Find out What 'The Usual Suspects' Can Teach You About Becoming a Better Screenwriter
In 1994, Christopher McQuarrie was an unknown, struggling screenwriter. One day he got a call from his friend Bryan Singer, who said he had money to make a movie, but no script (which isn't a terrible position to be in). So McQuarrie cooked up a strange, rule-breaking, time-shifting noir that ended up being turned into a hit film and earning him an Oscar. Over at ScriptShadow, they've got a great post on 10 screenwriting tips you can learn from The Usual Suspects. Click below to learn more.
As we all know, The Usual Suspects is the story of a drug deal gone very wrong, and one Customs Agent (Chazz Palminteri) trying to unravel its mystery by talking to the only survivor from the crew, "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a shy, retiring man with a game leg and a tale to tell of a mythical Hungarian crime lord named Keyser Söze.
The first time I saw the movie, the twist of an ending kind of annoyed me, but upon subsequent viewings, I appreciated its genius, and the expert way it was weaved into the script. Even McQuarrie and Singer didn't agree on the film's story. McQuarrie says:
We got into the biggest argument we’ve ever had in our lives. One of us believed that the story was all lies, peppered with little bits of the truth. And the other one believed it was all true, peppered with tiny, little lies.
In the post over at ScriptShadow, they have 10 screenwriting tips to be learned from this modern noir classic. A few of the best in my opinion:
Don't Drop Your Reader Into A Time Blender in the First Five Minutes:
Frequently, when writing a screenplay, we can become so sure of the story in our heads that we somehow become certain that what is clear to us must be clear to everyone. Not so, sayeth the movie gods.
As a screenplay, The Usual Suspects breaks all the rules, and does so in many successful ways, but there are also things to be learned from the script as to what not to do:
The problem with [the disorienting opening] is, we don’t know your characters yet. We don’t know what story you’re telling. We’re not yet used to your writing style. We know nothing and you’ve already dropped us into a blender. So the first two times I saw The Usual Suspects, I had no clue what the actual timeline was. Even watching it this time around, I was a little confused. Only jump around in time early if there’s NO OTHER WAY for your story to work.
A Clear Mystery Can Help A Dense Plot:
In a film like The Usual Suspects, there's so much going on that it can be easy for the viewer to become lost in the hall of mirrors that is the film's plot. Which makes it even more important to have one central mystery to help guide the viewer along:
If you have a dense multi-layered plot...offset it with one big CLEAR mystery the audience can easily follow. Not everyone is able to follow what’s happening in The Usual Suspects. There’s a strange set of time jumps, lots of characters, and an ever-changing story, but you won’t find anyone who doesn’t want to finish the movie in order to solve the big mystery: WHO IS KEYSER SÖZE???
You must be smarter than the reader in the subject matter you’re writing about:
So many times, we can detect false notes in stories, and when we do, it's frequently because we realize that what we're seeing doesn't feel real. It's a clichéd reality, and your reader (or viewer) will be quick to pick up on it.
So if you're writing a movie about Emergency Room doctors, make sure you know the difference between a stethoscope and a sphygmomanometer (the blood pressure thing-y):
This may seem obvious, but I read tons of embarrassing screenplays where I know more about cop procedure than the writer who’s writing a cop procedural. That’s embarrassing. 'Cause I don’t know much about cop procedure. The result of this realization is that -- I lose confidence in the script, which means the script is dead to me. McQuarrie worked at a detective agency for four years before he wrote this. He knew how the hierarchy of this world worked and it shows. If you don’t have that knowledge going into your script, research the subject matter until you do. I promise it will pay off.
The whole ScriptShadow post is packed with great tips, from how best to write for actors, to how to construct a tense scene: make one character want something, and the other not want to give it to them. Instant drama! There, you just saved yourself a few grand in screenwriting classes.
What do you think? What can The Usual Suspects teach us, as indie screenwriters, about what to do (and not to do) when writing our films? Let us know in the comments!