Last month I was reading a script that wasn’t very good and I asked myself, what could make this script better? The answer to that question sounded something like this: more original characters, more active characters, characters with more depth, less on-the-nose dialogue, higher stakes, more unique choices, a better handle on structure, a second act that doesn’t repeat itself, more obstacles to overcome, a flashier villain… and the list goes on.
The point being, this writer needed to spend more time learning the craft.
So then I thought, well that’s kinda lame. I mean, yeah, they do need to learn this stuff. But what if there were some things they could do RIGHT NOW that could leave a big impact on their script.
That’s what gave me the idea for today’s article. There’s lots of screenwriting tips out there, lots of lessons, lots of tools. But what tools give you the BIGGEST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK? That means you don’t have to do a lot, and yet you get tons of upside through the application.
So after you read this, bust open that script you’re working on and incorporate a few of these immediately. And because I enjoy a flair for the dramatic, I’ll be listing our Bang For Your Buck tools in reverse order, with the best tip coming last. Here we go!
NUMBER 5: TICKING TIME BOMB (OR “TICKING CLOCK”)
I just completed a consultation script the other day that had way too slow of a second act. Months were going by with no end in sight. I was getting bored. And I thought, if only there was a ticking time bomb here, the story would feel so much faster.
A ticking time bomb is any looming moment that spells doom. And here’s something a lot of Scriptshadow readers don’t know. A ticking time bomb is not limited to the entire narrative. It can be used for single acts, single sequences, even individual scenes. If you’ve got a boring talky scene between two characters, add a ticking time bomb!
Let’s say you’re writing a teen comedy like The Edge of Seventeen and you have a conversation between your leads in one of their bedrooms that’s boring no matter how you arrange the dialogue. Pull the scene out and place it outside of school, five minutes before the first bell rings. Give the talk some importance (it’s a conversation that needs to be had), and make it so if the hero gets in after that bell, he gets detention all weekend. Watch that very same conversation come alive. Ticking time bombs give you so much for so little when you know how to use them.
NUMBER 4: UNDERDOG
Granted this is something you’ll probably have to do at an earlier stage in the writing, but underdog characters are so beloved by audiences that using them is almost like cheating. You barely have to do anything and the audience is rooting for your hero.
If you look at the 10 highest grossing movies of 2016, 7 of them are led by underdog characters (Rogue One, Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets, The Jungle Book, Zootopia, Suicide Squad, Sing). Not every story is right for underdogs (Batman vs. Superman), but it sure helps when they are.
NUMBER 3: SHOW DON’T TELL
Welcome to one of the most common mistakes beginner AND intermediate screenwriters make, and one of the easiest ways to identify a newbie. If a writer’s characters are always solving problems with what they say, rather than what they do, I know the script is in trouble.
But here’s the great thing about “show don’t tell.” It isn’t just about looking less newbie-ish. It actually MAKES YOUR SCRIPT BETTER. Even a lazy use of showing tends to outclass an inspired use of telling. It’s why one of the first tasks they have you do in film school is shoot a movie without sound.
I was watching the pilot for the British TV show, Utopia, last weekend. In the first scene, these thugs enter a comic book shop, and one by one, kill everyone in it. Then, just as they’re about to leave, one of the thugs bends down, and we see that a young boy is hiding under one of the stands.
We could’ve easily turned this into a dialogue scene. “What are you doing under there, little guy?” “Nothing.” “What comic is that you’ve got?” “X-Men.” “Yeah? You like X-Men?” And blah blah blah. But no, they don’t do that. The thug, who’s been working his way through a box of candy the whole scene, extends the box of candy out to the boy, a psychotic look on his face. And the last shot is of the boy reaching forward to take a piece. Then we cut out. It’s a much better scene because of the showing.
NUMBER 2: DRAMATIC IRONY
Ooh, this is a good one. Dramatic irony is the act of letting the audience know something the hero (or the key character in the scene) does not know, and typically that something is bad.
So let’s say a surgeon is doing a routine appendix surgery on a patient and the patient unexpectedly dies. We then cut to the patient’s wife, who’s casually reading a magazine in the waiting room. We stay on the surgeon, as he gulps, and slowly moves towards the wife to tell her the bad news.
This is dramatic irony. We know the wife’s husband is dead before the wife does. This lets us play with the reveal, as the surgeon comes up and asks to speak with the wife. And the wife launches into an opinion about an ad in the magazine she’s reading. And the surgeon is looking for the right moment to butt in. And so on and so forth. And we just play that dramatic irony out.
Dramatic irony ALMOST ALWAYS WORKS. It’s really hard to fuck up if you know what you’re doing. (bonus tip: The more that’s at stake in the scene, the better the dramatic irony will play).
NUMBER ONE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK SCREENWRITING TOOL… SETUPS AND PAYOFFS
Not only are setups and payoffs one of the easiest things to learn, but they’re mind-bogglingly effective. You could introduce the dumbest plot beat ever. But if it’s a payoff to an earlier setup, the audience will gleefully cheer, “Of course! Because of the thing earlier!!!” There’s something about connecting two things on their own that sends audiences into a euphoria.
I divide setups and payoffs into two categories. Power setups and payoffs and Fun setups and payoffs.
Power setups and payoffs work by introducing something seemingly innocuous, not drawing too much attention to it, but just enough attention so that it’s remembered, and then later, have that seemingly innocuous thing be the solution to a key plot point.
One of the best examples of this is when the Crazy Clock Tower Lady in Back to the Future barges in between Marty and his girlfriend right before they’re going to kiss, and screams, “Save The Clock Tower,” before launching into the Clock Tower’s history, which includes it being destroyed when lightning struck it over 30 years ago.
Then, later, when Marty is thrown into the past and he and Doc are trying to find a substitute for nuclear energy and Doc confesses that the only thing in the 1950s that has that same kind of power is a bolt of lightning, but unfortunately there’s no way to tell when and where they’ll strike, Marty holds up the Save the Clock Tower flyer and says, “We do now.”
Fun setups and payoffs don’t affect the plot but never fail to leave a smile on the audiences’ face. Another example from Back to the Future is when, in the present, Marty’s mom throws a sheet cake down welcoming “Uncle Joey” back from jail. “We have to eat this ourselves. Uncle Joey didn’t make bail again.”
Then later, when Marty is in the past and visits his mom’s house, he sees Uncle Joey as a toddler in his playpen. Marty leans down, “Better get used to these bars, kid.”
Back to the Future is actually the best movie to watch to study setups and payoffs. But the point is, by setting something up early and paying it off later, the audience feels like they’ve been a participant in the movie, creating the illusion that they’ve broken through the fourth wall. It makes them feel good. And you barely had to do anything to get them to feel that way.