Exercise: If you’re stuck on a plot, write from character POV

Goldman once wrote that screenwriting is structure. A lot of people take that to mean that screenwriting is plot, which is it isn’t.

Screenwriting is about story, and story is about the immediate moments. Take James Bond. All the classic plots are pretty much the same (action scene, M tells Bond to kill a guy, sexy girl shows up, Bond kills guy), but we remember the moments – cars turning into submarines, Jaws biting through a gondola cable, the cool action.

Story exists in sequences, moments of immediacy. If you look up your favorite moments on youtube, you’ll rarely see a summation of the plot, you’ll often see a excerpt showing a cool sequence. That’s the money part of screenwriting.

Plot is abstract and thinky. If you read through my old posts, you’ll see how uncharismatic and boring thinky shit can be. If screenwriting is structure, the structure and plot exist to showcase the cool moments or sequences in a way that makes sense.

I work with a lot of thinky writers who are all about the 10,000 foot view. Elaborate plots with a lot of twists, thinky concepts, highbrow references, characters that are about their arcs more than they are about being interesting. It’s a common trap to fall into. Fortunately there’s an easy fix. Write from the character’s point of view.

Rather than write something like, “In a world where the Nazis won World War Two, a secret program exists where scientists work to use the Hadron Collider to set the timestream right,” try this:

“I am a scientist. I have grown up in an evil fascist realm, and I know something’s not right. I hate the ruler of my country, he killed my father. I am working on a project to change the past… but I’ve started to suspect that one of my colleagues might be a sabateur…”

Writing this way cuts through the thinky stuff and forces you to tie all that happens to the immediacy of the character’s emotions, which shows a more immediate way into the story and keeps things in the moment, not in the abstract.

Always write as if someone will be picturing it visually. Most people do.

A screenplay is a de facto movie and anything presented will eventually have to be literally photographed (or said.)

Understanding why this works lends insight into human beings, your target audience. I learned this when I was taking an acting class. The teacher was stressing a point on how we should invest words with meaning. For some reason, he used this example:

“When I say dog, you’re picturing a dog. It may be a chihuahua or dalmation, but it’s a dog.” I’ve heard a version of this from a variety of acting teachers and improv teachers. It’s held to be true, and in most cases it is.

But I wasn’t picturing a dog. I was thinking of the word. Yes, canis canis, man’s best friend was hovering in my thoughts, but so was the verb, it dogs my thoughts, or the 50s slang, my dogs are barking.

When I asked him about this, he didn’t seem to be receptive to it’s possible truth or the implications. Some people are incurious.

A few years later, I read a memory book, which talked about visual pictures. They used an example like this to show how images can be subverted in interesting ways:

“A fellow hears a noise so he goes to his closet and grabs a bat. The bat flaps it’s wings and flies away.”

The implication was that most people will picture a wooden bat, then see it sprout wings in a confusing, absurd way, and then realize that it’s an animal bat and see that image instead. I didn’t. I was thinking about the word. “Oh yeah, they sound a like. I see what you did there.” I was getting a similar experience from language, but not the one the author expected me to have.

So I did more research and found that while most people experience language in an entirely visual way, some do not. There exist a rare subset of people who can’t form mental pictures at all. I’m not quite that bad, but I’d rate my ability to form mental pictures as lower than the average bear. Subpar. Learning how my essential truth was different than the general audiences helped me tailor my language in a way that communicated more effectively.

It may be that you can’t form visual images. Neat. You compensate for this by being better at abstract thought and narrative logic. It may be that you have perfect visual recall. Neat. Most people don’t. Understanding and having a good estimate as to what the average audience member needs to envision will help you clean up your scene description and to focus on the details that are interesting and essential. essential details.

Understanding where you fall on the spectrum helps you understand yourself, the audience, writing, communication and everything.

God’s Approval Hits Record Low (or One Liners Suck)

If you ever listen to Simpsons DVD commentaries, you’ll hear the recurring complaint that one liners, sign gags, and the like take the longest to write, even with a full team of really funny comedy writers. I agree with this. Most comedy is character based, characters are set up with traits, and we see them behave in scenes where they fulfill or subvert that pattern. Homer does Homer stuff, Frasier does Frasier stuff, Peter Griffin does Peter Griffin stuff, etc.

