All right, guys. In honor of the upcoming short script contest (You’ve got 9 days left to enter – and it’s free!), we’re going to do another short script weekend mini-contest.
Last weekend we did dialogue-focused shorts and the results were a mixed bag. The short and sweet of it? You guys are better than last week. So we’re going to try this again. What I want you to do is read yesterday’s new dialogue article and then write a short script that is dialogue-focused.
The requirements are 2 of the following…
2) Looming sense of dread
3) Sexual tension with an obstacle in the way.
4) Use dialogue obstacles to keep the dialogue fresh.
Also, remember the basics. Utilize conflict and/or tension within the scenario. Characters say more interesting things when there’s some sort of problem in the scene. That problem can be on the surface or under the surface. Also, it’s hard to have characters say interesting things if they are not interesting themselves. So make sure your characters are unique in some way.
You can do this. Really push yourselves. Come up with some unique situations and some unique characters and have fun with the interaction.
Post your short in the comments (you can write the scene inside the comment itself or include a PDF link). Page count is open but I recommend staying under 8 pages. The winner will be determined by how many UPVOTES they get (Disqus allows you to upvote a comment – so please UPVOTE any short you enjoy).
Contest ends Sunday at 10pm.
Good luck to all!!!
I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t thrilled with the results from last week’s dialogue challenge. Nobody blew me away with any world-changing dialogue. It seemed like some people weren’t even paying attention to the dialogue. They had an idea for a short and dialogue happened to be a part of it. I take responsibility for this. Obviously, something I’m saying isn’t getting through.
So I want a do-over. I think you guys are capable of much better. And we’re going to be learning from the master today so I’m hoping that’ll inspire you. But before we start, there was one issue from last week I want to eliminate immediately…
TOO MUCH DESCRIPTION
When dialogue is being featured, you don’t want anything mucking it up. And nothing mucks up dialogue faster than a bunch of description. You want the reader’s eyes on the center of the page. You don’t want them to keep looking left to read some superfluous action. It KILLS the rhythm of the scene. And rhythm is one of the keys to great dialogue. So please: KEEP DESCRIPTION TO A MINIMUM WHEN FEATURING DIALOGUE.
Now, on to today’s three dialogue tips, inspired by Quentin Tarantino.
Like most things in screenwriting, dialogue improves with irony. You achieve this by having your characters speak in a manner that’s the opposite of who they are. A famous example of this is Jules and Vincent in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. They’re the chatty hitmen. They’re talking about burgers, footrubs, TV pilots. Hitmen aren’t supposed to be fun and chatty. So it’s ironic. And audiences eat irony up. Nuns talking about fucking. Clowns talking about suicide. Kids talking about 401ks. Use irony to write better dialogue.
LOOMING SENSE OF DREAD (SUSPENSE)
Set up a scenario by which something bad (or potentially bad) is coming, draw the resolution out as long as possible, and have fun with the dialogue in the meantime. The space between the beginning and end of a line of suspense is one of the easiest places to write dialogue because your audience is so dialed in. This allows you to have fun with your dialogue as well as the particular conflict within that scene. The best example of this in Tarantino’s world is the beginning of Inglorious Basterds. Hans the Nazi comes into a farm house looking for Jews (who happen to be hiding underneath the floor). Tarantino has so much fun as we wonder if Hans is going to find what he’s looking for. Also note that Hans is a chatty polite Nazi (irony!).
SEXUAL TENSION WITH AN OBSTACLE IN THE WAY
An easy way to bump up your dialogue is to put two characters with heavy sexual chemistry together, then place an obstacle in the way of them being able to act on that attraction. The bigger the obstacle, the better the dialogue will play out. Tarantino’s most famous scene ever is built around this conceit: Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace going out for dinner. Vincent is doing this as a favor to his boss, who’s married to Mia. So the obstacle between them is as big as it gets. If Vincent does anything with Mia, he will be killed (as Tarantino cleverly set up in the earlier scene between Vincent and Jules). This is why the sexual chemistry (and subsequent dialogue) crackles so much. Because they fucking want each other but cannot talk about or act on it. This creates subtext, which adds a whole other layer underneath the already fun dialogue that’s happening on the surface. An easy way to write great dialogue.
