Wrapping up this week of tips - specific aspects of craft and creativity I've found in spec scripts that sell, based on my years of reading screenplays and doing notes on studio projects...
Tip #5: Selling screenplays exude the confidence of knowing what they're about.
Back in the mid-90s, Shane Black made the highest spec sale in history (three million dollars) with The Long Kiss Goodnight. Let's have a look at its first page.
Assaulted from without by SNOWFLAKES. Wind tossed.
A bed, dappled with moon shadow.
A LITTLE GIRL, fast asleep. The wind whistles and sighs outside...
[Little Girl has a nightmare, and kindly Mom comes in to comfort her, then:]
The child subsides, breathing steady. Eyes closed.
The mother rises...
Heads for the door.
Flicks on a Winnie the Pooh NIGHTLIGHT --
Her entire right forearm is slicked with blood.
More blood on her Czech-made MP-5 machine gun.
After this reveal, Black's readers were compelled to turn the page and keep reading. The writing is a model of compression, brevity, and white space (see Tip #3), and a paradigm of cinematic storytelling (i.e. Every line suggests a vivid and specific image). But what slays me the most is that very first sentence: A windowpane assaulted from without by snowflakes.
Black's choice of words is anything but arbitrary, for the first thing we perceive is a telling metaphorical paradox: In this world, nothing will be as it seems, all conventions will be subverted, and violence will rule the day. This is a movie in which even snowflakes attack. Subliminally, it sets up the wonderful reversal found further down the page, as warm-and-fuzzy mother-and-child imagery - that Winnie the Pooh nightlight - gives way to "Mom is a bloodstained killing machine."
I had the rare pleasure - kind of like Woody Allen's "I just happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here" moment in Annie Hall - of quizzing Shane Black about this page when he visited my class a few weeks ago, and learned that I wasn't out on any limb here; these were indeed his intentions. Which leads me to my point: This is a story that had been worked, broken, and realized to the extent that its writer knew what the story was about - knew its thematic core so well that he was able to paint that subtext into the imagery of his first page (and all the pages after).
Most writers go through this process with a story. At some point, all the guesswork that's been implicit in the plotting gives way to a revelation. You realize this is what you're really writing, the "this" being the passionately felt idea that's at the core of the thing.
Thus Sydney Pollack famously noted that the script of Tootsie only began to work for him when he finally understood that its through-line was "a man learns how to become a better man by pretending to be a woman." Until that point it was simply a funny farce about a guy running around in drag. Once he understood its true thematic subject, that theme became the "armature" (as he called it) upon which everything else - the gags, the dramatic developments - could be hung. (For another discussion of finding that core idea and manifesting it, here's Andrew Stanton on the creation of Wall-E.)
I only wish that more of the screenwriters I read had gone that distance - digging deep enough into their stories to make them meaningful. Too many specs I read don't seem to be about anything at all beneath their flashy, frenetic surfaces. Truth be told, the primary mission for story analysts and development executives at my studio is more often than not to break down an already-bought project to determine what the movie really is - so that an improved draft will bring its real subject matter to life.
Our business is so
slavishly fixated on product, that process doesn't get its due. Many
times I've seen a student rush to market with a draft that I knew was only
half-cooked - that didn't really pulse with a clearly understood
subtext. The specs that sell have a peculiar, distinctive feeling and
energy - a unique kind of confidence in their storytelling - that tells a reader
in no uncertain terms, "I've gone beyond the surface of this story and
broken through to what it's really about."
that confidence on the page immediately. It announces itself with a
surety of focus and tone in the execution (it's a good read) that's born of a
writer having successfully grappled with the true meaning of a story.
Have you gone to the mat with that issue, in your latest spec? If you
want to get your movie made, now's the time to take it on.
[Empire artwork: pjlighthouse.com]