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benedict-cumberbenedict-the-imitation-game-movie-posterIs The Imitation Game a movie? The answer might surprise you.

There I was, skimming through the comments last week, when I spotted one that caught my cornea. The comment was from a writer who had asked his director friend what he thought of the Black List. There were some good scripts on there, the director friend conceded, but not a lot of MOVIES.

Not a lot of “movies?” What was that supposed to mean? Aren’t all scripts written to be movies? What was this strange director friend of a friend of a commenter talking about?

What he was talking about is that not every good script makes a good movie. That’s because good movies aren’t only about stories. Movies are about imagery and ideas and action and adventure and sound. There was a time long ago when people went to the movies because they could take them places they’d never be able to visit otherwise.

It’s a lot easier to see the world these days with the internet and a thousand outbound flights to Europe every day. But the spirit of this statement is still true. A movie has to give people something they can’t have in real life, something outside of the norm.

Look at the Star Wars trailer, which, no, I have not watched 117 and a third times since Friday. Who gave you that information? There’s a sense of “action” in each of the shots presented. The characters need to get somewhere. We’re on other planets seeing things we’ve never seen before. We can’t get this kind of action or these kinds of worlds anywhere else but in the movie theater.

On the flip side, you have films like Garden State and The Skeleton Twins. These aren’t movies. They’re glorified 90 minute TV shows – talking heads going through issues. With the line between TV and film blurring more every day, it’s become even harder to justify these “movies.” They’re not giving us anything we can’t see on our television sets.

I’ll never forget what an agent told me when I first got here, which is that people are going to pay MILLIONS OF DOLLARS to produce your screenplay. So what are you going to show the world that’s worthy of those millions? If it’s just two people chatting about how life is difficult, your financers are going to wonder why you need 2 million bucks. Why not just shoot it on a Best Buy camera for nothing?

Let’s get more specific. What is it that makes a script a “movie script” and not simply a “good screenplay?” Here are seven things that will help you determine just that. Your script doesn’t have to hit all of these points. But it should hit most of them.

1) A large scope – Movies are supposed to feel larger than life. So the scope should feel bigger than normal.

2) The script falls within one of these movie-friendly genres: horror, sci-fi, action, adventure, thriller, period.

3) The script doesn’t fall within one of these non-movie-friendly genres: Straight drama, coming-of-age, political, romance (unless you’re Nicholas Sparks), and satire.

4) Your script is something we can’t get anywhere else but in the movies (dinosaur parks, for example).

5) Can you easily imagine the trailer?

6) Is the script something a director would be eager to direct? (I bet there wasn’t a line of directors out the door wanting to helm “Obvious Child.”)

7) There’s a lot more action (and by action I mean characters doing things, not just stunt action) than there is talking.

With this newfound knowledge, let’s look at five Black List loglines and determine if they’re “movie” ideas or just well-written screenplays. I want to make something clear. I am in no way passing judgment on the scripts themselves. In fact, I haven’t even read any of them. We’re just trying to determine the script’s viability as a movie.

Hot Summer Nights
Logline: A teenager’s life spirals out of control when he befriends the town’s rebel, falls in love, and gets entangled in selling drugs over one summer in Cape Cod.

It sounds like the main character is quite active in this, which is good. The drug trouble stuff implies some moving around (movement is good – it’s not called a “move” “ie” for nothing). But the scope here feels too small. I don’t see any directors getting excited over this. They made the similar “Toy’s House,” last year, a script that I liked. And the film was pretty good too. But nobody saw it because it was, you guessed it, not really a movie. If you turned this into a straight comedy, a la Superbad, that’s a different story. Mainstream comedies are always movies. But this doesn’t sound like that.

I’m Proud of You
Logline: A journalist looking for a story about television’s role in the Columbine tragedy interviews TV’s Mr Rogers and, as a friendship develops between the two, he finds himself confronting his own issues at home.

I mean put yourself in a director’s shoes. Is there anything at all in this logline that would make you want to direct this film? Any powerful imagery? Any action? Anything unique to do on the filmmaking end? My guess is no. This sounds like a very slow-moving sad character piece, which are anti-movies.

The Line
A corrupt border crossing agent must decide what is more important — saving his soul or inflating his bank account — when he discovers a young illegal boy who escaped a cartel hit on the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

I’m seeing the word “slow” in my head every time I read this logline. “Slow” and “movie” don’t go together. Movies must have a sense of urgency, of people needing to do things. Here, it sounds like a lot of sitting around, a lot of characters discussing their pasts, their feelings, their shitty situations. Since “slow” is usually synonymous with “boring,” this doesn’t feel like a movie to me.

