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Screenplay, part 4: Screenplay Reloaded

By Pseudonym in Media
Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 05:02:15 AM EST
Tags: Movies (all tags)

Fear has a name.

This week we look at character and characterisation and things related to them. This installment will be of hopefully interest to all fiction writers, not just screenwriters.

Continued from parts 1, 2, 3.

Many apologies for how long it has taken to get this installment out. No excuse on my part, apart from real life getting in the way.

As with the previous article, examples are mostly taken from The Matrix. If you have it handy, you may want to watch or read the film again. Or you may wish to review part 3 to get an overview of the film's structure. I'm going to throw around terms like "second act turning point" without explaining them, so please go back to the previous articles if you get stuck.

What is a character?

The next few articles have a theme, and the theme can be summed up as: Movies are not real. An obvious point, one might think, but you may be surprised how often this is forgotten.

This article is about character and characterisation, so the theme for this article is: Characters are not people. This is true even if the character is based on a real person.

There's a mostly apocryphal story which is told in various forms to students of fine art which illustrates what I mean. The story goes that Pablo Picasso is commissioned to paint a portrait of a woman, and her husband enters the studio to inspect it. After looking at it, the man says that the painting is a failure as it hardly resembles his wife at all. Picasso objects, saying that it bears quite a close resemblance. The argument gets more and more heated until Picasso asks, "Well, what does your wife look like?" The man produces a photograph of the woman. Picasso examines it closely for a minute then hands it back to the man saying, "You may be right. I didn't realise your wife was quite this small and flat."

A character is a work of art, just like a figure in a painting or a sculpture. Like all works of art, a character's aspects are designed to be metaphorical, comprehensible and streamlined. There is a lot of material on art theory which goes into what a work of art actually is, and I do not propose to reproduce that here, but I will give one example to illustrate this point. Peter Shaffer's screenplay of Amadeus (based on his play) is loosely based on the career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) told through the crazed recollection of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). This film isn't actually a historical biography, but rather it is a metaphor for the tension between genius (symbolised by Mozart) and mediocrity (symbolised by Salieri). The point is that even this "historical" drama is not real, but storytelling intended to make a point (or many points) with the audience.

I know Rick Blaine in Casablanca better than I know myself. Rick is always Rick. I'm a bit iffy.
-- Robert McKee, Story


It has been said that inside every writer is an actor trying to get out. This is at best partly true, as most writers, were they ever to set foot on a stage or in front of a camera, would suck at it. It's also ironic for the screenwriter or playwright because, most of the time, it is not them that will eventually act. Indeed, one of the things that the screenwriter has to remember is that they are not an actor, and so has to tread a sometimes fine line between getting their intentions across and micro-managing the performance which the actors will eventually give. (More on this next article when we look at scenes.)

Nevertheless, a writer has to act because they must create the dialogue and action which an actor must eventually perform. The way they do this is to try to achieve empathy with their characters. Empathy, literally, is the ability to get inside the feelings of someone else. This can be hard to do. What if your character is a middle-aged Korean woman, a psychopath, a talking ant or a sentient computer program? (I'm assuming for the sake of argument that you are not actually a middle-aged Korean woman, psychopath, talking ant etc.) You may not find it easy to look inside the souls of some characters, but you must, because only by doing this can you create a whole character for them.

One thing that may help you is understanding "bad" characters. The key to empathising with a "bad" character is understanding that nobody thinks they are bad. Unless you're deliberately trying to produce a cartoon villain, a "bad guy" is just a normal guy dealing with what life has given him/her.

Special attention needs to be paid to the protagonist. Remember that the protagonist is the character through whose eyes the story is told. Therefore, not only must the writer empathise with the character, but so must the audience. There are many techniques which a writer can use to do this, but two of which deserve special mention because they're so easy to spot.

The first common technique is vulnerability. If a character shows a vulnerable side, the audience will interpret this as a kind of intimacy, and as a result, will identify with the character more. An example from The Matrix is the party scene where Neo first meets Trinity. We have already hinted that he is a loner, and putting him in an unfamiliar situation, obviously not enjoying himself, and in the presence of a mysterious attractive woman in tight PVC, just rubs in how out of his depth he truly is. Vulnerability almost always works because insecurity is a universal character trait; deep down, we all suffer from it. Tapping into this helps the audience identify with the protagonist.

The second common technique is dramatic irony. The intent is that if we know something that the protagonist doesn't, that makes us more involved with the protagonist. So, for example, if we show a shot of the saboteur interfering with some safety equipment that the protagonist's life depends on, that makes us feel for the protagonist all the more. Be careful, though. Dramatic irony doesn't have this effect if the audience doesn't care about the protagonist. At best all you have achieved is some heavy-handed foreshadowing. At worst, you have made the audience even more annoyed, or even cheering at the possibility that your protagonist may be harmed. Consider yourself warned.


Characterisation is what physicists would call the observables of a character. It's the set of human properties which we can see. A character has an age, sex, hair colour, job, taste in music, political beliefs and so on. Characterisation can be external (e.g. style of speech and gesture) and internal (e.g. attitude towards stupid people). It can be from the past (e.g. education) or the present (e.g. current living arrangements) and can change over the course of the movie (e.g. current partner).

