Thursday, December 29, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #115: People Lie About Their Feelings

So I finally finished “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and WOW. That may or may not be the greatest TV epic ever, but it certainly had the best finale of any TV epic. (It helps that many such shows have had terrible finales.) (And boy oh boy does this one do a great job of addressing the great hypocrisy.)

Nevertheless, I want to focus on an uncharacteristically weak episode that stuck out like a sore thumb in the otherwise brilliant final season. Four of the villainous characters take a vacation at a private island… Now obviously, the fact that a kids’ show is willing to devote a whole episode to its villains, who each have their own complex and ambiguous characterization, is a sign of its greatness, but the creators still have to stick the execution and, unfortunately, they blow it. For the last third of the episode, the four characters simply sit around a campfire on a beach and, one by one, with little prodding, explain their own baggage and insecurities to the others.

This is “characterization” at its worst. Never have your characters talk perceptively about their own feelings. In real life, people do not understand their own feelings. And even when we think they understand those feelings, if we’re asked about them, we will usually lie. Do you like that boy? No! Are you still in love with your ex-wife? No! Do you feel appreciated by your grown children? Of course I do, what a silly question!

Our mouths lie about our feelings, but our bodies betray us. Make your characters reveal emotion entirely through behavior. If a character baldly states, “I want to stay a kid forever,” that’s bad dialogue. On the other hand, if the character asks, “Why won’t you treat me like a grown-up?” while wearing Spider-Man pajamas, or cutting the crusts off his sandwich, or sticking his gum under the table, then you’re on the right track.

Unity of word and action is unironic, but good storytelling should always be ironic, because life is ironic. If word and action match, then you, as author, aren’t showing any powers of observation. Your audience need not even look at the visuals you’re showing them, because the character is simply telling them what’s going on. If the audience is asked to believe them, then there’s no way to interact with your story.

Your audience wants to play sleuth. They want to make their own observations about your characters, instead of being forced to listen to and accept the characters’ observations about themselves. Stories thrive on tension, both external and internal, but the most important source of all should be the tension between what people say and what they mean.If you want to reveal a character’s baggage, then find an active and ironic way to do so. Nowhere was this done better than in the first three seasons of “Lost”. In each episode, we saw a character’s baggage flood over them through a series of flashbacks, which were ironically juxtaposed against a painful dilemma that that same character now had to face on the island. Only the audience knew how that baggage affected their ultimate decision, because they kept their conflicted feelings to themselves.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Underrated Movie #143: Be Kind Rewind

Title: Be Kind Rewind
Year: 2008
Director: Michel Gondry
Writers: Michel Gondry
Stars: Mos Def, Jack Black, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Melonie Diaz, Sigourney Weaver

The Story: Glover runs an endangered old school VHS rental store in a working class neighborhood in Passaic, New Jersey. When he leaves his store in the hands of Def and Black, they accidentally erase all the tapes, so they decide to recreate the movies from scratch, playing all the parts themselves. The “sweded” version turn out to be wildly popular—but can they save the store from developers?How it Came to be Underrated: Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was one of the best and most acclaimed movies of the ‘00s, but he failed to get much traction with his follow-ups. When I saw this opening weekend, I thought it this would be the hit that finally made him fully bankable, but instead it was greeted with general revulsion. How come no one else could see the masterpiece I saw? I think part of the problem was the casting of Black: He’s wonderful, but some smart moviegoers who don’t like him stayed away, while some of his fans were infuriated by the movie’s causal pace.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Hugo was “a love letter to film” that was slapped together out of post-production digital special effects. (Couldn’t they just have made those drawings fly around the room on set, rather than fake that in post? For that matter, did they even set foot in Paris?) The Artist is a much better movie, which actually uses old-fashioned storytelling to re-create the early days of Hollywood. But if you really want to be filled with awe at the magic of the movies, nothing is better than Be Kind Rewind. Gondry captures the democratic essence of movie-making: a collective art form that creates collective meaning, by and for a whole community.
  2. VHS was, in retrospect, a truly terrible technology: flimsy, blurry, easily degraded… so why do I miss wandering those aisles so much? So many parts of America have died in the last ten years, and we’ve all just started accepting that these things are gone for good. First they came for the small businesses, like all the funky little independent VHS stores and bookstores of my youth, now they’re coming for the post office, the public schools, the libraries... At what point are we going to say, hey, not everything can be bigger and more profitable every year?
  3. I made movies on VHS (and S-VHS, and Hi-8, and Mini DV, and 8mm, and 16mm and…) and this movie captures the madness and ecstacy of amateur production better than any other. I can’t tell you how many times I had friends get exasperated from acting in my amateur productions, and storm off set, only to howl with delight when they saw their faces onscreen in the final product, after which all was forgiven.
  4. How wonderful to see Farrow delivering a typically understated performance as one of the neighborhood eccentrics who habituate the store. The most tragic outcome of the horrible end of her relationship with Woody Allen was that it caused all of her amazing performances in his movies to seem too depressing to watch in retrospect. She’s massively talented and I hope she still has more great roles in her future.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The two movies that Gondry made between this and Eternal Sunshine were also underrated: Science of Sleep is a sweet romantic comedy with Gael Garcia-Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is far more than just a great concert movie.

