I was so psyched the other day to start viewing a new comedy series. The premise held great promise (Oooh, I like that – premise promise), and the accomplished actors were sure to carry the show. Snacks in hand, I was totally prepared for some binge watching. The pilot episode? Hmmm, okay. My enthusiasm waned a bit. Not far into the second episode, my excitement completely fizzled. How disappointing.
At first I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why I lost interest, until I realized what had been missing – the emotion! There was no emotion in the show! The actor portraying the protagonist didn’t really seem concerned about her situation. Despite every predicament she was in, she remained cool as a cucumber. Sure, she twisted her face in surprise now and then, but I was pretty certain she would be okay no matter what happened to her. And you know what, that’s not okay in a show! The stakes need to be high enough that we are sincerely concerned for the character. Plus the character needs to care. If she floats along through her struggles in some sort of Xanax-ed haze, there’s nothing there for me to sink my teeth into as a viewer. The character needs to care in order to make me care.
Honestly, watching people handle their problems with confidence is not interesting. We can see that around us every day. What viewers want to see is people failing, dealing poorly at times with all the crap life throws at them, and muddling through the muck to finally learn a lesson. A sticky situation in a show is not enough. It’s how the character handles themselves in the situation that’s so fun to watch. We spend all day controlling our emotions and doling out vanilla reactions to real life. An amplified reality is entertaining. I recognize this from the reactions of the audience when I’m performing onstage in an improv show. People want to experience something new, see someone act out their secret fears and feelings.
When I sit back and click the remote, I want to see emotion, people, emotion! I don’t think I’m alone. Ugh, I turned off that show, so now I have left-over popcorn. It’s kinda stale. Want some?
On a recent vacation, my preschool-aged daughter protested (at length) the unfamiliar smell of her hotel pillow. Nothing like her pillow that we had left behind. Not at all what she had expected. A similar concern in films has piqued my interest. How much we should meet an audience’s expectations in a screenplay? Should we give them what they want?
A couple of independent films I saw at the Austin Film Festival this week left major issues unresolved, leaving the audience perplexed. In one, the director allowed characters to finally meet for an anticipated face-off, but failed to show the resolution of their encounter. The director, in attendance, said 1) He felt there was no good outcome to the confrontation, and 2) He did not want to deliver what was expected to the audience.
Now, through my improv training and experience onstage, I have learned to give the audience what they want to see. Only in a new or creative way. If a show is leading to a confrontation, I know the audience wants to see that conflict occur. It’s almost like the audience “smells” what’s ahead, and they don’t wish to be disappointed. That’s why I think a film audience deserves a resolution if there is a build-up to it in the movie. I just want the scene to be done in a fresh, non-clichéd way or with a twist. That could be through story line, dialogue, action, camera work, or editing. I don’t have a problem with cliffhangers per se, but I suppose I want a resolution if it feels promised. Sometimes if a film doesn’t deliver a resolution, it feels like a contract has been broken.
So back to my daughter’s disappointment. Since she missed that favorite pillow so much, I’ve decided to take it along for the next trip. Her expectations, much like a movie audience’s, are pretty simple and predictable. I feel like they may as well be satisfied.
Do you ever have difficulty finding the voice for characters? Wondering what the back story is, what they would say or do next? It might help you as a writer to try and think like an actor.
Great actors know to dig into every piece of information on the page to flesh out their characters. Each character and scene description, each statement. And writers must do the same. Nothing you put on the page should be taken for granted. And, in fact, you must take those tidbits and expand on them. After you have planted the seeds of a character, look to see what will grow.
In an informative Q&A, Matthew McConaughey describes how he develops his characters. He sees each scene in a film as a quick look into an ongoing life. It’s as if the camera has caught a fleeting glimpse of a character’s ongoing journey. Matthew notes that the character has been and is going other places. He has a history and a future. Imagine what this might look like? What is the prequel and sequel? What are the character’s beliefs, needs, obsessions. Matthew wants to know what the character says to himself before he speaks aloud to others. What is the inner monologue? This will help us put very realistic dialogue and actions on the page. When we ourselves visualize the character as a fully developed person, it is much easier to show who they are through our writing.
I had a brainstorm this past week, prompted by two comedy shows I watched. One was an improv show by some local comedians, and the other was the season two finale of Veep. I kept thinking about two scenes in those shows that featured well-executed walk-ons. By walk-ons, I mean entrances by auxiliary characters who just happened to be in the same locations as the scenes unfolded. (In improv, it’s called a walk-on when a player comes in from the sidelines, often to add information or change the direction of things.) With a little analysis, I realized what made the entry of auxiliary characters interesting to me in the two shows I saw.
