Screenwriting 101, as taught by Samuel Jackson
From Pulp Fiction to Game of Thrones, failure to follows the “rules” usually results in horrible things happening to the offending characters. In the case of failing to follow the rules of a beloved and established fictional world, fans could strike down upon show runners with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy our favorite stories.
At the beginning of Pulp Fiction, we witness one of the most entertaining and original conversations before a murder in modern film history. If you’re a fan of pop culture, you probably know it, even if you never saw the movie.
If you’re an active member of Medium, you already know the writing topics I’m going to discuss here, with the aid of our friend Jules Winnfield.
And if you’re a big fan of the Game of Thrones TV show, well Sammy J is about to open up a Royale-sized can of whoop-ass, with D.B. Weiss on the couch in the role of Flock of Seagulls, and David Benioff sitting in a chair playing the role of Brett...
Take it away, professor Jackson.
ACT I, SCENE 1
INT. LECTURE ROOM.
THE DOOR TO THE LECTURE HALL OPENS, AND THE ROOM GOES COMPLETELY SILENT. TWO STUDENTS ENTER THE CLASS ROOM, “FLOCK OF SEAGULLS” [played by D.B. Weiss] and BRETT [played by David Benioff]. THEY GIVE THEIR SCRIPTS TO A TEACHING ASSISTANT [T.A.] SITTING NEAR THE DOOR. WEISS LIES DOWN ON A COUCH TO THE SIDE OF THE ROOM, WHILE BENIOFF SITS IN AN EMPTY CHAIR NEAR THE FRONT AND PUTS HIS BREAKFAST ON THE DESK IN FRONT OF HIM.
JACKSON: [to D&D] You’re late.
[Looking at the Teaching Assistant, who is looking at the scripts] We happy?
T.A.: Yeah, we happy.
BENIOFF: I’m sorry, I never got your name…
JACKSON: My name’s Pitt, and yo’ ass ain’t talkin’ yo’ way out of it.
BENIOFF: I just want you to know how sorry we are that things got so fucked up with us and Mr. Martin… We got into this thing with the best of intentions, really, I never…
[JACKSON SHOOTS WEISS ON THE COUCH, BENIOFF RECOILS IN HORROR — Kind of like how book fans have been feeling since the end of Season 5]
JACKSON: Oh, I’m sorry, did I break your concentration? I didn’t mean to do that. Please, continue… you were saying something about best intentions? Whatsamatta… oh, you were finished? Oh, well allow me to retort.
[JACKSON LEANS IN TOWARD BENIOFF ASSUMING A MENACING POSE]
JACKSON: What does good foreshadowing look like?
[JACKSON FLIPS OVER THE DESK WITH BENIOFF’S BREAKFAST AND THROWS IT TO THE FLOOR]
JACKSON: What film school you from?
JACKSON: “What” ain’t no film school I ever heard of. They speak English at “What”?
BENIOFF: (trembling) What?
JACKSON: English, muthafucka! DO YOU SPEAK IT?
BENIOFF: Yes (almost hyperventilating)
JACKSON: Then you know what I’m saying…
JACKSON: (yelling) Describe what good foreshadowing looks like.
[JACKSON DRAWS HIS ENORMOUS PISTOL AND POINTS IT AT BENIOFF]
JACKSON: Say “what” again. [yelling even louder] SAY WHAT AGAIN… I DARE YOU… I DOUBLE-DARE YOU, MUTHAFUCKA!
SAY “WHAT” ONE MORE GODDAMN TIME…
BENIOFF: You create indications of future events at the beginning of a story…
JACKSON: Go on.
BENIOFF: …And those events take place later on. Pretty much every key protagonist and story element is laid out in the first few minutes of a script.*
JACKSON: Okay, that’s enough… Does GRRM look like a bitch?
[JACKSON FIRES HIS PISTOL INTO BENIOFF’S RIGHT SHOULDER. BENIOFF RECOILS, SCREAMS IN PAIN, AND SLUMPS IN HIS CHAIR]
JACKSON: DOES. GRRM. LOOK. LIKE. A. BITCH?
BENIOFF: [Screaming] NOOOOOOO!
JACKSON: Then why you try to fuck him like a bitch?
BENIOFF: [sobbing, gasping] I didn’t!
JACKSON: Yes you did… YES YOU DID, BRETT. You tried to fuck him. You took five seasons of controlling concepts, foreshadowing, symbolism, imagery, character development, prophesy, religion, tragic flaws, everything… all the way down to the muthafuckin’ essence of a world he built over the last 23 years… and you and your dead couch buddy flushed all that shit down the toilet, praying to the false gods of network budgets, fan service, and “subverting” expectations because your Twitter feed says you should!
BENIOFF: [sobbing, shaking his head in disagreement]
JACKSON: And George R.R. Martin don’t like to be fucked by anybody, except Mrs. Martin (or maybe some of the female cast members of GOT)…
You read the screenwriter’s bible, don’t you Brett?
