All right, everyone. I’m back to beating the dead horse of believability once a-goddamn-gain. Here’s a tip for budding screenwriters out there: problems don’t arise from a far-fetched premise, plot, or even characters. There’s a little something called “suspension of disbelief,” without which no work of fiction could succeed. Assuming it’s a work of fiction that does succeed. At any rate, the writer bears the burden of making their audience suspend disbelief. It doesn’t happen by magic.
While there’s no foolproof method of getting the audience on your side, I think two basic writing goals will help immeasurably:
No matter how goofy and/or eccentric your characters, keep them rooted in some sort of relatable/believable struggle.
I’ll use Rushmore as an example, because back when Wes Anderson made good movies, he did a pretty good job of making eccentric characters into believable human beings. Max Fischer’s personality is extremely out-there, but his central conflicts — falling in love with an older woman and trying to avoid getting kicked out of school — are extremely relatable. The story and characters are fairly ridiculous, but it’s easier to go along for the ride here than in something like, let’s say, Harold & Maude, the inexplicable “classic” that defines “quirky for the sake of quirky” characters.
Find a way to omnisciently acknowledge the absurdity of your story/characters/premise.
You often find this in your middle-tier romantic comedies: the sarcastic best friend who periodically emerges to point out how ridiculous a character’s zany schemes have become. There are a thousand ways to accomplish this, though, and not all of them suck. To use the Rushmore example again, consider two things: Max’s father’s bewilderment of his son’s behavior, and Max’s initial dose of reality when he first attends public school. Eventually, he bends the school to his whims, but at first, taking Max out of the bizarre Rushmore Academy and plopping him down in a semi-normal school is an incongruous reminder that, even in the universe of the movie, Max is an oddball.
Keeping this in mind, it won’t surprise you to discover I got in a little bit of trouble for trashing an awful romantic comedy about online dating. The thing you have to understand is, I love romantic comedies. I just don’t think good ones are made very often — especially not lately — and it disappoints me majorly to read shitty ones. It disappoints me even more when the scripts have decent ideas inhibited by poor execution.
So with this online dating script, I identified two fatal flaws. First, the writer makes the mistake of assuming the audience will buy the idea of an online dating site as a relationship cure-all. Second, the writer makes the mistake of thinking every match on these sites will offer perfect compatibility. Make no mistake: the writer doesn’t portray these conclusions as comically absurd. They form the premise of his script, which is about a couple who put their seemingly idyllic relationship to the test by signing up to an online dating website.
In response to these flaws, I was told: “Five million people sign up to online dating sites every day.” I guess this contention shows that this movie will have an audience. I think it’s sort of a specious conclusion, though, especially in light of the flaws mentioned above. I’d love to get some statistics on why people sign up to these sites, because my personal observations — i.e., friends who have signed up to dating sites — have led me to think only two types of people sign up to these sites: those who have lost hope and gotten desperate, and those who claim to be too busy to socialize. (I say “claim to be” because, in all cases, it’s just a bullshit excuse for either getting rejected or not getting asked out.) In either case, they do not expect much from these sites. They certainly don’t assume it’ll lead to a perfect match, and after a few disastrous dates, they will laugh at the very idea of dating websites leading to perfect matches. They’ll laugh even harder if a movie expects audiences to take the idea seriously.
So I rewrote the coverage, strengthening my argument and proposing a simple fix. It would be so, so simple to turn this piece of crap into a middling, forgettable romantic comedy — clearly the writer’s goal. And it all goes back to believability: a major subplot revolves around the Pierce Brosnan-like creator of a new online dating site, reminiscent of eHarmony (in that the creator uses elaborate questionnaires and supposedly scientific methodology for making matches, although I think the character in this script would not disallow gays from using his site on religious grounds). Why not point out the unbelievable qualities of this site by, say, including a few lines suggesting this particular site has taken off because the character’s formula for matchmaking is shockingly good?
It’s not a perfect solution, but it acknowledges the believability problem and offers a way for audiences to suspend disbelief. Not everyone will buy it, but at least the script would be making an effort to acknowledge its own absurdity. At the end of the day, that’s all I want in scripts and movies: a token gesture. A little goes a long way, and I cut really far-fetched scripts a metric ass-ton of slack if they make mild efforts to keep things believable and relatable. (Do not confuse these with “realism.” I prefer it when movies aren’t realistic, frankly. Just as long as they’re unreal in relatable ways.)