This is your chance to discuss the week’s amateur scripts, offered originally in the Scriptshadow newsletter. The primary goal for this discussion is to find out which script(s) is the best candidate for a future Amateur Friday review. The secondary goal is to keep things positive in the comments with constructive criticism.
Below are the scripts up for review, along with the download links. Want to receive the scripts early? Head over to the Contact page, e-mail us, and “Opt In” to the newsletter.
TITLE: My Asian Buddy
LOGLINE: A middle management loser befriends the new guy at work and changes his image.
TITLE: Observation Car
GENRE: Sci-Fi / Suspense-Thriller
LOGLINE: After witnessing UFOs and other strange phenomena, an insomniac on a cross country train trip suspects an alien invasion is underway, beginning with his fellow passengers, but when no one believes him, he must team with a fugitive stowaway to unravel the sinister agenda.
TITLE: The Express
LOGLINE: On the eve of World War Two, a reporter traveling aboard the Orient Express must solve a seemingly impossible crime, the kidnapping of a diplomat who has has somehow been made to magically vanish from the speeding train.
TITLE: In the West
GENRE: Horror/ Action Horror/ Period
LOGLINE: In 1704 a squad of English Rangers is sent on a mission to assassinate a French Officer, only to discover something evil in the uncharted wilderness of the New World.
TITLE: B & E
GENRE: Dark Comedy
LOGLINE:Two brothers in need of quick cash to pay off their mothers house, decide to pull a classic B & E on their rich, but arrogant, piece of shit step dad.
The opening scene here blew me away. But what about the other 125 pages?
Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, a PDF of the first ten pages of your script, your title, genre, logline, and finally, why I should read your script. Use my submission address please: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Your script and “first ten” will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effects of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.
Premise: (from writer) C.I.A. agent Sean Murray is ordered to carry out a false flag op on American soil. His life, and America, will never be the same.
Why you should read it: It won the Amateur Offerings Weekend two weeks ago!
Writer: David Hayes
Details: One hundred and – OUCH – thirty-one pages!
False Flag! What happened to thee!?
Ye started out so well. And then ye fell apart so thoroughly.
I know I’ve said it before but 131 pages is a universal sign for “this isn’t going to be good.” That’s because amateur writers don’t understand how to use their pages yet. They keep all the “okay” stuff, the “decent” stuff, instead of only keeping the cream of the cop, the pages and characters and scenes that are absolutely essential.
But as always, I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong (okay, I’m never willing to admit when I’m wrong – but go with it). I wanted to be proven wrong so badly in this case cause it was getting late and I was dead tired. And there’s no worse experience than reading a bad script when you’re dead tired. And you know what? After the first 10 pages, I thought, “Holy shit. I might be wrong here.” I mean this is a really great opening scene – surely what the Amateur Offerings post readers picked up on.
But then those pages got the best of David. 131 pages will swallow you up way more times than it will keep you afloat. Let’s read False Flag to figure out why.
False Flag’s great opening scene has teenager Ali Khan, an Iranian soldier, riding with a group of fellow Iranian soldiers to a square where some Iranians are protesting. There’s a looming sense of dread during the ride. While it’s never stated, it’s clear these guys will be killing some innocent people soon.
Once at the site, the soldiers get into position, and the civilians start freaking out. The blood bath is about to begin. But then, out of nowhere, Ali turns on his OWN MEN and starts shooting them one by one! The shooters have become the shot!
Cut to weeks (months?) later and we’re introduced to a combination Israeli/American military team. One of the more frustrating things about the script was its lack of clarity in a lot of its most basic areas. Are they an American team? An Israeli team? If they’re one or the other, why are there soldiers from a completely different country paired with them? That was confusing.
Anyway, the key character here seems to be Sean Murray, whose defining characteristic is a big burly scar on the back of his neck where we figure out a computer chip has been inserted. This chip allows the army to keep track of Sean’s whereabouts. It’s unclear, however, why none of the other members of the team have this chip in them – another oddity in the story.
The team’s job is to go into the Middle East and kill Ali Khan, who’s in hiding. Why they’re trying to kill someone who rebelled against the same country they’re trying to take down is unclear. Although the indication is that these soldiers don’t know what Ali’s done and that the U.S. (or Israeli) government may have played a part in Ali’s killing spree, and now want to cover their tracks by killing him.
