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Don’t Waste My Mutha*$%*^* Time!

Love that line. Al Pacino in HEAT. I forget the mechanics of the scene exactly – I think he was questioning-stroke-threatening an informant – but that’s what good movie moments are made of in my book: you may not remember the whys, you remember the how. And Al Pacino was so manically exhuberant here, repeating the line just enough without becoming irritating, that it stuck in my head and undoubtedly countless other viewers’.

We all want these moments in our screenplays – those lines and moments people repeat to each other, out of context. It’s those little bits of movie magic that brighten up people’s days: we all do it. We get bad mobile reception where we live and even worse internet; I’ve been unable to connect to broadband at all for some godforsaken reason and every now and again the mobile signal and dial-up connection will spontaneously die, right at the same time. My husband’s response, every single time? “Skynet is becoming self-aware!” From time to time at home I’ll ring the landline from my mobile from another room; my husband will pick it up and I’ll say, “Mr. Hammond? The phones are working.” It’s okay; I know. Sad. but you do it too, I know you do you little fibbers.

I’m still working on the magic ingredients of producing one-liners that people will remember, but I can tell you how to not bore a Script Reader. Us Readers all have problems, man. We’ve got psychological problems brought on by absentee protagonists appearing and disappearing in the narrative or those characters where the action is all in their head. We’ve got sexual problems brought on by all the bad love scenes and physiological problems from being hunched over a desk all day. Hell some of us even have beards (Danny I’m looking at you).

So, in short then – we’re all weirdos with ADHD and a twisted attitude. There ARE things that suck out the pace from your screenplay – if you recall, I gave you a list yesterday. Here’s what to do about it if any of the following pop up in your script:

Over-reliance on phone calls/triviliaties. Cut them all out. The Americans have one school of thought re: using phone calls in specs and that’s DON’T! The Brits don’t seem to be so hardcore on this issue and as a Reader, phone calls don’t particularly bother me…But they have to figure in the plot for a specific reason. If you have characters phoning each other all the time, ask yourself: why can’t they MEET? Much more interesting. As for trivilaities, have you ever noticed how few people say “Hello” or “Goodbye” in movie-land? It takes up space, baby. Cut cut cut it all!

Static scenes Keep your characters on the move, but more importantly don’t have scenes go on for pages and pages. I read a good guide once that recommended one page for “ordinary” scenes and up to three for “extraordinary” scenes (I can’t remember where though). I think this is good to aim for, certainly stops the Reader from drowning in a sea of Exposition. It also makes the writer “focus” – what do they need to get across and how many pages do they need to do it? What is the most dramatic way?

The Disappearing Protagonist and Character Role Functions. Two words: don’t and do. DON’T have your protag appear and disappear, DO make your secondary characters’ role functions obvious. With the protag, starting with him/her is best: establish from the very first page who this is about and keep with them. You don’t have to have them in every single scene (though this can help if you’re having “focus” issues) but I have a rule – never stay away from the protag for more than 2 pages: this seems to work. Regarding the secondary characters and what they’re doing in your script, make ’em justify their place – think before you start or when you’re redrafting what they actually ADD to the narrative: is s/he comic relief? The weakest link? Best friend? Lover? If you can’t figure out what their function is, they need to go. KILL!

– Flashbacks without a discernible pattern to them. Writers attempting a non-linear narrative sometimes don’t realise there needs to be a pattern to flashbacks – they need to tell a separate story, in effect, else they just become a mad soup of images for the Reader. If you consider THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, he kept seeing that hotel bedroom door and flashes of faces and the gun… As he pieced it together, we saw more and more, until we remember, with Jason Bourne, what exactly happened there. In other words, the writer built it up and up, took us on a journey into the past, if you like. This is really hard to do. However, if you do attempt it, you have to re-structure your structure: in other words, look at how the action is running forwards, in order to make sense of what is going to go on in the narrative backwards. Did I tell you this is hard?

Long, “Wonder Years”-style Voice-overs. Just one point here: please don’t.

Characters thinking about things. Ditto above.

Peripheral characters popping up, then never being seen again. And again.

Too much black on the page – especially extraneous info. Amen.

So, any thoughts? I’m particularly interested in what some of my colleague Twisted Readers think… Go!

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10 thoughts on “Don’t Waste My Mutha*$%*^* Time!”

