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It doesn’t get much better than Goodfellas, a script based on the non-fiction book “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi (who shares writing credit with Martin Scorsese on the film). The film came out in 1990 and got nominated for six Academy Awards. Joe Pesci, in a role he’s still getting mileage out of, won for best supporting actor. While the story structure was put in place by the writers, much of the great dialogue was discovered through rehearsals, where Scorsese let his actors roam free, then wrote into the script many of the lines they came up with. While Pileggi wanted to follow a traditional narrative, Scorcese didn’t think it was necessary, believing the film was more a combination of episodes, and those episodes could be told out of order. It’s this and a few other non-traditional choices that make Goodfellas so interesting to study as a screenplay. As the story goes, after reading the book, which Scorsese thought was the best book on the mob ever written, he called Pileggi and said, “I’ve been waiting to direct this book my whole life,” to which Pileggi responded, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my whole life.”

1) The tragedy script – The tragedy script does not follow the traditional three-act structure (setup, conflict, resolution). It works more in two halves. You build up the hero’s success in the first half, then have them fall apart in the second. That second half fall should be dictated by the hero’s flaw, which can be anything, but is most often greed.

2) The cool thing about tragedies is that you can have your main character do some pretty horrible things – The audience understands this isn’t a romantic comedy. They don’t need their main character to be a saint. They get that bad things are going to happen and that our protagonist is going to be unsavory. Embrace that. I mean, despite all of us falling in love with Henry’s (Ray Liotta) first love, Karen, he starts having an affair with another woman on the side. You can’t do that in a traditional film without the audience turning on the protag. The one caveat to all of this, is that we must START OUT loving our main character. We’ll only go down the dark path with him if we liked him before he got there. So it’s no coincidence that Scorsese and Pileggi used one of the most common tools available to make us fall in love with Henry – they made him an underdog – the little nobody kid from the streets who worked his way up the system.

3) Give ’em something to talk about – What I learned about voice over during Goodfellas (which is used practically non-stop) is that if you have a fascinating subject matter and you’ve researched the hell out of it, the device is a great way to give us all of that information. What sets movies like Goodfellas and, say, Casino apart is those “behind the curtain” details we learn about the subject matter. You walk away knowing exactly what it was like to be a wiseguy (or what it was like working in a Casino) after watching these films. But extensive voice over like this ONLY WORKS if the subject matter is fascinating, if you’ve researched the shit out of it, and if you’re telling us stuff we don’t already know. Break one of those three rules, and the voice over will probably get tiresome.

4) We’re more likely to go along with a character’s suspect choices if we’re inside his head (listening to his voice over) – There’s something about hearing a character’s play-by-play of his life that makes us more tolerant of the terrible things he does. If Henry is robbing people and cheating on people and killing people without him ever telling us why, there’s a good chance we’ll turn on the character. But because he’s explaining it to us as he goes along via voice over, we understand his choices. It’s kind of like hearing that some random person you don’t know is cheating on their spouse. You immediately conclude that they’re a terrible person. But when your best friend cheats on their spouse, and they explain to you why they’re doing it and what went into the choice, you’re more okay with it. Voice-over can be very powerful that way.

5) Research research research – I’ve read a LOT of amateur scripts about the mob over the years and none of them ever come close to Scorsese’s films. Why? Research. Nothing feels original or unique. These writers fail to understand that Scorcese is using material that has been meticulously researched. I mean, authors like Pileggi have spent hundreds of hours talking to the REAL PEOPLE involved in these crime magnets. He’s getting the stories that REALLY happened. Whereas with amateurs, they’re making up stories based on their favorite movies. Therefore they read like badly made copies. So if you’re going to jump into this space, you better have at least a hundred hours of research to base your story on. Or else forget about it.

6) Start your script with a bang – Goodfellas starts with a bang and never lets go. And that got me thinking. In the comments section of the Amateur Offerings post this weekend, a commenter said he stopped reading one of the entries after page one because it was boring. A debate then began on whether the first page of a script should always be exciting. Some believed it should, and others said the writer should be afforded more time. The actual answer to this question is complicated. In the spec world, yes, the first page should immediately grab the reader. However, your first scene should also be dictated by the genre and story. If you’re telling a slow-burn story, for example, then a slower opening makes sense. But the definitive answer probably lies within what happens BEFORE you write the first page. You should choose the type of story that would have an exciting opening page in the first place, since it IS so important to grab that reader from page one. Once you’re established and people will read your scripts no matter what, THEN you can afford to take your time getting into your story.

