one feature length film, SHALLOW GRAVE (which was great, by the way) :-) That being said, TRAINSPOTTING was definitely different. I don’t know how well it did in the States but in Europe, it’s become a cult movie. I wouldn’t want to see a sequel, though.

      • klmn

        According to IMDB it grossed $16,501,785 with an estimated budget of $3,500,000. That’s a good solid single but no home run.

  • DD

    Nice post, Carson. I like how you’re tackling the non-traditional narrative and finding the reasons why they’re so memorable. If only Hollywood would listen!!

    As for Trainspotting, another interesting thing is the late-developing plot strand. They decide to do that little heroin score and renton decides to steal the money. It’s almost like a tacked-on idea, but it does feel exciting and the most dangerous idea in a movie full of dangerous activities. Much better than watching them all just waste away and die.

  • John Bradley

    Lesson 11) Heroin is bad……

  • Kevin Lenihan

    Just bumping the comment total. I read every day, but often have nothing useful to add. Bump!

    • Kevin Lenihan

      lol, five likes…I guess that’s because I said I have nothing to add!

      Well, the bad news is that now I have something! Watched this for the first time on Netflix.

      I have been trying to study lately what makes an audience want to journey with the main character. The two primary types of character appeal in general are either he is set up so that we quickly come to care about him, or he is so compellingly interesting we want to see what happens. Ideally we need one or the other, and to the extent one is week the other needs to be strong.

      Starting out in Trainspotting, the opening images are rather horrifying. Our hero is obnoxious, degenerate, and selfish. There’s a baby crawling around in the next room as they shoot the mother with her first heroin.

      Two things save it. First, the dialogue is brilliant, clever and insightful. We feel like we are visiting a curious world which we know is real but which most of us have no experience of. And the V.O. dialogue tells us that our guide will entertain and intrigue us.

      But this isn’t enough. If we don’t care at all about anyone we won’t be emotionally engaged. And that’s where the second saving factor comes in. After the intro into the heroin world, the main character announces he is quitting. There is no need to announce why, and it’s clear this is not his first attempt. This helps us care because underneath all the cynicism about the modern world, we know this kid wants to change. And when a kid that clever wants to change, we root for him.

      So ten minutes into the film we have a main character who we are starting to care about, who has a goal that we want to see him succeed in. Surrounded by a compelling cast of characters and hit with a steady stream of humor, we’re ready to journey on into the film.

  • Xarkoprime

    Trainspotting was one of those movies that all of my friends interested in film told me to watch and I honestly didn’t enjoy it. At least now I can take Carson’s tips and understand them :)

  • Murphy

    Soccer? Isn’t that a game that girls play in the U.S.?

    In Scotland they call it by it’s proper name… Football.

    • witwoud

      Or ‘footba’. As in, ‘No the boys wi knock fuck oot ay at the footba.’

  • Murphy

    Anyway, that aside. An absolute stonker of a film. Not exactly the one that launched the career of Danny Boyle but certainly the one that cemented it.

    The guy has had an interesting movie career to say the least, he has made his fair share of turkeys and his latest has not seen the greatest reviews. But when he is good he is utterly brilliant. Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, 28 Days and Slumdog are enough to cement his place as one of the most unpredictably brilliant directors of our generation.

    The great news is that John Hodge is at last working on a sequel to Trainspotting, and it is more than just talk this time, it appears that we will see it soon. For anyone who read the books I believe they are trying to make it loosely on the ‘Porno’ novel, but I do hope without the porn, for the sake of the movie.

    I can’t add anything to what makes this film so brilliant, I am not sure there even is a recipe for it. It was just so unlike anything that had ever been seen before, so unpredictable. It is a classic Danny Boyle film, great music, frenetic cinematogrphy from the excellent Anthony Dodd Mantle and wonderful dialogue from John Hodge/Irvin Welsh. What a team they make.

  • Thunk24

    Films with balls. The British do that really well – Clockwork, early Michael Caine, Bond, Sexy Beast they’re brimming with attitude.

    • New_E

      Yes! THE CRYING GAME, NAKED, THE COMMITMENTS, THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, 24 PARTY PEOPLE, THE MOTHER, 9 SONGS… for a while there in the late 80s and 90s, the British had an amazing spate of great, daring films thanks to the BFI and studios like FilmFour. Somehow I don’t think that’s been happening recently – creatively speaking (unless I’m missing something). Shame.

      If there ever was a film that was emblematic of the 90s, it was TRAINSPOTTING. Became part of the Zeitgeist overnight and launched so many careers.

