Lauri Donahue

How to Write Comedy: Lessons from Ted Lasso [STPS #14]

Last year, I worked on a comedy pilot with a friend who’s a published author but who didn’t have any screenwriting experience. So I gave her a crash course in screenwriting as went along.

Trying to explain comedy to her made me want to better understand it myself, and this blog is the result.

Some comedy principles apply in many contexts — from mime, to circus clowns, to standup — but the focus here is on sitcoms.

What’s So Funny?

Here’s my non-exhaustive list of things that can be funny… at least to some people, some of the time.

Reversals

Reversals go against expectations. Someone says or does something that’s a surprise.

If you expect the grandma with the walker to be frail, and the gang member to be tough, and the grandma kicks the gang member in the balls, that’s a reversal of expectations.

Reversals can also happen when things flip from good to bad or vice versa, especially when it happens in an unexpected way.

The fall of those on the top, and the rise of those on the bottom, is an ancient source of comedy. It can be especially funny and satisfying to see powerful jerks put in their place.

Insults

Insults have been the basis for comedy pretty much forever. Shakespeare was really good at them.

Exaggeration

Exaggeration can be verbal (“Yo Mama” jokes, which are also insults), situational (the WORST first day on the job), or physical (the MOST ridiculous outfit, the MOST muscle-bound bully).

Physical Comedy

Physical comedy includes things like pratfalls, fainting, spit takes, fights (especially silly ones, like with pies), slapstick, clowning, clumsiness, miming, stunts, slamming doors, collisions, injuries, and making funny faces. Basically, it’s humor based on actions rather than words, and often pain or destruction is involved.

Anarchy

The Marx Brothers were all about anarchy, chaos, defying social conventions, etc. The I Love Lucy chocolate factory scene is another classic example of things getting out of control. Often, anarchy is portrayed via physical comedy.

Disasters

Various people (including Steven Spielberg) have been cited for this description of three-act dramatic structure: “In the first act you get him up a tree, in the second act you throw rocks at him, and in the third act you get him down from the tree.”

This applies to comedy as well as to serious drama. The disaster is when your characters are up a tree, having things thrown at them. Things are bad, and they keep getting worse.

The disasters don’t usually have life-or-death stakes, except in very dark comedies like Heathers or The Boys, but they’re important to the characters in the moment.  In Silicon Valley, for example, the characters repeatedly face disasters that threaten the survival of their company.

Appearance Humor

Appearance humor can result from clothing, hair, makeup, casting, etc.

An outfit inappropriate to the occasion can be funny (like a wetsuit at a wedding), as can an outfit that’s ill-fitting, ripped, dirty, etc.

“Mad scientists” like Doc Brown in Back to the Future, traditionally have funny hair.

Some actors have faces that make you smile just to look at them, or (like Jim Carrey) can contort their features in funny ways.

Stupidity and Ignorance

 Having a character say something stupid/ignorant lets other characters (and the audience) mock them. This also sets up the comedy trope of the “wise fool” who turns out to be right after all.

Embarrassment and Humiliation

Embarrassment and humiliation can result from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, saying the wrong thing, being caught in a lie, being seen undressed or doing something private in public, forgetting something important, wearing the wrong thing, acting inappropriately, displaying one’s ignorance, etc. The humor may also arise out of trying to avoid embarrassment.

Fish out of water” comedies (like Ted Lasso) often involve a lot of embarrassment when characters struggle to understand, fit in, or survive their new environments.

Paradoxically, a character NOT being embarrassed when the average person WOULD be embarrassed is also funny.

In over Your Head

One foundation of a lot of good comedy is an ill-equipped character trying to cope with a situation she or he isn’t prepared to handle.

The person may be ill-equipped because they’re stupid or ignorant, or simply because they’re a “fish out of water.”

The comedy can come because you KNOW this isn’t going to go well — and it doesn’t (disaster/exaggeration). Or the comedy can come from the reversal — the character shouldn’t be able to cope, but somehow triumphs.

Jokes (Setups and Punchlines)

Jokes are the foundation of old-school sit-coms, with multiple laugh lines per page, but less of a staple in newer comedies like Ted Lasso. Comedies can vary a lot in the number of jokes per minute, as this article notes.

The basic structure of a joke is setup/punch. As Judy Carter’s Stand-Up Comedy: The Book explains:

The setup is the unfunny part of the joke. It is the informative part of the joke that introduces the subject matter…. The setup creates anticipation. A punch delivers the laugh.

Punch lines are often based on reversals of expectations, exaggeration, insults, self-deprecation, puns, plays on words, etc.

Here’s a list of 30 of the “Funniest Sitcom Jokes of All Time.” Even more here. See if you can figure out what makes them work.

Verbal Humor

Verbal humor is dialogue that doesn’t have the setup/punchline structure but is still funny.

Verbal humor can include odd ways of talking, accents, linguistic quirks, malapropisms, catchphrases (“That’s what she said”), etc.

Sex and Genitalia

Talking about sex and genitalia has been taboo in some periods of history, and breaking taboos can be funny.

Sex jokes may involve exaggeration or insults, as in this one from Sex and the City:  “I was once with a guy the size of those little miniature golf pencils. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to fuck me or erase me.”

Shakespeare’s works are full of bawdy jokes.

Bodily Functions

Like with sex and genitalia, talking about or portraying “private” bodily functions, fluids, and conditions (peeing, pooping, farting, burping, barfing, menstruating, rashes, etc.) has often been considered taboo in polite society, and (again) breaking taboos can be funny.

Coughing and sneezing aren’t usually funny, but hiccups almost always are. Go figure.

Profanity

Yet again, it’s about the taboos. Simply saying “Fuck,” in the right way at the right time, can get a big laugh. Strings of profanity, twists on profanity, and words that substitute for profanity (“fudge” and “sugar”) can also be funny.