How Available Is It?: The DVD has the movie and an enjoyable 10 minute doc about shooting in Passaic, but not only is there no commentary from the always-delightful Gondry, but it doesn’t have any of the wonderful sweded videos that were on the movie’s website! What the hell??

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Nicely Suited For Hollywood!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #114: Culture Abhors a Vacuum

If you hear someone say, “You shouldn’t write an alien invasion movie because nobody’s making those these days…” then it’s time to write a alien invasion movie.

Culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The alien invasion movie will always come back, because audiences have fond memories of the alien invasion movies of their youth, and they come to miss them. As soon as a sense of “we had this, but now it’s gone” kicks in, then the craving kicks in, and the craving must be satiated.

Sub-genres like “alien invasion” aren’t interesting enough to remain perpetually popular, year after year, but they’re always going to cycle back around, once people have had some time away from them.Of course, sometimes the cycle is hard to time. The makers of Cutthroat Island thought it was time for pirates again, but they were ten years too early. But nevertheless pirates did come back, and it’s not surprising. Don’t ask “have they made a movie like this recently?”, ask instead, “Is this still a potent metaphor?” Obviously, Americans are still accusing each other of piracy all the time, so we continue find metaphorical meaning in that setting. The right movie just had to come along and tap into that meaning.

Of course, it’s trickier with types of movies that have never been a hit with the public. There’s never been a hit set-on-Mars movie, so there’s not really a vacuum there: there’s no sense of “now it’s gone” because we’ve never had it. The problem is that Mars is not a metaphor, it’s just a place ...for now. If you want to write the first hit movie set on Mars, you have to turn it into a meaningful metaphor for the first time, which is a tall order.

Monday, December 26, 2011

...It's a Christmas Miracle!

Tomorrow: Content resumes!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

...Only to Find...

Can anyone save us? Come back tomorrow...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #113: Characters Have No Inherent Value

This one is the cumulative conclusion of yesterday’s and three previous rules, as cited below… 

I pointed out before that money is too generic of a motivation unless we know what the character needs to buy. Likewise, a character’s death has no meaning to the audience unless we know something specific about them. Cheating on a spouse that the audience has gotten to know is going to seem far worse than killing a spouse that we haven’t met.

And please don’t try to replace quality with quantity! There’s nothing more annoying than the writer who says, “Nobody seems to care that my villain has killed three characters we haven’t met, so I’ll have him kill a whole stadium full of characters we haven’t met!” Nope, we still don’t care.

You’ve created your own world from scratch, which is separate and distinct from the world in which your audience actually lives. You have to invest your characters with value before you can upset us by killing them or victimizing them in any way.

In real life, each human being has inherent value, and when someone is killed, it can always be argued that they’ve been robbed of a potentially-bright future. But the characters in your story are just ephemeral phantoms until you imbue them with life. They have no inherent value, beyond what you invest in them, and no future, beyond the plans we actually see them make.

This is very hard to pull off without seeming manipulative. We all roll our eyes when a soldier talks about the big plans he has for after the war, because we know that he’s about to get killed. But it’s become a cliché for a reason: the alternative is worse. The trick, as always, is to build up your victim’s value subtly enough that we don’t see the tragedy coming.

