A final round-up of Alexander Mackendrick’s fantastic rules for writing. For more of his wisdom, buy his book “On Film-Making”.
32. A SHOOTING SCRIPT IS NOT A SCREENPLAY. The beginning screenwriter should be discouraged from trying to invent stories in screenplay format.
- This one is, for the most part, no longer true. Most screenwriters compose their screenplay in a format that is close to a shooting script. Unlike most screenwriters, I usually develop my stories first as an outline, then as a prose treatment, and only then as a screenplay. The prose treatment step is crucial because it forces me to turn it into a continuous narrative. It’s easier to turn it into one big story if you don’t have all those “CUT TO:”s to fall back on.
33. A FOIL CHARACTER is a figure invented to ask the questions to which the audience want answers (asking the question may be more important than having the answer).
- As I point out here, it can be very powerful to let an unanswered question hang over the story. Sometimes it can be a foil character who actually states the hero’s false statement of philosophy.
- Unhappy endings only work if we see the possibility of a happy ending yanked out of their hands at the last possible moment. I’ve been getting caught up with Showtime’s “Homeland”, which is utterly fantastic, and they do this very well. If you consider the show’s premise, and take a step back, it should be very obvious that the general arc of the show will keep going from bad to worse, but astoundingly, week after week, they keep tricking us into thinking that things will go well for our heroes, only to yank the possibility of a happy ending away at the last moment. The penultimate episode’s ending last week was emotionally devastating to watch, despite the fact that we really should have seen it coming. I’ll have more to say about this show soon.
35. TWO ELEMENTS OF SUSPENSE ARE HALF AS SUSPENSEFUL AS ONE. Aristotle's principle of unity means that one dramatic tension should dominate. All others are subordinate to it.
- Most movies are about one person’s problem. A book is a friend, with which we can discuss a lot of different topics, but a movie is a stranger with a problem, and we expect it to stick to the point.
36. CONFRONTATION SCENE is the obligatory scene that the audience feel they have been promised and the absence of which may reasonably be disappointing.
- With very few exceptions, movies must climax.
37. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in.
38. Screenplays are STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE.
- This is Hollywood gospel but I feel that it isn’t universally true. If you’re naturally gifted at character creation, but you have to learn structure, then it can seem that way, but I have the opposite problem. I’ve always had a strong inherent understanding of structure, but bad instincts on character creation, so for me, screenplays are CHARACTER, CHARACTER, CHARACTER. As I put it elsewhere, we teach what we most need to learn.
- So true! I’ve done this while directing and always regretted it. In my review of Caught, I talked about the need to cast according to how the character feels, rather than how they would actually look.
40. ACTION speaks louder than words.
- Just as in real life, characters can tell us what’s going on, but they can’t tell us about the content of their character. Character must be demonstrated.
- This is one reason to polarize your protagonists: Every member of the team must represent a different point of view, or you should get rid of them. In Mackendrick’s Man in the White Suit, the characters are not merely defined according to rich and poor, each new person Guinness meets reacts in a unique way when they find out about his discovery.In the underrated heist thriller Hard Rain, we quickly establish expectations about the behavior of fourteen deftly-sketched characters, allowing the writer to upset those expectations when push comes to shove. Rather than have your plot lead your characters around by the nose, allow your characters to jerk your story in new directions.
More of the rock-solid wisdom of Alexander Mackendrick...
22. DRAMATIC IRONY: a situation where one or more of the characters on the screen is ignorant of the circumstances known to us in the audience.
- This actually differs from my definition of dramatic irony, which I apply to the ironic qualities of the overall story. The concept he’s describing is what I would call an “information-superior position,” which is always very tricky to pull off... Hitchcock’s great but little-loved Frenzy is one of his only movies in which he shows us who the killer is long before the hero finds out. Hitch knew full well that this would make the movie feel colder and alienate us from the hero. Rather than lure us into another breakneck romp, he wanted to force us to confront the horror of the situation, pitying the hero instead of identifying with him. Hitch was making a brilliant, chilling point, but the movie’s box office failure shows the danger of going “information superior.”
23. If you have a Beginning but you don't yet have an end, then you're mistaken. You don't have the right Beginning.
- Screenwriters often advise each other, “All third act problems are really first act problems.” If you’ve got a problem, it’s generally because you have either a plot hole, a motivation hole, or a sympathy hole. Once one of these problems has arisen, it’s too late to fix it retroactively. You can only go back and fix the problem before it happens.
24. In movies, what is SAID may make little impression - unless it comes as a comment or explanation of what we have seen happening.
25. What is happening NOW is apt to be less dramatically interesting than what may or may not HAPPEN NEXT.
- This was how I discovered this list: When I wrote these two rules about the importance of anticipation, commenter “J.S.” pointed out that Mackendrick had already said it better.
26. What happens just before the END of your story defines the CENTRAL THEME, the SPINE of the plot, the POINT OF VIEW and the best POINT OF ATTACK.
