25 Screenwriting Tips from “Joyride”

These tips are not concrete in any fashion. They are merelyJoyride 01
suggestions based upon a closer look at various films and examining why they do or don’t work. So there’s no confusion, I include myself in the audience these tips are compiled for. Let’s see what today’s title has to offer us…

This just goes to show that once you’re tuned into what makes a good story, you can’t turn it off. Case in point, last night. It’s 2 AM, I’m bushed after getting only two hours of sleep the night before. I pop in “Joyride,” because, hey, J.J. Abrams co-wrote it and I hadn’t seen it in forever or possibly in its entirety.

So I’m watching it, and we get to what screenwriting aficionados refer to as the Inciting Incident. In this case, Rusty Nail coming to see Candy Cane. Like I said, it’s been years since I’ve seen this flick. It was on TV, and I didn’t remember much except for Buffalo Bill from “Silence of the Lambs” being the voice on the radio. (That has to make it 100x creepier for anyone who could recognize the voice) Anyway, this scene– Holy Shit. It was awesome. Everything I love about a thriller: suspense, not being able to see the incident/having your imagination run wild on you. Directly after this scene, I grabbed one of my trusty notecards and scribbled down what I loved about this scene. Then I continued to watch the flick.

Then, I had to stop it again and write down something else I liked. And again. And again. And again. Finally, I threw my hands up and said, “Fuck it. I gotta write a set of tips for this.”

I rented this flick because last week, I’d rented “Duel,” the TV movie Spielberg did at the start of his career. It’s a movie I really want to buy, worth the price alone for an interview with Spielberg, telling how he managed to film the whole thing in 12-14 days. (I couldn’t imagine how it was possible) As I watched it, I thought it was similar to “Joyride” and upon further investigation, I saw that, yep, it was written by Spielberg fan J.J. Abrams. He was a fan of “Duel,” and there are several references to it in the film. This just goes to show that great writing can occur in any genre. So let’s take a closer look at this roadrage thriller, shall we?


  1. Establish Characters: (Un-tip) I didn’t make note of this one initially and for good reason. The character of Lewis doesn’t really get a chance to be established early on. We see him on the phone then a couple seconds later, he’s on the road with several dissolves and flash cuts.

    It was all sort of overwhelming. Who is this guy? Why do we care why he has to get his brother out of jail? (I had downloaded the script for this and only glanced at it, but I think there might’ve been a scene that established his personality in a classroom.) We get a sense of his brother fairly quickly, so I was glad about that.

    The main thing is to establish who your characters are as early on as you can. It could be something as simple as picking up a piece of liter on a busy NYC sidewalk, or a guy who runs across rooftops to return a lady’s purse. Whatever you decide, just make sure the reader/viewer can get a sense of who your character is as soon as possible, that way we can get to the story.

  2. Torment Your Audience: When you’re writing a thriller or a horror movie, it’s best to stave off on writing a gory kill. You want to stimulate the audience. This movie is a perfect example of this.

    The setup for this scene is that brothers Lewis and Fuller have duped a trucker calling himself Rusty Nail into going to the motel room of the rude guest staying next door to them. They pretend to be a woman calling herself Candy Cane who wants to meet up with Rusty.

    This is a prank on both of them. Only Rusty doesn’t find this whole situation funny. We are not privy to the confrontation between the two men, as are the guys. They, like us, only hear it. Through the wall, allowing our and their imaginations to go wild.

    They're totally gonna do it.

    They’re totally gonna do it.

    This is one of the best things you can do in a horror movie. Instead of creating some elaborate, “Saw”-style kill, where a viewer might quip, “That’d never happen,” you leave the fine details for the viewer to imagine. In the dark, you can conjure up a thousand things lurking about that you know for a fact don’t exist, but you imagine them anyway, because you can’t see that they’re not there.

    Take “Jaws” for example: we don’t see the shark in full glory for what? Forty five minutes in? (It’s been a while, so I can’t remember exactly) All the anticipation and teasing and buildup lead to such a satisfying moment when we actually see the shark. The unseen is always scarier than what can be seen. Always.

