masterofnone

I want to apologize in advance. I have a huge day ahead of me so I don’t have time to do a full screenplay review. Plus I’m still basking in the wonderful light of yesterday’s great screenplay. I don’t want to ruin that buzz by injecting some Max Landis script into my brain about time-traveling clowns that attack a skyscraper.

But I still want to leave you guys with a screenwriting tip.

So, I’ve been watching the second season of Aziz Ansari’s Master Of None. I’m four episodes in. For those who aren’t fans of Ansari, you should at least check out Episode 4, “First Date.” It’s a great example of what I tell you to do every day – find a fresh take on an old idea. Aziz and co-creator Alan Yang take the time worn cliche of a first date and infuse a modern spin into it. It was great.

However, the three episodes that preceded First Date weren’t very good. And as I was watching them, I was trying to figure out why. Aziz and Yang had set the first two episodes in Italy and the third, which deals with religion, back home. A common problem I noticed was that everything in these episodes felt staged. You could feel the actors reading their lines. You could see them trying to hit their marks.

For example, there’s a moment where Dev’s friend Alan comes to visit him, and the two go to the grocery store to talk. The scene was so staged and so artificial, they might as well have shown the entire production team behind them. Or there was a scene where Dev’s entire family goes out to eat at a restaurant. You could practically see the actors waiting for their turn to say their line.

At first I thought they may not have had the locations for long and had to cover everything in one take. Or the actors were still getting warmed up for the new season. But then I realized the problem wasn’t either of these things. The problem was in the writing. And it’s actually a mistake every writer makes multiple times in a screenplay.

What is it?

They hang their characters out to dry.

Hanging your characters out to dry means placing them in a scene with no purpose. No one is trying to get anything (a goal), and therefore the only thing driving the scene is dialogue. Now Master of None gets away with this better than others because Aziz and Yang write funny dialogue. But even if you’re funny, leaving your characters out to dry kills the scene.

The reason your actors’ movements and lines are so staged is because the characters don’t have any purpose in the scene. They’re literally at a supermarket, as actors, to film a scene. They’re not at the supermarket, as characters, to get anything.

The simple solution to this is to always have some kind of goal driving the scene. It could be the overall goal of the story that’s brought them to that location. Or it could be a more immediate goal that’s brought them there. The idea, then, is to have them attempt to achieve their objective, then make their dialogue secondary.

For example, there’s a later plot point where someone steals Dev’s wallet. Had you taken Dev and Alan and placed them in that same supermarket because they think the man who stole Dev’s wallet works there, now you’ve given the characters an objective in the scene. They can exchange virtually the same dialogue as they did before, but with this added element of snooping around, trying to find their man.

The thing with TV, however, is that it’s not as plot-heavy as features. So you’re not always going to have juicy plot points to play with. However, if you don’t have plot pushing the scene, make sure you have conflict. Which leads us to a second option to save your scenes: Add an issue between the two characters.

You’ll actually see this in reality TV a lot. Whenever they put two (or more) characters in a scene, they always make sure they have an issue to settle. Maybe one of them was spreading rumors. Maybe they got in a fight last night. Maybe there’s some unrequited romantic interest. Or maybe they just don’t like the way their friendship is going at the moment and want to address it. An issue gives a scene a point, as the drive to address the issue will create conflict and compel us, the audience, to see it resolved.

You never want to hang your characters out to dry. You can’t place them in a scene with no purpose. And no, exposition doesn’t count as “purpose.” Having characters talk about the big wedding that weekend isn’t entertaining. Make sure the characters either have a goal for being where they are or they have an issue to resolve. There ARE other ways to make scenes work, but these two options should take care of the majority of your scenes.

  • Doug

    Wow, first to comment, bitches! I just wish I had something wittier to say.

    • Scott Crawford

      I’m sure you DO have something to say. Ever seen a scene in a film or Tv show where a character is standing around doing nothing or talking a lot but not moving the story forwards.

    • Marija ZombiGirl

      Seems you’ve been left out to dry.
      Like all other “First comment, bitches!” posters.

  • Scott Crawford

    Thirst comment… again!

