Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why Are They Doing This?

The blatant overuse of the question, "Why are you doing this?" in produced scripts, especially in suspense/thrillers, is reaching epidemic levels. Instead of actually revealing a villain's motivations through dialogue and plot, demonstrating "Why he or she is doing this", it seems that otherwise competent writers are taking this lame shortcut and just having their victims scream in terror and plead, "Why are you doing this!?"

It's the most overused line in - I'd dare say - the past ten years of produced scripts. You see it everywhere. And I'm willing to bet right now that no other phrase in screenwriting even comes close in terms of word-for-word repetitive use.

Illustrative example Number One: In a recent Heroes episode, Sylar has Claire telekinetically pinned to a wall, choking her, but she still manages to get out a question... "Why..." but she barely gets out the first word before I'm groaning, Don't Say It! But of course, this being the third season of Heroes and with the writing tumbling along with the ratings, she goes ahead and says it: "Why are you doing this?" -and I promptly reach for the remote, nearly crying, screaming my own question: "Why? Why are they - the writers - doing this?

I'd argue that "Why are you doing this?" is a question that a character should NEVER ask – one, because it's unnatural. You're running for your life, chased by a hacksaw-wielding madman, you're not stopping to ask "Please tell me, Why are you doing this?" You don't know, you don't care – you're running for your life. You can assume he's nuts and it's clear he wants to saw you in half. It's not the time or place for such a question. And second, even worse, resorting to using that phrase demonstrates a clear lack of ability on the writer's part, a failure to reveal the villain's motivations... It's an obvious 'literary' device – and a transparent one at that: as if writers are following along in some instruction manual that says, at some point, have your victim ask the monster/stalker/villain why he or she is doing 'this'.

But this ridiculous (and on-the-nose) dialogue device isn't limited to the slasher genre. Even Oscar-nominated dramas fall victim to it (and once you're on the lookout for this phrase, you find it all over). In the otherwise brilliant The Changeling, the police chief asks Angelina this question twice in the same scene.

You want other examples? You have only to flip on the TV to any movie channel or network series, and there's a good chance you'll hear it. You might want to blame Wes Craven, whose Scream (1996) illustrated the arguably first-time value of such a question (maybe once, but twice in the same movie?) Casey (the first victim) asks it of the threatening voice on the phone in the beginning, then near the end Sidney screams it out as the killers are chasing her.

Then in I know What You Did Last Summer, Julie screams "Why are you doing this?" to the rain-coated man with the hook dragging her through the mud. Do we really need that question at that time? Couldn't the writers have come up with something a little more original, not to mention realistic?

Jump ahead ten years… In The Strangers, Liv Tyler whispers the dreaded question of a bag-headed intruder after these strangers have been tormenting her for an hour. What would have worked, with far more effect, was just to have her ask, simply: "Why?" 'nuff said. But in this movie, at least the tormentor responds – and here I'll give the writers due credit for crafting the perfect response: "Because you were home."

Other examples? Did I already mention Heroes? Maybe I forget to note how the writers actually had Claire ask Sylar the same question three episodes in a row... By the third time I was cursing her genetic immortality and hoping Sylar would be so annoyed he'd just find a way to shut her up for good.

The other night I casually changed the channels and landed on CSI New York – and within one minute someone was asking Gary Sinise, "Why are you doing this?" (And as far as I could see, she was just asking him why he was doing his job).

And don't even get me started on Harper's Island… (I've lost count.)

But even the best written shows sometimes fall into this trap. In Lost, Kate asks it of Sawyer when he shows up to help take her and young Ben to the Others. But… at least she catches herself afterward, realizing how dumb it sounds, and clarifies her query: "Why are you doing this… why are you helping me?" See, I'd argue the first half of the question should have been lost in the editing room. It's so forced, lending credence to my suspicion that this phrase is somehow ingrained in writers' brains (or perhaps mandated by the powers-that-be).

Never mind that 'this' is such a vague term. Some Hollywood-types must believe it's perfect, interchangeable in any genre. Just plug it in and the word 'this' will work for every situation: from a husband cheating on his wife to a mutated freak who likes to set people on fire. Again, no need to worry about those pesky issues of character development or motivation; if you're in a rush, just force the question – Why? And, in the height of laziness, you don't even have to replace 'this' with something more colorful or revealing. Why should you ask, "Why are you stalking me through the woods with an ax and murdering all my friends, when you can just ask the stilted, unnatural-sounding, "Why are you doing this?"

I don't just blame the writers. Editors and ultimately even directors bear the same mark of shame for letting this travesty go on. But I also know how the editing process works, how painful it can be to get those red pens out and cut and slash and purify in the quest to get everything just right… which is why it's so befuddling that this phrase makes it through all that. How how can so many sets of eyes look at such an out-of-place, poorly-written and over-used phrase, and still let it stay?

Again, I'm back to believing there's some kind of conspiracy at work. Maybe someone's patented that phrase and it's part of secret WGA guidelines that one out of every five scripts needs to include it so the original writer can get a percentage.

Nothing else makes sense.

Nothing else explains… why they are doing this.


  1. I'd never noticed that before, but something tells me I'm going to be hyper-sensitized to it from now on. Mind you, I usually watch reality t.v. and people don't tend to ask that question much. If they did, a lot of people would probably answer, "I have no idea." and walk off the show.

    The phrase that bugs me in novels is: "He didn't know how long he was walking for..." or "He didn't know how long it took to get there..." or variations thereof. It's classic author-falls-asleep-at-the-wheel syndrome. They've hit a lull in the action, nod off, wake up and think, "Where was I? Oh yes, the hero was walking somewhere." Then they write "He didn't know how long..." because the author doesn't know.

    -Sarah T.

  2. Sarah, yes - sorry. As soon as I mention it to people, suddenly they're telling me they can't enjoy shows anymore because it's everywhere... oh well. I hear you about the novels too (hopefully I won't do that!)