Friday, March 6, 2009

Making Your Script Editor/Story Editor/Show Runner Happy

You know what script editors/producers/show runners like best?

To find a script on their desk they're totally happy about.

That happens only very rarely. But in order to help all writers out, here are some recurrent script problems you should be on the lookout for. Remedying these before you send your script out will go a long way towards getting your gatekeeper in a good mood.

Some of these problems can occur in any script. Others are more specific to television writing.


SUBTEXT—MISSING IN ACTION

Subtext is an element often missing from the work of beginning writers (and unfortunately, more than a few professionals as well). It’s pretty easy to define what subtext IS. However, it’s far harder to put this knowledge into practice.

Subtext can be defined as a layer of meaning underlying the action within a scene. For example, one character is expressing his love for another character without ever saying the words, “I love you.”

This example is very basic, but there’s a wide range of emotion and information, which can be conveyed by subtext. For some excellent examples, check any of Billy Wilder’s films.

Why is it so difficult for beginning screenwriters to use subtext?

I always say they’re “trapped by the page.” Novice writers have trouble visualizing the scene and therefore underestimate the potential of the audiovisual media of getting the point across obliquely.

An understandable reaction, but an unfortunate one since subtext is probably the single most effective tool in a writer’s arsenal to bring a sense of complexity and life to a scene.

The fact that the audience is actively making sense of what’s happening, involves them directly with what they’re watching, and brings about a great sense of pleasure. Moreover, it gives the actors ‘something to play’. They don’t just say their lines, they infuse them with hidden meaning which results in layered performances.

Be aware that:

(1) Sometimes, the meaning of a scene or an explicit expression of emotion is necessary. If the audience has been waiting for this for a long time, you’ve to give them what they’ve been waiting for—but hopefully not in a way they expect.

(2) When attempting subtext you must be VERY CLEAR about what you try to express. Any confusion or lack of clarity on this matter will result in an aimless, waffling scene which simply doesn’t work on either the textual (i.e. surface) or sub-textual level.

Injecting subtext into a scene can be quite difficult, and it definitely takes more work than just writing the scene in a straightforward fashion. But it is absolutely worth the extra effort.

WRITE VISUALLY—SEE THE ACTION
Once again, a problem resulting from writers not being sufficiently able to visualize the scene. This usually manifests itself in the "talking heads" syndrome. The writer places two people in the scene and has them spout dialogue at each other (the dinner table being a favourite “location” for this sort of thing).

The result is often boring and static scenes, especially when their purpose is primarily expository. The writer doesn’t consider how the characters interact with their surroundings, or how the dialogue can provoke physical reactions (standing up, sitting down, turning away etc.). If you want irritate a director, piling on these “talking heads”-scenes definitely is the way to go...

Visualizing the scene can make it more active and effective, and automatically increase the possibilities for adding subtext.
This includes placing it in an interesting location, giving the actors an activity during the scene, and even trying to set up interesting shots and transitions in the script. No guarantee they’ll be used – but they may inspire the director to lift the scene out of the ordinary.

This applies to ALL scripts; from big budget blockbusters to the most humble soaps – where applying this technique is often essential.


DO NOT TREAT THE CHARACTERS AS PROPS

Characters don’t exist in a vacuum. They don’t disappear into thin air just because they’re no longer the focus of attention. You should always give your characters an “inner life.” Why are they there? What’s their emotional state—or how does this evolve during the scene? What’s their goal?

Answering those questions will reduce the number of times in which a character starts reciting dialogue on cue and lapses in limbo when his/her immediate function has been played out in the scene.

Of course, this becomes a bigger problem when you’ve many characters within a scene; some of which have only a small function although their presence is required for plot reasons.

It can be very hard to keep track of seven or eight people and give all sufficient exposure, especially when you work within the constraints of episodic television. However, it’s important you make an effort because actors will always notice this and complain—and justly so.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING STRUCTURED

Structure is far more than act breaks and plot points. Structure is at work in EVERY SINGLE SCENE of your script.

A scene has to have shape. It needs a goal. An objective that needs to be achieved. And obstacles which prevent this.

