Know how to make your script memorable? The answer may surprise you.
I use soap operas as the ultimate example of bad screenwriting. Why? Because in a soap opera a character named Tiffany will say, “I am so furious at Todd. I’m going to go over there and give him a piece of my mind!” Cut to Todd’s. The doorbell rings, Todd answers it and, guess what? That’s right. It’s Tiffany. And, that’s tight, she comes in and yells at Todd.
There are no surprises in soaps. In fact, the events that do occur do so after months of painstakingly unsuspenseful buildup. When the Writers Guild goes on strike, the soaps are the only series that aren’t affected much. Actors have told me how the fans come in and write the scripts during the strike, the actors improvise a bit, and no one complains about loss of quality. Because there are no surprises. The fans know what’s going to happen as well as the writers themselves.
“It’s maddening, what some writers do when it comes to wasting opportunities for surprise,” says Lisa Fonti, screenwriter and part time webmaster for snoringmouthpiecereview.org. “I watch so many films that could have written things with so much more craftiness, and yet, they don’t.”
The best practice for us, as writers, is, as Lisa says, to surprise the audience. It is the magic of sleight of hand. It is why Pulp Fiction was such a hit. It gave us setups that we have seen many times and made us expect certain events to follow others, and then took wildly unpredictable left turns. Pulp Fiction is raunchy and raw and ultra-violent, too much for many viewers. But looking beyond that to the story, it was one surprise after another.
Example: Bruce Willis, a boxer, takes money to throw a fight, doesn’t throw it and goes on the lam. We all know with complete certainty that this guy is going to end up dead or beaten to a pulp. But no. He ends up saving the life of the guy who’s trying to kill him. And in the most shockingly surprising way.
Two hit men shoot a man in the backseat of their car. The problem turns out not to be that they may get caught or killed themselves, but that the wife of the killer who owns the car will find it trashed and bloody and will divorce him. The whole frenzied clean-up action is to try to save the guy’s marriage. The setups are movie cliches–but with wildly original consequences.
The Power of Surprises
Big surprises are so rare in movies that when they work they can make a hit out of a movie that is otherwise only fairly good. The Crying Game was a pretty good little story, with a surprise so total and so skillfully played out (and so well kept by people who had seen it) that it turned a little film into an Oscar contender. Likewise The Usual Suspects had a great punch line, which was shown visually instead of told in dialogue, making it even stronger.
Last year Good Will Hunting, for me, was kind of sophomoric predictable psychology, but it had one great scene in a bar where the smart street kid tells off a cocky Joe College jock in the ultimate runs-circles-around-him speech that everyone wishes they could have delivered just once in real life. It never happens in real life, of course. It’s a speech that probably took three days to write and three minutes to deliver. And we loved it. And it helped the boys (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) win an Oscar for their screenplay.
For me, however, As Good as It Gets was a far better piece of writing. It was surprising all the way through, with lines that were simultaneously stunningly true emotionally and completely unexpected. We almost never get this in a movie. It took a new writer, Mark Andrus, outside the insulated Hollywood culture, to conceive the idea. He summarizes the concept as “a movie about the worst man in New York City.” Who would’ve thought that premise would make a great movie? Surprise!
After Andrus wrote the original screen play and sold it, it took a writer as brilliant as James L. Brooks to revise and polish it for a full year to get the final version. The effort shows. A script that beautifully crafted doesn’t get tossed off in a couple of weeks. My favorite line is from Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) to a bartender: “And such a woman … if she laughs, you got a life.” You know this is the truth for this guy, and about as economically phrased as a Japanese haiku.
On the other end of the spectrum is the action-adventure genre, which has gotten locked into obligatory endings with no surprises. It almost always has to be either a shoot-out, or a bomb defused or exploding. (For bomb, substitute the natural disaster of your choice: comet, volcano, tidal wave, etc.) That’s about it. Two choices. To swipe a cliche, they run the gamut from A to B. It’s gotten so bad that the only difference in climaxes in these movies is where they’re set. The good guy shoots or punches it out with the bad guy on top of a speeding train (Broken Arrow, Mission: Impossible), on a speeding boat (Face/Off), in a factory (Terminator II), in a shipyard (Eraser), etc. It’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, just with a different corral. When an action movie finds a new and different ending, we are delighted. But it almost never happens.
The Fugitive, while it still had the punching match atop a mil building, was fun because the two guys who had been pitted against each other throughout were suddenly both on the same side. It was a breath of fresh air.
The ending of Gallipoli was stunning because the setup was one that always turns out right in movies. The handsome young hero (Mel Gibson) is racing to save the day. In movies he always arrives in the nick of time. Always. But in Gallipoli, he arrives seconds too late and hundreds of boys are slaughtered by blunder, by mistake, right before our eyes, shocking us back into the realization that it’s not just a movie. The story was true. Those boys were real and they were pointlessly slaughtered and we feel the shock and disbelief of that.
Another type of wonderful writing surprise comes when we think we know who a character is and then a whole new and surprising layer of character is revealed.
One of my favorite examples is from Five Easy Pieces. Jack Nicholson is set up as a blue-collar, crass oil field worker, the type who thinks it’s funny to pull a straw wrapper out of his nose. He and his equally grease-stained, hard-hat buddy get stuck in a traffic jam on the highway in their pickup. The traffic is at a standstill. No amount of drunken yelling helps. So Jack climbs up onto an open truck in front of them to try to see what’s going on up ahead.
The truck is carrying furniture hidden under blankets, and a piano plinks as Jack steps on the covered keyboard. He pulls the blanket off and sits down at the old upright piano. We expect chopsticks or at best boogie-woogie. But this guy starts playing Chopin and damn well. He gets so into it that when the truck starts moving he doesn’t even notice. His buddy yells at him to no avail as the truck carrying Jack and the piano takes an exit and heads off to God knows where.
Who is this guy and why is he working in an oil field? We don’t have any idea, but we sure want to stick around and find out. We are surprised, delighted, energized by what we don’t expect.
It is similar to the moment in Shine when schizophrenic David Helfgott sits down at the piano in a restaurant, and though we in the audience know he is a brilliant pianist, we hold our breaths, thrilled at how surprised those people are going to be when they hear this shuffling-and-drooling crazy rip into it. And the surprise, even vicariously, does not disappoint. For my money that is the best moment in Shine.
The opening scene in Harold and Maude is another classic. A young man comes into a room, lights candies, pins a suicide note to his lapel and hangs himself. Then his mother comes in, unimpressed. She comments, “I suppose you think that’s very funny, Harold.” And we’re hooked. (Of course he hasn’t killed himself at all, but is just trying to get attention.) And we are ready for a wild ride exploring the conversion of a young man from being infatuated with death to falling in love with life. (Via the most surprising of love stories, between an 18-year-old boy and an 80-year-old Ruth Gordon.)
Years ago in a movie called Rancho Deluxe a young Native American cowboy makes a pile of money rustling cattle and drives home in a brand-new pickup truck to see his father. His old man, played by Chief Dan George, takes one look at that shiny new truck, and we’re sure he’s going to jump his son for his life of crime. Instead he launches into a hilarious diatribe about how the pickup truck has been the downfall of their people. We’re delighted.
This is what we aspire to. The unexpected, original turn of story line or character. It is the surprises that keep writing endlessly interesting. So let’s all get back to our keyboards and pull an eagle out of a hat.