Saturday, August 11, 2018

Great advice for ALL writers

This quote from the late Oscar, Tony, and probably Heisman Trophy winner, Mike Nichols:

Every scene is either a fight, seduction, or negotiation.

Now you could say he’s stretching it, and you could argue that at times seductions are negotiations, but the real point here is that every effective scene needs some dynamic.

Two baseball fans in the stands just talking about the weather isn’t interesting. Umpires trying to decide whether the rain is coming down hard enough to stop a World Series game is.

A couple agreeing on what color to paint the house is boring. A couple throwing paint at each other is not.

Your scene needs some conflict, or one of the characters has a specific goal. There’s a dramatic reason for the scene.

It may be subtle. People are always looking for that little edge, couples are consciously or subconsciously trying to be in the power position in their relationship. Although a union contract might not be the topic on the table, this is still negotiation. Trying to get someone to agree with you is a form of seduction. The truth is in our daily lives we use most of these conventions all the time in our interactions; we just don’t recognize it. But for writers, they're the fuel that makes the engine go.

Rule of thumb: if you can just lift a scene out of a screenplay or TV show, or whatever without anyone missing it then it didn’t belong in the first place. We’re in a golden age of TV drama. Watch the good shows. See how every scene, every moment has a purpose, and is integral to the narrative.

A fight, seduction, or negotiation may be a little simplistic. But it gives you a good starting point. If you’ve written a scene that is just flat you can check it against those three dynamics. If it has none, or one but very mild, suddenly it’s no longer a mystery why your scene doesn’t work. Pick one or two or strengthen one or two.

Use Nichols’ quote as a guide. It may not be perfect, but it’s much more eloquent than mine.

A scene has to have… stuff.

And that’s why he is who he is and I am who I am.


Janet Ybarra said...

Believe it or not, Ken, your advice actually translates on how to write good non-fiction news stories, as well (at least business stories).

We're taught early on we need to grab the reader with basic human emotions like greed or fear (of loss).

So very sound advice today.

E. Yarber said...

Every scene has to have its own personal tension. At the same time, you ought to be able to go to any individual scene and identify the goal it reaches in the story as a whole.

The point of Scene #1 is to introduce the relationship of Betty and Stan.

The point of Scene #2 is to establish Betty's relationship to George while she introduces him to Stan.

The point of Scene #3 is to create a relationship between Stan and George.

The point of Scene #4 is to see how the dynamics the two men create changes Stan's behavior with Betty.

And so on. Ideally, the characters never remain in the same attitude but are continually altered in one way or another by the events of each scene.

An odd but sometimes effective way to observe scene construction is to study old continuity comic strips like TERRY AND THE PIRATES, DICK TRACY, or GASOLINE ALLEY back when such newspaper features were at their peak of popularity. Those were written by cartoonists who had to draw readers into an ongoing storyline while making each daily installment satisfying. When in doubt, imagine that you're trying to get something across in four panels of a comic strip. You'll get into the habit of making short sharp strokes of character while pushing the story forward in regular increments.

Think how a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW sequence will progress from an exchange between Mary and Lou to Murray offering Mary advice on the conflict followed by Ted wandering in with a non-sequitur response. Those could be three installments of a comic strip, self-contained moments that move forward in a smooth stream of plotting and character.

Anonymous said...

And yet The Graduate looks awfully dated today. It did not age well.

VP81955 said...

Alas, if we were only in a golden age of TV comedy, but in the eyes of critics and the powers that be, it's merely the toy department.

Bob said...

And that’s why he is who he is and I am who I am.

You are being humble.

Mike Nichols, Spielberg, Scorcese are over hyped ____ in the movie business. These fellows never created anything. Never wrote anything. You did. You are a creator. You wrote stories that were liked by many.

I know the comments that will follow or anyone I argue with, says the same thing - these guys were "visionaries". They are "artists who visualized stories" blah blah.... Who cares, they never could come up with a story worth reading or made a movie worth seeing from the stories that they wrote. All their hits are from someone else stories.

Media keeps repeating again and again - this fellow is great, that fellow is great. Over a period of time, we start believing in that.

- Step back and see "Wolf of Wall street" - It's just a soft core porn movie with some elements of greed thrown in. Would it have got the nominations if it had been directed by some unknown? Just the name and the need to put every crap of Scorcese on pedestal.

- "Lincoln" - Mediocre movie where Daniel day Lewis played Daniel Day Lewis. Just the 2 big names makes it a masterpiece?

- "The Graduate", "Closer" - Mediocre movies just like hundreds of other movies on the same subject, but they have been made out to be as masterpieces.

Media is to be blamed. Media simply hypes some movies based on the big names as masterpieces while not even giving a little blurb on independent movies made by non-famous people.

