In Place of Beautiful – Thoughts on Introducing Female Characters

Writers, we have a problem.

The problem is “beautiful,” “pretty,” “attractive,” “cute”… and a few other adjectives of similar meaning.

The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to find a screenplay or pilot script that doesn’t introduce its female characters using one of these words.

I work in a script library. Once a patron pointed this out to me, it’s a phenomenon I can’t seem to un-see. From the greenest of beginners to the most seasoned Emmy and Oscar winners; from the very beginning of cinema to TV episodes that aired last week, it’s like we can’t write a character who identifies as female without including the qualifier that she’s good-looking. Then, some of us think we’ll get bonus points if we specify that she doesn’t realize she’s good-looking.

This cliché has been the norm for so long that many of us are apt to not even notice. (By the way, this includes many women writers and it includes me.)

Screenwriting is predicated on economy of language. Because words in scripts are used more sparingly, the ones that make it to the page really count.

Think of all the critical creative decisions on a film or TV show, i.e. who the casting department seeks out for the role, how the actor interprets the role, how the character is received, how we’re influenced by the story, etc. that all take root in the lean selection of words put forth by the writer.

As age-old Hollywood wisdom tells us, it starts on the page.

And yet, despite knowing the importance of our word selection, when it comes to our female characters, we continue to use the same careless, generic, appearance-related adjectives—words used so frequently and without purpose that they start to lose all meaning.

Aren’t we aware enough to realize that using these flimsy words in a perpetual cycle is the very genesis of how we start to limit women’s participation not only in the stories we tell, but more so in the industry that supports the telling of those stories?

Beautiful, pretty, attractive, cute…

When we resort to including these words in something as pivotal as a character’s introduction, we reinforce the idea that a character’s other qualities are only worth noticing so long as she’s physically attractive. We give the impression that we couldn’t be bothered to dig up a more specific word so therefore the role must be inconsequential.

When used, “beautiful, pretty, attractive, cute…” tell us that it’s in the woman’s very nature to be an object of desire—even if she’s a hugely active character, even if she’s the hero and even if it’s a story primarily about women.

By contrast, male characters’ physical appearances seem to be described less in such stock terminology. Leaving out generic descriptions of how they look enables us to see them as more unique and perhaps more autonomous.

Could it be that some of the threatening, diminishing conduct towards women in this industry (such as that which has been brought into greater light recently) actually begins in the language we include in our scripts?

If this is true—if harmful, negative behavior can begin in our words—then the change that so many of us seek can also begin in our words. Simply put, altering the narrative can literally start on the page.

As writers of all gender identities, races, religions, creeds and stripes, we get to strike the match that ignites the fire, and it can be through actions as small as re-thinking how we describe our characters.

Oh, dear writers, script readers and anyone who makes movies or TV who just happens to be reading this, I’m giving you a New Year’s Resolution. Any time you come across a description in a script that reads like this…

Or this….

… whether it exists in a friend’s, client’s or, most importantly, your own work… try to see empty words like “beautiful,” “pretty,” “attractive” and “cute” as the blank spaces they are, then make a mental Mad Lib for yourself. Create a space that’s waiting for you as the writer, collaborator or giver of feedback to fill it with something alive, unique and purposeful. I suspect many actors have used this technique for a long time.

Stumped about what words to put in that blank space? Here are a few ideas to jump-start your imagination.

  • First and least creatively, google some thesaurus terms. Words like “alluring,” “magnetic,” even “lovely” sound marginally more thoughtful and specific than the standard “pretty” or “attractive” even if they do allude entirely to how the character looks.

  • It’s easier to write with specificity when you’re thinking of a real person as you go along. Whether you’re picturing the actor who will play this character or a person the character is inspired by, you’re more likely to focus on things like mannerisms and behaviors rather than resorting to generalizations or stereotypes. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous in the library. He imbues every character with a kind of warmth and individuality.

  • Just leave it blank. If it’s a good script, you won’t have to go into detail describing what the character looks like because what we need to know about them will come through in what they do. The pilot scripts for Insecure, Girls and Jane the Virgin describe their leading ladies minimally without ever referencing their physical appearance.

  • Tell us the character’s occupation instead. This takes focus away from what the character looks like and puts it on what the character does.

  • In instances of the dreaded, “beautiful but doesn’t know it” or “broken, but beautiful” type of introduction, think of the kind of person this character becomes by the very end of the script. What has she discovered about herself that she didn’t know before? What kind of person has she become? How has she changed? If you have trouble with this, think of some of the great female character arcs in movies and TV from Thelma of Thelma & Louise to Betty of Ugly Betty to Katherine of Hidden Figures to Daenarys of Game of Thrones. In what way do they become different over the course of the story? Those are the words to use in place of beautiful.

If you’re still worried that you’re falling into the use of an annoying cliché or that you might be perpetuating the omnipresent stereotypical or overused narrative with your descriptions, ask somebody to give you feedback on them.

… and if you don’t have anybody to give you this kind of feedback, feel free to bring your character descriptions to the WGF Library. This script librarian would be happy to give you slightly objective perspective on your character intros.

