Subtext is often talked about as the key to good dialogue.
But what is it, exactly, and how do we use it?
Subtext is what characters are really thinking, behind what they’re actually saying.
In the best dialogue, the two things tend to be different. The audience (and perhaps the characters) can sense what the person who’s speaking really means, wants, feels, and thinks, but they’re not coming out and saying it.
An example from the recent movie The Favorite:
Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are out shooting. Rachel asks Emma if her secrets are safe with her. Emma says “Even your biggest secret.” SPOILER ALERT: That secret is that Rachel and the queen are lesbian lovers. Emma doesn’t come out and say that part. But she reveals she knows it with these four words. And Rachel gets what she’s talking about.
Then Rachel points her gun at her and shoots! Emma falls to the ground, stunned, checks herself for wounds, and Rachel says, “If you forget to load the pellet, the gun fires, makes the sound, but releases no shot. It is a great jape, do you agree?”
What’s the subtext here? What is Rachel really thinking? What is the meaning behind her words?
To Emma (and to the audience), it’s crystal clear: “You screw with me, and I will end you.”
Now how interesting would this scene be if Emma had said, “I know you have sex with the Queen,” and after firing the gun, Rachel said, “If you tell anyone, I’ll make you regret it”?
A lot less interesting, intriguing, and compelling, right?
As in real life, good characters don’t tend to just blurt out everything they’re thinking and feeling. Unless they’re small children, perhaps, or if they’re caught off guard, or under the influence of something, when they might start to have “loose lips.”
Most of the time, though, we are a bit more guarded and calculating (even if we don’t realize it). When we speak, we’re saying what we think is the right thing to say to advance our agendas in some way. We know that hiding our full true feelings and intentions is often necessary and helpful. This doesn’t have to come off as dark and manipulative. It’s just human and normal.
Consider the classic scene in Annie Hall: Woody Allen is dropping Diane Keaton off at her apartment. They just met. There’s an attraction. So he begins making conversation about the photography on the wall, but what each of them is really thinking is subtitled for the audience. And it’s thoughts like “I wonder what she looks like naked,” and “I hope he doesn’t turn out to be schmuck like the others.”
It’s funny, because we can all relate. We’d never say those things that are really driving us in that moment. It would be a bad move on our part. It wouldn’t serve our interests.
Here, in contrast to The Favourite (where the subtext was crystal clear to both Emma and Rachel), the two characters might be only vaguely aware of what the other person is really thinking. They’re more concerned with what they themselves are thinking (and most importantly, feeling and wanting).
Robert McKee analyzes a similar (but more dramatic) scene from Casablanca in his book Story — providing the dialogue between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and what each is really thinking, wanting and intending, with very line of dialogue. It’s the section I remember and recommend to people most, in that classic book.
The audience usually has a pretty good idea of what the subtext is — and what the characters are going through. If they didn’t, the scene would be a lot less interesting. It might even be confusing. If we sensed there was subtext but had no idea what it was, we would just feel kind of left out. Or if we didn’t get that there was subtext, and just took everything at face value, the dialogue would feel flat, obvious, and less involving.
So how do you make sure the audience gets the subtext? In the examples above, it’s fairly obvious, even if you don’t know the characters that well. But often, “getting the subtext” is dependent on the audience (or reader) understanding what a character is going through and wanting in the scene, and what trying to achieve. And that’s what makes it interesting — the difference between what they say, and what we know is really going on.
A very common issue I see in scripts is the writer not making sure the reader/audience knows the main character well enough, and is emotionally connected with them, and experiencing the story subjectively through their point-of-view. Then it’s hard for the audience to engage fully and care enough, because they haven’t been given that deep immersion into what’s going on with the main character (in the opening pages), and aren’t being clearly shown what the character wants, thinks, feels and is trying to do, at all times. It’s best that the main character isn’t mysterious to the audience, usually. Instead we want them to feel they sort of become the character, wanting for them what they want, and caring strongly as they go about trying to get it.
If the audience is really bonded to a character in this way, where most scenes are about them trying to get what they want and encountering conflict, we will understand what they’re really thinking when they say the things they say. We will also get why they’re choosing the words they choose. We might understand this for more than one character in a scene (as in the examples above). But we especially want to get it for the character who is driving the scene with their intent, which is usually the main character of the movie (or of the currently active story in a multi-story movie or TV episode).
