Can you make a bad movie better?

Gigliposter.jpgWriting coaches and writers’ magazines often provide writing prompts to help people practice their craft. A writing teacher of mine had a different approach. Whenever he saw a “bad” movie, he had fun figuring out how make it better. While the probably stayed within the realm of the plot and the dialogue, my Radio/TV undergraduate major causes me to include acting and production values.

According to FilmDaft, “The key ingredients that make a movie ‘good’ are when the acting, directing, writing, cinematography, and overall production value all come together to tell one cohesive, entertaining, and impactful story. In essence, a good movie uses all these tools of filmmaking to tell a compelling story that makes you feel.”

True, but that’s a bit general, so when I consider what would make a bad movie better, I usually stick to the writer’s part of it.

Here I think we can say that if the premise and plot structure are flawed, the movie probably will also be flawed even though everyone and his/her brother probably had a hand in the rewrites before the film was finished.

To make this excercise work, we need to stay away from reviewers and critics and the flaws they see and use the flaws we see. Of course, even good movies may have flaws. For example, “Ladyhawke” is one of my favorite films, but I think the music chosen for it is an abomination and that Matthew Broderick’s character was too flip for the time when the film was set.

When a movie is bad, it’s often because it’s predictable, has unlikely plot twists, is based on a faulty premise, or is jokingly unrealistic within the time and place and subject area in which it was set. Doing this exercise as a writer, I think about:

  • How can I make it less predictable?
  • What are the worst plot twists?
  • Can the premise be altered without throwing out the film altogether?

Did you see the 2003 film “Gigli”? It was considered a failure, often due to general disorganization and a clumsy plot. Okay, these are problems a writer can work with while ignoring critics’ complaints that Affleck and Lopez lacked chemistry. So here the excerise becomes fixing the plot.

Never fear, if you play around with this exercise, you don’t have to re-write the script or even come up with a new treatment for the story. Nailing down what you might do to make it better will, I think, help you see how any story can be made workable.


Do all your characters sound like you?

When creative writing students turn in their first short story or dialogue exercise, the teacher’s response is frequently, “All of your characters sound like you.”

The writer had certain points to communicate via dialogue and distributed them amongst the characters as though their manner of speaking is interchangeable. Or, as the teacher might say, “You should be able to tell which character is talking by what they say and how they say it.”

Several student responses are likely: (1) A dozen synonyms for said. (Yes, there’s a difference between “he said,” “he yelled,” and “he whispered.”) But they don’t help if the words that are said don’t sound any different in tone, structure, word choice, accent, and focus than the three other people in the conversation. (2) The student thinks up a list of eccentric phrases and distributes these amongst the characters, rather like dealing out cards, so that EVERYONE TALKS FUNNY. The teacher is likely to say, “The people sound like they just escaped from a carnival freakshow.”

One of the hardest things for a writer to do is getting to know his/her characters so well that the way they talk arises naturally out of the person. People talk differently because they are different. The writer’s at a disadvantage here if s/he hasn’t spent any time listening to how “real people” express themselves. Some use slang, some have accents, others speak in short sentences while a few speak in paragraphs. Children sound like children and are influenced by fad words from school or (in modern times) words from texting. Older people may use terms from 40-50 years ago that young people may never have heard, as in “You ain’t got no gumption.”

One way to figure all this out is by reading the works of authors who write great dialogue. TV viewers and critics used to say “‘The West Wing’ has great dialogue.” Listen to a few of these shows and figure out what Aaron Sorkin did to make his characters’ dialogue memorable. Here again, the characters all had their issues, likes and dislikes, fears, joys, etc., so what they said fit who they were.

Resist the urge to pepper conversations with small talk. That slows down the story even if it does sound just like a conversation you heard in a store or on the subway. You are advancing the plot, not shooting the breeze. Read your words aloud. So they sound like they’re words to be read or words to be spoken?

If you look up “writing dialogue” online, you’ll find some decent advice that’s almost as good a learning by reading well-written novels.