Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Comedy Behaving Badly

 (Related article: Laughing at Pain - A Serious Guide to Comedy)

About a month ago, I was in the middle of a script conference with a writer over a spec script she had written. The script was a rather dull and conflict-free light comedy about a married couple who take a vacation on a cruise ship. I suggested to her that the script would have far better movement and dramatic focus if she would center the action of the script on the couple's failing marriage and the temptation each felt to cheat on each other while on this ship filled with beautiful young people. She liked this idea, but responded with a good question: how could she write a script about something as serious as marital infidelity, and still make it a comedy?

Charlie Chaplin often said something along the lines of "Life is a tragedy when shot in the close-up, a comedy in the wide." What he meant was that everything in life can be seen as comedy or tragedy, it just matters on how it is presented. Chaplin made some of the most beloved comedies of all time, and nearly every one centered around the abject poverty and misery of the Great Depression. In these films we see sickness, starvation, suicide, discrimination, an unjust legal system, a cruel and cold world. Yet despite all this, no one would ever label Chaplin's films as “serious.”

In most comedies, if not all, we see characters facing situations that would, in real life, be very serious and hold major consequences. Either their lives are in danger, or they face circumstances that could bring ruin their lives or the lives of those they love, or they must at least be confronted with constant embarrassment and humiliation. In short, we are always led to laugh at other people's troubles.

There is a specific psychological reason why audiences have been so drawn to comedic drama over the millennia. Every member of an audience bring with them to the theater secret fears and anxieties about life. Everyone continuously has worries nagging at them, and fears of life and death lurking just below the surface. However, when an audience watches a fictional character carrying out their own fears and anxieties in a ridiculous and exaggerated way, the audience feels an emotional release. Their fears have been made trivial and silly. They are relieved of their own fears and anxieties through laughter.

One way to convert the serious problems of real life into comedy is to take a situation and exaggerate it to a degree that it becomes almost absurd. Let's take a look at the spec script I was discussing with my writer client. There is nothing funny about a marriage in trouble. But how she chooses show her character's marriage is in trouble could be be very funny. The script opens with a rather benign and uneventful sequence in which we see the wife Tonya, and and the husband Joe, preparing to leave on the trip. This would be the perfect place to establish the disrepair of the couple's relationship and at the same time establish the light, comedic tone. Let's say that instead of making Joe as an average, boring guy, he instead has a major personality flaw. Maybe he is a person who is so overbearing about sticking to schedule that he follows Tonya around with a stopwatch, timing how long it takes to brush their teeth, to eat breakfast, and complaining whenever they are a minute or two late. We see that Tonya is annoyed by this. Her agitation grows and grows to such a degree that she eventually solves the problem by taking Joe's stopwatch and flushing it down the toilet (which creates another comedic complication by making the toilet overflow). Tonya's reaction towards Joe is one of anger and disgust, but it is so exaggerated that it becomes funny. Tonya, on the other hand, could treat Joe as if he can never do anything right. The audience could learn this when they see Tonya wait until Joe leaves the room, and then dump out the suitcase Joe packed so that she can re-pack it the "correct" way. There are limitless ways that one could create flaws and problems between the two in an exaggerated, over the top fashion.

The important thing is to establish a light, funny tone from the very beginning. Then, keep up with that tone throughout the story. The audience will forgive your characters for the things they do as long as they know that nothing is ever to be taken too seriously.

Keeping your characters likable even when they do bad things

It is so important to keep your protagonist likable. This is especially true in comedy. A writer should never have the protagonist do anything IN A WAY that the audience would outright condemn. Now, that is not to say that they should never do anything “bad.” This means that they should never commit an act in a way that the audience would label as “bad.”

A good way to do this is to first show in a number of situations that your character is in fact a good person. Deep down they are decent and likable and worthy of the audience's affection. Secondly, when that character does feel obligated to do something that could be labeled as "bad," they make a FOOL out of themselves while doing it. They're not good at being bad. They are good people who get carried away by temptation and now must suffer the embarrassment of the mistake.

