How To Write a Movie: Part Three

What Goes Wrong with Your Screenwriting and How to Fix It

Now that you've gotten your act together in screenwriting part 1, and read about brainstorming in part 2, here is part 3 of the Screenwriting Course. As you might have guessed by now, I am assuming that you are reading, or have read other "How To Write Screenplay" books. So I am not spelling out every single detail of the process, but then nor am I assuming you know anything. Essentially what I want to do is to put the theory into perspective for you. I do not want it to hinder you. So many people dismiss the theory because they feel it interrupts their creative flow, but at the same time their creative flow never produces anything that can find a market. But if used incorrectly, the theory will start you writing with the confidence and passion required. If you are too formulaic, nobody will be interested. If you make no concessions to what amounts to the distillation of what many minds, great and small, have divined from practicing the art or consuming it, then you are dismissing many techniques that will divide the amateur from the pro.

So to reiterate what I have said already, creative screenwriting is a messy process, but you must be able to find the structure within that process. The viewer is not interested in the process and does not want to see any of it. What they want is the end product. You are not selling the process; you are selling the result!

Having thus got your act together, decided what you want to do, and begun the creative process of defining a concept and building a story and developing the characters, there will come a point when you have a treatment -- a present tense narrative of the story of the film. It will explain what we see and hint at what we hear, but nothing else. This is not a prose work. We want no interior monologue, no fancy descriptive reverie, no poetry, no smells, no feelings, just the plain telling of a story that can be shot as a movie.

This is where you can make or break your film project. In fact many film projects start off as nothing more than a treatment and can then move through several screenwriters before the final shooting script emerges. The scriptwriters are considered ten a penny, and get shuffled around depending on what stars get attached at one time or another, or what directors come and go on the project. But the good concept, the good story, is king and if you have nothing else, you can get yourself a deal with a producer on the basis of this alone.

I have read a lot of work in progress from all manner of writers, from the talented to the deeply dull, but they all at one time or other suffer from one or more of approximately seven common problem areas. I say approximately seven because this is not a precise science and there might be more problem areas that I am just not aware of yet. Some of these problems are easier to fix than others, and my solutions are not necessarily the best or even solutions in some cases. When it comes down to it, you have to find your own.

In the meantime though, these are my thoughts on the matter and you can take them as a starting point. Here are the seven basic problems of screenwriting:

  1. Writer's Block. Ultimately, this is a time management problem. Having come up with a basic idea, some people either haven't found the time, or the inclination, to move to the next stage. It is as though the enthusiasm for the project suddenly went away once the enormity of the task ahead set in. All I can say to these people is, just move one step at a time! If you stare at that paper or computer screen and all you feel is the urge to go and make yourself some coffee, then at least write a few sentences before moving on. Just brainstorm! Scribble notes to yourself wherever and whenever they come to you. At this stage, there is no right or wrong, no pressure to be brilliant, no need to polish every thought to perfection -- just throw it down on the paper.

    If even this is problematic and you find that sitting down to start writing immediately makes you realize that you have something else to do, then you might need to sit back and do a little self-analysis. If you read any of those self-help books about how to give up smoking or change other bad habits in your life, they recommend taking a notebook and describing the thoughts you have, the actions you do, and the environment that you are in, when the behavior you wish to change takes place. If you are having difficulty settling down to start the writing process, write down what is distracting and why you give that priority.

    Now, if you are a smoker, you will know that the first thing you do when you settle down to write is light up a cigarette! It can take a lot more than merely carrying a notebook to change that habit, but the logic behind it makes sense. Take note of what makes you behave in a certain way. If you are conscious of the habit, then perhaps you can learn to exercise some willpower. And if you do follow the procedure to its recommended conclusion you will discover triggers that provoke the behavior and might be able to substitute more constructive reactions to those moments.

    Those of us who do not have these problems, very often think the solution is so obvious that any idiot can deal with them. However, those who do have the problem do not see the world in the same way. There is always an excuse. How can I not smoke when I have to mix with smokers to do business? I put on so much weight when I don't smoke that I'm sure that must be just as bad for me! How can I not put my job first, my wife, children, or throwing out the rubbish bags and checking the post, before I get down to writing something? I have orders to follow, I have tasks to complete, I have a life!