One last example of subtext, from a scene I was fortunate enough to write, is in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, in Episode 8: “The Last Patrol.” Damian Lewis as Maj. Dick Winters is prepping some men for a patrol he’s supposed to send them on that night. Everyone in the scene knows that one of their comrades died on a similar (seemingly pointless) patrol the night before. As he’s talking them through the plan for this coming patrol, tension rising, he ends by say something that is initially surprising, to them and to the audience:
“In the morning, you will report to me that you made it across and into German lines, but were unable to secure any live prisoners. Understand?”
After a moment, the light begins to dawn on them (and us) about what he’s really saying: they don’t have to actually go and risk their lives. They will pretend they went and then lie about it, to please Winters’ C.O. It makes for the climax of a compelling scene where these men are dreading the coming patrol he’s describing, and he’s also clearly conflicted about sending them on it. We know that much from prior scenes. We just don’t know, in advance, that he’s going to allow them to skip it. In fact, he maybe decides it right then and there. (It’s hard to know for sure.) So we momentarily share their surprise, but we also totally get where it’s coming from, because we knew he didn’t want to send them.
Imagine how less compelling the scene would’ve been if he’d simply said, “Col. Sink wants you to do another patrol tonight, but I don’t, so just give me a report in the morning that you did one, okay?” It wouldn’t even be a real scene. It would just be a line of dialogue, with little conflict or interest. It’s the build-up to a patrol we (and they) think is happening, and then that “turn” at the end, using subtext, that makes the scene.
Not every line of dialogue in every script has to be brimming with subtext. Sometimes people really do just say what they mean, think, feel and want. But in general, subtext adds depth, believability, intrigue and entertainment value. It enriches the dialogue and gets the reader more emotionally involved. It’s also a way to explore how each individual character has a different “voice” — how they express themselves in their own unique ways. This includes the extent to which they use subtext, and the kinds of things they tend to say, compared to what they really feel.
So to sum it all up, here’s what I recommend:
Work to know what your characters really want and feel, at all times, and put them into scenes where they will face conflict, where they can’t easily get what they want. Then choose dialogue that makes sense for them to use, given their agenda and feelings, but which doesn’t necessarily reveal their whole truth.
Agents and managers I’ve talked to have emphasized that there are handful of top competitions that can be a feather in a writer’s cap, if one place REALLY highly in them. And these can be mentioned at the bottom of an e-mail query (after pitching whatever script you’re trying to get read).
Here is the list I’ve compiled from those conversations. Please add comments if you have supporting or differing opinions on this.
They are in no particular order, other than the Nicholl Fellowship being universally acknowledged as the top contest, and Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab being its own special case…
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It’s a secondary story that has its own beginning, middle and end, and is focused on its own problem, separate from but intertwined with the A Story.
And it has its own main character, who may or may not be the same as the A Story’s.
Movies typically have one. For some very good reasons. But writers often have some confusion about how a B Story should work, and what it should be.
Just like the main A Story, the B Story’s main character should have a problem involving something external, which has its own significant life stakes. That means the problem isn’t only an internal issue, involving their need to grow and change in some way.
It’s true that Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat says the B Story “carries the theme” and is where the main character’s arc of potential change is tracked. It’s just that this all happens within the context of some external conflict driving the character’s agenda, where they are actively trying to solve some problem or reach some goal.
The classic use of B Story in a movie is a romantic relationship that is secondary to a non-romantic A Story. The potential romantic partner often pressures the main character, intentionally or not, to deal with their “stuff,” and consider changing. But as with most such internal growth, the character doesn’t engage in it willingly, with “growth” as the goal. No, characters (like real people) tend to avoid change, until really significant external problems force them into it. Typically the pressures of both the A and B Story problems combine to do that. But even then, the hero usually doesn’t really change until some key moment in the final act where they (usually) snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
But first, both A and B Story usually reach a rock bottom “All is Lost” moment. So if the B Story is about a relationship, it’s usually broken and over at that point, as are the main character’s hopes for their A Story goal. They will have one last chance to try to solve both in the final act.