Ted Lasso

Now let’s look at the Ted Lasso pilot and see how the writers use these comedy tools.

I’m working off the 2/1/19 draft, which is the only one I found online.  This draft is 39 pages, but I think the version broadcast is only about 24 pages. You can compare the script to a transcript of the dialogue as broadcast, and you can follow along in the script as you watch the show to see what changed.

(BTW, the concept of Ted Lasso originated with NBC Sports promos, and some of those bits ended up in the pilot.)

Page 1

We open with the football (soccer) team training on the field and cut to the office, where REBECCA WELTON, the new owner, is moving in.

She stares at a painting on the wall. HIGGINS, the servile communications director, admires her taste and she offers to give it to him. (Reversal of expectations) When he points out that it’s worth a million pounds, she withdraws her offer. (Another reversal)

There’s a newspaper headline: “He gets the bimbos, she gets the bozos.” This does double duty as exposition (explaining that Rebecca got the team in her divorce) and comic insult.

Page 2

In comes GEORGE, the current Manager, a fat guy wearing short-shorts. (Appearance humor.)

He pretends to flick Higgins in the balls. (Physical comedy)

He comments sarcastically on the redecoration. “Love what you’ve done with the place. You do it yourself or did ya have some poof help you?” (Insult)

Rebecca throws the “poof” slur back at him, insulting his hair.

He comments on her impressive chest and patronizes her for wasting his time.

She fires him. (Reversal)

He demands an explanation.

She tells him the brutal truth, including that it’s because he’s a misogynist, capping it with an insult: “I know, it’s a big word. Ask one of your daughters what it means.”

Page 3

Rebecca continues to list George’s failings, including his wearing of tiny shorts that force her to see his testicles when he sits. She follows that up with another testicle reference. (Sex and genitalia)

She calls him a fat twat and tells him to piss off. (Insult, profanity)

At the bottom of the page, we start to learn about the new coach – Ted Lasso.

Page 4

We see a video of Ted doing a crazy dance with his team. (Physical comedy)

We learn that this is an “in over your head” situation — Ted has never coached soccer or any pro team. The premise itself is funny.

We also meet TED himself, played by Jason Sudeikis.

As Collider suggests,

it could be argued that the real star of Ted Lasso, in the end, is the mustache on Ted’s face. At the very least, Sudeikis considers said ‘stache necessary to his performance. “It feels essential to me. It really does… Between the mustache and the shades, that really kicks it off for me. I mean, my joke has been that Audrey Hepburn used to say that she really would find a character through the wardrobe, through some Givenchy outfit. For me, it’s facial hair and the aviators and the visor.”

Ted’s look – including his almost-constant grin – is an example of appearance humor. His southern accent adds verbal humor. (In general, regional accents are funny.)

Now we meet Ted on the plane. A British teen takes an “us”-ie photo with him. (Verbal humor)

Page 5

The teen joyfully tells Ted that he’s “mental” for taking a job coaching soccer. (Insult)

Page 6

Ted asks his assistant, COACH BEARD, if they’re nuts for doing this. Beard says that they are.

Ted replies, “Hey, but taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.” (Verbal humor)

Then, as they prepare to sleep, Ted says to Beard, “If we see each other in our dreams, let’s goof around a little bit, pretend like we don’t know each other.” (more verbal humor)

These aren’t joke-jokes, but they establish Ted’s quirky worldview and manner of speaking. The joke is that Ted’s metaphors and aphorisms often don’t make a lot of sense – but they still seem to have an affect on people.

 

Anyway, you get the idea. For homework, go through the rest of the script/transcript and spot the different humor devices at work. (Don’t miss the lovely spit take on pg. 19.) Look for other devices you can add to the list.

How to Write Funny

People have different processes for writing comedy. Some start with jokes, bits, scenes, etc. and then build a plot around them. I build a plot first and then try to make it funny.

Also, a joke that will work for one character won’t (and often shouldn’t) work for another. If all the characters make all the same kinds of jokes, then they all sound the same and that’s boring.

However you prefer to work, you can use a comedy checklist like the one above to remind you of ways to punch up the humor in a scene or script.

 

Are Screenwriting Contests “Worth It”? [STPS #13]

The last week of the year is when I update my list of the “best” (IMHO) Screenwriting Fellowships, Labs, Grants, Contests and Other Opportunities.

This year, I also thought about whether screenwriting contests are “worth it,” generally.

(In this blog, I use “contests” to include labs, fellowships, etc.)

Why Most Contests Aren’t Worth Entering

Back in 2018, on their Scriptnotes podcast,  John August and Craig Mazin discussed a seeming scandal involving various interlinked entities that ran screenwriting contests and feedback services.

John asked on Twitter:

Hey, can anyone tell me whether winning a screenwriting competition actually had a meaningful impact on your career. Like did it actually start your career?

The result, he said, was

I think not surprisingly at all Nicholls Fellowship is meaningful. If you win the Nicholls Fellowship, great. That’s fantastic. It’s run by the Academy. Everyone knows what that is.

Some success out of Austin Film Festival. Very little success out of anything else.

Craig commented:

There are so many people out there charging you money to enter contests, charging you money for notes, charging you money for consulting. It doesn’t work. And more to the point, not doing it has worked. In fact, not doing it has worked for literally everyone you and I know who works as a professional screenwriters. So at some point I think we’re asking people to take a leap of faith here and stop doing this. We know that the Nicholls Fellowship matters. It doesn’t always work, but it can work. We know that Austin to a lesser extent can work. Beyond that, stop. …

More recently, they’ve called into question whether even the Nicholl and the Austin are “worth it.”

The Nicholl and the Austin

The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting are considered the most prestigious fellowships for amateur screenwriters.

Up to five $35,000 fellowships are awarded and Fellows are invited to participate in awards week ceremonies and seminars and meetings in LA in November.

