Friday, June 24, 2011

Incorporating Physical Humor

(SPOILERS: Bridesmaids, There’s Something About Mary, Elf)

One common problem I see in weaker comedy scripts is a misuse of slapstick or goofy comedic elements. The writer will have a scene with some kind of physical humor going on that doesn’t really relate to the action of the scene. My guess is always that the writer added this after the first draft because they felt the scene wasn’t funny enough.

It isn’t a horrible idea – in fact, this is a variation on the “wallpapering” technique where you set a scene somewhere visually interesting to help hide its dramatic shortcomings. The thing is, irrelevant physical humor usually doesn’t work because it feels forced and random. What actually makes that kind of comedy funny is how it relates to the character and situation. A guy getting hit in the face with a pie is only humorous if the guy has some reason to be dignified. So if you just throw that into the background of a scene, you get the physical but not the humor.

And the thing is, it usually isn’t hard to relate the slapstick to the scene itself. The key is to make the physical challenges into obstacles to a character’s goal. That simple approach suddenly makes the slapstick humor relevant and thus much funnier. And it has the added bonus of enriching the scene.

A great example is from this summer’s hit comedy Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo). One of the scenes that gets the biggest laughs is the food poisoning in the bridal shop. But it’s not simply the vomit and diarrhea that make us laugh. It’s the fact that Annie doesn’t want to admit to her rival Helen that the bridesmaids got sick at the lunch she arranged. So though Annie is clearly in physical distress, she’s determined not to break. The food poisoning is an obstacle to Annie’s character goal.

There are, of course, gags in that scene not related to Annie, but they mostly come out of the classy setting. So the women are trying to be dignified but their bodies betray them. If instead of the bridal shop we saw the women go their separate ways and then get sick in their own homes, it would be unpleasant instead of funny.

Or think of the classic scene in There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss, screenplay by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly). It’s not funny because Mary accidentally puts a bodily fluid in her hair (that is actually just kind of gross). It’s funny because Ted then has to go through the date pretending like nothing’s amiss. The mistake poses an obstacle to his wooing of Mary.

Both those examples are from R-rated, gross-out comedies. But this is not just a technique for use in scenes with disgusting humor. Children's cartoons, in fact, have perfected this physical-humor-as-story-obstacle approach. Every pain Wile E. Coyote suffers is a direct result of his attempts to eat the Roadrunner. You never see a boulder fall on him for no reason. That wouldn’t be funny.

In the movie Elf (written by David Berenbaum), Buddy does a lot of things that are just plain silly. When a child acts like this in real life, we usually find the behavior annoying. What makes it hilarious in the movie is how it impacts the other characters’ goals.

So the doctor visit is funny because Buddy’s fidgeting and curiosity makes it difficult for his father to learn if Buddy is really his child. And in the breakfast scene, Buddy’s strange ideas about cuisine make it difficult for Emily to welcome him into the family – her goal. Most of us wouldn’t eat spaghetti with syrup on it. She does because she doesn’t want to hurt Buddy’s feelings.

So let’s say you’re writing a scene about a guy going for a job interview. You read it over and it comes across as fairly serious. Unfortunately, you’re writing a comedy. So you decide to make the interviewer clumsy. He knocks over his cup of pens, knocks his computer off the desk, spills his coffee. Meanwhile the interview goes on as though none of this were happening.


What would be funnier is if the coffee spilled on our hero. And it’s scalding hot. Then you escalate from there – our hero yanks his pants down to avoid getting burned. And he’s wearing his tattered “good luck” underwear. Now we have a scene with some potential because the slapstick is interfering with the character’s goal of getting the job.

The other thing you may notice is how character traits are important to making the physical humor work in the examples I gave. Annie’s desire to hide her personal struggles from her friends in Bridesmaids and Ted and Mary’s sweet natures in There’s Something About Mary are key to the success of the slapstick in those films. In Elf, the physical humor grows out of Buddy’s unfamiliarity with the normal world of New York.

