Monday, December 31, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Addendum: Every Celebrity Has the Same Personality

Sing it along with me: “You can spend all your time making money, or you can spend all your money making time.”  When we listen to the song, we all know which choice that the Eagles are endorsing, don’t we?  They’re the sort of guys who don’t believe in working all the time, and they’re looking for fans who feel the same way. Fans like you!

But it took me years to figure out that the Eagles were, in fact, spending all their time making money, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Their marketers may want us to picture them sitting around their porch, picking guitars and smoking blunts while they perform, but in fact each one of them got up early that morning, left their loved ones at home, showed up to work on time and spent the whole day in a windowless studio, performing that song over and over while perfecting every note.

Every famous person brands him or herself a different way.  Michael Douglas and Michael Buble present the image of being trim, neat, and professional, while Matthew McConaughey and Snoop Dogg create the image of not giving a damn.  But don’t buy it.  Every famous person has the same personality: Type A.  They are hard-charging, ultra-professional, ultra-ambitious, ultra-level-headed.  It can be hard to believe that Edward Herrmann and Russell Brand are basically the same guy, but believe me, they are.
Any time you’ve ever listened to a song, or watched a movie, or read a book about the need to stop working all the time and start smelling the roses, then you’re enjoying the labor of someone who stopped smelling the roses and started working all the time.  They’re not selling you that message because they themselves live that way, they’re selling it because they know that you wish you could live that way, and you’ll pay good money to be told that it’s possible.

I cannot recommend enough the Cracked article 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person about the importance of becoming a productive person, even if (and especially if) you’re progressive-minded.  It’s written in the same vein as this series, but it’s more succinct and better written.  It gets pretty rough, but I’ve found that most people who read it nevertheless find it uplifting.

Creative people have a lot more competition and a lot longer odds than non-creative people, so we have to work twice as hard and be twice as professional as they are.  There were hundreds of thousands of country-folk bands touring America in the ‘70s, but the Eagles worked their asses off to get to the top of that pile.  

Let me be clear: I’m not accusing anybody of hypocrisy.  There’s nothing immoral or unethical about praising or portraying a lifestyle that you yourself can’t follow.  It’s perfectly legitimate to encourage your audience to take it easy, but you should know that if you take your own advice, no one will ever hear that message.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Addendum: Be Amazed By Success

When I was young and silly, if I met a screenwriter who only had one credit for one bad movie ten years ago, then that writer was just a joke to me.  After all, I was about to be a huge success, and I couldn’t risk my rising cred by hanging out with people whose work I couldn’t respect. 

This attitude can be seen in the criticism meted out to storytelling guru Blake Snyder: “This guy’s biggest credit is Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! Why are we listening to a thing he says?”

This is a lousy attitude for so many reasons...
  • Writers have zero decision power over which jobs they get.  There are Oscar-nominated writers out there trying like hell to get every job they can possibly pitch for, no matter what they think of the source material or subject matter. 
  • The credited writer has very little influence on the quality of the final film.  Every choice the writer makes gets second-guessed on the fly by the producers, the director, the stars, the editor, and the distributor by the time the movie is done.  
  • In fact, writers can’t even control the quality of their own writing on the page.  If the producer tells you to write it badly, then you write it badly, or you’re fired. 
  • The vast majority of screenwriters, even the ones who make a good living at screenwriting, get few if any onscreen credits on theatrically-released feature films.  If you get a credit, even if the final film sucked, then you’re probably doing something very right. 
Most often, the writer in question wrote a brilliant spec back in the day, and then a producer bought it, and pretended he was going to make it soon, but asked the screenwriter to re-write one of the producer’s pet projects in the meantime.  Alas, the producer then buried the brilliant spec, because all he actually cared about was the pet project, which was always destined to be a horrible movie, no matter who wrote it.

Now don’t get me wrong: maybe the writer you’ve just met really is just some talentless boob who got steampiped through the system because his uncle was the studio head.  But it’s pretty obvious who those guys are.  If, on the other hand, you find yourself saying “Gee, this guy seems smart, so why do his movies suck so bad?”, then give him the benefit of the doubt.   In this unforgiving business, it’s good to keep in mind that success is a pretty amazing thing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard at Graduation, Addendum: Underpromise and Overdeliver

Every relationship in Hollywood begins when someone says, “Wow, this kid’s the real deal” and ends when that changes to, “Nope, just another windbag.”  Your job is to keep that window open as long as possible.

The secret is to underpromise and overdeliver.  This is common general advice, and it’s always harder than it sounds, but in Hollywood it’s especially difficult, because the pressure to overpromise is overwhelming.  It’s a town run on hot air.

Writers hate to sit around writing, which is way too boring.  We’d rather be out partying, which we refer to as “networking”.  The problem is that, when you’re out “networking”, people are constantly asking you, “What are you working on?”  The honest answer is, “Nothing, obviously, or else I’d be home writing instead of at this party,” but, rather than admit to that, you start boasting about all your “irons in the fire”: the project you’re “setting up” at one company, and the one that’s “under consideration” at another…

In a great, long-out-of-print memoir called “A Friend in the Business”, Robert Masello tells about moving to L.A. to make it in TV and running into a friend who had already been out there for a few years.  He was happily surprised to discover that his friend was doing great: “I’m selling projects all over town!”  Only after Masello himself had gotten a staff job (on a horror show called “Poltergeist: The Legacy”) did he realize what his friend had meant: Everybody is selling all over town, but very few have sold anything.  His friend was overpromising and under-delivering.

The problem gets even worse once you actually are selling.  Now you’re surrounded by people who are over-promising to you: telling you that they’re going to make you rich and they’re over-the-moon excited about your current draft.  It’s only natural to believe them and then pass on that excitement to others.  You relate their enthusiasm to your friends, family, colleagues, reps, other clients, etc.  Then it proves to be yet more hot air.

