Riding the Alligator: Falling in Love … Literally

Let’s talk about romance … from a writing point of view, of course.

When working on my version of The Count of Monte Cristo for Warner Bros. some years back, I matured as a writer, but one particular discovery stayed with me.

Cristo was a sweeping, historical adventure script that did not get made, but did get me introduced to Steven Spielberg and developed a fan base across the business.

In creating a fast-paced adventure, we often have little time to flesh out our characters, let alone take the time to sculpt out a love relationship that is supposed to profoundly affect the protagonists. I remember, as a little kid, squirming in movies when the hero and his love interest go through their bonding process. That icky moon-eyed slow stuff. Concession time!

Alexander Dumas’ classic story, is about a dashing young sailor, Edmund Dantes, who gets torn from Mercedes, the love of his life, when he is unjustly thrown in prison to rot for years. Then, he escapes and discovers a vast treasure that enables him to come back in disguise and wreak revenge.

I wanted to try and cement the passion between Dantes and Mercedes in as potent a way as possible. The pinnacle of the pain of their separation, seemed to me, was they had to have decided to get married. I needed to deliver a proposal in the first few pages of the script. And yet, we had barely met the characters.

My solution was to speed up Dantes’ thinking about life and commitment. In an action storm opening, I had Dantes almost die and had him realize that he did not want to waste a second of his life. But, every time I tried to have Mercedes and Dantes verbally convey their love, I felt I was slowing the picture’s pace, like a giant hand strangling the movie! How the hell to get these two hooked and keep the audience hooked, too?

I have discovered I am frequently a lot smarter when I stop trying to think!

I decided to let my right brain go free. You know, send the problem into the subconscious repair shop, and see whether the genie in there can find me a solution?

Some of my best stuff comes out like inner dictation. As if I am channeling words from somewhere in the ether.

When I felt “ripe,” I went back to hunt and peck at the scenes … and accepted what ever was coming. No matter how odd it seemed.

I found myself setting up a scene where Dantes and Mercedes had sneaked away from a family celebration. They were outdoors in a small French Port town at night. They had just had a small argument …


(touching her face)

I see more beauty in you than ever.


We should join the others.


Marry me, Mercedes.

She laughs, shocked by the offer.


Mother says I’m too young to settle down.


Now you hide behind your mother?


This isn’t like you, Edmond. You’re scaring me.


Why, Mercedes? Am I just a red flag to wave in
your mother’s face?


That’s worse than being laughed at.


Marry me. I know we’re in love.


Love? When you aren’t near me I feel a pain. Is that
what love is?


That’s just fear of the unknown. Love takes courage.
You must try.


(she laughs)

I must? If you really loved me, you’d show me your


Name it.


Catch me the moon!



My dying wish.

He starts to shimmy up a trellis. Stands precariously on the villa roof. Tiles fall, Mercedes gasps.


No, Edmond, be careful. Enough!


Where is my quarry? Moooon?

High up, he spins riskily. The moon hangs on the rooftops.

DANTES (cont’d)

I see him. Ho, orb you’ll not escape.

Dantes leaps from roof to roof, pretending to chase the moon. Mercedes follows below, laughing, scared.


Edmond! Edmond!

Dantes arrives at a vast gulf. Sways on the edge.


I have him cornered.

He runs back and then leaps … to certain death.



Dantes glides across the star filled sky.


Look. I have his tail.

He swings from a rooftop derrick to an adjoining high barn roof. He balances, almost topples. Mercedes is awestruck, his madness touching her.


I’ll not fail you. Face me moon.

Dantes steps.

The gutter wrenches. He topples, crashing through orchard branches, slams down with a sickening thud.


Edmond! Are you alright?

(she runs to his crumpled body)

If you’re playing, I swear I’ll kill you.

She kneels by him, his silence tearing her.

MERCEDES (cont’d)

Oh, God.

Abruptly, Dantes grabs her, a huge grin. She jumps.


Now will you say you love me?

Mercedes shoves him away. Relieved more than angry.


So, where’s my moon?


You’re a hard task master. Closer…

Magically he raises his hands, then slowly un-cups them, revealing a golden apple. He presents it to her.


Why now, Edmond?


A man tried to take my life at Elba. I could hear
the blood in my veins, taste the spray in my face.
I sensed that I was a part of the universe, and yet,
I could die in an instant… All I wanted to do was to
reach out and somehow touch your skin. To be so
close that I could see inside your eyes. I was desperate
to stay alive… for you, Mercedes. I want to share my
bed with you, my body. I want to fuse our spirits into
one soul. I want to marry you. Am I making sense, or
is this madness?

Mercedes’ eyes tear. She takes off her locket and places the chain around Dantes’ neck. A sign of their union.



They kiss, deep longing, loving.

It may not be the best piece of writing in the world, but it solved my problems. It taught me how to have my characters physically act out their passion. This approach to a proposal let the audience discover Dantes and fall in love with him as Mercedes did. And it kept the pace going.

I now watch out for similar opportunities to physicalize the emotions of my characters. Sometimes I state the emotions another way, through action.

I want to make movies, not talkies.

6 thoughts on “Riding the Alligator: Falling in Love … Literally

  1. Pingback: The Story Department | Screenwriting News, Tips and Articles | The Story Department

  2. J Derek

    This guy is a hack! Hasn’t made anything worthy in years, since Robin Hood really. I read his book Riding the Alligator and the whole thing is about encouragement and keeping yourself around positive people. Sounds good right? I went to his book signing and told him that I plan to finish my script and sell it with me attached as the actor like Sly in Rocky. The @$$hole laughed and sarcastically said, “Good luck! That doesn’t happen. ‘Supposedly’ my friend, Sylvester Stallone did that, but that doesn’t happen.” Screw him. Hypocritical bastard.

  3. Hester SchellHester Schell

    Hi Pen,
    Too bad this didn’t get made. I see a younger Johnny Depp and …. Natalie Portman… Who would you have liked to see play these lovers?
    With the latest version of 3 Musketeers box office bomb in the USA, doesn’t bode well for other period pieces.

    Thanks for posting this. I especially like your comment …”make movies, not talkies.”


  4. pen

    Hi – I am delighted when something helps another writer. As for Austin – I too was fascinated when I was interviewing Caroline. Her truthfulness, love of writing and imagination were stimulating and encouraging. Who would have guessed she based the character of Edward Scissorhands on her own dog’s personality?