We ran into a problem while rehearsing for the table read of Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Ida Walker: The read-through ran longer than the block of studio time we had reserved for the recording.
The traditional rule estimates that one screenplay page equals one minute of screen time. Whether or not you believe that measurement, you can chuck the ratio out the window when someone needs to read the action and description lines out loud.
I needed to make cuts, and there was one more restriction. These had to be straight cuts: No additions or substitutions.
(I was trying to be mindful of school resources since I’d already printed copies of the scripts for the actors once.)
As I sat down with a pencil and a copy of the script, I lost some of my nerve. The revision I did before handing the script over to actors already cut a number of pages. How was I supposed to know what else to trim?
That’s when my daughter’s obsession with The Muppets helped me get over my uncertainty.
Nearly every time we get into the car, she asks “Can we listen to the Muppet music?” I grew up on the Muppets, and all things Jim Henson, so I’m totally fine indulging her obsession.
The film’s soundtrack includes an extended cut of the villainous Tex Richman’s rap “Let’s Talk About Me,” where he explains how rich, powerful, and awesome he is to the Muppets.
It’s great. Academy Award Winner Chris Cooper chews the scenery so hard, you want to offer him a Tums. You should listen to it.
The difference with the film version? The soundtrack cut features an operatic bridge:
I recall a heartbreaking story
About my own tenth birthday party
Should’ve been a glorious day for me
I’d have been happy as can be
But the Muppets were there
To put on a show
They started to dance
They were telling their jokes
I didn’t laugh
I didn’t know how
Then my friends
They all turned around
And they laughed at me
They laughed at me I hate you, Muppets so
It provides an explanation for why the character needs to say “Maniacal laugh” to his henchmen instead of laughing himself. It gives a motivation for why he buys the Muppet Studio. It informs why he’s so cruel to the Muppets. And it sets up the joke at the end of the movie where Gonzo hits him with a bowling ball and he learns how to laugh.
Seems necessary, right?
But without that verse, we can still understand why he buys the studio (he wants to drill for oil), and why he’s cruel to the Muppets (he’s an evil oil barron that wants to drill for oil).
The inability to laugh is funny even without an explanation, and the repeated action itself sets up the joke for when a comical concussion knocks some laughter into him.
Everything doesn’t need to be explained in full.
Humans are narrative-making creatures. We try to fill in the gaps and find sense in events. Allowing for small omissions understands this feature of human thinking and respects the audience.
Everybody writes Tex Bridges.
You don’t trust that people will understand a strange choice you made. You worry that something will cause your reader or audience to bump, so you try to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet. You love the backstory you’ve come up with for a character and think everybody else will love it, too.
There’s nothing wrong with writing a Tex Bridge, but there’s also nothing wrong with cutting it and trusting your narrative momentum.
So I thought about Tex Richman, and looked for the places in my script that felt like that bridge: Places that might be entertaining, but over-explained something that the audience could infer from everything else.
When something appears more than once in a story, be it an object, a dramatic situation, or a line of dialogue, you take notice. Repetition cues the audience to pay attention.
In Disney’s Moana, the title character has a repeated line of dialogue used in different contexts:
”I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea, and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”
The Words Themselves
Let’s break it apart and look at the construction.
The first sentence makes a declarative statement of identity, saying her individual name and where she comes from. Because of how closely her people identify with Motunui, saying she is “of Motunui” stands both for the location and the people who live there.
The second sentence gives a directive to the listener, outlining the journey ahead and clearly stating the actions that will lead to Moana’s goal.
Notice how the sentence structure creates not only a sense that there are numerous steps, but lays out three stages that fit into a rough outline of the three-act structure of the movie.
“board my boat” – Crossing a threshold into a new world. For Moana, it’s the new world of the open ocean. In the case of Maui, crossing a threshold into the new role of becoming a mentor and ally to Moana (it’s her boat).
“sail across the sea” – The majority of the film’s second act takes place at sea, moving from place to place. Note the use of the word sail. The second act also focuses on instilling in Moana the tools she needs to navigate on the open ocean.
“restore the heart of Te Fiti” – The ultimate goal of the story. Returning Te Fiti’s heart will restore health to the natural world.
Put these together and you have a line of dialogue that fuses a clear statement of identity with a preview of the journey ahead.
Introducing the Words
Moana’s Gramma Tala gives her these words as her mission when she sends Moana off the island to find Maui. Tala specifically says to repeat those words after grabbing Maui by the ear to make him listen to her.
