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Screenplay Vs Film: 10 Screenwriting Tips from Wedding Crashers

Screenplay Writing Tips from Wedding Crashers

Thanks to blog reader Steve (hi Steve!) for today’s Screenplay vs Film selection: Wedding Crashers, the #1 grossing R-rated comedy, until The Hangover movies unseated its raunchy throne.

It stars Owen Wilson as John Beckwith and Vince Vaughn as Jeremy Grey, two guys who crash weddings in order to score with the ladies but end up losing their hearts for good. If you’re attempting to write the next R-rated wunderkind, then this script is definitely one to study.

After searching around for a little while, I found a 2003 draft of the movie written by Steve Faber & Bob Fisher. If the theatrical movie exactly mirrored this script, Wedding Crashers no doubt would’ve been a huge hit.

This draft has many of the comedy gags from the movie, from the Purple Heart medals guaranteed to avoid paying for drinks at a cash bar; rule #32: don’t commit to relative until you’re absolutely sure they have a pulse; the best fake name ever–Chuck Vindaloo; to Grandma Cleary’s homo jokes, Sack’s annoying sea otter stories, and Jeremy’s quail hunt mishap.

With a few exceptions, the movie follows the screenplay fairly faithfully until it reaches the end of the second act. At this point, the movie tweaked the screenplay in two major ways: developing the relationship between John and Claire and fine tuning the ending.

I’ll be focusing on those changes in part two of this post, but here’s the first set of screenwriting tips I learned from Wedding Crashers:

Screenwriting Tip #1: Presenting the personal manifesto

It’s a common amateur screenwriting mistake to write scenes which lack any speck of conflict, especially when presenting a protagonist’s creed or manifesto. Beginning writers just lay it all out in one boring monologue, which they hope will be interesting by virtue of the quirkiness of the protagonist’s personal philosophy.

There are only two writers who can really pull that off–Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith–and both of them usually have something going on in their scenes besides delivering a hefty dose of exposition.

Steve Faber and Bob Fisher are by no means amateurs. In the screenplay draft of Wedding Crashers I read, Jeremy presented his philosophy of marriage (nicely setting up his justification for crashing weddings) to one of his legal clients like so:

INT. LAW FIRM OF BECKWITH AND KLEIN – CONTINUOUS

JEREMY KLEIN, a divorce lawyer, early 30s, sits at a desk with a WOMAN, also in her thirties. His eyes wander to the same hot secretary now walking by his office.

WOMAN
Eight years of marriage all shot
to hell.

JEREMY
(eyes following the secretary’s butt)
Had I know you eight years ago, I
would have advised you to avoid
the wedding.

WOMAN
But I do believe in the
institution of marriage.

Jeremy’s attention is jolted back to the woman.

JEREMY
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Did you say the
“institution?” No, no. The Boston
Red Sox are an institution.
Pastrami on rye is an institution.
Mr Rogers is an institution.
Marriage is a curse. Our
punishment for original sin.

The woman is taken aback.

JEREMY
Do you understand the ugliness I
see here every day? The sheer
torment? The absolute hell? Just
because people like you…and God
bless your innocent heart, really
believe in the “institution” of marriage!

WOMAN
My parents were happily married.

JEREMY
No. They really weren’t. You think
they were. But they really weren’t.

Don’t get me wrong. There is conflict in this scene. But there could’ve been more.

The movie version of this scene took the conflict one step further and put the husband in the room with his future ex-wife, with John and Jeremy acting as negotiators. There’s a HUGE wall of animosity between the soon-to-be divorced couple. So much so, that John and Jeremy’s jaded view of marriage isn’t just a philosophy which justifies their spree of wedding crashing but a method to diffuse an extremely tense situation. The escalated conflict was the perfect way to introduce our likeable, if sleazy, heroes and their views on love and marriage.

This is why it’s so important to come up with multiple ways to write a scene. Your first way may be really great…but your seventh approach may be spectacular. Keep mining till you find that nugget of screenwriting gold. When you’ve come up with the perfect way to play out a plot beat, you’ll feel it. Trust me.

Screenwriting Tip #2: BFFs are boring

John and Jeremy have been friends forever, and their friendship defines part of the movie’s core. Clearly, it’s important to establish what great friends they are early on.

Showing, rather than telling, that two of your main characters are BFFs is not an easy task. You might resort to what Hal Ackerman labels as the “census-taker technique:”

The forced vomiting of information is the most common form of abuse writers perpetrate on their characters. Running a close second behind the Big Blurt is the Census Taker–having characters ask very “data”-oriented questions as an information-gathering technique.

Cop to it. We’ve all done variations of this scene:

INT. COLLEGE DORM – DAY

BILL (19) breezes in and finds his roommate
CHAZZ watching TV. This affable dialogue ensues.

