Friday, August 11, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Do the characters interrupt each other often?

I was talking to a big-time screenwriter who spent years writing and rewriting dozens of different drafts of his first hit script before it finally made it to the screen. In that time, he learned that screenwriters get completely different types of notes at each level of development. 
  1. First, junior execs give you nothing but plot logic and structure notes. 
  2. If you make it past them, you get to the studio heads, who only want it to be “tight,” with a lot of setup and payoff. 
  3. If you make it past them, you get to the directors, who only care about tone and set pieces. 
  4. If you make it past them, you get to the true seat of power: the actors, who are the first and only people who care about the dialogue. First, they insist you cut out all the exposition. Then they want you to eliminate all that setup and payoff, which sounds phony. Then they want to eliminate not just the complex sentences but all the complete sentences. 
Writers tend to get annoyed by this. Actors insist that no one they know speaks in complete sentences. Writers respond, “Oh yeah, maybe that’s because all the people you know are actors. My friends speak in complete sentences all the time!” Of course, the actors can shoot right back, “That’s because everybody you know is a writer. Normal people don’t talk that way!”

Alas, I hate to betray my own side, but the actors are right. People, as a rule, don’t listen to each other. Even when we try, we frequently hear only what we want to hear, not what the other person is actually saying. But the truth is, we rarely even try to listen carefully. Instead we generally do one of two things:
  • Listen just long enough to guess at the gist of what the other person is saying and jump in to interrupt and push the conversation forward. 
  • Simply ignore what the other person is saying and wait for a chance to jump back in and continue what we were saying before we got interrupted. 
When characters listen too much, it always rings false, unless they’re exceptionally polite. Let them be human.

The 40 Year Old Virgin



YES, they all keep ignoring each other’s concerns.

An Education

NO. Not really. They’re British—a little more civilized.

The Babadook

YES. Davis has a great “not really listening” face.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Bart and Waco are good listeners, but all the villains interrupt each other.

Blue Velvet

NO. Not really

The Bourne Identity

NO. Not really, they’re pretty good listeners


YES. Lillian doesn’t hear that Annie doesn’t want to do it, etc.


YES. Rick keeps asking Sam for advice and then failing to hear it. Rick is the master of the interjected insult.



Donnie Brasco


Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so.

The Farewell


The Fighter

YES. Very much so.



The Fugitive

YES. Very much so. 

Get Out

YES. Rose slyly interrupts Chris every time he starts to speculate. 

Groundhog Day

NO. Somewhat, some characters do, but Rita’s a great listener. Phil’s not bad either, actually.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Very much so. 

In a Lonely Place

YES. Dix more than Laurel, but yes.

Iron Man

YES. Very much so. Tony never listens, period.

Lady Bird


Raising Arizona

YES. Hi never gets to finish a sentence.




YES. A little.  “Well, technically—“ “—Technically, we already have it, yes, Mr. President.” Later: “That’s insanity—“ “—Just like you left in Albany, those people are pathetic down there, just like their Daddy left home—“ “—Hey, what we’re trying to explain is—“ “—You know what I think?  Maybe we should just leave Selma”

The Shining

Not really.  Kubrick loves quiet conversation.


YES. Very much so.

The Silence of the Lambs

Sort of, Clarice and Lecter both listen very well, but that’s key to their characters, so it’s fine.

Star Wars

YES. Owen and Luke talk past each other, nobody listens to Threepio, etc.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Very much so.  He and Norma never seem to hear a thing the other says. 

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