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...


j.s. said...

"How will they get out of this?" You're right that, at a certain point, every on-going story -- a series or a big screen franchise -- becomes more or less a superhero film in terms of audience expectations for the ultimate safety of the protagonist.

Yet I've found myself watching many episodes of a series like BREAKING BAD where I'm also asking sincerely "Will they get out of this?" And sometimes they don't. Not that Walt could die (yet), but sometimes he's ended up doing extreme and unpleasant things he rather have avoided, like killing. And people close to him have been hurt too, most notably Hank, because he's put them all at risk repeatedly. I even thought it was possible that Jesse might die at the end of last season. Episode after episode there are real and urgent stakes.

On the other hand, a show like HOMELAND, diverting guilty pleasure that it is, has to contort itself into too many knots to even sustain the tension of the lesser question "How will they get out of this?" And part of the problem for me now is that I've already seen them get of out tight spots too easily with too little to pay for it in the past to believe that there's real danger anymore.

Something else I'm curious about is how one would manage expectations for a movie/story that's really unlike anything else. (I know, I know, that's not what your blog is about). Something like like the original and challenging literature that Harvey Jerkwater referenced with his James Wood quotation a while back. Are there examples of, say, art films that do this exceptionally well, creating a whole new set of viewer expectations from the very first frame?

Matt Bird said...

As they say, "If you break a rule, you make a rule", so yes, it's all the more important that strange film establish what they're going to deliver and what they're not.

How does "The Exterminating Angel" condition us not to expect them to solve the mystery of why they're trapped inside?

Likewise, how does the audience sense early on that "Groundhog Day" will never reveal what supernatural effect caused this condition, so that we're not disappointed when this isn't explored?

Why are we satisfied with the ending of "2001"? How many different tricks did Kubrick use early on to subtly condition us to be happy with a cryptic ending?

And yes, you're right, "Breaking Bad", though created by an "X-Files" lead writer, is a very different type of show that does want us to ask IF the heroes will survive.

Crucially, only shows that make 13 episodes or less a year can get away with that. A network show like "The X-Files" with 22-25 episode seasons could never pull it off.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

What I consider one of the great bizarre misfires of recent Hollywood was the would-be thriller "Arlington Road," which failed for this very reason. Jeff Bridges's character is a terrorism expert, and he suspects that his new neighbor, Tim Robbins, is a militia nut/terrorist. Three quarters of the movie, maybe more, is built around the question of "is the neighbor really a terrorist, or is the distraught protagonist imagining things?"

Thing is, we know the guy's a terrorist, because if he isn't, there's no movie. In a low-budget movie with no-name actors that focused more on Bridges being weird, it might have worked. But a big-budget movie with name stars? Come the hell on.

I could imagine the thinking behind it: "we won't make it a chase movie...it'll be all about the suspense...the tension of the uncertainty..." In real life, that story would be gripping as shit. In the movies, feh.

God, I hated that movie.

Jonathan Auxier said...

For what it's worth, I think this current series is dynamite. The more I write, the more I suspect all structure/story/character talk boils down to managing audience expectations:

Character manages the "What am I looking for?" question

Structure manages the "Are we there yet?" question

Theme manages the "Why am I watching this?" question

To me, expectations are crucial to the difference between serviceable and GOOD storytelling. As George Lucas taught us, even a brilliant story with compelling characters and profound themes can be mangled in the execution.

Thinking about ever-shifting audience expectations (and creating satisfying reversals) forces a writer to craft actual SCENES. We may need to know where a whole story is headed, but we should not know the outcomes of individual scenes before they end.

Matt Bird said...

I love that, Jonathan! Here's my version:

1. Concept: Why should I check this story out?
2. Character: Why should I care about this story?
3. Structure: Are we there yet?
4. Scenework: What happens next?
5. Dialogue: Will these characters come alive?
6. Tone: Is this satisfying me?
7: Theme: What did that story mean?

I put theme in the past tense, since I don't think we really judge a story's theme until it's over. Stories with a weak, inconsistent, or non-existent theme don't really bug us until we're on our way home.

j.s. said...

Kudos to Matt and Jonathan for their extensive and useful comments.