By receiving these words from Tala, it roots the message in a connection to her family. While she must travel without them, carrying the words with her brings her family along in spirit.
Setting up this mission statement as a task to deliver to Maui suggests to Moana that she can’t make this journey alone. She’ll need help and guidance. Tala knows sending Moana straight to Te Fiti on her own would be a reckless suggestion for an untrained sailor.
Phrasing the entire scope of the quest as a single task, making it seem like only the next action she should take, breaks down a big adventure into smaller, attainable goals.
Also, having seen Gramma Tala tell the story of Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti, we know she’s aware that directing these words at Maui offer him a chance at redemption. Presented with the opportunity to correct a misdeed, he may see the value in joining the quest.
The First (Several) Repetitions
After Moana crosses beyond the reef surrounding her island and enters the open ocean, she repeats the words to herself.
During the quick cuts of this sequence, Moana faces her first few modest trials: Keeping her bearings, keeping awake, and keeping control of her boat.
The repetitions reinforce that her desire to accomplish her goal is stronger than her limitations as a sailor or the obstacles she initially encounters.
She’s also using this time to rehearse the words for when she meets Maui. Showing the act of rehearsing helps the audience remember the exact phrase, and prepares us for when things don’t go as planned.
Delivering the Words to Maui
When she reaches Maui’s island, after her boat crashes on shore, her initial introduction to Maui is intimidating and confusing.
He reveals himself by lifting her boat over his head and startling her. She’s getting off on a bad foot, and Maui keeps the power dynamic in his favor, blocking and stalling her prepared statement.
Moana: Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, I am Moana —
Maui: Hero of men.
Maui: It’s actually Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men. I interrupted. From the top! Hero of men. Go.
Moana: I am Moana —
Maui: Sorry sorry sorry. And women. Men and women. Both. All! Not a guy/girl thing. Maui is a hero to all. You’re doing great.
Instead of listening to her and responding to her directive, he interrupts repeatedly, trying to reinforce his talking points about himself.
When Moana finally takes control of the conversation, grabs him by the ear, and delivers the words with their full force, he’s taken aback.
Maui thought he was everybody’s hero, and she’s telling him that he needs to atone for stealing the heart of Te Fiti.
So he reacts to this new perspective in the way that seems most natural and appropriate to him: Distracting Moana with a song about himself and stealing her boat.
Moana has arrived at her destination and delivered the message, but she hasn’t yet proven to Maui why he should listen to that message. She’s a stranger, and he hasn’t learned why it’s important that she’s Moana of Motunui.
Once More With Feeling
After escaping from the cave that Maui locked her in and getting back to the boat (with an assist from the Ocean), Moana tries to repeat the words again.
Maui interrupts her by throwing her back off the boat. When that doesn’t work, he tries to swim away (only to have the Ocean carry him back.
Realizing that the Ocean wants to keep these two together and won’t take no for an answer, Maui makes the decision to listen to the words Moana’s brought for him. Her actions and determination shift the balance of power in their conversation.
Maui re-starts the phrase for her and allows her to finish. As he joins in the repetition of the mission statement, Maui reluctantly agrees to the journey.
The Words Lose Their Power
The mission statement doesn’t make another appearance until the point where it appears that all is lost.
After an attempt to reach Te Fiti ends with Te Ka damaging both Maui’s fish hook and Moana’s boat, Maui loses faith in their ability to complete their journey.
Maui prepares to leave, preferring to protect his damaged fish hook and its magical powers than help Moana make another attempt to get past Te Ka and return the heart. Moana repeats her initial imperative to Maui. She tries to remind him of the mission so that he won’t abandon her.
But her delivery is weakened by fear and desperation. It lacks the fire it had before when it was a driving force.
The words that her mentor figure gave to her feel spent. They’ve carried her as far as they can.
To convince Moana to change her perspective, she must feel the failure of her old perspective. To prepare the audience for the coming transformation of these words, they must see that the old words are ready to be discarded.
Changing the Words
In comes the spirit of Gramma Tala, appearing to Moana and coaxing her into the realization that even without Maui, all hope isn’t lost. And here’s where Moana flips the script (emphasis mine):
“I am Moana of Motunui. Aboard my boat, I will sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”
Changing a few words changes the entire meaning of the line. This is no longer an imperative directed toward Maui. It’s a declarative statement of identity and purpose.
And it’s not just words, but actions that reinforce the shift in perspective. As she says the new variation on these words, the audience sees her repair her boat and prepare to make another run at Te Ka alone, relying on her newly acquired skills and her belief in herself.
