Friday, February 27, 2009

South Carolina Book Festival

I always forget to post these things, but this weekend I'll be speaking and reading and well, of course, partying - at the South Carolina Book Festival in Columbia, SC, if anyone's in that neighborhood.

Saturday night I'll be at the VIP Author party...

Sunday I'm doing a panel: What Puts the Chill in Thriller? with two of my favorite partners in crime, JT Ellison and CJ Lyons, Sunday at 2 pm, moderated by Debby Johnson... (Richland Meeting Room). To quote one of my favorite movie lines of all time, from THE TERMINATOR: "More than mortal man deserves."

And I'm doing a reading Sunday, somewhere between 4 and 5 pm (Lexington Meeting Room).

If you're around, stop by!

- Alex

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Character Introductions


Okay, as I continue to ease in to talking about character!

Again, the reason I am being delicate about this, when obviously I don’t use kid gloves when I’m expounding about structure, is that I have this sense that EVERY real writer already has their own process for creating character, or I’d even say calling character, because that’s more what it seems like to me: you create an inviting space for characters to come, and hope to God they show up. And I don’t ever want to do or say anything that might screw that process up for anyone.

My beloved Mystery Man on Film has a fabulous post compiling what great writers have said about creating character, and you should read through that now.

Do you notice how many of them say you can’t design character? I mean, who am I to argue with that lineup of writers, after all?

All right, but now that I’ve disclaimed myself into the ground…

There are tricks that authors can take from filmmaking to help with character.

Today’s example is the CHARACTER INTRODUCTION.

I’ve been breaking down HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE for the online class I’m teaching and that movie is superb for this character technique. Every major character has a fantastic character introduction.

Character introductions are painstakingly developed by screenwriters because the making of a movie (at least in the past) almost always hinges on attachments – that is, attracting a star big enough to “open” the movie – that is, bring in enough box office on the opening weekend to earn back production costs.

When you have an actor like that, the studio will finance the movie.

(Okay, now we could go into the fact that lately studios are less and less willing to rely on stars to open movies and why, but this isn’t an article on film financing, it’s an article on character).

And since the character introduction is the first thing an actor will read ain the script, and may be the one thing that makes him or her decide to keep reading, that character introduction may be your one shot at the actor who will make your film or consign it to that grim warehouse (one of many grim warehouses) where scripts with no attachments end up.

Actors don’t always read the whole script. I am absolutely sure that all your favorite actors do. And there are actors who convince great directors to sign onto scripts that they love. There are actors who love a script so much that they produce it themselves, without even taking a role in it, to get it made.

Still, and I know you may find this hard to believe - some actors only flip through the script reading all their own lines, and make the determination of whether or not they will play a part from that.

And so no matter how brilliant the rest of your script is, an irresistible character introduction may be your one shot at getting an actor who can get your movie made.

But what does all this have to do with writing novels, you ask?

Well, what I’m saying is that even as a novelist, it doesn’t hurt to think of character in terms of casting. I know some of you design characters (in novels as well as scripts) with actors in mind. I certainly do. You may start writing a scene imagining a certain actor playing the role of the character you have in mind, and use that actor’s voice. I do this, not all the time, but fairly often. I can feel myself writing for an actor, and imagining an actor saying the lines – but then ALWAYS, at a certain point, the character just takes over. Everything I do with character until that point is just treading water until the REAL character shows up.

Then I forget all about actors and creating and designing - I’m really just following the character around taking dictation.

But – until that point, imagining an actor, and writing for that actor, can be a real help in attracting that mysterious being called character.

(I would be worried about sounding completely psychotic at this point except that I’m talking to a bunch of writers and I KNOW YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.)

So, if you’re willing to buy into this metaphor I’m working on, that characters are much like actors, and you have to design parts that will attract them to your story and convince them to take on the role…

A really good way to do this is to create an irresistible CHARACTER INTRODUCTION.

Let’s take a look at some great ones.

- Rita Hayworth throwing back her hair in GILDA.

- Dustin Hoffman on stage playing a tomato in TOOTSIE (and then the equally classic introduction of “Dorothy”, struggling to walk down a crowded NY street in high heels and power suit.)

Hoffman as a tomato tells us everything about his character, both his desires and problems: we see the passion he has for acting, the fact that he’s not exactly living up to his potential, and how extremely intractable he has, basically unemployable. It’s also a sly little joke that he’s playing a “tomato” – a derogatory word for a woman.

- Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. I want a BIG one.” And freeze frame on that handspan… fabulous, funny, sexy introduction. (That big, huh? Mmm.)

This intro also tells us something about George Bailey’s outer DESIRE line – he wants to do big things, build big things, everything big. In fact, the story will be about how all the LITTLE things George does in his life will add up to something more than simply big, but truly enormous.

- Mary Poppins floating down from the sky holding on to that umbrella.

- Katharine Hepburn in PHILADELPHIA STORY, throwing open the window shutters on a gorgeous day and exclaiming, “Good going, God!”

- And okay, let’s just look at HARRY POTTER, since I have it on the brain.

- Dumbledore: an elderly, medieval looking wizard regally walks down a modern street, using some flashlight-like device to kind of vacuum the lights from the streetlamps into this tool.

- MacGonegal: A cat on a porch meows at Dumbledore, then the shadow of the moving cat turns into the shadow of a witch in pointed hat, and MacGonegal walks regally into frame.

Hagrid: first appears as a glowing light in the sky, very conscious reference to Glinda’s magical appearance in the glowing bubble in THE WIZARD OF OZ (and Hagrid will be the fairy godmother to Harry). Then the Wizard of Oz reference has a humorous twist – Hagrid descends not in a shimmering bubble, but on a Harley.

But the introduction of Hagrid is more than humorous – it tells us a lot about the character. First, the debate that Dumbledore and MacGonegal have over whether Hagrid should have been trusted with the baby tells us a lot about this character we’re about to meet. And when we see Hagrid carrying the baby this hulking giant is as tender as a mother.

Harry Potter: we see him first as a baby in swaddling clothes, left on a doorstep (like every fairy tale changeling and also Moses in the bulrushes, the child who grows up to be the leader of his people), while the witch and the wizard talk about how important he’s going to be - then the scar on the baby’s forehead is match cut to the scar on 11-year old Harry’s forehead to pass time and introduce Harry again.

Again, note that this introduction of Harry tells us a lot about this character – in pure exposition and also by using the visual, archetypal references to Moses – and, let’s face it, the baby Jesus with the three kings (wizards and witch).

Olivander, the wand master: John Hurt slides into frame on a ladder, slyly glowing as only John Hurt can glow.

Nearly Headless Nick: pops his head right through the dinner table.

And a character introduction doesn’t have to be just a moment, either. As I said in another post, one of the best character introductions I’ve seen in a long time was the long build-up of Maria Lena, the Penelope Cruz character in VICKI CHRISTINA BARCELONA. With all of that anticipation and build-up, an actor is going to pull out all the stops when she finally blazes onto the screen, and Penelope totally did. That role was written to demand an Oscar-worthy performance, and she delivered.

Of course, having actors like all of the above has more than a little to do with the power of those introductions – obviously we’re talking about screen royalty here.

But those introductions were also specifically designed to be worthy of those stars.

So add character introductions to your list of things to watch for when you look at movies and read books. Note the great ones. The more you become aware of how other storytellers handle this, the better you will be at writing them yourself, for your own characters.

You know the question by now. What are YOUR favorite examples of character introductions?

- Alex


=====================================================


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.



Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT


If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE




Sunday, February 22, 2009

And the Oscar goes to...

(Cross posted from Murderati)

I don't do memes. I apologize to those of you who have tagged me for them - it's nothing personal. I just can't. I mean, honestly, the whole reason I started writing story structure articles to begin with was that I just don't have anything more to say about myself.

But if I HAD participated in the meme that was or maybe still is going around, “Twenty-Five Things About Me”, this would have been one of them:

I win Oscar pools.

I don’t gamble, hate cards, don’t buy lottery tickets, am bored senseless in casinos… but over the years I have won thousands of dollars on casual Oscar pools, and have made other friends who took my picks a few hundred here and there, too. And let me be clear - the vast majority of these Oscar pools that I've won have been at parties IN HOLLYWOOD, where I was betting against other screenwriters, directors, actors, agents, DPs, editors, production designers - many of whom were arguably more clued in than I was.

I actually won my first Oscar Derby when I was sixteen years old and entered a contest in the local paper. I think that’s young enough to count as evidence of a genetic predisposition.

Or maybe it was just foreshadowing.

So I was going to post another story structure article today, on Character Introductions, but hell, it’s Oscar day, and why should we be exempt, here? I bet you all want to dish. And myself, I’m curious if this talent I have was mostly a product of living in Southern California and just having it all in the air. This year I am NOT in California and in fact just got back from out of the country, so I don’t feel at all plugged in. In other words, no promises!

All that disclaimed, let’s take a look, here. And here’s a link to a printable Oscar ballot, for your own purposes and so that I don’t have to list all the nominees, myself.

Best Picture. I’m not going out on a limb to say that SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a juggernaut. But if you’ll remember, I raved about it the second I saw it.

Best Director: SLUMDOG’S Danny Boyle, whom I’ve loved since the outrageous TRAINSPOTTING.

Best Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black for MILK. And anyone who hasn’t seen this one - what are you waiting for? Bio pics are about the hardest genre of all to pull off, and this one lets you live this history AND a wrenching, uplifting story at the same time.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy for SLUMDOG. I understand perfectly why Indians would take offense at the character changes he made to Vikas Swarup’s novel. This is a quintessentially Hollywood film, stereotypes and all. But as Hollywood films go, it’s magic.

(Note how Oscar ballots don’t list the names of the nominated screenwriters. The “Big Six” Oscar ballots don’t list the screenwriting categories at all. Now, aren’t you glad you’re an author?)

Best Actress: Kate Winslet. Haven’t seen THE READER yet – hoping to catch it this afternoon. Didn’t particularly care for her performance in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (and the film - not recommended!!) No matter what she does in READER, and no matter how much I love her, and I truly do, I cannot in my wildest imagining believe that she even comes close to Meryl Streep’s literally breathtaking performance in DOUBT. But if you’re voting to win, that’s the buzz. (I heard someone put it perfectly, in Hollywood terms: “The movie’s about the Holocaust. How can she lose?”)

Best Actor: Here’s the real race. If I were voting my heart, Sean Penn, hands down. He didn’t play Harvey Milk – he became Harvey Milk. I completely forgot that was Sean Penn up there. But Mickey Rourke was heartbreaking in THE WRESTLER, and Hollywood loves a comeback. And Frank Langella was truly mesmerizing in FROST/NIXON, and as another prognosticator put it, Rourke and Penn have the same fan base so they might split the vote and give Langella the edge (these are the things you REALLY have to consider when you’re handicapping the Oscars). Every one of these men deserves an Oscar for his performance. I say Penn, but my guess is as good as yours, here.

Best Supporting Actress: Here’s a rule of thumb for voting this category: “Youngest, cutest.” Sad, but true. The race is between Viola Davis and Penelope Cruz. Both stellar, Oscar-worthy performances in polar opposite roles. I hear people saying, “Viola might get it because of Obama.” This is the kind of talk you hear for months around Hollywood, really, it’s fascinating. I’d love to see Viola, but Penelope was better than I’ve ever seen her (and I’m not really a fan) in VICKI CHRISTINA BARCELONA. I say Penelope gets it.

Best Supporting Actor: And this is no race at all. Heath Ledger, and it’s really just too sad.

Now, if you’re going for the whole ballot, there are a couple of other good bets I can give you.

SLUMDOG will probably sweep, so you can’t go too far wrong just marking it down for all the tech categories, sound, editing, effects, it’s nominated for. It won’t WIN in all of them, probably, but if you’re playing to win, it’s still your best bet.

Animated Feature: WALL-E – unbeatable.

Best Editing: almost always wins along with director. Chris Dickens for SLUMDOG, in case you were thinking of voting for something else.

Cinematography: This is the one that I think has a chance of going elsewhere. This might be the one big award that BENJAMIN BUTTON gets. But that’s a lot about my personal taste.

Best Song: I’d go for the one from WALL-E, but haven’t heard it.

Art Direction, Makeup, Visual Effects – SLUMDOG’S out of the running for all of these and it’s going to be a battle between BENJAMIN BUTTON and THE DARK KNIGHT. As a matter of fact I’m most curious about these production awards. I found BUTTON a very unsatisfying movie but the look of it was just stupefyingly lovely, and I’d like to see it rewarded for that. There’s sort of a backlash against the film, though, a lot of grumbling, and a lot of Hollywood talkers think THE DARK KNIGHT hasn’t been recognized enough.

Documentary feature, short feature, animated short: the handicapping rule of thumb here is – Is there a Holocaust movie? Vote for that one. This year I know nothing about any of them but I have heard people rave about MAN ON WIRE, for whatever that’s worth.