If the B Story is a romantic relationship, something has to be in the way of it. It has to be focused on a conflict, and not going well. If two people fall for each other and get together and have a lot of sex, etc., without some looming threat to the relationship, that’s not a story. That’s a positive development for the main character. And we audiences get bored by positive developments. We thrive on problems and conflicts.
Save the Cat’s “Beat Sheet” positions “B Story” after the Break into Act Two and before the “Fun and Games section.” Meaning the B Story begins there. Or you could say its “catalyst” or “Inciting incident” happens there — the thing that rocks the main character’s world and begins the story. It will then build and complicate, like all good stories do, as its main character attempts to resolve it, or deals with its difficulties.
So classically the A and B Story in a movie have the same main character. But that’s not the only way it’s done.
In movies with romantic A Stories, each of the two people in the potential couple typically get a story. They might feel like “A” and “A minus,” almost equal in weight, instead of one main character getting both A and B Story. Each has their own problem with a beginning, middle and end. It might be about the relationship, or about something else going on in their lives.
If you look at the recent remake of A Star is Born, for example, each of the two leads has a story we pursue from their perspective. Bradley Cooper’s character has demons and an addiction that isn’t resolved, which causes problems and conflicts in his life and relationships. (Note that if it didn’t cause such problems he had to deal with, and was only internal, it wouldn’t work as well.) Meeting Lady Gaga gives him some fresh hope but also new challenges around all of that.
Lady Gaga’s character meets this man and has a whirlwind rise to fame and romance with him, but it’s all tenuous and filled with problems that make it hard to enjoy in a sustained way. (Not unlike Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.)
So there are two intertwined stories. We get to experience things from both of their subjective perspectives, going back and forth between them, throughout the movie. It’s not that the point-of-view is objective, and we’re looking AT the two of them. Instead, we look THROUGH him at times, and through her at times. It’s a subtle difference, but a crucial one. (I first got this lingo from the Dramatica theory and software for story, which has an intriguing take on how most great movies really have four “throughlines,” one each for the main character and their “influence character,” plus another about their relationship, and a fourth about the overall problem that affects everyone.)
Point-of-view is such a key thing to master in screenwriting: how to make the audience feel things from one character’s perspective, and staying in that perspective whenever we’re in their story — which means staying focused on their emotions, desires, and what they’re actively trying to do to get what they want. I explore this more in the “Relatable” chapter of my new book The Idea.
Some “ensemble” movies (and most TV episodes) have more than two stories going on, so you might have A, B, and C stories, and sometimes many more. (Usually each one has a different main character, but sometimes you’ll see a character get two stories in one TV episode, like Buffy in a typical Buffy the Vampire Slayer getting both an action/vampire story and a teen personal life story.) But the principles are always the same. At any given time, we’re in one of the stories, and focused on its main character’s current focused problem and desire, how they feel about it, and what they are doing to try to resolve it. And it builds and gets worse, leading to a crisis, then a final climactic “battle” of sorts where it gets resolved.
If you don’t have a B Story (and don’t have that “influence character” Dramatica talks about), your script might lack depth. And in a pilot, this is especially a problem, since TV is so much more ensemble based and eats up so much more story than a movie. A singular A Story usually isn’t compelling and rich enough to be the only thing going on, and sustain audience emotional investment throughout.
So a B Story really isn’t optional. But the good news is that it’s often the thing that writers are most interested in, where they get to explore the stuff that really made them want to write the script in the first place. The A Story might and probably should fit within a certain commercial genre (like the medical stories in House, M.D.) but it’s the secondary, more personal B stories that might be what the audience most connects with, what stays with them, and what also excites the writer.
As that show’s creator David Shore once said, “There is a procedural spine, but I wouldn’t watch it for the medical stories. Frankly, it would bore me.”
At the core of what we’re trying to do with any script is to make strangers care.
Virtually every note I give on any script ultimately connects to that goal. We want people to emotionally invest. It must matter to them what happens in our stories. And that’s because they feel something about it.
This takes three primary forms:
1. They emotionally connect to the main character(s).
2. It matters deeply to them that the overall problem/goal gets resolved.
3. The process of watching all this is really fun. Meaning they’re entertained by it.
Some have criticized it for following a formula for this kind of musical biopic — where the star rises to fame but has personal issues and conflicts that prevent them from enjoying and sustaining it in a healthy way. I was prepared to agree with this criticism. It’s also easy to find articles online about all the things they “got wrong.” Trust me that this wasn’t a result of oversight, ignorance or carelessness. Deviations from the absolute facts in true story adaptations are done because it’s believed it will make the story resonate more and be more comprehensible and compelling to audiences. And that often is the case. I once blogged about how Argo did this.
