x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

An old hack shares tricks of the film trade

Every screenwriter I know has resorted to these kinds of tricks, telling himself that despite the improbability of the plot event, the audience will buy it.

When you're writing a film or television script, sometimes you resort to a plot device that's totally implausible but necessary to the story - a coincidental meeting of your two main characters, for instance, in a crowded airport. There's no logical reason they should meet, but they bump into each other and - well, we've all seen versions of this picture. Or, maybe, like a screenwriter friend of mine who just finished an action-adventure script, the only way you can free your hero from certain death by attack helicopters is when he suddenly remembers the little toy scissors his son handed him that morning, and uses them to loosen the ropes -

Every screenwriter I know has resorted to these kinds of tricks, telling himself that despite the improbability of the plot event, the audience will buy it. "Hey, look, it's a buy, OK?" we tell ourselves. Or, "It's way deep in the third act, at this point, the audience wants an earthquake to happen." But, really, the only way to get around the artificial, fake-ish plot device is to do what we call "hang a lantern". Meaning, you call attention to it. A character admits to the implausibility of the event, with a "You! What are the odds of meeting YOU here?" and then you move quickly along and get the story going. For some reason, audiences don't mind so much that a certain event seems implausible, as long as the characters in the story also think there's something fishy going on.

Think of a screenplay as a huge line-up of dominoes. It's fun to watch them all tumble by themselves, forming those cool patterns. But to get them all started, you're going to have to use your finger. "Hanging a lantern" on an obvious plot contrivance is a great hack writer's trick. Here's another one: sometimes, when you have crucial exposition to get out for the audience - stuff they have to know to make the rest of the scene make sense - you simply make sure that there's at least one character in the scene who doesn't know what's going on, and have your star character explain it to all to the clueless character, as the audience listens in. This is why so many movies have at least one dim-witted character hanging around - he's the guy that the other guys explain things to.

I know what you're thinking: what do you do when, for whatever reason, both characters know the information? You can't really have one character explain to the other something that they both know. Well, you can, and I've seen it done - once, on a television series a few years back (not mine, by the way) the daughter character turns to the mother character and says, "Mom, three months ago I had my dream job - I was a prominent magazine editor. And then, suddenly, my boss gives me a new assignment. To run one of his struggling magazines! The one Dad writes for! So now I'm Dad's boss!" And the mother, who presumably knew this information, just smiled blandly and focused on the middle distance while the exposition was being unspooled.

So how do you avoid this? Simple: you have the characters argue. You have them bicker over the details. The audience hears the arguments and the details and gets clued in effortlessly. So that's Hack Writer Trick Number Two: the Useful Argument. Now, I use the term "hack" in its professional sense. A few weeks ago, while compulsively Googling myself - I admit to doing this at least once a week - I discovered that someone in the comments section of some blog referred to me as a "hack writer". Which I know was meant to be vaguely insulting - well, not vaguely, I guess, but specifically insulting - and really, a few years ago, I would have indeed been insulted. I didn't think of myself as a "hack", as a by-the-numbers kind of writer, as a mere journeyman in a trade. I thought of myself as an artist, a creative force, a visionary iconoclast.

It's great and desirable (and maybe even necessary) for success to have a vision, to have passion, to believe in your story and your characters. I certainly do. Most of the time. But the crucial thing - more crucial than vision or passion or art or anything - is that you get it done. That you turn it out. That the pages get written and printed out. That the creaky, unbelievable, necessary plot events get executed in the most elegant way possible; that the audience is not left in the dark. Hacks get it done. And that counts for something. Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood.