Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Lesson from Andy Griffith

“If a jokes makes a liar out of the character then lose the joke.” —Andy Griffith
We lost a great storyteller last year by the name of Andy Griffith. If you don’t know of him he was the star of a television show in the 1960s bearing his name. His show is one of my very favorite shows of all time. I learn something about the craft of storytelling every time I watch it. There is a real reason it is considered a classic.

A friend of mine could not understand why I watched the show so often, until he started watching it himself. He called me one day to tell me he “got it.” Now he is a big fan, too.

Andy Griffith and co-star Ron Howard
Griffith, who was from Mount Airy, North Carolina, first got famous as a young comic specializing in regional humor. In 1953 he recorded and released a record called “What It Was, Was Football,” where he tells the story of backwoods southerner explaining the first time he saw a football game. The record was a hit. It may not seem funny to many of us now, but at the time it made an impact on listeners. Andy knew how to tell stories.

When Griffith got his own television sitcom, every opportunity was taken to showcase his storytelling talents. Andy’s character often told stories on the show. But Andy also worked hard behind the scenes making sure that each script worked as well as possible.

This brings me to a piece of advice he gave to his writers: “If a joke makes a liar out of the character then lose the joke.”

This advice above is a block of solid-gold wisdom. It sounds so simple, yet it is hardly followed anymore. I see this “rule” broken all the time. Storytellers make their characters do whatever that writer wants, with little regard for the character or story.

Griffith said this about his comedy show, but it could apply to any kind of writing, not just comedy. Any line, scene, or event that makes a liar out of the characters should be thrown out. This does not mean that characters can’t lie. It means they must be consistent characters. If the writer forces a character to do something just for a laugh, that laugh will damage the story’s internal logic. The audience will be taken out of the story. The more one does this, the less the audience trusts the writer. They sense the story’s “reality” is not grounded. It is unstable.

As I said in my book Invisible Ink, when we see a film where the young college student hears a noise in the dark basement and goes to investigate on her own we know this is a lie. This is lazy writing and the audience knows it.

But what I see in movies and on television nowadays is that having a character do something unexpected or shocking takes precedence over staying true to that character. Yes, one can surprise an audience this way, but one reason they are surprised is that there is no way they could have seen the action coming. The lie makes the event impossible to predict, but it is a cheat. And the more one cheats like this to make allowances for a line here, a joke there, a scene here, the more tenuous becomes the trust of your audience.

There is a trend to go for the shock reaction that comes from breaking the internal rules of a story rather than playing by the established rules and surprising people anyway. This is the hard work of the craft.

Amazing things can happen when you work within the established rules of your story world. Homer Simpson is never funnier than when he does something that only Homer would do. But if he does something only because the writers thought it was funny, the audience may laugh, but at the same time have a nagging feeling that something is off.

Do yourself a favor and don’t make it easy on yourself by doing whatever comes to mind just because you will get a cheap response like a laugh or a shock or because it is easier than solving the tough story problems. There is no craft in random writing. It is cheating. It is sweeping the pieces off the chessboard because you are losing and declaring yourself the winner.

Work within the parameters of your story-world and its characters. This can sometimes be difficult, but if you do it well, in 50 years’ time some young writer may be quoting your advice.