Characterisation from the character's past is called back story. Back story serves two main purposes. As a story device, a judicious revelation from a character's past can help increase the tension at a turning point or help explain a character's actions. A classic example is the scene from near the end of The Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader (James Earl Jones/David Prowse) reveals to Luke (Mark Hamill) that he is Luke's father. Back story of this kind is occasionally revealed in flash back.

The other main purpose of back story is to help an actor prepare for a role by understanding where the character comes from. Actors usually find that half a page or so of back story can help a lot with developing their own empathy with their characters. An interesting piece of trivia is that for The Abyss, the writer/director James Cameron got science fiction writer Orson Scott Card to write the first three chapters of the film's novelisation as back story which he gave to the three main actors (Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael Biehn) to help with their preparation.


Before we look at true character, the step beyond characterisation, it's first necessary to understand dilemma. Basically, a dilemma is a real choice which a character has to make.

Consider a scene which occurs in every James Bond film. The first is at the start where M calls in Bond and tells him about the latest evil person who is attempting to take over the world, or whatever. Bond has some options. For example: Does he go after the bad guy, or does he go home and do something else?

This is not a dilemma. It would not occur to Bond to do anything but go after the bad guy. A choice between being the tough action hero that you are or going off and playing golf or something is no choice at all. A true choice is a choice between irreconcilable goods or multiple evils. An example of this is another scene which occurs near the end of every James Bond film, where the evil person has the "Bond girl" hostage, and Bond is faced with a choice between saving the world or saving the girl (irreconcilable goods) or, alternatively, letting the world be destroyed or letting the girl die (multiple evils). Bond's solution, of course, involves both saving the world and getting the girl by some clever means. That's life when you're an action hero.

Similar scenes occur in The Matrix. At the first act turning point, Neo is offered the option of taking one of two pills. The red pill will take him on an unknown journey where he will be given the answer to the question which has been plaguing him for years. The blue pill will return him home to his normal life which we have already established he doesn't like much. For Neo, this is no choice at all.

On the other hand, at the second act turning point, Neo is faced with a choice between to saving his own life, or sacrificing his life to try to save Morpheus. This is a true dilemma between multiple evils. Someone is clearly going to die (or so the Oracle told him), and the choice is: is it going to be me, or is it going to be him?

True character

Characterisation is what people can find out about you from the outside in the normal course of events. True character, however, is something quite different. It is the core of your personality, the heart of your humanity (assuming the character is human, of course). When you get down to it, is the character good or evil, cruel or kind, selfish or selfless?

True character can only be revealed in one way: by pressure. The greater the pressure is, the greater the revelation is. The reason for this should be obvious. Anyone can do the "right thing" when it's easy, or when doing the wrong thing will gain them nothing. Making the decision hard is what helps the revelation.

As a side note, one reason why good sequels are so hard to write is that it's difficult to find more significant aspects of true character to reveal in subsequent films.

The ending

Endings, frankly, are a bitch.
-- William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade

In part 2, we noted that to keep an audience, you need to get the first ten minutes of the film right. This, however, just keeps them in the theatre. It doesn't guarantee that the movie will work.

Despite the fact that nobody knows what makes a movie work, it's possible to come up with a few generalities. An old Hollywood saying is that "movies are about their last twenty minutes". There's nothing that will kill a movie at the box office quite like an unsatisfying ending.

Just like the opening of a film, the ending has a structure. The three parts of the ending are crisis, climax and resolution.


Next time we'll be looking at scenes and composition. One of the things that we will note is that over the course of an act, the drama/tension/humour builds. It follows that the final dilemma presented to the protagonist should be the biggest. This dilemma is called the crisis. It can in principle occur anywhere in the film, but the two most common places are at the second-act turning point (e.g. in The Matrix) and directly before the climax (e.g. in Star Wars; see below).

Where to place the crisis depends on how long the climactic action is. In The Matrix the climactic action starts with Neo re-entering the matrix to save Morpheus and ends with the defeat of Agent Smith. In Star Wars, the climactic action is much shorter. The crisis takes place while Luke (Mark Hamill) is in a fighter attacking the Death Star and has to decide whether to use the computer or use the Force (irreconcilable goods). The pressure in this case is that he is the last pilot able to destroy the space station, and if he fails, the rebellion will be destroyed.

The crisis is a deliberately static moment in the action, which gives the protagonist time to consider the dilemma and the audience time to feel the compressed energy which will be released in the climactic action. It is almost always a weakness in the screenplay if this scene is skimmed over or put offscreen.

The crisis is so important that it is often known as the obligatory scene. Take a "creature feature", for example, such as Jaws or Alien. There is some creature which is terrorising some person or group of people. You know before the movie starts that there has to be a scene where the protagonist faces the creature. Similarly, in Toy Story 2, the theme of toys outliving their usefulness when childhood ends has been set up from the beginning. The obligatory scene occurs when Woody (Tom Hanks) has to decide whether or not he wants to see out his owner's childhood or not.


I'm going to skim over the climax for the moment and come back to it next time once we've looked at scenes and composition more closely. For now, we'll define it loosely as the high point of interest. It's the moment that the entire film has been set up for. In an action/adventure film, it's the point where the "bad guy" is defeated. In a romance film, it's the point where the lovers are united forever. (At least until the sequel, of course.)


The resolution is everything that comes after the climax. In a television sitcom, it's the part after the last commercial break where the cast re-gathers for one last joke before the credits. Generally this is considered gauche in screenwriting, but it can be done if it's the right kind of film, such as in Men in Black II.

