Friday, 2 January 2015

The Logic Police

 Actual Police, not Logic Police, but you get the idea.
Pic by Sky Noir via Flickr
I’ve written before about the infuriating feeling you get when a TV comedy or a movie isn’t working when you’re screaming at the screen, shouting ‘You would never do that!’ or ‘You’d just call the police’ (like here), but following a question on a recent edition of Scriptnotes, I thought there were one or two other things to so. So let’s back up.

You’ve plotted your script. Maybe you’ve written a couple of drafts – and then you get a note. ‘This scene is very funny, but would Jennifer really run down the street in a giraffe costume, especially given how self-conscious she is?’ or ‘In the emergency, she calls her brother. Wouldn’t she call her mother/the police/Rentokil?’ You get the idea.

So, does that mean you need to change it? Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s ask the most basic question first.

Is the note right?
The best notes are an articulation of an awful truth you’ve been suppressing all along. So in your heart of hearts, you know Jennifer would never run down the street in the giraffe costume - even though it would be really funny. Or you know in the emergency, she’s the type to call the police. You might be able to address this quickly and easily. How? Let’s address the latter:

Maybe you really need that first call to go the sister, not the police. In which case, maybe she picks up her phone frantically and speed dials her sister – whom she tells to get off the phone because she needs to call the police, and you’re into the conversation to the sister that you needed.

Maybe the sister calls her at exactly the wrong moment – and she’s been calling her throughout the episode at equally inconvenient moments and this is the topper. You might well be able to address the note and keep the order of events you need. In which case, take the note, and make the change and be grateful for a good note. It just made your script better.

Why has this note been given?
It could be that this note feels very unhelpful. Someone is trying to justify their salary by chipping in. They says idiotic stuff like ‘I would never do that’ to which the answer is ‘No, of course you wouldn't because you’re not Jennifer and you’re not the character in the story.' Does this person even understand who Jennifer is? Possibly not. And who's fault is that? Have you written Jennifer as this character, or is this just in your head on not on the page?

The answer to this note might ‘Yes. Jennifer wouldn’t normally. That’s why it’s an interesting story. Events have taken such a terrible turn, and she’s made a series of such bad decisions that she has no choice but to do this thing.’ But is that true? It may be that you’ve left the door open to other options which she could plausibly do, in which case you need to close those, so the note is valid and you have failed as a writer. That happens. Or it could be the person is simply not very good at giving notes, or trying to look clever and they failed as a note-giver. That happens too.

When is this note being given?
Maybe this is draft 7 of a script, and this bit hasn’t really changed since draft 2. Someone says ‘Isn’t it odd that Jack runs out of the door still holding the landline phone?’ And the answer might be ‘Good point. It does feel odd, and we don’t get much out of him still holding the phone, so he could throw it down.’ Or the answer might be ‘I suppose it might be odd, but it’s all a bit hectic and he’s stressed – and he might have forgotten it’s not his mobile, but his cordless landline. And he’s a smart guy. So, I suppose it is odd, but it hasn’t seemed odd ‘til now, and it still doesn’t seem all that odd, so we may well be overthinking this.’ You’re the writer. It’s your script (despite what you’re told). You decide.

There are some illogicalities that don't seem to matter all that much - especially after the climax of the story, and something happens which is nice topper to what's gone before. You've earned that one, and it's probably fine, but it might not be. In general, though, illogicalities cause confusion and uncertainty - and a confused audience doesn't laugh.

Closing Doors
If you spot a logic problem and you have the luxury of time to be able to unpick the whole episode and fix that one problem – that’s great. It’s often just a question of closing off the alternatives so that illogical step for you character is the only realistic or plausible option. Or the option is made by mistake or in haste and is irreversible. Or another character teases this character for being so predictable and an argument ensues, so that your character does what he need them to do – doing the illogical thing, that’s motivated by a desire to prove another character wrong. Or impress someone hot.

Writing Exposition
Sometimes an action by a character seems illogical but isn’t because you've done your groundwork, but it's not immediately obvious. In which case, you could try writing the exposition or explaining it in some way. More on that here and here. Quite often, when you write it and read it through with the cast – or even shoot it on camera, you realise you don’t need it after all, but that’s fine. That’s what an edit is for.

Strike a Light

But if you’re really against the clock and you start pulling on threads, the whole thing can unravel before your eyes. I sometimes worry about addressing a logic issue and thinking that I’m going to replace it with someone brutally logical but less funny or original. So one other way of cheating is to draw attention to the illogicality and own it – what’s frequently called ‘Hanging a Lantern’ on it (they mention this in the podcast). Rather than hide the illogicality in a darkened corner, you light it up. What does this look like? It may be some raised eyebrows, or a comment or a brief exchange – ideally with a joke. After all, it is a sitcom.

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If you want to hang out with @sitcomgeek, and talk about stuff like this, I'm doing a few workshops alongside the talented, funny and delightful Dave Cohen (who also writes the songs for Horrible Histories, among many other things). Two different sessions on Sitcom Writing (12 & 13 March) and one session on Breaking In to Comedy (20 March). More details here.

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