In the local show, an improviser came on as a cafeteria worker clearing food from a buffet, while a father and son bickered. The addition bolstered the reality and the humor of the scene, as the main characters incorporated his actions into their conversation. The scene could have stood on its own without the walk-on, but the addition of the extra character added something great to the scene.
Similarly, in the Veep scene, a character walk-on improved the scene by complicating things. The scene featured Gary having a stressful conversation with his girlfriend Dana in her tiny cheese shop, with a worker continually eavesdropping and interrupting them. Mild-mannered Gary was driven to expletives by the interruptions.
So I can think of three good reasons to put a character walk-on into a scene:
1. To add to the reality of the background.
2. To add to the humor.
3. To complicate things.
I think these are useful to remember for screenwriters, because we often hear that we should limit characters in a scene. But it’s useful to visualize a scene and imagine what other people might ordinarily exist in that world, and how their input could affect the main characters.
I see a walk-on in a scene as analogous to an appositive in a sentence. You know an appositive, right? The noun phrase that renames another noun in a sentence. It’s bordered by commas, because it’s non-essential to the sentence. Yet it adds valuable information. So scenes are like sentences, perfectly fine in their simplest state. But we can easily spice them up, and walk-ons are one seasoning in our spice rack that we shouldn’t forget.
I’m working on the first act of a new feature-length comedy screenplay, and my screenwriter’s group is going to take a look at it in a few days. I want it to be sharp, so I’m reviewing the elements of a first act.
Of course, the most important elements to include in a first act are distinct, interesting characters, a clear overall tone and the vivid world of the story. Or at least the world as it is normally, before big changes start to occur. I’ve also been trying to ensure my main character’s flaws and needs are clear and that the stakes are big enough to drive the story forward. I want the first 10 or so pages to really hook the reader and to deliver an inciting incident that forces the characters down a path towards change. The major turning point comes at the end of the first act, about a half hour into the movie, so it’s critical to set the story up correctly. Since I’m writing a comedy, I also want to lay down some track that will be funny later in call-backs. Simple, huh? Not.
Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discussed first acts on one of their podcasts. This is how Mazin described the first act:
…I find that this first act is the most important act of a movie. It’s the most interesting act, for me. We’re creating a world. We’re building a world in the first act. We’re creating a person. We’re then introducing a problem. And then we’re pushing that person right to the edge of the nest and finally flicking them out.
I also like how Mazin said, “Everything that you do in that first act has to have a purpose and that purpose must pay off. The bud must blossom at some point in the script, or it shouldn’t be there.” This is a good reminder to tighten up those scenes and take out all that’s extraneous. Mazin also pointed out how important a solid first act is to comedy. “Comedy is about the human condition. And so we need that first act desperately to meet somebody, establish who they are, establish what they believe. Kind of soak them in it for awhile.”
I’m really glad I’ll have some fresh eyes looking over what I have so far. Sometimes it’s hard to see things clearly when you are so close to it. I welcome the coming feedback. Hopefully my first act will keep everyone on the edge of their seat, wanting more and laughing so hard, they wish they’d brought along a Depends.
In improv, the distilled premise that’s funny in a scene is known as the game. Writer and actor Brett Wean does a nice job in this Scriptmag article of explaining how the game and other improvisational tools can be useful to screenwriters. I agree that exploring one central idea is essential, be it in a comedic or dramatic scene. A strong central focus is the glue of a scene. Exploring too many different ideas in one scene dilutes the overall impact.
A useful resource for screenwriters wishing to further explore improv and comedy writing is The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. The book discusses finding the game, heightening the game, and using an established premise in scenes. Also included are suggestions about creating characters, scenes improvisers avoid, and descriptions of various improv show formats. Some of the tips included for improvised scenes are also great to consider in scripted scenes:
1. Don’t Talk About the Thing. And Don’t Talk About What You Are Doing. In a scene, the relationship dynamics are more interesting than the “thing” that is happening. For example, if two characters are breaking up at a ballgame, we would most likely rather hear about the breakup than about the details of the game.
2. Don’t Talk About Characters Who Are Not There. The scene is between the characters we are watching. If you find yourself mentioning other characters, it might be time for a scene about those other characters.
And 3. Don’t Talk About The Past and Future. What’s happening between the two characters right now? That’s what’s interesting. If you find yourself mentioning past or future events, it might be time for a flashback or flash-forward.
Lessons from improv are useful to screenwriters. Just as improvisers search to find a funny game in their scenes, screenwriters must also find a central focus. A strong central core is the backbone of an effective scene.
I’ve been performing more frequently with some improv troupes, and the lessons I learn about story and writing are invaluable. The immediate feedback from audiences is so informative. It really helps me understand the kinds of plot twists and situation heightening that people enjoy.
