Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A common rookie writing mistake

EXT. HOUSE -- DAY

TWO DETECTIVES APPROACH A HOUSE. THEY RING THE BELL. THEY WAIT A MOMENT UNTIL A WOMAN ANSWERS.

WOMAN: Yes?

DETECTIVE 1: Are you Mrs. Hanson?

WOMAN: Yes. What’s this about?

DETECTIVE 1: I’m Detective Green. This is Detective Brown. We’re from the LAPD.

WOMAN: Oh.  Really?

DETECTIVE 1: Yes, ma'am. 

WOMAN: Well... can I see some ID?

DETECTIVE 2: Yes, ma’am.

They both root around their pockets and pull out ID. She scans it.

WOMAN: Okay… I suppose.

DETECTIVE 2: You have a daughter named Mindy?

WOMAN: Yes.

DETECTIVE 1: Is she home?

WOMAN: No. What is this about?

DETECTIVE 2: You’re aware that a student was killed Wednesday night at the Westfield Mall?

WOMAN: Yes, it was horrible.

DETECTIVE 1: A tragedy, yes’ ma’am.

WOMAN: But what does Mindy have to do with it?

DETECTIVE 2: We think she might have a notebook that the victim gave her that might shed some light on just who did this.

WOMAN: Oh my.

DETECTIVE 1: Do you mind if we come in and take a look?

WOMAN: Now?

DETECTIVE 2: Yes, ma’am.

WOMAN:  Well, Mindy's not home.

DETECTIVE 1:  That's okay. Can we come in?

WOMAN: I don't know.  Do you have a warrant?

DETECTIVE 1: No, but your daughter is not a suspect. This is just a piece of evidence that might help us solve the puzzle.

WOMAN: Still... I... Maybe I should call my lawyer.

DETECTIVE 2: Seriously, we just want to see if this notebook exists.

WOMAN: Let me call Mindy.

DETECTIVE 2: Fine.

THE WOMAN GOES BACK IN THE HOUSE. THERE’S A MOMENT AND FINALLY SHE RETURNS WITH HER CELLPHONE. SHE PUNCHES IN THE NUMBER. SEVERAL BEATS, THEN:

WOMAN: Mindy, this is Mom. There are two detectives here wanting to go through your room to see if you have a notebook belonging to that boy who was killed at the mall? (long beat, to Detectives) She says she doesn’t have it.

DETECTIVE 1: We just want to take a look.

DETECTIVE 2: Is there anything she’s hiding that she doesn’t want us to see?

WOMAN: (on phone) Mindy, they said is there anything you’re hiding that you don’t want them to see? (beat, to Detectives) No.

DETECTIVE 2: Then can we just look around?

WOMAN: (on phone) Then can they just look around? (long beat, to Detectives) Okay.

DETECTIVE 2: Thank you.

WOMAN: (on phone) Okay, Mindy. I’ll tell you what happened. Bye. (hangs up).

DETECTIVE 1: So can we come in?

WOMAN: Oh, yes. Please.

DETECTIVE 2: Thank you.

WOMAN: Can I get you something to drink?

DETECTIVE 1: No, we’re fine.

THE WOMAN HOLDS THE DOOR OPEN AND THE DETECTIVES ENTER.

Okay, now let me suggest an alternate scene. Instead of the above scenario, you just go straight to this:

EXT. TEENAGE GIRL’S ROOM – DAY

A WOMAN USHERS TWO DETECTIVES INTO THE ROOM.

WOMAN: Okay, this is Mindy’s room, Detectives. But she said you’re not going to find any notebook.

I think you can see what I’m getting at. There’s a rule of writing: Get into scenes as late as you can and get out of them as early as you can.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read scripts from young writers that have versions (usually longer) of the first scene. Let’s be blunt. It’s boring. Nothing happens. People just talk. Often in circles.  Or they wait. Or they tell us things we already know. I would imagine the audience knows about the mall killing. And there was probably a scene where one of Mindy’s friends told the Detectives about a notebook Mindy might be harboring. Was there a scene where the Captain of the precinct told them to go to Mindy’s house and try to find it? I doubt it. Once the Detectives hear about the notebook it’s only logical they’re going to investigate.