As for the “formula” note, I have also been known to defend formula, in the sense that there are principles behind “what works” that are often there for a reason — though if they’re followed in an obvious by-the-numbers way without a lot of skill, passion or originality, that can be a problem. Perhaps some felt that way about this movie.
But for me, and I’m guessing many audience members, this wasn’t an issue. Because I felt myself caring, and getting swept up in the emotion and entertainment value. I wasn’t noticing the creative choices and judging them like I often do when I’m not invested. I got sucked in.
Whether you’ve seen it or not, or feel the same way or not, let’s talk about the reasons.
1. I connected emotionally with the main character. Why? Because he had appealing qualities and struggles, while also possessing flaws. He suffered as a result of his mistakes and tried to rectify them. Generally speaking, he was “likable.” I am often a defender of “likability” as important because I believe virtually all main characters of successful film and TV scripts are easy to embrace, with a few exceptions that work for some very specific reasons. Writers often don’t realize how important it is to get the audience strongly on the main character’s side, in the opening pages, or realize how challenging it can be to achieve that in a believable way. The other thing that’s easy to miss is the importance of point-of-view, which means subjectively telling the story from the perspective of a main character whose emotions and desires are front and center, throughout. So Bohemian Rhapsody was not ultimately the story of a band, a song, or even a career. It was about a man, with a very personal, tender, difficult, emotional journey. Freddie’s feelings are what we’re focused on, most of the time.
2. As a result, the audience (or at least some of us) care that they resolve their problem. And that problem and how it develops is front and center throughout. In this case, it’s about conflicts related to closeted (and then uncloseted) sexuality that seems to threaten his happiness and the success he otherwise finds. It’s an internal issue that needs healed, but importantly, it has huge external consequences. And those are what we’re focused on. Because an internal journey on its own is usually not enough, on screen. The audience connects because of the external problems it leads to, including conflicts with others, addiction, loss of loved ones, etc.
3. The movie is wildly entertaining. Maybe it helps if you like Queen’s music, and enjoy the spectacle of seeing it brought to life in vivid cinematic ways. For an audience to keep caring, they also have to strongly enjoy the ride, and find consuming the story to be almost like “candy.” There are a lot of ways to entertain (and there’s a whole chapter in my new bookThe Idea about this), but they all come down to making the audience feel certain emotions. The music and spectacle is one aspect. There is also comedy, and poignancy, as well as romance. They consistently make choices that are designed to make it fun. Maybe some will feel they went too far at times, and it didn’t work for them. My point is that the writers and filmmakers were consciously looking to milk these things — to deliver them in ways that will impact the audience emotionally. It doesn’t just happen. But it’s important that it does.
Whatever type of script you might be writing, my advice is to make it your primary goal to capture the audience emotionally in these ways, recognizing that it’s the most important thing, and that it takes a lot of focused effort to do successfully. When you do, people will be laughing and crying, applauding, on the edge of their seats, and then telling their friends they loved it. Regardless of what some critics might have said. And isn’t that ultimately what we want?
The show runner of a drama series I once worked on described what he wanted in the middle of an episode as being a “punch – counterpunch” dynamic between the good guys and the forces opposing them. As I coach writers these days on their projects, I often find myself using this phrase to describe how we want the second act of a movie (or main central section of any story) to feel.
No matter what your genre or medium, what stories tend to have in common is this:
A main character has a big problem to solve and/or goal to achieve, which tends to build and complicate as they actively try to resolve it. It gets worse and continually changes, in ways that entertain the audience and keep them compelled, because they’re emotionally invested in the character and a certain kind of desired outcome for them.
So one of the biggest challenges in any story is the need to keep things changing and developing in the middle, and moving forward in such a way as to keep the audience hooked.
One way to approach it is to think about what initial steps the main character might believably take, and how those might go wrong, or at least only partially right, while also resulting in more difficulties they will have to deal with in future scenes. After all, it’s characters dealing with difficulties that we audience members almost exclusively want to watch, so we’re almost always looking for how to increase those.
