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!


j.s. said...

I agree that going all-in on "information superior" positions can be tricky, but to sprinkle a little bit here and there at key moments throughout many stories really increases the quotient of suspense. If you alter Mackendrick's rule ever so slightly to "...ignorant of some of the circumstances..." then it might be more useful and it might speak more to the way dramatic irony can feed into rule 31, that lovely definition of drama as "expectation mingled with uncertainty."

I'd say there are moments in most really excellent thrillers like Hitchcock films other than FRENZY, BREAKING BAD and the new TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY where the audience knows more than some of the characters for some of the time. And when I'm watching a great story unfold and it momentarily shifts me into an information superior position, I feel like it only ratchets up my interest in what's going to happen next.

Once again I'm compelled to say I'm very grateful for this blog and the meticulous commentary and careful hyperlinking that Matt offers in all his posts. I'm a huge fan of posts like this that organize, reference and build upon many other posts so that we can learn and relearn these rules, think them through different stories and push them up against one another.

Jill Rasmussen said...

These are great, keep 'em coming! Great reminders of things I tend to forget.

Anonymous said...

28 is my favorite. The reader or the audience has to gasp at the ending, while recognizing that the ending is absolutely inevitable in terms of what has gone before.

The real test: Whether the audience still gasps after the third or forth viewing.