For example, a few days ago I was in a show where a character was reminiscing about a Christmas from his youth and how a puppy was waiting in a box under his tree. I tagged out his scene partner and became his mother handing him a Christmas present in flashback. “Here’s your Christmas present, son.” “Should I open it?” he said. “Sure, go ahead. But you have been shaking that box a whole lot…” I was ready to continue my lines, but I had to pause for quite a while for the audience to finish laughing.
What was funny about this scene? The surprise, for sure. Everyone initially expected the boy to receive a live puppy. But also I think it was funny because the audience had to put the ideas together themselves to figure out what was happening. I didn’t explicitly state that there was a shaken puppy inside the box. On their own, the audience was asked to recall the puppy idea and then figure out what a shaken box might mean. When the audience makes the connections themselves, it’s funnier.
That idea of subtext, reading between the lines, is commonly recommended to screenwriters. It works in drama, as well as in comedy. And I think we all experience in everyday life, how connections are more meaningful when we make them ourselves. It’s the reason therapists say things like, “What does that remind you of?” or “How does that make you feel?” When we come up with associations on our own, it is powerful. So as writers and story-tellers, we need to remember to allow the reader/audience to make those connections. Surprises are great. And reading between the lines is half of the fun.
I enjoyed the conversation between Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange is the New Black) and Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise, Nashville) on the “Heroine’s Journey” panel at the Austin Film Festival.
Though known for their strong female characters, both writers said that they seek to create interesting characters of both genders. And to illustrate how deeply flawed humans are, by including both good and bad attributes. Characters are not likeable in every moment. Heroes are made; they don’t start out heroic. They must journey to get to where they need to be.
In Orange is the New Black, it was the imposed mixing of characters of all stripes behind prison walls that initially intrigued Kohan. The backstory scenes in the show give us a glimpse behind the mask the characters wear in prison. And the humor found even within the drama reflects real life. Khouri was drawn to the specificity of Nashville.
Other tips for writing intriguing characters? Delve into the character. Listen to what they have to say. Know the lies they are telling themselves. Write a human being.
Shane Black was full of tips and quips at his “Script-to Screen: KISS KISS BANG BANG” session at the Austin Film Festival today.
He shared how his process for developing a film idea begins with envisioning the shape the film will take — keeping in mind the overall vision of the movie, how the trailer will look, the set pieces in the movie, the feelings generated. Then the chipping away begins to reveal the final form.
He stressed that the story must remain grounded and realistic at the start in order to establish believability. For a murder mystery, reality is emphasized with a layered sense of sadness. The murder then comes as a discordant note in an already believable world. He mentioned the “rosebud moment” that should occur within the violence – a poignancy underneath it all. “The ultimate desperation in lives of desperate sadness” revealed.
Black said his scene descriptions give the flavor of action, evoking the pace and how the scene should feel when it is ultimately viewed. He read aloud some artfully-constructed examples. A common query he gets: whether he writes the action or merely lets the stunt guys “figure it out.” So his playful rendition of a final action sequence from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, had everyone laughing: “Coffin falls. Bunch of shit happens. Stunt guys take over.” On top of being very encouraging to the writers in attendance, Black kept the audience very amused.
So I’ve been bustling around the 2013 Austin Film Festival, wishing I had either a clone or a Harry Potter-esque time turner so I could take in more of the conference. But I thought I’d take a moment to share some comedy writing insights I gleaned from “The Kings of Sit-Comedy” panel with Lee Aronsohn (co-creator of Two and a Half Men), Phil Rosenthal (creator of Everybody Loves Raymond), and Peter Mehlman (writer/co-executive producer of Seinfeld).
Mehlman and Rosenthal emphasized how simplicity can lead to great results. Mehlman wrote his episodes for Seinfeld based on very simple premises. His advice: keep the concept simple. When he pitched ideas to Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, he always managed to do it with one sentence. Similarly, Rosenthal always envisioned Everybody Loves Raymond as an uncomplicated little play, with very few scene cuts. He wanted each scene to captivate the audience’s attention and interest. Rosenthal described the essentials of a sitcom in three parts – the premise, act break, and conclusion (beginning, middle, end). This, he said, is the structure on which the sitcom story is built.
Rosenthal and Aronsohn both had tips for writer’s block. Rosenthal suggested the starter: “What would really happen?” to help generate story ideas. “Try real as a road to go on,” he advised. Aronsohn suggested writers look “on the edges of the scene” for inspiration. For example, while a scene is occurring in one room, what’s going on with other characters in the adjacent rooms? If all else fails, Aronsohn pointed out that watching bad comedy can bolster your own confidence as a writer.