Official Screenwriting Blog of The Blacklist by Scott Myers. Since selling his spec script K-9 in 1987, Scott has written 30 projects for every major Hollywood studio and broadcast network. His film writing credits include K-9 starring Jim Belushi, Alaska starring Vincent Kartheisher, and Trojan War starring Jennifer Love Hewitt.
One of the most important narrative elements screenwriters have available to us is set-ups and payoffs. The basic idea is this: We establish something that pays off later. Here are some examples:
Aliens: In an attempt to make herself useful, Ripley sets up how she can control a power loader. This pays off later when she engages the alien ‘mother’ in combat and delivers her classic line, “Get away from her, you bitch!”
The Dark Knight: At dinner with Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent provides a set-up when he says, “You either a die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” By the movie’s end, Dent pays off the truth of his own words.
The Shawshank Redemption: Warden Norton creates a set-up when he returns Andy’s Bible and says, “Salvation lies within.” This gets paid off when Norton opens Andy’s Bible which is inscribed, “You were right. Salvation lies within,” and Norton sees the hollowed-out pages Andy used to hide his rock hammer.
Magnolia: The numbers “8” and “2”. There’s an 82% chance of rain. Science convention begins at 8:20. That’s a set-up tied to Exodus 8:2: “If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs.” Which pays off at the end of the movie.
Fatal Attraction: Alex creates a set-up when she tells Dan, “I’m great with animals and I love to cook.” The boiled bunny rabbit serves as the payoff.
Implicit in the set-up / payoff dynamic is the idea of foreshadowing whereby the writer gives the script reader an insight into events that will happen later on before they understand the significance of those occurrences. It can be an especially effective psychological ploy for several reasons:
It can get the reader’s attention: Presented without context, a foreshadowed event can surprise the reader as the opening of The Hangover.
It can raise the reader’s curiosity: A foreshadowed moment can cause the reader to wonder what is going on, what is the significance of this, why am I seeing this now, like the cold opening of Fight Club.
It can create a sense of mystery: A foreshadowed image can generate a riddle we carry with us all the way through the script as in perhaps one of the most famous set-ups of all time — this “Rosebud” scene in Citizen Kane.
A great example of set-ups is the opening of Back to the Future [you can see an homage by high school students to that scene here]. Consider all the details that pay off later:
The coffee maker with no pot. This sets up the fact that Doc Brown is not at home, indeed, hasn’t been here for at least a few days.
A TV Anchorman talks about the theft of plutonium from a research facility and suspected Libyan terrorists. That sets up the fuel rods for the DeLorean time travel machine and the men who shoot Doc Brown.
Einstein’s overflowing bowl of dog food. This sets up Doc Brown’s dog who does the first time travel experiment.
Marty’s skateboard. This sets up a whole runner for how Marty gets around in the present — and then in an improvisational fashion in the past.
The skateboard rolls across the floor and hits a container marked “Plutonium”. See above.
Marty playing guitar. Loud. This sets up the fact that Marty is a musician [another runner] and that he likes to show off when he plays [which we see in the present and the past].
Phone call from Doc Brown. This sets up two things. One: He asks Marty to meet him at Twin Pines Mall at 1:15, which Marty does. Two: The clocks going off at 8AM confirms for Doc Brown that his experiment worked. And as a nice grace note, when Mary discovers the clocks are 25 minutes slow, he hustles out of there — late for school — into the movie’s opening credits.
Another good example is The Sixth Sense. Look at this scene at the very end and consider how this series of payoffs [told as flashbacks] lead Malcolm to the startling conclusion that he is a ghost:
Cole: “I see people. They don’t know they’re dead… they only see what they want to see.”
The kitchen table where Malcolm’s wife Anna has been dining… alone.
Their meeting at the restaurant where Anna picked up the tab.
The basement door with the red handle Malcolm couldn’t open.
The frost emitted from Anna’s lips.
And of course, the gunshot to Malcolm’s abdomen.
The Sixth Sense is one of the most notable examples of what is known in Hollywood as a Big Twist movie. To pull that off, the writer needs to set up those surprising payoffs [see also The Usual Suspects, Se7en, Psycho, Memento].
Set-ups and payoffs are terrific tools for screenwriters. Don’t forget to use them!
This is short, but sweet. When you write a first draft, there is only one thing that matters:
GET THE DAMN THING DONE!!!
More script projects crash and burn because somewhere along the line after typing FADE IN, writers get frazzled and frustrated, disgusted and depressed, peeved and pessimistic, and simply stop writing and never finish the first draft.
If you start a script…
And you’re just not feeling it…
The plot is a major struggle…
The characters seem off…
The dialogue isn’t flowing…
The whole script conjures up the odor of zoo dust…
It doesn’t matter. None of that matters. The only thing that does is to finish the first draft! Just get the damn thing done!
I guarantee you no matter how awful you think it is, the actual process of getting to the end of the first draft will do the following:
Help you understand your story better.
Surface story problems enabling you to address them.
Put you that much closer to finishing the script.
Get you past a huge psychological obstacle of finishing the first draft.
Perhaps the most important thing: After you finish a first draft, you are no longer writing, you are rewriting. You are editing. There’s not a writer I know about or have interviewed who doesn’t prefer editing to writing.
So if there is one writing mantra above all others I implore you to take to heart in 2019, it’s this one. No matter how hard it is for you to drag what you think may be a wretched assemblage of stinking scenes and putrid pages across the finish line known as FADE OUT… do it!
Everything looks different once you have a first draft in hand.
Everything is different once you have a first draft in hand.
Just get the damn thing done!
By the way, cracking the story before typing FADE IN is often directly connected to the writer finishing a first draft or not. If you know the story before you commence the page-writing part of the process, you exponentially increase the chances of you getting the damn thing [first draft] done. If not, you reduce the odds in your favor. Moreover by doing the hard work of figuring out the story in prep, there’s an awfully good chance you will turn a future Rewrite [R] into a rewrite [r], and speed your way into the editing process.
A memorable scene from the 2012 movie Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner.
Plot Summary: As the Civil War continues to rage, America’s president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield and as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.
INT. ODD FELLOWS’ HALL, WASHINGTON - NIGHT
Onstage, Gounod’s Faust, Act Three, scene eight, the garden outside Marguerite’s cottage, a gorgeously romantic night. MARGUERITE and FAUST are alone singing. The Lincolns, in their box, watch quietly. Elizabeth Keckley sits next to Mary.
Mary turns to Lincoln. They speak in whispers. Mrs. Keckley tries not to listen but she can’t help hearing what they say.
MARY You think I’m ignorant of what you’re up to because you haven’t discussed this scheme with me as you ought to have done. When have I ever been so easily bamboozled? (beat) I believe you when you insist that amending the constitution and abolishing slavery will end this war. And since you are sending my son into the war, woe unto you if you fail to pass the amendment.
LINCOLN Seward doesn’t want me leaving big muddy footprints all over town.
MARY No one ever lived who knows better than you the proper placement of footfalls on treacherous paths. Seward can’t do it. You must. Because if you fail to secure the necessary votes, woe unto you, sir. You will answer to me.
Here is the movie version of the scene:
This is a dialogue-driven scene and at the hands of such a talent as Kushner, probably a good idea to stick to the text which is what the actors Sally Field and Daniel Day-Lewis do.
One of the single best things you can do to learn the craft of screenwriting is to read the script while watching the movie. After all a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie and it’s that magic of what happens between printed page and final print that can inform how you approach writing scenes. That is the purpose of Script to Screen, a weekly series on GITS where we analyze a memorable movie scene and the script pages that inspired it.
“When I’m around you, I kind of feel like I’m on drugs. Not that I do drugs. Unless you do drugs, in which case I do them all the time. All of them.”
— Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), screenplay by Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright, graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley
The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Profession of Love suggested by Mark Furney.
Trivia: Edgar Wright has stated the movie was done in the style of a Musical, but instead of the characters breaking into song and dance, they break into a fight. The battle between Scott Pilgrim and Matthew Patel is done in the style of a Bollywood fight scene.