There are two great reasons not to give in to exaggeration.  The first, obviously, is that it makes you seem like a dupe and/or liar.  But the second is even more insidious: The more puffery engage in, the more inflated you feel, but actual writing produces the opposite feeling: it’s very, very deflating. 

What’s on the page will never match your how great it was in your imagination, and that’s painful, but it’s even worse if you’ve already boasted to everyone about what you were going to accomplish.  To cheer yourself back up, you’ll want to stop writing and go to another party, beginning the cycle anew…

The key to lasting personal and professional satisfaction is to quit the puffery cold turkey.  The only feelings of satisfaction for a writer should come after you write something good or after you sell something.  The writing itself should be unsatisfactory, as you painfully force yourself to get better and better, and the meetings should be even more unsatisfactory, since all that puffery should make you wary and weary. 

The next time you’re at a party and someone asks you what you’re working on, bite your tongue and simply say, “Nothing worth talking about yet”, then excuse yourself from the party to go home and write.

(…But wait, you may say, why are you taking that guy’s advice?  He was just a writer on “Poltergeist: The Legacy”!  More on that next time…)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #166: The Past is a Foreign Country, So Learn the Language

After seeing Lincoln I found myself doubting everything.  How could a director as bad as Spielberg make a movie this good?  Had I misjudged him?  I decided that I would finally take a look at Amistad, his 1997 movie about the court case resulting from a slave ship rebellion. As a  history buff, I’d always wanted to see it, but I’d avoided because of my certainty that Spielberg could only screw it up.

The verdict: Amistad is even worse than I feared.  I could write for weeks about how insulting it is to its audience’s intelligence and good taste, but instead I’ll just focus on one small speech by a one-scene character, real-life Senator John C. Calhoun, who appears briefly at a dinner party to offer an ominous threat to the president about the case:  
  • They ignore the fact that slavery is so interwoven into the fabric of this society, that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. It's immoral. That's all they know. Therefore, so are we. Immoral and inferior . . . we're not as wealthy as our Northern neighbors -- we're still struggling. Take away our life's blood now -- well, we all know what happens then, North and South. They become the master, and we the slaves. But not without a fight. What president wants to be in office when it comes crashing down around him? The real determination our courts and our president must make is not whether this ragtag group of Africans raised swords against their enemy, but rather, must we?
So basically: “Who cares if slavery’s immoral, we need it, and we’ll kill to protect, so you’re stuck with it!”  This speech does an okay job of summing up what historians now feel to be the truth of Sen. Calhoun’s situation at the time, but it totally misrepresents his actual beliefs and language in every possible way. 

As many still do today, Calhoun thought it to be obvious that the North was inherently immoral, and the South was the nation’s beacon of morality.  He believed that the South defended slavery so zealously not because they depended on their slaves (he thought these were “men of the soil” who could just as easily work their own land) but because they were the last defenders of a virtuous ideal of land stewardship and its attendant “positive good”*: servant stewardship. 

In the North, by contrast, Calhoun would argue, they imported immigrants for temporary factory work, recklessly gave them citizenship, then cast them aside when they weren’t needed, creating a shiftless-yet-enfranchised rabble who threatened to overrun the country and turn it from a genteel agrarian republic into a brutal mob-ocracy.   But even if this mob-ocracy eventually necessitated secession, that still wouldn’t result in violence.  Instead, the North, left to stew in its own filth, would realize its mistake and come crawling back to the South on any terms.   

Calhoun believed that, just as blacks weren’t fit to rule themselves, the North wasn’t fit to rule itself, so the South had the solemn responsibility of taking up both duties.  All three branches of government must be continually gamed, whether through democratic or undemocratic means, to ensure continuous Southern domination, lest Northern incompetence and short-sidedness be allowed to wreck the country.

Now don’t get me wrong—Calhoun was totally delusional, but to put our modern point-of-view into his mouth then is bad writing in so many ways... 
  • It shows that a lazy writer hasn’t done his research.
  • By failing to show that abolitionism seemed like a radical, absurd, and suicidal proposition to North and South alike, Spielberg robs his abolitionist heroes of their heroism.  In this version, their cause seems like such an obvious no-brainer. 
  • It’s dramatically inert because everybody knows exactly what they’re getting into.  Every discussion is about “the issue of slavery,” rather than all of the smaller things it seemed to be about at the time.  If Spielberg had pitted his heroes against Calhoun’s actual, seductive, topsy-turvy logic, he might have created something meaningful.  Storytelling requires irony, and this was indeed a very ironic case, but Spielberg has ironed all the irony out of it. 
Compare this to Lincoln.  Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner know full well that, on a moral level, the audience is going to identify most with abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and they encourage us to do so, but they also make it very clear how radical he seemed to be at the time, and why Lincoln regarded him as more of liability than an asset in the fight against slavery.  That’s called irony, and it makes stories better.  All of Stevens’ scenes are suffused with irony, even before we get to the astonishing final reveal, which makes everything he said seem all the more ironic in retrospect.

Great period-pieces wrench us out of our modern perspective.  They don’t allow us to frame issues in familiar ways.  In the “Mad Men” pilot, when Lucky Strike screams bloody murder to Don Draper about a cancer exposé in “Reader’s Digest”, Don doesn’t launch into a public health debate, as we would today.  Instead, he quickly mollifies his clients by saying “Well, ladies love their magazines.” 

See it how they would see it, not how you see it. “Reader’s Digest” is a women’s magazine so who cares?  Knock your audience out of their comfortable modern perch and plunge them down into the muck of the past.  Believe it or not, they’ll actually enjoy shoveling their way out.  

*Calhoun’s most famous speech, given two years before the Amistad case: “I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good... I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse...”

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 7: Misconceptions About Tone

See, I didn’t forget about it!
Tone is the most misunderstood aspect of writing...

