And you thought yesterday was the apocalypse…
For those fans of Jersey Shore, you know the term “GTL” well. Of course, I don’t watch Jersey Shore so I had to get my “GTL” definition from someone else. But from what I understand, it means “Gym, tan, laundry.” These are the things your average Guido (their word, not mine) needs to survive on a day-to-day basis. Food? Not important. Tanning though? That’s a life or death situation. Now of course, not knowing anything about Jersey Shore, I haven’t heard that The Situation is claiming to have knocked boots with Snooki, who is steadfastly denying the claim, but if I did watch the show – and I don’t – I would probably side with Team Situation on this one. I don’t know why he put Snooki on blast, but everybody knows The Situation don’t lie.
Now, what the hell does this have to do with today’s article? Well, there’s another acronym you should always be pumping your fist to as a screenwriter, and that acronym is “GSU”. GSU stands for “goal, stakes, urgency.” Every single one of your screenplays should have goals, stakes, and urgency. So before you go online to see if the rumors are true that Jwow had some work done to her face, let’s take a look at GSU in action.
Goal – The character goal is the heart of your story. A character must be going after something or else that character is doing nothing. And a character who does nothing is inactive and inactive people are borrrrrrrrrrrr-ing. You think Pauly D sits at home every night reading War And Peace? No! He has a goal – to get as many female numbers at the club as possible! Characters in movies should have the same devoted drive as Pauly D. So in The King’s Speech, the goal is to conquer his stutter. In Black Swan, it’s to conquer the dark half of her performance before the show. Now every once in a while, things get tricky and writers try to incorporate negative or benign goals. In Good Will Hunting, the goal is pretty much to endure the court mandated punishment. That doesn’t allow our character to be very active, so it’s a dangerous road to take. As that movie shows, it can be done, but you need advanced screenwriting skills to pull it off. And very few writers out there have those skills.
Stakes – Once you have a character goal, you can establish your stakes. You do this by asking two very simple questions: “What does my character gain if he achieves his goal?” And “What does my character lose if he fails to achieve his goal?” The bigger the gains and losses, the higher the stakes. Now don’t throw in your hair extensions just yet. Before you lose yourself to the beat, remember this. The stakes only need to be high relative to the character’s situation. So in Star Wars the stakes are the safety of the entire galaxy. That’s pretty high. In Black Swan, the stakes are the lead role in a ballet performance. Which in comparison, seems really low. But because that role is so important to our heroine, the stakes actually feel just as high.
Urgency – I don’t think I need to tell you how important urgency is. It could be the difference between getting to the Smush Room first or getting to the Smush Room second. And as everyone knows, you don’t want to use the Smush Room second. One of the biggest problems I see in amateur screenplays is glacial pacing. The writers don’t understand how to infuse urgency into their story. The most common way to do this is via a ticking time bomb, that point of no return by when your character needs to achieve his goal. You can throw ticking time bombs all over your screenplay so that the pace is always quick. For example, if Sammy and Ronnie meet for coffee and they talk and talk and talk and talk, it’s going to be boring. But if Sammy tells Ronnie at the beginning of the scene that she has to leave in 5 minutes, the scene’s going to have more pep. Also, like stakes, urgency is relative. If I told you I needed to get my wallet back from Snooki’s place, who’s leaving for Vegas at 6 AM, the ticking time bomb is going to be somewhere in the eight hour range. But, if I told you that you needed to trick Snooki into falling in love with you so we could start hanging out with the Jersey Shore crowd, the ticking time bomb would be longer – maybe two or three weeks. The idea is to make the time frame as short as you possibly can relative to the situation.
Now, let’s look at five movies and see how they GSU. Get ready to pump those fists!
BACK TO THE FUTURE
G – The great thing about Back To The Future is that the story is so basic. Therefore it’s a great template for learning screenwriting. The goal here is simple. Marty needs to get back to the future.
S – Back To The Future also does one of the better jobs setting up its stakes, as they’re entirely specific to the situation. What’s at stake is Marty’s existence. If he doesn’t succeed, he will cease to exist. Notice how organic that is to the story. Marty doesn’t just die because they needed high-stakes. He dies because he himself screwed up his mother and father meeting, and now must get them back together so that he can be born. There’s a beautiful irony to that. The more you can tie your stakes into the fabric of the story, the better off you’ll be.
U – I don’t remember the exact time frame here. But I think it’s one week. This is the perfect amount of urgency since it gives Marty and Doc a believable amount of time to take care of the problem but not so much time that it feels easy. This is a problem a lot of beginner writers make. They set the time frame so far ahead that it feels like the main character has forever to solve the problem.
G –The Goonies is a great reminder that when you’re writing a high concept idea meant for a mass audience, you want to keep the goal simple. The goal here is to find the secret hidden treasure. That’s it. We’re now on our way.
S – The Goonies also reminds us to push ourselves a little harder when it comes to key story decisions, such as creating the stakes for your story. I think if I were developing this back in the day, I would’ve been fine limiting the stakes to Sean Astin losing his house. But The Goonies did something really clever. They came up with a scenario – a golf course – that made it so everybody was losing their houses. That meant that every single kid on this journey had something at stake. So when you think you’ve figured your stakes out, always go that extra mile and come up with something even bigger.
U – Goonies shows us the power of the super urgent ticking time bomb. We’re not talking a week here. We’re not talking a few days. We’re talking less than a day until the house is signed away. This is why I always recommend condensing your time frame to something as short as possible. Having a week to save the house is still pretty compelling. But it’s not as compelling as only having a day to save your house.
