Is the t-shirt THAT important?

 

oz-bucket
You know that bucket is mentioned a few pages earlier

Writers put onto paper how they visualize the events of the story.

Your get an idea of how you want things to look, maybe even a picture-perfect image, so you put those details onto the page, which is fine.

But sometimes the writer feels the need to include as much detail as they can. “To really paint a picture with words,” they might say. But it’s easy to get carried away. Some writers see this as a golden opportunity to really flex their literary muscles, so they go all out.

A big write-up about the contents of a room. Or identifying specifics about the clothing a character is wearing. That sort of thing.

While that kind of colorful minutiae might work in a novel, many see it as a negative when it comes to screenplays (opinions may vary, but this appears to be the general consensus).

There’s only one reason the writing should be that specific: if the item in question plays a part in the story. Is it vitally important that we notice it? If the answer is “no”, then all it’s doing is taking up valuable real estate on the page.

When the writer makes a point of identifying a particular item, then we should expect it to make a return appearance later on. Set up, pay off, remember?  It’s better to have a reader think “Aha! So that’s what that was for,” rather than “Huh? What was that for?” or “Why was that in there?”

By drawing our attention towards something that is more of an issue for the set designer or wardrobe department, it slows down the story’s momentum and makes for some unsatisfying reading.

Tell us the things we need to know, rather than the things you think would be nice to know.

 

One scene, three points

trident
Careful not to get stuck on any of them

After some thorough self-imposed analysis, the revising of the comedy spec is underway. It’s getting easier to spot trouble spots.

There’s one scene in particular that’s giving me some trouble. It’s a pivotal scene involving the main character and offers a revealing glimpse into his backstory. The problem was in figuring out how to best do that.

After much drumming of fingers, rubbing of chin, and a whole lot of attempts, a potential solution may have presented itself. It’s still in the development phase, but for now, quite workable.

One of the first things I learned about screenwriting was what each scene needs to accomplish:  advance the plot, the character, and the theme.

Regarding plot, does the scene move things forward? Does it fall neatly into place in terms of how the overall sequence of events plays out? If you took it out, would it totally mess things up?

I’ve read a lot of scripts where something happens and I don’t know why. Maybe it’ll pay off later? Sometimes it does. Other times, well…

Another handy tip when it comes to advancing the plot in a scene: do it quickly. Get to the point of the scene as fast as you can, then get out. Don’t wait around. Just get out now. Too many times I’ve seen a scene drag on much, much longer than it needs to.

Regarding character, does each scene show them changing a little bit more from when they were first introduced? This doesn’t just apply to the main character. Every character needs to grow/develop. Wouldn’t it be kind of boring to read a story where nobody changes?

And tying it into the advancement of plot, every situation the character experiences should help move their own development along.

Which brings us to theme. The message of your story. This can be a little tricky.

Each scene should tie into the theme, or have it on display in some manner. I recently worked with a writer having trouble tying everything together. We discussed the story and the main character’s internal and external goals. What was the message they wanted to convey? Based on those discussions, we were able to come up with a theme that worked for both the story and as it applied to all of the characters.

One of my favorite examples of a theme in use is BACK TO THE FUTURE. Early on, Marty says “History’s going to change.” And boy, does it. We get a ton of set-up in the first act, and then everything does indeed change in the second act as all of those setups are paid off. Amazing.

Take a look at your latest draft. Does each scene advance the topics in question? If not, do you have a way to fix that so it does? The more you get in the habit of doing this, the easier it’ll get and the faster it’ll become second nature to do it all the time.

An education most painful

scared
Please don’t make me watch that again!

Once again, your stalwart author makes the necessary sacrifices so you don’t have to.

This time around, I had the misfortune of watching an extremely bad large-budget movie from the semi-recent past. It was painfully obvious that a larger percentage of the budget should have been diverted to hiring quality writers, rather than on everything else. A pipe dream, I know.

But trust me. It was bad.

What made it so bad, you may ask?

Oh, where to begin.

My biggest problem was that too much of the story felt glossed over, with vital elements explained in a very lazy and haphazard way, if they were even explained at all. It felt like they were trying to force events to match how they wanted the story to play out, rather than deftly setting things up.

Reasons why something would happen, or were supposed to have happened, seemed to have simply been thrown against the wall, and whatever stuck, that’s what they went with. Did it matter if it fit within the context of the story?

Nosireebob.

Once again, there were too many questions raised that were never sufficiently answered. When this happens, it simply takes away from the movie-watching experience. The only reason I knew the film had to have been around the midpoint area was because of its running time, and NOT because of what had transpired over the course of the story.

I could say I had a vague inkling of what was supposedly going on, but was just never sure, since the story was being told in a very sloppy and unorganized way. It irked me to no end to be see such terrible writing so prominently displayed. And apparently I wasn’t alone in my opinions. The film was a major flop at the box office.

So what silver linings can we extract from this pitch-black cumulonimbus that stole away just under two hours of my life?

-Write a story that’s easy to understand. Keep it simple. This doesn’t mean dumb it down. Keep us informed, unless withholding that information is absolutely necessary.

-Let the story play out organically. Don’t try to force it because that’s what you want to happen. It’s easy to tell when that happens, and it ain’t pretty. If you didn’t put in the effort to figure it out, why should we?

