Sunday, June 3, 2012
Advice about speech writing from a guy who wrote the book on scriptwriting
J. Michael Stracznski wrote The Complete Book of Scriptwriting. On page 160 of the 1996 revised edition he said that when writing a screenplay you should:
“Avoid long, potentially tedious monologues. An unbroken speech that runs a page or more can slow the pace of your screenplay to a tortuous crawl. Handled well and carefully crafted, a brief speech can be a stirring, moving moment in your story. Handled improperly, long monologues can be deadly to an otherwise sterling script. If it is essential that a lot of information be conveyed in a single scene, try to break it up with occasional reactions from the other person or persons in the room.
....If you decide to use the device of the long monologue, use it sparingly. There’s a classic scene in The Great Muppet Caper wherein actress Diana Rigg delivers a long monologue filled with more information than anyone could possibly care to hear. After the speech, Miss Piggy (manned - or perhaps pigged - by Frank Oz) asks ‘Why are you telling me all this?‘ Rigg simply shrugs and says, ‘It’s exposition. It has to go somewhere.’ ”
Appendix Two of Stracznski’s book is one of his scripts from the wonderful science fiction television series Babylon 5, which he created. It ran from 1991 through 1995 and mostly took place on a giant space station. The prequel movie Babylon 5: In the Beginning contains this inspirational speech by the Earth president just before the last-ditch Battle of the Line.
“This is the President. I have just been informed that our midrange military bases at Beta Durani and Proxima Three have fallen to the Minbari advance. We have lost contact with Io and must conclude that they too have fallen to an advanced force.
Our military intelligence believes that the Minbari intend to bypass Mars and hit Earth directly, and the attack may come at any time. We have continued to broadcast our surrender and a plea for mercy, and they have not responded. We therefore can only conclude that we stand at the twilight of the human race.
In order to buy more time for our evacuation transports to leave Earth, we ask for the support of every ship capable of fighting, to take part in a last defense of our home world. We will not lie to you. We do not believe that survival is a possibility. We believe that anyone who joins this battle will never come home.
But, for every ten minutes we can delay the military advance, several hundred more civilians may have a chance to escape to neutral territory. Though Earth may fall, the human race must have a chance to continue elsewhere. No greater sacrifice has ever been asked of a people, but I ask you now - to step forward one last time, one last battle to hold the line against the night. May God go with you all.”
The epilogue for Babylon 5 contains an excellent brief monologue by Susan Ivanova that summarizes the entire series. It appears starting at 1:35 in the clip shown above.
“Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. There would never be another. It changed the future and it changed us. It taught us that we have to create the future, or others will do it for us. It showed us that we have to care for one another, because if we don’t, who will? And that true strength sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. Mostly though, I think it gave us hope that there can always be new beginnings - even for people like us.”
At 30 seconds into the clip, Mr. Stracznski appropriately appears in coveralls to turn out the lights - just before they blow up the station.