ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

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

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Out Of The Box

So as I wrestle with my still-untitled screenplay, I find myself tempted to do something that most gurus would probably frown heavily on.

Whether that is a reason not to do something, I don't know.

I'm a big advocate of the "learn the right format" school of screenwriting, but I'm not sure this is really a format issue. It might be a tool issue.

Some context --

My main character starts off the script, for a variety of reasons, as a heavily-medicated woman, whose dialogue reflects this. It's meant to be strikingly emotionless, lifeless dialogue; she's lost inside herself, and her speech no longer reflects any shadings of her character.

Right now, I have a mention before her first speech, about how, until stated otherwise, this is what her speech sounds like. But it doesn't seem to be enough, somehow. While constantly referring to it in the script (it covers the first 15 pages, and then occasionally is required later) just feels clunky.

Then, the other day, I was reading a largely mediocre college comedy (which has an agent, and which I was covering for a major prodco), in which one of the characters was in a wheelchair and spoke in an electronic voice, through his computer.

And every time he talked, his dialogue was in a different font than everyone else's dialogue.

In other words, not Courier.

And somehow, it worked. It captured the form that his dialogue was always taking, and didn't let you forget that it was electronic. And you shouldn't forget, because watching the movie you certainly won't.

So I'm considering doing the same thing. If I can find the right font, that somehow captures what I am going for, without being too distracting. (And if my archaic Final Draft can even change fonts. So it might be a moot point).

But another part of me worries that it's a gimmick, that jaded contest readers or young assistants or uptight story analysts will snort and take off points, as if it is a sign of my amateurism, rather than an attempt to use a tool to really capture something in my script.

Yeah, I know, I'm a reader, and we should have firm opinions about these things. But it's not like all of us readers get together and compare notes.

But I say if I play with it, and it works... maybe it's worth doing.

Thoughts?

41 Comments:

At 2:39 AM, Blogger Eleanor said...

Me, I'd try to find a way to hammer it home through her initial dialogue - as she stands in front of the bathroom mirror, swallowing her daily regimen of pills...each one lined up on the shelf, waiting - probably via VO dialogue about how life is meaningless.

But that's me.

If you think a different font works better, go for it. Verdana or Arial might be good?

Personally, I feel that if it clarifies story, break the rules. They're more like guidelines anyway. ;-)

 
At 2:48 AM, Blogger Danny Stack said...

A different font for that character's dialogue is a great idea. I'd be totally in synch with that if I was reading the script. Go for it.

 
At 2:52 AM, Blogger Steve Axelrod said...

Not a good idea. It crosses a line you want to stay away from, into a form of the dreaded 'directing on paper'. You might have better luck with the dialogue itself ... using no contractions, for instance. "I'm going to the store. Ask Tom if he'd like anything" sounds drastically different from "I am going to the store. Ask Tom if he would like anything." You automaically get a more robotic feel.

 
At 4:01 AM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Me no likie. It will come off as amateur-ish, methinks.

 
At 5:06 AM, Blogger The Moviequill said...

there are no rules when you are trying to present a unique voice so go for it.. do it now before 150 others decide to try it, being the genesis of something is a lot better then a follower

 
At 5:07 AM, Blogger Konrad West said...

I think it would have to depend on who you think will read it. If it's going to someone who knows that you're doing it with a purpose as opposed to the beginner who does it because he doesn't know better, then it would be okay.

But I think Eleanor and Steve's advice is the best. If it can be differentiated in the lead up and dialogue itself, that's your best option, as it won't be mistaken for newbie-ness.

My 2 cents. :)

 
At 5:45 AM, Anonymous Leif Smart said...

I would definately advise against it if you can. Perhaps italics would be a preferable choice, or even bold? If you do decide to go with a different font make sure its a fixed width font.

 
At 5:49 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

If it is on the first page, then I'd be a little worried of prejudicing the reader as to your ability before getting off the first page. First impressions are a bitch.

I'm guessing that the change of font in the college comedy didn't happen on page 1.

I'm also guessing that the font in the college comedy depicting an electronic voice was Fixed Sys or something that looks digital. That works for me.

