Category: criticism (Page 1 of 2)

Prestige Dramas and Tone

Despite the shit I’m about to talk, these are all great shows.

Prestige dramas have been around for a while now (I think most critics consider its birth around the time of The Sopranos and Oz on HBO, although one could argue that they’ve been around longer), which means there are certain expectations for them. This Vulture article and its follow-up do an excellent job of summing up the established tropes of prestige television. And both touch on what I see as the distinguishing factor between the best prestige dramas and the lesser ones: Tone.

As the follow-up article linked to above mentions, prestige dramas tend to lean toward seriousness, straddling the line (or sometimes leaping over it) of melodrama. Humor can be difficult to find and is often reserved for supporting characters that don’t play huge roles in the show. My argument, then, is that the upper-tier of prestige dramas like Breaking Bad and The Wire actively lean into humor. Yes, there are the supporting comic relief characters (Skinny Pete and Badger; Bubbles), but the main characters are often funny themselves, even if it’s unintentionally. Many of the situations Walter White finds himself in are humorous, especially early in the series. Jesse Pinkman is a legitimately funny person. Bunk and McNulty have a relationship that uses humor to feel more organic.

I think this is where a lot of prestige dramas lose the thread. In trying to be taken seriously and seem deep, they forget that humor is what connects us to one another. His Dark Materials has been a tough watch for me because it’s so devoid of humor. Westworld, too. I enjoyed The Outsider, but my favorite episode was the one where the characters spent the entire hour driving someplace and getting to know one another because it allowed us to see them with their hair down a bit. The rest could be difficult to sit through as dour characters talked dourly about dour subjects.

Shows like Justified or Stranger Things, while ultimately serious prestige television, have humor at their hearts and are that much better for it. When a show takes itself seriously, but the characters are allowed to have fun, it feels more like real life. And that, ultimately, is what a lot of prestige dramas are trying to reflect.

The lesson here is that humor and lightheartedness doesn’t undercut drama (unless done poorly, which is another topic entirely), but adds to it. Humor connects us to characters, gives us reason to like them, so that when the story does get capital-S “Serious” the gut punches land that much more effectively.

Drive and Storytelling Through Absence

I rewatched Drive recently. Written by Hossein Amini, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, and starring Ryan Gosling with Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston, I was struck by how devoid of dialogue or major actions most scenes are while still being able to connect us to the characters and move the story forward. Aside from the violence, it’s a film of subtlety and nuance, one that strives to connect us to the characters and move the story forward with askew glances rather than big motions or long-winded dialogue.

I think in our search for clarity, to ensure that our audience is following along the path we’ve laid out for them, writers often make things too obvious at the expense of being compelling. Although Drive doesn’t even bother naming its main character and he speaks somewhere in the vicinity of 380 words throughout the entire film, we’re compelled by him. By his relationship with Irene and Benicio. By the situation he finds himself in, first with Standard coming home and then when he gets caught up in a failed heist because of Standard.

When there is dialogue, it’s rare that the characters say what they’re thinking. Instead, everything going on in their heads is communicated with looks, grins, and undertones. Take the scene where Driver first meets Standard. For context, we have spent the first 40 minutes of the film watching Driver and Irene become close in a very sweet, platonic way. There is definitely an attraction there, but neither character has been bold enough to act on it, nor do they need to. Their romance is a pure one. We have a sense that Driver may be dangerous, but aren’t sure how. Standard, meanwhile, has just been released from prison. We aren’t sure what for, or if that means he’s also dangerous. All of this groundwork is the undertone for the scene.

First, Standard says that Benicio, his and Irene’s son, is the one that told him about Driver, insinuating that Irene hadn’t. He also characterizes Driver as someone who’s been “Coming around, helping out a lot,” downplaying his relationship with Irene. Driver doesn’t exactly ignore Standard, but doesn’t engage with him either, instead focusing solely on Benicio and Irene. Standard clearly takes offense to this, repeating himself until Driver answers. Standard then “thanks” Driver in a way that’s more dismissive than sincere. Driver again doesn’t engage, accepting the thanks as if Standard meant it. Through all of this, Standard has held Benicio close to him and kept Irene between himself and Driver, as a show of possession.

