The Screenplays of Quentin Tarantino

From the Winter, 1994, issue of Creative Screenwriting

by Charles Deemer

        Since 1990, Quentin Tarantino has become one of the
hottest writers and directors in Hollywood, a sprint onto
center stage that culminated in the fall of 1994 with Pulp
Fiction, one of the most talked-about and controversial
films of the year.

        On the surface, there is nothing unusual about Tarantino's
rise to fame in the star-driven atmosphere of Hollywood - after all,
the system demands that SOME writer or other be this season's
fair-haired genius.  What makes Tarantino's fame and fortune
intriguing is the nature of his screenwriting: to read a script by
Quentin Tarantino is to be exposed to the artful breaking of the major
textbook and seminar "golden rules" of the craft.

        Already the term "Tarantino script" has entered the parlance
of producers.  More than one screenwriter on the Internet's
Screenwriter's List has reported news from a "prodco" that
"Tarantino-type scripts" were being sought - an extraordinary feat of
influence, considering how much of the "common wisdom" of
screenwriting Tarantino disregards in his screenplays.

        In this article, I will look carefully at four scripts by
Quentin Tarantino - Reservoir Dogs (1990), True Romance (1991),
Natural Born Killers (1991), and Pulp Fiction (1993).  My focus
will be on his writing technique and, in particular, I will offer an
answer to the question, "What is a Quentin Tarantino screenplay?"  I
also will look at how the answer to this question has changed and been
refined over time, at how Tarantino has developed as a writer.

                          Reservoir Dogs

        This story of a botched jewelry store heist is an
extraordinary debut for a writer and filmmaker.  Not only does
Tarantino define what will become his special territory - the
male-centered criminal world - but the techniques and influences that
Tarantino explores and refines in his later screenplays are mostly
evident here, including the writer's challenge to the accepted model
of the well-crafted screenplay.  Drawing on influences from the
theater (playwriting) more than from the paradigm of the Hollywood
film that has risen from countless screenplay books, college courses
and weekend seminars, in Reservoir Dogs Tarantino weaves a story that
is as refreshingly unusual as film as it would have been ordinary (in
its structure) on the live stage.

        In this screenplay, Tarantino depends on two dramatic writing
techniques common to theater but rare - and even warned against - in
screenwriting:  the extended monologue and the long, leisurely-paced
scene (in Taratino's hands, these two techniques usually depend on one
another).   He also is more inventive with chronology than traditional
screenwriting wisdom would advise, although plays frequently take such
liberties with plot, and as a playwright often does, he tells his
story through an ensemble cast rather than through a clear individual

        The story outline of Reservoir Dogs is quite ordinary, and a
breakdown of the film into its major chronological sequences would
look something like this:

        1. A big boss, Joe Cabot, with the assistance of his son, nice
        guy Eddie, puts together a gang of strangers to rob a jewelry

        2. A policeman, after undergoing extensive training to be an
        underground cop, manages to become a part of Cabot's gang.

        3. Cabot and his new gang have various meetings to plan the
        job but remain anonymous to one another, giving themselves the
        names of colors.  The job is staked out.

        4. With the cops warned by the undercover agent, the robbery
        attempt ends in a shootout. Some in the gang are killed;
        others are wounded and get away.

        5. After the robbery, Mr. White and Mr. Orange, the
        underground cop (who is wounded), convene at a warehouse,
        meeting Mr. Pink there. There is a feeling that someone set
        them up. Bickering between White and Pink culminates in a

        6. Mr. Blonde arrives at the warehouse, bringing a cop as

        7. Nice guy Eddie arrives at the warehouse, learning that Mr.
        Pink has stashed a bag of jewels.  When Eddie, White and Pink
        leave to get the stash, Blonde tortures the cop. But Mr.
        Orange, the undercover cop who is wounded, recovers enough to
        shoot Blonde.  The hostage-cop knows Orange is an undercover

        8. Eddie and the others return, seeing the mess above. Eddie
        tries unsuccessfully to find out what the hell went on during
        his absence.

        9. Boss man Cabot arrives - and he has figured out that Orange
        is the undercover cop.  But Mr. White disagrees, raising a gun
        to protect his new friend, Orange, whom he rescued and drove
        to the warehouse. There is a standoff.

       10. Then gunfire breaks out after Cabot shoots Orange -
        immediately after which the cops arrive, adding fuel to the
        shootout.  Everyone in the gang is blown away, leaving an
        empty screen at movie's end.

        To get a notion of how Tarantino reshapes this ordinary story
into an extraordinary dramatic structure, consider the story elements
in the non-chronological order that the film delivers them (numbers
refer to the sequence numbers above, with letters depicting chronology
within each unit). Also note the page-length of each scene,
remembering that common wisdom in screenwriting dictates that scenes
longer than three pages (or three minutes) are difficult to sustain.

              Order of Sequences in Reservoir Dogs

        3C (pp1-12); 4D (pp12-3); 5A (pp13-20); 4C (pp20-1);
        5B (pp21-32); 6A (pp32-7); 1A (pp38-46); 7A
        (pp46-53); 7B (pp53-5); 7C (pp55-7); 2A (pp58-61);
        2B (pp61-2); 2C (pp63); 2D (pp63-5); 2E (pp65-9); 2F
        (pp69-70; 2G (pp70-3); 4A (pp74-5); 3A (pp75-83); 2G
        (pp83-5); 3B (pp85-7); 4A (pp87-9); 8A (pp90-5);
        9A (pp95-9); 10A (pp99-100).