-Have things happen for a reason. “Because it looks cool” is not one of them. Would it drastically change things if it didn’t?

-Set up, pay off. If something happens, we want to see what happens as a result. Don’t leave us hanging. And counter to that, don’t suddenly spring something on us out of thin air. It reeks of desperation. Audiences don’t like that, either.

One of the things I always strive for in my scripts, be they big or small budget, is to respect the intelligence of the intended audience. That is one lesson I believe the writers of this abomination should have kept in mind.

Strong rope & solid knots required

rope bridge
As long as it leads somewhere

I’m a big believer in tying story elements together whenever possible. While this should already apply to key details within the story, sometimes it’s simply a matter of a setup and payoff, even if it seems like a throwaway item. Bonus points if it ties in to your primary storyline. Which it should.

Case in point: in the opening scene of CHINATOWN, Gittes is showing his client photos of the man’s wife’s infidelity. The man, heartbroken, tells Gittes “if there’s anything you ever need, let me know.” The scene ends, and we figure that’s that. This is what kind of guy Gittes is and what he does, and then we transition into the main storyline. Events play out, and Gittes finds himself cornered in a tough spot.

So how does he get out of it? He leads his pursuers to a house he claims has the answers. But when he knocks on the front door, who answers it? The guy from the opening scene. We’d totally forgotten about him, but it’s a perfect choice. It ties things together, works within the context of the story, and anybody else would have not worked.

Everything in your story should serve a function in helping move the story forward, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem.

Do you have characters or events in your script that are strictly one-time-only? What purpose do they serve? If you took them out, would it make a difference?

And if you do keep them, is there any way to change them around so that you have a solid setup and payoff that tie into the overall story? It might not be as tough as you think.

In the outline of my current project, I had some smaller scenes in the first act that were totally unconnected. Going through it a second time, I’ve been finding ways to connect them. Sometimes it’s about using a character making a return appearance, or having some key scenes take place in the same location. Again, it’s all about what works within the context of the story.

(Admittedly, I’m also working on this from the mindset of keeping the budget low. If having the same character appear twice, rather than it being two separate characters, or being able to use a location more than once means less money that needs to be spent, than so be it. It’s an influence, not a rule. But this is me. You may choose to take a different approach.)

Another benefit of tying elements together is that it shows how much thought and effort you’ve put into crafting this story together. The evidence is right there on the page. You’re proving that you’re actually thinking this through and not just randomly throwing things in and hoping something sticks. You’d be surprised how many writers do that.

Don’t be one of them.

Let’s get those brains stimulated, people!

You mean movies can be smart AND good?
You mean movies can be smart AND good?

One of my favorite things to do as a parent is go to the movies with my daughter. It’s a nice feeling knowing I’ve instilled in her the appreciation of the whole moviegoing experience. It also helps that there’s a fantastic two-screen (one of a handful of similar small neighborhood theatres in San Francisco) a few blocks from us.

And as she’s getting older, our choices are growing in number. Strictly kid-based animation has given way to PG-13 fare, so we try to see what we can when possible.

Earlier this summer, we caught JURASSIC WORLD and INSIDE OUT within a week’s time. She really enjoyed the dinosaur flick. I thought it was fun, but felt it relied more on the nostalgia factor rather than smart storytelling (“Remember when we helped Grandpa fix that old car?”). I found the latest offering from Pixar to be pure genius, while she found it to be simply “okay”. I asked why she liked the first movie more than the second.

“I think I like movies where you don’t have to think too much.”

Gasp.

I won’t go so far as to say it was a dagger in my heart, but you can probably understand my being taken somewhat aback.

I could easily chalk it up to that she’s still relatively young and hasn’t latched on to my love of the movies to the extent that I have. Like I said, the list of what she’s seen is somewhat limited. I’ve done what I can, and hopefully can continue to contribute to it.

But as a writer, what’s my biggest takeaway from this?

Obviously I want to write scripts for films that will be embraced by the general public, which means they’d have to be simple enough that anybody could follow along, but also written in a way that the reader/audience doesn’t feel insulted or talked down to.

All this talk about needing to appeal to the lowest common denominator has always bothered me. It makes it sound like there’s no point in trying to write something smart.

I beg to differ.

Getting the reader/audience to really think about the story gets them more involved. You hooked with them with the beginning, kept them intrigued throughout the middle, and now they’re compelled to find out how it all ends. Isn’t that what it all comes down to?

I love it when I read a script where it’s obvious a writer knows what they’re doing when it comes to telling a story. Setups and payoffs. Multi-dimensional characters. Plotlines where I know what the endpoint is, have no idea how we’re going to get there, and am getting a real kick out of taking the journey.

This is the kind of writing we should all strive to create.

It’s easy to write something that doesn’t try to challenge the reader/audience, and the reaction will probably be similar. “Boring.” “Unoriginal.” “Meh.”

Push yourself to write something that offers up something new, or at least a new twist on an old standard. Give us something we haven’t seen before, or totally weren’t expecting. Not just one part. THE WHOLE THING. There’s something exhilarating about venturing into new territory. Take us there.

We’re writers. It’s what we do.