In 2021, there were a record 8,191 entries competing for those five slots.

As Deadline notes,

Past fellows include Alfredo Botello (F9), Allison and Nicolas Buckmelter (Epix and Paramount Home Entertainment’s American Refugee), Destin Daniel Cretton (Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), Anthony Grieco (Screen Media’s Best Sellers), Matt Harris (Netflix’s The Starling), Geeta Malik (India Sweets and Spices), Andrew W. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller (CBS’ The Equalizer), Stephanie Shannon (Apple TV+’s For All Mankind: Time Capsule) and Rebecca Sonnenshine (Amazon’s The Boys).

The Austin Screenplay and Teleplay Competition is run by the Austin Film Festival, which includes a highly regarded Writers Conference often attended by more than a hundred professional screenwriters as well as thousands of wannabes.

In the past, Austin has been considered one of the top five screenplay competitions. However, in 2021 there were widespread complaints about the quality of the reader feedback.

There have also been occasional complaints about readers for the Nicholl.

Is the Nicholl “Worth It”?

 In a bonus segment of the Scriptnotes podcast, John August discussed with data scientist Stephen Follows how he’d determine whether screenplay competitions are ever worthwhile for the entrants.

Here’s Stephen’s response:

I’ve done research on quite a few scripts and quite a few competitions and I’ve never been able to directly address the benefit or not of these competitions because what you have to start from is a quite complicated place. You have to say what would the journey have otherwise been. Because in theory if these competitions are perfect they’re won by incredible writers.

The problem, he explains, is that to tell whether a contest made a difference, “you need to have a different universe where the only difference is they didn’t enter the competition.” Of course, there’s no way to do that.

Improving the odds?

I’m not a data scientist, but I’m a data nerd, so here’s what I came up with on the “worth it” question.

Winning the Nicholl is not a sure path to a screenwriting career.

There have been 171 Nicholl Fellows since 1986.

According to the Nicholl FAQ, 19 of the winning scripts have been produced.

There’s a list of 85 “notable fellows” on the Nicholl website. About 37 seem to have feature credits (many with indie projects they directed). About 14 seem to have TV credits.

That’s 51 out of 171 with at least ONE credit. (I’m assuming there aren’t a lot of success stories that the Nicholl folks don’t know about, but I could be wrong.)

So perhaps 30% of Nicholl winners seem to have at least one credit. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they had screenwriting careers, though some did. It appears that the majority of winners did not.

Winning the Nicholl seems to correlate with improved chances of becoming a professional screenwriter.

How many people want to be professional screenwriters?

About 80,000 people listen to Scriptnotes every week.

As noted above, over 8,000 people entered the Nicholl competition in 2021.

How many of those people will ever sell a screenplay or be paid to write one? Very few.

About five newbie writers, on average, sell a screenplay every year, according to Scott Myers, who has been tracking sales since 1991.

About 300 new members are admitted to the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) every year. (This is the union that represents most professional screenwriters in the US.)

Taking the most optimistic numbers, let’s say that roughly 300 out of 8,000 aspiring professional screenwriters will get into the WGA in a year.

That’s 3.75%.

Compare that to 30% for the Nicholl winners becoming credited writers — about 10 times higher.

(If the pool of wannabe pro screenwriters is larger, or the number of successful Nicholl winners is higher, then the “Nicholl effect” is even more significant.)

These are very fuzzy numbers because some people among those 8,000 plug away at screenwriting for decades, whereas others drop in and out of screenwriting every year. It’s even more fuzzy because I’m comparing how many people get into the WGA each year to how many Nicholl winners have credits ever.

Correlation is not causation.

What’s much harder to determine is whether Nicholl winners are more likely to have screenwriting careers because they won the Nicholl or simply because they’re good enough to win the Nicholl.

Winning the Nicholl is said to “guarantee” that a writer will gain representation by an agent, which is often the first step on the career ladder.

Scott Myers has interviewed 44 of the Nicholl fellows, going back to 2010. Analyzing those interviews could provide a clearer view of the impact of winning, if somebody wants to take on the project.

Why enter contests if you’re not going to win?

The Nicholl FAQs have some useful advice on entering contests:

Don’t enter screenplay competitions solely because you need the money. These competitions may seem like lotteries, with plenty of money to go around. But all of them, especially those that offer the largest prizes, are highly competitive. More than 99 percent of writers who enter contests will not receive a cash prize.

But there are a number of positive results that can arise from entering a competition:

Contests can serve as stepping-stones.

Winning writers, and occasionally runners-up, have used the “heat” generated by their contest victory or placement to jump-start their careers. Winners of the largest contests usually find an agent quickly (if they are not already represented). Their scripts are welcomed by major production companies and studios. If the writer so desires, this typically leads to meetings with countless development execs. Writers who have won major contests have often sold or optioned a script or been hired to write or rewrite a project within a year after winning. This often leads to other work or other sales.

Contest results can be added to a résumé or query letter.

Placing in a contest should certainly be mentioned in a query letter and added to a résumé when appropriate. While the mention of a victory or placement in an obscure contest will not guarantee positive responses from agents or producers, it can’t hurt you. Mention of placement in major contests has often garnered writers reads at agencies and production companies.

Contests can serve as yardsticks.

While most contests do not offer any kind of written feedback on an entrant’s script, the script’s performance may serve as a good indicator of whether the script is ready for submission to Hollywood agents and producers. Reaching the second round of any contest suggests that something is going right. Reaching an advanced round of highly competitive contests may suggest that the script is meeting or is close to meeting professional standards. On the other hand, an early departure from one or several contests may suggest that the script isn’t ready.

Contests can open doors and initiate professional contacts.

Since many contests use industry professionals as judges at advanced levels, it is possible to make contacts simply by advancing in a competition. Some contests provide lists of quarterfinalists, semifinalists and finalists to interested agents, producers and development execs. For a very few writers, these contacts have led directly to a career.

