Monday, January 23, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #117: Create Reversible Behaviors

Finally saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes and loved it! Let’s do a mini-unit of Apes rules...
In every scene, you must convey the hero’s internal state to the audience. In screenwriting, you have three ways of doing this: voiceover, dialogue or behavior:
  • The advantage of voiceover is that it allows the hero to honestly and directly tell us what’s going on. The disadvantages, however, are many: it’s inherently un-cinematic, in that it’s invisible, and it takes us out of the story by breaking the fourth wall.
  • Dialogue is also problematic: in real life, people don’t like to honestly tell other people what they’re thinking or feeling. Usually the other character has to trap the hero into revealing their thoughts.
  • The best way to detect the internal state of others, in movies and in real life, is through behavior. But behavior is very hard to write. Many readers, myself included, tend to breeze through scripts by reading only the dialogue, skipping over the prose paragraphs entirely, because they tend to be turgid and repetitive. Knowing this, writers are understandably loathe even to attempt to write actions that will speak louder than their words. But this is a mistake. Instead, in order to keep the reader from skipping the descriptions of behavior, every screenwriter must (against expectations) also be an excellent prose writer.
In order to convince the writer to read your prose (and get the movie’s future audience to invest in paying close attention to your characters’ actions) you need to create behaviors that, like good dialogue, are streamlined, deliberate, and packed with meaning.
Behavior, like dialogue, benefits from the old trick of ‘set up and pay-off.’ One advantage of this is that it allows you to create potential energy early on with the set-up, and then release that energy swiftly and efficiently when the pay-off hits. The audience loves to see this happen: Because they saw the set-up, they are in your secret club and know instantly what it means when they see the pay-off, even though a casual observer wouldn’t. 

You can do this with physical actions as well by creating reversible behaviors. Rather than come up with new behavioral clues from scratch in every scene to convey emotional states, you can give a character a behavior that means one thing, then later have the character reverse that behavior, letting the audience know instantly that the internal state has flipped as well. This is why it’s always good to look for behaviors that can do double-duty: meaning one thing now and the opposite later on.
Several great examples are on display in the wonderful recent blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes. When we first meet John Lithgow’s character, he’s attempting to play the piano but merely banging out dischordant notes, letting us know instantly that he’s losing his mind. When his son gives him an anti-alzheimer’s medication, he awakes the next morning to find his father playing the piano beautifully. We instantly understand what this means.(Interestingly, the writers later have an opportunity to flip this again, but they don’t use it. When the drug starts to wear off and Lithgow begins to lose his mind again, rather than put him at the piano a third time, the writers craft a heartbreaking moment where the two main characters silently notice that Lithgow is trying to chop up his eggs with the wrong end of his fork. Having used reversible behavior to good effect once, they decided to start fresh with a new behavior to indicate Lithgow’s gradual return to senility)We get another powerful example of reversible behavior when Caesar, the human-like ape, is kicked out of his human home and sent to live in a concrete cell. At home in his attic loft, Caesar looked out on the world through a distinctive window.In the cell, Caesar touchingly scratches a replica of the window onto his wall, showing that he wishes to return there. Later, once he realizes that he can never trust humans, he violently erases the drawing off the wall. The audience knows all too well what that means.

1 comment:

j.s. said...

This really is an excellent movie. The writers do so many things right. Starting with investing this giant decades-long franchise with research and storylines that interest them personally. This wasn't some soulless studio generated reboot, but a project that grew out the writers' interest in what happens to apes like the famous one Nim who learn language and grow up in the presence of human families. This is a great lesson in being open to the commercial possibilities of your research interests and in constantly asking yourself how you can turn any given job for hire into something personal that you would actually want to see yourself -- while obviously still delivering the genre goods.

The screenplay is great at telling the story through dramatic behavior, especially when Casear gets to the ape sanctuary and that's all we have for a long stretch of time. But the writing's also highly visual too, giving us images we've never seen before, like the main day room in the sanctuary or the moment when the escaping apes move en masse through a suburban neighborhood and all we can see of them are leaves raining down from the trees.

The director did a terrific job too, but it started with the script and many of his best visual ideas -- like Caesar erasing the window in his cell -- expanded on something the writers had imagined first.