Think of a movie about a man who decides to rob a bank. If he does it sharply and efficiently like he's robbed plenty of banks before, waves his gun around, threatens to hurt people, you would have a hard time making him into a sympathetic character. To the audience, he is "bad." But if this robber is instead a well-meaning guy who concocts a hair-brained scheme to raise money for a selfless cause by robbing this bank with a plastic gun, and bungles the job so badly that he actually ends up apologizing to everyone in the bank for his ineptitude, he remains funny and endearing.

Why is this? It goes back to what I previously mentioned about comedy's psychological effect on the audience. Everyone in the world fantasizes about doing something bad from time to time. But most people are stopped from doing so by either the guilt of being seen as a "bad person," or by the fear of all that could go wrong. A character who is "bad at being bad" remains endearing to the audience because the audience can identify themselves with this misguided fool. Here is a decent likable person like themselves who carries out that temptation. Through the character, the audience can live out their fantasies of doing something bad. But at the same time, the character makes a fool out of him/herself. The audience laughs both because they feel sympathetic embarrassment FOR the character they identify with, and at the same time they feel relieved that it is someone else, not them, who must suffer the humiliation and failure that they fear.

Think of all the ways that people routinely humiliate themselves whenever they are suddenly sexually attracted to a new person. They babble, say stupid things, suddenly become clumsy, become distracted and walk into walls, come on too strong and embarrass themselves. Flirting and can go awry in so many ways. If we see Tonya and Joe going about their possible illicit romantic pursuits in such innocently misguided ways, they would remain endearing to the audience and the story would still be funny.

The important thing is to pull your characters back and have them realize their mistakes before they go too far. "Comedy", since the days of the Ancient Greek playwrights, has always implied a story that praises the positive, uplifting qualities of humanity. This is commonly done by first presenting a negative, destructive quality, and then have it defeated by its opposite, positive quality. In our spec script, it would be best, and most dramatic, to get Tonya as close as she can to the edge, as close as she can get to actually cheating on her husband, and then pull her back in a big, dramatic, funny way. Here's an example: Tonya has had a fight with Joe. She goes to the cabin of her new Romeo, who, in the time they have spent together up until now, has seemed so new and exciting. But now in his cabin for the first time, right on the brink of cheating, she discovers what a pathetic LOSER this other guy is. Maybe he is not a Romeo, but a big dork with a hairy back that still lives in his mother's house, or anything like that. She is suddenly overwhelmed with the embarrassment of what a fool she has been. She drops the other man like a hot potato, and through the experience learns to appreciate better what she has with her husband.

It is also worth mentioning that this “being bad at being bad” applies not only to the protagonist, but also to comedic villains. Rarely will you find in a broad comedy an antagonist that is truly intimidating, intelligent, or sometimes even competent. Rather than being scary and nefarious, they are usually portrayed as buffoons. Even the most capable opponent is usually struggling to hide the fact that deep down he/she is either a clown or a small, petty jerk.

There are two simple reasons for this. The first goes back again to the psychological release created by comedy. The buffoon villain once again leads the audience to laugh at what they should fear the most. The second reason is for the mere plausibility of the story's resolution and thematic message at the end. If our simple, bumbling everyman protagonist were pitted against an opponent who was truly worthy of the audience's fear and respect, the protagonist wouldn't seem to stand a chance. The antagonist may be more skilled in a certain area than the protagonist at the beginning of the film, but it is a skill that can be gained by the protagonist with the help of others in order to overcome the antagonist at the end. The protagonist may gain skill through the story, but usually the protagonist's true root of success comes not because he or she is so much more smart, brave, or skilled than the antagonist, but because the protagonist possesses, or has gained throughout the story, humanistic character traits that the antagonist lacks, such as compassion, humility, perseverance, or integrity. Once again we see the pattern of a negative quality of humanity conquered by one which is positive.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Getting the Most Value out of your Dialogue (or, What Dialogue DOES)

