cloud_atlasShould you be aspiring to write the next Cloud Atlas?

Today I want to pose a question to you that’s had me stumped for awhile.

What is the difference between BAD non-traditional writing and GOOD non-traditional writing?

I’m asking this question because I meet so many writers who insist on defying convention. I read their scripts and I say, “I don’t see a focused story here. I don’t see you setting up your characters correctly. I don’t see your story starting soon enough. I don’t see you adding conflict or suspense or any of the things that traditionally keep a reader interested.” And their response to me is always, “Well I don’t want to do it like that. That’s how Hollywood does it and I don’t like Hollywood movies. I want to do it differently.”

My gut reaction is to groan, but then I realize that they have a point. There isn’t just “one way” to do something. There are lots of ways. And if I tell these writers, “No, don’t do it that way,” aren’t I stifling their creativity? Aren’t I potentially preventing a new voice from emerging? If I was Captain of Hollywood, True Detective would’ve never been made. Yet there are a lot of people who love True Detective, and that’s definitely a show that “does it differently.”

Here’s the problem though. 99% of the time I let these writers roam free, they come back with a hodge-podge of ideas, sequences, and characters in search of a script. It’s like walking into a Category 5 Screenplay Storm. Anyone who’s been tasked with reading amateur scripts where the writers ignore all storytelling convention knows what I’m talking about.

Yet these writers continue to drum up compelling arguments to defend their approach. They say, “Well I don’t want to write Transformers, or Grown-Ups, or Identity Thief, or Olympus Has Fallen. Those scripts follow all the rules and they suck.” Hmm, I think. Can’t argue with that. And yet I can’t seem to convey to them that even Hollywood’s vanilla is better than their chocolate without getting a funny look or a black eye.

Maybe we can solve this by moving away from the amateur world and into the professional one. Because in this venue, writers are having the same battle. They all want to write something challenging and unique, a convention-defying opus that will win them an Oscar. All else being equal, no one wants to write Battleship. And they seem to have hard-core cinemagoers on their side. You need look no further than the Scriptshadow comment thread to see Grendl preaching this every day – break away from convention, ignore the rules, create something original!

But let me offer you the flip side of this argument. It’s only two words long.

Cloud Atlas

Here’s a book that was adapted by and then directed by the Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer), three of the more visionary directors in Hollywood. The result was one of the most beautiful movies of the last decade. And one of the most unfocused unsatisfying stories of the year. I’m not going to say the film didn’t have fans. But by and large, it was a failure, making only 30 million domestic. A documentary about chimpanzees made more money that year.

I bring the film up because this is the kind of thing you’re advocating when you say, “Fuck convention and write whatever you want.” You have three of the stronger talents in the business writing six narratives spanning six different time periods, with no clear connection. Set one of those time periods a thousand years in the future. Have the main character followed around by a homeless looking Leprechaun creature who spouts out indecipherable ramblings. I mean come on! There isn’t a single audience member who’s going to respond to that. It’s too weird!

And I can hear you from here. You’re saying, “Well I’d rather Hollywood produce ten failures like Cloud Atlases than one “hit” Iron Man 3.” No you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. I dare you to sit down and try and watch Cloud Atlas’s three hour running time and not start checking your e-mail by the halfway point. I thought Iron Man 3 was pretty bad. But at least it was trying to entertain me.

My lack of enjoyment not-withstanding, the point is, two popular writers were given free rein to go crazy with a huge budget and created a piece of doo-doo. Which begs the question, is this what we want all the time? Julie Delpy written movies? Shane Carruth written movies? Another “Somewhere” from Sophia Coppola? Steve Soderbergh busting out films like “Bubble” every year?

It sounds fun in theory. Yeah! Give those guys gobs of money and let them do whatever they want. But what are the actual consequences? The consequences are film geeks getting to masturbate online about 10 minute tracking shots. But that’s where the benefits end. There would be no movie business because attendance would be down 90%. And the thing is, what you’re asking for is already here! These movies have already happened. You’ve just never heard of them because they were so bad.

Does a movie that promises to aggressively subvert the romantic comedy genre sound intriguing? Sure. But watch “I Give It A Year” and tell me you don’t want to kill yourself by the end of the first act. Diablo Cody won an Oscar. Let’s let her go wild on the page and see what happens. It happened, with a movie called “Paradise,” which I’m pretty sure is still waiting for its first customer. Francis Ford Coppola was given free rein on his last film. What did he come up with? Twixt. I’m guessing you didn’t rush over to Fandango to find the opening day showtimes for that one.

Now you may be saying, “Yeah, but I don’t like the sound of any of those movies, Carson. So of course I’m not going to see them.” That’s the problem. Millions of other people feel the same way. And if no one’s going to see these “fuck convention – I’ll write what I want” movies, then there won’t be a movie industry anymore.

On the flip side, there are definitely screenplays that have defied convention and turned out great. Pulp Fiction, Slumdog Millionaire, American Beauty. More recently, some might say American Hustle and Her. Which is why answering this question is so difficult. What makes one unconventional script good and another terrible?

I’ll give you an example from both sides. What makes the intense dramatic unconventional Short Term 12 good while the equally intense dramatic unconventional Labor Day is terrible? I suppose we can break down each script point by point, but I’m looking at the bigger picture. How do writers not bound by rules keep away from the bad and write something good? Do they just follow their heart? Should writing contain no form whatsoever other than the stream-of-consciousness rolling off the writer’s fingertips? I mean we can’t really be advocating this, right? There’s got to be a plan.

Ah-haaaaa. I believe that may be the clue we’ve been looking for.

If we’re going to do something as radical as defy convention, it only makes sense that we have a plan.  Now that I think about it, the successful “unconventional” screenwriters I’ve spoken with always knew why they did what they did.  They understood their unorthodox choices and made them for a reason. The people whose unconventional scripts aren’t so good are those who can’t answer any questions about their choices. They seem tripped up when you ask them even the simplest question, like “why did you choose this plot point here?” or “why did Character A do that?”  They never had a plan, which is why their scripts tend to feel so aimless and frustrating.

So what I’d say to everyone planning on writing that next great unconventional screenplay, learn everything you can about this craft and then have a plan when you write. It doesn’t have to be everybody else’s plan. It just has to be yours. And know why you’re doing shit.  The more control you have over your choices, the more logical your script is going to be, and the easier it’s going to be for your reader to digest.  If you think that advice is for wimps and you want to fly by the seat of your pants, that’s fine. But don’t be surprised if you leave a lot of confused readers in your wake.

What about you guys?  What do you think the key is to writing an unconventional screenplay?

  • Dale T

    What did those unconventional scripts do so differently while not sucking? In essence I think all good stories, conventional and unconventional, accomplish the same thing; they create characters we care about. Which is one of the first points that all teachers hammer into you, but why do we care about them? I don’t think that gets addressed enough.

    Story is a vessel to live out different lives and see what they do. And it’s here that makes stories so addictive; we want to see people making choices! The scariest thing in life is making the wrong choice. Story allows us to experience those moments without having to experience it.

    Plot is ONLY meant to put characters into situations where they have to make life altering decisions, and writers who want to be unorthodox put plot before the characters.

    They make their stories safe because they’ve spent months meticulously structuring such a well crafted story and unknowingly devoid it all of risk, and without risk the characters are put into as little situations to make life altering choices as much as possible. Pulp Fiction is as unorthodox as it gets, but the characters are still making life altering choices, it just presents it in a way that shows the consequences of the choices the characters made before the climax of them making their choices.

    I think we all, or at least most, have the keen ability to sniff out a bad story right from the get go by how well the plot is propelling the characters into making climatic decisions.

    Conventional or unconventional, all stories still need to follow the tradition of good storytelling, and that’s offering us characters who we can grow to love or hate that’ll make the choices that we don’t want to make.

  • Matthew Garry

    I think that most successful non-traditional narratives don’t actually break the rules; they just bend them in ways that aren’t directly apparent.

