Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Emma Donoghue’s Room
February 18, 2016 10:21 pm
Since my Ex Machina beat sheet, I’ve found it hard to come across a screenplay captivating enough to deconstruct. I think Emma Donoghue’s Oscar nominated screenplay for Room (dir. Lenny Abrahamson) is a gem of a study of human psychology in the face of hardship. It reflects a child’s perspective on life so purely that I found its sincerity and simplicity contagious. Room stands as a hopeful sign for the possibility of making small-scale movies that touch on refreshingly grand ideas. Hermione Lee’s description of Penelope Fitzgerald’s stories fits nicely with Donoghue’s Room: “[it] inhabits a small space, but seems, magically, to reach out beyond it.”
I hope you enjoy my interpretation of the story beats for Room and let it inspire your writing. I use Blake Snyder’s beat sheet method as a guide for story structure and highly recommend his acclaimed Save the Cat! for further study.
As a boy and his mother wake up to a new day, we discover their little world in Room. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) greets their few belongings with childish vigor, ‘Morning lamp, morning rug, morning wardrobe…’
As Jack and Ma (Brie Larson) eat their breakfast, Ma winces with toothache. She reminds concerned Jack, ‘Mind over matter.’ Jack chants their slogan: ‘If we don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ We get the sense that this is their survival strategy: we have the power to overcome our problems. Through their journey we will witness this battle of mind over matter – personal strength over circumstance.
Jack and Ma’s daily routine. Just like a regular mother and son, they eat breakfast, do activities, talk, take a bath, read stories and go to sleep, except they have to do all of this in a tiny space, clearly closed in for a long a time and resigned to the fact. We find out it’s Jack’s 5th birthday – a growing boy with growing needs and demands. With Old Nick’s (Sean Bridgers) visit, we are also introduced to their captor. Ma and Old Nick have a deal: he is not allowed to see or touch Jack in exchange for Ma’s full cooperation. Now we get a full picture of what life is like for Jack: what he knows and what he doesn’t know; how Ma is able to keep him deluded enough to live without too many difficult questions and occupied and active enough to give him something that resembles a regular childhood.
Jack encounters a mouse in Room – the first living visitor other than Old Nick. Suddenly the seed for a new set of questions is implanted in Jack’s imaginative yet purposefully restricted mind: Where does mouse live? Where does he come from and where will he go? Are there really other alive things in the world? Could the world be more than Room? Jack doesn’t yet ask these questions, but now there is tangible evidence of something other than the reality as he knows it. Ma distracts Jack’s train of thought, but she also begins to see that if Jack is able to question his reality he may be able to understand it too.
Is Jack old enough to understand and accept that there is an ‘outside’ and that’s where they should be? Will he believe Ma’s story about being captured and kept in Room and that the world isn’t just TV things but real things? Will he then be able to help Ma with an escape strategy? Ma uses mouse as a doorway to introduce the idea of ‘outside’ to Jack and, despite his initial resistance, Jack begins to understand what is real and what is not real, and that Old Nick needs to be tricked for them to regain their freedom and discover the world. When they are punished with a power cut in the middle of winter, Ma uses this opportunity to first fake an emergency sickness for Jack, so he can be taken into ER and deliver a message to save them, and when that fails she fakes Jack’s death, so he can be taken out of Room and then escape. Ma takes a huge risk by relying on a five-year-old’s ability to go out there and speak with people for the first time, but then again what have they got to lose?
Break into Two
Jack not only manages to escape from Old Nick’s truck but also raises enough suspicion outside for Old Nick to abandon him. He even gives sufficient information to the police to save Ma and they are soon happily reunited. A new life in the outside world awaits mother and son now.
Jack discovering the outside world and building relationships with people other than Ma is the B Story of the film. Jack’s bond with Ma also takes on a new form now that there is so much space and people between them. Jack slowly comes into his power to live the life he was supposed to live. What he learned from Ma now becomes his fuel to remind her that mind wins over matter.
Fun & Games
At first Jack and Ma enjoy their freedom in the outside world. Jack is not only in awe of his new surroundings, but also extremely timid to connect with anyone and anything other than his familiar Ma. Ma reunites with his parents and gets to go home. They seem to have all the protection and freedom in the world, but also a growing void between them now that the intimacy of Room is gone.
Ma’s father’s (William H. Macy) inability to acknowledge what happened to his daughter and accept Jack as a grandson is the first indicator that life outside is not going to be as easy for them as one might think. Ma seems to have only dreamed of getting out and wasn’t able to imagine anything beyond that. Now that they are out, she begins to realize that as far as the world sees it Jack is the son of a psychopath and the product of her suffering and abuse. If her dad can’t accept her and her misfortune, who will? How can she ever feel and be ‘normal’ again?
