Dead Space Tells No Tales

In any screen story there are two kinds of action: active action and inactive action.

Every moment in your screenplay should do one of three things: advance the plot, reveal character, or increase tension. (The last one doesn't appear on the usual lists from the gurus. The fact is, a tension heightener doesn't necessarily do either of the first two, but it's important nonetheless.)

It's best to do at least two of those things on the list at the same time. Otherwise, you risk giving the narrative threads of your screenplay a "compartmentalized" feeling, like they're happening in separate realms -- and telling separate stories.

Any action that does none of those things, doesn't feed into the business of the story, can be jettisoned. If it's not jettisoned, it represents dead space. Null film. Inactive action.

This is usually cut out of scripts, as you progress from first draft through several rewrites to a more refined final draft -- and beyond to shooting script.


Hereafter, the latest Clint Eastwood film, from a script by Peter Morgan, is full of inactive action.As is to be expected from a first draft.

That's right. It's a first draft.

The story goes: Peter Morgan wrote this script in some downtime, on spec, just for the hell of it. He put it away in a drawer. Months later, the death of a friend caused him to take it out and look at it again. He sent it out.

It wound up in Spielberg's hands. Spielberg gave notes, Morgan executed the notes. Pleased with the result, he returned to Spielberg, who'd had a change of heart: the notes ruined the script, he said, and the original was perfect.

So the script in this form was sent on to Eastwood, who concurred. The film was made. Morgan, who would have liked to have worked on it a bit more (knowing its limitations), was told not to worry -- his further assistance would not be required. Eastwood wanted to make it as is.


Now, let's pretend that we're not impressed by the magnitude of the Names in this story and further pretend we don't know how the script came to be. One thing is still clear: it's a dud.

There are three separate, tangentially related stories in this movie. The script has no unified design, services no theme, builds toward no integrated climax. There is no story engine pulling us forward, no denouement to be had. The three stories are brought together in a random way, and then the movie ends.

A masterpiece of inactive action, full of inert material. Much too long, at 2:09, it's a script that doesn't add up to anything. It's just a meandering look at people who've had experiences with death. It feels clunky and vague and dispersed, just like a first draft. Because that's exactly what it is.


Why? According to Eastwood, in Morgan's words, "the looseness and the imperfection allows an audience in." In theory, this is a fine thing, an ethic at work in many very interesting films throughout the years, indie, new wave and otherwise. But in this case, it's predicated on a false assumption: that scripts which are not loose and not imperfect do not let an audience in, and of course that's ridiculous. Pixar, anyone?

The goal of a screen story is not to passively allow us "in to" something, but to actively draw us in, using well-known and time-honored dramatic techniques. To, often against our will, suck us in, by manipulating us in a way we cannot resist.

All moviegoers want is an good story, well-crafted. That's it. That's all I want, as a moviegoer. It can be about anything -- hot tub time machines, fish in the sea, mobsters in New York, it doesn't matter. As long as every piece fits into an integrated whole, works together, as long as it builds to a satisfying conclusion -- a good story, well-crafted.

It's a fine dream that a certain magic can happen in the first draft -- perhaps it's even true sometimes. It's a fine and noble impulse to avoid the homogenizing effect of studio notes, too many cooks, and so forth. But it doesn't really do anybody any good when people -- icons -- who should know better suffer from a lapse of judgment in assessing the quality of a story.


Here's how you can avoid your script winding up in the hereafter:

• The characters that you choose should illustrate your theme in a useful way.
• Each aspect of the plot should illuminate the theme in some useful way.
• Each aspect of the plot should relate to other aspects of the plot -- in parallel or ironic ways.
• Each scene in the script should do two or more of the three requirements for all movie action -- advance plot, reveal character, increase tension.
• The plot should have a certain importance -- you're going for something, you want to say something new or interesting about your subject.

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