    Pulp Fiction still has set-up, confrontation and resolution, but those things have been re-arranged in interesting ways.

    American beauty still has goals, stakes and urgency, but not in the form of bad-guys-to-be-stopped and ticking time bombs.

    If you want to write a non-traditional story, consciously avoiding any rules will likely mire it down and make it stand out as a showcase of how you purposefully went out of your way to break X.

    I think the secret to writing outside the rules is to know the rules so well, you can reinterpret them successfully on the fly.

    As with music, you can’t just pile up dissonants or randomly introduce strange beats just to stand out, but if you have a firm grasp of what you’re doing you might not only get away with it, but actually produce something that works and differentiates itself in a good way.

    • Jim Dandy

      Allow me to comment on Pulp Fiction. My favourite book on screenwriting is Alexander Mackendrick’s “On Film Making”, which pre-dates Syd Field and Robert McKee. I re-read it the other day, and it struck me just how much Tarantino’s writing is essentially Hitchcockian or “pre-Syd Field”. In other words, Tarantino is a classicist, albeit one with a modern twist who is not afraid to distort the perception of time in his work. His work certainly follows “The Rules”.

      Mackendrick teaches that the beats leading up to, and following, the main event or action are inherently more dramatic than the actual event itself, and should therefore be emphasized. This view was no doubt partially informed by the dictates of the Hayes Production Code, which limited the amount of violence and sex that could be shown on screen, however, its main function was to elevate suspense, tension and mystery above the relatively crude effect of surprise derived from action. Tarantino used this principle to astounding effect in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

      Maybe the secret to breaking the rules is to go back to the time when the rules were different.

      • brenkilco

        Would Carson consider Psycho and Rear Window conventional?

        • mulesandmud

          Rear Window has spawned its own sub-genre, like Die Hard, so in that sense it’s in the safe zone.

          Psycho, on the other hand, was as crazy then as it would be now, and would set off all of the major alarm bells. I wonder if Carson would disqualify it on general principle; Psycho is hostile to the very concept of character, and character seems to be one of the few things that can carry Carson all the way through a risky script.

        • Citizen M

          I would say Rear Window is conventional. What is unusual is it is told from Jimmy Stewart’s POV although Grace Kelly is the protagonist. (She has the character arc — he’s a rough tough war zone reporter and she has to prove she can match him for courage otherwise she might lose him, so she takes action when a murder seems to have been committed (the Inciting Incident).)

          I watched it recently. Great, great movie.

        • Poe_Serling

          I would hope that a film with the stature of Psycho would be bulletproof from any of Carson’s critical jabs at its unconventionality.

          With Psycho, you had one of Hollywood’s greatest directors working with a script right in his wheelhouse. It was a home run ready to happen.

          Hitchcock loved pulling the rug out from under audiences, and this particular story was tailor-made for him to do so.

          >>Marion Crane (the main character… we thought) is offed in the first half. Suddenly, the strange motel clerk, Norman Bates, comes to the forefront of the story being told.

          >>Norman’s mother… we see her in the window… we hear her yelling… she’s a living, breathing person, right?… well, maybe not in the scenario Hitch is trying to create with this film.

          >>the private dick hired by Marion’s sister is murdered and disappears without a trace before he can put two and two together.

          >>as Hitch continued to tighten the screws on the already tense situation at the Bates Motel, why not throw in some unsettling elements regarding taxidermy, voyeurism, mental illness, sexual deviance, etc.?

          Back in 1960, this film was no doubt both riveting and quite disturbing for the general moviegoer at that time.

          • brenkilco

            And think of all the ways it would drive someone like Carson mad. a main character we care about is essential to him but in Psycho that character is killed forty minutes in. The positive characters we follow afterward are barely more than stick figures and we don’t care much about either one. Its a horror thriller but the most shocking scene occurs before the midway point. There’s scarcely any violence in the last half hour at all. The movie ends with ten solid minutes of non stop exposition. And yet is there a movie that works any better? Still amazing.

          • Poe_Serling

            “And think of all the ways it would drive someone like Carson mad.”

            So true. Then again, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” ;-)

    • ArabyChic

      Pulp Fiction’s structure is actually very simple and follows 3 Act structure to a T. It’s three smaller stories, each one with it’s own separate 3 acts. It’s not the first time someone did that either. See jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Same idea, except Tarantino’s story were much more tightly structured, naturally.

      • brenkilco

        pulp fiction is actually a bit simpler than it looks. if the concluding section were placed at the beginning where it naturally belongs and the conversation between butch and marcellus were omitted, the movie would actually be completely linear. Bookending with the first episode and concluding on a redemptive note give the whole thing just enough structure to make it work as something other than a portmanteau movie.

        • wlubake

          Linear in time, maybe. But as a single cohesive story, no. The briefcase/Wolf story has nothing to do with the Butch/watch story which has nothing to do with the Uma story. They share characters, but the plot would not work as a cohesive story.

          • brenkilco

            my point. The term portmanteau movie aka Grand Hotel movie refers to a film composed of disconnected storylines. Tarantino creates a sense of cohesion with some minimal time juggling.

  • BennyPickles

    I think there’s a very simple answer to that question. You need to understand why all those rules exist in the first place. And only when you know why we always say we need those things, and why they work 90% of the time, can you actually decide to break them.

    For example, there are a few reasons we give our protagonist a goal:
    – It keeps the story focused
    – It gives us something to look forward to
    – It allows us to relate personally to the character
    – It works as a metaphor for their want/need
    – It gives us a sense of completion at the end

    If you get rid of your protagonist’s goal, you need to somehow heal the wound you’ve just pried open. You need to refocus your story, give us direction, make us care about the main character, give us an explanation of their want/need, and give us catharsis at the end. The problem is that when most amateurs make a protagonist without a goal, they don’t realise the number of issues they have suddenly brought up.

    Now this was an easy example. But if you want to, say, write in the 5-act structure, you need to understand why the 3-act structure is so successful, first. And that’s a much less simple question to answer.

    • Jim Dandy

      According to “screenwriting legend” Robert McKee, the dominance of the 3-act structure occurred because it deliberately limits the number of turning points in the story. McKee contends that too many turning points erodes the dramatic effect of the turning point. If they happen on a constant basis, they become silly and unintentionally funny (just like a Stephanie Meyer movie!).

      So maybe the secret to any non-3-act structure is to limit or tone down the turning points, or to ensure they are distributed over multiple protagonists. Just a thought…

      • Dale T

        Or if there’s a story with multiple turning points, make each one more powerful than the last.

        • Jim Dandy

          What, you mean like this:

          1 – car explodes
          2 – building explodes
          3 – city explodes
          4 – whole country explodes
          5 – the earth explodes
          6 – the galaxy explodes
          7 – the entire universe explodes


          • garrett_h

            ^ From the desk of Michael Bay

          • Hadley’s Hope


        • Citizen M

          1 – Boy meets girl A
          2 – Boy loses girl A
          3 – Girl B meets girl A
          4 – Girl B gets girl A
          5 – Boy meets girls A & B
          6 – Boy gets girls A & B

          • Nicholas J

            7 – the earth explodes

          • Hadley’s Hope

            6.5 – Girl C (who is an alien in humanoid disguise) shows up.

      • kenglo

        Yeah, but ALL STORIES have a 3-Act Structure. All of them.

    • JakeBarnes12

      Great post, Benny. Your central point is terrific.

      The inexperienced throw away an engine part without knowing what it does or realizing that it will need to be replaced with something else, then they wonder why their car won’t go above twenty.

      Something I found useful in McKee is the idea of the minimalist screenplay.

      Approach is that you have the basic structure — an inciting incident and act turning points, but you “hollow it out” [my expression], leaving room principally for character relationships and development.

      Of course this is much more difficult to write than a script full of explosions and gunfights since all the focus is on creating fascinating characters in conflict.

