Specs and The City: 5 Screenwriting Lessons from ‘Gravity’

This past weekend, Gravity was the number one film at the box office, a title it’s now held for three straight weeks. When something like that happens in the era of the opening weekend boom-or-bust, it’s time to sit up and take notice. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s survival tale in space is tension filled from start to finish, spectacular to behold (see it in IMAX 3D if at all possible), and, like any Hollywood success story, chuck full of priceless lessons for screenwriters. Let’s take a look at…

5 Screenwriting Lessons from ‘Gravity’



1)      Jump Right Into Your Story: There’s nothing extraneous in Gravity, and it’s that way from the very beginning. After being introduced to our characters, Cuarón drops us right into the deep end. The satellite debris bombards the shuttle, and we’re off the races. Think about your own script and how much time you spend getting to the meat of your story. Don’t let some article you read about a page count for your Inciting Incident hold you back from kicking your story off hard and fast.

2)      Have a Kick-Ass Antagonist: We all know the saying that the hero of your story is only as good as their villain. In Gravity’s case, the villain is a hurtling mass of space debris that comes at the main character with unfeeling ferocity. When you do it right, you’ll find your audience as afraid of the antagonist as your main character is.

3)      Have Both An  Internal and External Journey: One of the things that can elevate a good script to a great one is the development of both an internal and external character arc for the main character. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone has an obvious external arc; she’s trying to stay alive long enough to make it back to Earth. But she also has the internal arc of trying to overcome the death of her daughter. These two arcs overlap and, as she struggles to stay alive, Stone also struggles to move past that tragedy and find some joy from living.

I will NEVER go into space.

I will NEVER go into space.

4)      Deliver on the promise of your premise: This one’s pretty straightforward, but it’s amazing how often scripts seem to misfire on it. Your audience will forgive a lot things, but feeling like they were lied to isn’t one of them. Gravity promises a space adventure with tense non-stop action, and that’s exactly what it delivers. If, after the first act, it has turned into something more along the lines of 2001, you would have (rightfully) felt betrayed.

5)      Sometimes, Less Is More: This one’s true in two different ways. First, is that you should make sure that everything in your script HAS to be there, and then cut it if it doesn’t. Gravity clocks in right around 90 pages; lean and mean. There’s nothing on the page that’s not needed. That’s not saying there’s no room for 120-page scripts, but you better make sure every single one is vital to the story you’re trying to tell. And second, don’t be afraid to tell a small story. Sure, it’s set in space, and there are some amazing special effects, but at its heart, Gravity is a story about a woman trying to stay alive. With every Summer blockbuster centered around saving the world (and a recent article from David Lindelof explaining why studios think it has to be this way), it’s refreshing to see a film that’s willing to go the other direction.

And there you have it. Five tips from Gravity and Alfonso Cuarón to help improve your own writing (Technically, I suppose that’s 6 tips, but I won’t tell if you won’t.) Now, go find an IMAX screen, check out this amazing film one more time, and marvel at how a strong story, expertly executed, can captivate the imagination.

Good luck, and until next time, keep writing.

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6 thoughts on “Specs and The City: 5 Screenwriting Lessons from ‘Gravity’

  1. Alfred S. Burnham

    Thank you, Brad, for your observations about Gravity. Your professional evaluation rings true for me. For my fellow movie goers, allow me to ask: will you really feel like you’re in outer space with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating around the Space Shuttle when you see the film Gravity? I believe so. This is so much more than a Sci-Fi flick. I discovered a type of spiritual parable in the midst of the story, and that is what makes this film such a good film in my opinion, because the story, despite its limitations, captures the initial sense of hopelessness for the woman astronaut who is drifting in space after a horrendous accident. Ultimately, she finds herself questioning whether she truly wants to go on living in the face of tragedy. At first, it’s stark survival, but as the story unfolds, it is even more. It’s survival with meaning and destiny.
    The two surviving astronauts are eventually separated and George determines that he must let go if Sandra is to have any chance to survive. Then she’s on her own. Or is she? George shows up, but that is impossible, right? He must have run out of O2. She is overcome with surprise and then we realize that whether you’re on earth or out in space, the world of the spirit is within you, coaxing you to absorb all of the strength and love that you can muster and to persevere in what seems impossible. Isn’t this the type of moral lesson that we truly crave? Why stage this entire drama unless you have some deeper questions to probe? I enjoy probing and, in fact, I never get enough of looking at profound lessons learned within desperate circumstances. The film makers took us on a unique journey. If one looks at archetypes I believe that Sandra is truly an everyman character. She faces the big question. Why should I go on? How can I possibly survive? George represents a Savior-type figure, one who makes the ultimate self-sacrifice to ensure some chance of survival for his companion. We, the audience, become companions with Sandra as we ponder our destiny and why we strive to live and breathe and struggle against all odds.
    It is my opinion that this film will win recognition by more professionals and a wider audience. Film makers and writers still have something to ponder here.