Best Foreign Film: on this one I would take the advice of legendary Putnam editor Neil Nyren: "A great contest between two truly stellar movies, WALTZ WITH BASHIR and THE CLASS. BASHIR has the edge, I think, because it's so innovative and portrays a superheated political question with great humanism, but THE CLASS is the most exciting movie about, of all things, a Parisian middle school classroom that you'll ever see. Push comes to shove, the money's on BASHIR."

So there you go. Not all-inclusive, but if you don’t generally have luck at these Oscar pools, it might help you. Or - not. That's why they call it gambling.

Me, I actually have other plans tonight, so I’ll be speeding through the show on DVR later. If you’re not at an actual Oscar party, and drinking heavily, it’s the only way to get through it. ;)

I do have to say that I’m grateful for some truly exceptional films and performances this year. I can’t remember when I was last excited about so many films in a single year – DOUBT, SLUMDOG, MILK, FROST/NIXON, THE VISITOR, THE WRESTLER, GRAN TORINO (but I definitely don’t want to get into THAT debate right now!).

If you haven’t seen some of these, do yourself a favor and go. Sometimes Hollywood just gets it right.

Okay, people – let’s hear it. Your favorite films? Writing? Performance? Production design? Who should win, and who do you think WILL win?

Are there any other Oscar pool pros out there?

And tomorrow, we can talk about the clothes.

- Alex

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Meta Structure

I delved into this in my post on Fairy Tale Structure and the List but there are other kinds of meta structures besides fairy tale structure and mythic structure, so for people who are taking this master list thing seriously, I wanted to spend a post talking about meta structure. That’s my own term for it, by the way – I don’t know if there is some definitive official term for what I’m talking about. Aristotle called it energia, and John Truby (in his superb book on structure, THE ANATOMY OF STORY) calls it the “story designing principle”, but this is what it is:

Sometimes there is just a perfect way to tell a story.

This is partly luck in premise, but some of it can be engineered, if you train yourself to look for meta structure, and be aware of how you might be able to use it in your own story.

Here are some examples.

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL
SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE
GROUNDHOG DAY
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
FOUR CHRISTMASES
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
BACK TO THE FUTURE

I don’t know if people can see what I’m getting at just by looking at that list, but don’t worry, I’m about to explain each one.

Now, all of those movies are “high concept”, but those premises also go beyond high concept.

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL tells you exactly what the story is going to be, right? The meta structure of that story is seeing the same group of old friends on the days of four different weddings and one funeral day, on which they mourn one of their own. That is the organizational frame on which that story is built.

GROUNDHOG DAY: A man repeats the same day of his life over and over and over again until he gets it right.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: shows a man’s entire life in vignettes, and then shows the cumulative effect of his life and deeds by depicting his home town as it would have been had he never lived.

In much the same way – BACK TO THE FUTURE shows a kid whose life is not so great accidentally transported back to the past, and his actions in the past completely transform his life when he gets back to the future.

FOUR CHRISTMASES (which I haven’t seen but got the meta structure of it instantly…) – shows a young couple forced to attend the Christmas celebration of each one of their divorced parents, which teaches them what they want for themselves in marriage and love.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE: shows how every major event of a poor Indian boy’s life has enabled him to correctly answer the questions on a multimillion-dollar game show.

SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE – is a romantic comedy that shows two people who are meant for each other falling in love – even though they live on opposite sides of the country and never meet until the last scene of the film.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: is a murder mystery in which the twelve killers on a stalled train act as a jury to try, convict, and execute a heinous criminal, and Hercule Poirot acts as both detective and judge, who first solves the baffling, contradictory crime and then decides that the killing was just.

Okay, so each of these premises tells you EXACTLY how to tell that story, right? Each story almost HAS to be told the way that it is told. It’s almost mathematical in its precision. There is a larger concept or metaphor or organizing principle that holds it together.

Your story might not have a meta structure like that. Many – or maybe even most - classic movies and books do not have this kind of meta structure. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, JAWS – they’re great stories, but I don’t think you can say that there’s a meta structure operating in those stories in the way that there is in the other stories I’ve listed.

I’m bringing up the point to get you guys to start looking for meta structure, because when you add this narrative tool to your ever-expanding toolbox (hmm, that sounds intriguingly dirty, doesn’t it?) – you may just hit on the perfect meta structure for your own story.

