Knowing me as you do you will be aware that I love movies. I worked it out the other day since I was 12 years old I’ve watched about 15,000 movies. A lot of these movies were good. A few were classics. The vast seething majority were not so good. Some were so bad they were good. Some of those were classics too. Inevitably some were just bad. Quite a lot were bad. They were not very bad, just disappointing, badly acted or badly directed. Or badly written.
In fact the vast majority of bad films are badly written. Nothing is so tragic, so hard to watch, as a film that has a terrible script and you can see the actors and the technicians trying SO hard to make it work. And in truth, most of the time you can also see a look in their eyes, fully reconciled to the fact that in the final analysis it doesn’t matter. A movie in the modern age is a commodity. A product. You make a movie on a compelling subject, design a eye-grabbing poster and you will sell tickets and more likely DVDs.
Writing bad movies is like any 21st Century pervasive but avoidable and treatable disease. With a few carefully followed procedures you can return to health with no ill effects and soon you’ll never know you even suffered from it. Here are seven non-FDA approved medications you can use to treat yourself.
1. Write like an editor
Edit the movie in your head. SEE it on the screen. Make each scene flow from one to the other and don’t break the spell. You are like a hypnotist, voice modulated for calm, keeping up a seamless flow of ideas and lulling the viewing into a trance state, accepting your suggestions one after the other and moving deeper into the story. You will know if the scenes belong together they fit they seem right. Trust your instincts. Cut as much away as you can till you can take no more away. Don’t pad. Cut cut cut.
2. Don’t try to be cool
Trying to be cool in writing is like trying to be cool in life. If you don’t write as you speak you will come off like a father of teenage kids who tries to talk to his kids friends in their “own language”. Anyone who has ever had a dad like that knows how embarrassing it is. Every dad who has tried this and failed knows how it feels to know you don’t know how to talk to these kids and you feel foolish. Cool people don’t try to be cool, they ARE cool. They are cool because they speak the truth in an amusing way; they are cool because they don’t care if you think they are cool or not; they are confident, easy in their own skin and 100% totally themselves.
3. Rounded characters
Evil people are not cartoon characters. They don’t look evil. On the contrary they look and sound charming. Serial killers lure their victims into their isolated rooms of death by being charismatic, confident, and attractive. Before they are unmasked they are well liked by everyone they meet. Think of Alan Rickman in “Die Hard” or Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs”. Similarly good characters are not cartoons either. They might be ultimately on the side of law and order but they can be flawed, conflicted, driven by all the wrong motives and doing the right thing almost despite themselves. Think of Batman in all his incarnations, Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” or Man With No Name, Edie Falco’s in TV’s “Nurse Jackie”. They are rounded characters. In other words they are all human.
4. Writing out loud
Dialogue in bad movies has rarely been spoken aloud. Once the words hit the air you can tell that the words chosen and the sentiments expressed sounded better in someone’s head than they do when spoken. Good dialogue is like poetry, it sounds good as well as meaning something. If your dialogue has badly chosen words which are only there because you think they sound cool (see point 2) then you need to rewrite them. Dialogue which contains clichés should be cut out before the infection spreads to other parts of the film. Strive for melodious words laden with meaning. Even cool bad guys have read a book from time to time.
5. Dialogue is a conversation
Not a pair of monologues. Ever wondered if the characters in a scene are actually LISTENING to each other or just waiting till the other stops talking so they can say something. Actually it is kind of cool sometimes if people aren’t listening to each other, avoiding the issue in hand or changing the subject, but generally one person should speak and the person listening should say something based on them having heard what was said, processed it, and then answered based on what they think of what was said. Sounds basic, but I can’t count the amount of times I’ve listened to dialogue like this and that was the reason I wasn’t interested in what people were saying. It didn’t flow and nobody was listening. Real people care about what they say and react to what other people say.
6. Know where you’re going with this
In point 2 I mentioned being cool for its own sake. The trouble with this syndrome is that you don’t sound cool because often what you say seems tacked on to the conversation. If you are waiting for a chance to use a catchphrase in conversation you will also not be listening (see point 5). It is better to know WHY your characters are having this conversation as it kind of writes itself. It will inform what they say, the meaning of the discussion and where that leads you next (see point 1). If you’ve planned and reworked your script with Hitchcockian precision (seriously, see point 1), you will know where you are going and why and this certainty will come out in your writing.
7. Don’t insult my intelligence
Reveal the truths of your story intelligently. Don’t have subordinate characters cross question the protagonist to provide answers for the audience. Have the story unfold quietly without being heralded with words and explain as little as possible. Arrange it so that the protagonist realizes what is going on at the same time as the audience. Each time they know something let the audience know they know it. Let the subordinate characters know too. But also keep some information back. Sherlock Holmes keeps his subordinates in the dark and they are dazzled with his brilliance, the explanations are breathtaking in their subtle beauty. Suspense comes from knowing that someone knows something and you have an idea or two what that might be but you don’t know for sure until the truth is revealed. Do so intelligently and you will delight your audience. Do so boringly and obviously and they will hate you for it. Show characters getting the point rather than have them telling someone why they get it.
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