In a scene reminiscent of Zero Dark Thirty’s intense climax, the team goes into a building to take down Ali, and Sean ends up being the one with the kill-shot. But then Ali starts talking and Sean realizes that they haven’t gotten the full story on this guy. So Sean allows Ali to live and he and the crew go back to America.
Once in America, the U.S. government determines that they want to go to war with Iran pronto, so they come up with a “fake terrorist” operation in which our team will go to the Mall Of America, plant some bombs, blow up some American citizens, and the government can then blame it on Iran and they’ll be able to go to war with them.
But midway through the operation, Sean starts thinking about the things Ali told him, and realizes that this is wrong. He doesn’t want any part of it. So he tries to thwart the bombing, but the other members of the team try to keep him from doing so. In the end, he’s able to stop the bombs, but at the cost of the American government wanting him dead.
So after saving American lives, Sean is painted in the media as a terrorist, and the hunt is on. This task is made easier by the fact that Sean has that pesky chip in his neck, which the American military is using to track him the same way they’d track a car. Ultimately, Sean must find proof that he’s been set up, or face an almost certain demise.
Now despite there being some timely similarities to real life playing out here (the Boston bombing brothers and LA cop fugitive Christopher Dorner), False Flag is plagued with structural and clarity issues that make it almost impossible to stick with. In fact, I’m guessing no outline was put in place before writing this (David – you can either confirm or deny this) as it literally felt like it was being made up as it went along. Either that or this is a very very very early first draft.
I mean the movie’s set up as sort of a mystery-thriller centering around this Ali character turning on his fellow soldiers. But then that character and his storyline are abandoned and we shift into this completely separate plot of trying to blow up the Mall of America.
Combined with the clarity issue (I’m still not sure who this team Sean works for is) and a puzzling amount of focus on this dated idea of a chip in Sean’s neck, the script never found its footing. And even in the sequences that were focused, like the Mall of America operation, the writing was way too repetitive. I remember one point where we cut back and forth between two bathrooms like 20 times, when all that was required was two or three cuts. This is why when I see 131 pages, I freak out. Because I know moments like this are coming. Unnecessary repetition. Writers using 20 pages to do what they could’ve done in 10.
The fallout (and subsequent manhunt) from the Mall of America bombing also felt unplanned. All of a sudden, Kitty, who was maybe the 7th or 8th most important character in the screenplay, becomes the main co-star to Sean. When you’re writing that first draft, this kind of thing happens all the time. You realize that a secondary character should be a primary character. That’s fine. But you then must go back in the next 3 or 4 drafts and rewrite the earlier parts to reflect that change. You don’t just leave in your last second decision for the world to see!
I could go on here but the lesson for David seems to be a simple one: outline your story. By doing so, you’ll find your focus, you’ll establish clarity, you’ll know which characters are important, you’ll know where to set things up and pay them off – You’ll basically understand the story you’re writing so you’re not stuck making things up as you go along.
Outlining and rewriting. A screenwriter’s BFFs!
Screenplay link: False Flag
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Avoid getting rid of your best character! Guys, writing a memorable character is one of the hardest things to do. Go ahead, read five amateur scripts. Wait 24 hours. Tell me if you remember a single character. Chances are you don’t. Therefore, when you write someone memorable, YOU WANT TO KEEP THEM IN YOUR SCRIPT. You don’t want to get rid of them or let them die. That was a huge problem I had with False Flag. Ali was the most memorable character here. He had a hell of a great entrance. Yet he gets one more scene and then he’s gone for the rest of the movie! If I were David, I’d find a way to keep this character in the movie. And I’d advise you guys to do the same with your memorable characters.
What I learned 2: Set-pieces should be approached the same way scenes are. You want to get into them as late as you can and get out of them as early as you can. If you overstay your welcome, your big exciting set piece scene starts to get boring. That’s what happened here with the Mall of America sequence. It just kept going and going and going. It needed to end a lot sooner.
So a few weeks back I was reading this amateur script and it came to my attention that I was bored. The source of my boredom was that pages upon pages were going by and not much was happening. This, I realized, could be construed as the definition of screen-reading boredom: NOTHING INTERESTING IS HAPPENING. If nothing interesting happens for too long, the reader either physically checks out (closes the script) or mentally checks out (starts skimming).
However, as I kept reading, it occurred to me that there WERE interesting moments in the script. They were just few and far between. It took forever to get to them. Hmmm, I thought. If only these moments could happen closer together, I wouldn’t be so bored. And that’s how I had my “Ah-ha” moment. These “interesting moments” were plot points. The reason I was bored, then, was that there weren’t enough of them.
