I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Desperate Hours. One of the defining indicators of a great script is that, afterwards, you feel like you’ve already seen the movie. The writing is so powerful, so descriptive, that all the images are already in your head. The mobsters coming out of the train with their tommy guns. The Lone Stranger whistling as he walks through town. That final image when the Stranger and the girl finally meet…and what happens next. I can’t get that moment out of my head. SO GREAT! Anyway, all this got me thinking how rarely I give a script a genius rating. So I thought I’d write an article on what, in my eyes, makes a script “genius.” A mastery of the craft is a necessity, of course. But what about the details? What should one be focused on to construct one of these bad boys? That question has me jazzed, so I’ve put together a genius script “short list.” You do the things I’ve listed below and you will maximize your chances of reaching genius status!
It all starts with your characters. Duh, right? How many times have you heard that before? Well Desperate Hours shows us WHY character is so important. Not only must your characters be compelling enough for us to root for the good guys and be intrigued by the bad guys, they must also exhibit a history, something that indicates the character has lived an entire life before they ever made it into this story. Oh, and to make matters worse, that history must be integrated seamlessly. This is where the pros separate themselves from the amateurs. They can convey a ton of history in a character without bringing the story to a dead stop. The only way amateurs know how to do backstory is via flashbacks. These pace-killers almost always destroy your story on the spot. You’d much rather convey backstory in the present, keeping the story moving in the process. That’s hard. So how do you do it?
Well, there are a few ways, but one of the most popular is through the relationships in your story. Create a past between two characters and you’ve instantly created a backstory! Look at how easy that was! This is an area where Desperate Hours really excels. Every relationship has a backstory. Frank and Sue were once in love, but he left for the war and she went and married George instead. George has always known that his wife still holds a flame for Frank, which creates a backstory between he and Frank as well. This history plays into every conversation that occurs between these three, which laces the dialogue with subtext and conflict. And those are the things that make scenes compelling, interesting, and intense. Because there are so many characters in Desperate Hours with juicy meaty backstories, almost all of the scenes are like this, laced with history and tension and conflict.
Backstory is not the only thing you have to worry about with character, though. You’ve probably heard from agents and producers and other screenwriters that your characters must exhibit three dimensions. Except nobody really talks about what that means. Well, we just dealt with one dimension – an overarching backstory. Dimension 2 is an unresolved issue from the past (the most specific/important piece of your character’s backstory). And dimension 3 is a fatal flaw. If we take Frank from Desperate Hours, his unresolved issue from the past is not being able to save his family. He tried. He couldn’t do it. And he’s always felt guilty and conflicted because of it. Therefore he must save this girl in order to resolve his past. Dimension 3, his fatal flaw, is his stubbornness. Frank refuses to back down, no matter how ridiculous the odds are, no matter how much logic tells him otherwise. He will do it his way til the very end. There are other dimensions you can add to a character, but these three are ultra-important and give your character the most bang for your buck.
Besides structure providing a foundation for your story, which is its primary purpose, I’ve found that a great structure also creates three distinct and unique acts. All three acts work together, of course, but each also works on its own, almost as its own individual movie. The advantage of doing this is that the story constantly changes and evolves, keeping things fresh. Bad scripts usually rehash the same act or sequence over and over again, creating a dull predictable script in the process. In Desperate Hours, the first act is about a man reconnecting with the town he left behind after losing his family. It’s not that exciting, but the characters are so well set-up, that we’re willing to follow them to see where the story goes. The second act, then, becomes about the mystery, a completely different storyline from the first act. Who is this woman? Who shot her? Why was she shot? Is she going to live? We want to know. The third act is, of course, the mobster invasion. It’s a natural extension of what’s happened so far, and yet it’s completely different from everything we’ve seen so far. This is not the only way to write a script, of course, but it’s something Desperate Hours did so well, I couldn’t help but think the approach should be used more often. Anything that evolves your story, as opposed to stagnates it, is good for your screenplay!
