Friday, June 5, 2009

Class Participation

I saw UP last weekend, like about six million other folks.

I enjoyed it thoroughly. In recent years, it seems animation is where we get the freshest stories. Certainly, it is about the only genre where we get original stories, as opposed to the recent Hollywood obsession with 'prequels, sequels, remakes and comic books'. The Incredibles and Ratatouille were both excellent films, as close to four quadrant films as animation can get. UP qualifies on that score as well.

So how much can the aspiring screenwriter take from UP? Well, for starters, I would not advise anyone to write an animation on spec. It just doesn’t work that way. These films are story-boarded and developed over a long period of time, with the animators and writers working in conjunction. There are always exceptions, but I’d advise against even trying.

That said, I can tell you where a screenwriter can learn from UP. My favorite part of the film came in the first act. Having written a book about the third act, you’d think that wouldn’t be the case. I truly enjoyed the third act in UP. But for my money, the most impressive part of the film came in the set up, not the resolution.
I’m referring specifically to the montage where we are shown (there’s the key word) about the marriage and life of Carl and Ellie Fredrickson.

This series of scenes unfolds quickly and - here’s the important part - without any dialogue. Not only does it provide important backstory, it creates an undeniable emotional connection between the audience and the main character Carl. I’m not ashamed to admit (ok, maybe a little bit) that I got a little teary-eyed at the conclusion of the montage. Think about that: this is early in the first act! We don’t even know the characters yet. Or I should say, we do, but it’s at such an unusually early time in the film for us to do so, we are pleasantly surprised.

Again, this is all accomplished without dialogue. Instead, it’s about moving pictures, the phrase from which the term “movies” is derived. More than most film makers, animators understand telling a story through images. You don’t need to “tell” the audience the story, when “showing” will do the job even better.

The lesson here for aspiring screenwriters is that this doesn’t just apply to animation. You will always create a stronger connection with the audience if you can inform them visually. Just like your Mom told you - actions speak louder than words. The reason most new screenwriters choose dialogue is that it is easier to tell the audience something than to allow them to watch a character perform an act or acts and have the audience interpret the meaning of that for themselves. It is always preferable to have the audience participate in the story, and that’s what they do when they have to figure out the story without the use of dialogue.

The next time you want to get an idea across to your audience, stop before you write that line of dialogue and wrack your brain to come up with an idea that might convey the same message visually. Let the audience participate. They’ll love you for it.

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