Clearly, then, frequency of plot points has an effect on a story’s entertainment level. The more of them you have (within reason), the more likely your story is to remain entertaining. But how many plot points do you want in your script? And how many is too little? Well, before we get to that, we should come up with a definition for “plot point.” And in order to do that, we should probably look at some examples of plot points in movies. Here are a few prominent ones.
a) The emergence of a goal (Indiana must go find the Ark).
b) A shocking twist (Cole tells Malcom he can “see dead people”).
c) An upping of the stakes (they realize in Inception that if they die in the dream, they could be stuck in it forever).
d) A mystery is presented (Why is there a naked Chinese man in their trunk in The Hangover?)
e) A key character is introduced (Sgt Powell – the cop – shows up to help McClane in Die Hard).
f) A key character is killed (spoiler – Schultz is killed in Django Unchained).
g) An unplanned interruption of the hero’s life (Neo gets an urgent phone call from Morpheus at work).
h) The emergence of a threat (after the plane crash, the wolves start stalking our characters in The Grey).
Looking over these examples, I’d say that a plot point is any real significant CHANGE in the story from what’s currently going on. It could even be simplified down to one word: CHANGE. Whenever something happens that’s CHANGING the course of the narrative, you’re introducing a plot point.
Now, of course, plot points aren’t the only things that keep a story interesting. There’s character development, conflict, sharp dialogue, suspense. Still, a story’s success often comes down to how well it’s plotted, which brings us back to our earlier question: how many plot points should there be in a script?
That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer because I’ve never sat down and physically counted plot points during a movie (although since I’m writing an article about plot points, I probably should have at some point). But hey, that’s the fun part about running a blog. When you don’t know something, you write an article about it and figure it out. Let’s take a look at one of the best plotted movies of all time: Star Wars. There isn’t an ounce of fat in this plot, so let’s see if we can locate all the plot points, add them up, and give ourselves a plot point template for our own script.
1) The opening scene in Star Wars is technically a plot point because there’s an unplanned interruption. The rebels’ ship is captured by the Empire. Now as far as I’m concerned, every script should start with a plot point because you want to jump into your story right away. So the “opening plot point” should be a given. 2) R2-D2 and C3-PO escape the ship with the stolen Death Star plans. This is a HUGE plot point as it sets in motion the entire story, which is the Empire chasing Luke, the droids, Obi-Wan, and Han to get the plans back.
3) The introduction of Luke Skywalker. Now normally, you’d introduce your main character right away, so this is sort of an odd placement for this plot point. But it turns out to be another big one because…well because it’s our main character. Which keeps us engaged.
4) The droids are captured by the Jawas – This is a smaller but still important plot point as it changes the direction of the droids’ fortune.
5) Luke’s family buys the droids. This is sort of a unique plot point in that it merges two storylines, Luke’s and the droids. But it’s clearly a major one, since now the Empire isn’t just after the droids, they’re after Luke.
6) R2-D2 runs away. With R2 running away to find Obi-Wan, it forces Luke to act, changing the direction of the story.
7) The introduction of Obi-Wan. Introducing a character is always going to change the story in some way, but don’t just introduce someone to check a plot point off your list. Make sure they’re interesting and necessary to the story.
8) Luke’s aunt and Uncle are killed. This is another huge plot point as it motivates Luke to join Obi-Wan on his trip to Alderran.
9) The introduction of Han Solo.
10) The escape from Tantooine.
11) The Death Star blows up Princess Leah’s planet.
12) Han, Luke, the droids and Obi-Wan are captured by The Death Star.
13) Han, Luke, and Obi-Wan decide to go rescue the princess (who they find out is in the Death Star with them).
14) They successfully find the princess and get her out of her cell.
15) It’s debatable whether the trash compactor scene is a plot point but I’d argue it is, since it’s an unexpected set-back to their goal of escaping.
16) The group narrowly escapes the Death Star, and Obi-Wan is killed.
17) By dissecting the Death Star Plans, the Rebels find a way to attack and possibly destroy it.
Whoa! I did not expect there to be that many plot points. I thought there’d be about 8. Since there are roughly double that, in a 120 page screenplay, you’re instituting a plot point once every 7 and a half pages (and that ratio gets even tighter if you’re keeping your script close to that magical 110 page count). However, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. 8 pages is 8 minutes of screen time and 8 minutes is forever in the movie theater. It’s about the amount of time an audience will put up with before they need another big “moment” that changes things. So in retrospect, that number feels just about right.
