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Screenwriting Techniques for Better Storytelling

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#1 MalletPropStudios



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Posted 08 April 2012 - 10:24 PM

Stvndysn and Chris62 were just on the Ken & Monk show talking about the inactivity on the forums. So, I decided to do my part.

This will be a thread for everyone to participate in. The premise is, whenever you notice a screenwriting technique that works well in a movie that you're watching, post about it in this thread. Most of the time this will be streamlining storytelling, because that's why we need the techniques to begin with.


So, I'll start. The other day I watched "Charley Varrick" with Walter Matthau - 1973 - Screenplay by Howard Rodman and Dean Riesner.

This is a very simple technique to streamline the audience getting to know the relationship between characters. It's very early in the film and we've just witnessed a bank heist. Walter Matthau and Andrew Robinson are about to blow up their getaway car. Andrew Robinson is putting black powder around the vehicle and Walter Matthau takes the bag from and says "I'll do this. Just get the detonator". (He says this for multiple reasons, but that's not important for this thread). Andrew Robinson says, "No. It's okay." To which Matthau angrily replies, "Just once can you do what I tell you to do?!"

This does a couple of very important things in a single exchange. We know that Walther Matthau is in charge, and we know that Andrew Robinson doesn't always listen to him. This is very important for the audience to know so that future events don't seem out of character. We learn the most important thing about their relationship with the line "Just once can you do what I tell you to do".

If you craft a line like that, you can save yourself (and the audience) an entire scene trying to establish that relationship. This is really two minutes of exposition condensed into a two second sentence. Very good writing.

"Charley Varrick" is currently on Netflix streaming and well worth a viewing. There are many, many little techniques used in this movie worth mentioning. The writing is fantastic, save for two absolutely ridiculous sex scenes - which I imagine were the director's choices, not the screenwriters.


So, whenever you notice a good screenwriting technique like this in a movie - please post it here.

- Keith

#2 Grey Dingo

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 06:38 AM

Good start to a very interesting thread!

"Reveal" is a tricky thing as we know. How much and what is revealed in a given sequence can either upset a script or set it up for a terrific ride. Your example reveals characterisation bombs that are set in place very early in a script so that they reward you as you become further and further immersed in the story. I agree that these are fundamental to creating a script that has the potential to explode in your hands as you read it.

Have a look also at "reveal in reverse" - for example, the Godfather, Part 1 and 2: Michael Corleone is first presented as a soft spoken, quiet watcher with very firm and unwavering beliefs - a man with an ordered mind. He's shown to us as a morally uprighteous person in the very final moments of Part 2 (the flashback), and it's interesting to look at his character arc from the beginning of part 1 to the penultimate scene of part 2. All the signs are there, and everything he does never strays from these reveals.


I mentioned before how "The Walking Dead" is a fine example of how to portray the disintegration of society rules in a post apocalyptic world... Hands up everyone who thinks Rick is bad and Shane is good?? Hmm? :D

Edited by Grey Dingo, 09 April 2012 - 06:39 AM.
grammar mistakes

#3 MalletPropStudios



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Posted 10 April 2012 - 02:58 PM

Absolutely, GD. You have to earn your payoff. The audience is very forgiving of the first 10 minutes of a movie, while you're doing all the setup. They are very unforgiving of the last 10 minutes, if you didn't put in the work to earn the payoff.

Here's a post called "The Obligatory Scene" from a blog that I read often. It fits in with this thread nicely. It's about doing the scene that is required, but the audience has seen a million times - and how to make it fresh.


#4 MalletPropStudios



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Posted 14 May 2012 - 03:28 AM

Now that I finished my "Stay the Course" episode I have time to watch movies again.


Wargames does a good job of adding tension to many scenes, such as the huge effort just to get inside NORAD before the door closes. You can see a "race against the clock" used many times for small and large plot points. The one I'm going to talk about is a small one.

Early in the movie they argue about taking the human element out of launching nuclear missiles, and using computers instead. That would be a discussion that would realistically include a lot of analysis and references to studies. Boring. Wargames avoids this with a simple introduction to the scene as the president's aide declares: "I've got to be on a plane to Washington in less than an hour where I have to give my recommendation to the president." A little race against the clock to increase the tension. Now Dr. McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) and General Beringer (Barry Corbin) can angrily defend their positions and take little sniping asides at each other without their characters seeming like irrational children - all because of the race against the clock.

We need this scene to advance the plot, and with the characters acting realistically at a high emotional level it goes from boring to intense.

Wargames (1983) - Screenplay by Lawrence Lasker, Walter F. Parkes, and Walon Green.

