Hack Tricks

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

When you're writing a script, sometimes you resort to a plot device that's totally implausible but necessary to the story – a coincidental meeting of your two main characters, for instance, or, maybe, the only way you can free your hero from certain death is with a freak, unexpected earthquake that jolts the steamroller that's about to hit him – c'mon, we've all done it. We've all resorted to these kinds of tricks, told ourselves, "hey, look, it's a buy, okay?" or "it's way deep in the third act, at this point, the audience wants an earthquake to happen," or, "it's happens on page six! It's a romantic comedy! The audience expects a certain amount of fanciful whimsy…"

But, really, the only way to get around the artificial, fake-ish plot device is to do what we call "hang a lantern." Meaning, you call attention to it. A character admits to the implausibility of the event, with a "You! What are the odds of meeting YOU here?" or a "We're not even on a fault line," and then you move quickly along and get the story going. Think of a story as a huge line of dominos. It's fun to watch them all tumble by themselves, forming those cool patterns. But to get them all started, you're going to have to use your finger.

That's a great hack trick. Hang a lantern.

Here's another one. Sometimes, when you have crucial exposition to get out for the audience, stuff they have to know to make the rest of the scene make sense, you simply have one character explain it to the other character, the one who doesn't know the information, that they're all going to rob a bank, say, or that one guy is after the other guy's sister. Whatever. You just have one character explain it to the other, clueless, character, and the audience listens in. It's a perfectly natural way to get the exposition out.

But. What do you do when, for whatever reason, both characters know the information? What if they're both bank robbers, or sister chasers, or whatever? You can't really have one character explain to the other something that they both know. Well, you can, and I've seen it done –- once, on a pilot a few years back (not mine, by the way) the daughter character turns to the mother character and says, "Mom, three months ago I had my dream job -– I was a prominent magazine editor. And then, suddenly, my boss gives me a new assignment. To run one of his struggling magazines! The one Dad writes for! So now I'm Dad's boss!" And the mother, who presumable knew this information, just smiled blandly and focused on the middle distance while the exposition was being unspoiled. So how do you avoid this?

Simple: you have the characters argue. You have them bicker over the details. The audience hears the arguments and the details and gets clued in effortlessly.

So that's two great hack tricks.

Now, I use the term "hack" in its professional sense. A few weeks ago, while compulsively Googling myself -– yeah, like you don't -- I discovered that someone, in the comments section of some blog, referred to me as a "hack." Which I know was meant to be vaguely insulting -– well, not vaguely, I guess, but specifically insulting -– and really, a few years ago I would have been insulted.

But, you know, the longer you work as a writer in Hollywood, the more you begin to respect the term "hack" -– I know, I know, we're not supposed to. We're not supposed to think of ourselves as mechanical word machines, turning out blandly competent, soulless work. Still, the older you get, the more regard you have for anyone who turns anything out at all, for even the most by-the-numbers kind of professionalism. It's great, of course, and desirable, and maybe even necessary for success to have a vision, to have passion, to believe in your story and your characters. I certainly do.

You know, most of the time. But the crucial thing – more crucial than vision or passion or art or anything – is that you get it done. That you turn it out. That the pages get generated. That the creaky, unbelievable, necessary plot events get executed in the most elegant way possible; that the audience is not left in the dark. Hacks get it done. And that counts, for something.

That's all for this week. Next week, we'll go to the casino. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long