Monday, April 22, 2013

What I Learned From Reading E.T.

 This post was originally written for, and posted at, the Women in Film Seattle site.  Cool organization, check them out. Anyway, in case you missed it at their site, here it is.

A friend of mine recently read a spec script of mine and was very complimentary. Which was, of course, nice. But his compliments are also the specific kinds of comments I like to hear because they tell me that I have hit the target at which I was aiming.

When people like my screenplays, the things they say most often is, “I really feel like I just watched a movie.” Or they say, “I could really picture it!” And one of my very favorites, “I couldn’t put it down”. These kinds of comments have been fairly consistent over the years. Why? How can I get these comments consistently? It’s because I spent many years reading, starting as a teenager, reading scripts and learning from them. I stole the techniques of the writers whose work sucked me into the story and made me see a movie in my head vividly.

It is astonishing to me how many aspiring screenwriters almost never read screenplays. Part of the reason for this is that with the advent of screenwriting software that formats scripts for you, folks no longer feel that they need to look at screenplays to learn that aspect, which was one of the main reasons that people ever looked at screenplays to begin with. Most people I speak to haven’t bothered to read scripts to learn much else, but there is so much to learn.

When E.T.The Extraterrestrial came out I was 17. That movie blew me away and I, already a huge Spielberg fan, became obsessed with the film and screenplay. At this time Spielberg’s most famous films were Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The man was a juggernaut. I even had a picture on my wall of Steven Spielberg with E.T. that I pulled out of an issue of Rolling Stone magazine. I wanted to know what this guy knew, so I tracked down the scripts to his films and studied them.

Movie geek that I was this picture of E.T. and Steven Spielberg was on my wall as a teenager.
I really got into reading screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s script for E.T. I’m not sure how many times I read that screenplay. Multiple times. It was while reading this brilliant script that I learned one of my biggest screenwriting lessons – make every single thing matter. It was a revelation.

It struck me as I was reading a section of the script where the boy, Elliot, is hiding in a closet with his alien buddy E.T. as they eavesdrop on Elliot’s mother reading a bedtime story to his kid sister.  

E.T. heals Elliot's cut finger
 This scene is interrupted when Elliot cuts his finger, “Ouch!”  This is where E.T. learns the meaning of the word ouch and that is associated with pain. E.T.’s finger lights up and he touches it to the boy’s finger and heals the cut, after which the pair goes back to eavesdropping on the bedtime story.

Elliot and E.T. watch as Elliot's sister is read a story.
It is a tender scene of friendship between boy and alien, but it is so much more than that. I learned something reading the script, seeing the words on the page that I had not noticed consciously while watching the film.

The story being read to Gertie, the little girl, as played by Drew Barrymore, is Peter Pan’s. So what? Think about this: writer Melissa Mathison could have chosen any story to be read to the little girl. It could have been about Snow White or the Three Little Pigs or Rumpelstiltskin or Stone Soup, but it was Peter Pan, the part where the fairy Tinkerbelle is dying. And this is what the mother is reading when Elliot and E.T. go back to listening in.

“She thinks she can get well again if children believe in fairies, “ reads the mother. “Do you believe in fairies,” she continues, “Say quick that you believe.” Gertie says emphatically that she does believe. “If you believe,” the mother reads, “clap your hands.” The girl claps earnestly. “And Tink is saved,” says the mother.

Mom reads Peter Pan to Gertie
Here’s what’s amazing: later in the film E.T. dies and is brought back to life.  Mathison works this fairy-tale imagery of miraculous resurrection into our minds; she primes us to believe what’s coming later. She did it seamlessly and skillfully. She did not stop the story to have this tender scene – she continued to tell, and add, to her story by choosing a story for the mother to read that mattered, not an arbitrary or generic one.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that the fairy Tinkerbelle is often depicted as nothing more than a glowing light, with the light dimmed to indicate when she is dying, and made to glow brightly again when she is coming back to life.  E.T’s light, too, goes out when he is dying and comes back up when he comes back to life.

The amazing screenwriter of E.T. Melissa Mathison
I often compliment a film I like by saying that it had no fat. What I mean is that the storytellers used every line, shot, scene, and character to stay on track with the story in some way. Nothing is wasted.

If I ever have to pleasure of meeting Melissa Mathison, I will remove my hat out of sheer respect for the craft of her screenplay.

Today, I use this lesson I learned from reading the screenplay for E.T. in every story I construct. This lesson changed the direction of my writing profoundly. I have no doubt that if you read great scripts, you will learn great lessons. And when you do, steal them and use them liberally. 

