The Ten Commandos

My Ten Commandos of Screenwriting (a couple of people said they would be interested in a list of screenwriting “rules” — well, I don’t believe in rules, but the reality of commandos is there for all to see).

A Sonar Commando of the 32nd Century.

In order to populate this list at all, it’s necessary to point out that even the most amorphous of commandos apply only to traditional dramatic narratives (including, to large extent, comedies) — I should probably spend the next 10,000 words defining what those are, but I’m not going to.

Re-reading this, I still find it over-prescriptive, but if people want guidelines / thoughts, these are some that I’ve found sort of useful. None of them will actually GET YOU STARTED though.

Commando One: Battalion Leader Brewte Masterson.

Write something you would genuinely like to see. But not something you have already seen and enjoyed.

Commando Two: Major Dirk “Honey” Sharples.

Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise. There must be some uncomfortable material that the audience has to work through to get to the joy. This will accentuate the pleasure when it comes. Maybe this should be an end result rather than a goal from the outset, I don’t know. But I do think that pure fun tends to be uninteresting. Even Laurel and Hardy have those strange cartoony bits where Ollie’s neck gets stretched, or whatever, which always freaked me out as a kid.

Commando Three: Corporal Steve Punishment.

Dramatic tension = something is at stake and the audience is concerned about the outcome. That’s it. Conflict is not necessary for this. A man struggling to get a door open is a dramatic situation, and there is no antagonist involved. To say that the door is the antagonist is just being silly. And commandos are never EVER silly.

Commando Four: Private Burke “Silly” Beggar.

Question marks are shaped like hooks because questions are the hooks that snare us and drag us along with a story. The audience must want the answers to questions. They must also believe that some of these questions are GOING to be answered. So you can’t just accumulate mysteries as the story goes on, you have to clear some of them up as you go, while creating new ones. The TV show Lost is actually very successful at this — sometimes it might have seemed, especially early on, that nothing would ever be explained in a satisfactory way, but the creators have so far reassured their audience by providing satisfactory solutions to SOME of the big mysteries.

Commando Five: Private Baragon.

Surprising that Baragon hasn’t risen in rank, despite his obvious leadership qualities.

Character arcs are not always necessary in comedy. Typically, comic characters are funny because of flaws and intractable behaviour. A certain predictability is necessary to make their silly behaviour logical. For instance, Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm has a tendency to fight for a principle even when the reasonable course would be to give in. His intransigence is a recognisable character trait which we grow to expect him to display, so while his behaviour is inappropriate and absurd, it is also grounded in character. This may be why the show improves as you watch more of it — we get to know the character, and his behaviour, while never less quixotic, is more credible.

But if Larry suddenly learned from his mistakes, he would cease to be funny.

An interesting example is GROUNDHOG DAY, a very successful comedy that’s so good, it gets away with turning into a drama partway through. As soon as Bill Murray resolves to use his situation to become a better person, the laughs start to dry up. There’s nothing intrinsically funny about watching somebody improve (I’m not sure disimproving would be funny either: could Macbeth, a play about the slow decay of the moral sense, translate into comedy?). But the film has hooked us in with its premise and its characters rather than purely with comedy, and so few even notice that they’ve stopped laughing. They’re still smiling very loudly.

But Buster Keaton made several great features where his character did not change (half of his films are about unworldly but hard-working fellows who succeed through perseverance or ingenuity, without changing who they are at all; the other half, which DO have character arcs, are about immature rich kids who have to acquire those traits) and Chaplin never changed. W.C. Fields and Mae West don’t change, and we love them for it. My God it would be AWFUL if they changed. Perhaps the ineffable unalterability of Laurel & Hardy made them better suited to shorts than features, but they did nevertheless make several terrific long-form films.

Comedy characters CAN change, and “learn important lessons,” it’s just that they needn’t ALWAYS.

Commando Six: Private Rocky Hemingway.

Films can do many things. Starting with a limited idea of what’s possible is not helpful. Expand your horizons beyond just a few types of commercial cinema before beginning. I want screenwriters to broaden the possibilities, at least a bit, with everything they write.

