Individualised dialogue – an example from 30 Rock

Posted on May 26th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | No Comments »

Tina Fey’s breakout American sit-com 30 Rock is an exemplar of the genre in many ways. Its sketch sensibility means that it has an astonishingly high gag-rate, but the characters are well-drawn and create the comedy rather than simply being mouthpieces for it.

A well-known test of dialogue is to cover up the character names in your script and see if you can still tell who is speaking which line – does each character have their own individual voice? Here are some quick pen portraits of some of the main 30 Rock characters, which I’ll use in a minute to show you how Fey and the other writers extend this principle.

Liz Lemon – the lead, played by Tina Fey. Head writer on NBC sketch show “TGS”. Fundamentally decent girl nerd, good at her job, bad at most other things. Sample dialogue: (on being asked her religion) “I pretty much just do whatever Oprah tells me to.”

Jack Donaghy – Liz’s boss, played by Alex Baldwin. Ruthlessly ambitious corporate suit who becomes a mentor to Liz despite their differences. Sample dialogue: (on being asked why he’s wearing a Tuxedo) “It’s after six. What am I, a farmer?”

Kenneth Parcell – a page at NBC, played by Jack McBrayer. Endlessly optimistic and naive country boy, drawn to the big city by his love of television. Sample dialogue: “I don’t vote Republican or Democrat. Choosing is a sin, so I always just write in the Lord’s name.”

Tracy Jordan – star of TGS, played by Tracy Morgan. TV and movie superstar with a tenuous grasp on reality. Sample dialogue: “That’s not me. That’s a Tracy Jordan Japanese Sex Doll. You can tell us apart because it’s not suffering from a vitamin deficiency.”

Jenna Maroney – female star of TGS, now usurped by Tracy, but still consumed with self-obsession. Played by Jane Krakowski. Has been friends with Liz for years. Sample dialogue: “I got a residual check for that Japanese commercial I did! Three hundred dollars! I’m going to use the money to buy us all new boots for myself.”

Hopefully you agree that these are all good jokes, and all reflect their different personalities. But 30 Rock also scores because it avoids having Liz Lemon as the bland focal point around which a bunch of entertaining crazies orbits. Liz’s foibles, insecurities, strengths and opinions are a big part of the show, and so are her relationships to all the foregoing (and the other characters). How well do the writers know these relationships? Let’s look at how each of the other characters listed above typically refers to the lead character…

  • Jack, the corporate suit, calls her “Lemon”
  • Kenneth, the page, calls her “Miss Lemon”
  • Tracy, the lunatic, calls her “Liz Lemon” (every time)
  • Jenna, her friend since childhood, calls her “Liz”

If you can nail the relationships of your characters as clearly as this, you really know the world of your story.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service from just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Two pieces of advice to improve any script

Posted on March 16th, 2009 in screenwriting | No Comments »

So, we’re now about half-a-dozen scripts in to the Script Surgeon project and the response so far from authors whose work we’ve dissected has been very positive. Good. It’s a hard thing to hear your work taken to pieces, and while we try to be practical, positive and constructive, the fact remains that if we aren’t identifying problems, we aren’t doing these writers any good.

What’s striking is that out of the two sit-coms, one radio play, three feature screenplays and one short film screenplay, the same two pieces of advice would have been appropriate, to a greater or lesser degree in almost every case. So, to save you some cash, before you submit a script to the script surgeons, why not check your work against these two questions?

  • Does your story depict characters who suffer in pursuit of their goals?
  • Have you researched the subject matter?

The second one is easier than the first one. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean that if you happen to be a British middle-class white man, all you can write about is the lives of British middle-class white men. It means that you have to know what you’re writing about, and that can be accomplished either by having lived it, or through researching it. Research is the enemy of cliché and can in itself be inspiring and stimulating.

Want to write a story about a psychiatrist? Ring up the local NHS hospital, or do a Google search, and find one who will let you buy them lunch in exchange for asking them questions. Not only will you get the details of psychiatry right, but you will glean ideas for stories from the process. Want to write a story about rivalry between bishops? Go to the library, get on Wikipedia and find out the details of the hierarchies of the church of England.

Having absorbed all this detail, do you have to respect it all word-for-word? Of course not. If you can make your world convincing, then it doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate. You will sometimes want to pick a more dramatic, funny, provocative, or resonant version of reality to make your story work, but by absorbing yourself in the details, you stand a chance of making those choices smartly and not flagging up to the reader “I don’t know what I’m talking about”. As a non-Doctor, I find every medical line in House to be completely convincing, but I’m well aware that large swathes of it are totally inaccurate.