Bad Guys Close in
Grandpa, clearly unable to come to terms with what happened to his daughter, leaves. The family’s lawyer and the media put increasing pressure on them to act or give statements. It feels like Jack and Ma may not be in Room anymore, but they are still in confinement with much more complex problems. Realizing the years she lost and how she may never be able to have a normal life again, Ma grows more distant and unavailable to Jack. As the hole in Ma’s heart deepens, Jack opens up to his new world and the people in it. She projects her own frustrations on Jack and worries he’s not adjusting well when it’s really herself who is angry, fearful and haunted. Ma has a breakdown with her mother and ally Nancy (Joan Allen), blaming her for what happened. When she’s questioned at a TV interview about why she didn’t let go of her son earlier, in other words when she finds herself accused of being selfish, it is the final blow to her identity as a devoted mother and survivor.
All is Lost
Ma attempts suicide and is discovered by Jack. To Jack’s horror, Ma is taken away indefinitely. Her sudden disappearance from Jack’s life is a classic ‘whiff of death’ moment.
Dark Night of the Soul
Jack mourns Ma’s absence holding onto her bad tooth – ‘a bit of Ma’. He wisely observes: The world is so big and in a hurry. So Ma hurried to go to heaven, but forgot Jack. Jack gathers his superpowers to bring Ma back to him.
Break into Three
First act break happened because Ma ‘picked for both of them’ and made the decision to escape – a terrifying ordeal for Jack. Now, Jack tells Ma on the phone that he picks for both of them: Ma has to get better and come back to Jack.
As Jack patiently waits for Ma’s recovery, he begins doing normal things kids his age do like getting groceries and baking cupcakes with Grandma. He reveals the true essence of childhood while he expertly beats the eggs: Room was a good place for him, it stretched out infinitely and Ma was always there – a poignant revelation that children are blessed with a boundless imagination and resilience as long as they are loved. Now he returns this love and affection toward his mother by sending her ‘a bit of him’ – his hair that he calls his ‘strong’. Jack’s sacrifice brings Ma back and they are once again united. Ma admits she wasn’t a good enough Ma, but Jack is quick to remind her she is Ma and that’s what matters. Their world is now enlarged to include beaches and dogs and burgers. They are finally truly free to start life all over again.
Upon Jack’s request, they return to Room. Mirroring the opening images, Jack says his goodbyes to their old belongings – what he formerly knew as the extent of life. Having finally escaped Room and its haunting grasp, they are now not only free, but also happy.
New Year’s Recommendation for Screenwriters
December 31, 2015 10:25 pm
“When asked how [the illiterate Sixth Patriarch of Zen] could understand the truth of the Buddhist texts if he couldn’t read the words, the Sixth Patriarch raised his arm and pointed to the moon. Truth is like the moon in the sky. Words are like a finger. A finger can point to the moon’s location, but it is not the moon. To see the moon, you must look past the finger. To look for the truth in books, the Sixth Patriarch was saying, is like mistaking the finger for the moon.”
This little Zen koan I came across in Ruth Ozeki’s wonderful novel ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ reminded me of a classic issue in screenwriting. Let’s think of the moon in this Zen koan as an analogy for a good story and the finger as the methods that supposedly point to how to write one. There are a great many people, including myself, who study screenwriting methods to find more effective ways to write better-resonating stories, just like there are many people who study the Buddhist texts to understand and practice Buddhism and attain enlightenment. I wonder though, if someone who is illiterate in the methodology of screenwriting couldn’t look past the methods to directly experience and deliver the essence of a good story. If a ‘good story’ is the truth we all are striving to arrive at in screenwriting, can we be mistaking the ideas on screenwriting for the truth in it?
While I am a true believer in studying, analyzing, reflection, comparison, methodology and so on, I also feel that theory in general may create grounds for a trap where our writing minds and our written words are suffocated with all the knowledge, ideas and limitations that come from over-preparation. We should be careful not to let the theory get in the way of the creative power of the practice of writing. A free mind is a lively imagination’s best friend. It’s surely important to furnish that free mind with a great big library of inspiring inhabitants, but it’s equally important not to restrict it with preconceived notions of what it should eventually produce.