Think about the seemingly-random drug-related killings on the local news, then compare that to the death of a certain character at the end of the first season of “The Wire”. The writers endowed that character with so much potential before they took it away that it was emotionally wrenching to watch him die. That’s writing at its most powerful.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #112: Audiences Are More Interested in Ethics Than Morals

Earlier this week, I talked about how Scott Z. Burns made The Informant! work by investing our interest in Damon’s character’s ethical violations, rather than the far more immoral crimes that he exposed. This leads me to two extensions of this rule… 

Morals are inherently generic. We broadly apply them to every situation we come across, rather than derive them on a case by case basis. Worse, no two people have exactly the same moral compass. Just because I meet someone I get along with, that doesn’t mean that we’ll feel the same way about bit torrent, or drone attacks, or Roman Polanski. And neither of us is going to have much luck winning the other over on any of these topics, because everybody’s own moral compass simply seems self-evident to them. You don’t prove that something is immoral, you just know it.
But we’re always willing to ignore our morals when we go to the movies. Stealing money is immoral, but we root for the heroes in heist thrillers anyway because the immorality of their actions is too abstract for us to care about. The audience is only going to care about the people onscreen and how they treat each other. Characters can be as immoral as they want, as long as they’re not unethical.
Unlike morals, ethics are specific to each situation, which is why they’re more dramatically interesting. You create an expectation of behavior, then you show one character who meets that expectation, and another one that breaks it. Everybody gets that. You’re making and breaking your own rules, instead of tapping into pre-existing rules that may or may not be in the audience’s head.
I’m working on a spec pilot right now, and I was going to end it with a shocking revelation of a moral breach on the part of my anti-hero, but then I realized that no one would really care. If I want to shock and agitate my audience, I have to end on the reveal of an ethical breach. When I look at similar shows, such as “The Shield” or “Damages”, the reveal at the end of both pilots is not that our anti-hero has harmed an outside victim, but a trusted ally. Not that’s rotten. 

More tomorrow…

Monday, December 19, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #112: Throw in a Left Turn

Yet another rule complaining about a recent movie! (106, 110) I’ve been a curmudgeonly moviegoer recently!
Young Adult is a very funny movie. Charlize Theron gives a great performance as a failed children’s author slinking back home to pick up where she left off*. Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman both know how to twist the knife expertly, skewering shallow city-dwellers and banal exurbanites with equal relish.

There’s just one big problem with this movie: if you were to stop the projector a half-hour in and poll the audience about what’s going to happen next, most of them would guess correctly. By a half-hour in, once all the major characters are introduced, this whole movie rolls downhill. It’s painfully obvious what’s going to happen, every step of the way.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few road bumps along the way, but bumps aren’t enough: you need at least one left turn. It doesn’t have to be a huge twist… You don’t need to reveal that everything the audience knows is wrong., but have the characters surprise us. (I think that Cody and Reitman thought there was a twist, in that Theron isn’t really redeemed at the end, but these days in independent movies that’s started to become the rule, not the exception. It’s not a daring choice anymore.)
Compare this to, for instance, The Color of Money. If you turned off the projector halfway through, most of the audience would guess that Tom Cruise was going to eventually reject the corrupt ways of Paul Newman and find a way to succeed without compromising his integrity. Instead it’s Newman, not Cruise, who discovers his conscience. When this plot turn happens, we’re shocked, but not baffled. In retrospect, the signs were there, but we didn’t notice them before.
The ending of Young Adult, certainly seemed inevitable, but not at all surprising. I think that Cody wanted to condemn her own main character, and so she didn’t allow the character to surprise her, or surprise us. If you set out to “nail” your main character, then you’ll probably have to use a hammer, and they’re going to end up flattened.
* Despite being totally miscast: We’re supposed to believe that this woman dejectedly eats fried chicken and Ben and Jerry’s?? Look at her!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Underrated Movie #142: The Informant!

Title: The Informant!
Year: 2009
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns, based on the non-fiction book by Kurt Eichenwald
Stars: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Tony Hale

The Story: Matt Damon is the real-life whistleblower Mark Whitacre who exposed the insidious agribusiness giant Archers Daniels Midland to the FBI. He does an amazing job as their inside man, but they soon discover that their informant hasn’t been telling them (or anybody) the whole truth.

