Writing a Looking-Glass World (Part I)

I love a good retelling of a familiar story.  It's like meeting an old friend all over again.  My bookshelf is cluttered with different versions of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. Telling an old tale in a new way is a powerful device.  A writer doesn't have to work to make their readers love a new Snow White.  The readers already love Snow White.  They spent their childhood watching, singing, and reading Snow White.   Their mind is already soaked in affection for the story.

Or say that a writer needs good villains for a TV show.   Why not use the Nazis?  The Third Reich is still in the memories of our parents and grandparents.  The horror of the Holocaust is near to us.  Write a Nazi in your script and you don't need to bother working to make the audience afraid of your villain.   They already are.

This isn't a creative retelling of an old story.  This is lazy writing.

An example of this is Captain Hook, that much maligned villain, that pirate of pirates.   He has been the subject of countless adaptations: movies, books, comics, and stage plays.


Here is Hook, as described by James Barrie in the original Peter Pan:

In person he was cadaverous and blackavized, and his hair was dressed in long curls, which at a little distance looked like black candles, and gave a singularly threatening expression to his handsome countenance. His eyes were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly.

At its root, the tale of Peter Pan is not about a pirate who hates a boy, but about an aging man who hates eternal youth.  Hook is always fleeing the Crocodile (Tick Tock), trying to outrun Time and Death.  He can't, of course, and the Crocodile gets him in the end.

More than anything, Hook is obsessed with Peter Pan.  Peter, who describes himself thus:

"I'm youth, I'm joy...I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg."

Hook hates Pan and is secretly jealous of him-- because Pan has no fear of age, time, or death.

At the beginning of its second season, the show Once Upon a Time has portrayed its own version of Captain Hook.   This Hook is young.  His hair is short.  He's a womanizer.   He's got rings of eyeliner borrowed from Captain Jack Sparrow.


The heart of Hook's character has been cut out: this Hook does not fear Time or Death.  He is not obsessed with Peter Pan.   In short, he is not Hook.   He's a new character that the writers of Once Upon a Time have called "Hook."  The writers have scrapped everything that makes Hook who he is.  This isn't a new adaptation of an old story.  It's a lazy way to market a character.


Illustration of Hook by F.D. Bedford for the 1911 edition of Peter and Wendy. Photograph of Hook from Once Upon a Time Wiki.

The Screenplay: Day Sixteen & Seventeen

They say that in order to write great fiction you should read great novels.  It follows that in order to write a great film, you should read great screenplays.   So I hunted down some examples from screenplay writers I admire. Jane Espenson has written for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, A Game of Thrones, and is currently writing for Once Upon a Time.  In my opinion, she wrote all of Once Upon a Time's best episodes last season, including THE best episode: "Skin Deep."

This scene did not make it into the final cut for the episode. It's not essential to the plot, though it does show that Belle (by this time) is completely unafraid of the monstrous Rumpelstiltskin.

Jane Espenson writes her actions and directions very informally.  She's not writing narration.  It's like she's writing a letter, speaking directly to the director, actors, cameramen, etc.   More of the "Skin Deep" screenplay is available here.

For a completely different style of screenplay writing, look at this example from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers:

Suddenly I feel just a bit sorry for Wormtongue.  Yes, he's a traitor, but poor little Grìma probably didn't get enough hugs as a child.  The whole screenplay is available here.

The Two Towers screenplay has four authors cited-- Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Peter Jackson.  It's much tighter than Espenson's work.  While Espenson seems to leave space for the actors to adapt her words and directions to their creative impulses, Lord of the Rings does not.

Though it's not obvious from this excerpt, the Two Towers screenplay has many, many directions regarding camera angles and cuts.  Nothing is left to chance-- very different from Espenson, who seems to leave the mess about cameras to the director.

"Skin Deep" is an hour of television, trimmed to forty-odd minutes with commercial breaks.   The Two Towers is a huge two-plus hour film without even an intermission.  Two very different screenplays, but both brilliant.

The Screenplay: Day Six

There is a delicate balance that must be maintained when writing "historical" dialogue.  Yes, people spoke differently in former times, but unless the writer is an expert in that period's idioms and expressions, "historical" dialogue should not be attempted.

In other words, if you're not Shakespeare, don't try to write like Shakespeare.

However, this does not mean your characters who are wearing the hoop-skirts of the 1860's should speak like modern teens on Twitter.  (Lik3 will u waltz w/m3??)

Example: the dreadful dialogue between Snow White and Prince Charming in the pilot of Once Upon a Time Don't get me wrong.  I love Once Upon a Time.  But there was some truly clunky dialogue in that episode.

Charming: Snow, we can't keep having this conversation.  She wants to get inside your head.  We're about to have a baby.

Snow White: She poisoned an apple because she thought I was prettier than her.  You have no idea of what she's capable.

Allow me to nit-pick this bit of dialogue.  First problem:  "We can't keep having this conversation" is a completely modern expression.  Second problem.  "...she thought I was prettier than her."  It ought to be "prettier than she [is]."  Third problem.   "Of what she's capable?"  Is Snow White suddenly channeling Yoda?

This scene in "Once Upon a Time" is set in a Medieval-ish fantasy world.  I am by no means an expert on Medieval speech patterns, so I'll re-write the dialogue to remove the modernisms and the truly awful Yoda-ish mess, without lapsing into fake Medievalism.

Charming:  I've told you again and again, the curse was an empty threat.  When our baby is born--

Snow White:  The Queen doesn't make empty threats!  She poisoned an apple.  She hunted me through the forest.  She wanted me to die because a mirror told her I was more beautiful than she was!  What do you think she'll do to my child?

And then my Snow White would throw something at Prince Charming being such an idiot as to imagine that a homicidal jealous witch-queen with unspeakable powers WOULDN'T mean it when she said she was going to curse the world.

Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five.