Sunday, February 24, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #169: Move Up the Timeline

Here’s another big breakthrough for my understanding of structure.  There’s a big paradox in the rules of sympathy/empathy that I somehow never noticed for all these years.  We all know that, on the one hand…
Okay, so this means that, by the time the climax arrives, the hero is large and in charge, yes?  And yet, in the final quarter of the story:
  • The hero should nevertheless be the underdog for most of the climax.
  • Everything should seem to be hopeless until the latest possible moment.
  • It’s inherently unsympathetic for the finale to happen at a time of the hero’s choosing.
On first glance, this makes no sense. How can the audience demand that the hero be proactive, and yet also disapprove of a hero for choosing the time and place of the climax?  If your hero is planning everything, then shouldn’t the final battle happen exactly when he or she wants it to happen?  And shouldn’t the hero have cleverly and competently accounted for everything, and therefore no longer be the underdog?

Luckily, there’s one simple solution that resolves this paradox and solves all of these problems.  Yes, the hero should plan when and where the finale will take place, but then the bad guy (or some other outside event) suddenly moves up the timeline.

As soon as you notice this trick, you’ll suddenly see it everywhere.
  • I now realize that this is what was going on in Star Wars: “We’ve stole the plans that will allow us to attack the Death Star (Yay, proactive!), but before we can attack it at any old time (Boring, too powerful), it showed up to attack us! (Scary! Now we have to improvise, and maybe fail! And it explains how they were able to get away before!) (As I pointed out in this post, the whole idea that the Death Star was also attacking them was added in post-production.)
  • And for that matter in Empire Strikes Back: I’m finally going to take the initiative to get trained in the Force by Yoda (Yah, proactive!) But I have to cut training short against his wishes because Vader is attacking my friends. (Scary! Now we have to improvise, and maybe fail!)
  • Likewise in the original cut, (but not the final cut) of The Terminator.  We’re attacking the lab that will make the Terminators (Yay, proactive!), but the Terminator has figured out what we’re doing and he’s lying in wait to attack us (Scary! Now we have to improvise, and maybe fail!) (In the final cut, Cameron decided to chop out the turn to proactivity, and save it for the sequel.  In this case, nobody missed it.)
This trick allows the good guys to fall way behind without losing our sympathy.  If the good guys execute their plan just the way they wanted to, and yet it all goes wrong, then they look like idiots.  But if they’re suddenly forced to improvise and they screw up, then we sympathize— Hey, they did the best they could in a tough situation!  At least they didn’t sit around waiting to react, they were preparing to take the fight to the villain…but then the villain suddenly took the fight to them.  That’s how to be a proactive underdog. 


Nick said...

Thanks for this. Makes me think of Avatar: The Last Airbender, when they are super-ready for the day of the eclipse, but then when they attack...!

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, "A:TLA" is a good example of how to do it in reverse: the heroes do attack at a time of their own choosing (the night their enemy's powers are at their weakest), only to discover that it's a trap, then, after hastily regrouping, they have no choice but to mount a new assault at the worst possible time, when their enemy's powers are at their strongest.

A movie probably wouldn't have time to pull off that sort of fake-out double-climax, but for an epic TV-show, it was spectacular and thrilling.

j.s. said...

This is an excellent and incisive rule. And I'd add that a part of why it works so well is because that's the way the world works. That's what life feels like when we face a moment of truth: We're never quite ready, even if we think we've been actively preparing. It's always coming too quickly, or not in the direction we expected.

I think the last few episodes of THE SOPRANOS do this really well too, especially with the fallout on some of the minor characters.

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