We see the change as we hear the changed words.
Arc words are repeated phrases spaced out at key points in a story that show how a theme relates to the external actions and internal, psychological and emotional, changes within a character.
The words stay mostly the same so that the audience can see how different contexts, deliveries, or slight alterations of the text reveal changes in the characters speaking these words.
But these can’t be small changes. A character change worthy of this much repetition and focus needs to be deeply wedded to an essential philosophical payload in the story.
The Words Carry the Theme
The transformation Moana makes with these arc words plays into the larger theme of the film: Know Who You Are.
Moana’s father, Chief Tui, makes a point about how the island of Motunui is Moana’s identity, and that the repetition of daily life defines who the people on this island are.
Gramma Tala repeats to Moana that the people on Motunui have forgotten who they are: They were not meant to settle on one island. They are descended from voyagers.
Maui defines himself by the tattoos showing off his previous bold actions, but also repeatedly says that he’s nothing without his magical fish hook. This drives his actions throughout.
Te Fiti forgets who she was after the theft of her heart. This turned her into the antagonist Te Ka, and it was only when Moana recognized Te Ka’s true self that she was able to end the conflict.
Even the antagonist Tamatoa sings a song about identity. “Shiny” is all about creating an external image, and how it doesn’t matter what’s on the inside (the counterpoint to Moana’s journey and the message of Gramma Tala)
Moana was once a child, being pushed toward action by the opposing forces of her father and Gramma Tala. When she left Motunui, it was initially to give in to that external push from Gramma Tala, and her agreement with Tala’s opinion of the best way to save the people of Motunui from their island’s blight.
Moana’s repetition of the words Gramma Tala spoke to her show how that motivation still carries her forward as she learns new skills and conquers her fears on the quest to restore balance to the world.
However, it’s not until she puts these skills to the test and decides to rely on herself that she’s able to succeed and complete her journey.
She needs to make a clear statement about who she believes she is, and not just reflect back one of her mentor’s viewpoints.
And the audience recognizes this when the familiar words change.
The Hydrolators. A row of specially designed, retro-futuristic elevators ready to take guests under the ocean to visit Seabase Alpha. I held my father’s hand and waited for my family’s turn to board. I tapped my feet, eyes darting over the crowd of sunscreen-scented tourists, cameras at the ready. They went inside the Hydrolators, the doors closed, and a minute later, another group would board.
I was ten years old, and I wouldn’t put my head underwater in a pool unless suitably bribed. During the swimming lessons my mother insisted I take at the YMCA, I clung to whatever flotation device I was offered. That pool, with its dim, sickly green lighting, appeared bottomless. The instructor said I could float on my own if I just laid back and trusted the water to hold me.
But I knew things could sink. Water swallows them up. I kept my white knuckle grip on the kickboard.
My parents and I entered The Living Seas pavilion mostly knowing what to expect. There was a short movie about the ocean and a ride that took you around a coral reef. Yes, water and I didn’t get along, but there was a fight going on inside me.
I was the kid who told his preschool teacher that he wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up (and then had to explain what that was to his classmates). I was the kid who checked out every Isaac Asimov branded book about space from my elementary school’s library, one by one. I was the kid who wanted to spend a big chunk of our trip to Disney World going to as many of the attractions at Epcot as we possibly could.
That was the battle: Science is cool! vs. Your watery death is an inevitability.
The crowd thinned out and we waited to move up. I started sniffling. Impatient twitching turned into fearful trembling.
I knew that Body Wars didn’t really shrink my family down and inject us into somebody’s body to swoop around inside their capillaries. I knew that when Pluto snuck up behind me at breakfast and put his gigantic mouth on top of my head, it was just a person in a suit.
But an elevator? Those are real.
One of the Disney World employees saw me and came over to talk. She asked what I was scared of and I told her that I was afraid of going down so deep.
She could have taken us to an exit. She could have said it was alright to pass on something you were scared of and left it at that.
Instead, she showed me a door. She lead my family off to the side of the Hydrolators to a door marked for staff use only and pushed it open for me to look through.
I saw the other side of the Hydrolators. They didn’t go anywhere.
The Epcot employee explained to me that there were a lot of effects that happened in the Hydrolators to make it feel like you were moving, but it was just for show. Something they did to make the ride feel more special. And then the doors on the other side would open.
She asked if I still wanted to go on the ride, and I nodded. She pointed to the line of people getting ready to get into the cars that would take us all around the reef and said we could head right over.
