Thursday, August 13, 2009

Writer's Responsibility

Over on Steve Barnes's blog, the question of an artist's responsibilities came up. I posted a note, and decided that it was worth repeating here.

One I've wrestled with:

Broadcast Standards and Practices -- BS&P -- at the TV networks, keeps an eye on what you can or cannot say in a script. Goes back to the old Hayes Code days, and mostly comes down to sexual references, for live action.

Clever writers get around this -- Barnes has a funny story about Baywatch when he was writing for them ...

BS&P keeps a closer watch on kidvid, on the notion that what is called imitable behavior needs to be monitored. If you have a character wrapping a rope around his neck and jumping off the couch in your Saturday morning toon, it will be cut from your script. Nobody wants to see children trying that at home. Guns, knives, broken glass, mixing household chemicals, swiping Dad's scotch, babies in peril, stuff like this tends to be a big no-no. (The cartoon embedded in the movie Who Killed Roger Rabbit? was done to break all those taboos, a kind of in-joke by the writers. I recall seeing a drawing posted on the wall at the animation studio that did Batman of The Joker falling through a shattered window with a naked Harley Quinn, holding a knife and a bottle of booze, and I think there was a gun in there, too. By Bruce Timm, I think, though I might be wrong.)

Cartoon Conan can have a sword and he can smack people with the flat of it on the arse, but he isn't going to cut anybody. Most of the martial arts look like aikido, and involve throwing people, who almost always land on a mattress, pile of cardboard boxes, or a haystack without needles, so nobody gets hurt.

Blowing up robots is okay, because most kids don't have sentient bots, nor rayguns with which to shoot them.

In one episode of Batman: The Animated Show, I had Bats go up against a ninja, who used a shuriken (that little star-shaped throwing knife, if you don't know the term). They wouldn't run the episode in the U.K. because of that.

You have to take note of such things when you write for some media.

If you know how to smuggle a gun onto a plane through the metal detectors, you can write that into your novel. If you know how to easily defeat most police body armor, you can do that, too, but you have to consider how you'll feel if somebody uses your method because they read it in your book, and hijacks the jets, or mows down half the Mayberry Sheriff's Department .

I recall a sniper incident some years ago. Guy shot and killed several people from an office building rooftop. Cops rushed him, he offed himself, and in his backpack, along with a lot of ammo, they found a book about a guy who had been a sniper some years before in New Orleans, with the how-to passages underlined.

How would you like to have written that one?

I once read a pretty good book that offered, in some detail, how to shut down the L.A. freeway system. Same writer did another one showing how you could make an atomic bomb. I wouldn't have done either of those. People sometimes think I did -- the writer has a similar name.

This gets tricky, where you draw that line.

It's not your responsibility if you sell somebody a bread knife and they use it to murder half a daycare -- unless you had some idea they were planning on using the knife for something other than bread.

But as a writer, you don't know your audience, and there are a lot of loons out there ...

Food for thought.


Scott said...

"I once read a pretty good book that offered, in some detail, how to shut down the L.A. freeway system. Same writer did another one showing how you could make an atomic bomb. I wouldn't have done either of those. People sometimes think I did -- the writer has a similar name."

Thomas Perry, yeah, though his freeway tricks were more involved than they had to be; you could do it with F-150s and gas cans.

Steve Perry said...

I could do with with a few big trucks and a couple guys with shotguns.

In L.A., you could almost do it with a half dozen paper bags ...

Anonymous said...

Again I bring up Burn Notice to you, Steve. I am reminded that Michael Weston gives helpful hints to viewers about disabling a car's electrical system or interrogating a hostage. They're great fun and lend credibility to the characters, but I wonder if the show runs into the problem of copycats.

Why actively try to shut down the LA freeway system? I've lived here long enough to know it does that itself most of the time anyway.

Anonymous said...

I think you are assuming too much responsibility and maybe a touch of Ego.

Life is too short to worry about what some loony toon adult would do with a description of criminal activity.

Steve Perry said...

Anon --

Everybody draws the line where they will. Some folks are big on the libertarian idea that everybody is responsible for what they do all the time. But there are folks who teeter on a edge and I'd just as soon not feel as if I'm the guy who pushed them over.

You can't control everything, and no, you aren't responsible for all the crazies, but --

I don't leave my keys in my car. Not my fault if a thief steals my ride, but I don't have to make it easy for him.

If I put forth a realistic way of smuggling guns onto planes and somebody does it and plows the plane into hillside, and they find a copy of my book with that passage underlined in the wreckage, that will bother me, even if it isn't my fault legally or morally.

It's the mirror-test -- the one I have to look into when I get up in the morning ...

Free speech doesn't give one leave to stand up in a crowded theater and yell "Fire!" if there isn't one

J.D. Ray said...

My favorite line from any movie (which I quote often) is, "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." For the uninitiated, that's Jessica Rabbit from that movie you mentioned.

I agree that there's a certain amount of social responsibility in not giving explicit directions to nutcases. It's common knowledge that an AK-47 is better for mowing down crowds than, say, a Thompson Contender, but at the same time, it probably isn't so common to know that the 1978 Brand X Model Y car can be hotwired by crossing the red wire with the green one and turning on the windshield wipers. Or whatever.

jks9199 said...

You could paralyze the DC area with a couple of U-Hauls and some folks willing to crash 'em. Or just add a HAZMAT label to the truck... (Don't believe me? Look at what happened around 1999 when one truck carrying dynamite crashed. Put the placard on with some reasonable fascimile boxes... Nobody's gonna take a chance.)

You want to extend it more than a day or so... Load 'em with ANFO and blow 'em in the right place.

Like in Macgyver, lots of the tricks and stunts in Burn Notice are almost workable... with certain key elements and steps omitted or changed around.

Steve's got it right; it's just like martial arts training. You put the info out, as responsibly as you can about where and to whom, and accept that it might be used. Or misused. If you can't accept the misuse... don't put it out.