And: each element in a script should be multi-purpose. A scene does not justify its existence just by “Introducing a character,” or “showing that the bad guy has a human side.” Each scene should probably do several things: (1) move the action forward (2) create new questions (3) answer old questions (4) develop the characters (5) increase the tension (6) get a laugh — AT LEAST three of these. And every line of dialogue should justify its presence by (a) characterising the speaker (b) characterising the listener (c) advancing the plot (d) getting a laugh — AT LEAST two of these.

Commando Seven: Private Ernst “Gnasher” Mandibles.

Format and prose: learn how scripts are formatted and follow that. Nothing is gained by weird formatting. But the rules are simple, and need not be agonized over.

Develop good prose that evokes what you’re writing. If the scene is supposed to be exciting, use exciting, active language. If funny, be funny. But only while describing, as simply as possible, what the eventual audience will see and hear (while avoiding all constructions such as “we see” and “we hear”). Avoid technical descriptions of camerawork, but suggest the stylistic approach by language: a sentence equals a shot; “the hand turns the key” suggests a close-up. Rewriting: Remove excess words. Replace dull words with evocative ones.

Commando Eight: Private Gavin “Brick” Shithouse.

People obsess over structure without understanding it. Here’s what you need to know: introduce a narrative hook as soon as possible so that the audience is concerned about what happens next. If your first act gives us a character we like and a narrative problem for them to face, it can be five minutes long and that’s fine.

Don’t feed the audience a lot of exposition until they actually care. This is why people don’t really absorb the historical information in those crawls that go up the screen telling you who the Jacobites were.

In act two, things should get more complicated, with at least one major turning point. Usually the first half of act two builds up complications and the second half just keeps them in play. And often there’s a simplifying of issues so that the climax can be resolved in a straightforward dramatic way (often the dreaded “fight in a warehouse”).

At the end of act two, one aims for a moment when the conflict, or dramatic issue, becomes “locked”. The antagonistic characters are no longer able to back down, and must resolve their conflict. Or, the dramatic tension reaches a crisis point where it must be finally resolved. Often a countdown is introduced, so that we know this situation must be resolved WITHIN A GIVEN TIME-FRAME. It’s all about bringing the tension to maximum level.

Act three brings things to some kind of resolution: plot problems are resolved, character problems are worked through (important lessons can, if you really want, be learned) and the theme is brought into focus if it isn’t already.

Often the protagonist is going about things the wrong way until act three. Often there are three climactic problems to solve: an intellectual one, to give us the satisfaction of seeing something figured out, an emotional one (this is often very badly handled: moving conversations between people hanging from cliffs) to deliver the all-important character arc, and a physical one (the protagonist had better DO something).

Commando Nine: Private Bob Crunch.

The happiness graph: Kurt Vonnegut suggested you could plot the hero’s happiness on a graph. A popular form illustrates a character who is reasonably happy at the story’s beginning, becomes very unhappy due to testing circumstances, and emerges at the end very much happier than before. We could also plot the audience’s happiness, which might follow a similarly course in such a story. But part of the author’s task in a conventional drama is to create peaks and troughs on the graph, moments when the hero is very happy and very unhappy, or the audience is very happy or very unhappy.

“Oh good!” they cry, as the hero throws dust in his enemy’s eyes. “Oh no!” they cry, as the enemy calls in his three heavily-armed henchmen. In an exciting drama, the peaks get higher and the troughs get deeper as the story progresses, and they also get closer together, so that the graph of a third act should look like somebody having a heart attack. And it really applies to the audience more than the character. Observe how the darkest moment of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION comes right before the most pleasing. And the darkest moment is one of audience perception: we THINK something terrible has happened, and a moment later we learn that really, something wonderful has happened, instead. I actually like that movie best for how it illustrates this principle.

Commando Ten: Mascot Archie G. Marauder.

