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.
- Starting a problem from scratch may work for movies like Jaws, but it generally works better for the hero to pursue an intimidating opportunity to solve a longstanding problem, then encounter unexpected conflict.
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.
- Audiences can be tricked into accepting overly convenient plot turns if they pay off previous foreshadowing. In my meddling with the book Harry Potter book 5, I tried to replace the convenient coincidences (timely peeks into Voldemort’s mind) with intentional action.
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.
- The desire to get laughs can’t override the needs of story and character. You can’t just ask “What’s the funniest thing that could happen?” You have to ask “What’s the funniest thing that would happen?”
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.
- The opening credits of “Battlestar Galactica” made it very clear that the villains’ plan was the prime mover of the story, and the goals of the heroes came second.It’s always better to have a hero be the villain’s worst nightmare, rather than vice versa.
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…
I hate to be Mr. TINKER TAILOR but I have to say it's all I can think of when I see a rule like No. 11. The greatest spy story ever told is basically 85% exposition -- stories within stories within stories like nesting Russian dolls. And the truly amazing thing about this particular film adaptation is how very much all of it comes in at the right time and keeps flowing forward into the present moment.
My other favorite rule from this group is Mackendrick's definition of ambiguity. This is terrifically important when it comes to any kind of paranoid or supernatural thriller. You can't just have the reasons for something weird happening be fuzzy, but as in the very good recent psychological thriller TAKE SHELTER there must be two or more clear and distinctly opposing possibilities.
Well you've certainly got me wanting to see it now. I've only read the novel, and I have a hard time imagining how it could work as a movie, since it's so talky. Obviously, they found a way to nail it.
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