Monday, April 22, 2013

Storyteller’s Rulebook #183: Every Event Must Be A Character Event

I just wrote a pilot for someone else, which was fun, so now I’m back to pounding out a pilot of my own, but I find that, once again, I have way too much plot.  This is always a big danger when writing a “premise pilot” that creates the whole world of the show.

In just 42 minutes I have to set up a huge plot engine that will generate  years of stories…but I also have to introduce the large cast that will be dealing with this problem.  The temptation is to quickly introduce all the characters on the fly and set them up for future stories, but focus on plot engines and world-building for now.  There’ll be plenty of time for the characters to react to all this stuff later, right?

No, there won’t.  A spec pilot isn’t really something you sell, it’s just something that gets you hired to write for another show, so this is the only episode that will ever actually exist, so there’s no point in saving the emotion for later and coldly piling on the plot points now.

TV is a characters’ medium. If this were a real pilot, you’d not only have to get the audience to fall in love with those characters, you’d have to convince actors to fall in love with those characters, because they would each be asked to sign seven-year contracts.  Is every ongoing character strong enough  to get an actor to make that sort of commitment?  That’s the mark of a great pilot.

I have all these scenes in which big plot points happen, but we’re not in anybody’s head when they happen.  The audience is just supposed to say “Oh my god, what a big story development!”  But I forgot that audiences never care about the story, they only care about the characters.

This was driven home by another recent Entertainment Weekly interview, this time with legendary director William Friedkin (The French Connection), who’s just published his memoir:
  • Friedkin: I got a call from an agent in New York and he said, “Would you be interested in writing an autobiography?”  And I said, “No.” And he said, “Why not?” “Because I wouldn’t be interested in reading it.”
  • EW: What changed your mind?
  • Friedkin: I met with publishers and one of them said to me that the book shouldn’t be so much about the facts and details of my life but my attitude towards those facts and details.  Then I kinda got it.
This is true for every type of writing: A scene is not about something happening, it’s about a character’s attitude towards something happening.  Plot for plot’s sake is meaningless.  Stop trying to upset the expectations of the audience with shocking events-- They’re not emotionally involved in events, per se.  Instead, get the audience to love the characters, then show how events upset those characters, and that will upset the audience.  I’m now re-writing my pilot to make sure that every event is a character event, rather than merely a “plot event”.

(But, as it turns out, tomorrow’s Checklist movie totally breaks this rule...)


j.s. said...

This is a big lesson I've been thinking about the past few weeks, rewatching a bunch of Hitchcock and getting into a few arguments with people over newer films like TRANCE and THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES.

TRANCE has an especially twisty thriller plot, with enough holes in it to dislike it for those reasons alone. Yet what really made me hate the film was the late revelation of a clearly ludicrous motivation for one of the main characters, who we were now supposed to believe had been driven the whole time by a motivation that simply was impossible to square with who she was in the rest of the film. It wasn't that she had pulled the wool over our eyes and the other characters', it was that the film was trying to. In the name of blowing our minds, the writers had substituted a b.s. motivation twist for a clever plot twist.

I'd just rewatched VERTIGO, a classic thriller with a few plot holes of its own. And I realized that one of the big conditions in which I'm able to accept twisty thriller plots -- from masters like Hitchcock and more pedestrian filmmakers alike -- is when the characters' motivations are believable and clearly communicated.

I was impressed by THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES for similar reasons. It's an intergenerational crime drama with a number of plot elements that might seem overly conventional/familiar at first. Yet what keeps it surprising and engaging is the writer/director's devotion to his characters. Every twist and turn of the story grows organically out of the characters. And in the end that's also kind of the theme of the film, the mystery of character itself, of how we come to be who we are.

So I've realized that beyond a certain level of basic professional competence, motivation holes will take me out of a story quicker and more completely than plot holes.

Which brings me back to Friedkin's reasons for writing his own story. Most people, even ones with interesting lives, tend not to be so very thrilled by recounting their own life stories. Why? It's not just because they already know what happened, but also that they already have a theory of their own mind, they already know their own attitude towards the facts and details of their lives.

The human need for stories is about seeing what it's like to be someone else for a while. Not so much to fantasize as to identify with and to empathize.

If narrative is an empathy-generating machine, then the juice it runs on is a clearly communicated theory of its characters' minds -- their unique attitude towards the choices they face. Not so much what they do but exactly how they do it and, most important, why.

Matt Bird said...

So true, and well said! Audiences will forgive plot holes but never motivation holes. If you have to choose between creating one or the other, always create the plot hole.

When I was lucky enough to teach Vertigo at film school as Andrew Sarris's teaching assistant, I asked my students the week before the screening if they had seen the movie before. I asked those that knew it to re-watch it from the perspective of Judy Barton (the real name of Kim Novak's character). It's a whole new movie, and just as great.

As you say: it has a few big plot holes, but it also has beautifully delineated motivation that works backwards and forwards.