Screenwriting Lessons From Genre Film


#1

STORY STRUCTURE AND SHAOLIN
Screenwriting Lessons from Kung Fu Cinema

Whether or not you have the requisite soft spot, Kung Fu flicks are emphatically not known for their storylines, and that’s a shame. Because, however hokey or low rent these movies may be, they’re rock solid from a story perspective: The characters have clear motivations, the stakes are high, the challenge insurmountable, and the hero must grow as a fighter and a human being in order to overcome it.

Rock solid! People spend mountains of cash on lectures and screenwriting books that repeat exactly these lessons, but - really - all you need to do is settle in for a couple of hours with a notebook and enjoy a Kung Fu Classic. Here are a few simple screenwriting lessons from Chinese martial arts cinema:

Motivation


Jackie Chan in Fearless Hyena (1979)

A lot of screenplays have interesting characters in a compelling setting with great dialog….and they never seem to do anything. It’s an easy trap to fall in to as a writer (I’m guilty), but you’ve got to move the plot forward.

Few (if any) Kung Fu movies contain meandering heroes who wonder what to do with their time; all of the main characters have motivation in spades. In Fearless Hyena, Shing Lung tries to help his aging grandfather by making spare cash with his Kung Fu…little does he know that his shenanigans have led Grandpa’s deadliest enemy right to their doorstep! Grandpa is killed, Shing Lung blames himself, and the rest of the story flows like water.

Give your characters something important to want…make them want it, and make it hurt.

Stakes

http://www.kungfumovies.net/images/29612.jpg
Hyang-su Hwang in Stranger from Shaolin (1977)

A good question to ask oneself is “What do my characters stand to lose?” It doesn’t need to be the fate of the world, but - if you want your story to stay interesting for 90 minutes - failure must have consequences.

In Kung Fu movies, everything is always on the line: one’s life, one’s body, one’s honor, one’s tradition, one’s family - everything will descend into chaos if the protagonist falters. In Stranger From Shaolin (1977), our heroine is besieged on all sides: She’s being hunted by the Manchu army, she’s illegally passing as a boy to learn Kung Fu, and the Shaolin Temple is about to be crushed! There are so many threats in this story that anyone at any time could be our enemy, and that’s good for the plot.

If the protagonist loses, the audience loses; give them something they can’t let go.

Incredible Challenge


Kuang-Li Hsia in The Woman Avenger (1980)

A lot of writers - especially in genre film - want to make their heroes unbeatable. The chosen one with the chosen sword spreading some chosen guts across the meadow - how sweet it is! And there’s nothing wrong with writing a talented protagonist, but bulletproof characters require armor piercing opponents. Whether your screenplay is about a stockbroker, a wandering swordsman, or plucky librarian, put a brick wall in front of them at all times.

The villain is basically always demonstrated to be stronger in Kung Fu movies. The Woman Avenger (1980) takes this idea to the extreme by having a group of men rape the protagonist in the very first sequence…she wasn’t just some lesser martial artist - she was an ordinary woman victimized as a woman, and her journey from victim to avenger requires her to go toe-to-toe with Kung Fu masters. Even though we know she’ll win in the end, there’s no denying that our heroine has a massive mountain to climb.

Give your characters a challenge they cannot overcome.

Final Thoughts

As stated above, a lot of these ideas are basically cliche for screenwriting courses, but it’s amazing how easy it is to ignore the basic principles and find yourself 30 pages into a dud before you’ve even realized there’s a problem. So take a scroll from the Shaolin storytellers. Happy writing, folks!


Screen Writing Structure
#2

Love your write ups @Exquisite_Corpse, keep rolling the way you do


#3

ACME Screenwriting School
Toons Teaching Tale Telling

The characters and setups in Looney Toons are some of the most iconic pieces of entertainment history…so iconic that it’s difficult to remember that basically none of the slapstick tropes they came to depend on even existed when the first Bugs and Daffy cartoons were showing. All of that TNT lighting, anvil dropping, gender bending wackiness that later became cliche served an important purpose beyond the jokes. Narrative of course!

