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Archive for the Category "Scenes"

Screenwriting Lessons from Mixed Martial Arts Jun 12

There’s a UFC event tonight, so I thought it would be appropriate if I posted the following article I recently wrote for the Scriptwriters Network June newsletter.

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The Mixed Martial Arts Screenwriter

The Mixed Martial Arts Screenwriter

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the world’s fastest growing sports. As the “mixed” part of the name implies, athletes must integrate and excel at a variety of combat disciplines — from kickboxing to wrestling to jiu-jitsu.

That’s similar to screenwriters, who must hone a variety of skills from structure to style to dialogue. Indeed, to be successful in Hollywood, screenwriters have to create scenes that rise above their competition.

As a passionate screenwriter and mixed martial arts practitioner, I can tell you there are a number of lessons that can be learned from MMA to elevate your screenwriting game and make your scenes leap off the page like a flying side-kick.

If you think of your scenes as “fights” between characters — where each character wants to win (i.e. achieve their goal for the scene), your scenes will be much more powerful.

Add Conflict

When fighters don’t engage each other, they usually receive a chorus of boos from the crowd. The screenwriting equivalent is that your readers get bored, skim pages or stop reading your script.

A surefire remedy to keep them interested, is to up the conflict. That doesn’t mean throwing a fight into every scene, it means adding a realized (or threatened) element of verbal or physical “combat.”

Take this scene:

INT. STARBUCKS COFFEE SHOP – DAY

JEROME (17), testosterone in a t-shirt, and KATIE (17), sexy but studious, share a table.

JEROME

What are you up to Friday evening?

KATIE

I’m heading out with some friends.

Kinda boring, right? But if we add some simple conflict?

INT. STARBUCKS COFFEE SHOP – DAY

JEROME (17), testosterone in a t-shirt, and KATIE (17), sexy but studious, share a table. Katie takes a long sip of her double chocolate frappuccino.

JEROME

I’m still waiting for an answer.

KATIE

Chillax. I’m busy Friday evening, okay?

More interesting now right? A little bit of conflict or tension goes a long way.

A Different Agenda

Quite often you’ll see a classic striker versus grappler match. The striker wants to keep the fight standing, while the grappler wants to take the fight to the ground.

Giving the characters in your scene, two different agendas, can make your scenes more engaging.

JEROME

I’m glad you agreed to meet with me. I’m really looking forward to getting to know you better.

KATIE

Excuse me? I’m here because you hired me to tutor you in Algebra.

Avoidance

There’s a UFC fighter named Lyoto Machida. Until recently he had not only won every single fight he had ever been in — he had won every single round! That’s quite an achievement. He did it by avoiding his opponents.

One way to add tension to your scenes is to have one of your characters try to avoid the “attack” (i.e. agenda) of another character. If one character is trying to set something up and the other character isn’t biting, it makes the scene more interesting.

KATIE

Do you see how factoring lets you find those two numbers?

JEROME

I know I’d like to factor your number.

Actions Not Words

In MMA there’s always a lot of trash talking before the fight (and often during the fight). But when the cage door closes, actions speak louder than words.

Try going through your scenes to see if any of them would be stronger if one or all of the characters simply let his actions do the talking.

JEROME

I’m just saying, if your clothes distract me from learning, maybe that’s your fault. Your lessons come with a money-back guarantee right?

Katie slams her coffee cup on the table, launching her chocolate frappuccino into the air like a geyser. The liquid splatters across Jerome’s face.

JEROME

Is that a “no”?

Tap Out

Let’s review these screenwriting mixed martial arts lessons for improving your scenes:

  • Add Conflict
    Find a way to add conflict to your scenes and you’ll engage the “crowd.”
  • A Different Agenda
    Give your characters different agendas in your scenes, to ratchet up the tension and interest.
  • Avoidance
    Have one of your characters completely avoid or ignore another character’s attempts accomplish something in the scene.
  • Actions Not Words
    Sometimes the most powerful statements aren’t made with words.

Hone your full set of screenwriting skills, have your characters fight to “win” each scene, and your script may be in fighting shape to win you a contract.

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The Scriptwriters Network, founded in 1986, is a non-profit, volunteer-based organization created by writers for writers and industry professionals.  The Network serves its members by enhancing their awareness of the realities of the business, providing access and opportunity through alliances with industry professionals, and furthering the cause and quality of writing in the entertainment industry.

For more information, please visit their website.


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Category: Scenes, Writing  | 7 Comments
Unstoppable May 18

Andy Dufresne is unstoppableSome movies are unstoppable

I’m not talking about runaway box office successes. I’m talking about those movies that can hold your rapt attention in every scene until the closing credits — whether you want them to or not.

Sometimes I’ll flip channels late at night, just to “quickly” see what talk show guests are on. Inevitably, I’ll stumble across one of my favorite movies.

That’s when the fight begins; the fight to stop watching.

I’ll keep telling myself, “The TV goes off at the next commercial.” After all, I already know what happens. And I really need to get some sleep. I’ll just watch one more sequence.

Then of course when the closing credits roll, I stagger to bed, bleary-eyed, in the wee hours of the morning.

The movie was literally unstoppable.

Is your screenplay like that?

Here are some questions you need to ask yourself about each and every one of your script’s scenes.

