Skip to main content

8 Lessons the Daniels Can Teach You about Writing Absurd and Moving Stories

By Shanee Edwards · March 8, 2023

8 Lessons the Daniels Can Teach You about Writing Absurd and Moving Stories_Everything Everywhere All At Once_featured

Fanny packs, googly eyes, and taxes are the hilarious, sometimes profound Delphic symbols that represent everything and nothing in the totally bonkers film Everything Everywhere All at Once, which has proved to be one of the best movies of 2022 as it took home a multitude of Oscars including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. It stars Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Directed by a creative duo called the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), the film stumbles awkwardly through the multiverse but now seems poised to win the Oscar for Best Picture this year at the Academy Awards. Who knew something so absurd would touch such a universal nerve?

The Daniels recently joined the Writers Guild Foundation Library team Javier Barrios and Lauren O’Connor to discuss details of their script as part of the WGF Library Script Breakdown video series over Zoom. The hour-and-a-half video is full of fun and quirky insights about the filmmaking process that may both inspire and baffle the viewer. Here we highlight nine helpful insights from the Zoom chat.

Download the 'Everything Everywhere All At Once' script!

The Hero’s Journey Meets the Multiverse

When the Daniels sat down to write this screenplay, they said they first wanted to hammer out the main story from a shared vision and determine the “ambition of the structure.” Kwan posed the question, “What is the most interesting structure that will get us to a hopefully profound place?”

They started by mapping out a Hero’s Journey-type story about a chosen one that suddenly takes a left turn. “What got us really excited was blending [the Hero’s Journey] through a multiverse story, where the whole story fell apart and basically the idea of the chosen one becomes so absurd,” says Kwan who adds that, in a multiverse, there’s no such thing as a one chosen person. “Everyone’s the chosen one in some universe,” he says.

And BOOM, a story began.

Read More: 7 Things You’ll Need to Write a Strong Story Structure

This different perspective felt fresh to Scheinert, saying, “It was kind of our way of fighting against the rules of screenwriting or rules of good narrative because when you have every possible option, suddenly it all gets watered down and nothing matters,” he says. “What is a good story but characters making choices? The choices define the character and that’s how you reveal the character to the audience. A movie where all that gets watered down felt like an interesting challenge structurally.”

It’s Okay for a First Draft to be Long ­— Sometimes, Very Long

Sheinert says that any time you write a screenplay, it’s a messy, trial-and-error process.

“Kwan wrote the first draft and it was 240 pages,” says Sheinert. “The second draft was 215 and that was the first draft we shared with any producers.” He says they wrote somewhere around 10 drafts of the script but also wrote many different outlines and versions within those drafts. “The thing I learned through that process was that just writing helps my brain,” he says.

Read More: Screenwriting First Draft Tips From Acclaimed Screenwriters

8 Lessons the Daniels Can Teach You about Writing Absurd and Moving Stories_Everything Everywhere All At Once_rocks

‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ (2022)

Give Clues on Page One

The Daniels played around with the idea of starting the script off with an action scene, similar to The Matrix. But it wasn’t working, so they tried something new. They started opening the film on a round mirror with a Chinese family singing karaoke.

“As soon as we took a stab at grounding it with the family, we were like, ‘Oh, that’s the structure!’ We don’t have to get the audience excited about action, we can get them excited about that later,” says Scheinert.

About starting with an image of the family, Kwan says, “I like the idea that it acted as a portrait. It was meant to cue you into the fact that this is what the whole story is about. It’s a portrait of a family in chaos and in this moment they are together. Using the mirror is so obvious, it’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, but it also felt really elegant and a fun way to remind the audience that even though it feels like a family drama there’s something off. We wanted to tonally get the audience ready for something otherworldly.”

Find Your Googly-Eyed Happy Accidents

According to the Daniels, some of the funniest quirks of the movie were simply happy accidents. “Early on we just kind of throw a lot of things out there even if we haven’t thought it through,” says Kwan. “You outline and you think you’ve figured it all out and then, oh shit! These little details are totally missing!”

One thing that was missing was an explanation of what exactly makes Waymond such a sweet guy. “He bakes things and he puts googly eyes on things, he likes to dance a lot. Two or three drafts later we realized that the googly eyes are really fun. What really made us realize the googly eyes work is that moment when [Evelyn] stops the bullet and it sticks to her head. I thought, ‘Ah! It’s a third eye! We’re going to turn the bullet into a googly eye.’”