G – The goal in Inception is to plant an idea into rival Robert Fisher’s mind so that he’s no longer a threat to Saito.
S – The stakes here are Cobb seeing his children again. If he succeeds, he gets to be with them. If not, he’ll probably never see them again (or at least that’s what we’re led to believe). Inception spends a lot of time showing us visions of the kids as a reminder of the stakes but I’d argue that Inception was pretty weak in this category. It’s still not clear why he can’t have his father fly them over to him. And I’m not sure we really believe that if he doesn’t do this now, he’ll never see them again. But if you’re looking at it from a technical standpoint, Inception does have stakes in place.
U – There wasn’t a lot of urgency throughout the first half of the movie, which is why it played out so damn slowly. But once we get into the dreams, Nolan makes sure that the urgency is high. He achieves this mainly with a visual ticking time bomb – the van falling. We know that when that van hits the water, everybody is going to wake up. So if they haven’t achieved their goal by that time, that’s it. Now I still think that Inception fudges the rules in that three levels down they’re supposed to have months to pull off their plan. But since they’re always being pursued, and because Nolan introduces so many visual cues that the dream states in all three levels are becoming unstable, there’s a sense that if they don’t get this done now, they’re going to run out of time. It’s a little bit shaky but it still works. Having said that, if you’re one of the many people who felt like Inception was sloppy, there’s a good chance that the vague stakes and the vague urgency contributed to that.
G – The goal is for Carl to get to Paradise Falls.
S – This is the first of the movies where you can technically argue that the stakes aren’t high. If Carl doesn’t get to Paradise Falls, what happens? Technically nothing. It’s not like he dies. It’s not like anybody loses anything. However, if you look closer, you’ll notice that Up decides to sacrifice physical stakes for emotional stakes. We’ve established that the one thing Carl and his wife were never able to do was to go to Paradise Falls. The point of this journey then is to take his wife to the place she always wanted to go. That’s why the stakes are still high. The trick to making that work is similar to what they had to do in Inception. Whenever you create emotional stakes, you have to do the legwork ahead of time and establish that bond so that we care. How well you pull that off will determine how invested your audience will be. You’ll notice that, emotionally, we’re much more invested in Carl achieving his goal than Cobb , and that’s because that opening sequence did such an amazing job establishing the love between these two. We never really feel that in Inception, which is why the stakes seem so low. Who cares if Cobb is able to see his two kids if we don’t even know them? We never even see their damn faces!
U – The urgency here comes from two different areas, one of which is quite clever. Instead of having a stock timer counting down, Up uses the rapidly depleting hydrogen supply in the balloons as the ticking time bomb. If he doesn’t get to the cliff within a couple of days, he will not be able to get his wife (represented by the house) to the place she always wanted to go. The other is the bad guys (Charles and his dogs) chasing them. Remember that incorporating a chase is a cheap but solid way to up the urgency in any story.
G – I purposely chose this one as the last example because it doesn’t easily fit the GSU mold. It’s kind of like Sammy Sweetheart in that sense. She’s on the show but she never gyms, tans or laundrys. So I’ll just repeat this warning. If an idea doesn’t fit easily into the GSU mold, be aware that you are now writing in unchartered waters. Good luck. Now let’s see how GSU applies to American Beauty. The goal in American beauty is open ended. It isn’t a tangible objective. Lester’s goal is to get his life back on track (however misguided his belief of what that means is). The reason it still works as a goal though is that it keeps our main character active. Lester goes out and gets a job at the local drive-through. Lester starts working out more. Lester makes friends with people he would never make friends with. Lester buys the car he always wanted to buy. Even though it’s unclear when the goal will be achieved, because it keeps our character doing things, it works.
S – Remember that whenever the goal is murky, both your stakes and your urgency will also suffer, since those variables are direct offshoots of the goal. In this case, the stakes are our hero’s happiness. If Lester is to continue down this path of letting the world push him around, he’s going to be miserable for the rest of his life. For that reason, failure to push forward means accepting defeat. Lester must succeed at obtaining this new life or else he’ll be miserable forever. I’d say avoiding being miserable forever would classify as high-stakes.
U – The truth is, there isn’t a lot of urgency in American Beauty. The official ticking time bomb is one year. We find that out at the beginning, when Lester tells us, via voiceover, that he’ll be dead in a year. This does create urgency later on when we feel his impending death approaching (and the mystery kicks in of who’s going to kill him). But the pace throughout the first half of this script is relatively slow. The question is, why does it still work? The simple answer is that the character work in American beauty is the best of any script written during the entire decade when this movie came out. Most of the relationships here are so volatile or so destructive (Ricky and his dad, Lester and his wife, Lester and Angela) that there is an invisible ticking time bomb ticking away above each of them. We know that sooner or later each of these relationships is going to go boom, and that alone creates the illusion of urgency, even though the physical countdown is relatively slow. I guess the lesson here is that not every movie needs urgency, but you better have the toolset and a damn good plan if you don’t plan to incorporate urgency.
My suggestion to you, after you GTL, is to open up your current screenplay and ask if it has strong GSU. If it’s lacking in any of the three areas, see if you can come up with a solution. Oh, and make sure to check out Jersey Shore tonight to see who’s lying, Snooki or The Situation. Then e-mail me and tell me what happened because I don’t watch the show.