P.S. And in case you missed this, I was on the 20/20 Awards podcast discussing one of my very favorite films Norma Rae: And also another film I love Groundhog Day:


Mark said...

Hi Brian,

This is my first post on your log, even though I've read just about every entry you've made!

Your thoughts on E.T. are great, although I was even more intrigued by your podcast appearance regarding Groundhog Day. I've lately, by coincidence, been thinking about the invisible ink that runs through Groundhog Day, so I thought I'd share it with you.

I think that perhaps the armature of the film could be stated, "God is God and we are not." At the beginning of the film, Phil in a sense believes that he is God, that he controls the events around him. He tells the policeman on the highway, "I make the weather." He assures the woman at the bed and breakfast his chance of departure that day is 100 percent. He thinks he can mistreat people (i.e, break God's moral law) and get away with it.

When Phil starts reliving the same day over and over, this gives him actual Godlike power in many ways, and he revels in them. He punches the annoying Ned Ryerson, he seduces a beautiful woman, he robs the armored van, etc. At one point, Phil even tells Rita that he is God.

But then a series of events remind Phil that he is NOT God, that he actually isn't in control. For example, despite every effort, he cannot make Rita love him. When Phil gets despondent, he can't even take his own life. Far from being the master of the situation, Phil realizes he's actually at the mercy of it.

The crucial moment, I think, comes when Phil is helping the homeless man. Phil comes to really care about him, and does everything he can to save him (feeding him, bringing him to the hospital), but the old man dies anyway. There's one poignant and vital scene where Phil performs CPR on the man, but the man passes away just the same. Phil looks very sobered and, for the first time, looks upward to the sky, acknowledging God. He realizes that God is actually sovereign and not himself; he can't escape this.

From this point on, Phil stops trying to play God and starts obeying God (i.e., following the moral law by treating people right). At the end of the story, Phil is humbled, but is far wiser and happier, from his experience.

Anyway, I'm sure this could be improved, but there it is. :) Thanks, Brian, for helping me to see ink that was previously invisible to me!


imyjimmy said...

Brian, thanks for your Norma Rae insights. They are helping me right this moment. Now if I can only turn off the internet and write.

Arthur Dent said...


I'm not sure about the God angle in Groundhog Day. But i too love the homeless man subplot. There are lots of funny moments in the movie, but seeing Phil desperately trying to save the homeless man really put depth and emotion (at least for me) into the story. I haven't seen the movie in quite a while, so i can't comment on the deeper meaning here.

As for E.T., Brian presented yet another detail i had not noticed. He does that. Whenever i think i have figured a movie out, he presents a small but important detail i wasn't consciously aware of before.

The fairy tale is a good example of how good stories have no excess. All of the elements contribute and enforce the theme (or amature, if you prefer) or support the plot.
It reminded me of the seemingly simple concept of "clones".

PS: the captcha for my comment, i kid you not, was the actual name of my son. It's funny coincidences like these that make life, the universe and everything worthwhile :D

Unknown said...

Intentionality is everything, whether it be carefully devised or intuitive. Still waiting to see WRITTEN BY BRIAN MCDONALD on the big screen.

Hope all is well.


Scott said...

The book "Invisible Ink" is now in audiobook form! And I only found it by chance.

Mr. McDonald, you need to blog about this!

It would have been nice if you were the one narrating. Did they not offer you the opportunity?

Brian McD said...

Thanks, you guys for your comments and complements. Sorry for the delay in answering.

As for the Audiobook, I didn't know it was out yet. They hadn't let me know. So thanks for letting me know.

I didn't do the reading myself because I suck at that stuff and there is plenty of stuff online of me speaking. And Matt Armstrong does a great job.

You can get the Invisible Ink audiobook at:

And to Steven, I too would like to see WRITTEN BY BRIAN MCDONALD on the big screen. Thanks for being in my corner.

Scott said...

The audiobook is great.

Are there any plans to turn "The Golden Theme" into an audiobook?

Brian McD said...


Glad you liked the Invisible Ink audiobook. For now, there are no plans to do the other books. My guess is that we will see how this one does first.

Thanks for checking out the audiobook.

-- Brian

Scott said...

I found this quote, taken from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, and I immediately interpreted it as a lesson to improve storytelling. I think there might be a lesson in it (for writers).

Calvin : There's no problem so awful that you cant add some guilt to it and make it even worse.

Enrique E. said...

Hi, I know this is a bit off-topic, sorry about that. But I just saw the movie Fountainhead (1949) and, as I see it, it could be a good example of invisible ink AND a good example of the opposite of the Golden Theme. Maybe Brian's point of view on the movie is that it is just a bad movie, but I have the sense that the movie works well somehow. Brian, have you ever seen that movie? What do you think?