The story, then, is told in a non-chronological fashion that on first
analysis appears to be almost random. The sequence of story elements
goes this way:


        The first thing we notice is that the longer-than-3-minute
scene is the rule rather than the exception here, a breaking with
conventional wisdom that becomes a common parameter in a Tarantino
script.  How does the writer get away with this?  In two ways: first,
by giving long scenes great rhetorical interest in their own right
(playwrights often use "rhetoric-as-action" in this way, screenwriters
seldom do); and second, by placing these scenes within a structure in
which shock transitions set them in dramatic relief, giving an element
of foreboding or recovery to "talky" scenes that set up or follow
scenes of considerable action and violence.  Indeed, when the
rhetorical energy gets high in a Tarantino script, either something
terrible is about to happen - or something just has, from which we
need recovery.

        Let's look at some examples of these techniques at work.

        The first two scenes of Reservoir Dogs last 12 and 2 minutes -
the first shows Tarantino's rhetorical wit at work as the gang members
(about whom we know nothing yet) verbally spar at a restaurant.  Two
typical Tarantino ploys are at work here: the subject matter is
interesting in its own right, often involving pop culture, and the
rhetoric flows against the grain of the real subtext, the
not-yet-revealed dramatic foundation of the scene:

                                MR. PINK
                "Like a Virgin" is all about a girl who digs a guy
                with a big dick.  The whole song is a metaphor for big

                                MR. BLUE
                No it's not.  It's about a girl who is very
                vulnerable and she's been fucked over a few times.
                Then she meets some guy who's really sensitive--

                                MR. PINK
                --Whoa . . . whoa . . . time out Greenbay.  Tell that
                bullshit to the tourists.  (p1)

        And so it goes, with all the members of the gang present
(though we have no idea who they are yet), horsing around, kidding one
another, until Cabot, who will prove to be the boss man, says (p10):
"Okay ramblers, let's get to rambling."

        As the script continues, we get our first real clue to what is
really going on in this scene:

        The eight men get up to leave.  Mr. White's waist is in the
        F.G.  As he buttons his coat, for a second we see he's
        carrying a gun.  They exit Uncle Bob's Pancake House, talking
        amongst themselves.



        When the credit sequence is finished, we FADE TO BLACK:

        Over the BLACK we hear the sound of SOMEONE SCREAMING in

        Under the screaming, we hear the sound of a car HAULING ASS
        through traffic.

        Over the screams and the traffic noise, we hear SOMEBODY ELSE

                                SOMEBODY ELSE (VO)
                Just hold on buddy boy.

        Somebody stops screaming long enough to say:

                                SOMEBODY (VO)
                I'm sorry.  I can't believe she killed me. Who
                would've fuckin' thought that?

                                                CUT TO:


        The Somebody screaming is Mr. Orange.  He lies in the
        backseat.  He's been SHOT in the stomach.  BLOOD covers
        both him and the backseat.

        Mr. White is the Somebody Else.  He's behind the wheel of
        the getaway car.  He's easily doing 80 mph, dodging in
        and out of traffic.  (p12)

        At work here is a dramatic strategy that is part of
Tarantino's signature: characters (almost always male) banter, often
about subject matter relating to pop culture, in a way that goes
against the grain of the real context of the scene. The bantering
above precedes the botched robbery - the wounded Mr. Orange, in fact,
is the undercover cop responsible for the set up, but we don't learn
this until much later. The transition from rhetoric to action, from
the playful veneer of the movie's opening scene (amusing in itself) to
its real meaning, is made in a shocking and sudden way. One moment we
are laid back, amused by banter, and the next we are on the edge of
our seat (as reader or audience member), shocked into a new level of

        Another shock transition occurs when Mr. Blonde arrives at the
warehouse after the botched robbery.  Instead of dragging the hostage
cop in, he enters alone, interrupting the fight between Pink and
White.  Then Blonde leads them outside to the car:

        Mr. Blonde opens up the trunk of his car.  A handcuffed,
        uniformed POLICEMAN is curled up inside the trunk.

                                MR. BLONDE
                So while we're waitin for Nice Guy Eddie, what say we
                have a little fun finding out who the rat is.



        We're inside the office of Joe Cabot.  Joe's on the phone,
        sitting behind his desk.  (pp37-8)

        We are now, in fact, at the chronological beginning of the
story - and Tarantino has hooked us with considerable bait to keep
our attention while he fills in the background of the story: there's
the suspicion of a rat among the gang members and a policeman has been
taken hostage.  Our need to know "What happens next?" - the great
driving foundation of all entertainment - is manipulated with the
skill of a magician by Tarantino, who dishes out the pieces of his
story-puzzle in a way that teases us with possibilities, giving the
story a rhythm that fluctuates between shock and leisure, leisure and

        Another shock transition lets us know, before the gang members
do, that Mr. Orange is the undercover cop.  Blonde has been torturing
the hostage policeman.

        Mr. Blonde POURS the gasoline all over the cop, who's
        BEGGING him not to do this.

        Mr. Blonde just sings along with Stealer's Wheel.

        Mr. Blonde LIGHTS up a match and, while mouthing:

                                MR. BLONDE
                'Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right. Here I
                am, stuck in the middle with you.'

        He moves the match up to the cop . . .

        . . . When a bullet EXPLODES in Mr. Blonde's chest.

        The HANDHELD camera WHIPS to the right and we see the bloody
        Mr. Orange FIRING his gun.

        We cut back and forth between Mr. Blonde taking BULLET HITS
        and Mr. Orange emptying his weapon.

