Archive for May, 2009

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.

“Even the sonic screwdriver won’t get me out of this one!”

Posted on May 14th, 2009 in storytelling | No Comments »

Does a timelord need a sonic screwdriver?

A bit of context first of all. Doctor Who has been many things over the years, from experimental and educational children’s drama in the 1960s to much-loved BBC warhorse in the 1970s to public embarrassment in the 1980s and now – resplendent and resurgent – a massive cashcow for its broadcaster and a national institution. The new series, which began under executive producer and head writer Russell T Davies in 2005, has had the hell marketed out of it, from indepth and grown-up behind-the-scenes tomes covering every inch of its production in obsessive detail, to toys and games for kids, some too young to remember 2005, let alone the so-called “Classic Series”.

Most people who worked on the show for its initial 26 year run are extremely complimentary of the new series, and possibly envious of its bigger budget and wider appeal. Some are more critical, and one such person is Christopher H Bidmead. Bidmead became script-editor in 1980 and oversaw Tom Baker’s last year in the role. He wrote Baker’s last story, Peter Davison’s first and one subsequent script on a freelance basis. He had a significant hand in shaping the scripts that were broadcast during that period and has a reputation among Doctor Who fans for wanting science over humour, for wanting logic over entertainment and for a particular style of take-no-prisoners, thump-the-arm-of-the-chair rhetoric when it comes to anyone who takes issue with his particular way of doing things. And he’s been getting cheerfully cross at what he sees as some of the shortcomings of the writing of twenty-first century Who.

The other player in today’s narrative in the sonic screwdriver. This handy gadget was first seen in a Patrick Troughton story called Fury From The Deep, back in 1968, when the world was in black-and-white. It became a fixture with subsequent Doctors Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, where it was used for anything from detonating mines, to cutting rock to discombobulating robots, but its most famous use was to unlock doors. Incoming producer John Nathan-Turner, who joined the series at the same time as Bidmead, shared his script-editor’s feelings when it came to reducing the larking about which had characterised the previous season of stories, and wanted more hard science and fewer narrative short-cuts. Once he’d axed robot dog K9 and brilliant Time Lady Romana, the universe was looking a bit less cosy for the Doctor. One more thing to go – the sonic screwdriver was written out in an early Peter Davison story called The Visitation – by incoming script editor Eric Saward.

Russell T Davies has simply ignored this – assuming no doubt that the Doctor built the first one and so can knock together a new one whenever he wishes. As far as he’s concerned, he remembers the Doctor having one when he watched the programme as kid, he wants kids to play with sonic screwdrivers in the playground, and of course, the commercial bits of the Beeb are overjoyed because they can license toy manufacturers to produce plastic replicas by the thousands. And that’s why the poor arm of Bidmead’s long-suffering chair is taking such a pounding.

Bidmead’s point is that it’s lazy scriptwriting. Any problem which needs solving – point the sonic at it and it goes away. No need for Doctor or writer to come up with anything new. If you want the Doctor to get from A to B unimpeeded by a door, then – as writer – don’t put a bloody door there. Put a locked door there only for the Doctor to unlock it and you’re just wasting everybody’s time.

Makes sense?

Makes no sense at all.

On a perfectly practical, story construction level, Bidmead apparently can’t think of a single situation where it might be useful – dramatic, interesting, exciting – to have a door which only the Doctor can open but which other people can’t. Or a door which the villain believes is secure but which the Doctor can in fact open. This is basic, basic stuff. And should the writer want a door to be immune to the sonic’s charms, that too is possible. The currently popular formulation is to assert that the door in question contains a “deadlock seal” which defeats even the sonicest of screwdrivers.

But worse, Bidmead fails to understand who the Doctor is with this comment. He isn’t us, he isn’t the ordinary joe stuck in an extraordinary situation and having to make do with things that we understand. He’s a wizard. He’s a magician and that’s his magic wand. He’s a non-human character with powers we can’t even understand, and if it’s a convenient shorthand, if it gets us on to the adventure quicker to have him swiftly brandish a prop at a stubborn door instead of laboriously constructing some elaborate (and equally fictitious) bespoke door-opening device then that’s all to the good. This is Doctor Who, not McGyver. So why put the door there at all? Quite apart from the fundamental plot reasons mentioned above, it’s fun to see a magician work his magic. We like seeing the Doctor accomplish the impossible, it’s part of his charm.

And this is also good cause-and-effect storytelling. Once we’ve seen him make short work of a door, it’s more credible that he might be able to save the universe from the Daleks / Cybermen / Master / Jaggaroth / Hggliubdiums etc.

And if that means more kids using their felt-tip pens as sonics in the playground, you’ll hear no argument from me about that. Bidmead wrote some good scripts (especially Frontios, after he’d left the show) but his view of how and why David Tennant is forever waving this particular prop around is amazingly limited and almost entirely wrong.

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.