Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Pulp Fiction: A Simple Trick For Shaping Your Audience’s Expectations
This episode is going to be a throwback to Pulp Fiction. I recently rewatched the film in preparation for the ProTrack mentorship session with one of my students. There are so many lessons in this film that will be really valuable for you all, so I’m excited to share them with you.
Pulp Fiction, on its surface, seems to be completely revolutionizing what screenwriting structure looks like.
Pulp Fiction unfolds out of chronological order. It has these long, long, long scenes. It has monologues, it has dance, and it has all these things that we don’t typically see in movies. Pulp Fiction looks like it’s doing something completely wild and complicated. And yes, it is.
But at the center of Pulp Fiction is something so incredibly simple. And I want to talk about this one simple idea because this is an idea that you can use in your writing.
Here’s the simple screenwriting idea that all of Pulp Fiction grows from: You never give them exactly what they’re expecting.
We talk a lot in this podcast about getting in touch with your voice. If you have taken my Write Your Screenplay Class, you know that there are actually four phases of writing, and the phase where you’re getting in touch with your voice is really just one of those phases.
One of the phases of writing that we haven’t talked a lot about on this podcast is a phase I call The Audience draft.
How do you manipulate the audience’s expectations? How do you surprise the audience? How do you track the journey that the audience is having and the way it relates to your main character’s journey.
But there’s a deeper thing that we can do as we write The Audience Draft. We can use The Audience Draft to actually push ourselves past our own inner sensor. In other words, by surprising the audience, we can also surprise ourselves. And we can also surprise our characters.
This is one of the things the screenplay for Pulp Fiction does so brilliantly: it sets up really clear expectations for the audience, and then it both delivers upon and violates them, in wonderfully entertaining ways.
For example, in the first scene, we’re going to watch this loving couple, played by Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth, plan a robbery of a diner. We think we know where we are: Oh, these crazy people who are so madly in love with each other are going to rob this diner, and we’re going to watch their little heist movie.
Their expectations around robbing the diner are set so clearly. They’ve talked about all the hard places to rob and why the diner is going to be the easiest possible place to rob.
Once you set those expectations, you know it can never happen like that.
You can never give your characters what they’re expecting. And you can never give your audience what they’re expecting. It has to happen in a slightly different way.
How do we surprise the audience’s expectations?
Well, rather than watching these two rob the diner, we cut away, and suddenly we’re in a completely different story!
That’s a shock for the audience, the audience is asking themselves, Oh, how are these two storylines going to match up?
How do you surprise the audience’s expectations? Well, that’s going to come a little bit later. But you can see that there’s a string of the plot of Pulp Fiction that Tarantino’s choice to cut away leaves dangling for us.
We don’t forget about that string even though we lose track of it. And when it comes back together in a way that we could never have anticipated, it’s so much fun for us to experience.
We’re going to cut away from Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer. We’re going to leave that as a little dangling string, and we’re going to cut in on Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, the two hitmen having their famous “royale with cheese” conversation.
We’re saying to ourselves, Oh! These are hitmen but I’ve never seen a hitman like this before.
Usually, when we see a hitman in a movie, they’re like, “you get the corner, I’ll get the back.” Everything’s so serious. Instead, these guys are talking about hamburgers, these guys are playing little status games together, and these guys are mostly shooting the shit and talking.
In fact, before they pop in on the poor kids who are going to about to get shot, Jules actually says to Vincent, “all right, let’s get in character.”
But the heat of the scene, the conflict the characters are actually fighting over, is not the hit at all. What the character actually struggling over is a philosophical question: Was it right what Marsellus Wallace did to the guy who gave his wife a foot massage?
Now, really, this is a little bit of exposition. This is all set up for the audience. Because what we don’t know is that Vincent is about to have to take care of Marsellus Wallace’s wife. This is really just a little bit of exposition so we can understand the stakes of what’s about to come.
But what Quentin Tarantino does so brilliantly in Pulp Fiction is to bury the exposition so you don’t feel it. Most likely, you don’t even register it as exposition.