The resolution can be used for many purposes. The most common is to show how life has changed by the events of the film. This can be as simple as a shot of the family, reunited, at a picnic. Or it could be a full scene, such as the medal ceremony in Star Wars. One technique which used to be popular was to show a series of captions which told of the fates of the various characters (e.g. Animal House, American Graffiti, A Fish Called Wanda). A more modern take on this idea was used in Four Weddings and a Funeral, with a series of wedding photographs.

The "how life has changed" resolution may also be rendered as a speech by the protagonist (this is used in The Matrix and The Terminator amongst many others). This is especially useful if the screenwriter is deliberately setting up a sequel.

The second most common is the slow curtain, which is a courtesy to the audience so that they don't feel that the film ended abruptly. In the screenplay, this is usually a single paragraph of action which describes a camera motion or action which is uncompleted. Note that it is not the job of the screenwriter to actually specify camera motions (unless they are a writer-director), but it's often rendered as a rising crane shot or pan across a landscape or something like that.

As an example, here is the final line of Dogma, written by Kevin Smith:

Cop cars and fire trucks start to pull up.

Simple but effective. No need to show the aftermath, just a little snippet to show that there is actually an aftermath, and life goes on.

You can also use the resolution to resolve a subplot. This is difficult to do well, however, and in the hands of an inexpert screenwriter will end up boring. Generally speaking, the end of the film is the conclusion of the main plot. In Story, Robert McKee reports that this technique is used in The In-Laws, written by Andrew Bergman. I haven't seen that film and can't think of any good examples of this technique being used. Perhaps an interested reader could find one and report back.


The homework for this week is: Pick a movie you've already seen. (It can be the same one you've been using.) Identify choices and non-choices which the protagonist is asked to make. For those which are true dilemmas, what does this reveal about the character?

Identify the crisis, climax and resolution. What dilemma is the protagonist subjected to at the climax? Is this an obligatory scene? How close to the start of the film can you see events which mean that this scene must happen?

How long is the resolution? What happens? Is it a "slow curtain", or is there one or more full scenes here? Why?

As always, report back what you find.

Next time...

It's been quite a few months since last time. I promise the next installment won't be quite this long away, but it probably won't be in the next week. We'll be covering scenes (including dialogue scenes and action scenes) and how they fit together into the overall scheme of things.


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Our movie could portray the miracle of childbirth.
o The first sign of labour is the water breaking. Birth is four minutes later. 13%
o There will be no time to get to a hospital. It will have to take place in the taxi/courtroom/wherever. 21%
o Baby will be the size of an average three month old. 21%
o Our mother will give birth while sitting on her tailbone, or possibly the lithotomy position (legs in stirrups). 2%
o Baby will be perfectly clean and dry. 7%
o Definitely no afterbirth. 34%

Votes: 38
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
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o part 3
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Display: Sort:
Screenplay, part 4: Screenplay Reloaded | 69 comments (45 topical, 24 editorial, 0 hidden)
-1 (1.41 / 24) (#1)
by veldmon on Sun Apr 27, 2003 at 07:55:14 AM EST

What does this even mean? I've seen many movies throughout my life, yet I don't become involved with them in an inner circle sort of way. Put simply, is this going to butter my popcorn when I am pouring a glass of milk? NO, so why pretend to be in the scene!!? This is a perfect example of the fuel that keeps the flame burning for all the haters of DETAIL out there. Seriously, why do this when READERSHIP is so much more worthy?

Dear Mr. Fuckface (3.61 / 21) (#9)
by Relayer on Sun Apr 27, 2003 at 09:10:52 AM EST

This article is about screenplay writing, not watching movies.

If it were about watching movies, it would be called "Sitting Flat on Your Ass, part 4: Sitting Flat on Your Ass Reloaded."

However, it's not.

Read the prior pieces and you'll see that it is quite informative.


It tastes sweet.

[ Parent ]

Since You Mention It... (3.28 / 7) (#17)
by CheeseburgerBrown on Sun Apr 27, 2003 at 03:03:58 PM EST

If it were about watching movies, it would be called "Sitting Flat on Your Ass, part 4: Sitting Flat on Your Ass Reloaded."

Frankly, the most terrifying aspect of what you suggest is the idea of having one's ass somehow reloaded...

Incoming crap? Now that's nasty.

I am from a small, unknown country in the north called Ca-na-da. We are a simple, grease-loving people who enjoy le weekend de ski. Personally, I pref
[ Parent ]
From someone... (4.00 / 2) (#19)
by Relayer on Sun Apr 27, 2003 at 04:38:57 PM EST

With a name "CheeseburgerBrown" it just makes it that much funnier...

Don't you watch South Park?

It tastes sweet.

[ Parent ]

Still struggling with protagonists/antagonsist (5.00 / 1) (#21)
by LaundroMat on Sun Apr 27, 2003 at 06:41:49 PM EST

I saw "One Hour Photo" last night. Stumbled upon this article just today. (+1FP from me, I wish I had found the other articles in the series before now).

Anyway, I'm still puzzled by the antagonist/protagonist opposition. I felt I "got" it after reading part 2, and this part in the article confirmed what I thought:

Special attention needs to be paid to the protagonist. Remember that the protagonist is the character through whose eyes the story is told. Therefore, not only must the writer empathise with the character, but so must the audience.