How it Came to be Underrated: (I’ll go a little more in depth than usual)

  • This movie has no one to blame for its own failure but itself. A great true story, a brilliant screenplay, brisk direction and an Oscar-worthy lead performance were all sabotaged by terrible titles, the worst score in movie history, and a rogue exclamation point. In short, this was a great movie that was totally ruined in post-production.
  • What went wrong?? I have two theories: the simple one is that the original movie didn’t “test” well enough, and the studio made the inane decision to belated repackage it as an all-out comedy.
  • But here’s the more elaborate theory: Soderbergh rightly saw this a chance to do a ‘70s-style conspiracy thriller, but then he made the maddening decision to actually add a “‘70s style” to the movie, right down to a “groovy” font and a godawful Marvin Hamlisch score that sounds like the hold music at a clown college.
  • One of the many reasons that this was terrible decision is that we’ve had very few “early ‘90s” era period pieces and this could have been an excellent opportunity to actually talk about the meaning of that era and its corruption, rather than pretend that these events only make sense in some sort of Nixonian context, as the titles and music imply.

Why It’s Nevertheless Great:

  1. Eichenwald’s astounding journalism (and storytelling instincts) produced an all-too-believable portrait of what real whistleblowers are like. The impulse that causes these people to transgress society’s boundaries and tell uncomfortable truths soon starts to run away from them. If society is telling you that right is wrong, it becomes hard to remind yourself that wrong isn’t therefore right.
  2. I first heard Eichenwald’s book dramatized as a thrilling hour-long “This American Life” story, and my first thought was: “This has to become a movie!” But then I thought again and realized how hard that would be. Luckily, Burns was up to the challenge and then some. The first trick was to focus on Whitacre, and not his target. Audiences find it hard to care about white-collar crime, but everybody loves to watch a weasel get caught by his own lies.
  3. Of course, for better or worse, Burns’s choice here ironically mirrors Whitacre’s own real-life predicament: He exposed his company’s theft of hundreds of millions of dollars, but then the FBI discovered that, along the way, he had stolen more than a few millions for himself. Inevitably, the FBI decided that it’d be much easier to go after their own whistleblower, who was, after all, cooperating with them, than it was to take down a stonewalling corporation with a bottomless legal budget.
  4. Burns’s second trick was to write one of my all time favorite voice-overs, (albeit one that only an actor of Damon’s caliber could have pulled off) Long before the audience (or Whitacre himself) is willing to admit that he’s crazy, the evidence is there for us to hear, in the form of an out-of-control stream of consciousness voiceover, in which Whitacre pieces together a pseudo-reality patchwork of fact and fiction from a million different sources, including the novels of Michael Crichton and John Grisham.
  5. This all culminates in an absolutely stunning scene where Whitacre’s mouth finally catches up with his now-exhausted brain, and the voice-over slowly begins to overlap with what he’s actually saying out loud. It’s a crime that Damon didn’t get an Oscar, or even a nomination, for his riveting performance.
  6. I was happy that Heavenly Creatures made Kate Winslet a star, but disappointed that her great co-star Melanie Lynskey seemed to totally disappear. But lo and behold, Lynskey has very slowly re-emerged (purged of her NZ accent) in a steady stream of quietly powerful character roles. Check out her credits, you’ve probably seen her (and liked her) more often then you realize. She’s does a typically great job as Damon’s weary wife.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: A similar movie from around the same time that did a better job maintaining the right tricky tone was Burn After Reading. The show “Homeland” has a very similar hero, whose bipolar disorder both helps and harms a government investigation.

How Available Is It?: Netflix only has a bare-bones, but nice-looking DVD.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Those Who Plan!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #111: You Can Skip Over Unsurprising Scenes

As I mentioned before, I’m in love with “Homeland”, which is one of the most perpetually shocking shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a show about a genuinely self-destructive wrecking ball of a heroine before, and it’s utterly thrilling.

This show has lots of shocks for the audience, and they keep them coming at a brisk pace. How do they keep it up? They simply skip over every scene that goes down the way that you would expect it to go, even if those scenes have lots of dramatic potential.

At the beginning of episode seven, we find out that two huge developments have happened off camera since the end of episode six. The co-protagonist and his wife have agreed to take some time off, and the CIA has discovered that the suspect they’ve been desperately tracking has been killed by his own people, revealing a wider problem than they suspected.

