Dumb it down, please.

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  • Dumb it down, please.

    "Don't be too clever for an audience. Make it obvious. Make the subtleties obvious also."
    - Billy Wilder

    I'm not going to make my usual war cry: subtlety! subtlety! subtlety! I'm here to learn.

    I'm not sure I have a question so much as a topic I'd like to understand better, from professionals, and I think it's one of the more important topics in writing and yet so unspoken.

    At what point is subtext too little? When can I use a scalpel, and when must I use a hammer? One critic's "amazingly nuanced writing" is another critic's "made no sense." One's "hits us over the head with an expositional hammer" is another's "powerfully thematic."

    My struggle today is with how little I can get away with, and how much? Guardians of the Galaxy is a recent hot-button film on this issue: the film was filled with on-the-nose dialogue, and tactless exposition. It's currently the second-highest rated blockbuster of the year (The LEGO Movie coming in first on RT).

    I find even the best shows on network television tend to fall into the "Ughh" spectrum as far as the writing is concerned. Everything is laid out there, and badly.

    Obviously, I'm not going to jump ship and write Transformers-level bullshit. I am wondering, though, where the line is. I have noticed that some of my favorite films, and the ones where I really notice theme and the "subtle meaning behind what's going on" actually wear their exposition almost on their sleeve. Collateral is one of my all-time favorite films, particularly because of how well the theme and characters are central to the story. But looking at it objectively, the film lays its themes out in broad strokes, underscored by subtle moments. It's a combination of "THIS IS WHAT I MEAN," moments and "You'll notice this nuanced glance on your fourth viewing of the film."

    Anyone have advice on this topic? As someone who's currently working on a high budget-aimed script, it's important that I be subtle, but even more important that I be clear.

    I guess that's what it boils down to: subtlety vs clarity and efficiency. I can talk my way around the exposition for 90 minutes, but at some point, there's a significant portion of your audience that won't follow. How have you fine folks dealt with this, and to what degree of success?

    Thanks! Look forward to the responses, as always.

    -EMB

  • #2
    Re: Dumb it down, please.

    Just be entertaining (most people don't give a **** if you're clever).

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: Dumb it down, please.

      I was talking to a producer about this last year. We were hoping to do a drama heavy sci-fi show (I pitched it as Blade Runner meets The Sopranos). One recurring issue was the level of subtlety and how much exposition we needed for this expansive setting.

      The approach I took was two tiered. The idea was that a general audience would go, “I saw an episode where a guy blew something up,” while a more attentive group would say, “I saw an episode where a father lost faith in his son.” The Sopranos was our model in a lot of ways. Much of the actual plot of The Sopranos was very simple and very clearly outlined. Tony wanted to kill X. The subtlety came in the small moments. Everyone was in such a rush to kill X and move on that they didn’t take the bottled water that was offered.

      As for how much exposition you need, you’re going to need to just give the script to outside readers to figure that out. Give it to a few friends and have them fill out a questionnaire if you have to. The level of exposition also changes a lot during editing. Producers always want more, while creators want less.

      You can also have the exposition be part of something greater. Terminator 2 might be a good film to study for that. T2 had a lot of exposition, but the scenes usually were tied to a character development. For example, John learns about what the Terminator will do for him, in turn realizing the responsibility he now has.

      Or you can go the Game of Thrones route and have a couple of women make out while you explain some back-story.

      EDIT: Disclaimer - This advice is fueled by Dayquil.
      TitanCreed
      User
      Last edited by TitanCreed; 10-10-2014, 04:07 PM.
      ****

      I am a critic first and a writer second.

      I have a background in development and currently provide low-cost coverage.

      More info here: www.FourStarNotes.com

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      • #4
        Re: Dumb it down, please.

        Battlestar Gallactica did this extremely well.

        There was a lot of tremendously subtle stuff going on, and a lot of deep, "big issues" stuff, too ...

        ... but there was always a ticking clock. Sometimes literally (like in the first or second episode after the mini-series). They didn't stop the action for the subtle stuff. The plot pushed relentlessly forward.

        But that strong plot gave them tremendous room to explore interesting byways.

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: Dumb it down, please.

          Regardless of how much exposition you choose to use or not use, your intent has to come across. Sometimes stripping away exposition really clarifies what you're trying to say and it can really improve the story. A lot of writers, me included, tend to think we need a lot more words than we do. I don't think the solution is to deliberately be subtle. For me the solution is to take a hard look at the story and really know what needs to be said and what should be unpacked later (or at all.)

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: Dumb it down, please.

            I was in a meeting once and a producer analysed a scene in my script and joyfully detailed the subtext, subtleties, hidden meanings and the parallels to a significant 20th century historic event to the other people in the room. I said, "thank you. You are the first person to absolutely get it."

            I had no idea what the hell she was talking about.
            TimeStorm & Blurred Vision Book info & blog: https://stormingtime.com//

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: Dumb it down, please.

              55% of college graduates think the four seasons are caused because the earth moves closer and further away from the sun.

              You have to dumb it down.
              We gain our innocence by taking yours.

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: Dumb it down, please.

                I think it's a terrible phrase. Make it Clear works for me. No one cares how clever you are if they can't figure out what's going on.

                One of my all-time favorite Billy Wilder films is "Ace in the Hole." I think it was a commercial failure in its 1951 or so release. Maybe not dumb enough?

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: Dumb it down, please.

                  You know, all this being said, but I think a lot of writers think they're being deep when they're just being opaque.

                  There's something to be said for clarity.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: Dumb it down, please.