      You leave out the turning points, however, you’re in danger of creating something dramatically flat, whether that flatline is at the low volume mark or turned all the way up to eleven; both become dull after a while.

      Dramatic ups and downs as codified in act turning points seem hardcoded into the western sense of what constitutes a satisfying story.

      No relief without tension. No joy without sorrow.

    • JakeMLB

      Most stories, even unconventional ones, have at their core an engine that’s driving the story — something that pushes the narrative forward. The protagonist’s goal is common. You might also say that most stories have at their core a central dramatic question that is posed near the beginning and answered at the end.

      There are of course films that exist outside this spectrum but without specific examples it’s hard to say what makes them work or doesn’t work. However, I will say that when it works, it often comes down to compelling characters.

      As far as the keys to writing an unconventional script… the story will often dictate how it needs to be told. As will the voice of the writer. Beyond that, talent is a must. And finally, there is vision. As Carson states, having a plan is essential. I consider that part of the vision of the film. If you as a writer can’t see the film you want in your head, there’s no way it will translate on paper. It might take several drafts to become clear, but if you go in it with no vision at all, you leave your reader blind.

      And I actually saw the premiere of TWIXT at TIFF. Don’t ask me why. Watching Val Kilmer answer questions afterwards was pretty damn entertaining. He absolutely knew the movie was shit but managed to still have fun with it.

  • ximan

    Subtext, subtext, subtext.

    Sure, it’s important in every script or story. But it’s ESPECIALLY important when writing against convention. There has to be some greater philosophical theme beneath the chaos, uniting it and holding it all together within its gravitational pull.

    Kinda like my script DARK MATTER (ahem!). The unseen must guide what is seen.

    • Randy Williams

      The thriller script I’m working on I’ve reined in from unconvention,as much as possible by breaking up the jumps in time and focus on character by writing it in “chapters” with graphic titles for each. I tried to outline it as a straightforward narrative but couldn’t make it work. I thought, as you describe it, the subtext and “greater philosophical theme beneath the chaos” suffered with that approach.

      One chapter will ask questions that others will answer and everything folds back on itself continually until the last chapter brings everything to a boil.

      I can’t wait to finish it and hopefully get some feedback from some on here if it’s a failed attempt or not.

      • ximan

        Sounds AWESOME! Can’t wait to read it! :)

    • Linkthis83

      I think subtext is important. But, it also only works on those who can appreciate it. I am on of those who misses subtext at times. In those cases, the surface story still has to be there. If I don’t care about the surface story, I’m not going to care about the depth of it. I can appreciate it maybe, but still not going to care.

      • ximan

        I completely agree Link. If anything, the surface story has to be BETTER than what’s beneath.

      • drifting in space


    • Franchise Blueprints

      Was DARK MATTER ever part of the AOW selection or only scene week? I know tomorrow (allegedly) is your day to shine. Good Luck!

      • ximan

        If I had a nickel for every time I heard DARK MATTER was being reviewed tomorrow, I could produce the bloody script myself! :) Soooo…I’ll believe it when I see it.

    • ripleyy

      Subtext is so important, but not necessary for every script (for example, there isn’t any subtext in Transformers, unless we’re being hipsters, in which case you could say it’s an outright attack against capitalism or socialism or something to that extent).

      But subtext is important if you’re being stubborn and not sticking to the third-act system. Like you said, it’s another way to glue the story together.

  • ChadStuart

    I’ve read a lot of scripts for contests, and therefore have read plenty of “unconventional” scripts. In fact, most scrips I’ve read have tried to do something different and shirk the Hollywood mold.

    Some worked, most did not. But, there was a common thread amongst all of the ones that didn’t and it boils down to unmotivated character choices. Bad scripts have characters say or do things because the writer wants them to. The writer’s hand is far too visible.

    However, the unconventional scripts that did work? Great characters who you understood every choice they made. Now, I might not have made those choices myself, but I understood why that character did. And those choices were surprising and unconventional. They shocked me at first, but then after a moment of thinking I would agree with that choice.

    The number one advice to writers is always, “character, character, character.” It’s really the key. You can forget every “rule” of screenwriting Carson preaches so long as your characters are fresh and well thought out.

  • Panos Tsapanidis

    For starters, I don’t think the whole world wants more unconventional indie-vibed movies. It’s just that the people who do, are much more vocal on the internet. The people who cry “foul” are always louder than the people who yell “Yay.”

    The same “anomaly” occurred with movies based on comic books. A movie gained a lot of traction on the internet which was never translated into tickets and that confused the studios in the beginning.

    To me, the important thing is to have choices. Thinking in extremes (either we get only Iron Man movies or we get Whiplash movies) is just dumb and unrealistic. You’ll always have unconventional movies and they will always be outnumbered by the conventional. It’s the reason Pop music is called Pop music. It derives from the word “popular.”

    Regarding writing an interesting unconventional movie, I am going to agree with the rest of the people who said that you need to know structure in order to break it. You need to know that when you take the B Story element out of the story, you’ll have to fill its place with an other exciting element.

    I am not entirely certain, but I am under the impression that a good unconventional movie still includes beats we find in a conventional movie, but maybe doesn’t hit them in that order and/or doesn’t assign the same number of pages to those beats as the traditionally structured movies. In times, they remove some of those traditional beats but replace them with other traditional beats we find in the 3-act structure.

  • mulesandmud

    The gyst of the argument seems to be: unconventional stories are dangerous because they might fail.

    Welcome to storytelling.

    Carson plucks the low-hanging fruit of Francis Ford Coppola’s TWIXT as an example of the dangers of giving an artist full creative control (was it even released in theaters?). Sure, the movie is junk, but if the occasional TWIXT is the price we pay for THE CONVERSATION, APOCALYPSE NOW, THE OUTSIDERS, RUMBLE FISH, and THE GODFATHER PART TWO (granted, parts one and three of the Godfather Trilogy were more studio-controlled), then for God’s sake let me write you a check. And as BATTLESHIP reminds us, failures can happen on both sides of this aisle.

    There’s a painful lack of historical perspective here. Oh, heavens, what would happen if the Delphy/Carruth/Soderbergh types were given the keys to the castle? What would become of the film industry? What sorry, boring state of affairs would we be left with?

    Newsflash: it happened once before, in the 1970s. The studios were clueless about how to revive the popularity of their decadent, out-of-touch industry, and so handed the reins to all the weird kids. This artist-dominating system did not bore the world to tears, as the article suggests it might. It led to maybe the most exciting, thoughtful, and – wait for it – entertaining decade in the history of American film.

    In that same period, Hollywood also invented the modern blockbuster, and set the new foundation for what would become the current conventional paradigm. So in a sense, we even owe that to the weird kids.

    It’s not a coincidence that most of our favorite writers, directors, actors, and even producers chafe under the conventions that Hollywood imposes on its stories. The Hollywood paradigm is the biggest in-joke in town; everyone knows that it’s a sad state of affairs, and that a large chunk of of the programmatic accepted wisdom has rolled down from the marketing department, not the story department. It’s a focus group mentality gone mad.

    That said, this is a fantastically helpful article. Why? Because Carson thinks very much the same way as young studio execs, and so to watch him talk himself out of unconventional storytelling using the same passive aggressive straw-man arguments that they use to justify their own conventional creative dicta is great preparation for what lies ahead.

    • JakeBarnes12

      Jeeze, man, calm down.

      Art vs. commerce dates from when one caveman painted a bison hunt on one wall and his buddy painted a caveman tripping over his long dick on the other.

      Then we come to our friend Willy Shakespeare whose instinct was to have a caveman tripping over his dick while hunting bison.

      I hear Willy did alright for himself.

      Movies are more a continuum than your rant suggests, with guys like Shane Carruth on one end of the spectrum and guys like Michael Bay on the other.

      If you feel your great story has more commercial appeal, seek out Hollywood producers.

      If you feel your great story would be of interest to a smaller audience, seek out independent producers or direct it yourself.

      If you can’t sell your material, maybe you don’t have a great story.