I’ll keep calling attention to this issue until empty words like beautiful, pretty, attractive and cute are replaced with a slew of dynamic adjectives and nouns and we feel empowered to become each and every one of them.

I’ll soon be back to my regular posts on cool scripts to read in the library. Now and always, keep writing!

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Last Detail

While thinking about Veteran’s Day and stories about military life, I want to use this week’s Script Cavalcade to talk about one of my favorite, distinctly character-driven screenplays. Adapted by Robert Towne from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, The Last Detail tells the story of two Navy lifers assigned to transport a cherubic younger shipman from a base in Norfolk, Virginia to a prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The younger sailor, Larry Meadows, has been sentenced to eight years in the brig for the crime of attempting to steal forty dollars from a commanding officer’s wife’s charity box. The two petty officers, Buddusky and Mulhall, have a simple initial plan—get the kid to the pen in two days, then spend the rest of the week having fun with their per diem.

Their plans change slightly when something unexpected happens. Buddusky and Mulhall start to feel for and take a liking to their prisoner, making a point to use their limited time to help him experience everything he’ll miss out on while locked up. This road movie offers insight into America’s state of mind during the 1960s and ’70s. As the story progresses, Mulhall and Buddusky grow a conscience, slowly recognizing the absurdity of an eight-year prison sentence for such a meager crime. Still, they scrappily carry out their orders. In its own quiet and personal way, the script seems to reflect the country’s feelings of helplessness around events like Watergate and Vietnam—all of it giving way to the notion that maybe we’re all longing to escape and find freedom from the day-to-day prisons of our own making. These are big ideas and questions for a movie about three sailors shooting the breeze and going on small detours as they hop buses and trains through the Mid-Atlantic.

Robert Towne, perhaps best known for writing Chinatown, here delivers another tour-de-force script, but in this adaptation the dramatic punches are delivered through the subtle uncovering of the characters’ pain and humanity.

In this blogger’s opinion, the script for The Last Detail is just as essential a work to study as Chinatown. The screenplay offers pointed instruction on how to reveal character on the page in a way that elicits curiosity and empathy; it offers insight into how to craft sharp and meaningful character interactions and, perhaps most importantly, how to build a compelling character arc in an everyday, real-world kind of story.

The plot isn’t hinged on slaying a dragon or stopping a madman from causing destruction. There’s no major secret to uncover—no nefarious business man who impregnated his daughter—just a kid to drop off who’s awaiting punishment for a petty crime.

As the prison-type destination looms closer, questions arise. Will Buddusky and Mulhall get Meadows to Portsmouth on time, or will they somehow screw it up? Or will they choose to abandon their detail and let him go free? These questions give rise to drama and keep us engaged in the story. Every element of the script is made just a bit more poignant with the knowledge that these are Meadows’ last few days as a free man for a long time. It makes the other two sailors internally question the last time they were truly free.

As the sailors continue along down the road, sucking the nectar from the week, they get to know each other. This is the beauty of putting three disparate characters on a journey together. The script sets Buddusky and Mulhall up as chasers and mean bastards, getting us to make assumptions about them by giving them nicknames—Badass and Mule— assumptions that will be satisfyingly shattered by the script’s conclusion.

The script also makes it a point to set Meadows up as a criminal, but then shows us that he’s merely a naïve kid, who probably doesn’t deserve such a harsh sentence for a minor offense. These are good lessons in how to use names, hearsay from other characters and even uniforms to build up a persona and gradually chip away at it until we see the truth that’s underneath. And honestly, what’s more compelling than that when reading a script or watching a film?

Towne ensures that his scenes pop by giving his sailors contrasting personalities and different ways of handling situations. In navigating to Portsmouth, Buddusky is a troublemaker and button-pusher, giving Mulhall the task of constantly having to play defense and rein him in. Similarly, Buddusky is always trying to provoke and entertain the shy and contained Meadows. Automatically, the scenes are bubbling with playable conflict that deftly and discreetly moves the story forward while also giving the actors much to sink their teeth into. It’s very interesting to chart Meadows character arc from frightened kid to attempting to be more belligerent and manly like Buddusky.

Notice that no expletive goes unspoken. Towne makes sure these sailors talk like sailors, citing in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind that people resort to cursing when they feel powerless.

Most screenwriting wisdom compels us to create heroes and heroines who stand up for what they believe in no matter how gut-wrenching the personal cost to them. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons from The Last Detail is that it can be just as wrenching a dramatic choice to have a character know or feel they ought to stand up or do something, but then not do it, perhaps choosing their professional, personal or societal obligations over what their heart or conscience tells them is right. If we’re being honest, that’s the choice most of us would probably make anyway.

What we’re left with, then, like Buddusky and Mulhall, is an aching sense of regret, a sensation familiar to anybody who’s ever lived a life.

Why write or make a movie if not to elicit such a universal feeling?

If you want to learn more about Robert Towne, watch our Writer Speaks Oral History interview with him here. It’s also currently playing on the monitors outside the library.

