Whether a screenplay deserves an Oscar nomination depends on how it reads on the page and plays on the screen. But if you want to learn how Hollywood’s best screenwriters got that way, you have to begin by determining the challenges they faced at the outset of their tasks. Then you can identify, and learn, the techniques they used to meet the challenges.
For Oscar nominees, these techniques typically fall into three major categories: mixing and transcending genres, and connecting character to plot to theme. Best script nominees, even when they are indie films, not only combine two or three genres, they tend to come up with unique hybrids, or mashups, where the genres play off each other in ways we haven’t seen. These top scripts also transcend their primary form, which means the writer has twisted the genre beats in an original way so the film stands above the crowd.
Tying character to plot to theme is actually an entire set of techniques designed to create a seamless, organic story, an original living thing that shows real people grappling with life problems. Let’s look at how the writers of three likely script nominees use these techniques to create the best scripts of the year.
It would be hard to find more severe challenges than those faced by Christopher Nolan in writing Inception, certainly one of the favorites to win Best Original Screenplay. This is a story set in the dream world. So Nolan’s first problem was how to create a plot that doesn’t quickly spiral out of control into utter confusion. An even bigger problem was how to generate deep emotion when the story takes place in a dream world and the hero’s family, for whom he is fighting, is never present in the story.
Nolan’s most brilliant move in writing this script may have been in combining two genres that are almost never together: science fiction and caper. Science fiction is the biggest of all genres, as huge as the universe and beyond. That’s why it’s so notoriously difficult to write well. It has a broad, loose structure that covers vast scales of space and time. The caper, also known as the heist film, is among the tightest and most focused of forms, built on a specific and high-speed desire line. That’s why caper stories are almost always popular.
By combining these virtually opposite forms, Nolan allows the audience to have their cake and eat it too. They get the epic power of science fiction with the driving speed of the caper.
Using the caper gives Nolan one other big advantage. The caper is one of the most plot-heavy of all genres, right up there with detective stories and thrillers, and is designed to fool not only the opponent in the story but also the audience. Nolan juices the plot even more by creating three levels of the dream world, using the technique of “revelation plot.” Plot in this kind of story comes from digging deeper and deeper into the same world, with each new level providing a whole new batch of reveals, and thus plot, for the audience.
Nolan’s work in Inception confirms his position as the premiere master of plot in Hollywood screenwriting. But there’s a catch. All this plot can kill emotion if you are not extremely careful in how you connect the plot to the character. I’m not talking about the other members of the team, which is where most caper stories gain their emotional juice. Think of the buddy camaraderie among the Ocean’s Eleven team. I’m talking about the hero’s wife and children. From the beginning of the film, the wife is already dead so there is no chance to get to know her or see her interact in the present with the hero. What interaction they do have is tainted by the fact that she is morose, deadly and generally a real drag. Supposedly the hero is doing all this to get back with his kids, but again he has no personal interaction with them, except to see them as an unreachable image.
Nolan’s unique genre combination and his incredible plotting may be enough to win him the Best Original Screenplay prize. But the lack of emotional payoff as the film moves toward the end is a flaw that may be too serious for other writers to accept.
Aaron Sorkin faced a very different set of challenges when he adapted the book "The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Mezrich for The Social Network. First he had to make a true story dramatic. Events in real life rarely have the dramatic density and punch of fiction, especially when the events involve the formation of a business. Also, the actual events of the building of Facebook suggest a rise story, with no fall, a story shape that has no plot.
Sorkin’s third major challenge was a nasty main character, Mark Zuckerberg, guilty of massive theft and betrayal. No one in the audience wants to identify with someone this unpleasant (though they may want this much success), or see such a person accomplish his goal. So the writer is left with a character who is at most clinically interesting to the audience, much like a strange beast in the zoo.
The main technique Sorkin used to solve these challenges is the Story Frame, a technique found in a vast number of true stories because it allows the writer to solve the form’s biggest restriction, which is the anti-dramatic sequence of true events. In The Social Network, the frame is provided by the depositions in which Zuckerberg has to answer to the Winklevoss brothers and Mark’s business partner, Eduardo Saverin, for his theft. Like most frames, the depositions are the chronological endpoint of the story. They are the story equivalent of a trial, or battle, which allows Sorkin a natural funnel point toward which all plot events build. The frame also lets Sorkin cut out the boring moments that are part of real life, along with the mundane but necessary steps of building a business.