Methodology can also become a trap as it encourages procrastination. Long after a writing project is ripened with enough ideas and enthusiasm, we can be inclined to come up with endless material to read and more interesting methods to apply that we may be risking losing the passion required to dive into it. Sometimes, the more we dwell the more we lose focus and drive.
Having read quite a few screenplays, I feel that there is a drought of creative juice and courageous daring in scripts. There is also a huge lacking in form and method – the essentials for the craft. Whether it be your ‘practice’ or your ‘theory’, be sure to nourish them just the right amount and avoid being limited by either of them. Take care to always look for the ‘truth’ of a good story within the madhouse of your imagination and make sure not to get bogged down by the finger while searching for the moon.
I wish you the moon in the New Year!
Practice of NOT Writing
December 7, 2015 4:01 pm
If you’re in the dangerous habit of reading tips for screenwriters, you will see that the most common advice for screenwriters (and writers in general) is to write, write, write… Keep writing! Don’t ever give up! The more you write the better a writer you will be! This message must have resonated with many, since I see an awful lot of screenwriters (mostly beginning writers, in my experience) churning out new scripts incessantly, seemingly a dozen a year, or may be more. Well, my humble advice is: STOP WRITING!
For one, there is a fine line between when is a good time to quit trying to become a screenwriter altogether and when you should be fuelled with a stronger desire to keep going. I think the writers who succeed as screenwriters are not the ones who don’t give up, but those who CANNOT give up. If there is nothing else that makes sense for you to do, then you don’t have to worry about whether you should go on or not; you just have to keep doing what you gotta do. For those who can think of other things that they would like to do and are good at, may be it’s better to move on sooner rather than later. Most important thing to do is be intelligent about how you look at your work and listen to your gut feeling.
Second, I will bet for every million people who are writers or wannabe writers, there are about a thousand who are good writers. Out of that thousand, I would guess only a hundred would be consistently producing good material fast. Talented and prolific writers like Stephen King would be on that list of rare species. For the rest of us, simply writing a lot doesn’t make us better writers but only gives us more examples of bad-to-mediocre writing. Writing a lot will no doubt make a good writer a brilliant one, but writing LESS may be a much better remedy for bad writing. You may be one of the thousand good writers out of those million die-hards, but I am writing this letter to the 999,000 of us out there.
I have taken up the strange profession of spotting and solving screenwriting problems. I think I have done this partly because I have an academic background in filmmaking and consider myself more academic than creative, and partly as a way to avoid my own bad writing. I have been fortunate to read more scripts than usual recently and it led me to wonder why so many people write so much. Every script does have some interesting aspects that could be developed, reformed and evolved into good stories, this is true. However, I often notice how quickly and carelessly stories are (or feel like they are) put together. How easy it is for most to transform half-baked ideas into less than half-baked stories. Why? Why keep on writing when you have never seen anything like what you’ve written on the big screen; when your script doesn’t resemble any movie that you love?
Before you even begin to compare your work with others, ask: Why do you love the movies that you love? What is it about those stories and characters that touch your core? Study those stories that are so great, find out why they are good, and then find out how they got to be good. After that, you can look back at your script and compare your findings in both. Why oh why yours is not as good as ‘that’ and how you can make it that good. Spot the differences; write down those differences, and again, figure out what in your writing and life experience may be missing that you weren’t able to write that good.
Do you really think the difference between the two comes from writing like a maniac without stopping to question whether it is any good? May be, but not necessarily. Do you think it’s because those great writers were born with the good writing gene? May be, but not necessarily. I think the most obvious difference is that good writers are first and foremost better at living than writing. Living and observing the act of living is the main resource for any writer. Writers can be socially awkward and dysfunctional in real life, but it is in the observing of it all that makes the difference. It doesn’t matter what you and your life are like, it matters how you understand and process it.
A gift for imagination probably comes next and I don’t think that’s necessarily God-given either. I think the gift of imagination is bestowed due to having gathered so much observation and emotional experience that you are able to empathize with a door handle. You can empathize with people and things so much and so well that you can make anything up and still feel your way into the veins of the story that is living in it. For your imagination to grow, don’t just watch movies because the process of watching a feature-length movie is so quick; you follow the plot but you hardly notice the details. In addition to watching movies, read books. When you read, places, people, settings, objects, feelings, moments germinate and flourish in your imagination. The more of those you digest in your mind and heart the bigger a library of stuff you will have to draw from in your own writing. This is how you grow imagination: by imagining more stuff, slowly and thoughtfully.
