Friday, March 21, 2008

Subverting Expectations

I'd point all writers (or those interested in writing) to this very smart Jane Espenson post about subverting audience expectations:

… Sometimes, I see good writers make fun of bad, obvious dialog and cliche. Saw a bit on Steven Moffat's JEKYLL, ep. 3. A bunch of suits and techies watching the usual assortment of screens tracking Dr. Jackman:

Shot of a dot moving along a drawing of a railroad track.

Technie: He's moving.
American agent: Of course he's moving! He's on a train!

We don't really need "He's moving" to tell us that he's moving, unless we're washing the dishes and listening to the TV out of one ear, or we are very, very stupid. The American agent makes that point for us.

But wait, there's the retort:

Technie: He's moving.
American agent: Of course he's moving! He's on a train.
English agent: You obviously haven't got the hang of England yet, have you?

Joss does this a lot, I think, subverting our TV viewer expectations:

Buffy: Puppets give me the wiggins. Ever since I was 8.
Willow: What happened?
Buffy: I saw a puppet. It gave me the wiggins. There really isn't a story there.

I bet that sort of retort comes up a lot in story rooms; I wonder how often it makes it to the screen. (Network exec: "But how does the audience know he's moving?")


The above isn't from Espenson, but from a friend of hers. She then digs a little deeper, hitting on what's probably the best writing moment in the entire Star Wars saga. (A cookie for you if you can guess what it is before following the link.)

Espenson is talking about screenwriting, but I think it's equally valid for prose.

2 comments:

Jeff Peterson said...

My recollection is that credit for the Star Wars punch line goes to the actor on set rather than the screenwriter; if true, this represents a sort of anticipatory atonement for the later acting career.

Anonymous said...

Espenson's comment would be cutting edge. For 1993.

Like a lot of things (particularly Whedon) the post-modern and hyper ironic stuff is just dated.

Brief and to the point. Yes, that was Hammett's and Hemingway's style. But people still read Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain. And none of them are known for brevity.

Hang a lantern on the obvious exposition? Well I suppose in Hollywood it's always 1993. That's probably why their stuff sucks so bad. It's such a cliche now that to surprise the audience you'd need to go straight up no chaser.

I would argue that Whedon and others have over-used that so much it's not clever. But expected and boring and too self-referential.