Monday, September 29, 2008

Foot-Foot and Butt-Butt

I was exercising my god-given right as a writer to eavesdrop the other day when I stumbled upon a conversation. It made me think of a quote from Mark Twain:

"The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it."

I actually remembered the quote as its converse: that a grave tale is best told with humor. That's just me.

As I sipped my coffee, a laid back Californian-style hipster chatted with his very east coast fiancee. His dog, Foot-Foot, had eaten the strap off her handbag. It was a disaster. Foot-Foot was a terror, and clearly jealous of the hold the fiancee had on her master. The young man was of the no-problem-without-a-solution type. They spend Saturday finding a new handbag, make an adventure of it. She'd be happy. I think he was stoned.

She was not convinced. There seemed to be a bigger problem in general: dogs. She would brook no opposition, least of all from canines. Failure to prosecute Foot-Foot for his crime was a serious issue. Just as serious: the very name of the young man's second dog: Butt-Butt.

Now, these are great dog names, if you ask me. You can see Foot-Foot, Butt-Butt, and the young man having a great time, making a mess of the kitchen, chasing slobber-covered tennis balls, barking at passing fire engines. It all makes sense.

But she was putting her foot down. She doesn't like slobber-covered tennis balls, or scratches on the door, or midnight pee runs. The man tried to lighten the moment by joking that he planned to get a third dog and call it Nut-Nut.

Like I said, I think he was stoned.

Was she expected to call out to Nut-Nut in public? What about when her parents came to visit? You sensed that Nut-Nut would have complete power to chew up any accessory. She wasn't about to shout Nut-Nut out loud. It was completely unacceptable.

Nut-Nut quickly rose up, like a scowling head of Putin in the airspace over Alaska. The issue of Nut-Nut became, you sensed, the main conflict that would either break this relationship, or test it for many years to come. The young man had never realized just how serious this was. It was incomprehensible to him. But it was becoming very clear now. The plot was moving forward. We'd learned more about the characters. More importantly, the characters were learning more about each other.

Many new writers of drama do their best to shove as much drama as possible into a dramatic scene. It's as if the presence of a joke (or, god forbid, a humorous premise) will shake the scene's gravitas to its core. Scripts move from unrelenting conflict to unrelenting conflict... that's what the screenwriting books tell you to do, right? Never let up? It can very quickly become unrelentingly monotonous.

You'll find higher highs to contrast with your lower lows if you allow your audience to breathe, to laugh, to enter the situation. Tell a story, enjoy yourself, and find what sounds true.

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