Probably only the third trick to good writing would be the actual practice of writing. NOT the practice of writing for the sake of writing, but the practice of intelligent writing that comes from intelligent living and observing. I think there is a secret for the practice of writing and it’s hidden in the sacred times in between writing spurts, meaning when you DON’T write, meaning when you live and breathe and do your laundry and wash the dishes and walk your kid to school. It is in these ordinary moments that you are a potential protagonist rather than a writer who orchestrates uninteresting characters that don’t feel real. YOU are real when you’re doing your laundry and thinking about the fight you had with your wife last night and fearing that she might bring it up again or sulk all day and how you should compose yourself so you can survive this last storm. Watch yourself while you pour the detergent and purse your lips at the thought of last night’s quarrel and how your heart skips a beat when you momentarily reminisce a time when you never had fights.
There is a story emerging, developing and ending in your act of living every day. You can project the same sensibility that is required for watching that story unfold inside you onto any character you might think up and what you will end up with is a story with conflict, motivation, goals and desires, risks, tension, obstacles, stakes, lessons and resolution. YOU ARE SKIPPING THE ONGOING STORY YOU’RE LIVING AS YOU CONTINUE TO WRITE STUFF THAT DON’T REALLY HAPPEN QUITE THAT WAY, STUFF THAT DON’T MATTER, STUFF THAT ISN’T MEANINGFUL OR IMPORTANT. So, stop the writing and concentrate on the living, and observing that living. Pay attention to the intricacies of your thoughts and emotions for there is no screenwriting book or advice column that could be more useful to you than what you already have going on in you and around you.
Of course, don’t stop writing altogether and spend your time staring at walls playing with your hair. Be aware of your act of living first. Then be aware of your writing and what’s not working with it. Figure out why. Don’t fool yourself. Write less and read more. Do less and notice more. Look less and see more. Worry less and feel more. Try less and listen more. Write less and live more. Live more and pay attention more. Then… write what you know and feel about life and how that life works. How people in that life work. How you, as the unique representative of all of mankind, live and function in this life that is nothing but a story. See that story and write that story.
In any case, this is what I tell myself as I tumble through my own ordinary life and my advice doesn’t really matter. Susan Sontag says “a novel worth reading [or, a story worth telling] is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” My question to you is: how would you create inwardness without stopping to go inward?
— Excerpt from The Paris Review interview with Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143. Read full interview by Edward Hirsch here.
Let It Rip Before the Next Oscars
February 26, 2015 6:01 am
I don’t have a great deal to say about the Oscars this year. As a mother of a young one and a member of a crazy world-dwelling family, I only had the chance to watch ‘Birdman’ and ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. The former I loved and wrote about (see Snyder’s Beat Sheet Applied to Inarritu’s Birdman), the latter I saw as yet another cute idea only Wes Anderson could spew forth.
What I do want to talk about is this: I feel there is a subtle but noteworthy connection between the qualities all Oscar nominees must surely possess and these words I came across in the book I am currently reading, Annie Dillard’s ‘An American Childhood’:
“There was joy in effort, and the world resisted effort to just the right degree, and yielded to it at last.”
— Everyone who is engaged in a creative endeavor must share these feelings: The world resists and resists our efforts for as long as it can, for good reason, until it gloriously gives in. This must be the experience of those whose work eventually reach world audiences.
“Just once I wanted a task that required all the joy I had. Day after day I had noticed that if I waited long enough, my strong unexpressed joy would dwindle and dissipate inside me, over many hours, like a fire subsiding, and I would at last calm down. Just this once I wanted to let it rip. Flying rather famously required the extra energy of belief, and this, too, I had in superabundance.”
— I’d like to imagine that everyone who was in the Dolby theatre on Sunday had spent all the joy they had in the tasks that demanded it of them. They must have all ‘let it rip’ while they shed blood, sweat and tears that go into the business of making movies.
“What I was letting rip, in fact, was my willingness to look foolish… Having chosen this foolishness, I was a free being. How could the world ever stop me, how could I betray myself, if I was not afraid?”
— Welcoming foolishness to the bitter end must be what it feels like to follow your absurd passion that many people are ready to tell you is a lost cause.
“…what was I to myself, really, but a witness to any boldness I could muster, or any cowardice if it came to that, any giving up on heaven for the sake of dignity on earth? I had not seen a great deal accomplished in the name of dignity, ever.”
— I recently acquired a cloth bag that says, ‘hurts like heaven’, which I think delivers a similar message to Dillard’s. Turn everything that hurts and scares into your ticket to heaven, for the ticket is pricey.
Congratulations to those who ‘let it rip’ this year and good luck to those who are determined to do so for the next.