Harvey, I have to disagree with you about ARLINGTON ROAD, a film I feel is unduly underrated. The ending felt like a gut-punch to me, surprising and inevitable. And I enjoyed the whole ride. The film seems to me to be a classic paranoid thriller in the 1970s mode wherein the rightness of the hero's hunch of a hidden conspiracy is never in question. The question isn't "Will he discover the truth before it's too late?" but "Will they [friends and family, colleagues, the authorities, etc.] believe him?"

j.s. said...

Thinking more about Matt's art film examples has me back to BLUE VELVET, a film I've seen about a dozen times now. And maybe only fully "got" on the last go around. It had always been hard for me to reconcile the Norman Rockwell exteriors of the opening sequence with all the darkness that takes place in Dorthy Vallens' apartment. But beyond that, I don't think I ever understood before how fully sincere Lynch is about the corny, happy surface aspect of life in Lumberton. I used to think all that stuff was merely meant to be ironic by constrast, and I think now that this misses the point and undersells the film's achievement and the way it plays into the evolution of Lynch's later works. So I suppose the formulation of the thematic question I was missing was something to the effect of: "How do these forces of lightness/goodness and darkness/evil exist side by side and what happens when they cross?" In terms of character, the question is more like "Will Jeffery be able to reconcile his experience of these intense and opposite sides of life?" which in a film like this is almost more important than the dramatic question of whether he'll save Dorothy without losing Sandy.

j.s. said...

Maybe the degree zero expectation that every writer has to manage is just this: "You're in good hands." It's a somewhat ineffable thing, but it's the reason I'm willing to stay with and sometimes even return to movies/books where I'm not immediately clear on what might be happening, where it's going or what it might ultimately mean.

And to me that's the difference between something like MEEK'S CUTOFF or this year's THE MASTER and works like 2001, THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL and BLUE VELVET. With a great art film, I may not know where it's going but somehow the film still does, and I can usually feel this even if I don't yet understand it.

Which makes it extra tough sometimes to differentiate between successful and unsuccessful attempts at this kind of storytelling (as Matt's noted many times before). Does the audience not know what to expect because it's part of the experience of this particular film or because the film itself is failing?

Anybody out there ever changed their mind about a film/book one way or the other on the "in good hands" vs. "pretentious pile of----" axis?

Matt Bird said...

This leads us into the next topic: opening sequences. The opening sequence of "Blue Velvet" prepares us for everything we're going to see afterwards: Life, death, pretty surfaces with dark predatory things lurking underneath:


J.A. said...

j.s.- I constantly stick with art films that don't grab me at first due to a belief that there will be some payoff, that it will ultimately be a satisfying experience, or that there is some higher purpose to all this. Part of this is due to recommendations of people I trust, part is due to a filmmaker's reputation (neither of which help this discussion). And there's something else, some quality that's hard to put your finger on, but I think it is more directorial in nature. Pacing, lens choice, blocking... these types of things can put me at ease and convince me that there is some guiding intelligence behind a film, and that even if I don't fall in line with the script right away everything is happening for a reason. Again, directorial decisions. But art film audiences are far more forgiving, and films in that category seem to be able to delay that "oh, this is the film I'm watching" moment much longer than films aimed at a bigger market. Then again, I don't necessarily think it's all the audience. It's the cinematic language. If I see a film that is operating in a more conventional mode, and it doesn't give me something to work with in the first 10 minutes(or less), I'm done.

As to your initial question, two films I've seen semi-recently leap to mind, both of which manage to lay out the entire film in the very first shot. I know this is a screenwriting blog, but the first, the documentary SWEETGRASS, does it phenomenally well. I won't spoil it, but the first shot told me everything I needed to know about the film I was to see: it would be slow, meditative, sometimes seemingly purposeless and meandering... but there would be phenomenal pay-offs, almost magical moments throughout, and a sly sense of humor. The second film, MEMORIES OF MURDER, performed the same basic feat for me. In one shot it told me that this would be a film about things being hidden in plain view, of learning how to look, about misidentification and secrets. I would really love to know if that brilliant scene was in the script, or if Bong Joon-ho discovered it as he was shooting. It was such a deliberate and strange moment, it colored and enhanced my entire understanding about what came after. What could easily have been read and enjoyed as a basic detective story became much more thematically substantial for me because of that shot.

Have to agree about BLUE VELVET. The key to that film for me has always been the worms. It's a kind of Gothic preoccupation with what lies beneath the surface. It never felt to me like it was mocking the other world, just modifying our understanding of it.