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3 Ways the 17 Bridges Screenplay Won Me Over

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The 17 Bridges screenplay – written by Adam Mervis – has been on my ‘would like to read’ list for a while. And with the movie in theaters this month I decided to stop putting it off.

(You know I like to read screenplays before I see the movie so I can see what’s working on the page with as few preconceived notions as possible.)

I suspect there are big changes from script to screen. Including, maybe most obviously, the title — it’s now called 21 Bridges. (Somehow Manhattan got four more bridges in the time it took to make this movie??)

But in the meantime there’s plenty to learn from the screenplay itself, and today I’m calling out three things that really made an impression on me.

SPOILERS. Here’s a brief description of the story:

A disgraced detective in the NYPD is given a shot at redemption when he is thrust into the center of a city-wide manhunt for the man who is accused of killing five cops in a botched robbery attempt. As the chase unfolds in a completely locked down Manhattan, the detective begins to uncover a massive conspiracy linking much of the Police Department to a criminal empire, and must decide who exactly he is hunting…and who is hunting him.

Lesson #1: Authenticity

I don’t know anything about writer Adam Mervis’s personal background, but I can tell you that he makes me believe he knows what he’s talking about. The script takes place in New York and the world of the NYPD, specifically. We’re dealing with criminals, mobsters, beat cops, and detectives. And across the board, somehow Adam Mervis has the insight to write each one authentically.

It could just be a combination of research and strong voice. But I believe what he’s selling. He makes me feel like he knows this world and he’s letting me peek inside it. And that is very powerful. It piques my curiosity and makes me want more, and it allows me to trust the storyteller so I can go along for the ride.

He uses a lot of tools to accomplish this but the one that perhaps stands out the most is dialogue.

A lot of writers would make all of the characters in the script sound like generalized New Yorkers. After all, they are living in New York. So that wouldn’t be wrong. But it would also be lazy. Because each of these characters may be from New York, but they have many more differences between them:

Some are detectives, some are old school detectives and some are young hotshots who did a few years at the FBI, some are beat cops, some are small-time criminals, some are former criminals who’ve now gone straight, some are drug dealers, some are politicians – and they’re all wonderfully specific, with dialogue that conveys that specificity.

And, one more thing to note: even though the script is full of jargon (on all sides of the law), it’s never boring. It never feels exposition-heavy, the way scripts often do when they’re very inside a specific world. Sometimes writers who are working deep inside a specialized world feel that they have to over explain things so the audience doesn’t get lost. But as long as we can get the gist of it through context, we’ll go along.

(I really wanted to point out some dialogue examples from the script, but I don’t think there’s a single exchange without salty language. So, fair warning.)

Lesson #2: Writing as the first edit

From the first page the script is written with a kinetic energy that makes this 113 pages read faster than many 90-page scripts. Note the use of ellipses, as well as paragraphs that are more like series of images than prose descriptions.

The style keeps our mental eye moving — and moving quickly, so there’s no time to get bored. It feels almost like we’re playing catch up to what’s going on on-screen. And that’s a good thing; I want to keep up, so I’m reading as fast as I can and leaning into the story.

Here’s a quick glance at the first page:
There’s also one particular moment in the script that really stood out. For context: in the first act, one of our criminal characters, FELIX, has just been approached by a brother he’s been out of touch with, RAY. Felix is happy to see him until Ray tells Felix he needs help – that’s why he’s there. Ray owes money to some mobsters and he wants Felix’s help to rob a drug dealer in order to get the cash to escape his debt. Felix has just recently gotten out of prison and is trying to stay on the right side of the law. He turns down the proposition.

Then we see Felix go about his day, but he’s clearly still thinking about it. Ray’s his brother, his only family. We know he cares about the guy. We linger on one quiet, reflective moment… and then smash cut to the middle of the heist.

That’s right — heist in progress and going off the rails fast. Bullets flying. Felix and Ray’s plight worsening by the second.

Again, it’s that kinetic energy, created here by juxtaposing moments. Leaving out a whole bunch of information we really don’t need, but that a lot of writers would be tempted to include. It asks us to keep up, and we do. And we are rewarded by jumping straight into the action – showing us the next important event in the story – rather than making us sit through a bunch of exposition.

It’s the kind of cut we see more often in movies than in screenplays, and it’s worth thinking about. How can you write like you’re editing the movie?

Lesson #3: A deceptively simple character introduction

This character introduction for an important-though-not-major supporting character is one of the best I’ve seen recently:

“They look over to see…DETECTIVE SCRUGGS (58), gruff, unshaven, a typewriter in a computer world.”

In just a few words the writer has conveyed so much about this character. It’s just enough to let me know he’s a character to remember, but not so much that it interrupts the read. The “typewriter in a computer world” bit is evocative and gives a real impression of the essence of the character. He may be old school, he may be inelegant, but he’s not just a blunt object. He can get the job done, and maybe he doesn’t need all the fancy bells and whistles to do it. I have an immediate mental image of him, which is exactly what you want your character introductions to do.


So if I’ve just pointed out three things you can learn from 17 Bridges, why bother reading it yourself?

Reading screenplays is one of the best things you can do to learn how to write a screenplay. You start to get a feel for the shape of a good story. You sense rhythm and pacing. You notice how some scripts pull you in and don’t let go and others are a slog to get through.

The key is to observe your own reactions, and then analyze how the writer caused you to feel that way.

So what else can we learn from 17 Bridges? Share your takeaways in the Facebook group!

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