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The Art of Screenwriting: The Coen Brothers

Joel and Ethan Coen are masterful screenwriters and directors that have made several excellent films over the years. Their films span a wide variety of genres and styles, many of which are subverted or parody.

Some of their most acclaimed works include Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), A Serious Man (2009), True Grit (2010), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

With a writing and directing duo as immaculate as The Coen Brothers, it allows novice and aspiring screenwriters the chance to examine genuinely excellent films and scripts. As a result, down below will highlight the art of screenwriting and what we can learn from the Coen brothers.

Photo credit: Rolling Stone

Self-Destructive Characters

No matter what your expertise is with writing, you more than likely understand the need for conflict. The Coen brothers choose the route to develop self-destructive characters. We see this with The Dude in The Big Lebowski, Jerry in Fargo, Chad in Burn After Reading, and so on.

A character’s choice is imperative to the drive of the story, making it beneficial to the story when the character chooses that ends up hurting them. Even if that decision is for the betterment of achieving their goals, setting them back is what makes a Coen brothers script so high-action without the need to have constant conflict.

Odd or Common Characters in Unusual Settings

Virtually every film buff agrees that the Coen brothers are responsible for crafting some of the oddest characters. What many fail to realize is that many of those characters are ordinary people thrown into unusual settings. For example, we clearly see this in Fargo with Jerry and Marge, who are standard middle-class people.

On the other hand, many of their scripts feature completely unusual characters, such as The Dude and Walter in The Big Lebowski, who are also thrown into an unfamiliar setting. Creating characters involved in a situation they’re not familiar with leads to an interesting dynamic overall.

Necessary Violence

If there is one parallel to be drawn with every Coen brothers’ flick, violence is needed. Whether it’s a strange yet hilarious Dark Comedy in the Big Lebowski or the severe nature of No Country for Old Men, there is a level of violence that feels necessary for the type of story they wrote.

However, the violence isn’t utilized as a sheer shock factor for the audience. It’s implemented that’s true to the story, allowing characters to die without worrying that it’ll annoy the audience. A great example is Carl Showalter in Fargo when it’s discovered his partner Gaear Grimsrud throws him in the woodchipper.

Ambiguous Endings (Most of the Time)

Ambiguity is a vital component of any Coen brother’s script. Many have an issue with ambiguity since it doesn’t completely resolve the story. Most people prefer resolution, whether they’re discussing a film or not. Still, the need for conflict allows for ambiguity to prosper in the end.

For example, the ending of A Serious Man focuses on Danny Gopnik watching a tornado approach his school. Will he get into shelter safely, or will he be obliterated? In No Country For Old Men, we hear Ed Tom Bell discuss his dreams with his wife without hinting at what happened to Anton Chigurh. As an audience, we give ourselves the answer we’re looking for.

Uncommon Dialogue

The Coen brothers are masters of dialogue, with every scene being jammed with unbelievable and oddly humorous dialogue. Some films are more comedic than others, but they all carry the commonality of having dialogue that you would hear every day. We see this in Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men as he asks a gas station worker to call the coin flip.

Similar unrealistic yet incredible dialogue in The Big Lebowski, especially when Walter has a fit of rage related to Vietnam, Bowling, or people screwing them over. The dialogue doesn’t need to feel real as long as it’s entertaining, moves the story along, and gives us a great appreciation for it.

Tension Build-Up

No matter what Coen brothers film you examine or are discussing, there is a significant amount of tension building throughout it. This tension largely centers around the characters and their choices, leading the audience to shrivel up with anxiety over what’s going on. If you can have your audience react similarly, you’re doing the right thing writing-wise.

Highly Intense Midpoint

Most Coen brother films feature a highly intense midpoint, usually about a devastating effect of a character’s decisions. Whether it’s the Dude being knocked out in The Big Lebowski, Llewellyn facing off against Anton Chigurh, or Larry Gopnik being forced to move out, all of them feature a highly intense midpoint.

Best Films:

● Fargo (1996)

● No Country For Old Men (2007)

● Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

● The Big Lebowski (1998)

● True Grit (2010)


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