5 Lessons from Last Year’s Best Original Screenplay Noms

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Oscar season is upon us. Studios are putting their best foot forward in attempts to woo voters with the finest stories they have to offer. While it’s tempting to begin guessing what films will be selected for next year’s highest honors, it’s worth taking a look back at the original scripts that rose to be nominated this year. There are lessons to be learned from the stories that were told. Here are five story principles we can take from the 2015 Oscar nominees for Best Original Screenplay.

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1. BOYHOOD: EXPERIMENTATION CAN WORK

While there are tried and true forms that cause scripts to resonate with the human psyche, there will always be a place for experimentation that can expand the art form. Experimentation often fails because the individual with their hand on the controls is inexperienced and has not yet mastered the basics of storytelling. However, Richard Linklater demonstrated with Boyhood that experimentation can pay off greatly under the direction of a master.

While Linklater had the basis for the story in his head, the script was written over the same period that the film was made. His grand experiment of filmmaking captivated audiences. Watching a boy grow up before our eyes was a unique novelty, but it was only great art because the novelty was hung on a masterfully told story. Over the years, films ranging from Pulp Fiction to (500) Days of Summer to Synecdoche, New York have utilized experimental storytelling to great effect.

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2. FOXCATCHER: INTERNAL JOURNEYS NEED EXTERNAL FRAMEWORKS

Max Frye and Dan Futterman chose to tell a very nuanced story with Foxcatcher. It was the type of script that actors salivate over. It was not over-written, and allowed the talent lots of room to interpret the characters. If you’ve read the script, it’s no wonder that the likes of Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo signed on. Each of the three main characters in the story are traveling through a complex inner journey. The journey happens to take place in the world of wrestling, but Foxcatcher is certainly not a movie about the sport.

Many writers are attracted to stories of inner journeys but lack the skills to frame the narrative in a world that metaphorically expresses the path inside the characters. Inner chronicles have hooked audiences since the beginning of storytelling. However, it cannot be overstated how important it is to find an external framework that will keep the audience interested while the protagonist battles their inner demons. American Beauty, Brokeback Mountain, and Rushmore are all examples of stories that offer inner journeys through interesting external frameworks.

[Read Screenplays from 2015’s Oscar-nominated Films.]

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3. NIGHTCRAWLER: TENSION CAN RISE WHEN DIALOGUE IS SPARSE

There are many moments in Nightcrawler when Louis Bloom’s character is silent. We see him examining horrific events. The tension in these scenes rises greatly because writer, Dan Gilroy, chose to keep the protagonist silent. Bloom seems to choose his words very carefully in the story. When he does speak, our blood pressure rises. Beginning writers often make the mistake of having their characters speak too often. Finding a rhythm for the pace of dialogue comes with practice, but is a necessary discipline for effective storytellers.

It can be a healthy exercise to examine your script and locate every time the protagonist speaks. Ask yourself if this line of dialogue moves the plot forward in any way. Does it reveal character? Does it serve a purpose in the scene? Just like in life, people in scripts often speak without really having anything to say. Sling Blade, Taxi Driver, and Winter’s Bone all tells stories of protagonists that choose their conversations with others wisely and infrequently.

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4. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: SETTINGS CAN BE THEIR OWN CHARACTERS

Let’s face it, Wes Anderson can get away with many things the average storyteller cannot, because he does it with style. One technique that Anderson does employ, that’s available to us all, is his use of locales as characters in his stories. While filled with witty and eccentric characters, The Grand Budapest Hotel itself plays a distinctive role in the film. Where a story is set can be just as intriguing to audiences as the people inhabiting that world.

This is a secret writers in the science fiction and action genres have known for decades. What makes Anderson’s approach interesting is that he uses the hotel as a character in a comedy, a less likely genre for such a tactic. TitanicStraight Outta Compton, and Little Miss Sunshine all use settings as characters in their stories.

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5. BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE): GIVE ME THE SAME THING ONLY DIFFERENT

In many ways, Alejandro Inarritu’s masterpiece is the last story we would associate with the “same things” we’ve seen before. It feels fresh and original. In many other ways, however, the story is one we have definitely heard many times previously. It’s a story about a super hero. It’s a story about an actor who’s facing growing older. It’s a story about a man with a clear enemy. It’s a story about an individual at odds with people he loves. It’s not that Birdman is a story we’ve never experienced. What makes it unique is that it’s a story we can relate to, told in a way we’ve never seen before.

The Academy often favors stories that provide a new twist on an old tale. This was quite possibly why this story took home the gold statue in February. Remember, as writers, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to decorate the wheel in a way no one has seen before. Precious, Juno, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are all stories that provide a new twist on a classic narrative.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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