    • andyjaxfl

      That movie was made to capitalize on the 6-6-6 release date. Great idea for marketing, but they probably should have planned that out a few years in advance to work on the script instead of putting that movie together so fast.

  • scriptfeels

    Didnt know season 2 was out, ill check it out

  • Ryan Sasinowski

    All I can think of when I hear of scenes where the actors just talk for the sake of it is “mumblecore” films. Major yawn-fest for me.

    • Scott Crawford

      I see it more in scripts than produced stuff, but when there’s lots of talking (but not much is being SAID) it usually means a postage-stamp plot and not a very good one.

  • brenkilco

    Good points. But in a sense it’s impossible to put a character into a scene with no purpose. Because a purposeless incident or exchange is not a scene. If you don’t have a reason for your characters to be where they are and doing what the’re doing, and most importantly if you don’t know when it’s time to leave, which you won’t if what you’re writing doesn’t have a point, best start tearing up pages.

    Also, though I’m having trouble coming up with examples at the moment, I know that there have been lots of extraneous scenes in movie history, mostly in comedies, that we treasure just because they are brilliantly written or played or really funny. Moments where the characters aren’t being hung out to dry. They’re being given grace notes. But I guess amateurs should heed the advice

    • Scott Crawford

      Binary Sunset is a good example of a scene that COULD be removed from the plot but just adds to the mood and our appreciation of the character.

      Patty Jenkins added a scene in reshoots of horses being whipped to WW for just this reason.

      • brenkilco

        Some famous, old, movie comedians like W. C Fields or Abbot and Costello who got their starts in vaudeville were always happy to put the flimsy plots of their movies on hold to do one of their vintage stage routines: the pool game or who’s on first? etc. Ultimately, funny doesn’t need defending.

        • Scott Crawford

          Maybe. The modern technique us to shoot these scenes and cut the Ines that don’t get enough of a laugh.

          There’s a deleted scene from Weddingg Crashers where Vince Vaughan pretends to have been in an accident and talks funny to a guest. It was cut.

          A hitchhiker scene was cut from Four Weddings because it didn’t fit.

          A similar scene involving catering was cut but later turned up in Love, Actually.

          And of course The Marx brothers workshopped the SHIT out of their scripts, road testing the gags in front of live audiences.

  • brenkilco

    Just to be contrary, I was trying to think of the best, totally unnecessary scene in movie history. A scene that could be lifted out without anyone knowing it was gone, a scene that doesn’t advance the story one inch and hasn’t got a specific point. But a scene you still wouldn’t be without. My vote? The bottle shooting barge scene in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. My number two would be Bernstein’s girl on the ferry riff. But that’s not really a whole scene.

    • Scott Crawford

      The opening teaser of Goldfinger and a few (not all) Bond movies that have NOTHING to do with e rest of the movie, they’re just the tomato soup or prawn cocktail before you have the chicken pot pie.

      • brenkilco

        I would only omit the early, standalone Bond teasers, and you could also throw in the opening from Raiders, because they generally tell abbreviated but complete stories with a goal and a climax. They are not connected to the main action but have their own raison d’etre. So extraneous but not pointless.

    • Doug

      The entire first scene (which goes for what feels like a whole hour) from Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is not required for the rest of the story. It’s a spectacular scene, but isn’t actually part of the story.

      Same goes for the first scene in Heaven’s Gate – amazing, but not in any way connected to the story. If you wanted to be sarcastic, you could point out that none of the scenes in Heaven’s Gate are connected to the story!

      • brenkilco

        The origins of the Heaven’s Gate prologue are detailed in the book by Stephen Bach. The studio actually gave Cimino permission to do it after the rest of that mega-million behemoth had already been shot. And they let him to to England and shoot it at Cambridge University because he didn’t think Harvard was big enough to be Harvard. Utterly insane.

    • Nick Morris

      You could remove almost any scene from FALLING DOWN and still arrive at the same place. But each of his random encounters are pretty memorable and they all inform the character to a degree, even when they don’t advance the “plot” such as it is.

  • Daivon Stuckey

    To be fair, I think what you’re reading as flaws and mistakes is the genuine intentional tone Master of None goes for.