Premise test – notes on stakes.

“The stakes are not ours. They are the characters.”*

 

Stakes are both easy and hard. It’s a category that’s easy to fill in with something, hard to fill in well.

Stakes are consequences. They are what will happen if the hero fails to meet his goal. If our heroes are blue collar heroes who must blow up a giant asteroid (ARMAGEDDON), the stakes are “or else the world will be destroyed. If our hero is a cynical attorney who must win a meaningful case (THE VERDICT) the stakes could be read as “or else lose his soul.”

STAKES ARE NOT ABOUT SCALE.

Note that the stakes of ARMAGEDDON are “clearer” and “bigger” than those of THE VERDICT, while THE VERDICT is held to be a better movie. The lesson here: you don’t make the stakes better by making them “bigger,” make them better by connecting them to the audience.

Think about it: if all you needed for stakes was scale, every movie about “saving the world” would be gripping, fun to watch, and a success. Bitter experience tells us this is not the case. If the stakes of a movie are “or else Los Angeles blows up,” you don’t make that more interesting by also threatening Sacramento.

STAKES ARE IMPROVED BY CONNECTING THEM TO CHARACTER

In writing, we’re often reminded to “raise the stakes.” I prefer to think of it as “deepening the stakes.” Stakes evolve by deepening the sense of consequences for the character. In ARMAGEDDON, the world may be at stake, but the heroes are primarily concerned with the fact that their loved ones live their. In THE VERDICT, the soul of a lawyer is at stake, but the story focuses on that one minute detail and makes his fate seem as important as an entire world.

AVOID MAKING THE LOVE INTEREST THE STAKES

It’s difficult to get an audience to buy that this particular love interest is the answer to all a character’s problems. If you’re writing a romantic movie, it’s better to attach a more external set of stakes to an external goal, so that the love interest causes narrative complexity vis a vis that, and everything is given more weight.

*Credit Reddit: /u/the000devon

How to create a goal that will carry your reader through your story.

1. ROOTING INTEREST IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN PLOT

Midway through DUNKIRK, I turned to my friend and said, “Wait, is that the plane from earlier? Are sea and air narratives about to intersect?” My friend said, “I have no fucking idea. Shut up, I’m watching this.”

This illustrates a truth about story telling. Everything, plot, arc, metaphor, is secondary to a rooting interest. If you care about what a character is trying to achieve you’ll be invested.

DUNKIRK illustrates this well. It doesn’t matter if you’re tracking the three-part chronology, you basically like the characters, you know that they want to survive/get off the beach/rescue people/help with the rescue via air combat. The story is easy to track because it’s clear how every development gets them closer to or further from that goal.

2. ROOTING INTEREST IS CREATED BY A CHARACTER GOAL

More specifically, it’s created by our relationship with a character and our understanding of what they want. Don’t worry about petting dogs or saving cats, don’t worry about likability or relatabilty. All you need to be is clear, and readers relate to a clear character by default. Even if we hate a character, knowing their goal gives us something to root against.

3. GOALS MUST BE SPECIFIC

Readers track the story by tracking the goal. The goal must be concrete, something that can be photographed. “Make the world a better place?” Can’t photograph that. “Make the world a better place by opening an animal shelter?” I can. Is the animal shelter open yet? No? Then the story is still going. I’ll follow any development so long as it’s at least tangentially related to achieving the goal.

4. GOALS MUST BE ROOTED IN CHARACTER

The specific goal should come from a deeper character want. If you want me to give a shit about a character opening a sandwich shop, I need to know what it represents to him/her, what he/she wants out out of life, and why this represents the best and only way to get it. This related exercise may help.

5. GOALS MUST BE ESTABLISHED RELATIVELY QUICKLY

The first act sets up goal, stakes, and character. If you don’t like/believe in acts, it’s gotta be by the first 25%. Otherwise it’s like trying to follow a sport you don’t know the rules to without an onscreen scoreboard.

verdict 3

This is actually one of the hard, fast rules of writing. If you can think of an example of a movie that DOESN’T do this, I’d love to hear it.

