Posted December 19th, 2012 by Ben

The other day I picked up a log and caught my hand slightly on a splinter. I said “ow” even though I was alone.

You’ll be relieved to hear that the incident left me entirely unharmed and free to go about the work of Cinema unhindered. However it did give me pause. As I said, I was completely alone. The injury had been negligible, my utterance, though entirely unwitting had nevertheless not been forced from my lips by any agony. This was not a scream of pain caused by the impalement of my hand, it was the calm expression of a specific word, for an audience of no one. Falling trees may or may not make a sound regardless of witnesses, but clearly I am not so fussy. Why? And what does this mean to a screenwriter.

“Ow” is an interesting word because it’s only half onomatopoeic. It’s a domesticated version of that “aouwh” sound we make involuntarily when in pain. That noise is just a throaty ejaculation of air, presumably because punching air out of our lungs is a handy way of distracting the brain from the pain at hand, or foot or wherever. I guess vocalising our pain also serves to communicate it to those nearby, to alert them to danger or our need for help. This is where the word “ow” comes in. It’s not a sound of raw emotion but a more controlled expression, one you might even use pre-emptively. Say you were lifting a heavy sofa and you realised your hand was about to be crushed, you might say “ow” to alert your partner in furniture removal to a problem. It’s not that your making a fuss about a pain, just that “ow” is a quicker way of halting proceedings and avoiding real agony than saying “no wait, I think you might be about to crush my hand with this sofa”.

So “ow”, like all language, is a construct of society, a sound we make to convey a meaning to someone other than ourselves; however it is not entirely house-trained, “ow” retains its roots as a guttural grunt. Whilst saying “ow” might be a more intellectual approach to pain, imagined or impending, it is nevertheless not something often uttered by the conscious mind. “Stop, I think you are about to crush my hand with that sofa” is the expression of a reasoned thought “ow, ow, ow” is still an instinctive response to a situation, albeit it one filtered through a cultural linguistic heritage. This is why I still said the word “ow” quietly to myself in a shed when I hadn’t hurt my hand and there was no one there to hear me.

The first issue this raises for a screenwriter is the simple one of how hard it is to do something like this in a film. Were this scene to make the movie of my life I would not say “ow” irrelevantly and with no audience to witness it but the audience of the movie. Unless I’d gone to the trouble of establishing some post-modern awareness of them, the audience of the movie would find it uncomfortably convenient that I had let them in on my thoughts without good cause. Even though this was precisely what I did do.

Talking to yourself, wittingly or un, lies firmly amongst the ranks of things “you wouldn’t believe if this was a movie.” This is an interesting class of events and behaviours that are well documented, often commonplace, yet struggle not to feel contrived when put within the conventions of a film narrative. Random meetings, chance encounters, sudden inheritances, unknown family connections… All the heady stuff of melodrama can always be bettered by real life. A fact that suggests the only difference between the tawdry and the truly tragic is the speed with which events unfold and the negative impact of a three year acting BA.

As a complete tangent, this category of events that “you wouldn’t believe if this was a movie” is not to be confused with that of “things that never happen in a movie.” Here we get back to mundanity, like people sharing the same name. My life is full of people called Ben and Chris and Adam. Yet I cannot think of a film in which the lead character is reduced to being known as “Ben B” or “The Long One” or “Editor-Ben-who-is-not-Motion-Graphics-Ben”. Yet though Chris and I regularly attempt to write such deliciously truthful confusions into our stories our producers always take them out.

My unforced yet uncontrolled use of the word “ow” left me with another screenwriting problem. Without pain or anyone to alert, my cinematically unconvincing utterance has to be a product of nothing more than unthinking convention. I spoke with no prompt beyond tradition. “Ow” is what I always say in this situation and so I said it again, to the benefit of no one.

When stuck for a scene or seeking the approval of the unimaginative, writers often fall back on convention. We call it genre. If we’re feeling especially terrified by the dark amorphous shape our creative career makes in front of us, then we call such conventions genre rules. A cynic might suggest that another name for them are “events that always happen in movies despite rarely occurring in life…” Call them what you like, the conventions of story telling, the rules of a genre, are just a short hand for expressing more complicated ideas and emotions within a compressed time frame. You may find six of your eighty years of life marked by a struggle with a boss who never values or trusts you. Condensing this into a three minute scene where he hollers that “you’re off the case” is not necessarily lazy, in the same way that saying the word “ow” is not necessarily lying just because it is less searingly raw than a cry of “aughhh!”

But if I can find I have said “ow” for no real reason at all, then how much of my screenwriting is a similar unthinking exercise in valueless convention? How much of our accepted narrative grammar has become the regurgitation of a standardised expression of a pain we have not felt? How much of what we write do we write just because it’s what one writes?

Faced with this conundrum I did the only rational thing possible. I dropped the log on my foot. Interestingly my response this time was to loudly decry myself as a “fucking prick”. Looking back on it I can’t help but wonder why I used the expression with such clear disdain when in truth, once you decode the anglo-saxon slang, it is describing the very font of human life. But those are questions for a different day.

  1. Sophie Jonas-Hill

    Such exclamations not only serve as a warning to others, they have been shown to reduce the experience of pain, especially swearing, though the effectiveness of swearing is reduced the more commonly it’s used in every day speech. Hence a vicar stubbing his toe and saying ‘fuck’, should he otherwise not use swear words as such, will actually shorten the length of time his toe hurts, where as the foul mouthed builder who hammers his thumb will not find so much relief in an ‘f’ word – and hence there so often being robbed of anything more offensive than ‘bother’ as their mind searches for a taboo word to use in their moment of crisis. So there.Not sure what that says about ouch though.

  2. Jan Caston

    Aaagh – poor Ben. To be left with such a scriptwriting dilemma by a little splinter!

    You haven’t forgotten actions speak louder than words in film, have you? Or, have you been at the seasonal sherry again?

    Merry Christmas, Ben. If I were you, I’d take a few “man” days off to fully recover.

  3. sarah

    I love it when actors talk to themselves in film – Boogie Nights

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