Monday, September 17, 2012

Actions Speak Louder Than

"Do or do not. But if you do, kick butt at it."
I'm teaching a class on writing the short subject this semester. I relish the chance to face a room full of former-mes and essentially tell them, "You must unlearn what you have learned."

NYU Professor Mick Stern, my very first screenwriting teacher, would always ask me, "Where's the conflict?"

I'd reply, "Right there! In my script!"

He'd counter, "Not enough!"

It took me 10 years to figure out what he meant, and I still have lots to learn. I give my students plenty of advice and adages I've picked up throughout the years (although picking up advice is far different from internalizing it!) but one of my favorites, one that the storytelling masters at Pixar have down to a T, is the idea of actions speaking louder than words, which is really a subheading under "show, don't tell."

My favorite two love stories to compare are to be found within Andrew Stanton's WALL-E and George Lucas's Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Two love stories, both set in a futuristic setting, both involving space travel. Similarities end there. The only way that we know how WALL-E feels about the sleek EVE is by studying what he does. Twenty minutes in, I'm far more convinced that the love between these two robots is genuine than I've been about any other love story I've seen, before or since.

Contrast that with whiny, selfish, narcissistic Anakin Skywalker, who can't stop telling everyone how angry he is, and yet we're still meant to believe that his girlfriend, Amidala, still has a crush on a "misunderstood" guy who happens to butcher children.

Let me make it clear: one of these methods creates franchises. The other one perpetuates them, without necessarily adding anything new.

One of the first assignments I give in any writing class is to write a complete screen story, with conflict (usually about two or three pages) without including any dialogue. All emotions, feelings, inclinations, thoughts, and so on, must be somehow internalized through action. Show us how much he loves her. Show us if she can't stand him. And so on.

The default I try to instill in my students is, "Think first, 'How can I show this through an action, rather through dialogue?'" Too many Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino fans think that dialogue is the always best way to move story forward and tell us something about the characters.

It's not always the best way.

It's a way. It's a tool in your writer's bag of tricks. However, it's a tool just like voice-overs, flashbacks, montages, and parallel action. It's an option, and not always the best one. Just because it works sometimes doesn't mean that it should be your go-to default move every time you need to transmit information to the audience.

In Pixar's Up, Carl Fredricksen loves Ellie. In WALL-E, WALL-E loves EVE. Do either of those characters ever, once, in either of those films, actually say, "I love you"?

They don't. Not once.

Because of their actions, they don't need to say it. They know how they feel about each other.

More importantly, as the audience, so do we.

No comments:

Post a Comment