      • mulesandmud

        Continuum – Absolutely, great point.

        Calm down – Yeah, getting there.

        Shakespeare dick – Er, um…agree?

        • JakeBarnes12

          Yup, lotta playing to the groundlings in Shakespeare.

          “Pistol’s cock is up!”

          Henry V. II. i.


          Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

          No, my lord.

          I mean, my head upon your lap?

          Ay, my lord.

          Do you think I meant country matters? [Ho Ho Ho. “Country matters.” Geddit?]

          I think nothing, my lord. [“Nothing” was slang for “vagina” in Shaky’s day]

          That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

          What is, my lord?


          Hamlet III, ii.

          etc., etc.

          • BennyPickles

            And that second one went right over my head until I saw it performed on stage. It really needs the right emphasis to work.

            But that’s a really great thing to keep in mind – just because you’re doing an intelligent, profound drama, doesn’t mean you can’t have punny jokes in it. A great writer should keep in mind their audience. And that there should always be something for everyone. Some people like slapstick, some people like wit. But you don’t have to only pick one. I think Les Mis is a pretty great example of this (Master of the House).

            And the same could be extended to unconventional screenwriting. Just because you’re doing something super unconventional that is almost anti-holllywood, doesn’t mean you can’t have an ‘edge of your seat’ suspense scene, or a gunfight, or even a car chase.

      • drifting in space

        This is pretty much what it comes down to.

      • kenglo

        “If you can’t sell your material, maybe you don’t have a great story.”


    • Nicholas J

      Yes, but also keep in mind that while the “weird kids” started a new era in Hollywood, it was also the “weird kids” who crashed it into the ground. (See: Heaven’s Gate and One From the Heart.)

      And sure, we got stuff like Star Wars, but remember that Lucas (like many other of the weird kids) had a lot of other people making decisions and keeping him in check. And we all know what happened once he got full control.

      But you’re right, some great stuff can be created when we just throw money at a talented director/writer/whoever. But some terrible stuff can be created that same way. Just like how the regular studio system mess can produce some terrible films, but it can also create some great ones.

      So you could say a quality film has nothing to do with any of that. It’s either going to happen or it won’t, regardless of how it gets made. Just like any form of art.

    • garrett_h

      I wouldn’t say Carson “talked himself out of unconventional storytelling” per se. Moreso, he’s sick of reading terrible scripts under the guise of, “You didn’t get it because it’s too unconventional!”

      Seems like your problem is more with Carson rather than the subject at hand…

      • mulesandmud

        Aw, that’s not fair. I think that Carson’s perspective is invaluable. It is also extremely specific and often worthy of rebuttal, which, bless his soul, he provides ample opportunity for in the best-kept comments section in the writerverse. If I weren’t a fan, I wouldn’t take the time to discuss.

        I get nervous when these discussions start to conflate career advice with creative advice. Don’t you feel that confusion sometimes?

        To your point, though: nothing is more frustrating than a writer denying the work (s)he needs to do by arguing “I’m just trying to do something different”.

        • garrett_h

          Good point. I hate the, “If you want to break in, write something with robots or zombies (preferably both) and GSU. If you don’t, you’ll never break in!” comments/articles. Then you get a bunch of people who (understandably) don’t want to write that, and some of them fire back that the people that like zombies and robots are talentless hacks, and round-n-round we go…

          The best advice is to write what interests you. There’s no one way to skin a cat. I agree. The best comments/conversations aren’t about which way is better, but rather analyzing the different ways.

    • kenglo


      Are they unconventional? Or are they a spin on an old theme? ANY story might fail, like you said, BATTLESHIP/CLOUD ATLAS/JACK REACHER/RIPD…just skimming…

      I’m confused now. Is HER really unconventional, or is it just a weird story? It has captivated many people.

      • drifting in space

        I don’t think Her is unconventional. Though, I haven’t seen it yet. Just seems like the concept was “unconventional” but it still plays out conventionally.

        I’m getting sick of these words already.

        • mulesandmud

          The words are a rabbit hole. Don’t fall in.

        • wlubake

          The real problem is that if all scripts started being unconventional, then that would be the conventional way to write. Then Michael Bay would be the renegade.

          Crap, my head just exploded.

          • Citizen M

            This comment reads like a Michael Bay film synopsis.

          • kenglo


          • Hadley’s Hope

            Speaking of exploding heads, how come we haven’t been blessed with a remake of “Scanners” yet? I’m not a fan of remaking Cronenberg films (speaking of unconventional), except for that one. The concept is just cool and could realized on a sensible budget.

          • drifting in space

            Or Screamers. That movie haunted my childhood.

          • Hadley’s Hope

            I liked that one too.

            Have you read the original short story “Second Variety”? It is better than the movie adaptation. They could do a fresh adaptation of the short story nowadays. It would be like The Thing meets Terminator’s gritty future war. Plus the Philip K. Dick style paranoia and head games.

          • mulesandmud

            When you think about it, that was pretty much Spielberg’s situation in the 70s.

      • Nicholas J

        I don’t see anything unconventional in any of those movies. Haven’t seen Her yet. The other ones listed simply have a lot of style/voice/whatever, but are pretty standard in terms of story and structure.

        • kenglo

          Yeah, I forgot what the point of listing those was, in between calls LOL! Oh, it was because they are Zombie films that had a unique spin on the zombie genre…..I wouldn’t call them unconventional, but a way to look at stories and how to put a spin on them to our advantage….why I went on that aside, I have no idea. Trying to be unconventional I guess.

      • David Sarnecki

        You fucking DARE lump in Jack Reacher with RIPD?! The BALLS on you sir!

  • Howie428

    Cloud Atlas was a decent movie that had an intriguing concept to it. Unfortunately it was also weighed down by too many tangents and by taking too long to get to the interesting dynamics at its core. It’s an example of a movie that needed a cynical studio boss to employ a disinterested editor to hack out the fat and bump the cool stuff to the front.

    It’s also an example of a movie with multiple storylines. The key lesson for movies of that kind is that the more storylines you add, the punchier you need each one to be. An example of this done pretty well is “The Avengers”, which gives each character story a beginning, middle, end, and manages to wrap those around the core story.

  • Citizen M

    Taking Pilar Alessandra’s definition: A movie is usually about a MAIN CHARACTER with a PROBLEM who engages in an ACTIVITY with STAKES hanging in the balance.

    I think unconventional movies lack one of the essentials. It’s like leaving something out of the cake recipe. It falls flat.

    I tend to avoid unconventional movies. I saw The Fountain. Don’t ask me what it was about. I’m still confused. And by breaking it up into separate stories we lose the continuity and coherence that one main character gives us.

    • wlubake

      I think this is fair. I would modify it to say “changing” one of those items makes it unconventional. We still need a main character, but unconventional movies may have multiple main characters (Love Actually). We still need a problem, but the unconventional approach is to make it someone else’s problem being solved (kinda Forrest Gump). You get the idea.

      As for the Fountain, I could spend all day on what it is about, but I’ll give you my quick rundown, from repeated viewings. The theme is living life vs. preserving life. There are three time periods: past (conquistador), present (scientist) and future (astronaut).

      The past only exists through the book being written by Izzy. It didn’t happen, and is the frame through which she tries to help Tom come to terms with her impending death.

      The present is really happening. Izzy knows she’s dying and she just wants to spend time with Tom. Tom is obsessed with finding a cure for her, and will only focus on his work. He actually finds the cure to death in the bark of a tree (presumably the biblical tree of life), but he’s too late to save Izzy. When she dies, he plays upon a Mayan myth that if you plant a tree on the grave of someone, they are merged with the tree and can survive. Tom plants the miracle tree on her grave, refusing to accept her death.

      The future is real. The tree in the vessel with Tom is the tree planted on Izzy’s grave. He talks to her through the tree. He is on his way to the Mayan star body associated with the afterlife as a last ditch effort to bring Izzy back. His meditation takes him through regrets of his life and finishing the book Izzy left unfinished.

