a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, September 30, 2005

Another Dumb Plot Device To Avoid

As I come across these things in actual screenplays, causing me to vividly remember them (because I'd previously cast them out of my brain like Backstreet Boys lyrics), I'm going to post them, and warn you avoid their evil.

This week: Climaxes (and other plot beats) involving live TV shows.

I get that this is like other plot devices, in that if done well, they can work. The idea even sort of works in Tootsie, probably because it's such a comedy that we are more forgiving of dubious stories about a technician spilling a beverage on some tapes and thus the need to air a soap opera live (as opposed to, say, simply taping it an hour before it airs, or even ten minutes, so you have a chance to re-do any screw-ups). I still wonder what they aired on the West Coast, or what happened with the three weeks of other episodes they already had in the can. More live tapings, I guess, or reruns of "Little House".

The truth is, there just aren't a lot of TV shows that air live. The news. Morning shows. Sporting events. I guess the show in which they pick the lottery numbers. "Saturday Night Live". "American Idol", once they narrow everyone down. The occasional last five minutes of "Big Brother".

But over and over in scripts I read, there are big climaxes involving revelations on live TV shows. And I get why writers want to do this -- there's something climactic about having your big dramatic or comic showdown where millions of people are watching, and things can't be taken back.

But it's got to be credible. I've read at least three scripts that had characters getting involved in live episodes of "Cops", something that there have never, ever been. The vast majority of talk shows are not live. And the script I just read, which spawned this rant, centered on a climax involving a live episode of a sitcom.

I know that occasionally episodic television does go live. "ER" did it once. But it's a big deal. It involves a hell of a lot of work, and preparation. In this script I read, it wasn't a big deal. The writer handled it as if this is how sitcoms are always done.

It just comes across as stupid.

There are times when live TV climaxes can work, when it is finessed well, when something new is brought to it, and when it is made credible. But at least work hard to make the reader believe that what is airing live is something that might actually do so, and isn't the glaringly awkward attempt of a bad writer to wrap up all the script's plotlines in a badly-tied bow.


At 12:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh...check out Little Black Book with Brittany TV talk show as part of the climax. :)


At 11:20 AM, Blogger sretherf said...

Do you think they put these devices in because they it's what they dig, or just for commercial appeal they perceive it has? When I write, most of the big scenes come from interests that I have or things I think look cool on screen.

I like Joss Whedon's work... he seems like he's not afraid to feed his odd/interesting appetites while at the same time managing to create dramatic stories.

At 1:44 PM, Anonymous kristen said...

you know what other climax was on live tv? dee wallace turning into a werewolf in "the howling." that worked awfully nicely, as the viewing audience was so desensitized to the blurring of news TV & entertainment TV that nobody thought it was real. so you get drama, humor and social commentary in one fell swoop.

At 12:43 AM, Blogger Jackie Honikman said...

what about when the climax is caught on tape and then sort of used as blackmail?

At 12:52 PM, Blogger Matt Waggoner said...

It seems likely that most such climaxes exist because the writer doesn't know that it's been done (badly) a million times before. My first screenplay was a romantic comedy about a homeless guy, which I in my infinite wisdom assumed had never been done before.

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous tony said...

Thank you for using the phrase "centered on", instead of "centered around". I can't stand when people try to center around something.


At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never encountered that problem very frequently during my days as a reader, but it sure sounds lame.

On a script I wrote personally, though, a major plot point (not the climax of the whole script, though), does occur on a talk show. But it isn't supposed to be live!

By the way, given the incredibly hectic and rushed production schedules of daily soap operas, it is not implausible that they would choose to air a segment live if they somehow lost a scene. At least not back in 1982.


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