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.


j.s. said...

Just saw RAMPART and hated it primarily because it's 90% fallout scenes. The protagonist Dave Brown does one or two bad things and then waits for people to yell at him, so he can yell back. Conflict it is not. I was hoping this would be a good addition to the rogues gallery of Jerk Week, a film about an unapologetically dirty yet resourceful cop who sees himself as only doing what's necessary to uphold order, deliver justice and carry out his job. But it's never made clear what he wants, what he cares about, what he's trying to do or why we should even care.

There are a few scenes where he and others talk about this stuff, but it's never shown through his actions or dramatized through conflict by forcing him to make hard choices.

I heard Ellroy's script for this was gutted, which makes sense, because in contrast to the way you describe HOMELAND (which I'm only now eager to see... If terrorists can't blow up their own underwear can they really create a Manchurian Candidate?), RAMPART consists almost entirely of not newsworthy but "dramatic" scenes we've all seen before in other movies like this one.

Still, I'll bet that when there's a wider release the respectful reviews will roll in praising the intensity of the lead performance and calling this a gritty urban character study. In cases like RAMPART, where there's no drama and hardly a story, just a collection of angry scenery chewing it's amusing to me that the default descriptor is "character study." It really ought to be more properly called "caricature study."

Matt Bird said...

I, too, skipped the show at first because I thought the premise was too dubious, but I heard a ton of praise so I finally tried it and discovered that they somehow make it work.