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MEET THE READER: Into the Sunset - Screenwriting Gimmicks

Out of either lack of knowledge, lack of experience, lack of confidence, or (sometimes) laziness, they will take a shortcut to create an effect rather than do the work to create the real thing. Ray Morton highlights some of those screenwriting gimmicks you should avoid.

Out of either lack of knowledge, lack of experience, lack of confidence, or (sometimes) laziness, they will take a shortcut to create an effect rather than do the work to create the real thing. Ray Morton highlights some of those screenwriting gimmicks you should avoid.

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Out of either lack of knowledge, lack of experience, lack of confidence, or (sometimes) laziness, they will take a shortcut to create an effect rather than do the work to create the real thing. Ray Morton highlights some of those screenwriting gimmicks you should avoid.

When I was in film school—back before digital took over completely and films were still shot on film—one of my fellow students made a movie that contained a shot of a brilliant sunset. He created the sunset by using an orange grad filter (a filter that is clear on the bottom and shaded on the top) that allowed the people and setting to photograph normally but tinted the location’s blue sky the appropriate shade of amber. From a distance, the image was serviceable enough, but if you looked closely, the sunset cut a straight line across the middle of the frame, coloring the sky but also any portion of the set and the head of any characters that happened to extend up past the shot’s equator. Also, the orange glow did not appear to emanate from within the image but instead appeared to be painted over it. Upon seeing the shot, our teacher—a professional cinematographer—made the following comment: “Very pretty. Now go and shoot a real sunset.” His point was that the student had used a cheap gimmick as a shortcut to create an unsatisfying facsimile of something that could have been quite effective had he put in the work and created the real thing instead.

Like my long-ago classmate, young writers often employ gimmicks in their work. Out of either lack of knowledge, lack of experience, lack of confidence, or (sometimes) laziness, they will take a shortcut to create an effect rather than do the work to create the real thing. Here are some of those gimmicks:

Using structural tricks to create narrative energy.

The energy in a dramatic narrative is created by the steady build of a linear narrative from inciting incident in the story’s first act through the development of complexities and twists in the second act to the story’s climax and resolution in the third act. Energy is also created by the momentum generated as the story points start coming faster and faster as the plot progresses. If a dramatic narrative is properly constructed on a solid premise, the build and momentum will develop naturally out of the bones of the tale being told. However, some young writers, either lacking the skills to construct a proper story or lacking confidence in their material, will sometimes find themselves stuck with stories that lack dramatic build and momentum. To compensate for these deficiencies, they will often resort to playing games with their script’s structure—leaping back and forth in time via flashbacks, fracturing a linear narrative into a mosaic, intercutting between parallel or multiple (and often unrelated) plotlines, and so on. In doing this, the hope is that the energy generated by all this jumping around will compensate for the lack of energy generated by the drama itself. It almost never does, because all the franticness in the world may make a dull story confusing and hard to follow, but it can never make it interesting.

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Using structural gimmicks to create mystery and suspense.

Mystery and suspense in dramatic storytelling is created by deliberately withholding certain key pieces of information from the characters and from the audience at the outset and then having the characters and audience discover this information as the story unfolds, often in surprising and unexpected ways. To be truly effective, this discovery must be built into the structure of the story being told. Unfortunately, some young writers attempt to create mystery and suspense not by deliberating withholding and then introducing information, but by avoiding it. Rather than tell a linear tale with the mystery and suspense built in, they will use structural gimmicks—flashbacks, time-shifting, and the intercutting of parallel plotlines—to move their story around the required information, often to delaying the introduction of a vital piece of information—information that if the story was told linearly would pop up early in the narrative—until the final pages of a script in a misguided attempt to create a “surprise” or “twist” ending. The problem with this avoidant approach is that it is imposed on the story rather than growing organically out of it and, as a result, it often creates a confusing vagueness rather than engaging and exciting mystery and suspense.

Using excessive backstory to explain character.

In dramatic storytelling, character is depicted through behavior and dialogue. In a properly constructed dramatic narrative, a character should be developed and explored through the behavior and dialogue that he /she exhibits in the course of the story. This sounds simple, but can be notoriously difficult to pull off in practice, because the demands of the plot don’t always leave enough room or present the right opportunities to present all of the facets of a character the author may deem necessary. Experienced screenwriters find a way to do this anyway within the plot’s limitations, whereas inexperienced screenscribes will often resort to developing their characters outside of the main storyline, often in extensive backstories presented either as prologues or through flashbacks interspersed through the primary narrative.

Telling not showing.

Movies are a primarily visual medium, which is why one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting is to show, don’t tell. In other words, tell your story as much as possible through action (both human behavior and big stunt-and-car-chase-style action) and images and as little as possible through talking. Despite this dictum, many aspiring screenwriters tell far too much of their stories through dialogue (having the characters tell one another about the events of the story rather than enact them) and sometimes through expository voice-over (that tells us what’s happening and what it all means when the plot isn’t able to). The results often come across as filmed stage plays or illustrated radio shows rather than authentic cinematic experiences.

Imitating Goldman and Black.

Two screenwriters who have had a significant influence on other screenwriters, especially aspirants, are the late, great William Goldman and the great, still with us Shane Black. Now, both of these men are/were talented in many ways, but the aspect of both that seems to capture the most attention is that Goldman and Black employed (each in their own unique styles) a novel approach to writing the descriptions and stage directions in their screenplays. Instead of the dry, straightforward approach taken by most screenwriters, Goldman and Black both use/used a clever, casual, chatty style to pen their stage directions—a style full of self-aware humor, knowing asides to the reader, and a first-person, you-are-there approach to describing action that puts a great deal of emphasis on the emotional effect the writers want the scenes being described to have on viewers.

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The Goldman/Black style is enormously entertaining and effective—when it is used by Goldman and Black. When it is employed by writers without the unique skill and facility of these two men (which is most of us), the results are usually spectacularly ineffective and off-putting. In the hands of lesser scribes, the style can either fall completely flat—pulling readers completely out of the story and calling attention to just how unremarkable the content being described actually is—or can come across as snotty and full of unearned attitude—which can turn off readers completely. However, even screenwriters who do have the facility for writing this sort of description can often run into trouble because those that do often put so much energy and effort into crafty clever descriptions that they neglect to put that same level of creativity into crafting the characters and stories they are being so clever about.

The real secret to Goldman and Black’s success is not just that they used/used this winking descriptive style, but that they use/used it to present meticulously worked-out narratives populated with fully-fleshed out characters and filled with truly fresh and exciting action. Too many of their copycats write scripts that can seem exciting and funny when you initially read them, but as you analyze their work, you realize that all of the script’s humor and excitement is in the writing, while almost none of it is in the unremarkable narratives and characters that will be put on screen. And so, unless the script itself is going to be projected onscreen, none of the cleverness these authors have poured into their work will ever be transmitted to the audience.

Like my classmate’s grad filter, screenwriting gimmicks may seem effective but ultimately aren’t. If you want to tell an effective story, the only way to do it is to actually tell an effective story. It’s better to put your energy and effort into learning to do this successfully, rather than employing gimmicks. If you do, the result will be a much better sunset.


Copyright © 2019 by Ray Morton
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