Telling Details

Jafar from Aladdin

When I read screenplays the first thing I look for is a story. Sure, I love descriptions of flowers, trees, etc., but let’s face it, how much fun is a still life? Next I look for well-sketched characters, the kind who seem human, you know, with flaws, nervous tics, back stories, that kind of thing. If you have an interesting setting, that’s a plus, too. Don’t just set your story in Philadelphia, make it funky South Philly, or the still quite colonial Old Town, or the preppy University City. Do something, just don’t risk making it generic.

But what really makes me love a movie are the telling details. These are pieces of dialogue, scraps of description that tell me the author has worked hard at creating the story-world of the screenplay. In a tossed-off sentence the writer reveals more about the story than a page of text.

My favorite example of telling detail comes from Disney’s Aladdin, which features one of the best Disney villains, Jafar. Just as Aladdin finishes his grand entrance to Agrabah, the rechristened Prince Ali approaches the royal advisor who begins to question him.

Jafar: Where did you say you were from?

Aladdin: Oh, you wouldn’t have heard of it.

Jafar: Try me.

In this single second we see two sides of Jafar, the curious diplomat and well-seasoned traveler, as well as the sinister jerk who is trying to suss out this newcomer. He has been everywhere, but we don’t learn why, either. He is mysterious; but the audience can tell that hidden behind this idle curiosity is a Faustian desire to know things only for selfish reasons. I think at this point Jafar begins to realize Prince Ali’s true identity.

OK, time for a less villainous example. This comes from the last line of Goodfellas, another classic that is required viewing. These are the final words of the movie. Sorry to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but Henry gets placed in Witness Protection after ratting out his fellow goodfellas in a plea bargain.

Henry Hill: Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food – right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.

What I love about the last line is the part about the spaghetti. It seems to sum up all of Henry’s life as a gangster. He has tried so hard for an authentic experience only to be left with “egg noodles and ketchup.” It’s an earthy letdown but one that reveals his human side. No matter what he tries, where he goes, he can never live up to “spaghetti with marinara” and he is “an average nobody.” If this doesn’t get to the heart of his character’s flaw, I don’t know what else could—a modern day Cain stricken with not a mark on the forehead but crummy pasta on the plate.

Finally, this telling detail comes from my first screenplay, My Father the Agent, which continues to go unsold. Agents, I am warning you, this script heats up by the day—please take it off my hands before it burns down the apartment.

Joking aside, this line comes from the final act. Danny has worked his entire life to not be his conman father, and then after a summer with him in San Francisco, he realizes he is becoming him. This line comes from his aunt Carol to her son Adam; both have been tricked into believing Danny is making a movie. Just as Danny is filming an appearance with a local talk show host, the fraud comes out.

Carol: What did you expect with the dad he has?

This is the moment Danny realizes how far he has come from his old dad-denying self. Now he must reconcile those two versions of himself and find who he truly is. For the last fifteen years he has been denying he is his father’s son, but now he realizes he is—if only because he is thoroughly disliked by the rest of the family. And he has to accept that. I won’t give away the movie, but this leads to a climactic last scene.

These details do not have to be anything profound, don’t get me wrong. Some just add to the overall picture of the character. In Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee Wee is missing a bike, not an SUV, Hummer, or Honda. This tells us a lot about his character, mainly his almost creepy love of all things childish.

What are some telling details you like? Why? Which ones come readily to mind?

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3 responses to “Telling Details

  1. Hmm, you must be an extremely sensitive watcher! Figures. I would never have read so much into Jafar’s comment, for example, but now that you point it out, it makes sense!

    To that end, I might not be the best person to answer this question… For me it’s more like how the actors are dressed, the decor on set that establishes their character without a single word, etc. That kind of thing can be so important.

    But as a writer you’d think I’d pay more attention to the parallel clues in the dialogue… 😛

  2. writer-at-heart

    I can’t think of anything right now, but the next movie I see will center around looking for telling details. It’s an interesting way to look at a film (or life!)

  3. @ Kristan: Yes, I’m trying to pick up more on the details. Had a long conversation with my boss at my internship about a short film that features a Volvo driver. Why a Volvo? What does that mean for the story? The character? There’s a lot to analyze from even simple choices.

    @ Writer-at-Heart: To your credit, I think you introduced me to many great writers like Dostoevsky who are all about the telling details.

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