7) Always look to complicate your scenes – Driving a dead guy into the woods to bury him isn’t a very interesting scene. Driving a “dead guy” who all of a sudden starts banging on the inside of the trunk (Oh no, he’s still alive), is. And it leads to one of the most memorable moments in Goodfellas, when Tommy starts bashing the still-moving bloody mattress cover over and over again. Try not to allow your scenes to move along too smoothly. Always complicate them somehow. It usually results in something more interesting.

8) Beware the mob/gangster screenplay naming conundrum – One of the biggest assumptions young writers make is that readers will remember however many characters they introduce, be it 5 or 500. I can’t stress enough that too many characters leads to character mix-up which leads to story confusion. Mob movies are particularly susceptible to this problem for two reasons. One, they naturally have a lot of characters. And two, most of the character names sound the same, ending in “-y” or “-ie” (Jonny, Billy, Tommy, Frankie) making it particularly easy to mix characters up. For this reason, whenever you write one of these scripts, it is essential that you make everybody memorable and distinctive. Here are a few tips to achieve this (note that these will work for any script with a lot of characters):
a. Only create characters if they’re absolutely essential to the story (less characters equals less of a chance the reader will forget who’s who).
b. Differentiate names as much as possible (don’t use “-y” and “-ie” names if you can avoid it). If you have to do this, consider using a nickname or their last name to identify them by.
c. Describe each character succinctly. No bare-bones “fat and awkward” descriptions.
d. Give each character their own unique quirks. Anything to make them stand out from the other characters.
e. Open up with a memorable character-specific scene for each of your big characters. So if you have a character who has a temper, open up with a unique compelling introductory scene that shows him losing his temper (like how we introduce Tommy in Goodfellas, who gets so mad at Billy for insulting him that he kills him).

9) Bounce around a large location easily by using mini-slugs – A mini-slug is basically a quick identifier of where we are inside a larger location. Since a full slug line indicates a more severe location change, it can ruin the flow of a scene if used often. For example, say two characters are bouncing around multiple rooms in a house. You don’t have to write, “INT. KITCHEN – SECOND FLOOR – DAY” every time you come back to the kitchen. Just say, in capital letters, and on their own line: “THE KITCHEN” or “THE BASEMENT” or “THE LIVING ROOM” or wherever the sub-location might be. These are mini-slugs.

10) The “powder keg” character – To me, these characters always work. If you write a slightly crazy character who could blow up at any second, then any scene you put them is instantly tension-filled. It’s like the character brings with him a floor full of pins and needles wherever he goes. It’s why Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) is such a classic character. We’re terrified of what he’s capable of. We’re worried that anyone at any moment could say the wrong thing and BOOM! – our powder keg blows up. If you can find a way to weave a powder keg character into your script (and it fits the story), do it. These characters always bring the goods.

Scriptshadow_Cover_Final3These are 10 tips from the movie “Goodfellas.” To get 500 more of the most helpful screenwriting tips you’ll ever find, mined from movies as varied as “Aliens,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!

  • John Bradley

    Great article to start my day of writing!

  • gazrow

    Great stuff, Carson! I particularly liked the suggestion of introducing a “powder keg” character!

    • Michael

      “You think I’m funny?”

      Greatest “powder keg” example ever:

      • GeneralChaos

        Not really, because he was just joking.

        Tommy feels like a ripoff of Sonny from The Godfather, which will now lead to the obligatory “loose cannon” mob guy in every mob script. In reality I would suspect that most mob guys are capable of flying off the handle at the drop of a hat but you can’t have everyone doing that in a movie, so the personality-type gets personified in one character: The Hot-Head.

        • Michael

          Of coarse you can say he was just joking, once you’ve seen the movie, but the first time you see it the tension ramps up quickly because Tommy is capable of anything and not just a hair trigger hot-head like Sonny. And don’t forget Tommy’s immediate violent reaction to the maitre d’/owner, that wasn’t a joke. Pesce’s Tommy felt more original to me than Caan’s Sonny, who is the obligatory “loose cannon” mob guy going back to the 1930′s. Don’t get me wrong about Caan’s performance, he was great and original given how acting styles had advanced from the 30′s. Sonny will always be classic in his own right, but give Tommy his due. You’re right, you can’t have everyone being a hot-head, that’s why it was even scarier to have Tommy laughing his his ass off and it still wasn’t safe. That unpredictability in the character made the scene.

      • gazrow

        Definitely!

      • John Bradley

        It’s funny how most any of us could beat up Joe Pesci in real life, yet the writing, acting, directing in this scene is so powerful that many of us felt uncomfortable the first time watching it. This is really an all-time great scene.