But then "One Hour Photo" returned to me. Who's the protagonist here? Sy (Robin Williams)? Yes, as it's through his eyes that we experience the story. But there's no way anyone could empathise with his character.

Is this a flawed screenplay then? Robin Williams did a good job in my (to be discarded by world+dog) opinion, but the film a lot to be desired. Could it indeed be that because it was nigh on impossible to show empathy for the protagonist?

Another questions crops up. If Robin Williams is the protagonist, who then is/are the antagonist(s)? Surely there are no characters in the movie that play a vital role in opposing or hindering his actions?


"These innocent fun-games of the hallucination generation"

Haven't seen that one (5.00 / 1) (#25)
by Pseudonym on Sun Apr 27, 2003 at 08:14:47 PM EST

Sorry, I haven't seen One Hour Photo.

The first thing to realise is that the audience doesn't have to identify with the protagonist as such, or even sympathise, but rather empathise. You don't need to see the protagonist as "you", but rather, understand why the protagonist sees the world the way that they do by getting into their head.

Without having seen the film (which makes my opinion worth even less than yours), there are a few common scenarios which you may be in here.

One possibility is that there was a vital piece of information presented so subtly that you missed it. If this is the case, don't feel bad about it. Some of the most seasoned film experts, for example, couldn't work out why Louise shot the guy at the first act turning point of Thelma and Louise, which caused a lot of people to break their willing suspension of disbelief. (In fact there is one line delivered which supplies the answer, but a lot of people apparently weren't listening.)

Another possibility is that the Robin Williams character is an anti-hero. The point could be not that he's good, but that everyone else is worse. Perhaps (and recall I haven't seen it) how the character changes through the film, or how he reacts at dilemma points, is the critical thing here.

And yes, there's the possibility that it's just a flawed script. Flawed scripts get made. As an exercise, try to work out who the protagonist is in America's Sweethearts.

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[ Parent ]
Flaws script... (4.00 / 1) (#29)
by sholden on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 02:43:27 AM EST

So if a script doesn't follow your views of how characters should be it is flawed?

The world's dullest web page

[ Parent ]
No... (5.00 / 1) (#30)
by Pseudonym on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 03:14:42 AM EST

A film is flawed if it doesn't work for some reason or other. If the problem is script-related, then it's a flawed script. In my opinion, this is the only reasonable definition of "flawed". In cases where a film is flawed, you can often (though not always) trace the cause back to one or more of the "rules" being broken badly. (There is a difference between breaking rules "well" and breaking them "badly".)

America's Sweethearts is a deeply flawed movie, and one of the causes is that the protagonist is not who you think it is at the start of the movie. The change of apparent protagonist also changes the dramatic premise. The whole movie is way too incoherent and disorienting as a result. See it and verify for yourself if you don't believe me.

Now back to the topic at hand. LaundroMat noted:

Robin Williams did a good job in my (to be discarded by world+dog) opinion, but the film a lot to be desired.

i.e. the film didn't work, in at least one person's opinion. Is this due to the script? I don't know. I haven't seen the film. However, if the film doesn't work and it's hard to emphasise with the protagonist, this suggests a place to look.

Once again, I haven't seen One Hour Photo, so I can't give you an opinion as to what, if anything, is wrong with it.

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[ Parent ]
Not flawed (5.00 / 2) (#31)
by the77x42 on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 03:38:11 AM EST

The 'standard' is to write the protagonist as a sympathetic one, or one that you are given some decent insight on. A protagonist that you don't fully understand can be interesting as well.

With One Hour Photo, we never understand Williams or get inside his head. This is what makes this protagonist unique and enjoyable to watch. You want to know his motives, and are engaged by his actions; the point is to try and figure out why he does those things.

Movies like Cube share a collective protagonist. In other words, everyone is in the same situation and there is a unifying experience that binds them all against a (non-existent) antagonist. Other movies like American Psycho portray a deplorable character, but still one that we can relate to on some occassions, but is more intriguing than anything else.

The protagonist does not have to be a cut-and-dry good guy or bad guy. Think of the protagonist as the main (ie. most portrayed) character who opposes some other character (an antagonist).

"We're not here to educate. We're here to point and laugh." - creature
"You have some pretty stupid ideas." - indubitable ‮

[ Parent ]

I'll continue this in a diary (one of these days) (none / 0) (#43)
by LaundroMat on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 02:34:35 PM EST

I feel One Hour Photo could spur some interesting discussion, and I'd prefer pouring this in a diary.

"These innocent fun-games of the hallucination generation"
[ Parent ]

Didn't really like One Hour Photo (none / 0) (#49)
by stormie on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 08:59:28 PM EST

I didn't really like One Hour Photo. I think maybe because, as you say, I never understood Williams or got inside his head, but I wanted to.. and in the end, I never did.

Maybe I'm just extraordinarily dense, but I didn't understand the ending. What was with those photos? I read a few explanations people came up with but none of them were particularly satisfying.

[ Parent ]
the little things (none / 0) (#53)
by the77x42 on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 10:24:09 PM EST

remember he said that he always wanted to photograph the little things? (or something along those lines)... it was the little things that were the most important to Sy.

According to IMDB though, the original cut never showed the pictures, and they were left to the imagination. Perhaps that is why the dective says "they aren't pretty" in the beginning, hense the confusion.

