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Home » Archives » August 2006 » The Importance of Being (a) Prompt
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08/20/2006: The Importance of Being (a) Prompt

So, gentle readers. I finally did it. I finally read The Da Vinci Code. Also known as The Big Book of Act Breaks. Look at it for great examples of exactly when to interrupt the action in order to require your audience to keep going. He pulls you through the story as if you'd gotten a race horse tangled in your hair clips. Whoosh.

The writing style, however, is beyond clunky. For one thing, no character ever looks at anything without being reminded of something else. People are constantly looking out windows, at paintings, at books, and at other people, while being reminded of past trips, childhood experiences, historical events and random old relationships. Can't someone just look at a thing and see a thing, please? Or have a memory without some physical prompt? Sigh. Just a thing I noticed.

Anyway, I was interested to find that there is a good lesson for script writers in the pages of the book. There are a couple scenes in the book that are set in a classroom (in flashback, prompted, I believe, by looking at something-or-other). Our hero is laying out some facts for the reader, through the device of having a dialogue with students in his class. I find these scenes to be most problematic. The students always ask exactly the right question to prompt his next statement so that the points role out of him in the optimal order without requiring him to spout blocks of unbroken text. This doesn't feel particularly spontaneous. The students function as cue cards and are about as cardboardy.

But here's where I grow gentle with Mr. Brown. The truth is, this kind of scene is one of the hardest you'll ever have to write. I've seen subtler writers than this one fail at it. I've failed at it myself. It's hard not to. There's even a moment in Aaron Sorkin's special "Isaac and Ishmael" West Wing episode that has always bothered me for exactly this reason.

You remember this episode? It was the bottle episode produced very quickly, soon after 9/11, in which students asked questions of our regular characters about the nature of terrorism. Here is the exchange that bumps me:

You know a lot about terrorism?

I dabble.

What are you struck by most?

Its 100% failure rate.

The "dabble" exchange is great. I love Sorkin for moments like that. But look at the next question. "What are you struck by most?" is a very, very strange question. The asker has no reason to think Sam has an answer to it, after all. Or that the answer will be important. It's a question asked only as the quickest possible way to get to the next point. It might, in fact, be the quickest and most elegant way out of a bad situation. It's just a weird question, is all. The problem, I assert, is not with Sorkin, but with the nature of this kind of scene.

In a scene with lots of real characters in it – regular, recurring or even guest characters - you avoid this problem. Because even when some lines are there to set up other lines, they can still be laden with character. But in the type of Q-and-A scene I'm talking about, a number of speakers don't have (or need or want) characters. They are there to be devices, not people. And that makes them ridiculously hard to write. You need them to be good little devices, and so they tend to sound like good little devices.

If you've got a ton of exposition in your spec for some reason, I would recommend finding ways to get it out without a Q-and-A scene involving a number of questioners without characters. These scenes are just too hard. Look for ways to get your established characters to pull info out of each other instead.

Lunch: shabu-shabu. Beef and veggies cooked in boiling water right on the table top. So good!


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