So I and the family are back from vacation, a good week spent in San Diego. While I’m bummed that the opportunity to write did not present itself in the way I had hoped (that’s the irony of vacations for a writer: free time that prevents one from writing-at least in my case), it was a good, refreshing time for me. And… I have to admit, I can see why so many people are in love with California regarding its weather. Believe me, I wouldn’t mind going back down there! You California inhabitants living by Coronado beach have it made!
But, upon coming back and getting back into the swing of writing again, I couldn’t help but start off this blog post by commenting on the passing of James Gandolfini. The man was a good actor, and (based upon the accounts I’ve heard) a remarkable man to know. It’s a sad thing when anybody passes on, but it’s especially sad to see somebody pass on when they have made such a connection with the wider public in a way that Gandolfini did with the role of Tony Soprano. He took the role David Chase scripted and turned it into a masterpiece. Although Gandolfini did other roles of note (in particular I recall his role in the movie 8mm with Nicholas Cage), the mob boss of Jersey will always be looked upon as his crowning achievement. His presence on the silver screen and television will be sorely missed.
This also dovetails with what I’d like to write about in this week’s post concerning writing, and that’s the writing found in the television show The Sopranos. I’d like to take a little time and discuss that with you, particularly if you yourself are a writer (although non-writers will find this interesting as well, I trust).
One of the things you’ll notice about writing for movies or television is that it carries an extra facet of delivery not found in novel or story writing, and that’s the delivery presented through the visual medium of the actors as guided by the director. This can serve as a blessing or curse depending on the handling of the second part. For example, weak writing can sometimes be masked by strong performances or, in some cases, a barrage of visual effects, thus making the end package more presentable to the audience (and in my personal opinion delivering “chocolate covered garbage” as a final product). On the other hand, strong writing can be hampered by a director who does not understand the source material (or worse yet, who insists on doing it his/her way against the wishes of the writer) or by subpar acting, thus causing the audience to miss out on what could have been a very good presentation had the proper elements been put into place. In this sense, I really don’t envy screenwriters too much, as leaving one’s scripts to the mercy of Hollywood doesn’t always bring about the best results (If you want a more obscure but no less relevant example of this, go read Peter Benchley’s book Beast, which was superb, and then go watch the hideous made-for-TV movie that followed it several years later. You’ll see what I mean…).
With The Sopranos, however, David Chase delivered the best of both worlds, and did so with a standard and presentation that has influenced much of American television. He pulled off the perfect mix, and it shows. The actors through their characters bring his work to life, taking good stories and making them great onscreen presentations. This show is an example of everything going right with regard to the creativity process, and should be a lesson for any aspiring producers and directors regarding the treatment and delivery of scripts.
But setting aside the acting performances for a moment, I want you to think about a few key things with me from a writing perspective, things that we should at the very least file in our memory cards and consider for our own craft.
First, listen to the conversations on The Sopranos. The verbal interactions sound like… well, everyday verbal interactions (minus the excessive f-bombs and other at times overdone profanity that I’m not fond of, along with the nudity/sex, but that’s beside the point, and also the reason I use the fast forward button 😀 ). The characters talk like real people talk, and avoid the formulaic (and often predictable) manner in which lines are constructed and delivered in most other movies and television. Conversations get off topic. People get cut off in the middle of speaking.. sometimes rudely. Reactions to accusations carry plausible responses. You can watch the dialogue given and say “Hey, that sounds like family dinner at my house!” (minus the occasional reference to dead bodies, of course 😀 ).
Second, the plot did not have a predictable, linear approach at times. What I mean by this is that Chase often reworked the elements of foreshadowing and predictability that much of Hollywood becomes so reliant upon. A character, for example, might make a remark about needing to do something in a way that gave the impression to the viewer that (s)he was planning on following through on it. But then it never happened; it ended up being talk that never materialized into action… again, just like real life. Chase gave the viewer no security on the direction the Soprano family and their associates were heading. There was no guarantee that “everything would work out in the end” or that the conflict would be resolved in sixty minutes (if ever). Nothing was guaranteed, nothing was safe.
And that leads to the third and most exciting part of the show: Nobody was guaranteed to live through the episode. Like Martin’s Game of Thrones series (which shares many elements of its writing with The Sopranos), the characters in Chase’s world weren’t promised a happy ending to their episodes, and if you’ve seen the show, you know what I’m talking about, when people you thought were “safe” ended up six feet under, many times in a manner unexpected, and leaving us to pick our jaws up off the floor and wonder how on earth we didn’t see it coming. And let me as a writer tell you non-writers something: putting all of your characters on the potential chopping block isn’t an easy thing to do. Readers and viewers usually want safe characters. We want to believe that certain people will make it through (or not make it through at times) the story. You’ve probably caught yourself doing this at times, watching a show or reading a book and hoping that a particular character stays alive because you either empathize or have taken a personal liking to him or her. Your heartstrings get attached, whether or not you meant to allow it to happen, and then you’re invested in the hero (or even the villain, as in the case of Tony Soprano), hoping that the ending turns out the way you’re begging for it to turn out.
Chase doesn’t give us that luxury. He gambled with his characters, and there was no safe bet for any of us to place.
So if you’re a writer and you haven’t done so, I want you to check out The Sopranos. Do it from a writer’s perspective. Pay attention to the construction of the story, the lines spoken by characters, the set up of situations, and the character developments. You’ll find yourself coming away with a library of influences for your own writing like I have, influences that break formulas that screenwriters have relied upon and push for fresh, new exploration of writing that is bold and refreshing.
Okay, back to writing for me as well. And if you like what I’ve put, drop me a line with your thoughts. If not, well…. “Fugghedaboutit!” 😉
See you in the Vein!