Contests provide deadlines.

Writers have been known to complete scripts when a deadline looms.

According to the Nicholl FAQ:

Anecdotal evidence suggests that while some quarterfinalists receive up to a half-dozen contacts, others do not receive a single e-mail. Reaching the semifinals seems to generate more emails, and the finalists report considerably more contact. These industry queries come from agents, executives, managers and producers.

Diversity Fellowships and Being “Less Than”

Many screenwriting fellowships require a lengthy application including multiple essays and (ugh) videos.

Many fellowships are intended for members of groups that are under-represented in the WGA, including women, people of color, and people with disabilities.

Often, essays ask people to explain how their “unique background influences their writing.” Some have suggested that this invites “trauma porn.”

The vast majority of working screenwriters (who are disproportionately white and male) don’t have to jump through these hoops.

Screenwriter Ashley Nicole Black discussed the issue on Scriptnotes:

I applied for all the diversity programs. I didn’t get in. And then I got a job on television. And a lot of my friends who were doing these programs were with me at the Second City. They had the exact same training I do. And I would watch as our white friends would get a staff writer job and our friends of color would get a diversity program. …

When someone presents a problem to you of like there aren’t enough people of color at your network or whatever and your solution is a training program, what you’re saying is you assume that those people need training. You’re assuming that they’re less than.

IMHO, if you’re good enough to beat out thousands of other applicants to win a coveted fellowship, you don’t need more “training.” You’re already good enough to be hired on an OWA or staffed on a show.

“Breaking In”

As Impact notes below, it’s notoriously hard to “break in” (i.e., sell a script or get your first paying job) as a screenwriter.

Staff writing gigs are rarely advertised. Here’s a rare example of one that was, and I wish more studios/networks would post jobs as a matter of course.

Open writing assignments (OWAs) generally require submission by an agent or manager, and may only be open to WGA members.

The WGA has a staffing and development platform, but it’s only for WGA members.

Simply getting read by agents, managers, showrunners, and production companies is a challenge. Some people send email queries, which rarely work. The best course is to get a referral from someone already in the industry who will vouch for your work. That’s why fellowships, labs, etc. where you meet people (including working professionals) are especially worthwhile.

If you DO know someone, people in the industry are often reluctant to read amateur scripts 1) because they’re usually terrible and 2) because of people like this.

Disrupting the Screenwriting Ecosystem

Various methods have been tried to “disrupt” the screenwriting ecosystem and increase opportunities for writers.

The Black List website (not to be confused with the annual Black List but run by the same people) launched in 2012 and has since hosted more than 55,000 screenplays. It promotes the top-rated ones to industry professionals. There have been a number of cases (such as this one and this one) where scripts were sold or writers got jobs or representation because of scripts on the Black List. The Black List also sponsors many labs, residencies, and other opportunities.

Impact (formerly Imagine Impact) launched in 2018 to

democratize access to the entertainment industry, discover talent at scale and accelerate the often slow, frustrating and antiquated development process.

As Impact notes on its website,

It’s nearly impossible for fresh voices and new talent – who have stories that can change the world – to break into Hollywood. The system is completely opaque, and there are all kinds of barriers: geographic, financial, legal, racial – not to mention the fact that most people don’t even know where to start.  If you’re a creative who doesn’t know anyone in the industry, who do you call or email? Where do you send your material for it to be reviewed, in a town where no one accepts “unsolicited submissions”? How do you get access to a system where the players intentionally make themselves inaccessible to the public?

The initial results were very positive:

In less than three years, Impact has built a network of over 60,000 writers across 125 countries and developed 71 projects – 35 of which have been sold to or set up at major studios and production companies including: Netflix, Sony, FX, Amblin, Village Roadshow, Legendary, and many more. We’ve helped launch the careers of 86 diverse writers, consisting of 44 men, 42 women, 33 BIPOC, 10 LGBTQIA+, representing 11 nations – many of whom have rocketed to the upper echelons of the business making six figure sales and being hired onto high-profile TV & film projects. 31 previously unrepresented writers have been signed by top tier management companies and agencies, including CAA, WME, UTA, Verve, Management 360, Lit Entertainment, Grandview, 3Arts, Writ Large, Underground and many more.

Impact also created the Impact Network:

a talent marketplace and industry networking platform that connects the financiers, distributors, and producers of content directly to the creators that bring projects to life. It’s a destination where creators, buyers, producers, actors, and ultimately crew can build and communicate with their networks, search for talent and IP, and post or browse jobs in an efficient, modern way – leveraging social networking technology to make the process of discovering, developing, staffing, and crewing television and film projects fun and efficient.  Imagine “LinkedIn meets Slack” designed specifically for the entertainment industry – that’s the Impact Network.

Unfortunately, these programs haven’t become the game-changers that many had hoped. I suggested some additional ideas here. But “Uber for Screenwriters” doesn’t yet exist.

So are  contests “worth it”?

Contests may be worthwhile for the intangible rewards (deadlines, encouragement, etc.) discussed above.

Contests (and especially fellowships) are often (but not always) worthwhile for a few hundred people who win or advance in them.

Contests may seem like the easiest option for people outside of the Hollywood ecosystem – even though the odds are terrible – just as lottery tickets are the easiest option for becoming a millionaire, even though the odds are terrible.

There are lots of other ways to “break in,” as I discuss in this blog, but entering a contest requires the least effort and sacrifice.

Many people move to LA seeking 60-hour-per-week minimum-wage assistant jobs as a path to screenwriting – but those jobs tend to favor single, childless people who have family financial support and who are in their 20s. It can be a miserable life; assistants are often subjected to abuse. It’s not a viable path for many, and it often leads nowhere.

