- Personal experience with that world, and you’re ready to bring your unique perspective to the screen for the first time.
- Massive amount of research: reading all the histories and memoirs, and possibly even interviewing participants in this or a similar world.
- New details that are funny.
- New details that break through the ossified layers of genre tropes and feel startlingly real.
- New details that make powerful metaphors for life outside this world. After all, genres are never actually about the setting, whether it’s the west, or the mafia, or a spaceship. Those settings are just metaphors for our world.
As I’ve said before, writers often falsely believe that audiences are sick of genre conventions. In reality, audiences will demand that you satisfy most (but never all) of those conventions, albeit in a way that feel new and unclichéd. Use your research to make those tropes feel more fresh and realistic, not to do away with them.
Movie and TV executives love to meet with story consultants with real life experience who can regale them with too-crazy-to-be-fake anecdotes and tell them the inside dope about how it really goes down, but they will suddenly turn cold as soon as those consultants start saying things like: “They don’t really do that kind of thing,” or “they wouldn’t be that dramatic,” or “it’s not all hyped up and life-or-death stakes like it is in the movies.”
So what do you do instead? Look at the storyline in the “Sopranos” pilot in which a gambling-addict HMO exec can’t pay his debts so he is forced to submit phony claims that will pay out to Tony’s crew. As Chase says in the DVD commentary:
- This is the way the mob works. This is actually very realistic. The basis for the way the mob runs their business is they do illegal betting, that’s the bedrock of everything is they take action for all kinds of people who have to gamble all the time, and they make a lot of money off that, just like a casino does, except it’s illegal, so they take a commission. Also, when people get behind, and they lose, they need to borrow money, and when you’ve lost enough times, you finally find yourself having to go to them to borrow money, at exorbitant rates, and after enough of that kind of borrowing you can’t pay and they say fine, you have to give us part of your business. That’s how they get into these things.
- The story isn’t inherently funny, but Chase makes it funny in the way it plays out.
- We have that instinctive moment of recognition: “Oh, I get it now! This feels so much more realistic! This is how it would really play out!” It resonates with our (vague) knowledge of their world…
- …And it also resonates with our (equally vague) knowledge of our world. Just check out this wonderful video intercutting antics from this show, Goodfellas, and Mitt Romney:
Crucially, this realistic new detail still plays out in an unrealistic fashion: Pussy and Hesh don’t just call up the HMO guy and say “You’d better be careful or the man with green eyes will come and see you,” as they would in real life, they take him over a waterfall and make it clear that they’re about to throw him in. We love that it has added realism, as long as we get to keep the fun genre unrealism that we also love.