April 9th, 2008
This post contains a minor spoiler from the first season of LOST. It also contains the word “fuck.” A lot.
Speaking of LOST (as I often am, these days) …
If you are interested in the show, screenwriting in general, or wanton profanity, head over to The Daily Script and check out some of the LOST screenplays. They are written in a style that is, as far as I know, unique within the industry:
And as Jack slowly looks up -- standing right in front of him -- just FIVE FUCKING FEET AWAY --
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
Jack looks at him, ragged breath, but EYES BURNING. And he asks the question that hopefully all of America has been asking for the past week --
Who are you?
And we're LOOKING UP at Ethan. SOAKING WET but seemingly oblivious to the rain. And his EYES. His FUCKING EYES.
That’s from “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues“, season one, episode nine.
J. J. Abrams (the series creator) established this style in the pilot with phrases like “HE SCREAMS BLOODYFUCKINGMURDER” and “this guy is a Class-A prickfuck” (wha-?!). Since then it appears to have become part of the show’s template. Most LOST scripts read as if the writer has just hit his thumb with a hammer.
Of course, most screenwriters put some subtext into the action descriptions. In his book Crafty TV Writing, Alex Epstein (author of the screenwriting blog Complications Ensue) dubs these “subtitles for the nuance-impaired.”
Subtitles for the nuance-impaired are legitimate when the episode, if properly shot and edited, will easily communicate something that the script might not get across. Producers and executives are used to reading dialogue, but editing, for example, doesn't read well ...
[But] be careful writing directly to the reader this way. It's slightly naughty.
The LOST scripts take naughty to the next level, going beyond “subtitles for the nuance-impaired” and into the realm of “before the nuance-impaired can fucking process anything, the writer SMASHES THE PORCELAIN FOOD BOWL RIGHT INTO THE SIDE OF HIS FUCKING HEAD!” (Actual line from Lost 220! Well, sort of.)
I asked Epstein why the LOST staff writes this way. “It gives an ‘energetic read’,” he replied. “Network execs like it. They don’t have to put too much energy into reading it.” He also speculated that it had become part of the LOST culture. “Everybody does it ’cause their boss, JJ Abrams, does it.”
Some do it more than others, though. Search the pilot for “fuck” and you’ll find it 28 times in 96 pages; do the same on “Two For the Road“, and you’ll get 96 hits in 56 pages. My goodness. I wonder if they write emails to their mothers using the same fingers they use to type these screenplays. (Though, as Epstein points out, “Abrams probably rewrites all the scripts, so he may put the f-bombs in himself.”)
So, is this a good style for an aspiring screenwriter to adopt? Epstein again:
I find it annoying. If I got a script like that, I might not keep reading. I find it vulgar and cheap -- and by cheap, I mean you're getting a zap! into your script without actually working for it.
It's imprecise. Use words like bullets, not like a spray of birdshot. Note how the porcelain bowl line does not mention whether the food bowl breaks, or whether his head caroms off the bowl. Is there blood or not? It's loud, but it's not visual. It's abstract.
JJ Abrams gets paid a lot more than I do, so he can do as he likes. But just because e. e. cummings wrote free verse in lowercase doesn't means you should write poetry that way.
Duly noted. Indeed, when I write my LOST spec script, I intend to adopt a different style entirely:
Jack is peeved as all get-out! His DANDER is TOTALLY UP!
He draws his gun and points it RIGHT AT JOHN'S GOSH-DARNED HEAD!!!!!
See you in aitch ee
Then, when the LOST staff reads it, they’ll be all, “Whoa, check out this FRESH NEW VOICE! This SON OF A BITCH can THINK OUTSIDE THE MOTHERFUCKING BOX!!!”