  2. DamonNomad

    Seems many miss the point of this article. I’m less interested in whether you like a movie or not but in how a movie succeeds, which is to say, how a story succeeds. If you were to read the points Brad brought up without reference to “Gravity,” his points have merit and should not be ignored. If you apply it to this one movie, then you limit the effectiveness of the advice. I didn’t see “Gravity” because a friend warned me not to. And, quite frankly, the trailers didn’t appeal to me b/c of my physics background. Not sure I would have been able to suspend my disbelief.

    But POINT #4 resonates with me unerringly. I would just add that the promise be delivered within context of what has been established. Some movies open up one way and give you something completely different, though it may end in a big bang. Kinda leaves you scratching your head.

    Also, I am a firm believer in creating the best possible hook on that very first page. If I can’t hook you on page one, I risk losing you before I get “to it.” So if I have to choose between character development and grabbing you by the throat, I’d rather rip your throat out. In a drama, I might let you breathe a little before doing so. What’s most important is to create as much curiosity and anticipation as possible. Blah, blah, blah.

  3. Jeff RichardsJeff Richards

    I feel inspired to weigh in here. Full disclosure, I’m a Scriptmag contributor as well and a friend of Brad’s, but anyone who’s witnessed our Twitter debates will attest to the fact that I don’t just go along with what Brad says. Usually quite the contrary. (Heck, I’ve even fought him over Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he freaking LOVES that movie…) So, having said that…

    I’ve got my problems with the film. I think it’s fundamentally sexist, and I think some of the dialogue is laboured. Some of the comments here have some validity. BUT… the film works. It’s a thriller with enough of a core that people are going nuts about recommending it to friends. I know filmmakers that I respect who said “This is why I make movies.” That’s a hell of a review. Does it work for YOU? Not necessarily. Do I think it’s as great as many people are saying? No. But for most people, it works as a whole. 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Not bad.

    Be careful as a writer making statements like “No one can believe…” Well, it’s grossed nearly $300M, garnered amazing reviews, generated a lot of repeat customers… obviously, many CAN believe. And if you assume no one can because you can’t, you’re closing off your mind and limiting your development as a writer. Instead of extrapolating your disbelief to everyone, figure out why others believed it. Or figure out what element of the film meant they didn’t care. Just about every film can be pulled apart. I could write pages about issues with Citizen Kane. But good films make you not LOOK for their flaws, and for $300M worth of people who are giving it overwhelmingly positive reviews, they didn’t care about these physics, or psych evals, or photographs, or expository dialogue. You can learn from any success. I personally loathe the Transformers movies, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t pull them apart to figure out their massive box office success.

    Gravity is a thrill ride. It doesn’t pretend to be a deep and meaningful drama; it’s a thriller. It takes you on the ride, and it delivers. Could the screenplay have been a better SCREENPLAY, taken in isolation? Sure. But would every change that “improved” the screenplay made a better FILM? Not in every case, and understanding that is a critical aspect of being a screenwriter. Screenplays are a component of a larger creation, and Alfonso knew always that he was writing something he would then film. He knows the science is bollocks. He’s not making a documentary. He’s making a film.

