The Memento script thrust the Nolan brothers into the spotlight. It was bold, unique, and achieved cult status almost immediately. What lessons can we take away?
The Memento script was one of the first I ever sought out and read. It was a unique expression of structure, tone, and storytelling. I had never seen a movie like it, and when I read the script it inspired me to try to write myself. None of my backward stories ever worked completely well, but I love how the screenplay still amazes me today.
That's why I wanted to spend today's post going over five lessons from the Memento screenplay and how they can help your features!
Check out this video from Behind the Curtain where they aggregate Christopher Nolan quotes on how he and Jonah wrote Memento! And keep reading for the lessons you can take away once you've read.
1. Begin at the end and end at the beginning
Not every movie needs to be told in reverse, but every movie's end and beginning should have similar elements. What I mean is, we need to view the movie and read the script with certain arcs in mind. You can subvert tropes, take us for a ton of plot twists, but when we get to the end we should feel like the beginning mattered.
I'm a big fan of having my closing scene mirror the opening scene, so we understand how these characters view their world differently now. Or how they exist differently.
What Memento does so well is create this cycle that shows us Leonard's obsession. No matter what happens he'll kee avenging his wife over and over because he may never be able to deal with his own failures. Even when he comes to terms with them, he forgets anyway.
Leonard's actions speak louder than his words. No matter what audible promises he makes, we know that as soon as his memory fades he'll be back at it again.
Just like he was at the beginning.
2. Create motifs for juxtaposing scenes
We're gone over what it takes to write a killer scene, but how can you set them apart from the others inside the screenplay itself?
Memento does this by handling two different timelines and then uses black and white versus color within the final movie. But that's not reasonable for everyone. What Nolan suggests is writing from different motivations or even motifs for different scenes.
Leonard's motives in black and white are different than color.
The way I'd apply this to my own writing is making sure each scene has a distinct motive. What does each character want in the scene? How do these motivations create conflict?
3. The structure doesn't matter as long as it makes sense
Look, we all love three-act structure. It's comfortable and familiar and doesn't freaking matter. Tell us a great story. That's it. And structure it any way that makes us care about what's happening. Memento is structured like a paperclip. We have color and b&w scenes cutting back and forth. One is going forward and one is going backward.
Then they meet at the end.
What makes this structure so crazy is that it allows you to end each scene with a cliffhanger, and then recontextualize those cliffhangers into the beginnings of other scenes. This makes the audience eager to keep watching and to try to figure out what could happen next.
The big takeaway here is to bend the story into what you think behooves the audience's connection with it.
Structure it like that.
4. Focus on your rewrite
As you can imagine, rewriting and reworking the script for Memento was an arduous process. Each scene has to build on top of the one that came before it. When you cut, you wind up changing three things. but in general, your rewrites have to be merciless, even if the hard work feels daunting.
I am currently in my own page-one rewrite and it's kicking my ass. But I now that the only way to get noticed in this town is to turn in something great. That means devoting all you've got to creating something singular and calculated.
So put in the effort because no one wants to read your "okay" screenplay.
5. Be relatable no matter who you follow
One of the reasons we all go to the movies is to see stories that carry us away from our chairs somewhere we've never been. Our way into these faraway lands is usually a character that shares some, if not all of our emotions and struggles. We call those characters the "everyman" because they embody what it means to be human.
Leonard Shelby is an everyman but in the weirdest of circumstances. He's interesting, so we keep watching, but the movie moves us because it always asks us to empathize as well as think about how we would react in his shoes. Since we're getting information at the same rate and with the same memory as him, we are continuously dealing with his world and therefore care about what happens next.
When you tackle your own screenplay, think about main characters and protagonists. What sets your character apart from the pack, but also keeps them relatable to everyone reading the screenplay?
This is not advocating for a Save the Cat moment, but just that the struggles in your movie have far-reaching ramifications that allow the audience to place themselves in the situations at hand.
What's next? Lessons from The Sopranos creator David Chase!
When The Sopranos debuted on January 10, 1999, the world was a different place. Mobsters were tough guys with flaws, other than hubris, that we seldom saw on the big or small screen. Then Tony Soprano walked into therapy and the rest is history. Throughout the run of the show, David Chase was able to always keep the audience guessing. He developed characters, had them arc, and combined archetypes to give us a new look and feel for the modern gangster.
Click the link to learn more!