espresso-shot

It’s a busy day here at Scriptshadow. I’ve been checking out the Scriptshadow 250 entries as well as finishing up some consultations, so I don’t know how long this article is going to be. What I can say is that I’ve already started to spot some common mistakes in the entries and I want to make sure they don’t keep happening. So today, I’m giving you three tips that should help improve your Scriptshadow 250 entry as well as make you a better overall writer. As always, I offer this reminder. Be mindful.  With great power comes great responsibility.

ALWAYS FIND FRESH TAKES ON OLD TROPES
There are certain tropes in screenwriting that are unavoidable. They seem to go hand-in-hand with the genre they’re written in and there isn’t anything wrong with that. What is wrong, however, is giving the reader the same old version of the trope. It’s your job to find a fresh take on it, something that makes it feel new and exciting, and not business as usual. Take the well-worn cliché of a down-on-his luck gambler whose bookie sends his thugs in to demand a payment. This scene often takes place at a bar, or maybe just outside of the character’s apartment as he’s leaving. The bookie slams him up against a wall and says, “You’ve got 1 one week to find the 50 grand. Or else you’re dead.” Sound familiar? Yeah, if you knew how many times I had to read this scene, you’d never write it again.

The thing about the “fresh take” approach is that it requires NO EXTRA SKILL on your part. You don’t have to be more talented or more experienced. The only thing it requires is time and effort. For that reason, there should be no excuse. I read a script once where our main character was at a school function, watching his child run around and play with the other kids, and the bookie arrived, dressed just like any other parent (his tattoos still peeking out of his shirt though). He very quietly and calmly stood next to our main character, and, while watching the children, proceeded to tell him that he was going to kill him in 5 days if he didn’t come up with the money. The irony of a bookie demanding money juxtaposed against the innocence of kids playing was exactly the fresh take the doctor ordered.  If there’s any trope you come across – any plot beat that you’ve seen in a lot of films – it’s your screenwriting DUTY to do something fresh with it.

WRITE YOURSELF INTO CORNERS
I’ve been reading a lot of scenes, lately, where the writer writes his hero into a “tough” situation that isn’t tough at all. Therefore, when the character makes his incredible “escape,” it’s as exciting as watching reruns of Two and a Half Men. What’s happening here is that the writer’s scared to make things too difficult for their hero, lest they not be able to figure out a way to get him out of trouble. What the writer doesn’t realize is that the reader always feels this. They know you’re playing it safe. Which is why the character’s escape lacks suspense.

From this point forward, be bold. When your character is facing a bad situation, make it as bad as it can possibly be, even if, at first, you don’t how you’re going to get them out of it. It’ll be scary, but that’s exactly what you want. If you’re unsure, the reader will be unsure. Then, like a detective, write down a list of the ways the character might get out of the situation. It won’t be easy, and it shouldn’t be. If the solution comes to you right away, the situation wasn’t dangerous enough. But eventually you’ll figure it out. Recently I read a script where the co-pilot of a small plane planned to kill his captain. The co-pilot sabotaged the plane, grabbed a parachute, and jumped out. The captain, while admittedly having to hurry up before the plane plunged into a field, merely had to find the other parachute and jump to safety. I told the writer to have the co-pilot tie the captain up before jumping. And I told him to have there only be one parachute, the one the co-pilot took. Do I have any idea how the pilot’s going to get out of that situation? No. Which is exactly why I’m a lot more interested in what happens next.

FLIP THE SCRIPT IN A SCENE
You may have heard me mention that I’ve been watching House of Cards recently. Watching the episodes one after another has allowed me to catch a few of their tricks. One of the moves I notice a lot is the “flip-the-script” scene. This is where it looks like one character is in control of a scene, only for a “twist” to occur at the scene’s midpoint that results in us realizing the other character was in control the whole time.

For example, there’s a (non-spoiler) scene where a reporter from the Washington Post is at a bar, and this beautiful woman starts flirting with him. For the first half of the scene, she’s completely in control, manipulating our helpless reporter with her looks and sexuality. Then, just as it’s looking like he’ll succumb, he casually pulls out a picture of a girl he’s been looking for and places it in front of the woman. He asks her if she’s seen her. It turns out our bar woman was an escort who walked in the same circles as the girl our reporter was looking for. All along, he was playing her. The simple truth is that if every scene goes according to plan, you might as well put a “nap” tag on your script. “Flip-the-script” scenes send a jolt into the scene, and by association, the story, letting the reader know that not everything will go according to plan.