I also noticed a few other things here. First, there seems to be power in “doubling up” your plot points. Vader’s introduction would’ve been a plot point on its own. But since he’s introduced during another plot point (the Empire’s takeover of the Rebel ship), is has even more impact. We see the same thing when our heroes escape the Death Star, as Obi-Wan is killed in the process. An escape is exciting. But to add a death on top of that – it’s super impactful. So double up on those plot-points where you can boys and girls!
Another thing I noticed was how important it is to mix your plot points up. In Star Wars we have interruptions, surprises, mysteries, deaths, goals, unexpected character intros, raising the stakes. You need that variety to keep your story fresh. If you’re only introducing, say, mysteries for your plot points, your story’s going to start to feel repetitive and predictable. So mix it up!
It’s also important to note that not every movie is Star Wars. In other words, not every movie is a summer blockbuster where a lightning fast pace is required. Sometimes you’ll be writing a drama or a Western or a slow-burning horror flick. And these movies require a slower pace. If you’re going to dial back the flashy plot points, though, make sure you’re really good at those other things I mentioned (character development, suspense, dialogue, etc.) because you’re asking your reader to be more patient with you. And a reader only makes that deal if you give them something in return. Character development and strong dialogue are two of a number of variables that will be expected in that deal. Also keep in mind, even “slow” movies have more plot points than you think. You might not have all these whiz-bang “summer movie” plot points popping up every 8 pages. But you should still have SOMETHING happening. For example, instead of your hero’s father being massacred by the villain, you may offer a more cerebral plot point (a character realizes that someone he trusts has been lying to him their entire relationship). So SOMETHING should still be happening.
Also remember that your plot points are only as effective as a) how clever they are b) how original they are, and c) how clear they are. If you’re just throwing a bunch of plot points on the page for the sake of having plot points, we’re going to get bored. Or if you’re throwing in derivative boring cliché plot points, we’re going to get bored. You still have to come up with interesting plot points, just like you have to come up with interesting characters and scenes and dialogue. Also, your plot points need to be CLEAR. I occasionally read a script with a ton of plot points – tons happening – yet all the activity leaves me lost. Ultimately, I realize that it isn’t that there’s too much going on. It’s that the plot points themselves are confusing or vague. Plot points are pointless unless we understand their impact on the story.
Finally, I understand that plot points can be a little confusing. My definition of them is by no means perfect, and encompasses a lot of different scenarios. So if you’re confused by this article, I’ll give you the Redneck version of plot points: “Make interesting shit happen every 8 pages or so.” If you can do that, your story should be entertaining. Good luck!
Can Ronnie Rocket out-nonsense the king of nonsense, Upstream Color?? Side note: Both scripts contain pigs!
Premise: (described by Lynch himself) About a three foot tall man with physical problems and…60 cycle alternating current electricity.
About: Ronnie Rocket is a script that David Lynch has been trying to make forever. Typical of many Lynch projects, it’s always had a hard time getting funding. When one of the targeted studios asked what the script was about, Lynch replied, “electricity and a 3-foot guy with red hair.” The studio never got in touch again. Lynch himself is probably the most famous surrealist director in the world. Logic is not at the forefront of a lot of his stories, endearing him to some and confusing the hell out of others. Lynch broke through with his 1977 surrealist horror film, Eraserhead, then achieved more mainstream success with The Elephant Man. However, studios quickly realized they didn’t know what to do with him after he helmed the bizarre, “Dune,” which was a failure both commercially and critically. Lynch’s most famous work is the TV show “Twin Peaks,” which became an immediate sensation upon its airing, then completely fell apart, pissing off everyone.
Writer: David Lynch
Details: 156 pages scanned (however, when transcribed to a regular document, the script comes in closer to 130 pages).
Okay, I swear to you. I came into this with an open mind. You guys know that I like stories which, um, make sense. So a storytelling mechanism designed to not make sense will almost always put me in a bad mood. But there are different ways to tell stories. Not everything has to have that perfect beginning, middle, and end. So you gotta be open to that, especially if you want to learn and grow as a storyteller. However, I will say this: if you’re not going to follow the traditional way of telling a story, you better be a freaking genius, and the story you’re telling better be amazing. You better wow us in ways that we’ve never been wowed. Because if there’s no direction or payoff to your script, all that’s left are the strange trappings of your mind. And we don’t want to be trapped in there with you if it’s just a bunch of bullshit.