But what could a bunch of children’s cartoons that are invariably short, repetitive, and immature possibly teach us about serious screenwriting? We want to write Best Picture noms, not drop heavy objects on animated pigs! On the surface, these are disjointed joke-piles meant to distract four-year olds……but on a deeper level, there are some beautiful lessons to be gleaned from these tableaus of animal violence:

”Ain’t I a stinker?” - Individuals and Archetypes

The most immediate thing that makes Looney Toons special is the characters, and - at first blush - they seem pretty straightforward: Elmer Fudd is a lovable dummy, Bugs repeatedly gets the better of him, and that’s all folks. But these are actually NOT pure archetypes. All of them have habits, ideas, obsessions etc. that are unique to themselves, and that’s a big part of what makes these characters memorable.

Let’s illustrate:

Luke Skywalker is a textbook example of an archetype (like - literally - pick up a screenwriting textbook….they all talk about A New Hope). His journey from boy to man mirrors his journey from schlub to hero, and we’re all very fking proud of him. But can you tell me ANYTHING about Luke? His favorite food? His hobbies? Whether he went to school? As far as the script for Star Wars is concerned, what you see is what you get……Luke is transparently a literary device and - as a result - he’s the most forgettable character in the main cast.

Bugs Bunny - on the other hand - is full of quirks. He has a specific way of talking, a specific diet, and delights in specific things (like dressing in drag). No matter where he is, what he’s doing, or what he’s faced with, Bugs is always himself. He could be directing an orchestra or sitting in a war zone, and he’ll always be that lazy, mean-spirited, carrot-chomping guy.

The distinctiveness of your characters is what gives them life, and Looney Toons succeeds at this so amazingly that we simply take it for granted. Go ahead, think of your favorite Looney Toon and think about their clearly defined personality traits. Give your characters quirks worth remembering.

Why Plot Holes Don’t Matter

OK….plot holes matter - but not nearly as much as the integrity of the story. The audience might point out that T-Rex is not motion activated ala Jurassic Park or that the human body cannot take the amount of punishment dealt to Rocky, but they cannot deny the results. Not only are those two films iconic, those two scenes are iconic because - plot hole or no - they fulfilled the needs of the story.

In Looney Toons, complex legal proceedings are over in 3 seconds, houses are erected overnight, Groucho glasses can fool anyone, and paintings of tunnels become real tunnels at random. These are more than just sight gags, they’re an object lesson for screenwriters: You don’t have to explain why you’re breaking the rules as long as you break them in service to the story.

We may not be able to subvert the laws of physics at will in most of our scripts, but we can definitely learn a lot from this example: If your story needs something, do not hesitate to generate it out of thin air.

Give Peace a Chance?

http://www.cartoonsonnet.com/14-carrot-rabbit.jpg

As writers, one of the first things we get drilled into us is the concept of the protagonist versus the antagonist….hero and villain, good guy and bad guy, Jerry and Tom. They are diametrically opposed forces whose collision is the driving force behind a lot of different stories, and Looney Toons is replete with examples. But, even though simplistic conflicts basically define the flow of these stories, they’re never fighting ‘just because’.

One short I remember very well from childhood is 14 Carrot Rabbit wherein Yosemite Sam is working himself to death for scraps during the gold rush while Bugs is able to find man-sized chunks of gold by simply walking past them. Sam decides to con the rabbit out of his cash, and we have ourselves 7 minutes of hijinks. That conflict makes for a very compelling narrative….with a small amount of tweaking, you could write a feature film out of it.

Well written hero/villain relationships are always based on something more than opposition for its own sake. The more these two characters need/want from one another, the more fascinating their relationship will be. One of the most interesting elements of the Looney Toons rivalries is that many of these characters are defined by a relationship to an opponent…an important, intimate relationship without which they may find themselves rudderless.