Logline: After his girlfriend dies in a car accident, a man finds his true soul mate, only to wake from a coma to learn his perfect life was just a dream — one he is determined to make real.

My first thoughts are that this isn’t a movie. Seems more like indie actor bait. With that said, the premise is cleverer than the others, and it leaves the viewer with a compelling question (Does he find his soul mate?) that may entice them to see the film. But getting people to the theater doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve created a movie. If the shots are still static. If the style is still basic. If there’s not a lot of movement or urgency, then fancy premise or not, you still don’t have a movie.

Diablo Run
Logline: While on a road trip to Mexico, two best friends are forced to enter a thousand-mile death race with no rules.

Boom! Finally, we have a movie! Look at the elements involved.  A dangerous country.  Good!  “Forced.”  That means characters must do things against their will (conflict!). “Race.” That means cars and lots of action. “Death.” That means the stakes will be high, with competitors wanting to kill one another. Go ahead, imagine the trailer. It’s way clearer than any of the above ideas, right? That’s a good sign that you’ve written a movie.

john_boyega_official_star_wars_verge_super_wideThe Force Awakens: Definitely a movie!

Now this isn’t always a clear cut thing. Some scripts are stuck between these two extremes. We don’t know if they’re movies until we see them on the big screen. After the studios grab all the best material (the material that results in the best movies), this “unclear” material is out there for the pickins and second-tier producers have to gamble on each horse, hoping they’re a movie.

The Imitation Game script is a perfect example. It was about World War 2, but the majority of the scenes took place in small rooms with characters talking to each other (dreaded “talking heads”). Again, people talking in rooms is about as exciting as watching fish bake. Any schmoe can buy a camera and record people in rooms. There’s no action. There’s no vision. It’s static. Audiences don’t like to pay for these films because they don’t see anything movie-like about them.

Now I still haven’t seen The Imitation Game, but I’m guessing one of the first things they did when they rewrote it was to look for ways to make it more of a MOVIE. Can we show some of these WW2 ships attacking each other instead of hearing our characters talk about them? Can we put our characters ON these ships?  Can we put them closer to the war so we can see more of the war?  Can we put them in a bombed city? Can we add a scene where the bombing comes close and they must run for their lives? This is how you turn an “almost movie” script into a movie.

And look, I’m not saying that non-movie scripts can’t be good films. I loved The Skeleton Twins. I loved Philomena. I love Good Will Hunting. What I’m saying is that they’re infinitely tougher to sell because they’re not movies. They don’t have movie-like qualities. Take one of the greatest films ever – The Shawshank Redemption. That wasn’t a movie. It had some cinematic aspects to it. But it was guys talking in a prison.  Now you might say, “Carson, now you’re just straight up trippin.  Shawshank not a movie?? You’re off your rocker!”  Okay, well then let me ask you this.  Where were all of you when the movie came out?  Cause you didn’t show up at the theater.  The Shawshank Redemption bombed gloriously at the box office because people saw that trailer and went, “That’s not a movie.  That’s a lot of sad people chatting in jail.”

The reality is, in this day and age, with TV getting bigger and theatrical releases favoring flashy more extravagant movies, there’s less and less room for these non-movie screenplays. So you have to think long and hard about what you want to spend the next six months on. You can write a “movie” and get a lot of interested parties when you’re finished. Or you can write a “script” and make things really hard on yourself.

If you think this advice is bullshit (I’m sure some of you do) and still prefer writing “scripts,” I’d strongly suggest making your script yourself. The one advantage with non-movie scripts is that they’re cheaper to shoot. It’s typically just a camera and actors. It’s actually a good thing no one will give you money because it’ll force you to go out and make it on your own.  And who knows?  If the characters are fascinating and the plotting’s great, it might end up being one of the few “non-movies” (i.e. American Beauty) that make some noise. But if I were you, I’d stick with movies.  It’s so much easier to get your script noticed when you’ve written a movie.  ☺

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Genre: Biopic
Premise (from writer): After the entire Kringle clan is murdered, Santa’s illegitimate son is forced to save his least favorite holiday from a menagerie of supernatural fuckwits.
Why You Should Read (from writer): My name’s Otis J. Kringle and I’m not a screenwriter — I’m fucking Santa Claus. Hang on, that came out wrong, as I am not actually “fucking” Santa — that would be weird and (as you’ll see) necrophilia. More like, I AM Santa Claus. I didn’t used to be, mind you. Truth be told, I’ve always considered Christmas to rank somewhere between getting a colonoscopy from Edward Scissorhands and watching FAILURE TO LAUNCH on a neverending loop. But alas, events unfolded that led me to pick up the jolly red mantle, events like stealing a UPS truck, getting thrown in jail, stepping in reindeer shit, throwing down in fisticuffs with Frigid Bitch and Jack Frost, riding flying lions, massive mall sing-a-longs, things of this nature. I know, right? I was pretty amazed, too. So amazed, I felt the need to share and find an outlet for my story (and movie, because who doesn’t love a new Christmas flick?), namely ScriptShadow. What can I say — I read your site, love the shit out of your site, and as far as I’m concerned, this makes it to a Friday review, everybody who reads your site will be put on the Nice List this year. Even Grendl. I know when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake, — Otis J. Kringle
Writer: Otis Kringle
Details: 97 pages