    Everyone does this to some extent, but it becomes a problem when it stops you doing something that you want to do. If you want to write the screenplay, then you have to rework priorities. And, here's the easy bit for writers, when you get that notepad out to jot down what is distracting you and why you think it is more important than the writing project, you are in fact writing and might as well be scribbling down ideas about your screenplay as apposed to working out your excuses. If, of course, you have genuine excuses then you have to look at the behavior that is of equal priority and find a way of giving it up in favor of the writing.

    With screenwriting, why not give yourself three of four months where it has a high priority. After that, you can reassign priorities for other things until another screenwriting idea occurs to you. My recommendation is, particularly when working out the initial ideas for the screenplay, half an hour a day will produce results that will be useful to you. That is all it takes.

    Later on in the process, when the treatment is being developed and the screenplay, then you will have to assign longer periods, but by then, one hopes, sheer excitement with your own creative genius will carry you over that start-up problem. You will now be eager to finish it rather than abandon it mid-way.

  2. Mission Drift. This is a problem of different mental styles trying to cope with the overriding demand for a single controlling idea at the heart of a screenplay. And it is a much more difficult problem to solve than mere Writer's Block. Writer's Block is largely to do with motivation; if you want to overcome it, you do, and if you don't want to overcome it, then it means you want to do something else. Once you have decided that you do not want to do something else, then you will write. But Mission Drift is a complex phenomenon. It affects all writers and, in many respects, all tasks that you perform in your life. You start off doing one thing, and forget the purpose and drift onto doing something else, lose sight of the purpose of that, and drift on to something else, never really coming to grips with anything.

    For instance, you start off writing a story that is an action thriller, but you have decided to drive the thriller with a mystery. Suddenly the action hero has to start asking question and working out puzzles. He might still have to fight for the answers, and he might still give chase, but he is not quite an action hero. When did Arnold Schwarzenegger start solving mysteries? He doesn't. When did James Bond ever solve a mystery? He never did. The Action Hero knows who did it, knows what they did, and his job is to go into the den of the beast, have sex and blow everything up!

    But of course the writer does not want to write the standard clichés of the genre, but wants to take the genre to another level. The writer might find that a little mystery makes for more intelligent characterization and interesting dialogue.

    If you look at any story you will find that its classification within the genres is often arbitrary. "True Lies" was action/comedy. It was a parody of James Bond. It asked, what if James Bond was a happily married man with a kid and lived in the suburbs? It took sitcom-land and pushed it into action/thriller-land and managed to make it work. It made it work by being aware of the areas it was working in, drawing a distinction between the two worlds and making the story about moving between those worlds. The controlling idea was this juxtaposition of the genres. In short, its mission statement took it upon itself to make this believable.

    I had the good fortune to meet John Briley shortly after he won an Oscar for his screenplay of "Gandhi". He told me various horror stories of his checkered screenwriting career and how he had to change his name once after writing such a dismal script for one project that he almost blew his entire career. So you can all take heart from the twists and turns of even the most successful careers in the industry. What made it possible for him to write "Gandhi" was that he stuck a post-it note on his wall telling him to use the life of Gandhi to illustrate how Civil Disobedience works as a political strategy. He said Gandhi was a fascinating man with lots of contradictory sides to his character. His sexuality was strange, and almost too good to miss for a screenwriter, and he fought battles of many different kinds to the one for Indian independence, all of which would be true to the man's life, all well documented, and all perfectly good fodder for the screen. He did not want to make the man a saint; he wanted to leave that for others to work out, and he did not want to do a hatchet job on him either. And so, how he skirted all the political pressures to make one sort of movie or another, and all the temptations to follow up exotic crazy moments and wild action scenarios, was to stick to the one principle and ask how does this scene illustrated an aspect of Civil Disobedience as a Political Strategy?

