10 Screenwriting Lessons You Can Learn From FORREST GUMP!

We admit it. We slept through most of FORREST GUMP. It was the opening bars of the opening theme that done us in. For years, tho, we wouldn’t tell anybody cuz GUMP is sacred, you know? Especially to film school types.

But now ScriptShadow.Net has liberated us! Thank you, Jesus Carson!

forrest_gump

by Carson Reeves

Forrest Gump may be one of the biggest anomalies in the history of moviemaking. There’s nothing here to indicate it should’ve worked besides, maybe, Tom Hanks. As a story, it goes against pretty much every rule out there. There is no goal. There are no obstacles. There’s no urgency. No real stakes to speak of. Yet it was the highest grossing movie the year it came out. It won the Oscar for best picture, best director, best screenplay. It was widely successful on just about every level. Eric Roth (who adapted the novel) is a fascinating writer. In his 30 year career, he’s never once written a spec script (until last year, ironically, when he penned a mysterious sci-fi project). He doesn’t seem to have read or studied screenwriting on any level. His approach is very much intuitive. If you look at his body of work (Benjamin Button, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Insider) he appears to eschew structure. His style is more flowy, almost like he’s following the story wherever it takes him, as long as that avenue is interesting. It’s an approach that many screenwriters attempt and fail at, but for some reason it works for him. Of course, some may argue it doesn’t. Forrest Gump is one of the most polarizing movies out there. I think it’s great, but many people absolutely despise it. Either way, it’s such a unique movie that I thought I’d break it down and see if I couldn’t find some cool screenwriting tips from it. Let’s give it a shot…

1) Say it with me: UN-DER-DOG – Forrest Gump reminds us how damn likable the underdog character is. Think about it. Who doesn’t like an underdog? And Forrest is the king of the underdogs. He’s a simpleton. He’s got leg braces. Everyone makes fun of him. He wants a girl he can never have. It’s impossible not to root for this guy. And if you have an audience rooting for your character, you’ve done the majority of your work. Rootforability accounts for probably 80% of Forrest Gump’s success. We just love this character.

2) Take some risks in your screenplay – One of the constants in Forrest Gump is that it takes tons of chances, and risky ones at that. Forrest’s great grandfather started the Ku Klux Klan. His mother prostitutes herself to the principal to keep Forrest in school. These aren’t things you’d typically associate with a “feel good” movie. Therefore it’s one of the reasons Forrest Gump feels different from every other movie out there.

3) But only if you have a great character – I’m all for taking chances. Forrest Gump proves how good a movie can be when you take risks. But if you’re going to take risks, make sure you have one hell of a main character, as he’ll act as a safety net for risks gone wrong. Forrest Gump, love him or hate him, is an unforgettable character. He alone is the reason this script can buck traditional structure and still get away with it. Taking huge story risks with average characters (or even “good” characters) is probably a death wish.

4) CONFLICT ALERT – Remember that if your script lacks structure, there better be some major forms of conflict to drive the drama. Preferably, you’d like one big EXTERIOR conflict and one big INTERIOR conflict. The exterior conflict here is that Forrest loves Jenny, but she doesn’t love him back. The interior conflict is Forrest’s desire to be smart when he’s dumb. These two conflicts drive the majority of the story’s emotional component.

5) If you don’t have a goal driving your movie, make use of “The Dramatic Question” – You all know how much I like character goals. Yet there aren’t any in Forrest Gump. We’re just experiencing Forrest’s crazy life along with him. So, if you find yourself writing that kind of movie, make sure you AT LEAST have a “Dramatic Question.” That’s a question whose answer has large ramifications for your central characters. In other words, it must be DRAMATIC. Here, the question is, “Will Forrest get Jenny?” That’s the only consistent dramatic aspect driving Forrest Gump, and because we care so much about Forrest and Jenny as characters, it’s a powerful one…

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Oh, wait, Carson likes GUMP. He says it works. That’s the same as saying you like it, isn’t it? Can you believe that something works and still despise it? Can a film (or TV show) be good yet still not be enjoyable? (One not written by Aaron Sorkin, we mean, because nothing of his has ever been enjoyable.)

You keep reading. We’ll keep pondering. Let’s see what happens after that.