Getting Your Screenplay Moments Right
“Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember, and they’ll leave the theatre happy.” – Actress Rosalind Russell
“I heard you laugh in the right places. I heard you moved in the right places, and that’s all movies are about — moments and if you do them right – sometimes there are moments that you will never, ever forget.” – Actor Kevin Costner
Goldilocks’ search for that “just right” balance when she visited the bears’ home – too hard, too soft, too hot, too cold – is similar to our search for the perfect moments in our script’s dialogue, scenes, and endings.
How can screenwriters create these pivotal moments and execute them in a timely manner for a more effective screenplay? Let’s explore a few screenplay structural concepts first.
SETUP, CLIMAX, RELEASE, NEW SETUP
All great moments in film are because of the setup. The setup will take us to the climax and then the release where we, (hopefully) as the reader/audience, sit there stunned – or whatever reaction we’re going for. The setup creates the world and the context of the story. These moments create an expectation of how it might play out.
“What’s in the box?” taken out of context could be as benign as a Christmas puppy instead of the plaintive, horrifying cry it becomes when the realization hits in the movie Se7en. The ending, Act III, is a long buildup drive to the desert that the serial killer (played by Kevin Spacey) has demanded as a condition of telling Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt where the other bodies are buried. Then director David Fincher brilliantly tracks a van that travels a dusty road toward the waiting threesome.
Layer upon layer of Setup/Build-up to the next “moment” the audience expects. The tension leading this has its key as Spacey and Freeman sparring continually:
It’s going to be flawless. People will barely be
able to comprehend it. It will seem almost surreal…
but it will have a tangible reality, so they won’t be able to deny it.
Well, I’ll be standing beside you the whole time, so
you be sure to let me know when this whole,
complete reality thing is done.
Who’s right? Who will be standing tall at the end? It’s like the old gunfights in westerns where the sheriff and the outlaw square off. Both have equal skills and the outcome can realistically go either way.
There’s nothing in this sequence (that takes nearly twenty minutes all in) that we don’t want to see or hear. By this point in the movie, there is only one question we’re asking as audience members: Why?
Why did John Doe turn himself in covered in blood? Why is he constantly smirking? Why is his manifesto so important? Why, why, why…
This is handled brilliantly in that the detectives are also asking these same questions and we are right there with them. The audience is invested in proceeding to find the answers.
It takes Morgan Freeman at least three minutes to open the box once it’s delivered. While this tension is ratcheting up, the Spacey character is chattering amiably to Brad Pitt.
The scene cuts between Freeman, Spacey, and Pitt… until POW! Big moment!
Freeman stumbles back from what’s in the box in horror. He is gobsmacked and has no context in which to react properly knowing that Pitt’s character is just going to freak. This confident, assured detective has seen a lot in his career but this takes him totally out of any control he might think he has.
We share the horror when Spacey’s character says, “I took her pretty, little head” and we realize that the box is just the right size for a decapitated head.
Okay… breathe. That’s really horrifying but it’s done now.,
Or is it?
Freeman’s character finally realizes the scope of John Doe’s plan and it’s horrifying.
(to Brad Pitt’s character)
David, listen to me…
Mills (Pitt) goes to grab John Doe by the throat and puts the gun to Doe’s forehead, blind with rage.
He wants this! He wants you to do it!
John Doe’s goal is to make people care again. To recoil from shock at all that’s happened.
What John Doe ultimately wants is all delivered pitch-perfectly because of the amazing setup. The screenplay, especially at this point, is a page-turner that never relents on the suspense.
As a wise teacher of mine once posited, endings should be inevitable, but not predictable.
I would extend this truism to all scenes – period. One of the ways to make it so the setup that creates tension that has to be released.
Solid setup = perfectly rendered key points that deliver on the moments we yearn for.
The first screenplay I wrote for production was tossed back in my face by someone who shall remain nameless.
It was during a pre-production read through, and as we got to the ending pages – the climax where the detective is tied to a chair and the killer (with a secondary, surprise villain) was ‘splaining who he was and why he was doing these murders, things went south for my script.