It’s rare that we get a screenwriter who writes a story based on his own life, which means we should consider today a treat. What makes this even specialer is that our writer appears to be related to Santa Claus.  I’m still working on verifying this but I’m 2-4% sure that it’s true.  And with the Christmas shopping season starting up next week, what better time to celebrate a Santa-inspired screenplay?  Or a Santa-gets-slaughtered-inspired screenplay?

Now I must say that all this murder and mayhem hinted at in the logline has me worried. I’m a Christmas purist. I watch It’s A Wonderful Life every year on Christmas Eve. I download that Band-Aid song and listen to it on repeat. I even purchase egg nog despite the fact that I hate it, just so I can look at it in my fridge and feel festive. Is Otis Kringle about to ruin all that?

In a word, yes.

In another word: “fisting.” As in we’re told on page 1 to go fist ourselves.

Now I’m no doctor, nor do I play one on the internet. But I’m pretty sure that’s physically and biologically impossible.  Gonna do a WebMD search on this later to make sure.

Our loser hero, Otis Kringle, the man responsible for telling us to fist ourselves, happens to be the illegitimate son of Santa Clause, who apparently slipped down Otis’s mother’s chimney many years ago, injecting her with many presents.

This will become important later after a dingbat elf in the North Pole named Dunbar Capp sings a song from a cursed book called the Santanomicon. He thinks he’s being jolly. But all he does is release Jolly Klaus, Santa Claus’s long lost half-uncle.

The axe-wielding Jolly slices up Santa along with the rest of his family, then demonizes Rudolph so that Rudolph can slaughter all of Santa’s reindeer.

Lucky for the planet, Dunbar and Blitzen get away and fly to America, where they approach Otis, the bastard child of Santa, to inform him that he’s the only one who can save Christmas. And the planet.

All he has to do is sing a song from the Santanomicon and Jolly will be sent back to the Badlands for another 1500 years. The problem is, all the songs are in another language, which poor Otis can’t read.

Complicating measures are Jack Frost and the Frigid Bitch, an oversexed couple who have likewise been stuck in purgatory for hundreds of years. Being freed allows them to have sex again and boy do they take advantage of it, even singing a song about all the sexual positions they’re going to enjoy together, which number at least a hundred.

Will Otis Kringle, who tells his story in first person, except when we’re around other characters, be able to save the day? Will you be able to save yourself after venturing into a story that introduces the world to the term “cunt brisket?” There’s no way to know for sure unless you read Otis Kringle Hates Christmas. And then fist yourself.

I hear that this Christmas, NBC will be debuting a live Peter Pan musical inspired by wholesome family values and the power of song.  If, for whatever reason, this show gets cancelled, I’m sure “Otis Kringle Hates Christmas” can take its place.  They’re practically the same movie.  I mean, Peter Pan has a song about taking a literal exposition dump, doesn’t it?

Look, I think Otis has problems. He seems a tad angry. And that anger has manifested itself in a script more focused on shock value than story. Shock is a funny thing. It can work in small doses. One need look no further than South Park to see that.  But it’s hard to make work if that’s the only thing you’re giving the audience for two hours.

South Park is actually a good gauge for how to make shock work. Underneath all its shocking humor, there’s an undeniable love South Park has for its characters. That love translates over to you loving the characters, and going along with whatever shenanigans, no matter how crass or dirty, the characters find themselves in.

I’m not sure Otis Kringle the writer has that same love for his characters (which is ironic, considering he is one of the characters), which prevents us from ever really connecting to Otis, Dunbar, and Blitzen. We get crass instead of heart.  Swears instead of cares.  And that creates a wall between reader and character that extends not just to the story, but to the comedy.

And this is why comedy’s the most subjective of all the genres. Everybody needs something different to laugh.

I need to care about the characters to laugh. I believe laughs come from stakes, come from us caring what’s on the line for the characters. And we can’t care about what’s on the line if we don’t connect to the characters in the first place. For example, in Neighbors, I really FELT the importance of our hero’s need to raise a family. So I cared that this frat next door was disrupting their world. And that’s what allowed me to laugh when they kept failing at their goal.

