So this weekend on Twitter, I found myself saying the following to the lovely John Kell:
As screenwriters we’re massively picky and nothing is good enuff… There does come a point where we have to say, “this is to enable [such & such]”… TV /Film not for screenwriters: no such thing as plot perfection. There’s always something to whine about.
Now, before we go ballistic and say I’m attempting to give to a “get out of jail free” card to all writers of crappy material, let’s just nail one thing down. Obviously there will ALWAYS be weak/unrealistic plots and those that make no sense at all: this is NOT a post about those scripts, films or TV series that don’t work due to character motivation and/or structural problems.
Instead, this is a post about those scripts, films and TV series that HAVE been well-developed and well-written – but we, as screenwriters, have a *problem* with a particular *element*… Usually along the lines of:
– Why would s/he do that [specific action]? That’s stupid.
– Why would s/he NOT do that [specific action]? That’s stupid.
– So, *this character* happens to see *this event/this other character* at *this particular time*? What a coincidence.
As scriptwriters, we often get hung up on “stupidity” or “coincidence” in a way non-scriptwriters and even readers do not. For example, a character’s stupidity never seems to validate his/her actions in my Bang2writer’s eyes. Yet stupidity can create conflict and of course, conflict IS drama. Sometimes a character being stupid over something – even just for a single beat – can be the BEST way of plunging them further into the shit. Yet scriptwriters will often not want to do this, citing it as being “bad characterisation”. Yet think of all the heroes and heroines on screen we’ve had who are often stupid, stubborn or pig headed:
– John McClane in the Die Hard franchise. His pig-headed streak is what ensures he survives, time after time, no matter who attacks him. His reckless and even stupid antics include blowing up lift shafts when he is inside them, driving cars into lift shafts and not knowing the rhyme of “When I Was Going To St Ives” (FFS).
– Gene Hunt in Life On Mars/Ashes to Ashes. He is a thug with a badge, his desire for a ruck transcends all reason – and actual police work.
– Dallas in Alien. Thanks to Ash, Dallas takes Kane – and the facehugger – on board the ship. He knew full well he was infecting the ship – Ripley told him! – but his desire to save his crewmate (and the fact he’s freaked out) overrides him listening to Ripley as he knows he should.
– Ripley in Aliens. She wouldn’t go into the nest for Apone or Dietrich, but she was prepared to walk in for the sake of Newt. A stupid idea, justified ONLY by the fact Newt is a child (“She’s ALIVE!”) and the others were adults who had literally signed up for the danger.
– Jodie Foster’s character in Panic Room. When threatened by the men on the outside of said panic room, she actually BLOWS UP the house using the gas hose and a lighter. A bloody stupid idea, one an educated woman would surely balk at – yet the level of threat justifies this stupidity. She even says, “Don’t you EVER do that!!” to her daughter afterwards.
When it comes to coincidence, I always think it’s a good idea to use it only to get characters INTO trouble, as people don’t seem to notice it as much… AND THAT’S OKAY. In a spec script of mine recently I had a secondary character turn up out of the blue and confront the antagonist after having seen the antagonist’s picture in a newspaper article. I agonised for hours over this: was it too “easy” that this character to find the antagonist??? But guess what: this character’s role was simply to find the antagonist and threaten him – and nobody cared how he found him. Not a host of feedback givers, not three independent script reports, not even my agent. Sometimes what seems BONE-CRUNCHINGLY OBVIOUS to you, the writer, is NOT to other people.
There will always be shoe-horn plot moves, so badly constructed they make your eyes bleed. But sometimes a short cut via a character’s stupidity or a tiny coincidence CAN create the conflict you need.
It’s just knowing when to use it.
Good stuff, Lucy. That's so true about coincidence and it not mattering if it's somethimg as long as it gets them INTO trouble. It reminds me of that Blake Snyder rule too – You can only have one bit of magic in the script. The audience will buy it. But only once.