What I Used to Think: A writer should write to please him or herself. 
  • What I Now Realize: A writer should write to please an audience.  (Hopefully, this will make the writer happy, too!) 
What I Used to Think: The audience wants to be shocked.
  • What I Now Realize: The audience wants to be astonished.
What I Used to Think: First and foremost, the audience wants the writer to defy expectations
  • What I Now Realize: The opposite is true: First and foremost, the audience wants the writer to create expectations.  Once those expectations have been created, the audience wants to the writer fulfill most of them and then upset a few of them. 
What I Used to Think: An audience will recommend your story to their friends based on what they think of the plot, the characters, the structure, the dialogue, the scenework, or the theme.
  • What I Now Realize: The audience recommends the story based on what urges it satisfies.
What I Used to Think: “Genre” refers primarily to a setting, or a subject matter, or the feeling of the story. 
What I Used to Think: A genre story should be primarily concerned with the details of that genre.
  • What I Now Realize: Great genre stories are metaphors for universal emotional experiences. A great vampire story isn’t about fangs and blood, it’s about our internal struggle between lust and self-control.  Great Westerns aren’t about horses, they’re about the struggle between our craving for individualism and our need for community. Even the most unrealistic genre stories should be metaphors for how things really feel. 
What I Used to Think: A genre-switch in the middle of the story makes for an exciting twist.
  • What I Now Realize: A genre-switch almost always alienates the audience. You’ve created expectations and now you need to fulfill them (or at least most of them).  TV shows like “Lost”  that switch genres abruptly infuriate fans. 
What I Used to Think: Once you’ve chosen a genre, you can freely mix and match every sub-genre within that genre.
  • What I Now Realize: Within a genre, some sub-genres can be combined, but others cannot.  Mixed-sub-genres often result in mixed metaphors.  Genre is a form of abstraction, and mixing genres or sub-genres can often leave you with an abstraction of an abstraction in which genre elements become disconnected from the real life emotions that they once represented.   
What I Used to Think: The audience is tired of genre clichés. 
  • What I Now Realize: Most clichés exist for good reasons, and audiences don’t mind them as long as they’re executed in a somewhat fresh way.  Every time you shed one, you must do so carefully, and accept that the audience is likely to complain that it’s missing.  Don’t just assume that they’re going to say, “Finally, a movie without that old cliché!”
What I Used to Think: Each genre implies a certain mood. 
  • What I Now Realize: The mood, such as light or dark, emotional or intellectual, funny or serious, is established independently of the genre such as in the title card of Star Wars (which subtly implies a “fairy tale” mood).
What I Used to Think: Each audience member will bring a unique and unpredictable set of expectation and assumptions to your story.  You can’t help it if it turns out that they wanted your story to be something that it wasn’t.
  • What I Now Realize: It’s possible to manage your audience’s expectations and reset their assumptions.  When re-writing your story, it’s very important to find out from your early readers about any assumptions they brought to your story, and which false expectations they formed as they read it, then re-write the beginning of your story accordingly.  
What I Used to Think: Foreshadowing is the author’s way of teasing the audience. 
  • What I Now Realize: Foreshadowing teases the audience, yes, but its primary purpose is to subtly reset the audience’s expectations.  It consciously prepares them for what might happen, and subconsciously steers them away from what won’t happen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Addendum: Know the Dramatic Question

As I wrote the preceding series, I kept circling around a definition that I never really nailed down: What is the “dramatic question”? 

The primary purpose of the dramatic question is to let the audience know when the story will end.  What will constitute the final victory or failure? 

In many stories, the dramatic question is so obvious that the writer doesn’t have to worry about clarifying it: Will the couple find true love?  Will the hero defeat the villain? Who killed that dead body that was discovered in the first scene?

But in other stories, the dramatic question is not immediately obvious, so the writer has to carefully shape it in the audience’s minds.  I’ve given the examples of Charley Varrick and Never Cry Wolf a few times now, but in both cases it still would have been fairly obvious that the movie was over, since each movie ends with the hero leaving town.  In these cases, the question was intended to make an anticlimactic ending more satisfying. 

But let’s look at stories that truly need the dramatic question to be stated.  The Godfather is a long, sprawling movie.  Our hero Michael even leaves town in the middle, hangs around in Sicily for a half hour of screentime, and then comes back for the final stretch.  The primary relationship, between Michael and his dad, ends halfway through when his dad dies.  The secondary relationship, between Michael and his fiancé Kay, seems to end when Michael weds someone else in Sicily.  Why doesn’t the audience get (overly) frustrated? 

Here, too, the end date is planted in our mind subtly at the beginning of the movie, when Michael tells Kay, “In five years, the Corleone family will be completely legitimate.”  So the dramatic question becomes, “Is that true?”  No matter how many ups and down and beginnings and endings Michael experiences over those long five years, the ultimate question remains unanswered, so the audience is willing to go along for the ride towards that five-year deadline without saying, “Jeez, I thought this movie was over an hour ago!” 

This, I now realize, is the primary purpose of framing sequences, flashforwards, and past-tense voiceovers: If a story (American Beauty, for instance) does not have an obvious dramatic question, then you must pose one at the beginning by indicating what event we’re building towards in the future. 
Keeping a movie going past the end of the dramatic question is exasperating for the audience, even if they like the movie.  In The Big Sleep, the original mystery is solved 2/3 of the way through, leaving the audience baffled as to why the movie keeps going.  And Gone with the Wind never fails to exasperate me: The war ends, Tara is restored, the couple seems to break up definitively, then get back together definitively, then marry, then have a kid, then on and on and on.  Even when Rhett finally leaves Scarlet at the end, I don’t really buy that it’s for good.  What is the dramatic question here??  Unlike in The Godfather, this sprawling epic saga doesn’t seem to have a pre-established end point. No dramatic question unites the movie. 
Tomorrow: Unfinished business…

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 9: More Fun With Foreshadowing

We’ve talked about several forms of foreshadowing already, from obvious methods like using a framing sequence, flashforward, or voiceover to hint at what’s coming, to more subtle methods, like reversible behavior or imagery that create subconscious anticipation of an inevitable reversible.

