Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Part 3: Story

As I discussed yesterday, your story is the sizzle, and the characters are the steak. This is the sexy part. And it’s the democratic part. Anybody can come up with a good story, and if you’re a good talker you can even get people excited about it. This is why swindlers run “pitch fests” where they invite one and all to pitch their ideas to Hollywood producers. Such shenanigans are based on the concept that an idea does 90% of the job. Unfortunately, the original idea will only provide about 10% of the ultimate quality if the movie ever gets made.

But... a good story idea is the best way open doors all up and down the line. Even big time agents, managers, producers, and studio heads can get seduced by the notion of latching onto a unique idea so clever that the movie just writes itself. They should all know better, but they don’t. So ideas are huge—for getting you in the door. But if you want to stay there, you’d better learn to actually write.

What we talk about when we talk about story:

  1. Hook: A great hook is a simple premise that nobody has done yet but everybody who hears it thinks “why didn’t I think of that??” Wedding crashers? Sold. With two words, it’s already a funny concept—one that you may never have heard of but you can imagine how it would work. You can see the poster in your head and guess half the jokes that will be in the trailer. For better or worse, movies are more and more hook-driven because there are so many chefs in the kitchen. The person you pitch it to has to re-pitch it to twenty other people. Only strong, simple ideas survive that process. Of course, even if you don't have a great hook, you can still tell a great story, but you'll need to cash in a lot of pre-established clout in order to get it made. If your concept isn't the hook then your name has to be the hook.
  2. Size of the Stakes: Some ideas are too big and some aren’t big enough. Sometimes too much is at stake: “We need to defeat evil itself!” Other times, too little is at stake: Shattered Glass is a well-made movie, but the stakes are laughably low-- “You’ve endangered the reputation of a vanity-project magazine that they stopped selling on the newsstands twenty years ago!” As Iago might say: “He who steals that purse steals trash.”
  3. Linearity: You can have as many subplots as you want, but ultimately there needs to be one big story that starts in the first scene and ends in the last scene. Sorry. 99% of good movies made anywhere in the world are about one person’s problem. Why try to squeeze though the 1% gap?
  4. A Steady Stream of Reversals: One problem with hook-driven movies is that they get sold based on one big twist. But then the studio that bought it has to sell it to an audience, and the only way to do that is to repeat the process: reveal the one big twist in the trailer, at which point the movie isn’t worth seeing. Great narratives don’t just turn on a dime, they bend and twist and unravel and snap back together. A good story has five or six great reversals in it, enough so that they don’t all end up in the trailer. See again: Wedding Crashers. They exhausted their hook a half hour in and didn’t have enough reversals to get through the movie. Great trailer though.
Coming back to the original point: Some people will read your whole script but judge you only on the inspiration and not at all on the perspiration. So when they say “It’s great!”, be aware that they might just mean “I can already see the poster!” (And when they say “It sucks!”, they might just mean “Who’s going to want to see a movie about a bunch of coal miners in flyover country?,” no matter how well you told that story.)

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