Is there a font out there that screams over-medicated, emotionally devoid woman? None comes to my mind, and if one doesn't exist, how would it be any different than using italics?

 
At 6:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go with Leif's advice and use italics. Or give her a speech tick that starts each line of dialogue, like a Turret's cursing or hiccup.

 
At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Argo said...

I agree with anonymous. As your character is still talking in her own voice (albeit a sedated one), a different font would be an odd choice. So I'd go with italics or a speech tic - the speech tic could definitely help spice up the dialog and remove the clunkiness.

 
At 8:20 AM, Blogger Optimistic_Reader said...

Hi Scott,

I'd also be inclined to avoid using a different font. I'm sure you can convey it just through the dialogue, and by clearly setting up the fact she is on medication. Also I think you can underline the slightly robotic behaviour by noting her mannerisms, the way she moves when she is on the pills contrasted subtly with how she behaves off the pills. I'm sure the reader will pick up on it.

 
At 8:33 AM, Blogger Brett said...

Dude-- you're a WRITER, not a DESIGNER.

Yeah, setting her early speech in itals or boldfaced reversed underlined ransom note would surely make it stand out as different. Cooler still would be to manage the same trick using just the words on the page and no obvious gimmicks.

There are all sorts of ways to try that. I'll email you, as I don't want to give away ALL the secrets.... ;-)
.
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Amazing Ballantine B

 
At 8:33 AM, Blogger jefe said...

The different font thing is an old comic book trick -- but you could also do some kind of weird bracket, they do that do.

{Life is not worth living.}

Why are you talking like that?

 
At 8:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's meant to be strikingly emotionless, lifeless dialogue; she's lost inside herself, and her speech no longer reflects any shadings of her character."

If I understand you correctly you want the reader to be constantly aware of the state she's in. But what about reframing the problem? Focus more on her appearance, actions and movements and less on how her lines should be delivered?

Heavy drug use shows. Bouncers are very adept at spotting people who are high and also what they are on (they know all the signs, contracted pupils, gnashing teeth etc).
I know a couple of people who have schizophrenia and have been on medication for years, even decades, and it shows - both in their appearance (teeth, skin, hair) and movements. There's this characteristic pattern to their movements.

There can be all kinds of signs of drug use. Lack of facial expression, slow movements, long reaction time, poor coordination or whatever. It's certainly possible to write some small (but hopefully important) business into the script every now and then, to underline the state she's in. She's pouring coffee into a cup, her hand strays, suddenly coffee is pouring on the table and she's very slow to notice and react. A lame example, I know, but you know what I mean.

Is this a bag lady or some kind of hermit? Doesn't she socialize with other people on a daly basis, live with someone? Her state must affect friends, family, coworkers. Perhaps they are always on edge, forever trying to watch out for her. Or they snigger behind her back. Perhaps the whole family howls in laughter every time she attempts to sit down, misses the chair and crashes to the floor. What I'm basically saying is that her state must be reflected in those around her, in some form or manner. I think that one of the ways the reader/audience can experience the reality of this character is to observe how the other characters react to her or interact with her.

Personally I don't fancy the different-type idea at all. This post is just a very elaborate way of saying that.

Anna

 
At 9:46 AM, Anonymous James Patrick Joyce said...

I’d have to agree with the naysayers. In the college script, the different font is being used for a non-human voice and it sounds like an wonderful idea.

In your example, you want to use font to demonstrate an aspect of the character’s psychological state. That should come out in dialogue and action, shouldn’t it?


What about ellipses? If the character is heavily drugged, she must pause a lot. And the presence of ellipses in only her dialogue would certainly be a reminder that she’s talking like a zombie. How do you guys react to ellipses in dialogue?

 
At 9:50 AM, Blogger Brett said...

How do you guys react to ellipses in dialogue?

Well... that depends...
.
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B...

(and I agree with you, FWIW)

 
At 9:54 AM, Blogger Shawn said...

I'm of the opinion that her listlessness would be inherent in what she says. If the reader has a hard time picking up it, then you may have to revisit the dialogue. Her lack of emotion might also be reflected in how she deals with and responds to other people.

 
At 10:00 AM, Blogger William said...

