Archive for the Notes from the Coalface Category

Norn Irony

I have this thing about how-to-write-a-screenplay manuals.  I’m always skimming them to check I haven’t missed something, and that no-one’s discovered a way to make the creative process easy… No luck so far.  There’s a book in my bathroom at the minute called ‘How Not to Write A Novel’ which has great fun mimicking the mistakes of up-and-coming authors – getting bogged down in irrelevant detail, copping out of the climactic confrontation, using words the writer doesn’t understand – but it’s a snide sort of pleasure reading it, because taking the piss out of other people’s efforts is a relatively easy way to get laughs.  Famous comedians have filled whole TV series with spoofs of other shows; ultimately it’s derivative and even lazy.  Coming up with something original is much harder to do, and those who try – even if they don’t entirely succeed – deserve credit.  (Even if we’re all too busy snickering to give it.)

Anyway, reading one particular guide to writing screenplays, a sentence caught my eye that went something like ‘When the audience knows something the characters don’t, you have irony.’  I thought, ‘That can’t be right.  It can’t be that simple.’

I looked up the definition of ‘irony’ on the Net, and apparently it is that simple – officially, anyway.  The term comes from the Latin term ‘ironia’ meaning feigned ignorance.  Almost every work of drama you care to name contains classic examples of irony: the first one that comes to mind, oddly, is the 1986 adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s Manon Des Sources.  [Spoiler alert! Skip the next paragraph if you haven’t seen it.]

A mean old farmer, jealous of the hunchback about to take possession of the neighbouring farm, secretly blocks up the hunchback’s well.  The hunchback, his crops failing, comes to the mean old farmer for help. We see the irony: he’s asking for help from the man who wants to destroy him.  In time the hunchback dies and the sour old farmer learns that the hunchback was the illegitimate son he never knew he had.  Big bitter payoff, full of irony.  It had me in buckets, I have to admit.

Except of course that according the classical definition the last bit shouldn’t count as irony, because the audience didn’t have that vital piece of information until the final reel. (Apart from those who’d read the book, that is.) (And sorry to anyone reading this who hadn’t seen the movie – I did warn you.)  That’s what bugs me about the accepted definition of irony: there is far more to it than ‘little does he know’.  An ending can be rich with irony and still come as a surprise to the viewer.

In drama, information does not always pass to the audience and stay there. The good storyteller rations it, sometimes withholding it to create tension and surprise.  At different stages of the story, the writer will give the initiative – the knowledge of the bigger picture, the secret plan – to one or more of three different parties: the protagonist, the antagonist, and the audience.

Take the first Die Hard movie.  New York cop Bruce Willis comes to LA at Christmas to visit his estranged wife, played by Bonnie Bedelia. While Willis is barefoot in the bathroom the office building is taken over by gunmen, led by villain Alan Rickman, claiming to be terrorists.  They know everyone in the building except Bruce Willis, and they don’t know that his wife is among their hostages.

At first the villains have the initiative.  We the audience quickly learn that they are thieves masquerading as terrorists, but it takes Willis a while to find that out, and longer still to convince the outside world.  Rickman is planning some spectacular diversion, but we the audience don’t know what it is, and Willis has to find out.  He learns Rickman plans to blow up the roof of the building so that the cops will think the villains are dead.  Though Willis fails to stop the explosion he saves the hostages.  Finally Rickman identifies Willis’ wife and threatens to shoot her until Willis reveals himself.  We know Willis has only two bullets left. Willis gives himself up, apparently unarmed, but we see at the last minute he has a gun strapped to his back with festive parcel tape.  He shoots the last two baddies.  As Rickman falls out the window he grabs the wristband of the Rolex watch Bonnie Bedelia received as a gift from her work colleagues.  Willis undoes the wristband and Rickman falls to his death.

From this summary we can see how information vital to each stage of the narrative is passed around.  Sometimes the audience shares knowledge with the villain – the flawed rescue plans of the FBI, for example; sometimes Willis knows something neither the audience nor the baddies know – the gun taped to his back; and a lot of the time Rickman knows something neither we nor the hero do – that he is relying on the FBI to cut the power that is keeping the building’s vault locked shut.  This frantic game of pass-the-parcel, played with information, generates tremendous narrative tension and pace.

This, in my humble opinion, shows how the accepted definition of irony is inadequate.  Yes, in tragedies like Manon Des Sources or Othello we the audience know more throughout than the hero, and their continuing ignorance is a vital part of the tragedy.  But real irony is deeper and more complex: it occurs when a character’s actions rebound on them in a way they never intended and never anticipated.

In Die Hard, when Bruce Willis first arrives at the office, his wife shows him the expensive Rolex watch she has received as a Christmas gift.  No-one says it out loud, but we know that as a cop he could never have afforded to buy her such a watch.  When Alan Rickman falls out the window, it’s that Rolex he grabs, and the watch that symbolised her independence and success nearly costs Bonnie Bedelia her life.  That’s what most of us understand as irony.