    It was not a very dramatically exciting premise. It was very esoteric in many ways and probably would not pass muster for a Hollywood studio-based movie, but it won him an Oscar because he made something that cohered, was incontrovertibly true to the history books, and still managed to give good opportunities for bravura performances and spectacle. Entertainment was not his aim, but enlightenment. The story was too important to be weakened by attempts at sensationalism, or by descending into mere propaganda.

    He made a film that perhaps posed questions more than answered them, but it provoked a debate. The media of the left and the right picked up the question of whether Civil Disobedience would have worked with Hitler, or whether it could only work with a Democratic country like Britain. It was a big film, with big issues, and yet if one looks at the scenes, apart from a few "cast of thousand" moments, it largely comprised of many intimate, small character-driven scenes.

    One can thus have a big issue-driven story without trying to include everything. In fact, by excluding the noise around the message, the message became larger and provoked wider debate. Clarity of purpose creates the sensation of a big movie far more than having something for everyone.

    John Briley was helped by the historical reality of the story, but the same applies to pure invented fictions. "2001: A Space Odyssey" is not a very exciting movie in terms of story and character. But it has remained a controversial classic. This is because of its provocative vision of man's place in the universe and not its entertainment values. Its slow pace, its minimalist characterization, its lack of explanation make it a hard movie to sit through without a stiff drink and cinematic surround sound, and yet it got so much right. It was a film with a controlling idea: the birth of consciousness and evolution. Everything about the movie illustrated these concepts, even to the sperm-shaped space ship on its way to fertilize some cosmic egg. Ultimately, what it said about these issues was not clear, for it did not debate the point, merely created a cinematic poem in honor of universal forces of creation. It was poetry rather than debate, or even drama, and yet it said everything, though explained nothing.

    Mission Drift undermines the power of your statement. It is far better to have one simple, almost banal idea, at the heart of your story than it is to have a million wonderful, great big meaningful ideas and answers to all the questions in the world. If you have a lot of ideas, save some for the next script, and be aware that a great movie has more to do with the clarity of thought than anything else. Great movie moments, great characters, great lines of dialogue, great big fantastic suspenseful sequences, all amount to nothing if they do not cohere and appear to be from the same story. If you can manage high entertainment values, great drama, and a solid controlling idea, then you probably will end up a very rich man, but if you have to make a choice between killing your best bits and sticking to a single idea, then you have to get rid of the extraneous material. Otherwise you will send out signals that you, and nobody else, will understand.

  3. Story Density. This is a matter of judging the complexity of one's ideas and how they can play out within the time constraints of screenplays.

    This is another complicated issue and one that can only be resolved after you have had a lot of experience in writing screenplays. By Story Density, I mean the number of words in a treatment compared to the number and length of the scenes that appear in a screenplay based upon that treatment.

    Story Density problems are usually of the following nature:

    • OVERWRITING: You describe things, explain events and backstory elements that will not be in the screenplay. It will become obvious, as you write the screenplay, that the mere name of the character set in that particular location can transmit some of the information that you felt you had to explain in the prose of the treatment.
    • UNDERWRITING: In action movies in particular, you might sketch in an action scene with a couple of sentences in a Treatment, but the script will require a long sequence of scenes to bring that moment to dramatic life.
    • NEGLECT OF THE MIDDLE: As you get to understand the story, you will find that it is better to enter the story later in the script than you did in the treatment and that the central sections of the story are underdeveloped as compared to the opening and the ending. The synopsis has emphasized these things, but the screenplay requires mostly MIDDLE.

    What this creates is confusion as to where one act starts and another begins. The dramatic moment that, in the treatment, comes a third of the way in, suddenly becomes the opening scene. And because the characters have not as yet passed through all the required stages of growth, the great finale suddenly begins to feel more like an ending to the second act rather than the third. The Treatment might tell us that the characters have grown, but somehow this has not translated into scenes and the emotional journey has ended up as just a few lines of dialogue. However, the audience has to experience the emotional development of the characters, and expects it to take place in various recognizable stages along the way.

    So when writing the treatment, be very careful to work out at which stage of the story a scene occurs. Are you doing a first act situation or a second or third act situation?

