Sunday, June 3, 2012

Do you always have to be right?

by: Joelle Charbonneau

This week, I was watching an old episode of the NBC show SMASH.  If you don’t follow the show, it is about the personal and profession journeys of those involved in bringing a new musical to Broadway.  I know you’re shocked that I watch a show involving the quest to launch a Broadway musical! (Insert laugh track here.)  And while the show has a great number of subplots that I don’t care about (honest to God musical theater performers are not all sex fiends who believe in sleeping with the lyricist or the director), I have found myself watching for the things the show gets right.  The moments of anxiety about being a performer.  The despair when you get rejected.  The strength it takes after a bad show to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and find a way to make things better the next time. 

This show gets a lot of things about the musical theater business right.  However, I have noticed that there are times where they have chosen to skip accuracy for the sake of more impactful storytelling.  Perhaps you are now rolling your eyes at me and thinking that they got it wrong because they didn’t do the research.  That they were lazy.  And maybe in some cases that is true, but there are times I am certain they know what is accurate and have chosen to ditch what happens in real life for what will make the story more interesting to the viewer.

Case in point—more often than not in theater, the female performers wear wigs when performing on stage.  This is done for a number of reasons that range from needing different hair colors to allowing the performer to change from one style to another without much difficulty.  When a wig needs to be worn by a girl with long hair, she had to bobby pin her hair into pin curls so her hair lays flat against her head in order to make the wig fit look natural.  During several backstage scene in SMASH you see girls with the pin curls.  The writers of the show and the costumers clearly understand that they exist.  Yet, when one of the leading characters takes off her wig during a dramatic moment, her real hair is not confined into tightly wound segments pinned around her head.  Nope.  When the wig comes off, her real hair comes cascading down as she storms off screen.

When I first saw the scene, the theater performer in me shook my head because the show got that detail wrong, but the writer in me nodded with approval at the choice to ditch accuracy.  Why?  Because a girl in pin curls looks…well…silly.  Trust me.  I’ve looking in many a mirror at myself in pin curls and while they are useful they aren’t flattering.   Not only that, the character who stormed off then has a scene where she needs the audience to connect with her…feel her vulnerability.  The whole pin curl thing would have felt foreign to most of the viewing public.  It would have put an invisible barrier between them and the performer.  To avoid this, accuracy was sacrificed for storytelling.

As a writer, I try to research everything to the best of my ability, but there are times where I find myself looking for ways to bend the research to where I want the story to go.  Accuracy is important, especially if you don't want people to point and snicker and say you didn't do your homework.  Still, I think there are moments like the one with the wig on SMASH that shows that sometimes total accuracy has to take a backseat?

Or am I wrong?  Does a minor inaccuracy make you put down the book or leave the movie theater?  Do you always insist on impeccably correct details or have you found yourself able to forgive a minor discrepancy from the way things work in real life if the choice aids the telling of a story?


Dana King said...

Everything doesn't have to be right; they should seem real. The issue I have with the example here is, they've gone to the trouble to show how things really work with the pin curls, the they ditch it when it becomes inconvenient. Okay, so she looks silly in pin curls; write that into the scene. The dramatic effect may be altered, but write around it. Write into the script how she looks a little silly, trying to make a dramatic exit with her hair done up like that. Something. What they did was lazy.

Al Tucher said...

I once heard a detective with the NYPD speak about his experiences as a technical consultant on film and TV productions. He said the producers told him numerous times, "Remember, this is not a documentary." They wanted him to tell them when they did something wrong, but he had to understand that they might do it anyway if it made a compelling story.

Elizabeth said...
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Elizabeth said...

Inaccuracies won't necessarily cause me to put a book down or change the channel, but they'll damn sure pull me out of the scene/break the mood every time. Especially when doing it "right" would have been just as easy.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

It won't necessarily get me to put a book down, but factual inaccuracies just drive me nuts. Like planting a boreal forest at a too-southerly latitude. I'm still miffed about an episode of Battlestar Galactica (the old, crappy series with Lorne Greene, not the "reimagined" SyFy one) in which the fleet was going to come to a halt because they were running out of fuel -- in space, where there's no drag to slow you down, much less bring you to a halt. I'll accept a bit of poetic license, but I definitely lose respect for witers who don't do their basic homework, especially on basic facts.

Jay Stringer said...

We can drive ourselves mad chasing accuracy, I think. We're making stuff up and putting it on a page, so by 'realism' we're really just trying for the best con job we can. Enough half-truths to make it feel real and to allow us to sneak the fiction past people.

That said, I like to research. I like to fact check. I don't give myself a blanket pass to bend the facts for the sake of the story, rather i try and use the facts as a test. If i'm going to break them, I have to have a good reason. And often they make you raise your game; if the facts stop a certain plot point from happening, well, maybe it's a bad plot point and maybe I need to raise my game.