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No, Robert McCall didn’t get me in my sleep last night.  But sleep is definitely the main suspect in today’s mystery.  For the first time since I began Scriptshadow, I actually fell asleep while reading yesterday’s review script.  Apparently reading and giving notes on four scripts in a single day is my limit.  Boy did I have some sweet dreams though.

Since there’s going to be no review today, I can tell you something big I learned after reading all of those scripts.  I started to notice early on in the 4-pack that 80% of the scenes in these scripts had zero drama.  They were all straightforward, all executed on the surface.  Surface-level scenes are almost all catastrophes for being so boring.  For example, “Don” might need to tell “Judy” that they need to take money out of the bank.  So we’d have a 2 page scene where Don told Judy that they needed to take money out of the bank.

The more of these scenes I read, the more I realized why they were so bland.  In every situation, we were certain what was going to happen.  There are lots of ways to make a scene work, but one of the best ways is to through uncertainty.  Let me give you an example.  Let’s say that “Frank” wants to break up with “Ellen.”  If Frank goes into the scene and says “Hey, I had something to talk to you about.”  “Oh really, what’s that?” “Well, it’s a big deal.” “Okay, tell me.”  “Umm, I think we should break up.”  If you write the scene that way, with everything going according to plan, it turns out to be a boring scene.

But if you go into the scene with the intent of creating uncertainty, of not doing the expected, you can bring life and drama to the scene.  So say Frank comes in and says, ‘Hey, I had something to talk to you about?” and Ellen says, “Oh?  I had something to talk to you about as well.”  Frank is momentarily thrown.  “You do?” “Yeah.”  Whereas in the first example, we knew where the scene was going, by unleashing uncertainty into the re-mix, we created a more interesting scenario.  Frank’s plan is now all messed up.  He’s forced to reevaluate his approach.  We, the audience, are the benefactors because now we have no idea where this scene is headed, which means we’re paying more attention.

As I kept reading the scripts, I noticed that you can create uncertainty before the scene starts (let’s say, before Frank gets to Ellen’s, he gets a text from her: “We need to talk.”) or you insert it as the scene is going, kind of as a surprise.  A situation where we think we know what’s going to happen that turns into one where we have no idea what’s going to happen is an exciting scenario.  The ultimate take-away here is that a scene plays out in a more suspenseful manner if we don’t know where it’s going.  If we think we know where it’s going and you take us there?  You’ve failed to entertain us.

So I challenge you all.  Go find an “expected” scene in your script, one where everything goes according to plan, and add an element of uncertainty.  Either before the scene or during it.  I’m betting the scene becomes a lot better.

  • Nolan

    Carson, I challenge you to include THE FOLLOWED in AOW as this script is the height of anticipation and unexpected scenes.

    • Malibo Jackk

      What you need is
      1.) a log line
      2.) a genre
      3.) people to back you

      (I can be bought.)

      • Nolan

        Crap! I thought all I had to do was send the script in for consideration. Now I find out I need to purchase votes?
        How much do you cost and can I purchase multiple people at one time? AHAHHA!

  • Pauly W

    Thank god .. I WAS WORRIED .. And thank you for the tip , now I can rewrite some more .. (:

  • http://apairoftools.wordpress.com/ Sebastian Cornet

    Phew, for a moment there I feared Michael Bay had finally slipped poison into your drink.

  • davejc

    Okay Carson. Well this is some dialogue I just added to my script tonight. I think it qualifies because our protagonist gets the upper hand on a demon, (which I think is highly unexpected).

    50 HIGH ST – HALL – SAME TIME

    Soaked in blood Ed sits on the floor, picking a piece of brain off his cheek
    and flicking it.

    ED
    I’m worn out.

    BAEL
    He had kids, Ed.

    ED
    Yeah. A dead fairy. And a deeeemon.

    BAEL
    No more games. Time is up.

    ED
    I smell smoke. Do you smell smoke?

    BAEL
    I’m taking the girl instead.

