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Why obvious is good

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  • By Marc Palla, 19/04/2020 (Updated 11/08/2121)
BLOG: Why obvious is good

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A common mistake is to make things abstract and complicated because we think that what we write is too evident, too plain. This reasoning actually is a misconception. Fortunately, it is easy to overcome.

I will always remember my first scripts: SO over-complicated and vague and messy. Due to a lack of structure, of course. Because of flat, unidimensional characters too. But also because I was afraid of making things too simple. And... probably because of some ego, but that's for another blog article. For now, let's focus on the right problem:

The fear of being obvious

Read screenplays, or watch films, and you will realize how story elements are presented. Look at actors for example. It is not evident which one plays a good character? Or a villain? Or a fool one? In the same way, different types of the same location, let's say a living room, tells us about the person living there: rich, poor, maniac, clumsy, 'mister everybody'...Equally, a character's identity should be exposed with the same level of symbolism.

Let's have a look at the opening of As Good As It Gets, this amazing comedy written by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks.

FADE IN:

INT. APARTMENT BUILDING (NEW YORK), HALLWAY - NIGHT

ANGLE ON apartment doorway. As it opens and an
enormously SWEET-FACED, ELDER WOMAN steps out, bungled up
against the cold -- turning back to call inside to the
unseen love of her long life.

SWEET-FACED WOMAN
I'm just going to get some
flowers, dear. I'll be back in
twenty minutes. It's tulip season
today. I'm so happy.

And now she turns and faces the hallway... her sweetness
dissolves in a flash... replaced by repulsion and that
quickly she has reversed herself and re-entered her
apartment... closing the door as we consider her vacated.

POV - MELVIN UDALL

in the hallway... Well past 50... unliked, unloved,
unsettling. A huge pain in the ass to everyone he's ever
met. Right now all his considerable talent and strength
is totally focused on seducing a tiny dog into the
elevator door he holds open.

MELVI
ome here, sweetheart... come on.

ON DOG

Sniffing at a particular spot on the hall carpeting.
Melvin lets the elevator door close and advances on the
mutt who has ignores him.

MELVIN
Wanna go for a ride? Okay,
sweetie?

The dog lifts his leg at the precise moment Melvin lunges
and picks him up with a decisive heft -- so that dog
urine squirts the hall wall for a second or two. The DOG
sensing a kindred spirit starts to GROWL and BARK.

MELVIN
(a malevolent tone)
You've pissed your last floor, you
dog-eared monkey.

The dog takes a snap at Melvin, but the man is much
meaner and quicker than the dog -- he holds his snout
shut with his hand and reaches for the door of the
garbage chute.

MELVIN
I'll bet you wish you were some
sort of real dog now, huh? Don't
worry...  this is New York. If you
can make it here, you can make it
anywhere, you know? You ugly,
smelly fuck.

And with that, he stuffs him in the garbage chute and
lets go. We hear a FADING SERIES of PLEADING "ANOOOOS"
from the DOG fade to nothingness...

Here is the portrait of a very bad man. No doubt about that. And it doesn't make the story less good, does it? On the contrary, it precisely shows who Melvin is, so that the story moves forward. Let's resume:

And with that, he stuffs him in the garbage chute and
lets go. We hear a FADING SERIES of PLEADING "ANOOOOS"
from the DOG fade to nothingness... as another apartment
door opens emitting the loud sounds of a PARTY and SIMON
NYE, early 30s. Simon has been born and raised with
Gothic horror and it's strange that what that stew of
trauma has produced is a gifted, decent man.

INT. APARTMENT BUILDING (NEW YORK), HALLWAY - NIGHT

Frantic... he bolts into the hall... Melvin is just about
to enter his apartment.

SIMON
Verdell!?!! Here, good doggie...

He notices Melvin at the far end of the hall.

SIMON
Mr. Udall... excuse me. Hey
there!
(as Melvin turns)
Have you seen Verdell?

MELVIN
What's he look like?

Melvin starts to walk back to his apartment door which is
directly opposite Simon's.

SIMON
My dog... you know... I mean my
little dog with the adorable
face... Don't you know what my dog
looks like?

MELVIN
I got it. You're talking about
your dog. I thought that was the
name of the colored man I've been
seeing in the hall.

Simon looks O.S. -- and sees his black friend.

SIMON
Which color was that?

MELVIN
Like thick molasses, with one of
those wide noses perfect for
smelling trouble and prison
food...

Simon has had it.

SIMON
Frank Sachs -- Melvin Udall.

MELVIN
(not missing a beat)
How're you doing?

SIMON
Franks shows my work, Mr. Udall. I
think you know that.

FRANK
(overlapping)
Simon, you've got to get dressed.

MELVIN
(to Simon)
What I know is that as long as you
keep your work zipped up around
me, I don't give a fuck what or
where you shove your show. Are we
being neighbors for now?

SIMON
(to Frank)
Do you still think I was
exaggerating?

FRANK can only smile.

FRANK
Definitely a package you don't
want to open or touch.

MELVIN
Hope you find him. I love that
dog.

Simon, terminally non-confrontational, still finds
himself compelled to turn back toward Melvin.

SIMON
(directly)
You don't love anything, Mr.
Udall.

Simon closes his door leaving Melvin alone in the
hallway.

MELVIN
I love throwing your dog down the
garbage chute.

WOW! That wasn't nice!

Still, with just two pages two main characters have been presented, both clearly and efficiently, and the story is ready to move forward as - of course - Melvin's actions are going to create more drama... Eventually putting him on a route towards change!

Obvious isn't that obvious

Why I advise you to be obvious, is because what you picture as obvious is going to fade, shadowed by the tremendous amount of elements that aren't your concern: location, props, actors, mise en scene, directing, music, editing...

Obvious is a nessecity

All those layers of storytelling, which will come after, will elude the clarity of the information you provide. But that's not all: since most of the production work will be based on your script, therefore it is essential to stay clear and specific about what you write. You really wouldn't want Jack Nicholson to come and ask how bad Melvin Udall is, do you? Because it is all in the script: Melvin Udall has a big mouth, he is provocative and rude, BUT when it comes to real violence all he can fight against is a dog. No misinterpretation is possible here.

One last piece of advice: it is better to be clear on a first draft which readers will read till the end (even if they ask you to soften the details afterwards) than to not be read because nothing makes sense, or because it takes 10 pages to the script to make a point.

In the end, it is all for the better. Just keep it simple.

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