Find out more about the Writer’s Guild Foundations Veterans Writing Project and how you can support it right here.

If it’s military stories you’re interested in, check out the WGF Library catalog. We have everything from Platoon to Hacksaw Ridge to scripts from CBS’s recent hit Seal Team.

Halloween Script Cavalcade: The Munsters

The following anecdote is from a development / pitch document for The Munsters (1964):

In honor of Halloween, I’m here to make a different kind of pitch for The Munsters. The WGF Archive recently processed a bounty of scripts and materials relating to the zany, ghoulish family. Most of this collection hails from Norm Liebmann who is credited with developing the show alongside his writing partner Ed Haas and creators Allan Burns & Chris Hayward. The Munsters collection is expansive and features many useful highlights like the aforementioned pitch document—items that will appeal to writers of all stripes as well as TV history fans and scholars.

Newspaper clippings from the collection tell us that The Munsters premiered on CBS the very same week in September as another show about a strange, macabre family living in a large and ominous house at the end of a suburban, neighborhood street. That other show was, of course, The Addams Family, which premiered on ABC. As it happens, Bewitched also made its series premiere that same fateful week. It might seem strange or coincidental for three shows of similar ilk and like themes to hit television airwaves within mere days of each other.

David Levy, creator of the TV Addams Family, didn’t seem to think so. In a Los Angeles Times article dated August 11th, 1964, Levy, a former head of programming at NBC, states that:

Ideas float like confetti over Madison Ave. and it is not surprising that when the time is right for a particular type of show that two networks might decide to go with it.

The 1960s in America became a time of counterculture and unprecedented pushes for civil rights. We can see this reflected in shows about unconventional families trying to assimilate with “normal” people in the suburbs. Indeed, the Munsters, the Addams, or Samantha Stephens become stand-ins for any group of people who might feel marginalized or on the outs in American society or family life, calling ideas of normalcy and conformity into question and possibly making an argument for wider acceptance.

In addition to commentary, the idea of monsters or a slightly off-beat, deathy family trying to interact with or fit in with regular folks produces a lot of comedy.

Shows like The Munsters gain legs on the strength of their concepts. What makes the WGF Archives’ Munsters collection so informative is that those who mine it for information and inspiration can see how a show evolves from mere idea to full-fledged television program—how it moves from a successful pitch to a TV microcosm that fans are able to relate to and take part in.

Munsters Concept Illustration, Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Archive

Liebmann & Haas put the concept across in such a cogent way on paper that one visualizes the series and how it will work on screen from week to week. Furthermore, most of the episodes from the show’s two-season run, are available as outlines, step outlines, rough drafts and final drafts so one can trace the full process of an episode’s writing. This kind of information can be helpful even to writers working in today’s current streaming atmosphere.

It’s particularly fascinating to examine the evolution of certain jokes within an episode. Having written for such late night and variety show luminaries as Johnny Carson and Jerry Lewis, Liebmann & Haas are quintessential joke masters with endless ideas brought forth onto the page and even more refinements. (See my earlier blog post about Liebmann’s contributions to The Roast of Bette Davis here).

No part of the writing and show-creating process is spared from this collection. In addition to scripts, there’s correspondence and notes from the show’s other writer/producers Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher who, prior to joining The Munsters, produced Amos ‘n Andy and Leave It to Beaver. Because Universal Studios produced The Munsters, the show had almost unfettered access to Universal’s most well-known scary creatures. This is the reason the show was able to include characters like Herman molded on Frankenstein or Grandpa molded on Dracula. In fact, the recognizability of such characters is a likely part of the show’s appeal.

Munsters Promotional Material, Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Archive

Norm Liebmann took great care to save most of his writing-related documents. The Munsters materials shine a light on everything from how the writers negotiated their contracts to how early Fred Gwynne had to be in his make-up chair every day on set. There’s even fun paraphernalia from the show’s fan clubs like this membership card from the The Jeepers Keepers Fan Club.

Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Library

It’s an ideal collection for anyone looking to gain a greater understanding of a classic sitcom’s evolution from script to screen. For more information on this collection and others available in the WGF Archive, please visit our website.

And if you’re looking for other spooky fair to get you in the mood for Halloween, try checking out some scripts from the library’s collection of features. We recommend:

  • John Carpenter‘s script for Halloween
  • Hocus Pocus written by Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert
  • Charles Schultz‘s dialogue script for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Road to Perdition

Today we dust off that Depression-era fedora and flatten the pedal on a rickety Model T to delve full-throttle into 2002’s crime-drama Road to Perdition written by David Self, adapted from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins. The flick follows a mob enforcer father and his sensitive-skewed son as they maraud across the Midwest robbing banks and evading all sides of the law. It’s equal parts Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Little Miss Sunshine somehow.

Symbolism is implemented to optimal effect in this screenplay. And themes are explored thoughtfully and thoroughly and characters fully-realized and presented with all the complexity and nuance that such fine writing warrants. Our two filial protagonists, Michael Sullivan, Sr. and Jr., are richly layered and undergo transformative journeys that not only muddy the moral waters of what’s right and wrong but strikes at the heart of humanity, coarse and often unscrupulous, and how and if it’s possible to retain integrity when the ethical rafters start crumbling around you.

