Five Things Writers Can Learn From The Breakfast Club
John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club is one of the most beloved films ever made. Many of its themes—such as bullying and alienation—ring as true for teenagers today as it did when it was first released in 1985.
Hughes originally wrote the screenplay thinking it’d be his directorial debut. He already had a few big script sales under his belt and wanted to take his career to the next level. Hughes knew a major studio wouldn’t take a chance on a first-time director unless it was a low-risk project. Thus he conceived a story that took place in a single location with young actors: a high school. Moreover, most of the film takes place in the library of a high school. The idea of the detention came from his own experience as a teenager in which his classmates had nicknamed an early morning detention “The Breakfast Club.”
The project made a lot of sense for a small-budget directorial debut. The Fates smiled on Hughes, however, and two films he had penned, National Lampoon’s Vacation and Mr. Mom, were both blockbuster smashes in 1983. Suddenly, he was the hottest writer in town and Universal offered him a chance to direct another script of his: Sixteen Candles. A teen classic in its own right, Sixteen Candles was another success. Hughes wasn’t just a hot writer now, he was also a hot director. The modest little film about five teenagers serving detention still spoke to him and he decided to follow up Sixteen Candles with The Breakfast Club. The movie was yet another hit—both critically and commercially—and proved Hughes was the master of the teen film.
But how did Hughes pull off a script that primarily takes place in one room? How is it not boring as hell?
Below are five things writers can learn from John Hughes when penning a script with little action and a single location …
1.) Have strong, vivid characters who engage you and you want to know more about.
Per the main theme of the film, Hughes looks past the surface stereotypical roles of the teen protagonists. Each of the characters is complicated, three-dimensional, and has a unique worldview. Hughes also gives a gravitas to their problems, which might seem minor to an adult, but would be very serious to a young person. This is an important day to the kids in the script and, as such, it’s an important day to us.
2.) Have witty, memorable dialogue.
This is a good thing to have regardless of the type of script you’re writing. But if you’re writing a character-driven story that takes places in a single location, having witty and memorable dialogue is vital. In such a narrative, the dialogue—like in a play—becomes the action. John Bender’s confrontational barbs give The Breakfast Club an entertainment factor and urgency even though he’s stuck in detention.
3.) Find any excuse for the characters to move around and explore the farthest reaches of the location.
Again, the rebellious character of John Bender comes to the rescue. Even though he’s told not to move from his seat, Bender can’t sit still. He roams around the library, tears the pages of books, gets into the other characters’ faces, etc. His rivalry with Assistant Principal Vernon not only gives the script plenty of conflict, it leads to Bender getting banished to a storage closet (allowing for another location). Bender then breaks out and returns to the library. But it’s not long before he convinces the other students to sneak out to his locker (yet another location). Overall, if you’re writing a script with little action and a single location, it’s great to have a restless character like Bender around.
4.) The primary location doesn’t change, but the characters do.
Throughout The Breakfast Club, the five protagonists are revealing new things about themselves. These revelations are wrestled with and lead to heated discussions between the characters. We discover Bender “The Criminal” rejects the world because he’s abused at home; Claire “The Princess” is a virgin who’s stressed by always having to appear popular and cool; Brian “The Brain” is suicidal because of the academic pressure placed upon him; Andrew “The Jock” is unhappy because of the athletic pressure placed upon him; and Allison “The Basket Case” is a chronic liar because she feels ignored. Every revelation is a major step forward in the narrative. The Breakfast Club leaves the detention knowing more about each other and themselves. Their development gives the script movement.
5.) Be true to your concept.
If the story organically calls for a single location, don’t cheat. Find the drama in the confinement and explore the character(s) fully, and people won’t be bored. This applies to all kinds of stories in a primary location. Whether it’s The Breakfast Club, Clerks, Cast Away, The Shallows, or any number of low-budget contained thrillers, there isn’t always a need to trot from location to location. In fact, it’s considered an attribute because of its cost-effectiveness. John Hughes found all the comedy and drama he needed in a high school library.
Regardless of the location, if people connect with the characters and the story, they will want to keep reading.
Edwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.