JACKSON: Well, there’s this passage I got memorized. Trotter 25:17
[OTHER CLASSMATES SCRAMBLE TO THE BACK OF THE LECTURE HALL, LOOKING FOR COVER]
BENIOFF: Oh, I love uplifting religious passages!
JACKSON: If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.
D&D, YOU HAVE TWO EPISODES LEFT TO GET THIS SHIT RIGHT. DON’T MAKE US GO MEDIEVAL ON YOUR ASS.
- The next scene took place later and was the reason for Mr. Jackson’s arrest.
ACT I, SCENE 2
INT. LECTURE HALL. BELL RINGS AND CLASS BEGINS
JACKSON: Today’s class is about how a great script sets up the main elements of the story within the first few scenes of Act One. A few examples come to mind:
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the pre-credits scene introduces us to Indiana Jones, who demonstrates his action skills, wisdom of ancient lore, and quick thinking. We are shown the power of religious artifacts. And we are introduced to Indy’s main rival, Belloq, whose arrogance will ultimately defeat him at the end of the movie. We even hear Belloq’s maniacal laughter, foreshadowing his reaction when the ark is opened at the end of the movie.
In Stars Wars, A New Hope, we are introduced to C3PO, R2D2, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader all within the first 5 minutes. R2D2 is basically the MacGuffin, containing the secret plans to destroy the Death Star. Leia is the damsel in distress that helps inspire Luke (the reluctant hero) to get involved. And, most importantly, we meet Darth Vader, who is the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy. YES, I SAID IT…
[HOLDS UP A PISTOL]
JACKSON: Does anyone in class care to dispute the idea that the controlling concept of Episodes 4, 5, and 6 is redemption and the power of love?
I thought not.
Now, let’s continue with Game of Thrones. I’m sure you’ve all been watching. What do we see in the first half hour of the first episode? Class?
STUDENT 1: We see a cold, bleak winter scene with guys on horses with swords, so it’s looks like it’s happening in medieval times.
JACKSON: Very good, you’ve established the setting. What happens next?
STUDENT 2: One of the men witnesses a horrific murder scene, with some strange symbol made out of body parts. He turns and see a child savagely murdered and stuck against a tree with a spear. When he returns with his companions, the body parts have disappeared, and then the leader gets decapitated by some kind of blue eyed monster. The witness runs away and sees the reanimated corpse of the murdered little girl. She has the same blue eyes. The monsters chase down the two survivors, killing one and throwing the head at the witness, as if it’s a message.
JACKSON: Excellent, now we have the elements of both a murder mystery and a story about the supernatural. Remember Chekov’s gun?
[CLASS NODS IN AGREEMENT]
JACKSON: [Stands on top a desk and shoots out a couple of flourescent lights for emphasis]
Well, we’ve got Chekov’s mysterious symbol made of human body parts, so there better be a muthafuckin’ payoff at some point in this story, right? Then what?
STUDENT 3: After the credits, the witness get captured, and the scene shifts to Winterfell where we are introduced to the Stark family. First, there’s Bran who is failing to hit a target with his bow and arrow, with his brother Jon encouraging him, while the older boys and the parents watch. After that, we see Sansa and Arya learning to sew. Arya’s not very good, and attracted to the sounds of the boys laughing and shooting arrows. Arya sneaks outside, hits a bullseye with her first shot, bows comically, and then runs away as she is being chased by an angry Bran. Everyone laughs.
JACKSON: So our main characters are the Stark family. Next?
STUDENT 2: The deserter tells the father, Ned, about the White Walkers, and warns him “people need to know.” Jon tells Bran not to look away as his father executes the deserter. Ned doesn’t believe in the White Walkers and tells Bran “a madman sees what he wants to see.”
JACKSON: Our first main theme is the existence of some supernatural evil and the fact that the “normal” world doesn’t believe it. Remember that famous quote, “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing.” The established “adult” world denies the existence of the murderers, while the children don’t know the answer. Anything else?
STUDENT 1: The Starks find a dead stag on the road back home. After investigating the scene, they find a dead Direwolf and her puppies. Older brother Rob states as fact “there are no direwolves south of the Wall.” Jon responds “now there are five,” and lets Bran hold one of them. Bran asks where will they go without their mother, Ned, and the adults all want to kill the pups. But Jon saves them, saying that the direwolf is the sigil of House Stark and there is one pup for each of the Stark children, adding “they were meant to have them.”
JACKSON: [Smiling contentedly]
GOD DAMN! Now that’s what I call a tasty bit of symbolism! Maybe GRRM will wash that all down later with the knowledge of what the deer symbolizes. Could it be another house sigil? Class, what does this scene tell us about Jon?
[THE ENTIRE CLASS RESPONDS IN UNISON]
CLASS: HE SAVES THE CAT!!
JACKSON: You bet your sweet asses! Jon has the most screen time. He’s the only older brother who encourages Bran as he shoots arrows, he helps Bran handle the difficult situation of watching an execution, and he just saved five of the most adorable balls of fur you’ve ever seen! We’ve just met our main protagonist. Does anything else happen before this long scene ends?