BILL
Hey, roomie, how long is it now that we’ve
been roommates, about eight months?

CHAZZ
No, dude it’s only been seven.

As if every time roommates run into each other, they do a review.

Or how about a response to someone asking a question or doing something annoying?

CHARACTER
Damn it. That’s the fifth time in the last
six days that you’ve done that. How many
times do I have to tell you…

If you have any scenes which read likes the ones above, eliminate them immediately!

Even if you’ve written drafts without a single “census-taker” dialogue in them, you should add Hal Ackerman’s Write Screenplays That Sell to your screenwriting bookshelf. The guide is invaluable, and I highly recommend it. (If you use the code scribe10 at checkout, you’ll save an extra 10% off.)

In the screenplay draft of Wedding Crashers I read, Faber and Fisher masked some “census-taking” dialogue by mocking Jeremy’s intensity about his friendship with John:

Jeremy reaches into his desk drawer and pulls out a bottle of
single malt scotch with a ribbon around it and hands it to John.

JEREMY
Happy Anniversary.

JOHN
Huh?

JEREMY
Fifteen years, my friend!

John looks perplexed.

JEREMY
June 11, 1988. Paul Revere High?
Junior Prom night?

JOHN
Ohhhh. Right. Yeah. The night we met.

JEREMY
Could you sound more underwhelmed?

JOHN
I’m not underwhelmed.

JEREMY
You took Barbara Rothstein to the
prom and wound up in the men’s
room making out with another girl.

JOHN
And you were in the stall next to
me making out with some chick who
was not your date. Who was your
date?

JEREMY
Mary Theresa Spinolli. Don’t you
remember? Turned out she was
cheating on ME!

JOHN
Ohhh. That’s right.

JEREMY
I knew that night that you and I
were cut from the same cloth. Best
friends forever.
(beat)
I can’t believe you forgot.

JOHN
A lot on my mind.

JEREMY
You think this is gay, don’t you? The
anniversary thing…

JOHN
I don’t think it’s gay.

JEREMY
Because you forgot on our tenth,
too. Remember I got you that beer-
of-the-month club thing?

JOHN
Yeah, that was great. The beer.

JEREMY
You thought it was gay.

JOHN
I didn’t think it was gay.
It was beer!

JEREMY
Then how come you never get me
anything for our anniversary.

JOHN
Okay…what you said right there?
That was a little gay.

Although the script effectively presented “census” details without boring the reader, the movie decided to alter the genesis of John and Jeremy’s friendship. When John lost his parents at a young age, Jeremy vowed to always spend the night with his best friend on John’s birthday.

Awwww.

BFFs Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers

John and Jeremy, BFFs forever

While both methods worked, I prefer the movie version. It’s a better introduction to John and Jeremy’s longstanding friendship than Junior Prom, because it has a sweetness behind it which balances out the forthcoming raunch. It’s also the kind of backstory which redeems John’s sleazy wedding crashing behavior (more on that in screenwriting tip #4) instead of reinforcing it.

Screenwriting Tip #3: Creating the likeable jerk

Wedding Crashers, like all movies which star a hero who needs to be redeemed, faced an uphill battle regarding its protagonists. John and Jeremy crash weddings to take advantage of the females in attendance. As Jeremy says, “we’ll have so many opportunities to meet gorgeous ladies who are so aroused by the thought of marriage, they’ll throw their inhibitions to the wind.”

This blasé attitude is humorous, but it’s also morally reprehensible–and not the quality of a man worthy enough to win over the heart of Claire Cleary, John’s love interest.

Eventually, John and Jeremy will both become redeemed through their love for the Cleary sisters…but will the females in the audience stick around to see it? Writing a script with a the hero who begins selfish but ends selfless is a tricky tightrope to walk. Fortunately, Wedding Crashers gives you some good guidelines to follow. In a nutshell, you need to show that your jerk of a hero is redeemable before he actually becomes redeemed.

We already saw one example of this in screenwriting tip #2. In the original Wedding Crashers screenplay draft, there was no mention of John’s parents. But in the movie, Jeremy makes it clear that John lost his parents at an early age. This not only creates sympathy for John and but also explains why he might be wary of making an emotional commitment: he’s afraid that he might lose someone he cares about just like the way he lost his parents.

In the script, the writers hinted that John was starting to feel guilty about deceiving so many women:

When we hear the final ‘shout,’ the music stops and we cut to John and Jeremy each rolling off of their respective women. Jeremy sighs contentedly. John stares off pensively: something’s missing.

The movie took these lines of description and turned them into a full-fledged scene. After the final chorus of “Shout!” the movie showed John in bed with a girl–and he’s not reveling in his conquest. Instead, he feels guilty that he doesn’t know her as a person, let alone her name.