  • klmn

    So you’ve already started reading scripts for the SS 250, rather than selecting scripts to read after the deadline?

    Now I have to consider when is the best time to enter, as well as whether to enter at all.

    • Frankie Hollywood

      I think the best time to enter any contest is the last second = tweak-tweak-tweak.

      Especially SS250, since you know Carson will be giving out advice until “the last second.”

      • Randy Williams

        Yeah, the “A-listers” are always the last to take their seats.

  • Frankie Hollywood

    FLIP THE SCRIPT IN A SCENE

    I like that, not sure I’ve ever heard that advice. Kind of a, “bait and hook” approach. I’m definitely gonna start looking for ways to incorporate that.

    • Bifferspice

      yep, me too. i had a funeral set in a funeral parlour. i’ve now got it taking place in a drive thru burger king. pretty fresh.

      • Stephjones

        Burger King drive thru funerals are so done. Maybe have a cremation in a Subway bread oven, instead?

  • Pooh Bear

    Carson,

    Are you actually reading all the SS250 entries cover to cover? Or just the queries?

    • Midnight Luck

      that has been my question all along.

      Everyone has been talking about how many crazy hours it will take C to read all 250 scripts. But he keeps saying ALL scripts will be read for the contest. Which makes it sound like any and every script will be read front to back.

      That would be quite a feat, assuming more than 250 are entered. (which I am guessing there will be, many more.

      • Kirk Diggler

        There is no chance that’s happening.

      • charliesb

        My guess is all will be read, but not all will be finished.

      • klmn

        From his initial posts on the subject, I got the idea that he would read all the queries, then select 250 scripts to “read” (not necessarily in full).

        Even the Nichol doesn’t say they read the scripts in full. Someone asked that in last years contest and all they would say is that the readers are asked to read the scripts. Kind of an artful dodge, if you ask me.

    • Malibo Jackk

      One eye closed.

  • Poe_Serling

    “What is wrong, however, is giving the reader the same old version of the trope. It’s your job to find a fresh take on it, something that makes it feel new and exciting, and not business as usual. Take the well-worn cliché of a down-on-his luck gambler whose bookie sends his thugs in to demand a payment.”

    A few years ago at a writers’ conference, I had the opportunity to hear Shane Black talk a little about this exact thing. He said when you’re developing this sort of character – don’t ever settle for just a ‘down-on-his-luck’ type but challenge yourself to make the character a true blue at the ‘end-of-the-rope’ type. This way you get the audience wondering right away if the character can climb out of their hole and eventually have them really rooting for the character to succeed by end of the film.

    A description of his main character from The Last Boy Scout:

    Inside the car, a lone man is asleep, arms akimbo. Sprawled across the seat. Half-empty bottle of Seagrams

    Picture the tiredest, meanest, grouchiest son of a bitch self-hating loser you can. Now give him a two-year-old suit from C & R Clothing. Such is the aforementioned HALLENBECK.

    >>Later in the story, we also learn that Hallenbeck is a disgraced former secret service agent, wife cheating on him, a nightmare teenage daughter, and so on.

    or

    From the classic Western Rio Bravo:

    We open in a saloon. Here the town’s deputy sheriff Dude (played by Dean Martin) is just about to dig out a silver dollar from a spittoon so he can buy himself a drink.

    • klmn

      Quick – without looking it up – what do you think “arms akimbo” means? (Many people misunderstand the term).

      • Marija ZombiGirl

        Arms splayed out ?

      • brenkilco

        Think Black misunderstands it. Hands on hips.

        • klmn

      • Kirk Diggler

        Someone hands a gun to a guy named Kimbo?

        • Ninjaneer

          I had to try really hard not to crack up in my cubicle just now

        • S_P_1

          Bad idea.

      • wlubake

        Hands behind your head, elbows out?

