Set in the Brussels club scene, State Like Sleep is a noir mystery about a young grieving widow named Katherine (Katherine Waterston), who returns to Belgium to care for her dying mother. While there, she discovers her celebrity husband had been living a double life before killing himself.
Any screenwriter who’s tried their hand at telling a mystery knows it’s a lot of work, full of plotting, red herrings and reveals. The story must keep the audience invested without giving too many clues too soon. It is a true balancing act.
We sat down with State Like Sleep writer/director Meredith Danluck to get her advice on how to write a compelling and satisfying story, particularly a mystery.
1. Film school doesn’t have to be in a classroom.
Danluck started her career as a video artist. After being commissioned by high-profile museums to create video art, she ventured into the world of pop music, producing multi-screen tour visuals for John Legend, Jay Z and Beyoncé.
But it was her time spent working at Viceland Network that really prepared her to write and direct feature films. “That was really my film school,” says Danluck, “I learned – from the bottom up – everything about producing, from budgets to crewing up, story producing, editing. Everything from concept to delivery while I was at Vice. It was an amazing experience getting a first-hand look at all that production but also being in the documentary world and being able to work on so many different projects.
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2. Documentaries can teach us everything about creating fictional characters.
“My experience in documentary,” says Danluck, “enabled me to write fully fleshed out characters and find the truth in people. When you’re working on documentaries, you’re just watching people over and over again and you get a real sense of how people talk, how people move, so I think I transitioned quite organically into narrative filmmaking.”
Whether or not you work on documentaries or just watch them, the important lesson is to get to the core of who a person/character is and determine what they want – and what they are willing to do to get it.
3. Writers should bring something personal to the story.
Like any screenplay, there’s always a lot of the screenwriter in it – whether it’s a comic book story like Black Panther or writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical Roma, the struggle the characters experience must feel real.
Years ago, Danluck also lived in Belgium (where the film takes place) and a couple years later, her mom became ill.
“Just like in the movie, I had to go back to Belgium and take care of her and take a look at this life I had left. That part was very much grounded in reality but then I started to fold in some unresolved experiences. I think that writers often write about what they don’t understand and write their way to an understanding.”
4. Let your own pain fuel your mystery.
Though Danluck didn’t lose a husband to suicide, she did have a friend who took his own life. She says there’s never one simple reason why people decide they can’t go on any longer, but instead a series of events and emotions.
“My friends and I developed this way of grieving that involved a lot of sleuthing. We all kept asking questions and trying to create a narrative around this death that made sense.” It seems this “sleuthing” prepared Danluck to create this film and is probably another way she’s using her art to understand death.
5. Watch a lot of mysteries and copy them.
Here’s the advice Danluck got from screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, writer of Secretary and Girl on the Train.
“Erin said to pick out your favorite movies and dissect them and try to copy them – because you’ll never make a copy of the movie. You just won’t because the script takes on its own DNA and starts telling you what to do. Every screenwriter knows that moment where the script starts pushing back and you know that your characters have come alive. So I watched a lot of mysteries and started to plot out the arc of these other mysteries. To write a classic mystery, you need to figure out what is the overarching question that needs to be answered. In this case, it was less of a ‘whodunit’ and more of a ‘why did he do it’ because it was a suicide. It took on the architecture of a classic mystery but with a different question: what was so insurmountable to that person on that day that caused them to do it? What was the thing that pushed him over the edge? I created that link of dominoes that I could work back from.”
State Like Sleep opened in theaters on January 4th, 2019 and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards