The Pareto Principle For Screenwriters

I was talking to writer and screenwriting lecturer Terry Bailey the other day, and mentioned that I was polishing a new pilot episode before sending it to my agent. Which brought up the question of “how much polishing is too much polishing?” and “how do you know when your script is ready to send out?”

And that’s when Terry mentioned the Pareto Principle.

Also known as the 80-20 rule, the Pareto Principle states that, in most cases, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the total effort.

Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He later developed the principle by observing that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas. Nowadays, the Pareto Principle is commonly quoted in business; e.g., “80% of your sales by volume are to 20% of your total clients”.

But is this principle of any use to us as screenwriters? I think it is.

Probably 80% of the total impact of your screenplay is going to come from a few scenes, a few character moments, a few twists. They’re the bits the audience will remember and tell their friends about, and they’re the bits you need to really work on. Any additional effort spent polishing those will have a far greater return on investment than a similar amount of time spent on the intervening scenes.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can ignore the rest of your story. In order to have that impact, those character moments and powerful scenes have to be part of a larger narrative. A few minutes footage of a ship blowing up might make you admire the special effects – but in order to feel that moment emotionally, you have to be engaged with the characters on the ship and care about their fate. And that engagement happens not in the moment, but in all the preceeding scenes.

Three or four brilliant scenes won’t sell a badly-written story – but they might sell a screenplay that’s otherwise good-to-average. So, identify the 20% of your screenplay that’s going to have the greatest impact, and make sure you get those scenes absolutely right…

Why Murder Is More Difficult Than You’d Think

Here’s why murder mysteries are hard to write.

In any other kind of story, we come in at the inciting incident – the point at which the action of the story begins, the point at which the hero’s world is turned upside and she has to take action to save the day. Then we follow her through a gradual process of learning, changing and growing, up to the final decision where she triumphs over adversity/ her enemies and gets what she wants (or more likely, what she needs).

Murder mysteries do not work like this.

A murder mystery has an inciting incident: a body is found, or a person reported missing. They have a denouement: the murderer is caught and the detective’s theory vindicated. But that process of learning, changing and growing, the second act of your story, is missing – because all the significant events in the story have already happened. The victim is already dead, the clues have already been accidentally left or deliberately concealed, the various suspects’ have already done and said most of the things that will make them suspects or eliminate them from the enquiry.

The detective spends the second act finding out about things that are in the past – the dead man’s brother hated him, he’d changed his will, he had an illegitimate daughter, there was a diamond ring missing from the body… So I suppose he’s learning, in the strict sense of the word, but not in the self-revelatory sense in which we use the word when we’re talking about character. The detective can’t change and grow (and neither can anyone else) because nothing is happening to him. He’s just discovering information about historic events, all of which are beyond his ability to influence.

Put another way, a normal drama is like showing a football match from beginning to end. A murder mystery is like explaining why the two teams have to play each other (they’re both finalists in the FA cup, say), showing some flashbacks to previous matches to explain their rivalry, and then showing the last five minutes of the match to establish who wins.

This would explain why many murder mysteries have a second or even third murder during the course of the action, or interweave a subplot about the detective’s work life or home life. It’s current action. Something is actually happening to the character, allowing some level of character development. Because without that, it’s really difficult to sustain a story.

Undoubtedly there are writers who are brilliant at this. They manage to involve us intellectually with the puzzle of the story, and engage us with characters despite the fact that they’re not changing and growing. That’s a real skill, and if you’ve got it, congratulations!

But if you’re having difficulty structuring a detective-style story, as I so often do, perhaps bearing all this in mind will help…

The Path is Behind You

I spend a lot of my free time hiking. Why wouldn’t I, when I’m lucky enough to live on the southern edge of the Snowdonia National Park? And one of the things you notice pretty quickly while hiking around here is that the path you’re supposed to be following is not always obvious.