"We're not here to educate. We're here to point and laugh." - creature
"You have some pretty stupid ideas." - indubitable ‮

[ Parent ]

Resolution to wrap up a Subplot (5.00 / 3) (#32)
by SlickMickTrick on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 03:45:49 AM EST

In Return of the Jedi, several subplots are tied up in the resolution.

There's Han and Leia's relationship, Skywalker standing beside Yoda and Kenobi, and in the special edition the beginnings of the galactic collapse of the empire.

False tension (5.00 / 3) (#34)
by komet on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 07:09:03 AM EST

One of the things that annoy me most in many films is flawed tension; scary scenes that aren't actually scary at all if you take your experience with Hollywood films into account.

For example, many films try to set up tension by putting the protagonist in a life-threatening situation. Sure, empathy with the protagonist makes the scene scary. But at the back of my mind, I still know that if the protagonist dies at this point, the film will be over and it's only been running for 15 minutes now, and anyway, everyone knows the protagonist never dies, at least not unless the film is about death. This thought prevents me from really being scared for the character, and makes me really bored.

Knowing this, what can be done to create true surprise for people who don't forget they're in a cinema?


Best film moment ever (5.00 / 1) (#35)
by starsky on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 08:05:09 AM EST

Stevel Seagal in one of those 15 movies about air hostage taking (maybe Air Force One?). Seagal dies 15 minutes into the movie - I wasn't expecting *that*! I guess it also helps that SS is a buffoon and the sonner he dies the better (In film terms).

[ Parent ]
Executive Decision (n/t) (5.00 / 2) (#36)
by Coldfire on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 09:28:15 AM EST

Just pay attention.
[ Parent ]
Reminds me... (5.00 / 2) (#40)
by JahToasted on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 12:31:58 PM EST

I think it was called "Deep Blue Sea" (it was about super sharks). Samuel L Jackson is giving the old "we've got to pull together" speech and in the middle of the speech a shark jumps out of the water and eats him. That scene alone made it worth watching (even though the rest of the movie sucked).

[ Parent ]
No (5.00 / 1) (#41)
by starsky on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 12:37:47 PM EST

the bit where the hot french chick gets dripping wet whilst wearing white panties and a white t-shirt made the film worth watching. Twice. *wanks cock*

[ Parent ]
Yes (5.00 / 1) (#37)
by ph317 on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 11:01:24 AM EST

We could alter these perceptions of safety in the viewer's mind by releasing more films that don't fit the standard patterns, but still come off as a "good" movie.  For an example to fit your qundry, wouldn't it be great if a good writer would make a good movie, but manage to work in a protganist who dies about 20 minutes into the film, and then switch the audience over to a new protagonist (who was a supporting character to the first protagonist), perhaps even cycling through this multiple times?  I know it would be challenging to not piss off the audience, but I'm sure someone of talent could so something like that and make it work.

[ Parent ]
Spoiler. (none / 0) (#44)
by LaundroMat on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 02:39:01 PM EST

Wasn't there this movie where Bruce Willis dies in the first minutes?

"These innocent fun-games of the hallucination generation"
[ Parent ]

Pop Quiz: (none / 0) (#56)
by ti dave on Tue Apr 29, 2003 at 03:56:29 AM EST

What's the only movie where Willis' character dies?

I'd like to put a bullet in your head, Ti_Dave. ~DominantParadigm
[ Parent ]

Easy (5.00 / 1) (#59)
by Pseudonym on Tue Apr 29, 2003 at 08:31:31 PM EST

Twelve Monkeys

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[ Parent ]
Other movies he dies in... (none / 0) (#65)
by jtdubs on Thu May 01, 2003 at 03:29:15 AM EST

He also dies in:

Armageddon: blown up at very end.
The Sixth Sense: shot at the beginning, but you don't realize he's dead until the end.
The Jackal: he's the antagonist and Richard Gere kills him.

That's just off the top of my head. There may be more.

Justin Dubs

[ Parent ]
PARENT HAS SPOILERS (none / 0) (#68)
by p3d0 on Tue May 06, 2003 at 04:13:12 PM EST

Boy, I wish I hadn't read it.
Patrick Doyle
My comments do not reflect the opinions of my employer.
[ Parent ]
Seen a film like that. (5.00 / 1) (#45)
by BlaisePascal on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 06:02:46 PM EST

There's a classic, famous movie where for the first 20 minutes or so, we follow the story of one main character.  The film opens with her conflicted because she and her boyfriend wantt o run off and get married, but they have no money to do so.  When, by chance, she is entrusted with a large sum of cash from her job, she takes the opportunity to steal the cash and run off to marry her boyfriend.

It's a classic setup for a typical crime thriller.  She and her boyfriend are on the lam, police soon behind them.  Her reputation and family life are ruined by her choice. By formula, the situation will get more and more desparate, until finally she is either caught, or manages to escape.  Depending on where the director wants to go, the boyfriend could leave her, end up dead, or the two of them could live happily ever after.

Half way to her post-theft rendezvous, she is suddenly, randomly, and brutally murdered, and doesn't appear in the rest of the movie at all.  The stolen money is forgotten (it's existance wasn't known by her murderer), and for the rest of the movie, the main character is her murderer, introduced only shortly before her death.  When introduced, he looked like a minor character, but turned out to be pivotal to the story.