I have to agree with a no go on the font change. Don't give them a reason to ask, "Who does this guy think he is Shane Black/Q.T/whoever?"

I think you need to be crafty here with your action and dialogue. If she's listless then make her "read" that way through the description of her body language, dialogue and her interaction with others. That is where you need to stand out not by using Copperplate Gothic Bold. Hope this helps.

 
At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How much money would I rake in if I developed a font that made bad writing read like stellar writing?

 
At 10:41 AM, Anonymous chesher cat said...

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Scott, but it sounds like your front 15 is in need of a good old fashioned rewrite.

 
At 12:18 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Thanks all.

Chesher, I've been completely rewriting the opening for a while now (at least in my head, in between being completely swamped with reading work), and that's the genesis of this pondering.

I had a feeling that it wasn't a particularly good idea, but I was still tempted by it, so I figured I'd throw it up on the wall and see if the potshots were interesting.

They are. A lot of good advice here.

Scott

 
At 12:42 PM, Blogger writergurl said...

I read the script of "Sliding Doors" and the writer used italics for the secondary story line (where she doesn't catch him cheating), and it worked well. A brief note and we were off. I'd use italics. FD has the ability to do italics.

 
At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Marcus said...

Ever read A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY? Not sure if SIMON BIRCH, the screen adaptation, took the same approach, but in the book, whenever Owen opened his mouth, his dialogue was presented in straight caps.

For him, it was because the guy was small and had to shout to be taken seriously.

For your character, something similar could work.

I say fuck the rules.

 
At 1:21 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

I've used italics before, I don't think it'sa big deal.

 
At 2:48 PM, Blogger Robert Hogan said...

You said yourself you've seen it done effectively. If you have faith in your skills go for it and see what happens. Right a five or ten page short with the character talking in both voices, using a different font for the sedated voice, then run it by some people and see what they think.

The other option I would think about here is giving the character two different personalities in the dialogue cues. You could have NUMB ANGELA and ANGELA. That would make it pretty clear which voice was talking.

Rob

 
At 3:02 PM, Anonymous eddie said...

If you at work and reading the script, would it bother you?

Action is character.

 
At 3:25 PM, Blogger Warren said...

I'm against it too. It will make your script appear amateurish, and that's certainly one thing you're not. Just my two cents.

 
At 4:06 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

It shouldn't matter, but some of the gang are right here, through dialogue may be the key

 
At 4:38 PM, Blogger Abe Burnett said...

Actually, the rules are there to be broken when appropriate. This may be one of those moments. I think both the use of a different font, or the use of italics would be effective. The suggestion to use the character name as a dialogue que seems a bit overhanded.

See, the reality is that you don't want your dialogue to suck so horribly that no one wants to read past page 15--regardless if the woodenness of the dialogue is intentional. A lot of the accurate portrayal of the dialogue will be in the acting anyway. You're probably better off using a different font (but nothing outrageous--Veranda would probably seem adequately sterile) and loosening up your dialogue a bit.

If you don't do SOMETHING to clue the reader in that your dialogue is intentionally stilted then you'll lose them before they find out. I have read scripts where the writer simply made an upfront note which seemed professional and appropriate. It was in a case where the dialogue in a scene was spoken in French. Rather than doing something heavyhanded like writing the French and providing a translation into English in parentheses, he simply noted in ALL CAPS, bold and underlined that the following dialogue was spoken French. It worked well because then I didn't feel insulted having a whole bunch of French--which I don't speak--thrown at me. It played on the page very well. That script was for Crime Spree (which is a relatively entertaining caper flick).

Maybe that's another approach you could take that would protect you from losing the reader upfront, while not burdening your writing down with any gimmicks, etc.

The ellipses idea is a good one too though.

 
At 6:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think this is the kind of situation where you can slide by with a different font.. because it is sliding by... effective, but sliding by.

Actually, if you can't get robotic or sedated through to the audience on words alone - if you really need that paragraph at the top to explain, I don't think it's going to work anyways.