      • Midnight Luck

        An idiot KIM (Ala Kardashian).
        “a Kimbo”

        • S_P_1

          You’re in danger of having your comment go viral or being made into a meme.

          • Midnight Luck

            It was either that, or this:

            Kimbo: A Kardashian Rambo tale

            When Kim K’s terrible spawn North is kidnapped and held for ransom in the icy jungles of Greenland; she must outwit the captors (using her limited intellect), or pay the $2 million they demand (which she refuses to do, calling it “ridiculous”) before they kill him.

            CONTINUED— WHILE IN PROGRESS —
            Kim, clutches her machine gun, arms taut and gelatinous, red bandana bound tight on her forehead, dressed only in a pair of Dolce & Gabbana camo thong underwear ; sweat cascading down her enormous booty and breasts, she LEAPS into the air HEAD-BUTTS , then PILE-DRIVES the tasteless kidnapper, who has the gall to come dressed in last years Gap summer collection, all while smelling of incense and Ikea Swedish meatballs. A horrendous deep gutteral pig noise erupts from her gullet as she squeezes the kidapper to death with her superhuman thighs.

            —might be a bit over the top—

          • GoIrish

            A Kim Kardashian Rambo movie just might be the greatest idea ever.

          • Midnight Luck

            Thanks,
            think i’ll knock it out over the weekend. It is the kind of story that basically writes itself.
            Stallone wrote Rocky in 3 days, and I believe he wrote First Blood in 3 hours, so, it’s doable.
            Now, getting Kim to act, and be believable, that is making miracles happen.
            I’ll just worry about that later…

          • Bifferspice

            wrote rambo in 3 hours :-D what the hell is this? you couldn’t write it in three hours if you were copying it out!

          • gonzorama

            You could get Rebel Wilson to play Kim – with the right lighting and a week’s worth of spray tanning it’ll be a close match.

    • Malibo Jackk

      When I first heard about Shane Black I thought — Great.
      Here’s an average Joe who managed to make it in Hollywood.
      Unfortunately, he intelligent, savvy, and a cool guy.

    • Malibo Jackk

      “Inside the car, a lone man is asleep, arms akimbo. Sprawled across the seat. Half-empty bottle of Seagrams”

      Works perfectly for me.
      But I can here someone saying — What is sprawled across the seat? The man? The bottle? Don’t use words we don’t know. Where exactly is the bottle? Is the bottle open? Spilling? Be specific. Clarity is most important.
      I don’t like short phrases or incomplete sentences.

      • Poe_Serling

        If I were Shane Black back in 1990, I would have 1.75 million reasons not to listen the naysayers. ;-)

        • brenkilco

          Black lies inside. Cash akimbo.

    • Bob Bradley

      That’s some fancy writing: using lede instead of lead. I never saw that before. Had to look it up, because you obviously did it on purpose.
      Are you a newsman?

      • Poe_Serling

        You better believe it.

        “… I bring you a warning: Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are – Watch the skies!!!” ;-)

        • Marija ZombiGirl

          The upcoming eclipse… That’s you ?? Huh.
          ;)

    • Sean Reardon

      “is just about to dig out a silver dollar from a spittoon so he can buy himself a drink”
      Man, this image is the definition of desperation. Love it!
      .

  • leitskev

    Great points. Nothing to add today on my end, just wanted to say great points.

  • mulesandmud

    Sometimes, without even realizing it, a writer actively convinces him/herself that a scene is allowed to be cliche or boring.

    It’s crazy, I know, but at the time it makes total sense.

    Say you’re writing some fantasy story that starts off in the mundane real world before our hero escapes into a magical wonderland where anything can happen. There’s a temptation, perfectly justified, to make those early real world scenes drab and plain and uneventful, to really contrast the amazing dreamscapes to come.

    Or maybe someone has a great idea for a genre mash-up that starts as a western then detours into sci-fi, and so decides that the western scenes should be recognizable, uncomplicated cowboy beats, to really sell that first genre in preparation for the big twist.

    We aren’t trying to be boring or cliche, and we’re not consciously being lazy, but some part of us is tempted to hold back on making those early scenes truly interesting, to save the good stuff until the movie really gets going.