So, until something better comes along, screenplay contests may look like the best option that many aspiring professional screenwriters have.

Getting Emotional:  How to Make Readers Feel What’s on the Page (STPS # 12)

A recent episode of the Scriptnotes podcast inspired me to write about emotion in screenplays.

Emotion in screenwriting has several aspects:

  • What the characters are feeling
  • How to show characters’ emotions on the page
  • How to evoke emotion in the reader
  • How emotion relates to plot

Let’s start with what John August and Craig Mazin had to say on Scriptnotes (which, again, you should be listening to (or reading the transcript of) every week if you’re serious about screenwriting).

What your characters are feeling

Why do character emotions matter?

As John says, “what characters are feeling so often impacts what they can do in a scene, how they would express themselves, literally what actions they would take.”

For example, in the example John gives, a character walking into a party will act very differently based on what they’re feeling:

imagine that you’re at a party and how differently you’d act or speak if for example you were terrified of someone in the room. Or if you were ravenously hungry. If you were ashamed about what you were wearing. If you were proud of the person this party was about. If you were disgusted by the level of filth in the room.

If you don’t know what a character FEELS in a given moment – and don’t convey that to the audience/reader — then a scene can feel inert – like you’re just moving mannequins around on a set.

Emotional truth is an element of plot logic and it makes characters come to life.

As Craig said on the podcast,

How many times in our Three Page Challenges have we said, “Why is this person speaking in a complete sentence when somebody has a knife to their throat?” You can’t. You just can’t. There’s a lack of emotional truth.

If a character acts/reacts in a way that doesn’t feel emotionally truthful – if it’s not the way a real person would act, or it’s not the way that character normally acts in this story – it can feel fake and take the reader (and audience) out of the story.

That’s not to say that characters have to be 100% emotionally consistent from the start to the end of a story. In fact, movies often involve a character’s emotional growth:  they may start out fearful and gain confidence, for example. Or they may initially repress their emotions and eventually learn to express them. But a significant change in emotional response shouldn’t just be random – it should be caused by something that a character experiences.

Sometimes realistic emotions don’t seem to really matter.  In many action movies, it’s all about the chases, the set pieces, and blowing shit up. Characters react with quips and snarls, but stereotypical action heroes rarely display fear even when circumstances would be terrifying to real mortals.

However, even when you’re dealing with action heroes, showing them experience a range of emotions can make them more engaging.

For example, in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones has just survived an ancient corpse-filled temple equipped with multiple booby traps including a giant rolling boulder. But he only freaks out when he’s confronted with his pilot’s pet snake. We see him experience fear.

Later, Indy again keeps his cool during the battle in the marketplace, where he whips out his pistol to shoot the assassin with the sword. But when he thinks Marion has been killed, he drinks himself into oblivion in a bar. We see him experience sorrow and loss.

How to show emotions on the page

The simplest and most mechanical way to show emotion on the page is with a “wryly” — a parenthetical under a character name that tells an actor how to say a line. For example:

JANE

(wryly)

That’s a pretty big gun you’ve got there.

Like most screenwriting devices, wrylies can be used well or badly.

A bad use of a wryly is to restate the obvious:

 JANE

(angrily)

I hate you!

A better use of a wryly is to indicate that a line should be delivered differently from what a reader might expect:

 Jane

(lovingly)

I hate you.

Some more examples of good and bad wrylies are here and here.

I once got the very bad advice that all emotional responses MUST be visual. For example, you show that someone is angry by saying that their face is red. You show that someone is sad by saying that tears stream down their face.  I.e., “show, don’t tell.”

There’s nothing wrong with red faces and streaming tears – but they’re not all you have to work with.  You can do a lot with verbs, for example.

“She walks across the room” tells us nothing emotionally. It’s just moving the mannequin around the set.

“She saunters across the room, checking the mirror to see how she looks in her new dress” tells us this character is confident, happy, maybe a little vain.

You can also use descriptions that some deride as “unfilmable.”

For example, here’s a moment from a scene in the Oscar-winning script for Little Miss Sunshine. Frank has just been released from the hospital after a suicide attempt and is staying with his sister.

Frank sits on the cot in his nephew’s bedroom. On it is a Muppet sleeping bag with the Cookie Monster eating a cookie.

Frank glances at the sleeping bag, then averts his eyes.

This is pretty much the worst moment of his life.

The “action” here is very simple. A character sits. He looks. He looks away.

You can’t “see” the worst moment of his life in the same way you can see a red face or tears or a sauntering woman checking herself out in the mirror. But that last line describes (“tells”) what the character is feeling in a way that the actor can act.

An even more sophisticated way to convey emotion is through everything that’s happening in a scene.

Take a look at the opening pages of The Queen’s Gambit. It’s a three-page emotional journey about a woman who awakes fully dressed and soaking wet in a bathtub to find an unknown person in her bed and a hotel clerk knocking on her door. Somehow she has to pull herself together to face TV cameras and a formidable chess opponent.

There’s not a single wryly in those three pages, and little dialogue. Yet we have a very clear sense of how Beth is feeling from moment to moment.

Read scripts (you can find them via the links here) for emotional scenes in movies and series and see how the writers handled it. You’ll see a wide variety of styles and techniques.

How to evoke emotion in the reader

My favorite book about emotion in screenwriting is Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias.

As Iglesias says,

Good writing is good writing because you feel something when you read it. It’s why a great movie can be three hours long and you don’t even notice, while an awful ninety-minute one can feel like 90 hours.

That’s an important point:  stories without real emotions are often boring, no matter how much shit is blowing up on screen. That’s because we don’t care about the people the shit is blowing up around – we haven’t invested in them emotionally.

One very basic way to get an audience (or reader) emotionally invested in a character is via empathy. For example, readers feel sorry for Harry Potter because he’s an orphan and his aunt and her nasty family make him live in a closet under the stairs.

