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Script Tips: Deadlines Make Scripts Better, Every Time!

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As spring approaches and we’re all trying to diet to make our Memorial Day bathing-suit deadlines, it seems like a good time to consider how we can use this season to make the plots of our screenplays richer. One way is to provide a deadline or “ticking clock” to add pressure and suspense to our scripts. For example, I have to do many things in the next hour, which include writing this script tip. Suddenly, my day - which is always interesting - is fraught with danger. What if I don’t get this done in time? What will happen? Whose life will I impact? Obviously I’m being dramatic here, but that is my point - use the element of time to give your screenplay more punch.

There are many examples we can look at to see how a deadline juices up a story. What kinds of story ideas immediately jump to mind when we think of deadlines? The movie Speed is a classic example. The Bank Job is another, as is Run Lola Run. The key to using deadlines is to think in terms of what happens if the deadline is missed. In Speed, the bus will be blown up, in Lola, her boyfriend will commit a robbery, and in The Bank Job, they will lose their window of opportunity to complete the theft.


To give your story an extra jolt, do the following exercise:

Make a list of the major events in your screenplay. This process requires a basic knowledge of the 3-act structure often used in movies in which the action is separated into three basic movements, each with its own dramatic purpose. Act I is the beginning, or Setup, Act II is the middle, or the Conflict, and Act III is the end, or the Resolution.

The key is to understand that you can use different kinds of deadlines for Act I, Act II and Act III, and the more deadlines, the better.

For example, in Act I of Some like It Hot, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) must make the train to Florida or be shot by the Mob. The rest of the film depends on this first act deadline.

Now, look at your list of the events that occur in Act I of your screenplay. Is there something you can expand upon to create a “ticking clock?”

Now let’s look at how to punch up Act II. In my writing system, this act is reorganized as having two sections of equal length, which I describe as being Act II, Part 1 and Act II, Part 2. Using this two-part structure for Act II, you can create two deadlines, one in the first half, and one in the second half to really give your story a huge burst of energy and keep your audience on the edge of their seats!

For an example of Act II deadlines, think of The Godfather. In the first part of Act II, Michael (Al Pacino) goes to visit his father in the hospital and must save him before the bad guys come to kill him. In the second part of Act II, he must shoot the drug dealer and the cop before they get a chance to murder his father.

Now look at the list of events for your Act II and see if there is at least one or maybe even two deadlines that you can introduce or expand. Use these deadlines to tighten the suspense in your screenplay.

Finally, let’s look at Act III. This will be the easiest act for which to create deadlines because the final crisis occurs here. In this act, you would use a deadline to create a further complication that would in some way delay the final act from occurring. It can be something as small as not being able to call a cab, as in When Harry Met Sally.

Using the technique of creating deadlines for each act of your screenplay will increase the excellence of your work and provide more audience enjoyment.

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