So let’s look again at our job interview. Instead of a random event like the interviewer spilling coffee on our hero, what if our guy couldn’t sleep the night before because he was so nervous about the interview. So he gets a cup of coffee to help him be alert. But there’s nowhere to throw it away or leave it in the outer office, so he has to bring it in with him. Then he spills the coffee on himself because his nervousness makes him clumsy. Now the slapstick is growing out of his character – nervous – and the situation – job interview. See how much better that is than some stuff falling over in the background of the scene?

The big lesson here is that, like everything in your script, physical humor ought to grow organically out of the characters and their situation.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thoughts on Character Interviews

For the last five posts I’ve interviewed professional writers on how they develop characters.  (If you’d like to know my philosophy, you can read this post.)  I had an ulterior motive for doing this:  Many of the big how-to screenwriting books recommend a different character creation approach than I use.  Typically it’s been pretty easy for me to dismiss these theories because the authors were not actually screenwriters.  The books may have had many good ideas, but if something didn’t jibe with my actual writing experience I didn’t worry about it.

But then I was re-reading The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, and some of the stuff in there made a lot of sense and made me question my own process.  It didn’t conflict with my approach exactly, but made me wonder if maybe I was missing something.  So I decided to find out what other pros did.

I was reassured through these interviews that, in fact, my approach is pretty similar to what other professional writers do.  I do think there are some really good ideas in Egri’s book.  I’ll write a post soon about that… though I’ve misplaced the book so I have to get another copy first!

But let me look back for a moment on the five interviews.  What struck me most was how similar many of the answers were.  I truthfully wasn’t expecting that.  Notice how many interviewees referenced some form of want and/or need as the most important thing to know about a character.  Also notice that several mentioned the importance of choosing a character who will best exploit your story concept.  And several said that they need to hear their characters "speak" to them before they are ready to write.

On the other hand, notice how little importance the interviewees gave to creating detailed backstories.  This is something many books recommend that never seems to jibe with real life writers.  Not that we ignore backstory, but these five interviewees and I only create the backstory as needed.

Other elements varied more from writer to writer.  Some liked to use specific real people as the basis of their characters, others only steal particular quirks or habits.  So that may be an area where you are best served just doing whatever makes you most comfortable. 

And I believe that ultimately you have to find your own process – whatever works for you.  However hearing how other writers do things, and paying particular attention to those things that crop up repeatedly from writer to writer, can help you find your process.

I’m going to move on from the character interviews now, but I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback on the last few posts, so I will definitely be doing more interviews on another specific topic in the future.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Character Interview - Karen Stillman

My final interview for this character development series will be with writer Karen Stillman.  Karen wrote the TV movies Smoke Screen, They Shoot Divas, Don’t They?, Dangerous Child and Hit and Run.  I worked with her on a web series for the Zoopid website.  She is currently completing a 1950s period project about the testing of the then-illegal birth control pill.

Q. What is required for a compelling character?

There has to be something so interesting about him/her, you just have to know what he's going to do next.  Is he a pathological liar?  Is he funny?  Unpredictable?   Does he have a ridiculous goal?  An embarrassing conflict or obstacle?   And then, when this thing is clearly established, it has to u-turn.  He stops lying, isn't so funny, foregoes his ridiculous goal, his embarrassing conflict/obstacle turns on its head.

Also, details help.  House has a limp.  Columbo always wore an old raincoat.  The kid on THE MIDDLE whispers to himself.   But you have to choose them carefully.  I've seen writers underwrite characters (too few details) and also overwrite them (so many, it's hard to tell what's important).

Q. What is your approach to building a character?

 I like to start with the toilet paper test.  Seriously.  If this character were at a party and walked out of the bathroom and suddenly realized that he/she had toilet paper on his/her shoe, what would he/she do?  Would he/she make a joke?  Run away?  Get mad?  Ignore it?  Loudly curse Charmin?

Then I do a little "stream of consciousness" writing.  I put two characters in a scene and just start them talking, see where they go.  Sometimes I write a few potential scenes from the middle of the script.  