  • jaehkim

    this is one of the best articles I’ve read this site. maybe it’s because the movie being examined is so good, but every single suggestion here is gold.

    I think #2 and #4 is what makes this film work so well. without the voice over explaining things to us, we wouldn’t know why this world is the way it is, and why we love the protagonist even after he does some shady stuff.

    for us amateurs, #5 cannot be stressed enough. we all want to write great period pieces, but the characters who are supposed to be from another era end up sounding like a bunch of frat boys. i think separating character voices tie into this somehow too.

    • Panos Tsapanidis

      +1 One of my favorite articles. Everything got a bit more clear after reading the voice over explanations/tips.

    • Brian Lastname

      Couldn’t agree more. Hands down one of the best articles I’ve read here in recent memory. Plus, I got a really good laugh out of the picture of Pesci. The picture is just so… Pesci.

      #5 is huge. We’ve all wanted to write the titanic, herculean epic period piece at one time or another, but the fact that the scope of the effort and time that goes into writing one (especially when you don’t have top-shelf source material at your disposal) is gargantuan and all-consuming, cannot be stressed enough.

      Really liked the tips on tragedies, as well. Being sure to split that sucker down the middle and using the first half to make us fall in love with the character is key. This was a really nice refresher on that.

  • romer6

    Off-topic: Carson, what about Pilots Week? Any news on that?

    • http://the-movie-nerd.com themovienerd

      Oooooo .. there’s a pilot week in the works? Tell me more …

  • ThomasBrownen

    Great article! I thought number 8 was particularly helpful. I recently realized just how many female names end with “–a.” I suppose it’s the Latin influence on names, but we don’t have a huge number of male names ending with “–us” anymore. Weird.

  • Toby_E

    Brilliant article. Most of my work includes a powder keg character, because I find these characters so damn fun to write. This character type is what made me enjoy The Town so much; you knew Jeremy Renner’s character was only a step away from completely losing it throughout.

  • Logline_Villain

    There are movies we love the first time we see ‘em – but whether that flame burns as bright on a subsequent viewing is not always a given. For me, Forrest Gump and Collateral maintained the love, but Goodfellas stumbled on that next go-round – and the voice-over was the primary reason I felt that way. Henry’s “telling” does make him more relatable and makes us feel like we’re part of the gang – but for me it became redundant and very little of it told me something I didn’t already know…

    Great breakdown, Carson!

  • carsonreeves1

    that is the truth.

  • Brooks Elms

    GFELLAS is an excellent example of how it can work to open with a hook scene, then jump back in time to set things up. “As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster…”

    Awesome.

    The problem is that the likes of Carson, Craig Mazen, and John August have all been lambasting specs for using that device, saying that every other friggin script in town seems to use that “hook-jump back” choice to open.

    But for movies that actually get MADE, it’s not THAT common. It happens, but not too much.

    I’ve got a script that’s using this device, so I cringe every time I hear how common it is in other scripts. The thing is, I’m planning to direct the script myself so I’m confident it will work in the film version just fine. On the other hand, I’m still going out to actors and other key players and I hate the idea they may be seeing what looks like a tired device on the page. On the 3rd hand, the script has been getting a great response in general: got me my manager, had an option offer, did well in the Nicholl, etc… On the 4th hand, if I pull it out, the opening is not as strong, too slow. Plus that hook scene is also a plant that’s much better to open with and then let the audience kinda forget about….

    So I’ll probably keep it in there, but MAN, I hate hearing about how damn common it is!

    Thoughts?

    • carsonreeves1

      It is commonly used, but if you don’t have to worry about readers cause you’re making it yourself, it’s not as big of an issue. :)

    • Malibo Jackk

      Best advise I ever heard: Do what works.

      (Movie watchers have already paid $12, or bought the DVD, or rented it — so a slow opening will work.
      But readers will need a hook — or they’ll click on the TV, watch while they read, drink beer, and throw up all over your script.)

      • IgorWasTaken

        Absolutely! And yet so many people (pros included) deny this (in one way or another).

        You pay your money, you sit in the theater… If the first half is a snorefest*, but then the second half is the best effin movie you’ve ever seen… You tell everyone how great it is. They MUST see it.

        OTOH, if the first half of a script is a snorefest*, no one reads the second half…

        Unless, unless, UNLESS, you have “a name”.

        Of course, ultimately someone has to think the first half of the script is also great. That may require rewriting. Or, it may not – because sometimes the greatness of the first half may not become apparent until you get to the second half.