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Final Thoughts

If you have a problem with your screenplay, chances are, it’s not a question of whether you use camera direction, placed your inciting incident correctly, or recalled mythological themes. Usually, screenplay problems are at the root: Do you have good characters with resonant conflicts that promise an adventure and then deliver it? These cartoon shorts can teach us a lot of things about writing big stories in a few pages with very little dialog. Watch a couple and take some notes!

And, of course - happy writing.


#4

These writeups are fantastic!! Tons of great info here. When people think screenwriting, they tend to think of the movies that have the “most” writing on display - IE, crazy twists, big monologues, etc. But 90% of the job comes down to motivation, stakes, character - all the stuff you’re picking up on here. Teaching those core components from a genre perspective (where those elements all really stand out) is a great way to tackle the subject. Excellent work. Keep it up!


#5

Oh shit! It’s rocketjump’s own master of writing laying down the compliments! Good on you @Exquisite_Corpse


#6

PHENOMENAL thread. Super smart way of breaking these ideas down and well-structured. To-the-point! Awesome job and thanks for sharing your knowledge and time!


#7

ALL THEIR SEX AND MURDER
Stories from the Slasher

BEWARE OF BLOOD


Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I make no secrets about my love for 70s/80s slashers. It was a moment in film history where horror ruled the roost, and - like them or not - these movies represent a real coming-of-age for horror, a new chapter in practical effects, and some of the sweetest, guiltiest pleasures ever put to film.

In terms of writing though, slashers tend to be seriously bare-bone. Most are low budget; a lot of the scripts are done by producers or directors rather than ‘real’ screenwriters. The ones that are put together by WGA types tend to be very rushed and/or shipped out to the cheapest talent.
In other words: These scripts come into being under bad circumstances, but they manage to retain a privileged place in pop culture.

How did that happen!? If (as the saying goes) ‘you can make a bad movie from a good script, but never a good movie from a bad script’, how did these abused, orphaned little bits of writing end up being good?

Akiva’s Orchard


Ellen Sandweiss in The Evil Dead (1981)

A lot is made of Campbell’s boy-to-man journey, but slashers seem to follow a different kind of myth. Jewish mystical literature recounts the tale of four Rabbis who enter an orchard: One vandalizes it, one goes mad, one dies, and Rabbi Akiva emerges unharmed+

The ‘Akiva’ structure is fool proof: Guide your characters into the darkness, show them what lurks, and leave only one with their soul intact. Screenwriters for these films knew where the story was headed from the moment they typed FADE IN, and a solid foundation creates a forgiving environment. Simply put: If the underlying story is compelling by itself, a lot of other mistakes will be forgiven.

Slashers often have really obvious writing problems…bad spelling, woden dialog, useless scenes, thin characters. But the central idea has such a massive gravitational force that it holds together despite itself. Call it a formula, call it a crutch, call it what you like, but if this foundation can hold up an otherwise bad script, so imagine what it could do for quality writing like yours!

+For further study on Hebraic sources, here’s an article: http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380344/jewish/Four-Who-Entered-Paradise.htm

Trust in Me


The killer’s stopwatch in Graduation Day (1981)

Emotional manipulation is par for the course in any kind of cinema…Tarantino likes to pantomime ‘conducting’ the audience like an orchestra (a bit conceited, Q), but horror is uniquely bound up in the promise that the creators are going to ‘scare’ the audience. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to frighten someone; ‘disgust’ is easy enough - the ‘torture porn’ subgenre worked that out - but ‘fear’ is very different.

Alfred Hitchcock - Master of Suspense and director of Psycho (1960) - sets up a very useful dichotomy for writers:

For Hitch, it’s all about information: “shock” is when the audience’s knowledge matches the characters’ knowledge where “suspense” marks a critical information gap…IE “Don’t go in the basement!!”