- You can’t establish the movie’s philosophy right away. The events should gradually create a painful dilemma that takes the form of “good vs. good”. The finale should make a definitive statement on that dilemma, without totally resolving it.
27. Make sure you've chosen the correct point of attack. Common flaw: tension begins to grip too late. Perhaps the story has to start at a later point and earlier action should be 'fed in' during later sequences.
- As I discussed here, The Apartment could have begun at the moment when Baxter is first extorted into loaning out his apartment, which would have been very dramatic, but instead, it drops us in much later, at the moment when Baxter is almost ready to stand up for himself, which is far more satisfying.
28. What happens at the end may often be both a surprise to the audience and the author and at the same time, in retrospect, absolutely inevitable.
- Creating a finale that is surprising but inevitable is widely acknowledged as the hardest part of writing.
29. Character progression: when you've thought out what kind of character your protagonist will be at the end, start him or her as the opposite kind of person at the beginning, e.g. Oedipus who starts out arrogant and ends up humiliated, Hamlet who is indecisive at the start and ends up heroic.
- I’ve never entirely agreed with this wisdom. Is it believable to have characters change so much? Sometimes, I prefer stories that don’t drag characters all the way from A to Z, but instead go from Y to Z, showing us only the last, most painful stage of a journey.
30. Most stories with a strong plot are built on the tension of CAUSE AND EFFECT. Each incident is like a domino that topples forward to collide with the next in a sequence which holds the audience in a grip of anticipation. 'So, what happens next?' Each scene presents a small crisis that as it is revolved produces a new uncertainty.
- Heroes should expect to resolve the plot in every scene—they only fail to do so because of a constant stream of reversals.
31. DRAMA IS EXPECTATION MINGLED WITH UNCERTAINTY.
- You have to establish the rules of your script so that the audience can play along. Defying expectations is easy, but creating expectation is hard.
Tomorrow: the final ten!
Eleven more bits of wisdom from the great Alexander Mackendrick...
11. Exposition is BORING unless it is in the context of some present dramatic tension or crisis. So start with an action that creates tension, then provide the exposition in terms of the present developments.
- Exposition should be withheld until the hero and the viewer are demanding to know it. In my re-write of The Town, I tried to find more organic ways for the backstory to be revealed by putting it on a need-to-know basis.
12. The start of your story is usually the consequence of some BACKSTORY, i.e. the impetus for progression in your narrative is likely to be rooted in previous events - often rehearsals of what will happen in your plot.
- Starting a problem from scratch may work for movies like Jaws, but it generally works better for the hero to pursue an intimidating opportunity to solve a longstanding problem, then encounter unexpected conflict.
13. Coincidence may mean exposition is in the wrong place, i.e. if you establish the too-convenient circumstances before they become dramatically necessary, then we feel no sense of coincidence. Use coincidence to put characters into trouble, not out of trouble.
- Audiences can be tricked into accepting overly convenient plot turns if they pay off previous foreshadowing. In my meddling with the book Harry Potter book 5, I tried to replace the convenient coincidences (timely peeks into Voldemort’s mind) with intentional action.
14. PASSIVITY is a capital crime in drama.
- I desperately tried to drain all of the passivity out of Harry Potter books 4 and 6, and make Harry proactive instead. Passive protagonists can be infuriating. We must cheer for heroes as well as fear for them.
15. A character who is dramatically interesting is intelligent enough to THINK AHEAD. He or she has not only thought out present intentions but has foreseen reactions and possible obstacles. Intelligent characters anticipate and have counter moves prepared.
- The one baseline requirement for every hero is that they must be clever and resourceful, even if they are just being idiotic in a clever way. Like real people, they should go after what they want by lacing their dialogue with tricks and traps.
16. NARRATIVE DRIVE: the end of a scene should include a clear pointer as to what the next scene is going to be.
- This can be as simple as ending on “What else could go wrong?” and cutting to the bad guys. You must rewrite your outlines until the list of events no longer go: “and then, and then”, but rather go: “and so, and so.” Or, as Aristotle would say, until “post hoc” becomes “propter hoc”
17. Ambiguity does not mean lack of clarity. Ambiguity may be intriguing when it consists of alternative meanings, each of them clear.
- If you’ve created a world where anything can happen, you’ve messed up. You should create a world in which one of five things might happen.
18. 'Comedy is hard.' (Last words of Edmund Kean.) Comedy plays best in the mastershot. Comic structure is simply dramatic structure but MORE SO: neater, shorter, faster. Don't attempt comedy until you are really expert in structuring dramatic material.
- The desire to get laughs can’t override the needs of story and character. You can’t just ask “What’s the funniest thing that could happen?” You have to ask “What’s the funniest thing that would happen?”
19. The role of the ANTAGONIST may have more to do with the structure of the plot than the character of the PROTAGONIST. When you are stuck for a third act, think through your situations from the point of view of whichever characters OPPOSE the protagonist's will.
