Complications Ensue

Mar 31, 2015 | Writing

Whenever I get roped into reading contest finalists, one of the common problems with scripts is often that they are sketchy. They seem like the rough draft (and maybe they are) – the artist’s charcoal sketch before they break out the brushes and oils and add all of the color and texture and shading. An outline rather than a screenplay. The bullet point said: Dewey Kills Messer so the scene is Dewey pulls a gun and shoots Messer, the end. The scene is obvious and boring because there are no complications, no details. Just the basic action.

This is the end of the final season for Justified, one of the best shows on TV. Let’s go back to an episode from last year (season five) called “Over the Mountain” and look at how complications not only flesh out a scene but make it interesting and engaging. My favorite character on the series is Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) who was introduced on the very first episode. Dewey is like a Chihuahua who thinks he’s a Pit Bull, which always gets him trouble when his schemes backfire. The first scene in the first episode of Season Five has Dewey finally catching a break, being awarded $300,000 in court for being the victim of police brutality. He uses the money to buy the local brothel, and he’s in hog heaven! Until his cousins from Florida (also mentioned in that very first episode) lead by Daryl Crowe Jr. (Michael Rapaport) drive up to Harlan County to claim their share of the new family fortune. Daryl is a violent brute who immediately tries to take control away from Dewey. The brothel is losing money, and Daryl Jr. blames Dewey’s pal Wade Messer (James Le Gros) and orders Dewey to take him up into the mountains and kill him. Dewey doesn’t want to look weak, so agrees to kill his friend.

Dewey tells Messer that the missing money is buried up in the hills, so grab a shovel and help me dig for it. They drive to a secluded spot on the mountain and Dewey shows Messer where to dig. We know that he’s going to be digging his own grave. But Messer has brought a camping shovel from when he was in the Cub Scouts … and it’s going to take *forever* to dig with that! (Complication!) As Messer digs, Dewey pulls out his gun and aims it at Messer’s back. Can he pull the trigger? Can his kill his friend? (Compliaction!) When he cocks the gun, a bullet ejects! Can’t have that evidence lying around! But when he tries to find it in the dark, Messer turns (having heard the gun cocking) and Dewey aims the gun at his pal in his shaking hand. Messer pleads for his life. Then he rushes Dewey with the little camping shovel. (Complication!)  Dewey shoots Messer in the stomach… but Messer keeps coming at him! (Complication!). Messer tackles Dewey and they wrestle in the dirt. Dewey slams Messer slams Dewey’s head on a stone. Dewey finds the fallen shovel and hits Messer’s head again and again … but the little camp shovel breaks, leaving him holding a stick. (Complication!) But Messer has stopped moving … dead?

Dewey now has to dig a grave holding the blade of the camp shovel in his hands. If it was going to take forever before, now it will take twice as long to dig a hole! (Complication!). Dewey gives up, goes up to Messer’s pick up truck on the road to look for something else to dig with. Returns with a tire iron but Messer is gone. (Complication!) Dewey calls for him (yeah, like he’d answer) and searches, loses his footing and rolls down the side of the mountain! (Complication!)

It’s a long fall.


When Dewey hits the bottom, he’s bruised and beat up and lost and he still has to find Messer and kill him. He’s in some meadow, the pick up truck is way up the side of the mountain. The good news is that he’s managed to hang on to his gun. For a while he wanders around, yelling for Messer. Then he spots the blood trail. After all of these complications have gone against Dewey, we now have complications in his favor. He must follow the blood trail across the meadow and through the trees to find Messer. Complications can be “positive”: Instead of Dewey finding Messer, he has found a way to find Messer by combing the ground for blood drops from Messer’s stomach wound.

Eventually Dewey finds Messer laying on the ground behind a log. He pulls out his gun and gets ready to kill him when — you guessed it! Complications ensue! A boy on a trail about 100 feet away asks if Dewey’s okay. Dewey looks like hell: He’s rolled down a mountain and hiked around all day in the scorching sun. How do you keep the boy from coming closer and finding Messer? “I got bit by a bug, it may be contagious!”

That’s when the boy’s *mother* comes from behind the trees behind the kid. She tells Dewey if he’s injured, they’ll come over and carry him to their ATV on the road just behind the trees. (Complication!)  Now Dewey has to keep the boy and his mother from coming to him and spotting Messer. Messer, by the way, is moaning as he lays on the ground, and one of the reasons why Dewey keeps talking is to drown out the sound of the (hopefully) dying man. Dewey has no choice but to subtly drop the gun (near Messer!) and walk to the boy and his mother.

The boy and his mother help Dewey to their ATV, where her hunter husband waits with a whole bunch of guns. (Complication!) Dewey looks over his shoulder as he’s being helped to the ATV and sees Messer *crawling* toward them! (Complication!) Now Dewey must distract boy, mother, and hunter husband so that none of them see Messer crawling toward them! He manages this, gets into the ATV, and tells them to hurry him to a hospital. The ATV zooms away, leaving Messer crawling in the hot sun. He will eventually be found dead.

So Dewey does kill Messer, just not the easy way in some boring scene. Instead we have an intense scene filled with twists and turns that keeps us on the edge of our seats wondering how it will turn out.


But not every scene needs to be stretched out like this. A couple of episodes later, my other favorite character from the show, Cousin Johnny (the awesome David Meunier),  who has been a running complication in series antagonist Boyd Crowder’s life (Walton Goggins) is shot *suddenly* in a drug deal gone wrong. His death is *shocking* because there is no build up at all. Where Wade Messer was a minor character, Johnny Crowder has been a major character. There is more impact with just shooting him dead than dragging it out. And that drug deal had no end of complications! Don’t make things easy for your characters, make sure lots of complications ensue! How do you do that?


I usually take that bullet point in the outline “Dewey kills Messer” and make a list of all of the things that can possibly go wrong. I brainstorm up a long list, because I want to get past the obvious ideas to the really weird ones. The ones that aren’t as obvious. I love the Cub Scout camp shovel as a complication! That makes so much sense and leads to an odd conversation about the Webelos (older Cub Scouts) which turns perpetual screw up Messer into a real human being right before he’s going to be killed. The reason why Justified is a great show is due to scenes like this: A character who might be some sketchy supporting character in some other show is fully fleshed out, and will have these moments where we see some other side of them. Messer was a Cub Scout as a kid — and ended up like this? What happened? So, when you are making those lists of scene complications, make one for *character* complications while you’re at it! We don’t want overly simple scenes or characters!

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Photo: JUSTIFIED – Pictured: Damon Herriman as Dewey Crowe — CR: Kurt Iswarienko/FX Networks

William C. Martell


William C. Martell has written 19 films that were carelessly slapped onto celluloid: 3 for HBO, 2 for Showtime, 2 for USA Net, and a whole bunch of CineMax Originals (which is what happens when an HBO movie goes really, really wrong). He has been on some film festival juries, including Raindance in London (five times – serving with Mike Figgis, Saffron Burrows, Lennie James, Edgar Wright and in 2013 with Julian Assange). The late Roger Ebert discussed his work with Gene Siskel on his 1997 “If We Picked The Winners” Oscar show. He’s quoted a few times in Bordwell’s great book The Way Hollywood tells It. His USA Net flick Hard Evidence was released on video the same day as the Julia Roberts’ film Something To Talk About and out-rented it in the USA. A few years back he had two films released on DVD on the same day and both made the top-10 rentals. Recently wrote the remake of a hit 1980s horror flick, and later this year should have both a family film shooting. He’s the author of Secrets of Action Screenwriting, Hitchcock: Experiments In Terror, and the Blue Book series.