                    Originally posted by Ronaldinho View Post
                    You know, all this being said, but I think a lot of writers think they're being deep when they're just being opaque.
                    Exactly! This is my fear.

                    My fear in attempting to correct this, of course, is over-correcting, and unwittingly using a hammer for a screw.

                    I think the suggestion someone made, that it comes down to reader feedback, might be the solution. Sometimes we're too close to our own work to know what's subtle and what's opaque.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: Dumb it down, please.

                      Originally posted by Ronaldinho View Post
                      You know, all this being said, but I think a lot of writers think they're being deep when they're just being opaque.

                      There's something to be said for clarity.
                      There was a famous tap dancer (at least famous within tap-dancing circles) and part of his reputation was built on being able to do what he called, "The world's slowest time step."

                      A time-step is (so I'm told) a very basic tap-dancing move. If you've ever seen tap-dancing you've seen it. Of course, the point about dancing is that people are really impressed when dancers do it really fast.

                      And there's an advantage to dancing really fast and to dancing in a really complicated way.

                      It hides your mistakes. You miss a step. You get something a little bit wrong -- unless it's something really disastrous that lands you on the floor, you're five steps further on and nobody really notices.

                      But if you do something really clean and simple in a way that everybody can see, that means that everybody can see your mistakes as well. So if it's slow and simple, it's got to be perfect.

                      Claims to to the contrary notwithstanding, it's easy to be complicated and obscure. It's hard to be simple and perfect.

                      The craftsmanship that goes into creating simplicity can be enormously greater than that which goes into creating something really complex, because the craftsmanship must be invisible.

                      The simple appears to be seamless, inevitable, flawless -- as if it couldn't possibly be any other way -- so what's the big deal? Surely the artist couldn't have labored all that much, since the end result seems so inevitable to the eye of the viewer.

                      Yet from the other side, the maker knows the thousands of branching possibilities that had to have been painstakingly tended and trimmed to lead to that apparently inevitable result.

                      NMS

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: Dumb it down, please.

                        Originally posted by nmstevens View Post
                        There was a famous tap dancer (at least famous within tap-dancing circles) and part of his reputation was built on being able to do what he called, "The world's slowest time step."

                        A time-step is (so I'm told) a very basic tap-dancing move. If you've ever seen tap-dancing you've seen it. Of course, the point about dancing is that people are really impressed when dancers do it really fast.

                        And there's an advantage to dancing really fast and to dancing in a really complicated way.

                        It hides your mistakes. You miss a step. You get something a little bit wrong -- unless it's something really disastrous that lands you on the floor, you're five steps further on and nobody really notices.

                        But if you do something really clean and simple in a way that everybody can see, that means that everybody can see your mistakes as well. So if it's slow and simple, it's got to be perfect.

                        Claims to to the contrary notwithstanding, it's easy to be complicated and obscure. It's hard to be simple and perfect.

                        The craftsmanship that goes into creating simplicity can be enormously greater than that which goes into creating something really complex, because the craftsmanship must be invisible.

                        The simple appears to be seamless, inevitable, flawless -- as if it couldn't possibly be any other way -- so what's the big deal? Surely the artist couldn't have labored all that much, since the end result seems so inevitable to the eye of the viewer.

                        Yet from the other side, the maker knows the thousands of branching possibilities that had to have been painstakingly tended and trimmed to lead to that apparently inevitable result.

                        NMS
                        Well, goddamn.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: Dumb it down, please.

                          [QUOTE=Eric Boellner;911938
                          I think the suggestion someone made, that it comes down to reader feedback, might be the solution. Sometimes we're too close to our own work to know what's subtle and what's opaque.[/QUOTE]

                          Feedback has a history of being a dirty word on screenwriting forums, so I'd be a little more specific:

                          You have to see how an audience reacts. Do they laugh when they're supposed to laugh? Do they jump when they're supposed to jump?

                          I don't think there's any way to calibrate that except through trial and error.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Re: Dumb it down, please.

                            Originally posted by Eric Boellner View Post
                            My struggle today is with how little I can get away with, and how much? Guardians of the Galaxy is a recent hot-button film on this issue: the film was filled with on-the-nose dialogue, and tactless exposition.
                            I think that there was much more subtlety going on in GotG than you're giving it credit for. I'm pretty sure much of what you're complaining about was intentional. The sugar coating of a confection with a very sophisticated liqueur in the middle.

                            Have a listen to the woman who dug it out of the Marvel vaults and nurtured it into existence (or read the transcript):

                            http://johnaugust.com/2014/guardians...nicole-perlman

                            This will sound snarky and it's not supposed to be, but I challenge you to come up with a credible argument that she isn't a genius who knew exactly what she was doing.

                            Making a smart "dumb" movie is one hell of a feat.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: Dumb it down, please.

                              Originally posted by 60WordsPerHour View Post
                              I think that there was much more subtlety going on in GotG than you're giving it credit for. I'm pretty sure much of what you're complaining about was intentional. The sugar coating of a confection with a very sophisticated liqueur in the middle.

                              Have a listen to the woman who dug it out of the Marvel vaults and nurtured it into existence (or read the transcript):

                              http://johnaugust.com/2014/guardians...nicole-perlman

                              This will sound snarky and it's not supposed to be, but I challenge you to come up with a credible argument that she isn't a genius who knew exactly what she was doing.

                              Making a smart "dumb" movie is one hell of a feat.
                              I'm perfectly open to being wrong, and no I don't take your post as snark. I'll give it a listen after work, and respond with my thoughts.

                              Comment

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