What Works & What Doesn't: 'Pulp Fiction'
Welcome once again to What Works & What Doesn't, a monthly column dedicated to the craft of screenwriting. For this installment, we're going to look at the architecture of a scene in its entirety, in particular how action (or scene descriptions) and dialogue are used to generate beats, which in turn move a scene along toward a climax.
For refreshment's sake, let's look at Robert McKee's definition of a beat, from his book Story: Style, Structure, Substance and the Principles of Screenwriting:
A BEAT is an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. Beat by Beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene.
Recall in last month's installment, we looked at beats in action with Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's wonderful screenplay The Apartment, specifically the way solid beats invert or even subvert our previous understanding of the scene's values. We're going to take this analysis one step further by looking at how beats are used as building blocks in the construction of a scene, whereby the values established at the beginning of the scene are decidedly different at the end.
To illustrate these concepts, I've chosen a screenplay that is known predominantly for its dialogue: Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary's Pulp Fiction. And indeed, the exchanges of words between the characters in this film are masterful, with dialogue mostly dominating the script's pages. But while the writers predominantly use dialogue rather than action, their scenes follow traditional storytelling arcs, even if overall the storytelling is decidedly non-traditional.
Let's jump right in.
Once again, let's turn to McKee for his definition of a scene:
A SCENE is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character's life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance. Ideally, every scene is a STORY EVENT.
Now, what exactly is a Story Event? As defined by McKee:
A Story Event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and ACHIEVED THROUGH CONFLICT.
And finally, the definition of Story Values:
STORY VALUES are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift form positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next.
What Works & What Doesn't
Okay, I know that's a lot of definitions to throw at you all at once, but they're important for our overall understanding of a scene's dynamics, or how a scene functions solely to draw, hook and maintain our attention. To compress the three definitions into one, basically McKee states that a scene begins with one set of values, either positive or negative, and ends with the opposite of those values. These values are often defined from the characters' perspectives, but are also rooted in the audience's understanding of character and situation.
Still lost? No problem, this stuff can get a bit convoluted on paper, but in practice it makes a lot more sense. So let's take a look at a scene from Pulp Fiction to better highlight these concepts. It's one of the more famous scenes from the film, and it's also the first scene. We'll be looking at the "last draft," dated May 1993, and we'll take this page by page, discussing both the solid and mushy aspects (what works and what doesn't) as we go. Note that the screenplay is transcribed here as-is, typos and all.
Here we go...
INT. COFFEE SHOP - MORNING
A normal Denny's, Spires-like coffee shop in Los Angeles. It's about 9:00 in the morning. While the place isn't jammed, there's a healthy number of people drinking coffee, munching on bacon and eating eggs.
Two of these people are a YOUNG MAN and a YOUNG WOMAN. The Young Man has a slight working-class English accent and, like his fellow countrymen, smokes cigarettes like they're going out of style.
It is impossible to tell where the Young Woman is from or how old she is; everything she does contradicts something she did. The boy and girl sit in a booth. Their dialogue is to be said in a rapid-pace "HIS GIRL FRIDAY" fashion.
Okay, let's pause for a second and look at what we've got so far. The first scene description (or paragraph) is just that: Tarantino and Avary succinctly describe where we are, using Denny's and Spires as a spatial shorthand for the kind of environment in which this scene will take place. In the next two blocks of text, the writers describe our two characters, giving both the readers and the actors a quick sense of who these people are. Ostensibly the description of the woman (we later come to know her as Honey Bunny, her man as Pumpkin) as a person who constantly contradicts herself falls a little flat, mainly because it feels a little too cryptic and not actionable. But let's see how this description might manifest in Honey Bunny's behavior.
So, we know where we are and in a very general sense who these people are. These details are a small part of our starting values, what we know of the characters and the setting. But it isn't until the first lines of dialogue appear that the establishment of values really begins.
No, forget it, it's too risky. I'm through doin' that shit.
You always say that, the same thing every time: never again, I'm through, too dangerous.
I know that's what I always say. I'm always right too, but --
-- but you forget about it in a day or two --
-- yeah, well, the days of me forgittin' are over, and the days of me rememberin' have just begun.
When you go on like this, you know what you sound like?
I sound like a sensible fucking man, is what I sound like.
You sound like a duck.
(imitates a duck)
Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack....