6. FINALLY, GOALS CAN CHANGE

If a character starts off wanting to open an animal shelter, this can evolve. Maybe he ends up giving up on that to help his sister achieve her dream. Maybe he becomes the unlikely savior of the world when aliens attack. Maybe anything.

The goal can shift, because it’s a concrete manifestation of the deeper character want (see step 5). Remember, what the character wants is only a part of creating a clear rooting interest for the story. Regardless of what’s occuring onscreen, you the writer should have a clear sense of what the audience is rooting for at any given moment.

Five reasons a voice recorder is a screenwriter’s best friend

Record ideas as soon as you have them. We think we won’t forget, but the truth is we do. If you have your ideas recorded somewhere, your brain will give you more… if you never do anything with the ideas you have, eventually you stop having them. It’s important to record your ideas as soon as you have them, ubiquitous capture is a key step to personal organization and productivity.

1. Work Anywhere

I’m writing this blog from the driver’s seat of my car. Well, kind of. Actually, I’m using a voice recorder (a Sony ICD PX-333 if you’re a nerd). I use it to record a sentence every time I hit a stoplight.

Voice recorders free you from having to carry a notepad and pen, or worry about battery life on your smartphone. You can work in a car, in the dark, in bed, in someone else’s bed (just ask for permission on that last one).

2. Recorders free the creative process from the mechanics of handwriting (nothing is faster)

While it’s true that the physical act of moving pen on paper can unlock ideas, often times the blank page, the pressure of a “permanent” medium, and the pressures of transcribing later can prevent us from committing a thought to paper. I’ve found that voice recorders often help screenwriters overcome psychological resistance to working. Anything that helps in that area is invaluable.

People talk at 150 wpm, most can barely type 60. You can easy transfer files to Evernote or a hard drive, and if you’re really lazy, Dragon Naturally Speaking (or similar) will transcribe them for you.

3. Remove resistance that blocks creativity.

People are lazy. Like really lazy, and the subconscious mind is even lazier. If the brain senses even the slightest obstacle to doing something, it’ll try to get out of it. That’s where voice recorders win out over other solutions – handwriting is tedious and you have transcribe. iPhone apps can record sound, but it’s a few more steps to begin recording/playback. You wouldn’t think that the extra second or two would make a difference in deciding whether to capture an idea, but it really does.

4. Talk to yourself.

With a recorder, you can be assured of someone listening to everything you say, even if it’s just you. I’ve asked rhetorical questions, recorded my to-do list. I’ve ordered myself to stay productive, encouraged myself to persevere, and dropped many an unhelpful literary suggestion when I was too drunk to use a pen.

5. Make it easier to play.

Voice recorders make screenwriting more of a direct connection from inspiration to result. If you’re good at improv, you can do both sides of a conversation and generate entire scenes in the time it takes to record them. Audio editing apps like Audition can help you create an entire screenplay with an accurate running time without ever actually writing a word.

++

Regardless of whether you get a recorder or not (seriously, do) the lesson to be drawn from this is to maximize your available time.  A lot of beginner writers will say something along the lines of “I will write from 8am to 12 noon,” and if they miss that window they’ll discard the idea of writing that day entirely.  This leads to procrastination, and procrastination is the grave that opportunity is buried in. It’s not about having the perfect amount of time to write in, it’s about making the most of every moment you have. Get in the habit of recording your ideas. It’s good practice, and you’ll have something to develop when you finally sit down to write.

Dunkirk shows the power of a rooting interest.

Midway through DUNKIRK, I turned to my friend and said, “Wait, is that the plane from earlier? Are sea and air narratives about to intersect?” My friend scowled at me. “I have no fucking idea. Now shut up, I’m watching this.

