Jake Disch

Dear Screenwriter: What is this Crap?

Dear Screenwriter will be the the title of an ongoing series of blog posts that will reflect my evolving attitude on screenwriting as I work on, learn, and maybe one day master the form. My word is not law. More often it will be some half-baked advice that turns out to be 80% swear words and 15% bullshit. But hey, at least it should be amusing.

Dear Screenwriter:

I’ve been meaning to go on this little rant for awhile, but I’ve been busy with school and teaching and other writing. Recently my annoyance on this topic has reached critical mass. I can’t take it anymore. I feel like there are ants in my brain. It’s maddening. Every single time I hear it, I want to grab whoever wrote it, shake them, and tell them to just try harder, dammit!

What am I talking about? A single line of dialog, one that pops up in many of your favorite movies again and again (and again). That line?

“What is this place?”

Ugghhhh. Just typing it there made me feel a little dirty. Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe you haven’t noticed this particular bit of dialog popping up in everything from classic monster movies like Alien to goddamn Comcast commercials. A minute ago, I was enjoying a script from the 2013 Black List (the yearly list of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood). A science fiction piece, well-written and intriguing, until BAM! “What is this place?” And suddenly that’s all I can think of. So, other than being in almost every scifi, horror, and fantasy film in which characters enter a strange new environment, why does this one little line bother me so?

Because it’s easy. It’s shorthand. Your characters enter a new area. Special effects paint a spectacular picture; your audience is awed. But! (you think, if you’re my hypothetical imaginary screenwriter, which would be weird) They don’t know what they’re looking at! They need someone to tell them! But nobody would ever just open their mouth and start explaining to his/her confused friends that this is just another level of the cave but this one happens to be covered in bones (The Descent). Someone has to ask where they are so someone else can give the exposition. And every time, the character who fulfills this function is given the same four words by writers who seem to think that there’s only one way to phrase this particular question. “What is this place?” Usually in a hushed, awed tone, though also sometimes fearful and/or confused.

Maybe people feel that this particular combination of words has weight to it, like it’s the most artful way of asking the question. It’s not. It’s just the easiest. The one we jump to because we’ve heard it over and over. And over. And over. So now, free of charge, here is a list of other ways to phrase your exposition-inducing query. First, a general list for when characters stumble into a new location.

1. Where are we?

2. Where the hell are we?

3. Where the fuck are we?

4. Where the fucking hell are we?

5. Are we lost?

6. Are fucking lost?

7. Are we fuck-shitting lost?

8. Please tell me where the hell we are.

9. Please tell me where the fuck we are.

10. Please tell me where in the fucking shit-hell we are.

Now, some suggestions for those special instances when the production design demands a certain amount of attention. Your characters enter a spectacularly-designed, seemingly religious chamber with a scary face on the wall that later turns out to be filled with black goop with arbitrary plot-advancing powers, for instance (Prometheus).

1. What is this? (NOTE: By omitting the word “place,” you avoid my wrath. But just barely.)

2. What the hell is this?

3. What the fuck is this?

4. What the fucking hell is this?

5. What is all this?

6. What the hell is all this?

7. What the fuck is all this?

8. What the fucking hell is all this?

9. This is really goddamn strange.

10. This is fucked right the hell up and we should leave before there’s an act transition or a midpoint crisis or something.

Any of these suggestions would be preferable to going with the first instinct, engrained in our collective minds by years and years of watching movies that have somehow convinced us that the first thing anybody says when they see something they don’t understand is, “What is this place?” But really, the best thing a character could say is nothing. Nothing at all.

“But then,” my hypothetical take-the-low-road screenwriter protests, “Who will instigate the exposition?” Hey, here’s an idea! How about you parse that stuff out slowly? Maybe the characters explore their surroundings a little bit, actually discover some stuff. This can lead to the minor miracle known as visual exposition. Then again, who knows? Maybe my imaginary exposition hound of a writer has a know-it-all character, wanting to prove him or herself, who pipes up and explains their theory on what this place is unbidden, without anyone asking them to. All of a sudden, the exposition is motivated by actual character psychology! Maybe it even tells us something new about the character!

See what I mean about this line being lazy shorthand? It gives the writer a free pass to dump a load of exposition on the audience without actually furthering plot or character development. And we as an audience accept it because we’ve been trained to. We’re like Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (a movie, which, by the way, does not have this line in it) and his Queen of Diamonds: we hear a character say, “What is this place?” and we immediately, thoughtlessly prepare for the inevitable info dump to follow.

So in conclusion, if you’re writing a screenplay and thinking about your dialog and you think, “I know! This is where my main character asks what this place is,” just go ahead and slap yourself for me. And if you have to write it, at least throw some swears in there to make it more fun.