When I think of Cameron Crowe, the first movie that comes to mind is Jerry Maguire. But I think Say Anything may be the best script he’s ever written. One of the reasons why it’s stood the test of time is that it’s so different. I mean seriously, when’s the last time you read a high school romantic comedy where the central conflict was a love triangle between a teenage couple and the girl’s father? You haven’t. And that’s the theme of today’s tips. Be different. If you’re constantly challenging yourself to make unique choices, you’ll put yourself ahead of 90% of your competition. Now, let’s learn a little something from this script, shall we?
AVOID CLICHÉ WHEN CREATING YOUR LEADS
This one seems obvious because it’s talked about so much in screenwriting books and on websites. But here you get to see it in action. Lloyd and Diane are NOT your typical high school love story. Lloyd is not an uber geek, hanging on to the last rung of the popularity ladder. He’s an outsider with a smattering of cool friends who lives with his sister and has an unhealthy obsession with kickboxing. Diane Court is not the unobtainable prom queen princess. She’s an uber-geek, made unobtainable more by her brains than her looks. A screenplay is capable of overcoming a lot of clichés. But one cliché it cannot overcome is cliched main characters. Always make sure your main characters are original.
IN A LOVE STORY, YOU NEED TO SHOW YOUR LEADS FALLING IN LOVE
I’ve talked about this before but it’s a mistake I keep seeing writers make. You need to SHOW your leads falling in love. People don’t fall in love cause it’s a love story or because both of them are good-looking. They must experience things together to make them fall in love. Lloyd takes Diane to her first party, which is a wild experience that ends with them driving a random drunk kid around for three hours looking for his house. He teaches her how to drive. They make love in the back seat of a car. He moves some broken glass out of her path. They muscle through an awkward dinner with her father and his friends. Instead of a bunch of boring scenes where two characters talk about their “opinions” on life, we SEE these two experiencing things together, and those experiences are what sell us on their falling in love.
YOUR CHARACTER SHOULD NEVER BE SITTING AROUND, WAITING FOR THE STORY TO CALL ON HIM
I always find it funny when a character is sitting around, doing nothing, and all of a sudden a call comes in from one of the other characters. “Rick, it’s time to go to Bill’s party!” Our hero LEAPS into action and we cut to the next scene. Nobody sits on a couch staring at the wall for hours. Your characters should be doing something that pushes the plot forward or tells us about their character, EVEN WHEN THEY’RE NOT ONSCREEN. Right before the break-up scene in Say Anything, Diane calls Lloyd to talk. Crowe could’ve had Lloyd anywhere (in his sister’s apartment for example). But instead, he puts him in the middle of an intense kickboxing class with little kids, reminding us of how important kickboxing is to this guy. It’s a tiny thing, but it makes us feel like our hero is actually living a life, as opposed to waiting for a fictional story to call on him when needed.
WHEN YOU COME INTO A FAMILIAR SITUATION, LOOK TO TURN IT ON ITS HEAD
One of my favorite moments in Say Anything is when Lloyd comes to pick up Diane for their first date. Normally, these scenes play out like so: The father sizes up his prey before barraging him with difficult questions about his daughter and his life. Hilarity ensues when the young man bides time until the girl shows up. So what does Crowe do with this scene instead? Before the dad can get a word in, Lloyd hits him with, “Look, I know you’re busy. You don’t have to entertain me. But you can trust me. I’ll tell you a couple of things about myself. I’m 19. I was overseas for a couple of semesters and now I’m back. I’m an athlete so I rarely drink. Kickboxing. You ever hear of kickboxing? Sport of the future? I can see by your face, no. My point is you can relax because your daughter will be safe with me for the next 7-8 hours sir.” He totally turns the cliché on its head! This is what all of you writers should be doing.
WHERE’S THE MOST INTERESTING LOCATION TO PLACE YOUR SCENE
Remember, the most interesting place to put your scene may not always be the most obvious one. But a good way to figure out WHERE to put a scene is to consider who your character is, then put him in a setting that conflicts with him. A neat little scene in Say Anything is when Lloyd calls Diane for the first time. This scene could’ve been placed anywhere where there was a phone – a bedroom, a living room, wherever. But Lloyd is bursting with energy, an animal that constantly needs to breathe, that needs space. So where does Crowe put him in this important moment? In a tiny bathroom! What was a simple phone call scene has turned exciting, as Lloyd is now a caged animal, pacing and ducking and colliding with everything in this very tiny space while he tries to ask Diane out. Always look for the most interesting place to put your scene.