You don’t feel it like exposition because these characters are fighting over it. Because these hitmen are having this philosophical conversation about what’s right, a question they both care deeply about and disagree about.
Again, what’s happening is Tarantino is setting up some really clear expectations for the audience.
Yes, the hit happens and Samuel L. Jackson has his brilliant monologue, which we’re actually going to hear three times over the course of the movie. His little quote from the Bible: I will strike down upon thee with furious anger…
We are going to get the badass hitman stuff that we are expecting. But we’re not going to get it in the way we expect it.
We’re going to send John Travolta to go take care of Marsellus Wallace’s wife, Mia, the Mira Sorvino character. And we’re going to hit the idea again and again: everybody who talks to Vincent is going to warn him in some way that this is really freakin’ dangerous. Marsellus Wallace threw a guy out a window for giving me a foot massage… so what’s going to happen to Vincent?
The expectations are really clear. We know what’s going to happen. We are waiting for John Travolta to cross the line with Mia. We know it’s coming. And we know the consequences are going to be deadly.
To make it more fun, Mia is playing a little game of seduction. She’s not going to let this just be a boring platonic date. She wants to dance. She wants to win the trophy. She wants to push things.
On the other hand, Vincent just wants to keep this really safe and platonic. But he’s going to end up giving in to her desire for a real conversation and asking her opinion about Marsellus Wallace and what he did to Mr. Foot Massage.
And Mia’s going to give him a completely different story. “Does that seem reasonable to you?” She’s going to give him a completely different story, that may or may not be true, but that’s designed to make him ask himself, Hmm, maybe this isn’t so dangerous?
She’s going to encourage him to cross the line and we’re going to watch him want to cross the line. And we want him to cross the line!
We’re having a fabulous time watching it because we know exactly what’s going to happen. We know these two are going to sleep together and then we know that Marsellus Wallace is going to try to kill him.
So we send them to the dance contest and then we walk them back into Marsellus Wallace’s house, and they’re so comfortable with each other, they’re so connected.
We send John Travolta to the bathroom, and he has this conversation with himself in the mirror: (to paraphrase) “You’re going have one drink, and you’re going to go home. This is a test of loyalty and loyalty is a very important thing.”
We’re still watching the same simple game. We know exactly what’s going to happen, and we can’t wait for it to happen! And you know what else? Vincent Vega knows exactly what is going to happen. He knows what he wants, and he knows what Mia wants, and he knows what he’s fighting.
We’re telling ourselves, from both the characters and the audience’s perspectives, exactly what’s going to happen in Pulp Fiction. And that means it has to happen, but it cannot happen the way we expect.
Of course, what happens is this: instead of sleeping with him, Mia ends up finding Vincent heroin while he’s in the bathroom. We know from some very carefully layered sequences that she is a coke addict and that this heroin is strong as hell. Mia thinks the heroin is cocaine, and she ends up overdosing on Vincent Vega’s heroin.
Then we have that crazy sequence that ends with Vincent stabbing the needle into Mia’s heart and finally, the sequence where they finally get their comfortable silence together when Vincent drops her off for a final time at Marsellus Wallace’s house, and they agree to keep the secret.
We know something awful has to happen, that puts Vincent at risk with Marsellus Wallace. If that doesn’t happen, we’re going to be disappointed, and we’re going to feel baited and switched, but it can’t happen exactly the way we expect.
That’s the simple idea that I want you to keep in mind.
It doesn’t have to be so different from our expectations. In fact, to some degree, your screenplay does have to do what we’re expecting.
If we didn’t get some badass hitman stuff from Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, we would be disappointed!
If Marsellus Wallace didn’t have a reason to kill Vincent Vega, we would be disappointed.
It’s got to happen, but it can’t happen exactly as expected: not the way the characters expect it, and not the way the audience expected.
Your job as a screenwriter is so simple.
Your job, on The Audience Draft level, is to set up the audience’s expectation of what exactly is going to happen, so you can then surprise it.
And you have the exact same job on what I call The Me Draft level, on the character draft level, which is to set up the characters’ expectations of exactly what’s going to happen, so that you can surprise them as well.