But there are lots more methods of foreshadowing. Let’s list just a few:
  • Most obviously, whenever a scene cuts away right before a big reveal, or when the camera refuses to show the face of an important person in the room.
  • Interrupted dialogue: somebody sounds like they’re about to say something important, but they get cut off, leaving the audience to perk up their ears in hopes of filling in the blanks.
  • Whenever we only hearing one side of the conversation, or even when we hear both but something still doesn’t add up, the audience assumes that this is a big clue (So let’s hope it is!)
  • Whole unexplained cryptic scenes: Who are these people having some secret meeting that seems to have nothing to do with the story? What is that ally of the hero dropping off a mysterious package somewhere?
  • Dangling questions: someone asks a leading question “why does this keep happening?” and gets no answer…
  • Unpaid debts weigh heavily on an audience’s mind. In both Chinatown and The Godfather, a debt is incurred in the first scene that gets called in at an ironic moment later in the movie. Likewise with threats, or vows of revenge. Use them to keep the audience on their toes …until they finally forget about them, which is the moment you deliver the pay-off.
  • Brian McDonald in “Invisible Ink” (I finally read it, J.S., and it’s great!) talks about “clones”: minor characters whose struggles mirror the hero’s in miniature. When one of those characters meets a bad end, it foreshadows doom for the hero as well.
I used to think that this sort of obvious foreshadowing was just showboating by writers: They know what’s going to happen and we don’t so they’re rubbing it in our faces. But now I realize that heavy-handed foreshadowing is more often a way to tie together a plot that might not otherwise come together.

There are two reasons that time-travel stories use more foreshadowing than any other type of story:
  • First of all, it’s easy and fun to do so: if your characters are already jumping backwards and forwards in time, then it’s easy to show us cryptic glimpses of what’s to come.
  • But the far more important reason is this: TIME TRAVEL STORIES MAKE NO DAMN SENSE!
Think about that moment at the end of The Terminator when we realize that Reese is John’s father, or that moment at the end of Twelve Monkeys when we realize that Bruce Willis was traumatized by his own death. What were you thinking about? You were thinking, “Oh, cool, this was foreshadowed all this time but I’m only now putting it together!” What you weren’t thinking was, “That makes no damn sense!

The more unbelievable it is, the more you have to foreshadow, they’ll be too busy saying “Ah-ha!” that they’ll forget to ask “Say what?” Source Code was another time-travel head-scratcher that papered over lots of problems in this way. (What about the guy that body belonged to??) It’s messy, but what are you going to do? People cut you a lot of slack with time travel stories…as long as you don’t let think about the contradictions. There’s a reason that Back to the Future is famous for having more plant-and-pay-off than any other movie!

Okay folks, that was supposed to be the end, but tomorrow, we’ll get a little backfill as I go back and clarify some earlier thoughts…

Monday, December 17, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 8: Drop One Shoe, Then Wait

Once you create an expectation that something will happen, the audience will get more and more anxious until it occurs. This is how you wrap them around your finger.

Anton Chekhov famously said that if there’s a gun over the mantelpiece in the first act, then someone must get shot in the third act. He meant that the audience can outsmart the writer by figuring out the plot ahead of time, but now that his quote has become famous, it’s gotten turned on its head: It’s become another way for the writer to manipulate the audience.

It’s the job of the audience to try to outsmart the writer at every turn, but it’s the job of the writer to guess what their guesses will be and cut them off at the pass. Since audiences are now on the lookout for those guns on mantelpieces, writers can now use them to imply a death that won’t occur, or to trick the audience into guessing wrong about who will be shot.

You need to create subconscious anticipation. I’ve talked about how to do this in individual scenes, but it can be done over the course of a whole movie as well.
  • As Chekhov pointed out, whenever a item of potential energy is introduced but not used up: an unfired gun, unused poison or dangling sword, obviously, but also any unrevealed secret or suppressed evidence. Those guns, too, must eventually be fired…
  • Whenever characters say what they’re afraid will happen, or what their worst fears are, or their fondest wishes. Audiences will begin to anticipate that these things might come to pass, perhaps in an ironic way. It’s subtly set up throughout the first season of “The Wire” that McNulty’s most dreaded assignment is the docks, which is of course exactly where he ends up. As we race ahead of the plot in our minds, we know even before we see that final shot of him on the boat that the trap has been sprung.
  • Whenever a character repeats a behavior compulsively, we wait for the moment when he or she can’t or won’t do it anymore. Likewise, when a character repeatedly tries and fails to do something, we begin to anxiously anticipate the moment he or she will succeed, for good or ill.
  • Likewise with reversible imagery: whenever anyone preserves something fragile, we anticipate the moment it will break. Whenever something is literally or figuratively put on a pedestal, we wait until it is torn down. Whenever anyone invests any object or icon with emotional meaning, we begin to anticipate about what might happen to it.
But once you know how to use each of these to create anticipation, you must also know that the audience is guessing all of your tricks. If they’re playing checkers, then you have to play chess…

The Fighter masterfully plays with its audience. We see talented boxer Mickey take his crackhead brother Dickey’s lousy advice over and over, with more and more disastrous results… Then we finally see Mickey get better advisors and succeed while Dickey goes off to jail. But just then, when Mickey finally has his big shot, he gets lured into the prison where Dickey gives him one more piece of advice. The audience is writing in pain! No, not again! Mickey was so close! Sure enough, in the fight, Mickey finds himself doubting his new advisors and considering Dickey’s advice instead. He fatefully decides to take it, and as a result… he wins!