Anyway it would be time consuming to answer the question so I won't get mad if no one answers it. Thus, I take the opportunity to thank Brian for the great blog posts he is giving away to us. They are a true gift. Thanks.

Scott said...


From reading you book, I know you are a huge Rod Serling fan.

Did you see read the news that J.J. Abrams' television company has picked up the rights to Serling's unproduced final screenplay, The Stops Along the Way.

He is looking to turn it into a miniseries.

Brian McD said...

Scott, yes I did hear that about J.J. Abrams. And yes, I am a big Rod Serling fan. The results should be interesting.

Brian McD said...

Enrique E.,

I've attempted the book and seen the film, but have no memory of it, really. I don't think it worked for me as well as it seems to work for you.

This is not to say that it doesn't have some Invisible Ink and/or Golden Theme elements -- I'm sure it does and it's cool that you were able to spot them.

But I cannot comment on the film because I can't remember it at all. Sorry.

Thanks so much for the comment and for reading my posts.

Jett said...

Hey Brian,

Not sure how to get a hold of you except through your blog. This is Jett Atwood...we met at the first Tr!ckster event down in San Diego two years ago and had a few spirited conversations.
Just wanted to let you know that I've been using your Seven Steps to Storytelling at my "Comic Book Crash Course" I'm teaching for summer camp for kids aged 6 - 11 at Montalvo Arts Center and I can't tell you what a hit it is.
The kids are really telling some incredibly fun and inventive stories and the adults around (parents and counselors) are floored. I've caught kids "playing seven steps" during their break, telling collaborative stories.
I'm really excited for the end of the week when the kids finish their final comic. It's a wonderful thing when you are helping a 7 year old tell a truly delightful, well structured story.
Just wanted to say thanks for that particular gift you gave the world. I expect there are going to be some massive ripple effects from this.

All the best


joscha said...

Hey Mister McD, recently discovered your writing and, as I already told you on twitter, really like what you’re saying. It’s inspirational, so much to learn from. Deceivingly simple at first glance, but at closer inspection quite complex.

Contemplating what you wrote about armature I’m now trying to find armature in the films I watch. I’m usually pretty good at analyzing films but I’ve noticed that I find it very difficult to find the one central theme driving the story. (So difficult in fact, that it makes me feel a bit stupid) Finding this armature is further complicated because, as you say yourself, not all modern films employ a basic theme as the fundament for their story anymore.

One of my favourite films is (of course) The Big Lebowski but I’m having trouble to determine if there is a central theme to the film, and if there is what it might be. (apart from the Golden Theme which is think is present in an extremely strong way) Since the almost universal popularity of this film I’d say it probably has an armature but so far I haven’t found it.

I’ve noticed that the film starts with the image of a rolling tumbleweed (possibly presenting the passing of time) accompanied by an old fashioned song. Also most of the characters appear to be past their prime, in fact the film itself is set in the past, almost a decade prior to it’s release date. But I’m not sure how the passing of time adds up to a conclusion? Another thing I’ve noticed is the contrast between agression and passiveness. But again I’m not sure how it adds up to a conclusion for the main character.

Now, I read some of the comments here so I know that you don’t like to talk about films dear to other people. But I hope you’re willing to make an exception for me. (Please believe me when I say I’m not looking for an argument but am only looking for your opinion and insight) Any thoughts on this matter will be greatly appreciated.

Regardless of you reaction, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.

Brian McD said...

Hello Jett,

Thanks for taking the time to write and I am glad to hear that the "Seven Steps" or "Story Spine" has been useful to you, that's great to hear.

I'd like to clear up something about the story spine -- I, like yourself, have only utilized it. The person I learned it from was Matt Smith a great actor, improvisor and teacher:

Matt told me he learned it from a man named Joe Guppy and I mention both in my book Invisible Ink. There is also an amazing improvisor and teacher by the name of Rebecca Stokely who Matt says may have taught it him as well.

I think all I have done is spread the meme through my classes, blog and books.

And recently former Pixar story artist Emma Coats has been given credit as well.

I look for a long time trying to find out who originated the story spine and could not find them until recently when I heard from an improvisor named Kenn Adams who says that he is the one who invented the story spine:

You should check out this posts and comments on Aerogramme Writer's Studio blog:

Anyway, I'm glad that you are using the story spine and it is working for your students.

Thanks again for keeping in touch and reading my blog.

Brian McD said...