Another classic/trope is the “pat the dog” scene. You show a character being gratuitously nice to someone (or something) in order to convey that they’re a good person the audience/reader should emphasize with. (Conversely, villains will often have a “kick the dog” scene.)

Iglesias offers dozens of other examples of how emotion can be evoked using character description, scene structure, dialogue, etc. I’m not going to summarize the whole book. Just read it. And take notes.

How emotion relates to plot

In traditional Hollywood storytelling, the characters are in pursuit of some goal, and the pursuit of the goal forms the plot of the movie. The characters want to win the game, get the girl/boy, escape/defeat the villain, save the world, get rich, foil/solve the crime, get home, find the missing child, etc. The movie is over when they either succeed or fail in the original goal, or achieve some other goal, or realize that what they thought they wanted isn’t really that important (and something else is).

But producer Lindsay Doran, in her legendary talk on “The Psychology of Storytelling,” points out:

Audiences don’t care about accomplishments. They care about the moment when a character shares the accomplishment with the person they love.

(There’s an abbreviated TedTalk version of her lecture here.)

Her point is that movies often pay off emotionally AFTER the physical “thing” is accomplished.

Here’s one obvious example: Luke and the gang grin at each other during the medal ceremony AFTER they accomplish the goal of blowing up the Death Star.

But the examples can be more subtle. At the end of Gladiator, Maximus has accomplished his goal of defeating the evil emperor – but he’s dead. We’re led to believe that he’ll be reunited with his murdered wife and son and be able to share his accomplishment with them (that he avenged their deaths), in the afterlife.

At the end of Parasite, several characters are dead and it seems like all is lost. But the son in the poor family fantasizes about how he’ll rise in the world and save his father, reuniting what’s left of the family as he shows his father what a success he’s become.

(In a tragedy, on the other hand, the main character often ends up alone, without anyone to share emotionally with – as in The Irishman and The Godfather and many other mob/crime movies.)

If you’re telling a goal-oriented happy-ending story, think carefully about that “share the accomplishment” moment at the end. Obviously, for the “share the accomplishment” moment to have an emotional impact, the relationships of the people sharing that moment have to be developed throughout the story – not just tacked on at the end.

Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) also has a great long video on story endings here. He ties together the external climax (physical goal) with the internal climax (emotional need) and the philosophical climax (relating to theme).

 

 

 

A Screenwriter’s Guide to the Sundance Film Festival: Maximizing the Bang for Your Buck [STPS #11]

The Sundance Film Festival is one of the great movie meccas. About 120,000 people (1/3 from Utah)  attended all or part of the 11-day event in 2019, and many indie filmmakers dream about having their films selected by the Festival.

The competition is fierce. For the 2019 Festival, 14,200 submissions — a record high – vied for slots, including those for 112 feature films.

Many films (and some future Oscar-winners) got a turbo boost from Sundance buzz, including (as the Festival website notes):

Sorry to Bother You, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Eighth Grade, Get Out , The Big Sick, Mudbound, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fruitvale Station, Whiplash, Brooklyn, Precious, The Cove, Little Miss Sunshine, An Inconvenient Truth , Napoleon Dynamite, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Reservoir Dogs and sex, lies, and videotape. 

If you have a film accepted to Sundance, then attending is a no-brainer. Of course you’ll want to be on hand when Amazon, Apple, and other streaming services are conducting bidding wars for Festival favorites.

But what if you’re “just” a screenwriter – and maybe one without any credits? Is it still worth it?

Well…. maybe.

Unlike, for example, the Austin Film Festival, Sundance isn’t especially oriented toward screenwriting. You’re not likely to pick up any great screenwriting advice or even meet any other screenwriters.

But Sundance is fun – if your idea of fun is:

  • shivering in the ticket-holders’ line so you can tell your friends about movies that won’t be in theaters for 10 months,
  • marveling at the perfection of Lupita Nyong’o as she talks about how she learned to play the ukulele for the zombie film Little Monsters,
  • strategizing about how to get into parties you haven’t actually been invited to, and
  • watching Jeff Goldblum get mobbed by paparazzi outside the Hollywood Reporter

So it’s maybe not for everyone.

But if you decide it’s for you, here are some ways to save money and maximize the value of the experience.

Book Everything Early

 Sundance is hella expensive, and things can sell out fast.

Tickets, Passes, and Packages

Passes and packages for the 2020 Festival go on sale October 17, 2019. One important thing to know is that the Festival is divided into the “first half” (January 23-28, 2020) and the “second half” (January 29-February 2). The first half is where most of the action is, and the town of Park City, Utah, where most of the Festival takes place, really clears out by the second half.

An express pass to the first half is – gulp — $4,000. But you can get a more limited pass for as little as $300.

A 10-ticket package runs $700 for the first half; but a package of six shorts tickets is only $100.

Utah natives get special deals, and individual film tickets are available for $25.

Ignite” is a special package for people age 18-25 that costs $250 and gets you 10 movie tickets, five wait-list vouchers, access to special panels, and an official credential – which is the golden ticket for getting into many events.

If you don’t care so much about watching movies, but just want to get into the non-ticketed events (like panels), an official credential costs $300 for the entire festival.  That might be your best option if you’re just going to Sundance for the schmoozing and star-spotting potential and don’t qualify for an Ignite pass.

Boston screenwriter Adam Pachter has been to Sundance three years in a row. The first time, he saw a lot of movies and went to few parties. In 2019, he saw one film and went to a lot of parties. As he says,

This may be Sundance heresy, but for me a movie represents 2-3 hours when I can’t meet anyone. As a screenwriter based outside of Hollywood, networking is essential. And I can meet more people at one Sundance party than in a week or two in LA . . . because in LA, those people aren’t ever at the same event!

At just one event this year, I met an accomplished director, a best-selling author, the founder of a TV festival, and the head of lit at a major management company.