But then after all this bitterness, I have to accept the fact of life. Everywhere it's the same story of few striking it rich and others like me forever living in obscurity, even though our work is better and we are far more talented than the jackpot winners.

Janet Ybarra said...

I'm not sure if I agree completely, Bob. But I will say that when it came to the STAR WARS films, the ones which we're better generally were the ones where George Lucas had more collaboration than not (ie original set of films vs prequels).

E. Yarber said...

Boy, am I offering unwanted advice right and left today. Anyway, it's counter-productive to take someone else's success as a personal affront. Yes, some people get good press and one high-profile project after another, but you can only focus on what's in front of you.

One afternoon a Cheesecake Factory waiter saw me reading a script at lunch and went off on a tangent about how Ben Affleck had destroyed his chances. It seemed that every time a part came along that would propel this waiter to stardom, that bastard Affleck would sneak in with all his connections and scoop it up before my server even knew the role was available. The guy got really worked up... it was clear to him that if a meteor suddenly came to earth and crushed Ben Affleck, then this aspiring actor would apparently have a crack at Hollywood because all BA's jobs would come his way like water flowing downhill. I didn't know if tipping him an extra buck would help or what.

I spent over two years preparing for Los Angeles before I moved here. I studied the Trades a lot to not only get an idea of how the industry was structured, but the way people in the movie business THOUGHT, how they regarded themselves. I didn't expect a Cinderella story like most wannabes do where famous people adore you and push you up the ladder, but I understood that I was going to have to deal with the folks here even if I didn't always agree with them. Negotiating your way through the industry is a necessary skill in itself, not just a con job with a bunch of corrupt conspirators. It takes a lot of factors to get ahead here and the established structure of developing talent isn't going to change if you refuse to accept the good and bad in it.

I'm personally not a superman who can beat the system, but managed to make a living in a corner I made for myself there. The people I resent aren't successes I have nothing to do with, but failures who personally dragged me down with them by ignoring the way business works. I have enough trouble keeping busy without letting someone else's popularity stick in my craw. Some people have called me a hack for leaving well enough alone, but make me King and maybe I'll think of some heads to see roll.

Bob said...

Well, E. Yarber, it was nice to read your life story the first time, but everyday repeating the same story, even if in different ways, makes its boring.

"to take someone else's success as a personal affront" - I have said these guys "are over hyped" and Ken need not belittle himself in comparison. Nowhere did I say that their success ruined me.

And the 'Cheesecake Factory waiter' story sucked. Just an elaborate story on your thinking that I was 'affronted' by someone else's success.

Again to reiterate (without the aid of any cheesy story like yours), Mike Nichols and few others that I mentioned have hit jackpots and their success is due someone else's talent.

And the examples I gave are to showcase how their mediocre movies were made out to be masterpieces.

I don't know why you can't comprehend the fact that there are filmmakers and writers who have done good work but just didn't get their due in terms of recognition and money.

Just because I am bitter, doesn't mean I am a loser with no talent. The people that I have worked with recognize me for my work and have appreciated. So its not like I am loser like the waiter of your story, who you felt like throwing a dime or two at the end.

Hal said...

Now I know why you hate Seth MacFarlane. Family Guy kept saying Cheers wasn't funny anymore in their cutaways.

VincentS said...

TOTALLY agree that we are in a golden age of television writing.

By Ken Levine said...


Let's keep it civil. And no attacking other commenters.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But everyone also has to play nice. Thanks.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Ironically, those elements you quoted above may make for better writing, yet they are also What make for some really bad improv. Negotiation for example. Let's say you have a scene set in a bar. Too many beginning improvisors will fall into the "do you have this?" Or "Do you know how to make that? Etc. But, it's not about the drinks! It's about the relationships between the people in the bar. Seduction and fighting are crutches people use when they can't think of anything else to say. Not that you can't have a good improv scene with a couple fighting or trying to seduce each other, but it has to he an element of the relationship and not just about the fighting itself. And for the record I love THE GRADUATE. Its one of my all time favorite films. And Nichols work with Elaine May is just as funny today as is was sixty years ago. Another irony is that Mike Nichols started out with the COMPASS theater in Chicago. (A precursor to Second City) They did scripted material PLUS improvisation.

E. Yarber said...

For an idea how tightly scripted some of the Compass material was, check out the two versions on record of the Telephone Operator sketch. Shelly Berman and Nichols were both at the Compass and each wanted to partner with May. In the end, May hooked up with Nichols and recorded the Operator routine on AN EVENING WITH, while Berman did the same sketch virtually word-for-word on his second album, just removing the Operator herself.

Lemuel said...

You said it Mike. And let's not forget CATCH-22, one of my all time faves, in which you can see a lot of Nichols' flourishes. When I first saw MASH the series, my first thought was "this sounds like that goofy war film I saw."

kcross said...