But I wanted to go back and see the Hydrolators. I wanted to see the bubbles. I wanted to feel the shaking. I wanted to see the rock walls moving behind the elevator glass to simulate sinking deep into the ocean.
I wanted to learn how this whole exhibit had made me ignore all the obvious red flags that a science-minded kid should have recognized (Such as “How would they build an undersea base in Orlando, which is in the middle of Florida’s peninsula?”). I wanted to laugh at myself for being afraid of this magic trick.
Peering through that door opened up worlds to me. That moment carried greater resonance when I got around to reading Philip K. Dick and Jean Baudrillard. The memory was sitting in the background as I watched Jurassic Park and thought about how maybe paleontology wasn’t for me, but there might be something to storytelling and film. I still think about that moment in a more literal sense, like when my wife and I went to Universal Studios, and I spent time on the rides looking for the tricks. Trying to spot the seams of the illusions. That moment even crept up during my first encounters with Buddhism.
But maybe the most important part of that moment for me to remember is the compassion of the employee, and how she did more than just try to calm me down and keep the ride going. She showed me that there could be joy both in being tricked and in discovering how it had happened; that skepticism and wonder don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
Picture your first draft as the Earth. Deep below the surface, there’s liquid magma, hidden from view. In editing your script, you drill down beneath the surface, looking to break through all the layers of character, plot, and visual imagery to get to that core.
That’s where the unifying ideas are. Once you’ve broken down into the core, you’re allowing that magma to rush up to the surface, passing through all the other layers. A strong core idea is already buried inside even the first draft of a script, and only by searching inside what’s already there can you find it.
Unlike the digging in this analogy, the actual act of searching for the core is about making new connections. Looking at ways that character, plot points, dialogue, etc. can connect to each other, and what lies behind those connections.
In this scene, Merida acts on her plan to win the archery competition, defeating her suitors and avoiding an arranged marriage.
This is not a movie about a princess who doesn’t want to get married, as many of the trailers made it appear to be. This is a movie whose core idea is about repairing a damaged relationship between a mother and daughter, and this idea comes across in all aspects of the scene.
First, there’s the content of the scene’s conflict. Yes, the archery contest decides who (or if) Merida will marry, but the tension of the scene is not based on if she is skilled enough to succeed. We have seen in previous scenes that she has a Gladwell-worthy amount of practice with her bow, and that it is a prized possession. We see that she has chosen this competition with the intent of winning it, and her confidence further suggests that the tension is not about if she can win, but if she will choose to win. Pushing the idea that this is about her choice to the fore front is where the tension in the scene actually comes from: Merida continuing to fire arrows as Elinor rushes toward her, telling her to stop.
There’s also the visual elements at play in the scene. In order to get the freedom of movement she needs to fire the arrows, Merida tears apart the seams of her dress. This is a dress that was put on her by her mother in a previous scene (in which Elinor ignored Merida’s complaints about how it was too tight). Not only is this dress a physical representation of Elinor’s control over Merida, but its tearing also represents Merida’s desires to escape from that control, even by careless, violent means.
This tearing of fabric to represent a damaged relationship is further strengthened in the next scene, where Merida slices through a tapestry of her family, cutting through the portion of the image where her and her mother are shown holding hands. This echo of the ripping fabric connects it to the core of the story about mending the relationship between Merida and Elinor.
There’s more that can be teased out of this scene. Consider how Merida and Elinor are together on the dais, but on opposite ends, separated by Fergus. When Merida chooses to transgress against the spirit of the competition and against her mother’s will, she disappears from the dais and moves away from her mother. As her mother tries to get her to stop, she moves closer to Merida, attempting to close the distance. Fergus himself is used as a battleground for the conflict between mother and daughter, as Elinor tries to keep Fergus from laughing at Merida’s jokes about the suitors.
This scene is one example of when a story’s core bubbles up through all the other aspects of the writing. There are strong connections between individual actions and details, all relating to a central idea. At the same time, these connections don’t all immediately draw attention to each other, as they’re grounded in character relationships and natural logistics. The core idea is there for the audience to discover, but not at the expense of leading them to stop paying attention to the dramatic action.
Keep those things in mind when looking for how to bring out the core of your own writing. Don’t just look for what best represents a theme, look for elements that are logistically and dramatically necessary to the plot, or that already exist as an aspect of the characters that can be focused on. Look for existing elements that have some kind of connection to each other or echo one another and find ways to make that stronger. Look for the foundation that already exists and build from there.