What Can 'The Sopranos' Teach Us About Screenwriting?
Life is overwhelming, even for mobsters. So, what screenwriting lessons can you take away from "The Sopranos"?
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.
Now, this excellent video essay from Behind the Curtain gives us a bunch of screenwriting lessons from The Sopranos. I picked my ten favorites, so let's go over them together.
10 Writing lessons from The Sopranos
1. You have a great TV series in you
David Chase talks about a pep-talk his manager gave him. He was pitching lots of features, including one about a mobster that needed therapy, and none were sticking. His manager told him to think about TV, about redefining The Godfather, but Chase wasn't interested in the gangster era. He was interested in the here and now. But on the ride home he went back to this mobster in therapy idea...and the rest is history. What do you have inside your brain?
2. Track the rises and the falls
Over the course of The Sopranos, we see Tony rise through the ranks as his empire falls. But that's the big picture. If you look at each episode, Tony is rising and falling through them as well. His mood, his life, the baggage of work and family, they all drag him down just as things are going good. This isn't just thematic but takes place in his day-to-day. So when you're writing, track your characters over the series and over the episode.
3. Protagonists don't have to be likable
The biggest myth in all of storytelling is that we will only like shows about likable people. Since the dawn of storytelling, all the audience has ever cared interesting characters. That means your protagonists can be the bad guy or gal, just make sure their actions and decisions make for captivating television.
4. Lean into ambiguity
The Sopranos has one of the most controversial endings of all time. There's always been a debate as to what happens. I think Tony dies, and you'll never convince me otherwise. But the theme of the show has never been clearcut answers. You don't always know what happened but David Chase and company did so well is present truths that push the story forward.
5. Characters can be liars
There's no rule that says characters have to tell each other the truth. In fact, one of the best parts of The Sopranos is what characters don't tell each other. In your screenplays, try keeping secrets from one character or the other. Let those secrets fester, get them investigated, and see how much drama you can draw out.
6. Defy LOP - Least Offensive Programming
One of the biggest myths aside from likable characters is that you need to have a tame show to get ratings. Again, I think the modern era of television has proved this false time and time again. People don't watch for the sex and cursing, they watch for the world you build and the characters that inhabit it. So when you're writing your spec, make sure anything R-rated is earned, and the story can carry itself no matter what.
7. Our job is to surprise people
Ever watch a show where you know what's coming? Or have someone yell out the plot twists? It's annoying and feels like your time was wasted. The Sopranos succeeded because it confused and disguised its intentions over and over again. When you sit down to outline your story, go left instead of right. Think about what you've seen before, what people expect, and flip it on its head.
8. Every character thinks they're right
Just like in real life, your characters think it's their way or the highway. Sure, we see compromise at times, but they want their way. If you're learning how to write a scene or trying to build tension, you have to approach the story from that direction. How can you put two, three, or more people against each other at every turn? How do these battles create a better narrative?
9. Who's their tribe
We've talked about characters and their cars, but what about the people they hang out with? Their friends? Their family? Knowing where a person comes from adds another layer. We know Tony is from a big Italian family. And we know his friend group is ride or die. So when someone crosses him, they have to die. And if someone in the group rats him out or challenges him, they have to die, too. What doesn't your story's social circle say about the people inside it?
10. Every story has been done a thousand times
King Solomon said there are no new ideas under the sun. We've had millennia of storytellings. Every possible combination has come together. The same year The Sopranos came out, so did Analyze This. So don't stress about how "original" your idea is, stress about how well you execute it. Put together characters and stakes that people care about and everything will be all right.
What's next? Learn Screenwriting lessons from The Office!
"The Office" is one of the most successful shows in recent memory, due in large part to its excellent writing. Whether you're writing a short film script or a TV pilot, the challenges you have to face are...challenging. You've got character development to think about, you've got story structure to work out, you've got about a trillion other things to rework and reword and reconfigure until you have something that kind of looks like a final draft of a script.
So, yeah...that's a lot of technical stuff. And it's easy to lose sight of the non-technical stuff that is so important to the writing process while taking part in the writing process.
Click the link to learn more.