I’m not the only one who had a moment like that. Even my friend who worked on editing the movie admits that it becomes clearer on the second viewing. All that said, people remain involved through the movie. Even people who couldn’t track the movie chronologically through the first half of the story remained invested, interested and curious. DUNKIRK is a great example of how a strong rooting interest can carry an audience through a movie, even if they’re confused.

Dunkirk 2.png

When we watch the movie, it cuts like Tommy/Dawson/Farrier/Tommy/Dawson/Farrier until the end, but chronologically most of the Tommy scenes happen earlier, and all of the Farrier scenes happen in the last hour of the week the story covers. As a result, the movie has a lot of dovetailing moments, a man Dawson meets early in the runtime is seen at Dunkirk (much later in the runtime, but chronologically earlier), we see the same planes get shot down from different angles, etc. It’s easy to get confused.

The only clue to Dunkirk’s non-linear timeline comes at the beginning, where we see the openings to the movie’s three storylines, and the only three title cards:

Trapped soldiers try to escape the Dunkirk beaches. Title: The Mole – 1 Week
A civilian prepares his boat to go rescue those soldiers: Title: The Sea – 1 Day
A pilot flies towards Dunkirk with his squadron. Title: The Air – 1 Hour

This supposed to decode the structure, but it confused a lot of people. Most notably, “the mole” refers to the long pier on the Dunkirk beach, but a lot of people think it refers to Tommy or Gibson, the soldiers on the beach. The structure is nonlinear, and it takes a lot of people off guard.

Dunkirk Time 3 simple

Owing to this, people can get confused by the structure. Despite this, the story remains gripping and involving throughout, even if you only understand the timeline halfway through (or in some cases not till the end). The reason for this is a clear rooting interest.

Dunkirk does a good job explaining things at the top: the English are surrounded and they have to get off the beach or they’ll die. It also involves the audience emotionally. We never see the Germans, but we do see the doomed bravery of the English and we want them to live. Tommy wants to get off the beach. Dawson wants to bring his little boat across the English Channel so he can rescue soldiers. Farrier wants to fly to Dunkirk to save soldiers.

gallery-1481625429-dunkirk-teaser-art
Dunkirk gets most of the setup out of the way when Tommy finds this flyer. Note the use of “you,” which subtly encourages us to identify with Tommy’s situation.

Thus, the story becomes easy to track. We know what we’re rooting for (saving), we know how each mission helps accomplish that goal, and when something happens, it’s clear how that brings us closer to (or further from seeing that rooting interest realized. Farrier’s running out of gas? Oh no, he might not make it to the fight! Tommy’s on a boat? Hooray, he might survive! Tommy’s boat is sinking? Oh no, etc. Even when I’m confused (Why doesn’t anyone use a parachute? Why can’t the French guy swim away?) I remain invested in the story.

In writing, I’m often advising people to set up a clear character, clear stakes, and a clear goal. I advise this because those factors help you set up a rooting interest. If you choose to eschew blatant clarity, or the clearcut stakes that come with a properly set up three act structure, you’d better have a clear rooting interest. If the audience doesn’t know what to root for (or even what you’re hoping they’re rooting for), the story becomes impossible to follow.

 

 

Character tip: give them an essential nature, something that stays the same, even if everything else is different.

