Pulp Fiction was Quentin Tarantino's coming out party in 1994. Now, 25 years later, we look back on its classic script.
After Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino needed a hit. He had come onto the scene as a brash and independent thinker, but he set his sights on the ultimate prize. He wanted to be Hollywood royalty, a legendary director. He wanted people to listen and to see the Los Angeles he saw every day: the underbelly, the slick and degenerate criminal world. He locked himself in a hotel room with Roger Avary, and they cracked Pulp Fiction. A few months later, it was in producers' hands, then shooting, and finally...shaking up the world.
The screenplay and film launched many imitators, but none were able to equal the success or fervor as Pulp Fiction. Its snappy dialogue, five-dollar milkshakes, and samurai swords cut up both critics and the box office. While the men only captured the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award (only!), the movie became part of the cultural lexicon and the stuff of Hollywood legend.
Now, I want to take a look back at a few more interesting parts of the Pulp Fiction screenplay to see what we can learn as writers.
So let's boogie
The Pulp Fiction Screenplay
Roger Avary and Quentin Tarantino both worked at a video rental store together. They dreamed of making it big time. Tarantino was the first to do so, jumping into Reservoir Dogs and making his mark on indie cinema. But he still needed that crossover. When Tarantino was stuck in Amsterdam on a press tour, Avary showed up to hang out. They locked themselves into a hotel room and started working on Pulp Fiction. It was a collaborative effort that brought out the best in both filmmakers.
While Avary shared "Story By" credit with Tarantino, they both received Academy Award and went on to illustrious careers.
The script was about a side of Los Angeles most people have never seen. It was a bold introduction to the world, and its non-linear storytelling managed to hit every beat, while also feeling fresh and new.
Pulp Fiction Summary
The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.
The story is told non-linearly, meaning out of order. I grabbed this helpful, complete summary from GradeSaver's Study Guide.
"In a diner, a man and a woman who call each other Pumpkin and Honey Bunny eat breakfast in a booth. Honey Bunny teases Pumpkin for not wanting to commit armed robberies anymore, and Pumpkin explains that robbing the diner would be better than robbing convenience stores or banks. She agrees, and the two leap to their feet and draw their weapons, before the opening credits roll.
Across town, two men in suits named Vincent and Jules ride in a car discussing Europe and fast food. Jules tells Vincent that Marsellus, their boss, allegedly had a man thrown off a balcony for massaging his wife Mia's feet, who Vincent has been instructed to take out to dinner. They argue about the implications of foot massages, before storming an apartment with three men inside. Jules kills one, and recites Ezekiel 25:17 before killing another, named Brett. Vincent retrieves a briefcase, the contents of which glow, from a kitchen cabinet.
In a bar, Marsellus gives an envelope full of cash to a boxer named Butch, bribing him to throw his next match. Vincent and Jules, now wearing tee shirts, enter the bar, and Butch has a brief exchange with Vincent on his way out.
In the following scene, Vincent buys heroin from his drug dealer, named Lance, and talks briefly to his girlfriend Jody. After buying three grams of heroin, Vincent shoots up and heads to Mia's house. Mia does cocaine in the bathroom while Vincent fixes himself a drink. They head to a restaurant named Jackrabbit Slim's, where they talk about Mia's failed television pilot and the foot massage rumor, which Mia denies. Mia forces Vincent to participate in a twist contest, which they win.
Back at Mia's house, while Vincent uses the bathroom, Mia mistakes his heroin for cocaine and snorts it, falling unconscious. A panicked Vincent rushes her to Lance's house, although Lance is reluctant to help. Vincent is able to successfully revive her with an adrenaline shot straight to the heart. At the end of the night, Mia tells Vincent a joke from her television pilot, which she previously refused to divulge, and the two agree to keep the night's events a secret.
A man named Captain Koons visits Butch as a child, giving him a gold watch that is a family heirloom. As an adult, Butch kills his opponent in a boxing match, rather than purposely lose as Marsellus wanted. Butch escapes in a cab driven by a woman named Esmeralda, and calls a bookie named Scottie who plans to collect Butch's earnings. Meanwhile, Marsellus orders that Butch be killed. At a nearby motel, Butch's girlfriend Fabienne waits for him, and the two talk and have sex. The next morning, Butch realizes his gold watch is missing, and angrily leaves the motel in search of it.
Butch cautiously returns to his apartment, and initially finds no one there. He retrieves the watch and notices a gun on the counter. He hears the toilet flush and kills the man who emerges from the bathroom, which turns out to be Vincent. Butch leaves and is spotted by Marsellus at a stoplight. Butch rams him with his car, and an injured Marsellus chases an injured Butch until both men are subdued inside a nearby pawn shop by the owner, named Maynard.