Bob, I think your comment "These fellows never created anything, never wrote anything." about directors is a bit harsh, though I do agree with you that many directors are over-hyped. I think that the "artists who visualized stories" saying can actually be valid, and that a good director can make a weak story appealing. I'm thinking of Spielberg with "Duel" and Hitchcock with "Psycho". They can also take a great story and make it tedious. (You can come up with your own examples).

Isn't it the director that sets the tone for a movie production? (Just like a TV Showrunner?) A director that can create a positive production environment that accepts input from the whole team. This results in a final product that will make the source material shine. If this is the case, I'd say that they created something.

I hope that this comment can be considered a negotiation as opposed to a fight. A seduction would be downright weird.

Diane D. said...

For what it’s worth, I agree with Bob’s statement: Everywhere it’s the same story, a few striking it rich, and others forever living in obscurity even though their work is better and they are far more talented than many of the jackpot winners. From what I have learned reading this blog, that is never truer than in the film/TV business. Thank goodness Ken’s Mom got him his first big chance:) or we may never have learned of his outstanding work and extraordinary talent.

Mike Nichol’s quote may have been more eloquent than yours, Ken, but he didn’t write CHEERS or ALMOST PERFECT, or anything apparently.

PJ said...

I have a Friday question--

I watch the METV reruns most days at 7pm, but I've watched MASH since I was a kid. My 5th grade class (this was around 1982ish) even made up our own satire/script and acted it out; sorry, we probably owe someone royalties:-) Anyway, the show has always been a favorite of mine. The other day I was in another room but could hear the TV and a wounded patient was talking about how he was hurt. He was describing it so vividly I could picture what he was talking about, so much so that when I walked back in the room, I fully expected the scene to be a flashback to a war scene...even though I know MASH doesn't do those. (Unless I'm forgetting some, and I'm sure someone here will QUICKLY correct me!)

My question is: Did anyone ever consider showing war scenes in flashbacks? I know there were intentionally no "memories" of the US because the action was supposed to stay in Korea, but was there a reason the war wasn't shown more directly? Money? Creative choice?

I'm actually glad they didn't...just wondering why!

Thanks Ken!

Cap'n Bob said...

Just for the record, I'm not the Bob who piped up earlier.

Y. Knott said...


I agree that the role of director has been overhyped. Anyone who has worked in the industry knows that ANY piece of filmmaking is a collaborative venture, and that the director is but one part of the team. But it's completely absurd -- bordering on a Trump-like disregard for truth -- to argue Spielberg, Nichols, or Scorsese "never wrote anything".

Spielberg has screenplay and/or story credit on The Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, and ... uh, okay, The Goonies. Scorsese has screenplay and/or story credits on Mean Streets, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence and Casino. Nichols doesn't have many writing credits, but did co-write the teleplay for Wit with Emma Thompson, and of course helped to create some side-splitting comedy with the very gifted Elaine May.


- All of these people wrote.

- All of these people wrote original material.

- All of these people also had great success adapting material from other media...which is perfectly fair. Think adapting someone else's work is easy? You're wrong. It takes craft, skill and dedication. Oh, and talent.

Okay then. Want to argue that Spielberg, Nichols and Scorsese are all over-rated? I'll listen! After all, there are many cogent arguments that would support that claim. Hell, I'd have no trouble arguing that for two of the three, and might take on the third one just to play devil's advocate.

But you want to come in here with an ill-considered argument that literally is founded on something that takes six seconds of Googling to disprove?

Not the best way to make your case, Bob.

Anonymous said...

@ Cap'n Bob: Did you miss this ? Ken Levine wrote -

"Let's keep it civil. And no attacking other commenters.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But everyone also has to play nice. Thanks."

Jit said...

I want to say that when Niccols says "seduction", he doesn't necessarily mean that someone wants to get into someone else's pants. Person A trying to entice/persuade Person B to go along with A's plan could be a seduction. Likewise, a "fight" isn't necessarily people coming to blows. It just means "conflict" whereby two parties battle it out over a goal where only one of them can be the winner. Similarly for "negotiation".

I'm reminded of the adage that drama is "conflict", and Niccol's thesis merely shades some different kinds of conflict that can happen. And I'm also reminded of Stanislavski, who teaches that good acting/drama happens when characters pursue CONCRETE GOALS that are rooted in the OTHER person.

Chester said...

I remember reading that Mike Nichols quote years ago and I loved it. Partly because I quickly reread a number of my favourite scripts and I applied the fight, seduction, or negotiation barometer to each scene and, almost without exception, they fell neatly into one of these categories. Of course, not always "obviously" - but a fight, seduction, or negotiation can have many tones, levels, and colours. Fights aren't restricted to yelling or throwing things. Glances, silences, and aversions can all hold dramatic and tense moments that say, I hate you, screw you, I'm never going to talk to you again.

It's really brilliant advice for any fledgling (or accomplished) scriptwriter.