In this newsletter, I want to look at the issue of –
FAMILIAR STORYTELLING TROPES
By which I mean – all those devices that we, who have watched so many thousands of hours of screen drama and comedy, instantly recognise for their familiarity.
Here is a somewhat random and incomplete checklist of those scenes and moments that I feel I have seen over and over again, whether it is in mainstream TV drama or feature films.
(NB Please do get in touch with your own suggestions of those story tropes I may have missed from this list!)
A crowd of interviewers / journalists asking questions (of police officers, politicians, people coming out of the end of a court case) clamouring with microphones.
TV news report in the background of a scene.
Audio news report in background of a scene.
On screen captions + graphics (eg ‘Day 1 – London July 2027’)
‘What are you thinking? ‘Just a crazy idea…’ ‘Penny for them…’ ie the sort of dodgy segue lines that will probably lead to reams of expositional dialogue.
Ticking clock (see on-screen captions above) eg ‘10 hours until lift-off…’ (or whatever).
Using photos for exposition.
Use of objects to illustrate character – (in the feature film ‘Till’, a mother recovers her dead son’s ring – a family heirloom that finally confirms his identity).
Letters read in voiceover as they are written – particularly in period films (desk, quill pen).
Reading off a screen.
Characters talking to themselves.
Crime drama in which the investigating officers arrive at the exterior, taped-off scene of the crime, where a junior police officer will lift the tape to allow them access and the protagonist police investigator will say (did you guess?), ‘So what have we got?’
Walking and talking scenes in police station corridors where the junior officer reels off exposition / information for the senior officer.
Squad room scenes in which the senior officer (who will normally start the scene by saying, ‘Right, listen up!’ will talk his team (and the audience) through what they know so far.
TV News conferences in which tearful relatives of the victim / missing person tearfully appeal for anyone who knows anything to come forwards.
The interview room scene where police officer interviews suspect.
The scene in which our hero / maverick police investigative protagonist is hauled over the coals by their superior for their unorthodox methods. ‘Morse / Lewis / whoever – a word in my office. Now!’).
I could go on.
BUT before this starts to feel a like a cynical whinge-fest, I want to emphasise that I’m not saying there is anything absolutely wrong with any of these scenes and devices. Tropes and cliché become that because they work, because they are helpful narrative devices and because, at their best, they can work as the basis of brilliant dramatic scenes.
But I do think you should have a healthy questioning attitude when these sort of scenes suggest themselves to you – how can I subvert how this sort of scene usually plays? And in particular how can I subvert and do something unexpected with these scenes in a way that feels utterly specific to and illustrative of my very particular and distinctive characters?
Because I think the two biggest reasons for resorting to these sorts of tropey scenes are –
A lack of clarity about the characters and not knowing clearly enough how they as individuals would use or twist these situations.
OR a lack of research. Not knowing the idiosyncratic reality of what might realistically happen in a particular situation – and thereby falling back on what you have seen previously on film & TV, rather than going to observations of real life.
I think the big thing to avoid is that your script doesn’t read like a diluted version of other, better, already existing TV shows and films. Instead it needs to be absolutely its own thing; even if you include many of these sorts of familiar scenes, you need to write them in such a way that they feel surprising, idiosyncratic, real and relatable.
At this year’s London Film Festival I saw the excellent SHE SAID, a dramatization of the New York Times’ journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuses.
There were all the scenes you’d expect from this story genre – tense hierarchical newspaper office meeting room scenes in which the progress of the investigation is discussed; phone exchanges between journalists and the victims of HW’s abuse; journalists door-stepping victims who are reluctant to speak out; interview scenes in which the journalists come face to face with women who have been abused and are finally able to tell their story, face down the demons that have haunted them.
And then there are the more private / domestic, character moments as we learn more about the two female journalists, the strain their investigative work is putting on their home lives.
Indeed much of the film felt like a patchwork of many scenes that felt familiar from this genre (THE POST, SPOTLIGHT, ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN, ZODIAC).
And yet, for me, this film worked. This story is so emotionally charged. The man under investigation is such a monster – and it’s the little details of how he manipulated and bullied his way to his abuses that are one of the things that bring the story to life, that make it feel truthful and emotionally scarring – for example, the discovery that he repeatedly, in trying to cajole his victims into compliance, would swear that there was nothing untoward in what he was initiating, forcing himself on the women, with the line ‘on the lives of my children.’
The film is full of these sorts of highly specific, researched details that really bring home the emotional horror of this story.
Similarly I find something very reassuring about the film HUSTLE. It is a deeply conventional film, in the genre of sports movie, classic rags to riches tale of a wizened scout / coach down on his luck who invests all his fading hope into a rough diamond basketball talent from Spain, trying to help him find his place in the glittering NBA. As with the above, the film has everything you’d expect from the genre – pre-title sequence setting up this old scout, at the end of his career and in a fruitless search for new talent; intense training montages, the new kid being discovered doing a street hustle after scout Sandler has failed to unearth the talent he’s seeking in more conventional settings; the opposition he receives from his bosses at the Philadelphia 76ers. (The film is largely set in Philadelphia and even references Rocky!). The new kid on the block has a setback when a rival rookie riles him on court, finding his psychological weak spot; the farewell trip to the airport that instead results in ‘one last chance’; the coda preceded by a ‘Five Months Later’ caption.
In other words so much that is familiar, that we’ve seen before in general and in this particular genre in particular (ref. Ron Shelton). So why is this ‘reassuring’? Because, for all the familiarity, the conventionality, this works. It’s a really well-crafted, engaging, enjoyably immersive and emotive piece of cinematic storytelling.
While it is conventional – it conforms clearly and rigidly to the conventions of the genre – the detail and colour in the texture of the characters, the setting, make the film distinctive and engaging.
This is a deceptively well-crafted piece of cinematic storytelling – far more difficult to pull off, in my opinion, than so many of the ambivalent, hard to grasp, narrative-light arthouse films that will be far more favourably reviewed. In its unapologetic but assured use of familiar narrative conventions, the film feels old-fashioned in good ways – an example that, if you work within genre and conform to the all-important principles of good storytelling for the screen, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to craft a really successful engaging and enjoyable story.
So much of strong, surprising TV drama writing is about embracing and subverting the usual over-obviously expositional tropes.
The next newsletter will be on Friday November 4th
Friday October 21st 2022