Breaking the 4th Wall – Shane Black Style

May 2nd, 2013 by

Vulture takes a trip down memory lane smack dab into the middle of the Great Spec Script Frenzy of the 90s:

The first two Iron Man movies were basically written on the fly, and while that jerry-rigged approach produced a gem of a first film, the hastily sewn seams showed in Iron Man 2. If there’s anything Iron Man 3 has in full over its two predecessors, then, it’s a clever, well-plotted screenplay that practically hums with luxury-car confidence; no surprise, since it was co-written and directed by one of the masters of the modern action movie screenplay, Shane Black. The 50-year-old isn’t Hollywood’s most prolific writer — he only has a handful of credits, including the first Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Last Boy Scout — but for a time, he was its most highly paid, and the $4 million he earned for the 1996 action film The Long Kiss Goodnight is still a Hollywood record for a spec script. How did Black do it? Simple: He made reading his screenplays way too much fun.

It’s an open secret in Hollywood that studio executives do very little reading themselves, instead employing script readers to do the dirty work of slogging through multiple scripts a day. Black wrote screenplays that were practically engineered to perk up a weary script reader, packing his scene descriptions with clever in-jokes, meta flourishes, and — when all else failed — flattering entreaties to the readers themselves.

What this is about is breaking the 4th wall, using scene description to ‘talk’ directly to the script reader. Here are a few examples from the Vulture article. From the Shane Black spec script for Lethal Weapon:

Another piece of scene description from Lethal Weapon:

Perhaps the single most famous piece of Shane Black scene description in which he broke the 4th wall is from The Last Boyscout:

In a way, this approach was sheer genius. As the article notes, it’s a massive acknowledgement of the script reader and all the shit scripts they regularly have to read. And Black embraced a simple premise about his Narrative Voice as if to say: I am going to do everything I can to entertain you. You and me? We’re allies here. I want you on my side and we are going to have a good time for the next 100 plus pages.

The Last Boyscout spec script sold for a reporter $1.75M. I’m not going to say the main reason it sold for that much dough was this choice to break the 4th wall, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

The fact is there are very few screenwriters who have such a distinctive voice, you can recognize them from what’s written on the page. Shane Black is one of them. And it’s not just the whole breaking the 4th wall angle. He took inspiration from Walter Hill and his haiku style of writing scene description — I have written extensively about this over the years, a few posts here, here, here, and here — and made it his own. Black writes great dialogue. But his scene description is equally strong, even poetic in its brevity and heightened visuality and emotion. You actually want to read it, not skim over it like most scripts.

Here is the problem. After Shane Black sold The Last Boyscout for a head-turning amount of money, the inevitable happened: Hollywood was flooded with scripts by Shane Black wannabes. So within about a year of the Boyscout sale, script readers who had at one time been regaled by Black’s breaking the 4th wall became sick and tired of all the rotten imitators.

Over the years, we’ve seen an ebb and flow of this type of scene description. And if you track current spec scripts, there is a level of what we may call ‘editorializing,’ whereby the writer ‘comments’ on the action, the characters, the mood, and so forth that is considered fine, even desirable. But you have to be judicious and consistent when doing that.

As long as we’re here, let’s discuss breaking the 4th wall, editorializing, commenting, the whole thing.

In part, it’s a question about a writer’s voice and their decision about how to approach Narrative Voice which can vary from script to script, genre to genre.

Bottom line: What do you think about breaking the 4th wall in scene description?

For more of the Vulture article, go here.

14 thoughts on “Breaking the 4th Wall – Shane Black Style

  1. ashleylynch says:

    A long time ago after I first read Shane’s Lethal Weapon script, I became enamoured with his style of writing. Not just the breaking the 4th wall, but the complete violation of what you’re told to put in a screenplay. I’m sure Shane showed his script to many people who told him it would get thrown out purely because of all his text which has nothing to do with the movie, but it makes sense. It’s an action movie. Why the hell can’t the script be fun? I’ve since adopted the same technique to varying degrees for my writing.

    1. Scott says:

      What was it Mamet said was the single rule of writing: “Never be boring”?

  2. Tread lightly here is my advice. It was cool when Black did it because it was fresh. We all know these stories now so it will very likely feel forced/derivative and take the reader out of your story. I think in comedy scripts anything goes if it’s funny. Any other genre would be a crap shoot.

    1. I think you’re right, Brendan, tread lightly.
      In the past, Scott has talked about breaking format rules if it serves the story. I think essentially, that’s what Shane Black did (does?). He used a narrative device to support/enhance the story, not for self-indulgence.

      1. Scott says:

        I concur. This is one of the major reasons I recommend reading scripts, especially recent spec scripts that sell and successful movies, to track the writing styles in play by various writers. Almost always you find a balance at work in terms of ‘editorializing’ whereby the writer manages to make the experience of reading scene description enjoyable and entertaining, but not detract from the experience or pulling a reader OUT of the story universe.

  3. Despina says:

    Totally gonna go read his scripts now. I dig his style, maaaan.

  4. Lisa says:

    Personally, I find his style tiresome, but maybe that’s just me. His commentary in the exposition always takes me out of the story and, as a result, I’ve never finished reading any of his scripts.

    1. Scott says:

      Checking out your comments, Despina and Lisa, back to back, and we see both the upside and downside potential of breaking the 4th wall.

      Again for almost all writers and all stories, we need to find a balance of effectively telling the story while maximizing the entertainment experience for the reader.

  5. So many of you are blinded by what you consider a “cool” factor without realizing he described the scene and action in very specific detail in a very minimalistic style.

    That’s the little gem of wisdom you should take from these.

    Ask yourself —

    Can you picture the scene?
    Can you write it shorter?
    Does the writing enhance or distract from the story?

    It’s also not new. Check out William Goldman’s stuff. Or Billy Wilder. Larry Kasdan.

    Any time I see this topic brought up, I always see people asking the wrong questions. “Should I do this?” “Is it still okay to do this?” — or the terrible advice of “You shouldn’t do that because it was fresh when Shane Black did it.” Bullshit.

    The real question you should ask yourself about your work is — “Does it work?”

    1. Scott says:

      James, you drive home that point I suggested in the OP: “But his [Black] scene description is equally strong, even poetic in its brevity and heightened visuality and emotion.”

      I think of scene description more as poetry than prose: fewer words, active verbs, vivid descriptors. Black and as you note many others do that as well.

  6. Hey Scott,

    great post, thanks! Do you know where I can download Billy Wilder screenplays? The only scripts I can find are transcripts… Thank you so much!


    1. Scott says:

      They are difficult to come by. Have you tried

      1. Yes, only transcripts unfortunately. :( Thx anyway!

    2. Double Indemnity screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler [pdf]:

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