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Archive for December, 2009

Bitter Nugget of Gold Dec 30

The Bitter Script Reader

One of the blogs I follow is The Bitter Script Reader. He offers some great insight into why screenplays work and don’t work, as well as a glimpse into the mindset of a current Hollywood script reader.

Occasionally he’ll offhandedly offer a golden nugget of truth that packs a powerful punch.

Case In Point

In his latest article: A Year at the Movies – Part 1, he discusses a bunch of films he’s seen this year and whether or not they were worth the price of admission. It was in his review of the movie Taken [Amazon | IMDB] that I found the following nugget:

Best of all, throughout the film it felt like the kind of movie that would have had the guts for Neeson to fail in his rescue attempt, a decision that makes either a happy or an unhappy ending much more powerful.


Let’s Dig Into the Nugget

One of the biggest complaints that many screenwriters have is that they don’t want to write an ending that feels formulaic. Quite often that leads them down the dark path of killing their hero or ending their movie on a down note.

Mr. Bitter has hit upon the formula… er, I mean, the recipe — for writing a happy, yet satisfying, ending.

It’s not just about the ending

When screenwriters (and audiences) complain about a contrived happy ending — they’re not really complaining about it because it ends happily — they’re complaining about it because the story was architected to lead us to that forgone conclusion.

Most of our favorite movies have happy endings. But the reason they work so well is because (given the previous events that occurred in the movie) the happy ending, or well-being of a main character at the end of the movie, was in doubt.

Develop a rooting interest for your hero

In E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial [Amazon | IMDB], we see E.T. die in Act 2, so we know that anything is possible. But we love that little alien critter so much, we can’t wait to see him get back to his ship safely.

In the Wizard of Oz [Amazon | IMDB], Dorothy is locked in a castle with an evil witch and (possibly more evil) flying monkeys. Her perilous journey had seen her almost die on several occasions. Even if she makes it out okay, will all her beloved friends? We’re rooting for them every step of the way.

In The Matrix [Amazon | IMDB], several of Neo’s comrades had already died. At the end, Neo had rescued Morpheus (and the Oracle had told Neo that he would need to sacrifice himself) — so we literally don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But we’re sure hoping it will turn out well.

I could go on and on, but the point is clear — put that doubt in your audience’s mind as to the outcome and you’ll have them hoping for a happy ending, instead of expecting one.

Category: Plot  | Leave a Comment
All that you see or seem… Dec 29

I had no idea the extent to which green screen was being used in television.

I knew they obviously needed it for hangar bay shots and such on sci-fi shows like Battlestar Galactica. But the technology is so widely available and economical now that they’re even using it for mundane street shots.

And the effects are impressively seamless and realistic. The same shots would have been considered cutting edge for movies just a few years ago.

Take a look at this video to see what I mean.

It just shows you that if you can dream it up, filmmakers can create it. It’s very freeing as a writer to know that.

Category: Television  | 2 Comments
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Category: General  | Leave a Comment
Sunday Pop Quiz Dec 28

Sunday Pop Quiz

There are at least seven ways to improve the following short script excerpt. Can you find them all?


Patricia is sitting at her computer. She looks at her monitor, then angrily KNOCKS on it.


Come on you damn poltergiests! I know you’re in there!

Wow, that was hard to write that junk! When you’re ready, scroll down for the answers.







1. The Slug Line

The structure was correct (starting with the general and moving towards the specific), but it’s even better to keep scene headers as brief as possible, while still maintaining clarity. Simply write it as follows:


Depending on how you’ve framed the scene sequence, or other locations in your script, you could also use:


You would only include the “UPSTAIRS” if Patricia had another bedroom elsewhere in the house. Even then you would probably be better off using: “INT. PATRICIA’S UPSTAIRS BEDROOM – DAY”

2. Don’t use the passive form of a verb (i.e. “is sitting”)

I covered the basics of this rule in a previous article. So is the following correct?

Patricia sits at her computer.

Well yes, and no. There’s more to the story…

3. Try to avoid using the verb “sits”

Usually you can eliminate this verb. If an individual is at a computer or diner or table or desk or chair, etc. — it’s understood that they are sitting. Give us a more qualitative verb or even combine some of the ideas.

