Write a five-page screenplay about a character (A) who wants something badly that a second character (B) does not want to give. And follow these guidelines:
1. Character A's want must be clear.
2. We have to understand why your character wants it. This gets at stake—what's lost if the character doesn't get what he wants.
3. We must understand why Character B does not want to give it.
4. Let Character A fail at least once, regroup, and try again. This is a screenplay, not just a scene, but even in the best scenes characters try to get what they want with energy and resourcefulness. Let your character try more than one strategy. Let us see the dance of deliberation, decision, and doing.
5. The outcome must be clear. Does Character A succeed or fail? There's no right or wrong answer; do what's best for your story, but make sure the outcome is clear.
7. But no skits. Dig deeper and find out what your boxing match is really about. One of my students, Ben Edwards, was writing a boxing match about a young soldier in Vietnam trying to get a comic book from another soldier who doesn't want to give it to him. Ben wasn't happy with his rough draft; he said it felt shallow, more like a skit. Then, right in the middle of class, he realized what it was really about. "It isn't about a comic book, it's about how scared this kid is and how he needs diversion, entertainment to keep his mind off his fear." His next draft was terrific.
At Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Terry Tempest Williams told our workshop, "If your writing isn't interesting, you aren't dropping through to what your story is really about." She was talking about nonfiction, but her advice applies with equal force to screenwriting. When Ben realized that his boxing match between two soldiers over a comic book wasn't about the comic book, it was about fear, he found the universal dimension we all can connect to. This deeper level gave the screenplay greater resonance for Ben and—once he rewrote it—for his audience.
There's a whopping temptation with boxing matches to grab those big TV subjects—rape, murder, drugs. We think, Of course! He wants her but she doesn't want to give herself to him. Or: She's desperate for a fix, but her best friend won't pony up the horse. Or: He wants to take his enemy's life, but his enemy has other ideas—survival, for instance.
Ideas like this are known as The First Things That Swim By. They swim by first because TV has cut such deep grooves in our consciousness that our imagination shoots down these grooves faster than the dumped water down sluices in Chinatown, but as one writer said—I think it was Grace Paley— don't take the first thing that swims by. Keep brainstorming. Piddle around with your passions and perceptions until you come up with a fresher idea, something we haven't already seen in syndication. You may decide to come back to that first idea. That's fine. If you do, there may be a good reason.
When one of my students, David Cypkin, pitched an idea about a boy growing up among drunks and drug dealers at a Miami beachfront hotel, a story that climaxed with a knife fight between a cocaine dealer and a client who still owed him money, my kneejerk reaction was, "Nah, too TV." Then the student explained that he grew up at this hotel in Miami, hanging out in the bar with this cocaine dealer who seemed like a nice enough guy until he sliced up a sad, obese client. It was a journey from innocence to experience for him. This deep connection—though no guarantee that the material would make a good screenplay—gave David authentic insight and a shot at making the material more than warmed-over TV.
Having said that, let me quickly add that one of the better boxing matches I've seen is Pick's (Michael Piekutowski) gangster genre piece, Up To Here, that opens with two hit men, Marty and Rollins, burying a body they've just murdered. What lifts this story above familiar TV subject matter is the specificity of the boxing match that ensues when Marty wants the car keys so he can drive the "aged Cadillac," but Rollins refuses to give them to him. By the time the boxing match ends, nobody's driving because Rollins and the Cadillac have sunk in the swamp. The screenplay ends with Marty trudging down the road alone.
There simply aren't any rules. The ideas that produce the best boxing matches do, on some level, have resonance for the writer, but unlike Pick's screenplay, the connection is often not autobiographical. Rob Caragiulo's momma .. . ? is about Junior, "an eighteen-year-old, mildly inbred son," who wants his exhausted mother to massage his head. He finally gets what he wants, but as the boxing match heats up, his relationship with his mother subtly changes.
In another outstanding boxing match screenplay, The White Face by Eric Buscher, Bill Tift, "a lanky man about thirty, wearing messed-up jeans and a long-sleeve shirt untucked with a coffee stain on the pocket," wanders into a bar for a shot of Jack Daniels, unaware that it's a mime bar. Failing to get a real drink, Bill's finally thrown out by the mime bouncer, but he's ever so slightly changed in the process. Neither idea came from these writers' lives, but Rob and Eric did admit to mild obsessions with the mentally impaired and mimes, respectively, and they tapped that obsession to write their screenplays. You might want to add a column to your Menu—What I'm Obsessed About—and look to your own obsessions for good ideas.
