Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Not trying HARD ENOUGH to justify your premise

After Monday's post went live, I got an email from a friend of mine, who's also a fellow reader.

Hey man, been meaning to send you this for a while as there's totally a blog post (or six) in this turkey. It's been slipping my mind, but after you read the first 30 pgs or so, you'll figure out why I thought of it this week. btw, if you use any of this, could you go out of your way not to mention the premise of the film? I'd rather not have my ass chewed out by my boss.

So I took a look at the first thirty pages of the attached script. Ye gods! I think I see why this was sent my way. Monday I whined about scripts trying to hard to justify their premise. This script doesn't try hard enough to justify it.

The shit starts on p. 1, with one of the most boring scenes I've read in a long time. Two characters not given names - just job descriptions - are engaging in what I read somewhere is called "As you know, Bob" dialogue. This is basically when a writer has a conversation between two people where they discuss something they already know solely so the audience can be caught up on exposition. Picture something like this:

HUSBAND: Good morning, wife.
WIFE: Husband, remember how we got married 6 months ago?
HUSBAND: Yes, and the honeymoon was in Hawaii, as you know.
WIFE: Well, I'm worried that Janet and Bob's marriage isn't as happy as ours.
HUSBAND: I agree, as you know we saw them get into that very loud fight at the restaurant last night while we were having dinner with them.
WIFE: Janet was so angry that she threw her food at him and then walked out.
HUSBAND: I hope this isn't stress because Bob lost his job when, as you know, I had to fire him last week.

Gag. You get my point. Real people wouldn't have a conversation about this. Even if Husband and Wife were going to gossip about their friends' fight, they wouldn't treat the conversation like a recap since they were both there and saw the exact same thing. It's all on-the-nose dialogue and worse, it's recapping events that would be much more interesting if they played out on screen! What's more interesting to watch: a tense fight between a married couple that ends with food being thrown and one person storming out - or two people having a static, dry conversation about said fight?

In this hypothetical, let's say that Janet and Bob are actually the protagonists and that these nameless friends of theirs don't pop up again in the script until the third act. That would just be bad writing. Let's also say that after this recap, the script jumps forward two months to Janet and Bob's divorce proceedings. Bam! By page 4, they're already divorced. And let's also assume that the premise of the script is how each of them deal with the problems of being divorced as they realize that there's a lot that they miss about married life and each other.

The problem is that this is a premise that would require both characters to be upset by a break in the status quo (marriage.) Yet since we never saw them married, that status quo doesn't exist for us as the audience. To us, the divorce IS the status quo. The writer was so eager to get to his story about two divorced people finding that a flawed marriage was still more fulfilling than being alone, that he forgot to show us what was good about this flawed marriage.

This isn't the actual premise of the script, by the way. My friend was pretty adamant about me not mentioning the real set-up. I think it's a script he was reading for a boss's friend or something. Suffice to say, the premise in that script is even more ludicrous and sends the story in a completely implausible direction that would never happen in real life unless some pretty extreme circumstances led to it. Only a few of those circumstances are even hinted at, and as you guessed, it happens in on-the-nose dialogue. Thus, the script not only didn't take enough time to justify its premise, but it relied on a lot of contrivance to get to its concept.

So my advice would be that when you're setting up your story in Act One, make sure you've laid enough foundation and aren't racing ahead to get to "the good stuff." A lot of times I see scripts with the opposite problem - writers taking too long to get their stories moving. While there is an advantage to starting your story by just diving in and running, make sure you're not leaping in by opening the film with what should be the inciting incident, or even the first act turning point.

1 comment:

  1. One of the things that I continually ask myself when reading screenplays that are poorly executed is whether there is any potential for the writer to learn. Is it possible for a writer on the bad end of the bell curve to make it to the surpassing quality end of the curve?

    It's particularly aggravating when the next draft has the same problems that were there in the first turd. Writers too intelligent for their own good and too ignorant to learn.