This twist reveal was a good one, even if I say so myself. My original pitch to the film company was, “A Serial Killer Who Isn’t A Serial Killer Is Killing People Who Are Already Dead.” I don’t think I’ve achieved that level of logline cool since.
At a point where the moments need to be razor-sharp and hit like a Rampage Jackson uppercut, they were more like Bugs Bunny fight-slapping Elmer Fudd. During the read-through, when we reached that point in the script, the climax, the incredible explanation that we’ve been waiting for ninety-plus minutes came. Yay!
But after reading half a page of this muddled and over-written mess someone (Mr. Nameless) said in disgust, “Who wrote this sh*t?”
In the dead silence that followed, every head in the room, of course, turned to me – the sh*t writer.
“Fix it” was the only other note I was given as this person tossed my script on the table and walked out without finishing the scene.
And Mr. Nameless was right. It was garbage.
My climactic reveal sat there like a steaming pile of…uh, goo. I went home embarrassed, but enlightened. I came to understand that all that exposition (the delivery) happening at the climax of the film was no bueno. I fixed it, hopefully never to make that same mistake again. 100 or so scripts later, so far so good.
Which leads me to:
In order for any ending, any scene, any moment to land, it has to be the right length as well as including the right elements.
Over-delivering is worse than under-delivering.
I don’t like going negative on any film (except my own), but it’s a long-held consensus that perhaps the opening scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey” could have been trimmed. A lot.
2001 has some really amazing moments including in the opening but a little pre-human goes a long way and this opening is almost twenty full minutes of these hairy critters jumping around, screeching at each other, and using their newly-discovered bone weaponry to kill things which (seemingly) transitions them from vegetarians (gatherers) to carnivores (hunters) and thus with proper nutrition, to homo sapien.
Long after you get over the impact and curiosity of the monolith and the pre-humans becoming killers, you’re still in the scene waiting for the punch line which takes forever it seems and goes on too long after.
The film is still brilliant, of course, based on the groundbreaking source material by Arthur C. Clarke and filmed by the equally genius Stanley Kubrick but lots of long, purposefully operatic moments exist that could have been trimmed.
Contrast this to Casino Royale where the opening nine minutes is non-stop action to intro us to the newly-minted Bond played by Daniel Craig. All Bonds have opening gambits but this one stands out as a bravura segment because:
(1) the chase is all on foot,
(2) it’s creative,
(3) uses a new-to-cinema physical form we haven’t seen in these types of film (parkour) and
(4) covers seemingly miles of dangerous territory.
Now, of course, I’m comparing beets to bananas here because these are two different genres filmed in decades far apart, but the point is valid.
Another example of too much is Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterpiece Psycho where there’s much more ending than we need. Perhaps the filmmakers felt like the addendum scene with Anthony Perkins (as Mother) wrapped in a blanket and doing a voice over was essential to our complete understanding.
But really, once the desiccated form of Mother is discovered in the basement (moment!) and Perkins dressed as Mother is caught dead-to-rights trying to kill Vera Miles (bigger moment!) we pretty much know everything we need. The last two minutes of the movie are terribly anticlimactic.
LOTS OF WHITE SPACE ON THE PAGE
This is a technical tip and it may seem like a silly or cheaty way to write, but it works. If you can’t not write a ten-minute scene, put lots of white space between narrative moments to keep the reader engaged.
The brilliant train station scene in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables is pitch-perfect (long, but suspenseful) and has one stated goal: arrest the bookkeeper so Eliot Ness can indict Al Capone. Setup, climax, release.
Once it starts, not one word of dialogue is said between Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness and Andy Garcia as George Stone, the only cop that Ness brings with him. It’s all narrative.
There’s an incredibly intense six-minute build-up before things go really crazy for another five minutes. In a script, this could have been tedious to read but the film-savvy David Mamet mitigates the tedium by making each scene of this buildup only a sentence or two long breaking it all up so we don’t get trapped in a narrative mess.
And then there’s a perfectly rendered ending (climax) to this incredible sequence where both Ness and Stone have their guns aimed at the lone gangster who’s threatening to kill the accountant unless Ness lets him leave.