The moviemakers know that we think we’re two steps ahead, which gives them the ability to deliver what we least expect, a story of redemption that will bring the brothers back together. Crucially, they don’t just want to shock us, they want to astonish us. They use foreshadowing to trigger cynical assumptions in our minds because they want us to be ashamed by the power of this moment, when we suddenly realize that we were wrong to distrust our hero, and wrong to assume that his brother was irredeemable.

Tomorrow, we mop up our final odds and ends, as we explore additional types of foreshadowing...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 7: Put A Frame On It

When you know that there’s a danger that your audience will be asking the wrong questions (“Whodunit” instead of “Howdunit”, or “Will they survive?”, rather than “How will they survive?”) then there’s no more effective way of heading them off at the pass than with a framing sequence and/or a past-tense voiceover (as opposed to a present-tense voiceover, which has a different effect).

A framing sequence does just that: establishes the outer bounds of the big picture, keeping some possibilities in the frame and cropping others out. Types of framing effect include:

(1) A scene in which a character is telling the story to another person, so we see the whole thing as a flashback…
  • This is used in a lot of noirs (Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, D.O.A., The Usual Suspects) where it serves many purposes: It allows us to sympathize more with the morally dubious heroes because we’re getting the story through their skewed point-of-view, it allows their voice-over to establish a hard-boiled tone, and it allows the story to move at a faster clip by using voice-over to bridge gaps.
  • It’s also used in movies like Stand By Me and Forrest Gump to paint the scenes in a nostalgic hue they wouldn’t otherwise have.)
  • It can sometimes create a specific mystery: Why is Marlowe now blind in Murder My Sweet? Why is the hero dying in D.O.A.? This gets us asking the question the writer wants us to ask, rather than other questions that might come to mind.
  • You can even deliberately mislead. A bio-pic I wrote ends with a suicide, but I begin the movie with a cryptic flashforward that implies that it was murder, so as to trick the audience into paying closer attention to the story, as they would with a whodunit. The hope is that, by the time they get to the end, they’ll enjoy the story enough that they won’t mind being tricked.
(2) Something similar but different: Begin with a cryptic flashforward, then cut back to the story in “the present”:
  • “Alias” and “Breaking Bad” are two (otherwise very different) shows about heroes who whip back and forth between quotidian domestic problems and international gunplay. Both shows often employ a structure in which we begin we begin the episode with a flashforward in which the hero is about to be tortured to death, only to cut to a “one week earlier” title card, and then show the same hero dealing with some ho-hum domestic problem. This not only plays up the irony, but makes those domestic scenes hum with tension, as we wonder when the danger will strike.
  • These can also be used to deliberately mislead. The flashforwards throughout “Breaking Bad” season two implied that Walt’s house was about to be blown up, which ratcheted up each home scene. When the truth came out, it was far more bizarre, but just as satisfying. (And it also tricked us into being more forgiving of Walt’s actions, since we falsely assumed that retribution was coming.)
(3) A past-tense voiceover:
  • Both Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty are narrated by heroes who explains to us right away that they’re now dead and this will be the story of how they got that way. Obviously, this is an extreme risk, since it gives away the ending. Once again, this tricks us into paying much closer attention to the seemingly-low-stakes domestic problems, wondering how one could possibly lead to the other. As Hitchcock would say, the writers are sacrificing surprise in favor of suspense, hoping that the trade-off will make the whole move crackle with tension.
  • These can also prepare us for difficult transitions. The fantastic voice-over in Days of Heaven not only sets a powerful mood, but it prepares for the fact that the young girl will become the main character late in the story.
In each of these cases, the writer is asking certain question early on to keep us from asking others. The case of American Beauty is the most basic of all: If we didn’t know that Spacey was going to die, then our question would simply be “So what?” Why would we care about some random shlub’s mid-life crisis, since these things never have any real consequences? Writer Alan Ball knew that the only way to get us to care was to assure us up front that this time was different.

Tomorrow: More devious tricks…

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 6: …And Evade the Wrong Questions

I discussed before the central paradox of genre fiction: why do we get emotionally invested in anticipating the outcome when we can guess from the format and the genre how it’s going to end?

The answer is this: because the writer has gotten us to ask the right question: Sometimes, as in horror movies, the question is, “Will they get out of this?” But other times, as in a horror TV shows like “The X-Files”, the question is merely, “How will they get out of this?” It was vital that the show’s writers kept us asking the latter question rather than the former, or else we would start rolling our eyes, saying, “Aw, come on, we all know that they’re both going to live!”

The key distinction is that you need to ask a question with at least two plausible answers.  That means that the question can’t be “will something happen or won’t it?”  This is a story, and in stories, things happen, so the audience already knows the answer: “Yes, something will happen.” In The Big Boss, the dramatic question is “Will Bruce Lee fight or not?” Guess what the answer is?
Likewise, Harry Potter book five devoted hundreds of pages to the question “Will Voldemort see into Harry’s mind or won’t he?”  But this just gets an eye-roll from the reader: “Of course he will.”  If, as I pointed out here, the question had been “Will Voldemort see into Harry’s mind before Harry sees into his?”, then we’d have a real ballgame on our hands.

Establishing the open questions up front is important for the whole story but it’s also important for individual scenes.  This is why it’s good to pre-load the scene: if we know what the hero expects to happen, then we’ll be focused on that dilemma, not some dilemma that the writer has no intention of addressing.

Sometimes you have to anticipate that the audience’s imagination is going to go places you don’t want it to go, and then cut it off at the pass.  This “This American Life” piece is hilarious, but early on there’s a moment where the subject’s parents tell him that they’ve sent his dog away to a farm upstate.  Everybody I know who listened to the piece simply assumed that this was code for putting the dog to sleep at the vet.  Later, the dog re-enters the story, still alive, without any acknowledgement of the other possibility.

The producers of the piece should have realized that the audience would try to get ahead of the story and go off in the wrong direction, so they had to either shut down that wrong assumption before we could make it, or acknowledge our surprise when the dog turns out to still be alive.