That is, it’s not obvious for the next twenty or fifty yards. When you reach that mudbath hollow up ahead, which way should you go on emerging? Does the path carry straight on over those rocks, or turn left or right somewhere among them? Is this the copse of trees where you should ford the stream, or aren’t you there yet?

But here’s the thing about hiking. If the path isn’t clear right in front of you, all you usually need to do is look behind you, or much further ahead.

If the path behind you is fairly straight, and lines up with the one gap in the wall up ahead, then follow that line towards the gap and you won’t go far wrong. If you can see a clear stretch of path on the hill ahead, then take the safest path through the mud and join up with it when you can.

And that’s the best way to approach writing your screenplay.

Sitting down first thing in the morning, it’s pretty common to have no idea what was suppose to happen in this scene (even if you have an outline to work from!) It’s easy to forget what plotlines this section is supposed to join up with, what past events you’re supposed to be referencing, or what your characters are thinking and feeling at this point. So that’s when you look backwards, and further ahead.

Read back over the last ten pages or so. Maybe further back, in a story with a lot of intersecting threads. Read until you’ve hit a couple of plotlines that relate to the scene you’re writing. Then think forwards to the next scene or sequence whose purpose, theme and conflict you’re sure about.

You now know the rough bearing of the path. All you have to do is navigate through the mud of your plot until the two sections of story join up. Simple.

Things I Learned From… Men In Black 3

So, Men In Black 3. Ten years after the last installment. Did someone run out of money and have to raid the Storecupboard Of Ideas That Worked Last Time Round in the hope of making a quick buck?

It was… okay. Should have been a lot funnier. For a start, if your whole point is that something happened to Agent K that changed him into an emotionally shut-off, all-about-the-job kinda guy, shouldn’t he, urm, not be like that in the past? Imagine Agent J going back to 1969 to find that K was originally a wise-cracking hippie wild man, seducing the chicks and trash-talking his enemies! Suddenly J is (comparatively speaking) the stuffy one, scrambling to restrain his crazy-impulsive partner!

No?  Well, anyway, it should still have been funnier.

But actually, my major problem with Men In Black 3 is that the plot seems to be deliberately designed to keep the central character from actually doing anything in Act Two.

Spoilers. Obviously.

End of Act One, Agent J is going back in time to save his partner’s life. He knows when K will die, and where. So he jumps straight there, right?

Well, apparently not. He jumps to the day before, under orders not to go anywhere near his partner, because… well, I have no idea why, actually. I could theorise it’s because of the Grandfather Paradox, but no one bothers to say that’s the reason – and given that J bumps into K within minutes, spends the rest of the film with him and there are no apparent ill effects…

So there he is. 1969. Twenty-four hours to wait before he can save his partner’s life at the Apollo 11 launch. So what shall we do in the meantime, movie viewers? Let’s, urm, try half-heartedly to save the lives of some random aliens whose importance to the plot is never explained. Let’s meet a actually-quite-fun alien who gives us a Magic Thingummy to save the Earth. Let’s pull Andy Warhol’s wig off. And eat some pie. That’ll do, right?

This is a movie that doesn’t have an Act Two. It has no idea how to complicate the hero’s journey towards his objective, no idea how to wring fun and games (in the Blake Snyder sense) out of it’s premise, no idea what facets of the two agents’ characters can be usefully explored by making one of them thirty years younger and dumping the other in a strange and hostile time period. Given half a chance, this movie would cut straight to Cape Canaveral and dangle off a launch gantry for ninety minutes.

Come on, people.  The episode of Stargate SG:1 where they went back to 1969 was way better than this, and it didn’t even have Will Smith!

How could Act Two have been improved? Well, one option: they could have made Agent K a target from moment one of the 1969 section. If Boris the Animal has jumped back in time to kill him and Agent J isn’t certain when it will happen (it would have been easy to find a way to deny him that information in the present), then J has to go straight to K and stick to him like glue, waiting for Boris to make an attempt on his life. (Of course, Boris will make several, each increasingly complex, funnier, and closer to succeeding.)