One of your jobs as a writer is to find the most economical way to move your story along. A rookie mistake is creating scenes where everyone is just marking time. Think of the audience. Do they want to see two people standing on a porch waiting for someone to come to the door? Do they want to see a woman scanning ID? Do they want to hear all the warrant, lawyer bullshit? Do they want to hear whether the guests are offered refreshments? NO. It's all logical and tracks with the story but who wants to watch it? 

Every line has to count. Every word has to count. There’s no time for pleasantries. There’s no time to ring a doorbell and wait.

Heed this advice and trust me, your script will rise above half the competition.  Heck, they might even read yours all the way through.  As always, best of luck. 

UPDATE:  Already I'm getting comments saying "I've seen plenty of scenes where cops talk to people at the front door," or "They did this all the time on DRAGNET."    Look, it's your script and your career.  If you want to write the above scene on the front porch or a variation of it, or a spec DRAGNET, be my guest.  If you're offering suggestions for how to make the porch scene work or how better to do the scene in Mindy's bedroom you're missing the point of the exercise.   I'm offering some writing advice.  You take what you want from it.  

33 comments :

Rashad Khan said...

What if you just cut to their rooting through Mindy's stuff, looking for the notebook, while mocking her taste in decor, fashion, etc., and discussing whatever relationship-oriented dramas that I'm sure the detectives would have going on at the moment?

Bud Wilkinson said...

Agree, of course, but can remember many scenes on Dragnet of Joe Friday and Bill Gannon standing at doors. The same on Adam 12. Can't what might be termed "pad time" be useful in the hands of the right actor, telling more than mere words through nuance?

John in NE Ohio said...

The corollary to that is IF that first scene does exist, we as viewers are so conditioned to economy of scenes that we expect something in that opening scene to be important. Some apparently throwaway line, or something in the background, etc.

The other thing that I have noticed as a viewer is not just economy of lines, but economy of sets/locations. In your first scene, you need to shoot on the porch before entering the child's room. Again, we are conditioned that if that opening scene is included, there is something important.

I can't think of an example right now, but I recall watching a European crime show on Netflix that broke this mold completely. The scenes weren't as boring as your example, but I kept cataloguing them because they had to be important to the resolution of the story or they wouldn't have been included. It definitely slowed the pace down, for better or worse, but it also made deducing the murderer much more difficult. As I watched further episodes, I learned to not fall victim to this version of the red herring.

Klinger said...

If that scene is performed very fast, it could be called "Dragnet"

E. Yarber said...

I sometimes use the metaphor of fractions in pacing a story. You'll only confuse people saying 485/1455... your job is to do the math for them and get it down to 1/3.

Call me cynical, but when I read long pointless scenes, I sometimes get the feeling that the writer knows they have to fill 100 pages to get the script up to submission length and take the laziest possible route by having people make small talk. Such dialogue hangs like a dead fish on screen, but if you're simply flipping through someone's manuscript it looks as though the characters are actually saying something... until you read what's there.

A variation of endless expository dialogue are scenes in which the characters ignore the story altogether. After Pulp Fiction, some writers felt the audience would be fascinated by pages of characters discussing comic books, old movies, fast food, shiny objects, lint in their navels, and random objects they found with their clothing after using public laundromats. The problem is that while there might be some tension in a couple of killers spouting fanboy nonsense while you wait to see what horrible thing they're about to do, such aimless rambling isn't particularly clever or compelling if it ends up filling time while nothing in particular is taking place.

Some get into verbal quicksand with LONG speeches. I can think of at least two jobs I've been on where writers thought they were mesmerizing the viewers with characters expressing deep philosophical thoughts that spread out over three pages of text. I don't NEED three pages to sum up these monologues in two words: Sheer Torture.