But I concede that not everybody feels this way. For a lot of people, a funny joke is a funny joke, regardless of whether you give a shit about the people involved in the joke. Otis Kringle graduated from the Kevin Smith school of comedy, where the jokes are based on nasty, on disgusting, on shocking and awing your reader.  I’m not going to put that comedy down.  All I can say is it’s not for me.

With that said, this script has a mission. And that’s to get your attention. And the easiest way to get people’s attention is to be loud and bold, and Otis Kringle is the loudest script I’ve read in years. Throw in some rule-bending (first person writing!), a bizarre mythology,  and some snowflake-infused writing talent, and this script will find some fans.

It’s just that for me to become a fan, I have to see that love between writer and character.  I need to feel at least some depth in our hero.  Sometimes as writers we get so carried away with trying to do that one thing we set out to do when we conceived of the script, that we overlook other basic storytelling components required to make a script work.  Otis may have had tunnel-vision in trying to make this that big attention-grabbing script, preventing him from remember that you still have to move people, you still have to make the audience feel something at the end.

The part of me that loves writers who take chances gives this a Millineum Falcon Lego Set present. But the script purist in me gives this a 25 dollar gift certificate to Best Buy.  Hey, at least it’s not coal, right??

Script link: Otis Kringle Hates Christmas

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: It’s really hard to keep a reader invested for 100 pages on shock alone. I’m sure it can be done, but that means continually one-upping yourself with something even MORE shocking every 10 pages. I wouldn’t want that assignment.


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TITLE: Partners In Crime
GENRE: Action, Comedy, Crime
LOGLINE: Busted for smuggling drugs to bankroll their flight home, two spring breakers escape jail time by becoming a snitch for a DEA agent to take down a Mexican drug lord.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: I wanted to write a fun, commercial movie and I believe that I succeeded. I would compare this farcical comedy to such past hits as 21 Jump Street and Pineapple Express. I hope you enjoy!

TITLE: Escaping Freedom
GENRE: Drama
LOGLINE: A Gestapo agent is mistaken for a Jew and sent to Auschwitz to fight for his life.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: I’m the only one that finds myself amusing. I like no walks on the beach. I’m an ex-gangleader for a Chicago black gang, even though I’m white – and that’s not a joke – this has equipped me to write about some strange characters in life and writing probably saved my life. And I’ll retire before I start a career in screenwriting if you don’t read this script. That was a joke. Had to try. — Why should this script get read? If nothing more than the Auschwitz victims are dying yearly and they have less a film of remembrance than ever before. They had five minutes in “Schindler’s List,” why not give them a full movie to warn future generations of what man’s capable of doing? It’s a script the size of War & Peace, but a little shorter than an Aaron Sorkin film. While the characters are fictional, the crimes and timeline of events are historically accurate…

GENRE: Sci-Fi Thriller
LOGLINE: An agent with a CIA-like agency of the future struggles with his tragic past while on a mission to prevent the emergence of a perilous new technology.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: THE MATRIX meets THE AVENGERS meets SIN CITY is how I would pitch ACCELERATOR. I think a lot of what ultimately motivates writers is that we find ourselves getting bored with our favorite genres and decide we can do a better job. That was certainly the case with this script. ACCELERATOR’s the kind of sci-fi thriller that would get me to the multiplex.

TITLE: Rocket Surgery
GENRE: Coming of age
LOGLINE: A lovesick twelve-year-old boy must use his dad’s inventions to stop a monster he accidentally unleashed on his town while deciding between the girl of his dreams and the girl who loves him.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Reading Carson’s pleas for someone to write an original script loaded with GSU, unique characters, a solid plot and at least one wacky character, I set out to tackle this challenge. If I had to describe this script, which I am, I’d say it is a little like Gremlins with the tone of Back to the Future. I wanted it to be a fun ride for those of us who love getting lost in movies.

GENRE: Biopic
LOGLINE: After the entire Kringle clan is murdered, Santa’s illegitimate son is forced to save his least favorite holiday from a menagerie of supernatural fuckwits.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: My name’s Otis J. Kringle and I’m not a screenwriter — I’m fucking Santa Claus. Hang on, that came out wrong, as I am not actually “fucking” Santa — that would be weird and (as you’ll see) necrophilia. More like, I AM Santa Claus. I didn’t used to be, mind you. Truth be told, I’ve always considered Christmas to rank somewhere between getting a colonoscopy from Edward Scissorhands and watching FAILURE TO LAUNCH on a neverending loop. But alas, events unfolded that led me to pick up the jolly red mantle, events like stealing a UPS truck, getting thrown in jail, stepping in reindeer shit, throwing down in fisticuffs with Frigid Bitch and Jack Frost, riding flying lions, massive mall sing-a-longs, things of this nature. I know, right? I was pretty amazed, too. So amazed, I felt the need to share and find an outlet for my story (and movie, because who doesn’t love a new Christmas flick?), namely ScriptShadow. What can I say — I read your site, love the shit out of your site, and as far as I’m concerned, this makes it to a Friday review, everybody who reads your site will be put on the Nice List this year. Even Grendl. I know when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake, — Otis J. Kringle