That leads us to…

4. Try to avoid using the verb “looks”

There are certain verbs that are just lazy (looks, walks, gets… please see my previous article). They give us no insight into Patricia’s state of mind and lack a descriptive punch. See if you can come up with something better.

Taking the above points into consideration we would be left with something like this for the first part of the description:

Patricia gawks at her computer monitor.

5. Try to avoid using adverbs — just come up with a better verb

Sometimes there’s no getting around using adverbs, but usually there’s a stronger verb just waiting to be utilized. “Angrily KNOCKS” — yuck! Just use a verb like: “pounds.”

Before we tidy up the description, we need to take a look at the next point…

6. Don’t capitalize sounds if they’re made by actors on screen

In a spec script, it’s debatable whether or not you even need to capitalize sounds at all. But if you do, you wouldn’t capitalize a sound that the actor produces on-screen through their live interaction with the environment.

So an improvement to the description would be:

Patricia gawks at her computer monitor. Pounds on the screen.

Note: I’ve taken out the “then” from the original line, but it was a stylistic choice. Sometimes using the word “then” can help delineate two actions that occur at different times.

7. Spelling!

Did you catch it? The word “poltergeist” was misspelled. Don’t forget to spell check your work!

Here’s the updated script excerpt:


Patricia gawks at her computer monitor. Pounds on the screen.


Come on you damn poltergeists! I know you’re in there!

How did you do? Any other obvious things I missed?

It’s amazing how many problems can exist in such a small section of script. Make sure you don’t make the same mistakes.

Category: Style  | Leave a Comment
5 of the Best Movies You’ve Never Seen Dec 26

Have you seen these movies? I racked my brain for something to give all of you as a belated Festivus gift. Gems? Greeting cards? Flying monkeys?

And finally it occurred to me — movies! So, I’m going to tell you about…

5 of the Best Movies You’ve Never Seen

Obviously the term “best movie” is subjective. And since these were mostly mainstream movies, it’s quite possible you’ve seen some of them, but it still amazes me how many people I encounter who haven’t.

These movies span different genres, so hopefully there’s a little something for everyone.

In no particular order:

1. Heavenly Creatures [Amazon | IMDB]
Genre: Fantasy (Think: Pan’s Labyrinth meets Wild Things)

Before Peter Jackson gained international fame for a little trilogy about some Hobbits, he created this dark — yet whimsical, dramatic — yet fantastical, true story of two girls with an intense and unhealthy connection to each other.

2. Harakiri [Amazon | IMDB]
Genre: Drama (Think: Kurosawa meets Reservoir Dogs)

This black and white, tragic samurai tale, released almost 50 years ago was decades ahead of its time in terms of non-linear story-telling, cinematography and screenwriting. In my opinion, if this movie was found in a box somewhere and released today, it would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Film. It’s that good.

3. Equilibrium [Amazon | IMDB]
Genre: Sci-Fi Action (Think: George Orwell meets The Matrix)

Every once in a while, a movie will come out that the critics just don’t get. That was Equilibrium. Before Christian Bale squeezed into black rubber as the Dark Knight, he donned black priestly vestments for this dystopian thriller. Call it a guilty pleasure if it makes you feel better, but if you’re a fan of entertaining sci-fi action films, you’ll be happy you watched this movie.

4. Touching the Void [Amazon | IMDB]
Genre: Documentary / Re-creation (Think: Man on Wire meets Everest: The Death Zone)

One of the most thrilling and amazing true stories of survival. This movie one-ups many other documentaries in so much as it re-creates the fateful events with breathtaking cinematography. Simply a brilliant film and testament to the indomitable human spirit.

5. Fingersmith [Amazon | IMDB]
Genre: Period Drama (Think: Dangerous Liaisons meets The Sting)

This one really surprised me. It was one of those Netflix recommendations that had a ridiculously high average score, so I was compelled to check it out.  Best. Decision. Ever. What an amazing miniseries (it’s two 90 minute movies) courtesy of the BBC. Twists, turns, and an unconventional love story. Time very well spent.


Well it looks like I was able to give you some gems after all. 🙂 Wishing everyone all the best this holiday season!!!

I look forward to hearing your take on these movies… and to hearing about any overlooked movie treasures or guilty pleasures that are on your list.

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Category: Movie Reviews  | 3 Comments