    ED
    We have a deal. A contract. Signed in blood.

    BAEL
    Nobody cares about your deal. Not to mention this is a rather tenuous
    situation you’ve gotten us into. I’m not seeing any exit strategy
    here.

    ED
    You’re scared! Are you scared? Is big bad Bael scared? Are you gonna wet
    your pants.

    BAEL
    I’m not scared. I just prefer a certain amount of discretion in my
    dealings.

    ED
    You are scared!

    BAEL
    I am not scared. But you’re sick. You’re a sick man. And you’re a
    dangerous man. There’s nothing left for me to corrupt.

    ED
    Just give me some warning before you wet you’re pants. Or excrete whatever
    bodily fluids your particular… um…

    BAEL
    Here’s a news flash for you Ed. Today’s Top Story: I Don’t Like You. I
    Never Did. I’m Taking The Girl Instead.

    ED
    She’s not here. And you can’t leave.

    BAEL
    You’re sure of that?

    ED
    Time for you to go back in your little snuff box, Bael — I do smell
    smoke!

    BAEL
    Of course you do. You left the stove on. Idiot.

    • klmn

      Ed and Bael would be a great title for a buddy movie. One’s a cop! The other’s a demon! Together they will bring you in and drag you to hell.

      Coming soon in DamnationVision.

      A Bad Dreamworks production.

      • davejc

        I love it! A TV series. I should pitch it to HBO!!

        • That They Are

          No you shouldn’t. You need to learn how to write first. I bet you don’t even have one script. No offense… but screenwriting is Real World.

          • andyjaxfl

            “You need to learn how to write first. I bet you don’t even have one script.”

            davejc does have at least one completed script that the site regulars read and gave notes on a few weeks ago. It’s called 50 High Street.

            And please spare us the “you need to learn how to write first” nonsense. Personal attacks are not part of the SS culture, especially when they come from anonymous posters. Submitters can take constructive criticism when delivered appropriately so there’s no need to be a prick about it.

          • walker

            No offense… but I have found that screenwriting is anything but Real World.

      • LV426

        Starring John Stamos and Christian Bael.

    • That They Are

      Thank you for posting this. This is an exact example of what I was chatting (to myself no doubt); about in my comment above: crap scene with serious tonal problems. It’s going nowhere. It’s all wink-wink, tongue in cheek kids stuff. It covers the same ground over and over… and where are we going here? To the next level in the video game perhaps? Or some other stupid destination I have little interest in (your head perhaps?)

      First thing I would do is remove this (take it out, the dialogue I mean…)

      Soaked in blood Ed sits on the floor, picking a piece of brain off his cheek
      and flicking it.

      ED
      I’m worn out.

      BAEL
      He had kids, Ed.

      ED
      Yeah. A dead fairy. And a deeeemon.

      BAEL
      No more games. Time is up.

      Start you scene here (if he is flicking brain from his cheek: we know he’s tired: duh.)

      ED
      I smell smoke. Do you smell smoke?

      Then take us somewhere (make it move. Keep us awake…)

      Take all this out (you have nothing here worth keeping but you ego and wink-wink sh*t. Screenwriters need to be mature.)

      BAEL
      I’m taking the girl instead.

      ED
      We have a deal. A contract. Signed in blood.

      BAEL
      Nobody cares about your deal. Not to mention this is a rather tenuous
      situation you’ve gotten us into. I’m not seeing any exit strategy
      here.

      ED
      You’re scared! Are you scared? Is big bad Bael scared? Are you gonna wet
      your pants?

      BAEL
      I’m not scared. I just prefer a certain amount of discretion in my
      dealings.

      ED
      You are scared!

      BAEL
      I am not scared. But you’re sick. You’re a sick man. And you’re a
      dangerous man. There’s nothing left for me to corrupt.

      Just go STRAIGHT to here:

      BAEL
      There’s nothing left for me to corrupt.

      Now… what do we have here: smoke and corruption: but more importantly you have my ‘interest’ (quotes intentional.)