Genre: TV Pilot (Drama)
Premise: An “upstairs/downstairs” look at the daily activities that plague one of the most exclusive country clubs in the country.
About: This is a project David O Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) was spearheading with Susannah Grant (Erin Brokovich, Party of Five). Apparently the two went their separate ways over creative differences. But Grant is still pushing forward with it and the show will premier in 2015 on ABC. This is the last draft the two wrote together (for those looking around the net for this file, it goes by the name “ABC – Untitled David O Russell – Susannah Grant Proj”).
Writers: Story by Susannah Grant and David O. Russell – Teleplay by Susannah Grant
Details: January 13, 2014 draft (63 pages)

David+O+Russell+American+Hustle+Screening+K7XxFlMrk0MlDavid O. Russell

Maybe the British readers can help me out here. Why is it that this whole “upstairs/downstairs” thing, which is being explored most famously in the show “Downton Abbey, is such an obsession with you? Why do these rich/poor mingling-in-the-same-place explorations fascinate you so much?

I have a British actor friend who moved here and I asked him once why he decided to do so. He said that in the UK, it’s a lot harder to break out of your class. Whatever you’re born into, that’s who you’ll be the rest of your life. Whereas in America, nobody cares about that shit. So he’d much rather take his chances here.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Could it be true? One of the most distinguished nations in the world is still running a class system?? What is this? 1709?

I suppose that this would explain the fascination with these types of stories. If there is a class system still in place, the conflict that arises between the “haves” and the “have nots” is interesting, since the characters are locked into those slots. The question is, does that setup intrigue an American audience who’s never had a class system before? Where it’s not as “risqué” for a staff member to cavort with a club member?  Let us discover the answer together.

Members Only focuses on an upscale country club that caters to the “best of the best of the best.” The club was built by and is run by the Holbrooke family. The face of the club, and the de facto manager, is Mickey Holbrooke, a 40 year old beauty married to a hotshot Wall Street tycoon named Randy.

As you’d expect, the second Mickey walks into the club to begin our journey, there’s drama. The club is in huge debt, and it’s forcing the board to get creative. They want to hold a professional golf tournament here but they don’t think the tournament will agree because “we have no black people.” So the first order of business is to go out and find a black family to become members of the club.

Meanwhile, we meet Jesse, a kid from the projects who got this job by the skin of his teeth. He’s a new staffer and has been told that if he even looks at someone the wrong way, he can be fired. So you can imagine the torment he goes through when Mickey’s hot horny 17 year old triplets start a game of who can nail the Jesse first.

In the meantime, we meet TONS of other people. There’s Forty, a Holbrooke who just got out of jail for his 3rd DUI. There’s Ava, the cool as can be “I don’t give a fuck” staffer with a propensity for stealing. There’s Malcolm, the hot widowed husband who every housewife wants to bang. There’s Leslie Holbrooke, whose husband dumped her for, get this, her step-mother – a trophy wife to her alcoholic Senator father.

But the story doesn’t really get good until the midpoint. Two agents from the SEC corner Mickey and inform her that her husband is the biggest financial thief since Bernie Madoff. They’re going to take him down in two days. If Mickey helps them, they may be able to protect Mickey, her daughters, and the club. But if not, all bets are off. The duo kindly hand Mickey their card. If she doesn’t respond in 48 hours, they’re making their move. And just like that, Mickey’s life is turned upside-down.

Premiere+Sony+Picture+Catch+Release+Arrivals+h-Oo9MJkBuOl-2Susannah Grant

Members Only may be the most jam-packed pilot I’ve ever read. There were 30 characters in this thing. That’s one character introduced every two pages. On top of that, a TON of shit happens. Thefts, cheating, ménage-et-trois’s, death, embezzlement, a golf tournament, a party, several courtings, racism, sexism. I mean, wow. Grant and Russell need an award just for fitting this much stuff into a script.

And actually, the more I thought about it, the more I realized this “jam it all in” approach would work as a screenwriting exercise. You’re always taught to get through your scenes as quickly as possible, but that’s easier said than done. Well, when you write a pilot (60 pages) with so many characters and so many plotlines, you have NO CHOICE but to write scenes quickly. The average scene here was a page and a half.  Having to get in and out of a scene that quickly and still keep it compelling?  That’s a skill every screenwriter should have.