Butch and Marsellus awaken in the pawn shop basement, where Maynard has bound and gagged them. A man named Zed shows up, who orders Maynard to get "the Gimp," a man in a full-body bondage suit who sleeps in a trunk. Zed drags Marsellus into another room to be raped while Maynard watches, and Butch manages to break free. Butch is about to flee when he hears Marsellus's cries and instead retrieves a katana sword and ambushes the men, killing Maynard. Now freed, Marsellus shoots Zed in the crotch, and tells Butch that the men are even, as long as Butch leaves town and never tells anyone about the incident. Butch rides Zed's chopper motorcycle back to the motel, and he and Fabienne ride away together.
The film flashes back to the scene where Jules recites Ezekiel 25:17, this time from the perspective of an armed man hiding in the bathroom. After Jules kills Brett, the man runs out and fires wildly, miraculously missing Jules and Vincent with his entire clip. Jules and Vincent kill him, and Jules calls the event an act of "divine intervention." The two take Marvin, the only surviving man in the apartment, with them, and leave. In the car, the men continue debating "divine intervention," and Jules pledges to give up his life of crime. Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the face, killing him. Jules calls a nearby friend named Jimmie, and they head to his house to deal with the cleanup.
At Jimmie's house, Jules calls Marsellus for help, who arranges for a man named Winston Wolfe to come over and help fix the situation. Jimmie tells the men they have ninety minutes before his wife Bonnie arrives home. Wolfe arrives ten minutes later and instructs Jules and Vincent to wipe down the car upholstery. They place Jimmie's blankets over the seat, and Wolfe hoses a naked Jules and Vincent down in the backyard, before giving them old tee shirts to wear. They follow Wolfe to a nearby auto shop, where the car is destroyed. Wolfe introduces Jules and Vincent to his girlfriend Raquel on his way out of the auto shop, and then leaves.
Jules and Vincent decide to get breakfast at the same diner that Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are about to rob in the first scene. Vincent goes to the bathroom just before Pumpkin and Honey Bunny draw their guns. When Pumpkin demands Jules's wallet and the briefcase, Jules draws his weapon, and explains to Pumpkin that he now understands the true meaning of Ezekiel 25:17, and wants to find a non-violent solution. Vincent emerges from the bathroom, resulting in a Mexican standoff. Jules successfully de-escalates the situation, and he and Vincent leave the diner with the briefcase in hand."
Let's go through a few Pulp Fiction scenes to see the style and voice of Tarantino and Avary on the page.
The Pulp Fiction Screenplay Opening Scene
“Pulp /’pelp/ n. 1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter. 2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.”
Pulp Fiction opens with that quote on screen. then it takes us to the diner it uses for the bookends of the movie. This is where we set up the razor-sharp wit and the rapid-fire dialogue, and we prep the audience for the talkative nature of the film. It builds tension and suspense. We're in a tiny diner, but ANYTHING can happen here.
Pulp Fiction Scenes
I wanted to place specific emphasis on three scenes within Pulp Fiction. The first is inside the apartment, where we get Jules's particular explosion of "Say 'What' again!"
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zp2aW6zxcq8
While being memorable for that line only, look at the way Tarantino builds tension on the page. He's using shorter, staccato lines to emphasize the beats. His gripping monologues echo off the page. We know Jules means business and we want to see where this scene can take us.
But what if we need to build romantic tension?
We've talked about love scenes, but this is the lingo and flirtation that's supposed to get us nervous.
When we enter Jackrabbit Slims, we know there's tension between Mia and Vincent. This table scene draws it out, but it also shows us how adeptly Tarantino writes action. You forget that there's a lot of movement and grace. You need to be comfortable on the page.
The audience watches these characters flirt and dance. We're along for the ride, but we have to believe it. You need to set the tone on the page so the development exec will be willing to spend the money to build an authentic cafe and use the shooting days for your characters to nail the twist. That's "twist" as in twist and shout, not as in plot twist.
Romantic tension is hard to nail, but what about accidental violence played for comedy?
Like when Marvin's head is blown off when the car hits a bump.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gpPV7syalk
Not only is this a masterclass in dialogue, but it also shows what you can do with words. We build this lull. Laughter as the men argue over "Cops" and fate. It's an awkward tension that makes us forget these men are killers. Then the gun goes off. It's a dramatic BOOM that changes the focus of the page, and you're excited to see what happens next.
There's another level to this scene and now we are watching as their anxiety kicks into high gear.
It also solidifies the themes of the entire screenplay.
The Theme of Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction is a cacophony of violence and redemption. Its themes are not so easily categorized, but I think it all boils down to fate. Each of these characters are put into a situation where they are forced to choose something based on fate or happenstance. The characters who chose love or altruism for fellow man are allowed to live. Butch saves Marcellus and thus goes free. Jules saves Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, and they all walk away. Vincent saves Mia and gets safety for a time, but his choice to kill Butch backfires on him.
All of these characters wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some, like Jules, chose to see this as God's plan for them. Other, like Vincent, think they just have terrible luck.
Either way, this story is about the actions and reactions we have when life doesn't go our way.
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Got another script you want us to cover, let me know in the comments!