        In a way, some first-halfs have to be “boring”* to make the second-halfs pay off.

        (* – Note: “Snorefest” and “boring” are hyperboles.)

        As for what Page 1 needs… My theory is that, at least until one has earned “a name”, page one should grab the reader – but there are so many ways to do that. Look at “Little Miss Sunshine”. IMO, Page 1 is a grabber. And yet it’s just chubby little Olive watching a pageant on TV intently as the winner is announced, then rewinding the VCR and starting it again.

        A grabber can be a simple line of dialogue. An amazing scene description. (Which, BTW, does not mean a long description; indeed, it’s shortness may help establish its ability to grab the reader.)

        Sure, a reader would love to be wowed by what is happening on Page 1. But my sense is that, lacking that, we at least need to provide the reader with a reason to trust us.

        If a reader reads Page 1 and doesn’t quite get what’s going on, but he/she knows the writer’s name, that can carry the reader for some number of pages regardless – because there’s trust before the reader even gets to Page 1.

        But for the rest of us, we’re starting with no trust. If we can’t give a reader some dazzling action or dialogue on Page 1, are only hope is to at least give him/her reason to trust us… and keep reading.

    • Poe_Serling

      Hey Brooks-

      A short time back, I remember your script Wright or Wrong winning the grand prize in the WOTS contest… is this the script you’re talking about?

      And if I’m not mistaken, I kind of recall Carson reviewing another script about the Wright Brothers.

      • gazrow

        “I remember your script Wright or Wrong winning the grand prize in the WOTS contest.”

        Poe -
        You know everything about everything!

        • Poe_Serling

          Oh, I wish… ;-)

          Brooks Elms is such a distinctive name is just rung a bell for me… so it wasn’t too hard to put two and two together.

    • Paul Clarke

      It’s commonly used as a gimmick by amateur writers who don’t understand its true purpose. They just copy bits of movies they like. If it is the best structure to use then use it.

      Far better than opening with something boring.

      I’m definitely on the side that judges a script from the first few pages. But not for having any sort of ‘bang’, but rather a demonstration that the writer understands how to dramatize a scene. An average movie has around 40 or so little mini sequences/scenes. That makes them about 3-5 pages long. I look for the first story beat over those pages, does it tell it’s own mini story? Does it have a start, finish, and end? A setup and payoff? If the first pages are just a collection of events then I assume the rest of the script will be the same.

    • JakeBarnes12

      I wouldn’t worry about the hook scene, Brooks, I’d worry that you have scenes that you describe as “too slow.” Too slow is writer-speak for “I think they’re kinda dull but necessary.”

      I’m not being catty here. If you have scenes, any scenes anywhere, that are “too slow” to open a script, then at some point your script is going to be boring readers.

      I know that’s a high standard, but 99.9% of specs never sell.

      Every single page of a script, especially a spec, should be entertaining, intriguing, full of drama and conflict, make the reader want to turn the page.

      THAT’S the standard.

      And, yes, it’s higher for those of us who haven’t sold because we have everything to prove.

      Problem’s particularly bad in the First Act of amateur scripts, because many think that set up really means exposition. I gotta set up my world and my characters and then I’ll have lots of conflict in Act 2.

      The Greats set up their world and characters in scenes bursting with conflict and drama.

      Check out the first episode of Steven Bochco’s short-lived TV show “Murder One” from 1995 for a MASTERCLASS in this; he introduces a ton of characters and situations and not ONE of those scenes lacks conflict. Not one is “too slow.”

      Not hectoring you here, man, but I’m saying go in and rewrite those “too slow” scenes until they’re slow-burning fuses of barely contained tension.

      • Malibo Jackk

        The example I like to cite is episode 1 of season 1 of Downton Abby.
        (Something I would normally have zero interest in watching.)
        There’s no explosions, no car chases (although I would be tempted to add one), no sword fights — and no severed limbs. In other words:

        No action.
        No shouting.

        Just people talking against a beautiful backdrop of English country estate.
        But Damn.

        Every scene was short, to the point — and ended with conflict.
        Scene after scene: CONFLICT, CONFLICT, CONFLICT.

        If a reader read that in an amateur script, they’d drop their beer

        demanding to know — Who is this guy?

        • JakeBarnes12

          Yeah, I need to get into that show; haven’t caught it yet.

      • Brooks Elms

        That’s a good question: are the other Act 1 scenes too slow relative to the best they can/should be? The answer for this script is: no, they’re great the way they are and have an appropriate level of Act 1 conflict.