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo finds Juliet in a drugged sleep, thinks her dead, and kills himself.  We know she isn’t, and that’s classic irony.  Then Juliet wakes and sees Romeo dead, and kills herself.  That’s a richer dramatic irony, not because of what we the audience know, but because the actions Juliet took to save their love have doomed their love.*

I wrote a thriller once – yet to be produced (sigh) – where the villain, an arms dealer, spends a fortune developing a landmine to penetrate the latest generation of armour.  In the climactic fight our hero gets hold of a sample, and the villain tries to flee in his armoured car… okay, when I tell it like that you can see it coming, but it works in the script, honest.  And that’s dramatic irony – the villain is brought down by his own greed and cruelty.  Irony increases the audience’s satisfaction when witnessing the villain’s sticky end; if our heroes earn a reward that neither they nor we expected, it adds to the happiness of the ending.

The accepted definition of irony is so vague it’s practically impossible to write a piece that does not have some.  Try to portray the deeper, richer irony, when characters face the unexpected consequences of their own actions.  It’s a great way to create a snappy ending, if you need one… like I do at the moment.  Come back next time to see if I’ve thought of one.

*See? I don’t just watch Hollywood movies…though I did like Baz Luhrmann’s version.

Not Bad, Just Drawn That Way

Shortly after it came out I read a review of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, in which Orlando Bloom plays a young medieval blacksmith who joins one of the Crusades in The Holy Land.  The reviewer concluded that the movie was flawed because ‘Bloom cannot carry an action picture’.  Well, the movie was flawed, yes, but it wasn’t Bloom’s fault.  No actor could have made the part of the hero work, because of the way it was written.

It’s a truism – or cliché perhaps – of movie drama that ‘action is character’.  In other words, the audience judges a character by what they do, not what they say.  Yes, sometimes saying is doing, but not very often; while dialogue is a good way to convey information in small quantities, it’s nothing like as effective as action when portraying character.

Kingdom of Heaven opens with a body being buried at a crossroads.  We learn that the body is that of the blacksmith’s wife; she committed suicide and therefore cannot be buried in sanctified ground.  We follow a traveller to the nearest village where we meet the blacksmith at work – Orlando Bloom.  He is very upset about his wife topping herself, we gather.  He has a bit of a tiff with the local priest about it.

Except… surely he didn’t give a damn about his wife?  If he did, he would have gone to her funeral.  His action in this case was to stay at home: i.e. to take no action at all. Which means the first impression we get of our hero is (a) either he didn’t like or even respect his wife, or (b) he does not have the strength or self-confidence to defy his community and insist that she be buried in hallowed ground (or at least that someone – preferably himself – leave some flowers on her grave) or indeed (c) both. And though we are curious to know why his wife killed herself, that’s never clearly explained either.  We can only suppose she got fed up of being married to a wuss.

It goes on.  The blacksmith meets a knight returning from the Crusades (Liam Neeson), by reputation a famous and brilliant warrior, who it transpires is our hero’s father.  The great knight has barely introduced himself to his son before he and all his men are ambushed in their forest encampment and wiped out. Hmm, the audience thinks: what sort of famous military genius gets himself and all his faithful hardened veteran followers bumped off by a few local bandits with bows and arrows?  (I don’t think we ever find out why that happened, either.)

The skills this knight had – though by now they don’t seem that impressive – have apparently been passed down to his son the blacksmith by the magic of genetics, because before long Orlando Bloom heads out to the Holy Land to take his father’s place, where he turns out to have an amazing aptitude for strategy, invention, ballistics, etc., and sees off the Saracens (who, much like today’s Middle Easterners, don’t seem to appreciate the difference between being liberated and being massacred.)  We can only infer that our hero acquired these skills genetically, because we never saw him learn or demonstrate any of them back in England.  There he was merely a bloke too busy hammering horseshoes to go to his wife’s funeral.

I think the hero got the (exotic local) girl eventually; but by then, like most of the audience, I’d stopped caring.

Action is character.  A character who never becomes aware of the challenge he or she faces, and/or does not act to address the challenge, and/or makes poor decisions at vital moments, will lose the respect of the audience.  We will start feeling indifferent towards him or her, then start to despise them.  We certainly won’t root for your hero, which is the one thing you want from your audience. We the audience don’t have to approve of what a character does, we just have to care about what they do, and what comes of that, and what they do next. And if your hero fumbles about for too long, ignorant of what’s going on, or is indecisive, or suddenly demonstrates skills they cannot feasibly have, then we the audience give up trying to care and trying to believe and will start looking at our watches.

‘What if I am not writing a Hollywood movie?’ you might ask.  ‘What if I want to portray people who are authentic, in situations that are true-to-life, not some square-jawed beefcake taking down helicopters with a slingshot?’  In that case, the same rules apply.  If you want your character to be weak, and put upon, and be a victim of their own bad decisions – as most of us are in real life, at one time or another – then by all means do.  Simply dilute the ‘qualities’ of the conventional action hero accordingly.