Above all, notice that in each of the boxing matches mentioned above, Character A's want is small but significant and highly specific. A car key. A head massage. A shot of Jack Daniels. Students sometimes try to write a boxing match about a character wanting someone else's love or respect, but it's tricky to photograph that. That doesn't mean you won't try such a scene in the future; for my money, the greatest boxing match ever written is the final scene between Biff and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Biff wants Willy to see—finally see—who both of them really are, but Willy refuses. In the hands of Arthur Miller, the scene is breathtaking, heartbreaking, as your scenes and screenplays may be someday, but for the purposes of this screenplay, keep your character's want concrete.
And the best dramatists often do the same thing. Think of Marsellus Wallace's briefcase or Desdemona's handkerchief in Othello. As the playwright Jeffrey Sweet says:
The great plays are filled with brilliant negotiations over objects. You can often dramatize what is going on between your characters through the way they negotiate over an object. This technique is particularly useful because it allows the audience to figure a good deal out for themselves, obvi ating the writer from having to go through tedious explanations ... How much more effective it is to allow the viewer, by analyzing the negotiation ... to arrive at his or her own conclusions as to the nature of the relationship between the characters.3
An object lesson for us all. And one that Arthur Miller follows himself in the boxing match between Willy and Biff. What Biff wants isn't an object, but the scene takes off when Biff whips out the piece of rubber tubing Willy keeps by the gas furnace in the basement because he's contemplating suicide. And the epiphany that Biff recounts in the scene, the discovery that precipitated this great boxing match scene, revolves around an object—the fountain pen that he stole before a job interview:
I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today. And suddenly I stopped, you hear me? And in the middle of that office building, do you hear this? I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw—the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!4
The pen, per se, is unimportant, but it precipitates Biff's realization about what he really wants, and that precipitates the boxing match final scene that changes his relationship with Willy forever. So, as you choose an idea for your boxing match, make Character A's want specific, concrete. Then let your boxing match reveal its significance, meaning.
Your character's want is twice blessed: It defines character and story. A character's actions flow from the character's want and the character's want flows from who the character is.
Suppose you meet someone for the first time. You've never met him before, but you need to know who he is. Not résumé stuff, who he is as a person. Maybe you need to know badly—he's going to give you a ride or marry your daughter. If you only had time for one question, what would it be? It's funny, but that old chestnut that fathers used to ask their daughter's suitors, "What are your intentions?" isn't far off the mark. If you ask this person, "What do you want?" and he answers sincerely, you're well on your way to knowing this person. (And, as the scene with Biff shows, knowing or discovering what you want is also an avenue to self knowledge.)
In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury says:
We know how fresh and original is each man [and each woman], even the slowest and dullest. If we come at him right, talk him along, and give him his head, and at last say, What do you want? (Or if the man is very old, What did you want?) every man will speak his dream. And when a man talks from his heart, in his moment of truth, he speaks poetry.5
Like Biff when he says what he really wants—"the work and the food and the time to sit and smoke."
Let your character speak her want, in her own voice. Write an "I Want" speech for her. Let him say flat out what he wants, like Charles in the opening of the film Kosher:
I've been meaning to ask you something for a long time. Rachel, we've been boyfriend and girlfriend since Tuesday and you're the coolest girl in school. Will you marry me?
Lest you think characters don't do this in feature-length films, take another look. "I want" speeches are made by characters all the time, like Wayne's in Wayne's World when he sees the guitar of his dreams:
Or Elliot in the opening moments of Hannah and Her Sisters, as he watches his sister-in-law:
ELLIOT (V.O.) God, she's beautiful. She's got the prettiest eyes. She looks so sexy in that sweater. I just want to be alone with her and hold her and kiss her and tell her how much I love her. Stop it, you idiot, she's your wife's sister!
Sometimes a character says what he wants and doesn't want, like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything when Diane Court's father says, "Yeah, Lloyd, what are your plans for the future?"
Spend as much time as possible with Diane before she leaves.
I'm totally and completely serious, sir.
LLOYD You mean like career?
