After a long conversation with an agent friend of mine, he gave me the age old lament "all the scripts I've been reading are crap". He reminisced about past scripts, ones that "really grabbed you by the balls -- and I'm not talking action scripts either". Of course, because he was talking to me, he recounted the first time he read Travis Beacham's script THE GLOAMING, which was later renamed KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW when it sold to New Line.
I thought a lot about that conversation, and after going back and reading Travis' first script, I understood both what he was saying, and what other writers could do to emulate that same "hair standing up on the back of the neck" feeling that reading a fantastic script can give you.
It's the same feeling Hollywood had when they read JUNO, where the dialogue POPPED off the page.
It's the same feeling they got reading Zach Helm's scripts, whose whimsical description, action lines, and plot turns POPPED off the page (unfortunately though, they didn't translate so well to the screen).
It's the same feeling they got reading THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, which for a long time was at the top of many people's "best scripts that have never been made" list.
Regardless of what happened after the script became a movie, the common theme here is that these scripts POPPED off the page. They grabbed you by the scruff of your neck with their writing, and didn't let you go until they were done with you.
In many cases, they launched careers -- which is what you guys want, right? So let's talk about some key elements you can incorporate into your scripts that will give that same "goosebumps" feeling.
Too often, writers believe that, unless a story is science-fiction or fantasy, they don't need to worry about building a unique or compelling story world. Nothing could be further from the truth -- audiences adore being thrust into unique but everyday worlds they would otherwise not encounter -- so really work to make your story world more vividly described.
It doesn't matter if your movie takes place in an intergalactic space empire, modern day Los Angeles, or a motel in Iowa -- you need to make the setting and world, time and place, POP off the page.
Even if it's Suburbia, USA it needs to not only FEEL like a unique and interesting place, but one that puts on emphasis on WHY this place for THIS movie.
To take the Suburbia, USA example to its extreme, think about EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. It used the typical "homogenized suburbia" and put it through a colorful prism in order to contrast with the dark, foreboding feel of Edward's home on the hill.
Thematically, it fits so perfectly -- the arrival of this seemingly dark character into this cheery, colorful suburban neighborhood is what it needed to "wake up" from it's dream. It also took the classic "Beauty and the Beast" story and turned it on it's head -- bringing the beast to the village, rather than the other way around. But most importantly, the setting (suburbia) popped off the page (and screen) because it was unique, interesting, and answered the question of "why here?" perfectly. There could be no better setting than the one that was chosen.
When choosing a setting, or when going back through an already written script -- ask yourself "why this time and place?". If there isn't a definitive, absolute answer as to why you've set your story where you have, and when you have, then your story world will be lacking. And it will definitely be reflected on the page.
Let's say you do have a definitive answer as to "why here and now?". Great. Now ask yourself "is it showing up on the page?". This is extremely important -- as writers we know everything there is to know about our stories, characters, and scripts -- it's all in our heads. But for the convenience of everyone not living in our heads, are all of those things showing up on the page? Many times, the answer is no.
Another sign of great writing is when your setting is so well drawn, that it becomes another character in the story. Think about how in the movie DRIVE, Los Angeles is portrayed in an almost noir-ish 80s vibe, and the city at night becomes a character The Driver interacts with. It feels alive and part of the action - rather than a boring background to get the protagonist from scene to scene.
In GAME OF THRONES, many of the different settings are like characters themselves, and even come to represent the entire population of the people who live in them. The Wall defines The Rangers. King's Landing signifies wealth, and The Iron Islands (2nd season) are just as strong and immovable as its people.
Getting to this point with your settings, whether it's on the tapestry of a fantasy or sci-fi script, on the streets of a gritty New York, a laid back Los Angeles, or a small town called Fargo -- is all about BRINGING IT TO LIFE.
Here are a couple examples from Travis Beacham's script, THE GLOAMING:
EXT. OBERON SQUARE -- LATER
In all its decaying, imperial splendor.
Philostrate ascends the stairs of the underground station, out into a plaza of crumbling marble sculptures.
He walks past TOURISTS feeding a thick flock of pigeons. The black dome of Parliament looms in the distance.
An OLD FAERIE with withered wings pushes a cart piled high with trinkets. Laughing SCHOOLBOYS sneak up behind her and throw pigeon food at her.
If you've never heard of KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW, it's about a serial killer that preys on faeries in a dark, Victorian steam punk thriller. It's fantastic, and hopefully it actually gets made.
So, let's look at the scene excerpt. First, notice how the little details not only set up where we are very quickly, but we can SEE it in our mind (the crumbling marble sculptures), can HEAR it (the LAUGHING schoolboys), and can smell it (a flock of pigeons). Also notice how quickly the scene is set. Quick, short action lines. Economy of words.
So, that was just a basic example of "introducing a setting". We get where we are, and it pops off the page. This next one is a little more interesting, and is one of my favorite moments in the script:
Two CONSTABLES slide the body into a black body bag. Philostrate passes them, looking out over the gray, fog choked harbour.
A distant tall masted ship floats by. Obscured creatures move about the deck. Bottom approaches him.
Where's the girl who found the body?
Name's Moira. She's in her skin, in the water over there.
A slick, supple seal-esque creature emerges from the tide. It climbs up onto a rock in the distance. Stretching, contorting, opening its mouth impossibly wide.
This bit still gives me the creeps.
A human face pushes through the open mouth. A whole head emerges. Curly red hair. A hand. An arm. A shoulder.