Dialogue On Dialogue: Here’s an off the nose way of professing one’s romantic feelings toward another — compare it to drug use!
My popular one week online class begins Monday, January 7, 2019.
Be sure to check out two special holiday deals at the bottom of the page!
Consider the great characters Pixar has created. Learn how and why they work, and bring those insights to your writing.
20 movies produced. 19 movies #1 at the box office. Worldwide B.O. gross $13.3 billion. Average B.O. per film: $663M by far the highest average per film of any studio in Hollywood history.
It’s not just dollars and cents, it’s also quality storytelling. 15 Academy Awards, 9 Golden Globes, 11 Grammys. Indeed 8 of Pixar’s 20 films are in the IMDB Top 250 Movies of all time.
No disrespect to Disney, but I think the real Magic Kingdom lies 397.8 miles north of Anaheim in a city called Emeryville, California where you’ll find this:
Longtime GITS readers know of my fascination with Pixar having blogged about them dozens of times. Due to having two sons who quite literally have grown up in what someday is likely to be called the Pixar Era, I have seen every one of the company’s movies, most of them several times.
In my estimation, the filmmakers at Pixar are master storytellers.
But how do they successfully wrangle magic time after time in their films? Are there lessons we can learn from Pixar to inspire and upgrade our own writing?
Up-up-upgrade your writing with Pixar story-crafting principles and practices.
First off, there are the practices Pixar uses in developing, breaking, writing and rewriting a script. In our 1-week class, we go through that process step by step, then see how we can adapt that approach to our own writing.
Then there are several narrative principles evident in Pixar movies, six of them we focus in our online class: Small Story / Substantial Saga, Special Subculture, Strange Sojourners, Separation, Sentimentality, Sires and Siblings, Stumbles and Switches, and Surprise. Going through every Pixar movie, we explore how these dynamics work in the context of each narrative and their overall applicability to storytelling.
There are 7 lectures, each of which I wrote, the content buttressed by an exclusive interview I conducted with Mary Coleman, Senior Development Executive at Pixar since the days of Toy Story 2, so we get a real inside look the outfit’s creative process.
In September 2017, I interviewed Mary Coleman as part of the DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts ‘Courier 12 Screenwriting Conference.
The class also has a Logline Workshop where you can post a story idea and revise per peer feedback. And two teleconferences to accommodate peoples’ schedules where participants get a chance to dig into the course content with me as well as discuss anything related to writing, screenwriting, and movies.
Trust me, this Pixar class I teach is INCREDIBLE!
Here are some nice comments from just a few folks who’ve taken the class:
“I was lucky enough to be able to take Scott’s Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class. It was my first class and a wonderful experience. I learned a ton and now have some important utensils that will help make all my stories better. Scott’s a great teacher and it was a pleasure learning from him!” — Valencia Stokes
“This course is awesome. I refer to these notes and lessons all the time.” — Traci Nell Peterson
“A course on Pixar movies? Apart from legitimately letting out my inner child and renting Up ‘for research purposes, I learnt about the ethos of the Pixar Brain Trust and the essential elements contained in all of their movies. Scott took us on an all-inclusive week long journey into why Pixar are so successful and how to practically apply this to your own script.” — Camilla Castree
“I recommend this course wholeheartedly. Plus you get to watch Pixar films as homework.” — TheQuietAct
“Scott Myers is a brilliant teacher and unites his knowledge and experience, insight and depth of thought in his lectures as well as he is providing help and support to his students. I highly recommend the class.” — Eva Brandstätter
A few words about the format: I’ve been teaching online since 2002, worked with over 1000 writers in that context, and honestly believe it is superior to the onsite class environment in many ways:
You can do virtually everything on your own time: Download lectures, read forum conversations, add your own comments, upload writing exercises and assignments. In your pajamas. In bed. Drinking coffee. However you want to access online course content, you can do it.
As opposed to listening to a teacher present lectures verbally, you get to download lectures and read them. Again at your leisure, but even more importantly, instead of feverishly trying to jot down notes from a verbal presentation, here you get everything laid out for you. I take great pride in my lectures, as they not only provide great content, they also have a narrative flow to them. Yes, they tell a little story.