This is an oft-forgotten X-Factor in a script. You can have solid characters. You can have a great mystery. But if you don’t make consistent inspiring original choices that the reader isn’t expecting, it doesn’t matter. It’s times like this when I realize how difficult screenwriting is. Nailing the characters is fucking HARD. 98% of screenplays don’t do it. But let’s say you’re one of the fortunate 2% and get past that hurdle. You then have to nail the structure, with the story evolving through each subsequent act, staying fresh and fast-moving, never hitting any lulls. That’s not easy to do either! But let’s say you somehow get past THOSE TWO hurdles, you now have to make sure that each and every choice you make feels fresh. With every choice in history already being done before, this part of screenwriting requires a particular kind of patience, a ton of trial and error and a willingness to admit when a choice isn’t working so you can go back to the drawing board and come up with something better. Stuff like the Model-T Ford showing up in the river in Desperate Hours. Great choice. The surprise (spoiler) that the female witness was nothing but a prostitute. Great choice. Having the single mobster stroll into town before the attack. Great choice. Remember, even if you have all the screenwriting book stuff in place, it still comes down to your imagination, your creativity, and your fortitude. How long are you willing to toil through choices until you come up with the perfect one, for every single choice in your screenplay!
Great scripts build. Too many writers don’t know how to do this, and as a result, their scripts stagnate in the second act. Things continue to push forward, but the push happens on a horizontal plane instead of a vertical one. To build your story, you must think vertically. Think of your second act as a game of Jenga. You must keep adding pieces to the top until everything dangles on a precarious foundation. If even one piece is misplaced, the entire thing comes crashing down. Try to do this with every aspect of your second act. In Desperate Hours, instead of keeping the conflict local b/t Tom and George and Sue and Frank, Mariani uses his second act to bring the rest of the town in. So now we’ve gone from the fates of four, to the fate of everybody. This is called “upping the stakes,” and it has the added benefit of building the story, making everything bigger and badder. If things aren’t getting bigger and badder, with more on the line, more people involved, more elements affected, then you’re not building. So many scripts die because the writers don’t properly build their story. Genius scripts masterfully build their story from the beginning of the second act all the way to the climax.
CHARACTER-RELATED SUBPLOTS MUST BE INTERESTING
Here’s the thing – plot is important. You need things happening in your story to keep the audience’s interest. For example, when Frank and Tom go up into the mountains and find the dead Federal agents, that’s a plot point that’s needed to keep the story interesting/moving. However, you can’t just depend on plot. If the only thing keeping your story interesting is plot points, the audience will start to detach themselves. Why? Because audiences need a connection with people to stay interested in a story over an extended period of time. In other words, they need to feel connected with your characters. And this is done through character-related subplots. You’ll often bounce back and forth between plot point and character subplot. If these subplots aren’t just as compelling/intriguing/fascinating as your main plot, you’ll lose the reader. To achieve a great character subplot, the main relationship in each subplot must have its own hot-button issue between the characters that must be resolved. In Desperate Hours, we have Frank and Sue. Their issue is that they still love each other, but can’t be together (as well as a secondary issue of “Why did he leave her?”). We’re drawn to this subplot because we want to see how that’s going to be resolved. Then you have Frank and George. Their issue is Frank’s building anger towards George due to him abusing Sue. Again, there’s so much tension between the two due to this, that we absolutely have to see how the relationship will resolve itself. So to summarize, create a dominant issue between two characters and explore these conflict-filled relationship subplots in the downtime between plot points.
I’ll be honest with you. A lot of what I’ve listed above is kind of advanced screenwriting shit. It isn’t easy to pull off. I mean, I’m assuming you’ve already mastered the basic stuff, like knowing where to break your acts, how to arc your characters, which backstory should be included and which shouldn’t, that sort of thing. But if you’re wondering about the kind of stuff a genius script contains, this is it! Complex three-dimensional characters, an ever-changing story, a sense of building, inspiring choices, strong subplots. So get back to your scripts, folks. I don’t review nearly enough genius scripts on this site. I need more. And I know at least one of you is going to write one. :)