I recently read a horror script where the main character’s only trait was “rape victim (1).” Her only character traits weThe other day I read a horror script where the main character’s only trait was “rape victim (1).” Her only character traits were “suspicious, traumatized, didn’t like being touched.” Had she not been raped, she would have no character traits at all(2).
Leaving aside the fact that this makes for a boring character, it also shows a questionable approach to character creation fundamentals. It’s a failure to give a character traits, to give them an essential nature.
evolution-of-homer-simpson
A well-designed cartoon character has irreducible features that make them identifiable in other forms. Well-designed characters do the same with traits.
Think of yourself: you are a person with a gender, a race, a job (or lack of one), a backstory. All of these things define you. But imagine if you were a bank robber, a submarine commander, a medieval Sheik, a Jedi knight, or a wombat. You’d have a different life, but there’d be something indelibly you that remained, no matter what form your spirit took (3).
It should be the same with your characters. Build them around a clear trait that’s independent of backstory. This helps you avoid stereotypes. If you find yourself writing a significant character who’s the “sassy gay roommate” or “hulking thug” give them something off-model. Make them stoic, selfish, driven, lazy… Something innate and indelible, something that gives them a personality beyond their mere circumstances. If not for the sheer rightness of it, then at least because it’ll be easier to repurpose them if you need them for another project.
The primary trait may remain consistent even as a character evolves and changes throughout the story. An example is GROUNDHOG DAY, where Phil Connors, a cynical, bitter, weatherman who hates small towns becomes not that. By the end, he’s a romantic, and he loves the town enough to want to move there with his new love. His cynical nature remains. He’s quick to add “We’ll rent first.”

Notes

(1) This is a common problem with writers and even actors, who have a tendency to substitute “I was raped” for character development/backstory.
(2) The female version of this is the male villain who has no traits other than straightness, whiteness, and “privilege.”
(3) Some may say that this smacks of pseudoscience and mysticism. The point is that this is a romantic notion of Jungian archetype that people generally prefer to believe. In storytelling, emotional truths trump empirical ones.
(4)

The law of conservation of detail (and exceptions)



The first act sets up a script. It needs to be entertaining, efficient, and most of all focused. If a first act forces me to learn something, there’d better be a damn good reason for it. If there isn’t, the useless information crowds out the useful stuff. It punishes the audience for paying attention and almost guarantees that necessary information will get overlooked. This is sometimes called the law of conservation of detail.

There’s a lot to do: of work to do, and not a lot of space to do it in. The act needs lay all of its expository pipe AND also be fun, entertaining, and convince a skeptical reader that it’s author actually knows how to write. Given this, there’s not a lot of room for extraneous stuff. And yet, authors often fail to edit, including needless world building, random jokes that don’t add value, or directors notes that only they will ever need or appreciate.

Here are a few examples of information that might appear in a first act:


 

  • Probably Necessary: We meet the hero’s boyfriend. We see she’s serious and uptight, whereas he’s a lusty, gambler. Despite their differences, they love each other.
  • Probably Unnecessary: We spend half a page talking about the boyfriend’s complex relationship with his bookie, who never reappears or pays off at any point going forward.

  • Probably Necessary: We see a professor give a lecture. We see he’s knowledgeable, funny, and charismatic. His students love him.
  • Probably unnecessary: The author uses the history lesson to shoehorn in a lengthy tangent about corruption in politics, which doesn’t ever pay off going forward.

  • Probably necessary: We’re in a future universe. Robots everywhere. A man kisses a woman, and suddenly the police descend on him like he’s a mass murderer.
  • Probably unnecessary: Let’s assume the script is about a rebel who dares to love in a world where it’s illegal. That gets diluted if we also see people get arrested for juggling, trading recipe books, and wearing open-toed shoes.

Exceptions:

A script may add COLOR
The ur-example is Han Solo bragging about making the Kessel Run in however many parsecs. We don’t know what that is, but it seems like a cool thing, and it communicates a lot about the character’s swagger and the surrounding mythos of the world. That’s good. The impact would have been diluted if he dropped five other oblique references in the same scene or, god forbid, spent a half page explaining what the Kessel Run actually was.

A script may create INTRIGUE
by deliberately omitting detail. If characters talk about… the incident… we don’t need to know what that is now, we might never know, but we get a sense of what it means. The inclusion of intrigue means everything else needs to be totally clear and necessary. If the surrounding context is vague, the intrigue may not even register.