Feedback and conversations online tend to be much more thoughtful and therefore beneficial than onsite settings. Why? Because instead of off-the-cuff, random comments, participants online tend to spend more time and reflection in composing posts for online.
Finally I’m constantly amazed at how much of a community emerges in online class environments. Writers from all around the world and somehow we bind together into remarkably vibrant learning communities, time and time again.
So if you’ve never tried an online screenwriting class, come on in! The virtual water’s fine!
For more information on Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling which begins January 7, 2019, go here.
Get lost trying to write your story? Let Dory help you find your way!
In the spirit of the season, I have two special deals for you! Check out the entire schedule of 10 Craft classes I will be offering in 2019:
January 7, 2019 — Craft: Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling Learn More
January 21, 2019 — Craft: Story Summaries — From Loglines to Beat Sheets Learn More
February 4, 2019 — Craft: Handling Exposition Learn More
February 18, 2019 — Craft: Scene Description Spotlight Learn More
March 4, 2019 — Craft: Character Development Keys Learn More
March 18, 2019 — Craft: Create a Compelling Protagonist Learn More
April 1, 2019 — Craft: Write a Worthy Nemesis Learn More
April 15, 2019 — Craft: Scene-Writing Workshop Learn More
April 29, 2019 — Craft: Dialogue-Writing Workshop Learn More
May 13, 2019 — Craft: The Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling Learn More
The first holiday offer: Each Craft class is on sale. Regular price: $95. Sale price: $79.
But here’s the really big second deal: You can enroll in the Craft Package which includes all 10 Craft classes at a savings of nearly 50% off the already discounted sale price. Special price: $400. That’s each course for $40 apiece! You not only get all 10 one-week classes, you also obtain exclusive access to the Craft Package site enabling you to go through all of the Craft lectures — 70 in all, each written by me — at your own pace and on your own time.
Know somebody who’s a writer? Or is someone looking to get you a special writing gift? Check out the Craft Package for something truly unique and turn 2019 into an excellent learning opportunity.
If there is a consistent refrain I hear about the problem with writing — and one I find myself muttering as well — it’s this: “I don’t have enough time.”
The simple fact is that may be true, especially so for writers who are working on the craft as an avocation or second job. While writing may be their number one creative priority, there is the small matter of keeping the lights on and the rent or mortgage paid, so on the fiduciary front, writing by necessity must take a back seat to bringing home the bacon. Depending upon the amount of hours they have to pull to cover their work, combined with family, friend and significant other responsibilities, their desire and energy for creative writing can run into a daily buzz saw of zero time.
What can a writer do in that situation? For one thing, reassess their goals. Perhaps they have to scale back their expectations. Instead of pounding out a spec script every two months, what about a more realistic goal? Remember it’s possible to create two scripts per year by writing 1 page a day.
But for a majority of people, including even those who appear to have no apparent time to write, there is another reality: In fact, we do have time, we just aren’t using it efficiently which in effect dissipates the amount we think we have.
Let’s imagine a writer. We’ll call him Sammy Glick. He is working on a spec script. He sleeps 8 hours per night. He works at his white collar job 10 hours per day. Let’s knock off another 2 hours for eating and handling daily household related chores (e.g., paying bills, laundry, bathing the dog). That leaves 4 hours per day of what we may call ‘discretionary’ time.
But what about exercise? Free time? Watching movies? Reading scripts? Yes, Sammy needs that, too. Okay, so let’s cut away another couple of hours leaving him with a mere 2 hours to write each day.
Here’s the thing: Sammy can do amazing things in 2 hours. If he’s in first draft mode, he should be able to write a scene every hour, maybe even more [depending upon the type of scenes, of course].
