Monday, September 15, 2014

Screenwriter Robert Gosnell on The Art of the "Buy"

I have a confession to make. I watched "Sharknado."

Well, I just had to see what all of the excitement was about. I must admit, I'm still not sure. The phrase, "so bad it's good" seems to be the one most frequently floating around, out there, and I'm not even sure I'm on board with that.

My personal feelings aside, the movie was successful enough to give this low-budget, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, cornier-than-thou effort a large audience, a limited theatrical run and a sequel. However you slice it, that's a home run.

The film took suspension of disbelief to an entirely new level, and got me thinking about a little thing called logic. As I state in my book, The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of Screenplay, there is a difference between story logic and real-life logic, and that is the subject of this week's excerpt, which follows this commentary.

When I entered the industry and attacked the sitcom world, I was quickly subjected to a number of catch-phrases associated with that form of storytelling. Each "camp" of production companies seemed to spawn its own shorthand. I learned how to give a joke a  "handle," how to "blow off" a character to get him out of a scene and how to reference a previous joke with a "call back." The term for requiring a certain suspension of disbelief was a "buy." In other words, it may defy logic, but will the audience "buy" it? Will they accept it? If so, then "it's a buy" became the operative phrase.

"Sharknado" was a buy from start to finish. That can be credited to the tone of the movie. No one, other than the one-dimensional characters who inhabited the film, took it seriously. We weren't supposed to. It was only intended to be mindless fun; brain candy, and on that level, it exceeded expectations. It reminded me of how diverse our film going tastes can be, in this world. There is, indeed, room for everyone.

Tone is key in determining how much we can expect our audience to buy. There were a number of scenes in "Sharknado" which never would have been acceptable in the classic shark tale "Jaws." That's because "Jaws" not only took itself seriously, but unlike "Sharknado," it required its audience to do so, as well. Points of logic were treated with meticulous care. They wanted us to believe it, so they went to great lengths to justify each unorthodox story moment. But, imagine grizzled shark-hunter Quint, during a somber moment aboard the Orca, relating the story of how a shark fell from the sky and swallowed him in one big gulp, only to have him cut his way out through the shark's belly with a chainsaw. Check, please!

Story logic, unlike real-life logic, can be manipulated, to some extent, in any story, regardless of tone, theme, genre or subject matter. That fact exists because the world of our story is not the real world, nor should it be. It is a world we create. We invite our audience to immerse themselves in our world and to believe what we ask them to believe. And, they want to believe. It's still possible to lose them, of course, but they'll go a long way, before crossing that line in the sand.

If "Sharknado" isn't evidence of that, I don't know what is. 

The Blue Collar Screenwriter
The Elements of Screenplay
Story Logic
On the structural front, you want to make sure you haven't left any holes in logic. But, story logic is not the same as real-life logic. What flies in a movie does not often reflect the logic of reality. In film, artistic license, for the sake of entertainment, takes precedent. Story logic means "acceptable." Will they, the audience, "buy" it? I'll give you an example.
In Alfred Hitchcock's classic "North by Northwest," there exists a rather famous scene wherein Cary Grant, playing our hero, Roger Thornhill, is directed to take a bus to a remote location on a dirt road, surrounded by farmland. He stands there, waiting for the mysterious Mr. Kaplan, who is to meet him there.
Soon, a car approaches, then passes. Another car arrives, and a farmer gets out and stands on the other side of the road. Cary Grant approaches him and asks if he's Kaplan. He isn't.
An old biplane; a crop duster flies overhead. The farmer's bus arrives, and as he boards, he remarks that it's odd that the crop duster is dusting "where there ain't no crops." Then, the bus departs, leaving our hero alone, once more.
That's when the crop duster descends on Cary Grant and there begins a mad chase through a nearby field, as the airplane pursues him, spewing gunfire from the cockpit. Cary Grant evades the airplane and eventually runs to the highway, where a large tanker truck approaches. Ultimately, the airplane crashes into the tanker truck in a humongous explosion!
It's a very exciting scene, but in examining it later, I found myself asking:
"Why a crop duster?"
Really, he was standing there, on the side of the road, way out in the boonies, all alone. All our bad guys had to do was drive up, roll down the window and shoot him dead.
That's the way it probably would have happened, in real life. I mean, that's the way I'd do it, were I prone to do such a thing. But, that wouldn't have been nearly as exciting or visual as an airplane chasing a man through a field, and then crashing into a tanker truck, leading to a fiery explosion. And, this is not real life, this is a motion picture. Thus, story logic prevailed.
Mr. Hitchcock termed these moments "icebox scenes," meaning that these minor flaws in logic surface after one gets home from the theater, opens his "ice box" for a snack and suddenly says to himself:
"Wait...that didn't make sense!"
Of course, by now, it's too late. We've already seen and enjoyed the movie. Had the realization of that flaw hit us while watching the movie, that might have been a problem. But, the scene was too exciting, keeping us on the edge of our seats, for us to think about something trivial like logic.

However, Story Logic has its limits. If we push things too far, we may cross the line of acceptable logic and lose our audience, or, at the least, offend them. Mr. Hitchcock's "ice box" moment may hit us then and there, and not wait for us to get home and reach for a snack.
~ ~ ~
A professional screenwriter for more than thirty years, Robert Gosnell has produced credits in feature films, network television, syndicated television, basic cable and pay cable, and is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West and the Writers Guild of Canada.
Robert began his career writing situation comedy as a staff writer for the ABC series Baby Makes Five. As a freelance writer, he wrote episodes for Too Close for Comfort and the TBS comedies Safe at Home andRocky Road. In cable, he has scripted numerous projects for the Disney Channel, including Just Perfect, a Disney Channel movie featuring Jennie Garth. 
In 1998, he wrote the Showtime original movie, Escape from Wildcat Canyon, which starred Dennis Weaver and won the national "Parents Choice Award." Robert's feature credits include the Chuck Norris/Louis Gosset Jr. film Firewalker, an uncredited rewrite on the motion picture Number One With A Bullet starring Robert Carradine and Billy Dee Williams, and the sale of his original screenplay Kick And Kick Back to Cannon Films. Robert was also selected as a judge for the 1990 Cable Ace awards, in the Comedy Special category.
In 1990, Robert left Hollywood for Denver, where he became active in the local independent film community. His screenplay Tiger Street was produced by the Pagoda Group of Denver, and premiered on Showtime Extreme in August of 2003. In 1999, Denver’s Inferno Films produced the action film Dragon and the Hawk from his script. In 2001, Robert co-wrote the screenplay for the independent feature Siren for Las Vegas company Stage Left Productions. His feature script Juncture was produced by Front Range Films in March of 2006.

Robert is a principal member of the Denver production company "Conspiracy Films." He is frequently an invited speaker for local writers organizations, served on the faculty of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in 2002, and in 2007 was chosen to participate as a 
panelist for the Aspen Film Festival Short Screenplay Contest. Robert regularly presents his screenwriting class "The Elements of Screenplay," along with advanced classes and workshops, in the Denver area.
Robert's book, "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of Screenplay" is currently available at:
Amazon digital and paperback
Barnes & Noble

Find Robert at:
Website (with information on classes)

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