Overall I attended more than 20 events in three days, and almost every one was worthwhile. Sundance is a great place to meet filmmakers and learn about their work and your shared areas of interest. Then I go home and watch the films later.

You can pick up a few individual tickets for films, just so you have something to talk about with the people you meet at venues like the Filmmaker’s Lodge.

Airfare

The cost of airfare depends, of course, on where you’re coming from. For US tickets, it’s considered wise to shop for tickets between three months and 30 days before departure; for international flights, the window is five and a half months to one and a half months. But with 120,000 people coming into town, some flights (especially from places like LA and New York) will book up early. Look for flights into Salt Lake City – the nearest major airport.

Lodging

As of mid-October, 26% of the Airbnb listing for Park City for the first week of the Festival have been booked. If you want to stay in the middle of things, even a dorm bed in a hostel will run about $120 per night.  You can get a studio condo for $399 per night.  If you want to splurge and stay at the Park City Waldorf, a junior suite will cost $1248 per night.

It’s much cheaper to stay outside of Park City, and drive in for the Festival every day, but it’s also less convenient. The savings on accommodations may be eaten up by the cost of a rental car and gas, you have to be comfortable driving on potentially treacherous mountain roads, and of course you can’t drive yourself back to your motel if you’ve been drinking at a party.

You don’t really need to stay near Main Street in Park City, since Festival venues are all over town and frequent shuttle busses run between them. Unless you like long, cold walks or want to pay for a lot of ride-shares, pick a location that’s close to a shuttle route.

Pro tip: The temperature will usually be around freezing, so dress warmly. This means a parka, long underwear, hat, gloves, and waterproof boots with good tread that can handle icy sidewalks. Sundance isn’t about being fashionable, and even movie stars mostly dress casually.

Bring Friends

One of the best ways to save money on lodging is to share with friends. For example, you can get an eight-bed condo on Airbnb for $995 per night, making the per-person cost “only” a little more than $100 per night. Having a real kitchen will also let you save money on food once you get sick of the free granola bars (see below).

Attending with friends also gives you a posse to hang out with, and potentially expands your networking opportunities (assuming you all try to meet OTHER people and don’t just hang out together).

Eat the Free Food

As soon as you arrive in Park City, it becomes obvious that Sundance isn’t just about the cinematic art. It’s a trade show.

Everything that CAN be sponsored WILL be sponsored. Main Street is lined with “lounges” sponsored by brands: clothes, liquor, cars, banking, etc.

Food can appear in unexpected ways. You may be waiting in line when Postmates starts hurling donuts around.

Swag is ubiquitous and varied. You may even be handed a free DNA test from Ancestry.com (a $99 value) and discover (as I did) that you’re 36% Norwegian and have a far more interesting family history than you ever imagined.

In exchange for your attention, vendors will ply you with free food and drink. If you can live on lattes, chai-flavored caramel corn, beef jerky, and granola bars, you’re golden.

If you do have to break down and actually PAY for food, some of the cheapest options are in the concession tents next to the main film venues.

Pro tip: Stay hydrated! You’ll be high in the mountains and it’s dry. You may get a free water bottle as part of your Festival package, or you may get one as swag. If all else fails, you can buy an official one as a useful souvenir at one of the many Festival shops.

Win a Contest

There are several ways that you can go to Sundance for free.

By becoming a Sundance Institute Member (starting at $65) by November 3, 2019 you’ll be automatically entered for a chance to win a trip that includes airfare, lodging, passes, party invites, dinner, and a goody bag. You can also enter the content without becoming a member.

The Black List sponsors the Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship, which awards one screenwriter each year an all-expenses paid trip to the Festival and an opportunity to meet with producer Cassian Elwes (Mudbound, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club).

Unrepresented feature writers with an “independent sensibility” who have made less than $5,000 in their film or television writing careers can opt into consideration via the Black List website until November 8, 2019.

Volunteer

Sundance is run by more than 2,400 volunteers from around the world. Applications are open from July to November. Benefits include access to non-ticketed venues as space permits, volunteer screenings, a winter jacket with the Sundance logo, a party, and snacks.

Get a Journalism Gig

 If you’ve ever covered a film festival in the past (and have the clips to prove it), you can apply for a press pass that will get you a credential and 10 free tickets for screenings.

The initial press accreditation application window is open until November 15.

Don’t Stare at Your Phone

 If you’re going to Sundance to network, you’ll need to make an effort to actually meet people. You’ll have lots of opportunities, because a lot of the Sundance experience involves waiting in line – to get into movies, to get on the shuttle buses, etc. Keep your phone in your parka pocket and strike up conversations with the people next to you.

“What have you seen?” is the standard conversation-starter. Asking “What brings you to the Festival?” can be an efficient way to find out what role other people play in the industry.

Pro tip:  bring one or more portable phone batteries and an assortment of charging cables, and you can be the hero of your stand-by line.

Bring Business Cards

 If you want to stay in touch with the people you meet, it’s a good idea to have business cards. Don’t scatter these like seed corn on every flat surface; no one’s going to email you randomly. But if you hit it off with someone you meet in line and want to keep the conversation going, a card can be useful.

When you collect cards from others, it’s smart to follow up with an email after you get home, mentioning that you enjoyed meeting them and wishing them good results with their filmmaking projects.

Try to Get into Parties

If you can get into them, Sundance parties offer prime networking potential.

The problem is getting into them.

Big names obviously get proper invitations to big parties sponsored by studios, streamers, and Hollywood agencies. Those are pretty much impossible to crash unless you’re buddies with someone in the business.

But there are plenty of other parties that you can get into with only a Festival credential.  Some of these are listed in the Festival brochure under “Offscreen.”

Often, information about parties circulates by word-of-mouth – another reason to talk to people in line and on shuttle busses.