Often these problems and complications that result from their actions are going to come about because whoever or whatever opposes them (be it a particular human antagonist or something else), is going to “counterpunch” in response to the main character’s “punch.”
That counterpunch will put the main character in a new situation with fresh problems to deal with. And then the cycle can begin again. They punch, and their opposing forces counterpunch. Or the opposing forces punch, and they counterpunch. Either way, it should feel like a great sporting match, to some extent — in that neither team is able to easily win the day. Instead, both continue to fight, responding to what the other has brought with their own new ideas and actions. This is true in everything from action movies to romantic comedies — where the “problem” of the story is the thing in the way of a relationship.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park, The Book of Mormon, Team America: World Police) have said a key to storytelling they learned at some point was that it’s not, “This happens, then this happens.” Instead, it’s “This happens, therefore this happens” or “This happens, but this happens.” In other words, when a character takes action, it changes the situation in some way and causes more things to happen as a result, often unforeseen things that aren’t helpful to what they’re trying to do. And this often comes from a “counterpunch.”
Robert McKee also talks about this in Story: how most effective scenes involve a character (typically the main character of that story) taking action to try to get something they want in the world, and not getting the result they had hoped for and expected. And it’s the improvising that they have to do, in the face of that, which tends to be most entertaining and intriguing for the audience.
“Point of view” is a big part of this. The audience is meant to take on the subjective perspective of the “main character” of a story, and then stay with them, in virtually every scene, as they continually take action after action in pursuit of their desires, then deal with the consequences, regroup, and continue on. So good scenes generally depict that special person the audience is emotionally aligned with trying to do something, and encountering conflict.
Where writers sometimes go off track is when they depict other characters who aren’t the “main character,” separately from them. (Or write scenes where there is no real conflict or agenda someone is pursuing, but simply a sharing of information or opinions in a low-conflict way.) This generally happens because they don’t realize how important point of view is to earning and maintaining that all-important goal of “audience emotional investment.” That tends to dissipate when we leave the main character, which is why it’s generally better to meet other characters only when they do, and not separately from them.
I can imagine you’re now asking this:
“So there’s only one main character and they have to be in every single scene? That doesn’t seem right!”
Here’s how I see it: there is only one main character in a story, typically, and yes, they should be in pretty much every scene. But there might be multiple stories within one script, each with a different main character, and their stories can interweave. So in every scene we’re following the main character of one of the stories in the way described above.
Virtually every TV episode or pilot works this way, as well as many books and plays. There might be two, three, or even ten or more “stories” in one episode or work. Movies, on the other hand, usually only have one main story and a subsidiary “B Story” with the same main character as the “A Story.”
Whatever the situation in your script, and however many “stories” it has, it’s helpful to remember this one thing: we want each main character’s overall problem in each story (which hopefully is really compelling to the audience for the 7 reasons I talk about in my new book) to be front and center in every scene of their story, always developing, and generally building in difficulty and importance, because of an ongoing sequence of punch – counterpunch actions between them and whoever or whatever is against them.
If you do that, and it’s all believable and entertaining to watch — and the audience has a strong reason to care about this main character and their outcome — you will be on the right track.
Rather than blog in this space, I’ve been contributing guest articles on other sites, all touching on some aspect of the book’s premise: that the most marketable story or series ideas exhibit seven key characteristics that form an acronym of the word “PROBLEM” (since all stories, at their core, are about a problem).
The folks at Film Courage on YouTube were nice enough to interview me on camera and have started sharing chunks of our discussion on their channel. The video embedded below is a handy introduction to the concept of the book, why I wrote it, and what the “P” in “PROBLEM” stands for:
I also sat down for two great podcasts in recent weeks: my friend Pilar Allesandra led me, cheerleader-style, through the seven PROBLEM elements at her “On the Page” podcast, and my pal Ashley Meyers grilled me for his “Selling Your Screenplay” podcast about whether the main character of The 40-Year-Old Virgin really had a “Punishing” enough problem. (The answer is yes!!)
Speaking of friends, the wonderful Jeanne Bowerman, editor of Script Magazine, had me back for her live Twitter #scriptchat, where I outlined the premise of the book and took questions, all in the form of tweets, during a furious one-hour typing session. The transcript is available here.