For example, in a scene where Mickey must call and convince the tournament sponsor to consider their club for the professional tournament, the scene starts with Mickey already on the phone mid-conversation. That’s how we get through scenes quicker. If you start with all the “Hi, this is Mickey calling from blah blah blah,” and the forthcoming formalities, you’re taking a looooooot longer than you need to.  Start us midway through the conversation to cut down time.

The problem with Members Only is that despite its best efforts, you can only maneuver through so much plot when you’re introducing 30 people, and for the first half of the screenplay, while I was admiring the work, I wasn’t fully engaged in the story. And I was wondering why.  Then it hit me.


There wasn’t enough of it. Meeting people, meeting people, meeting people, is not suspense. It’s meeting people. I mean, there’s a little bit of suspense in whether they’re going to get the tournament to play at their club, but it’s not enough to hook us for 30 pages.

Suspense can’t be treated like a blanket tool. There are variations in its intensity, and if you’re not going to give us suspense with a high level of intensity, our focus is going to wander. In this case, the Defcon 5 suspense plot point didn’t hit until the midpoint – this is when Mickey’s told that her husband’s embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars.

From this point on, the suspense is VERY high because we’re DYING to see Mickey confront her husband. We have to know what she’s going to say and how he’s going to respond. So anything you write between the beginning of this suspense thread and the conclusion of it is golden. We’re zoned into your story until that line of suspense is over.

And that’s exactly what Grant and Russell did. They drew it all the way out, not even telling us at the end of the episode. Which means we’ll have to tune in next week to find out! Suspense is the cornerstone of any good piece of fiction, but it’s especially important in TV where you’re repeatedly asking your viewers to come back after commercials and come back week after week.

Still, the intensity in which I became attached to the story after that suspenseful plot point makes you wonder: why not start the script with a suspenseful plot point as well? Something big and flashy to keep us riveted through all the character introductions? The more I think about it, the more I believe that every stretch of your screenplay should have a suspense thread going on. At LEAST one.

Members Only is a good teleplay but its success is going to depend on how it’s shot. Will it be shot in that dark serious tone that Downton Abbey is shot in? Or will it be treated like the glossy vapid Revenge? Being that it’s an ABC show, it’ll probably be more like Revenge, which would suck. Now is the time for the networks to start challenging the cable channels with riskier fare. If this show has any shot at lasting, it needs to go darker. I just don’t know if ABC is capable of that.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: “And” is a great place to start in a scene. It means we’re coming in on a character in the middle of a conversation. Which means a shorter scene. Which means you’re only showing the good stuff. During the scene where Mickey is on the phone trying to convince the tournament to play at the club, we come in on this line: “And I’ve been a huge fan of your tournament for ages, so this could be a match made in heaven! Excellent! Yes! See you then.” – “And” is a great place to start. But really, the goal is to start anywhere mid-conversation.


All this week, I’ve been putting one of YOUR dialogue scenes up against a pro’s. My job, and your job as readers of Scriptshadow, is to figure out why the dialogue in the pro scenes works better. The ultimate goal is to learn as much as we can about dialogue. It’s a tricky skill to master so hopefully these exercises can help demystify it. And now, for our last dialogue post of the week!

All I know about our first scene is that it’s an introduction to Charlie Lambda, who’s a major character, and Diane, who’s a minor character. It takes place in a bedroom after sex.

The room is cluttered with furniture and wrinkled clothing.

DIANE sprawls across the bed in her underwear, awake. Charlie LAMBDA stands at a dresser mirror, shirtless, buckling his jeans.

DIANE: Leaving so soon?

LAMBDA: Night waits for no one, my dear.

DIANE: Neither do I.

LAMBDA: You wanna leave? Suit yourself. I’ve got money to make.

DIANE: You got a night job?

LAMBDA: Best there is.

DIANE: You a pimp, Lambda?

LAMBDA: You know, most women try to figure people out before they sleep with them.

DIANE: I like mysteries. I like solving them, too.

Lambda grabs a shirt, buttons it up.

LAMBDA: You play cards, Diane?

DIANE: I play poker sometimes.

LAMBDA: You any good at it?

DIANE: I’ve got bad luck.

Lambda chuckles. From the dresser, he picks up a deck of cards. He shuffles them without looking, and they fly from hand to hand and around the deck like magic.

LAMBDA: Luck’s just a matter of stacking the odds in your favor.

DIANE: You still have to shuffle the deck. That’s luck.

LAMBDA: That’s what you think.

He brings the deck over to the bed and hands it to the woman, who sits up.

LAMBDA: Find the aces.