  1. Agree with the vast majority of what you’ve said (though was it the Bourne Identity or the Bourne Supremacy you meant? Have seen the former a lot, and that has fragmented flashback stuff, though I have to admit I was drifting off to sleep during the latter, so I might be off the mark).
    However, it occurs to me that in a murder mystery you might want to have a number of peripheral characters coming on and off screen to increase the number of potential suspects. Granted, you don’t want to be throwing in entirely unnecessary characters JUST for that reason, but if, say, there’s a body on the rug in the country house library, it strikes me as fair to have a butler and a housekeeper and the like making appearances to keep the audience guessing. A bit. Though of course we know the butler did it.

  2. About TV/movie one liners: It’s just so embarrassing, my children, as they grow up, are treated to the films I like, then halfway through one of them will look at me and say: “so that’s where that line comes from”.

    Apparently every clever thing I say is stolen from some film or TV programme.

    As for wasting the reader’s time, I absolutely 100% agree with you, Lucy, all the time. Absolutely.

    Except … the protagonist thing … in TV … can I say “Heroes”? So many characters — so little screen time. In fact they had so much plot they had to put half of it into online comics.

    Almost all the main characters appear in almost all the episodes. But not always and often with huge gaps between.

    (I might say “Lost” as well, but I gave up on “Lost” halfway through the second series when it became clear that the writers had no idea where they were going — protestations to the contrary. “X Files” all over again, unfortunately.)

  3. John – I get mixed up with the Bournes, it WASN’T the one where the RUN LOLA RUN girl drives him to Germany (she’s dead instead), so think it’s the second one. When it comes to peripheral characters, perhaps I should qualify it: when I say peripheral characters that appear and disappear, it gets confusing because they’re set up like they’re important… But never come back. Have as many peripheral characters in stuff like murder myseteries as you want; as long as the Reader knows they’re peripheral.

    Hated LOST from the second episode Steve though watched until about the 8th ‘cos I was afraid of hating something everyone else seemed to love, but just thought it was really dull – it lacked forward-looking momentum in essence for me because of over-reliance on flashbacks (even tho there was no voice-over!). As for HEROES I’ll have to take your word for it, never watched it– though it sounds like an ensemble cast? Slightly different rules apply there and like non-linear narratives, they’re a bitch to write well.

  4. Fair comments both on Lost – it had some interesting ideas in it, but it really did look (before I abandoned it at the end of the first series) as if they didn’t know where they were going… or if they did, that they were unsure of how to get there; and that’s something I think people (especially Readers) want in a story – the idea that the story has an end, and you’re not being strung along on the way. I fear Lost might be an example of the format dictating the content (to its detriment), or arguably of poor pacing making it seem like the story’s completely stalled…
    Oh, and Lucy, you were right all along about the Bourne film. I clearly shouldn’t talk about films I watched half-asleep. Just glad I didn’t refer to the bit I recall where Bourne rides on a giant tortilla whilst dressed as an actuary, as that might not be entirely accurate either.

  5. I can’t think of Heat without thinking of another Pacino line: “Because she’s got a GREAT ASS”!

    As for pacing, from a fellow Twisted Reader, my rule of thumb is: Mix it up! Alternate the length of scenes, contrast locations, try to follow a heated dialogue scene with a completely visual scene etc. I think it’s important to remember to slow things down from time to time as well – it isn’t always about getting things across as quickly as possible, sometimes characters need some space. Horror is a good example – most horror films have a moment when the surviving characters know what they are dealing with, regroup and wait (for rescue, for daybreak, whatever)or formulate plan. Most of the horror specs I read don’t do this. It’s just violence, violence, violence. Which actually becomes fairly dull after a while!

  6. Tortillas?? I must get that version out!

    Alright Twisted Sister Lianne: you’re completely right as usual, can’t believe I forgot that one. Mixing it up is absolutely crucial – one problem I had with AMERICAN PSYCHO as a book is he goes to dinner, comes back and kills girls for the most part. Yes it’s gross and horrifying…But ultimately, yawnsome.

  7. I think memorable lines come from memorable characters. it’s the characters we are mimicking when we say these lines, isn’t it?

    so if we want our lines quoted by nations we need to work on character.

  8. DiaoblicalOpiumMonster

    When it comes to one-liners in films, especially modern films, I think it has a lot more to do with the actors than the script/screenplay. You may have written the most exciting, enjoyable movie of all time about spies and guns, with amazing one liners; but if you hire Paris Hilton and Craig from Big Brother as your two lead characters then it aint gonna be good.

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