Meet the Reader: Work of Imagination

One of the strongest reactions provoked by columns I did a few weeks back called Ten Characters I Can Do Without and Ten Characters I Can Do Without… Revisited, was my objection to movies that feature characters who have jobs that don’t exist in the real world. As examples, I cited films such as Hitch (about a “date doctor” that tutors nerds on how to win over women) and Failure to Launch (about a woman whose chosen profession is to date immature adult men in the hopes of persuading them to move out of their parents’ homes). My chief complaint about films like these (and the many spec scripts they inspire) is they are inherently disappointing because, no matter how well executed they are, in the end the audience is being asked to invest themselves in an artificial character and—because the plots of most of these movies usually turn on ethical crises brought about by the pursuit of these non-existent jobs—artificial problems. So, while I can sometimes enjoy such confections on a superficial level, there’s nothing genuine for me to latch on to or care about in them and I ultimately tune out, both as a viewer and as an assessor of screenplays.

My comments seemed to upset some readers, who complained that I was trying to stifle creativity and originality by telling writers that they shouldn’t come up with imaginative things for their characters to do. Since this wasn’t my intention, I thought I’d better clarify: I’m certainly not saying that you shouldn’t write a script about a character with an imaginary job. What I am saying is that you shouldn’t write a script about a character with an imaginary job unless you do it properly.

The first step in doing this is to set up your premise in an effective manner. For some reason, most of these films and scripts that I am objecting to begin with their protagonists already well-ensconced in their fake occupations—with their imaginary occupations presented as givens that are as familiar and understandable as those of the doctors, cops, teachers, and other real-life workers that we see around us each and every day. The fact that they are not forces viewers to play catch up for much of the first act as they try to figure out just what it is the protagonist is doing and why rather than getting caught up in the story, which is really what they should be doing at this point.

Also, it’s nearly impossible to write such a thing well. Either you have to spend pages and pages having your protagonist explain what he/she is up to (which was the big failing of Inception—a film about a man with a very fanciful profession that was cited by many of my critics as the kind of clever and imaginative story that they felt I was trying to discourage. I actually liked the picture a lot and was very glad it was made, but there’s no denying that starting the story with Leonardo DiCaprio already plying his curious trade made the film’s very complex premise hard to fathom on initial viewing, which is why the movie required an almost constant stream of expository dialogue to keep the narrative going) or do it through a plethora of flashbacks (which, despite the device’s current popularity, is simply an awkward way to tell a story) or skip the explanation altogether and run the risk of completely losing your audience (which seems to be the preferred approach of quite a few spec script writers).

A better approach is to introduce your protagonist before he has devised his made-up occupation, show the circumstances that lead him to conceive of the idea, and then depict him taking his first steps into his faux-profession. This way, you transform a liability into an asset by turning tedious exposition into dramatic plot and action.

Doing this will also help enhance your script’s believability, which is essential when you are working with a fanciful concept. Audiences are usually willing to suspend their disbelief and accept an unreal concept, but only if you proceed from an initial reality that they can identify with. As an example, consider Ghostbusters—a great movie about people with imaginary jobs. Dan Aykroyd’s initial script draft began with the paranormal eliminators already in business in a world that was overflowing with ghosts. Director Ivan Reitman loved the concept of Aykroyd’s supernatural eliminators, but knew that if they and their spirit-filled world were presented to the audience with no preamble, then the viewers would be so puzzled by what was going on that they would never be able to sit back and enjoy the movie. Harold Ramis was brought in to help Aykroyd do a rewrite. In the process, the decision was made to introduce the trio of leads as regular college professors and scientists—slightly exotic but very real professions that viewers could easily recognize and accept as being actual and true—in the world as we know it. With this reality firmly established, the filmmakers then introduced the fantastic events that motivate the ghostbusters to develop their unique profession. Allowed to come along on the ride rather than have to chase after it, the audience was satisfied and the filmmakers were able to avoid the wordy explanation/ham-fisted flashback/alienate-the-audience trap.

I think it’s also important that if you are going to have your protagonist doing something unusual, then that activity really ought to be the focus of your story. Ghostbusters is actually about ghostbusting, but one of the many problems that I have with Hitch and Failure to Launch is that they don’t do much with their unusual concepts other than use them as springboards for fairly standard-issue romantic comedies (of the “ladies’ man whose polished routine doesn’t work with the new girl” and “I’m not who I am pretending to be” variety). If the movies were actually about a guy that decides to start a business coaching men on how to date successfully or a woman that identifies a problem with immature men that live at home too long, then they would have been a lot more compelling, but in both films all of that spadework has been done prior to the start of the narrative and what follows isn’t particularly interesting.

Ultimately, this all comes down to the basic principles of good dramatic storytelling, whether you are writing a realistic kitchen sink drama or an outrageous, over-the-top fantasy: start from a real place, introduce your concepts clearly and dramatize them fully. If you do, the audience will follow you anywhere. Even to work.

One thought on “Meet the Reader: Work of Imagination

  1. Gino Balcacer

    I think the points made in this article about imaginary jobs are excellent, and they also can be extended to imaginary worlds and people. My biggest beef with a lot of sci-fi movies is that they often fail to demonstrate why something is depicted the way it is, or why the aliens are the way they are. For instance, why do these obviously extremely intelligent creatures want to travel thousands of light years just to destroy insignificant earthlings.