Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #40: Not writing out dialogue

One simple problem that I see pretty frequently is when people write a description of what a character is saying rather than writing down the words in dialogue. For example, I’ve seen people write things like, “they argue for a few minutes,” or, “they introduce themselves to each other,” or even more elaborate scenarios like, “they discuss the terms of the deal and arrive at an agreement.” The basic rule is that if any one of your characters says anything at all in your script, then you must write down every word in dialogue.

Look at the movie “Shine” in which Geoffrey Rush plays the brilliant but emotionally impaired pianist, David Helfgott. He spends a lot of the movie mumbling incoherently in a rapid-fire blur, but screenwriter Jan Sardi didn’t write, “David mumbles to himself as he walks in the rain.” He wrote down every single word of that long string of madness that came out of his protagonist’s mouth. If he didn’t, then how would Geoffrey Rush know what to say? This is a pretty easy mistake to make, so just remember to watch out for any times when you find yourself describing what a character is saying and then change that into actual words of dialogue instead.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #39: Writing things the audience can’t see or hear

One issue that I see in a lot of scripts is people writing things that the audience won't see or hear, such as what a character is thinking or the reasons why people are doing things. It’s easy to make this kind of mistake because this is a natural way for people to talk and also to write just about any other kind of prose.

Here are some examples of the kinds of things that can easily sneak into screenplays, but which can’t be seen or heard, each followed by alternate wording:

1a. Josh rushes across the room to check his voicemail.

1b. Josh rushes to his message machine and presses Play.

2a. Rhonda can’t look her mother in the eye because of her overwhelming guilt.

2b. Rhonda keeps her eyes downcast.

3a. Bill and Karen walk through the park where they met back in the fall of 2003 and then sit on the bench where they had their first kiss in order to work out the problems that they’ve been having in their relationship.

3b. Bill and Karen sit on a park bench.

We need to talk.

One time when it is okay to write things that the audience won’t see or hear is when you’re first introducing a character and want to describe his personality so that the actor and reader will get an idea of what kind of person he is right from the start. For example, you might describe a character as, “far older than his 15 years,” or “always bursting with energy and enthusiasm” or “trapped in the body of a white girl.” (Snooki, I am looking in your direction.) But other than character introductions, it’s always best to stick with writing just what the audience can see or hear since those are the only things that will end up onscreen.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #38: Clichés

As the saying goes, good writers should avoid clichés like the plague. But one of the easiest traps to fall into while writing a script is to go into a kind of auto-pilot mode where you just start writing things down that sound familiar. Any time you write down something that sounds familiar, that necessarily means that what you’ve written isn’t original. Since you want every part of your screenplay to sound unique, you will need to fight off the temptation to describe things in ways that you have heard before, which tend to come in the form of clichés.

Here are some examples of clichés that you never want to include in your screenplay:

1. Long, dramatic monologues delivered while staring out of a window.
2. A single tear rolling down someone’s cheek.
3. Scripts that begin by slowly panning around the protagonist’s bedroom.
4. The hero detonates a bomb, then walks away without looking back.
5. Montages of people trying on clothes.
6. Montages of a new couple going on fun dates together. Hell, just all montages.
7. A villain who confesses his criminal plans to the hero before killing him.
8. In a room full of people, one person starts clapping slowly.
9. A cop who is about to retire takes on one last case that should be no problem.
10. Your hero goes to a new country and is helped by a street-wise young boy.

I’m working on a script right now in which the protagonist defeats his antagonist by secretly using his cell phone to record the antagonist admitting his involvement in a criminal plot. I thought that was the perfect solution because this particular cell phone plays an integral role leading up to that point. Then I watched last week’s episode of “Lie To Me” where they did the exact same thing and I wanted to stab myself in the eye for succumbing to such an overdone plot device. Now I have to come up with an original way to defeat my antagonist, but that effort will definitely be worthwhile when the people who read my script see that I took the time to give them something that they haven’t seen before. I promise it will be worth your effort as well.

If you have a favorite movie cliché, I’d love to hear about it so please write it in the comment box below. Thanks!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What is a Protagonist?