      SPOILERS: As he reaches the “afterlife” Tom’s meditation finally leads him to the conclusion and acceptance that death is inevitable, and he cannot defeat it. He imagines his final hours with Izzy and wishes he had spent more time with her. He finishes the book in his mind, where the conquistador reaches the tree of life and drinks its sap, only to become one with the earth and die. This is the manifestation of his acceptance of his death. Then, he is ready to die, and willingly goes into the “afterlife”.

      That still sounds a little out there, but I think there is strong theme throughout, supported by all three time periods. I love this movie because it is (1) one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve ever seen, (2) one of the most deeply felt movies I’ve ever seen from a writer/director, (3) brilliantly and emotionally acted, and (4) inspires philosophical thought from the viewer without chemical assistance.

      More than you probably wanted, but just thinking about that movie gets me inspired.

      • drifting in space

        That’s some deep shit right there.

      • Citizen M

        I bow to your superior insight.

        • wlubake

          If I put as much time into writing an unconventional script as I did into understanding the Fountain, maybe I’d have gotten farther in this whole screenwriting thing!

      • Linkthis83

        Without being able to explain all that myself, that is why I simply put: I felt it.
        And that’s why I love it. I can’t convey accurately enough the depth of the feeling. I just…felt it. And it was awesome.

      • Nicholas J

        That movie is one big music video, but in a good way, not like how Armageddon is a music video, which is in the bad way.

        • wlubake

          Speaking of music video, I’d love a breakdown of the unconventional story behind Meat Loaf’s video for “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”.

    • Linkthis83

      Loved The Fountain. It was about…uh…well you see….what I think they were doing there is….but then they….you know…and well….I felt it. So it was awesome :) And I mean every word I just said. Love The Fountain.

  • kenglo

    STORY. That’s it. There is ‘structure’ in unconventional films. Always have been always will be. But it’s the STORY that captivates us, and the CHARACTERS that stem from that STORY that makes us want to watch. Tarantino always has the beats, no matter what order he puts the films in. Always. He understands building up a crescendo and then blasting away (literally!) the conventional. Because someone takes chances and dicks around with the storyLINE, does not make it an unconventional film. Sometimes, the unconventional film just SUCKS. The CONCEPT may be great, but when it got down to the nuts and bolts, that’s all it was, a great concept, but not a STORY.

    Carson mentioned Slumdog, Pulp, American Beauty, I argue all of those were conventional.

    What is unconventional? A weird story? I read through some of the replies, and I see ‘unconventional’ as meaning not sticking to the three-act structure. The rote ‘beats’. The turning points and mid-point strikes and the plot twists, and the irony and the first ten pages, and the inciting incident.

    ‘Unconventional’ films lack these elements? Name an ‘unconventional’ film that doesn’t have these elements. I notice everyone bashes Syd Field here. He put it in a nutshell – If you don’t grab the reader in the first ten pages (ten minutes) they tune out. People do. It’s a natural ‘thing’. I look at the clock, and if I got to ten minutes, then I know this film/story is in trouble. If I look at the clock and I’m already 50 minutes in, I’m like DAMN, this is good! It’s a natural ‘thing’.

    As far as turning points and beats, and all of those ‘turns’…..if the STORY is great, and the CHARACTERS we’ve created are engaging, you can have a slow burn going, hit your beat, then burn some more. Unconventional, to me, does not mean you throw out all the rules of storytelling. Unconventional, to me, means you tell a great STORY in a way that’s different, but you stick to the structure, because, we as movie watchers, are trained to watch a movie a certain way, and once you stray from that way, we get lost. CLOUD ATLAS was beautifully shot. They had problems making it cohesive. But for them to film the ‘unfilmable film’ is credit enough I think.

    Rambling….LOL….got to get back to work!!!

    • Nicholas J

      Pulp Fiction is conventional? It may be a conventional story, but it’s told in a very unconventional way, which, in your words, makes a movie unconventional. I mean, there’s a 2-3 page monologue about dudes putting a watch up their asses…

      • kenglo

        That’s what I mean — Just because a SCENE is unconventional, or weird,
        does not mean it does not help to move the story forward. There was a
        PURPOSE for that scene, showing how important the watch was for Butch.

        But overall, the story is conventional, just told out of order. And QT has
        ALWAYS been known for 2-3 pages of dialogue or paragraphs….that’s HIS voice. That’s the way HE writes, because HE is the one writing for
        HIMSELF as director. Heck, if I was the writer/director, I’d write every fight scene out (I have in earlier writing) and every bit of action I could think of. But I’m not, so I have to write – uh, they fight! Sucks to be me!

        My point is this, if you write a GREAT STORY, for the RIGHT PEOPLE, your film will be made.

        Name one, what you consider, ‘unconventional film’. A successful one…not one that fails (TWIXT comes to mind), because we can break that down and see why it failed … I bet we can figure out the structure of a successful one and see that it has all the beats ‘required’ in conventional writing.

        • Nicholas J

          I understand that scene has meaning, I didn’t say it didn’t. Like I said, it’s just done in an unconventional way, which IMO makes a movie unconventional.

          Films off the top of my head I would call anywhere from slightly unconventional to extremely unconventional: Funny Games, Lost in Translation, Place Beyond the Pines, There Will Be Blood, The Weather Man, Zodiac, 2001 or Barry Lyndon or most Kubrick, Primer, 500 Days of Summer, Tideland, 400 Blows, Jules et Jim, anything new wave really, Memento, Irreversible, Psycho, Martyrs, Antichrist, No Country, Fargo, Pi, Down By Law

          • kenglo

            Let’s pick one – PLACE BEYOND THE PINES – First agree or disagree, I thought this was a GREAT film.

            Act 1 – Dude in his element, motorcycle, kind of bad ass
            Call to adventure – Oh wow, I remember you! What? I got a kid??
            Adjust, try to make it work, meet the boyfriend, friction, life sucks! What do we do?
            Plot point 1 – Meet the degenerate guy, hey, let’s rob banks!

            Act II – I’m lovin this robbing banks stuff. Got money for my kid. What’s wrong with this picture? Why aren’t you accepting me invading your life after all these years. My kid is important to me. I wanna do the right thing. Get the F outta my life. Damn, I’m pissed, rob another bank, get caught, get dead (MIDPOINT STRIKE)

            And if anything is unconventional about the story, it is at this point where we delve into the life of the cop. But in actuality, the story starts over. From the midpoint, to another cal to adventure, to another plot twist, to another midpoint strike. ACT I, II, II in the 2nd half. But it still stays with the H’Wood structure, just told in another way.

            The opening of PULP FICTION – Three stories in one story.
            But each story had a beginning, middle and end. Each sequence had a beginning middle and end. Each scene –

            The other examples, especially Memento, Irreversible, Psycho, Martyrs, Antichrist(?), No Country, Fargo, Pi, all had GSU. All had beginning middle and end. Memento and Irreversible stand out because they were told in reverse, but they still had GSU. They still had beginning middle and end. They were actually simple stories which were told in reverse, which I guess can be construed as unconventional, but it was the film makers decision.

            I guess that’s why I am confused. Is unconventional meaning VOICE? Or is ‘unconventional’, by definition of the article, not adhering to the Hollywood paradigm?

          • Nicholas J

            Good analysis, and it’s exactly is why I consider it unconventional. Yes, the stories are conventional, but the way it’s all put together and structured overall makes it unconventional. And no, I don’t think voice is what makes something unconventional, unless you consider utilizing an unconventional structure as voice, which is a very good point, and in that case I’d say yes, voice can make something unconventional.

            Now please excuse me, I need some Ibuprofen.

          • kenglo

            I need some lunch! Good talkin’!!

  • Kosta K

    Here we go again with rules and convention : I don’t know why people feel the need to shit on Hollywood when breaking in is what we’re all looking to do.