If we could break down each one of the elements of storytelling in a screenplay, action, visuals, character... and assign a metaphorical dollar value to the worth of each when it comes to telling a story for the screen, dialogue would definitely be the least valuable. The old phrase “talk is cheap” is never more apt than when applied to the screen. It should be painfully clear to any writer worth his or her salt by now that dialogue is the least effective and least dramatic way to communicate information, develop character, advance story when compared to the alternatives, such as action, visuals, character behavior, and sound effects. Over-reliance on dialogue creates a story that is dull, slow moving, long-winded and stagnant.

Yet still a good majority of developing writers do just that. They overload their attempts at screenwriting with the craft's cheapest and least effective element. They fill their scenes with pages of useless dialogue. Characters talk on and on about every little thing. This problem is made even worse due to the fact that most of their dialogue never actually ACCOMPLISHES anything. Characters often seem to talk just for the sake of talking. Many young writers seem to think that as long as their characters keep chattering away the scene will continue to be interesting. This is not so.

Now, I easily admit that despite dialogue's low place of value in the craft of cinematic storytelling, it is still an essential tool. Even films from the silent era had to frequently rely on dialogue through the title card to get across information when other options were not possible. However, whenever a writer sets about writing a scene, the idea is to use dialogue in a way that squeezes the most possible value FROM it.

Every line of dialogue should have a specific story reason to be said. The dialogue should have a reason to exist, simply because it DOES something. Dialogue functions in a scene in three specific ways that work to serve the story as a whole. In a great screenplay, every piece of dialogue will work to do one of three things:

1. Gives information that advances the scene towards its goal.

This is the most important thing dialogue should do. Every scene in a script must have its own individual GOAL, the point of the scene, the reason why it is in the story. Every scene should accomplish something that moves the story forward into the next scene, and then forward from that scene to the next, and to the next, and ultimately to the story's ultimate GOAL, the climax of the story. (This is what people mean when they say a script has "story momentum", each scene continuously does something that moves the story forward towards its ultimate ending.) When you write a scene, you must first figure out the reason why this scene is in the story (the goal the scene needs to reach), and then use the actions and dialogue of your characters to move the scene steadily towards that goal. (If you have a scene that doesn't seem to have a goal, then it probably does not belong in the story. It adds nothing to the story and will only slow things down and kill your momentum. You need to find a way to give that scene a reason to exist or cut it from the script.)

Here is a sample scene from the screenplay The Shawshank Redemption, (written by Frank Darabont, based on a story by Stephen King). Though most scenes should be given a goal that advances the plot, once in a while you can get away with a scene that focuses on advancing the theme, as this following scene does. The theme of Shawshank is "Never give up hope."

(Exposition: Andy, an educated banker, is sentenced to Shawshank Prison for the (supposed) murder of this wife. There, Andy is befriended by Red, a wise and pragmatic con who knows more about how things are done in Shawshank than anyone. In the previous sequence, Andy locked himself in the Warden's office and broadcasted a Mozart record over the loudspeakers for the whole prison to hear. Andy was given two weeks in "the hole" for this. Here, he returns to his friends for the first time since.)

150    INT -- MESS HALL -- DAY (1955) 1 50

        Hey. It's the mystero. Couldn't play somethin'
        good, huh? Hank Williams?

        They broke the door down before I
        could take requests.

        Was it worth two weeks in the hole?

        Easiest time I ever did.

        Shit. No such thing as easy time in
        the hole. A week seems like a year.

        I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.
        Hardly felt the time at all.

        Oh, they let you tote that record
        player down there, huh? I could'a
        swore they confiscated that stuff.

            (taps his heart, his head)
        The music was here...and here.
        That's the one thing they can't
        confiscate, not ever. That's the
        beauty of it. Haven't you ever felt
        that way about music, Red?