In my experience as a professional screenwriter on projects like Band of Brothers — and in the years I’ve been teaching and consulting — one thing has become abundantly clear: projects live or die mostly based on their central idea. Yes, they need to also be really well-executed, but it’s the decisions writers make before they even start outlining that are the most important ones.
But we all tend to decide what our story will be about and then leap into writing it too quickly, without vetting the basic idea the way we would a finished script. And yet a project’s success or failure depends more on those initial choices than on anything else.
My book focuses on that idea selection process. It identifies the 7 elements of a viable story idea — elements which transcend genre or medium, and which don’t tend to be fully understood by most writers. I would say more than 90% of the most important notes I have on any script — my core feelings about whether it “worked” or not — have to do with the underlying concept. I could’ve given those same notes on the logline, or a one-page synopsis, and saved the writer a lot of time. (And that’s what I do with my coaching clients, who smartly come to me before they’ve done much more than that.)
Every story (and its logline) can be reduced to a problem that really needs to be solved. Or it could be a goal that really needs to be reached. They are two sides of the same coin. It’s a problem when one hasn’t reached their goal, and their goal could just be to solve a problem. So we could call it the “problem/goal.” When we’re telling someone what our story is about, that’s what we’re really talking about — its central problem: why it’s important, why it’s hard to resolve, what’s in the way, and most of all, why the audience should care.
In my book, I’ve made an acronym of the word “PROBLEM” so it represents the following seven qualities, which I think are present in stories that really work:
PUNISHING. The problem defies resolution, despite its main character actively pushing and struggling through virtually every scene — which mostly just leads to complications which build the problem.
RELATABLE. The audience has strong reasons to emotionally identify with the main character (and possibly others), such that they really invest in a particular outcome, almost as if it were happening to them.
ORIGINAL. The idea breaks new ground in some way, and has a fresh and distinctive voice. But it’s also a fresh twist on a proven, familiar type of story or genre. It doesn’t completely reinvent the wheel.
BELIEVABLE. What happens and what everyone does and says makes sense and adds up, striking the audience as very “real” — even if there are some fantastical buy-ins they have to make at the story’s beginning.
LIFE-ALTERING. The “stakes” are enormous, in terms of what is to be gained or lost. Very important things hang in the balance for these people we care about. It really matters, for all to be right with the world.
ENTERTAINING. The process of watching the main character try to solve their problem is truly fun to watch, in one of a handful of proven genre-specific ways that audiences pay to experience, emotionally.
MEANINGFUL. The story is “about something” that feels like it matters to the audience’s lives or sense of the world at large, somehow. It explores something fundamental and important to the human condition.
These qualities might appear to be self-evident, as the stories we love tend to accomplish them with seeming ease. But they are all challenging to achieve, and take conscious effort on the writer’s part. There are also several dimensions to each, and differences between how they work on film vs. television works (which is why each chapter ends with a section on how they apply to TV).
For instance, on a series, a typical episode tends to have more than one story, each with its own main character. Each of these stories needs to engage the audience by having these seven elements, but their problems tend to be microcosms of larger problems that will exist for the entire series. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some resolution at the end of an episode, though. If there isn’t, the audience doesn’t feel like they’ve watched a story — just a collection of scenes that are part of some much larger story.
When a writer sells a project — be it for TV, film, stage or commercial fiction — it tends to be mainly because the buyer believes the idea exhibits these qualities effectively. When they pass on a project (or ignore writers who have queried or sent them material), it tends to be because they don’t. Professional-level execution on the page is a given that is expected. But assuming that, “the idea” is what really matters.
To download a free sample chapter and read some of the nice things people like Graham Yost (Justified, The Americans, Speed) have had to say about the book, head over here. Or check it out on Amazon. I’m happy to say the reviews so far have been pretty amazing!
This is really what they pay us writers to do, when you get down to it, beyond everything else. We are supposed to grab people, to make them emotionally invest in the character(s) and situation(s), so they’ll want to keep watching/reading.
If we don’t, it doesn’t matter how well we execute on the page. Not really. We have to convince them to want to be there, to want to stay. And that’s about how it feels for them to be a part of the story.
Most of my notes on most scripts point to this central need. Writers sometimes lose sight of this as the goal, and don’t realize just how challenging it is to make millions of strangers engage and feel something about a story and characters. It’s hard! But it’s maybe the most valuable thing we do as writers — give the audience something to care about, to connect with, to lose themselves in. They want to experience the events of the story as if they were happening to them — to feel a part of it, and so connected that it really MATTERS how everything turns out. Almost like it’s their favorite sports team playing for the championship. And it’s our job to make that happen.
There are two aspects to emotional engagement. Both are important.
The first is about making them care about the predicament(s) of the main character(s) — to feel for the people and what they’re going through and trying to achieve. So many of my blog posts are about different ways to try to ensure this happens: by seducing them into some connection in the opening pages, by making sure the main character has one big problem they will actively focus on throughout, and that it has high enough stakes, and that the story is told subjectively through their point-of-view. Achieving a kind of emotional oneness with the main character(s) is something we take for granted, as viewers. But as writers, we have to strategize and work hard to make this happen.
The other way to engage audience emotions is through entertaining them. That is, we lead them into experiencing pleasurable emotions, that they chose to watch the movie/show because they’re hoping to feel. Different genres do this differently — depending on whether their audience showed up to laugh, to be scared, to experience romantic love, etc.
It’s not easy to achieve high entertainment value if you’re not also making them care about the characters and strongly bond with them. But occasionally it happens. If a comedy is funny enough, or a horror film scary enough, or an action-adventure has big enough spectacle, bonding with the characters can sometimes be slightly less crucial. With some movies, the audience just wants to laugh really hard, see awesome eye candy, etc., and they may or may not be quite as connected with the people. These kinds of movies are like amusement park attractions, to me. Sometimes they can be big successes. And a writer who can entertain this hugely can definitely find work. They just might not stick with you as much.
Most writers I work with aren’t focused in that direction. If anything, “entertainment” seems to be a lower priority. They’re not actively going for a particular genre, other than perhaps “drama,” which can be the hardest to make “entertaining” (and can sometimes become bleak, or boring). With this kind of script, it’s that much more important that the audience have strong emotional investment in the characters and their problems, and what they’re doing in the face of conflicts and complications they encounter to try to reach their goals.
In my view, most writers could stand to focus on both of these ways to engage audience emotion more, as the one-two punch of what makes a script really “work” — assuming it also has a strong enough original premise. And when you come right down to it, virtually every other screenwriting trick of the trade ultimately works in service to one or both of these goals.
Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch in Netflix’s SET IT UP
The new Netflix romantic comedy Set it Up is as good example as any, of a movie that makes both ways of engaging emotion a priority. I’m a fan of the genre, and it’s one the major studios don’t tend to make as much anymore — this gentler, pleasing kind of story of how two people come together (as opposed to more raucous comedies that might also have a romantic subplot). This movie presses a lot of the traditional buttons that you would see twenty years ago in studio rom-coms, and though I thought it took a while to really kick into gear, once it did, I found myself caring more and more about the two leads, enjoying the chemistry between them, and wanting to see each of them grow into their best selves, and end up together. And like the best versions of this genre (what Save the Cat would classify under “Buddy Love”), these two ultimately seem like they could be each other’s “perfect counterpart” — the person best suited to help them to find that best self.
If you watch it, notice all the things they do to make the two leads lovable, and growingly so. The more we watch them both be abused at work (and later in relationships), the more we can’t help but feel for both of them, and want them to find some escape (which they seek to achieve by secretly setting their terrible bosses up with each other). But once we get past that initial premise, it starts to be about something more — we want them to find personal fulfillment, and even love.
In terms of entertainment value, there is plenty of comedy throughout, as well as a chance for the audience to vicariously enjoy the experience of love blossoming, between two people they come to care about — one of the most time-tested kinds of “entertainment emotions” that audiences will pay to experience.
Whether you enjoy the movie or not, it’s trying to do what movies do best, when they are as successful: which is to entertain people, while making them care.
When I first started writing, I wish someone had explained to me what the necessary elements of a scene were. (As well as the key criteria for a good story.) In many scripts I read (and some I’ve written!), the writer seems a little hazy about what a scene should contain, and as a result, the flow of the story isn’t as engaging as it could be.
So let’s clear up any confusion on what a scene is, what it should look like, and what is to be avoided.
A scene is a story in miniature
Just as a story has a beginning, middle and end, and is focused on a problem or conflict of some kind, so do most good scenes.