I've been reading through some articles over at Jim Hull's Story Fanatic site and he has some interesting thoughts on the differences between a "Protagonist' and a "Main Character." For more information, check out these pieces:

The True Definition of a Protagonist

Redefining Protagonist and Main Character

Jim also raised a question about whether or not Nic was the true protagonist of "The Kids Are All Right" since she doesn't seem to go through a significant change by the end of the story, which I thought was an interesting point. I do think she changes, but I agree that the change is pretty subtle, which is simply an observation and not a criticism at all since I liked the ending. Within days, a friend of mine named Zenas asked the same question about how Olive could be the protagonist of "Little Miss Sunshine" when she isn't the one who changes in the end. This has inspired me to add a section in my screenplay analyses from now on about which character undergoes this kind of change and how that is demonstrated in the script.

Here are my thoughts so far: A protagonist should struggle to overcome an internal flaw (or to fill an internal need) in order to accomplish an external goal. The protagonist's character arc is represented by how much progress she makes in overcoming her internal flaw, so it seems like a good script should clearly demonstrate the amount of internal change the protagonist has achieved. From now on, that specific question will be in my script analysis template, because I'm not convinced yet that it's a 100% requirement for the protagonist to be the character who demonstrates that internal change. It could be this "Main Character" that Jim refers to in his articles, which would certainly be reflected in the amount of change that Olive's step-dad Richard goes through over the course of "Little Miss Sunshine." Fun stuff to think about!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #37: Unexplained special abilities

There’s no worse way to end your movie than with a deus ex machina, except for maybe running out of funding at the end of act two and then just releasing the film as is. A similar device to the deus ex machina that I sometimes see is to give the protagonist (or anyone else in your script) an unusual and inexplicable ability right when he needs it. For example, here are some abilities that you should not give to your protagonists without first setting them up thoroughly and believably:

- A priest who knows how to fly a Stealth Bomber.
- A waitress in Idaho who can read hieroglyphics.
- A paralegal who is an expert at underwater welding.

If you put any one of these characters into a position where they will need one of those specific skills, and you haven’t first provided a reasonable explanation as to why they have that skill, then you will actually be able to hear the audience groaning all the way from your house. It’s entirely possible that any of these characters could have one of these abilities, but it’s so unexpected that you would have to set that up beforehand (subtly, of course) in order for the audience to believe it.

Let’s look at some movies that do give their protagonists some extreme abilities, and show how they pulled that off:

- You wouldn’t expect a relatively diminutive slave to be able to defeat the most powerful gladiators in the world, unless you first saw that this particular slave was once a general in the Roman army, as was the case in the movie “Gladiator.”

- A crippled man isn’t likely to become the greatest warrior in a tribe of physically imposing aliens, unless we know in advance that he is a tough ex-marine inhabiting an alien’s body in “Avatar.”

- An orphan who works on his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm isn’t likely to lead a rebellion against the most powerful overlord in the universe unless we know beforehand that he's the son of a Jedi warrior and has a special ability called “the force,” as is the case in “Star Wars.”

- We wouldn’t believe that a college professor could defeat an army of Nazi soldiers in an effort to find the Arc of the Covenant, unless we already know that he has overcome tremendous odds in previous adventures, as we see in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

- We wouldn’t expect an uneducated, lower-class woman to overcome a team of powerful corporate lawyers unless we already saw at the beginning of the script that she has breasts — I mean moxie. They’re used interchangeably in “Erin Brockovich.”

If any of the screenwriters of the above movies had tried to spring that background information on the audience right at the point of the protagonist's major showdown with the antagonist, or just at any crisis point where that ability is necessary, those movies would have turned out much, much worse.

The bottom line is that it’s fine for your protagonist to have a particular skill — however extreme or unlikely — as long as you set it up beforehand in a believable way. If you give the audience even a shred of evidence that your hero has a specific high-level ability, then they will gladly, even eagerly, suspend their disbelief long enough to watch him kick the bad guys’ butts with his uncanny ability to, say, rapidly solve complicated math problems with an abacus. (Seriously, how long does the world have to wait for an abacus-toting action hero? Get on that, Hollywood!) But if you give your hero an easy way out of a major challenge by suddenly revealing, for example, that he is fluent in every language on earth, then the audience will never forgive you.