When audiences complain about ‘jump scares’, what they actually mean is that tension should pay off. Never tell them “the killer is in the room” and then follow with “ooops, just the cat!” In order to feel the emotions you’re trying to invoke, the audience needs to trust you…that trust is what allows them to suspend their jadedness for a moment and embrace the absurdity. It’s vital if you want access to their emotions.

With a Little Help from my Friends


Cast of My Bloody Valentine (1981)

John Carpenter has said in numerous interviews that he wrote Halloween (1978) with his own teenage years in mind. From his perspective, ditching your parents to drink beer, smoke weed, and make love sounded like a high school good time. But 18 years later, Scream (1996) concretized a tectonic shift in the genre. Later films interpreted slasher deaths as judgement for the characters’ sins (sex in particular…female sex in particularly particular).

This is purely a writing decision, and it’s one that bears serious examination: Michael Myers preys on the innocent where Ghostface punishes the guilty. The first approach asks your audience to empathize with the main cast where the second approach would rather you cheer for the psychopath.

As a writer, it’s your job to create friends for the audience….they’ll be hanging out with these characters for a whole night, and, in the case of a slasher, they’re going to be experiencing serious tragedy along with them. It all goes back to good old ‘save the cat’: When your characters are decent people, everything hits harder.

Final Thoughts


Michael Villella and Michelle Michaels in The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

With mountains upon mountains of remakes, a lot of the wrong questions get asked as to why the originals tend to shine brighter. For my part, the right questions are almost always grounded in the script: Any filmmaker can strip a girl to her undies and put a power tool through her, but writers have to create a context, and that context is the emotional baseline for the entire film. If I were going to describe what early slashers have that copy-cat movies constantly get wrong, the answer is heart.

And who doesn’t need a little more heart?


#8

Another marvelous post @Exquisite_Corpse


#9

YOUR OWN ANTAGONIST
Character Depth from a Cowboy/Spaceman Film

Toy Story (1995) is a kids’ movie through and through; it has a hokie theme song, throwaway jokes, and family friendly messaging….it also dives more deeply into the human condition than most films in any genre, and - the older I get - the more I appreciate the emotional complexities in this story.

You’ve seen it, right? Woody looks like a happy, well-adjusted person until he realizes that his position - both as a leader and Andy’s favorite toy - is fragile. The whole adventure starts because Woody would rather murder his rival than face the fact that relationships constantly change. He is both the major protagonist AND antagonist in this story…Woody’s journey isn’t from Pizza Planet to Andy’s room, it’s from hubris to humility.

AND at the very moment Woody seems ready to grow, Buzz’ delusions of grandeur are shattered…he is neither as unique nor as important as he thought he was, and Buzz wonders how he can face life knowing that he didn’t end up being who he wanted to be. These two characters achieve their goals not by fighting against the circumstances but by accepting that life is impermanent, individuals are weak, and nothing is as simple in the real world as it is in your head.

I was pretty young when this movie came out, but, the older I get, the more I realize that it’s touching on some pretty mature subject matter. Toy Story is about change, loss, and forgiveness, and Pixar’s ability to hide this in a harmless flick about two toys becoming friends is nothing short of genius. There’s more than nostalgia here - it’s genuinely a masterpiece of emotional storytelling and worthy of serious examination for anyone interested in character work.


#10

You should be getting paid for your helpful posts, Jessica.


#11

A NOTE ON STAKES
Why Does Orko Learn a Lesson?

Recently, I caught an episode of Teen Titans - which styles itself as a darker, more serious cartoon. The whole team was at death’s door, Robin turned evil, and every trick in the cinematic book was employed to tell us “This is serious! They could all die!!” In generic screenwriting terms, this is gold, right? The stakes are high, the heroes are stretched to their limit, and they’re facing impossible odds…all the stuff writers blab about. So why didn’t I care?

Simple: Ultimate stakes = ZERO stakes. If you threaten to blow up the earth, but your screenplay takes place entirely in a high school (ON earth), you’re making an empty threat. Stakes are what the character actually stands to lose…not what some villain feints at taking from them.