    You can write a great script, conventional or unconventional, and you can have thousands of people kiss your ass for it, but a great script does not a great movie make. I think, along with a good understanding of story structure, a writer in 2014 with an actual desire to succeed, has to conform to trends in one way or another.

    You wanna see your unconventional, rule-breaking movie with deep emotional undertones down at your local movie theatre, make sure it’s set in a zombie apocalypse.

    • drifting in space

      This is what I was thinking.

    • kenglo

      “You can write a great script, conventional or unconventional, and you
      can have thousands of people kiss your ass for it, but a great script
      does not a great movie make.”

      Actually, if you write a great script/STORY, chances are, it will make a great movie – – unless producers/directors/cousin of said producer/director decides to F@@$$% it UP!!

      • Kosta K

        Writing a script isn’t making a movie. If you pour your
        heart and soul into a great final draft, chances are it’s gonna go through an
        epic game of broken telephone before (and if) it even makes it to the screen?

    • Citizen M

      Write what you like. Have it rain frogs at the end.

      • wlubake

        I need to rewatch Magnolia. I remember someone once explaining the ending to me:

        “Of course it rained frogs at the end. It had to.”
        Well alrighty.

      • Hadley’s Hope

        What if it rained zombies instead?

  • garrett_h

    For me it all comes down to one thing: COMMAND.

    I’ll stick to writing first. When reading the good “unconventional” scripts, you might feel like, “Yeah, this is weird” or, “That choice was different…” But the good writers have convinced you from the opening page that it’s all leading up to something. They have a command of their story where you know it’s going somewhere. And you trust them to take you.

    With the bad ones, there’s always this feeling of, “Where the FUCK is this going? What does it all mean???” The trust is gone because you’ve thrown everything and the kitchen sink in there. Unconventional just for the sake of being unconventional. No rhyme or reason. No command. They feel betrayed and now you’ve pissed them off.

    Same with directing. Wes Anderson is as unconventional as they come. Spike Jonze another. Yet they have command. It’s not just a bunch of weird visuals. They set things up in a specific manner and go with it. They don’t stop on a dime midway through and change directions. The underlying form is there and they stick to it. Now they have your trust, and now they’re free to take more chances with whatever it is they’re doing.

    So yeah, I guess this kind of goes hand-in-hand with having A PLAN. The masters know exactly where they’re going and what they want to convey. The rest? “I just sit down with a blank page and let the words lead me…” That’s exactly how it’s going to feel. Like you’re lost. And now you’ve lost us.

  • Evan Porter

    Story density is one thing to think about. A lot of these artsy, non-traditional films just don’t have anything happening.

    Has anyone ever seen the Brian Regan bit where he talks about children’s books? How they’ll be like four sentences long, but have a lengthy two paragraph synopsis on the back that seemingly describes a completely different story? That’s how I feel about some of these movies. They’ll have cool sounding loglines but then you get three quarters into the film and literally none of the promise of the premise has happened yet. Just a bunch of, like you said Carson, long tracking shots and moody music and people sharing glances or whatever it is.

    I can’t stand that. I can respect a movie where stuff is happening even if I would have made different choices or if it’s not landing the way it wants to. But I can’t get behind movies that have like, three emotional beats stretched over a 150 minute run time.

  • drifting in space

    A wise man once told me that when making choices in your screenplay, whether they are conventional or unconventional, you need to embrace the choice. Write with confidence.

    You’ll (hopefully) end up with something we can follow.

    You can’t be different for different’s sake. There needs to be a reason behind it. I don’t want to travel down a road that leads nowhere. We invest our time and emotions into movies, we need to resonate or feel something when watching them. If at the end we are confused, or left emotionally hanging, well… no one wants that.

    Even still, most of the “unconventional” movies are pretty conventional. Even Pulp Fiction. I think this issue really comes into play when you are watching something like The Fountain. The idea is too vast and with no conventional storytelling behind it, we get lost immediately.

    With Pulp Fiction, it’s still a rather easy to follow story, just broken up in an interesting fashion. I’m not sure I’d call that “unconventional” though.

    STORY is a very broad term. Most movies fit into a STORY model. It’s the ones that don’t really tell us anything and just meander for 3 hours. Those are the ones that don’t work.

    • kenglo


    • Eddie Panta

      Exactly, there people with an unconventional approach to screenwriting, look at the writer of ALL IS LOST, but the movie is not at all unconventional. How you deliver your concept, get people to understand it, believe it, is one thing, but that doesn’t mean the execution is as unconventional as the script itself.

    • Linkthis83

      I completely agree with that wise man and the sentiment of embracing your choices, no matter what they are.

      This whole conventional vs. unconventional is funny to me. As the thread already shows, that line isn’t a clear one. Yet we will debate exhaustively. I love humans.

      • drifting in space

        I hope you’d agree with yourself. ;)

        Yeah, I’m already exhausted from this debate and it’s not even 10am.

    • ripleyy

      Pulp Fiction works because Tarantino knew exactly what he was doing. He manipulated the story to his liking. Any schmuck who tries to do the same will fail, because they’re only cloning an unconventional idea without knowing the foundations. As of the rest of what you said, it’s pretty true!

  • Eddie Panta

    I think this is one of the best articles I’ve read on the site. It just gets right down to it.
    But it’s not an easy topic to discuss. Unconventional means different things to different people.

    I didn’t think CLOUD ATLAS was that unconventional. BTW Some people love that movie.
    The problem with it wasn’t the script! Going back and forth between different times, events, people, not really revolutionary, just watch Amelie. It’s not exactly Hollywood mainstream but far from unconventional in my book.

    But what really is an unconventional SCRIPT?

    Sea of Grass, Buried, Pox Americana where the opening is written in first person format?
    Extinction, a BLKlist script, which for some 30 pages gives no indication its a alien invasion story.

    How about Origin of Species, a script that was reviewed here and got an “IMPRESSIVE”, it won the screenwriting contenst. Nothing happens for 50 pages, totally unconventional, a brilliant script. Highly praised for the way it revealed information. A script about DOGS with rabies attacking little kids… and its a drama!

    Drinking Buddies, a film that got on SS’s top ten list, there is no screenplay to that film, it’s all improvisation, gigantic pregnant pauses, and meandering story lines, all without a conventional plot. Isn’t that the most unconventional approach — no script at all.

    My question is, whether there is a difference between an unconventional story / concept and an unconventional screenwriting style, format, or structure?

    To me the more unconventional, unique, or complicated your story, Cloud Atlas, Looper, the more clarity your script needs. the more plain, simple, and straightforward it should be.

    The simpler your story ( origin of species) the more room you have to play with unique structure and unconventional character reveals, or even style format and voice.

  • SnadbaggerOne

    I think there are a few things to consider when talking about unconventional scripts and films.

    First, a lot of the unconventional film that are successful are written and directed by the same person. Her, Pulp Fiction, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost in Translation, etc… So it is more about someone bringing their entire “vision” of the project to life, from script to screen, rather then about an amateur writer trying to make a sale which is much, much harder and why it is not generally recommended.

    Second, most of the rest of the other unconventional (but successful) films are based on existing novels which have built in fans and a pedigree an amateur writer doesn’t have.

    Third, pretty much 99% of the time the writer won’t be around to explain their intent/vision of their script. It will go out to readers, actors, directors with nothing except maybe a logline, so the story and writing have to stand on their own and win over whoever is reading it and get them excited about the film. Remember, it is a 1-3 year commitment for a lot of these directors to make a film, and a lot of other people’s money. If there is the slightest reason for them to pick another project, then they will. There are literally tens of thousands of scripts out there to choose from. So your unconventional script really has to hit it out of the ballpark and have a really unique attractor to make them interested, WITHOUT you there in the room to convince them or explain things to them.

  • lysdexicuss

    Great article. Tough questions. Maybe Goldman was right.