A script may create a RED HERRING
If characters in a mystery spend a half page talking about the mysterious past of their host it sure feels like a clue, but it’s also equally possible that it’s a deliberate mislead to make the identity of the real killer more surprising. As with intrigue, red herrings need surrounding clarity, otherwise the reader won’t trust the story enough to treat the information as potentially important.

A script may use a NON SEQUITUR
something totally screwy just because. These are often really fun, because they show the author letting their freak flag fly outside of the structural needs of the story. It’s the reason why the best Simpsons jokes were the ones cut for syndication. They were funny simply because they were funny, not because they were advancing the plot. This technique is best used sparingly, if everything is a non sequitur, nothing is.


Like all things in screenwriting, context and clarity is a guideline. Some exceptions apply, but readers need some underlying clarity, otherwise they may not be able to follow and appreciate the story you’ve worked so hard to create.

The first act creates context

A first act creates the context: the facts a reader needs to understand the story going forward. It contextualizes a lot of things including:

Character
Who are we following and what’s their deal? What’s their archetype? what are their distinct traits? What do they want? Take a movie like THE VERDICT. At no point does Paul Newman say, “I’m an alcoholic sellout lawyer who must win a case or lose my soul,” but the script illustrates this as clearly as if it were stamped on his forehead.

People often worry about likability or relatability, but both of these take a backseat to clarity. It’s hard to emotionally invest in a character who you can’t even wrap your head around.

Setting
A script will set up the ways in which this setting differs from the common sense world we hold as normal. The social codes people live by. The technology levels. The rules of magic or sci-fi tech (if applicable). The kinds of things the people therein think are impossible or normal. (Example: This morning I rode my purple dragon to work and I heard a man talking about love. Love? What nonsense!).

Period scripts or scripts that are densely political share a lot of the expository needs of fantastical settings. If a script takes great pains to tell me that we’re a week away from the seven year anniversary of the coupe that enabled Colonel Santos to take over the town, it’s a safe bet that this information will be necessary to know going forward.

Style
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it creates a context of you for a reader. Is the writing clear? Is it interesting? Does it seem like the writer prioritized communicating and telling a good story over and beyond their selfish need to express themselves and make money? I’ve often said a script can lose a reader on the first page (or even the first line). You keep them by providing a clear context to hang an understanding of what we’re rooting for. If it doesn’t, it’s dead in the water.

Contextualize quickly, efficiently, then move on
The script needs to get all this setup done in a brief amount of time. By about page 25, the audience is done learning. The time for setup is over, we want to see what fun stuff the author can DO with all that setup.

 

Don’t let a desperation to sell distract you from writing.

I recently wrote up a series of notes for a client script. I got this in response:

“My only question for you is whether you think there is something salvageable here(1). Obviously as a writer there’s always value in finishing a project in order to improve. But I really don’t wanna put my time into it unless there’s a good possibility for financial gain (2). Let’s say, hypothetically, you took the script and doctored it so that some of the things you mentioned were refined and fixed etc (3). Do you think it would have a fair shot at selling (4)?”

This is a textbook teachable moment. Let me unpack why.

(1) When people use words like “salvageable” they’re usually talking about the core concept, not the execution. Modern screenplays aren’t really about the big idea, they’re about the execution. Look at THE NICE GUYS, which is a brilliant execution of a pretty lame idea (a conspiracy about big auto and emissions standards? Really?) or anything by Pixar. Beginning writers often fall in love with their idea and think the execution is secondary. Really, the execution is most of what you’re selling, otherwise people would buy ideas off of popular tweets.

(2) This reflects a popular misconception that pervades the writing help business. Everyone behaves like winning a contest finds you a buyer, following their formula guarantees you a big payday, scoring high on the blacklist gets you a sale, etc. Sales are only part of the industry, most writers get in by writing a cool spec, getting representation, then using that spec as a sample to secure more work. Yes, you can sell a spec, but that ignores the larger part of the industry – securing work from someone else. This is an uncharismatic nuance, but I believe that it’s better to have a three dimensional understanding of the task at hand.