[ Parent ]

That film (none / 0) (#54)
by gidds on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 11:22:54 PM EST

I wondered how long it would be before someone mentioned that particular film :-)

According to the author of the book it was based on, the director in question was attracted to it because "it had characters with whom the reader could identify and care about. He felt it was very important for shock value that the audience care about the characters who get killed." The screenwriter said that he "relished the scene that would eliminate a sympathetic character - played by a star actress - one-third of the way into the story." and that "Torturing the audience was the intention." He claimed that the whole film was a macabre joke on the audience.

It's interesting that one of the screenwriter's main additions was to make the second protagonist much more sympathetic; making him younger and removing some of the more obvious unpleasant character flaws (while keeping the crucial one, of course...) Without at least some sympathy, two-thirds of the film simply wouldn't have had a protagonist at all!

The murder sequence itself may look relatively tame by today's standards, but that's mainly because so many sequences have copied it since! At the time, it would have been shocking enough even coming at the end of the film ? the fact that it happened so early on, while the audience were completely unprepared - simply made it even more disorienting.

[ Parent ]

Example (none / 0) (#48)
by Pseudonym on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 08:55:38 PM EST

Psycho works like that. The protagonist dies about half-way through.

sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
Playing with the audience's mind (4.00 / 1) (#55)
by ZorbaTHut on Tue Apr 29, 2003 at 02:11:16 AM EST

One of my favorite movies, Pitch Black


Still with me?

Okay. One of my favorite movies, Pitch Black, screws with the audience *so* many times. The beginning of the movie sets up a pretty obvious protagonist, action antagonist, and relationship antagonist, and life is good, 'cause the movie rocks and the action antagonist is Vin Diesel.

Then the relationship antagonist gets killed, and it turns out that it's a "creature feature", so the monsters are the new action antagonist, and the old action antagonist turns into the relationship antagonist. Yipes.

And so you've got this trek back and forth across a wasteland, extremely suspenseful, with the secondary characters getting killed off one by one (other thing I love about this movie: they all have unique deaths, they're *not* all meaningful, but they are all memorable) and finally through much hardship they almost make it back to their escape route. I don't remember the details perfectly, but the two remaining secondary characters are safe, and it's just the protagonist and the relationship antagonist standing out there in the rain with monsters all around them, having beaten them off *again* and about to head back . . .

and *schlorp*.

The protagonist gets snatched. And that's the last you see of her. Not the relationship antagonist, note. The character you've been empathizing with for the ENTIRE MOVIE just got eaten by an armor-plated ten-ton flying bug. No corpse to cry over, and the bug itself is long gone, so if there's revenge it's not going to be on that particular one.

It's utterly arbitrary - it wasn't a sacrifice, it wasn't a creature they had been defending against specifically, it was just *munch* and she's gone.

And the action-antagonist/relationship-antagonist/new-protaganist gets back to the escape route and ends the movie.

And that's what I love about it - it *breaks the rules*, and it does it in an amazingly cool way. Yeah, one of the characters that you know isn't going to die doesn't. But one of the characters you thought was going to die . . . doesn't. And the main character DOES.

Plus, Vin Diesel rocks.

[ Parent ]

movies (4.00 / 1) (#52)
by gdanjo on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 10:01:57 PM EST

Knowing this, what can be done to create true surprise for people who don't forget they're in a cinema?
That's the problem with following recipies; you know what you're going to get.

I think the current movie formulas are thoroughly boring, but if you look long enough there's gold in them thar DVD stores. Fight Club, the Cube, the Sixth Sense, pi all "played" the formulas and gave me a kick in the rear.

Personally, I've started to really enjoy the aussie movies (lantana, two hands, fat pizza) - provided they're aimed at aussies. I hate the culturally cringed movies that we ship overseas. (do you yanks really like kangaroo's that much?)

Dan ...
"Death - oh! fair and `guiling copesmate Death!
Be not a malais'd beggar; claim this bloody jester!"
[ Parent ]

The Crib Note's on McKee's story (5.00 / 1) (#38)
by hbiki on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 11:13:31 AM EST

Is it just me or does this read like a summary of McKee's Story with some Syd Field thrown in for good measure?

For a site as progressive as Kuro5hing.org, these articles are extremely conservative.

Conservativism is fine. But please present some counter-theory to American Narrative (and yes, it exists... in spades).

I woner what McKee would think of Stanley Kubrick and Tarkovsky? According to his rules, they're bad writers. But their contribution to cinema and art and life far exceeds his own and the trash pumped out by the monkeys who attend his courses (and hey, I've been to one of his talks).

I take all knowledge to be my province.
- Francis Bacon

The intention (none / 0) (#39)
by rusty on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 11:39:42 AM EST

I think this was discussed to some extent back in the early articles of this series, but the point here is to present "The Rules" (note irony quotes and caps) to an audience which probably doesn't know them. They're not the only possible rules, but they're the ones that are there to break, and the main difference between an artist and a hack is that one knows which rules she's breaking and why, and the other doesn't.

That is, this is the theory, which it's good to have before you get into the counter-theory.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

OT (none / 0) (#51)
by Fuzzwah on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 10:00:53 PM EST

Why doesn't the English language have a gender neutral word? The whole he/she thing really shits me.