    What’s actually happening is that we’re handicapping ourselves by burying the lede of our concept, making those early scene some of the least interesting of our entire script.

    Never settle for a scene that you yourself wouldn’t be excited to watch.

    Those ‘normal’ scenes, it turns out, require the most discipline and effort of all, since their requirements are so paradoxical: the scene must suggest boredom without being boring, or embrace a given cliche without being limited by it. This is where the hardest and most frustrating writing work must often be done.

    Always remember that it’s work work doing, though, and that people who truly understand storytelling will notice the effort.

    Creative laziness, complacency, and lack of perspective are constant dangers because the first thing they attacks is our ability to be critical of our own work. The onus is on us to police ourselves, to be diligent and vigilant and reflective, and to make every scene as unique and indelible as possible.

    • Name

      Sometimes the obvious choice is the right choice, and there’s a danger of something being TOO original. Case in point would be if you promise something to the reader, like a final showdown between hero and villain, and then pull the rug from under the audience; they’re not going to love you for that.

      Another instance is where the obvious choice is the short one and the original choice will take longer. Picking a locked door with a hair grip may not be super original, but if the important thing is getting through that locked door, the unoriginal choice might work.

      But on the bigger things, yeah, agreed, you’ve gotta push yourself. When you write you need ideas, plural, lots of them. But like Carson says above, it’s not an impossible thing; write down lists of ideas then pick the best ones. And do research; research is the enemy of cliche.

    • leitskev

      Given the choice between cliche and boring, I would choose cliche. Ideally a scene is neither, but sometimes I’ve seen scenes where the effort to make the scene less cliche ended up with a result that was more boring. Tropes are tropes for a reason. Sometimes when people are oversensitive to them the result is flat scene that doesn’t move us.

  • brenkilco

    The scene in the bar reminds me of a similar scene in Mamet’s Spartan. G-man in a bar trying to get info on a missing girl, quizzing the bartender. No reversals. No surprises. We know who he is what he wants, what he’s doing. Ho hum. Except it’s not. The short little scene is great. Why? Well, mostly because Mamet is Mamet and no amount of time or effort is going to make someone write like him. But the fresh take in the scene is in the way the fed interacts with the bartender. It’s the words that provide the twist, the entertaining difference. He doesn’t ask the bartender if she can help him. He slides a twenty across the bar and says “I came to pay you that money I owe you” And she responds “Yeah, how about them Sox?” So he’s paying for info and she’s willing to provide it. And neither one of them has said so and the scene goes on from there. This sort of expert, three cushion dialogue where characters aren’t talking about what they’re talking about is another way to get by with an obligatory scene or an old trope. If you can’t make the situation better make the characters better.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Tried the same thing in court once.
      “Hey judge. Here’s that three hundred dollars I owed you.”

      (Didn’t work.)

      • Somersby

        Made me think of this…

    • leitskev

      Great example of how to put a little extra effort in making a scene a little different. Just a small detail like that not only makes it different, but tells us the character is clever, understands the world he is in, and respects its rules.

  • Pugsley

    Great advice on flipping the script, Carson. It’s just as important, if not moreso, to flip the script on action sequences in your thriller or actioner. To me, this is what’s kept the Bond movies relevant the past 50 plus years. Bond gets pushed out of an airplane without a parachute? He’s falling to his death? No worries, he flips the script and arrows his body to ambush, mid air, the villain below him and steal his parachute. As a kid watching Bond do these things, I was in heaven. I didn’t realize he was simply defying our expectations and flipping the script on us.

    Just read the latest Bond script, SPECTRE, the one from the infamous Sony hack, and, despite a lazy, fan-fiction-ey, uninspired third act (which I’m certain will have been rewritten by now), there’s an insanely brilliant, flip-the-script action piece at the midpoint, that, if Sam Mendes pulls off with half the verve its written with on the page, could very well go down as the most amazing stunt in 007’s history of amazing stunts.

    There be spoilers ahead…

    Bond’s in Austria, and Hinx, the villain (played by Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista), has kidnapped the girl Bond is sworn to protect, and taken off in an SUV down a winding, snow covered mountain road leading to a thick forest. Only way Bond can catch them is by air.