Now to give you some background, I’m about as ignorant as they come about David Lynch. I’m aware of his career, but as for his movies, I’ve only seen Mulholland Drive and Dune. And in both cases, I was wondering what the hell was going on. I don’t think I made it through either. And that’s not through lack of trying. I was just seriously bored beyond belief and fell asleep. However, I admit I’m fascinated by Lynch for one reason: Twin Peaks. I never saw the show, but I just remember people being obsessed with it. And then, inexplicably, everyone HATED it. I don’t know what happened (or if someone can tell me), but to go from universally loved to universally hated that fast is something they write books about.
I will say this – I wish I was a surrealist writer. It seems like a hell of lot easier way to write. You never have to worry about structure or character development or any of those things that take so much time to figure out and get right. You just write whatever comes to mind “in the moment” and people either like it or they don’t. I could probably bang out six scripts a month if I followed this model. But alas, I, like everyone else, am limited by this whole “logic” issue. Sigh. Well, let’s see how much or little logic Lynch applies to this passion project of his…. Ronnie Rocket.
“Rocket” contains two parallel storylines. The first one follows two bumbling surgeons who steal a small deformed man from a hospital named Ronnie. Ronnie’s in pretty bad shape, having a hole in his face for a nose and all. So they take him to their home where they have their hospital-basement (they also live with a woman, who they appear to both be in a relationship with) and start rebuilding his face. The thing is, they’re not nearly as good at their jobs as they think they are, and end up fixing certain parts of Ronnie’s face but essentially ruining other parts.
They’re also forced to make Ronnie electrical because….well, I’m not sure why. But lots of wires are inserted into his body, and in a situation Jason Statham would be familiar with, Ronnie needs to be “plugged in” every 15 minutes or he’ll die.
Meanwhile, across the city, is this guy named “Detective.” Actually, I don’t know what his name is, but that’s what he’s called. Detective. Detective is getting frustrated because this city they’re living in appears to be getting darker and darker every day. He wants to find out what that’s all about, so he starts heading for the center of the city. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get to the center of the city. All the trains going there close down three or four stops beforehand. So Detective must enlist the help of a punchy old man, Terry, to navigate his way to the center.
Word on the street is there’s some guy who’s responsible for all this darkness. And if they can put a stop to him, they can get this city bright and happy again. But much like Oz, he’s heavily guarded and difficult to find. He often sends out bad guys (called “Donut Men”) in trucks, who wield electricity nightsticks to beat their victims into submission. These electricity masters have so much power that by just pulling up in front of a diner, they can incite multiple seizures from the patrons, which results in many of them dying.
Back in the other part of the city, Ronnie’s stumbled into music class where, while plugged in, he begins wheezing and screaming and chirping and buzzing… but in a melodically pleasant way! Somehow his beeps and chirps mesh seamlessly with the band’s music, and the teacher asks him to join the band. Ronnie doesn’t really answer “yes” or “no,” but a vague smile indicates he’s in. Somehow, maybe, possibly, but potentially not, Detective’s quest to find the Electricity Master and take him down, and Ronnie’s own special connection to electricity (and now music) will collide and they’ll end up saving the world…or something.
What to write about a movie that doesn’t make sense… Hmmmm… Ronnie Rocket wanders off aimlessly like a dog on a walk, sniffing anything and everything that looks even remotely interesting. The funny thing is, I was so prepared for this script to make zero sense, that I was actually shocked when the screenplay started off with a goal! Detective IS after something here – the City Runner. The problem is, I was never sure why. What’s the motivation? Was it to save the city? That’s what I wrote above but that’s just me trying to give the story a point. The story itself didn’t offer one to me.
Traditionally, characters have to have motivations for doing things. And those things must be clear to the audience. That’s one of the first rules of storytelling. You can, of course, HIDE the motivation in some cases, treating it as a mystery to be revealed to the audience later, but that’s one of the riskiest things to do in screenwriting (in my opinion). If a reader doesn’t know why his main character is doing all the things he’s doing, he’s eventually going to get frustrated with him. Then again, I’m sure this is the last thing Lynch cares about. I’m betting he never sits down and says, “Hmmm, why is my character doing this?” If it pops up in his head, that’s motivation enough.
