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This week's question

Douglas, how do you keep your script from being too contrived?


This week's Answer: 

To Contrive or Not to Contrive? That is the Contrived Question

I want to tell you, Alyson, but I'm afraid you'll think my answer will come across as too contrived. Just kidding. And that was another contrivance. What I'm getting at here in an oblique way is that screenplays are completely contrived. Every beat, every moment in a script has been created for a purpose. A better question would be "How do you keep your script from appearing  contrived? Ah, now, there's the rub. (Why would Hamlet mention "rub" in his dramatic speech about living or dying? Answer: Mister William Shakespeare contrived it as such.) 

When we watch a movie, we know that it can last only so long, so the story has to fit into that amount of time. We're aware that we're going to be told some kind of story usually about a person or persons who are going to eventually answer a call to an adventure that turns his world upside down and pit him/herself or themselves against some antagonistic force that will most likely force the person/persons to face some flaw in his/her/their character and be willing to sacrifice everything to overcome the obstacles and the foe before them.

Right there. That's a contrivance. It's a basic story that has been told for many ages. But it's still a contrivance.

So, once the screenwriter realizes that everything is contrived in a script, one of his goals is to write the screenplay so well that the audience "fuses" with it so deeply that it doesn't notice how contrived it is.  Another way of putting it: the screenwriter brings the audience in so closely emotionally, engrossing it to the point that it is more subjective than objective and, when that happens, as in an optical illusion (which a movie is: an illusion), the contrivances disappear. 

If we stay too objective when watching movies, here are some of the things we might say to ourselves or to others (which could be a problem) when we watch a film: "Oh, come on. The phone rings right at that moment just when she walks into her place!?" and "Really? There just happened to be a knife next to her when the attacker pushes her against the counter?!". And "You want me to believe that the one city she moved to happened to be the home of her ex-boyfriend who happens to still love her?" and "You're telling me that the target just happened to bend over at the very moment the sniper pulled the trigger to shoot him?"

Did you ever notice how the hero in  busy city with heavy traffic always has a parking space open right in front of the building he's going to? How as soon as a lawyer is stumped or thwarted about a case, something happens right away that gives him new hope and a new way to win it? (Of course. We can't be expected to watch somebody for minutes or days when nothing important happens.) How when it looks like the hero's options are all gone and she is facing certain destruction, she'll either suddenly see something or remember something or suddenly aid appears so that she wins the day even though all seemed lost only minutes ago? (We breathe a sigh of relief -- but, if we haven't been living under a "no movie watching" rock, it's a sigh that we're very familiar with and it usually comes very close to the end of the movie. All is lost. Wait. All is won. That was fast. Doesn't seem that realistic when you think about it, does it? Ohhhhh. Contrivance.

Wait a minute. Why are you, Douglas, writing about contrived scripts at this time when you could be answering anybody else's email question?

See what I mean? 

Doug Herman

Script Advisor


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