Sunday, September 17, 2006

The New Spec Style

Dave Trottier, format-God and author of the Screenwriter’s Bible, has an article on his website called New Spec Style.

There were a couple things I found interesting:

1 – Many reviewers on TriggerStreet (including myself) have been telling writers to keep their action paragraphs down to 5 lines or fewer when, in fact, Trottier recommends 4 lines or fewer. He writes:

How lean is lean?

Try to keep your screenplay within 110 pages, about 100 pages for a comedy and 105 for a drama. Paragraphs of narrative description should not exceed four lines. As a general rule, each paragraph should focus on an image, action, or story beat. Thus, paragraphs will often be only a line or two in length. Dialogue lines should not exceed 3 1/2 inches in width. Ideally, dialogue should consist of one or two lines, maybe three. (Yes, there are exceptions to everything.)

2 – We also frequently gripe in our reviews when authors write actions in their parentheticals or (wrylies). It’s actually okay to do that, if it’s done SPARINGLY and “adds movement to the scene:”


You have read that you should use actor's instructions (parentheticals) sparingly, that you should not direct the actor in saying his/her lines unless the subtext is unclear. You've also read that since executives only read dialogue or just a few pages, that you should include some action as a parenthetical to help improve the read. There's truth in both statements. Let's be honest, executives are getting younger, often lack a creative background, and are asked to read more. The result is they read less. But readers (professional story analysts) read everything, after which they make their recommendation to the executive or producer. It's that recommendation that places your script in the running for a deal.

In view of that, continue to use parentheticals sparingly, but consider taking occasional opportunities to add a line of action (about 3-4 words) as a parenthetical if doing so adds movement to the scene. And don't be afraid to write brief description. Film is still a primarily visual medium.

3 – SIDE NOTE: I’m also noticing that a lot of reviewers will fault a writer if it’s not clear who the ONE protagonist is. As I’m sure we all know, it is perfectly acceptable to have dual or even multiple protagonists. Hello? Robert Altman, anyone?

Here’s McKee: “On screen the Multiprotagonist story is as old as GRAND HOTEL; in the novel older still, War and Peace; in the theatre older yet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Multiprotagonist stories become Multiplot stories. Rather than driving the telling through the focused desire of a protagonist, either single or plural, these works weave a number of smaller stories, each with its own protagonist, to create a dynamic portrait of a specific society.

I wonder how TriggerStreet would’ve reacted had an unknown video store clerk uploaded his Pulp Fiction script. I can tell you this – they would’ve bitched about not understanding who the ONE protagonist was supposed to be.


Mickey Lee said...


Never in a million years would I thought I'd see you citing the "Pulp Fiction" defense for bad scriptwriting! Surely, that's not what you are saying?

"Pulp Fiction" and "Memento" are the two most cited scripts used to defend poor work. I read "Pulp Fiction" before the movie came out (I had a friend interning at Miramax) and it was clearly meant to be a collection of short stories -- multiple protagonists would be par for the course. Not so with the najority of TS scripts.

Please, say it isn't so!

Mystery Man said...

Mickey, Mickey, Mickey, you should know me well enough by now that I would NEVER EVER defend poor work. Hehehe...

It is, of course, quite possible and easy for someone to write a BAD multi-protag story. However, whenever you get a multi-protag story, you have to say to yourself, "Okay, this kid is trying to do a multi-protag story. How well did he/she succeed at it?" And then you have to judge the story on that basis.

One should not, as I've seen various people say on TS, that there can only be ONE protagonist in a screenplay, because that simply isn't true. It is acceptable to have multi-protags.

What if Lucas was born twenty years later and he had uploaded an early draft of Star Wars? Would you have told Lucas he should've only had one protag?

Or tell Callie Khouri to get rid of Thelma but keep Louise, because there should only be one protag in a story?

Or that there should've only been one Witch of Eastwick?

Cut The Seven Samurai down to one?

Make the Dirty Dozen, the Dirty One?

Hehehe... That's my point.

Mickey Lee said...

Okay, I wasn't referring to scripts that were intentionally multi-protagonist. Tell you the truth, I haven't read one yet

The first "Star Wars" IS a single protagonist film. Multi-protagonism came along starting with "Empire", when they split Luke's and Han's stories.

