30 Days of Screenplays, Day 17: “The Usual Suspects”

June 17th, 2013 by

Welcome to June and the series: 30 Days of Screenplays.

Why 30 screenplays in 30 days?

Because whether you are a novice just starting to learn the craft of screenwriting or someone who has been writing for many years, you should be reading scripts.

There is a certain type of knowledge and understanding about screenwriting you can only get from reading scripts, giving you an innate sense of pace, feel, tone, style, how to approach writing scenes, how create flow, and so forth.

So each day this month, I will provide background on and access to a notable movie script.

Today is Day 17 and the featured screenplay is for the movie The Usual Suspects. You may download a PDF the script here.

Background: Original screenplay written by Christopher McQuarrie.

Plot summary: A boat has been destroyed, criminals are dead, and the key to this mystery lies with the only survivor and his twisted, convoluted story beginning with five career crooks in a seemingly random police lineup.

Tagline: The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist.

Awards: Won an Academy Award in 1995 for Best Original Screenplay

Trivia: Christopher McQuarrie’s inspiration for the character of Keyser Soze was a real-life murderer by the name of John List, who murdered his family and then disappeared for 17 years.


We reviewed this script several years ago and two GITS readers made insightful comments. The first was from The Hakk:

McQuarrie once stated in an interview that he developed the ‘Usual Suspects’ only from that one image in his head of five guys standing in a line-up. Then he had one cop interrogating a man, who talked a lot throughout that conversation to cheat the gallows. So he started to refer to him as ‘Verbal’. In the coffe room of the law firm where McQuarry worked and developed that scene was a bulletin board that had a name plate that said ‘Quartet’. And one of the lawyers in this firm had the name ‘Keyser Sume’…

I’m just writing all this because I think it is a great example of how you can compile ideas or even just bits and pieces of story fragments and cobble them together and weave them into your original mental image to create a great story.

To me, this falls under the category of brainstorming and it’s one of the single most important things we can do as writers — just let our minds go! In about a week, I’ll be citing screenwriter Alvin Sargent on this very topic in a Screenwriting 101 post. Here’s a taste where Sargent talks about the “goop” he ends up with from brainstorming:

People talking to themselves or with each other, without necessarily any connection to the story. I do a great deal of free-associating. Talk, for pages and pages, I don’t know what’s going on. Several months go by, suddenly you’ve got a big pile of stuff as if it were a basket of material, pieces ready for the quilt. I find something alive—I hope. I think too many people are too organised; they’ve got it all worked out, instead of hearing their characters.

North by Northwest evolved from a scene in Hitchcock’s mind: Protagonist being chased in a cornfield by an airplane. Miller’s Crossing began with a single image: a hat being tossed across a creek.

When you let your mind go, you tap into your subconsciousness and the more mystical aspects of the human experience, what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.” When something unusual pops into your head, write it down! Scribble it into a notebook, type it into a “Miscellaneous” Word doc, whatever. That “goop” can be gold.

The second comment came from Mike:

What I like about this script is that it teaches one of the ways that a specific rule can be broken. Look at the length of some of Verbal’s lines, like his dissertation on page 92 (of the 1994-6-11 screentalk draft) about Keyser Soze’s characteristics. That dialogue element is probably six times longer than anything a screenwriter is taught to write. It’s more than half a page!

And yet it works, and we are hanging on Verbal’s every word. The story has built up the drama over Soze so that the reader/viewer needs, wants, HAS to know more, and our audience surrogate, Kujan, elicits the story on our behalf. Then again on page 94, Verbal has some more thick, meaty blocks of text and yet they are so compelling the reader is practically salivating to devour them.

So one lesson from The Usual Suspects is… if you want to have your characters speak lengthy monologues, the story has to earn them and they have to serve the story in return, and they have to do it so well the reader doesn’t even care that he’s plowing through a five-inch-tall plank of text.

As Mike points out, if what is being said in dialogue is interesting as hell, then you can write long monologues. Now granted in the movie, they visualize Keyser Soze in action, killing his own family and all that, but the key is McQuarrie came up with some truly fascinating stuff.

Think of other notable monologues: The “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” diatribe from Network. Quint’s description in Jaws of that night from hell after the U.S.S. Indianapolis sank in the Pacific. Fascinating stuff!

But watch out. Fascinating does not mean sort of interesting or pretty cool. No, fascinating means kick-ass amazing laced with extremely powerful emotions and visuals that sock us in our psychic solar plexus. Wham!

Finally how about that twist ending in The Usual Suspects? Stop by comments and post your thoughts.

To see all of the posts in the 30 Days of Screenplays series, go here.

This series and use of screenplays is for educational purposes only!

Comment Archive

5 thoughts on “30 Days of Screenplays, Day 17: “The Usual Suspects”

  1. BobByrne1 says:

    Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorite films and a classic in the genre. But that movie began percolating the day one (or both) of the Coen Brothers finished reading Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Glass Key.’ That story is absolutely the basis for the movie, even if they didn’t give Hammett a completely deserved credit.

  2. CydM says:

    Good thing I’ve seen this movie and loved it because I found it a difficult read. Lots of talkie, talkie and difficulty keeping the characters straight. Great storytelling on Verbal’s part, but I wasn’t getting a clear definition of character through the written dialogue with the other characters. The final scene was a bit limp as well. In the film the character sketch has more tension and threat. I kept thinking it must’ve been one heck of a pitch. Or maybe I was looking for the theme this time around, which seemed to be the issue of will — who has the will to do what others won’t. That doesn’t come through as clearly in the film, which centers on sympathy for the devil.

    Lots of talk about archetypes when discussing screenplays but not iconic images. Page 4 is the first one, those flashlights in the dark. That was the first big visual moment I remember from E.T. and thought it was so cool. Now it gets used to death. There’s also the image of a single man walking away from a wall of fire, used often without ever losing its impact, and the row of people walking, changed up a bit here to just the feet and not head on.

    @BobByrne…I watched a video of Tim Ferris & Neil Strauss the other day that gave voice to what I’ve thought for a very long time — thought memes. Think it, write it, own it because it’s out there waiting to get caught. Many writers are superstitious about “talking out” their stories, and this could be why. I sure have that superstition, and I don’t like to think about something too long before getting it in some form of IP that can be published. That’s not to say some stories aren’t consciously based on other stories and not properly credited, but it is amazing how much our brains capture without us realizing we’ve ever heard it, then — whammo — we’re struck with a idea out of the blue…of the storage tank we’ve got upstairs.

    Another monologue? How about the opening of Slingblade? The audience will hang on for a good story if the character is interesting enough.

  3. 14Shari says:

    Great twist at the end, made me feel like I a fool as if I hadn’t payed enough attention to the story. The day after I saw the movie for the second time to see how I got side tracked.
    The Skeleton Key also has a surprising twist at the end that makes you wanna watch it twice.

  4. CydM says:

    Hey, wait a minute. Who’s the protagonist of this story? The nemesis? The conflict/dilemma? Seems as if the story dumps the dilemma in the reader/viewer’s lap.

    BTW, about brainstorming and thought memes…Best to wrap one’s head in aluminum foil while doing that so they won’t escape.

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