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The Ten Commandos

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2008 by dcairns

My Ten Commandos of Screenwriting (a couple of people said they would be interested in a list of screenwriting “rules” — well, I don’t believe in rules, but the reality of commandos is there for all to see).

A Sonar Commando of the 32nd Century.

In order to populate this list at all, it’s necessary to point out that even the most amorphous of commandos apply only to traditional dramatic narratives (including, to large extent, comedies) — I should probably spend the next 10,000 words defining what those are, but I’m not going to.

Re-reading this, I still find it over-prescriptive, but if people want guidelines / thoughts, these are some that I’ve found sort of useful. None of them will actually GET YOU STARTED though.

Commando One: Battalion Leader Brewte Masterson.

Write something you would genuinely like to see. But not something you have already seen and enjoyed.

Commando Two: Major Dirk “Honey” Sharples.

Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise. There must be some uncomfortable material that the audience has to work through to get to the joy. This will accentuate the pleasure when it comes. Maybe this should be an end result rather than a goal from the outset, I don’t know. But I do think that pure fun tends to be uninteresting. Even Laurel and Hardy have those strange cartoony bits where Ollie’s neck gets stretched, or whatever, which always freaked me out as a kid.

Commando Three: Corporal Steve Punishment.

Dramatic tension = something is at stake and the audience is concerned about the outcome. That’s it. Conflict is not necessary for this. A man struggling to get a door open is a dramatic situation, and there is no antagonist involved. To say that the door is the antagonist is just being silly. And commandos are never EVER silly.

Commando Four: Private Burke “Silly” Beggar.

Question marks are shaped like hooks because questions are the hooks that snare us and drag us along with a story. The audience must want the answers to questions. They must also believe that some of these questions are GOING to be answered. So you can’t just accumulate mysteries as the story goes on, you have to clear some of them up as you go, while creating new ones. The TV show Lost is actually very successful at this — sometimes it might have seemed, especially early on, that nothing would ever be explained in a satisfactory way, but the creators have so far reassured their audience by providing satisfactory solutions to SOME of the big mysteries.

Commando Five: Private Baragon.

Surprising that Baragon hasn’t risen in rank, despite his obvious leadership qualities.

Character arcs are not always necessary in comedy. Typically, comic characters are funny because of flaws and intractable behaviour. A certain predictability is necessary to make their silly behaviour logical. For instance, Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm has a tendency to fight for a principle even when the reasonable course would be to give in. His intransigence is a recognisable character trait which we grow to expect him to display, so while his behaviour is inappropriate and absurd, it is also grounded in character. This may be why the show improves as you watch more of it — we get to know the character, and his behaviour, while never less quixotic, is more credible.

But if Larry suddenly learned from his mistakes, he would cease to be funny.

An interesting example is GROUNDHOG DAY, a very successful comedy that’s so good, it gets away with turning into a drama partway through. As soon as Bill Murray resolves to use his situation to become a better person, the laughs start to dry up. There’s nothing intrinsically funny about watching somebody improve (I’m not sure disimproving would be funny either: could Macbeth, a play about the slow decay of the moral sense, translate into comedy?). But the film has hooked us in with its premise and its characters rather than purely with comedy, and so few even notice that they’ve stopped laughing. They’re still smiling very loudly.

But Buster Keaton made several great features where his character did not change (half of his films are about unworldly but hard-working fellows who succeed through perseverance or ingenuity, without changing who they are at all; the other half, which DO have character arcs, are about immature rich kids who have to acquire those traits) and Chaplin never changed. W.C. Fields and Mae West don’t change, and we love them for it. My God it would be AWFUL if they changed. Perhaps the ineffable unalterability of Laurel & Hardy made them better suited to shorts than features, but they did nevertheless make several terrific long-form films.

Comedy characters CAN change, and “learn important lessons,” it’s just that they needn’t ALWAYS.

Commando Six: Private Rocky Hemingway.

Films can do many things. Starting with a limited idea of what’s possible is not helpful. Expand your horizons beyond just a few types of commercial cinema before beginning. I want screenwriters to broaden the possibilities, at least a bit, with everything they write.

And: each element in a script should be multi-purpose. A scene does not justify its existence just by “Introducing a character,” or “showing that the bad guy has a human side.” Each scene should probably do several things: (1) move the action forward (2) create new questions (3) answer old questions (4) develop the characters (5) increase the tension (6) get a laugh — AT LEAST three of these. And every line of dialogue should justify its presence by (a) characterising the speaker (b) characterising the listener (c) advancing the plot (d) getting a laugh — AT LEAST two of these.

