Thursday, June 28, 2007

Screenwriter Secrets of Effective Storytelling!
The Language (continued):
#2. Getting Stuck in a “Level III Diagnostic”

How exact do we need to be in our stories? Everyone these days deals with so much technical and highly sophisticated information. Programs, concepts, research and the like, so vital to the story, begs to be explained for the lay person (or anyone with power and little time.) What do you do when you need to include a technical term that'll take a few paragraphs to explain, but you don't want to give over that much space to it?

Give in and dumb it down a bit. Find a related concept, or an easy-to-explain item, that can stand in for the complex. You're not writing a doctoral dissertation here, right? (And if you are, stop reading and go back to work!)

Let's use Star Trek as an example. Gene Roddenberry's characters are always using “tricorders” when the set their “phasers on stun” to capture some “dilithium crystals” for the "warp drive." He was making terms up to stand for fictional scientific information that was supposedly centuries in the future. Did Captain Kirk ever stop and deliver a dissertation to the crew on proper phaser use? Of course not!

Roddenberry, in The Making of Star Trek, said that although nobody had ever heard of these things before, he wasn’t about to have a character say “We’ll meet in the Transporter room. The Transporter will disassembled our body’s atoms and shoot them down to the planet where the beam will reassemble us.” All the other characters already know that. To state it would sound unnatural. And in westerns, the gunslinger never says "let me aim my Winchester repeating action rifle, which will fire a number of deadly rounds, at the sheriff."

Roddenberry's solution? Create terms that are 1-off from what we know. He kind of “dumbed down” the future for us. That is, the Star Trek future.

Tricorder? Recorders.
Phasers? Lasers.
Dilithium? Lithium.

Lay them out and then back away.

A long description of the term "pathology" will break your story into pieces. Better to just say "disease." If you can find an image that’s 1-off from what we already know, you can cover even more ground. Don’t worry about getting every detail absolutely right. Just worry about the ones that are important - the details that move the story forward. And if someone complains? Offer to fix it the next time (yeah, I know, that's a terrible suggestion. Maybe someone else has an improved reply?)

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