    • First acts are full of introductions and question-raising incidents. Suspense is being set up and the keys to unraveling the whole story at the end are being left lying around in the background. This is home turf, this is the emotional norm from which the characters will escape and find their way onto a new level of existence. Return to this in the second act and something feels very wrong. The story has died. Return to it in the last act without conclusions to the questions and the story feels open-ended at best, pointless at worst.
    • The second act scenes are to do with moving the characters through periods of uncertainty, confusion, and wrong turns. There are red herrings here, sub-plots with their own dynamics that are there to trap and trip up the hero. The end of the second act is often entirely taken over by a massive wrong turn that nearly destroys the hero. Have all this happening in the first act and people will wonder what they missed! Have it happening in the last act and people will be looking at their watches and wondering when on earth this thing will finish, and when it does, they will not like it.
    • The last act then begins with the characters retracing their steps, repositioning themselves, while the clock ticks and the villain looks victorious. Then after great battles, there are revelations and surprises and at last the lovers are together where the villains are vanquished. If you start a movie like that, your sanity will be in serious doubt. But it is surprising how often some sort of radical revelations that should be in the end crop up in the second or first act of the early drafts of a script.

    The audience reads the movie using an emotional map. It expects to move from certainty to confusion to confrontation and conclusion. One can add more beats to that model: certainty, dissolution, confusion, failure, despondency, confrontation, rehabilitation, resolution, enlightenment and then confrontation and conclusion. And so on. You can think of your own emotional maps for the stories. The more complex the story, the more complicated the emotional map.

    And remember that you have to have contrasting moments in an emotional map. It is rarely satisfying to have a story that moves from certainty to confrontation to conclusion, because certainty remains inherent in that map all the way through. There is no journey there. A journey is not an adventure unless the hero gets lost. There have to be reverses. So after certainty there must be uncertainty somewhere. After confusion there must be enlightenment. After success, there must be failure, and then maybe success again. The story that moves directly from certainty to confrontation and conclusion is merely a beginning and an end without middle.

    The treatment might seem like it has a huge middle when in effect you are merely moving your story through with certainty straight into the confrontation and conclusion. You are treading water, emotionally, and when you get to write the script, you will find that most of the treatment melts away in the complexity of the scene structure. You will realize that a look can say a lot, that a moment of silence and isolation for a character can actually be far more dramatic than the big car chase sequence with all the pratfalls and spectacular stunts that you originally imagined and filled up the treatment with. And once you have said that here you have certainty, despite lots of other imaginative scenes, unless they take us beyond certainty into more complicated situations, then you will discover that all you need is the one sequence.

    Overcoming this problem is not unlike overcoming the Mission Drift problem. Work out the emotional map, the controlling ideas of each beat of the movie, which of course will refer back to that one big controlling idea. Christopher Vogel's reworking of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, using "The Wizard of Oz" as its basic model, is perhaps worth reading because it gives a story map outlining all the beats that a story needs for it to be considered satisfying by an audience. I would not like to claim such a map is a universal requirement for all stories. But although I think it is for a special kind of story, it is a useful map to follow. The rule of a story is that it must move from one state to the next without the audience feeling that there was some unexplained emotional change. And there must be enough of these steps to make people feel that they have seen enough different aspects of the controlling idea to make them feel that they have learned something, or at least, have been put through some sort of emotional roller coaster.

    However, it is not as simple as sticking a Post-It note to your wall and forever challenging every scene with the question of what this has to do with the main idea. The journey, as you write it, is as much yours as a writer, as it is the characters' journey. When writing a treatment, you are not writing the end product; you are still exploring your ideas, but you have to learn how to explore your ideas and then, once the exploration has taken place, report what you have discovered rather than put on paper how you discovered it. This makes it hard to know where the story beats are. More words imply more story, when in truth they may not.

    Perhaps a test of story density is to always, after having written a treatment, return to creating a one-page outline of the whole story. That will alert you to where the real key moments are and where the real act breaks come. And if that is not doing the trick, then try and write the first act of the story, because then you will see how much of the treatment is used up by what should be 25% of the story. There should be no cheating, no padding out with dialogue, no long descriptions of the sets, no extra wide margins in the script. You should only have what is necessary to tell the story.

