Trust the map

One of the most annoying and disappointing turns in a movie for me is when a character is out of place. It breaks the rhythm, the suspense, and my willingness to wait for the film’s payoff. It’s so obvious! How could anyone write a scene that detours the character’s journey? Now think of feedback and rewrites we’ve all done on our own pages that makes us question who was writing our own pages.

I think the root of this problem in many cases is trying to put too much of our own voice in our scripts. We all have pain in the ass parents, neurotic siblings, egotistical bosses, and too many bills. The stories that come out of these pieces of life’s puzzle are what we want to tell and an audience wants to experience. A key thing to remember is that sitting down and watching a film is an escape in some instances and enlightenment in other instances. Inception made me think, for 148 minutes, about everything but the brutal week I had at work. Office Space made me leave work, and the hassles associated with it, at the office. In both cases the characters were always moving ahead with the story. Every scene in each film, the characters were somewhere that they were supposed to be.

Take for example, the recent and brilliant, Bridesmaids. Kristen Wiig’s Annie glances and reminisces as she stands in front of the shuttered bakery that was her dream. The emotions that scene stirred up defined her character and her journey.  As a packed theater watched, that bakery was a rejection letter from a grad program to someone in the back row, a job promotion a co-worker got over the guy a few rows down, and a third date that never happened for the girl sitting a few seats over.

The other night when going back to pages from months ago in my own rom-com script my main character is jockeying for position on the shortest line at a grocery store. I think it’s funny, it’s something I’ve done, you’ve done, and at least everyone has seen. It can be funny to watch, frustrating to implement, and has a familiar feel. Nothing my character did in that scene defined him, moved the story ahead, or introduced a new character. It filled a page. Left in the script, on screen it would be a water cooler story the audience would have to listen to because they were in a seat and watching.

Great stories are told and never appreciated because of detours to nowhere. You know where your character is going. Don’t let them get lost on the way.