How To Write Badly : Part One (updated)

12 Oct

I’m just assuming that the title of “how to write badly” is something that I will be able to use more than once in my life, so I’m calling this “Part One” even though I don’t have a followup planned at this point.

In this installment, we will explore what I will refer to as the “slam flunk”. It’s that moment in a story, movie or TV series where the writer wants to make the main character look absolutely amazing. This is the moment where the audience is supposed to want to stand up and cheer, because of the brilliance of the main character, and therefore the brilliance of the writer. So why do I call it the “slam flunk“? Because in most cases, this act of brilliance is accomplished by dumbing down everyone around the main character. Not just the other characters on screen either. The writer is trying to dumb you down, so you won’t realize that what you’re seeing on screen doesn’t actually make sense.

A fine example of the slam flunk is a scene from the HBO series, The Newsroom. I am picking this scene simply because I have seen so many people crowding Facebook and Twitter with YouTube links, going on about how this is the best scene in the history of everything. Here is the scene in question. Watch it, and then we’ll go on:

Okay, so there she is. The greatest scene ever to appear on television, according to more people than I can remember on social media. Did you spot the problem that I am referring to?

Let’s start by dismissing the facts and politics of the scene. This is a big give, since each of the points that the character makes are easily refuted by anyone who has any knowledge of politics. Seriously, I watched the scene with someone who is a political junky and he didn’t even have to think about a response before yelling at the TV. But I’m not here to talk about the politics, so I’m not going to respond to those points.

Now, let’s look at the people sitting on either side of Jeff Daniels’ character. These are political pundits whose very lives depend on being able to respond to the political ramblings of others. If they don’t do this by directly addressing each point, one would expect them to at least resort to the pre-packaged responses that each of these people would have on hand for discussions on such topics. These characters are talking over each other at the beginning of the scene, so we know that they’re not restricted by good manners. This begs the question of why both of those people are just sitting there like idiots while Jeff Daniels is going on about common political topics, expressing pretty common thoughts. Why do they look completely dumbfounded? Why aren’t they saying the things that the person next to me was screaming at the TV?

In the scene, the question was asked by a pretty blond girl. She was all smiles as she asked this fluffy question. Then she gets a real answer and she stands there as though the Jeff Daniels character had just spent the past several minutes criticizing every flaw on her own body, rather than giving an actual answer to her question. This girl is a walking cliche. She is the cute blond girl who doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together.

What we see in this scene is not a character who smacks us in the face with logic and reason, thus creating a genuine slam dunk moment. This is a scene where the writer thinks so highly of himself that he honestly believes that nobody would be able to respond to any of what is being said, simply because he can’t wrap his mind around the subject himself. If that’s the case, then the writer is in way over his head here.

The key to a scene like this is to have the main character turn the conversation on a dime and wow us. The writer has set up a situation that writers don’t normally get; all of the players in the scene are sitting on stage and have the ability to go on long rambling diatribes without any need to work those diatribes into the story or make any of it sound like natural conversation. This is the writer talking directly to the audience, and he completely wasted that opportunity. He made the scene about him (the writer) and not the characters on screen.

What could have been done differently? How could this slam flunk been turned into a slam dunk?

Let’s allow the two stupid pundits to sit there like morons while Jeff Daniels rambles on. It’s silly and doesn’t fit those characters at all, but let’s allow it. Instead, let’s turn to the pretty blond girl. As the scene stands, this ditz of a character offers us nothing unexpected. She is simply a rather clunky tool that the writer uses to set up his main character. Once she serves that purpose, she stands there like the dumb blond girl that everyone has expected her to be since the day she was born.

If this girl had stood there while Daniels rambled on, and followed up his speech by saying “Actually…” she would have possessed the slam dunk. She could have taken what we expect to see on TV and used it against us. But the show isn’t about her, so that couldn’t happen. Instead, we have a forced attempt at a slam dunk that fails miserably because the writer wasn’t up to the challenge.

It’s hard to create a character that you personally don’t agree with, yet who can make intelligent and natural arguments to support his beliefs. Any human who holds a belief thinks that they are right and the other person is wrong. It’s hard to argue the wrong side as though it were right. But that is the challenge, and if we’re not prepared to accept that challenge, we shouldn’t write the scene.

UPDATE:

After posting this blog entry, a friend of mine asked what could be done to salvage this scene and make it work. Here is a version of the answer that I gave to him:

The problem is with needing a scene like that to show how great your character is in the first place. The setup demands that he be the smartest cookie in the room. But unless the writer can give him a proper sparring partner, he isn’t besting anyone. This scene is like those action scenes where a character proves how tough they are by getting surrounded by an army of bad guys and then proceeding to fight one of them at a time while the others just stand around doing nothing. Only in this case, he’s not fighting anyone. EVERYONE is just standing around doing nothing while he waves his sword around.

How do we turn it around? Well, it depends on what they want to do with the character. If they want to show how disillusioned he is, they could have him going on this loud rant, but have the other characters in the background arguing back, muffled and blurred. This shows that he doesn’t care about them. This is about him and his mental state. They can argue, but he doesn’t hear it.

Or, if they want to show how smart he is, they need to have someone challenge his beliefs with logical, sensible arguments. As I said, the blond girl could prove to have a brain after all an respond to each of his points. If the writer truly knows what he’s talking about, it should still be possible to show this character to be logical and intelligent while arguing those points.

The setup is clunky. He is a character on a stage, with everyone watching and listening but never questioning. It’s an ego stroke for the writer and nothing else. I’m not sure that it’s a worthy scene to begin with, so if I were to rewrite it, I would completely restructure it. I would take him off the stage and put him into a discussion. If it is a dinner party where he goes on this type of rant, then we might be able to explain why people are hesitant to respond. If the show needs this scene and can’t survive without it, I wonder if maybe the troubles run too deep to be fixed.
 

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