So why does Orko need to learn a lesson? Stakes of course!

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is as cheesy as they come…no matter how many times the villains threaten to conquer the castle, steal its power, and rule the universe, you know that can’t happen BUT they manage to create meaningful stakes by forcing their characters to learn.

In the first segment, one of the good guys will demonstrate a flaw - they’re arrogant or ill-tempered or unable to do some difficult trick - and the ‘stakes’ are that the character will miss their opportunity to grow. When the bad guys show up in act 2, they pretend to ‘take over the world’, but they’re actually testing the virtue our hero lacks.

If they fail, if they let the moment slip, they aren’t going to die, but they are going to disappoint the audience and that attachment allows the stories in He-Man to retain emotional impact even when that audience knows a happy ending is coming.

So what was the problem with that Teen Titans episode? If a character isn’t forced to grow between the beginning and the end, there’s still something missing in your story. Never forget that Orko needs to learn a lesson.


#12

PREACHING TO THE CHAR
Write About “Important” Things Without Annoying People

Generally speaking, this thread is intended to work with ‘lesser’ genre…it’s about spotting the wisdom in movies you might not have taken seriously. Today, however, we’re discussing Citizen Ruth (1996); it scored Laura Dern a gold statue, took Best Screenplay at Thessaloniki, and is - in every conceivable way - a mainstream success. What sets it apart from other award-winning, political issue films is that it never loses sight of the real story: It’s not about pregnancy, it’s about Ruth.

Heavy Hands

Ostensibly, the movie covers both sides of the U.S. abortion movement…it does its best to lighten the mood through caricature and humor, but the reason this issue is controversial is that it touches every exposed nerve in this society, and terminated pregnancies don’t occur under happy circumstances.

One could - of course - make an ensemble piece with multiple protagonists under different circumstances…some will keep their babies, others won’t and it will be oh-so-complicated and oh-so-human. It will also have the properties of raw lead: Heavy, toxic, rather squishy. It won’t be a cohesive story because you would have poured a story into an issue-shaped mould rather than pouring the issue into the story.

To Thine Own Self

Part of Dern’s Best Actress statue definitely belongs to screenwriters Alex Payne and Jim Taylor; their focus on Ruth as a person, and their absolutely unwillingness to compromise her for any reason is what ultimately makes this movie worth watching.

And just who is this incredible character worthy of so much praise? A homeless drug addict whose default behavior is stealing toxic chemicals from the nearest cabinet and huffing them by a dumpster. She’s not classy, she’s not smart, she’s not secretly the greatest painter of all time, she’s just a person who never had a chance.

Through the course of the film, Ruth is passed back and forth between pro-life and pro-choice activists, told the virtues of both decisions, and openly bribed by everyone. Contrary to a typical character arc, the fact that Ruth doesn’t change is actually the key piece to who she is. No matter what happens in her life, Ruth Stoops openly refuses to change a single thought in her head or action in her arsenal….it’s what makes her who she is.

Thoughts

A lot of writers want to make a movie that shakes world with all the important issues it can unearth, but that’s not necessarily what we’re here to do. Investigative journalists and scholars certainly have a duty to document the world as it is, spread awareness, and win over hearts and minds. But screenwriters are tasked with the sacred duty of telling a story, and all of your good intentions in terms of political commentary have to serve the story in the end.

Citizen Ruth is hardly a shining example of in-depth abortion study….it treats activism per se with quite a lot of disdain and doesn’t really offer anything in terms of useful data or meaningful anecdotes. What it does is provide us with the story of a very small person trapped in a very big world, and one needn’t understand Ruth to understand why her story is worth telling.


#13

Welcome back :slight_smile:

I think this analysis is a pretty spot-on treatment of what made this movie successful.

Also, can we give props to Laura Dern, please? This is the same woman who portrayed the capable Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park and the warm maternal figure in Wild. I haven’t seen her in many other movies, but she’s had a heck of a career, and I definitely don’t think I appreciated her range before this movie.