Empathy vs. Logic in the Movies: Lies, and How To Tell Them

A lot of the time when I’m watching a movie, the people I’m with ask a lot of questions about why a character is doing something. Why did he do that? Why didn’t she know that? Why did that happen? Why didn’t that relationship work out? They usually get their answers from the movie shortly after, in great detail, with lots of exposition.

Me? I’m sitting there trying to bite my tongue because even though I’m not thrilled at having to explain the movie, I’m mostly bored. It’s not that I think I’m smarter or that I know how to figure out movies, it’s that the movies aren’t very good.

As a writer, I hear lots of adages about how exposition kills. I repeat them myself. I try to avoid exposition at all costs. It’s boring, lazy writing, usually. Even when it’s necessary, it usually isn’t really necessary. If you can show us what’s going on, you don’t also need to tell us what’s going on.

I also hear a lot of writers complain about this particular note: “the audience might not understand what’s going on.” (or something like that). You know what I’m talking about. Usually the writer laments that studios want them to “dumb-down” their material for the audience. TRUST YOUR AUDIENCE, we hear over and over again, only to find ourselves faced with a request that seems to be telling us not to trust the audience, and to carefully explain everything that is going on so nobody gets lost or confused.

I’m about to drop some advice: it’s not the studio’s fault, it’s yours.

Writing screenplays is basically five skills combined into one. You can’t just master screenwriting and be done with it. You’ve got to master every element of writing. You need to know characters, plot, tone, empathy, dialogue, subtext, juxtaposition, synchronicity, symbolism, analogy, allegory, story structure, classical storytelling, modern storytelling, visual representation, photography, psychology, and more. That’s a lot of skills you need to be able to balance in order to create a cohesive screenplay. It’s not impossible, of course, far from it, and likely you’re already pretty damn good at a lot of them even if you don’t realize it. So give yourself a pat on the back because if you’re really committed to being a screenwriter, then you’ve done more work than you realize.

Yet, we still see so many movies that have to explain themselves, that have to somehow pander to the audience in order to make sure nobody misunderstands what is happening. This is a miscomprehension, not on the audience’s part, but on our part as writers. We’re forgetting things. We think we’re trusting our audience and therefore when we get notes to tell us we need to make it easier to understand, we feel that studio executives just “don’t get it.” While sure, that may be true, I think it’s more likely that we’re just forgetting a real simple fact in the cinema.

It’s not about logic.

We know movies aren’t real, and yet we treat the stories within them as real-as-possible. So when something happens, we try to make sense out of it. We call it character motivation. We call it desire, goals, things like that. There’s an entire syntax we use to explain it to ourselves, and we’re forgetting that logic… doesn’t apply here. Movies are not the place to be logical. Oh sure, if you’re writing science-fiction or fantasy, or using some sort of obscure knowledge, you may have to explain it a little bit for those who aren’t familiar with the rules at all, but that’s a slightly different topic.

No, I’m talking about explaining the most basic of things.

Man walks into a bar, sees a pretty girl, starts talking to her. He asks what she’s doing there. She tells him she’s angry at her boyfriend. They start hitting it off, they’re having fun. She says she shouldn’t be doing this because her boyfriend will get angry. He explains that he’s not going to do anything. She explains that her boyfriend probably deserves it. He explains that he’s not looking for a relationship so there’s no pressure. She explains that she thinks he’s hot. He tells her he’s attracted to her. He offers a proposition, gives her an idea of a plan for the evening. She accepts, it’s a date, but, she says, she has to be home early, and she gives him a reason why. They go out, they take it too far, she wakes up in his bed the next morning. He explains things got out of hand and he didn’t mean to go this far. She explains she’s going to break up with her boyfriend because last night made her realize a bunch of things. She explains this bunch of things.

 

Good god, that’s boring.

Here’s how you could do this.

 

INT. BAR – NIGHT

A man, swaggers into the bar, plunks himself down and orders a shot of whiskey. He takes it straight and hits for another.
Across the bar he sees a girl dancing by herself in the corner sipping a martini.
He raises a glass to her, she ignores him.
He approaches her.

MAN
Care to dance?

She doesn’t say anything but takes his hand. He notices an engagement ring on her finger. She pulls her hand away and dances in silence across from him.
They dance for a beat. The song ends. He claps for her and turns.

WOMAN
Going so soon?

MAN
I don’t mean nothing.

WOMAN
Come on, the night’s just getting started.

MAN
(shaking his head)
I just came here for a drink.

WOMAN
Buy me a refill?

MAN
I’ve got a better idea.

He leads her to the door.

INT. BEDROOM – MORNING

The man wakes up. His bed is empty. He looks at the table and sees the woman’s ring on his table. She walks in, fully dressed, picks up her ring and pockets it.

WOMAN
Well, goodbye.

I just wrote this up to illustrate my point so it’s not going to win any awards, but isn’t that scene just way more interesting? You know why? Because we don’t know why. We don’t know why she’s cheating on her fiancé, we don’t know why he goes along with it. We don’t know that her relationship is struggling or how or why or what she’s going to do about it. We don’t know what he was doing before he came into the bar (barring previous scenes).