- The opening credits of “Battlestar Galactica” made it very clear that the villains’ plan was the prime mover of the story, and the goals of the heroes came second.It’s always better to have a hero be the villain’s worst nightmare, rather than vice versa.
20. PROTAGONIST: the central figure in the story, the character 'through whose eyes' we see the events.
- In books, those two definitions don’t have to apply to the same character: Gatsby is the central figure in “The Great Gatsby”, but Nick is the one through whose eyes we see the events. In movies, this doesn’t work. We can only invest ourselves in the actions of the main character, not their perceptions of another character. It’s always seemed me that the only way to make a movie of Gatsby would be to eliminate Nick entirely. Simply make Gatsby the hero (or anti-hero). You would lose a lot of the mystique, and it would be a very different story, but it would have the immediacy that movies demand. (The same problem plagues the adaptations of “All the King’s Men”)
21. ANTAGONIST: the character or group of figures who represent opposition to the goals of the protagonist.
- That one’s fairly self-explanatory. Tomorrow, 22-31…
- One of my cheesy guilty-pleasure TV shows was “Jericho”, about a town in Kansas after an unexplained nuclear strike, but it had its problems…The townspeople eventually found out that they had a pivotal place in postwar America because the town had a salt mine.They spent two seasons defending the mine from attackers, but we never saw a situation in which the townspeople or anyone else needed salt.The writers had clearly read in a book somewhere that salt would be vital after an apocalypse, so they had the characters tell this fact to they audience, but they never bothered to show us why.
2. PROPS are the director's key to the design of 'incidental business': unspoken suggestions for behavior that can prevent 'theatricality'.
- I’ve talked about this how characters need token objects and how you need situations or character traits that put objects in their hands, and how every scene needs literal give and take of objects. Also see my piece here on The Apartment talks about the how the passing of the handmirror from person to person allows us to understand how they’re feeling without saying it out loud.
- In The Man in the White Suit, imagine if they had just talked about the new textile process? The titular suit gives us a far more powerful representation of what it can do (never get dirty), what it means for Guinness (makes him stand out) and what it actually does to him (makes him a target, with people literally trying to rip his invention off his back).
3. A character in isolation is hard to make dramatic. Drama usually involves CONFLICT. If the conflict is internal, then the dramatist needs to personify it through the clash with other individuals.
- Opposition creates meaning. It’s essential that one actual human being be opposed to what your hero is trying to do. Imagine Jaws without the mayor...A decision only becomes heroic in comparison to a less heroic action—even moreso if that less-heroic action is also somewhat justified. Sheriff Brody’s rejection of the mayor’s legitimate concern in favor of a greater good makes him seem all the more heroic. If the whole town shared the desire to kill the shark, then killing it wouldn’t be especially heroic, just necessary.
4. Self pity in a character does not evoke sympathy.
- As I discussed here, Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything is pursuing a ridiculous goal (to be kickboxing champion) but that’s more sympathetic than if he had no goal at all. For that matter Alec Guiness's character in Mackendrick’s Man in the White Suit epitomizes this: he gets discouraged, but keeps plunging relentlessly forward regardless.
5. BEWARE OF SYMPATHY between characters. That is the END of drama.
- Characters should never apologize to each other, as in this example from The Black Swan. Movies must always escalate.
6. BEWARE OF FLASHBACKS, DREAM SEQUENCES and VISIONS. In narrative/dramatic material these tend to weaken the dramatic tension. They are more suited to 'lyric' material.
- This one I don’t always agree with, because sometimes these things are necessary to dramatize internal states, but it’s still a good general rule: Movies are always in present tense.
7. Screenplays are not written; they are RE-WRITTEN and RE-WRITTEN and RE-WRITTEN.
- I touched on this in How to Write a Screenplay, but I’ll come back at some point with a series specifically on How to Revise.
8. Screenplays come in three sizes: LONG, TOO LONG and MUCH TOO LONG.
- One way to avoid over-length screenplays to remember that a two hour movie should have one hour’s worth of plot. In this scene I analyzed from “Breaking Bad”, they cut down on time by combining four big melodramatic beats into one small understated scene.
9. Student films come in three sizes: TOO LONG, MUCH TOO LONG and VERY MUCH TOO LONG.
- So very true. As I mentioned here, sitting through a fifteen-minute short film is just as hard as sitting through a four-hour feature. If you want to see terrible short films, go to any film school’s year-end festival. If you want to see great short films, watch any commercial break in primetime. Those guys can make you cry with a 30 second diamond commercial. Even better yet, watch this one-second film festival. That’s how long it takes to move somebody, if you know what you’re doing:
10. If it can be cut out, then CUT IT OUT. Everything non-essential that you can eliminate strengthens what's left.
- The only reason you need to cut something is “It comes right out.” And directors cuts are rarely better.
Up next: Rules 11-20...