And just as “point of view” is crucial to a good story, so is it key to a good scene.
What that means is this: in any given scene, we are typically focused on one character’s subjective experience of the situation. We have a clear sense of what they’re feeling, what their problem is, what they want, and what’s in the way.
And the scene is about that situation developing, through conflict, as they attempt to solve their problem or reach their goal for the scene.
Those attempts typically don’t easily work, and result in complications or unexpected results that force them to improvise, with some kind of rising tension and emotion, leading to a climax of some sorts, and, finally a resolution to the scene, in which its key issue is ended in some way, but also, something has happened that turns the story in a new direction, leading to new scenes.
Scenes that don’t engage audiences tend to lack these elements. They aren’t focused on a particular character’s understandable emotions and wants, and/or there isn’t a conflict at the center of the scene that builds and resolves in this way.
This is what we want to avoid: scenes that are just about characters exchanging information or opinions with each other, without much conflict or emotion. Scenes where characters get along — or goals are achieved easily — are not dramatic (or comedic) scenes. They just kind of lay there.
The audience is engaged by the problems, and attempts to solve them. And they need to have some “skin in the game” or a “dog in the fight,” in a scene. They need to be seeing it though someone’s eyes, who they are relating to in some way as they deal with a problem or pursue a goal. Otherwise they are just watching from an objective distance, without caring that much about what happens.
This doesn’t mean there’s not some room for good things to happen, or for characters to talk to each other about things without major conflict, but ideally, such moments are brief, and feature other elements that keep things moving along engagingly. For instance, in those scenes in Sex and the City where the four friends would commiserate over cosmopolitans about their latest man troubles, the advice they would give each other would (a) be entertaining, (b) focus on strong emotion, (c) focus on a particular character with a particular relatable problem, and (d) usually advance their story in some way. And even then, there would often be some conflict as the woman in question wouldn’t like how her friends are reacting to her issue, or what they think she should do.
I’ve heard it said that a good scene should either advance story (which is what I’ve mostly been talking about) or reveal/develop character. Or both. I don’t disagree. But even scenes that don’t advance story and only develop character need to do so in ways that are entertaining, emotional, and typically conflict-based, where it feels like the character’s situation is developing because of what we’re learning about them and what’s going on for them, during these “in between” moments of the story.
So there are a few key elements of a scene that we want to typically include:
Entertainment value (appropriate to the genre)
All of these serve to emotionally connect the audience to what’s going on, and make them want to keep watching/reading. That’s ultimately the name of the game. They’re not as connected when people they don’t really care about talk about things they don’t have a strong stake in, with little difficulty, and where things aren’t moving forward, and aren’t really that fun to watch!
One other common point of confusion about scenes. There are two ways of thinking about them. On one hand, every time you change time or location, and have a new scene heading in a script, you’ve got a new “scene.” So a scene can be as brief as a single line.
That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a scene as a complete dramatic unit that moves the story forward.
For instance, when Save the Cat talks about a feature film script containing 40 scenes that one could outline on cards (or paragraphs, in a Word document, like I do with my coaching clients), Blake Snyder means something much bigger than a location or scene heading change. He’s talking about a scene with an average length of 2.75 pages (in a 110 page script). It might have several location changes within it, before it’s fulfilled the criteria above.
Now some “moments” in a script might not accomplish all of the above, but serve as necessary interstitial elements, between scenes that do. As such, these are usually quite short, as in under a page.
One of the things I find often when a writer outlines a project for my feedback, is that a lot of what they think are full “scenes” in terms of “one of the forty” are really short information exchanges that don’t have enough meat, conflict or development in them to really engage the audience and move things forward. So rather than counting as a full “scene,” they are just little moments that can maybe be tacked onto the beginning or ending of one.
Let me conclude with something that a key mentor told me, during the years when he was the producer and I was the writer on a big project: scenes should serve multiple purposes. A lot can be going on in a given scene. Ideally, character is being revealed/developed, information is being given to the audience (shown, rather than told), AND the story is also moving forward in a dynamic way.
Rather than one small thing at a time happening, a lot can be packed into one scene, so that it’s rich, compelling and full of life and creative content.
This will help ensure that readers care about what’s going on, invest deeply, and stay engaged throughout the story.