Shakespeare managed to keep "To be or not to be" down to thirty-five lines. If you need more time to express yourself, perhaps consider paying a therapist by the hour.

marka said...

Isn't the point that Ken is talking about advancing a story in an effecient and effective way. Adam 12 and Dragnet were about the lives of police officers, so a porch conversation would be part of their story. Showing how they interact with people.

If the story is about the death of a person then you don't need to waste time with Reed and Malloy talking in the car about going out to lunch.

Andrew said...

I'm curious what you think about COLUMBO. There was a lot of seemingly wasted time and meandering conversations on that show, but it still worked.

Michael said...

The bigger question for me is, when is the Fourth Amendment going to be mentioned in that first exchange!

alkali said...

The Law & Order franchise has this down to an absurdly refined science:

DET. BRISCO: ... but maybe the guy who delivered that package saw our perp.

(CHUNG CHUNG)

DELIVERY GUY: ... no, I didn't see nobody, but one thing was strange ... (etc.)

Earl Boebert said...

If you want to see how it's done, I suggest using your free trial time on Acorn TV to binge-watch "Vera" and note how the writers develop character and move the story along with impressive economy of dialog (and if you're not used to Northern UK accents, turn on closed captioning so you don't miss anything :-))

Of course, it helps to have someone of the quality of Brenda Blethyn, who can pack more semantic content in a simple "Hm?" than most can a in a page of dialog.

Sean Robbins said...

My biggest issue with the porch scene is that the mother let the detectives in w/o a warrant.

I mean, it was a long, unnecessary scene, but come on! My guess is that the detectives would obtain a warrant first anyhow.

Covarr said...

I got annoyed pretty quick into the first version of that scene. If it tries the patience of a quick reader, surely it's that much more annoying watching it play out over the course of three and a half minutes.

I don't subscribe to the view that dialogue should never be meandery, but if you're gonna do that it needs to serve a purpose. E. Yarber brings up a good example in PULP FICTION, where Tarantino uses pointless burger talk to create a dichotomy between Jules and Vincent as regular guys and Jules and Vincent in work mode. It works and is even necessary because it humanizes them, shows us a side in stark contract to the cold blooded killers we see just moments later. It begins to set up up the payoff we see for Jules in the final scene.

Another I think did it well was YOU'VE GOT MAIL. The content of their emails is most not plot-significant, but it does a wonderful job developing the characters. It helps, of course, that it's spread out over several short emails rather than long rants, but it still goes to show how small talk can serve a story rather than hindering it.

Still, I readily admit these are more the exception than the rule. One of the worst plays I ever read, WEEKEND COMEDY by Sam Bobrick, was about an hour longer than it needed to be, mostly because of logistical faff that didn't go anywhere like characters working out who would sleep where and reaffirming plot points we were already past. In fact, based on the way scenes would finish their plot and then linger before circling back to where the plot already ended, I'd be willing to bet everything was just extended for padding so that it could reach the page count the author wanted. It's really disappointing; there are seeds of a good show in there, but it makes such sloppy use of its runtime.

-dsr- said...

All that attention being paid to the conversation made me think that we were going to have an interesting story about constitutional rights and abuse of official positions.

So if that's the story that was going to be told, it was a pretty good setup until the last few lines.

If the brief was "tell a story about tracking down the Mall Killer", then, yeah, that's two minutes of uselessness.

RR said...

I totally agree with Ken. As a script reader, the other kind of scene that I really hate are restaurant scenes where the characters spend 5 pages deciding what to order before starting the scene. The scene then usually ends before they get their food.

Eric J said...

Ha ha, the great Harry Morgan was stuck in that scene over and over for years. And before him Ben Alexander. How they did it, week after week, I have no idea. I can't imagine Webb paid all that well.

Dr Loser said...

I agree with Earl Boebert in a tangential way. I'll watch two otherwise pointless minutes of Brenda Blethyn discussing anything at all, just because it's Brenda Blethyn. (To see Ms Blethyn at her finest, catch an episode of "Chance In A Million," which is one of the finest British comedies of the 1980s.)

