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Good Screenwriting (Including Some Overdue Discussion of "Gravity")

I realize I’m a little late to the party with this post, but I want to talk a bit about Gravity. It’s the last movie I saw in theaters and I’m still checking out criticism about it even now. I thought was a truly excellent movie and definitely worth all the praise it has been given since its release.

However, there has been a backlash, as there usually is.  I disagree with the negative opinions of Gravity, but I respect people’s opinions to dislike it. Some people felt that the performances were not as strong as they could have been, or they felt there was an undercurrent of sexism, or they didn't connect to the conflict as much as they would have liked. I won’t argue those issues here because these are matters of interpretation and preference; I liked them, other people didn't.  Discussion over.

But one criticism that I keep seeing repeated is that Gravity had a poor script.  I don't think people who say that know what "bad writing" means.

Gravity has one of the best scripts I have seen put on screen in recent memory. It is the definition of a perfect screenplay.

First of all, it is simple, and in simplicity is divinity. (Yes, I’m aware of how goddamn snobby that sounds.) The best stories are focused like a laser. Even when there is a twist or a curveball or layers of complexity, the premise will still be basic, the conflict will be crystal clear and urgent, and the audience will have a clear anchor that lets them experience the progression of the story. Gravity accomplishes all of this by reducing its story to a very basic premise: Sandra Bullock must get back to Earth.

Secondly, it is tight. There are no elements in the story that do not serve a purpose. There’s no fat.  There are no random distractions.  There’s no random offensive black character who pops up for comic relief and then has a subplot where he eats donuts in an interrogation room while you wonder what Sandra Bullock is up to. Everything contributes and everything matters.

Thirdly, it is organic (as much as I hate to use that word). There are no contrivances* – not even the scenes with George Clooney that seem to get a lot of grief. Scientifically accurate or not, the events that happen are logical and serve as a natural segue to everything that comes next. There are no moments in the movie that rely on remarkable coincidences to progress.

(*One quick minor concession I'll make is that the initial setup is, admittedly, a bit of a contrivance.  It doesn't make a lot of sense that all the space stations would be together in such close proximity at the same time that a shower of space debris passes by, but this is one of those things that you accept when you hear a story because you need something to happen.  I would say this isn't really a problem in the same sense that dinosaurs being cloned is not really a problem in Jurassic Park.)

Fourthly, it perfectly balances an internal conflict with an external. This is not required, but it is an added layer of complexity that makes stories and characters stronger. And not only is there an internal conflict, but it complements the external perfectly.

Fifthly, both conflicts support an overall thematic framework that is readily and universally understood. Even if you don’t especially react to it, the simple fact that you can easily understand it is more important. This is the very concept of human connection that writers aspire to: to be able to put together a sequence of events that says something about human experience and to get the nod of familiarity from an audience.

And finally - and perhaps most importantly - it accomplishes all of the above without calling attention to itself.  It is subtle.  It shows character development without telling.  There are no flashbacks, no voiceovers, no "You just don't get it, do you?" moments where somebody explains the plot to people who aren't paying attention.  There is no repetition to hammer home a point that might have been missed.  It accomplishes all the things a script needs to do without reminding you that there is a story-teller.

So what does the Internet bitch about?

“The story is really weak, because it’s just Sandra Bullock.”

“Oh, it’s not really that original, guyz, it’s just some lady what lost her young'un.”

“Ew, this movie is about people feeling things, doodz. One and a half stars.”

It is honestly beyond my comprehension as to what people who complain about this movie think that a "good script" is. I imagine that these same people will go to a hardware store and buy a hammer, and then use said hammer to construct a house, and then at the end of it they’ll look at their work and say, “I guess the hammer hit all those nails, but gee-whiz, it really wasn’t much of a hammer. The only thing it did was its stated purpose.”

Good writing is the act of clearly communicating complex ideas and emotions in as clear and concise a way as possible. If you saw a movie that you are even able to pull that much data from to have the kinds of discussions that people are having about Gravity, then that is evidence enough of an excellent script.