The best a human can do is to pick a delusion that helps him get through the day. - God's Debris
[ Parent ]

It's broken. (none / 0) (#60)
by TheOnlyCoolTim on Wed Apr 30, 2003 at 12:23:32 AM EST

But you can trying using "they" as a singular which will probably be considered correct after a few decades.

"We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death."
[ Parent ]

Exactly, must know rules to break rules (5.00 / 1) (#58)
by cavalier on Tue Apr 29, 2003 at 05:00:41 PM EST

Thank you rusty,  well said.  In an earlier incarnation I actually widdled away some time in a Major American Film School(tm),  and we got into this fight at the start of every production/editorial class.    Kids wanting to bust some shit up, do wild monochromatic 3 frame montages, go nuts -- with no understanding of the underlying theory.

The best example I can think of is Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers."   Now, obviously this movie was a satire of modern media (to quote a brief conversation I had with Mr. Stone, he described making the movie akin to "throwing up on film").   However,  what was repeated ad infinitum was this:  The only way Mr. Stone and company were able to make a movie that bent the visual rules so completely was by being a master of the rules in the first place.    This euphemism made itself true again and again when, at the end of the year,  tens of kids made "Natural Born Killers II" only to end up with a jarring, unemotional mess.

There is a classical American "Hollywood" narrative.   Syd Field et al exploit this convention in millions of books and seminars.   The point, and I think Pseudonym is doing well so far,  is to understand these conventions first and foremost.  Only with understanding the building blocks of story telling can you go out and bust a nut with your non-linear quasi-nihilist-gun slinging men-with-no-name and evil-female-assasin-who-has-no-fingernails opera entitled "My shoes."

Hmmmmmm... random...

[ Parent ]

Both and neither (none / 0) (#47)
by Pseudonym on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 08:54:09 PM EST

It's true that I've dipped heavily into Robert McKee and Syd Field for the "basics".

However, I'm not an American. I've spent a grand total of a week in the US, in fact. I'm well aware that there's a lot of counter-theory stuff out there, and we will get to it eventually. I've already touched on Linda Aronson's work, for example.

sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
Apologies for jumping the gun. (5.00 / 1) (#61)
by hbiki on Wed Apr 30, 2003 at 07:48:40 AM EST

I apologise for jumping the gun. I skim read the earlier articles on this one because I started rolling my eyes. Maybe I'm jaded. I've got an honours degree in media and I majored in film.. so I've been there, done that. Although there's an interesting story I have about Mamet's script for the Verdict which i'll explain in my post to Rusty.

I much prefer McKee over Field because I -think- I can read between the lines of McKees work. McKee, at least acknowledges that there are writing styles and structures outside what he is writing about and that (essentially) he is calling for a revitalisation of craft of writing.

The problem with Field and and Vogler and others who espouse what I call American Narrative (a better term would be Hollywood Narrative but its no less inaccurate) is their presumption of universality. Vogler's introduction to the 'Writer's Journey' is the kind of arrogant eurocentric worldview I'd expect from an C19th textbook on writing, not one published in the late twentieth. Hollywood has such a vicelike grip on the development of cinema-art, especially in the West, that its central dogmas are never questioned (such as story being the fulcrum of cinema).


A friend of mine was doing a MA (Hons) degree at AFTRS (the Australian Film and Television Radio School - considered one of the very best film schools in the world) and he got into a huge fight with his tutors over his thesis film. They wanted him to edit it for story - he wanted to edit it for meaning. They didn't get that his whole thesis was about rendering the metaphysical on screen. Story wasn't the focus but meaning was --

-- the same goes for Kubrick, Tarvkosky and Wong Kar Wai. They're not about story in any traditional sense.

I take all knowledge to be my province.
- Francis Bacon
[ Parent ]

Oddly enough... (none / 0) (#64)
by Pseudonym on Wed Apr 30, 2003 at 08:25:52 PM EST

...Syd Field, in his (I believe) latest book, The Screenwriter's Problem Solver, actually gives a little nod to European film theory.

I suspect, though I'm not 100% sure yet, that screenwriting literature is about to get a lot more cosmopolitan.

sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
Global Scriptwriting (none / 0) (#66)
by hbiki on Fri May 02, 2003 at 04:31:03 AM EST


And Ken Dancyger recently published 'Global Scriptwriting' which seems to be an attempt to quash the myths of universality in storytelling.


I take all knowledge to be my province.
- Francis Bacon
[ Parent ]

Wooof... Where was I... (none / 0) (#46)
by laotic on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 06:11:41 PM EST

...when the first three parts were posted? Good thing you refer to them in the summary paragraph.

Bit late now (after voting) - but all FP thumbs up anyway.

I'll be off to read the whole series, being more of a screenplay fan than a sit-in-a-theatre-and-watch-a-movie fan, but I'll make one suggestion.

It's probably illegal unless used for educational purposes, but you could put together a Part 5: My best screenplay resources on the Web...

Sig? Sigh.
Only one link (none / 0) (#50)
by Pseudonym on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 09:01:51 PM EST

There's only one web link that I really, really like, and that's Drew's Script-O-Rama. That's probably because I really like reading screenplays.

sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
That was predictable... (none / 0) (#57)
by laotic on Tue Apr 29, 2003 at 05:09:16 AM EST

...for a script lover :). I've got most of my scripts from Script-o-rama, but I'm a little disappointed that the site mostly features exactly the kind of movie you so deftly dissect - the pre-fab U.S.-made money machine/remake crafted according to the strict rules of attention catching.