      And then go here:

      ED
      Time for you to go back in your little snuff box, Bael — I do smell
      smoke!

      So now rewrite and tell us the story… the rest is rubbish… and rubbish should be discarded quickly as there is enough as is.

      VIDEO GAME REWRITE:

      Soaked in blood Ed sits on the floor, picking a piece of brain off his cheek
      and flicking it.

      ED
      I smell smoke. Do you smell smoke?

      BAEL
      There’s nothing left for me to corrupt.

      ED
      Time for you to go back in your little snuff box, Bael — I do smell
      smoke!

      • Randy Williams

        You lost me at “chatting to myself”.

      • Malibo Jackk

        Less is more.

      • davejc

        Hi Scott!

  • klmn

    It’s good to see you’re okay, Carson. I figured you’d encountered a cheeseburger bigger than you were and – like a python that swallowed a pig – had to crawl into the underbrush and wait for it to pass.

  • Poe_Serling

    “A situation where we think we know what’s going to happen that turns into one where we have no idea what’s going to happen is an exciting scenario.”

    From To Live and Die in L.A.:

    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xhqu9x_chance-is-killed_shortfilms

    • andyjaxfl

      William Petersen is tremendous. Between this and Manhunter, I’m surprised he never became a bigger star in the late 80s. Granted neither of those movies lit the box office on fire, but the guy has a great screen presence and it’s hard to believe Hollywood didn’t know what to do with him. Then again, Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with a lot of actors and actresses with great screen presence (here’s looking at you, Josh Holloway)…

      • Poe_Serling

        Yeah, I’m a fan of Manhunter, too. When ever I hear “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” by Iron Butterfly, it’s an instant flashback to the pic’s kick-ass ending.

        • andyjaxfl

          Speaking of Michael Mann, have you seen the Blackhat trailer? I’m wasn’t a fan, but it’s only a trailer. The only thing that makes me worried is that it’s being dumped in January. I figure a Michael Mann movie with Chris Hemsworth would garner a better release date, but maybe the studio is hoping to capitalize on a normally ho-hum month at the box office because of foosball.

          • Poe_Serling

            I agree… based on the trailer, it looks like a future redbox rental for me. ;-)

            One of my favorite Michael Mann projects – the TV-movie The Jericho Mile with Peter Strauss.

          • andyjaxfl

            I haven’t seen it and it’s not on Netflix… I’ll have to track down a copy.

            My wife will drag me to Blackhat. She loves Hemsworth. Sigh.

          • Poe_Serling

            Just type in “Jericho Mile on youtube” and you’ll find it. It’s definitely worth checking out if you get the opportunity and a spare moment.

          • brenkilco

            LA takedown is or was available on You Tube. Watching truncated versions of scenes from Heat with bad TV actors is really strange.

          • LV426

            It is really odd watching that after having seen Heat a billion times over the past two decades. It ain’t bad for a low budget late 80s TV movie of the week. Although comparing LA Takedown with Heat shows how truly great actors, more wiggle room in terms of pacing, and high end gear like a Panavision shooting in anamorphic widescreen can truly elevate a movie from being merely good to great. Obviously Mann had a healthier budget for the second attempt of this story, and the chance to hone the script into a stronger piece of writing.

            Although I wonder if Mann were remaking LA Takedown nowadays, if it might be done as an epic scale miniseries on HBO or Netflix.

          • Midnight Luck

            Erin Brockovich was dumped into an odd time of year, but it did very well for a long period, and won an Oscar. I believe it also did well financially. $50 mil budget, $28 mil opener, $125 mil total.

            So there might be hope.

            If Blackhat is more HEAT and COLLATERAL and less PUBLIC ENEMIES I will be there. I fear though, it might be more PE.

          • LV426

            The awful HD video cinematography messed up Public Enemies for me. What they hell were they thinking going with that type of look for such a film? It was even more jarring when I watched PE a year later after the first couple episodes of Boardwalk Empire had aired.