        Mr. Blonde FALLS down dead.  (pp55-6)

        But no sooner have we recovered from the shock transition
above than Tarantino gives us a new surprise, a leisurely developed
sequence of background information ("INSERT: TITLE CARD "MR. ORANGE &
MR. WHITE") in which we learn about Orange's preparation to go

        In this sequence, Tarantion pulls off a rare screenwriting
feat, an extremely long monologue as Orange rehearses a story that
will sell his criminal background to the rest of the gang and make him
"one of the boys."  The monologue, which I only excerpt below, begins
as Freddy (Orange) reads from a script in his apartment:

        Freddy paces back and forth, in and out of frame, rehearsing
        the anecdote.  He's reading it pretty good, but he's still
        reading it from the page, and every once in a while he
        stumbles over his words.

                . . . this was during the Los Angeles marijuana
                drought of '86.  I still had a connection.  Which was
                insane, 'cause you couldn't get weed anyfuckinwhere
                then.  Anyway, I had a connection with this hippie
                chick up in Santa Cruz . . . (pp62-3)

        The monologue continues but the setting moves:

        Another empty frame, except obviously outside.  Freddy enters
        frame from the same direction he exited in the previous scene,
        finishing his sentence.  When we move to a wider shot we see
        Freddy performing his monolog to Holdaway in a parking lot.

        Later in the monologue, we move again:

        Freddy, Joe, Nice Guy Eddie and Mr. White all sit around a
        table in a red-lighted smokey bar.  Freddy continues his
        story.  The crooks are enjoying the hell out of it. (p65)

        Not only has the rehearsal paid off, Freddy/Orange's story is
working, but the tension here is considerable because Tarantino has
let us know what the gang members do not.  As Freddy continues the
monologue, Tarantino adds even more visual variety by depicting the
action of the story-telling as an imaginary flashback.

        This must be one of the longest monologues in recent film
history - and it works like a charm.  We are already well hooked into
the story by the time Tarantino covers this part of the back story but
additionally the scene gives us sympathy for Freddy/Orange, making us
aware of the considerable preparation and risk involved in going

        The main techniques of "the Tarantino method" of screenwriting
are already well-honed in Reservoir Dogs: a plot that fluctuates
between scenes of shock/action and leisure/rhetoric; male bantering
(often about subjects relating to pop culture) that goes against the
grain of the real story and sets up or relieves shock transitions; and
the extended monologue, in which rhetoric (story-telling) itself
becomes a kind of action, as well as contributing to character
development and often to scene tension.

        In his next film, True Romance, Tarantino fine-tunes many of
these skills and expands their comic possibilities in a story more
simply told than Reservoir Dogs.

                         True Romance

        In structural terms, True Romance is Tarantino's simplest and
most traditional screenplay to date, weaving together two main
story-threads in a chronological development.  The story develops this

        Clarence is a man whose "bedroom is a pop culture explosion,"
an Elvis freak who carries on imagined conversations with the King.
When he is picked up by Alabama, a call girl hired by his brother as a
birthday present, it's a fated case of love at first sight that is not
compromised even when Alabama confesses her true motive in picking him
up at the Kung Fu triple feature.  They immediately get married.

        The hitch is, Alabama has a pimp, Drexl.  In fact, we meet
Drexl before we meet Clarence, in one of those rhetorically playful
scenes like those we've seen above, which promise to foreshadow
trouble.  Here trouble happens as early as page 10, where Drexl
suddenly interrupts what has been comic banter among drug dealers
about oral sex:  "Then in a blink, he points the shotgun at Floyd and
BLOWS him away."  Violence, as so often in a Tarantino script, comes
out of nowhere as shock transition.  In this case, Drexl's reward is a
considerable haul of cocaine.

        When the fact that Alabama has a pimp begins to eat at
Clarence, these two story threads - one connecting to Alabama's past,
the other to her possible future - move together. While in the
restroom, Clarence has a vision of Elvis:

        Clarence splashes water on his face trying to wash away the
        images that keep polluting his mind.

        EXTREME CLOSE ON: a hand with a white rhinestone studded
        sleeve, rhythmically snapping his fingers to a non-existent

        Then Clarence hears a familiar VOICE.  A voice that belongs to
        the hand.

                                FAMILIAR VOICE (O.S.)
                Well, can you live with it?

        Clarence turns and doesn't act surprised. The Voice belongs
        to ELVIS (who we only glimpse in EXTREME CLOSEUPS).


                Can you live with it?

                Live with what?

                With that sonofabitch walkin' around breathin' the
                same air as you?  And getting away with it every
                day.  Are you haunted?


                You wanna get unhaunted?


                Then do what you gotta do."  (pp31-2)

        Later Clarence admits:

                If I thought I could get away with it--

                Killin' 'im's the hard part.  Gettin' away with it's
                the easy part.  Whaddya think the cops do when a
                pimp's killed?  Burn the midnight oil tryin' to find
                out who done it?  They couldn't give a flyin' fuck
                if all the pimps in the whole wide world took two in
                the back of the fuckin' head. If you don't get caught
                at the scene with the smokin' gun in your hand, you
                got away with it.  (p33)

        So Clarence goes off to find his bride's pimp, Drexl, doing
what he's gotta do, and enters a typical "fish-out-of-water" scene
that Tarantino manipulates with great skill.  Once again he drives the
scene with shock transitions and extended monologues, combining them
to give the scene a rhetorical power more commonly associated with