BONUS TIP: DIALOGUE OBSTACLES
I’ve already told you guys to place obstacles in front of your hero’s goal. So if Daniel is trying to defeat Johnny in the karate tournament, you give him a broken leg (obstacle) to make achieving his goal even harder. What I’ve noticed about Tarantino is he places obstacles in his dialogue. So it’s rarely as simple as, “Are you okay today?” “Yeah, how bout you?” “Tough day at work.” “Hey, one day at a time, right?” Instead, when someone says something, he’ll have the other character challenge it, or say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This is the “obstacle” that forces the first character to re-route or explain things further. What this does is it gives the dialogue more of an unpredictable pattern, and adds a playfullness to it. Here’s an example:
Notice how he says, “I don’t watch TV.” That dialogue obstacle leads to the best line in the exchange, “Yes, but you’re aware that there’s an invention called televsion, and on that invention they show shows?” That line is nowhere to be found without a dialogue obstacle.
And there you have it. If you look at Tarantino’s less memorable scenes, they’re usually scenes that aren’t utilizing these tips. For example, the Butch and Fabienne motel room scene in Pulp Fiction talking about pancakes has some fun exchanges, but it’s way slower than a typical Tarantino scene because it isn’t using any of these devices.
So tomorrow, that’s what this weekend’s short contest will require. You’ll have to use two of these four devices. And also, remember to have fun with your dialogue. Stay away from the mundane and the obvious. Memorable dialogue requires characters to say things in colorful, unexpected, and unpredictable ways. I didn’t see enough of that last week. Hopefully, that will change tomorrow!
AND DON’T FORGET TO SIGN UP FOR THE OFFICIAL SCRIPTSHADOW SHORT SCRIPT CONTEST! IT’S FREE AND THE WINNER GETS THEIR SHORT PRODUCED!!!
The author of the best selling book and mega-smash box office hit, The Martian, comes to bat with his first TV pilot!
Genre: TV Pilot – 1 hour drama
Premise: “Mission Control” follows the NASA mission control unit as they attempt to push a new space station into orbit, which will eventually fly to Mars.
About: Andy Weir, of “The Martian” fame, is coming to CBS with a TV show. Oh, and who’s producing it? Some guy named Simon Kinberg, who’s only in charge of some of the biggest franchises in Hollywood (you may have heard of them – Star Wars, X-Men).
Writer: Andy Weir
Details: 62 pages
Uh, the writer of The Martian writes a TV series about the next generation of NASA.
SIGN ME UP PLEASE!
Andy Weir is in that unique position every writer would amputate their left foot to be in (since feet aren’t required for writing). He’s the author of a hit movie, which means every producer in town wants his next project. If he nails that next project, he becomes a superstar.
But holy shit is TV tough. I don’t know if “competitive” is the right word to use, since there are 400 slots available. But the audience will tell you if they don’t like your show. As soon as those eyeballs disappear, you’re done. Hell, Matt Effing Damon and Ben Freaking Affleck just had their sci-fi show canceled the other day. If it can happen to Mark Watney, it can happen to anyone.
Let’s hope it doesn’t happen to Mr. Weir.
Mission Control follows two factions of people, the folks down in NASA’S mission control unit, and the people up on a next-generation space station called Durga. Julie Towne, a whip-smart leader who burns the candle at both ends, is preparing Durga to move from low-orbit to high-orbit, where it will eventually fly to Mars.
Meanwhile, NASA’S having image problems. Their gorgeous African-American public affairs officer, Rayna, is trying to clean up a nude pics scandal from one of their astronauts, the similarly stunning Deke, who happens to be a heiress to billions. Deke isn’t too bummed out about the fallout since all the feedback from her pictures has been positive.
Back on Durga, they’re awaiting a group of Russian cosmonauts who, I believe, will be helping them fly to Mars. But just before the Russians get there, the power goes out. They get the power back up again, but Julie’s convinced that this could be part of a bigger issue that will rear its ugly head somewhere down the line.
While everything appears to get resolved (for the most part) by the end of the episode, we cut to 14 months in the future to see a giant explosion above earth. Might it be Durga? Might it be the Russians’ shuttle? And what does it mean? Only way to find out is to hand over control… to Mission Control.
