Friday, April 23, 2010

Studio Stories X – Becoming that Barbarian at the Gate

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


The question of using traditional cinematic devices like voice-over (V.O.) narration, flashback, and lengthy dialogue scenes when the narrative demands it is an ongoing issue for screenwriters, especially new or unproduced screenwriters.

The standard “screenwriting expert’s” response has been to tell new writers NOT to use such techniques. Initially the reason given was that they didn’t have the experience and expertise to use such narratively “dangerous” styles (because it was feared scripts could become hackneyed very easily). Later, the “experts” said that new writers’ “spec” scripts should break no rules because it might threaten the sale. And, of course, such “wisdom” resulted in LOTS of material being self-censored to the point that some may well have failed to sell because they were too pat. And most recently, they’ve argued that new writers should break no rules until they have achieved a sale and “earned” such right. Here is where the experts expose themselves: they want new writers to stay “barefoot and pregnant,” to stop being “uppity.” Why? Simple: shepherds need a flock.

I’ve said it before: it’s all a matter of degree. Weak story-craft and the use of “devices” like narration or flashbacks do not go hand-in-hand. There are appropriate uses of any and all techniques available to writers. If audiences are narratively sophisticated enough not to need certain cinematic conventions, then writers can be narratively sophisticated enough to know when those same conventions can yet work. If a story can resonate with audiences and readers but it breaks some guru rule, does anyone honestly think a buyer is going to think twice about it? “We would have bought that script, it had a GREAT story to tell, but that 8-page dialogue scene in the second act killed the deal.” On the other hand, if many or most of the script’s dialogue scenes run well over the thumb-rule limit of 3 pages, then the writer may have a problem. If the script is told almost entirely through narration, or it bounces all over time through excessive flashbacks, then the gatekeepers may have a valid point. Degree. Judgment. Practice. And experience.

I suggest the experts get the Hell out of the way and let the scripts stand or fall as written. If a writer has the commitment and inspiration and craft to turn out a story that, in all other respects, has the mark of a serviceable job done, then that writer has the expertise to well-use such techniques. And if the story would sell without the presence of the stylistic, then it can, in all likelihood, sell with it. Why? Because the first thing that happens to a spec once sold is that it gets re-written. If the order comes down: “Lose the V.O.” said V.O. will get lost. If dialogue drags, dialogue will be cut.

In his interview in Screenwriters’ Masterclass, Edited by Kevin Conroy Scott, Faber & Faber Ltd. 2005, p. 11, Ted Tally described writing The Silence of the Lambs:

Tally – Jodie Foster commented that if we’d had a less sympathetic studio they would have made us cut down those long scenes between Clarice and Lecter, eight-page scenes where they’re just static, two people talking to each other. They wouldn’t have accepted it or understood that it’s the heart of the movie, it’s not just filler waiting for the next action scene.

Scott – Each of those scenes really crackles.

Tally – Well, it’s just great dialogue, and a lot of it is just verbatim from (the novel of) Thomas Harris. It’s like a fencing match, but with sexual overtures. Those things play like they’re theater. I was a little worried that I was giving a director a very difficult job to keep that visually interesting. I was aware that I was dumping a very big slab on him and normally I try to be more sensitive towards a director. But there was no other way to do this. I kept them as short as I could but there was a limit to how much they could be cut.

In writer-director, Cameron Crowe’s book-length interview of writer-director, Billy Wilder, Conversations With Wilder, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, p. 108 - 9, Wilder says:

Who wrote the rules? There are no rules. every picture there is something that would take 6 to 12 pages to explain, and I can do it in 6 to 12 seconds by having a voice-over. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

And later,

Voice-over is good as long as you are not describing what the audience is already seeing.

And New York Times correspondent, Sharon Waxman, in her book, Rebels on the Backlot, HarperCollins, 2005, pp. 175-6, had this to say about voice-over narration:

[Screenwriter, Jim] Uhls had worked from a draft (of Fight Club) written by Ross Bell that had no voice-over, following a Hollywood rule that voice-overs were hackneyed and trite. [Director, David] Fincher disagreed, saying the humor in the movie came from the narrator’s voice, and put the voice-over back in. Apparently several other cutting-edge filmmakers agreed, because the long-abandoned device also showed up in American Beauty, the elegantly tortured film by another voice of the new generation of filmmakers, Sam Mendes. In that film it was Kevin Spacey, already dead, who narrated. (In the years that followed, voice-over again became an acceptable, even common device, with Charlie Kaufman finally poking fun at the ironclad Hollywood “rule” in Adaptation, in which his self-referential character Charles Kaufman sits in Robert McKee’s screenwriting seminar. While Kaufman’s thoughts are heard in voice-over, McKee is shouting that only an idiot would use voice-over as a device in a movie.)

To all the writers out there who have struggled year in and year out attempting to write screenplays that fit what the gurus and experts proclaim selling scripts must be: 
Ignore the experts. Write to your passion. Tell your stories effectively, and any “old” way that does the job. Become that story’s champion. Become that gatekeeper’s “barbarian” at that gate, and breach those walls.  # 
Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post: 
If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door.
--- Milton Berle


  1. Really great! This is a wonderfully informative post. It seems to me that when used effectively, narration, in the films you mentioned, "Fight Club" in particular, can in fact make the film. I thought Walter Salles' use of narration in "The Motorcycle Diaries" matched, and possibly even, added to that film's lyricism.