Monday, November 23, 2015

Fixing Logic Holes in Your Screenplay

(Spoilers: Some Like It Hot, Little Miss Sunshine, The Godfather, Back to the Future)

Discovering a logic hole in a finished draft of your screenplay is upsetting. A great story with great characters can be completely undone by a big enough flaw in logic. At the very least, you risk taking the reader/audience out of the story. There are a variety of ways logic problems can seep into your screenplay, and a variety of ways to fix them (thankfully). But it can be challenging. Pull carelessly at the threads of logic and the whole story starts to unravel!

The first approach is preventative. If you create a solid outline for your screenplay, you can catch and fix logic flaws before you commit to a complete draft. Many of the techniques I’ll discuss below will be as useful for fixing logic problems in an outline as they will in a screenplay. The difference is that it’s easier to make big changes at the outline phase. Sometimes, though, a logic problem will slip past you. You may not recognize it until you give the script to a friend for feedback. Other times a structural change in a rewrite can introduce a logic flaw that must be dealt with.

Continuity errors are one type of logic flaw. They can be big or small. A small continuity error would be something like having a character draw a gun two scenes after we saw them throw their gun into the ocean. Sometimes you can just fix those by removing the later reference, but if it’s important that they draw the gun in the later scene, then you may have to add a scene where they somehow retrieve the gun from the ocean or acquire another gun. With a little brainstorming, it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a solution to smaller continuity issues.

Bigger continuity errors might be something like a character appearing in a scene after they’ve been killed. These usually arise when you restructure and move scenes around. You will likely have to restructure some more, or make bigger changes. Consider giving actions to different characters or changing the scene location. Maybe you can move a plot point or piece of exposition from one scene to another. The biggest challenge is usually letting go of how you previously imagined it. Try brainstorming five other ways the broken story beat could occur – even if your five ideas are ridiculous, you will start to open your mind to other approaches.

Character goal can be a powerful tool for solving logic problems. If you need something to happen in your story, but there is no reason that it would, look for a character who could make it happen and then give them a reason to act accordingly.

In Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), there is a funny subplot where Jerry, disguised as a woman, agrees to go on a date with a millionaire named Osgood. But why would he do this? The answer is that Joe is pretending to be a millionaire to woo Sugar and convinces Jerry to accept the date so Joe can sneak on board Osgood’s yacht and act like he owns it. There are many ways Joe could have seduced Sugar, but the yacht scheme gives Jerry a reason to do something “illogical.” He wants to help his friend.

Another common type of logic problem is when there’s an obvious, easier solution to the character’s problem and they don’t take it. In essence, they aren’t acting in their best interest. You can fix this by giving the character a reason not to resort to that other solution.

In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the family runs through all alternative possibilities for getting Olive to the pageant other than having everyone pile in a van. In quick succession they eliminate each one. They don’t have money to fly, Sheryll can’t drive a stick, Frank’s suicidal and not to be left alone, etc. In The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola), Michael’s the least likely candidate to kill Sollozzo. But he’s also the only person Sollozzo is willing to meet with in person, so any other choice is no longer an option.

Planting is also a powerful way to solve logic problems. First, come up with an explanation for the logic hole. Even if that explanation sounds implausible, you can often sell it by effective planting the idea in an earlier scene. In Some Like It Hot, Joe’s plan to use Osgood’s yacht may seem overly complicated. So the writers establish in an earlier scene that Sugar’s vision of the ideal man includes someone who owns a yacht. Now the whole scheme makes perfect sense.

This is also an effective way to give a character a prop or piece of information they may need to close a logic hole. In Back to the Future (written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale), it may be hard to believe that Marty would remember the exact date and time lightning struck the clock tower. So in an early scene, the writers have a woman hand Marty a flier for a fundraiser on the anniversary of that lightning strike. And then Marty’s girlfriend writes a number on the back of the flyer. Later in the movie, when Marty needs the information about the lightning strike for the story to make sense, voila – there it is in his pocket.

When faced with a logic hole you can either find a way to eliminate it or create a reason why it is actually not a hole. To do this, character motivation and planting will be your most effective tools.


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