(3) As noted in points (1) and (2), this is a flawed plan. It over values the high concept and undervalues the execution. It ignores the boring reality that an agent or manager is probably going to ask what else you’ve got going on. Assume that someone were able to write a brilliant take on the basic concept. That would lead to awkward conversations if someone wanted to sign you off “your” spec or wanted rewrites.

(4) Owing to points (1, 2, 3) this is the wrong question to ask. It reflects a fundamental lack of faith in the writer’s ability to execute. It’s also a question that communicates an insecurity that’s easy to prey on. It’s really easy for an unscrupulous operator to say, “Yes, give me $XXXX and your dreams will come true.” There are no easy answers, and even if a part of you really longs for one, it’s advisable to hold that truth close to the vest.

Finally, the question reflects a lack of joy in the process. If a writer loves their idea, they should also love the process that renders it into being. Otherwise, they’re essentially a producer, looking for a hired gun to render someone else’s property.

I’m being harsh on the question because of how it communicates. That said, I hear it a lot from a lot of types of people. Most of them really do love writing, really do want to get better in their chosen field. This question usually comes from a fear of not being good enough, a desperation for validation or quick cash that blots out reason.  Rather than concentrating on selling that one “lottery ticket” spec script, a screenwriter should concentrate on selling themselves as someone who can execute on any number of scripts at a professional level.*

 

 

*credit /u/screenwriter101

The best notes tend to be specific

Reading services, from the Blacklist to me, prefer to give overall notes in a general way. They’re easier to do, and harder to specifically challenge. Unfortunately, they’re not always the most helpful.

Take these Blacklist notes posted by reddit user wolfduke :

The narrative suffers from a premise that is ungrounded, as it introduces a sprawling cast, myriad of magical, fantasy elements, and a limitless time span that transcends a specific, coherent setting. The script could function quite well if it focused on Servanda’s story in the 1487 Rome location, but the addition of an african slave, a Grim Reaper, and the adventure plot that ensues leaves the audiences with too much to digest and too many elements that require a leap of faith and willing suspension of disbelief.

The gist of the note is clear: focus on a storyline and cut things that require the willing suspension of disbelief, but that’s rather abstract. It’s not like authors go into scripts knowing the precise rules that govern willing suspension of disbelief and works against them. Notes like these often need specific examples and a stress on why they break the reader’s perceived “rule” but there’s rarely enough time in two pages.

Readers tend to communicate general concepts: enter late/leave early. Show don’t tell. Speaking as someone who struggles to internalize these after years of writing, these notes are tough to execute. We generally grasp them, but it’s hard to do in the moment. As such, scripts tend to fail on individual lines, but notes rarely go that granular and we end up reading them like tarot cards, trying to discern a useful meaning from abstract symbols.

This is my preferred way for giving (and getting) notes:

  1. Convert file to editable format. Writerduet is really good at converting PDF scripts.
  2. Make notes immediately after the specific situation to which they pertain, marking them with a hashtag (#) so they’re easy to search for.
  3. Make liberal use of strikeout.
  4. When suggesting a general rule, pitch an example. These are rarely perfect, but they illustrate the gist of what I’m suggesting.

Example here: https://www.scribd.com/document/333782275/Example-of-Line-by-Line-annotations. I made these for a short I found on /r/readmyscript so I could show an example without any client confidentiality issues.

As you’ll note, my style is rather blunt, I’m liberal with suggestions and pitches, and I do a lot of striking out. This may be a little undiplomatic for some, but generally when I do these I’m getting paid for them, or someone’s specifically asked for them knowing my specific reputation. Any and all these notes can be ignored, but they’re actionable and specifically useful.