Commando Seven: Private Ernst “Gnasher” Mandibles.

Format and prose: learn how scripts are formatted and follow that. Nothing is gained by weird formatting. But the rules are simple, and need not be agonized over.

Develop good prose that evokes what you’re writing. If the scene is supposed to be exciting, use exciting, active language. If funny, be funny. But only while describing, as simply as possible, what the eventual audience will see and hear (while avoiding all constructions such as “we see” and “we hear”). Avoid technical descriptions of camerawork, but suggest the stylistic approach by language: a sentence equals a shot; “the hand turns the key” suggests a close-up. Rewriting: Remove excess words. Replace dull words with evocative ones.

Commando Eight: Private Gavin “Brick” Shithouse.

People obsess over structure without understanding it. Here’s what you need to know: introduce a narrative hook as soon as possible so that the audience is concerned about what happens next. If your first act gives us a character we like and a narrative problem for them to face, it can be five minutes long and that’s fine.

Don’t feed the audience a lot of exposition until they actually care. This is why people don’t really absorb the historical information in those crawls that go up the screen telling you who the Jacobites were.

In act two, things should get more complicated, with at least one major turning point. Usually the first half of act two builds up complications and the second half just keeps them in play. And often there’s a simplifying of issues so that the climax can be resolved in a straightforward dramatic way (often the dreaded “fight in a warehouse”).

At the end of act two, one aims for a moment when the conflict, or dramatic issue, becomes “locked”. The antagonistic characters are no longer able to back down, and must resolve their conflict. Or, the dramatic tension reaches a crisis point where it must be finally resolved. Often a countdown is introduced, so that we know this situation must be resolved WITHIN A GIVEN TIME-FRAME. It’s all about bringing the tension to maximum level.

Act three brings things to some kind of resolution: plot problems are resolved, character problems are worked through (important lessons can, if you really want, be learned) and the theme is brought into focus if it isn’t already.

Often the protagonist is going about things the wrong way until act three. Often there are three climactic problems to solve: an intellectual one, to give us the satisfaction of seeing something figured out, an emotional one (this is often very badly handled: moving conversations between people hanging from cliffs) to deliver the all-important character arc, and a physical one (the protagonist had better DO something).

Commando Nine: Private Bob Crunch.

The happiness graph: Kurt Vonnegut suggested you could plot the hero’s happiness on a graph. A popular form illustrates a character who is reasonably happy at the story’s beginning, becomes very unhappy due to testing circumstances, and emerges at the end very much happier than before. We could also plot the audience’s happiness, which might follow a similarly course in such a story. But part of the author’s task in a conventional drama is to create peaks and troughs on the graph, moments when the hero is very happy and very unhappy, or the audience is very happy or very unhappy.

“Oh good!” they cry, as the hero throws dust in his enemy’s eyes. “Oh no!” they cry, as the enemy calls in his three heavily-armed henchmen. In an exciting drama, the peaks get higher and the troughs get deeper as the story progresses, and they also get closer together, so that the graph of a third act should look like somebody having a heart attack. And it really applies to the audience more than the character. Observe how the darkest moment of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION comes right before the most pleasing. And the darkest moment is one of audience perception: we THINK something terrible has happened, and a moment later we learn that really, something wonderful has happened, instead. I actually like that movie best for how it illustrates this principle.

Commando Ten: Mascot Archie G. Marauder.

Audience sympathy is a very complex thing and it’s generally talked about as if it were a very simple thing. There’s a screenwriting book called Save the Cat! which suggests that you should have your hero do something lovely early in act one (i.e. save a cat) so the audience will like him. I don’t despise that book or that idea, but I do think it’s better to have the character make a choice that makes us respect him/her, rather than just do an arbitrary good deed.

And OF COURSE there are fascinating and successful UNsympathetic lead characters. The “heroes” of SCARFACE and THE PUBLIC ENEMY aren’t “sympathetic” at all, but they are fascinating. I think this gets overlooked because, while it’s easy to see why a likeable character would draw the audience in, get them rooting for their success, it’s much harder to say why these films work. Muni and Cagney are remarkable in them. Does the Irish gangster film RESURRECTION MAN fail because Stuart Townsend isn’t as good (he’s certainly not bad) or because of some more complicated question of the way the films work? Where does SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS fit in? The “lethal innocence” of the nice characters makes them ultimately dangerous, like Tweetie Pie, and the protagonist is a ratfink from the get-go, but maybe we’re on his side because he’s trying not to be destroyed by an even bigger bastard. Like I say, it’s complicated, and we should remember that.


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