  3. Do the Unexpected: In damn near every horror flick I’ve seen, the people responsible for a crime or tragic event, have never gone to the cops right away and confessed what they did. I’ve never seen that. They always tend to stay quiet about it until the end right before they get killed off. It was unexpected for this genre, so I was thrown… I like when that happens.

    Okay, we confess...

    Okay, we confess…

    There’s actually a real sign of guilt shown by one of the brothers. And the thing is, the guy isn’t even dead. In most thrillers, there’s only a sign of guilt after someone’s been killed off and it usually never seems to be a major impact on that character. Here, again, it was unexpected, and it worked because of that.

  4. Shark Fins: I know, again with “Jaws.” We can imagine that Rusty Nail is a semi truck driver, right? Well I don’t know how intentional it was, but in damn near every exterior scene, there is a semi truck going by. Planned or coincidence, either way, it’s brilliant. Any of those trucks could be him. Any of the fins on the horizons could be the shark. (Remember all the Ghostface masks in the beginning of “Scream 2”?)

  5. The Idiot: A staple of the horror genre, they are sure to screw something up for no reason. In this case, when Rusty Nail gives them the chance to apologize, Fuller tells him where to go. This may seem like an out-of-nowhere move, except… they set this up earlier when Fuller had stated that he doesn’t care about anyone and that at the end of the day, you’re all just gonna be dead some day.

    Because of this mentality already setup, it does make sense that he wouldn’t take shit from anybody. He’s still an idiot. But an idiot with principals.

  6. Shark in the Water: There’s a great moment when our heroes know they’re fucked: Rusty knows their car. And he can see it right now. This is where the audience yells, “RUN!!!” These moments are often simple and effective.

    Where is he?

    Where is he?

  7. Up the Ante: Right after they find out Rusty is behind them, guess what? They’re almost out of gas. FUCK!!

  8. Grazed by a Fish: When there’s a killer shark in the water, anything you even think grazed against you is the shark, and you’re getting the hell out of there! Right as they pull into a gas station, an ice truck pulls in. Holy shit! Is this him? Is it?!

  9. Know More Than Them: In their panic, the boys drive down a road, but miss the Dead End sign. But we don’t. All we can think is, “Don’t go down there! Don’t go down there!”

  10. Effective Fakeouts: Another staple of the genre. This round, served up with a twist: Normally the guy who fakes out the heroes is ugly or creepy enough that we think it could be the killer, but here, he’s just a normal guy. He gives credible answers to the guys’ claims of him scaring them.

    He's a keeper.

    He’s a keeper. The mustache, I mean.

    Hell, he even makes a joke about his appearance being creepy. In a bad movie, this kind of guy usually turns out to be a misunderstood person or something. Fuck that, make them interesting. A guy joking that his wife says the mustache has to go because he looks creepy with it is a keeper.

  11. Sensible Moment: In any slasher flick, there’s always a slow-down scene where the survivors try and put things together (and usually split up soon after). Here, it’s simple: Lewis asks: “What’s the range on a CB radio?” It’s great because we can easily see the wheels turning, we can see where he’s going with this. Immediately, he verbalizes that they call the cops and leave a message giving them the update.

  12. Spectacle: Remember the guy that freaked them out? Well as he’s backing away from them on a thin road, Rusty Nail’s truck SMASHES through the trailer of his truck! I’ve never seen that! It’s simple, and it’s effective. Talk about showing motivation. And a cool stunt!

  13. Effective Scene: PINNED. I loved this scene. It had all the horror conventions: The Shark Fin, Car Trouble. BUT!! It doesn’t end like you’d think it would, with our heroes making a last-second escape. No! They get pinned up against a tree by Rusty. What’s he gonna go? They can’t die yet! We’re only 45 minutes in!Joyride 05

  14. Unseen Terror: Again, the unseen is SO GODDAM EFFECTIVE!! Case in point, we don’t see Rusty Nail. We only see his truck. It, coupled with his icy voice, become a character. If this were from a Stephen King book, the TRUCK would be Rusty Nail and there wouldn’t be any human inhabitants.Joyride 03
    The truck reacts to what the brothers say and they’re completely in sync with Rusty’s words. He gets his apology and seemingly lets them go. Immediately, there’s already suspense. Is he going to kill them after they think they’re in the clear? We don’t know because we can’t see any human reaction from Rusty. It’s great.