Audience sympathy is a very complex thing and it’s generally talked about as if it were a very simple thing. There’s a screenwriting book called Save the Cat! which suggests that you should have your hero do something lovely early in act one (i.e. save a cat) so the audience will like him. I don’t despise that book or that idea, but I do think it’s better to have the character make a choice that makes us respect him/her, rather than just do an arbitrary good deed.

And OF COURSE there are fascinating and successful UNsympathetic lead characters. The “heroes” of SCARFACE and THE PUBLIC ENEMY aren’t “sympathetic” at all, but they are fascinating. I think this gets overlooked because, while it’s easy to see why a likeable character would draw the audience in, get them rooting for their success, it’s much harder to say why these films work. Muni and Cagney are remarkable in them. Does the Irish gangster film RESURRECTION MAN fail because Stuart Townsend isn’t as good (he’s certainly not bad) or because of some more complicated question of the way the films work? Where does SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS fit in? The “lethal innocence” of the nice characters makes them ultimately dangerous, like Tweetie Pie, and the protagonist is a ratfink from the get-go, but maybe we’re on his side because he’s trying not to be destroyed by an even bigger bastard. Like I say, it’s complicated, and we should remember that.

16 Responses to “The Ten Commandos”

  1. In Sweet Smell our fascination springs from the character’s wit. We don’t have to “like” J.J. in order to want to know what he’ll say next. This is the same principle as that of the gangster film with its anti-heroes.
    One of the most fascinating on this score is Lee Marvin in Point Blank. He’s a killing machine out for revenge, who doesn’t actually kill anyone himself in the course of the film.

    Square-jawed “Heroes” are pretty damned boring. Lucas was aware of this in Star Wars. “Luke Skywalker” couldn’t have held audience interest, so a snarling-cynical “Han Solo,” a smatass “Princess” and a growling Yeti ( “Chewbacca”) were added.

  2. Thank you, I shall obey your Commandos without question and to the letter.

  3. you missed out the ‘don’t make the central character yourself but more successful, witty and funny’ – writer just looks sad and despeate !

    oh and write it so its convincing.

    (David & Fiona have managed the latter fine as I sat down on a sunny day in my garden and read Daughters of Joy and spent the next hour or so in darkest dankest polluted Whitechapel amongst the ladies of the night before hunger drove me to the kitchen)

  4. oh jumping back in again would you say the 10 commandos would be the same for shortfilm scripts or would there be 10 dwarf commandos for them ?

  5. You mean the same way that there are Seven Brides For Seven Brothers ?

  6. All sorts of things change in shorts. Proportions change, in that you might have five minutes set-up, two minutes development and two minutes climax. It’s much easier to get away with messing with reality. Baron Munchausen is a difficult character to film because he doesn’t accept reality. Not a problem in a short.

    In a short, all you need is to be amusing for ten minutes. (You can do other stuff AS WELL). While that sort of applies to features, IN ORDER to be consistently amusing for feature length you either need a beautiful plot structure and involving characters, or an imagination and visual style on the order of Fellini’s.

  7. Oh, and thanks for the kind words about Daughters of Joy, M. Somebody should really pay us to make that one.

    David E, I think you’re right — a character who can surprise us is far more valuable than a character who is just “admirable”.

    I can’t put it better than Mackendrick: “A character who is interesting and dramatically effective THINKS AHEAD.”

  8. With “Sweet Smell of Success,” I think the principle sympathy is with Sidney. You get a sense of his pain and humiliation — notably in that early scene with Jeff Donnell and when Lancaster tears him apart verbally in front of the senator. With Lancaster’s character … it’s a little like Anthony Perkins in “Psycho” trying to sink the car. He’s presented with a situation — with Lancaster, it’s the Milner/Harrison romance — that he must *do* something about. Which may not be honorable, perhaps, but it’s enough to create interest and a bit of empathy.

    And, of course, David is right in that any characters whose talk is *that* witty and articulate are gonna generate some sort of admiration.