Joss Whedon in his sci-fi TV series Firefly* depicted a band of space-vagabonds scratching a living from one planet to the next by trading in salvage and stolen goods.  For most of the pilot episode they are insulted, ripped-off, bullied and ambushed, and take it all with a smile and a wisecrack.  In the final reel, one rip-off merchant pushes them too far, and our heroes kick ass.  The episode works brilliantly to establish our heroes in the pecking order; in this universe they are a few rungs up from rock bottom, sticking together to stay alive.

My point: understand what makes a character strong and what makes them weak, and use those techniques knowingly.  And if you do create a weak hero whom we have no reason or inclination to follow, and everyone hates your movie, be sure to blame the lead actor.  That way you’ll be able to find backers to let you do it all over again.  (See Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood – or rather, don’t…)

*Cancelled by network hacks before it even got going properly. If it can happen to a storyteller of Joss Whedon’s calibre, nobody’s safe.

Making a Scene

I was going to try and write a blog entry on How to Construct a Scene, but when I thought about it I realised I don’t really know How to Construct a Scene – I let my imagination do it.  Within the parameters of the story, that is.  TV episodes are usually carefully structured; you can’t just make stuff up as you go along. (I can’t, anyway – for me it’s like driving blindfolded and hoping you’ll end up at your destination.)  Before I start I know what the scene needs to do: what bit of story information I want to reveal, and how the characters react to it.  That’s dictated by the characters’ personalities and attitude and what they want to achieve.  I figure out who is there already when the scene starts, who enters, if anyone, and who initiates the important part of the conversation that we the viewers witness.  (That’s presuming there is conversation; often scenes are more dramatic and cinematic when nothing is said. But you’ll rarely see many scenes like that, on TV anyhow – I think producers get nervous.)

I give the characters something to do, preferably business that is relevant to the storyline and affects its direction, rather than activity for its own sake.  It helps if you reflect the business and the environment (whether it’s raining or cold or dirty) in the dialogue, so the conversation seems natural and spontaneous, and not just dry information exchanged for the sake of moving the story on.

I also try to bear in mind the audience – what they have just seen, what they know about the show and what they expect to happen, so I can hopefully subvert their assumptions and surprise them.   I worked on a one-off crime story that I knew would be going out in a certain slot ending at ten o’clock.  I knew that in this sort of show the villain was almost always unmasked ten minutes before the end, followed by a few scenes of ‘retrospective exposition.’ (You know, the ones where characters ask each other questions like: ‘One thing I don’t understand – how did he get rid of the weapon?’*)

Since the audience were expecting the reveal at that moment, I decided to drop in a fake revelation, where another character appeared to confess.  Then I did all the ‘one thing I don’t understand is’ scenes and tied up the loose ends. In the very last one of those, we revealed the real baddie.

It made quite an effective twist.  If you know your structure you can mess around with it and play tricks on the viewer.  Audiences enjoy that stuff, provided you don’t take the piss.

Recently I watched the broadcast of a show I had written, and noticed during one pivotal scene that the actors were standing still with their hands hanging by their sides.  It irritated me; either the crew ran out of time, or the director was merely lazy and lacked imagination.  Actors are trained not to be self-conscious, but in real life almost everyone is self-conscious, to an extent.  We touch our faces (that’s how colds get transmitted… sorry, trivia), twiddle our hair, fiddle with our sleeves…  We limit the amount of eye contact we make, especially with strangers.   Our bodies reflect our attitude – boredom, irritation, impatience. We put hands on hips, cross our arms, tidy up crockery… it’s actually incredibly rare for any of us to stand talking with our hands by our sides.  Good actors know this, and given time and space will explore the scene and find a way of expressing feelings in their body language.  Sadly however, you rarely have enough time or space on the average shoot, and it helps if the director can suggest something.

I’m not saying that characters never stay still and do nothing.  I just think that since doing nothing is so unnatural, stillness should be reserved for scenes where characters are too shocked or upset to fidget.    Or where they’re dead, of course.

It’s not on my Credits page, but I directed ten episodes of the Bill over several years.  I even got fan mail, from a child of nine who seemed to think I directed every episode.  (At least, I presume it was a child of nine…) It was an excellent training ground for any film-maker.  In one scene I directed the detectives had just made an arrest, and we opened on them as the suspects were being led away to a police van.  The actor playing one of the detectives suddenly barked at me, ‘And what am I doing while this is going on?’

I had no idea. It hadn’t occurred to me he needed to do anything.  I said the first thing that came into my head: ‘You’re blowing your nose.’  I was being slightly facetious, but he didn’t notice, and when we went for a rehearsal, I said ‘Action’ and the actor blew his nose while the other went into the dialogue.  And of course the moment and the scene worked very well, because the gesture was so natural – busy without being contrived.  That exchange taught me a lot.

However, when I’m writing a script I rarely put in detailed directions.  A good director will have ideas of his or her own that expand on what the writer is trying to say.  A mediocre director will resent the writer’s presumption and ignore suggestions in the script, then fail to replace them with anything at all. You can usually spot their work: the actors will be standing there declaiming the lines with their hands hanging by their sides.

* NB:  I try to avoid actually writing lines this hoary and stale.  If something predictable has to be said, there’s usually a way of saying it that isn’t predictable