Cheating in screenwriting

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There’s been something of an interesting debate in an online forum for filmmakers I frequent. One member asked it it’s sloppy story telling if characters suddenly seem to be possessed of crucial knowledge without showing how they came by it.

You know the sort of thing – a protagonist or antagonist suddenly turns up at the home/office/lair of another character leaving you with the unanswered question of “how did he know he’d be there?”. You can probably think of lots of other examples.

And the answer is, yes it’s sloppy writing.

The alternative is to have lots of exposition. Suddenly, a new character – let’s call him Dave – is wheeled in so that the hero/villain can explain what we’ve learned so far and fill in all the little details that will excuse sudden plot twists and developments. And Dave is never seen again.

That’s sloppy too.

If you leave the audience wondering “but how did he know that?”, or you need to put pages of plot explanation into the mouths of your characters, you’re either being lazy or incompetent as a screenwriter. Of course, it happens all the time, but that’s just a sad reflection on the average quality of movies.

And while we’re at it, I’ll whinge a little more about lazy screenwriting. There are certain subjects in which I have a little expertise and knowledge – aviation, say, and computers. And I get tired of screenwriters who fail do to their research and create implausible or impossible moments in their films just to satisfy the plot, often as a form of deus ex machina to get them out of a plot hole.

scorpionLet’s take hacking, for example. How many times have you seen a character obtain crucial information or empty out an opponent’s bank account with a judicious spot of hacking, usually involving no more than a quick clattering of keys?

“I’ll just hack into the mainframe,” they say. (Why is it always a mainframe? Because screenwriters know bugger all about modern IT infrastructures.)

By all accounts a US TV show Scorpion recently contained what can only be described as the most mind-numbingly cretinous hacking sequence in the history of low-brow entertainment drivel.

I’m a Certified Ethical Hacker and editor of two cyber-security journals – which doesn’t make me an expert hacker but does give me some insight. There are people who hack for a living – they’re known as penetration testers and they’re paid by organisations to test their security. And even with their advanced skills (and sometimes some advanced knowledge of what they’re attacking) it can take days or weeks to enter the target systems.

In malicious attacks, highly skilled groups may take months to fully penetrate a system, often starting with phishing attacks and social engineering (ie, conning someone into giving up a password or other useful info).

But screenwriters treat hacking as though it’s a useful shortcut – to avoid having to think of some more credible way of putting information in the hands of a character. For example, the hacking in Girl With a Dragon Tattoo? Bullshit.

What I’m saying to screenwriters is: do your homework. Research. If you find yourself thinking, “I’ll just have someone hack into the mainframe”, stop, take a break, and think of some other way of doing it.

And then there’s aviation. It’s so wrong, so often. Die Hard 2? Don’t get me started…

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