    It might come down to strength of VISION. Some stories, it’s really hard for a reader to fully envision the breadth & depth of characters arcs etc. in specific place & times. Two examples:

    Gravity, which was a good script, so-so in some spots, but made for a Great Film.

    Shawshank Redemption, snoooooze… no obvious GSU until the end, ensemble cast, BUT it is now a classic & very much a watchable Great Film !

  • Linkthis83

    “The unconventional writing approach (good or bad?).”

    A: There is no definitive answer.

    “What is the difference between BAD non-traditional writing and GOOD non-traditional writing?”

    A: It depends on who is allowed to deem what is BAD and what is GOOD. STORY may yield the answer, but all STORIES are not created nor appreciated equally.

    As you go into sharing your experience with this subject, you reveal your VALUE system when it comes to scripts/stories. All STORIES, like all VALUE systems, come from numerous INFLUENCES.

    When we review a script we begin projecting our VALUE system onto the script. So now we
    are imposing our INFLUENCES against someone elses. Neither, are ever absolutely CORRECT. No matter how strong your conviction, there is no definitive right or wrong. Because for every example for the right, there are other examples for the wrong (or GOOD and BAD).

    Daily we are in discussion on things that are completely subjective entities. Constantly sharing our INFLUENCES making our claims for what the CORRECT path should be. And nobody knows. Not one person knows with absolute certainty.

    People’s experiences are their evidence for their reality. Plain and simple. I try to remember that when people are commenting strongly about their view, they’re coming from a place they truly believe is helpful and essential for the material. Even if it’s delivered in a less than ideal way. However, I also feel that people should put in more effort when it comes to imparting their “wisdom” ;)

    CLOUD ATLAS = I enjoyed this movie. I don’t care to call it conventional or unconventional. Doesn’t matter to me. I liked it. That is all that matters (to me). I think it’s also important to note how we like to take certain writers to task for some of the choices they’ve made with their stories. The truth is, the writers don’t exist in a vacuum. They aren’t the ones who get final say on anything. The stories they are creating come from a significant amount of INFLUENCES that aren’t their own. We conveniently leave that out a lot around here.

    Cloud Atlas vs. Chimpanzee:

    I think it’s important to note that it’s actually Disney’s Chimpanzee. Yes, domestically Chimpanzee out-earned Cloud Atlas. But, I feel these types of comments should be put into context. I would say they have completely different target audiences. DC has a run-time of 78 minutes while CA has a run-time of 164 minutes. CA had a wider release by about 500 theaters, but DC ran for 16 weeks and CA ran for 13. Here’s the real kicker though, DC made 34.8 million worldwide and CA made ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY MILLION. So, again, who gets to decide what is GOOD and what is BAD?
    What is the value system you are applying when making the assessment? If it’s money, then this one is GOOD ;)

    “What do you think the key is to writing an unconventional screenplay?”

    A: I think the key includes all of the elements/tools you’d use when writing a
    conventional one.

    “…have a plan when you write” = YES. I agree with this 100%. Any script/story, have a plan. Of course you can start by just “feeling” your way through a story, but eventually make a plan for it. I always want to know what a writer’s GOAL for the story is. What story are you trying to tell? What kind of impact do you want it to have? What’s the purpose
    for this script? Sure these answers will overlap or should always be ‘givens’ when writing. But I still think it’s important to hone in on the WHYs. Always be asking your story questions. ALWAYS!

    I say all that to say what I think is the most important thing to remember when approaching writing and the advice doled out here daily = PERSPECTIVE. Remember where
    you are currently at in this process when you are making your plan. Right now, we are amateurs. There’s your starting point. If you want to write a 180 minutes ‘unconventional’
    story then go right ahead. But if you get aggravated that nobody is reading it and you’re not getting notice, refer to your starting point as to the WHY.

    I think your plan should have you doing the best work you can that’s going to help you rise above your current status. Maybe it’ll come from your 180 minute amateur script, who knows. That’s the beauty of this thing, anything is possible. Any advice anybody would give against the 180 page script, is because they feel that they are just trying to help you create the best opportunity for yourself. Because that is their belief. Just be honest with yourself of where you are currently at and where it is you want to go. Then adjust your paradigm accordingly so you give yourself the best chance you can. And when that doesn’t work out, adjust again and repeat. And then your script that shouldn’t get noticed will get bought and made and you’ll realize what we ALL already know: There is no ONE RIGHT WAY to do any of this shit.

    EDIT: I forgot to include INFLUENCES post completed script as well. The final script on page is never really the final script on FILM. There are so many INFLUENCES from page to final film. We need to be more cognizant of that. We reference so many things around here like they are the Gospel. And we know that what works on page doesn’t work on screen and vice versa. There is so much subjective stuff. GRRRRRR.

    • Rzwan Cabani

      I’d just like to say AMEN.

    • Linkthis83

      Also, and this should go without saying, but I feel it needs to be highlighted:

      We need the ‘bad’ movies/scripts in order to have the ‘good’ ones.

  • E.C. Henry

    The best way to write a non-conventional screenplay, is to non mimmic something that’s already been done, ie. an existing movie or writen story. Write your story from your heart. Then do a reverse beat sheet off it to see if it logically makes sence. Also, you need to know all the basic screenwriting conventions. Yes, there is room for outside the box thinking, but you don’t want someone to pick your script up, and think it was written by someone from Mars.

    The trick is you want to be considered GOOD. Original/non-conventional is a subset under the umbrella of being considered good. You want to wow people when they read your script. I really think the key to wowwing people comes from rewriting — unless your premise is tragically flawed at the get-go, in which case no amount of rewriting can save it. Rewriting is the icing on the cake. Rewriting is where you make words and pacing sing.

  • wlubake

    The idea of the plan, even if only known to you, reminds me of a very unconventional script: Donnie Darko.

    So that movie had this book called The Philosophy of Time Travel. Well Richard Kelly essentially wrote that book as his bible for the story. Then, he gives us almost none of that information in the actual film. The end result, to me, is a very confident story that makes no sense. You almost don’t notice how nonsensical it is, because of the confidence with which it is told. Now, a director’s cut with commentary and website excerpts from the book fill in that back story. But upon release, only Kelly knew the truth.

    I saw Seth Rogen interviewed once about his role in Donnie Darko. At the wrap party he went up to Kelly and said, “You know no one will have any f’ing clue what this is about, right? Heck, I have no idea what it was about.” Kelly kinda nodded, smiled and walked off.

    • Chris Mulligan

      Good way to describe that movie – Confident & non-sensical. Almost tempted to check out the book now, but afraid of more disappointment.

    • Robin the Boy Wonder

      Ha! On repeated viewings of DD you see massive holes everywhere. Still, I love that movie. Even if I have no friggin’ idea what’s going on half the time. And anyone that says they do is full of s#!t!

  • John Bradley

    If Carson says 99% of unconventional scripts he reads are a wandering mess! then I ask what % of conventional scripts he reads any good either? I think the challenge as a writer is to not only understand conventional rules but then master them. That way, when you decide to break convention you have the ability to do so in an intelligent and calculated manner.

  • kenglo

    CARSON – “There isn’t just “one way” to do something. There are lots of ways. And
    if I tell these writers, “No, don’t do it that way,” aren’t I stifling
    their creativity? Aren’t I potentially preventing a new voice from
    emerging? If I was Captain of Hollywood, True Detective would’ve never
    been made. Yet there are a lot of people who love True Detective, and
    that’s definitely a show that “does it differently.””

    And if I remember correctly, there would be no FORREST GUMP either!

    What YOU are doing is trying to get folks to break into Hollywood. And by writing high concept, conventional scripts to the best of our abilities, we can do that.

    Save the ‘unconventional stuff’ for when you make it and can do your own thing. Because the way readers are ‘trained’ these days, once you open a script with nothing but dialogue or nothing but description on the first page, you’ve lost.

    But if you have a great story, written ‘unconventionally’, it’s still a great story.

    Ever read TOMBSTONE?? Different. Unconventional. Great story.