It’s a finely honed story, one that uses a wide arsenal of verdant visual descriptions to communicate character subtleties. For example, the story takes place during the height of a socio-economic depression. We’re mid-winter and morale is at an all-time low. Optimism has been obliquely obliterated. And the bleak surroundings reflect the pervading grayness of the moralistic decisions that these characters must endure and the coldness of society that prevails in the trying times of the rock-bottom 1930s.

Less is more. The screenplay is all brute force when it comes to clocking you maximally with minimalistic dialogue. It’s nonverbal in its veracity. The story is lifted by the lack of loquaciousness. The script doesn’t brook superfluous sentences and instead relies heavily upon the unspoken spaces and subtext between dialogue. Each silence is kneaded with an abundance of emotional dimensions. We can see the internal wheels and cogs spinning wildly within in those moments of profound muteness. It’s a screenplay that is unabashedly trim and lean in execution.

The depiction of violence in the film is treated with an added aura of significance. The notion of inherited violence is exactingly examined and stands as the thematic fulcrum of the father and son relationship. Sullivan, Sr. seeks to shield his son from this seedy world of speakeasies and easy-murder. Sullivan shows signs of unresolved resentment as he sees much of himself in his son. His boy’s virtue and sense of justice is in jeopardy and Sullivan will stop at nothing to preserve it. Can a man seek a semblance of redemption through the salvaging of his son? The son himself questions whether or not he’s capable of such irredeemable acts but is conflicted as it took a horrendous family tragedy to finally bring them closer together. It’s an exemplary array of moralistic questions in which to build a strong screenplay around.

Suffice it to say the theme of fathers and sons plays a prominent role in the screenplay. It’s turgid with Turgenev-ness. Beyond the overt paternal back-and-forth between Sullivan and his son, there’s also the relationship between mob boss John Rooney and Sullivan himself. John is a surrogate father figure to Sullivan, and it makes his quest for vengeance all the more torturous. Their final climactic showdown is tinged with a bittersweetness as they share one last kindred exchange before what has to happen heartbreakingly happens.

It’s a well-weaved story that withstands the weathering of time. It’s a script that provokes thought and is economical in its ethos toward character studies. Silence begets more silence and acts of violence have import and go beyond mere gratuitous carnage. Set in a modernizing and weary world wherein lawlessness is slowing being eradicated and men must be held accountable for their sins. The story is mythic and epic in proportions and poses the same enduring questions that go unanswered today.

So beat a quick retreat to the library and get reading. It’s special.

And when you’re done excavating the cavernous depths of mankind’s capacity for corruptibility, lend your eyes to these other craftily-composed and newly-nabbed scripts:

  • The pilot episode of Fox’s The Orville penned by animation-maven Seth MacFarlane.
  • Emmy-nominated episode of The Americans “The Soviet Division” written by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg.
  • HBO’s Westworld episode “The Bicameral Mind” written by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. Yet another Emmy nominated script.
  • The Florida Project written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch.
  • And please ponder our everlastingly expanding catalog.

Duck soup.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: La Bamba

This week on Script Cavalcade, we’re plumbing the mythological subsurface of Luis Valdez’s La Bamba (1988). The rollicking musical biopic celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with a handful of different screenings around LA and beyond. Writerly fans of La Bamba will be pleased to know that the WGF Library has two drafts of the screenplay in its collection – and one of them is signed with encouragement by the maestro himself.

The film tells the story of early, pioneering rocker Ritchie Valens of Pacoima, California, who died at 17 in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, but not before changing the face of American popular music by adapting a traditional Mexican folk song “La Bamba” into one of the most enduring rock hits of all time. A one-time migrant farmworker, Valens (whose birth name was Richard Valenzuelas) is a fantastic example of Mexican-descended influence on roots music and early rock ‘n roll. By telling Valens’ story, Valdez reveals an under-explored aspect of music culture, creating a folk icon for everyone, but especially for those who don’t get nearly as many opportunities to see themselves presented as nuanced heroes of their own big-screen narratives.

Luis Valdez, known widely as the “Father of Chicano Theater,” isn’t so much a screenwriter or playwright as he is a mythmaker. When we think of mythology, we often think of deeply traditional narratives and sacred stories that seek to explain the origin of the world, death and human nature. Such stories are often about Gods, heroes, animals or personifications of natural elements like mountains and sky. Valdez’s gift as a writer is his ability to make commentary on everyday life and the present-day social order by spinning it into myth. By reaching for the mythic underpinnings in his stories, Valdez elevates his narratives to the highest level of storytelling. That’s why his writing feels universal and endures.