But a better question is why does the character need to be robotic and sedated for the first fifteen pages? And how sedated is she? Maybe she's not sedated enough. Would the average person be able to look at her and see that she was sedated? Because when you can see that someone is sedated, they're also barely coherent. If they're just plastic, the only way to get across the feeling of sedation is to introduce a sense of the uncanny re:freud.

 
At 7:43 PM, Blogger Rene said...

This could cause some minor confusion, but have you thought about renaming the character when she changes? Ie, maybe the character begins as "BORED JANE", and later on graduates to just "JANE".

Or, maybe when you're first introducing the character, you could do something like:

"This is JANE. She is bored, quiet, emotionless. She is uninterested in the world around her, everything she does is ROBOTIC."

Then you could refer to her as "ROBOTIC JANE" up until she changes, at which point you could refer to her as just "JANE".

"Robotic" is a lame adjective, but you get the idea.

Or you could go a step further and not give her a real name at first... maybe she's just "WORKER BEE" or "EMPLOYEE 3672" or something.

 
At 9:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're looking to work as a writer. Let the writing carry your meaning.

If you want to play with visual presentation, you should stay within format and your typeface. Consider dropping capital letters and punctuation if you want give her dialogue an out-of-it feel.

And remember the obligation to entertain. If your heroine is drugged and dull, she'd better be entertainingly drugged and dull, or your readers will never see page twenty.

 
At 9:53 PM, Anonymous cwmagee said...

um... yeah... i dont think i like fonts... the... i dont know... they make me... ah... hmm.

no. never mind. i dont really care either way.

 
At 10:36 PM, Anonymous chris soth said...

Formatting is tyranny. It's just another tool to TELL YOUR STORY. It's not the easiest read thing in the world, it sucks ass. Put yourself in the position of a reader -- you'd only hate that the writer did it if the script stunk, right? Then you'd focus on nitpicky things like formatting so you could say "not only does this suck, he can't even format" -- but if the script shows us that you've mastered story, people will point to the formatting as PART of the genius, right?

ANALOGY: All us development types are told to hate "flashbacks" and consider them weak writing. Tarantino comes along and uses "non-linear" storytelling and is called "clever", even "ingenius" because he's not using it to hide a weakness...

...are you?

Picasso...draws like a child and changes the art world forever...but only after mastering the basics.

chris

 
At 1:38 AM, Blogger Danny Stack said...

why not post up a sample page so we can see what it looks like? that'd make it clearer...

 
At 6:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a lose-lose: the electronics voice/font was (probably) carried throughout the entire script.

What happens when she's off the drugs? Back to courier? If they like the diff font, this change will seem odd.

But most likely, I'd fear they won't.

--two cents

 
At 8:41 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

Just goes to show ya.

Ask a formatting question, and screenwriters will come running from far and wide to give their opinions.

Because, as Scott has said countless times, don't matter if the story is good as long as you have a correctly formattted script!

 
At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Joshua said...

do what you want, what feels right and be happy with it. Know that if you're breaking a rule, some develop or reader somewhere is gonna bust your balls over it but it's expected.

I don't know that I'd changed font, but I would consider doing italics or bold or just put her dialogue in brackets . . .

break a leg, bro . . .

 
At 10:42 AM, Anonymous phillip said...

I have no idea if this would work for your story but what if you initially showed what she was like when she's off her meds. You'd have a better chance at immediately grabbing the reader's attention with a scene involving a hysterical, rambling woman than a lethargic, droning one. The juxtaposition between her pre-med and post-med behavior would eliminate the need for convoluted schemes for explaining her zombie-ish demeanour.

Plus the reader would be less likely to be bored by her lethargic behaviour because he/she knows at some point she's gonna go off her meds again. And you could drop hints in her ramble(to be paid off later) about past and/or future events. Plus you'd get the chance to write a cool scene where she's tackled and needled full of Thorazine.

 
At 2:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second Phillip's idea. Just present a stark contrast right iat the start.

This I say even though I have absolutely no idea what the script is about or even if the advice is applicable or relevant or whatever.

Anna

 
At 1:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How was Garden State written? The main character there is sedated (but then again, the actor also wrote and directed so maybe didn't need to worry about getting it across to others so much). Guess I haven't helped really:)

 

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