Scriptshadow is not dead! Between Labor Day Weekend and preparing for my upcoming vacation (next week), time has been scarce. Speaking of, what are you guys going to do while I’m gone? Maybe you should write a script in a single week. You can then post the results (or a summary of the experience) on the site. I’ll call it the Scriptshadow Is Gone Write A Screenplay In A Week Contest. If you need inspiration, go watch this video. As for today, we’re taking a time machine back to the 80s. Seeing as Michael Douglas cheating on Catherine Zeta-Jones with Matt Damon has led to their divorce, it’s only natural that we take a look at one of his earlier marriage screw-ups, when he cheated on his wife with Glenn Close. The reason I chose this script was because thrillers remain one of the three go-to genres to sell a spec screenplay. They’re lean, high on intensity, take you through a range of emotions, and are relatively inexpensive to make. If I were starting my writing career today with the knowledge I have now, I would write either a comedy, an action script, or a thriller. That’s where the money is. While it didn’t win any Oscars, Fatal Attraction was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best actress, and best adapted screenplay.
1) Thriller titles must be visceral – With straight thrillers, the title should illicit a strong visceral reaction. It must imply the extreme emotional gamut it will run the audience through. The original title for this movie was “Divergent.” I think we can agree that doesn’t have nearly the same punch as “Fatal Attraction.”
2) Start where you need to start – With thrillers, there’s a temptation to start the script with a very “thriller-like” scene, or a “teaser.” Our femme fatale eerily cutting herself in the darkness of her apartment while listening to opera music, for example. But it’s more important to start the script where it needs to in order to set up the story. In order to convey that our main character would seek out an affair, we need to establish that he’s bored with the married family life. So the first scene, then, is about Dan (Michael Douglas) muscling through an evening with the family.
3) Just make sure the scene’s interesting – If you aren’t going to wow us with a teaser (such as the one I mentioned above), remember that you still have to hook the reader right away. For that reason, you want your first scene to convey a sense of purpose, a sense of activity, a sense of forward momentum. Fatal Attraction does not begin with a family sitting at home eating pizza watching a movie, for example. It begins with mom and dad getting ready for a dressy work event. This gives everyone something to do. We are propelling forward towards something. As a reader, I want to find out what that “something” is. Which is why I keep reading.
4) If your main character is going to do something horrible, try to have someone else instigate it – Our hero, Dan, cheats on his beautiful amazing wife and adorable daughter. Ouch. Talk about a tough character to like. If you’re going to have your hero do something as reprehensible as this, make sure it wasn’t his idea. If he instigates it, we’ll hate him. It’s Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) who moves in on Dan here. She’s the one pushing him for lunch. She’s the one who suggests they’re “adults” who can make their own decisions. She’s the one who’s trying to make this happen. I’ve read a lot of scripts where a married or committed man goes out and fucks other women without a second thought. I immediately hated all those characters.
5) Give the wife something to do – Oh boy. If I had a dollar for every time a writer forgot about the wife character, I could buy a new car. Amateur writers write only with the actions of their protagonist and antagonist in mind. Pro writers give ALL OF THEIR CHARACTERS something to do. Fatal Attraction has wife Beth spearheading the big move from the city to the suburbs. She’s visiting potential new houses as well as prepping the sale of this apartment. This ensures that a second storyline is going on underneath the main storyline, which gives the script a more dynamic and realistic feel.
6) Sometimes, the absence of damage is worse than actual damage – Alex boiling the rabbit is one of the most memorable scenes in movie history. But if all you do is fill your thrillers with “boiling rabbit” scenes, they lose their effect. One of the creepier scenes in Fatal Attraction is when Alex picks up Dan’s daughter from school and spends the day with her. She doesn’t do anything to the little girl, dropping her off at Dan’s home unharmed, and yet it’s a horrifying scene.
7) STAKES ALERT – Remember that it’s your job to raise the stakes of your story wherever possible, ESPECIALLY in a thriller. The more there is to lose, the more compelling the situation will be. For example, this movie doesn’t pack the same punch if there’s no child involved. If the writer would’ve only written in a wife, we wouldn’t have been as involved. It’s the fact that he has a daughter, that he has a family, that gives our hero so much to fight for.
8) Don’t get so lost in the point of the scene that you forget the reality of the moment – I see this A LOT with amateur writers and even with good writers. We can get so set on achieving a scene’s purpose, we don’t stop to find the truth in the moment. For example, there’s an early scene in Fatal Attraction’s script where they need to set up the babysitter before the parents leave. This could’ve been a very perfunctory moment. “Okay, there’s the food in the fridge.” “She likes when you read to her.” “We’ll be home by ten.” That sort of thing. However, your job is to stop thinking of the moment as a movie scene, and to find its inner life, its “truth” if you will. So the writers add this nice little exchange where Dan says to the babysitter, teasingly, “And no partying, d’you hear?” The babysitter replies, “But I’ve already sent out the invitations.” Dan responds. “Can I come?” This exchange takes what easily could’ve been a straight boring “get through it” scene, and adds life to it. Make sure you go through all your scenes and find their reality.
9) Look for ways to cleverly intersect storylines – There are typically several storylines going on in every script (here we have the affair, the potential move to the suburbs, his job at the publishing house). It’s your job as a writer to look for fun ways to bring these storylines together. A great example of this occurs in Fatal Attraction. Because they’re moving, they must sell their own place, which means potential buyers coming in to look at it. Who better to be one of those “potential buyers” than… Alex Forrest! Not only that, but the way this scene is written, Dan comes home to find none other than Alex IN HIS HOME talking TO HIS WIFE. It’s a shocking reveal (and one of the most memorable moments in the script). Finding great intersecting moments like these are what really elevate a script.
10) In a thriller, your protagonist and antagonist must square off – In the much publicized original ending for Fatal Attraction, Alex Forrest kills herself and makes it look like Dan murdered her. That ending didn’t test well. Why? It’s hard to say. But a good bet is that when you have a battle like this going on for 110 minutes, the audience wants to see the hero and the villain square off against one another. So that’s exactly what they did with the reshoot. They had Alex come to the home and try to kill Dan’s wife. Dan battles her to defend his family. It was a much bigger and more satisfying ending.