Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Writing Mistakes I've Made 1

As I'm going to be posting script and film/TV show reviews here, and this will obviously involve occassionally (or often) stepping on other people's toes, I might as well try to even up the scales of karma by pointing out some of the weaknesses in my own writings. Who knows, I may even save some innocent screenwriting souls from making the same mistakes I've made!

Right, let's get underway with the first instalment of what will hopefully not turn out to be a long-running series, an instalment I like to call:

What Did You Do That For?!
Writing for a long-running TV show has the advantage that you know the characters really well. Yet on the other hand, there's the danger of falling into a rut, knowing exactly how the character should react in any given circumstance. And, by extension, no longer either surprising yourself, the actor or the audience with the material you create for them.

So every so often, I have the urge to have a character break out of his/her mold. React differently for once. Shake things up. Have them do something which causes the other characters in the scene to wake up and take notice.

And hey, why not? Isn't that just like real life? Don't we all sometimes react in a manner the people around us aren't accustomed to? Or aren't we shocked by the way they sometimes do or say exactly the opposite of what we were expecting? Of course we are. So it stands to reason this works in scripts as well, right?

Ummm... not so much. Every single time I've tried to introduce this in a script, it got taken out. And every single time, the scene had energy, the dialogue flowed... In short, I liked what I'd come up with. So why did it get cut out every single time?

Because it didn't fit. When people react in a surprising manner in real life, there's always a reason for them to do so. No one else may know what this reason is - but it's there. And in a novel, you'd have no problem letting the reader in on what was going on inside the character to provoke the unexpected reaction. In a script, and especially in a TV script for a series which doesn't use devices like voice-overs or flashbacks, it's impossible to provide the necessary information to make the sudden and short-lived change in behaviour work. Especially if it happens with a secondary character who isn't the focus of one of the storylines.

For instance, in the crime series Witse (for my non-local readers: think Morse in Belgium), I had one of commissioner Witse's assistants, inspector Dams, suddenly get very cranky during a briefing and blurt out a line of reasoning which would lead the investigation in a new (and correct) direction. The problem was that this character is always introverted, shy, self-conscious and not very bright. To have him suddenly act out of character in the blink of an eye, and then revert back to type immediately afterwards, was basically cheating. Even though I added a line of stage direction specifying the character was as surprised about his outburst as everyone else, that part of the scene didn't make the cut. And though I didn't like it at the time, I have since come to realize the simple truth: you must stay true to the characters at all times. Even when this means killing another one of your darlings. Even when you're a little bit tired of it.

Of course, if you have a show like Dexter, where the lead character constantly lets the audience access his thoughts, you can get away with this type of uncharacteristic behaviour. Because, just like a novelist, you'll be able to use narrative devices which place the character's action in context - or which can easily explain it after the fact. And even there, you'll basically only be able to pull it off with the protagonist.

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