A pet peeve of mine has always been pilot title pages that give us both the title of the show, and the title of the show’s first episode. It’s like, dude, slow your roll with all the titles. All I need is one.
But after reading Mission Control, which doesn’t have an episode title (it just says “Pilot”), I understand why an episode title is helpful. Yes, you are writing the first episode of a show that will last multiple seasons. But you also have to tell a singular story within this episode – “a story within the story” if you will. By forcing yourself to come up with a title for this individual show, you’re forcing yourself to think of it as an individual story.
That’s Mission Control’s biggest weakness. The pilot doesn’t really have a story. People are introduced. There’s lots of running around. We’re jumping between the mission control room, the space station, and everywhere in between. But I couldn’t figure out what the purpose of any of it was.
My best guess is that it’s about moving the Durga Space Station from low orbit to high orbit. Which, in plot terms, isn’t exactly, “I just got stranded alone on Mars.” So Weir is working from a place of weakness from the get-go, trying to make something feel bigger than it is.
Any screenwriter with a few scripts under his belt knows this feeling. Instead of admitting that there’s something wrong with the concept, we double-down on it, pumping up every muscle we can to give it strength. When deep down we know… there’s a structural weakness that can blow the whole thing up with single well-placed shot into the exhaust port.
Another issue is that Weir’s strength is in science and research. Whenever any of his characters are talking about science, or Weir’s explaining what happens to a space station that’s lost power, he kills it. But once Weir moves from science to people, there’s a clear loss of confidence that accompanies it.
Let’s be frank. Character was never Weir’s strength. Even Mark Watney, the title character in The Martian, wasn’t some great complex character. He was just a sympathetic guy with a dry sense of humor who was stuck on Mars.
But TV is character. If you aren’t good at character creation – at flaws, at inner conflict, at irony, at uniqueness, at inter-relationship conflict, you’re not going to write anything with legs.
And you can see Weir struggling with that throughout the pilot. The biggest plotline of the episode is Deke’s nude photo leak, which feels like it was ripped out of a Grey’s Anatomy Season 1 episode. Indeed, Weir feels like a guy who doesn’t like Shonda Rhimes being forced to write like Shonda Rhimes. Heck, there’s even a character named Izzy (arguably, Rhimes’s most popular character).
I don’t know what’s going on with that. It might be that Weir is new to the TV scene and watched a ton of popular television to figure out how to write a pilot and came up with this Shonda Rhimes NASA Frankenstein take. Or, maybe this is CBS telling him to make it “more like Shonda Rhimes,” more mainstream.
All I know is that, right now, this has the same problem as Cameron Crowe’s Aloha did. It’s trying to marry science tech with sexy people and those worlds don’t coexist organically. So the final product feels awkward.
Weir needs to take a tip from, well, himself. The Martian was a plot that shouldn’t have worked as a movie. It has an enormous time line, way too much science, and endless plotting. But the producers embraced what the movie was and told it as is. And it worked!
Mission Control shouldn’t be about Kim Kardashian-esque nude photo scandals. It should be about geeky dudes doing really amazing shit. Stick with what got you here, man. Embrace the nerdocity. Unless Weir makes that transition, this show is going to be stuck in outer space.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Have a beginning, middle, and end to your pilot, just like you would a feature. The only difference is that not everything will be wrapped up at the end of a pilot. You’ll still leave some major questions unanswered. But use the Scriptshadow Formula (Goals, Stakes, Urgency) to create a clear story narrative and follow that to the end. In the pilot for last year’s biggest TV spec sale, Designated Survivor, the story was that half of the government was wiped out in a terrorist attack and the newly instated president needed to find out what happened. Boom, there’s your GSU. On the contrary, if all you’re doing is setting up characters while vague plotlines swim aimlessly in the background, you’re not going to have much of an audience by the end of your pilot.
Congratulations to Poe’s “The Man of A Few Words,” which won this weekend’s Dialogue Short Script Mini-Contest. He wins a First 10 Pages Consultation from me. Poe’s a longtime kick-ass commenter so make sure to congratulate him!
