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 Realism: where to draw the line

How far should we go?

Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor

Copyright © 1994, 1997, Dorian Scott Cole

Life seems very tame at times. Sometimes major events are happening to us or around us and we hardly seem to notice. A writer looks at events and says, "This is important." He is able to determine what is important in an event and condense something that happened over several days or years into a story that gives others the essence of what happened. A condensed version has much more impact. 

Movies aren't reality, and excessive realism detracts from instead of enhancing them. Phone calls to friends sometimes last as long as a movie, but no one wants to see that in film. Some real people can't communicate. They talk so much they lose their point; they use so much foul language they can't express things clearly and limit their own perception of things to four letter words. Reality takes a very circuitous route to get from A to B, but a screenplay stays on course. 

Movies aren't reality, but movies are about reality. Movies tell us something about life and if they are too divorced from reality, they are make believe, telling us nothing. I believe writers have the responsibility to inform with accurate information, and to avoid misinforming. 

Sex is another area where reality is an uneasy portrayal. What is sexy? Movies are constantly pushing the acceptable limits on things like nudity. This is largely the director's domain, but the writer provides the basic scenes. Being on the edge is titillating to many viewers. In an age where soft porn movies are commonly available, standard movies and TV still find it necessary to push the limits to compete. Today the majority of both men and women spot the tush first. The Cowboy Way capitalized on this with Woody Harrelson wearing nothing but a cowboy hat. What tomorrow? We overlook what seems sexy today will be blasé tomorrow. 

Full frontal nudity seems just around the corner, and today's exposed breast is no better than yesterday's exposed calf, which dates your movie. We also seem to have forgotten the adage that a man's imagination is a girl's best friend. Hinting is often better than showing and what is sexually stimulating often has very little to do with the shape of body parts and has everything to do with the action of the characters. The power of suggestion is a powerful tool: Liking the character in a romantic situation, imagining, anticipating what may happen or may be revealed, a little teasing, a little display - these are what build sexual excitement. 

A well written sex scene that comes from the action is worth at least ten nude scenes - so rather than focus on exposing the latest body part, let the costume suggest the essence of masculinity or femininity and let sex be an irresistible outcome of the action that is so powerful that intercourse doesn't have to be shown. Two people building a hunger, followed by a burst of passion with them hungrily devouring each other is far more effective than showing the nitty-gritty details.

Realism is always a question in movies: how far to go? The secret is to remember, movies give us the essence of reality without burdening us with the bare facts.

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