Does it…

  • … flow from the previous scene?
  • … address a specific goal of the main character?
  • … contain an inherent question as to what will happen?
  • … drive the plot forward?
  • … support the theme of your movie?
  • … handle any exposition in an organic, succinct and engaging manner?
  • … surprise the reader in some way?
  • … show the reader something they’ve never seen before (or in a way they’ve never seen it)?
  • … contain tension, conflict or humor?
  • … have high enough stakes?
  • … make the reader feel something? (Fear? Joy? Anger? Sadness? Compassion? Curiosity?)
  • … end on a button? (A punchline? An intriguing question? A powerful moment?)
  • … flow into the next scene?

There’s no such thing as a throwaway scene in a great script or movie. Make every one count, and your script will be unstoppable.

What are some movies that you find are unstoppable?

For me it’s The Shawshank Redemption, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Usual Suspects, The Matrix, Aliens, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, The Incredibles, The good, the bad and the ugly, and for some damn reason — Kung Fu Panda. If I tune in at any point in any of those movies, I’m stuck watching until the end.

See if you can stop watching this scene from The good, the bad and the ugly halfway through?


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Category: Scenes, Writing  | 3 Comments
Be Like Donna Apr 13

Short And SweetShort And Sweet

I’m fortunate enough to have two friends named Donna. Curiously, they both share a trait: they get straight to the point — no padded sentences or beating around the bush.

I love it. You always know where you stand and it saves a ton of time. As screenwriters we should follow their lead — especially when it comes to scene description.

Keep It Simple

Donna #1 (we’ve known each other since we were 5) used to work with me at a municipal hall.  She was a switchboard operator/receptionist, and I was always amazed at her talent for offering concise directions to the public.

One day I filled in for her at the front desk. People routinely asked, “Where do I pay my water bill?”

Trying to be as helpful as I could, I responded with something like:

“Head towards those glass doors. Once you go through, cross to the staircase. Walk down the stairs, and when you reach the bottom, turn to your right. Look for the sign that says, ‘Finance Department.’ Go to that counter and someone will help you.”

When Donna came back, I was curious to see how she handled that same question. The response she used was:

“Through those doors, down the stairs, on your right.”

Bam. So much shorter, and so much easier to grasp.

What About Making It Enjoyable?

Trust me, when you’re reading tons of scripts, brevity = enjoyment.

Script readers, like those people paying their water bill, want to know just enough information to get them from point A to point B. Don’t overdo it with micro-description and extraneous detail. In a screenplay, it will weigh your story and audience down.

Throw in just enough creative flare to accentuate the genre of your script in a unique way, then move on.

Keep it short and sweet. Be like Donna.


Related Post:

Seven ways to ensure your scenes are lean and mean


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Category: Scenes, Style, Writing  | Leave a Comment
Surprise ‘Em Mar 10

Surprise!

"That's good screenwriting!"

The Wow Factor

Want to know a surefire way to impress someone reading your script? Surprise them!

That doesn’t mean coming up with a twist ending. That means ensuring there are surprises in every scene. Yes, EVERY scene.

Surprises can take on many forms:

  • Actions that contradict a character’s intent
  • Dialogue that contradicts a character’s actions
  • Humorous exploits
  • Payoffs to things setup earlier in the script
  • Snappy comebacks
  • Shocking imagery
  • Reveals that change what we thought we were looking at
  • Beginning a scene in an unexpected way
  • Ending a scene in an unexpected way
  • New complications
  • Thought provoking predicaments
  • Character mishaps
  • Clichés turned on their ear

… and the list goes on and on.

Sometimes we get wrapped up in the function of a scene (e.g. “I just need my characters to fight so one will leave”). The result? It falls flat.

In your spec script there should be no such thing as a “standard scene.” Throw in a surprise (or two or three) in every scene and you’ll dramatically improve both your story and your chances of receiving a “recommend” rating.

What the…?

For some surprising inspiration, here are two bizarre videos that take you in entirely unexpected directions.

An important (and hilarious) announcement from Ronald Reagan… In Spanish of course. Keep watching this one, it’s worth it.

 

“First these giant teddy bears started crossing the road… and then things got weird.”

Reaction shots for maximum humor Nov 17

Sally's big mOmentThere’s a real joy that comes with learning an inside trick of the trade. In film school, one of the first such screenwriting secrets I remember learning was that funny things are made ten times funnier by showing reactions to them — reaction shots1.

Show me the funny

Think about your favorite comedy movie and what made you laugh the hardest. Was it a funny event — or someone’s reaction to that event?

Let’s take the famous diner scene from When Harry Met Sally. Is Sally’s (Meg Ryan’s) fake orgasm funny on its own? Maybe a little, but it’s more funny watching Harry (Billy Crystal) squirm uncomfortably. And it’s the funniest when the patron in the diner reacts with the line, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Remember Superbad when Fogell gets his new ID and McLovin is born? The name McLovin itself is sorta funny, but it’s the characters’ reactions when they learn about the name that really make it hilarious.

EVAN

McLovin? What kind of a stupid name is that, Fogell? What, are you trying to be an Irish R and B singer?

Reaction shots are even more important when there’s no dialogue and there’s just a sight gag.

Do you recall that hilarious scene in There’s Something About Mary, where Healy (Matt Dillon) is spying on Mary (Cameron Diaz) with binoculars? The audience laughter doesn’t come when he accidentally sees her saggy and wrinkly old roommate’s boobs — it comes when we see Healy cringe in horror.

So remember to include reaction shots in your script. It may make the difference between kinda funny and laugh out loud hysterical.


  1. Now when I say reaction “shots,” I don’t mean you should specify a camera direction (that’s a topic of conversation for another time). I’m just talking about describing a character’s reaction — either a visual reaction or a verbal one.
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Category: Humor, Scenes, Style  | Leave a Comment