Your job as a screenwriter is to make sure that both your character and your audience are predicting a story, that’s not going to happen exactly the way they expected.
We’ve got Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, the loose thread of these two characters who want to rob this diner, that’s going to be “the easiest robbery ever.”
And then we’ve got this other thread of Jules and Vincent carrying out their hit.
And then we’ve got this third thread of Vincent Vega, the hitman who has a new relationship with Mia Wallace, the most dangerous woman in his life.
Meanwhile, there’s another thread that’s being built, the Bruce Willis thread of Butch, the boxer, who Marsellus Wallace wants to bribe to throw a fight.
And once again, we “know” exactly what’s going to happen.
We know Butch is not going to throw the fight because we’re a smart audience, and we’re watching this tough guy get bullied, and we know the guy doesn’t want to get bullied.
We also know he’s not going to throw the fight because the game of Pulp Fiction is “Marsellus Wallace is going to freakin’ kill you.”
That’s the game of the whole screenplay. That’s the game with Vincent Vega, and that is the game with Butch.
So even though Butch says “yes,” to Marsellus, we are waiting for him to get up on his morally high horse and decide not to throw the fight.
We’ve seen this movie before. We know who he is: he’s a proud boxer.
But it can’t happen exactly the way we are expecting.
Yes, Butch doesn’t throw the fight, because Butch not throwing the fight would be a much more boring movie to watch. Because rather than having the pressure of this killer Masellus Wallace after him, and the theme of Vengeance that Tarantino so loves exploring, we would instead have what? A movie about a compromise?
Not to say that couldn’t be a perfectly fine movie. Sure, it could be worth watching the story of a fighter who compromises himself to save his own life. But we don’t know enough about Bruce Willis for that to land emotionally. We’re not already in love with what a great fighter Bruce Willis is, and what would be lost if he threw the fight.
So Butch is not going to throw the fight. But it still can’t happen the way we expect.
We cut back in time, and we see Butch as a kid, receiving his father’s watch. W don’t know what this means. We don’t know why we’re here! It’s not happening the way we expected. That watch is another little dangling thread.
But, of course, after Butch wins the fight, that watch ends up becoming incredibly important. He’s got everything prepared to be on the run. He’s got this beautiful relationship with the perfect, supportive (way too young) girl, and all the money he could ever want… and then we realize, and he realizes, that she’s forgotten the watch.
We also see a dark side of Butch come out, that we’re not expecting in this kind of story. We see the controlling side of him, the cruel side, and the angry side of him. We see why is he with a woman who’s too young for him.
We get a different portrait of Butch here, just like we got a different portrait of Butch on the phone after the fight, not the noble fighter, but the selfish manipulator, when he says, (to paraphrase), “I don’t really care. I don’t care about anybody. I’m just going to get rich.” We have this new portrait of this guy we thought we knew. We’re starting to understand it is not just about the morality of throwing the fight for him, that he actually took advantage of Marsellus’ fix to bet on himself. This is not a moral guy holding on to his center. This is a guy who wants to get rich, and who wants a woman he can control.
We’re watching this really interesting character in Butch, who doesn’t really care about anybody, and we know exactly what’s going to happen. He’s going to go back for that stupid watch, and Marsellus Wallace is going to kill him. Because that’s the simple game of Pulp Fiction.
We also know that Vincent Vega has been pulled into this mess, and we have another little dangling thread that we don’t quite understand yet: Jules is not with him, and we don’t know why.
We don’t think much of it, but it raises a little question in our heads. We’ve seen Vincent a couple of times since the hit, but we haven’t seen Jules. We know something happened. But we don’t know what. Just like that Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer cutaway, we’ve got this other little dangling thread.
Regardless we think we know what’s going to happen. We are just waiting for Vincent Vega to kill Butch. We know that’s what’s going to happen.
Instead, what happens is that Butch enters the apartment without incident, gets the watch, and sees a giant gun left on the table.
This is as much a surprise for Butch as it is for us. We are surprising both the audience and the character at the same time.