BE UNIQUE WITH YOUR PARENTAL RELATIONSHIPS
One of the things you’re constantly dealing with as a writer is your characters’ parents. The role parents play (or don’t play) in your character’s life will have a huge effect on the character and his journey. The idea is to find a unique angle to make your character’s situation stand out. The three most common parental relationship situations in movies are: Parents are together but unhappy, Parents are divorced, and one of the parents is deceased. All of these can work (this is what they use for Diane’s character actually), but what I loved about Say Anything was that they eliminated Lloyd’s parents from the equation altogether and had him living with his sister and her son. It was this weird unfamiliar family dynamic that really helped explain why Lloyd was so weird and unfamiliar.
WHEN YOUR SCRIPT IS GETTING TOO SERIOUS, INFUSE IT WITH SOME FUN
If you hit us hard with a series of really intense scenes, the audience needs an outlet to get that tenseness out of its system. Say Anything hits its most intense segment when the IRS auditors bear down on Diane’s father, he encourages her to leave Lloyd, she breaks up with Lloyd, and then the subsequent depression Lloyd goes through. Cameron Crowe realizes he needs to give the audience a release, so he writes one of the funniest scenes ever written in a high school flick, when Lloyd goes to the Quickie Mart and is subsequently given the worst relationship advice in history. Too many writers are afraid that humor will “ruin the tone” of their serious movie or their serious sequence. Nothing could be further from the truth.
MILK THE EARLY PART OF THE SCENE WHEN YOU HAVE DRAMATIC IRONY
Remember, dramatic irony is when we have knowledge that our main character does not, usually that they’re in trouble. When you do this to an audience, you want to milk it as much as possible. So in the famous “I want you to have this pen” break-up scene in the car, we know Diane is going to break up with Lloyd beforehand. For that reason, Crowe plays up Lloyd’s happiness for the first half of the scene. In fact, Lloyd is on the total opposite end of the spectrum. He’s realized he’s in love with Diane! So much so that he needs to tell her. Right now! Crowe milks Lloyd’s excitement about the relationship all the way to the boiling point when he finally allows Diane to put us out of our misery. If you’re going to use dramatic irony, make sure you milk it!
A TALKY CAHRACTER ALLOWS YOU TO GET A LOT OF CHEATS IN
I never realized this before but Lloyd Dobler is a great big cheat character. What makes him so memorable is that he overtalks (in an endearing way) and will always tell you what’s on his mind. As Say Anything unfolded, I began to realize how useful this personality trait was. Lloyd would say things that would normally be considered “On the nose” (paraphrasing: “I feel good around you.” “When you and I are together it just feels right, you know.” “I like you a lot.” “I have a good feeling about us”), but since that’s his personality, we don’t question it. Ditto on exposition. Lloyd can launch into a half-page diatribe about how his father wanted him to join the army and we don’t bat an eye, because it’s who he is to say those sorts of things. I’m not saying every story should have one of these characters. But if you do have one, take advantage of it.
THROW A NEVER-BEFORE-USED PLOTLINE INTO YOUR ROM-COM
A while back, I read an article about this movie, where the author pointed out that Crowe’s big mistake with Say Anything was the weird IRS scam subplot with the father. If he would’ve ditched that, Say Anything would have been a lot better. I initially agreed with this. I always found that storyline to be tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film. But upon watching the movie again, I’ve changed my mind. That storyline is part of what makes this movie so original and so memorable. You’ve never seen anything like it in a rom-com before. It’s just so odd that you can’t forget it. Sure, Crowe could’ve done something more traditional, like make the dad a slightly intimidating blue collar worker who’s overprotective of his daughter, but we’ve seen that before. The way the father’s whole storyline plays out is so unique that it sticks with you afterwards. That’s what we’re all trying to do. Write things that stick with people long after they’ve left the theater.
This is a great movie. And except for a couple of dated musical choices, it still stands up today. I strongly advise revisiting it and watching these screenwriting tips in action.