What can we immediately see in this exchange? First off, we know that Pumpkin and Honey Bunny have been engaged in some kind of risky or dangerous behavior—or have they? Because, according to Honey Bunny, Pumpkin complains about the risk and the danger every single time, but then he forgets about his complaint in a day or two, and goes on with the risky behavior. However, Pumpkin is adamant that he means it this time: he WILL remember how he feels about the situation.
These are the bare-bones details. What else do we learn by interpreting the text? For starters, the conversation sounds very much like that of a couple, particularly one that has been together for some time. Perhaps they are siblings or friends, but it is clear from the get-go that they are close, because Honey Bunny is able to call out Pumpkin, rather than blindly placate him; conversely, Pumpkin doesn't really get angry with Honey Bunny for calling him out, just more insistent—"No! This time really IS going to be different." Nor does he brush her off either, indicating that he values her opinion of him (otherwise he wouldn't bother convincing her).
Finally, in what way has Tarantino and Avary "turned" the script so far? We don't have very much on the page at this moment, but quite a bit of intrigue has already been generated. First, the writers have not yet revealed the exact nature of this risky, dangerous business, so to a degree the audience is paying attention to the scene to find out just what it is the characters are talking about. Second, we've seen a couple of dynamic changes—or beats—between Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, especially the latter's disarming of the former by calling him out on his usual rant, then diffusing the intensity of the conversation with humor, comparing his rant to a duck's quack.
Now, this is only page one of the script, and we've already seen two significant turnings of values, with many unanswered questions still hanging in the air. This is important because as a general rule of thumb, scripts should contain roughly two and a half beats per page (my memory is rusty on just where this rule originated, and Google brought up nada, so if anyone knows the source let us know in the comments section). Let's take a look at what direction Tarantino and Avary take from here:
Well take heart, 'cause you're never gonna hafta hear it again. Because since I'm never gonna do it again, you're never gonna hafta hear me quack about how I'm never gonna do it again.
The boy and girl laugh, their laughter putting a pause in there, back and forth.
(with a smile)
Correct. I got all tonight to quack.
A WAITRESS comes by with a pot of coffee.
Can I get anybody anymore coffee?
Oh yes, thank you.
The Waitress pours the Young Woman's coffee. The Young Man lights up another cigarette.
I'm doin fine.
The Waitress leaves. The Young Man takes a drag off of his smoke. The Young Woman pours a ton of cream and sugar into her coffee.
The Young Man goes right back into it.
I mean the way it is now, you're takin' the same fuckin' risk as when you rob a bank. You take more of a risk. Banks are easier! Federal banks aren't supposed to stop you anyway, during a robbery. They're insured, why should they care? You don't even need a gun in a federal bank.
Okay, what do we notice about page two? Honey Bunny's "quack quack" tactic works to calm Pumpkin down, though not immediately, as he goes on another profanity-laden rant about how much he really means it this time. Honey Bunny once again has to call him out, which finally makes Pumpkin smile and calm down a bit. Much of the page is consumed with the Waitress bits, and then Pumpkin jumps right back into his argument, now providing evidence as to why what they're doing is too dangerous—which the writers now reveal is robbery of some kind, though we still don't know exactly what types of establishments or people the couple has been robbing, and moreover, why, which helps to maintain a sense of intrigue while at the same time shedding some light on what exactly their conversation is about.
This reveal of information about the nature of the couple's behavior is the biggest beat on this page, with the second being the successful diffusing of Pumpkin by Honey Bunny, resulting in his smiling and fuming less about the conversation at hand, so we're maintaining the general rule of two to three beats per page. The prolonged appearance and disappearance of the Waitress, and her coffee-pouring action feels a bit static compared to everything else that has happened before. However, consider that the presence of the waitress derails the couple's conversation—i.e., Pumpkin waits to continue with his argument until after she's left. This, then, is a subtle hint at the reveal that is about to happen at the end of the page—he doesn't want the waitress to overhear this discussion of the couple's criminal activity—but it's also a moment of foreshadowing, considering how the scene ends. Still, the bit with the waitress goes on a tad too long, so it's no wonder that this action is trimmed down in the final film (and this is why a good editor is an asset).
Let's move on to page three:
YOUNG MAN (CONT'D)
I heard about his guy, walked into a federal bank with a portable phone, handed the phone to the teller, the guy on the other end of the phone said: "We got this guy's little girl, and if you don't give him all your money, we're gonna kill 'er."