Some may find the idea of suggesting cuts or alt lines a little too presumptuous, and that’s fine. It works for me, but not everyone. But I strongly recommend the idea of tying notes to specific lines. You could do this by writing on a script, using PDF annotation apps, or making a word document tying notes to specific pages, but I find this way the most efficient and easiest to digest.

I also like doing this to my own scripts. When I’m rewriting I try to take off my writer hat and put on my critic hat. I ask myself, “If this were someone else’s script that I had no investment in, what would I legitimately think?”

Rewriting dialogue by identifying the function of it.

They say all dialogue should further understanding of the character or further the story. It also needs to convey distinct character voice, be entertaining, and convey the impression that the writer is worthy of being hired. It’s a lot, and people often get lost trying to do everything at once.

Here’s my trick:

  1. I like to write things that are boring and completely on the nose at first. That way it starts with clarity. You can always art it up later (and sometimes I remember to do that).
  2. Identify the function of the line, what is it actually doing. Once you know that angle, it’s easier to find a stronger line that sells the same underlying idea.

Take this scene from THE ROOM:

ORIGINAL

Mark: How was work today?

Johnny: Oh, pretty good. We got a new client and the bank will make a lot of money.

Mark: What client?

Johnny: I cannot tell you; it's confidential.

Mark: Aw, come on. Why not?

Johnny: No, I can't. Anyway, how is your sex life?

It’s pretty basic, but a good actor would look at the lines and find the underlining meaning so they could emotionally ground a performance. We can do the same:

FUNCTION

MARK: <Generic opening line for verisimilitude. Invitation for further conversation>

JOHNNY: <Vague humblebrag about my important job.>

MARK: <Request for more information.>

JOHNNY: <Blasé refusal to go into more detail.>

MARK: <Whiny request for more information in a way that communicates neediness and a lack of understanding of how the world works.>

JOHNNY: <Flat refusal. Awkward segue into sex talk.>

That’s my subjective take, and probably not what the original writer meant. Still, it’s better to write from a strong point of view. Any choice is better than no choice, and you can always make a new choice in the rewrite.

REWRITE

MARK: You look happy. Like you just fucked Marilyn Monroe without a condom.

JOHNNY: Let’s just say I scored at work. Big money. I’ll make VP for sure.

MARK: Oh? Which one? Rumor is you guys have been chasing Nakamura Industries.

JOHNNY: I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.

MARK: Okay, but it’d better be worth it.

JOHNNY: You’re pushing too hard. When was the last time you got laid?

A lot of times when people pitch me lines, they’re not great and I turn them down flat. But the more useful takeaway is to consider the ANGLE at which the line is pitched, the underlining meaning. Different angles yield different kinds of lines.

I’d call that better, but still not great. But it tells us a little bit more about the characters, advancing our understanding, making it easier to make the next draft even more specific.

If Johnny’s being casual about refusing detail, then we need the kind of thing casual people say: “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”

Or he could be <evasive because he’s fronting about imaginary success> so “Uh, it’s good. Real good. Lotta boring details, but profitable.” Might do the trick.

Or it could be <Setting up labored segue into sex life because I really want to ask about yours> in which case the better line might be, “Ugh, I’m just glad it’s over. I’ve been so busy working that I haven’t been laid in a month.”

William Goldman once said that screenwriting was structure. Valid point, but it’s not only structure, it’s texture to, the the difference between “They have sex” and “As Bob runs his tongue over her neck, Alice grabs at the bed sheet with her toes.” It’s the little details, cool visuals, quotable dialogue, neat moments of behavior that bring it to life. Without it, even the most “properly” structured story will just lie there, inert.

Those specific moments, the little things that register vary from writer to writer, from audience to audience. A hundred writers will have a hundred takes on the same basic scene. You want to make sure every line in a scene advances your story and sells your basic competence as a writer. The easiest way to do that is by understanding what each line is actually doing in the scene.

RELATED

Specificity in Dialogue

Mapping 3 Act Structure to Scenework

Finding Interesting Beats in Scenes