          • Midnight Luck

            That was my feeling exactly. I love Mann, and was used to his HEAT style. But two minutes into Enemies and I wanted to ask for my money back. The digital recording was so poor it felt like some homemade movie from an 8th grader, and it had the worst editing I have ever seen. I found the whole experience to be possibly one of the worst theater-going times I have had. I didn’t walk out, I kept thinking there was a reason he did it this way, and it would be revealed, it would switch to film and something would make sense. I got to the end, and nope, it was a cheap film with either a terrible script and story, or just plain unwatchable editing. I couldn’t tell you anything about what the story was about. It was a mess. To this day I still wish I had demanded my money back.

          • jw

            The funny thing is that January is the new July. It isn’t a “ho-hum month” at all. That’s why Taken3 is also coming out in January…

          • Midnight Luck

            Well, if they spot a dead period, it also means there is a huge opening for something to strike fire, as there is nothing else out to take away from your pic.

          • jw

            Right, and that’s now been going on for years… since the first Taken…

        • astranger2

          Brian Cox made that movie, for me…

          • Poe_Serling

            Cox was excellent as usual. Plus, he was confined to his prison cell… yet still captivating to watch.

  • grendl

    This is a masterclass is scene writing. I don’t believe Alexander Payne will ever do better. ( I haven’t seen him surpass this writing here. ) Nor have I seen Paul Giamotti or Virginia Madsen knock it out of the park like they did in “Sideways”.

    ( please chime in about “American Splendor” or some other movie which will mean nothing other than he’s had other good performances )

    The subtext of course is this sexual undercurrent between two people who share a passion for wine and are on their first date together. We’re not even sure its technically a date. as they just seem to have been left alone by the other couple who are off humping the moment they get back to the house.

    But since we know Miles in nervous as hell, lost his mojo with women since his wife left him, there’s that dynamite under the chair. We have no idea if Mia is even interested in him, until she leans forward and says ” and its so fucking good.”

    She means like great sex for the subtextually challenged.

    Her comment surprises both Miles and us. Talking about the life of wine, its history, suddenly getting almost sexual in her passion for it was brilliant.

    But there’s something more to the scene which make it great. We’re following Miles because he’s the protagonist but he’s still a little bit of a mystery. He’s not going to drink any fucking merlot. That individualizes him. He has depth and thats explored by his knowledge of wines. of pinot noir grapes for example.

    Incidentally, if you don’t see the connection in talking about the very finicky nature of the pinot noir grape and the very finicky nature of Miles himself, you just aren’t paying attention.

    Subtext, people. What people are talking about isn’t always what the words read on the page. Reading between the lines is what great screenwriters make us do, add two and two instead of giving us four.

    This scene isn’t about the life of wine, it’s about a man who’s afraid of being rejected again, even when he’s presented a golden opportunity. And its about a woman who’s saddened but compassionate for his dilemma.

    She talks about his special wine which has reached its peak, and if not drunk now will experience a sad decline. She’s saying seize the day, Miles. Make your move, and his answer to that is ” Rieslings. you like Rieslings?”

    It’s similar to the dialogue between Andy the 40 year Old Virgin and Catherine Keener. about his action figures, and how he wants to leave them in the box. That’s subtext once again. Andy’s not only talking about the compromise of toy integrity he’s talking about his loss of virginity which he has been pushed into by his co-workers.

    Whether its wine or Iron man, both men are being deceptive, lying. They’re really afraid of committing to something they’re not ready for.

    We need another article on subtext. Soon.

    • Acarl

      100% agree with Sideways!

  • carsonreeves1

    Obviously, there are other ways to make a scene work (conflict, dramatic irony) but I’d contend that if a scene goes exactly according to plan, it’s probably a boring scene. It’s the degree of uncertainty that is the key. For some scenes, it will be subtle. For others, more intense.

    • Brandon Matthews

      Think it’s worthwhile to create a quasi-outline/beat sheet with something along the lines of:

      – Purpose of scene:
      – Uncertainty/conflict:

      Then brainstorming 5-10 ideas for each scene?