Did it work?
Fuckin' A it worked, that's what I'm talking about! Knucklehead walks into a bank with a telephone, not a pistol, not a shotgun, but a fuckin' phone, cleans the place out, and they don't lift a fuckin' finger.
Did they hurt the little girl?
I don't know. There probably never was a little girl -- the point of the story isn't the little girl. The point of the story is they robbed the bank with a telephone.
You wanna rob banks?
I'm not sayin' I wanna rob banks, I'm just illustrating that if we did, it would be easier than what we been doin'.
So you don't want to be a bank robber?
Naw, all those guys are goin' down the same road, either dead or servin' twenty.
And no more liquor stores?
Where are the beats here, and how do they build upon or invert the values we can already recognize? Let's start with what is apparent about the scene. We have Pumpkin elaborating on his statement from the previous page, that robbing banks is far less risky than the kind of robbery they've been up to of late. He and Honey Bunny have some more of that His Girl Friday-style "back and forth," mostly revolving around the fate of the little girl, and whether or not she ever even existed, followed by Pumpkin asserting that he doesn't want to rob banks. Finally, Honey Bunny reveals the exact topic of the conversation: she and Pumpkin have been robbing liquor stores.
What is key here is that Honey Bunny seems to be needling Pumpkin a little. She asks about the little girl—perhaps she's genuinely concerned about the kidnapped child's fate, or perhaps she only asks because she knows it will derail Pumpkin and get him riled up. She also asks him twice if he wants to be a bank robber. We get the sense she knows he doesn't want to be bank robber, but that she's toying with him—not in a malicious way, but rather affectionately.
Why would she do this? Remember the description of Honey Bunny from before—everything she does contradicts something she did. Given this, we can view this playful needling as beats within the scene, because this action works to subvert her goal of simmering Pumpkin down on the previous page, effectively reversing the values formerly established. This combined with the reveal that the couple have been robbing liquor stores constitutes our two beats per page, especially since the latter opens up a new question: if not liquor stores, then what?
Now, let's look at how Tarantino and Avary address this question and further turn the next page.
What have we been talking about? Yeah, no-more-liquor-stores. Besides, it ain't the giggle it usta be. Too many foreigners own liquor stores. Vietnamese, Koreans, they can't fuckin' speak English. You tell 'em: "Empty out the register," and they don't know what it fuckin' means. They make it too personal. We keep on, one of those gook motherfuckers' gonna make us kill 'em.
I'm not gonna kill anybody.
I don't wanna kill anybody either. But they'll probably put us in a situation where it's us or them. And if it's not the gooks, it these old Jews who've owned the store for fifteen fuckin' generations. Ya got Grandpa Irving sittin' behind the counter with a fuckin' Magnum. Try walkin' into one of those stores with nothin' but a telephone, see how far it gets you. Fuck it, forget it, we're out of it.
Well, what else is there, day jobs?
Not in this life.
Well what then?
He calls to the Waitress.
Then looks to his girl.
The Waitress comes by, pouring him some more.
So, Pumpkin confirms no more liquor stores, and further elaborates on the myriad reasons why it's too dangerous. The first beat here is hidden within his racial slur-laden rant, and it's this: "Besides, it ain't the giggle it usta be." This tells us that he and Honey Bunny have fallen into a life of crime because they enjoy it—i.e., not because they were hard-up and desperate. This subtly reveals them to be more dangerous than we previously thought, since they stick-up people for the pure fun of it.
The second beat is, of course, Pumpkin's line "This place," in response to Honey Bunny's query about what they're going to rob now that liquor stores are out of the question. What's really interesting is that, again, Tarantino and Avary reverse what was established two pages ago: rather than having Pumpkin bottle up when the waitress arrives, he instead calls her over with bravado and, as she's approaching the table, tells Honey Bunny his idea about robbing the restaurant. He's basically flaunting his criminality here, whereas before he spoke cryptically and shut up altogether when the waitress came by. I hope you're noticing a pattern here: page by page, the writers turn the values of the scene, back and forth in the same spirit as His Girl Friday.
Will they keep this momentum up? Let's keep reading and find out.
"Garcon" means boy.
Here? It's a coffee shop.