Both of these scenes might seem like slam dunks with potential for high drama and great acting, but nothing surprising happens in either one. We already guessed that Brody and his wife would need some time apart, and we’d already seen the suspect get killed.

The two scenes that got skipped were “fallout” scenes, and actors love fallout, but it doesn’t move the story forward. These scenes come right out. If we hear Brody say that he and his wife agreed to spend some time apart, we can imagine how that conversation went. If we see that the CIA is now looking for who might have killed their suspect, then we obviously understand that they found the suspect’s body and freaked out.

In the one journalism class I took, from Alex Blumberg of “This American Life” fame, he explained the difference between dramatic and newsworthy: Usually, if you’re covering the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to your subject, that’s a good thing, but there are exceptions, like, for instance somebody’s wedding day…

A wedding day has high drama and life-altering stakes for the families involved, but they’re rarely newsworthy, because they’re rarely surprising. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. If you attend your friend’s wedding, you’ll probably cry a bit and laugh a bit, but if you can’t make it, you’re not even going to ask what you missed. You’ll just assume that everything went the way these things always go.

“Homeland” is a ripped-from-the-headlines show, and it holds itself to the same standards as a good newspaper: Keep it riveting and only tell people what they don’t already know.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #110: Conflicts Are Better Than Obstacles

Hugo got great reviews, which baffled me. The story is all obstacle and no conflict. An obstacle is anything that makes a task physically difficult to do. A conflict is anything that makes a character not want to do that task. 

Genuine conflict occurs when a character doesn’t want to do something, for reasons such as these:
  • It would require them to question their assumptions
  • It would require them to overcome an inner weakness.
  • They promised someone they wouldn’t do it.
  • It would reveal their secrets to others.
  • It would get their love interest or a family member in trouble.
Obstacles, on the other hand, are external problems that the hero can tackle without facing any internal doubts. Hugo encounters lots of obstacles: a train station guard he has to avoid, an old man who won’t give him what he wants, a living situation he has to hide... But he’s not reluctant to deal with any of them.
He does have a “want”, but it’s very vague: For some reason, he thinks that if he repairs an automaton, it will write out a message from his dad, but why does he think this? His dad told him outright that he just found the old automaton somewhere and he has no idea what it will say if they get it working. What part of that did Hugo not understand? 
Not only does this make Hugo’s quest nonsensical, it makes his inability to spot other clues exasperating: every piece of evidence indicates that the automaton is the lost property of the man who runs the gadget shop, but it takes Hugo forever to accept that this might be true.
If I may slip into Meddler mode, the fix for Hugo seems fairly obvious to me: combine two flat characters, Hugo’s beloved dad and his rotten uncle (who both die mysterious deaths), into one complex character.
In this version, Hugo’s loving but ne’erdowell dad, who maintains the clocks in the railway station with his son, would discover the automaton and bring it home to Hugo, claiming he made it himself. When Hugo realizes what the gears used to do and asks what it writes, the dad quickly covers for his lie by saying that it’s a mystery he wants Hugo to solve.
This way, after the dad disappears (drunk in the river, we eventually find out) Hugo has every reason to assume that the automaton will contain a message from his dad, and every reason to get upset when the evidence starts to indicate that the automaton must actually belong to the old man.
Also, this way, Hugo’s surrendering of the automaton to the old man is a painful decision, and it requires him to admit the truth about his father. By recognizing and alleviating the old man’s bitterness, he gains insight into his father’s own failures, ironically fulfilling his original goal of understanding his father.
This change would not only strengthen Hugo’s motivation, it would turn external obstacles into internal conflicts. Hugo’s tasks would not only be hard to do, but hard to want to do.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mackendrick's Rules, Part 4: Rules 32-41

A final round-up of Alexander Mackendrick’s fantastic rules for writing. For more of his wisdom, buy his book “On Film-Making”.

32. A SHOOTING SCRIPT IS NOT A SCREENPLAY. The beginning screenwriter should be discouraged from trying to invent stories in screenplay format.

  • This one is, for the most part, no longer true. Most screenwriters compose their screenplay in a format that is close to a shooting script. Unlike most screenwriters, I usually develop my stories first as an outline, then as a prose treatment, and only then as a screenplay. The prose treatment step is crucial because it forces me to turn it into a continuous narrative. It’s easier to turn it into one big story if you don’t have all those “CUT TO:”s to fall back on.