Genre: Black Comedy
Premise: (from Black List) When an out-of-work divorced mother stops taking the court-ordered medication that made her feel like a zombie, her brazenly immoral, fifteen-year-old imaginary friend appears to help get her life back on track.
About: You may not have heard of Turner Hay yet. He broke onto the scene a few years ago, taking 3rd place (with a different script) in the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards, which is a big deal. Past winners include Eric Roth and Francis Ford Coppola, and they always have great judges for the competition (Billy Wilder, James L. Brooks, and Denzel Washington). Hay then got on the bottom half of the 2016 Black List with this script.
Writer: Turner Hay
Details: 111 pages
I am done being Complainer Carson for the week!
I am not going to complain about Academy Award winning screenplays that don’t deserve Oscars. Nope. Not gonna happen anymore. I am putting Complainer Carson on the shelf next to the salt and pepper and vinegar. It’s not going to be a part of this meal.
Instead, I am only going to regale you with positive stories, affirmations if you will. For example, did you know that Best Picture winner Moonlight only had a budget of 1.5 million dollars? That’s the equivalent of showing up to McDonald’s and trying to buy an entire meal for a nickel. It’s a ridiculous accomplishment for a film with that tiny of a budget.
Just for comparison, La La Land? Which, itself, is considered to be “low-budget” by Hollywood’s standards. Their budget was 30 freaking million dollars.
Oh, and Manchester by the Sea? Okay, yes, I did not like it, true. But you know what I did like? Kenneth Lonergan’s first film, You Can Count On Me. Great film. So I know the dude can write. Which makes it even more confusing why Manchester was so ba— CARSON! NO! NO, COMPLAINER CARSON! You’re not allowed here. Back on the shelf!
Before I get into any more trouble with my evil twin, let’s check out today’s screenplay and pray that it’s good enough to keep my weekly positive buzz going…
37 year-old Ivy Lydecker suffers from schizophrenia. And it’s not good, folks. She kind of may have killed her mother 11 months ago. Who was also crazy by the way. And the courts decided there was enough wiggle room in their scuffle that Ivy is allowed to live her life, as long as she takes a little blue “make the voices go away” pill every day.
Unfortunately, that pill makes Ivy a zombie. And when you’ve got a teenage son to take care of and an ex-husband who’s trying to permanently wrestle him away from you, being dead to the world isn’t ideal.
And so Ivy stops taking her pill. Which is how we meet Chloe, her cool-as-shit 15 year old imaginary best friend. The two clearly have a storied past, and Ivy would like nothing more than for Chloe to disappear. But it’s clear that no-pill and yes-Chloe are a package deal. You don’t get one without the other.
Chloe jumps into action, helping Ivy with her goal: prove to the courts she’s capable of taking care of her son. So Ivy gets a new job at a Securities Exchange, she starts dating a hot new restauranteur who’s a decade younger than her. She’s moving, she’s shaking. Things are happening in her life.
Oh, until that guy she’s dating ends up dead. And since Ivy already has a kind-of murder in her portfolio, the police want to know just how much she and this dude hung out. As the mystery thickens, Ivy’s new perfect life starts to crumble, to the point where she has to make a permanent choice. Keep living this wild lifestyle with Chloe, or go full zombie on the blue pill forever.
Bitter Pill-like scripts are interesting case-studies.
On the one hand, they do well on the Black List. The Black List likes inventive black comedies with fucked up main characters. Even more so if they’re women. There was a similar great script a couple of years ago called, “Cake.”
On the other hand, these films never do well at the box office. Even by low-budget indie standards, they’re tough sells. Cake, for example, made all of 2 million dollars, with a well-known actress in the lead role.
But going back to the first hand, these scripts are great career starters, regardless of whether the movie does well or not, as they display a strength in the one area Hollywood needs screenwriters for – the creation of compelling memorable characters.
Remember that suits can come up with concepts. They can come up with plots. The better ones can even beat out an outline. But nobody can write great characters except for good screenwriters. So when you break into the industry with one of these scripts, you prove that you have a highly valuable skill. You are the Liam Neeson of screenwriting.