This is why early readers are so important.  When they say that they were disappointed because they thought it was going in a different direction, don’t get frustrated at them for wanting something that you never promised.  Instead, figure out why they had the wrong expectation, and figure out how to re-set those expectations. Next, we’ll look at more ways to do that...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 5: Plant the Right Questions...

So now we’ve discussed genre, sub-genre, and mood, all of which tap into your audience’s pre-established expectations: “This is going to be this kind of story, not that kind of story.”

But you can get so far by relying on your audience’s knowledge of similar types of storytelling.  Now you have to create new expectations from scratch.

As with sub-genre and mood, the important thing is not to establish what your story is, but what your story isn’t.  Let’s go back to the Scriptshadow comment that helped inspire his series, from Claudethewriter on this post:
  • When someone says they didn't like something, it doesn't mean that thing is bad, necessarily, it just means that person expected (consciously or subconsciously) something else.  "I didn't like the ending" really means "everything up till the ending lead me to believe something else was going to happen." From there, it's the writer's job to see where they intentionally or accidentally lead the reader to have the incorrect expectation. 
How can you get the audience to ask the right questions?  The most obvious way is to have a character state the issue out loud.  You can do with the dramatic question (“How will it all end?”) or the thematic question (“What’s this really all about?”)

At the end of Charley Varrick, as I’ve mentioned before, Charley really isn’t out of danger at all: he still has the mob’s money and they still want to kill him, but the movie feels satisfying because we heard the bad guys say at the beginning of the movie, “He’ll never make it out of Arizona alive!”  This creates the clear (but dubious) impression in our minds that getting out of Arizona = triumph.
Likewise in Never Cry Wolf, Tyler doesn’t actually save any wolves or expose the bad guys, but we began with the statement, “He’ll never make it through the winter!”, so that’s all he has to do.  In both cases, these statements excited our expectations about a smaller goal, and subtly shut down our expectation of reaching a larger goal.
You can also state the thematic question out loud, subtly or directly.  Bullets Over Broadway openly asks, “Is great art worth more than a human life?”, which becomes a very real question by the end of the movie.  Matthew Broderick begins Election by asking his class “What’s the difference between morals and ethics?”, but the bell rings and all the kids leave, so it’s up to the rest of the movie to answer that question. The dangling question hangs in the audience’s mind, coloring our interpretation of everything we see.  We’re now in the frame of mind that the writers want us to be in.

But there are more subtle ways to state the right question and evade the wrong question, which we’ll get to tomorrow…

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 4: Set the Mood

Time for more fun with fuzzy definitions!  What I’ll be talking about today is sometimes called “tone”, but I’m using that term more broadly to also include genre, foreshadowing and more, so I’ll refer to this sub-category as “mood”...
So we’ve talked about how genre adds one set of limitations, and sub-genre another. So once you’ve accepted those, are you now free to tell any story you want? Au contraire. Your movie also needs a mood, and that mood (Light, Dark, Satirical, Zany, Post-Modern, Over-the-Top, Gentle, Harsh, Chaotic, Intense, Meditative, Lurid, Fairy Tale, Bittersweet, Pulpy, etc.) can be just as confining.

To a certain degree, when it comes to TV and moviemaking, this is up to directors and their collaborators, who get to create or amplify these moods through cinematography, score, pace of the editing, etc. There are certainly lots of examples of directors adopting a mood that was totally contrary to the intentions of the original script, for good or ill.

But don’t leave it all up to them. There are lots of subtle and not-so-subtle ways for you to establish the mood yourself on the page.
One of the most obvious and successful, as I pointed out before, was the opening title card of Star Wars: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”.  What makes this work so brilliantly is that it establishes what this movie is and also what it’s not.  It’s going to be about swordfights and rescuing princesses, not airlocks and explosive decompression.  See also: (500) Days of Summer, wherein an omniscient narrator states at the beginning: “This is not a love story.”

But you needn’t be so direct.  On a more subtle level, your early scenes convey to an audience, “this is the kind of movie where this sort of thing happens and doesn’t seem weird.”  As a kid, I fell in love with Back to the Future as soon as Michael J. Fox grabbed onto the back of a jeep while he was on his skateboard, then, to up the ante, switched over to hanging onto a cop car.

This scene had nothing to do with the plot, but it had everything to do with setting the mood: In real-life this would be totally suicidal, but this movie was set in a universe where the laws of physics were a little gentler, and rebellious teen misbehavior was all in good fun.  No matter how much trouble was about to ensue, it was probably going to be okay.  That’s why Doc’s last minute resurrection feels like a satisfying pay-off, instead of a cop-out.

Of course, sometimes, this message comes through too loud and clear: I discussed before how an opening scene from the pilot of the TV show “Leverage”, in retrospect, made it all-too-obvious that this show’s tone would be terminally trivial.
On the other hand, I sometimes find, when I’ve gone back and re-discovered good shows that I initially dismissed, that one misleading scene early on gave me the wrong impression about what kind of show it was going to be. The scene that ends the pilot of Game of Thrones gave me the false impression that it was going to be another show like Rome or Boardwalk Empire, in which lead characters casually killed innocent people and the audience was still supposed to sympathize with them. When I gave the show another chance, I discovered that nothing could be further from the truth.

Be very careful in those opening scenes: your audience is on guard, asking themselves: “Is this going to be that kind of story or my kind of story?” Let them know the answer right away, so that you can self-select an audience that wants the sort of mood that you’re prepared to deliver.

Monday, December 10, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 3: Pay Off Two Genre Expectations For Every One You Defy

  • “The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish.  Not shock—shock is a worn-out word—but astonish.”  –Terry Southern, screenwriter of Easy Rider
Everybody went into Return of the Jedi rooting for Luke Skywalker to kill Darth Vader.  When the moviemakers chose to redeem Vader instead, the audience was pleasantly astonished.  But what if, in addition to that, Luke had turned evil and Yoda had ended up with Leia? 

