Tuesday 10 July 2012

Why? Why? Why?

The hit TV show 24 revolutionised television, in my opinion. Here was a show that demanded you watch every last second of it. In order. Drifting in an out wasn't an option. And if you watched the first TV show, you were hooked. I remember seeing bleary-eyed friends of mine and asking how many episodes they had watched the night before. The answer was often 4 episodes or more. It was the TV equivalent of crack cocaine. The trick, of course, was to stop watching an episode half-way through before they built to the next cliffhanger.

After 24, there were a number of shows that were dense, full of plot and ideally watched on DVD which is why it changed TV in my view. Writers didn't want to write show where viewers could 'just dip in and out'. The boxed set and TiVo/Sky+ series link helped that. (In fact, in a recent interview with the guy who ran FX, the reason they stopped commissioning Damages was because it was a show that was best watched on DVD, not their network.)

There were only a couple of annoyances in 24. One was the totally unbelievable wireless communications enjoyed by Jack Bauer and his 3G wi-fi phone several years before 3G wi-fi existed. We could forgive this trope because maybe CTU had access to cool stuff and it moved the plot along.

The single most annoying thing in 24 was Jack's infuriating daughter, Kim, who kept putting herself in danger for baffling or non-sensical reasons. She was a poorly drawn character anyway and very much a concept or foil rather than a person. But she was also pushed around the story like a pawn in a game of speed chess. It made for very unsatisfactory viewing and caused much shouting at the television in my house.

What's My Motivation?
Motivation is just as important in comedy as drama. In 21-28 minutes of comedy, everything happens for a reason. And people do things for good reasons, or at least reasons that make perfect sense to that character in that situation.

I'm thinking about this at the moment because I had to fix a script I've been writing this morning in which a lower-status underling is briefly sassy with a higher-status boss character. The underling is a try-hard and eager to please his boss. But for various reasons, we need him to stand up to his boss who is asking too much of him on this occasion. If I'd left it as it was, it would have looked very strange and, worse, the audience would assume there was a good reason for the underling taking a stand, and they would have been disappointed and confused. And a confused audience is not happy and doesn't laugh.

How To Fix It
In this case, I tried to find a way around it, so that this underling did not need to stand up to his boss. But we needed it to happen this way. In the end, I found a neat way through it (if I do say so myself). The underling stands up to his boss by mistake, through a misunderstanding. And to make the misunderstanding believable, I made it part of a running joke which features in the very first scene of the episode. It's a pain to have to thread things like this through the script, but it's better than a character doing something for no good reason.

Your characters need a motivation for every action in every scene. Every action they perform, every line they say - and the way they say it - is part of an overpowering, overarching desire or need that drives them. This is why planning an episode takes a really long time. I don't start writing a draft of a script until I have a 3-4 outline of the episode with at least one paragraph for every scene. Even then, I often get halfway through a scene and realise at least one of my characters is adrift and 'just doing stuff' or 'saying stuff' for no good reason.

If you read your script back and it's just not hanging together, this might well be the problem. Do you know what your character wants out of life, consciously and/or subconsciously? What is their quest in this episode - and how does this action fit into that? You need to do this for every character in the script, not just your star or hero. Otherwise, you have a Kim Bauer on your hands. And let's face it. Nobody wants that.

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