Screenwriting: On Human Behavior
This will probably be the most presumptuous and ridiculous article I could write on this blog—wherein I, a lifetime loner and weirdo, with no appreciable filmmaking success to this moment, try to explain how to write realistic human behavior.
But I believe in what I’m saying, so here goes!
A few assertions (of many) to make clear where I stand:
I think aspiring writers prioritize the wrong things: they worry about getting read and gaining access to decision makers—when really the problem is that their scripts are not good enough.
Morever, screenwriting “thought”— the entire subculture world of advice, instruction, discussion, evaluations and social media communities—breaks the craft down into predictable categories of concept, structure, plot, character, format, etc.
All of those things are important, of course.
But really, the single most important one is not even on that list: human behavior.
Because from that comes emotion: what does the reader feel?
It’s Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
That is screenwriting in a nutshell.
Probably, it is all art. We’re drawn to stuff that lets us feel something, because the human experience involves doing stuff every single day that we have to do that takes us away from the question that we know is always there:
What does it mean to be human?
I find I have more credibility, when I talk about these topics, when I make fun of myself. Fortunately I am happy to do that:
Every single criticism I have of amateur screenplays is one that I would make about my own work over a period of almost twenty years (!).
It took me forever to learn the craft of screenwriting and acquire enough knowledge and discipline to avoid making the same dumb mistakes over and over again.
That said, having plowed through this extended period of massive incompetence—by writing tons of bad scripts and bad drafts (I still go astray a lot, just like everybody goes astray)—it really comes down to human behavior.
It’s the silver bullet.
Movies (and TV shows) can have all sorts of insane premises. They can violate the laws of physics, of reality, even (to a certain extent) of logic. Your characters can always find a parking spot in front of their destination—it doesn’t matter.
EXCEPT for human behavior. That matters, completely.
The second people behave in a way that’s untruthful, that’s inconsistent to what you’ve established for them—and, more importantly, what we know to be true about how real people behave—the viewer/reader is GONE.
This isn’t to say that the behavior has to be contemporary. It can be from Victorian England, it can be from crazy Tarantino-land where people carry samurai swords onto planes, it can be from a Marvel movie where the adults act like fully grown versions of human children—but it has to ring true.
You may have read interviews with jaded Hollywood sorts (managers, producers, execs, even contest readers) where they say, “I can tell if a script is any good by the first page.”
Are you appalled? I know I was—I thought, that is so preposterously arrogant!
I know I can do it. Maybe once in a blue moon there’s a script that initially looks incompetent that turns out to be brilliant. (Honestly, I’ve never encountered one.)
There are all sorts of first page mistakes: bad formatting, spelling errors, clunky exposition, overly verbose dialogue (itself a tell about false human behavior).
But the biggest turn-off is to meet people...who just don’t act like people.
For some reason, “asshole authority figures” come up a lot. I think it’s because people think, well, I know I need a lot of conflict—because I’ve been instructed a zillion times conflict is drama, right?
So they write an authority figure who obstructs the protagonist’s efforts—be it a C.I.A. boss or a school principal—and the guy is just a huge, sadistic, snarky asshole.
And I love huge asshole characters! John Doman in The Wire was brilliant, and this scene is unforgettable (after a policewoman is shot and nearly killed):
If you could write this scene, my friend—you’re an instant sign!
Can you? No way I could. (I could write something in the ballpark, but not even close to that good—I just don’t know that world, and it’s not me. I’ll bet I can do sci-fi better than David Simon, because he probably thinks it’s stupid and beneath him. He’s not wrong!)
This scene has humor. It has emotion. It does what it has to do—yet in a completely weird, unexpected, unforgettable way.
What it really has is lived experience. (The Wire was, of course, written by former newspaper man David Simon and his team of genius writers with tons of literary and real-world experience.)
The characters in The Wire have personalities forged from decades of work in urban homicide. The black humor, the machismo, the weirdness—it all comes from what actually happens to human beings when they’re surrounded for years by murder and stomped on by bureaucrats.