This week, I present you with one simple scene. In La Bamba, like any great hero, Ritchie must look inward and connect with his roots to discover his power and his identity. In this case, Ritchie finds himself waking up hungover in Tijuana with a bizarre, old medicine man. The drama is laden with symbolism and has a kind of ancient subtext eking out of its pores. These are ideal study pages for writers looking to unearth the macro/mythic/universal-level themes in their personal stories. It’s motivation for all of us to study and connect with our own ancestry and culture – wherever it might originate — in order to draw from it in our work.

As a writer, seeing things on a mythological or cosmogonic level involves stripping away modern formality. In contemporary society, we often define ourselves by our professions, i.e. – “I’m an attorney;” “I’m a football player;” “I’m a sales technician,” etc. Writing at the mythic level involves looking beyond certain contemporary social constructions like one’s job title. Many ancient peoples believed that individuals had specific destinies—to become warriors, healers, wanderers, teachers or storytellers and that it was an individual’s job to realize one’s destiny and to journey to become it. If we look at life as though it is a myth and we view our own experience as though we’re heroes and heroines on a journey to discover who we are, we find certain universal rites of passage and we encounter people who initiate, instruct and heal us in different ways. If there don’t appear to be healers and shamans in modern society, it’s only because we’re not looking hard enough. The best writers—like Valdez—are not only able to see them, they’re able to reveal them in their writing.

Knowing that his lead character dies in a plane crash, Valdez is able to shape his script with the benefit of hindsight. He shows us Ritchie’s continual nightmares about his own death. By including a scene where Ritchie encounters a Curandero, or healer, who seems able to see into his soul and his fate, the writer makes a comment on existence in general, that it’s bigger than we could possibly understand and that death is an innate part of it, but also that death is a portal into something much, much larger and more infinite. This is more than just a musical biopic; it’s writing that makes us feel less alone and afraid because it taps into timeless aspects of personhood that affect every single human.

These are just a few things for you to contemplate the next time you sit down at your laptop.

If you’re looking for more scriptly wisdom to be inspired by, check out some of the library’s newest acquisitions.

  • Black Mirror’s Emmy-Winning “San Junipero” written by Charlie Brooker.
  • The Florida Project written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch.
  • The Glass Castle written by Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls.
  • Scripts from 2008’s TNT series Leverage, seasons 1 and 2.
  • The entire 1st season of NBC’s Marlon.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Punch-Drunk Love

This week’s Cavalcade has us delving deep into the lovelorn lullaby that is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 romantic-dramedy Punch-Drunk Love. It’s a screenplay that boasts one of the most bizarre but exceedingly endearing schlubs since Marty. It’s a tale that uses a full range of emotional and cinematic language to convey a heartbreaking yarn of yearning and arrival at acceptance. Romantic, existential, and otherwise.

The quick run-through: Loveable and lovesick Barry Egan is eking his way through existence. Continually battered and emasculated by his domineering seven sisters and working a dead-end job, he’s quickly reaching the end of his rope. Loneliness is the only enduring constant of the day. It’s just misery Monday through Friday.

But then a beacon of light wafts in. And he’s introduced to lilting and lovely Lena Leonard. And she, in turn, introduces a little wattage into his dimming and emotionally imperiled life. But between him and his last remaining chance at happiness lays a gauntlet of blackmailing phone-sex operators, a goon squad of boorish brothers, and Barry’s own inclination to self-sabotage a good thing. Love teeters precariously in the balance. And we’re along for the ride and root for the galoot throughout.

The screenplay lays on the symbolism pretty thick. From page one we’re befuddled by a wayward and mysterious harmonium that inexplicably ends up in Barry’s possession. This little organ, drubbed and discarded, becomes a visual surrogate for his own heart. This innocuous little instrument symbolizes a chance at romantic opportunity. Like love, it arrives unexpectedly (the harmonium is abandoned on a lonely road after a horrific car crash on page one). When Barry pilfers the harmonium from the curb he finds it a little worse for wear. But he nurtures it. He takes the time to coax it into something aurally beautiful. He mends the billows with duct tape, and the act becomes a redemptive gesture of nursing his own internal wounds.

As the story progresses, beleaguered Barry will steal away to these little solitary interludes. He’ll brush a key and release a mournful chord that reflects his current inner turmoil. Scene after scene passes, and he soon starts to find a rhythm. And the larger the role Lena plays in his life, the more dulcet his tunes start to become. It’s all a very rich metaphor for the effort and strain falling in love takes on the heart. The script seems to suggest, akin to playing Carnegie Hall, that intimacy requires practice, practice, practice. And by movie’s end, they’ve learned to make swelling, symphonic music together.

The telephone also plays a prominent symbolic role. The telephone becomes an apparatus of anxiety and tension for Barry. Trouble seems to ineluctably ensue whenever he reaches for one. It’s the source of unending woe that keeps coming in waves. From the phone scam that empties his pockets to the perpetual haranguing he receives from his sisters. A ringing phone is the harbinger of heartache for Barry. And quickly represents all that is alienating and lobs him further into loneliness. But as his relationship with Lena grows stronger, he wades deep within himself and discovers newfound funds of courage heretofore unavailable to him. He sheds the telephone permanently from his life. And severs any lingering insecurities it symbolizes.