To find parties, you can also:

  • haunt social media (#sundance), and ask your #FilmTwitter buddies to help you out,
  • Google Sundance + party + 2020,
  • call/email anyone you know who has any connection to the movie industry and ask them to forward invites,
  • check Eventbrite and other event sites, and
  • follow the crowd from any party you get into to the next one.

If you do get invited to a party, be sure to Rsvp, or you may be left off the list at the door.

Come Early and Leave Early

If you can only afford to attend part of Sundance, it’s best to arrive by January 22 so you’re ready to schmooze by the 23d. As noted above, things ramp down quickly after January 28.

Another reason to come early is that Park City is a ski resort – so there’s a risk of being snowed out and missing some of the fun.

It’s impossible to predict whether attending the Sundance Film Festival will be useful to your screenwriting career. But if you love movies (and the people who make them), Sundance is well-worth adding to your bucket list.

 

Feedback on the First Page of Your Script [STPS #10]

I looked at the first pages of some scripts recently posted for feedback on reddit, to see if I could spot any common issues. Turns out I could.

 1.  Character intros are over-written.

Original:

INT. KENNEDY’S ROOM – DAY
A woman by the name of KENNEDY, a short blonde girl, is sitting within her bedroom staring out of the window.

Suggested revision:

INT. KENNEDY’S ROOM – DAY
KENNEDY (16, short and blonde) stares out the window.

a. You don’t need to say that she’s a woman if you’re using the pronoun “she” for the character.

b. You don’t need to call her both a woman and a girl.

c. If the slugline says that the scene is in her room, you don’t need to repeat in the action line that she’s sitting in her room.

2. Action lines are over-written.

Original:

HIDEO (mid 30’s Japanese male, glasses, well dressed, chubby build with a kind face) is walking through a large industrial, harshly lit room. Hideo is walking through rows of mature marijuana plants, with his shoulders brushing against the leaves as he passes. He can be seen counting a large bundle of CASH.

Suggested revision:

HIDEO (mid 30’s, Japanese) walks between rows of mature marijuana plants, counting a large bundle of CASH.

This also has issues with #1, #5, and #11.

3. There are things in the action lines that the audience can’t see or know.

“They both work for the same boss.”

How do we KNOW they work for the same boss, just by looking at them?

“TESS (25, sleep deprived) sits upright on her bed, facing her tightly locked door.”

How can we SEE that it’s tightly locked (as opposed to simply CLOSED) unless you show us that there are multiple bolts or something?

4. There are basic mistakes in grammar, word usage, and punctuation.

“Shes” should be “she’s.”

“Its fine” should be “it’s fine.”

“Hi mom” should be “Hi, mom.”

“I already talked to her, it’s okay” should be “I already talked to her. It’s okay.”

Sentences should start with capital letters. They should end with punctuation – usually a period.

Don’t ignore the little squiggles. Fix your mistakes when they’re flagged.

5. There are too many present continuous (“-ing”) forms of verbs rather than simple present.

Simple present (walks, talks, eats, hits, etc.) is the default for screenplays.

Original:

HIDEO (mid 30’s Japanese male, glasses, well dressed, chubby build with a kind face) is walking through a large industrial, harshly lit room. Hideo is walking through rows of mature marijuana plants, with his shoulders brushing against the leaves as he passes. He can be seen counting a large bundle of CASH.

Suggested revision:

HIDEO (mid 30’s, Japanese) walks between rows of mature marijuana plants, counting a large bundle of CASH.

That’s not to say you can never use an “-ing” form. In the revised example above, “counting” works because he’s counting as he walks.

6. Major characters are introduced with no description at all.

“A MAN rinses his BLOODY hands into a rusty looking sink.”

Is this guy 19 or 90? Asian or Caucasian? Clean or grubby? Is he wearing a business suit or cargo shorts?

Give us SOME kind of a picture if this is the main character.

See this podcast about character intros in general.

7.  “We see” is used when it’s really not needed.

I’m not totally against “we see,” but it should be reserved for when it’s the best way to convey something to the reader.

“We see Peter tinkering with his web shooters” can be just “Peter tinkers with his web-shooters.”

8. Action/description lines are too long.

Keep them to no more than four lines (NOT four sentences) except in very rare situations.

Long blocs of text tend to make the reader tune out and skim.

Think of each action bloc as a single shot. Many/most can be just one or two lines.

9. There are TOO MANY CAPS.

Suddenly, it BURSTS open, and a group of six ARMED MEN flood into the room. They’re dressed like soldiers, but their EQUIPMENT and CAMOUFLAGE OUTFITS are more than well-worn. ASSAULT RIFLES raised, they quickly spread out and search the room.

Vivian opens it and EXITS the bathroom.

Pools of green waste dot the wild, moon-like landscape. TOXIC, LIME- COLORED RAIN eats away at the sign. It hangs high above the entrance to a MINING BAY that is steeped in billowing SMOKE – as white and as striking as the SHOWER OF LIGHT coming from a nearby star.

Reserve caps for character intros, non-human sounds, and REALLY important props and actions, or it feels like YOU’RE SHOUTING YOUR SCRIPT AT US.

10. There’s no description after the slugline.

Give us at least one sentence of description to tell us what we’re looking at before a character starts talking.

11. Scene descriptions are over-written.

Original:

Outside the window of the hotel room is rows and rows of tall buildings located in Downtown Chicago.

Cars honk, the occassional ambulance can be heard, and smoke comes out of the chimneys visible on top of the shorter buildings.

You could just say “The window looks out on downtown Chicago.”

(Also, that’s not how you spell “occasional,” and “downtown” doesn’t need to be capitalized…)

 

Yeah, you could say that a lot of this is trivia. But it’s the kind of trivia that can get you off on the wrong foot with a reader, and it’s easy enough to fix — so why not make an effort to make a better first impression?