        Meeting the pimp, Clarence turns down the offer of a seat and

                No thanks?  What does that mean?  Means you ate before
                you came on down here?  All full?  Is that it?  Naw, I
                don't think so.  I think you're too scared to be
                eatin'.  Now, see, we're sitting down here ready to
                negotiate, and you've already given up your shit.  I'm
                still a mystery to you.  But I know exactly where your
                ass is comin' from.  See, if I asked you if you wanted
                some dinner and you grabbed an eggroll and started to
                chow down, I'd say to myself "This motherfucker's
                carryin' on like he ain't got a care in the world.
                Who knows, maybe he don't.  Maybe this fool's such a
                bad motherfucker, he don't got to worry about nothin'.
                He jus' sit down, eat my Chinese, watch my TV."  See?
                You ain't even sat down yet.  On that TV there, since
                you been in the room, is a woman with her titties
                hangin' out, and you ain't even bothered to look.  You
                jus' been starin' at me.  Now, I know I'm pretty, but
                I ain't as pretty as a couple a titties.

        Clarence takes out an envelope and throws it on the table.

                I'm not eatin' 'cause I'm not hungry.  I'm not sittin'
                'cause I'm not stayin'.  I'm not lookin' at the movie
                'cause I saw it seven years ago.  It's "The Mack" with
                Max Julian, Carol Speed, and Richard Pryor, written by
                Bobby Poole, directed by Michael Campus, and released
                by Cinema Releasing Company in nineteen-seventy-four.
                I'm not scared of you.  I just don't like you.  In
                that envelope is some payoff money.  Alabama's moving
                on to some greener pastures.  We're not negotiating.
                I don't like to barter.  I don't like to dicker.  I
                never have fun in Tijuana.  That price is
                non-negotiable.  What's in that envelope is for my
                peace of mind.  My peace of mind is worth that much.
                Not one penny more, not one penny more.

        You could hear a pin drop in the room. . . .

                It's empty."  (pp38-9)

        The enraged pimp attacks Clarence, and it looks very bad for
our would-be hero before he is able to draw a .38 from his shoe and
finish Drexl off in the scene's concluding shock transition.  Leaving,
he grabs a suitcase - which is filled with cocaine.

        The main conflict in the story is now defined: the big boss
wants the cocaine back, while Clarence and Alabama just want to live
happily ever after.  They visit Clarence's dad, an ex-policeman who assures
Clarence that he's probably not in danger for killing a pimp (just as
Elvis had told him earlier), and Clarence decides to look up an actor
friend in Hollywood, who hopefully can sell the cocaine and earn the
newly weds a bankroll with which to start their new life.

        The story moves quickly in cat-and-mouse fashion now, as
Clarence sets up the deal and the gangsters trace their missing
cocaine to Clarence, following him to Hollywood.  Along the way,
Tarantino enriches the story with his signature techniques, giving
extended monologues to major and minor characters alike, as well as
turning the story abruptly on shock transitions.

        A gangster drills Clarence's father about the son's

                Sicilians are great liars.  The best in the world.
                I'm a Sicilian and my old man was the world
                heavyweight champion of Sicilian liars.  And from
                growin' up with him, I learned the pantomime.  Now
                there are seventeen different things a guy can do
                when he lies to give himself away.  A guy has
                seventeen pantomimes.  A woman's got twenty, but a
                guy's got seventeen.  And if ya know 'em like you know
                yer own face, they beat lie detectors all to hell.
                What we got here is a little game of show and tell.
                You don' wanna show me nuthin'.  But you're tellin'
                me everythin'.  Now I know you know where they are.
                So tell me before I do some damage you won't walk
                away from.  (p62)

        Two minutes later, in a shock transition, Coccotti "pumps
THREE BULLETS through Cliff's head" (p64).

        Another gangster, who has traced Alabama to a Hollywood
Holiday Inn, demands to know where Clarence is:

                Now, the first guy you kill is always the hardest.
                I don't care if you're the Boston Strangler or Wyatt
                Earp.  You can be that Texas guy, Charles Whitman,
                the fella who shot all them guys from that tower, I'll
                bet you green money that first little black dot that
                he took a bead on was the bitch of the bunch.  No
                foolin', the first one's a tough one to hoe.  Now,
                the second one, while it ain't no Mardi Gras, it ain't
                half as bad as the first.  You still feel somethin',
                but it's just so diluted this time around.  Then you
                completely level off on the third one.  The third
                one's easy.  It's gotten to the point now I'll do it
                just to watch their expression change.  (p85)

        Although Tarantino's shock transitions are usually associated
with violence, in True Romance there are some wonderful surprises that
work as comedy, to lighten the moment.  Comic moments like these will
prove to be a dry run for fuller development in Pulp Fiction.

        In one example, , who is Clarence's connection for
selling the cocaine, is pulled over for speeding. Caught with cocaine,
he wants to pass it to the bimbo riding with him.

                Just put it in your purse!

                I'm not gonna put that shit in my purse.

                They won't search you, I promise.  You haven't done

                No way, Jose.

                Please, they'll be here any second.  Just put it in
                your bra.

                I'm not wearing a bra.

                Put it in your pants.


                You're the one who wanted to drive fast.

                Read my lips.

        She mouths the word "no."

                After all I've done for you, you fucking whore!

        She goes to slap him and hits the cocaine bag instead, it rips
        open.  Cocaine completely covers his blue suit, at that moment
         turns to face a flashlight beam.  Tears fill his
        eyes."  (p91)

        , an actor, is blackmailed into being wired, which will
give the cops an opportunity to raid Clarence's deal.  The cops wire
 and test the equipment:

                Okay, say something.

