Keeping it Real

Oct 29, 2016 by

Keeping it Real

One of the most frequent and important types of notes I give on scripts is to question whether something seems REAL. Another way of saying it is this: “Does the situation and what people are doing and saying seem BELIEVABLE? Would this happen in the real world? Would the audience recognize what they’re seeing as understandable human behavior?”

This comes up more often than you might think. I deal with it in my own scripts, all the time. It’s not so easy to make everything seem real and believable. This is because we writers, on one hand, are trying to come up with stories and situations that are unique, interesting, entertaining, and sometimes even a bit outrageous. And often that seems to be in direct conflict with “making it real.” If you make things TOO real, it could end up boring and mundane, right? Isn’t the whole point of entertainment that we’re going beyond all that, to a world or situation the audience can escape “reality” to?

Yes, it is, most of the time. The best and most marketable scripts (in both film and TV) do tend to sweep the audience away, and provide a larger-than-life entertainment experience of some kind. It might be through fantasy, action, suspense, outrageous personal drama, or out-there comedy. But at the same time, it has to focus on believable people doing believable things. People the audience can relate to. The situation might be beyond anything we can imagine experiencing. And elements of the characters can be really different from “us.” But how they behave needs to be understandable, and easy to buy into and identify with. So that we can be emotionally connected with them, and the story, and stay “in” it — never judging it as too improbable.

This is true on the scene level, and it’s true on the concept level. Your basic logline needs to connect with potential buyers or representatives as a believable and difficult human situation that also has big entertainment elements to it. They need to be able to “get it” from just the logline, and see how millions of people could connect emotionally with the main character’s situation, while buying into the possibility of the central premise.

So how does one do that in a concept that features “unreal” elements, like vampires, zombies, aliens, etc.?

Here’s the big secret about that:

You’re allowed one big leap of faith on the part of the audience. Everything else must seem like completely believable human behavior.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat book uses the term “Double Mumbo Jumbo” to describe movies that have two separate fantastical elements or rules in them, that seem to have nothing to do with each other (like time travel plus ghosts). This tends to not work so well. Audiences don’t suspend disbelief as easily and willingly as we might think. We have to work to convince them to accept the central “buy-in” or our premise, in the first act. They won’t just keep accepting whatever we throw at them, without question. But it is possible to get them to go, “Okay, fine, I buy into these two people switching bodies. Or that these high school students are vampires. Or this team enters people’s dreams and tries to affect them.”

But once you’ve got them accepting your outrageous premise, you don’t want to “test” them like that again. They will leave you, if you don’t “keep it real.” Or if they don’t understand what is going on. Audiences enjoy watching outrageous situations, up to a point. What they really want is to watch relatable human beings in such situations, doing what they might do, if it were them. They don’t want to see a series of unrelatable actions or concepts that strain credulity or comprehension.

On some subconscious level, audiences are constantly evaluating whether they can “buy” what is happening, at any given moment — with every action characters take, or words they speak. And if at any point they don’t “buy” it, it damages their connection to what they’re watching, and might even turn them completely against you. Of course, managers, agents and producers are doing the same thing when they read your work. So on the scene level, and even in terms of individual actions or lines of dialogue, “keeping it real” is always an issue.

This is especially challenging with comedies. It’s always a tightrope act, to write characters and situations that are exaggerated enough to be funny, and yet “real” enough to seem like they could all really exist. Writers who “go for the funny” very often write things that don’t really seem believable to the average viewer. And rather than saying, “I don’t mind, because it’s a comedy,” viewers are more likely to say, “I’m not laughing, because I don’t believe this could happen.” In other words, it feels too contrived.

Now there are some kinds of comedies that can get away with pushing the envelope further. Animated series, for example. Or films which are truly just crazy spoofs, like Scary Movie or Zoolander. Certain Comedy Central type shows (like Another Period) are just trying to get you to laugh, and you’re never for a moment expected to think these things could really happen. They exaggerate things so far that you don’t ever really relate to the characters or buy into it as a story. If that’s what you’re trying to write, you have a little more leeway. But most comedies I read aren’t intending to go that far. They’re after an emotional reality where audiences will connect with the characters and feel something about the story, beyond just laughing at all the wacky hijinks. The more that is the goal, the more everything people do or say needs to ring true.

Keenly observed “realness” can also be the thing that sets a script apart, and makes it feel like it’s coming from a uniquely talented writer. Such films tend to succeed at festivals and with critics and awards. “God is in the details,” and when a script and its scenes seem to explore something very specific and intriguing in a way that comes off as absolutely authentic, it tends to win people over much more powerfully than the average piece of writing. This is where writing from research or personal experience can be helpful. But those two things can also both be traps. What’s even more important for a writer is the ability to observe and recreate specific human behavior and emotion, down to the finest detail. Part of why The Wire was voted one of the top ten best-written series of all time, despite having a small fan base and, arguably, a lack of certain entertainment elements we expect from TV, is that it seemed like it captured the reality of its situation so specifically and authentically that people like me would say, “It makes every other cop drama that ever existed seem cheesy and fake, by comparison.”

Very successful writers tend to agree that when they’re plotting out a story from scene to scene, they always start with “the real.” You might ultimately be going for comedy, thrills, action, or some other entertainment element (which is a good idea if you want your work to be commercially viable), but you can’t achieve that by going directly and only for those things. Everything has to stem from “what would really happen,” conceivably, in a situation. So it’s always a good idea, with each scene, to ask yourself where each character is at, entering the scene. What do they really feel and want? And what are some things they might believably do or say to pursue their agendas? And how might those actions and words come into conflict with other people who are also doing that same thing?

If your premise and characters and what they’re dealing with are comedic, you can trust that what you write will end up comedic. For one thing, you will polish scenes after you write them to bring out more of the comedy. The same is true regardless of the genre you’re writing. These elements should be baked into the concept, situation and characters. But as you’re plotting out and writing their specific words and actions, letting “the real” guide you is virtually always the best approach.

I’d love to read comments about projects that either (a) seemed especially good because of how “real” they were, or (b) completely lost you because it didn’t seem like things were believable enough.

I’d also welcome questions or challenges about any of this. Happy writing!  🙂

     
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.

2 Comments

  1. Rhea McAdam

    Hi Eric:
    I’m dealing with this issue right now. My dilemma? In real life in 1937, two of my characters would not have approached one other. One is Hirohito, the Emperor of Japan and the other is Amelia Earhart, who is recovering from her crash at the Imperial Palace. In my (fictional) background story, they had met in Britain in 1921, where he was introduced to her at a time when he thoroughly enjoyed the experiences of the Western world, including the freedom to interact with others informally. I’m hoping that by bringing them together, they will develop a fascinating friendship, learning and understanding about each other’s world, which will create tension when the Emperor is forced by his military government to send her away to prison.

    • I think that’s an example of the kind of thing that an audience can accept (and likely won’t even know it didn’t happen) — my point is that the characters need to behave believably beyond this one historical leap.

      HAMILTON on Broadway got away with some changes in who met who how, and when. Audiences tend to not notice. It’s when people say and do things that don’t feel real that you lose the audience.

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