We do know that she is engaged, but clearly not happy with it. We do know he’s lonely. We do know that she wanted to be left alone but saw an opportunity when he came along and went for it.

We know, in other words, the emotional states of the characters. We don’t know the logistics, and we don’t need to, nor do we care. What matters, is we can relate. The rest of the explanation isn’t important.

You get a note back that says “the audience might not understand this.” Well of course they won’t understand it, they have no idea what’s going on with the characters and it’s confusing. Sure, they heard a lot of information, but it was just information, it’s basically like you made them read a textbook. They don’t understand it because they know they don’t need to (that’s how you respect an audience, by the way, it’s not by assuming they’re all astrophysicists, it’s by understanding that they know how to care about what is important and not worry about what isn’t).

Get to the heart of the emotion, make us empathize with the characters, and the logistics don’t matter. You can add them in if you have to explain certain things about the world – if you’ve invented a threat, a new monster for example, that is unknown outside the world of your movie – in which case you can go for it, but that makes sense. You don’t have to constantly explain what’s happening like a narrator. You’re not doing a shot-by-shot analysis of this at Ebertfest. Take it easy.

It's a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart

You know what I almost never see in the movies? A character lie. I never see someone lie without them explaining the lie, getting caught in the lie, explaining more about why they lied, which leads to a confrontation about which they have to explain even more and ultimately ending up spending the majority of the scene splurging out information that we don’t care about. It looks like drama – “oooooh, they’re fighting because he lied,” but it isn’t. It’s just a lot of data.

Have a character do something, and say the opposite. Just that. Have him lie, and essentially get away with it. Now we (the audience) know he’s a liar. We don’t need to see him get caught in it. We don’t need to see him talk about it. We definitely don’t need to see him explain that he was lying (“I lied” should never be in your dialogue unless it’s a punchline to a joke, and in that case, seriously, it should never be in your dialogue) or explain to someone else how he lied.

Later, his relationship falls apart. Why? Because his girlfriend feels that she can’t trust him. Again, we don’t need to hear her explain that she found out he was lying. We don’t need her to explain that she knows he’s a liar because x, y and z, and we definitely don’t need to hear him explain his excuses.

You know why? Because we’re smart. We saw him lie – so we know he’s a liar. We see that she’s affected by this. We know now that she doesn’t trust him. Ergo, she leaves him.

How much logic did we need for that scene? One connection between him lying and her not trusting him.

Instead, we usually get several scenes and fights in the name of “escalating drama” that just bore us, leave us unengaged emotionally, run our logical brains around in circles with useless, redundant information, just rehashing what we already know intuitively, just in case we didn’t get it the first time (we did). It’s boring. It’s sloppy writing.

So don’t do it.

Stop explaining things. Stop wondering why. Show us why we care, and let us watch. We will understand because we understand the emotions. Actors are great for this. Look at Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad – you can ALWAYS tell when he’s lying without the writers ever needing to explain it. They simply showed us what we needed to know – ie. they contextualized the lie – made us understand Walter’s headspace – ie. motivated the lie – and let the drama play out – ie. paid off the lie. Nobody had to explain anything.

Of course, there’s a difference when a character gets caught in a lie and tries to talk his way out of it – but that’s a different way of “explaining,” because really, it’s just more lying. No exposition needed.

Forget about why. You’re not a detective (unless you are, in which case, hello). You’re a storyteller. You need the Who (yes, I’m talking about the band. Jokes aside, you need someone for us to care about), the Where (not necessarily a physical setting, this means context), the What (this is your actual thing that’s happening. You can go far simpler than saying this is the plot. All it needs to be is “Joe goes for a run” and that can be enough), the Where (more context. The setting doesn’t need to refer to an actual place so much as it creates context for the drama. It just happens to be so that you will have to take pictures of this so having a real place would, you know, help), and the How (the drama.)

As far as the Why goes? We could call this the motivation, and that’s important, but once you know it, forget about it, and try writing the story without it. Don’t answer any Why questions, just know what they are for yourself and leave them out of your draft. See if that amps up the drama and drops the exposition. You might be surprised.

Remember, this may not work for everyone. This is how I write because of my history of the way I speak about movies, but if this helps, good.

I’m going to wrap this up now with a quick little anecdote.

The last time I watched a movie with a bunch of people, they spent the whole time debating the logic of a certain plot-point that I won’t spoil and decided, well that didn’t make sense and wouldn’t have worked in the real world so this movie isn’t very good. In the time being, they missed a good portion of important character development. When it came to the climax, one of them was so disinterested in the character he got up to get a snack.

Basically he missed the entire catharsis of the movie because he couldn’t get himself past the idea that movies are about characters, not logic.

Not to harp on him for that, and if you enjoy logic in your movies, so do I. But as writers, we can do so much better than teaching algebra in creative writing class. We’ll stop getting those annoying notes, we’ll understand what it really means to respect an audience’s intelligence. And hey, we’ll make better movies.

Sound like a plan? Good.

I wish you the best of luck!

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6 comments

  1. I’m glad you mentioned “Breaking Bad”–easily one if the best written shows of all-time. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but “True Detective” is a great example of exceptional screenwriting or writing in general.

    You’re right though: the onus is on us writers.

    Like

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