"Because it's Cool." - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Jim Henshaw over at The Legion of Decency has a wise post about "The Scene You Don't Write," referring to a particularly shocking scene in the last Game of Thrones but one, involving what went down in a tomb. Also, there was a similar scene he was asked to write years ago, which he refused to write, because it would have destroyed the hero as a character.

(There are not, technically, spoilers in what follow, but clever readers will probably figure stuff out, so if are you are behind in your GoT watching and zealously avoiding social media, read not on.)

I've noticed that certain directors and certain network execs have a very different point of view than I do about what we're putting on screen. I'm all about the story and the characters. I want to tell a story that moves the audience. I've noticed that many directors want most of all to thrill the audience. They want wow factor. They want spectacle. They pay lip service to story and character, but what they really want is cool moments, especially if they can put those cool moments on their reel. How those moments figure into the story is sometimes secondary.

"Why? Because it's cool, that's why."

I'd like to say that these directors' movies don't turn out well, but it's not true, depending on your definition of "turning out." Just about everyone I know thought the STAR WARS prequels were embarrassing, but they made Panamax-sized boatloads of money.

What happens between Cersei and her loving brother is not in the novel. So one wonders what was going through the writers' heads as they wrote the scene. Was it a dictum from HBO? Their mandate is basically, "stuff you can't put on TV":



Well, you certainly can't put the Cersei/Jaimi scene on broadcast TV, now can you. So that is all win. Right?

Of course, it does make Jaimi despicable, which the writers address by having the characters never, ever bring up what happened ever again, sort of like the Supreme Court and Bush v. Gore. That's what makes me suspect that the scene didn't come out of the writing room, but was a network dictum. If the writers had come up with it, they'd have run with it.

Oh, and Jaimi is superdecent to someone in the next episode, maybe by way of apology?

So what do you do when a director or a network wants to have a character do something that is horribly out of character, and will damage the story edifice you have carefully constructed?

This is a problem that every pro writer deals with constantly; because, unless you're writing a spec, you are responsible to whomever hired you. But you are also responsible to the story; and if your credits are a bunch of crap movies, it's unhealthy for your career (though it is healthier than no credits). It is hard being a good servant to two masters. You can attempt to explain why it's a horrible idea. You can threaten to quit (not recommended). You can actually quit (definitely not recommended).

Or you can try to modulate the bad idea in some way, and twist it so that it's not a bad idea.

The two best things you can do are (a) find the good version of their bad idea, so that you are indeed giving them the scene they want, but in a context where it is not a bad idea; or (b) offer them something equally or more spectacular that obviously will not work with the bad idea, so they have to choose one or the other.

If you can do either of these, people will love to work with you, and you won't feel like a hack or a whore.

I generally find that there is a good version of most "bad" ideas. Figuring it out starts with really isolating ad crystallizing what exactly it is that the client wants. They usually want to fix something they perceive as broken. Try to find out what's behind the bad idea, even if it's lonely-puppy syndrome. ("You haven't given me enough toys to play with, so I'm going to chew on the couch.")

If you have to write the bad scene, then write it so that it can be taken out of the script without damaging anything. I.e. don't put any important exposition or plot development in it. Maybe, with luck, it will get taken out in post when your exec or director realizes what he or she has done.

Always, always respond to a bad note on a different day than you get it. In the morning, it may not be such a bad note. That's why the phrase "I'll have a look at that" is your friend.

Of course, there are some situations, like Jim H's, above, where you really have to choose between a rock and a hard place. That's where you get to decide whether you want to be a righteous, proud writer, or a rich one. Up to you. "Pride, plus a sack, is worth a sack," as the Ferengi say. But, as we say in New York, if you can't live with yourself, it's going to be hard to find an apartment.

UPDATE:

If you want to see how the series lines up with the books, here's a handy article and chart

2 Comments:

Thanks for the interesting post. I have a question that has confused me, and I hope you can help me find an answer. I appreciate it in advance....
I have noticed on many occasions (especially sitcoms, and sometimes films) that a scene is almost surely a dictum, since (as you mentioned) nothing related to the scene exists prior to it, neither it is followed by any consequence. It just pops in out of the blue, happens in front of your eyes, and vanishes. I have a question. Why the dictum? What is the reason, the justification behind it? I can try to understand the simple ones, for example, something like "put a totally-unnecessary sex scene here, because of audience appeal", or "make the character walk around nude". I understand that on such level, the justification could be that viewer count might elevate and sales might increase. But do they really believe that, for example, incest will do the same? Another example. Suppose you have a story without a gay character. Suppose that dictum says you should have one. You might then think "okay, this is capitalism, so it is to attract the gay-community viewership and the subsequent revenue". But well, with that logic, you lose the christian-community viewership and the subsequent revenue. So you wonder, is that purely financial? The bottom line of the question: is it all monetary? might there be political or ideological factors, or of other natures?

By OpenID neverhood88, at 7:44 PM  

Thanks for the interesting post. I have a question that has confused me, and I hope you can help me find an answer. I appreciate it in advance....
I have noticed on many occasions (especially sitcoms, and sometimes films) that a scene is almost surely a dictum, since (as you mentioned) nothing related to the scene exists prior to it, neither it is followed by any consequence. It just pops in out of the blue, happens in front of your eyes, and vanishes. I have a question. Why the dictum? What is the reason, the justification behind it? I can try to understand the simple ones, for example, something like "put a totally-unnecessary sex scene here, because of audience appeal", or "make the character walk around nude". I understand that on such level, the justification could be that viewer count might elevate and sales might increase. But do they really believe that, for example, incest will do the same? Another example. Suppose you have a story without a gay character. Suppose that dictum says you should have one. You might then think "okay, this is capitalism, so it is to attract the gay-community viewership and the subsequent revenue". But well, with that logic, you lose the christian-community viewership and the subsequent revenue. So you wonder, is that purely financial? The bottom line of the question: is it all monetary? might there be political or ideological factors, or of other natures?

By OpenID neverhood88, at 7:47 PM  

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