I haven't checked in a while, but for diversion there's Screenplays for You, apparently a Russian website which, though less well organized, is a good source too.

However, scripts like the Sliding Doors or Duel (Spielberg's) don't seem to make to these kinds of sites, and the Monthy Python movies are also elsewhere. Not mentioning the Knight Rider archives, which is a perfect study material for your purposes [fixed story structure, protagonist (Michael Knight), antagonist (emotional - Knight lady; action - wrongdoer), sidekick (Bonnie) and a comical figure (Devon)].

I'm looking forward to the sequels to YOUR series.


Sig? Sigh.
[ Parent ]
I appreciate the intention... (none / 0) (#62)
by hbiki on Wed Apr 30, 2003 at 08:02:39 AM EST

but I wonder if I was to write an article on the traditional musical rules circa C16th, would you publish it?

Actually, the answer is yes... for historical/artistic interest... but I'll make my point a moment.

These 'traditional rules' are the very reason I find Mozart so boring. I can appreciate his geniusness and some of his work but on the whole, I'm so familar with the conventions and the style that it bores me.

And hey, guess what, writing has been around as long as music (give or take a few millenia :)) and the rules 'just as well established'.

But if I was to start a series of seminars call 'Song: The Art and Craft of Songwriting' which preached the virtues of very conventional methods of composing and dissed some of the most artistically hailed songs of the late C20th (think most things by Pink Floyd :)) would I be taken seriously?

Again, the answer is probably yes...

but for some reason 'Screenwriting' has become so trendy that everyone feels the need to each people the principles. I don't have a problem with the principles, as long as the principles acknowledge that hey there are other principles in the universe and perhaps explains what those other principles are.

To give an example of one of my screenwriting classes in my -honours- year.

The first script we got to study was Mamet's the Verdict. We all went home and watched the movie and read the script. Our class, on the whole, could recognise that while the script was well written from a craft point of view, it was as boring as batshit. We know the rules already  - we were taught them before, but even then we knew them because we're xposed to them all the time - and something that is a tradtional embodiment of the rules is uninteresting.

I'd rather watch something that is bad writing-wise but is at least interesting. Cause in teh end scriptwriting should be about stuff. The problem with a lot of modern movies isn't that they're badly written in the conventional sense but that they simply have nothing to say. Nada. Zip. I'm afraid tho, you can't teach people what to say.

(Just stirring the pot some more... cause I'm new here I'd like to make a splash)

I take all knowledge to be my province.
- Francis Bacon

Rules for characterization differ... (4.00 / 1) (#63)
by wrinkledshirt on Wed Apr 30, 2003 at 11:39:23 AM EST

The rules for characterization differ depending upon the type of film you're going for. I seriously don't think that a movie like Matrix is going to go for the same things as Lone Star, Glengarry Glenn Ross, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

A plot-oriented movie is usually only going to offer as much characterization needed to push the plot forward. There's isn't as much room for development, because then the dynamic shifts from the events surrounding the character to the events occuring within the character, and not everybody wants to see a Hamlet rehash.

Anyhow, most of what's offered in this article seems relevent to characterization within plot-based movies. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it's a little limited as a result. Because of the fact that, in a plot-based story, none of the character development that takes place can do so at the expense of moving the action forward, there are limitations placed upon what the writer can do. What usually happens is that you've got static characters chosen for the purpose of making the most potent conflict possible, or characters who go through the Hero-of-a-thousand-faces development of refusing the call to adventure and then having to accept it. Sometimes you can create more of a relationship between an audience and a character just by a few situational scenes showing genuine, understandable emotions than you can in an entire film of choices and dilemmas. Sometimes, like in the case of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the main characterization doesn't occur in the dilemmas, but in the aftermaths of them.

Anyhoo, enough of my verbal diarrhea.

Action movies too (none / 0) (#67)
by Pseudonym on Mon May 05, 2003 at 04:07:01 AM EST

Granted that in an action movie, not much characterisation is required. However, if you look at the worst action movies, you'll find that they almost all have some flaw in character. Good action movies are, admittedly, mostly just vehicles for the action scenes. Still, you need good characters otherwise the movie will sag.

I'll expand on this in a future article when we look at common screenwriting mistakes.

sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
The Whole Activity Seems Rather Pointless (none / 0) (#69)
by t reductase on Thu May 08, 2003 at 11:21:57 PM EST

Say one gets these rules down flat. With a screenplay which observes these rules and is done well one still has say a one in one hundred shot at selling the screenplay. And say one is successful then one has written an updated story of Goldilocks. These may be good re-write rules for stories one is uninterested in but there is no reason to expend all the energy required unless one loves the story. Yes, one is still likely to be unsuccesful but the failure is a noble one and I believe the failure rate would be about as comparable as the failure rate accompanying use of these rules. Basically one remembers film is a visual medium. One tells a story using this visual medium. Screenplay format is adhered to. One makes sure one has an interesting take on life. One loves films. Sure these rules will often lead to failure so do all the other rules for writing screenplays. Just saw a film last night a first rate film, The Lawman with Burt Lancaster. Lancaster stays the same.

Screenplay, part 4: Screenplay Reloaded | 69 comments (45 topical, 24 editorial, 0 hidden)
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