Great screenplays put tremendous obstacles between the protagonists and their goals.
John Cleese, from Monty Python fame, is a wonderful screewriter. He was one of the creative forces behind the Monty Python skits and wrote the exceptionally funny Fawlty Towers series that ran in England for only 12 episodes. In an interview, Cleese explained that the reason Fawlty Towers‘ run was so short is that it was an exhausting process to write the script. Cleese would revisit the scripts over and over until he could squeeze every comedic moment out of the short 30 minute episode.
In the film A Fish Called Wanda, Cleese, who co-stars with Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, masterfully crafted each scene in this comedy to include as many obstacles as possible. It’s brilliant in it’s structure and it’s a great lesson for screen writers every where.
Let’s look at a single scene to show how Cleese layers in problem after problem to amp up the comedic effect. But first, here’s a synopsis of the movie:
George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) and his right-hand man, Ken Pile (Michael Palin), a beleaguered animal lover with a bad stutter, plan a jewel heist and bring in two Americans to help: an alluring con artist, Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) and a “weapons man”, Otto West (Kevin Kline). Wanda and Otto are lovers pretending to be siblings so that Wanda can work her charms on George and Ken. Wanda and Otto plan to betray Ken and George after the heist, and vice-versa. Wanda is also planning to betray Otto.
After the robbery, Wanda and Otto betray George to the police, intending to take all the loot for themselves, but discover that George and Ken have moved the loot to a new location. Wanda decides to seduce George’s unhappily married lawyer, Archie Leach (John Cleese) to find out where the jewels are hidden.
Now, let’s look at a scene that illustrates the effectiveness of creating quality obstacles for the protagonist.
The Goal of the Scene: George hid a key to a safe deposit box where he had stashed the jewels. Wanda finds the key and hides it in her necklace, but does not know where the safe deposit box is located. To find out, she plans to seduce George’s lawyer, Archie (Cleese), at his house while Archie’s wife and daughter are running errands.
Wanda arrives and begins her seduction.
Wanda seduces Archie
Obstacle 1: A jealous Otto sneaks into the house to see what Wanda is up to, then hides behind the door while Wanda tries to seduce the information out of Archie.
Otto can’t control his jealousy.
Wanda distracts Archie by asking him to get her a drink downstairs and uses the opportunity to convince Otto to leave. Problem solved, right?
Obstacle 2: As Otto is about to head down the stairs, Archie’s wife returns unexpectedly. Otto hides behind the door, Wanda hides behind a cabinet.
The Wife returns home unexpectedly.
Archie returns with the drinks and is shocked to find his wife sitting on the couch where Wanda was previously waiting for him.
Archie tries to talk his way out of the situation.
Obstacle 3: The wife asks who’s car is blocking their driveway while, at the same time…
Obstacle 4: Wanda realizes she’s lost her necklace.
Wanda’s lost the necklace.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, Otto pops out from behind the door and states that the car is his, that he works for the CIA and that he was talking to Archie about a KGB defector that is in a safe house nearby.
Otto tries to help.
It’s important to note that Archie has never met Otto before and goes into a mental brain lock.
Archie suffers from brain lock.
Otto’s tactic may have worked except…
Obstacle 5: Archie’s wife’s father used to work for British secret service and she knows that Otto’s bluff makes no sense what-so-ever.
She calls Otto stupid, which sets him off on an anti-snobby British/pro where-would-you-be-without-the-USA rant.
Otto huffs off and the wife follows him out of the room and to the stairs, watching him leave. In the mean time Archie finds Wanda hiding behind the dresser. She explains that Otto is her “brother” and to get rid of his wife and get the necklace.
Obstacle 6: The wife returns and the daughter follows.
While Archie tries to get them out of the room, Wanda sneaks behind the couch to get the necklace, which is laying on the floor.
Wanda reaches for the necklace.
Obstacle 7: As Wanda reaches for the necklace, the wife finds it and mistakenly thinks it’s a gift meant for her. To make matters worse, she loves it!
The Wife loves it!
As Archie distracts his wife while Wanda escapes.
Wanda went into the scene with one simple goal… to get information on where George hid the jewels. At the end of the scene, not only has Wanda not reached her goal, but she’s actually worse off than before, having lost the necklace with the key to the safe deposit box.
In eight script pages Cleese layers in seven different and exponentially more difficult obstacles in order to bring the scene to a comedic climax.
It’s a great lesson for all screen writers. Drama is conflict and overcoming obstacles create that conflict.
Are we letting our characters get off easy by not taking the time to explore every possible, effective way to challenge them in each scene?