If you defy too many expectations, then you’ll lose the audience entirely.  Shocks pile up until they become the new normal, leaving the audience just as bored as they would have been if you had stuck strictly to convention. 

I loved Wendy and Lucy, and I admired many things about the follow-up by the same personnel, an alt-Western called Meek’s Cutoff, but it was so reliably iconoclastic that it became predictable. Halfway through, I figured out that the movie was so in love with ambiguity that it could only end one way: cutting off abruptly just before the climactic reveal. The ending that was supposed to be shocking just got an eye-roll.*

Most jokes are composed according to the “rule of threes”, in which a situation is repeated twice, then gets turned on its head the third time.  Why three?  Because you have to establish a pattern before you can break it.  If you want to surprise your audience by defying a genre trope, then you have to first lower their guard by delivering a series of familiar pay-offs.

So the question becomes this: how can you deliver on classical genre tropes without resorting to old clichés?  On the one hand, many clichés persist for no good reason, such as, “let’s blackmail a random guy into committing a crime”: it violates common sense and we’ve seen it a million times.  Likewise anything involving assassins, nursery-rhyme spouting serial killers, or cool guys who don’t look at explosions

But other clichés are harder to get rid of: Why is every heist movie about “one last job”?  Because otherwise, if this heist doesn’t work, there’s always the next one, so who cares?  Why is the hero always unexpectedly forced to work with an ex-spouse?  Because it’s a handy shortcut to add emotional complexity to a situation, and turn obstacles into conflicts.  Why is it always good cop / bad cop?  Because it makes for good character contrast, and it also happens to be true to life. 

Not all clichés can be avoided.  The trick is to pull off the clichés in new, exciting ways …which is why our job is so hard.

Once you’ve paid off a few expectations, then you’re free to wallop the audience with something that breaks the rules.  The more time you spend rolling the rock uphill, the more satisfying it is when you knock it back down. 

*John Sayles’s Limbo, on the other hand, pulled off the same ending in a shocking way because Sayles, who has always bounced back and forth between Hollywood movies and naturalistic indie fare, knew how to fulfill just enough thriller expectations to get us revved up for a thrilling finale, only to deliver an ambiguous cut-off that forced his audience to decide how we feel about the characters’ decisions, independent of the knowledge of how it all turns out.  Some viewers rose up in revolt, but other enjoyed the self-examination that Sayles demanded of us. 

Sunday, December 09, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 2: Choose a Sub-Genre or Two (But Not Three)

Last time, I delivered the unpleasant news that a genre is really a set of handcuffs that a writer chooses to wear, accepting a set of limited options in return for a pre-selected audience that wants its movies to fit within those parameters. Today, it gets ever worse. Once you’ve limited yourself to a certain genre, you’re not done: you now need to pick a sub-genre.

As with genre, sub-genres can be defined by subject matter (time travel), point-of-view (satire), source material (docudrama), etc. Movies aren’t strictly marketed by sub-genre (they didn’t get their own sections at Blockbuster), but there are usually lots of clues on the poster, trailer, or tagline to let you know which one you’ve got. People don’t limit their movie choices quite as strictly by sub-genre, (most time-travel fans also like space operas) but everybody has their sub-preferences, which incline them more towards one than another. 

Combining sub-genres is tricky. As with genres, you can mix one or two, if you do it right from the beginning, but you can’t switch back and forth at will, and you can’t have it all. Here are some sub-genres:
  • Comedy: Romantic Comedy, Comedy of Manners, Farce, Spoof, Satire, Dramedy, Coming of Age
  • Drama: Melodrama, Soap opera, Character study, Slice of life, Biopic, Docudrama, Ensemble, Romance, Coming of Age
  • Thriller: Noir, Procedural, Contained, Detective, Police, Spy, Revenge, Manhunt
  • Horror: Grindhouse, Slasher, Sexualized Monster, Gruesome Monster, Transformation, Psychological, Black Comedy, Zombie
  • Action: Super-hero, Historical adventure, Super-spy, Super-cop, Martial Arts
  • Sci-Fi: Dystopian, Space Opera, Space Exploration, Robot, One Step Beyond, Alien Invasion, Time Travel
  • Fantasy: Fairy Tale, Magic Realism, Sword and Sorcery, Medieval, Cross-Over into Fantasy World
  • Western: Spaghetti, Elegaic, Modern-Day, Cattle Drive, Lawless Town, Frontier, Revenge
  • War: Black Comedy, Men on a Mission, Heist, Docudrama, Frontlines, Coming of Age
You can find at least one movie that combined every possible pairing of these sub-genres, but some work a lot better than others. Sexy zombie movies clearly don’t work, but it doesn’t really make sense to do a zombie-slasher movie either, since they tap into different fear-centers in our brains.

One problem is that, as with combined genres, you run into mixed metaphors: It would be ridiculous if, in the middle of Terminator 5, a wizard showed up, or a vampire, or a singing cowboy, but it would be almost as bad if an alien invasion arrived. That’s a different sub-genre, and a different metaphor, so what would it all mean?

But there are subtler problems as well. Let’s look at high school movies in each comedy sub-genre:
  • Romantic comedy: Sixteen Candles
  • Comedy of Manners: Clueless
  • Farce: American Pie
  • Spoof: Not Another Teen Movie
  • Dramedy: Fast Times at Ridgemont High
  • Satire: Election
  • Coming of Age: Gregory’s Girl
These movies are all funny, and they have similar settings and characters, but it would hard to move any scene from one to another. It would be jarring for Fast Times at Ridgemont High to have a scene that spoofs another movie, just as it wouldn’t work for (the surprisingly funny) Not Another Teen Movie to have a sensitively observed moment of truth.

Another reason to stick to one sub-genre is point of view. We sympathize with Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, but we also look down on her as a tone-deaf exemplar of a certain type. On the other hand, we fully identify with Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, who is on the same level as us. Once those two perspectives are established, it would be too jarring to jump back and forth between them.

