Writers beating off

The dog next door has been barking non-stop for days, maybe weeks. The first couple of times, you got up to see why, but never seeing anything, you barely hear the sound any more. It is just noise.

Alternatively, you’d never know your neighbour owns a dog, the creature is so quiet. But then, it suddenly barks. Jarred by the new noise, you look out your window only to find someone climbing through one of your neighbour’s windows.

Which dog are you most likely to notice: The one that barks incessantly or the one that doesn’t but just did?

barkingdogcartoon

(Property of Jerry King: http://www.jerryking.com Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

If there is one function that I wish Final Draft and Movie Magic and all the other screenwriting software would remove, it’s the ability to insert the parenthetical (beat).

At the very least, when you type it, I would love a pop-up window to appear asking: “Are you sure it’s necessary?”

Because more often than not, it is completely UNnecessary. If anything, it is typically a nuisance.

As I understand it, (beat) is used to indicate a delay between one line of dialogue and the next.

In this example from The Imitation Game, the 2014 film screenwritten by Graham Moore, it is used to break up a phone conversation where we only hear one character speak. In this case, (beat) indicates a pause while Detective Nock listens to the party on the other end of the line.

Imitation Game phone

(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

Unfortunately, (beat) is also often inserted by the screenwriter for dramatic reasons.

The writer believes that the brief pause makes the prior line stand out before moving onto the next spoken thought. A dramatic moment is revealed in the dialogue, and (beat) gives the line space to be heard.

Or at least, that’s the theory.

Too often, unfortunately, writers use (beat) in place of drama. Unable to devise a truly dramatic or powerful line, they instead insert (beat) in a vain attempt to imply drama.

It’s tantamount to someone Tweeting about how powerful, smart or cagey they are to compensate for none of those qualities being obvious in their person or demeanor.

In the writer’s defence—and this happens more with newer writers—the (beat) is exactly how they “hear” the dialogue in their head. The character takes a moment when speaking and so the writer types (beat).

This would be fine if it happened a couple of times in a screenplay, but what I’ve found is that:

Once a writer starts (beat)ing off, it’s hard to get them to stop.

 

The more dramatic the scene they’re trying to write, the more aggressively they (beat) off. And they don’t stop (beat)ing off until the scene or sequence achieves climax.

Although the writer may gain some satisfaction in this, few others do.

The pace of the read and therefore the pace of the story slows for the reader. The Director doesn’t want to be told how to direct, nor the performer how to act.

To a person, each simply ignores the writer’s directive to (beat). The constantly barking dog is effectively silenced.

When everything is dramatic, nothing is dramatic.

And worse, once the (beat) moves on, the reader, Director and performer are left with lines of dialogue that are not dramatic, that have no weight, that dampen the drama.

So, what’s the writer to do?

 

One: Write better, more powerful dialogue.

Writing is an art, but it is also a craft.

Write the best line that you can, and then rewrite it better and better, layering the drama into the words, the cadence, the subtext, the timing within the plot.

Two: Trust the process.

Know that you are not the only arbiter of your words and trust others down the line to find the drama you so carefully crafted.

Below, see another example from The Imitation Game, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s script is un(beat)en and yet he imbues his lines with drama and significance.

 

Imitation Game interview

(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

If people cannot find the drama without constant insertions of (beat), they won’t find it with your direction (because it’s likely not there).

By being judicious in your use of (beat), those moments you do decide to use it will become the dog that never barks but just did.

The (beat) will stand out as something special, noteworthy; and so will your story.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

We could be heroes

A new day starts, and you rise from your bed. As you head to the shower, your mind drifts to the challenges your boss is having connecting with her 20-year-old son.

As your boss has focused on her career, both her son and husband have come to feel like second-class citizens, the younger adult acting out by joining a gang.

It’s not your place, but as you’ve known your boss for 15 years, you feel drawn into the family drama and spend your morning devising ways to intervene on her behalf while simultaneously coping with the poison-pill clause in the hostile takeover bid.

Hold it. Wait a second. No, you’re not.

Sure, if your boss is a friend and she’s struggling, you’d likely help. You have your own life, your family and your job, however, to worry about.

You don’t merely exist to serve your boss’s life.

Shrek_Hero-1

(Character likenesses are the property of DreamWorks Animation & are used here for teaching purposes only.)

Consider the movie Shrek, for a moment.

Among the characters, we have Shrek, Fiona, Farquad, Donkey, Dragon and Gingie.

Of those, who was the hero of that movie?

Given the movie’s title, it is pretty likely that the central protagonist of the story is Shrek. And given the way the narrative plays out, based on the scenes we watch, Shrek is indeed the hero of the movie.

But do the other characters see it that way?

Did Donkey wake up one morning with a mission to help an irascible ogre find acceptance not only within a community openly hostile to him, but also within himself through his sacrifice for another?

No, he had his own issues.

Did Fiona allow herself to be locked in a tower, guarded by a knight-immolating dragon, so that Shrek could see her example of isolation as a metaphor for his own, and in rescuing Fiona, he rescued himself?

Not so much. Girlfriend had her own agenda.

So, I ask again: Who was the hero of Shrek?

EVERYONE!

(At least from his or her own perspective.)

Shrek_Hero-2

Everyone saw the same events unfold, but everyone saw them differently.

Shrek followed his life course. Donkey followed his. Fiona hers. Farquad, Gingie, the Three Blind Mice, theirs.

And in seeking to fulfill their own wants and needs, they each experienced their own character arcs. They each suffered their own Hero’s Journey.

As a screenwriter—or more broadly, a storyteller—this understanding is vital to doing proper service to your characters. The secondary and maybe even tertiary characters cannot simply be treated as plot devices, or at least not if you hope to make them seem real.

As you introduce your characters to your story, give thought to what their journeys would look like. Consider what they hope to accomplish by spending time with your main protagonist or the other characters. See their various relationships through their eyes.

And then write them with that in mind.

When they react to a situation or another’s action, they must do so with their own interests at heart, at least as much if not more than their counterpart’s interests.

When one character acts, consider the consequences and stakes for each character, and then watch the dramatic tension rise.

Look for those moments when a character must choose between his or her agenda and the greater good, or those moments where another’s behaviour threatens his or her agenda. There lies conflict.

Hear the words a character speaks and consider if those words mean one thing to the larger story and a different thing to that character’s journey. This is the subtext—conscious or subconscious—that you seek.

You may not—likely won’t—accomplish this level of intricacy on your first draft. First drafts are about getting the central story line onto paper (or whatever medium you prefer).

It gives you several starting points, however, as you enter rewrites and search for ways to tighten and heighten your story.

And at the end of that process, you should be able to write a logline for each of the major characters’ perspectives.

Shrek_Hero-3

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.