Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sensible Stories

My son and his buddy entertained me yesterday with girlfriend stories -- like how mall trips always end up at a purse counter where the giggling girls squeal like pigs as they fondle leather handbags and the guys stand far enough away to look like they are trying on belts, but near enough that the girls don't know how far away they are trying to stand.

They MUST fondle the handbags, I explained to them, because teenage girls are required by the laws of nature to not only try on, touch, and sniff everything they want to buy, but to also try on, touch and sniff the potential purchases of any other female with whom they are on speaking terms at that particular hour of the day -- oh, and also because people are basically sensory stimulated.

They were unconvinced. Girls are just stupid, they insisted.

Yes, they are, but if people weren't sensory stimulated, sad songs would yield no tears and a softly held hand wouldn't tremble. Nobody would get nauseous at rancid odors and who would impulse buy those lint gadgets and fondue machines by the cash register?

Oh sure, the general agreement among "experts" is that impulse buys are based on price, but why then will a kid go into Toys R Us and beg for a toy they've never wanted or even heard of before? Because it's cheap? Children aren't interested in price. They go into sensory overload at all those spinning yo-yo's, light-up yo-yo's, and glow-in-the-dark yo-yo's, only to later forsake a brand new Duncan Imperial for a ziplock bag of gray Play-Dough that was once six tidy tubs of assorted colors.

People are sensory. We respond positively to things that taste good, smell good, feel good, look good and sound good -- and negatively if they taste bad, smell bad, feel bad, look bad or sound bad.

That pretty much sums up my hypothesis about what is missing from my latest screenplay. It doesn't hold any of the viewers' senses hostage. I need John McClane walking on broken glass or Matthew Quigley thirsting in the desert.

While I'm not suggesting that sensory story elements should be primary, there's a reason As Time Goes By is forever associated with Casa Blanca and food fights with Animal House.

And, I have to defend the ziplock bag of Play-Dough even though it lacks the sensory flash of a glow-in-the-dark or light-up yo-yo. Play-Dough has sensory staying power. Long after the characters' names are forgotten, people still remember that scene from Ghost where Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore grope a lump of clay.

I was still mulling this whole sensory thing over when the guys abandoned my June Cleaver wisdom to check out the truck for sale next door by a neighbor who specializes in rebuilding performance cars. Neither kid needed the truck or even wanted the truck, but it was something to do.

When my son returned home, absent his buddy, I wanted to know what happened. Nothing, he said, until his buddy climbed in --

"He turned the ignition and a Hemi sprung to life. Then, the heavens opened up and a sparkling beam of light shone down on the dusty windshield and he hugged the steering wheel as a voice like thunder said, 'go ye into the bank and bring forth $9800' -- so he did."
ME: What, no burning bush?

SON: I didn't think you'd believe me.

ME: Well, at least it wasn't a leather purse.

SON: Stupid girls.


Douglas Cootey said...

Excellent post. Wonderfully written.


The Moviequill said...

I want more sensory in my scripts too... so I think I'll bring my notepad and hang out in Victoria's Secret for a few hours of "research" (jk)

Anonymous said...

The image of former presidential candidtate John Macain running barefoot through a bullet-riddled building evokes several of my senses. As a prisoner of war, he's enough of a badass that broken glass wouldn't phase him. It evokes my sense of patriotism, for sure. But it mostly evokes humor, like the laughs Stephen Colbert got during his taped skit at the White House Correspondent's dinner.

For the record, "John McClane" was the Bruce Willis character. He's just a pretend badass. And he probably cried like a abay.

Optimistic_Reader said...

MaryAn, I posted about something similar to this on my blog a while ago, as I tend to think in terms of colours when I think about most of my scripts - you can find the post here if you want to have a look. I find most of the scripts I read make too basic mistakes when it comes to engaging the senses - they fail to fully exploit the fact that film is a visual medium, and tend to get everything across in dialogue, or they describe the smell of something in the scene directions, but don't make it clear how that can actually be shown onscreen. Three scripts that immediately spring to my mind as drawing in the senses are Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty and The Piano.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Anon -- Too funny! Okay, John MCCLANE -- fixing that in the post -- but the important thing is I remembered the scene enough to (sort of) remember the character's name.

Douglas, thank you.

Todd, no touchie.

Optimist - very well put -- "fail to fully exploit the fact that film is a visual medium" -- many of us think of the "visual" aspect as a handicap or deterrence, not as an opportunity to be exploited.

Fade Up said...

Don't you hate it when you're on a work computer and don't have the "auto password fill-in" function and you don't remember your password so you have to comment as an anonymous Die Hard posting lurker? Sorry, that was me.

Whew. All better now.

Brett said...

I'm a big believer in the "One Cool Thing" school of screenwriting.

In every scene, you have to have at least One Cool Thing. It can be a great line-- one that makes you weep or cry or pump your fist even on the FIFTIETH reading of that line. It can be a kick-ass visual. It can be an awesome original bit of action. It can be a breathtaking moment of revelation, or a subtle pun which can neither be ignored nor criticized as too pandering. It can be a reversal which takes your breath away for being totally unexpected and (in immediate hindsight) to obvious that the readers feel like fools for having not seen it coming a thousand yards away.

But dammit every scene had better have One Cool Thing about it which acts as its best defense come time to bring out teh sharp knives and start carving the draft down to its most absolute bare essential moments and scenes.

When outlining, one of my last checks before committing to cranking out actual pages is to actually physically note every scene's One Cool Thing. If the scene doesn't have one, I know immediately that I am rationalizing some weak bit of clumsy transparent exposition, or am clinging to dearly to some piece of laughable melodrama.


Systemaddict said...

That, I think, is a very interesting observation- both the post and brett's comments.

The idea of sensory perception in a script I think gets lost on a lot of writers (i wouldn't exclude myself), because I think we tend to think of that as the directors job (barring directing yourself)...but the work should be there in the script. I really like the idea of One Cool Thing, or even a nice shiny truck...pieces together a lot of what the audience is looking for..

Anonymous said...

Press on, you are getting boring now.