                                 (talking loud into the wire)
                Hello!  Hello!  Hello!  How now brown cow!

                Just talk regular.

                                 (normal tone)
                "But soft.  What light through yonder window breaks?
                'Tis the east and yonder Juliet is the sun.  Oh,
                arise fair sun and kill the envious moon that is sick
                and pale with grief--"

                                WORLITZER (to the LA Officer at
                                        the tape machine)
                Are you getting this shit?  (p102)

        Cops and gangsters finally all converge on Clarence's dope
deal, ending in a Mexican standoff (Taratino is fond of this device,
using it twice in Reservoir Dogs as well as in later work) while
Clarence is in the bathroom talking to Elvis.  All hell breaks loose,
but in the chaos and confusion that ensues, not only are Clarence and
Alabama able to walk away unnoticed - but with a suitcase filled with
the drug deal money.  They live happily ever after in a Mexican beach
town, raising their child named Elvis.

        Although True Romance looks in many ways like the well-made
Hollywood screenplay, particularly in its driving, focused,
chronological structure, Tarantino depends much more on
rhetoric-as-action than most screenwriters dare.  There are more
monologues - and good ones - here than in a dozen "typical" scripts
that follow the paradign of economy. As in Reservoir Dogs, these
monologues are usually framed by loud scenes of great violence, giving
them - and the audience - a kind of relief, a context in which
rhetoric is not only acceptable (no small feat in a society
decreasingly literate, increasingly visual) but welcomed.  During a
Tarantino monologue, we get to catch our breath even as we become
tense with anticipation, waiting for the next shock transition.

        Although the underworld of crime is still Tarantino's
territory, in True Romance Clarence and Alabama are sympathetic
heroes, the first a fish out of water, the second a victim with a
chance to change her life, and we are with them all the way.  In his
next screenplay, Natural Born Killers, the writer returns to the
seedier roots of Reservoir Dogs, where we find characters much more
difficult to admire.

                  Natural Born Killers

        This story of Mickey and Mallory Knox, a husband-wife team of
psychotic killers, is Tarantino's least successful screenplay.  Here,
for the first time, the story occasionally drags under the weight of
its own structure and rhetoric. But even at that the screenplay is
more cohesive than Oliver Stone's flamboyantly stylized film (for
which Tarantino gets story credit only), which begins as a bad
marriage between MTV and Saturday Night Live before moving closer to
Tarantino's vision, if without most of the structure necessary to
sustain it.

        The problem here is not that the Knoxes are unsympathetic
characters, though this is true enough; we also have little sympathy
for most of the characters in Reservoir Dogs, which is still a
gripping script. Here the problems are focus and distance: by carrying
the story on the subplot of a slimy TV journalist, Wayne Gayle, who is
putting together an episode for "American Maniacs," we get more a
sense of the Knoxes as media images and inventions than as people in
the flesh, as psychotic as they may be. This distancing is a weakness
not found in the writer's other screenplays.

        A characteristic shock transition draws us into the film
quickly, giving us a rare personal look at the Knoxes at work before
Tarantino's structure starts pushing them away. While Mickey eats pie
at a diner's counter, Mallory gyrates a sexy dance to a jukebox tune,
turning-on a male customer.

                Hells Bells!  Don't stop now sugar.  I'm just getting
                warmed up.

        Otis give her his best shit-eating grin before turning to

        Sonny gurgles out a laugh.

                Hey, I think she's sweet on you.

        Otis turns to Mallory as she PUNCHES him hard in the face,
        spinning him around.

        Sonny spews a mouthful of Highlife.

        Mallory grabs the back of Otis' head and SMASHES it down on
        the table, cracking the linoleum.  (p4)

        After Mickey and Mallory make a blood bath in the diner, the
story suddenly bolts forward in time.  The Knoxes have been arrested
but are so troublesome as prisoners that fake medical charges have
been trumped up so they can be moved to an insane asylum. Preparation
for the move, along with the appearance of Wayne Gayle to do a story
on the Knoxes for "American Maniacs," now become the focus of the

        Unfortunately, the TV show device pushes the immediate
dramatic question into the background - will they be moved
successfully or not?  Although Tarantino fills flashbacks (packaged as
parts of the emerging show) with his characteristic shock transitions
and extended monologues, everything feels removed, at too great a

        When a prison riot begins during Gayle's interview with
MIckey, the pair manage to escape by taking the slimy TV commentator
as hostage. After Gayle has served his purpose, he too is murdered,
and we are at the end of the story with the "natural born killers"
still on the loose, ready to murder and torture the innocent and
unsuspecting on yet another day.

        This is a bleak ending, even for Tarantino, and unrelentingly
so, without even the banter of his earlier scripts to lighten the mood
along the way.  Redeeming qualities that we find in Reservoir Dogs
with its sympathetic undercover cop and in True Romance with its
unusual fish-out-of-water lovers are missing here.  In the insane
world of Natural Born Killers, insanity wins out.

        Tarantino may have learned something in writing such a bleak
vision because he turned next to Pulp Fiction. Here we find a
masterful weaving of all his earlier techniques, to which something
very new is added: the suggestion of possible redemption in the
violent and amoral universe inhabited by his lowlife characters.