The bookkeeper and me are drivin’ away. See?
Or else he dies. He dies, and you ain’t got nothin’.
You got him?
Yeah, I got him.
KAPOW! Dead bad guy. Accountant safe to give testimony.
The entire movie balances on this moment where the stated goal is to bring Eliot Ness to justice by whatever means necessary – the “Chicago Way.”
But in reading it, much of the amazing sequence could have been lost if not written in an accessible form.
If it’s a ten-page dialogue scene, like in Marriage Story, there’s already plenty of white space so make the situation so compelling that you can’t look away.
The script for Marriage Story reads like a play more than a movie. And it’s a tribute to writer/director Noah Baumbach that he’s able to engage the reader far beyond what normally might be realistic in today’s quicky slam-bam movie scenes and TV shows.
There’s one scene in particular that stands out and it’s a long one. It’s a static scene (one room) of nine pages of raw emotion, but in a back and forth manner that not only keeps the scene flowing but makes every line urgently important.
We hang onto every sentence ending because we want to hear the other character’s reaction and response. Brilliant writing.
WE WANT IT! GIVE IT TO US!
This scene to which I’m referring in Marriage Story happens on pages 113-124 and by this time in the screenplay/movie we want these moments badly. It’s been tense many times with small moments of explosion but nothing really nasty.
The scene pops the cork off the entire fizzy, dark underbelly of their relationship, and we want to hear it/see it/feel it so it doesn’t matter how long it is.
In Charlie’s rented apartment we go from this innocuous opening:
You want something to drink? I have
unfiltered tap water, beer, and juice boxes.
I’ll have a juice box.
Note how the writer uses a juice box reference to lull us into a deliberately innocuous place.
To this beyond-angry moment. I was sure someone would get physical so strong was the emotional context.
You’re so merged with your own selfishness
that you don’t even identify it as selfishness anymore.
YOU’RE SUCH A DICK!
Every day I wake up and hope you’re dead– Dead like–
Charlie collapses, starts crying.
If I could guarantee Henry would be OK, I’d hope
you get an illness and then get hit by a car and DIE.
The scene is amazingly long (and static) but I wouldn’t cut one line of it. It had me riveted for many reasons discussed above. With a perfect ending when Charlie, a seemingly fully articulate man (playwright/director) can no longer properly express his feelings, at this point mostly anger and frustration, he just collapses in tears.
BUT TOO LITTLE CAN DESTROY A MOMENT
A most famous example of this is the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Generations of viewers have either called this ending brilliant or unsatisfying and confusing. Some both.
It seemed pretty clear or at least you could see the edges of an explanation on first viewing, that the monolith gives the pre-humans the ability to use tools. This then starts them on an evolutionary journey to becoming homo sapiens.
Another monolith is discovered on the moon centuries later. It has sent a message deep into outer space and curious monkeys that we (still) are, we send a mission to find out what’s out there.
After a series of conflicts en-route, the lone astronaut who finishes the journey ultimately ends up being transformed into a humongous space baby.
Well, it’s actually simple on some levels:
Monolith > Pre-human > Human > Other Monolith > Next Step In Our Evolution.
This is an invitation to godhood by godlike beings who started us on our path.
Setup, climax, release, new setup.
But it’s only in reading the book that you can understand the true scope of this ending. Is the film too subtle? Perhaps, because if you listen to Kubrick explaining the ending he shot, he’s inserted some other, interesting motifs into the penultimate scenes that in no way explain themselves. A zoo? Really?
Inception also deliberately leaves its conclusion ambiguous. American Psycho, Interstellar and No Country For Old Men keep the climactic moments (seemingly) unclear which is sorta okay for an ending but doing something like this in the beginning or middle of a script is guaranteed to get your work passed on. Not many readers or executives have the patience to try and figure something out if you can’t be clear about it.
If a reader has to go back a few pages to understand what they’re reading, I’ve failed.
In other terms, if the climax is ambiguous given the setup, then whatever moments I’m trying to deliver are basically worthless.
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