But Sorkin clearly knew that this structure still left him with a thin plot. In my Memoir-True Story class, I talk about how to combine fiction genres with a true story to juice the plot. Sorkin’s inspired choice was the thriller form. The thriller is a type of story in which the hero is placed under constant attack and increasing pressure as he goes after his goal. Like the story frame, this genre combination creates a vortex in which events assault the viewer at a faster and faster pace. To see how much this helps the plot, imagine telling the story of the creation of a business, even one that grew this fast, in a strictly non-fiction, chronological style.
Sorkin largely overcomes his biggest challenge, the repellant hero, using a structural technique that is both rare and risky: Sorkin turns the hero into the opponent, and the ally, Eduardo, into the hero. Instead of trying to create sympathy for a bad guy, Sorkin changes the focus of the story to the question: will the bad guy lose the deposition and have to pay the people he cheated? Eduardo literally tells the second half of the story, making him the hero, and he gains the audience’s sympathy because he has so clearly been wronged.
Toy Story 3 gives us even more proof, if any were still needed, that Pixar makes the best-written films in Hollywood. For the last fifteen years, their films have provided a strong argument for why the screenwriter is the true “author” of a film.
This script has some serious lineage. Story writers include John Lasseter, who also worked on the story for 1 and 2, and Andrew Stanton, who wrote the story and script for Wall-E and Finding Nemo, and the script for Monsters, Inc. The Toy Story 3 script was written by Michael Arndt, who won Best Original Screenplay for the amazing Little Miss Sunshine in 2006. Like I say, Pixar knows it’s all about the script.
These great writers faced some tough challenges of their own. First and foremost, Toy Story 3 is the third in a series, which usually guarantees that the script will be noticeably weaker than the previous two. But the writers also have to deal with the problems that come with a tricky combination of genres, in this case, myth + action + comedy. For example, how do you avoid the episodic quality of most myth journey stories? How do you tap into real emotion in a fast-moving action story?
The main technique the writers used to overcome these challenges was to create a prison break action comedy, and then combine it with elements of family drama to transcend the form and create stronger emotional involvement. In my Myth Class, I talk about one of the best techniques for overcoming the episodic quality of most myth stories: bring the family along for the ride. The writers use this technique perfectly when they make sure that all the toys except Woody are trapped in the day care center together. But they take the techniques of family drama even further when they make Andy’s impending trip to college the fulcrum of the story.
One of the main ways you connect character to plot to theme is with the story’s desire line. Desire is one of the seven major structure steps, and it provides the story’s spine. Here the goal is to get back home, a goal we’ve seen in myth stories from The Odyssey through The Wizard of Oz. In Toy Story 3, this goal gives us the “clothesline” on which to hang the myriad jokes and gags – the Barbie and Ken stuff is priceless – without stalling the story. And it gives us an organic tie between character, plot and theme, which is the value of home and community in making a good life.
The drive to bring everyone home sets the main plotline. But the writers knew that line wouldn’t provide enough thrills. So they increased the density of the plot through the crosscut, the fundamental technique of the action form. Through the middle of the story, we go back and forth between the toys trapped in the day care center and Woody trying to get them out.
The ending is where this film surpasses the other potential nominees and highlights the most advanced techniques of the screenwriting craft. The characters have all returned home, but they are divided as they have been throughout the film. The other toys go into the attic box; Woody is in the box that Andy will take to college.
But Woody is wiser than Andy. He sacrifices his love for the boy so he can rejoin the community of his friends. And then he gets Andy to give all the toys to the little girl around the block who will play with them as only a child’s imagination can. When Andy plays with his toys one last time along with the little girl, he becomes Wendy, the adult saying goodbye, while Woody, Buzz and the other fabulous toys are the Peter Pan that will always remain young. The pain is bittersweet, and there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
That is what great screenwriting is all about, and what I hope the Academy screenwriters will celebrate this year when they cast their vote.