In fact, I'd argue that Seven Samurai and the Dirty Dozen were actually single protagonist films. Ensemble casts, to be sure, but single protag. I mean, there was clearly ONE character through whom the story was told, unlike something like say "Short Cuts" or "Pulp Fiction"

Mystery Man said...

I agree with you. The primary protag in Star Wars really was Luke. I suspect Lee Marvin's character in the Dirty Dozen could've also been the main protag, but I haven't seen that in years, and I couldn't resist "The Dirty One" joke.

Let's see, McKee lists these other movies as multi-protag: Hannah and Her Sisters, Diner, The Breakfast Club, Parenthood, Do The Right Thing...

Agree or no?

Mickey Lee said...

Oh yeah, those I definitely agree with as being multi-protagonist. Hmm, maybe not "The Breakfast Club". The movie does seem to revolve around Judd Nelson's character. But why argue the point.

What I guess started me on this whole rant was the "Pulp Fiction" mention. It seems everytime someone wants to throw out all the "rules" (or what some would call, craft), it's always "well, Tarantino did it in Pulp Fiction so it's alright!" And then someone will invariably say "if Pulp Fiction was posted on TS, it would probably get a Pass by all the [story/structure/formatting/ flashback/what-have-you] Nazis out there"

You are absolutely right that a multiple protagonist piece is legitimate. But what I run into on TS more often than not are single-protag pieces where the main character is so reactive that other characters end up defining the story beats. Does that make sense? I hope I explained that right.

Mystery Man said...

Oh no, that makes perfect sense. (Please don't think I'm talking about anything you've written either.)

In an earlier edition of the Screenwriter's Bible, I was irked by something Trottier wrote, because in one of his early chapters, he gave guidelines about story structure and then ended it with something like, "But Pulp Fiction didn't do it this way, so you decide." Huh? He basically undermined his entire argument! Thank God for McKee. To him, Pulp Fiction is just one of many multiplot, multiprotag stories, which have been around for ages.

He broke it down into three categories: single, plural, and multi-protag. And many only judge a story with the idea that there should only be a single.

crossword said...

I learn so much from you two. Just wanted to mention that! ;)

Mickey Lee said...


Whew, just checking! Cuz you recently said you read a bunch of my reviews and I know the last 5 scripts I reviewed went something like this: "no protagonist" "decide who your protagonist is", etc.

McKee was definitely right about the fact that these types of stories have been around for eons -- I mean, c'mon, who was the protagonist of the Illiad? Hmm, I probably got myself into a lot of trouble there, anyway....


Hey, I learn just as much from all of you as well -- one of the reasons I come to MM's blog is because, unlike the TS message boards, there are people here that are interested in the "rules", rather than those that try to make up excuses why they don't need to follow them. If that makes any sense.

Mystery Man said...

Oh no-no, Mickey. The side-topic had absolutely nothing to do with you. No, what prompted this was a different matter altogether.

Sometimes a guy just has to speak very generally on his blog.


mspira said...

Who is the protagonist of the Iliad?

Achilles. (And no, not just because of the Brad Pitt version.)

The Iliad ultimately in the story of Achilles' rage. The opening lines (taken from )of the epic poem very clearly state this:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί' Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε' ἔθηκεν,

Sing, goddess, the rage of Achilles the son of Peleus,
the destructive rage that sent countless pains on the Achaeans...

While I am all for large sets of characters in movies, I would argue that the primary protagonist of PULP FICTION is Travolta's character, and Lee Marvin's character for THE DIRTY DOZEN.

I think it's hard to find stories that truly lack a primary protagonist that "orders" (in a statistical sense) things within those stories. Kind of like Charlie Brown in PEANUTS.


rmahler said...

Some interesting points being made here. I agree with you, Matt. Vincent Vega (Travolta) has the feel of a main character in a multi-protag piece because his story intersects with all the other protags, but Bruce Willis's and Uma Thurman's really don't cross paths, nor do Pumpkin and Honey Bunny with anyone other than Jules and Vincent.

I think it also helped that Tarantino brought Vincent "back from the dead," so to speak, by placing his last scene out of order, so it doesn't end with him being blown away in the bathroom, which would have given the ending a totally different feel. That was a true stroke of genius.

