Chapter 4: Bad Writing and How to Fix It (Or At Least Get Away With It)


Pulling vs. Pushing

The key to telling a good story, whether it’s in front of a campfire or on screen, is drawing your audience into the story. When your audience is fully involved in the story, they’re giving life to your characters. They’re filling in everything that happens between the moments you’re showing on screen. They’re anticipating what will happen next. They’re rooting for what they hope will happen, or rooting against what they fear will happen.

Pushing is giving the audience more story than they can absorb. If you’re pushing story at them, you’re not pulling them into the story. You pull them in by giving them reasons to want more story than you’ve given them so far.

It’s the difference between a lecture and a conversation. A lecture may carry more sheer information than a conversation, but you often carry away more information from a conversation, because you’re actively engaged in it. More importantly, you carry away more of an emotional reaction to a conversation. That’s why no oration is complete without some call-and-response. If there’s no way to participate in the story, it’s hard to care about what happens.

In a classic detective story, you want to pull the audience into the story by setting up questions that the audience will adopt as their own. Once they have questions, the detective finds the answers. You never provide an answer until you’ve set up the question properly; so the audience is there with the detective, trying to solve the puzzle. If the detective (or the camera) is uncovering clues faster than the audience can ask questions, the audience is reduced to a passenger, and they’re thinking, “Wake me when we get there.”

If you pull them, they’ll pull themselves in. If you push them, they’ll push themselves out.

The same is true for an emotional story. We want the question before we get the answer. Will Ross dare to kiss Rachel? Will Rachel slap him if he does? If we don’t know what’s in play — what to hope for or fear — then when it happens, we have no stake in the outcome.

In a drama, you want the audience to be rooting for the main character to get somewhere emotionally. They should feel the dramatic tension and want it released. If the drama gets resolved faster than tension builds, you're just pushing dramatic events at the audience.

Pushing usually becomes obvious only after you’ve written a first draft.

Some of this is just pacing. In a horror movie, we all love the moment when the character pauses outside the haunted house, wondering whether to go in or not. That's the moment we're screaming "Don't go in the house!" If you show the character getting out of the car and then cut to the moment when he actually opens the front door— if you lose the moment of deciding — the story is the same, but you're just pushing the story at the audience. It’s the pause that makes the moment.

Let your scenes breathe. Give your characters time to wonder, and ponder, and pause. Give them time to absorb the emotional shocks, which is also the time for us to start to wonder how they'll react. Don't move onto the next beat before you've given the characters, and the audience, time to absorb this one.

Sometimes, when a scene feels too slow, the real problem is the opposite. You’re going too fast. You’re not letting the viewer absorb the emotion of the scene. So they’re less invested in it. Since they don’t care, they’re bored. They want you to move on to something more interesting. The scene feels slow. But if you slow the scene down and let it breathe, it feels richer and deeper, and the audience isn’t so anxious to get going. They’re happy to stay in the scene. It feels like it’s at the right pace.

Slowing the pace down can be a little difficult when you've set a clock on the action. Who has time to stop and chat when a bomb is going to explode? If the stakes are the destruction of the world, when is there time for the hero to pause and be human?

Screenwriters usually fudge the issue, and we’re glad they do. There are tearful reunions in every thriller, even when every second counts. Soldiers in no man’s land will stop to embrace their dying buddy, while bullets are whistling and they ought to be diving for cover. Even in 24, where every minute is accounted for, and millions of lives are literally at stake, the characters take time to indulge in their emotions.

Better than fudging the issue, trap your characters somewhere for a bit. If they're in a car driving to a destination, they have time to talk, and emote, because they're doing all they can already. If they're caught in a cage or an elevator, and they cannot possibly get out until someone comes for them, they can take a moment and catch up emotionally: cry, or rage, or reconcile, or accuse. They also have time if they are hiding. Then they have to emote quietly, which may be even more effective.

Or, hold back that crucial bit of information that will send them off on their life-or-death mission until they've had their dramatic scene. The audience can know that the characters are out of time, but don’t let the characters figure it out until they’ve had a chance to absorb the emotional impact of the events they’ve been through already.

The audience can know more than the hero. That automatically establishes a nice tension. The audience wants to tell the hero what he doesn’t know — “watch out, he’s got a knife!” and that draws them into the story. But the hero can never know substantively more than the audience. If there’s something the hero knows that we need to know in order to appreciate the predicament he’s in, then tell us as soon as possible, and certainly before the predicament becomes urgent. We can be involved in the story if the hero doesn’t know what’s going on — like him, we’re going to be involved in the process of figuring it out. But we can’t be involved in the story if he knows what’s going on but we don’t.

In African dance music, the drummers drum everything but the beat; they let the audience fill it in for themselves with their feet. Leave room for the audience to participate in the story. Detective stories are all about the questions, not the outcome. Once the outcome comes out, the story is over, after all. Dramatic stories are all about the struggle, not the resolution. Don't resolve your dramatic issues until you're ready to pose new dramatic issues. There should always be something to pull the viewer into the story.