Thursday, December 30, 2010

On the Nose

Edward Arlington Robinson

In scriptwriting, there is a term -- "on the nose." What this means is, the line or lines in dialog are predictable and expected, they sometimes sound forced, because the writer wants the audience to get something. 

The protagonist says this, the villain says that, and the protag finishes the exchange with a snappy comeback. 

If you are a movie-goer or TV watcher, at some point, you almost certainly knew after you heard the handsome-but-overconfident-guy say something to the much-smarter-and-plucky-girl exactly what her response was gonna be.

I sometimes do this out loud, to my wife's consternation: "Okay, he's gonna say this, then she'll say that, then the last line is gonna be ..."

There are times when this is the way to go. People like certain tropes in their fiction, and some of them have become staples. James Bond would offer a witty remark now and then in the first couple of Bond movies; after a few more movies, he never said anything but that the writers labored over it to make it as clever as they possibly could -- and the star always gets the bulk of clever or funny or soul-touching lines. Many movie stars have their own writers on-call whose jobs are to go over a script the star plans to do to make sure they shine brighter than anybody else on the screen. Apparently the way to get past this is to offer: "Yeah, it sounds on-the-nose, but lookit, actually it's full of subtext, here, and here, see ... ?"

Subtext here being something going on between the lines that makes 'em mean more than they seem to mean -- in my books, I do a riff on this called "fugue," in which speakers say one thing but mean something else.

Actors love subtext. 

There are times when on-the-nose isn't appropriate. If a movie-goer is one step ahead of everybody all the time, s/he can get bored. Part of the fun, especially in mysteries or caper movies, or even romances, is having to figure out what is going to happen, and to be frustrated or surprised when it doesn't go quite the way you thought it was gonna go. 

You go to a sports movie, you figure the protagonist is gonna win the championship. But the first Rocky movie twisted that nicely -- Rocky's win was staying on his feet, even though he got the crap pounded out of him and he lost the match. He redeemed himself -- even losing, he won. 

You go to a romantic picture, you want to the the boy and girl wind up together. But in Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges loses the girl, and yet the movie still satisfies. He redeemed himself.

There are cliches that brush past this nose-category. Think about Boy and Girl who Meet Cute. Or the classic Boy-meets-girl-boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl-because-of-a-misunderstanding-boy-gets-girl-back-and-they-live-happily-ever-after, which surely came in with the first dinosaurs. Shakespeare used that one, and most light romantic comedies at which you can point still play it. Catch White Christmas this season?

You know these cliches because you've seen them:

The whore-with-the-heart-of gold. Or the venal-smuggler-only-interested-in-money-who-comes-around. The cop who breaks the rules but triumphs in the end ..

These kinds of thing can be small or large, in the scheme of the overall story. 

When I was a boy, one of my classmates, Harry Jordan* lived one block over. He was a nice enough guy,  was in my scout troop, we got along okay. But he was an over-achiever. Great student, polite, well-mannered, a jock, wouldn't step on an ant, had all the merit badges, eventually made it to Eagle Scout. 

At some point, my mother went through a phase of comparing me to Jordan:

"Look at Harry Jordan, what a great job he does mowing the lawn."

"I bet Harry Jordan doesn't sass his Momma that way."

"What did Harry Jordan get on the test? An "A," I bet."

Even his haircut was better than mine ...

Probably she didn't do this as much as I recall her doing it, but it was enough that I can still remember it now, and more than enough to put me off Harry at the time. Harry Jordan? Piss on him!

So let's say I wanted to write a script using Harry as a character as an adult. 

After I set him up as Mr. Wonderful, then the obvious turnaround is to cast him as an impotent drunken homeless crack-smoker. Hey, Momma? Check out your precious Harry Jordan now ... 

Turn that one again: Harry is only pretending to be an IDHC-S -- he's actually a Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter undercover to help take down a major dope-dealer.

Twist it again: Along the way in his investigation, he had to use drugs to fool somebody, and he got hooked on the stuff and --

Once more: -- he went into rehab where he met a gorgeous movie star and they have linked up and --

Or going another way, Harry is rich, famous, outwardly happy as everybody expected he would be, but inside, miserable -- a Richard Cory bound for suicide ...

Lot of ways to turn old Harry inside-out. At some point, it gets too twisty, and you have to leave it, but you get the idea. 

The questions you need to ask, are, Who is this guy, really? How did he get there from where he started? The what-when-why of it ...

How a writer makes it interesting for me is that s/he weaves things back and forth enough to keep me guessing, without getting me frustrated to the point where I don't care any more.

It's a tricky business, and the scope of some stories don't allow for it -- sometimes you have to go with the white hats and black hats. If you have the room, you can sometimes tinker with it. Darth Vader was lost in the dark side of the Force, would just as soon kill you as look at you, the corridors of his ship piled high with choked-out bodies. But in the end, he stepped up and did the right thing. Redeemed himself. Got him killed, but there you go ...

Something to keep in mind when you are telling your tale. At the right juncture, the unexpected turn can make your story really shine. (At the wrong juncture, it can lead to a dead-end. But figuring that out, that's the game, isn't it ... ?)

* Harry Jordan is not his real name. Changed to protect the guilty: Me ...)


Steve Perry said...

I'm not the world's most subtle writer, but now and then, I find a phrase. I was thinking about how to insult somebody, the old doin' the dozens stuff, and came up with one.

If you want to call somebody's mother a whore, you can say, "Your mama's a whore!" and that'll work. But:

"I see your mama's got a new pair of knee pads. Got to replace those what? every couple days ... ?"

J.D. Ray said...

Your description of twists and turns made me think of "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels". Seen it? Great caper flick that does just what you describe: Keeps you wondering what's going to happen next while letting you think you have this or that figured out.

Steve Perry said...

It was a fun movie, wasn't it?

Dan Moran said...

One of the great moments in a great show -- Sports Night. Dana's hung a birthday banner up for Isaac -- she studies it unhappily. It says "Happy Birthday." She turns to Casey and says, "Do you think it's too on the nose?"

Steve Perry said...

That was a great show. As was West Wing and Studio Sixty. Guy wanted to write the phone book, I'd watch it.