  • kenglo

    LOL are U saying you liked BATTLESHIP???

    Yeah, used to be it was all based on domestic gross. Now with international gross, it’s a little skewed. After Earth made a lot of money over seas too. But how much money is spent advertising in those markets, distributing in those markets? I bet it adds up pretty quick.

    I actually love special affects, no matter how dumb the movie is….

  • ScottStrybos

    I think stories can still survive (not necessarily flourish, but survive) when missing most key elements of a story–like structure, clear goals, stakes, urgency–if it has two other elements in spades: HEART & MYSTERY.

    (But I do agree that many stories that most would say do not conform to typical story structure or contain typical story elements, secretly do.)

  • Hadley’s Hope

    I enjoyed all the Iron Man films. Even the second one.

    I guess that makes me, a super freak.

  • juleslefrog

    I didn’t want to kill myself by the end of the first act of I Give It A Year… Actually enjoyed the movie. There, I said it.

  • David Sarnecki

    I’m inclined to generally agree, but at the same time Cloud Atlas was a profound, meaningful screening for me. But also I’ve yet to rewatch the movie.

  • fragglewriter

    The Unconventional Writing Approach works only if the story is interesting. Now what makes a sotry interesting? Could be character, voice, subject matter, situation, approach, etc. The list goes on.
    I avoided Cloud Atlas but a friend convinced me to watch it because she said that it was so good that she didn’t notice the running time. I noticed the running time because I bored, except for the story about the elderly people. I thought that one story was so interesting. Why? Because you rarely see comedies these days involving older people such as COCOON, GRUMPY OLD MEN or THE GOLDEN GIRLS.
    I also have to admit when Carson has the foresight of bad after reading a script. True Detective was the one, After reading the pilot script, I admit that I did give it praise as HBO is known for the slow boil. I was expecting more intrigue, mystery and maybe subject matter that is too sensitive for network TV. What I got was a regurgitation of 1980’s crime drama (yes I understand that the story took place 20 years ago but that is no excuse) that’s even written to death at the time. Every episode was a “let’s see how I can get even more boring and cliche driven.” I watched the first four episodes, even though I shouldn’t have as I doozed off the last 20 minutes of the pilot, just to see if it would get better. Nope. I then skipped an episode, because I was so fed up with no happening and stretching at a one-hour show into a miniseries. Then I decided that I was going to give it another chance and just watch two more episodes. Cause what happend? Nothing. And what pissed me off was that by not watching that one episode in the middle, I DIDN’T MISS A THING.
    I believe that a writer should be given an outline not to stifle creativity, but also the writer has to understand the objective of the written piece: AN INTERESTING STORY.

  • Eddie Panta

    But you’re just the writer… right?

    If your story is so convoluted how will others be able to impose upon it? Who are you writing it for… yourself? Well, maybe if your name is Harmony Korine or Sofia Coppola.

    A screenplay has no purpose other than to be sold and turned into a motion picture. Nobody really wants to read a screenplay. That’s why it has now become such a director’s medium.

    Only one script out of the 5 nominated for an Oscar was an original story by a screenwriter.Nebraska, which was the first script this writer had ever written, at the age of 57.
    Isn’t the point of a spec script to convey your concept, idea in written form.

    Isn’t that really the only goal, or is to revolutionize the way story is told in the film medium, to change everything? I’m afraid that’s out of your control as a screenwriter.

    • Hadley’s Hope

      I think that writers (or writer/directors) who want to play with unconventional storytelling might be better off starting out with short pieces. Audiences will tolerate stranger forms of narrative in short bursts (5-10 min.) than they will with feature length oddity.

      My guess is that an arresting and unique short film will likely gain a writer more attention than an unconventional narrative in screenplay form. It gives the writer another possible way to get their name out there and wedge their foot in the door, so that they can hand their more marketable spec to the industry’s gatekeepers.

  • mulesandmud

    The fact that he used that example is testament to what a sliding scale this is. I suspect that the significant portion of SS regulars would agree with him.

  • brenkilco

    We seem to be conflating unconventional story telling with not telling a story. Memento is unconventional but it tells a satisfying story. it poses questions and it answers them. Its not Last Year at Marienbad. i’d suggest he first thing a writer who is contemplating something unconventional should ask himself is how does this thing end.And why is that the ending? if he can’t answer those simple questions then what he has in mind may be a daring piece of cinematic art or a self indulgent jerkoff but its probably not a movie.

    • Citizen M

      The “different stories with a linking theme” format has never been very successful, IMO. Babel was another one. Never gelled for me.

      • brenkilco

        Or the earlier, less sophisticated movies where the different stories were held together by nothing more than a common location. (Grand Hotel, The VIP’s) But at least in the best of those old films the screenwriters found ways to have the seemingly disconnected stories intersect at key points to provide a semblance of structure. The VIP’s, though something of a snoozefest, was penned by celebrated, well made playwright Terrence Rattigan and provides a good example of how this should be done.

        • Citizen M

          Grand Hotel, Altman movies, Magnolia etc are separate story lines all happening at the same time and interlinked. They proceed more or less simultaneously.

          I was talking about having entirely separate stories with different people at different times and places in the same movie, where one story ends before the next begins.

          • brenkilco

            Anthology movies. Like those British horror collections from the seventies (tales from the crypt etc.)or that rotten Twilight Zone movie from the eighties. I don’t have much use for the form. Am aware of only one really first rate one. The old chiller Dead of Night.

  • ripleyy

    I thought “I Give it a Year” was really funny so I don’t know why Carson mentioned it.

  • ripleyy

    I found Cloud Atlas seamlessly easy to follow but I do admit it is far from perfect. The film will probably become an underground cult classic in years to come.

    However, one of the many positives you can take from the movie is that it can be used as a warning to any others who try and do the same thing. From here, you can only rise above the movie with your own idea. Secondly, I think the film is full of necessary evils. I think you need to balance the good with the bad if you’re going to use it as an example.

    I’ll play devil’s advocate and remind you conventional movies don’t work. Stories that are as straight and as clear as they come can still have plenty of pitfalls. There’s simply no winning answer to this. Hell, even if the story is perfect, the pitfalls itself can come down to the director or the cast so it’s not an easy thing to calculate.

  • Midnight Luck

    Unconventional Writing:
    For the Audience / Author

    Conventional Writing:
    For the Shareholders

  • RO

    This is a great article, because it has touched on something I’ve been telling other writers and movie lovers for almost a decade. The best way to write unconventionally or against the formula, is to know all the rules of telling a story forwards and backwards. When you know the rules that well, you have a strong enough understanding of how they work in order to bend or break them without the result breaking your story to your potential audience.

  • Midnight Luck

    thanks for the suggestion. will check it out if i can find it.

  • Cfrancis1

    This whole Conventional vs. Unconventional argument is usually misunderstood. The way I see it, if you’re writing an “unconventional” or quirky script, it ain’t the “What” that makes it unique, it’s the “How”. The what is the same in every story. A character wants something, tries to get it, fails or succeeds. i mean, really, besides Koyannisqatsi, that’s pretty much how most movies work. Even the weird independent ones. What separates Hollywood movies from independent films isn’t so much structure but style: How the movie is told. Pulp Fiction has a linear plot. It’s just broken up and told in a really interesting, unconventional way (well, it was unconventional in 1994).

    Problem is, a lot of writers think that in order to make their movie unique, they need to break all the rules of structure or character. Or they don’t know the rules and don’t care. That’s not how you make a compelling movie with something interesting to say. You have to know what you are doing. You have to know how to tell a story.

  • Greg dinskisk

    Yeah, Battleship is definitely a failure moneywise… A rule of thumb to determine if a film made a profit is to multiply the budget by 2.5, then take its gross and subtract it by that number. It’s rough, but close. Budgets don’t account for marketing or the cut that theaters get, and yes, it is, usually, around that much.

    So, using this logic (as you… should? I guess?) $525 – $300 = – $225 million…