He walks back to the mirror, produces a comb, runs it through his hair. Diane sifts through the deck.

DIANE: So you’re a card shark.

LAMBDA: I’m a professional gambler.

DIANE: And you cheat.

LAMBDA: That’s what makes me a professional.

DIANE: I can’t find the aces.

Lambda goes to the bed, sits beside her, and pats her on the back.

DIANE: You’d take cards over an easy lay?

LAMBDA: It’s better than sex.

DIANE: Oh, really?

LAMBDA: You don’t understand. Playing cards ain’t a game. It’s a way of life. It’s zen. It’s jumping into a pool of sharks and seeing who’s got the coldest blood.

DIANE: And that’s you?

LAMBDA: Babe, Charlie Lambda’s the coolest guy around.

Diane tries to hand him the deck.

LAMBDA: Keep ’em. I’m going hunting.

He goes to the door and opens it.

LAMBDA: Go back to sleep, Diane.

DIANE: If you’re not here when I wake up, I’m gone.

LAMBDA: Wanna bet?

DIANE: Some odds you can’t sway.

Lambda smiles and closes the door behind him. Diane rolls over to go back to sleep– The four aces are stuck in her bra strap.

In this next scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel is coming home on a train. Clementine enters the car and tries to find a place to sit. She eventually sits across the car, facing Joel. After awhile…

CLEMENTINE (calling over the rumble): Hi!

Joel looks over.

JOEL: I’m sorry?


JOEL: Why what?

CLEMENTINE: Why are you sorry? I just said hi.

JOEL: No, I didn’t know if you were talking to me, so…

She looks around the empty car.


JOEL (embarrassed) Well, I didn’t want to assume.

CLEMENTINE: Aw, c’mon, live dangerously. Take the leap and assume someone is talking to you in an otherwise empty car.

JOEL: Anyway. Sorry. Hi.

Clementine makes her way down the aisle toward Joel.

CLENTINE: It’s okay if I sit closer? So I don’t have to scream. Not that I don’t need to scream sometimes, believe me. (pause) But I don’t want to bug you if you’re trying to write or something.

JOEL: No, I mean, I don’t know. I can’t really think of much to say probably.


She hesitates in the middle of the car, looks back where she came from.

JOEL: I mean, it’s okay if you want to sit down here. I didn’t mean to—

CLEMENTINE: No, I don’t want to bother you if you’re trying to—

JOEL: It’s okay, really.

CLEMENTINE: Just, you know, to chat a little, maybe. I have a long trip ahead of me. (sits across aisle from Joel) How far are you going? On the train, I mean, of course.

JOEL: Rockville Center.

CLEMENTINE: Get out! Me too! What are the odds?

JOEL: The weirder part is I think actually I recognize you. I thought that earlier in the diner. That’s why I was looking at you. You work at Borders, right?

CLEMENTINE: Ucch, really? You’re kidding. God. Bizarre small world, huh? Yeah, that’s me: books slave there for, like, five years now.

JOEL: Really? Because—

CLEMENTINE: Jesus, is it five years? I gotta quit right now.

JOEL: — because I go there all the time. I don’t think I ever saw you before.

CLEMENTINE: Well, I’m there. I hide in the back as much as is humanly possible. You have a cell phone? I need to quit right this minute. I’ll call in dead.

JOEL: I don’t have one.

CLEMENTINE: I’ll go on the dole. Like my daddy before me.

JOEL: I noticed your hair. I guess it made an impression on me, that’s why I was pretty sure I recognized you.

CLEMENTINE: Ah, the hair. (studies a strand of hair) Blue, right? It’s called Blue Ruin. The color. Snappy name, huh?

JOEL: I like it.

CLEMENTINE: Blue ruin is cheap gin in case you were wondering.

JOEL: Yeah. Tom Waits says it in—

CLEMENTINE: Exactly. Tom Waits. Which son?

JOEL: I can’t remember.

CLEMENTINE: Anyway, this company makes a whole lie of colors with equally snappy names. Red Menace, Yellow Fever, Green Revolution. That’d be a job, coming up with those names. How do you get a job like that? That’s what I’ll do. Fuck the dole.

JOEL: I don’t really know how—

CLEMENTINE: Purple Haze, Pink Eraser.

JOEL: You think that could possibly be a full-time job? How many hair colors could there be?

CLEMENTINE (pissy): Someone’s got that job. (excited) Agent Orange! I came up with that one. Anyway, there are endless color possibilities and I’d be great at it.

JOEL: I’m sure you would.

CLEMENTINE: My writing career! Your hair written by Clementine Kruczynski. (thought) The Tom Waits album is Rain Dogs.

