Sunday, August 19, 2012

No stakes and no surprises, please

I seem to have the same two problems plague me in my work:
1) I don't start with high enough stakes.

Every script, I start out with a storyline based on individual people wanting individual things. And that's super great when you write romantic comedies or indie films, but if you're constructing a high-octane action extravaganza, you kind of need the fate of the world hanging in the balance, or at least some brand new super scary bioweapon about to fall into the wrong hands, or maybe the code to a nuclear rocketship on a disk someone stole from an embassy party. You just can't make it a simple rescue attempt in an action film, which is probably why everyone in Expendables 2 kept muttering about plutonium.

I always forget to do this. In my first draft of everything, it's always just a story about a person fighting for another person, like Grosse Pointe Blank, I suppose. Not the end of the world, but super important to that one person. It can work for some scripts, but not for the big budget stuff. If your budget is going to be huge, your stakes need to be super high. Plutonium. Bioweapon. Nuclear rocketship.

2) I forget to include plot twists.

I tell the story straight up and forget that you need surprises. The bad guy can't be the guy you expected, but inevitably I forget that on a first draft. I don't do cliches much, preferring to find ways to twist them on their head, but I always forget to be misleading. Figuring out the bad guy is usually the way to go, but sometimes you don't need it.

Again, using Expendables 2, Jean Cleaude Van Damme is all "BAD GUY HAHAHAHA FUCK YOU I'M BAD." And he's awesome at it. No twist needed, really. It's a movie about explosions and muscles and groan-worthy self-referential jokes. The only real twist in that movie was that everyone seemed to know where everyone else was at all times. But that's really not relevant to my point here.

What was my point here?

Oh yeah. But for most stories, there needs to be some kind of little surprise that we can figure out along with the protagonist. I always forget that and have to add it in on my second treatment draft. Only this time I didn't do that, so I stopped for like two weeks while I worked on something else and tried to figure out where I could put a twist into my story.

I'm not saying you have to have a Sixth Sense style twist in every story, but if it's all so predictable, it's boring. This time I got the stakes taken care of for once, but my script felt lacking. Something wasn't right, didn't feel original enough. Then I realized it's because we know who the bad guy is the whole way through and it just doesn't feel very surprising at any point. Because of the way I've developed the story, I have to reveal the bad guy at the beginning. I simply can't change that. So what else could I use as a surprise? I realized there was another way, another element of the story I could twist and change, and that could provide a little Aha! moment to the audience. And since my characters are constantly lying to each other, it's easy to keep everybody guessing. Because I think what I realized is that if you have everyone lying to everyone else, they need to be lying about SOMETHING, otherwise, boring. And you just can't be boring.

You'd think after all these years I'd remember stakes and surprises, but nope. I still get to a point where I'm thinking "Something's missing here." And then I remember that I suck at stakes and surprises and go back to write them in.

That's my issue. What's yours?


  1. I run into a problem where I know my character is going from Pole A to Pole B, but I forget about all the small, mini changes between.

    It's like jumping conflict - it doesn't quite add up, like somebody did the math wrong in my script and it ain't working out.

    By the second draft, I try to change her/him in more obvious ways to the audience. Like hitting a gong and saying, look she's changing!

  2. Seem to forget putting in the ages of the characters. (It's in my head but not on the page.) Ends up being the last thing I do. But sometimes forget.

    So here's the thing. If you run across a script with no ages -- it's a Malibo script.
    Or a son of Malibo.

    Malibo Jackk


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