    Ultimately, the only true test is to write the entire script, but we are trying to learn how to write efficiently and many of these problems can be ironed out in the initial sketches. So be careful and remember to be aware of overwriting, underwriting and neglecting the middle. Test the act structure, and build up a good sense of the emotional map of the story.

  4. The Concept of Structure. Whereas everyone understands the three-act structure at a basic level, writers often fail to grasp its full implications and that structure permeates the whole edifice of the screenplay. Structure in screenplays is often outlined in a mechanical and dauntingly restrictive fashion. You are told that you must have a hook on page ten, an inciting incident by page thirty, a turning point at page twenty eight, a sub-plot introduction on page eleven, and build a climax from page twenty... and that is just the first act! How can you, a creative artist whose mind is bubbling over with original ideas, possibly tame this beast and force it into this cage without losing the very thing that makes you want to write? Well, you just have to do it. That is all there is to it. You have to learn how to structure your stories without losing their creativity. You cannot fudge it by merely labeling your act breaks. It has to be built into the way you tell your story. Some stories require more structure than others, however, and understanding what sort of story you are writing is perhaps the main skill, but structure there must be. You can make sure of that by constructing each segment of your story as a unified section with a definite end point before moving to the next section.

    This may seem artificial to you and you might like to develop the single line that winds its way from moment to moment meandering here and there until you reach the end, but people like discrete chapters in a story. The good news about this is that it can make your life easier. It is easier to hold a short section in your mind in all its subtleties than the full story. This is why treatments are so important. There, you write the full story and, while writing that document, you can allow the mind to flow moment to moment because it does not need the depth of the finished product. You can think in terms of a beginning middle and an end, without getting into the micro-structure of the piece. Judging story density can be difficult, but if you practice, you will begin to understand how the treatment relates to the end product.

    It might be beneficial to write a very sketchy story outline that includes dialogue, action descriptions and even scene breakdowns, though this document is for private use rather than communicating to others. This is where your mind is allowed to randomly associate. Some people can do this is a non-linear fashion jotting down notes to themselves in brainstorming sessions, where others need to feel that they are following the thread of the narrative wherever it may lead. But in the end, all this has to be put aside, and the next layer of organization applied. And that means breaking up the story into discrete units with their individual story functions clearly factored into the content.

    At this point it is easier to work one act at a time than on the whole script in one go. You then concentrate on the discrete units within the act. So at the first level there is the three-act structure. The next level down is the structure of the act. Roughly, a first act consists of a Hook, a Sub-Plot set up, a Main Plot Inciting Incident, Climax, Conclusion. There are many ways of expressing this, depending on the type of story you are telling, but essentially all fall in with this sort of structure. You can make it as complicated or as simple as you like. An "Indiana Jones" type story rolls along in short ten to twenty minute cliff hanging sequences, whereas Jack Nicholson's "As Good As It Gets" had a complex three act structure designed about the intricacies of character development. It is up to you, but work in sections and think in terms of sections, rather than trying to find them after you have written the piece.

    The simplest way of dealing with a first act is in Ten Page segments, each with a beginning, middle, and end. This might seem too contrived, too jerky, or it might work wonders for you. I personally think in terms of starting with a dramatic opening, then lots of short scenes, build to a main plot set piece, a minor plot fragment, a section where the two somehow interact, and then the big twist in the story, and a transitional scene to the opening of the second act. This is a bit more fluid and closer to the single line and I feel it has an improvisational feel that works with certain kinds of writing. It does not work with GENRE pieces though. These are much more structured. But for my own purposes, this feels right.

    There are no rules really, but you should certainly make us feel that there is a definite shape to whatever you write. This builds confidence that the writer is in control of the material. This sense of structure must reach down to the smallest detail. And so, by all means, improvise to get the flow of the piece, but then pull it together and build the story brick by brick.