Now, we should also spend some quality time talking about another meta structure – mythic structure, which Christopher Vogler has a whole very successful and tremendously useful book about: THE WRITERS JOURNEY – it’s a Cliff’s Notes version of Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO’S JOURNEY, designed specifically for writers. However, I’m on the road, not back home until tomorrow night, so I will have to provide links when I get back this weekend.

So, have I completely confused everyone with this concept of meta structure? Or do you have dozens of examples for me?


=====================================================


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.



Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT


If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE




Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Plants and Payoffs

As I continue to fill in the gaps in these posts!

I very strongly encourage novelists to start watching movies for Plants and Payoffs. It’s a delicious storytelling trick that filmmakers are particularly aware of and deft at… it’s all a big seductive game to play with your audience, and an audience eats it up.

Other names for this technique are Setup/Reveal, Plant/Reveal, Setup/Payoff, and sometimes FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle).

On the most basic level, a plant is showing the gun in the first act if you’re going to use it in the third act. But plants can be much more than that, and serve many different story functions.

A classic example of a plant is Indy freaking out about the snake on the plane in the first few minutes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The plant is cleverly hidden because we think it’s just a comic moment – this big, bad hero just survived a maze of lethal booby traps and an entire tribe of warriors trying to kill him – and then he wimps out about a little old snake. But the real payoff comes way later when Salla slides the stone slab off the entrance to the tomb and Indy shines the light down into the pit - to reveal a live mass of thousands of coiling snakes. It’s so much later in the film that we’ve completely forgotten that Indy has a pathological fear of snakes – but that’s what makes it all so funny. Of course it’s also a suspense builder in this case – the descent into the tomb is that much more scary because we’re feeling Indy’s revulsion.

Any film of Spielberg’s is going to be filled with plants and payoffs, so you can’t go wrong having a Spielberg marathon to get familiar with the technique. In E.T., E.T. heals the potted marigolds early on, and then we see the marigolds slowly dying as E.T. gets sick. Then in the “visit to death’ scene, when E.T. has died, the marigolds start to bloom again and we realize E.T. is alive in there. Of course the reading of “Clap if you believe in fairies” scene of Peter Pan is a plant for the resurrection of E.T., too.

In POLTERGEIST, the hideous clown and the twisted tree are set up as the children’s fears, which provide terrific scares when the house starts to come alive. The little funeral for the bird, and the desecration of that little grave that happens when the bulldozers start digging the pool, is a set up for the payoff that the developers put the housing development on top of a cemetery. It introduces a thematic concept and supernatural explanation without announcing that that’s what it’s doing.

In JAWS, when Sheriff Brody first gets on board the boat, he accidentally pulls a rope that makes the oxygen tanks tumble to the deck, and Quint and Hooper freak out because the tanks could have blown up the ship. It looks like just a moment showing how out of place Brody is on the boat, but actually it’s a set up for how he will kill the shark in the end. Again – the plant is cleverly hidden, so we virtually forget about it until that “Aha!” moment when Brody brilliantly decides to use the tank to try to kill the shark.
It’s that recognition, the fact that you understand what he’s up to, that makes the audience feel they’re IN on the action and not just watching.

Plants are often used to set up a weakness of the hero/ine that will be tested, usually in the final battle. In the training sequence of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, Yoda continually gets angry with Luke for not trusting the Force… so in his final battle with Vader, Luke’s only chance of survival is putting his entire fate in the hands of the Force he’s not sure he believes in. Lovely moment of spiritual transcendence – it’s not just a victory in battle, but a true character change as well.

Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of this weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle in the third act. An absolutely beautiful example of this is in the film DIRTY DANCING. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Baby can never, ever keep her balance in that flashy dance lift. She and Johnny attempt the lift in an early dance performance, Baby chickens out, and they cover the flub in an endearingly comic way. But in that final performance number she nails the lift, and it’s a great moment for her as a character and for the audience, quite literally uplifting. And on the way to that big payoff, there’s a kind of suspense every time they dance: “Will they get the lift this time?”

Plants and payoffs can be used to great effect to define a subplot. Think of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: In a two-second shot, a few sentences on a page, Catherine’s loving relationship with her cat is set up before she is kidnapped. Then on the brink of a horrible death, Catherine uses that facility with animals to capture “Precious”, the killer’s little dog, to buy her escape (thus driving the killer into a bigger frenzy). It’s a breathtaking line of suspense, because we know how unwilling Catherine is to hurt that little dog, which has become a character in its own right. (Lesson – infuse EVERY character, EVERY moment, with all the life you can cram into it). And of course the payoff makes Catherine’s survival even more sweet – she won’t let anyone take the dog away from her when she is being taken to the hospital.

Plants can be used on a very small level, to create suspense or comic effect: for example, in TERMINATOR, we see early on that Sarah Connor has a pet iguana that is always getting loose, and later that iguana provides a big scare at a crucial moment when it drops onto Bess Motta’s head in the kitchen at night.

Woody Allen’s latest film, VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA, uses a number of plants in the long buildup to the intro of Maria Lena, the Penelope Cruz character. The build up and plants work for both suspense and comic effect, and Penelope completely delivers on her introduction. I was sure she’d get an Oscar nomination for that one! I want to point out that this is a great way to create a larger-than-life character.

But plants can be used in a much bigger way to convey theme as well. In WITNESS, we see the Amish community working together to build a barn – their whole way of life is community. We’ve also seen their absolute commitment to non-violence. And we see both these themes and values in action at the powerful climax, when the whole community surrounds the bad guy, and without lifting a hand against him, keeps him subdued as he sinks into a silo of grain (and that grain has been set up as a symbol for the community in the opening image of the film).

A classic example of a more intricate plant/payoff is (are) the letters of transit in CASABLANCA (here serving a dual function as MacGuffin – the object that everyone wants). The thief Ugarto has stolen letters of transit signed by Charles DeGaulle which will allow two people safe passage out of Casablanca (let’s just overlook the hole, there, that the Nazis aren’t about to let anyone do anything they don’t want them to do… it works for the purposes of the movie). Ugarto is killed for the letters, but has stashed them with Rick for safekeeping. Those letters of transit are what Ilsa wants, to get her husband safely out of Casablanca, and Rick first toys with her about them, then wants to use them for himself and Ilsa, and finally uses them to get Ilsa and her husband out.

But CASABLANCA has an even more classic plant/payoff: the line “Round up the usual suspects,” a gambit Captain Renault uses in the climax to save the day.

The story goes that the screenwriters, the Epstein brothers, were banging their heads against the wall trying to figure out a believable way to get Rick off the hook for the murder of Nazi Colonel Strasser at the end, and then one day they were driving over Mulholland to a meeting and both turned to each other in the same moment and exclaimed, “Round up the usual suspects!!!!”

This story illustrates an important point – plants and payoffs are often painstakingly engineered, and deliberately woven into the plotline for maximum effect. Once you’ve written your first draft, you can start looking for what your subconscious has already set up and engineer the payoffs – or reverse engineer a set up to make a payoff play.

I want to take a look at the way a particular setup and payoff is used in the movie JERRY MAGUIRE, by the brilliant Cameron Crowe.

Sports agent Jerry has a crisis moment early in the movie that starts his journey toward wholeness: he visits a client in the hospital after he’s had his fourth concussion on the field (football, I think…), and the client’s young son confronts Jerry and says someone has to make his dad stop playing. Jerry blows him off with a platitude and the kid bursts into tears and tells him to fuck himself.

That incident makes Jerry realize he hates himself and his life and inspires him to write a mission statement about how agents should really be acting, which gets him fired and starts his journey.

Jerry is left with only one C list client, Rod, who decides to be loyal and stick with him. And early on Rod and his wife make the decision not to accept a terrible contract renewal so they can hold out for a real contract, which they are trusting Jerry to get for them. Jerry is worried and tells them that this is a huge risk to Rod, because if he gets injured there will be no insurance. So RISK OF INJURY is set up as a big FEAR for Jerry, Rod, his wife, and us, the audience.

We are reminded of this fear when Rod signs a football for a man in a wheelchair – it’s a visual representation of what could happen to him.

And then in the climactic game, what happens? Rod takes a huge hit and is knocked out – while he is still not under contract. It’s our greatest fear manifest, and plays for maximum emotional impact because it has been set up and spelled out so clearly, all along.

And the twist is, that injury and Rod’s recovery on the field, and his bonding with the stadium audience in that moment, is what gets him the contract he’s been looking for all along.

This is a great example of how plants can not only pay off for emotional effect, but can become an integral part of the structure of a story.

Again, plants and payoffs are often developed in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do one read-through just looking for places to plant and payoff.

So, please – any great examples for us?


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All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.



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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.


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