So what is it that makes Ivy a strong character? For one, she’s battling something. Just by introducing a character who is battling an inner conflict, you’ve made a character that’s more interesting than most of the characters out there.
Step two is that the character is sympathetic, but not in a forced way. This is an important one so pay attention. Ivy has a son that’s being taken away from her. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t want to root for a mom that’s losing her son.
However, that’s pretty much the only box that’s checked on Ivy’s sympathy card. Ivy is selfish. Ivy is self-serving. Ivy is malicious at times. So because we have aspects of Ivy’s personality that are both good and bad, we don’t feel like we’re being pandered to. It’s that nuance that gives the character more of a “realistic” quality.
I remember reading a review for Paul Blart: Mall Cop when it came out. The reviewer pointed out that the first half hour of the film was dedicated to giving Paul Blart over a dozen sympathetic qualities to MAKE SURE that the audience loved him. That’s what you don’t want to do. You want to balance it out.
Creating nuance with just the right amount of sympathy, combined with some inner conflict – that’s the beginnings of a great character there.
And another way to build up a character is to make their inner conflict actually matter. Or, to use a well-known screenwriting term, add HIGH STAKES to it. So in the case of Ivy’s schizophrenia, there are real stakes if it’s found that she’s not taking her pills. She could lose custody of her kid.
And the reason that matters is because when we see her around other people and Imaginary Chloe is chatting away, we know that if Ivy breaks the ruse and talks back, she’s done. Her whole world will come crumbling down. This adds tension and uncertainty to every scene Ivy’s in.
My one big criticism with Bitter Pill is that I wish Hay would’ve put as much effort into Chloe as he did with Ivy. We’re told that Chloe is the cool girl at high school you were always afraid to talk to. Yet she talked pretty much just like Ivy, except with a little more attitude.
We discussed dialogue just this Thursday and Friday and one of the things that came up was utilizing dialogue-friendly characters. Chloe could’ve been a dialogue superstar. You get to play with a 15 year-old girl with no filter in a black comedy? You had license to go nuts with her. Yet her dialogue was restrained.
Anyway, not a huge deal. The script was still good. Just needs another couple of drafts to meet its full potential.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This is a fun little dialogue trick. As you know, sometimes the best response to a line of dialogue is nothing. But you still want to convey a reaction – a specific feeling in the air from the recepient of the previous line of dialogue. In these cases, instead of writing the full reaction in an action line, which never quite flows the way you want dialogue to, write their name off to the side, a colon, and their feeling. Hay shows you how to do it here.
So. Um. Okay.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Wow!
Only in Hollywood can an Awards Show have a twist ending.
Feel bad for the La La Land guys. “You just won best picture!” “Hurrrrraaaay! I’d like to thank my father, who’s up in heaven right now, my dying daughter, and Charlie, back in Jamestown, who’s suffering from MS. Charlie! If you’re out there watching, brother, I love you…” “Oh! Um guys!? Actually?? Don’t mean to interrupt your speech but we made a mistake. You lost.”
But you know what? I’m sure they’ll forget about it by tomorrow.
However, that’s the perfect entry point into my thoughts about last night’s Oscars, as Moonlight, La La Land, and Manchester By the Sea were the big winners of the night. And all three were the worst written films of those nominated.
Let’s start with La La Land. I’m actually happy this movie did well. I didn’t like the screenplay (I felt it was cliche at every turn that didn’t involve the dance numbers). But the thing about La La Land is that it’s a movie. If you’ve got singing and dancing, you have MOVEMENT on the screen. That’s why they’re called MOVE-IES.
Moonlight and Manchester By the Sea, on the other hand, had about as much movement as an Alaskan sunset.
But to be honest, I don’t have a problem with Moonlight winning Best Picture. I understand that when you’re talking about a film, you’re talking about everything that goes into it. The direction, the acting, the makeup, the cinematography. And it’s no secret that The Academy of Motion and Picture Sciences wants their winners to represent something bigger. Therefore, their nominees are heavily slanted towards social commentary and the human condition. So I get why the film won the big prize. Its message is, indeed, an important one that shines a light on a community that needs to understand that exclusion shouldn’t stop at race, but extend to one’s sexuality as well. I mean, we definitely need less cringe-inducing moments like this one…
However, what I do have a problem with, is when the Academy weights social commentary and the human condition to such a degree that those variables become more important than whether the film is actually good or not.
Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea won the Adapted and Original screenplay awards respectively. And they’re both terrible screenplays. There isn’t even a discussion to be had on the matter. They’re awful screenplays that display no skill in the screenwriting department whatsoever.
How can I say such a thing? One of the easiest ways to judge a screenplay is to ask, “Can someone else have written this?” Is the skill on display at a level where other writers could’ve written something similar? I can say without hesitation that there isn’t one writer of the 10,000 members in the WGA who couldn’t have written either of these scripts.
All you had to do was write a scene of a character who looks lost, write another scene where someone just died or got high on drugs, write another scene where the character looks a little bit more lost, write a few scenes where the character talks to other people, either about being lost or not wanting to admit they’re lost, then repeat that process for 2 hours. ANY WRITER can do that. It doesn’t take a lick of skill.
Screenwriting skill comes from the ability to convey your message through an entertaining dramatic narrative. It’s saying the things that those two movies are saying, without dragging you through an endless collection of melodramatic cliches that hit the same dramatic beat over and over again. It’s being unexpected. It’s taking you to places you didn’t think the story would go. It’s exciting you. Being able to do that? That’s storytelling.
Recent examples of this include Drive, The Edge of Seventeen, Nocturnal Animals, The Big Short, The Imitation Game, Hell or High Water, and Sicario.
Unfortunately, there’s a bigger issue at play here. And that’s that the industry has designed the narrative behind these movies so that if you disagree with their greatness, you are either a) racist/sexist/bigoted/etc. or b) stupid. It’s almost laughable in the case of Manchester by the Sea. In the handful of times I’ve asked people about this movie in a public setting, the response has been, “Oh, it’s so meaningful. It’s so intense.” Yet every time I’ve asked a person about it privately, the answer is always the same and sounds very close to this most recent response, which I heard last night: “That was the most boring movie I’ve ever seen. It had three good minutes in it.”
What the Academy tends to forget is that a work of art, no matter how well-intentioned, is never beyond reproach. Moonlight is a script that would’ve failed miserably had it been featured on this site for an Amateur Friday review. And rightfully so. It hides its weaknesses behind beautiful cinematography and strong performances. But when you strip those away, you have 20+ minute segments of a boy walking around in a neighborhood. I’m sorry but that’s not screenwriting. It takes zero screenwriting skill to write, “The boy walks down the street” for 20 pages.
And that’s just the beginning. Moonlight has one of the most passive heroes in Academy nominee history. The guy just stares out while everyone else around him acts. I’m fine with a passive character if the writer has a reason for them to be passive. But I honestly believe this writer didn’t know the difference between passive and active, which is one of the easiest ways to identify a writer who doesn’t understand the screenwriting medium.
I’m a believer that you can write any story you want, as long as you entertain us in the process. And that doesn’t mean you have to include dinosaurs. It means understanding and implementing the tenets of drama. Goals, obstacles, stakes, urgency, mystery, suspense, conflict. Give me a script that shows a mastery of those skills and you’ve got my endorsement for an Oscar nomination. But if all you’re doing is drudging through one passive melodramatic scene after another, I’m sorry, but you haven’t written a screenplay, nor are you a screenwriter.
It’s not surprising to me that both of these movies were writer-director projects. While that combo can lead to some great films, such as when Quentin Tarantino or Spike Jonez have the reins, it is a hack that allows really bad scripts to slip through a vetting process designed to keep slog-fests like these from ever getting in front of the public.
If you don’t believe me, go watch Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight and strip away all the Oscar shine. Watch them for what they are. Tell me they aren’t anything but movies you see so you can tell other cultured people that you saw them. Once this happens, a dance will begin. You’ll look into each other’s eyes, and if those eyes give you the green light, you’ll be able to confide that, “That was a really boring movie, wasn’t it?” If not, you’ll both have to pretend how profound cinema can be, keeping the secret of these screenwriting imposters alive.
Maybe one of these days, the Academy will start celebrating movies that were actually well written as opposed to well-intentioned.