The other key screenwriting device being utilized here is the parallel storyline technique. Surprisingly, Lynch incorporates this in a fairly straightforward manner. We stay with Detective for awhile. Then we stay with Ronnie for awhile. Back to Detective. Back to Ronnie. The big key when you’re writing parallel (or multiple) storylines is to treat each storyline like its own movie. Ask yourself, “Could this storyline carry its own movie?” Because what I often see happen, and it probably happens to screenwriters unconsciously, is that they begin to think that two okay parts will add up to one great whole. Sorry, but it doesn’t work like that. My philosophy is to make the individual stories work on their own (no matter how many there are), THEN work them into the tapestry of the entire film. That way, no matter where the reader is in the story, they’re always entertained.
I wish I had more to say about Ronnie Rocket but too much of it is over my head. I suppose it’s a difference in how we like to be entertained. I like to be entertained with a well-crafted story. But plenty of people watch movies to stimulate their minds, to be challenged, to see questions posed and never answered. They don’t want the answers themselves because that means there’s nothing to discuss afterwards. What’s frustrating about this is that there is absolutely zero form to this approach. There’s no craft to it. So the line between someone who’s good at it and someone who’s terrible at it is paper thin. I mean if I’m being honest, I thought this script was a mess. Why the hell are we following Ronnie Rocket becoming a musician for 60 pages when it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything? And since anything is the equivalent of nothing in this screenplay, then which way is up? I’m not sure anymore. All I know is that I can’t ever read a script like Ronnie Rocket again. I might die of frustration.
[x] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When writing multiple storylines, like in Ronnie Rocket, play a game of “top yourself.” Whatever your weakest storyline is, rewrite it until it becomes the best. And whatever the next weakest storyline is, rewrite it until IT becomes the best. Keep doing this over and over again until there isn’t a single weak storyline link in your screenplay.
Hey, who says Hollywood’s wrong by not giving a shit about writing these days? Is it REALLY that bad to go into productions with unfinished scripts? They can all point to the fact that one of the greatest movies of all time, Casablanca, went into production only half-finished! You heard that right. Casablanca didn’t have a finished script when they started filming! But here’s what’s always bothered me about this often brought up piece of cinema history. There’s a difference between “writing the script during production” and “writing an already well thought-through tightly outlined script during production.” If all your scenes are in place. If you already know how your characters are going to evolve and change. If you already know where your story is going. And in some cases, you already have the scenes thought out. That kind of “writing during production” actually still has a chance of being good. But if you’re literally making up the entire plot as you go along, that’s a different kind of “writing during production.” As much as I love Gareth Edwards as a director (the guy is going to be a freaking All-Star), you can get a sense of what REALLY going into a production without a script results in by watching his first film, “Monsters.” You’ll spot a lot of repetition, a hazy through-line, and a lack of character development, all things that need to be ironed out ahead of time. My point being, don’t think that because Hollywood lore states that Casablanca’s script was unfinished when filming began, that the underpinnings weren’t in place. It was probably mostly there. There are lots of cool other things we could discuss about Casablanca if we had more time. There were four writers revolving in and out as the script was written. A few of them had different takes on the story, making it even more miraculous that the story came together. For example, there was a lot of internal discussion over whether they should ditch the flashbacks (I personally think they could’ve). To think that they were debating the flashback device all the way back in the 1940s! That argument will never go away! Anyway, since Casablanca is well known for its dialogue, I’ll try to focus a lot of today’s tips on dialogue. But there are some other lessons we can learn here as well. Let’s take a look.
1) Combine scenes whenever possible – This is an old tip, but a good tip. Our protagonist, Rick, digs some money out of his safe for Emil, his casino runner, WHILE discussing with Casablanca’s head policeman, Renault, his planned arrest of Victor Laszlo. An amateur writer would’ve addressed each of these situations separately, taking up valuable screenwriting real estate. Pro writers combine scenes so the story moves along faster!
2) Use a clever exchange/sparring to hide backstory and/or exposition – After Head Policeman Renault tells Rick that they’re going to arrest Victor Laszlo, the writer needs to get in some backstory that Laszlo escaped from a concentration camp, as his time at the camp is an integral plot point. Now a bad writer would’ve had Rick bring this up immediately in his response, resulting in an “obvious backstory” line like, “But he escaped from a concentration camp. He’ll probably escape you.” Instead, the writer diverts attention from the line by creating a playful sparring, allowing him to hide the backstory within the exchange organically: “It’ll be interesting to see how he manages,” Rick says. “Manages what?” Renault asks. “His escape.” “Oh, but I just told you.—“ “—Stop it.” Rick replies. “He escaped from a concentration camp and the Nazis have been chasing him all over Europe.” The sparring here makes the backstory line invisible.