33. A FOIL CHARACTER is a figure invented to ask the questions to which the audience want answers (asking the question may be more important than having the answer).

34. NEGATIVE ACTION (something not happening) needs to be dramatised in positive action terms. You show something starting to happen which then is stopped.

  • Unhappy endings only work if we see the possibility of a happy ending yanked out of their hands at the last possible moment. I’ve been getting caught up with Showtime’s “Homeland”, which is utterly fantastic, and they do this very well. If you consider the show’s premise, and take a step back, it should be very obvious that the general arc of the show will keep going from bad to worse, but astoundingly, week after week, they keep tricking us into thinking that things will go well for our heroes, only to yank the possibility of a happy ending away at the last moment. The penultimate episode’s ending last week was emotionally devastating to watch, despite the fact that we really should have seen it coming. I’ll have more to say about this show soon.

35. TWO ELEMENTS OF SUSPENSE ARE HALF AS SUSPENSEFUL AS ONE. Aristotle's principle of unity means that one dramatic tension should dominate. All others are subordinate to it.

36. CONFRONTATION SCENE is the obligatory scene that the audience feel they have been promised and the absence of which may reasonably be disappointing.

37. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in.


  • This is Hollywood gospel but I feel that it isn’t universally true. If you’re naturally gifted at character creation, but you have to learn structure, then it can seem that way, but I have the opposite problem. I’ve always had a strong inherent understanding of structure, but bad instincts on character creation, so for me, screenplays are CHARACTER, CHARACTER, CHARACTER. As I put it elsewhere, we teach what we most need to learn.
39. Never cast for physical attributes.

  • So true! I’ve done this while directing and always regretted it. In my review of Caught, I talked about the need to cast according to how the character feels, rather than how they would actually look.

40. ACTION speaks louder than words.

  • Just as in real life, characters can tell us what’s going on, but they can’t tell us about the content of their character. Character must be demonstrated.
41. Every character is important.

  • This is one reason to polarize your protagonists: Every member of the team must represent a different point of view, or you should get rid of them. In Mackendrick’s Man in the White Suit, the characters are not merely defined according to rich and poor, each new person Guinness meets reacts in a unique way when they find out about his discovery.In the underrated heist thriller Hard Rain, we quickly establish expectations about the behavior of fourteen deftly-sketched characters, allowing the writer to upset those expectations when push comes to shove. Rather than have your plot lead your characters around by the nose, allow your characters to jerk your story in new directions.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mackendrick's Rules, Part 3: Rules 22-31

More of the rock-solid wisdom of Alexander Mackendrick...

22. DRAMATIC IRONY: a situation where one or more of the characters on the screen is ignorant of the circumstances known to us in the audience.

  • This actually differs from my definition of dramatic irony, which I apply to the ironic qualities of the overall story. The concept he’s describing is what I would call an “information-superior position,” which is always very tricky to pull off... Hitchcock’s great but little-loved Frenzy is one of his only movies in which he shows us who the killer is long before the hero finds out. Hitch knew full well that this would make the movie feel colder and alienate us from the hero. Rather than lure us into another breakneck romp, he wanted to force us to confront the horror of the situation, pitying the hero instead of identifying with him. Hitch was making a brilliant, chilling point, but the movie’s box office failure shows the danger of going “information superior.”

23. If you have a Beginning but you don't yet have an end, then you're mistaken. You don't have the right Beginning.

  • Screenwriters often advise each other, “All third act problems are really first act problems.” If you’ve got a problem, it’s generally because you have either a plot hole, a motivation hole, or a sympathy hole. Once one of these problems has arisen, it’s too late to fix it retroactively. You can only go back and fix the problem before it happens.

24. In movies, what is SAID may make little impression - unless it comes as a comment or explanation of what we have seen happening.

25. What is happening NOW is apt to be less dramatically interesting than what may or may not HAPPEN NEXT.

  • This was how I discovered this list: When I wrote these two rules about the importance of anticipation, commenter “J.S.” pointed out that Mackendrick had already said it better.

26. What happens just before the END of your story defines the CENTRAL THEME, the SPINE of the plot, the POINT OF VIEW and the best POINT OF ATTACK.