I think it’s fair to suggest the issue isn’t so much about Sammy not having time, it’s Sammy managing the writing time he has. Therefore, I’d like to offer three suggestions, starting small and working my way up in scope:
The Timer Approach: You may remember my posts about the Pomodoro technique, where a person works on something for 25–35 minutes, then takes a 5 minute break. Each work segment is called a pomodoro and I’ve found it extremely helpful when I’m doing non-’creative’ writing [e.g., blogging, lectures, email]. In fact, I can look at my daily list of tasks and break them down per how many pomodoros I think each will take. Since 35 minutes is too short, at least for me, in terms of creative writing, I use a timer and set it for an hour, ninety minutes, two hours, however long I feel the scenes / pages ahead of me require complete concentration. The key here is once you start the timer, that’s it: You write. No distractions.
Daily Routine: Setting a specific time — the same time — every day provides perhaps the biggest bang for your buck in terms of maximizing your time writing. Why? Because you create a pattern to which you become accustomed psychologically, even physically [I know plenty of writers who say they literally feel antsy or out-of-sorts if they miss a scheduled writing session]. I don’t have any facts to support my thesis, but I am willing to bet every single cent I have made hosting this blog that writers who have a regular routine get more accomplished with their writing than those who write only when they can find the time. [Note: That is safe bet for me seeing as I haven’t made one thin dime from GITS].
Prep-Writing: This is how Sammy Glick used to write: He would do a minimal amount of research and story prep, then super excited to get started on his story, he would type FADE IN and leap into page-writing. However most of his writing sessions were frittered away staring at the monitor because he didn’t know what to write. Then Sammy became a prep-writing convert. Once he started cracking the story and putting together an extensive, detailed outline before he typed FADE IN, Sammy rarely got stumped in his writing sessions, instead he was able to jam through a first draft by making the most of his precious few hours a day to write.
Here is how I have come to think of my writing time: It’s not so much managing it as it is protecting it. When I have those hours blocked off and I shut the door to write, I fight to preserve that time.
How about you? How do you manage your time? Do you have any software programs to recommend on this front? There are even programs that will shut down access to the Internet for whatever time period you set. And since we know the word “Internet” is actually technobabble for “Distraction,” whatever advice members of the GITS community have specifically on the Web front will be greatly appreciated.
Write a RESPONSE and share your thoughts and advice.
Endeavor Content acquires adventure drama spec script “Wolf Country” written by Pete Begler. From Deadline:
A beloved Colorado lawman who lives by his own version of the truth is headed for prison. Before he gets there, he escapes custody. A young female sheriff who still believes in right and wrong must go it alone chasing him through the rugged Colorado wilderness. In bringing him to justice she must first come to terms with the complexities of the man who taught her everything and who also happens to be her father.
Begler teaches writing at the Art Center College of Design. He is repped by WME and Kaplan/Perrone.
By my count, this is the 38th spec script deal of 2018.
There were 61 spec script deals year-to-date in 2017.
“In my early scripts I put a lot of thought and a lot of energy into crafting and shaping theme, weaving it through the story to the point where it got heavy‑handed and preachy. I just stopped thinking about it and started trusting that it will reveal itself at some point along the way. I trust that it’s going to naturally be within every character and every scene and running through the spine of the script, because it’s this mysterious, intangible element that’s driving the writing already. So I don’t put too much thought into it, at least in the early stages of a script. Once I finish a script, I’ll have read it through many, many times while I’ve been working on it, and certain things will start to emerge and certain ideas resonate, and so I’ll eventually develop or deepen those ideas. Other ideas that seem like they stray from the spine of the story, I’ll take out.”
“I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
— When Harry Met Sally… (1989), written by Nora Ephron
The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Profession of Love, suggested by Mark Furney.
Trivia: For the infamous orgasm scene, the original script called for Harry and Sally to merely talk about women faking an orgasm, until Meg Ryan suggested that Sally actually fake an orgasm at the table. Director Rob Reiner loved the idea and put it into the script.
Dialogue On Dialogue: I’m not a huge fan of romantic comedies, but WHMS is one of my favorite movies from the 80s in part due to Ephron’s incredible dialogue. Witness this scene with Harry’s profession of love.
Here’s a treat: A conversation between the late great Nora Ephron, who wrote the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally…, and its director Rob Reiner. It’s great! A wonderful back and forth about the roots and development of the project. Interesting how Ephron immediately saw the structure of the movie when she first heard the idea. She said, “I can write that.”