    When writing for the stage, a scene has certain key points: the beginning and the end and the entrances and exits. What happens at each of those moments should be key information. What happens between those moments is the foreshadowing and set up of elements to be developed and paid off later. In the process of orchestrating the dialogue covering all these elements, the story moves in beats (i.e. single discrete elements of information, either emotional or physical). Each beat can be a single line, word, or a series of words and actions, or just actions. Between each beat is sometimes a pause, a piece of interlocking business, or even a transitional line of dialogue introducing the next riff. The beats build to the next entrance, exit, or scene end. Often the beats come as follows: Opening, Entrance, Exit, Close. There can be many beats in a scene, many entrances and exits. Sometimes though, the pulse of the scene can be measured out using various bits of stage business. In movies, luckily, you have a far more varied way of moving through the beats and scenes and so can be a little more fluid in your approach, but be aware that you are still just counting the beats. So everything must be telling the audience something, and every beat should feel exactly like that: a beat.

    Those who write for the theatre are lucky in that they can learn this instinctively by getting a bunch of actors together and giving their scripts a practical test run. It becomes very obvious that, in order for actors to communicate with an audience, each moment needs to be strong and telling. Screenwriters can also have their scripts read, and can gain a lot from listening how actors approach the script, but the fractured nature of the screenplay, the tremendous power of the editing room and of close ups, music, and accidental elements that somehow make a movie all the more alive, can obscure good script writing practice. There is an awful lot that gets into a movie because of the director and the production process, and consequently the broad sweep and the basic idea can often be seen as the most important element of the screenwriter's job, when after the basic idea has been clearly formulated, the next most important thing is the structure of the story. Having all the elements somehow there on paper is not enough; they must come nicely presented in a well constructed assembly.

  5. Motivating Characters. You have to push a character's button before they will react. Ostensibly this is simple. You show us who the people are in your story, and then you test that assertion by pushing the buttons that create reactions confirming who these people are, or not. This will tell the audience whether they are pretending to be something else, or being sincere.

    At its most basic level, drama depends upon two things: alerting the audience to which state your characters think each of them are in, either pretense or sincerity, and every reaction must be equal to the event that triggered it, no more and no less, unless you want to raise a question about the character's sincerity.

    If your character's actions do not ring true to an audience and are neither pretending nor sincere, then you have failed to tell them anything about your characters. They are merely random collections of sounds and images. Everything they say and do must seem to be part of the logical, or illogical, workings of those characters' minds.

    The main problem with character motivation, however, is that people can do things merely because they fancy doing them! One might go into the psychology of the character and discover some deep-seated infantile response that dictates a life long addiction to a particular type of behavior, but in the ninety minutes to two hours of a movie, there is little time to delve into it. Often the bad guy is bad merely because he's bad! Even so, cause and effect are still required. The bad guy shoots the cop because the cop got in his way when he was trying to do an illegal act. He does not randomly shoot a cop because, well, he feels like it that day - unless of course, you are writing a story about a guy who randomly shoots cops! The serial killer story has that sort of motivation, or seemingly, for even then there is usually a revelation that the serial killer had a troubled childhood, a hair lip that made him unattractive to women, or an aesthetic desire to rid the world of mullets and guys in flared trousers.

    Movie motivation is more symbolic of the subtleties of life than an attempt to recreate them. It is rarely very deep; it is merely simple to understand. The troubled cop checking the photograph of his dead wife in his wallet is a short hand way of explaining why the cop is troubled and thus likely not to follow the rulebook. It is a cliché now, so not recommended, but if you have to wonder how that maverick cop ever got into a position of authority in the first place, you have to offer up some satisfactory, often-symbolic explanation.

    If you want us to believe in the essential goodness of a character about to commit a crime, then you need to give them a strong reason for committing the crime. Merely being short of cash is not enough. They have to be desperate for the money in order to afford the specialized treatment that could save their dying child. The biggest problem with the final Rocky movie, "Rocky Balboa", was not why Rocky wanted to come out of retirement for one last taste of glory in the ring, but rather why Mason Dixon, a fighter already accused of choosing easy opponents, would think fighting a brain-damaged has-been brought him any kudos! But then, nobody goes to a Rocky movie to ask too many questions.