27. Make sure you've chosen the correct point of attack. Common flaw: tension begins to grip too late. Perhaps the story has to start at a later point and earlier action should be 'fed in' during later sequences.

  • As I discussed here, The Apartment could have begun at the moment when Baxter is first extorted into loaning out his apartment, which would have been very dramatic, but instead, it drops us in much later, at the moment when Baxter is almost ready to stand up for himself, which is far more satisfying.

28. What happens at the end may often be both a surprise to the audience and the author and at the same time, in retrospect, absolutely inevitable.

29. Character progression: when you've thought out what kind of character your protagonist will be at the end, start him or her as the opposite kind of person at the beginning, e.g. Oedipus who starts out arrogant and ends up humiliated, Hamlet who is indecisive at the start and ends up heroic.

  • I’ve never entirely agreed with this wisdom. Is it believable to have characters change so much? Sometimes, I prefer stories that don’t drag characters all the way from A to Z, but instead go from Y to Z, showing us only the last, most painful stage of a journey.

30. Most stories with a strong plot are built on the tension of CAUSE AND EFFECT. Each incident is like a domino that topples forward to collide with the next in a sequence which holds the audience in a grip of anticipation. 'So, what happens next?' Each scene presents a small crisis that as it is revolved produces a new uncertainty.


Tomorrow: the final ten!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mackendrick's Rules, Part 2: Rules 11-21

Eleven more bits of wisdom from the great Alexander Mackendrick...

11. Exposition is BORING unless it is in the context of some present dramatic tension or crisis. So start with an action that creates tension, then provide the exposition in terms of the present developments.

  • Exposition should be withheld until the hero and the viewer are demanding to know it. In my re-write of The Town, I tried to find more organic ways for the backstory to be revealed by putting it on a need-to-know basis.

12. The start of your story is usually the consequence of some BACKSTORY, i.e. the impetus for progression in your narrative is likely to be rooted in previous events - often rehearsals of what will happen in your plot.

13. Coincidence may mean exposition is in the wrong place, i.e. if you establish the too-convenient circumstances before they become dramatically necessary, then we feel no sense of coincidence. Use coincidence to put characters into trouble, not out of trouble.

14. PASSIVITY is a capital crime in drama.

  • I desperately tried to drain all of the passivity out of Harry Potter books 4 and 6, and make Harry proactive instead. Passive protagonists can be infuriating. We must cheer for heroes as well as fear for them.

15. A character who is dramatically interesting is intelligent enough to THINK AHEAD. He or she has not only thought out present intentions but has foreseen reactions and possible obstacles. Intelligent characters anticipate and have counter moves prepared.

  • The one baseline requirement for every hero is that they must be clever and resourceful, even if they are just being idiotic in a clever way. Like real people, they should go after what they want by lacing their dialogue with tricks and traps.

16. NARRATIVE DRIVE: the end of a scene should include a clear pointer as to what the next scene is going to be.

  • This can be as simple as ending on “What else could go wrong?” and cutting to the bad guys. You must rewrite your outlines until the list of events no longer go: “and then, and then”, but rather go: “and so, and so.” Or, as Aristotle would say, until “post hoc” becomes “propter hoc

17. Ambiguity does not mean lack of clarity. Ambiguity may be intriguing when it consists of alternative meanings, each of them clear.

  • If you’ve created a world where anything can happen, you’ve messed up. You should create a world in which one of five things might happen.

18. 'Comedy is hard.' (Last words of Edmund Kean.) Comedy plays best in the mastershot. Comic structure is simply dramatic structure but MORE SO: neater, shorter, faster. Don't attempt comedy until you are really expert in structuring dramatic material.

19. The role of the ANTAGONIST may have more to do with the structure of the plot than the character of the PROTAGONIST. When you are stuck for a third act, think through your situations from the point of view of whichever characters OPPOSE the protagonist's will.