    With Marvin in “Point Blank” the filmmakers have an “out” working for them in that whole “Is he a ghost or isn’t he?” angle. At the same time, though, Marvin’s character has clearly been wronged by some pretty slimy criminal types. That can create sympathy — cf. Vindice in “The Revenger’s Tragedy” and any number of plots built around vengence and comeuppance.

  9. So much rubbish is spoken and written about screenwriting; this is the sanest and most useful set of “rules” I’ve ever come across. Thank you!

    I just saw Rohmer’s The Romance of Astree and Celadon with a big crowd. A formally austere adaptation of a 17th-century romance about nymphs and shepherds sounds like a tough sell, but it ticks every one of your boxes (disregarding the bit about screenplay prose) and the audience LOVED IT, applauding at the end and laughing wildly, especially in the final section where…


    …it turns into Some Like It Hot.

  10. I’m kind of a Rohmer novice, having seen a tiny bit of early stuff, plus Die Marquise Von O, which was great. But he is obviously a story man.

    Thanks for the kind words — I wasn’t expecting “sane” after naming the rules after commandos.

    Lee Marvin is a special case, maybe. As an actor, he’s ALWAYS compelling. As a character in Point Blank he does weird, crazy things (shooting the bed!), and is therefore surprising. But there’s a very simple goal which keeps us focussed as well.

  11. I love Rohmer, but found The Romance of Astree and Celadon disappointingly slight after the amazing Triple Agent — a spy movie that inspires one to reconsider the entire genre. Rohmer is a very great and very complex filmmaker. For years he was simply one of the High Priests of Cahiers who made the odd TV movie after the failure of Le Signe du Lion (a nice movie, designed NOT to set the world on fire.) His La Collectionneuse (1967) failed to jump-start his career despite being fully equipped with a luscious leading lady and two cynical ultra-refined rakes who fancy themselves above her charms. Then in 1969 Ma Nuit Chez Maud arrived and was a surprise hit. Without violating a single one of his principles (Rohmer is a TRUE conservative artist) he made a movie that caught the world’s fancy in which flirtation is sexier than sex and the champ-contre-champ of the Perkins-Leigh conversation in Psycho is utilized for something quite different. Other teriffic films followed.

    But perhaps I should save this for a fuller discussion of Rohmer.

  12. Maybe I should watch some of my Rohmer stockpile and then we can discuss him at greater length. But thanks for that info!

    Just from Ma Nuit Chez Maud and Die Marquise Von O, I reckon Rohmer’s work might be a great way to chart the developing style of Nestor Almendros. Ma Nuit has almost an anti-aesthetic, and later Almendros manages to adapt some of the same principles (using source light etc) to create stunningly beautiful images.

    Cinematographer Scott Ward surprised me by criticising the whole “purity” ideal Almendros’ work is founded on. “You have all this kit, camera and dolly and tracks and so on… it just seems weird to say that you can use that but not your lights.”

  13. I can see why La Collectioneuse might not have been the box office hit. It is an amazing film but I don’t think general audiences like their protagonists to be such callous bastards – not if they want to identify with them! My Night At Maud’s is almost perfectly constructed to make everyone understandable and relatively sympathetic. I keep thinking that you couldn’t make Maud’s now – a man staying the night with a woman, just talking with her? And our lead being a relatively callow character – not quirky or wacky or exciting in any way!

    I love the way that Rohmer’s various series are separate and distinct stories yet beautifully comment on and enrich each other.

  14. The chastity of Ma Nuit must have been pretty quaint even back then. I think David E is suggesting that’s part of the novelty factor that pushed it to success. Which suggests that the same ploy could work now.

  15. It’ snot simple chastity. It’s connected to is ideals and life history. The characters aren’t fools. They’re attracted to one another and know perfectly well thay could have a fling, but that it would go nowhere. And she knows this as well as he does. So there’s a real sense of emotional maturity involved. The hero isn’t a rig at all.Nor a naif. He knows the ways of the world and has done his best to avoid it’s snares. That’s what sets him apart and makes him interesting to us. We don’t have to share his world-view to like him.

  16. That last sentence dovetails very neatly with what I’ve been saying about audience sympathy.

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