So once you have your genre and sub-genre, how do you tap into the expectations that they create in your audience?  That’s tomorrow...

Thursday, December 06, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 1: Choose a Genre

So what is genre, and what are the pros and cons of aligning your movie with one or the other?  Unfortunately, like everything else in this series, the definition is fuzzy…

“Genre” can be defined by a movie’s setting (western), type of action (kung fu), type of concept (sci-fi), type of situation (thriller), the presence of a certain type of scene (musical) or its overall feeling (comedy and drama).  As a result, almost every movie falls into more than one genre, and yet the fine folks at Blockbuster Video, back in the day, had no problem sorting each box into only one slot.  How did they do that?

When thinking about genre, you need to put yourself in the shoes of that Blockbuster clerk, which will remind you that “genre” is all about marketing: it’s a way of connecting you to the customers who are interested in the story you want to tell. 

First a foremost a genre is a set of pre-established expectations that lives in the head of an audience.  When you choose to associate your story with a certain genre (and almost everybody does), then you’re implicitly promising that you will fulfill most of those expectations.

Many writers falsely assume that the audience always wants to see a movie where “anything can happen”, but audiences actually fear and shun those movies.  We select a genre for the same reason that we select a type of restaurant: to limit the menu.  We want to be re-assured that only a certain number of things can happen. 

Curry, for some reason, makes my stomach lurch, so I have to order carefully at Indian restaurants.  At every other type of restaurant, I don’t worry about it: I can simply presume that my favorite Italian place will never use curry.  Likewise, if you don’t like song-and-dance numbers, then you’ll carefully avoid musicals, but you won’t even worry when you watch a thriller, comfortable that you’re in safe hands. 

More than that, most genres lend themselves to certain thematic dilemmas: westerns tend to be about individualism vs. societal needs, sci-fi is often about innovation vs. tradition, comedies are about fun vs. responsibility, while dramas pit two incompatible responsibilities against each other.  These also become part of what an audience expects when they choose that genre. 

Genres also establish how the characters will act. In most genres, we expect the behavior of the characters to reflect human nature, but there are exceptions. As I pointed out before, nobody in the real world has ever said, “a serial killer is obsessed with me, so I’ll kill him myself without going to the cops”, but it happens all the time in thrillers.  At the end of Strangers on a Train, it’s ridiculous for Guy to go after Bruno himself, except for the fact that thriller fans would be disappointed if he didn’t.  

Mixing genres can be done, but there’s always a danger that you’ll lose the metaphor. Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slater” masterfully combined realistic coming-of-age stories with outlandish horror by using each to comment on the other: in one the world feels like it’s ending, and in the other it actually is.  But Whedon had less success with his next two shows, both of which combined two outlandish genres.  “Angel” was Horror / Private Eye, and “Firefly” was Western / Sci-Fi.  Both shows had a lot of neat stuff on the screen, but neither resonated with me.  Those genres work well as metaphors, but mixing the genres just mixed those metaphors, until lost any connection to real emotions in my life. 

Most importantly, if you’re going to mix genres, you have to do it from the beginning.  Nothing kills a movie faster than switching genres later on in the process. Both “Lost” and “Battleship Galactica” appealed primarily to science fiction fans, but after the writers lost control of those stories they decided to end them with some version of, “Well, there is no plausible explanation for what’s happened at this point, so let’s just say God was responsible for all the weirdness for some reason that we cannot divine.”  In both cases, the fans were not happy. 

Every genre is a trade off: you agree to write within certain pre-established expectations, and in return you get a pre-selected audience.  It’s a great power that comes with great responsibility.  

Up next: Subgenre.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Prologue: Every Criticism is the Product of an Unmet Expectation

 I’ve talked a lot about how crappy the movie versions of Twilight, The Hunger Games and Dark Knight Rises were, and yet all three made oceans of money.  If audiences don’t seem to care anymore about coherent characters, structures, or themes, then what do they care about?  The answer is simple: Modern audiences care most of all about the overall tone. 

All three of these movies were masterpieces of tone-maintenance.  They wrap you snugly in a very thick blanket of tone and slowly smother you into a fandom-coma.  On the other hand, those blockbusters that get slammed by the critics and rejected by audiences, such as Hancock, Superman Returns, or John Carter are tone-disasters.

This is even more obvious if you read the screenplays that get put out on the market.  The ones that sell are always pretty good, but there are always better ones that don’t sell.  The key distinction is this: the ones that sell are those that have the greatest control over their tone. 
Claudethewriter, one of the commenters at Scriptshadow pointed me towards the best explanation of why tone is so important… “Every criticism is a product of an unmet expectation.”*

This means that every problem could be considered to be a tone problem.  It also means that, if you manage expectations skillfully, you can wrap your audience around your little finger and make them love your story, no matter how bad it is! 

Sophisticated folks look at something like Twilight and ask how anyone could possibly like this, seeing as how it does everything wrong: passive protagonists, anti-climactic structure, morally repugnant theme, etc. When we go to the movie with our pre-established ideas of what makes for a good story, we’re totally insulted by this trash. 

But these movies succeeded financially by creating their own cinematic sub-universe, in which none of these things are ever promised or implied.  Instead, they create a very different set of expectations and then expertly fulfill them.  Basically, all they do is promise, “I am going to make you feel a certain way”, and then they deliver.  If you want to feel that way, you’ll like it.  If you don’t, you won’t. 

The Twilight movies are extreme examples, but every story succeeds or fails to a large degree based on its ability to manage audience expectations.  In this series, we’ll look the ways in which every writer must manage the expectations of his or her audience.

*He says he’s quoting someone but he doesn’t say who.  Screenwriting bloggers John Rogers and Alex Epstein have also quoted it as something they’ve heard, but nobody seems to know or say who originally said it. Anybody know?