I stopped off at my local taqueria on the way home the other day. The TV was blaring the Mexican version of American Idol. Quite a sight. There were twenty contestants of so -- ten teens of each gender, all wearing these quasi-prep school uniforms reminiscent of the Mexipop trainwreck known as RBD. You rarely see so many effusive, happy, blond Mexican 16-year-olds in one place, and the effect is somewhat disturbing, like a dream I had once after falling asleep watching a Kelly Clarkson special and eating a bag full of cheesy fried jalapeños.
As I sat down to my tacos, they were winding up the big group song -- all tweaked and tweezered -- singing like little angels, with all kinds of emotion 'n' stuff. Choreographed dance moves. Choreographed smiles. Choreographed good clean living happy teens. And then the winners were announced.
The winning teen boy burst into this almost breakdance-style victory dance. You knew this kid had Justin Timberlake's picture on the wall. When the announced the winning girl, she broke down into near hysterics, and was unable to sing. But they pulled her together, and the two sang a big duet finale.
This is where it got interesting. While American TV would have shunted the losers off to the side, or they would have forced themselves to wear smiles and look like good losers, here you had two singers, and a camera milling about the 18 losers, all with red eyes and tearful hugs. And jealous stares. And comforting hugs kinda going in another direction.
The entire taqueria was mesmerized. The servers stopped serving. The customers stopped ordering. The eaters stopped eating. We watched as these 18 visions of the ideal Mexican pop star of tomorrow all suddenly broke down and became real people. They became individuals, outside their set frame. They became full-blown characters.
Suddenly there was something interesting going on. The camera was clearing focusing in the losers. The winning boy kept jumping into frame and singing his little heart out. The winning girl was back up to speed, and they did their little safely choreographed mock-flirting as they grabbed for screen space. You could feel the taqueria turn against them. All anybody wanted to see was how these other kids they'd known all season really were. Did she just put her hand on his ass? Is he really crying? Score one for reality.
What does this tell us about screenwriting? Good writing resonates with the viewer by making sense, but surprising him. Good drama is not about imitating or representing. It's about doing. It's about real action. We put our characters through a lot, but too often we lose the audience by letting the consequences fit what makes it easier for us. Don't do it. Push yourself. Follow your characters. Don't make them follow you. They will always surprise you.