It’s a riveting read. And proffers many a canny lesson in injecting subtle symbolism into a story. The screenplay packs a compact wallop at only ninety pages. But each page is just drenched in deliberate characterization and pronounced visual pathos.

So stock up on the pudding and be frequently-flown away to a world of revealing and romantic reverie. I’ll say with no exaggeration: This script is very food.

And when you’re finished with Punch-Drunk Love, feel free to peruse and pluck out some of these latest acquisitions in the library.

  • CBS television drama Picket Fences created by David E. Kelley.
  • Crime-drama Wiseguy created by Stephen J. Cannell.
  • CBS sitcom Newhart created by Barry Kemp.
  • Gimlet Media’s popular podcast Homecoming penned by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg.
  • And spare a picosecond to have a poke-about and palaver over the new First Pages: 1931 to 2016 exhibit in the library lobby.

And I would say that’s that, mattress man.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Bed, Bath and Beyond

Will & Grace is I Love Lucy… if Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz just happened to be queer. It’s a genius variation on the traditional sitcom that, in its day, helped to broaden the types of people and friendships that could be depicted on the small screen. Despite its sometimes exaggerated characterizations and decidedly un-PC humor, Will & Grace helped to make gay culture more visible and accessible to contemporary America. And let’s face it, it did so by making us belly laugh.

Deep, gut-based cackling is ultimately the point of the situation comedy, or “sitcom,” which I will go ahead and define as:

a series in which a fixed set of characters find themselves in a new comedic situation during each individual episode.

Because the format requires a consistent set of characters to get into shenanigans week after week, it’s no surprise that many sitcoms are about families. Of all the sitcoms to revive for our current times, Will & Grace seems, in my mind, a great choice. This is because, in addition to all the laughter, it helps to remind us of the types of chosen and non-nuclear families and support systems that can be found out in the world.

The WGF Library has almost the entire original run of Will & Grace scripts. I’m writing this blog post because – revival aside – the show provides an ideal study for writers looking to understand the mechanics of sitcom writing, especially the kind with one foot in tradition and one foot in attempting to push the format further socially. They’re scripts that offer basic instruction to those who read them on how to mix belly laughs with sweetness and feeling.

Let’s dive in to a script from the fourth season of the show called “Bed, Bath and Beyond.” Written by Jhoni Marchinko, this episode aired November 8, 2001, a time when America found itself turning to sitcoms for comfort in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Like a good gift, the best television episodes often come in the most plain and simple of packaging. “Bed, Bath and Beyond” and other episodes of its ilk are fantastic for reading because they utilize no guest stars. The story is also confined to just the main location of the series (in this case, that’s Will and Grace’s apartment). If you’re a writer trying to churn out a spec script for a sitcom, these will often be the tools or basic elements at your disposal.

In its 38 pages, this script tells the story of how—after expecting a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Nathan, but instead getting dumped—Grace is so full of misery and self-pity that she refuses to get out of bed. Beginning to worry, Will tries everything he can to get Grace up and moving and back out into the world.

That’s it. There’s one situation and one clean line of action to resolve it. The comedy in the episode comes particularly from Jack and Karen’s inability to help Will achieve this task in a helpful and sensitive way. Bedridden and sad, Grace plays “the straight woman” to their outrageous antics.

Watch how Jack tries to cheer Grace up by singing a medley of songs…

…but he only makes her feel worse.

Watch how Karen resorts to demanding help from Rosario…

When Rosario gets into the bedroom with Grace, she’s forced to play the straight woman as Grace inundates her with slides from her childhood, trying to determine where it all went wrong and delivering this tour de force monologue:

Running out of options, the gang eventually resorts to tossing Grace into the shower to “wash that man right out of her hair” but she counters by slipping out of their grip and telling them that she’s just not ready, that she must allow herself to be sad in her own way before she can feel better. In doing this, she tells each of them that she’s just not as strong as they are, inadvertently reminding each of them of the things in their lives that they could be heartbroken about.

She bums them out until they feel like going to bed and never getting up.

One of the final images—Will, Grace, Jack and Karen all lying in bed together—gives rise to the ultimate lesson of the episode. Crises and periods of woe are easier to bear when you have friends and family who understand what you’re going through and stand by you.

In polarizing and challenging times, this is the heart of the story that rears its head underneath the laughter. It’s a message that resonates.

While you’re at the library reading up on Will & Grace, be sure to check out some new additions to the collection, including:

  • A handful of scripts from The Bold Type created by Sarah Watson
  • Scripts from The Carol Burnett Show from the recently acquired Arnie Kogen collection
  • Scripts from 1996’s Early Edition created by Ian Abrams, Bob Brush & Patrick Q. Page
  • The feature screenplay for Logan Lucky Written by Rebecca Blunt.

For more scripts, please search our ever-expanding library catalog and follow the Writers Guild Foundation on Twitter.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Children of Men

Profoundly prescient and starkly relevant to the acrimonious argy-bargy affairs of the world today, this week’s Cavalcade has us tread into the turbulent and societally troubled thriller-parable that is 2006’s Children of Men written by Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby. A screenplay that orchestrates a vast assortment of subtle cinematic themes speculating about the human condition, xenophobic hysteria run amok, and the nature of grief and hopelessness. It’s a script that levels you with lambent ideas and is just top-shelf science-fiction etched on every page.