However, it doesn't really apply to the sample script that Ken provides. Every line here is just pointless filler, presumably delivered by "Uniform #1" and "Uniform #2" to "Woman in House Coat." It's really hard to see why anybody reading this script shouldn't immediately file it in the large circular metal thing.

Dana King said...

The first scene CAN be there, but it has to be a lot more entertaining than that. Some valuable information should also be delivered, such as the cops are lying to the mother, which would be clear from what they discussed in a previous scene. Absent either or both of the above, yeah. The second scene, every time.

Mike said...

Int. Office of Chief of Police.
Chief, to Detectives 1 & 2: This Mindy kid's harbouring an illegal alien, Mork or something, and I need a cheap gardener. You two knuckleheads get over to her mother's house & see what's shaking. Now, scram.

Int. Mindy's mother's house. Detectives 1&2 & Mindy's mother stand naked in shower.
Detective 1: I can't remember how we got here.
Mindy's mother: Pass the loofer.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Dr Loser: In case you don't know, CHANCE IN A MILLION, the entire series, is now available in the US on DVD!

I slipped Ken a copy of some episodes on a disc once, but don't know if he ever watched them.

wg

Todd Everett said...

Scene you never see on TV (but should):

Suburban house. McGee and (let's say) Bishop approach front door; knock.
Door opens, we see the owner, a housewife.

Bishop: Are your Mrs. Wilmore?
Wilmore: Yes
McGee: We're from NCIS
Wilmore: What the hell is NCIS? (Slams door)

MikeN said...

Your Matlock viewers gonna be angry with whippersnapper Ken.

Dr Loser said...

Wendy -- yes, I know. I've been looking for a chance to slip a reference in.

It's a remarkable example of comedy as a story arc over eighteen episodes and three series. Meeting -- engagement -- marriage.

I believe we would both recommend it to anybody. I laughed and cried during every single episode.

(And it happens to be the exact opposite of the sloppy lazy writing demonstrated in Ken's OP!)

Liggie said...

When Ed O'Neill was promoting the short-lived "Dragnet" reboot, he said about the original's droning dialogue, "(Webb) didn't want the actors to enunciate; he wanted them to recite." The reboot, on the other hand, let their detectives and policemen talk like something besides robots.

With Shakespeare and maybe Noel Coward, overflowing dialogue is part of the attraction. That said, I did recall one case where a film director decided to cut out a chunk of Shakespeare's dialogue. Late in Zeferelli's "Romeo and Juliet", Romeo asks a soldier what happened to Juliet. In the play, the soldier speaks a paragraph that she has died, but for the movie, the soldier just gives Romeo a sad look. That worked.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I too, have seen the first scenario countless times. One example is in the final scene of the oringinal, "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three." But, it's not just script writing where this happens a lot. This happens quite often in improv. People will start a scene, restate the premise in the scene and then get into that circular dialog that kills a scene. I also cringe when I hear a scene start out, "May I help you?" Because then, at least a third of a scene is wasted on exposition and negotiation. Most of the major improv schools, e.g. Second City, I.O., U.C.B., The Groundlings all use the philosophy of "START IN THE MIDDLE." Much like Ken's writing example. It makes a huge difference if you begin a scene with, "I'll have another round." Rather than asking, "Do you have Tanqueray?" Speaking of improv...Farewell I.O. WEST.
M.B.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Alkali, it's also useful that every L&O waiter and bartender remembers every customer and what she/he drank. Even weeks later. I can't remember what I ate last Sunday.

E. Yarber said...

I'm not trying to start an argument with anyone, but it seems like most of the comments here focus on the content of the scene rather than the issue Ken was raising with the structure of the story, Perhaps if he hadn't used a detective scene, people wouldn't keep bringing Dragnet into it.