3) For good dialogue, make sure each character has a set of clearly defined opinions about the world/life – The more you know about your characters, the more likely they’ll deliver good lines of dialogue. Let me give you an example. Early in the script, Renault tells Rick’s head waiter, Carl, to give our villain, the Nazi Major Strasser, “a good table, one close to the ladies.” Now say the writer knows nothing about his waiter, Carl, here. Most bad writers wouldn’t. They’d say, ehh, he’s a minor character. I don’t need to know anything about him. In that case, you’re likely to get a weak generic line, something like, “You got it, boss.” But had you given some thought to Carl, you may have decided he harbors a deep resentment towards Nazis, and likes to get in subtle digs at them whenever possible. Now as you approach his response, you have a lot more to play with. It is for this reason that we get the line in the script, which is a thousand times better: “I have already given him the best, knowing he is German and would take it anyway.”
4) When placing a bunch of characters together, make sure that every single character has an angle – This is what’s so great about Casablanca. There isn’t one person in this bar who doesn’t have an angle, who isn’t looking to push their own agenda. Ugarte wants to sell those Visas. Renault wants to impress Strasser. Strasser wants to take down Laszlo. Laszlo wants to escape to America. Rick wants to avoid Ilsa. Ilsa wants to talk to Rick. And to take it one step further, make sure a lot of those angles clash. That’s where you get conflict, which is where you find drama, which is how you entertain audiences. That’s basically Casablanca in a nutshell.
5) Whatever your character’s flaw is, make sure you write a scene that shows that flaw as a choice – Here, Rick’s flaw is that he only cares about himself. He doesn’t stick his neck out for anybody. Therefore, a scene is written where he can either save Ugarte (the man who gave him the visas) or let him be arrested. Ugarte pleads for help from Rick, but Rick just stands by as he gets arrested. Through that choice, we learn his flaw.
6) Stating one’s flaw out loud is no longer in vogue – It’s one of the most famous lines in cinema: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” And yet if you used it today, it would feel way too on-the-nose. Go with an action, as explained in the previous tip, instead. Action (show, don’t tell) always has more of an impact than words.
7) Be “disagreeable” in your dialogue as much as you can – A cute and simple way to spice up dialogue is to never have characters agree with what is said. Have them add resistance or conflict or obstacles or opposing reactions. So when the German, Strasser, says to Rick, “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? Unofficially, of course.” Rick doesn’t respond in the positive with, “Sure.” He turns it around and says, “Make it official, if you like.” If characters are just agreeing with each other all the time and having really easy conversations, there’s a 99% chance that those conversations are boring as hell.
8) Never underestimate the power of sarcasm during dialogue. It almost always makes the dialogue more fun – When Strasser asks Rick, “What is your nationality?” Rick doesn’t respond with the boring, “I’m a bar owner, in case you hadn’t noticed.” He replies. “I’m a drunkard.”
9) Add extra people to your dialogue scenes – There’s rarely a scene in Casablanca with just two people. I don’t think it’s any coincidence, then, that the movie is known for its great dialogue. Extra characters act as agitators and obstacles to dialogue, which forces characters to be more creative in the ways they talk with one another. Woody Allen, another great dialogue writer, uses this approach a lot as well.
10) Make the “other man” tough to leave, as opposed to easy – Remember that drama usually thrives on tough choices. If you make the choice for any character too easy, it’s obvious what will happen, which is boring. Make it difficult, and the audience will be hooked, as they’ll be unsure what choice the character will make. Here, the “other man” (Laszlo) is about as good a man as they come, so we really have no idea who Ilsa is going to choose, him or Rick.
11) Unless the boyfriend/husband is also the villain – There are certain situations/stories where the “other man” is also the villain. He’s beating our heroine or is the “wrong guy” for her. In those cases, it’s okay for him to be bad. But if the other man isn’t the villain in the story (here, the Nazi, Strasser, is our villain), consider making him a “good guy,” as that’ll make our heroine’s choice tougher, and therefore more dramatically compelling.
These are 11 tips from the movie “Casablanca.” To get 500 more tips from movies as varied as “Aliens,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!