What happens? Well, there’s been a running gag that Vincent Vega is constantly excusing himself to go to the bathroom. So once again, Vincent is in the bathroom. And the moment he comes out, Bruce Willis blows him away.
And we are totally shocked.
We know that Vincent Vega has to get in trouble because this thing has been brewing with Marsellus Wallace. His life needs to be at stake. We’ve been waiting for something to happen. But it doesn’t happen exactly the way we expected, and it certainly doesn’t happen the way he expected.
He thought that the danger came from Mia. The real danger came from Butch.
Butch takes off and we know what’s going to happen. He’s going to sail off happily into the sunset with this sweet young girl who is way too much under his control.
That’s what we want to see it happen. We’re waiting for that to happen. But however Butch escapes, it can’t happen exactly the way we expect, and it can’t happen exactly the way he expects.
Butch thinks he’s home free, until who does he see crossing the street? Marsellus Wallace.
So, of course, Butch does what any reasonable guy would do in the situation, and runs Marsellus Wallace over with his car. And again, it still can’t happen the way we expect. We’ve got to push it further.
Marsellus Wallace doesn’t die and Bruce Willis’s car crashes, and we have this awesome concussed chase shooting sequence, the big one we’ve been waiting for!
Marsellus Wallace finally shows off his badassery, and we have the big fight we’ve been waiting for in which Butch’s skills as a boxer give him the upper hand over Marsellus.
And we know what’s going to happen. Butch is going to get to go free. That’s what we want to happen. But it can’t happen exactly the way we expect it.
What happens instead is The Gimp. What happens instead is “Zed is dead.” What happens instead is that two very creepy, very racist, very horrible men decide to go all Deliverance on both Marsellus and Butch.
We have been waiting for Marsellus Wallace to kick some ass. Instead, Marsellus Wallace ends up getting raped by two crazy, sick, deranged men.
We have been waiting for the showdown between Bruce Willis and Marsellus Wallace and that showdown to happen, but it hasn’t played out the way we expected and it hasn’t played out the way they expected.
Of course, Butch ends up freeing himself. He ends up getting his hands untied. And he does exactly what we expect him to do. He’s a guy who doesn’t care about anybody, and Marsellus Wallace wants to kill him, He’s already screwed Marsellus Wallace once, and Marsellus Wallace has already tried to kill him and exact his revenge.
But Butch does something interesting, that once again surprises our expectations. Rather than being “the evil man,” he decides to “be the shepherd.”
Rather than being “the evil man,” he decides to go save Marsellus Wallace.
What ends up happening is these two men whom we expected to try to kill each other, end up becoming each other’s saviors. We get another beat on “we’re going to keep this secret,” just like Mia and Vincent Vega decided together.
And we finally do get the wrath that we anticipated from Marsellus, but it isn’t going to reign down upon Butch. Instead, it’s going to happen to the guy who raped Marsellus. He’s going to “get medieval on his ass.”
All the things we expected happened. But they didn’t happen the way we expected.
This is what’s been set up:
Vincent is going to get in trouble with Mia. And he does.
Butch is not going to throw the fight and Marsellus is going to come after him, and he does.
But it doesn’t happen the way we expect. And that’s what makes it so much fun.
We cut back in time, and there’s Vincent Vega again. We’re not expecting that. We thought his story was done. We’re not used to moving around in time like this.
And there’s Jules again, and we missed Jules. So we’re happy to see him. They’re in the car with the kid, and we “know” what’s going to happen. They’re going to play their little intimidation game. But it can’t happen the way they expect.
What happens instead is, they accidentally blow the kid’s head off.
And now they’ve got a problem: a car that is completely covered with blood.
We get the call to “The Wolf” to save them, and we expect this guy to come in and be a genius. But it can’t happen the way we expect.
Yes, he’s a genius. But what does he really do? He tells them to clean up the car. He gives them the simplest advice possible.
He does save them, but not in the way we expect.
What happens next is that little dangling thread about Jules gets completed. We find out what happened to Jules: he decided to retire.