Then all you need is to make K unwilling to have J around – he doesn’t believe J’s wild time travel story, doesn’t like him, or even selflessly wants to stop him getting in harm’s way – and you have not only a meaningful plot, and a real threat, but also, conflict between your two main characters. And character conflict means comedy!

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure you can do better. But whatever you think should have happened, learn the lesson – Act Two is not a process of waiting for the good stuff to happen. It IS the good stuff.

It’s the place where we find out who the characters really are under pressure, what’s really at stake, and how evil the bad guys really are. If you don’t lay that groundwork in Act Two, then Act Three is meaningless shouting and running around.



Here’s another way to look at the intersection between story and character.

All stories take place at the transition point between one stage of human life, and another stage.  The transition between childhood and adulthood, immaturity and maturity, innocence and experience, psychologically damaged and psychologically whole.

Every protagonist is poised on the edge of that change from one version of themselves to another version, and your story is what’s going to push them there.

Sometimes the transition is negative and the protagonist is resisting it.  A man whose wife has been kidnapped stands on the boundary between being a husband and being a widower, and understandably, he doesn’t want to make that transition.

More often, the transition will be positive in the end, but the protagonist is naturally resistant to change.  Because in the end, aren’t we all?  Change is weird and scary, and we aren’t sure we’re going to like what we might become.  But change is the only option your protagonist should have, and your job is to keep pushing them down that slippery slope until they embrace it.

So define what stage of life your protagonist is currently in, and what stage you want them to end up in, and you’ll be a step closer to defining how your story will get them there…

So, why “Never Get Off The Bus” ?

…’cause you know you want to know.

One word.  Speed.

Great movie.  Holds up fantastically even after all these years.  I think, despite the recent buzz about Justified,  Graham Yost is still an underrated screenwriter.  I seem to be the only person in the world who actually loved Hard Rain –  and yeah, when your entire movie is filmed in a water tank, you’re never going to make your enormous budget back…   But actually, isn’t it still one of the most ingenious and unpredictable heist movies you’ve ever seen?

And Speed is a classic.  But to my mind, it makes a fundamental mistake, one which gives its name to this blog, and one of my Very Few Unbreakable Rules Of Screenwriting™.  It gets off the bus.

Speed is  – as even Homer Simpson knows  –  about a bus that, once it’s reached 50mph, can’t drop below that speed, or it will explode.  Brilliant.  Real jeopardy expressed with real clarity.  Just show the audience that speedometer needle starting to drop, and they know exactly what the danger is and what needs to be done to resolve it.  And for the first two acts of the movie, this concept works fantastically.

And then they get off the bus.

Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock save the day, the passengers are safe, the bus harmlessly explodes… Okay, the movie’s over, right?


No, now we go haring onto the subway system to try to catch the mad bomber.  And yeah, it’s all very well done, very exciting, and who doesn’t want to see crazy Dennis Hopper get his comeuppance, but…  It doesn’t feel quite as gripping as the rest of the movie, right?  Aren’t you glancing at your watch, wondering if you have any popcorn left?

Why?  Because they got off the bus.  They told you the movie was about one thing, and then they resolved the thing it was supposed to be about and just kept right on going.  See also, Casino Royale  (2006).  It’s about having to win a casino game to bankrupt a terrorist, right?  It’s in the title, dude.  And Bond does that, and, yes, the movie keeps right on going.

This is not really about location, of course.  Plenty of movies shift location for their third act, and it doesn’t matter at all.  Plenty of movies resolve one element of their plot and move on to another, larger conflict, or dispose of one antagonist and move on to battle a greater evil, and that works too.

Staying “on the bus” is about the core concept, the image in your head when you think of the movie, the tone and the actions and the conflicts that the poster and the trailer and the title sold you.  It’s about giving the audience what they came for (but in ways they never saw coming), all the way to the point the credits roll.

And that’s what we’re all here to do.  Keep the audience on the bus.