Okay, first off, a bit of shameless self-promotion that also pushes my street cred, as the kids say. Amazon Studios is developing a film with the working title of Original Soldiers. It’s a sci-fi tale about human soldiers leaping into action when America’s droid army is shut down by an opponent. I’m one of five folks (well, four folks and a writing team) who were hired by Amazon to expand my simple pitch off their logline into a full treatment.
So, between that and Ex-Communication, things might slow down a bit in the month of February. Just letting you all know now.
Oh, and check it out. You can still pick up The Junkie Quatrain. It's very cheap for your Kindle or Kindle app of choice. Just saying...
I’d like to begin this week, if you don’t mind, with a personal question or two. You don’t have to answer them, but I want you to keep the answers in mind.
Your current significant other—girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband—do you remember the first time you saw them naked?
Not just the date or time, mind you. Do you remember how you felt when you saw them like that? What thoughts were going through your mind? What emotions? What your pulse and breathing were like?
Follow up question—do you remember the most recent time you saw them naked? How did you feel then? What thoughts were going through your mind?
Next question—do you remember your first day at your current job? Do you remember looking at things, meeting people, learning the ropes? Can you recall any thoughts that went through your mind?
Follow up question—what was today like at your current job? What did you think about? Who did you see?
Some of you may have picked up on the point I’m trying to make here. There’s a big difference between the first time something happens and the fiftieth or hundredth or five-hundredth. My first day on a film set was exciting as hell, but at the six year mark even the days with naked women on set were pretty dull, and at twelve years I was generally known as one of the cynical people on any given set.
Now, I make that point so I can make this one...
One mistake I see a lot in stories and screenplays is when writers can’t make the distinction between the first time your readers or audience are seeing something and the first time the characters are seeing it. Characters go to work, have dinner with family, or teleport to their secret lair and express confusion or wide-eyed amazement at these things. It knocks a reader out of the story because it’s immediately apparent this is something the characters should be familiar with.
It sounds silly to say it so blatantly, but if I’ve been living in New England my whole life, a brutally cold winter shouldn’t come as a real shock. If I’ve worked for Discorp for over a decade, their business practices shouldn’t catch me off guard. If I’ve been with Phoebe for eight or nine years, the odds are we’ve seen each other many, many times and had many, many conversations about many, many things.
The thing is, many storytellers become focused on the fact that this is the first time the readers have seen Wakko in action or me and Phoebe together. So these folks tweak dialogue and reactions to play to the audience, rather than the genuine responses of the characters. It seems correct from a mechanical point of view, but once you really study the moments this sort of thing falls apart.
Here’s an example of doing it right that ties back to my opening questions--Mr. and Mrs. Smith. When the film begins, the title characters have been married for several years and... well, things are getting a bit stale between them. They’ve had all their conversations. This is why Mr. Smith doesn’t really react much when Mrs. Smith—played by Angelina Jolie—is walking around their bedroom in her underwear.
While this would be an absolutely amazing moment for about half of the folks reading this, Mr. Smith barely notices it. He’s been seeing her in her underwear for years, after all. It may be the first time all of us have seen her dressed (or undressed) like that, but for him this is just like every other day.
This is closely related to another problem I’ve brought up once or thrice before, the dreaded “As you know...” When one of my characters says “as you know,” they’re admitting right up front that they and the person (or people) they’re speaking to already know the facts that are about to be spoken. It’s clumsy, it’s wasted space, and it’s unnatural because it sounds like these folks are having a conversation for the first time when common sense tells us this has to have come up a dozen times before. My girlfriend and I have been together for over seven years now, so we don’t need to talk about when our birthdays or anniversaries are. I helped my best friend move into his house, so I don’t need to ask him where he keeps the rum or how to get to the bathroom. My dad’s been an expert in his field for decades, so I don’t think he’d be stunned to learn working on reactors involves potential exposure to radiation.
This is why the ignorant stranger is a great story device. When I’ve got a character who’s new to the world of the story it gives me someone who can experience things for the first time while my other characters can be well-established sources of knowledge. Yeah, I know where the rum’s kept in the house, but Yakko doesn’t, so my readers will accept it if Yakko and I talk about where to find the booze or the bathroom.
Another great example if this is—
Men In Black .For James Edwards, the police officer who becomes Agent J, the MIB is an intergalactic wonderland of non-stop discovery. He’s the ignorant stranger. Alien life forms, alien customs, alien technology—it’s all new to him. But consider Agent K. Everything that excites or stuns J makes him yawn. Invading battle fleets, extraterrestial assassins, talking dogs, rocket cars, a warp-drive powered superball... these things all bore the hell out of him. In fact, as the story progresses it becomes clear that K is at a disadvantage because he’s become so jaded by the world he lives in.
One of the worst things I can do as a writer is confuse the first time the audience sees something with the first time the characters do. It’ll come across as false and it’s one of those clumsy mistakes that’s hard to recover from. So just remember... the first time for you might not be the first time for me. And it’s almost definitely not the first time for him.
Next week, as we’re close to opening day for a lot of the big screenplay contests, I thought I’d talk about a lot of common screenplay mistakes I’ve seen.
Until then, go write.