    So he steals a seaplane, complete with pontoons, from a nearby lake, and goes flying after them. He’s gotta catch them before they reach the thick forest, or all is lost. Just when you think he’s got them… Hinx and company reach the canopy of the forest, and his SUV disappears beneath it. End of scene, right?

    Wrong.

    Bond flies his plane BELOW the canopy, maneuvers it BENEATH the trees, all the while keeping up with Hinx! However, and here’s where the script is flipped, Bond flies too close to a low-hanging branch, and his right wing is shorn off, completely! Now he’s in danger of barrel rolling before nose-diving into the ungiving, icy ground, and becoming flaming, Bond shish kabab in a lonely Austrian forest. So what does he do?

    Cue the Bond theme…

    He deliberately shears off the REMAINING wing, which momentarily rights his plane, giving him enough time, and control, to land his seaplane, on pontoons, no less, on the snow covered forest floor, retrofitting his plane, on the fly (no pun intended), into a defacto toboggan! And continues after Hinx and company in what is now the coolest toboggan in cinema history. Talk about flipping that script!

    If they pull this off, with practical effects, mind you, it may very well go down as the greatest Bond stunt, ever. All because the writers said, “Hey, we need to flip the script on Bond here. What’ve you got?”

    • kenglo

      Oooh! Can I read it? Glover_13000 @ yahoo

      Thx

    • Nathan Labonté

      If you’re in a generous mood, I would be quite interested in reading this script.
      labonath151[at]gmail[dot]com

      Thank you very much!

  • Randy Williams

    What, no discussion of race relations with that triple shot of scripresso?

    !

    • klmn

      I’ll start it off.

      “All you dirty, ________ _______ _______ can just go _______ yourselves.”*

      *Fill in the blanks however you like and email to the provider of Scripresso, Carson.

      • S_P_1

        All you dirty, poor Biggby patrons can just go latte yourselves.

  • fragglewriter

    Thanks for the triple epsresso. I was in need of it.

  • Matthew Garry

    “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

    “We” automatically includes the writer as a narrator. It reminds you you’re part of an audience being led through a story. That is not always desirable.

    On the other hand, there’s sometimes no established point of view (often in the first scene, which is where “we”s are most often used), so it’s just us, as an audience, looking at it, with the writer holding our hand for the time being, showing us what’s important because there’s not enough story yet from which we can derive that.

    Most “we”s can usually be resolved into the prose, but if that proves impossible, there’s really no reason to go out of your way to clumsily hide it.

    • Bifferspice

      funny, but no matter how good a script is, i have never thought i’m actually in a car with a protagonist, or in the room where the murderer is cleverly exposed by the detective. i’m pretty much always aware i’m reading a script in my sitting room. hate to break it to those spell-weavers out there that think i’m actually hoodwinked into temporarily believing i’m elsewhere, just by their clever avoidance of the word “we”.

      • walker

        Oui, si.

  • MGE3

    ALWAYS FIND FRESH TAKES ON OLD TROPES

    I would add, always find fresh takes on old scenes. Take something incredibly static like a character being interviewed. This is a classic scene which occurs in everything from WALL STREET to FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Now set it somewhere outside of an office and tailor it to the personalities of your characters:

    — If they are a health nut, have the interview occur while they are power walking or doing a yoga class in Central Park.

    — If they are an alpha wannabe, have it take place on a hunting preserve (this actually happened to me once).

    — If they are a billionaire, have it take place during a game of squash or court side at a Knicks game.

    Don’t be afraid to play the opposites game either. If your protagonist is the one being interviewed, set them somewhere out of their comfort zone (ie: a Greenpeace advocate on an oil rig, etc.). A fresh setting can reveal character in an organic way, while also disguising a cliche scene. Get creative and you’ll surprise yourself.

    Get creative.

  • Poe_Serling

    Even though ‘We SEE or We HEAR’ pop up all the time in pro scripts…

    From the recent Foxcatcher: “Mark rides in the back of a cab. As he nears Dave’s house, we SEE Nancy tapping a beer keg in the side yard.”

    From the older Ring script : “We see a BLUE CANYON enter frame and we begin to PULL BACK to…

    From the ’70s The Fog: We hear a TICKING SOUND…

    … I’d still use it sparingly. I would try to come up with other creative ways to express what the audience should see or hear.