It’s heightened, it’s dramatic—but it feels true, because it comes from a true place.
In general, “people being assholes” is a bad “tell” of amateur scripts.
In real life, people absolutely are assholes. But they’re seldom so direct. They’re charming, they’re superficially nice, they’re passive-aggressive. (The Sopranos was a masterclass in passive-aggressive relationships.) They have multitudes within them—the guy who’s a monster to women, but a great dad to his daughters.
Careers can be made for writers who know how to nail those dichotomies.
The biggest reason that amateur scripts have false human behavior...is because the writers don’t know how to write truthful human behavior.
Are they dumb? Well, that would be a dick comment for me to make.
The truth is, they’ve probably never tried. Nobody prioritizes this stuff because, I don’t know, maybe people feel it presumptuous to tell anybody else how to write human beings.
We’re always like, “No, you do your vision”—well, fine, if it actually is a vision. If it just sucks, you have to fix it.
It can be fairly, if not easy, then straightforward to write a screenplay—as in, 90–120 pages of stuff that happens in screenplay format—if you’re not taking into account actual people with actual feelings.
To most amateur screenwriters, who are still learning, their big priority is plot—making the plot hang together.
They want the satisfaction of getting to the end. So what happens is that in order for them to make their plot work, they just bulldoze through the story and make the characters do whatever the plot needs them to do.
“Hey, I just saw a vampire eat a child—but the plot needs me to suddenly pick up this hitchhiker? You got it!”
Maybe the writer gets a tingle that this will seem fake. So they have the character make a joke about it. (This is called “hanging a lantern on it.” Sometimes it works. Oftentimes it’s the only way out of a jam for the writer. BUT BE CAREFUL.)
Folks, I made these mistakes constantly for, what, 15 years? I’m not acting like I’m better than you. I feel like I’m on the other side of it now and wish there had been somebody who could have taught me (God knows some people tried) to save me all that time and heartache.
How do you get better at writing human behavior?
The first step is, of course, realizing that you have a problem.
I’m not saying you should beat yourself up…just, as some large corporation once said, “Think different.” (Haha—not.)
Two stories come to mind. These are great artists who just had strokes of inspiration and the talent and technique to follow them.
One has to do with a young Marlon Brando in acting class. The teacher gave the class an exercise, “Pretend you’re a chicken and there’s an air raid going off.” The class of course all went crazy, clucking and flapping wings—but Marlon just sat there, doing nothing whatsoever. The teacher stopped the students and asked him why. He said, “I’m a chicken… I don’t know what an air raid siren is.”
I told our seven-year-old twins this story, and they said, “Yeah, but wouldn’t the chicken still go crazy because of all the other chickens going crazy?” Smart kids!!!
The other is composer Jerry Goldsmith scoring the western Wild Rovers circa 1971. He had done fifteen years’ worth of westerns to this point. There was a scene where a character is chased by a bad guy on horseback who is going to kill him. Goldsmith had an epiphany he had been looking at this kind of scene all wrong his entire career. He had been scoring the action, the chase, the movement—when really, he should have been scoring the emotion: FEAR. The guy was terrified he was about to be killed!
Listen to Jerry explain it at 1:15 of this 1983 interview:
Brando and Goldsmith were, in their respective fields, geniuses.
Can anybody teach genius? Of course not.
I’m of the opinion that nobody can truly teach screenwriting—it can be learned, but not taught.
This is not something that screenwriting instructors/mentors will admit.
H.L. Mencken: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
It’s sort of academic, anyway. You are who you are, you have the gifts you have.
The strangest thing about screenwriting is it requires massive empathy—but, at the same, god-like dispassion.
The writer/director Nick Meyer likes to say, he doesn’t want to make himself cry when writing. He wants to make the audience cry: “Life is hot, but art is cool.”