        Played a mean harmonica as a younger
        man. Lost my taste for it. Didn't
        make much sense on the inside.

        Here's where it makes most sense.
        We need it so we don't forget.


        That there are things in this world
        not carved out of gray stone. That
        there's a small place inside of us
        they can never lock away, and that
        place is called hope.

        Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a
        man insane. It's got no place here.
        Better get used to the idea.

        Like Brooks did?

(Brooks, an old man who spent decades in the prison, committed suicide after being paroled.)

Notice that every line of Andy's dialogue works to move us closer and closer to the scene's goal: to establish the theme that one should never give up hope. Andy only has seven lines. His dialogue doesn't sway from this path, but works to move the scene closer and closer to its goal. Also notice how quickly the scene ends. Once the scene's goal has been accomplished, that's all that needs to be said.

You probably noticed that there was a good deal of dialogue that seemed to be there for a different reason. Dialogue spoken by characters other than Andy that added a lot of color and personality to the scene. That brings us to dialogue's second function:

#2. Develops characterization.

We can learn a lot about the characters by listening to how they respond to Andy's goal-oriented dialogue. We can tell that Heywood is a Good Ol' Boy who doesn't have what it takes to appreciate Mozart. He is also a straight shooter, immediately trying to shoot down Andy's claim that his time in the hole was easy. We learn that Red is a down to earth and practical type of guy. He doesn't really get what Andy means about Mozart. His idea of good music is his old harmonica. While Andy speaks with metaphor and the poetic mind of an educated man, Red speaks in short, choppy thoughts. He thinks he knows the way things are and that's just the way it is.

While most of Andy's dialogue in this scene is oriented towards reaching the goal, almost all of the dialogue spoken by the other characters is motivated AGAINST Andy's goal. Their dialogue pushes against Andy's dialogue, making it more difficult for him to prove his point and reach the scene's goal. This is dialogue's third and final function:

#3. Creates conflict within the scene

Like you have heard a thousand times before, conflict is the lifeblood of drama. Drama cannot exist without it. It is what makes things interesting. Now while your plot must have a MAIN STORY CONFLICT -that one problem that the story revolves around, that thing that drives the action of the story forward- it is also important to have some sort of conflict in every scene you write.

It is important to not confuse the two. Though your plotline should have only one major conflict, the conflict in your individual scenes can come from anywhere. From characters, from the environment, from a coffee machine that won't work. As I already stated, every scene should involve a character pursuing a scene goal. If that character achieved the goal easily with no problem, then that would be a rather dull and nondramatic scene. Nothing can ever be easy in a screenplay. To achieve any scene goal, it is best to have some conflict in the way to make things more interesting.

In our example from Shawshank, the scene conflict comes from the differences between Andy and his friends. There is conflict between two different personalities: Andy the cultured, educated man vs. Haywood the uneducated Good Ol' Boy. There is conflict between Andy and Red due to the fact that they see the world in two opposite ways. With Andy, hope springs eternal while Red feels certain that hope should be given up. There is even conflict between two different levels of understanding: Andy says he had Mozart with him in the hole. Red misunderstands, thinking they let him keep the record player.

As you see, good conflict in dialogue usually comes from different personalities, outlooks on life, and backgrounds butting heads over some idea or situation. And this all comes from putting thought and effort into building your characters. So many people seem to think that plot, character, and dialogue should be treated as separate screenplay elements, but the truth is that everything is connected. The more you strive to make your characters different and unique, the more life and individuality their dialogue will add to the scene and the story as a whole. When Frank Darabont wrote Shawshank he created three extremely different people in Andy, Red, and Haywood. If they had been too similar and always seen things in the same way, their scenes probably would not have been so compelling. But because they are so different, the dialogue of every scene is alive with chances for conflict.

Don't waste your dialogue. Make it valuable. Make it DO what it is supposed to DO.

Keep scribbling.