We track Jules and Vincent to the diner, where they’re just going to get some breakfast after a crazy day and finally kind of chill out together.
They’re wearing their goofy civilian clothes because their cool badass suits are covered with blood. And we get another little fun payoff. We’ve seen Vincent wearing a different tie throughout the Mia sequence, we’ve been curious about why, and now we actually know why.
And then we realize, Oh! They’re at THAT diner.
And we know exactly what’s going to happen. That thread that we’ve been waiting for, with Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, knowing that is going to be the hardest heist ever because of their easy expectations.
And now we know why it’s going to be so hard: because it’s Jules and Vincent that they’re going to end up trying to rob!
And it happens exactly the way we anticipate. But not in the way we’re expecting.
The do try to rob Jules. (Vincent, of course, is back in the bathroom). They do take Jules’ wallet. And Jules, of course, is the guy with the wallet that says “badass motherfucker.” Jules is the worst possible guy for them to try to pull this one.
We know what’s going to happen. But it can’t happen in the way we expect.
What happens instead? Yes, Jules is not going to allow himself to be robbed. Yes, Jules is going to take control of that situation.
But instead of it turning into a badass fight sequence, it’s going to turn into a spiritual journey.
Jules is going to open the briefcase. Tim Roth is going to behold the light from inside. (We will never find out exactly what it is, but it just may be the Holy Grail). And then Jules is going to deliver, for the third time, that little sermon from the Bible.
I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger…
We’re going to get that monologue again.
But it’s going to be pushed even further.
Jules is going to talk about the idea that he thought was “just some cold as shit to say.” But now he realizes what it actually means.
He’s going to go through three different permutations of what it actually means.
Maybe it means you’re the evil man and I’m the righteous man and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he’s the shepherd, protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness.
Or it could mean that you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd, and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth.
The truth is, you’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying, Ringo, I’m trying to be the shepherd.
In a movie that we thought was about vengeance, we watch an evil man decide to try to be good.
We watch Jules forego vengeance, to try to become the shepherd, in the same way, that Butch became the shepherd.
And because of that, we get a happy ending, not only for “Ringo” and his wife (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) but also for Jules.
Jules gets to go on the same journey that Butch gets to go on, letting go of vengeance and trying to be the shepherd.
All the things that we expect in Pulp Fiction happen, but they don’t happen in the way we expected.
One last thought that I want to leave you within your own writing.
As you build your screenplay, I want you to think about creating those loose threads.
See, you’re not going to know right away what has to happen. Just like Jules doesn’t exactly know what the monologue he’s been giving actually means.
There are many possible permutations for how you’re going to put this thing together.
If you know right away what has to happen in your screenplay it’s probably derivative and boring. We’re probably seeing it coming. And, guess what? Your characters are probably seeing it coming as well.
Instead, I want to encourage you to build those loose threads, to let those things simmer in the background of your head.
I know this has to happen, but I can’t happen the way I expected.
I want to challenge you. Yes, surprise your audience. But use the surprises for your audience to surprise your character as well, to knock them off course and force them to change in ways that neither you nor they anticipated.
And finally, I want to encourage you to knock yourself off course! To let go of a little bit of that control, to write that crazy scene that comes to you, when you suddenly see Butch as a child and you’re like, why am I there?
I want to challenge you to allow your movie or your show or your novel or your play or your comic to unfold in a way that, yes, hits those beats that are in your outline, or hits those beats that are in your head, but doesn’t hit them in the way that you expected.
Leave those little dangling threads. And ask yourself, how do these little dangling threads come together in a way that I didn’t expect?
If you want to learn more about how to build your screenplay in an organic way like this, check out my Write Your Screenplay Class where we learn the foundations of seven-act structure and how to build your screenplay and your structure organically. That class includes a 1:1 consultation with a professional writer.
If you’re interested in our other screenwriting, TV writing, playwriting or comics writing programs you can attend any class online from anywhere in the world!
If you want, you can even join us for free every Thursday at Thursday Night Writes where a guest and I cover a different screenwriting topic each week!
*Edited for length and clarity.