      With the goal being to keep the reader from predicting each twist and maintaining a certain level of freshness/excitement…

      • http://apairoftools.wordpress.com/ Sebastian Cornet

        Wow, so simple and yet so powerful. I need to try this approach, too.

    • Midnight Luck

      That is why Pulp Fiction was so good. Throughout almost the entire thing, you had NO idea where it was going to go, or how a scene would turn out.
      Then with the jumping around time-wise, you REALLY had no idea even where the whole movie might end.

      Genius, and kept me enthralled the entire movie.

      • Buddy

        exactly ! I had the same feeling, years later with movies like SNATCH or even SUPERBAD. that’s why I love them so much.

    • LV426

      Some examples of uncertainty in horror films. We are approaching Halloween here so why not?

      Psycho

      Killing the heroine early on pulls the rug out from under the audience and makes them question their expectations throughout the rest of the movie. It made us question our ability to predict what was going to happen. The gloves had come off and Hitchcock was brawling with brass knuckles.

      Night of the Living Dead

      Just as we think things are slightly under control in the farmhouse, there are people hiding in the basement! Not only that, but one of them was bitten by “one of those things” and is in a mysterious state of deep sleep. After that reveal it felt like anything could happen.

      Alien

      Killing off most of the “alpha” male characters early on or by the midpoint, leaving Ripley as the one to take charge. Ash being outed as an android and company sleeper agent also really throws the audience for a loop and ratchets up the tension (if Ash is in cahoots with the greedy corp. then the ships computer Mother might also be out to get them too).

  • Levres de Sang

    It was indeed a mysterious absence… but it did make me read the Equalizer all the way through!

    And it struck me that McCall is very much a modern day Man With No Name: wielding hardware store materials like electrical cords rather than the whip of a High Plains Drifter. McCall is even referred to as a “ghost” a couple of times. And then near the end he’s reading “The Invisible Man”… I haven’t seen High Plains Drifter in years, but it came to mind as I was reading.

  • That They Are

    Funny thing… once I see a text up on the screen/on the page, I sign off. It’s a lazy dramatic technique and I hate it (feel that way about all ‘tech’, unless this is where your story is set.

    Re. above: of course she’s to break up with him first (a device seen in a more than a few forgettable movies and Soaps); but useful for the purposes above I suppose.

    Too much information is a scene killer. Writers always think their reader is as stupid as they are paranoid. Scenes drag because too much ‘nothing’ is being said; and that means your story is in trouble. Pros I suppose are different; but all writers think the audience is stupid and they’re not of course; but doesn’t stop the thinking that they are.

  • Randy Williams

    I like scenes that are unexpected in terms of “power shifts”.
    To be surprised when someone relinquishes it. To be surprised when someone I didn’t think had it is revealed to really have it. To be surprised when someone whom you’d never think would wield it, does so in dramatic fashion.

    Soaps writers are very good at setting this up.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Been thinking about starting a business:

    Scott Crawford to write the loglines
    Gazrow to work the plot
    Mulesandmud to handle the logistics
    Citizen M to construct the story
    Paul Clarke to write the script

    grendl to handle the press

    • Meta5

      No intern?

      • Malibo Jackk

        That position is still open.

    • Casper Chris

      Call me if you need an elitist cliché spotter.

    • astranger2

      IF we were cosmic chefs creating the ultimate script soup production kitchen, I’d add, or amend, a few spices to the shelf:

      Gazrow and cjob3 as heads of the “high concept” department — both have some killer story ideas.

      Midnight Luck, ED, and Brenkilko (as well as Poe and Citizen M) for exceptional quality control — albeit in much differently delivered and unique styles..

      Add Mayhem Jones — as Emeril Lagasse would add Trinidad Moruga Scorpion peppers — to implement “VOICE,” and kick it up a notch… or two, or three, or a gazillion…

      Then MORE grendl… to add to the mayhem and chaos of the crazy writing process, and be our SS guardian of artistic creativity…