In the next scene, he explicitly expresses qualms about being “a little irresponsible” to Jeremy. These behaviors clearly telegraph that John is redeemable. Hence, the audience can become emotionally invested in his storyline without any misgivings.

This is also the reason I suspect the following scene was cut from the movie:

EXT. CHURCH BATHROOM – A FEW MINUTES LATER

The GROOM is leaning against a urinal, hyper-ventilating and
dry-heaving before the service as John enters. John has seen
this many times before. He stands at the next urinal.

JOHN
I know what you’re thinking.

The groom, startled, turns around.

JOHN
You’re thinking, “what have I
done? I’m over. I’m finished. Now
it ends.” And at what? Twenty-six?

The groom nods.

JOHN
Twenty-six years of pure uncut
premium Grade-A sexual freedom.
Yeah, it’s a drug. A drug that
makes morphine look like skittles,
and it’s going right down the
toilet as you descend into the
abyss of country kitchens, dirty
diapers, mind-numbing conversation
about her “needs” and worse, the
same sex with the same person, day
after day, night after night, year
in, year out.

The groom starts retching again.

JOHN
Well, you’re wrong. It’s not like
that. You see it as the beginning
of the end. No, my friend! It’s
the end of the beginning.

The groom looks up, encouraged.

JOHN
You’re about to enter a world so
complex and fulfilling, it makes
your old life of endless boozing,
late nights, and meaningless sex
seem like the shallow, depressing
graveyard that it really is.

The groom nods.

JOHN
A world rich with deep love,
adoration and appreciation from
a life partner…well this kind of
happiness you’ve never dreamed
possible. It’s a mystery, a gift
that God gave us. And when the
kids come? They call you
Daddy…and you’re their hero. And
you end up growing old with
someone whose love for you is
timeless, endless. Someone who
knows what you’re thinking before
you say it. Who’ll take care of
you when you’re sick, comfort you
when you’re sad, laugh with you,
cry with you.

The groom takes a deep breath.

GROOM
(beat, he’s better)
Thank you…

JOHN
No problem.
(pointing to the door)
Now, go get ‘em.

John watches the groom exit. But before re-entering
the church, the groom stops and turns around.

GROOM
Hey, how long have you been married?

JOHN
Oh…I’m not married.
(beat)
I might try to nail that chick in
the blue dress, though. She seems nice.

It’s a funny scene, perfectly in keeping with John’s character and modus operandi. But it also undid all the groundwork which was just laid to show that he was a redeemable person.

If the director decided to keep this scene in the movie, it would’ve been better if Jeremy, and not John, delivered these lines because every one expected Jeremy to continue crashing weddings without expressing one whit of remorse.

Owen Wilson plays the redeemable jerk in Wedding Crashers

“Slightly irresponsible” John Beckwith

In fact, later on, the movie did transfer lines between John and Jeremy to maintain the idea that John was the more honorable of the two crashers. In the script this is how the debate about squirting visine into Sack’s water glass was written:

John and Jeremy enter the alcove just outside the dining
room. John looks at Sack. He’s holding court. John’s nauseated.

JOHN
(intense but sotto)
Jer, you have the visine?

JEREMY
No! Not the visine! It’s too early!

JOHN
I need the visine, goddamit. Give
it to me!

JEREMY
You know the rules. The visine is
a last resort. The visine’s a
freaking felony.

JOHN
I can’t get any alone time with
her. The guy won’t leave her side.
I need the visine.

JEREMY
The visine’s hard-core. A few drops
in his drink and he’ll spend the next
twenty-four hours going down on a toilet seat,
puking his guts out.

ANGLE ON: Sack at the dinner table.

SACK
…so when I picked up the little
sea otter and wiped the oil off
him from the tanker spill, I swear
he…smiled. It was a little…
otter smile. You know, all teeth,
the whiskers kind of pert…

ANGLE ON: Jeremy and John. Jeremy reaches into his pocket.

JEREMY
Okay, here’s the visine.

In the movie, John and Jeremy’s positions are reversed. Jeremy says they have to resort to the visine, but John is reluctant. He wants to woo Claire the honorable way. John only changes his mind after one of Sack’s sea otter imitations drives him over the edge.

Can you see how these minor changes created a pattern of John as the honorable hero and Jeremy as the persistent sleazeball? This is a good method to employ to balance out the sentimentality of the script with its raunchy humor (which I’ll get into more in part two of the screenwriting tips I learned from Wedding Crashers).

Screenwriting Tip #4: You don’t need to explain everything in a comedy

Comedies are supposed to be tightly written. You don’t want to drag them out. This means you have to be especially judicious as to what scenes to include and which scenes to cut. Obviously, you want to keep your best comedy gags, as well the scenes which express genuine emotion.