Mickey Lee is correct also in that the Pulp Fiction defense is often used for bad writing. Lots of wannabe's (myself included) can delude themselves into disregarding the rules because they think they're the next Tarantino because they've got a hitman in their script. But they seem to forget to layer that character with complexity, they fail to write that clever dialog that QT nailed, and ultimately they fail to understand the craft.

rmahler said...

By the way, Mickey. I haven't heard the Memento defense yet. Is that when the defense is written in reverse? :)

Again, like Pulp Fiction, some people fail to see how clever a script Memento was -- not just because it was told in reverse.

The two most brilliant things about that script are, in my opinion:

a) the way the Inciting Incident IS the Ending and the Ending is the Inciting Incident, and

b) The choice of telling the story in reverse, not just for the sake of being different, but because the audience, like the main character, has no memory of the past.

miriamp said...

There is a multi-protag/multi-plot line script on TS that has a blue star: Rapture of the Fallen - Verse II: Resurrection. Verse I: Genesis is ranked pretty high, but Derek was stingy with the credits so it won't get a blue star.

They do work, but you have to put in a lot of effort to make sure they do.

Pulp Fiction is a variation on a much more straight-forward type of story-telling, of which a good example would be Four Rooms. It's the Arabian Nights type of story-telling. Multiple stories, each with its own protag and plot-line, are interwoven and linked through another protag and plot-line into a cohesive whole.

Mickey Lee said...

RMahler --

Oh the "Memento" defense is used in situations when the writer has used too many flashbacks or used them inappropriately. Or just wants to ignore structure all together.

Mystery Man said...

Oh my God, what great comments.

I'd like to comment on Memento's reverse structure -

Have you guys seen "Irreversible" with Monica Bellucci? I honestly canNOT recommend it. It's sickening and stomach-churning. I seriously doubt I could sit through it again. Gut-wrenching.

But I had to go see it because of its reverse structure. A reverse structure EMPHASIZES the inciting incident by putting it at the end of the story. In the case of "Irreversible," it was the rape. But the narrative kept going in reverse and showed us all the little events that lead up to the rape, and then ended with a moment of bliss that morning before the day unraveled so horribly. It makes you really think about all the hows and whys and consequences of that inciting incident, a lot more so than if the story was told from beginning to end. Therefore, the reverse structure is actually a MORAL structure because of its unusual emphasizes on the inciting incident.

I just love the structure of "Irreversible," although the movie itself makes me ill.

Mickey Lee said...

"Irreversible" and "Memento" both made good use of time-shifting chronologies and their themes necessitated them being told the way they were told.

Not true of 99% of scripts out there, many of which could benefit from just being told IN ORDER, without flashbacks, flashforwards, framing devices and all the other bells and whistles.

Mystery Man said...


That made me laugh. So true. I agree with ya, man.

By the way, Matt, great post on the Iliad.

mspira said...

Expanding on the Iliad, in the poem, the story starts ten years into the war. The Gods are much more active participants. There is no trojan horse, Troy doesn't fall, and Achilles doesn't die.

While those elements would have been certainly known to ancient Greek audiences as part of the larger oral epic narrative, it's interesting to look at what Homer (et all) chooses to focus on in the story.

For an ancient Greek audience, I suppose, those elements were deemed less interesting than how heroes dealt with the Gods, their honor and their very identity. The last book (24) of the poem deals primarily with Achilles giving Priam back Hector's body so that Hector can be given a proper burial.

Hollywood versions almost always focus on the romance between Helen and Paris. The Trojan horse and the fall of Troy are invariably the climax. I suppose that makes the story more relevant to modern audiences who do not share ancient Greek sensibilities.

Just a random tangent brought to you by procrastination.


Mystery Man said...

Procrastination is the elixir of modern writers, Matt, didn't you know? Why else would I start a blog when I have so many things on my plate?

I certainly wouldn't mind watching heroes deal with the greek gods. Not at all. Hell, Maggie Smith was half the fun in "Clash of the Titans!" If they brought HER into the "Troy" movie, I wouldn't have felt so ripped off! Hehehe...

Mickey Lee said...

Ack! I knew bringing up the Illiad was a bad idea. Yes, the story is focused on Achilles, but there's so many great characters in there it's hard to believe it's a single protagonist piece. Kinda like "Lord of the Rings."

Ok, so what's the next controversy we're going to whip up?