Standard tells Driver what he knows about him, that he drives for the movies, again using a dismissive tone. It’s here that Irene steps in to try and defuse the situation, offering to take the trash Standard is holding, ostensibly in the hope that Standard will go back into their apartment. Standard refuses, intent on holding his ground against this man that’s infiltrated his family. Still, he understands what she’s doing and finishes taking the trash to the compactor with Benicio. The clip above ends there, but after this Driver, too, senses an end to the standoff and tells Irene goodnight. As Standard passes by the hallway that Driver has just walked down, he tells him to “Have a good night,” more dismissive as ever.

In less than a minute, with sparse dialogue, the scene paints a vivid picture of jealousy, male posturing, and the complicated relationships between these four people. It doesn’t do so with a big confrontation. There’s no, “So you fucking my wife?” from Standard, no “She deserves better than you,” from Driver. The tension is in the context of what we know about these characters and what we don’t know. That’s brought forward through nuanced dialogue that dances around what everyone is thinking without confronting it head-on.

You could break the scene apart on a technical level, too. The low drone of the music builds the tension. The blocking of the characters illustrates their relationships and power dynamics. The color scheme, lighting, and camera angles all add to the scene’s power. But for me, from a purely writing perspective, the magic lies in what isn’t said.

The entire movie is an exercise in this kind of abstraction and restraint. Apparently, as the director, writer, and actors workshopped the script they purposefully kept cutting dialogue between Driver and Irene, their goal to keep things sparse. It’s a good lesson as a writer that subtlety is often more impactful than not.

Screenplay Notes

I came across this interesting article while reading one of the myriad sources of screenwriting advice out there. I believe I found this particular one through Reddit’s /r/screenwriters forum. The article by Mr. Krueger is interesting for two reasons, the fact that the author decries paying for any type of notes and the advice given at the end of the article for what notes should be.

A month ago, when I finished a draft of Peripheral I was relatively happy with, I considered paying for coverage. I’ve used BL3.0 several times and, while generally happy with the service, was left wanting something more in-depth. BL3.0 notes are great for what they are – brief snapshots of what works and what doesn’t work with a script –  but they very rarely offer specifics for more nuanced aspects of a script.

In the end I decided to stick with BL3.0 because other notes services are so expensive. Although the notes given by BL3.0 aren’t always the best, the service itself is probably the best value for a screenwriter at the moment. After reading that article, I’m kind of glad I made the decision I did. This is for a simple reason; Regardless of how good the notes you receive are they won’t get you anywhere.

Sure, if the notes are generally positive you may be able to use that in a query letter but that only works if the person you’re querying has a familiarity with the coverage person. That’s a longshot. I even hesitated to use my score from BL3.0 in my query, but came to the conclusion (after research and asking around) that BL3.0 has goodwill within the industry and is well known.

Mr. Krueger also makes a strong case for what types of notes are best. The majority of criticism I’ve received on my writing has been vague and useless, or the result of the person critiquing me wanting to change my story into something it’s not. For someone to say, “I didn’t like how Johnny chopped down the tree,” doesn’t mean anything because it lacks context, either within the story or emotional context based on the experience of the reader. A reader that says, “I didn’t think it made sense for Johnny to chop down the tree,” is offering better, if still vague, criticism because now it’s pointing at a larger problem. Why didn’t it make sense? Was it out of Johnny’s character? Was it too convenient for the plot? Those are legitimate questions a writer should be asking him/herself.

I don’t think any specific criticism should be discounted, as it mostly comes from a place of genuine concern. Sometimes, though, it may require deeper digging to find what the problem really is. For example, on The Inhabitors I’ve had more than one person say the story didn’t “grab them.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything. Is it a pacing issue? A character issue? So I decided to tear the script apart scene-by-scene to figure out what each scene is contributing to character or story. What I’ve found is that in the second act the sequence of events is slightly disjointed and muddled. My next step is to unfuck it as best I can with a rewrite.

