Thursday, June 17, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #29: Know What They Do All Day

You’re writing a scene. A man finds out some shocking news. He goes home to tell his wife. He walks into his apartment where she’s been waiting for him to come home. She asks what’s wrong. He tells her everything. What does she say? Well, we don’t care what she says because the scene is already dead. She was waiting for him to come home? Really? She had nothing better to do? 

In how many ways does this sabotage the scene? Well, first of all, you’ve pretty much guaranteed that you’ll have crappy performances, because the actress playing the wife has nothing to play. She has nothing in her hands, no business to complete, no goal of her own to accomplish rather than have this conversation. You’ve drained the scene of conflict because she wants to have this conversation, and in fact needs to have this conversation, since she has nothing better to do. What if she didn’t want to get into it and she needed to complete something else? That’s two more sources of conflict, right off the bat.

But more importantly, you’ve hobbled your own thought process. If you had taken the time to figure out what she would actually be doing all day, then you would have had to create a much richer, fuller character, and you would have thought about what these people do for work and what they do for play. In other words, you would have thought about what they value. And that would inform every conversation.
The ultimate example is a truly terrible movie that you may never have heard of: Attack of the Clones. (I think I’m the first person to ever complain about this movie on the internet, so bear with me…) In this airless, weightless, computer-rendered world, every actor stands around in front of green screens and blandly converses about who gets to control the universe. If you listen to two seconds of dialogue, you know the movie is bad, but you don’t even have to listen that long. Just look at their homes and offices.

Where is all their stuff?
How do these people live without stuff?

In this movie, as far as I understood it, Natalie Portman plays a character who is both queen of the galaxy and the president of the new Senate.
Those are two big jobs! Where is her desk? Where are her papers? Is there no paper at all in this universe? Okay, so do they use computers instead? No? Do they write everything on their hands? Can she at least have a pen? No? There’s not a single usable prop on any set. This lack of stuff makes the visuals look hopelessly unconvincing and it makes the acting painful to watch, but more importantly, it makes the high-falutin’ ideas they’re discussing sound vapid and pointless. Why should we listen to you people? You obviously don’t do anything.

These people had very important jobs, or so we were told, but they did nothing, and they had nothing, so they were nothing. And out in the audience, nobody cared. Don’t make the same mistake. Never let anybody enter a room and find somebody waiting around to have a conversation.


Unknown said...

Awesome post. I can feel your frustration oozing out of my computer screen. Well, it's more like blasting out of my computer screen...

Now that we're on Star Wars, I particularly loved the moment in Ep. 2 when Padme's outfit is strategically ripped so that her entire midriff is conveniently exposed. Really?!?!

Lockhart said...

Totally brilliant. This is one reason why writers should try theater directing. In directing, especially with less skilled actors, a good director is always giving the actors things to do other than what the scene is about, so that they continue to be "alive" before and after the scene.

The writer must do the same thing. If the characters only live to tell your story, then they were never really alive to begin with.

Kurt said...

What's particularly galling about this example is that one of the design triumphs of the first films was how lived-in everything looked. Instead of the smooth perfection of most science-fiction, stuff actually looked like it had been used until it broke down, then fixed.