        I think the script of GOODFELLAS actually did NOT open with that hook that’s in the movie. If I recall correctly, they found that in the editing room (kinda similar to what Marty did in RAGING BULL). Their Act 1 scenes had the right level of conflict, but still lacked a punch they wanted. Think about GOODFELLAS without the hook. Still great, but a little too sleepy.

        So they throw in a flash-forward hook scene, and it becomes one of the best openings of all time.

        Or as my composer said when he read my script, “Man, I knew from page two you weren’t f*cking around.”

        • JakeBarnes12

          Best of luck with making the movie, Brooks.

          Give my regards to “Marty.”

  • Gregory Mandarano

    Ahh Goodfellas, one of the best movies EVER. Can you even imagine it without pesci and liotta? I cant. Just goes to show how the right actors can work with something great and make it legendary.

  • jridge32

    I feel dumb for not known about mini-slugs. Will be employing them from here on. Thanks, Carson.

  • lonestarr357

    Very good article.

    However, I may be in the minority here, but, for me… CASINO > GOODFELLAS.

    Don’t get me wrong; GOODFELLAS is a terrific movie, but I just like CASINO more. Maybe, it’s because I saw CASINO first.

  • TGivens

    Great tips! I was avoiding mini-slugs, sometimes they seem confusing.

    • Post

      ” I was avoiding mini-slugs, sometimes they seem confusing.”

      Really? I love them. Especially when you can make the transition smooth, so it becomes a flawless read.

      THANKS CARSON for this article. I wouldn’t mind, if you would do aditional 10 tips. This movie is so rich and interesting from a screenwriting point of view.

  • Angel film investor

    Solid info. It would be interesting to read an article about script categories that doesn’t follow the three-act structure.

  • Alan Burnett

    The tragedy has a five-act, not a two-act structure, and this is the same in ‘Goodfellas’. Anticipation Stage (Henry wants to be a gangster as a child), Dream Stage (Henry is rising in the mafia, Henry falls in love and marries), Frustration Stage (Henry starts cheating, his friends make life frustrating for him), Nightmare Stage (Drug problem leads to paranoia) and Resolution (Henry leaves the life for good).

    • Malibo Jackk

      That guy Shakespeare also liked to use five acts.
      I mean like … what up with that??
      (Carson, you need to have a talk with that dude.)

  • Poe_Serling

    Thanks for the update, Brooks. Sounds like you got a lot of pots on the stove… with one or two ready to boil over.

    And I’ll definitely keep an eye open for any news regarding the Paramount project.

    • Brooks Elms

      To clarify, the director attached to that one script has a deal w Paramount on a different project, but it makes them the obvious first choice for this one as well. And if they and the other studios pass, the proco says they’ll get the money through their financing partner and make it anyway this fall.

      And if somebody SAYS something that’s as good as gold in this town, right? I mean, LA is The City of Angels, but they might as well call it the City of Integrity.

      Sarcasm aside, I’m cautiously optimistic.

      • Todd Walker

        I can’t recall, but I believe I read Frozen Thunder, so I’m not sure if it used that device. But if someone in Hollywood doesn’t have integrity that person has bigger issues than a deadline,lol. How many have you written?

        • Brooks Elms

          You probably haven’t read FT because we’ve only given that out to pro readers for internal feedback. We still have another draft before it’s ready to officially hit the town.

          Since the last indie feature I wrote and directed in 2007, I’ve written or co-written about 10 scripts. But only one has gone wide since we got our UTA agents last year. It’s a sci-fi thriller which is a different space than all the rest (comedy or crime). UTA likes the others but wants to focus on that one genre first. The others do get slipped around here and there by my manager, but they’re tactical strikes instead of the carpet bomb of going wide.

  • tobban

    Goodfellas has a memorable line on almost every page.
    146 minutes of it. That is 2 hours and 26 minutes !
    “We had it all. ”
    “I’m an average nobody”
    “Get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

    …and of course the best end credit song My Way sung by Sid Vicious !
    Scorsese is a master of the gangster movie theme:
    I lived the high life and everything turned to shit.
    When in jail slice the garlic with a razor blade and it will melt in the olive oil.

    Goodfellas vs Casino = a tie. Both of them fantastic.

  • Todd Walker

    10. I like Goodfellas for the simple reason that you wonder what Joe Pesci is going to do next. He was a complete psycho. 8a. I used to do this all the time way back when I was writing my first 2 or 3 scripts, but that’s before I realized outlining actually helped,lol. My first script I had like 10 people in it, which didn’t have much room for character development.

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