                            Pulp Fiction

        On the title page of this screenplay is the description,
"Three stories . . . about one story."  A table of contents follows:

                1. Prologue
                2. Vincent Vega & Marcellus Wallace's Wife
                3. The Gold Watch
                4. Jules, Vincent, Jimmie & the Wolf
                5. Epilogue

        The three stories are numbers 2, 3 and 4 above - but the
prologue and epilogue constitute an essential frame action to
Tarantino's meaning and become a fourth story in their own right, even
though only the named stories are introduced with the formality of
on-screen titles (a device used in Reservoir Dogs and, in a variation,
in Natural Born Killers as well).

        What Tarantino accomplishes in Pulp Fiction is almost literary
in nature: a collection of short stories, if you will, that - like
Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio - depicts a common world with
common characters, letting each story stand alone (with its own
beginning, middle and end) but also reflect off the others, so that
the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, especially since
Tarantino delivers the stories in their best dramatic order for his
meaning (which also means, out of chronological sequence).

        Pulp Fiction opens with a frame action, in the same setting
and Prologue-Epilogue storyline with which it will end.  Two low-level
liquor store robbers, described as Young Man and Young Woman, are in a
diner, where they decide to change their focus to robbing restaurants
- like the very one they are in.  The conclusion leads directly to a
shock transition:

                               YOUNG WOMAN
                I love you, Pumpkin.

                                YOUNG MAN
                I love you, Honey Bunny.

        And with that, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny grab their weapons,
        stand up and rob the restaurant.  Pumpkin's robbery persona
        is that of the in-control professional.  Honey Bunny's is that
        of the psychopathic, hair-triggered, loose cannon.

                                PUMPKIN (yelling to all)
                Everybody be cool, this is a robbery!

                                HONEY BUNNY
                Any of you fuckin' pricks move and I'll execute every
                one of you motherfuckers!  Got that? (p7)

        We cut to Vincent and Jules, bantering in a car about
Vincent's three-year stay in Amsterdam.  Tarantino leaves us on the
edge of our seats, not returning to the scene above until the end of
the movie, moving immediately into a more leisurely paced scene with
comic overtones, which turns out to be the second part of the
Prologue.  Jules, who is black, learns that in Holland a Quarter
Pounder with Cheese is called "Royale with Cheese" and asks what a
Whopper is called.

                I dunno.  I didn't go into a Burger King.  But you
                know what they put on french fries in Holland instead
                of Ketchup?




                I seen 'em do it.  And I don't mean a little bit on
                the side of the plate, they fuckin' drown 'em in it.


                                                        CUT TO:


        The trunk of the Chevy opens up.  Jules and Vincent reach
        inside, taking out two .45 Automatics, loading and cocking

                We should have shotguns for this kind of deal. (p9-10)

        The banter in the car has been against the grain, both relief
from the shock transition of the restaurant robbery and preface to the
shock transition of the violent scene yet to come.  This device is
used time and time again in each of Tarantino's screenplays.

        The end of the Prologue, the moment before the title of our
first "official" story, is intense.  Vincent and Jules are there to
punish clients of their boss, Marcellus Wallce, for a deal gone wrong
and to retrieve a "black snap briefcase," the contents of which emit
"a small glow," giving it almost mythic meaning, like an underworld
Holy Grail.  Banter and shocking transitions of action fill the scene
(Brett is one of the young clients, obviously in much over his head):

                I just want you to know how sorry we are about how
                fucked up things got between us and Mr. Wallace.
                When we entered into this thing, we only had the
                best intentions--

        As Brett talks, Jules takes out his gun and SHOOTS Roger three
        times in the chest.  BLOWING him out of his chair.

        Vince smiles to himself.  Jules has got style.

        Brett has just shit his pants.  He's not crying or whispering,
        but he's so full of fear, it's as if his body is imploding.

                                JULES (to Brett)
                Oh, I'm sorry.  Did that break your concentration?
                I didn't mean to do that.  Please, continue.  I
                believe you were saying something about "best
                intentions." (p22)

        When Brett is killed, it is preceded by an extended monologue
that later becomes essential to Tarantino's meaning as he later
explores redemptive possibilities in his crime-filled underworld:

                There's a passage I got memorized, seems appropriate
                for this situation: Ezekiel 25:17.  "The path of the
                righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities
                of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.  Blessed
                is he who, in the name of charity and good will,
                shepherds the weak through this valley of darkness,
                for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of
                lost children.  And I will strike down upon thee with
                great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt
                to poison and destroy my brothers.  And you will know
                my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you."

        The two men EMPTY their guns at the same time on the sitting
        Brett. (p25)

        A third man, who will be taken hostage and play an important
role in the third story, quivers in the corner.  But a fourth,
unknown to the killers, has been in the bathroom, and at scene's end
he comes out with his gun blazing:

                                FOURTH MAN

        The fourth Man FIRES SIX BOOMING SHOTS from his hand cannon in
        the direction of Vincent and Jules.  He SCREAMS a maniacal cry
        of revenge until he's DRY FIRING.

        Then . . . his face does a complete change of expression.  It
        goes from a "Vengeance is mine" expression to a "What the
        fuck?" blank look.

                                FOURTH MAN
                I don't understand--

        The fourth Man is BLOWN OFF HIS FEET and OUT OF FRAME by
        bullets that TEAR HIM TO SHREDS.

        He leaves the FRAME EMPTY.

                                                CUT TO:

        Against black, TITLE CARD: (p26)

        and the story of "Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace's Wife"
begins.  Again, we are stunned: why did the fourth man miss at point
blank range (the answer will prove essential)?  Both the first and
second parts of the Prologue end in the middle of acts of violence,
leaving the outcome unresolved.  We are hooked in spades.

