Problems

It's very easy to fall into certain traps while writing narration. Most of the traps or problems are obvious, but every writer falls victim to them sooner or later. Below I have listed a few of the most common pitfalls.

Lists and statistics. Although many individual shots are remembered because of the emotional force of the image, this doesn't work for narration. In fact, one of the most disconcerting things for a writer is to realize that very little of the narration is remembered ten minutes after the film has finished. If the broad details of the message are remembered, that's enough. Having said that, it becomes obvious why we avoid lists and statistics. They rarely make an impact at the time and are forgotten in five seconds.

Occasionally, numbers are necessary, but they have to be used wisely to be effective. When the narrator in the D-day script tells us that "losses were expected to be as high as seven out of ten men," it works because at that point, we are eager to know those facts. However, had the writer said, "Losses were expected to be as high as 70 percent," I don't think it would have worked as well, because percent is a more abstract term for us, while "seven out of ten men" brings us closer to comprehending the individual deaths.

The task of the writer is to make cool, abstract figures come alive for us in human terms. Brian Winston did this brilliantly while writing the script for Out of the Ashes. Brian needed to say that the SS troops, operating in Russia, killed over a million civilians in just over a year. How could one bring something so monstrously incomprehensible down to earth? This is what he wrote: "Close behind the front lines came the mobile killing squads of the SS. In sixteen months, they and other members of the German army shot nearly one and a half million Jews—two human beings a minute for every hour of every day for nearly five hundred days." The last half of the sentence is vital, because only then do we grasp the enormity of the crime.

Wall-to-wall narration. Some filmmakers are reluctant to take up the pen; others simply don't know when to put it down. They overwrite, thus committing one of the cardinal sins of filmmaking. Your narration should be sparse and compact. Say enough to make the point, then shut up. You may think that piling detail on detail will improve the film, but that's rarely the case. More than likely you are just turning off the viewer by the sheer volume of your words. Remember that the picture needs room to breathe and that the viewer needs space and time to digest and reflect on the narration.

Another essential point is that very often narration is redundant, and you are better off letting the pictures make your point. Let us assume we are doing a film about Samuel Clemens. We have pictures of old steamers, river activity, ports, boys on rafts, and generally a rich montage of life on the Mississippi. We could write:

As he rode up and down the river, two characters formed in his mind—one a mischievous rascal called Tom Sawyer, and the other his trusted friend Huckleberry Finn. And, oh, what adventures he would give them and what characters and sights would fill his pages. Tom would get into scrapes, meet villainous tramps, and flee for his life. And Huck would float down the river, seeing all the sights and wonders that Twain himself knew so well.

As I say, we could write it that way—but we wouldn't. Instead, we would stop the narration at the end of the phrase "and what characters and sights would fill his pages." At that point, you don't need to say any more, because the pictures suggest exactly what Twain is going to write about.

Clichés. Watch out for the cliché, the hackneyed phrase. At one time, all the authors on feature film writing used to enjoy themselves by listing the most popular clichés: "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." "Yeah, it's quiet. Too damn quiet!" "There's only one doctor who can help you. And he's in Vienna." We laugh, but we do the same thing in documentary. We see a phrase that is good and then use it so often that it ceases to have any impact.

A friend of mine used to make children's films about orphanages, resettlement centers, and children's charities. He chucked it when he found that the cliché factor had taken over. He had found one good phrase in his first film: "Do we want children of darkness or children of light, children of despair or children of hope?" When he found himself repeating this phrase in each film, he knew it was time to quit.

Writing for different viewers. A problem that arises again and again, particularly when doing documentaries for television, is how to adjust your narration to accommodate a wide spectrum of viewers. For example, if you are doing a film on history, some viewers may know your subject well, and others may know nothing. If you give too much information, you may insult the intelligence of half your viewers, telling them things they know backward and forward. But if you assume that the audience already has a good knowledge of the subject, you may be talking over the heads of the other 50 percent of your audience. The answer lies in finding a subtle way of presenting your information so that both sides feel happy.

Let us say we have to do a film about Juan Peron's Argentinian dictatorship. We are talking of events that happened forty years ago, whose chief characters are much less familiar to us than are Churchill and Hitler. Because we know that half the audience was born after the Vietnam War, we need to establish who's who and what's what. So we could write: "Peron was an army colonel who became a dictator. He led the fascist party in his country. He ruled Argentina and gained power in 1945." All the facts are there, though expressed a little bluntly. But by the time you have recited them, half your audience has said, just before turning off the television, "Who do they think we are? Six-year-olds?" You could express facts in a less offensive fashion: "Throughout the forty years since militarism and politics swept Peron into the dictatorship of Argentina, people have wondered when democracy would return to a country governed by generals." In the second version, the facts are given casually and without insulting anyone's intelligence, and everyone is happy.

Difficult terminology. Sometimes you find yourself having to put across difficult concepts with highly involved terminology. This is particularly true of scientific or medical films. The way out of this difficulty is to simplify your language, presenting the concept visually in a manner that everyone can understand. This may require using graphics or animation, or creating a scenario that demonstrates the concept.

A few years ago, I saw a film on Einstein's life and work. Obviously, at some point the film had to discuss Einstein's theory of relativity—not the easiest of concepts to grasp, even for scientists. However, the writer presented the theory in an elegant fashion. He showed an airplane in flight so that we could appreciate that its speed relative to the ground was five hundred miles an hour. He then cut to two men playing catch inside the plane. Given this situation, it was easy to talk about the speed of the ball relative to the plane's motion to the ground. I'm not sure that everyone in the audience understood afterward the significance of E = mc2, but at least they were on the way to understanding.

Film Making

Film Making

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