      Everyone in that film from Ewan to Kelly MacDonald, to Johnny Lee Miller, and Kevin McKidd has been steadily working on TV and/or film. My only question is WTF happened to Robert Carlyle? And Peter Mullan? These two guys are arguably the most talented of the bunch and they’re nowhere to be seen. Can’t believe Carlyle is in ONCE UPON A TIME on TV. He deserves better.


      • Thunk24

        The Draughtsman’s contract is genius. Was that the first of the Greenaway, Michael Nyman soundtracks?

        • New_E

          Man, I LOVE all the Greenaway/Nyman collaborations. I love Nyman’s music. Great stuff.


      • Ninjaneer

        This happened to Robert Carlyle:

        He was perfect for that role. Love the creepy music too.

        • New_E

          I remember seeing RAVENOUS in theaters. I love everything about it on paper. Story, cast, etc.. and though I like the film, I still think it could have been so much better. Went downhill midway through IMO.


      • Graham

        Peter Mullan still acts and directs. Most recently been seen in ‘Welcome to the Punch’ and ‘War Horse’ (which ain’t exactly small beer).

        Agree that Carlyle’s most recent projects probably don’t do his ability justice.

        But yeah – most of the Trainspotting ‘alumni’ have done pretty well.

        • New_E

          Good for him. For a while there he was on a streak – MY NAME IS JOE, THE CLAIM, etc… I feel like I lost track, but glad to hear he’s still around.


          • Alan Burnett

            He’s given some really terrific performances in the past 10 years: ‘Children of Men’, ‘Boy A’ (which featured one of Andrew Garfield’s first major roles), ‘Red Riding’ and he’s frighteningly good in ‘Tyrannosaur’. He directed ‘Neds’ which was very interesting as well, and I thought he was memorable in the second last ‘Harry Potter’ film in a small role.

  • LV-426

    I’d say Terminator 2. Sarah Connor’s nuclear apocalypse dream. It gives insight into her character in the sense that she has this weight of knowledge of impending armageddon hanging over her for many years. It also sort of wakes up the audience after a slow middle sequence, before barreling forward into an action-packed third act.

  • Ninjaneer

    Great timing, I just watched it a month ago.

    I’ve heard a lot of peeps knock narration but I I don’t have a problem with it. Haven’t tried it before and don’t currently have any plans to do so, but if I came up with a killer concept that lent itself to narration I’d do it.

    7) Personalities, hmmm…. is there a character personality store I can get these at. I needs em.

    8) Yes but this should read “To improve your non traditional story line script throw it away and find a commercial idea that you find interesting.

    9) Haha, I have tried to stay away from dream sequences just so I don’t look like an amateur but I am seriously thinking about adding one into my current script. It fits, its short and I don’t think it will be a problem but I am fearing a reader might ding me for it :-)

    10) True but I think most writers overswing this one and come off as Tarantino wannabes.

    The most memorable scene for me was one that I wish I would never remember, the dead baby scene.

    • Alan Burnett

      Regarding dream sequences, there are many ways in which they can work within a narrative story. The ‘Trainspotting’ one is effective because – in addition to the sequence being motivated on a character level – it also progresses a number of stories: Renton gets better, Tommy gets worse, the parents assert more control over Renton’s life, Diane is still in Renton’s life etc. Because the filmmakers make it ambiguous whether any of these moments are part of the dream or not, they are free to throw in some key story points, as well. Audiences sometimes get frustrated with dream sequences because they don’t progress the story in a meaningful way, whilst the Trainspotting script touches upon a number of character arcs. If you are going to include a dream sequence into the script, I suggest that you find a way to progress a number of story points into the sequence. ‘Dead Again’ starts with a good one (although Scott Frank is a little hazy on the actual POV of the scene), as that film opens with a sequence that establishes that Branagh was on trial for murder in the mid 20th Century, he (possibly) killed his wife, Andy Garcia was (possibly) sleeping with her, Emma Thompson – in the present day – has a connection to these events when she wakes up. Boom. That scene creates some vivid and memorable images, but it also communicates the film’s theme (connection between past and present), plot (there’s intrigue as to the connection between Thompson and the past), structure, three of its main characters and tone. If the dream sequence only establishes a character want, audiences will be frustrated because they were already able to figure that out.

