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Screenwriting Help E-Mail (Previous)

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This week's question: 

Okay, DcH.  Help me with this, please.  Why are audiences willing to believe these contrived “coincidences” that you see in film and on television.  Here’s a big one:  The killers never throw their weapons away and the cops find them and then arrest because of that.  Come on! 

Monty from Georgetown

This week's Answer: 

Trying Not To Contrive

I know exactly what you mean, Monty, and I do appreciate you pointing that fact out to me and all that are reading this.  Contrivance shows up in many scripts – especially if you keep your eyes out for it.  I’ve thought along the same lines for quite some time.  Here’s a few more contrivances:  Did you ever notice that serial killers always seem to have access to chloroform?  Where do they pick that up?  Maybe there’s a Maniac Murderers Pic &  Save.  Or a Serial Killer Depot.  And why does it usually always storm heavily in the third act of horrors and thrillers?  What happened to second-act storms?  Or at least first-act drizzles.  First act:  clear and bright and not a cloud in the sky.  Second act:  same skies (although with a maybe a little breeze).  Third act:  A deluge, lightning, thunder – somebody contact Noah-- etc.  The lightning is good for flashing on the terrified protagonist running for her life, and allows us to see her and through her sheer lingerie.  And makes tombstones look very ominous at night – especially if the lightning is accompanied by thunderous thunder (as opposed to just thunder).  Or nicely highlights the killer as a shocker for us all.

The truth is that contrivances are used to connect the storyline and, even more importantly, to connect events together and quickly.  One of the greatest pressures on a screenwriter is time because he has to keep us, the audience, intrigued; has to keep the action moving.  And this is not easy to do if we’re waiting a long time for a phone call to come in, or for somebody to find a number in a phone book, or a particular section in a huge book of magic spells (accompanying dialogue:  “Ah, here it is!”)  Things need to move along and they often don’t do that in real life.  So, the screenwriter uses all her skills to give the impression that important events immediately follow other important events.  One of the biggest tasks of a screenwriter is to make the story appear to have depth and motion, and, to do so, she uses “tricks of the trade”:  set-ups and succeeding payoffs, connecting dialogue in more than one scene, circular story planning, twists, reverses, fast car chases (actually, that’s a different kind of motion).  Sometimes the screenwriter is simply forced to use some contrivance to give the story the quick and building pace it needs.  Dialogue can be giveaway that a contrivance has just been contrived.  Maybe you recall some of these pat sayings:  “Hi, Pat.”  (No, not that one.  These:)  “Hey, what’s that on the floor?” and “What did you just say?” and “Say that again.  What you just said.  Say that again.”  (That’s the familiar “the hero just heard what he needed to finally hear to turn the tables on the villain” speech.  I’d like it if, in just one movie, we could see the hero actually turn some tables on the villain.  Now, that would be something new!  Then you could have some spiffy dialogue like this:


                                                    VILLAIN [*nice name for a villain, don’t you think?]
                                     Turn the tables on me, will you!?
                                     Well now I’m turning them back on you!

The villain curses under his breath and grabs the tables that were turned on him and turns them back on the original table-turner.


Now, that’s a good scene.

A skillful screenwriter will camouflage contrivances so that they don’t stick out like a sore thumb (unless the contrivance is a sore thumb.  If that be the case, you would want the sore thumb to stick out like a sore thumb.  Sore thumb.  That's a wonderful contrivance for a hitchhiker movie.  That's how the killer hitchhiker would be recognized.

He has a sore thumb! 


When coming up with these “shortcuts,” so to speak, you as the writer just want to make sure that you don’t have the viewers shouting at the screen, “Aw, come on!”  That’s all.  Just avoid those -- as Monty, our contributor of the week, aptly puts it -- “come on!”’s and you’ll be pretty much okay.

The fact is, if you look at screenwriting (and all writing, really) in a broad way, ALL of it is contrivance.  Those screenwriters making a good living are master contrivers, to be sure. 

Now, I have another very important secret that no one else knows that will assure you of certain success as a screenwriter and that very important and guarded secret is--  Just a sec.

It’s my phone.



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