Thursday, March 02, 2017

Work the Problem

Screenwriters bend over backwards to contrive events rather than embrace the path of greatest resistance.

By Jim Cirile

SNEAKY PETE kicks heaping mounds of gluteus. In case you haven't seen it yet (and what are you waiting for?) Giovanni Ribisi is TV's newest con man. Wearing his con lifer status as a badge of honor, Ribisi's character Marius is a startlingly clever professional liar with just enough reluctant heart to win us over. Co-created by David Shore ("House") and freaking Heisenberg himself, Bryan Cranston, the show weaves a complex series of intertwining plotlines that spool out at breakneck pace. You know you're watching a great show when at the end of an episode you can't believe 50 minutes just whizzed by.

Sure, the acting is terrific. Margo Martindale is fabulous as the unglued family matriarch. Ben Vereen is endearing as an old con frenemy. And hey, Cranston himself as the bad guy, delivering savory, messed-up soliloquies? Oh yeah, he is the danger. But the secret to why it all works may boil down to one of the stated themes of the show itself: "work the problem." In true "Breaking Bad" fashion, things never go according to plan. And that, friends, is a beautiful thing.


Everyone in this family has secrets.
In "Sneaky Pete," Ribisi has one week to come up with $100K to pay off the mobster (Cranston) holding his brother hostage. He assumes the identity of his former cellmate (the titular "Pete") and plans to rob the family safe. If you think he simply ninjas in after dark and cracks that puppy, incorrecto. In his way are a series of unexpected roadblocks that spiral out of control. When we finally do get that safe open, naturally things don't go as intended. And that's the whole point. "Sneaky Pete" is a "one step forward, five steps back" kind of show. Every attempt to resolve a situation creates a plethora of new ones. There are so many cons-within-cons and interweaving subplots that in the hands of lesser writers, it would likely all collapse like a half-baked poop soufflé.

The heart of every screenplay or teleplay is conflict. As they pounded into our heads in screenwriting school: There Must Be Conflict in Every Scene. Sometimes that means manufacturing some, such as with an insolent waiter or a nosy jackass neighbor butting in. Because if you have a scene where everything is rosy, unless it's ironic, or the conflict exists in subtext, it likely won't be super engaging.

Yet we writers often make things way too easy on our characters. We use contrivances, coincidences to get from point A to C, leapfrogging over all the obstacles that might realistically pop up and impede that path. To obfuscate our manipulations, we avoid having characters ask obvious, logical and/or important questions, hoping the audience won't catch on to our trickery. Hey, we have the story planned out a certain way, and that way is etched in granite (or index cards, as the case may be.) Problem is, Deus ex machina -- the hand of the writer may be apparent. Not the best way to keep an audience engaged. No, we want to see our characters dealing with unexpected awfulness that screws everything up. It's precisely those pressure cooker situations that glue us to our seats.

Besides Cranston, the key unifying element of the storytelling in "Sneaky Pete" and its spiritual brother "Breaking Bad": shit goes south. Seldom can a character accomplish a key task without something going horribly wrong, forcing unforeseen detours and seemingly sidetracking the narrative. Again, these are paths we writers often resist going down. Yet it's by throwing monkey wrenches into the gears and forcing our characters to think their way out of awful jams that the brilliance emerges.

I'm sure everything's going to work out great for these two.
To avoid spoiling "Sneaky Pete," let's look at some situations from "Breaking Bad." Unexpected complications made that show. Take the fifth season train heist, for example. Walt's brilliant plan to rob the methylamine without anyone ever knowing it was stolen goes off without a hitch -- until a good Samaritan shows up at just the wrong time to push the stalled car off the tracks, thus freeing the train to continue on its way before the heist is complete. With the ticking clock now ratcheted up 300%, can the team pull it off in time? And then to "top the topper," as Blake Edwards called it, the little kid shows up on his dirt bike and gets a good look at everyone. The repercussions from what happens next completely change the character dynamic for the remainder of the series and set into action a whole new chain of events. 

The writers could have  simply let Walt and Jesse dissolve drug dealer Crazy 8 in acid in Jesse's bathtub, and have it work perfectly. It would have been grisly and awful. But the writers escalated the sequence into a work of art by dealing with all the problems that could come from someone trying to actually do this. By the way, "Mythbusters" tried to melt a simulated body and bathtub in hydrofluoric acid. It didn't work. That's the writers, dialing it up.

It's all explained eloquently as one of Marius' guiding principles. When a character gives him a litany of things that have gone wrong and complications that have arisen, making achieving his objective difficult, Marius responds, "So? Work the problem." Which means: whatever happens, no matter how bad, fold it into the ongoing narrative. Assimilate it. If you do that, nothing is a problem -- provided you never let 'em see you sweat.

Writers, that means us.

Rather than avoid the conflict, embrace it. Even if it takes you in a direction you didn't want to go, easin' on down that road may reveal new facets of your characters that make them pop. Be open to allowing the action to unfold organically. How does your hero deal with adversity? Can they think on their feet? Don't make things easy on them!

The infamous Mr. Murphy once noted: "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong." Make sure this is true not just in real life but your writing as well. For us, whatever can go wrong MUST go wrong.
It is incumbent upon us writers to find and utilize critical flaws in even the most well-constructed, bulletproof plan and make life as miserable as possible for our protagonists.

Work the problem.

Jim Cirile is a writer/producer and the founder of, the longest-standing screenplay analysis/story development company in LA.