What 'Goodfellas' Can Teach Us About Screenwriting

goodfellas-bannerMartin Scorsese's 1990 classic Goodfellas is arguably one of the best modern American gangster films. The film was a return to form for Scorsese, who spent most of the 80s (save Raging Bull) making quirky films and one controversial biblical epic. Goodfellas, adapted from Nicolas Pileggi's book Wiseguy, was scripted by Pileggi and Scorsese. So what can we learn about the art of screenwriting from the film?

Over at ScriptShadow, they have a great post about the screenplay for Scorsese's 1990 masterpiece, and 10 tips every screenwriter can learn from the film:

While the story structure was put in place by the writers, much of the great dialogue was discovered through rehearsals, where Scorsese let his actors roam free, then wrote into the script many of the lines they came up with. While Pileggi wanted to follow a traditional narrative, Scorcese didn’t think it was necessary, believing the film was more a combination of episodes, and those episodes could be told out of order. It’s this and a few other non-traditional choices that make Goodfellas so interesting to study as a screenplay.

Goodfellas is structured as a tragedy, wherein the first half of the film details Henry Hill's rise in the mob, and the second his inevitable downfall, fueled by greed and cocaine (which, as we all know, is a helluva drug). Unlike The Godfather, which leans towards a more romanticized image of the mafia, Goodfellas never shrinks away from the ugly realities of a life of crime. Goodfellas also makes extensive use of voice over, always a tricky thing to pull off:

If Henry is robbing people and cheating on people and killing people without him ever telling us why, there’s a good chance we’ll turn on the character. But because he’s explaining it to us as he goes along via voice over, we understand his choices. It’s kind of like hearing that some random person you don’t know is cheating on their spouse. You immediately conclude that they’re a terrible person. But when your best friend cheats on their spouse, and they explain to you why they’re doing it and what went into the choice, you’re more okay with it. Voice-over can be very powerful that way.

Many screenwriting books will tell you to avoid voice over whenever possible, but it can be an incredibly effective device, like the scene below which shows us Henry's world behind bars. We feel privy to inside information -- to "what's really going" -- which is, of course, one of the themes in Goodfellas (an unvarnished look at life in the mob):

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQhBfRDd6GM

An issue with voice over is that too frequently it's used in a lazy manner to communicate information that would be better off being dramatized, as in the old rule, "show, don't tell."

Here's another interesting tip -- this one about complicating your scenes:

Driving a dead guy into the woods to bury him isn’t a very interesting scene. Driving a “dead guy” who all of a sudden starts banging on the inside of the trunk (Oh no, he’s still alive), is. And it leads to one of the most memorable moments in Goodfellas, when Tommy starts bashing the still-moving bloody mattress cover over and over again. Try not to allow your scenes to move along too smoothly. Always complicate them somehow. It usually results in something more interesting.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRw3nudL1Fw

The post is packed with great information for every screenwriter. Goodfellas is a breath-taking visual experience, but it also packs a mean narrative punch. What lessons do you think an indie screenwriter can take from Goodfellas when it comes to storytelling?

Link: Ten Screenwriting Tips You Can Learn from Goodfellas -- Scriptshadow

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The reason the voice-over works here is because it's a cornerstone of the film (additionally, since it's based on a bio, so the first person narrative fits ... sort of like with "Felicity" or "My so-called life"). I do hate VO when it's used for exposition and then dropped entirely.

As to the ad-libs, they used the same technique for the "Cannonball Run" movies ... those ain't going to the Smithsonian yet.

June 6, 2013 at 12:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I'm very curious about the ad lib technique.

I think British directors have used similar techniques. And have seen something similar on a long-forgotten Australian film, "A Cold Summer", where it seemed to work very well. Didn't realise Goodfellas also used it. Cold Summer was kind of ensemble-devised (actors brought to the initial story whatever personal issues they had to work through, like miscarriage of child and breakup of marriage). Then, series of recorded improvs, out of which script was devised.

I once did a comedy weekend workshop with Steve Kaplan. He claimed, I don't know how truly, that many sitcoms were devised by writers writing out the story (comedy comes from the situation, not the jokes, seemed to be one of Kaplan's main messages), then two comedians sitting in the video village thinking up funny things to say, on the spur of the moment, while the actors were rehearsing.

I should say that improv skill does vary a lot. I mean, the public tends to see improv movies where the actors were chosen for their abilities, like Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, etc. But if you watch lessons in any acting school that uses a lot of improv, frankly it often descends into a mess where neither person knows what to say, and where both get more caught up on the words than the acting.

June 6, 2013 at 3:16PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Most sitcoms of the 80's and 90's were "gang-banged" (yes, that was the term used .... see if you can find a George Carlin quip at the Emmys), i.e, not written by the individual writers but mulled over almost entirely in the writers room with everyone on board. There, everyone knew who pulled his weight or who didn't. The scripts were then polished for the shooting draft by the best writers of a given show.

Given the tight TV shooting schedules, improvisations by the actors themselves, even in rehearsal, is generally abhorred. A rare exception was John Ratzenberger (Cliff) on Cheers, who basically came up with his own lines. The showrunners let him get away with it because - guess why? - they were funny and more or less isolated of the main story lines. Shelley Long, on the other hand, earned the enmity of the crew by wanting to improvise her own (much lamer) bits.

When it comes to a film like Goodfellas, the caliber of actors gave them more leeway. The famed "Are you talking to me?" scene from the "Taxi Driver" (also a Scorsese film, obviously) was improvised by De Niro himself, as the original script gave only vague outlines. (i.e., it was an action line, not dialog)

Some TV shows like "Curb your enthusiasm" (improvisation based on the outline) and most of Christopher Guest directed films ("Waiting for Guffman", "Best in Show") are also improvised by actors off an outline. The first big film that I can recall with the same technique was Rob Reiner's "This is the Spinal Tap", where Christopher Guest came up with the "This is the loudest amp in the world. It goes up to eleven" line.

June 6, 2013 at 8:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Goodfellas is great for all. Hell The Godfather basically redid all the dialogue in post. As for screenwriting the films shows how to overtly confident in what is needed and what's not.

June 6, 2013 at 3:31PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

You voted '+1'.

By the way, if anyone remembers "Mork and Mindy", a lot of Robin Williams' shtick was improvised on the spot, so the directors just kept a camera on him at all times (off the 3-camera setup). And, when Jonathan Winters joined the show in its last season, the two were pretty much given a cart blanche to do whatever they desired. A lot of what ended up in the episode was stitched off the various improv bits.

June 6, 2013 at 11:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Great article alright. I think "The 'powder keg' character" tip is spot on too: "If you write a slightly crazy character who could blow up at any second, then any scene you put them is instantly tension-filled." I haven't managed to put one in a script yet, but as soon as I find a role for mr or ms powder keg, they're going in there.

June 7, 2013 at 3:34AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM