Anybody who lives on the West Coast, and especially people who live here in Southern California, know, that if you’re ever feeling down, if you’re ever feeling blue, there’s one place you can go that will always lift your spirits.
I’m talking about In and Out.
In and Out is a privately owned fast food franchise that separated itself from the competition by using a business model that is basically the opposite of McDonalds. “Make two things perfectly and they will come.” That’s right, In and Out only offers two things: burgers and fries. But they do it so damn well that you never want anything else.
In fact, the simplicity of the menu is what allows In and Out to be so yummy. Because they only make two things, they don’t have to freeze any of their food. They bring it in fresh every morning. That means every time you order a meal at In and Out, it’s guaranteed fresh.
But did you know that In and Out can also make you a great screenwriter?
I bet you didn’t. But read on, my friends. Because you’re about to have your mind blown and your taste buds satiated.
Every story you tell has two forces constantly at play.
The things coming IN.
And the things going OUT.
Let’s start with OUT since it’s the more familiar of the two. Whenever I talk about ACTIVE characters, I’m talking about characters who are goal-driven, who seek out objectives. Every time a character does this, they are pushing OUT onto the plot. Deadpool seeks revenge on his torturer. He’s pushing OUT on the plot. Michelle tries to escape the bunker in 10 Cloverfield Lane? She’s pushing OUT on the plot.
And this holds true for much smaller actions as well. If Michelle’s goal in a scene is to palm a knife during dinner she can later use against Howard, she’s pushing OUT onto the plot.
IN is, obviously, the opposite. This is when the plot throws things at your character. If a character is saving money to go to college (OUT) and a robber breaks in and steals all her money, that’s plot coming IN at your character. If a friend of hers is in an accident and needs to borrow a large portion of her savings, that’s plot coming IN. If the college calls and says they need the money now or they’ll have to give the spot up to someone else, that’s plot coming IN.
And that’s how storytelling works. Your hero is either pushing OUT on the plot or plot is sending things IN at the character. So why is this important? I’ll tell you why. Because one of the more common mistakes I see in screenwriting is screenwriters doing only one or the other.
For example, let’s say a screenwriter writes an OUT-dominated screenplay. A young female UFC fighter is trying to win the title. We could see her training (OUT), hire a coach (OUT), get a sponsorship (OUT), win all her warm-up fights (OUT), buy a bigger house (OUT). So let me ask you, does that sound like a compelling story? Of course not. We need some INS. We need her to bust up her dominant wrist in an accident (IN), her old crew turn against her (IN), her mom gets sick (IN), the heavyweight champion decide she doesn’t want to fight our protagonist (IN). The INs are what cause all the obstacles, all the conflict. Without INs, your story is a simplistic march to boredomville.
Consequently, scripts suck if they’re all IN and no OUT. If your character stays in all day, bored with the world, and then he gets an eviction notice because he hasn’t paid his rent (IN), then later his car gets towed (IN), then his ex-wife calls him for the first time in a year and says he owes her 10 grand in child support (IN) and then even if something good happens to him, like some random shop owner offers him a job (IN)… we’re going to get frustrated because our hero isn’t putting anything OUT into the story.
As you can probably guess by my tone, the best scripts have the IN and OUT in equal proportion.
One of the most powerful devices in a screenplay is to send your character off on an OUT and then, during the scene, hit them with an IN. So let’s say a Fortune 500 CEO is going out to accept a major award, an OUT scene. The audience then gets prepped for that to happen. That’s where their mind is. However, when our CEO is chatting with people before the award, a couple of men in dark suits come up, informing him that they’re from the SEC. They explain that they’re going to let our CEO accept his award so as not to embarrass him, but right afterwards, they’re going to arrest him for embezzlement. This is a total IN when we weren’t expecting one.
I’ve also discovered that if you are going to favor one over the other, INs get the nod, since INs are disruptors. They throw your hero off his path, force him to act, which is always when a character is most interesting.
But you want to use both aggressively. It’s an easy way to add more pop to a bland script. If something feels boring, add more INs and add more OUTs!
Now excuse me while I go order the Carson special: Two Double-Doubles and some Animal Style fries.
See you at the counter!