One liners are a different breed, they’re lines that have to be funny on their own. It’s relatively easy to write jokes to to a character premise. It’s easier to write a funny tweet to a novelty account like “Shit a medieval knight says” than it is to write a legitimately funny tweet absent of a character.

Here’s a situation that came up on my last Screenwriting Live Stream (www.twitch.tv/storycoaching).

THE SCRIPT: A supernatural action/comedy.

STORY RECAP:

  1. Open on Arc City, where a douchey businessman is killed by a supernatural serial killer/angry ghost.
  2. Meanwhile, in heaven, God reads a newspaper as one of his staff tells him that hell is overfilling.

Leaving aside the daunting world building elements (fictional city, high concept monster, fictional heaven that may or may not conform to what we commonly expect from heaven), the story’s problems begin with two headlines on the newspaper that God reads.

1) Ryan Gosling kidnapped by a Jinn 2) Exclusive interview with Angel turned atheist.

It’s awesome that the script in question attempted one liners. The problem is these aren’t particularly good.

PROBLEMS WITH THE FIRST ONE:

  • Esoteric language. You and I may know that a Jinn is an alternate term for genie, but most people do not.
  • Raises more questions than it answers. Wait, we had a fictional city, a ghost, God, and now there are genies? This world seems like a hole without a bottom, what’s next? Multi-dimensional techno-badgers?
  • Random: You could fill in any creature and any celeb and the joke still works as well as it does now, which isn’t very well at all. It doesn’t trade on the expected traits of either.

PROBLEMS WITH THE SECOND ONE:

  • Ungrounded. An angel not believing in god would be like a worker not believing in his boss. Even if that were to happen, it wouldn’t be front page news, not even on a slow news day.
  • Too clever by a half. Rather than use any of the mythos established by the first two scenes, this introduces a completely tangential comic premise, “wouldn’t it be funny if…”

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN PUNCHING THIS UP:

  1. Comic premise of heaven: once this is setup, one liners like this become easier to write, justify. ex. “All the newspapers in heaven are written by madmen with literary degrees.”
  2. Establishing world building. I have no ordinary world. It’s not like this is playing in the world of the mundane, or even an established genre milieu like “generic fantasy kingdom.” For this to work, the world needs to be contextualized for the audience rather than introduce more fantasy bullshit to a world that’s unclear, the paper should tell us something about the world that’s already been established.

MORE INFO FROM THE WRITER:

When pressed for details, we learned that the major problem is that hell is like a mine but it’s run dry. That’s good to know, it sets up the whys and wherefores of the story, and also hints at why we saw the supernatural weird thing in the first scene (economic trouble in hell? Let’s migrate to earth!). We also learn that god is an impotent figure head.

That would be good to know up front, and even if we don’t, the headlines ought to hint at that.

As I said up above, one liners are a bitch to write, and they’re even harder when they have to carry world building. These are the best the room could come up with.

  • God’s Approval Numbers Hit Record Low – The best I can do give the restrictions. The idea of God being polled like a politician is inherently funny, and becomes even moreso if you know a bit about the universe. And if you don’t, it immediately frames God’s situation in a memorable way.
  • Economic trouble in Hell – have we reached peak damnation? Peak oil is a thing in the real world, peak damnation suggests that hell is like a mine. This is probably too esoteric to be funny.
  • Ryan Gosling kidnapped by infertile Goose – Another esoteric one – it relies on someone knowing that a gosling is a baby goose. A line like “infertile” to implies that the poor goose is baby crazy, not just lonely. I’m not sure if that makes this better.
  • Ailing God’s Surgeon’s Desperate plea: Believe harder, he’s dying! Another way of implying an impotent deity, grounded in the hyperbolic tone of a real-world tabloid newspaper.

Overall though, I don’t think this is the place for a one liner, unless you happen to have one in your pocket that’s really, really good. Otherwise you’re buying yourself hours of work that you don’t really have to do, I’d much rather understand the universe first, so I can then enjoy jokes that stem from it, not get hit with a slew of jokes that make it hard for me to orient myself in the world.