(clears throat) I thought about this quite a bit, sir. I would have to say, considering what's waiting out there for me, I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed or buy anything sold or processed or process anything sold, bought or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed, you know, as a career. I don't want to do that. So my father's in the army. He wants me to join, but I can't work for that corporation. Um, so what I've been doing lately is kick boxing.
He continues to talk about career longevity, the uncertain future of the sport and himself in the sport, then he finishes his monologue by returning to the original want:
I don't know. I can't figure it all out tonight, sir. I'm just gonna hang out with your daughter.
Again, the speech you write may not end up in your screenplay, but you'll learn a great deal about your character as you write it. If you want to learn more, ask your character why she wants what she wants—or doesn't want what she wants—and let her answer (you can develop Character B by asking him why he won't give it). Ask Character A what's at stake? What will she lose if she doesn't get what she wants?
We can see stake clearly in "The Bonnie Situation" in Pulp Fiction. Jimmie's friend, Jules, has just arrived with a backseat full of brains, and his marriage is at stake if his wife, Bonnie, finds out.
—I ain't through! Now don't you understand that if Bonnie comes home and finds a dead body in her house, I'm gonna get divorced. No marriage counselor, no trial separation—fuckin' divorced. And I don't wanna get fuckin' divorced. The last time me an' Bonnie talked about this shit was gonna be the last time me an' Bonnie talked about this shit. Now I wanna help ya out, Julie, I really do. But I ain't gonna lose my wife doin' it.6
Tarantino is following time-honored dramatic advice—get your character up a tree and throw rocks at him. Jimmie is torn. He wants two things—to stay married and to help his friend, Jules. This creates a dilemma.
And we connect because it feels true. We're all torn. We want cheesecake but we want to lose weight. We want to take that job out of town but we don't want to leave our significant other. Our lives are one damn difficult choice after another. And, as Jimmie discovers, deciding is hard. But he makes a decision born of both wants. He'll let Jules and Vincent clean up the mess, but they only have ninety minutes before Bonnie comes home. It's one of the oldest dramatic tricks in the book—the time bomb—a sure-fire source of suspense. Will Jules and Vincent get the car cleaned in time? It wouldn't matter to us if we hadn't heard Jimmie's passionate speech, but we did, so it does. What's at stake has clearly been set. We know what Jimmie wants and how badly he wants it because Tarantino has him tell us flat out, hitting it right on the nose in the old "I want" speech.
Like most screenwriters, you may feel reluctant to do this. You've probably heard many times—rightly so—that good screenwriting dialogue is not "on the nose"—but sometimes "on the nose" is where you need to be. My students are always amazed how frequently "I want" speeches appear in good films and how well they work. It may not work for your screenplay, but the option is there if you want to use it.
You might prefer writing a scene that shows what Character A wants, like Melissa in the opening scene in A Work In Progress:
She sits in the shade, silhouetted against the bright field. A sketchbook rests in her lap as she watches the other children playing. She softly smiles at their happiness.
She slowly glances to the empty tire swing next to her. The ghosts of herself and others playing on the swing slowly appear. Just as Melissa smiles, the apparition fades away as slowly as it appeared. Melissa is alone again.
Or the scene in Slow Dancin' that shows how badly Earl wants Maybelline (he's stolen a Polaroid picture of her and placed it on his bathroom mirror; funnier still, he keeps naming her Employee of the Week so he can have a photo to steal):
Earl stands in front of the mirror in his brown slacks and a tank top T-shirt, his middle-age pudge hanging slightly over his belt. He put the wrapper off a new girdle.
EARL (unsure) Maybelline, my heart is a song.
He sucks in his gut, and tightens a girdle around his waist, with all his might, fastening it down. He looks at the picture, and finishes the line, but has trouble due to the tightness of the girdle.
EARL (groaning) And you are its melody.
He leans toward the mirror, knocking a can of Ajax off the sink. He starts to pick it up, but the girdle keeps him from bending. He gives up, takes the Polaroid off the mirror and puts it in his pocket.
When we see a character want something this badly, we want him to get it, and that connects us to him and his story.
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Devoted as I am to popularizing amateur boxing and to improving the caliber of this particularly desirable competitive sport, I am highly enthusiastic over John Walsh's boxing instruction book. No one in the United States today can equal John's record as an amateur boxer and a coach. He is highly regarded as a sportsman. Before turning to coaching and the practice of law John was one of the most successful college and Golden Gloves boxers the sport has ever known.