So which kind of scenes are ripe for cutting? The explanatory ones.

For example, in Wedding Crashers, John and Jeremy lay their sights on crashing the wedding of the daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury. This is a big deal, not one of their run-of-the-mill weddings. As Jeremy says to John, “Secret Service–that means consequences!”

In the screenplay, Faber and Fisher took pains to explain just how exactly the kings of wedding crashing overcame this particular obstacle. After debating the merits of “creating a disturbance,” they opt to rush in by tagging along with a large group.

As written, the scene is okay in terms of humor, but it’s not that inventive (or very plausible). The shenanigans John and Jeremy get into once they’re inside the church are hundred times more interesting.

The movie eliminated this explanatory scene altogether. One minute John and Jeremy were reviewing a dossier of info on the Cleary family, and the next, they were inside the church. Admittedly, for a few seconds, I wondered, “how did they sneak past the Secret Service?” but then I became distracted by the way John “committed them to a dead relative,” violating rule #32, and by their bets on whether the bride was a crier or not.

That’s the beauty of comedies. As long as you keep the good times coming, your audience will go with the flow. This rule will be especially helpful if you need to prune your first act. If your first act break is occurring way too late, examine your beginning pages ruthlessly, paying close attention to the “how” scenes.

See if you can write a smooth transition between two scenes so that one minute your characters are in scene A saying, “we need to be at point B,” and the next minute, they’re at point B, unleashing all kinds of chaos.

This rule however, doesn’t apply to mysteries, thrillers or sci-fi flicks. In those movies, your audience is invested in knowing the HOW behind all of your plot beats.

For example, in Taken, we need to see how Liam Neeson’s character tracks down the Albanians who’ve abducted his daughter. In Star Trek, we need to see how Kirk manages to board the Enterprise, even though he’s been suspended from the Academy.

Screenwriting Tip #5: Don’t dilute the threat

One of the reasons for Wedding Crashers’ success was its impeccable casting, especially with Christopher Walken playing Cleary, the Secretary of the Treasury.

Christopher Walken in Wedding Crashers

Sec. Cleary, played by Christopher Walken

He was a creepy, powerful, and imposing politician who could wield a lot of damage to our bumbling heroes once he discovered their deceit. A lot of the urgency in Act Two derives from anticipating when Cleary is going to disembowel John and Jeremy for playing fast and loose with his daughters’ hearts.

In the script, there was one minor change to Cleary’s character, which diluted his menace somewhat. Take a look:

Secretary Cleary approaches with Gloria and his wife.

SEC. CLEARY
There you two are.

JEREMY
Actually…we’re about to leave.
It’s been a lovely wedding.
(to Gloria)
I’ll call you. It’s a promise.

SEC. CLEARY
(ignoring Jeremy, to
John)
Well, look, we always hate to see
the wedding end, so we keep the
party going back at our little
place on the Vineyard. It’s
sort of a Cleary family tradition.
And, well, since we’ve all taken
a shine to you, we’d love you to
be our guests for the weekend.
What do you say?

Gloria smiles hopefully. Kathleen Cleary does the same.
Claire and Sack approach the group. John looks at Claire.

JOHN
We’d love to.

JEREMY
What?! We don’t have any other
clothes!

SEC. CLEARY
Oh, we have everything you
need out on the island.

For those of you who haven’t memorized the movie, in the theatrical release, Cleary didn’t extend the invitation to his island estate. Gloria, his impetuous daughter, did. This minor change made a significant difference.

For one thing, the impulsively extended invitation is more in keeping with Gloria’s character than with Cleary’s. For another, Cleary should remain a looming threat to John and Jeremy, especially when they will be spending the duration of the second act on Cleary’s turf. Extending an invitation makes Cleary appear more hospitable and welcoming than he really is, detracting from his menacing image.

Someone in the Cleary family has to invite John and Jeremy to the after-party in order to advance the plot. It’s just better for Gloria to be that person instead of Cleary. (Gloria’s mom could’ve worked too.)

When you’re writing your own comedy, and a plot event has to happen, make sure you ask yourself, “who is the best character to facilitate this plot beat?” Not the easiest character, but the best character. Then find a way to make it happen!

Final thoughts

Faber and Fisher made comedy writing look easy because their script wasn’t just full of clever gags. Equally as important, it was structurally sound. They took a clever premise–crashing weddings to pick up women–and developed that idea into a full-fledged story with stakes, urgency, subplots, and heart. (More on how to balance heart with raunchy humor can be found in part two of the screenwriting tips I learned from Wedding Crashers.)

The odd thing about writing comedies is that it’s usually easier to come up with the comedy gags than it is to develop the framework which supports the humor. But if you can master that, you’ve got it made!

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