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10/19/2002 - What's It To You?

As I began writing this column, I wanted to "explore the expectations of a production company vs. the intent and hopes of the screenwriter." Many of my columns have digressed pretty far from that mission statement, so today is a good day to get back on track.

Any script reader will tell you that most scripts don't keep them engrossed. Any writer will tell you that they've worked like mad to make sure that the plot begins quickly, the characters have motivations and goals, and that there are sufficient surprises and revelations, all to keep the reader engrossed.

But it isn't happening. Nine times out of ten, a writer presents all the elements and still utterly fails to get their reader truly interested. I just finished (or tried to finish) a murder mystery that had plenty of grisly crime scenes, lead characters with psychological ghosts, etc., but I couldn't care less who done it or why.

Why wasn't I interested? Inquiring minds want to know, so let's explore.

If you've got a moment, sit down and list three of your favorite movies. Now look at that list and ask yourself, why did you care about the hero and his goal in each movie? Think about your impression after the first fifteen minutes of each movie, not how you look back on the movie now as a whole. Think back to that first viewing.

Let me do it with you.


What I want to find out is what was the big question of each script. The "what" or "why" or "who" that fostered such interest right at the beginning of each movie.

1. TIME AFTER TIME - Jack the Ripper shows up to his friend H.G. Wells's dinner party in nineteenth-century London. Jack's fresh from one of his horrific murders, but Wells hasn't a clue. Instead he takes his dinner guests downstairs to show off his amazing new invention, the time machine.

Let's stop there. We meet the antagonist first, in a pseudo-teaser. Then we get to know him, identifying with the clever guy quite a bit. The main question in the movie, I think, is: Will Jack the Ripper get away? The nice thing they did with this story was layer in time travel on top of the essential question. The bad script I read today just had the starter question of "who killed this guy we don't know and why?" Well, who cares? Now that I think about it, if the story had kept to that initial investigation instead of presenting the odd couple police detectives, I might've cared. But no, the writer served up the boilerplate cop-with-a-hangup thriller. Yawn.

2. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN - Something malevolent and underhand is afoot in Washington, and nobody seems to sense it except for the unproven reporter Bob Woodward, and his veteran partner Carl Bernstein.

Quiet menace is the stylistic feat here. We quickly get the sense that something monstrous is going on, but the crime is invisible. Everyone seems happy to disregard the political shadow flickering across town, but through the noses of Woodward and Bernstein, we smell a big, fat rat. The question here is: Is there more to the Watergate break-in than a break-in? Because we go into the movie knowing the outcome, the deeper question is: How did we come so close to not discovering the truth behind Watergate? How many Watergates did we miss?

3. LAURA - A well-liked social glamourpuss has been murdered. A pragmatic cop endures the company of a pompous social kingpin to find out who might have wanted the woman dead.

The main question here seems to be "Why should we care that this woman is dead?" Of course, we're not asking the film that; we're inside the detective, asking the other characters that. Very clever structure. But still, the main question is not why, but who? Who was this victim? The detective must know who she was to find out why she's dead. The only way to find out is to enter her world of unflappable sophisticates and find a way to flap them. That's exactly how the story starts. [Also, note how late into the story the opening scene begins; we're already inside the story in the first shot.]


Hope this helps. It helped me. The act of writing a screenplay and the act of reading one are several galaxies apart. Believe me - I've discovered this in the most disheartening way.

You must empathize with your audience to identify what initial question they need to hook into, so that they get pulled into the world of your script. Simply presenting your intro is not enough. Clearly identify the question you want the reader to form.

I read professionally written scripts that fail to place a question in the first act, so don't hesitate to be tough on your own work. If there's no question to be answered in your opening, you must go back and find it. The one question you don't want the reader to ask is "Why should I keep reading?"


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