20. PROTAGONIST: the central figure in the story, the character 'through whose eyes' we see the events.

  • In books, those two definitions don’t have to apply to the same character: Gatsby is the central figure in “The Great Gatsby”, but Nick is the one through whose eyes we see the events. In movies, this doesn’t work. We can only invest ourselves in the actions of the main character, not their perceptions of another character. It’s always seemed me that the only way to make a movie of Gatsby would be to eliminate Nick entirely. Simply make Gatsby the hero (or anti-hero). You would lose a lot of the mystique, and it would be a very different story, but it would have the immediacy that movies demand. (The same problem plagues the adaptations of “All the King’s Men”)

21. ANTAGONIST: the character or group of figures who represent opposition to the goals of the protagonist.

  • That one’s fairly self-explanatory. Tomorrow, 22-31…

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Mackendrick's Rules, Part 1: Rules 1-10

On Sunday, we discussed The Man in the White Suit, by writer-director Alexander Mackendrick. He later became a revered film professor, and published a great book called On Filmmaking. Commenter J.S. found a list of 41 Mackendrick truisms online, so I
ll spend a few days discussing how these rules line up to what I
’ve said here before...

1. Movies SHOW ... and then TELL. A true movie is likely to be 60% to 80% comprehensible if the dialogue is in a foreign language.

  • One of my cheesy guilty-pleasure TV shows was Jericho, about a town in Kansas after an unexplained nuclear strike, but it had its problems…The townspeople eventually found out that they had a pivotal place in postwar America because the town had a salt mine.They spent two seasons defending the mine from attackers, but we never saw a situation in which the townspeople or anyone else needed salt.The writers had clearly read in a book somewhere that salt would be vital after an apocalypse, so they had the characters tell this fact to they audience, but they never bothered to show us why.

2. PROPS are the director's key to the design of 'incidental business': unspoken suggestions for behavior that can prevent 'theatricality'.

  • I’ve talked about this how characters need token objects and how you need situations or character traits that put objects in their hands, and how every scene needs literal give and take of objects. Also see my piece here on The Apartment talks about the how the passing of the handmirror from person to person allows us to understand how they’re feeling without saying it out loud.
  • In The Man in the White Suit, imagine if they had just talked about the new textile process? The titular suit gives us a far more powerful representation of what it can do (never get dirty), what it means for Guinness (makes him stand out) and what it actually does to him (makes him a target, with people literally trying to rip his invention off his back).

3. A character in isolation is hard to make dramatic. Drama usually involves CONFLICT. If the conflict is internal, then the dramatist needs to personify it through the clash with other individuals.

  • Opposition creates meaning. It’s essential that one actual human being be opposed to what your hero is trying to do. Imagine Jaws without the mayor...A decision only becomes heroic in comparison to a less heroic action—even moreso if that less-heroic action is also somewhat justified. Sheriff Brody’s rejection of the mayor’s legitimate concern in favor of a greater good makes him seem all the more heroic. If the whole town shared the desire to kill the shark, then killing it wouldn’t be especially heroic, just necessary.

4. Self pity in a character does not evoke sympathy.

  • As I discussed here, Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything is pursuing a ridiculous goal (to be kickboxing champion) but that’s more sympathetic than if he had no goal at all. For that matter Alec Guiness's character in Mackendrick’s Man in the White Suit epitomizes this: he gets discouraged, but keeps plunging relentlessly forward regardless.

5. BEWARE OF SYMPATHY between characters. That is the END of drama.

6. BEWARE OF FLASHBACKS, DREAM SEQUENCES and VISIONS. In narrative/dramatic material these tend to weaken the dramatic tension. They are more suited to 'lyric' material.

7. Screenplays are not written; they are RE-WRITTEN and RE-WRITTEN and RE-WRITTEN.

  • I touched on this in How to Write a Screenplay, but I’ll come back at some point with a series specifically on How to Revise.

8. Screenplays come in three sizes: LONG, TOO LONG and MUCH TOO LONG.

9. Student films come in three sizes: TOO LONG, MUCH TOO LONG and VERY MUCH TOO LONG.

  • So very true. As I mentioned here, sitting through a fifteen-minute short film is just as hard as sitting through a four-hour feature. If you want to see terrible short films, go to any film school’s year-end festival. If you want to see great short films, watch any commercial break in primetime. Those guys can make you cry with a 30 second diamond commercial. Even better yet, watch this one-second film festival. That’s how long it takes to move somebody, if you know what you’re doing:

10. If it can be cut out, then CUT IT OUT. Everything non-essential that you can eliminate strengthens what's left.

Up next: Rules 11-20...