Saying The Right Thing First
A note on scripted storytelling. Inspired by song.
Three times in recent months I’ve been struck by the lyrics of a song in a way that made me go “Oh, that’s the wrong thing to tell us first.” It’s one of the scriptwriter senses. We get it right alongside our ability to cut two pages by adjusting punctuation, and our bad knees.
Sometimes a script creates the wrong impression by setting up something that wasn’t meant. If you want to establish a marriage as dull, don’t open on the one good day the couple have in a month. If you want people to know a character is tough, don’t start them off in the one situation where they’re belittled.
It’s about order of information. Show a tough character belittled or a bad marriage having a good day and it’s interesting, emotional – but only if you know the context first.
Journey: Don’t Stop Believin’
By Jonathan Cain, Steve Perry, Neal Schon. Lyrics.
This is probably one you’ve all noticed:
Just a small town girl / Livin’ in a lonely world / She took the midnight train goin’ anywhere / Just a city boy / Born and raised in south Detroit / He took the midnight train goin’ anywhere
Ah, so here we have two characters, separated by distance, coming together. Probably a love story. Both equally important to the coming narrative…
It’s actually a song about distance, about how disparate we are, and how hope matters. But the first two lines tell us that these two are joined – by the tale, by structure (both introductions are exactly the same length and shape, songs being as songs often are), by implication and, of course, by genre. Pop songs are love songs, everyone knows that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true, only matters that we have expectations.
These aren’t protagonists. They may be sharing the night “for a smile”, but after that we’re done with them. They’re just examples in a montage. Examples of the “strangers waiting up and down the boulevard”. Trouble is, nobody knew this was a montage until the second verse ditched the leads.
Compare how the same challenge is handled by this:
Mark Owen: Four Minute Warning
By Gary Barlow, Eliot Kennedy, Mark Owen. Lyrics.
This is how it kicks off:
Four minutes left to go, is this the end? / That message on your stereo, four minute warning / Everybody wants to know what should we do than / A few short stories, a four minute warning
Couldn’t be clearer. ‘Here are some examples of humankind before the world ends.’ And then it gets into the same kind of vignettes Journey kicked off with.
The song gets away with it because a) like all these examples, literal script-like readings of lyrics will always miss just how much people feel the music half of the equation, and b) Journey actually create the exact sense of loneliness and hope the song is going for by making two characters matter to us…and then taking them away before we see what becomes of them.
Bruno Mars: Just The Way You Are
By Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Khalil Walton, Khari Cain. Lyrics.
Here’s how this song starts:
Oh, her eyes, her eyes make the stars look like they’re not shining / Her hair, her hair falls perfectly without her trying / She’s so beautiful / And I tell her everyday.
I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like anyone who exists in the real world. Does anyone listening think their hair falls perfectly without trying?
Bruno’s singing about one of those women men create for songs all the time – aesthetically perfect, made just for him. You hear about them all a time. Not even the quirks of a Manic Pixie, since she’s not going to change him one iota.
And that would be that, except for the arrival of the second verse…
Yeah, I know, I know when I compliment her, she won’t believe me / And it’s so, it’s so sad to think that she doesn’t see what I see / But every time she ask me do I look okay? / I say…
She’s not who you thought at all. Beauty is in the eye of Mars. “Her laugh her laugh, she hates but I think it’s so sexy.” She’s a real person, flawed and particular, but a dream girl to him.
If we’re feeling generous we can read that opening verse as a deliberate mislead, a reveal that what we thought was objective narration was actually point-of-view. But by knowing where we stand talk of hair falling perfectly stops being a description of a woman and becomes an explanation of how two people work as a couple.
But maybe Mars has factored in that pop songs are designed to be replayed…
By Lily Allen. Lyrics.
Here’s how it begins:
Oh deary me, / My little brother’s in his bedroom smoking weed, / I tell him he should get up cos it’s nearly half past three / He can’t be bothered cos he’s high on THC
That’s pretty categorical: Lily’s brother wouldn’t be the lazy arse he is if not for the demon weed.
The song goes on to break down more of the heroine’s concerns. But the ganja disappears, leaving just a general sense that Alfie is a feckless layabout:
Ooooo Alfie get up it’s a brand new day, / I just can’t sit back and watch you waste your life away / You need to get a job because the bills need to get paid / Get off your lazy arse, / Alfie please use your brain
Now while I don’t doubt Alfie continues to puff away during his videogame playing – and a later reveal that Lily got him into this lifestyle in the first place is neat – I’m not sure this is the Evils of Drugs song it seemed to be.
Imagine if the weed had been mentioned mid-way – lazy hair-pulling brother is wasting his life, oh and now he’s getting high. It’s a thing he does amidst his laziness. He’s Seth Rogan at the start of…any Seth Rogan film. The dope isn’t the cause, it’s a symptom.
Shuffle the order, don’t lead with it, and that becomes a lot more clear.
By Sam Vincent, Jonathan Brackley. Channel 4.
Okay, I cheated. This is a little bit about a TV script after all.
In the first episode of Humans, we’re shown a family frustrated by their mother’s absence, the latest of many. They’re so annoyed, they kinda-sorta buy a robot to replace her.
But the main scene featuring mum before she comes home is this: she calls the house, dreadfully upset and missing everyone, and the entire household ignores the ringing phone. Dad picks up the message immediately, but elects to go robot shopping rather than call back.
Who’s missing who here? Who’s working to keep in contact? Where can we put our investment and understanding if we don’t know which situation we’re investing in, can’t understand the action?
Now, Humans has turned out to be one of those drip-feed, reveal-the-past stories that I don’t get on with. It’s smart, well-made show, but a smart, well-made show where protagonists already know the situation and we wait weeks to find out what it is. We’re watching from outside, a slice of footage from the middle of something we’re not allowed to know the context of yet.
But if we’re being asked to understand this household, to be aware of the dynamics at play so we grasp what the arrival of a robot means, and to invest in the characters so their actions mean things to us, was this the best way to start?
Were the right things said first?