        Tarantino's first titled story is a black comedy that would
stand alone as a short film.  The big boss, Marcellus Wallace,
instructs Vincent to take his wife out to dinner in his absence.
After visiting his dealer to shoot up with heroin, Vincent takes Mia,
the wife, to a restaurant decorated in the style of the fifties, with
the hired help dressed like James Dean, Buddy Holiday, Marilyn Monroe,
Ed Sullivan and other icons of the era (Tarantino using pop culture

        The dinner goes well - the couple even win a twist contest -
until Vincent delivers Mia home.  While he's in the bathroom,
convincing himself not to make a move on her, she finds his stash of
heroin, mistakes it for cocaine, snorts it - and overdoses.

        The shock transition leaves Vincent with the wife of his boss
in deep trouble.  If she dies, he's dead himself.

        Vincent rushes Mia to his dealer's house, where the black
comedy goes into overdrive as Vincent and the dealer rush around
looking for medical books and antidotes - it's the Three Stooges in
drugland.  Finally, Mia is revived and Vincent takes her home
again, where they make a pact to keep this secret among themselves.

        Mia is Tarantino's most fully realized female character,
an exception to the rule in this writer's very male world, and the
banter between her and Vincent has a sense of flirtation not seen
elsewhere in Tarantino's work.  The shock transition of Mia's overdose
twists the story in a very different direction, where the comedy is
all the darker because Mia has become a rare Tarantino character, a
woman with dimension of character.  We care about what happens to her.

        The soft ending of the first story (Mia says, "See ya 'round,
Vince") cuts to a flashback that serves as prologue to "The Gold
Watch," where an Army captain gives a young boy the watch belonging to
his deceased father, telling the boy about the watch's strange (and
darkly comic) history.

        The boy is Butch, snapping out of a dream that was the
flashback, a boxer whom Marcellus Wallace is ordering to take a dive.
But Butch has his own plan: to bet on himself, getting great odds once
word of the fix hits the streets.  He plans to win, take the money and
skip the country with his French girlfriend.

        The story is complicated when the girlfriend forgets to get
Butch's precious watch, the one that belonged to his grandfather and
father, with the rest of his belongings from the apartment (they hide
out in a motel right after the fight).  So Butch goes back to his
apartment to get his watch.

        Meanwhile, of course, Wallace has his thugs looking for the
boxer who double-crossed him.  And who should be waiting in Butch's
apartment but Vincent - who is in the bathroom when Butch arrives.
Tarantino sets this scene up in typical fashion, leisurely leading us
to a shock transition that will twist our perceptions about the
scene's real meaning:

        Sure enough, there's the watch . . . on the bedside table,
        hanging on his little kangeroo statue.

        He puts the milk on the table, takes the watch, checks the
        time and puts it on.  Smiling, Butch grabs the milk and
        exits the bedroom.

        He walks through the apartment and back into the kitchen.
        He opens a cupboard and takes out a box of Pop Tarts.
        Putting down the milk, he opens the box, takes out two Pop
        Tarts and puts them in the toaster.

        Butch glances to his right, his eyes fall on something.

        What he sees is a small compact Czech M61 submachine gun
        with a huge silencer on it, lying on his kitchen counter.

                                BUTCH (softly)
                Holy shit.

        He picks up the intimidating piece of weaponry and examines

        Then . . . a toilet FLUSHES. (p95-6)

        After Butch blows Vincent away, he leaves but is not home
free, not by a long shot.  In a shock transition that seems contrived
(rare for Tarantino), Marcellus himself crosses in front of Butch's
car at a crosswalk - and the chase is on.  Butch tries to run over
him, crashes his car, and then both men take up the chase on foot
through city streets, ending up in a pawnshop that proves to be one of
Tarantino's most bizarre environments.

        The pawnshop is run by Maynard, who with his brother Zek run a
back room for sexual psychopaths.  The brothers capture both Butch and
Marcellus, choosing the latter as their first victim upon whom to
perpetrate their unnatural acts of rape.  An S&M figure called The
Gimp is left to watch over Butch, who is tied up in a chair.

        Tarantino is pulling out all stops here - the black comedy of
the first story was considerable, here it is even more bizarrely comic
(and the blackest comedy still is yet to come!).  But Butch manages to
get loose and has a chance to escape.  But he doesn't:

        Butch decides for the life of him, he can't leave anybody in
        a situation like that.  So he begins rooting around the
        pawnshop for a weapon to bash these hillbillies' heads in

        He picks up a big destructive-looking hammer, then discards
        it, not destructive enough.  He picks up a chainsaw, thinks
        about it for a moment, then puts it back.  Next, a large
        Louisville slugger he tries on for size.  But then he spots
        what he's been looking for:

        A Samurai sword. (p105-6)

        Like the rescue scene in the first story, there is a touch of
the silent comedy here, an extended sequence that milks the scene for
all it is worth.

        When Butch rescues Marcellus, they make a compromise peace
with the same conditions made by Vincent and Mia in the first story:
nobody else is to know about what happened.  Butch and his French
girlfriend make their getaway, presumably to live happily ever after.

        The third story, "Jules, Vincent, Jimmie and the Wolf," is
set up with what may be the greatest shock transition in the film:


        Over black, we can HEAR in the distance, men talking.

                                JULES (OS)
                You ever read the Bible, Brett?

                                BRETT (OS)

                                JULES (OS)
                There's a passage I got memorized . . .

        and he begins to recite from Ezekiel 25:17 again.  But now the
scene continues from a different perspective:

        FADE UP:


        We're in the bathroom of the Hollywood apartment we were in
        earlier.  In fact, we're there at exactly the same time.
        Except this time, we're in the bathroom with the FOURTH MAN.