Failing to provide this will result in aimless and dull scenes. If you provide too many objectives, on the other hand, they often get in each other’s way. This confuses the issue and leaves the scene a shapeless mess.

You need to have the scene objectives clearly in mind and decide beforehand the order in which they’ll be dealt with. Only thus can any sense of order, and therefore structure, be brought to big and complex scenes.

It’s important your scenes have room to evolve and reach a climax.
If you start a scene on a very high note, whether conflict or comedy, it will be almost impossible to top.
If one of your characters start a quarrel with a killer reply, the rest of the scene will turn out to be anti-climactic or repetitive. If you open a scene with a big laugh, trying to top it may lead to very strained humour.

The solution in this case is often simple. Move your opening gag to the end of the scene and build it up using the old “rule of three.” The audience remembers the big pay-off. Not the way in which it was reached.

Another level on which structure is important is, surprisingly perhaps, character.

Character IS Structure. Your characters need room to develop. It’s important not to have them hit the same note over and over again. Too much intensity can make them very irritating.


Structure is at work in every part of your script. All the time. The more attention you pay to it, the better the chance your script will work as desired.


THE PHYSICAL REALITY OF THE SCENE


This problem is more common in TV series with fixed sets. Sitcom and soap writers often write without considering the blocking of the scene. Most of the time this is not a problem. However, sometimes they forget to consider the physical aspects of the setting.

It’s possible to have your character interact with someone, and with the next line of dialogue have him/her talk to someone at the other end of the set. This is usually glossed over during the writing or script-editing stage, but it can provide directors serious headaches when the scene has to be staged.

Similarly, it’s very easy to write a simple action which takes a considerable amount of time to perform. Having your character coming from behind a bar just to serve a table some distance away, can take more than ten seconds of screen time during which nothing happens on the dramatic and narrative level.

Those problems are often intercepted during rehearsal. However, solving them can prove to be quite difficult if there’s no way for the actors to “cover” the dead time.

You need to SEE the characters move through the scene. You have to consider their actions and try to cover movement by dialogue or by changing the focus to other characters in the scene.


MAKE MINOR ROLES INTERESTING

When you work with your characters, you pull off a great sleight-of-hand. You make the audience believe your characters are real. They just “happen” to do or say things which propel the script forward.

You completely disguise the fact that your characters are actually steered along a narrow path and have a technical FUNCTION to advance the narrative (e.g. transmit information, act as obstacles, provide comic relief, set up a subplot etc.).

Sometimes you’ll write secondary characters whose “function” is all too visible. It’s important you try to give EACH character an individual voice. Keep in mind that even bit-players are supposed to be real people, which should be discernible in their actions and dialogue.

It’s often sufficient to give minor characters one memorable characteristic for the illusion to work. See the works of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges for some great examples. Don’t worry too much if you don’t get it right from the start – but keep practicing, as it is a very valuable writing skill.

Also be aware that you may have ‘stock’ characters, which keep recurring from script to script. For instance, you might be very partial to introducing suspects in a crime series who all cheat on their wives and abuse them physically. Try to avoid falling into this trap, as it gives the impression that you have a very limited range and imagination. It will also make your scripts feel the same, which once again will result in a negative impression.


SUPPLY MOTIVATION FOR YOUR CHARACTERS


Within the scene: Your characters should be there for a reason, not just because you want them to be. Again, this comes back to keeping the sleight-of-hand going. If your character HAS to do or say something in order to make the narrative progress, make sure it appears logical for the character. When this doesn’t happen, the effect is almost like a non sequitur; a character suddenly changes track in the middle of a scene and/or behave out of context. The result is a jarring loss of credibility.

Within the screenplay: Give your characters a reason to be the way they are. If your villain is the head of a sinister business conglomerate who dresses up in skirts and angora sweaters and has a semi-incestuous relationship with his daughter, fine! But WHY is he this way? Just because it’s “shocking” or “cool” doesn’t justify it. The character’s traits must follow (or be explained by) their psychological profile and backstory. If not, they’ll seem gratuitous and make suspension of disbelief that much harder.


There, that should be enough to be getting on with. Go forth and multiply happy editors, producers and show-runners!

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