JOEL: You sure? That doesn’t sound –

CLEMENTINE: I think. Anyway, I’ve tried all their colors. More than once. I’m getting too old for this. But it keeps me from having to develop an actual personality. I apply my personality in a paste. You?

JOEL: Oh, I don’t think that’s the case.

CLEMENTNE: Well, you don’t know me, so… you don’t know, do you?

JOEL: Sorry. I was just trying to be nice.

CLEMENTINE: Yeah, I got it.

I chose these two scenes for a reason. In the first one, we’re looking at two strangers talking AFTER they’ve had sex. In the second, we’re looking at two strangers who’ve just met (before they’ve had sex).

Take note of the energy in each scene. In the first scene, the energy is relaxed, subdued, almost lazy. Which makes sense. They just banged. They’ve already reached the pinnacle of their coupling. Generally speaking, scenes where people are relaxed and happy are bad scenes. You’d rather seek out scenes where there’s tension, where there are problems that need to be addressed.

But in Eternal Sunshine, there’s still an entire world of possibility with these two characters because they haven’t consummated their relationship yet. As a result, their scene’s bursting with nervous energy. There’s excitement in the uncertainty of the moment. We feel tension. We feel hope. We want this to go right.

This is why, generally speaking, you don’t want to consummate the relationship until as deep into the script as possible. Once you do that, the dialogue between the characters loses something. The air will have seeped out of their “relationship balloon” so to speak.

But even if you took all this “consummation” talk away (I was told Diane wasn’t a major character, so maybe we shouldn’t hold her to that status), something’s still missing in that first scene. Let’s take a look at the first exchange. “Leaving so soon?” Diane asks. “Night waits for no one, my dear,” Lambda replies. “Night waits for no one, my dear?” That doesn’t sound like something real people say, does it?

That’s not necessarily a harbinger of doom, though. Some genres produce stylistic dialogue. Take the dialogue in “The Big Lebowski,” for example. Clearly, characters aren’t always talking the way real people talk in that film. The problem is, I’m not getting the sense that that’s what the writer intended here. I feel like this scene is supposed to be grounded. And in that case, lines like “Night waits for no one” come off as overly written, like the writer’s trying too hard.

This cuteness continues when the cards are introduced as a quasi-metaphor. Writing in metaphors (or analogies or clever explanations) is a very writerly thing to do. It gives the impression of depth and cleverness. And it allows you to talk about something by talking about something else. But if the only reason the analogy exists is to achieve this effect, it feels false. It reads as analogy for analogy’s sake.

Now I get the feeling that cards might play a larger role in this movie. If that’s the case, then the introduction of the cards isn’t as misguided. But I think the problem here is the same one we’ve encountered in most of the amateur entries this week. I don’t know what either of these characters wants in the scene! I don’t know if Lambda wants her out or if Diane wants to stay. There’s no clear objective, which means anything they say will appear as “babble” to the reader. It’s not that the dialogue is bad so much as we don’t know the point of it.

Looking at the Eternal Sunshine dialogue, there are two things that stick out. First, the dialogue is much more realistic. It’s short, it’s clipped, it ping-pongs back and forth uncertainly. But most importantly, it’s imperfect. It really feels like two people talking.

That’s a mistake we writers make often. We want our dialogue to be so beautiful, that we carve and mold each line into a perfect specimen of auditory delight. Put a bunch of these ultra-developed lines next to each other and the conversation starts feeling false. We don’t know why, but it does. It isn’t until we realize that no one would actually say any of these individual lines that we understand what’s wrong.

And we never see that problem in Eternal Sunshine. Words are flying by seemingly willy-nilly, with no rhyme or reason. It truly does feel like real life conversation.

Secondly, lots of writers get obsessed with balanced dialogue. Balanced dialogue is when there’s a perfect balance to the conversation. Each word, for the most part, is responded to with a word in kind. “Hey.” “Hiya.” “How’s it going?” “It’s going good. How bout you?” “Going good here.” And back and forth and back and forth in perfect balance.

Real dialogue is unbalanced. It’s often weighted to one side or the other, depending on the character or the situation. Read the bottom half of the Eternal Sunshine scene. Clementine is basically having a conversation with herself. Joel’s just there to hear it. That’s a big reason why this dialogue feels so authentic. Unbalanced dialogue is real life.

What about you? What stuck out to you about today’s scenes? The first one felt a little too “written” to me. But I can see some of you just as easily attacking the “rambling” quality of Eternal Sunshine. Share your thoughts!

What I learned: Balanced versus Unbalanced dialogue. There’s no such thing as perfectly balanced dialogue. Some characters are going to talk more than others. Some characters won’t always answer when asked something. No matter how many times you’ve rewritten your dialogue, it should always feel a little imperfect, a little unevenly weighted.