8 Lessons the Daniels Can Teach You about Writing Absurd and Moving Stories_Everything Everywhere All At Once_third eye

‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’

Once the Daniels discovered a reason for the googly eyes to be in the story, they went back through the script and built the “scaffolding” to support the googly eyes narrative. Same with the bagel which they say was a throwaway joke for many drafts. Eventually, the bagel started to have a purpose to them and they went back to add the narrative scaffolding for that, too.

“It’s impossible to figure out every detail in the outline so you will try to subconsciously fill out your world and accidentally you’ll put things that are meant to be there. Look out for those happy accidents,” says Kwan.

“Chapterizing” Your Script Can Help Guide Your Audience

Creating chapters in a story is a device most typically used in novels, but every once in a while, you’ll see them in a movie. The Daniels discovered that adding this device was crucial to tell their story.

“I thought, selfishly,” says Kwan, “it would be really funny if Waymond asks [Evelyn], ‘What’s wrong?’ And instead of her saying it, we just put the word, ‘Everything’ over her head. That’s the answer to that question and then [add] obnoxious music. We weren’t really thinking about ‘should we chapterize’ or not. We just thought ‘that’s funny.’ Then, as we kept going, we thought, ‘Oh, this is interesting. It works out.’ Later in the movie when she’s everywhere and her brain is splintered the audience needs a milestone to tell them, ‘Oh, Part Two: now she’s everywhere.’ So much of what we do is fingerpainting and it becomes a Rorschach test.”

The Daniels actually ended up cutting out the chapters in one of the edits, but they quickly realized the chapters were critical to guiding the audience — specifically Chapter Two.

“Taking [Chapter Two] away ruined it,” says Scheinert. “We needed that break and to tell the audience, ‘Here comes the next part.’ In a way, those chapters are there because we need that one. The other two work, but the first one — oh my god does that help the movie!”

8 Lessons the Daniels Can Teach You about Writing Absurd and Moving Stories

Writing From the Inside-Out or Outside-In?

Every writer starts a story from a different place. Some start with character, others start with creating the world. For the Daniels, it’s about creating a “rat maze.”

“We are not great at starting with character,” says Kwan. “Most often the best writers are. My favorite writer starts with a character, they chase the character and that’s what makes them so compelling. Some people call it inside-out writing. You build the world, the story, based on that one person.

“Outside-in writers build the playground, the rat maze, and they just put the mice in it to see what the story is going to become. Paul Thomas Anderson starts inside-out. That’s why his movies are incredible though structurally they don’t always make sense. Versus someone like [Christopher] Nolan who builds a structure and then places his Lego pieces inside that structure. We try to be somewhere in between but honestly, character doesn’t really come into focus until the last few drafts for us,” Kwan says.

Put Your Characters in Their Own “Hotdog Universe”

Scheinert says they started their directing career in music videos and using body humor. They consider body humor to be a universal language and it doesn’t hurt that it translates well on YouTube, so it’s become a staple for them.

Everything Everywhere All At Once_hotdog

‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ (2022)

For the scene on page 62, the Daniels wanted to put Evelyn in her least favorite universe (the Hotdog Universe) to create an “empathy challenge,” says Sheinert, adding, “It’s got to be gross, but she’s also got to be dating her least favorite person on earth. Then it was a goal to make the audience love [the hotdog universe] by the end of the movie. And love absurdity alongside Evelyn…I never thought that squirting ketchup and mustard into each other’s mouths was funny, but the idea that that was going to be beautiful by the end was what actually made me laugh. This whole thing was designed with that end in mind.”

Comedy Comes From Two Sources: Character and Absurd Situations

There’s a great joke on page 36 of the script where Alpha Waymond is explaining to Evelyn how the multiverse works. She asks if there’s a universe where she’s finished with her taxes. The line is super funny because she’s so preoccupied with something as mundane as her taxes, but it says a lot about who she is. Sadly, the joke ended up on the cutting room floor.

“So this joke was cut from the film to save time, but it’s still a good example,” says Kwan. “This is a character moment. Once you know the character, you laugh because only they would say that.” Kwan says Evelyn’s character became clear when they realized the story was about an immigrant mother, just like Kwan’s own mom. “They have to be focused, candid, and harsh. They know exactly what they want and they have to be bullish sometimes. Anyone else would be thinking about the multiverse and of course, my mom is worried about taxes,” he says.

Everything Everywhere All At Once_joy

‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ (2022)

The Daniels both recognize that when you create an absurd world, humor will surely follow – especially if your characters stay grounded and take the absurdity seriously. Scheinert calls it “Cosmic humor.” “The fact that we made Michelle put on hot dog fingers and dance around with Jamie Lee Curtis is funny on a more cosmic level than a literary, character level.”

Scripts from this Article