Learn Bad Writing from Gotham

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Learn Bad Writing from Gotham

It’s easy to find inspiration in great books, movies, and TV shows, but sometimes, the best inspiration comes from horrible books and scripts. As Stephen King wrote, “[…] quite often the bad books have more to teach you than the good ones” (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft). The revived Batman series, Gotham, flies into King’s quote with no hope of escape, making it a perfect study for aspiring writers.

The writing is the most important aspect of the entire Batman franchise because it was considered a neo-noir–Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett casing today’s block in black spandex. Neo-noir has many tricky elements–dark scenes, cynical yet straightforward lines, femme fatales, gritty plots, and bold character development–and when one of those elements don’t match the rest of it, the entire work dies as swiftly as Martha and Thomas Wayne.

My biggest problem with Gotham‘s script is the abstract, uncharacteristic lines that pass through the actors’ lips. For example, when Detective James Gordon meets the Wayne butler, Alfred, to talk about little Bruce’s mental problems, they have an unconvincing conversation that’s supposed to show Alfred’s exasperation with Bruce’s behavior.

GORDON: You make the rules, don’t you? You’re his guardian.

ALFRED: I raised his father. Gave me very firm…orders was his and his missus to die. Now I will raise the boy the way his father taught me to raise him.

GORDON: Which is how?

ALFRED: Trust him…to choose his own…course. He is, after all, a Wayne.

GORDON: Sounds like a recipe for disaster. What do you want me to do?

BRUCE: He wants you to talk some sense into me.

From these eleven sentences, there isn’t much that moves the audience, and the choice of words are cliché (“Sounds like a recipe for disaster.”) and unbelievable (“Trust him…to choose his own…course.”). Anyone can trade “course” for “destiny”.

ALFRED: Trust him…to choose his own…destiny. He is, after all, a Wayne.

Nope, it’s still too abstract. As a writer in the Neo-Noir genre and a fan of the Batman franchise, I’d like to edit the script to suit Detective Gordon and Alfred.

GORDON: You make the rules, don’t you? You’re his guardian.

ALFRED: His father gave me firm orders to raise the boy the same way his father wanted him raised…if he was here.

GORDON: Which is how?

ALFRED: Allow Master Bruce to make his own…decisions. He is, after all, a Wayne.

GORDON: Then why am I here?

BRUCE: He wants you to talk some sense into me.

This script has more feeling because the lines are straightforward and realistic. In real conversations, people don’t usually speak in a passive voice. Also, the new dialogue captures Detective Gordon and Alfred’s personalities. Gordon was a U.S. soldier, hardened to take lives and hone survival skills, before he faced corruption within two police departments. This person would cut to the point, as commanding officers only want the bottom line without much lip service. Alfred, a former intelligence agent experienced in domestic support, is an English version of Gordon, only he has more tact and sarcasm in his personality.

A good example of punchy lines suited for their characters is the 1966 Batman series.

JOKER: Where’s Bruce Wayne?

ALFRED: Mr. Wayne is not at home, Sir.

JOKER: Too bad! I’ll get my revenge later. Right now, I’ll settle for cash. Where’s the safe?

ALFRED: My duties do not include aiding and abetting thievery.

In the face of danger, Alfred stands his ground with just one line and the audience immediately understands his character. There are no winding lines that lack emotion or imagery. The above lines are reduced to basic English grammar: subject, verb, and object or complement. That’s my kind of Point A to Point B.

Gotham missed the characters’ personalities and active neo-noir lines, making it a piece of worthless writing, but just as Stephen King advices for writers, “[…] bad [writings] have more to teach you than the good ones.”

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