STUDENT 3: Ned lets them keep the pups. Bran, holding a pup, asks Jon if he’ll get a pup, but Jon says “I’m not a Stark.” As they leave, Jon hears a whelp and finds a little white pup that no one else saw.
JACKSON: Shiiiiit. There’s so much to unpack here.
We know Jon is a hero, but he’s also not truly a part of the Stark family. His place as an outsider, and his ability to see and hear things the other miss, hints at some special abilities. If he does have special abilities, the mystery of his parentage will be central to his character. Finally, we see the third instance of being an outsider within the same family. Arya wants to do boys’ activities in an old, patriarchal society. Bran is not very good at boys’ activities, but shows the qualities of compassion and curiosity, something that seems nonexistent in this medieval world. And Jon is a “Snow” not a “Stark,” so he also an outcast.
There’s an obvious gap between the adults and older Stark children, who follow the old ways, and the three outcasts who each want to do things their own way. When there is a clear difference between the old generation and the next, we are foreshadowing the eventual and guaranteed end of the old ways.
And all that happens in the first 20 minutes of the show. Over the next 10 minutes, what happens?
STUDENT 1: The show cuts to King’s Landing, during a funeral and we are introduced to Jamie and Cersei Lannister. They talk about whether the dead guy told their secret to the King.
JACKSON: And it’s a big, nasty secret, because Jamie says they would both be dead if the King knew. We are now presented with the third big mystery in the story. Most stories only present one. Can you dig it? Then what?
STUDENT 2: A raven flies to Winterfell, with the message the King is coming. People prepare for the feast. They mention a character names the Imp. Bran climbs around the castle walls to get a good look at the royal procession in the distance. He climbs back down, gets caught by his mother, who makes him promise to stop climbing, even though he lies about it and she knows it.
STUDENT 3: The royal procession arrives and Arya, wearing a soldier’s helmet way too big for her, watches the process and the camera spends some time on a young prince and an imposing knight in a ferocious looking dog’s head helmet.
JACKSON: [jumping up and down on the corpse of Weiss]
And what is the sigil on the King’s banners? It’s a muthafuckin’ stag!! This shit’s gettin’ real!
Okay, what happens next?
STUDENT 2: The King meets the Ned and his family and immediately wants to go down to the crypts to pay his respects. He tells Ned about the death of John Arryn (the guy from the funeral service) and asks him to become his “Hand.”
STUDENT 1: Then there’s a short scene that introduces the Tyrion Lannister and his vices, cleverness, and humor, while establishing the playful relationship between the two brothers.
STUDENT 3: The King still misses the love of his life, Ned’s sister and says they should have been bound by blood, leading to his decision that his son marries Ned’s older daughter, Sana.
JACKSON: Think about how long it takes to do all this. We’re past the halfway point of entire the first episode, and it breaks down like this:
- 7:45 creepy zombie mystery murder stuff
- :45 opening credits
- 8:30 introducing the Stark family, and our main protagonists, Jon, Bran and Arya, all interesting and sympathetic young characters in a story that has something to do with ending the old ways
- 2:00 in King’s Landing, introducing Jamie and Cersei Lannister
- 12:00 more in Winterfell, with more screen time for Bran and Arya, then introduce Tyrion, the King, and then have him talk with Ned about Ned’s sister as one of the biggest forces in both of their lives.
[T.A. COMMENTS “THAT’S 32 MINUTES]
JACKSON: Class, have you figured out who are the main characters, based on screen time, camera perspective, and interesting or sympathetic qualities?
STUDENT 1: Jon, Bran, Arya, are the main protagonists.
STUDENT 2: Jamie, Cersei, Ned, Catelyn, The King, and Tyrion are also major characters.
JACKSON: By geographical area, what are the most important locations of the story?
STUDENT 2: The North, and what’s on the other side of the wall.
JACKSON: And what’s on the other side of the wall?
STUDENT 1: Murderous, creepy zombie things.
JACKSON: So what’s this story about?
[ENTIRE CLASS STANDS UP AND SHOUTS IN UNISON]
CLASS: WHO IS GOING TO TAKE THE IRON THRONE?
JACKSON: What if I told you that we’ll know the answer to Jamie and Cersei’s secret by the end of this episode, but the other two mysteries — one beyond the wall and the other Jon Snow’s identity — will be teased and developed for the first five seasons of the show?
CLASS: WHO IS GOING TO TAKE THE IRON THRONE?
JACKSON: What if I told you that Jon’s mystery is tied in with the special love that the King and Ned feel toward Lyanna? And that Jon is going on multiple adventures where he’ll become a great leader, fights in huge battles, kills a White Walker with his Valyrian steel swords, gets killed and reincarnated, then become King of the North, then falls in love with a beautiful blond Queen of Dragons, and there’s plenty of tits and ass and dragons and jokes about Jon’s height?
What about then? What’s the story about?
CLASS: WHO IS GOING TO TAKE THE IRON THRONE?
JACKSON: And You Will Know My Name Is The Lord When I Lay My Vengeance Upon Thee! [OPENS FIRE AT THE STUDENTS]