Dead Caterpillar

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Screenwriting 101: confusion is better than boredom

Sunday, Oct 28th, 2018

Anton checkof famously said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”

J.J. Abrams, the creator of the Lost television series, famously amended the statement to, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one, polar bears.”

Story-telling has come a long way since Checkov’s days.

Seriously, just throw some confusing shit in there. Polar bears. Smoke monsters. Abstract dream sequences. Have at it! No need to explain anything, really. It doesn’t need to make sense. The people who think they understand it will be impressed with themselves and the people who don’t understand it will be impressed with you.

It is much better to confuse the audience, than to bore them.

Confusion is the state of the human brain while it tries to make sense of things. And no matter how non-sensical the concept, no matter how absurd the premise, the brain will always work to create an explanation — even if no such explanation exists.

This facet of human nature is brilliantly personified in the character John Locke in Lost. The writers of Lost went out of their way to express what was going through John Locke’s head as Ben Linus choked the life out of him. His final words?

“I don’t understand.”

Nor should he. The writers of Lost were having a laugh. I can hear now, the arguments being made in the writers room during the planning for this episode: The inanimate and impersonal universe of Lost doesn’t have an agenda. There’s simply nothing to understand. Why not just pump out a bunch of bullshit plot turns and, then allow people to ascribe their own meanings, symbolism and interpretations? After all, that’s what happens in our universe!

“A great big frozen wheel, The Dharma Initiative, the smoke monster, glowing yellow light — throw it all into the mix and leave people to their own devices to understand it!”

It is much better to confuse the audience, than to bore them. Inscrutability is easily mistaken for profundity.

Plus, even if your plot doesn’t make sense, there is always a chance the sheer strength of the actors will carry the production, like it did with, say, True Detectives or the Usual Suspects. Matthew Mcconaughey and Woody Harrelson could gargle shit while doing handstands in front of a camera and it would still make a great TV show. Put Kevin Spacey, Benicio Del Toro and Gabriel Byrne in a room together. Get them in a room. Given enough time, there is a chance an oscar will spontaneously materialize in the center of it.

Sometimes, people can justify a poor acting performance due to a weak script. But they are rarely aware enough to recognize a performance which sells the script. True Detectives and The Usual Suspects are grade A examples.

“The best scripts don’t make the best movies.” – Linklater’s Waking Life

That’s because movies aren’t words on paper. Movies are inflections, expressions, glances, the way people walk, the way they talk. You can’t write that stuff.

One Response to “Screenwriting 101: confusion is better than boredom”

  1. Matthew says:

    Your website rocks dude

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