The girl underneath pulls off the dark sealskin as if she's sliding out of a tight leather skirt.
MOIRA stands on the rock in her "human" form, completely nude. Slim fair-skinned body flecked in a blizzard of light pink freckles. Her ears pointed like a faerie's.
Philostrate politely turns away. Bottom stares slack-jawed with a mix of morbid fascination and disgust.
It is very important to first mention that this is the only time we see both this character AND this kind of creature in the entire movie. She's just a small little detail of the entire story world. The scene that follows, a short Q and A to get some information, is no different than any good cop show. But it's amazing to read because of the vivid SETTING. Because of the vivid CHARACTER. Because of the vivid STORY WORLD. Because of the writing and creativity and above all -- economy of words.
You could have the most amazing story world described in your script, but if it reads like a novel, it's going in the trash. No matter how vivid you make your world, make sure we dont get lost in the details, make sure it doesn't distract from the story, and make sure it doesn't delay the story moving forward. And as always, make sure it's a quick read.
Imagine if someone had told you to write a scene where you introduce a fantastical creature that looks like a seal, and then a woman comes out of its mouth - whole. Would you have been able to describe it in 3 lines or less? Would you have been able to keep the story moving despite needing to take the time to introduce a brand new SPECIES? I know I wouldn't.
An extreme example to be sure -- but it illustrates perfectly what a well written, unique, perfectly fitting setting can look like.
So, here are some questions you need to think about when writing, and/or rewriting your script to make sure the story world is popping off the page:
Why did you choose this setting?
What are some characteristics of the setting that stand out? What can we SEE, what can we HEAR, what can we SMELL in the background that will bring it to life? What is happening in the background? What are some tertiary things we might see out of the corner of our eye, if we were paying attention?
How does the scenery change and develop over the time?
What are the Landmarks of the place?
You need to feed all of the senses of the reader, to depict a clear setting and location. You may not describe every little thing (in fact, you shouldn't), but if you can convey a little interesting detail here, or a unique detail there, you will quickly build a unique story world.
What is it that makes your setting easily identifiable as YOURS? This doesn't even have to be on a national scale (like setting it at the Washington monument, or the pyramids of giza), but when we see it, either in our heads or on the page, we immediately associate it with your movie/script. Think of the TV series THE MISFITS (hulu). When I see that skyline of concrete low income housing, I think of the show and the characters and all the emotions the show brings out of me. If you can write a movie that makes an executive ACTUALLY remember it, just because of the story world, that's huge.
Now that you've started thinking about interesting landmarks or unique locations of where you?ve decided to set your movie, think about this on the scene level. Does this scene have to be in a restaurant? Does that scene have to be in a bedroom? The more you can get your characters out into the world, interacting with it and within it, the more your script and story world comes ALIVE.
Even if characters have to be inside a restaurant, or some other "boring" location, be specific about where that scene takes place, and what that setting feels like, so that the reader can feel like they're in this setting with these characters.
Simple exercise: imagine you've set a script in modern day Los Angeles -- think of all the landmarks of the city -- the getty, the observatory, the la brea tar pits, or other places that are unique to Los Angeles. Put a "dinner scene" there. What does that do? Unless your script is about cooking, it forces you to cut out all the BS, and focus the scene on JUST the information you need to move the story forward and give the characters depth.
So all of those are just a few questions to ask yourself when building your story world in order to make it POP. Now let's talk about characters.
While great dialogue with unique voices is a major force behind making your characters POP (as I've written about in the past), one very simple change you can make to your writing (or rewriting) that will help them pop off the page even more is using this simple tip:
Reveal a bit about your characters through a quirky or unique piece of action that speaks volumes about who they are.
"What does that even mean?" you say. "I'm not writing an indie film, there's no need for any quirkiness here!" you say. Well, bear with me.
One example I like to use that sets up a character very quickly (almost effortlessly) in the audience's mind was in the movie UNFAITHFUL, with Diane Lane and Richard Gere. As you may already know, that movie is about an average, suburban housewife who meets a mysterious man and has an affair. Since she's the protagonist, and she's the one doing the cheating, it's a highwire act because we have to LIKE her, we have to SYMPATHIZE with her, and we have to root for her -- an adulterous wife. So how do you pull that off?
In the opening, there's a scene where Diane Lane is doing the laundry, helping her son get off to school, etc. After she sees her son off to the bus, she passes by a table with a chewed up piece of gum sticking to it. Instead of being disgusted, or angry that her young son left it there, she simply pops it into her mouth and goes about her day cleaning the house.
In a movie where she ultimately cheats on her husband, this little moment in the beginning humanized her, made her real -- like a real mom with real faults and real reactions to the gross things kids leave around the house. It was such a small detail, but so perfect and spoke volumes -- these are the kinds of small details that can bring a character to life quickly.
In a format where you have so little time to set up characters, these small details can be all the difference -- whether in the strength of the material, or how it's received.
One last thing to think about, along the same lines as having small character details - when you integrate character development into the sequence of action -- what a character is DOING, that's how cut down on and eliminate exposition. Keeping things moving, keeping characters DOING, while revealing bits about these characters in the process of WHAT they are doing -- helps you write better dialogue and create memorable, CINEMATIC characters.
So whether you're writing a new script, or going through an existing script, find all the little ways you can enhance your setting, enhance your scene work, and enhance your characters and make them POP off the page.