Thursday, March 17, 2011

10 Screenwriting Tips You Can Learn from The Breakfast Club

Although I’m a staunch supporter of classic screenplay structure and the core “rules” of screenwriting (three acts, a main character, clear goal, stakes, immediacy), that doesn’t mean I don’t like films that take chances and do things differently. In fact, I love breaking down films that ignore this classic approach (and still manage to be good) just to see how they do it. The other day I stumbled into an impromptu viewing of The Breakfast Club, and I realized, Holy shit, this movie does the exact opposite of some of the things I preach on the site. And yet it’s still awesome. Well, of course after that, I had to start the movie over and figure out why that was. What kind of chances does Breakfast Club take exactly? Well, there’s no protagonist, no single hero to root for. There are no discernable acts in the screenplay. There’s no central goal driving the story. There’s almost a complete lack of plot. There’s lots of talking, very little DOING. Scenes bleed into each other instead of having a clear beginning, middle, and end. It’s messy and uneven and lacks form, and yet despite all of this, it still works. How? That’s what I set out to find out. Here are ten reasons why The Breakfast Club is still amazing despite its structural shortcomings.

Good God is John Huges amazing at setting up characters. He knows exactly what they should be wearing, what they should be doing, and what they should be saying, when we first meet them. But the specific scene I want to highlight here is when the characters sit down in the library for the first time. Yes, John Hughes tells us exactly who our characters are ***by having them sit down***. It starts with Andrew, the wrestler. He can sit anywhere, but where does he sit? Next to the pretty girl. We know what’s on this guy’s mind. Then we have Brian, the nerd. He’s sitting a few tables back when Bender barrels up to him. He threatens a punch and Brian leaps out of his seat, cowering over to the next table. That simple interaction tells us Bender’s the dick who constantly craves attention and Brian’s a big fat wimp. Then Allison sneaks all the way around everybody, emerges at the back table, and immediately buries her head. The weirdo loner. Barely five words have been spoken, and yet we already know who all of these characters are. Brilliant.

You can’t expect to stand out from the crowd if you’re a follower. You have to do something different with your script. I’m not talking about writing a story that’s never been told before. That’s impossible.  Just having your script feel slightly different in some capacity. High school movies through the years have notoriously been chirpy and happy and silly and fun. Breakfast Club, however, goes against the grain and approaches the teen movie from a very dark place. This isn’t done very often, so when it showed up back in 1985, it felt different, new, fresh. What are you doing to make your script feel different and fresh?

There are very few movies as quotable as The Breakfast Club. Part of that is because Hughes was an insanely talented dialogue writer. But I’ve read some of Hughes’ unproduced scripts, and believe it or not, he doesn’t always come up with the goods. That tells me he worked extra hard on Club. One of the keys to coming up with great lines and sharp dialogue is to challenge yourself, to not go with the easy first choice, but to keep digging until you find something original. Your initial idea for a line may be “What an asshole.” But with a little work, you could come up with “That man…is a brownie hound.” Instead of “Nice outfit buddy,” how about exploring 20 more choices until you come up with, “Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?” Dialogue is about challenging yourself. It’s about not taking the easy way out. Clearly, Hughes practiced this philosophy in Club.

There’s usually an inverse relationship between how simple your story is and how much conflict you need to add. Obviously, you want to pack conflict into all of your screenplays, but if you have a really simple story such as Breakfast Club, the only chance you have of keeping your audience interested is to splurge on the conflict. That’s why we have Bender, whose presence never allows anyone in this movie to be comfortable. That’s why we have Principal Vernon, who hates our high school kids with a passion. It’s why we have the sexual tension (conflict) between Bender and Clair. It’s why we have the alpha male showdown between Bender and Andrew. But probably the biggest element of unresolved conflict in the movie is the need for our five characters to find peace with one another, to “fit in,” if only for a day. The Breakfast Club would’ve been boring as hell if Hughes didn’t know to add layers of conflict.

If you don’t have any plot in your screenplay, you better have a mystery or two. Here, we’re wondering how each one of these guys ended up here. It’s not a huge thing. We’re not dying to know. But it’s something that’s dangled in front of us and that we’re curious to find the answers to. Of course we can imagine how Bender ended up here. But how did a math dork get here? Why is Little Miss Perfect Claire in detention? Movies are about keeping the mind occupied and holding out a few mysteries for as long as you can is a great way to achieve this.

Your script needs memorable moments. How you come up with those moments is never easy, but your script isn’t finished until you have them. The Breakfast Club has several scenes that are impossible to forget. When Bender taunts Vernon until he gives him detention for the rest of his “natural born life.” When Bender reenacts what it’s like at his house every night. When the group is running down the halls together, bonding for the first time. If you want your script to be remembered by a reader, make sure those memorable moments are in there.

While the dialogue is amazing and off the cuff and original and brilliant in The Breakfast Club, there’s more structure to it than you think. That’s because theme is driving most of what’s being said in the movie. And what is that theme? Differences. Or, more specifically, the struggle for all of us to fit in despite our differences. Discussions range from family lives to sexual adventures (or non-adventures) to high school cliques – nothing they talk about ever strays too far from that thematic core. And I think that’s part of the reason the dialogue is so good, because it has an anchor. Without that anchor, it would’ve been all over the place.

I’m convinced that the producers of The Real World based their reality show on The Breakfast Club. The reason for this is that in every episode, there are at least two characters with an unresolved issue. By the end of the hour, those characters confront and resolve that issue. This same formula is the engine that drives The Breakfast Club. Ultimately, this is about five people who don’t get along. Our need to see them get along is why we keep watching. That essentially becomes the plot (the “goal” of the film). I always talk about how exploring unresolved issues between characters is a great way to add layers and complexity to your screenplay. Well here, Hughes uses the device to drive the entire plot.

Loose cannon characters always work. Let me repeat that. Loose Cannon Characters always work. I’m being a little facetious because I’m sure you can point to a few examples where they haven’t worked, but in most movies, the liberties that a loose cannon character affords you (the ability to say things and do things other characters wouldn’t be able to say or do), usually results in a lot of amusing situations. Bender is a perfect example of how a single loose cannon character can elevate a movie to a whole new level.

Couple final things here. While we don’t have a ticking time bomb in The Breakfast Club, we do have a ticking clock. Our characters are in this location until the end of the day. It may not seem like much –nothing blows up if our characters don’t save the day – but you comfort an audience when they know the schedule of your story, as silly as that sounds. Also, while we don’t have any really strong character goals (find Doug!), each of our characters does have a “soft” goal. They must write an essay by the end of the day describing who they think they are (not surprisingly, the essay stays close to our theme!). In both cases, Hughes added soft structural components to help keep the screenplay on track.

So, as you can see, structure can be found in the most structure-less of places. A soft ticking clock, subtle character goals, unresolved relationships, and a dominant theme all help hold The Breakfast Club together. But I admit, this one was kind of easy. Maybe next week I’ll challenge myself with something a little more complicated. Any suggestions on a structure-less screenplay to break down?