Hello Joscha,

You are correct that I do not want to talk about specific films people ask me about, so this is meant to be a general response rather than a response about The Big Lebowski

For one thing I think you are falling into a trap that I see people fall into all the time, you are watching the film with a bias. Ask yourself why you, and even others, like the film. One of the ways I learned about film was when I was a kid and teenager if someone said they liked a film I would ask them why they liked it. I would probe and ask follow-up questions as well. I’m sure this was annoying, but I learned a lot.

Someone once told me that a film was good and that I should go see it because they used a lot of yellow and blue in the movie. She liked yellow and blue therefore the film was clearly a good one.

People do this all the time. They may like a film because a character reminds them of someone they know. Or because it was shot in their hometown. Or they wish they could be like that guy on the screen. Or they love a particular actor or director. Or they like fast cars and there were fast cars, so how could it be bad?

Most of us work backwards using the logic if I like it it must be good.
So the very first thing is to find out what you personally are responding to.

This is a little like being in love with a person, when we see only the good things about them we are blind to things that might helps us see the whole picture more clearly.

Sometimes on the first session of one of my classes I ask people to write down a list of their favorite plays, books, television shows or movies. After they have done that I have them look over their list and take it in. Then I tell them that in order to get good at this they have to be willing to see the flaws in the things they listed. This is an almost painful process. We don’t want to see flaws in these things we love so much.

This does not mean that these things must be thrown out. In fact, I never look at these lists because I don’t want people to think I am making a judgment about their choices. I’m just saying that you must be willing to see these things as less than perfect.

There are a couple of films that I used to love, but as I have learned more over the years I like these films less and less. I even blogged about one of them:

My advice is to stop looking at the film to see why it is good and try to look at the film objectively to see what’s working or not working clearly from a storytelling perspective. And don’t dismiss what you find.

My guess is that you can’t find what you are looking for in some films is because you don’t realize that you have blinders on of some kind. See if you can find a way to remove them.

Hope this helps. Thanks for writing.

joscha said...

Thank you for your eleborate answer. You are giving me a lot of things to think about. Might need some time to let it all sink in, though.

Thanks again!

Unknown said...

Hey Mr. McDonald, thanks for this. As a kid, I read the Tinkerbell incident in William Kotzwinkle's novelization of E.T., and it seemed vaguely similar to E.T.'s resurrection, but it slipped right past my 7-year-old brain that it was in there to make me believe. It is amazing how good foreshadowing will make people buy anything.

Speaking of which, I just discovered your great Invisible Ink book and blog and spent the weekend reading both. Thanks for your terrific work. As a recovering literature major type I laughed and nodded while reading your breakdown of overly "feminine" vs. overly "masculine" writing--misunderstood people with perfectly crafted sentences and tender feelings, vs. dudes who write emotionless stories about stopping bombs from going off, and the need to combine both into a stronger whole.

The thing I wanted to mention, though, was that I appreciated your discussion of Stephen Spielberg's Amazing Stories episode "The Mission" and how it fails to do what "E.T." does. Not just in terms of setup, but in terms of truthfulness--could there be a worse theme for a war story than "Anything is possible if you believe in the power of the imagination?"

At the same time, when I was 12, the pro-creativity, "The Natural"-esque ending of "The Mission" made me want to be a storyteller, as much as anything else I ever saw. As a young subscriber to Starlog and Bantha Tracks, I bought into the ending as if it were a magical revelation about how the world worked. I wore World War II bomber cartoon art to school for a year. It's so strange because it seems like a lot of the time, the passion that makes us want to tell stories is based on early experiences with stories that might not have been that good. I am thinking of your Silverado post.

Anyway, please pardon the long response and thanks for your book.

Brian McD said...

Hello Joao,

Thanks for reading both the blog and my book Invisible Ink. Glad to know that you are getting something from them.

You mentioned the Tinkerbell story in E.T. "slipping right past your 7-year-old brain", but you have to remember it was supposed to slip by your brain, no matter what your age. It was not there to be noticed, it was there to help tell the story. It's like saying that you did not notice the inner workings of a clock. You are not meant to see the art beneath the art -- these are the tools of a magician and no one is supposed to see you palm the card.

The Mission is really great storytelling in almost every way and I can see why you liked it so much. There are some intense moments in it. If I had been younger when I saw it I might have liked it as much as you. Though I did like it very much until it ended. If only they had set that ending up in a more concrete way.

Side note: My mentor Bruce Walters was in the animation Department at ILM at the time and had an original drawing of the B-17 Bomber that appears in the episode and a few years ago he gave it to me. It is on the wall of my office as a reminder of how a story can go wrong even when most of it is working.

Thanks for your comments.

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