The elevator pitch: The world over has been pitched into a crisis. An unexplainable and sustaining case of widespread infertility has blighted mankind and there hasn’t been a baby born in nearly two decades. Humanity is on the cusp of collapse and the outlook is bleak and maudlin for the surviving population. As thickets overtake playgrounds and nurseries grow eerily quiet, society has regressed to something atavistic and nihilistically primal.

The script is a masterclass in sneaking in allegorical tropes and embedding subtle soupcons of thematic imagery. Themes of hope, redemption, and fragile faith personified through rich characterization and narrative velocity. Theo Faron is our cynical and brow-beaten protagonist. A detached veteran of sorrow and melancholy from page one. He’s your prototypical everyman in every sense of the word. Grizzled and world-weary but ultimately resilient and duty-bound to meet the challenges of the mission foisted upon him. A mission that has him safeguarding the very future of humanity as he escorts a pregnant girl out from harm’s way. It’s very redolent of the Nativity but with our protagonists recast as a modern day Joseph and Mary. He becomes a reluctant savior figure. An earnest archetype that hits every one of Campbell’s hero tenets. By the script’s end, he earns his nugget of hard-fought hope and redemption.

Equal parts cynicism and sincerity. A pessimistic pollyanna.

Theo represents a lingering limn of light in an ever darkening world of despair and despondency. Resolve and courage in the face of surefire defeat and doom. These qualities make him a chivalric knight of yore. A Galahad with a slight case of alcoholism churned with nihilism. Readers are impelled to root for this highly flawed but virtuously upright figure. His suffering is biblical in scale. But he remains Quixotic in his brittle steadfastness. And that’s enough to keep us glued and emotionally invested in his crusade.

Take this scene. Basically the Obi-Wan-You’re-Our-Only-Hope scene.

The concept is an all too perspicacious perspective of a society wherein compassion and empathy fall by the wayside. We learn in this dystopian world, immigrants and refugees are regarded with a high degree of suspicion and discrimination. The dispossessed peoples are relegated to becoming second-class citizens and become perfect scapegoats for the world’s current woes. It’s a cinematic exaggeration of injustices we might see on our televisions today.

And in the world’s desperation, religious devotion bordering upon flagrant fervor comes to the forefront. The world’s remaining population perceive the contagious infertility as some kind of divine plague and scramble to make amends. The religious piety begets further balkanization of allegiances which leads to more and more societal fracturing and violence. Again, more incisive commentary and cinematic flourish on anti-immigration issues that are brimming over today and splayed all over our front pages.

The script is here at the library. Bradded and begging to be read and learned from. It’s a sophisticated and symbolism-heavy cautionary tale that will ultimately buoy you with optimism and newfound understanding. So read it. And learn to hoard hope again.

Once finished with Children of Men, feel free to move on along to these other newly minted scripts in our collection:

  • Practically an impossible amount of CBS’s Early Edition created by Ian Abrams, Patrick Q. Page, and Vik Rubenfeld. A finely-tuned fantasy drama.
  • The pilot for Fox comedy sitcom The Mick created by Dave and John Chernin.
  • Edgar Wright’s pedal-to-the-metal musical runaway romp Baby Driver.
  • The development bible for Netflix’s exceptional and Emmy-gobbling 80s sci-fi thriller Stranger Things created by the Duffer Brothers.

And if those don’t salve your scriptly itch, we’ve a nice plump catalog for you to pore over too.

Shantih shantih shantih.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: St. Elsewhere’s The Women

I don’t know about you, but I find the culmination of Emmy season to be a time of great reflection. When yearly TV accolades are handed out, I can’t help ruminating on all the best shows and episodes I’ve witnessed in my life and on everything I love about the medium.

For me, the best TV does a handful of things:

  • It follows the recipe for its genre or format, but adds new and emotionally challenging ingredients to give us an experience that’s recognizable and relatable, but ALSO surprising and cathartic.
  • It revels in characters and their flaws.
  • It finds unexpected humor and poignancy in tragic situations.
  • It is often about disparate people coming together as a community, family or team.
  • It feels like the best theater.

One show that tends to exemplify all these things is St. Elsewhere.

Today, we don’t think twice about equivocating television series to other storytelling mediums like literature or theater, but TV hasn’t always been held in such high esteem. In the 1980s, shows like St. Elsewhere and its predecessor by one season, Hill Street Blues, (both airing on NBC and produced by MTM Enterprises) helped to lift the television drama—and especially the television procedural—to a new level of artistry and credibility.

During its seven-year run, St. Elsewhere became known for its mold-breaking episodes that challenged its own pre-existing promise and structure. Thanks to a generous script donation from Ed Begley, Jr., who played Dr. Ehrlich on the show, the library has many of these scripts in its collection.

