By Benny Streeter
When a director or writer is doing a bad job on a film the final product will have obvious cracks. Many important elements of film writing can sometimes seem almost absent in big studio movies, whether it’s the inability to take risks or an overambitious mess of convoluted plot, proper balanced stories can feel like a needle in a haystack when facing the unending wave of mediocre work. The main problem seems to be that so few major studios are capable of knowing what goes into making a good script, and that’s what I’ll be going over here today.
Ambition is something that requires thorough balancing, too little can result in a forgettable cliché being put on a screen but too much can turn out as overlapping ideas that form a ball of convoluted nothingness. Think of films such as Spiderman 3 (2007) that had not 1, not 2, but 3 different antagonists that each had their own respective place in the story. On paper it sounds exciting and ambitious, but tackling that many ideas almost always ends in disappointment. It’s fascinating that Sam Raimi took the risk to add so many villains to his last film in a series but he spent way too long making sure each one was around for a long time. Instead of framing each new antagonist as an integral fully fleshed out character, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2009) treats its villains as obstacles whose defeat serves the story. SPVTW is one of few films that can tackle a six book series and make it 2 hours long. Edgar Wright proved from his direction of SPVTW that he is capable of being the right amount of ambitious and this is something that we need to see more of in Hollywood.
“It subverted expectations” is a phrase that some may see as overused or just a way to say something is good, while they are in a way correct subverting expectations is priority, if you want your film to have any relevance past the first month of release. For example let’s look at two movies from Rian Johnson; Knives Out (2019) subverted all expectations and won best screenplay at the Oscars that year. However, expectations were only ever low because of Johnson’s previous work on The Last Jedi (2017) which had very high expectations that it came nowhere close to meeting.
This proves that the difficulty of beating expectations exists for every director making it hard to achieve from any point of view, following a great job expectations will always be high and following a poor job they will almost always be low. To do what Rian Johnson did and subvert expectations in your story you need to be innovative. The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented but, to impress people you need more than a cookie cutter story. I suggest tackling new story formats that follow your own modified version of the hero’s journey format. This technique was used in Citizen Kane (1941) and ended up revolutionizing the way films are written, this is seen very rarely amongst bigger directors making it an incredible technique to really impress the audience. My other suggestion is to never follow the exact same format twice, having each one of your works feel like it’s own being can make your viewers have no idea what to expect. While it may feel daunting at times every director and writer struggles with expectations but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to impress.
For the people who have older siblings, have you ever heard them say “Hey little sis/bro/you”, chances are you haven’t but many siblingless writers believe this is how interactions like these work. Relating is probably the easiest to follow of my suggestions but that doesn’t mean it’s not important, when a single line comes off as awkward or unnatural it can make the entire movie be framed as having a poor story. This is more about knowing people in general than knowing your audience, a simple understanding of conversation and how it works can keep viewers interested and hopefully grow immersion.
Here are two films with very similar settings, themes and they were both made recently, Swiped (2018) and Booksmart (2019) on paper would seem to be both mediocre teen coming-of-age films that are forgotten the day after watching but what separates these two films is the writing and its ability to relate. The characters from Swiped are straight out of an 80’s horror film filling stereotypical roles of nerds and jocks, these people feel fake and exchange dialogue as if they have never spoken before. While Booksmart didn’t change the world it knew how people actually talk and was able to write dialogue without sounding like a group of 60-year olds writing for teenagers.
At first it’s astonishing how little some writers and directors understand people but relating is something that everyone struggles with when starting out. The best way to improve is practice but there are some loopholes to having your dialogue feel more natural. My favourite strategy when writing dialogue is to imagine someone in my life who fills the role of the current speaker, use your experiences to visualize reality and place real people into the place of your fictional characters. At the end of the day we all make mistakes but remember that whatever work you put out will be 100 times more relatable than Swiped.
While I’m no film director or writer I still feel like this advice is very useful to anyone who aspires to be one. Ambition needs control in a group, being innovative can be a scary thing and relating to a group you’re not a part of through dialogue can feel impossible. The obstacles listed don’t get passed easily but I hope reading this helped. So keep working, keep innovating and don’t cast Noah Centineo as your lead character.