    The greatest difficulty with motivation is that Hollywood has its shorthand and the British have theirs and the Indian and the Chinese have theirs. In the UK, all you need say is that a character is a northerner to know that they will be fighters, prone to a dry sense of humor, up for anything and looking for a chance to escape. Immediately the cultural stereotypes give the writer subtleties to play with and against. You do not need a picture in a wallet to let you know that if that character is in London, he is a maverick on a quest.

    Mixing and matching different styles, different genres, from different cultures can both freshen up old stories but they can also turn things into a mess of unknowns. So, know your milieu and assume the audience does not. Ask why someone does something and make sure the audience knows the answer either implicitly because they are culturally in tune or explicitly from the script.

  6. Setting Up and Paying Off. Everything that you put in a screenplay has to be used on one level or another, so be aware of what you are setting up in the audience's mind and make sure you pay it off in some dramatically interesting fashion.

    This is not unrelated to character, but is more to do with the workings of the plot. If you raise a question you must answer it immediately, but not necessarily correctly, just plausibly. If it is of major importance to the plot later on, that is when you can answer it correctly. The trick is to leave the audience knowing that you have not answered the question entirely, thus letting them know that you intend to answer it! This helps maintain their confidence that the story will go somewhere interesting and not be merely a series of non-sequiturs.

    Sometimes a ludicrous storyline that has been thrown together at the last minute is rescued by having one character exclaiming that they do not understand something and then having a smarter character take them aside and inform them that all will be explained: roll titles, fade out sound, bring up the theme tune. Many a murky moment in a piece of hackwork has been casually swept away by such tricks. It is not recommended, though it does illustrate that even merely acknowledging that a question has been raised is better than failing to answer it. It is better not to have to resort to such a thing by being aware of exactly what questions have been set up, and paying them off properly.

    The writer has to know what their audience is reading into a scene and the audience must be made to feel that they are viewing something meaningful rather than random and casual.

  7. Genre Incompatibilities. The solution for freshening up a genre is often to bring in a component of another genre. Add comedy to horror, for instance. Or bring the detective thriller in to a sci-fi scenario. When it works, it works beautifully, but most attempts fail. The assumptions an audience makes about one genre undermines those that the other genre brings to bear.

    Worse, most crossovers from one genre to another are accidental; the writer has not immersed themselves in the culture of a particular genre and so elements from others drift in and out without them being aware of the effect these elements are having.

    If you are going to work with a genre, it is worth going to the fan clubs of this kind of film and finding out what it is they like about them. It is often not the sort of thing that those of us who would consider ourselves to be sophisticated writers would dream of lowering ourselves to write. We think we will make this dumb genre better by ignoring the schlock or sensational elements. But you will write a better script if you actually like these things and want to do nothing more than write another.

    Another problem is the no-genre idea that is in fact a genre piece. Most serious writers try to write "Drama", "Thrillers" or "Dramatic Comedy", often believing they are not writing "genre" pieces. But everything gets pushed into some sort of genre, even if it is only a broadly defined "Art House" or "Indie Movie".

    Think for a moment what "Art House" immediately conjures up to you. It says sub-titles, good photography, sex, odd-ball plot, if any. And think what "Indie Movie" says. It says low budget, plenty of sheer bravado in plotting and shooting style, and often a low genre being given a campy send up relishing its worst aspects. Everything falls into a category and you should be aware what expectations these arouse.

    Often the writer of a drama, unaware that this creates genre like expectations, will throw in an action sequence to spice up the story with something more filmic. The result is, a movie where character and plot are the main focus of interest, suddenly has a chase sequence that never rises to the sort of inventiveness the audience expects from such a scene.

    So know exactly what you are writing. Write it with conviction. Eliminate all elements that send confusing signals. And when you do cross the genre boundaries, do so with some purpose. Make it work. Make it do something rather than leave a reader wondering if this is part of the same movie.

    There are no techniques that one can teach about this. Every writer suffers from it to some degree, and lots of writers get away with it because it adds to their unique style. Mostly though, it undermines the credibility of the writer and leads the viewer to conclude that the writer is not in control of their material. Genre mismatching is often a symptom of a lack of thought about the story. Throwing everything you have in the fridge into a pot and boiling it rarely produces a tasty dish.

 

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