- Keith

#5 MalletPropStudios



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Posted 31 May 2012 - 07:13 PM

Great new article on backstory (including 5 techniques on how best to implement it):

Carson at ScriptShadow reads a ton of scripts and has great insight. I re-read his articles all the time.

- Keith

#6 MalletPropStudios



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Posted 16 July 2012 - 10:10 PM

Over the weekend I watched "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974) written by Peter Stone (screenplay) - based on the novel by Joseph Sargent.

This movie has inspired a lot of similar-themed movies over the years, so watching it now (for the first time), it definitely feels familiar. It wasn't then, though.

One of the best things this movie has going for it is that it's very tight storytelling. The premise is established and launched in 10 minutes.

However, what I want to talk about is the secondary characters. Everybody that has even a single line in this movie feels like a real person. They all have a genuine perspective on the situation. Even the two cops that are delivering the ransom money are worried that "somehow we're going to get blamed for all this". It seems the screenwriter considered every character's mindset based on their job and what kind of day they were having.

If you have a character that's needed only to move the plot forward, give them a realistic perspective in a line or two. It doesn't have to be a joke or clever observation, just something to make the audience feel like that character has a been living their life up to that moment where something they say appears on-screen.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is currently on Netflix.

- Keith

#7 MalletPropStudios



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Posted 17 April 2013 - 03:07 PM

This thread becomes easier to maintain when other people do your work for you:

10 Screenwritings Lessons You Can Learn from Rosemary's Baby

EDIT: Also...

11 Screenwriting Lessons You Can Learn From Casablanca

EDIT: Also...

10 Screenwriting Mistakes To Avoid via THE MATRIX RELOADED

EDIT: And...

10 Screenwriting Tips You Can Learn From Misery

EDIT: As well...

10 Screenwriting Tips You Can Learn From THE DARK KNIGHT and MAN OF STEEL

- Keith

Edited by MalletPropStudios, 18 June 2013 - 09:35 PM.

#8 rposhard


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Posted 01 June 2013 - 01:52 AM

I just finished watching Moonrise Kingdom, and I really liked what the writers were able to do by not giving Tilda Swinton's character a name. She is simply "Social Services". She is faceless bureaucracy given a face, and we quickly pick up on the fact that she is nothing more than the rulebook for orphans. The result is we can truly loathe her character without feeling like we're hating a person. She is, in fact, the ultimate heartless villain -- not a person as much as an institution which is in drastic need of change which is -- in part -- what this movie is about. By giving her no human characteristics at all (even when she makes the right decision at the end it's only because there are two lawyers haranguing her), the writers were able to transcend conventional characterization rules and create something totally unique. Brilliant!

Edited by rposhard, 01 June 2013 - 01:54 AM.
I felt like it

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#9 thebiz


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Posted 01 June 2013 - 02:21 AM

I watched that tonight as well (saw it in he theater a while back). Outstanding casting as well. Is anyone more ambigous and nameless than mrs swinton.

Edited by thebiz, 01 June 2013 - 02:38 AM.

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#10 Grey Dingo

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Posted 11 October 2013 - 01:23 PM

Hehe, nice to know you're a theatre-goer, Biz. People like you keep people like me in work. :mellow:

I haven't seen the piece you guys are talking about, but will put it on my list.

Okay, treading carefully, 'cos I don't want to appear like I'm in the wrong area or anything, I had the chance to watch 44 inch Chest and Sexy Beast pretty much one after the other recently. If you haven't seen either film, I might have a stab at describing them as films Tarantino might have made if he were a cockney. Cockneys of Old London Town might disagree.

The two films are similar in character, style and thematic impulses, yet lightyears apart in execution and deliverance. 44 Inch Chest is a stage play adapted to film. Sexy Beat is a stage-play made for film. Both are incredibly dialogue heavy and character-driven. One is stage-bound, absorbing and compelling, yet virtually locked between four walls of a squalid shambles. The other is script-bound, yet given the freedom to roam filmically between places that are lush and stylistic yet incidental to character. Both are fantastic examples of writing that are bound in a very sedentary - static - setting, but make a huge cinematic impact. Both feature enormously idiosyncratic idiom that might jarr with a traditionalist's POV of story-telling. Yet both are extraordinarily compelling for their use of language as a tool of displacement, and the actors' amazing ability to use that tool so effectively. I think the only film that may come close to these two examples of dialogue-ique naturalist abandonment is Reservoir Dogs. And that's in a totally different, New-World-Way.

Have a gander - if you dare - and tell me I'm wrong.

Edited by Grey Dingo, 14 October 2013 - 12:15 AM.
damned smileys

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