    (How well did he succeed? I’m a space nut, and I always thought it would have been great to be an astronaut, but I’m 6’4″ so it was never an option. Within the first 90 seconds of the movie, I thought “Holy shit shit shit I’m never ever ever going into space Jesus CHRIST!” That’s before the proverbial satellite hit the fan. That’s powerful stuff in my books.)

    One of the main strengths is that the film does not leave space to the very end. So yeah, in that case, backstory requires some dialogue, and moments like the photo. Want to do it through starting on the ground? Bad idea. You’ll spend at least 20-30 minutes there and kill your film. Want flashbacks? You’ve killed your momentum.

    Brad’s points are all accurate. It does jump right into the story. The forces arrayed against Bullock are life-threatening and nearly insurmountable. It does have an outer and inner journey. Greatest inner journey? No. Good support for the thrill ride? Yes. It does deliver on the promise of the premise, and it does show how less can be more.

    Note, he isn’t saying it’s Best Screenplay or Best Picture material. He isn’t saying it’s cliché-free or that the physics are bang on. He’s saying here are some lessons from a “top of the box office three weeks running” picture. Take what’s useful and apply it to your own writing. Toss out the rest. But every one of those points helped make Gravity what it is, and what it is is successful.

  4. NealR

    Um… are you aware that the vast majority of the major reviews talked about how poor the writing was, and emphasized how you really need to see it in 3-D, and on the big screen, to appreciate it? One of my favorite quotes was from the Chicago Tribune review:

    “The movie hasn’t much on its mind; some of the writing is pretty clunky; and there’s a rather cheap aspect to the female protagonist’s tragic secret.”

    Furthermore, it wasn’t like “Gravity” was made from a spec script by an unknown that was picked out of the pile because it was so good. No, it was written by an already well-known director and his son. They dashed it off in eight weeks — then spent EIGHT MILLION DOLLARS and FOUR AND A HALF YEARS on the special effects.

    And we won’t even talk about how EVERY SINGLE THING that happens in this movie is virtually impossible (due, amongst other things, to the radically different orbits of the telescope, communication satellites, and all of the stations).

    This is most decidly NOT a movie that those writing spec scripts should attempt to emulate.

  5. jeffersonic

    Gravity is an exquisite cinematic achievement, but from a screenwriting perspective, I have to disagree with your assessment in regards to your first three points.

    By “Jumping Right Into The Story”, as the Cuaróns (yes, plural–if you’re speaking to the screenwriting, you might want to actually refer to the credited writers: Alfonso and his son Jonás) have done, the audience has absolutely no chance to understand or identify with the protagonist (or any of the other characters). Because of this choice, further character development is provided with (at best) extremely clunky cliches (hello, dead astronaut’s family picture!) or (at worst) strained exposition (“Ryan, please tell me all about your dead daughter…”)

    The slapdash attention to character development also means that point 3 is extremely weakened. Yes, the external journey is obvious, but the internal journey feels completely inorganic and poorly developed. What does Ryan actually “do” to get past her crippling grief (and, for that matter, how did she actually make it beyond the psych evaluation to get a spot on the mission?)? Is it just that she somehow finds faith to not give up? (*SPOILER* Nope, it’s the charming smile of her George Clooney hallucination that gives her the hope to carry on.)

    Finally, in regards to your second point, it is true that “gravity” is indeed serious bitch; however, I can’t help but think the writers actually neutered their antagonist more than necessary. By cutting corners with questionable physics, the writers gave their hero easier outs than reality would have provided. I’m not saying that every film needs to slavishly adhere to the limits of reality (after all, don’t we go to the movies to escape reality), but I do believe the impact of the antagonist was weakened by somewhat lazy choices.

    1. Gorkarena

      I am sorry, it is a very entertaining movie but from the screenwriting point of view it is poor: no one can believe a hysterical character like Bullock’s could ever be allowed to travel to space; and the fact that both characters don’t know about each other after they have spent months or years preparing for the mission is equally unbelievable: all that information is given to the audience on screen by themselves! Big screenwriting error. And that is only considering the the dialogues and not mentioning the technical glitches and inaccuracies. Gravity would make a beautiful National Geographic fiction documentary but it cannot run for the Academy Awards (well, in main catergories at least).