But before I truly start the draft, I need to know the character's goal, flaw and inevitable conflict/obstacle.

Q. How much back story do you create for your main character before you start writing?

Depends on the character.  If the script is heavily centered around something from the character's past, I need to know what it is, how it affected him, etc.  But usually I need to plot out the story first.  And I ask myself what in the character's past can I use to make this particular story more interesting.

Q. What is the most important thing(s) you need to know about your character before you start writing?

Goal, flaw and obstacle.  The most important of these three is the flaw.  I recently started writing something and realized that the character wasn't that interesting—because I hadn't clearly defined his flaw in my head.  It absolutely showed (or, I guess, didn't) on the page.

Q. Do you base your characters on people you know or imagine stars in the part as you write?

Sometimes people I know, sometimes I imagine an actor.  In a character description I wouldn't compare my character directly to an actor.   But I might say something like, "He has a face like Quasimodo but makes up for it with Clooney-esque charm."

Thanks Karen!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Character Interview - Eric Heisserer

Today I’m continuing my series of interviews about character development with screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Eric wrote the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street as well as the upcoming Final Destination 5 and The Thing prequel. This fall he will be directing a feature he wrote called Hours based on a short story published at Popcorn Fiction.

Q. What is required for a compelling character?

They have to want something, and it's a want that drives them through every scene. This want can change over the course of the narrative, particularly if the character realizes that they have a need greater than their want. Next, that character needs adversity as powerful as their want. If you have a character get what they want with no resistance, we aren't really compelled to follow the story. Conflict is the breeding ground for compelling character. After that, it's a matter of window dressing. While it may not be absolutely required, something I find that really helps cement the character is a trait or two that feels grounded and realistic, something plucked from someone you know. Anchor the character in reality, even if it's just in a behavior or mannerism you've seen in your spouse, your friend, your coworker, etc.

Q. What is your approach to building a character? 

My approach is sloppy and unstructured. Generally speaking, there are two approaches to story. Some begin with the question, "What if..." and others start with, "There's a guy (or gal) who..." Basically one is concept-centric and the other is character-centric. I used to be focused on concept, and would work outside-in toward character, populating my concept with people who could exploit it. What I've discovered after many years of bad writing and trial-and-error is that the two need to be married. So now I begin my story with, "What if there's a guy who..."

My litmus test when I'm first writing for a character is: I picture myself in a meeting with an actor. The actor is asking me questions about the character. I am putting lines in this person's mouth, and it has to come from an authentic place. If the actor is asking me about motivation or objectives, then my character is undercooked. I haven't yet made it compelling. So, back to the drawing board.

Q. How much back story do you create for your main character before you start writing?

I don't do much back story work, save for that which grows naturally out of the want/need I give the character. If a character wants to be a pilot, for example, then I can choose whether that want comes from a lust for life, or from fear. Perhaps my character has had dreams of flying among the clouds, or of breaking free from the world at ground level. Or maybe this is an escape from a terrible domestic life. Or the character is haunted by a parent's wish/warning. The want will dictate the backstory, in terms of what is pertinent to the narrative I'm trying to tell.

Q. What is the most important thing(s) you need to know about your character before you start writing?

I must know what they want to accomplish. What is the result they want by the end of the story? My characters need to tell me how they want the story to end, and there has to be at least two completely different endings in those answers, or else I don't have any conflict.

Q. Do you base your characters on people you know or imagine stars in the part as you write? 

I have to base my characters on behaviors, speech styles, and mannerisms I've observed in real people, or else they won't feel real themselves. But I tend to avoid basing a character on an actual person, because reality can get in the way of my story (unless of course the point of the story is biographical in nature). I have begun to place actors in my roles, because it's great shorthand for talking with studio execs later, and sometimes it can help me find dialogue when I get stuck.

Thanks Eric! Next post I’ll interview Karen Stillman, writer of the TV movies Smoke Screen, They Shoot Divas, Don’t They?, Dangerous Child and Hit and Run.


"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review