What's wrong with that? People never rob restaurants, why not? Bars, liquor stores, gas stations, you get your head blown off stickin' up one of them. Restaurants, on the other hand, you catch with their pants down. They're not expecting to get robbed, or not as expecting.
(taking to idea)
I bet in places like this you could cut down on the hero factor.
Correct. Just like banks, these places are insured. The managers don't give a fuck, they're just tryin' to get ya out the door before you start pluggin' diners. Waitresses, forget it, they ain't takin' a bullet for the register. Busboys, some wetback gettin' paid a dollar fifty a hour gonna really give a fuck you're stealin' from the owner. Customers are sittin' there with food in their mouths, they don't know what's goin' on. One minute they're havin' a Denver omelette, next minute somebody's stickin' a gun in their face.
The Young Woman visibly takes in the idea. The Young Man continues in a low voice.
See, I got the idea last liquor store we stuck up. 'Member all those customers kept comin' in?
More and more, we're getting this Bonnie and Clyde vibe from the couple. Pumpkin's line about no one robbing restaurants indicates a possible desire for fame and glory—yes, there's the safety aspect, which he discusses, but one gets the sense the matter goes deeper than that. Remember, sticking up is a "giggle" for him, and he called the waitress over for more coffee right before telling Honey Bunny "This place." He likes a little bit of danger, he likes the thrill, and one suspects he may want infamy. This actually gives a solid reason why the characters remain nameless until the very end of the scene.
Why, then, does Pumpkin lower his voice again at the bottom of the page? There is a good reason for this move, which will present itself in the successive pages. For now, it generates a bit more intrigue—why this precaution following bravado...?
Beat-wise, turning-wise, we see Honey Bunny align with Pumpkin on this page, whereas previously she playfully taunted him or attempted to calm him. Basically, Pumpkin began with an argument, a matter on which he needed to convince his significant other; and now, he's winning. We're building toward a climax here...
Then you got the idea to take everybody's wallet.
That was a good idea.
We made more from the wallets than we did the register.
Yes we did.
A lot of people go to restaurants.
A lot of wallets.
Pretty smart, huh?
The Young Woman scans the restaurant with this new information. She sees all the PATRONS eating, lost in conversations. The tired WAITRESS, taking orders. The BUSBOYS going through the motions, collecting dishes. The MANAGER complaining to the COOK about something. A smiles breaks out on the YOUNG Woman's face.
I'm ready, let's go, right here, right now.
Remember, same as before, you're crowd control, I handle the employees.
They both take out their .32-caliber pistols and lay them on the table. He looks at her and she back at him.
Here we have a continuation of Honey Bunny's alignment with Pumpkin's idea by way of an escalation of her excitement, followed by the big BAM! beat, the reveal that Pumpkin isn't merely casing the joint, his idea is to rob the restaurant right then and there. This momentum continues on into page seven, which is not a full page for this scene, but rather a fantastic button closer for the scene:
I love you, Pumpkin.
I love you, Honey Bunny.
And with that, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny grab their weapons, stand up and rob the restaurant. Pumpkin's robbery persona is that of the in-control professional. Honey Bunny's is that of the psychopathic, hair-triggered, loose canon.
(yelling to all)
Everybody be cool, this is a robbery!
Any of you fuckin' pricks move and I'll execute every one of you motherfuckers! Got that?
And that's that for Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (for now). We see here the full reversal of roles established at the beginning of the scene. Pumpkin at first seemed unhinged, while Honey Bunny was calm and collected; now, Pumpkin is "in-control," while Honey Bunny is the "psychopath." By switching parts in this manner, Tarantino and Avary expertly pull a one-eighty on the audience, a reversal so gradual you don't even notice it (until, that is, you slow down and deconstruct the scene and examine what makes it tick).
So, to wrap up, the writers establish a set of values and, by maintaining two to two and a half beats per page, gradually turn the scene on its head. There were some rough moments throughout, bits that went on a little too long, but we can see that these moments were trimmed from the final product. Overall, by sustaining that His Girl Friday pacing and building momentum, Tarantino and Avery have given us a perfectly-written scene, one that serves as an excellent example of "how to do it" for any would-be writers out there.
What are some of your other favorite scenes from Pulp Fiction? How about perfectly-crafted scenes from other films? Do you disagree about the quality of the Pumpkin/Honey Bunny scene described above? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
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