My recommended reading for this week is an episode from St. Elsewhere’s second season, entitled “The Women.” It won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series in 1984. I’m recommending it not simply because it won an Emmy but because it’s a great study episode for writers, packing tightly into one 60-page script all of my aforementioned tenets that make for great television.

Written by renowned playwright John Ford Noonan with a story by John Masius & Tom Fontana, “The Women” feels like a free-standing play within a series. The main characters in the episode are three female patients, all different ages and in the hospital for different reasons, sharing the same room. Over the course of the story, they bond, making their own micro community and helping each other to heal.

The episode is innovative in how it’s the guest actors who take the front seat, never to be seen again after this one episode, while the series regulars—the doctors—fill the supporting roles. Read how one of the patients, the 80-year-old Evelyn, interacts with Doctors Westphall and Craig:

Naturally, reading any produced television script can help a writer to hone their taste, preferences and ability to distinguish great writing from not-so-great writing (even though it’s all very subjective). If you’re like me and taking the time to reflect at the end of this Emmy season, why not stop by the library to read scripts from nominated shows?

We have everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to Atlanta to The Crown to that delightful “Thanksgiving” episode from Master of None. But while you’re reading those, why not also pick up scripts from classic Emmy award winners like St. Elsewhere, which can be seen in many ways as an influence on today’s contemporary shows?

Whatever your taste might be, you can always find both classic and contemporary series by searching our library catalog and stopping by for a visit.

And if I’ve piqued your interest about St. Elsewhere, you can also watch our Writer Speaks oral history interview with one half of its creators, Josh Brand, conducted with The Archive of American Television.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Lobster

How’s this for an opening sequence?

It’s a befuddling tableau to start with, to say the least. But encapsulates and establishes a tone for the rest of the picture tidily.

Come and scuttle across the floors of silent seas with Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 dystopian tragicomedy The Lobster. As far as concepts go, you’ll find none more bizarre and original than this absurdist arc. The long and short of it: Eligible singles are relocated to a lavish estate and given approximately 45 days to attract a romantic companion otherwise risk being transmogrified into an animal of their own choosing. It’s so out there, this idea. It’s science-fiction at its most scathing and socially penetrating. It’s a screenplay that bamboozles expectations and askews and eschews all notions of a traditional romantic comedy.

We’re introduced to lovelorn David. A world-class schlub who’s wife just absconded with another man damning David to this heart-wrenching race against the clock to find a new spouse. He’s deposited into his new bachelor lifestyle and now must keep in the company of a cadre of other equally romantically ill-equipped galoots who are also scrambling to avoid becoming part of a mopey menagerie.

It’s all a very trenchant satire on modern day dating and the incumbent anxieties and inanities that are part and parcel with the farce. The singles are bombarded daily by straight-faced propaganda about the ins and outs of successful courtship and couplehood. They are diligently daffy and delivered with the stoicism of an afterschool PSA. It very cannily mirrors the torrent of subtle inveigling we receive via images plastered on billboards and magazines everywhere reinforcing one point: You are not good enough and there is no place in society for sole individuals.

It only gets more preposterous. Singles can stay their inevitable animal-transformation by brandishing tranquilizer rifles and embarking on group hunts of the free-range escapee singles that inhabit the surrounding woods. Every renegade single captured buys them another day of humanhood. It ravenously pits singles against singles and suddenly it’s Darwinism at its most reprehensible.

David develops something like a niggling conscience. David manages to orchestrate an escape to the woods to join this lonely unit of hunted and finds himself experiencing the diametrically-opposite lifestyle. The loners in the woods, contrary to his previous predicament, are forbidden to pair off and indulge in romance. The pendulum swings far off into the other extreme as the ostracized denizens of the forest resolve to live out the rest of their lives in self-imposed exile and independence. It’s a grotesque commentary on the emotionally wounded who renounce romance knee-jerkedly and drag this burden of misplaced pride around their necks like an albatross.

Both the population living in the estate and in the woods live lives most foolhardy and of folly. A burlesque of senselessness. It’s acutely insightful when it comes to parsing out the travesty that is modern day dating and the societal conventions and seemingly arbitrary social construct of relationships.

It’s such an inscrutable script. But there’s also a weird wisdom that can be winnowed within its pages. An invitation to see past the unhealthy fixation on marriage and reverence for romance that can be hobbling to the wellbeing. It’s part parable and part surrealist theatre.

So stop by the library and awkwardly shuffle up to someone and ask if that seat’s taken. You can read this Best Original Screenplay nominee together and maybe, just maybe, uncover connections the old fashioned way sans tranquilizer darts.

And for the second, third, and umpteenth date you can read these other scripts together too. Just in and primed for perusal.

  • Taylor Sheridan’s slow-burn crime drama Wind River.
  • 2008’s comedy-drama Sunshine Cleaning written by Megan Holley about two ne’er-do-well sisters starting a bio-hazardous disposal business.
  • Every episode of season one of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience created by Lodge Kerrigan.

Have a click and a carom ‘round our catalog too, won’t you.

Scuttle, scuttle.