    Instead of writing We HEAR a helicopter in the distance, perhaps a simple change like this from The Thing will do the trick: The faint roar of a helicopter turns the men’s attention.

    • brenkilco

      I think we is fine if used sparingly. In the Foxcatcher example it’s really an efficient way to avoid a whole new slugline. We’re going from inside the cab to the exterior of the house. But why waste all that 8 x 11 real estate for one line. And you’re right there is usually a workaround if the we bugs you. In the same example, if being inside he cab with Mark is not critical, it could have read Nancy taps a keg in the side yard. A cab pulls up. Mark gets out.

  • LostAndConfused

    “Write Yourself Into Corners”

    Some advice I’ve been given on this is that the writer often thinks of themselves as the therapist remedying the conflict. No, it should be the exact opposite. The writer should be the psychopath trying to fuck the characters up as much as possible.

  • S_P_1

    Linkthis83 sent me the podcast concerning this very subject. If it supports the story you’re trying to write then use it. I was also under the impression it was the red flag of an amateur.

    I was very guilty of writing more than 4 line action beats. Then I started splitting them in half, now I use discretion as to whether a particular passage looks too dense.

  • Casper Chris

    Don’t sweat it.

  • NajlaAnn

    After reading “WRITE YOURSELF INTO CORNERS” triggered an idea for a scene I’ve been working on. Thanks! :)

  • Levres de Sang

    Love that Screenwriting Article Thursdays now double-up as SS 250 reminders. And today’s article is as insightful as ever… You really do spoil us, Carson!

  • Charles Walters

    Even the March Madness NCAA tournament finds a way to remind us to keep writing:

    • Mike.H

      Too fuggen FUNNY~!

      • Mike.H

        Girls Sans Umbrellas!

  • Charles Walters

    Sorry … Here’s college b-ball’s message to screenwriters:

  • Malibo Jackk

    Here’s the rule:
    If you use we, we, we too many times
    the reader may have to run to the bathroom.

  • Midnight Luck

    Write your story well
    Hit it out of the park
    Kill it
    Bring it

    and no one will care if you use “we”

    there are “guides” in this game, but no real “rules”. As soon as someone says “NEVER”, someone else breaks in doing just that.

    –read Nightcrawler, where he didn’t use almost any of the “rules” that screenwriters are supposed to follow when it comes to physically getting your story in script format.

    • http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/inside_the_brain_of_ec_he/ E.C. Henry

      I think you are the coolest person who frequents this site.

  • Nicholas J

    I once wrote the word “we” in a script and my computer instantly burst into flames. Make of that what you will.

  • Citizen M

    Wednesday’s [x] impressive script, The Founder, uses “we see” three times.

    That seems about right.

  • Bifferspice

    i never use the word “we” in a script. it gets pretty experimental when I’m trying to get one character to tell another that they should go somewhere, but i guess it keeps me creative.

  • Sean Reardon

    Damn…that espresso shot look good! Love to wash that down with an ice cold Rockstar and write all night. All three pieces of advice are really helpful to me. Thank you.

  • Wotinworld

    “The simple truth is that if every scene goes according to plan, you might as well put a “nap” tag on your script.” LOL Love to start the day with a good laugh. Sometimes I find it right here…

  • thewildkingdom

    I totally agree with the second point that Carson brought up about writing yourself into a corner. There is nothing more exciting in a movie when you rack your brains thinking; How is this character going to get out of this situation!!? It is a part of the script that makes it a treat to read. I recently watched a movie on Netflix called Stretch, staring Patrick Wilson, and even though the story was one I had seen a few thousand times before, about a man up to his eye balls in debt, owing a ruthless bookie an unreasonable amount of cash with a never going to happen time frame to get said cash delivered! But what the movie did right was put the character in crazy, back up against the wall, situations. It was a non stop parade of how the heck is he going to get out of this???? And the movie, although not that original, was a very satisfying film. I guess it goes to show that you can write a played out idea and still succeed if you stuff it full of inventive situations and characters trying to do the impossible. People will watch it and hopefully find it enjoyable…