        And this time the strange inability of the fourth man to hit
his close targets is given a possible explanation:

                That shit wasn't luck.  That shit was somethin'

        Vincent prepares to leave.

                Yeah, maybe.

                That was . . . divine intervention.  You know what
                divine intervention is?

                Yeah, I think so.  That means God came down from
                Heaven and stopped the bullets.

                Yeah man, that's what it means.  That's exactly what
                it means!  God came down from Heaven and stopped the

                I think we should be going now. (p114)

        This unlikely explanation, comic in its context here, becomes
a serious motivation at film's end, where Jules does something none of
Tarantino's lowlife characters has done before: takes action to turn
his life around.  But before this turn around, which gives Pulp
Fiction a less whimsical, more thoughtful dramatic resolution than the
writer's earlier work, Tarantino uses a shock transition to jolt us
into one final excursion into the black comedy of the Three Stooges in
gangland: Vincent accidentally blows away Marvin, who was taken
hostage from the apartment, splattering brains, guts and blood all
over the car and all over himself and Jules (this, by the way, is done
with much more economy in the film than in the script, where Tarantino
reduces the shock value by extending the event, p116-8).

        Against this gruesome context, Tarantino again pulls out all
stops, giving banter and against-the-grain dialogue full reign, as
when the bloody pair clean up at a friend's house (Jimmie) while
figuring out what to do:

                I used the same soap you did and when I dried my
                hands, the towel didn't look like a fuckin' Maxie
                pad.  Look, fuck it, alright.  Who cares?  But it's
                shit like this that's gonna bring the situation to
                a boil.  If he were to come in here and see that
                towel like that . . . I'm tellin' you Vincent, you
                best be cool.  'Cause if I gotta get in to it with
                Jimmie on account of you . . . Look, I ain't
                threatenin' you, I respect you an' all, just don't
                put me in that position. (p121)

        Or later, after Marcellus Wallace sends "The Wolf" to rescue
this comicly inept pair, when Jules finds himself cleaning out the
worst part of the mess in the car while Vincent complains:

                You're gettin' ready to blow?  I'm a
                mushroom-cloud-layin' motherfucker!  Every time my
                fingers touch brain I'm "SUPERFLY T.N.T.," I'm the
                "GUNS OF NAVARONE."  I'm what Jimmie Walker usta
                talk about.  In fact, what the fuck am I doin' in
                the back?  You're the motherfucker should be on
                brain detail.  We're tradin'.  I'm washin' windows
                and you're pickin' up this nigger's skull. (p133)

        Cleaned up in a different context, this situation and dialogue
are straight out of Laurel and Hardy.

        When Wolf successfully rescues them, getting the car cleaned
up and delivered to a junk yard, Vincent and Jules - their bloody
clothes exchanged for nerdy-looking jock attire - decide to grab some

        And this takes them to the restaurant where the film begins,
at the moment before Pumpkin and Honey Bunny decide to rob it.

        The chronology has become so eskew, there's almost a sense
that Vincent has come back from the dead when we see him in the
restaurant.  But Tarantino's dramatic arrangement is perfect (for the
record, he puts the table-of-contents in this dramatic order:

        Jules' transformation is complete by now; as he tells Vincent,
who goes to the bathroom just before the robbery begins, "I was just
sitting here drinking my coffee, eating my muffin', playing the
incident in my head, when I had what alcoholics refer to as a "moment
of clarity." (p148)

        What Jules means by this is revealed at the end of the film -
after Tarantino's customary standoff and after Jules
uncharacteristically lets the young robbers get away with all the
stash except his own wallet (telling them:  "Now this is the
situation. Normally both of your asses would be dead as fuckin' fried
chicken. But you happened to pull this shit while I'm in a
transitional period" (p155)).  The revelation is that even in
Tarantino's male world of crime, redemption is possible.  After citing
Ezekiel 25:17 in full again, Jules goes on:

                ...I been sayin' that shit for years.  And if you ever
                heard it, it meant your ass.  I never really
                questioned what it meant.  I thought it was just a
                cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker 'fore you
                popped a cap in his ass.  But I saw some shit this
                mornin' made me think twice.  Now I'm thinkin', it
                could mean you're the evil man.  And I'm the righteous
                man.  And Mr. .45 here, he's the shepherd protecting
                my righteous ass in the valley of darkness.  Or it
                could be you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd
                and it's the world that's evil and selfish.  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 tryin'.  I'm tryin' real hard to be a
                shepherd. (p158)

        On which note they leave the restaurant, and the film ends.

        Pulp Fiction is an extraordinary accomplishment, for which
Tarantino prepared through his three earlier scripts, fine-tuning his
signature devices of non-chronological structure; extended monologues
to reveal character, build tension, and extend scenes; male banter
against-the-grain of the scene's real meaning; filling his world with
images of pop culture and moments of black comedy.  These are the
writing techniques that answer the question, "What is a Tarantino
screenplay?," and they are never more fully realized than in his most
recent film.

        And where now?  There are intriguing possibilities.  Mia in
Pulp Fiction is Tarantino's first female character who doesn't come
off as a cardboard (even sexist?) strereotype.  And the possibility of
redemption in Tarantino's bleak crime-filled world opens new doors of

        But no one familiar with Tarantino's work would second-guess
this master of the unexpected, except to safely predict:  the next
screenplay and film, like those before it, will take us by surprise.


SCREENWRIGHT: the craft of screenwriting