Dragnet was dialogue heavy because the format of the TV show was translated directly from radio, and Webb deliberately made the dialogue banal and matter-of-fact because he was trying to project a documentary style of drama in opposition to the glamorous private eye mysteries that had been a staple of crime shows at the time. Even in its early days, satirists like Stan Freberg and Harvey Kurtzman had a field day parodying the metronome-like cadences of Friday and co.

There's no such intent with the scene here, which doesn't project character, mood or plotting. Hitchcock once gave the example of putting two men in a room and revealing there's a bomb hidden under the table they're sitting at. THEN they can ramble all they want, because every moment brings them unwittingly closer to doom. The closing scene of Pelham 123 is much the same way. It's a very tense climactic bit because we feel sure a villain is about to get away with his crime, and the longer and duller the dialogue, the more we're left waiting as we want the detective to get down to the real point.

In the example of the two detectives and the mother, there's no suspense or feeling. All we're trying to do here is get from Point A to Point B, and the scene does a lousy job of doing so. The story is best served by moving to a place where the plot can begin to develop further.

Peter said...

On the subject of poor writing, I saw a preview screening of Game Night. I had high hopes for this but yet again it's a cookie cutter studio comedy that's full of cliches and my pet hate, endless pop culture references instead of actual funny dialogue and jokes. There ARE a few laugh out loud moments, so it's not a total loss, but not enough to make up for the crap.

When will some screenwriters learn that having characters just reference movies is not fucking funny? It's lazy!!! I began to lose the will to live when they started talking about Taken 3. This disease of lazy writing is killing comedies and sadly millennials lap it up.

Andrew Krigel said...

I immediately thought of Dragnet. 2 detectives and another talking and standing dead still. Dialog as awful as the movement. It was god awful.

Andy Rose said...

Pulp Fiction has been mentioned a couple of times, but I think the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs shows how well Tarantino could pull off a dialogue scene that has no direct bearing on the plot. The monologue about Madonna is kind of pointless (and even comes from a character who practically disappears after the opening credits), but in this case, the time-filling is all about giving you time to wonder, "Who are these guys?"

They're different ages, but wearing the same outfit. They all know each other, but don't seem to be close friends. Just as the Madonna bit peters out, the scene immediately segues into an argument over the check, where we learn things about 3 characters that turn out to be important later: Joe is in charge, Mr. White (despite his gruffness) is thoughtful and humane, and Mr. Pink is amoral and somewhat isolated from everybody else. It's a remarkably well-done piece of pacing and characterization.

In fact, it's so well done that I watched the movie several times over the course of several years before it occurred to me that the scene makes no logical sense in the context of the plot. Why would a group of thieves who are all supposed to be anonymous and disassociated from each other have a loud breakfast together in a public restaurant with their crime boss on the day of the heist? They don't even change clothes before the robbery.

Edward said...

I guess Ken is talking about a scene like Mr. Hand out of nowhere showing up at Jeff Spicoli's bedroom in "Fast Times At Ridgemont High." There was no knocking at the front door or other time-wasting and unnecessary dialog.

Also, spending 30 minutes at the front door could be a "Seinfeld" episode like "The Chinese Restaurant" where nothing happens except waiting for their table.

Brian said...

I know for a FACT that Mind...

OK, I got wrapped up in the prose. Sorry.

One of the most economical pieces of writing I recall seeing was one of the early scenes of "Taxi". On Elaine Nardo's first day, she meets Alex and she says that she isn't really a cabdriver, she works at an art gallery. Alex stops here from continuing and says, "No, no I understand. You see that guy over there? Now, he's an actor. Guy on the phone? He's a prizefighter. This lady over here? She's a beautician. Man behind her, he's a writer. Me, I'm a cabdriver. I'm the only cabdriver in this place."

In fourteen seconds, practically the entire premise of the series is laid out.

- Brian Phillips

#FreeMindy

cadavra said...

There's a story that Roddenberry was once reading a "Star Trek" episode and found the writer had spend four pages on Kirk and the crew attempting to turn the ship around. He Xed it all out and wrote in its place: "REVERSE COURSE!"

JMG said...

I thought the first version was hilarious. Sue me.