Finding solid criticism is a difficult thing to do as a writer of any sort. But there seems to be an entire industry that has been built on the belief that desperate writers will pay to be told they suck, regardless of whether or not being told they suck is constructive. I’m not sure there is anything that can be done about that, but that doesn’t mean we should totally avoid coverage services or discount criticism. Sometimes it might take a little creative thinking to understand the deeper problems that most people can only hint at for whatever reason. I may use a coverage service in the future but it will be with a critical eye, only if I have some extra income I don’t know how to spend, and only after I’ve exhausted friends and fellow writers to give me feedback.

Writing for Others

Truth bomb: Any writer that says they don’t write for anyone but themselves, or tells you to write for yourself, is a liar. The reason for this? Acceptance.

Every writer, unless they immediately burn everything they write, wants their writing to be accepted by someone. Anyone, really. Because although writers are used to rejection, no one actually likes it. That’d be weird.

It’s true that when you’re writing something, anything, it should be something you’re passionate about. In that sense, yes, write for yourself. Only when you’re writing something you’re passionate about will you write well. It’s difficult to write anything compelling if you don’t give a shit about the story. That’s why accepting assignments can be a dangerous thing for a writer. On the one hand- money! Yay! On the other hand – this story is stupid and I hate it. Boo!

Disclaimer – I’ve never been offered an assignment. I write that based on conjecture and because sometimes it’s fun to pretend you know about things you really don’t. It’s amazing what people will believe so long as you project an air of authority when speaking/writing. Try it sometime.

Past writing what you’re passionate about, every writer wants an audience. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be writers. They’d be accountants or something. With that in mind, it’s important to know who you’re writing for. What audience do you hope to reach? Don’t say everyone. If you can write something that appeals to everyone, great, but I imagine that sort of thing is more of a happy accident than part of any grand design. People are too different. So start small, then tailor your writing to that.

More importantly than audience, which some writers may eschew if they’re not worried about supporting themselves as writers, is feedback. Other people will criticize your work. Some of these people might actually make some good points. In that case, if you make the changes is it fair to say you’ve written something for them? Instituted an idea they had? Changed a sentence they didn’t like? It’s hard to say the story is solely yours at that point.

This is all to say that writing is a collaborative medium. Collaboration makes us better. It took me a long time to learn that. It’s nice to say that you do something for yourself, or that you’re the special type of artist that can operate in a vacuum and claim ownership over every word, but it’s not realistic.

Listen to others. Write for others. It not only makes you better, but it gives meaning to your work.

Confidence in Writers

My blog-mate Daveler has been writing about criticism quite a bit recently. You can say it’s something of an interest for her to receive and learn to give valid, respectful criticism. It should be for any writer. Oftentimes criticism can be misleading, petty, confusing, or unhelpful. She does an excellent job breaking down how to give constructive criticism and how to parse through the bullshit to find the kernals of criticism that can help you with your writing.

But what I think it comes down to, for most writers, is confidence in their own work. Daveler calls it “trusting your gut” but I’d like narrow that down a bit. I recently fell into this trap with The Inhabitors. I took the advice of one person a bit too far and it was detrimental to one of my revisions. This was because I lacked confidence in my own vision. It was only when I received a middling review that I realized all of the things I had done right, but maybe not perfectly, before I got rid of or changed beyond recognition. This only caused more work for me.

Many writers aren’t confident in their own work. How can you be? We’re constantly faced with rejections and criticism and in the world of the story we’ve created we have the freedom to make anything happen but are at the same time bound by the chains of our own creation. We rely on other people to help us separate the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, in order to make our stories the most resonant they can be. And this is where many writers go off the rails.

It takes a special skill to be able to separate the good advice from the bad. But a large part of that skill is actually just confidence. What helps me when faced with criticisms I don’t necessarily agree with is whether or not it fits with the story I want to tell. If someone tells me my climax needs more action when I think the story works best if my characters simply talk it out quietly I need to be confident in my decision. Now, as Daveler says, if several people tell you it doesn’t work then it might be at least diligent to revisit the decision. Maybe even take the time to write it out another way just to know for sure. It never hurts to get it down on paper.

The most important thing to remember, no matter how beaten down you may feel as a writer, is that the only person you’re really accountable for is yourself. It’s your story. Tell it the way you want to tell it not the way other people want to hear it told. What’s unique in your writing is your decisions, your voice. And those decisions and that voice are what is going to separate you from all of those writers that do take every piece of criticism they’re given.

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