  15. Best Cliffhangers: Soon after Rusty lets them go, the guys toss the CB radio out the window. He can’t contact them now. Are they safe now? What can happen now??

  16. Adding New Characters: Normally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to add in new characters halfway through the movie. Here it’s an exception. Venna is a major plot point. She’s the reason Lewis BOUGHT the damn car in the first place.
    We also meet her roommate, Charlotte. It’s a quick scene that’s done well. She’s sweet, cute and she humors Fuller’s bullshit pickup attempt. I’d definitely remember a girl with a good sense of humor.

  17. Character Development: At a bar, the three have drinks. But all is not well in River City. Some rednecks start hitting on Venna. Lewis tries to defend her honor, but he’s outnumbered.

    Here's to mud in you eye!

    Here’s to mud in you eye!

    Then Fuller steps in. He’s been in jail, so I was expecting him to throw down. But no, he’s not always looking for a fight, and manages to get them out in a non-violent method. One might attribute this to street smarts or perhaps the whole Rusty Nail situation has changed him for the better.

  18. Upping the Stakes: Rusty wants Candy Cane real bad. He stalks the group. While Fuller is hanging out with Venna, Rusty calls a sleeping Lewis to call him out on his shit: there really is a girl. She’s in the other room with your brother. Holy shit! He’s back!

    Hello, Sidney... oops. Wrong number.

    Hello, Sidney… oops. Wrong number.

  19. Smart Move: Fuller at long last has his head in the game: they have to call the cops, they have to get off the highway. Good, he’s thinking smart now.

  20. Cards on the Table: Through a creepy method, Rusty tells them to look in their trunk. Their tossed CB radio is in there. Lewis wants to make tracks, but Venna refuses to get in the car again until they tell her just what the hell is going on. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The explanation doesn’t feel forced or out of place.

    We should have fucking shotguns for this shit.

    We should have fucking shotguns for this shit.

    What’s really great about this scene is that we don’t see her immediate reaction to being told, just her face after she’s had a chance to take it all in. Plus, we’re sparred hearing the story we already know. All we need to see is the impact of it all on Venna’s face; and that’s all we get. It’s done beautifully. And the pacing’s great!

  21. More Stakes: As Rusty Nail taunts them, they all realize Charlotte, Venna’s roommate, has been taken captive by Rusty. What?! When?! How?!

    Any time you can inject more chaos into an already tense plot, do so, it’ll only add to the drama! And, it’ll turn the overall energy up to 11.

  22. Great Psycho: Like the perfect movie villains, Rusty never once raises his voice. Instead, everything he says is delivered in an icy-cool delivery. Cold and calculating. Just like Mr. Blonde, he lets his actions speak for him.

  23. Big Showdown: The chase through a cornfield. Another horror staple. Rusty, after they’ve temporarily eluded him, blasts a slow country song through his speakers and then exits the cab. But!! We STILL don’t see him. It’s still a mystery. It makes him even more scary because of this.Joyride 05

  24. Character: As Rusty is setting up a trap for the boys in a motel room (a trap involving a shotgun aimed at Venna’s head, triggered by the door being opened), Rusty does something distinctive: He doesn’t gloat, he doesn’t showboat, and he isn’t constantly threatening her with further violence. He’s making threats real.Joyride 11

  25. Pacing: I love the final showdown here! Writers take note: at the climax, milk the scene for every second you can. This was paced so slowly, but it worked. We were kept in high suspense thanks to all the elements at play. If you choose to do this, make sure you do this the right way, and have several elements at play. And for God’s sake, make damn sure it pays off big time.

What I Gained: Pacing is crucial, and bombard the audience with tension, never let it up. Let the actions show character.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

Script Link: Joyride aka Squelch – JJ Abrams & Clay Tarver



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