The #1 Way I Screw Myself Up
We all have bad habits as writers. Here’s my worst: I have a terrible tendency to back off on the money shot.
Meaning I’ll fail to maximize the drama in key scenes.
I know why I do this. It’s Resistance. Fear of success. Fear of making something really kick ass.
But I still do it. Even knowing this is my Bad Tendency, I still go soft on the accelerator pedal.
It’s a terrible habit.
Here are two examples, both from my book Killing Rommel.
- There was a character in the book named Stein. Stein was far and away the best and most interesting character.
I killed him off a third of the way through.
When the book got optioned for a movie, I teamed up with Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”) to write the screenplay. The first thing Randy said was, “We gotta keep Stein alive.”
All I could do was kick myself. Of course! Why did I kill him off in the first place?
- Killing Rommel is about a British Special Forces patrol in North Africa during World War II that is assigned to go behind the German lines and attempt to eliminate the Afrika Korps’ brilliant and charismatic commander, Gen. Irwin Rommel.
I did twelve drafts.
In the first nine, the patrol never reaches Rommel.
There’s no scene, nothing, between our primary characters and the man they’ve spent 350 pages trying to get to.
What was I thinking?
Even when this scene finally occurred to me (at Draft #10), I resisted it. It took me a week to talk myself into writing it.
The scene of course is the single indispensable moment of the whole book. It’s the climax to everything. To not have it would be like writing Moby Dick and never having Ahab come face to face with the White Whale.
But still I resisted. “Won’t that be too obvious? Too expected? Isn’t it too ‘on the nose?'”
Here are a few other ways I’ll screw myself up, driven by this same instinct to back off, to soft-pedal:
- I’ll underplay critical scenes.
I’ll make the dialogue too oblique. Too subtle. I’ll back off from the critical moment or fail to go all-out to make it play.
Here, as an example, is the right way to do it, from Moonstruck by John Patrick Shanley. This is Nicolas Cage as Ronny Cammareri to Cher as Loretta Castorini, on the sidewalk outside his apartment, midnight and freezing:
Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice – it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. Snowflakes are perfect. Stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit! Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!
- I’ll have key scenes happen off-screen.
- I’ll leave crucial moments out completely.
These are bad, bad habits.
To break myself of them, I remind myself of the all-time greatest go-for-it moment in movie history—Slim Pickens as B-52 pilot Major T.J. “King” Kong, waving his ten-gallon hat and whooping like a rodeo cowboy as he straddles the H-bomb that will set off the Russian Doomsday Machine and destroy the world and rides it, like a bronco, down to impact.
(Here’s the link).
I have no idea what contributions the three credited writers on Dr. Strangelove made to that scene—Terry Southern, Stanley Kubrick, and Peter George (who wrote the novel from which the movie comes, Red Alert)—but clearly the story objective could have been satisfied with a lot less brilliance. The bomb could have simply dropped. The plane could have been shot down or run out of fuel and crashed with the bomb armed inside it.
Either of those alternatives, or others, would have worked.
But how great was it that these writers put their foot on the gas and gave that moment horsepower on top of horsepower?
They went for it.
They held nothing back.
And no one—no one—who saw that scene will ever forget it.
I remind myself of that moment every time I’m tempted by my own Resistance to go soft on a Big Moment or to back off from taking the money shot.