The other piece of advice is a little trickier, partly because it sounds like a rule and my feeling is that rules are treacherous because there will always be writers who slavishly follow any rule presented to them, regardless of whether it actually applies to their story or not; and writers who instantly break any rule presented to them, because “there are no rules, man, it’s art.” Okay, true, there are no rules, but there are certainly stories and non-stories and stories have certain identifiable features. One, as early posts have discussed, is cause-and-effect.

So… if your story is about a person (or animal or robot) then to preserve cause-and-effect, that person needs to do things. But that means that they need to do those things for a reason which the audience can understand, and then they need to be affected – those actions need consequences. And since stories are about suffering, we have our rule: characters need to suffer in pursuit of their goals.

Some screenplays feature leading characters who do nothing, but just stand and watch the story march past them. Some screenplays feature leading characters who take all sorts of actions, but have no clear motives for these actions. Some screenplays feature leading characters who take actions for clearly understandable reasons, but don’t seem to care whether they succeed in their goals or not. And so on. And none of these is likely to make for a good piece of storytelling.

Maybe you can think of counter-examples – in fact, let me know in the comments if you can, as I’d love to know what these screenplays put in place of this – but locking these three elements together: goal, action, consequences, is likely to bring your central plot much more sharply in to focus.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Storytelling II: Character flaws are also cause-and-effect

Posted on March 2nd, 2009 in storytelling | No Comments »

Comparing different gurus who tackle the same subject-matter is always fascinating. Robert McKee, for example, appears to know almost nothing about reincorporation. He briefly mentions foreshadowing, but completely fails to spot that good structure is not just about timing sub-plots and breaking down long stories into smaller acts, it is also about “planting” what you need early to reincorporate it later.

Keith Johnstone, on the other hand, who sees reincorporation as the primary technique for structuring stories, is very weak when it comes to creating characters. The best he can offer is a super-objective persued by different means and to remind us that characters need to be affected by what happens to them. Unhappily, we are given no guidance as to how to combine the two. His work on status, which doesn’t appear to be about character, is much more useful.

McKee is much stronger on creating characters and on how to assemble a cast of characters which will work well together. Rambo, he tells us (or I paraphrase him, at any rate) is a less successful and less interesting character than James Bond because Rambo is entirely consistent. Rambo looks like a killer and behaves like a killer. Bond looks like a playboy and behaves like a killer. With contradiction comes fascination. 

Having designed a central character with lots of contradictory elements, you can then round out your cast by having characters likely to bring out their different qualities. When Bond is with M, he behaves like a loyal footsoldier. When Bond is with the villain, he behaves like an assassin. When Bond is with the girl, he behaves like a lothario.

So, it’s not surprising that a great many heroes who have been given exciting skills, or even superpowers, such that they can legitimately achieve what the plot demands of them are also given fatal flaws. This not only allows the possibility of failure, but also makes them more interesting.

But it’s not as simple as creating a character who – let’s say – can run very fast and then giving them a lisp. You can’t just give with one hand and take with another. Even if the lisp turns out to be a vital plot point, preserving narrative cause-and-effect (he can’t make a voice-activated gadget work at a crucial moment!?) we still don’t feel like we buy in. There is no way in which we perceive a lisp as being the cost at which his amazing running was bought. There is no cause-and-effect.

Consider on the other hand, one of literature’s first and most successful superheroes: Sherlock Holmes. Is Holmes’ lonely existence, lack of empathy and opium addiction just colour? Are these arbitrary choices to lend dimension and enticing contradiction to a bland character? No, they also *justify* his amazing powers of deduction. Only because he has devoted his life to learning botany, chemistry, mythology and heaven knows what else, can he solve the crimes he does – but this has come at a price: he has cut himself off from human contact, and now seeks solace in the chilly beauty of classic music and the impersonal intoxication of opium.

The original Superman – Kal El / Clark Kent – is an even more interesting case study. His allergy to Kryptonite is simply a plot point, like Achilles Heel. It tells us nothing whatsoever about his character. The price he pays for his awesome powers is that he can’t connect with Lois Lane. His social failures as Clark Kent does far more to make us accept his astonishing powers than any scientifully vacuous blather about yellow suns.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.