      Alternatively, there are times when a dream sequence can establish a character’s want within a dream sequence – but that want should be in conflict with the character’s needs/audience’s morality. In ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Keeping the Faith’, the lead characters develop an attraction that they shouldn’t act upon: a priest falls for a friend, a middle-aged man wants to sleep with his daughter’s friend. In the dream sequences, both men act upon their urges. First, it’s deliberately made ambiguous – to begin with – whether this is a dream or not, then – when it’s established it is a dream – the characters are able to do what they can’t in reality, which is to give into temptation. The filmmakers seduce you into thinking the moment is real, create a great deal of tension in regards to the protagonist’s action (should he? shouldn’t he?), then – when it is established it is a dream – the filmmakers create a sense of shame in the character (and the viewers) that they wanted this to happen, even if it ultimately didn’t. ‘Mulholland Drive’ and ‘Killer Joe’ both pull this trick. If ‘The King’s Speech’ pulled out a dream sequence where Bertie was being celebrated for a speech by a huge crowd, it would be tiresome to the audience because (a) they already know Bertie wants to be a good speaker and (b) they want that as well, so there is no compelling dramatic tension between the audience and the viewer.
      There are many other ways in which a dream sequence can work, but – before approaching one – a screenwriter should ask themselves why other dream sequences succeeded, and whether their dream sequence is fulfilling more than one objective.

  • TGivens

    Awesome movie! And I really enjoyed reading the script. The writing is pretty lean.

  • Graham

    Ah Carson – you’ve made me feel quite old.

    I attended the premier for ‘Trainspotting’ – as a humble law student who was lucky enough to get tickets – in Glasgow, way back in the dim and distant (actually – there were two on the same evening. As I recall, the cast and crew did a Q&A in Edinburgh, then left half way through the movie there to drive through to Glasgow for the event I attended).

    It was my first real experience of seeing ‘movie people’ in the flesh and hearing them talk excitedly about their work on the film.

    This was something of a ‘significant cultural event’ at the time. The novel was ‘big news’ in Scotland and in the UK generally. It’s not so much that everyone could relate to the lives of heroin addicts; it was that they admired the approach Welsh took in telling the story. Recreating the Edinburgh ‘patois'; the scorching black humour ; the fantastic characters with such individual inner voices and the episodes/chapters that contained events that everyone could relate to: talking about music, politics, attending gigs and going to fitba’ games with your mates.

    I was also very exciting because the movie was shot in several locations I was very familiar with (Glasgow doubled for Edinburgh in a lot of this). The club where they all hang out prior the infamous ‘Spud’ bedsheet incident was a regular haunt – and the pub with the balcony from which Begbie casually tosses a beer glass over his shoulder was just a few minutes from my flat…

    I actually couldn’t appreciate the movie for what it was the first time I saw it – which is often the way, I find, when a favourite book is adapted for the screen (felt the same about the LOTR movies, LA Confidential and several Elmore Leonard adaptations). Boyle’s film left a LOT out from the novel and it took me a second viewing to begin to realise that this was probably for the best. My one regret is that they didn’t show the small, almost incidental, encounter which gives rise the ‘Trainspotting’ title…..

    But yes. Exciting days, a great script and a great movie.

    PS – have no idea if true, but I do recall hearing that McGregor and Danny Boyle had a bit of a falling out when Boyle came to make ‘The Beach’ (another novel which had quite a bit of a reputation back then – the author Alex Garland has been a regular collaboarator with Boyle since – ’28 Days Later’ being an example). Along the lines of McGregor having been given to believe that he would get the lead only for it to go to DeCaprio in the end. If true – this may colour any possible ‘Trainspotting’ sequel prospects involving either….

  • Alan Burnett

    I like what you coined ‘empathy checkpoints’ in regards to ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, and think it applies to this film, as well. Renton could easily be a two-dimensional asshole, and he makes some terrible and unbelievably selfish choices: he steals from his parents and a retirement home, he betrays his parent’s trust by using again, he sleeps with an underage girl, he steals a sex tape from his friend, which causes a break-up (thereby leading to said friend’s spiral towards drugs). In real life, you’d think that Renton is a terrible, TERRIBLE person, and you wouldn’t want anything to do with him. However, you can’t simply write him off. Hodge always asserts – via his voice-over narration – Renton’s self-awareness, which strangely makes him more appealing, even if he KNOWS what he is doing is wrong: i.e. his betrayal of his friends, his monologue about giving money to Tommy, his devastated speech after the death of Baby Dawn etc. In a world where everyone is self-medicated or unconscious of the consequences of their own behavior, you at least admire someone who is able to criticize themselves. It also helps that Renton looks like a saint in comparison to his friends.

  • Jared Mazzaschi

    The book was genius! It had so much material to draw from for the script and characters to die for. Still, with lesser talents much could have been lost or muddled in the translation. It was an amazing thing that they were able to adapt it so successfully, a testament to all involved.

  • fragglewriter

    I’ve never seen this movie but great tips. It was on SHO not too long ago, so I’ll look out for it again.