It’s true, because if you’re feeling something without understanding why you’re feeling it—what is coming out of you that makes you feel it—you’ll write your characters untruthfully. Because they are not you! They came from you—but you gave them different childhoods, experiences, perspectives, so you have to honor those! They need to behave like themselves.
You’re also “presuming facts not in evidence”: you’re crying for all sorts of personal, private reasons that nobody else knows—because they’re not in your script!
Great, you think, I’ll just spend more time focusing on human behavior!
It is true you should do that. How you do that can be very complicated and problematic.
The starting point for understanding human behavior is to understand your own. I am hardly a therapist, though I am helpfully married to one.
Understanding people requires empathy: You use yourself as a reference point to understand others.
But that requires a deep level of self-awareness—all of us have psychological defense mechanisms that we employ unconsciously in order to keep ourselves safe.
Unfortunately, they also make us blind to aspects of our own humanity—usually, negative humanity, because it’s scary. And that’s why we invaded Iraq.
Sam Peckinpah—a writer/director who really was a genius, albeit a tormented, self-destructive one—was often described as being akin to a “dirty psychiatrist.” Have you watched The Wild Bunch or Straw Dogs? The guy was a fifth-level genius.
So, this sure is a great column I’m writing today—I’m telling everybody their writing sucks because they need therapy!
Well, not in all cases. But do I think it’s probably true? Yes, I do.
What is screenwriting talent? It’s the ability to put the words on the page—but the precursor is the ability to have the thoughts in your head. And really, the ability to derive the thoughts from the feelings.
The thoughts and feelings can come unconsciously, or be the result of deliberation.
Some people just have really interesting thoughts; others have to work at it.
I do believe that to achieve the level of talent that really “moves the needle” for your writing, you either need to get a certain amount of therapy, or find enough workarounds that you achieve the same result for your work. (Some writers resist therapy so as not to interfere with their “process.” I did mine 20 years ago and am not particularly interested in doing it again.)
Whatever the case—if you want to improve your writing, please, stop thinking of your PLOTS!
Stop and think about real people, with real feelings, and real problems.
Start with the truth of the human emotion. Write a character who doesn’t know she’s the star of a movie.
When I look back on my 15–20 years of bad scripts…well, it’s embarrassing. My reach exceeded my grasp, and I failed constantly. I knew some things about human behavior that I wanted to express, but I just didn’t have the technique or wisdom to put them into a script.
Consequently, I had some moments that were true, but I was jamming them together with plots that were not—they were awful. Everything was a mess: intriguing ideas (if I do say so myself) mis-structured into unusable garbage, making them commercially worthless.
Because I’m impatient, I would just plow through and write it anyway, then be outraged when my script failed to win some dopey contest. (I learned not to wait for contest results. Just buy coverage, get the rude awakening that it sucks, and go back to the drawing board—meaning, a page one rewrite.)
I just had to plow forward and write more crap, because the only way you learn is to keep practicing. And I’m finally getting to the point where I have enough technique to make something viable.
The good news is, from having been forged in this very idiosyncratic way, my stuff tends to be unique. It’s different.
And that is, let’s hope, a priceless thing for your writing to be (so long as it’s good)—because it makes you a brand, not a commodity.
So…I appreciate that today’s advice is scary.
When you write with a sensitivity to actual human behavior, writing becomes infinitely more difficult and time-consuming. You can’t just write the plots you want to write because you know better: it will suck!
It’s what they say about artists as they age: on the one hand, you can go faster because you have more technique. But you’re also conscious of more problems, so you become deliberate.
And, let’s face it, a lot of us write to escape our problems. To think about having to face the same shit we’re running away from—our pain, vulnerabilities, weaknesses—in an even more concentrated, potent form, in order for our scripts to be better? It’s a little depressing.
But it’s pretty much the only way to write a script that means anything.
So, good, now you understand human behavior! All done!
What comes next is figuring out “the math” of your script: going from the broad concept, mining it for emotion, and using human behavior to guide your creation of characters, structure and (last but not least) plot. That’s brutal!