Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 8: The Promise of the Premise is Fulfilled

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • This phrase was coined by guru Blake Snyder and it’s since become Hollywood gospel, and with good reason.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • This step is dictated less by human nature and more by the demands of the market. Nevertheless, we are more likely to tackle a huge challenge if we think we might have some fun doing it.  Of course, we only have fun when we’re doing it the easy way, and we’re not going to make real progress until we stop having fun and get to work.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • This section tends to provide the big trailer moments and the poster image.  This is where the hero does the thing we’ve come to see him or her do, and has fun doing it, right before the disaster hits and things get serious…
  • In this one area, there’s a huge difference between horror and almost every other genre.  Some gurus call this step “Fun and Games” and that’s true for every genre except horror, where our heroes have no fun at all in this section.  Nevertheless, the audience has fun, because we experience the creeping dread that sends a tingle up our spine.  In most genres, we totally identify with the hero’s ups and downs, but in horror, we identify only partially, because we also want to see the heroes punished for their sins.
  • You can’t be in too much of a hurry to get to the promise of the premise.  The Negotiator is about a hostage negotiator who gets framed for a crime and winds up taking hostages himself.  That’s a great premise, but they rush into it way too quickly: as soon as he gets framed, taking hostages is his first step, rather than a last resort, which is unbelievable and unsympathetic.  In this case, they should have taken their time, as in the exceptions listed below…
Examples of The Promise of the Premise:
  • Picture the posters: the couple and their baby sunbathe together in Raising Arizona, the lovers have steamy sex in Body Heat
  • Think of the trailer: the Falcon jumps into lightspeed in Star Wars, the therapist and the prince practice rapid nonsense sounds in The King’s Speech
  • It’s not just in horror movies, such as The Shining and Alien, that we’re having more fun than the heroes are, it’s also true of some especially tense thrillers: the big trailer moment in The Fugitive happens when he leaps into the artificial waterfall to save his life.  Presumably, that’s a lot for fun to watch that it is to do.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Some movies require more set-up than others, and that’s okay.  In Safety Last, it takes an extraordinary series of screw-ups to force our hero to do the unthinkable: climb the side of the building without a net.  The audience doesn’t mind: we appreciate that the hero exhausts all other option first, and we enjoy the mounting dread as we see his other option disappear.
  • Likewise, in disaster movies such as Unstoppable, it often takes the entire first half just to move the pieces into place.  In this case, our heroes don’t start chasing the train until more than halfway through.  The action-packed second half makes up for it. 
Next: The Midpoint Disaster...


j.s. said...

It's true that the big famous set piece and most iconic image/trailer moment in SAFETY LAST comes near the end, but the story of the film is actually about how the hero spins a tale of his amazing city life success to his country girlfriend and what happens when she shows up unexpectedly to call his bluff. The promise of the premise here -- way before the final climatic set piece -- is still pretty hilarious and satisfying as we see the great lengths he goes to convincing her from afar that he's already wealthy and important and then his manic attempts to keep up that illusion when she visits him.

I also think the extent to which the "fun and games" aspect of this step is really truly and uncomplicatedly "fun" for the hero is overstated. It's not just horror films or select action scenarios like THE FUGITIVE that put the hero through the grinder. There are a any number of comedies, including SAFETY LAST, where most of the fun is being had by the audience at the expense of the hero.

Btw, there's an excellent new Criterion Blu-ray of SAFETY LAST coming on Tuesday, complete with a special feature devoted to the technical side of that stunning final sequence.

James Kennedy said...

I agree with j.s. -- if there's anything I would change about your (extremely well-thought-out and helpful!) system, it would be the terminology. I realize that you're using "Fun and Games" and "the Easy Way" as terms of art that have special technical meaning in your system, but the rough-and-ready meanings of "fun and games" and "the easy way" don't map very precisely onto what you seem to mean. Luke Skywalker isn't "having fun" between blasting off from Mos Eiseley and escaping the Death Star, nor can his actions be characterized as "taking the easy way," except in a tortured formulation of "fun and games" and "easy way" that fits your system. Same thing with Indiana Jones globetrotting to find the Ark, etc. If you found more appropriate terms, you would shortcut a lot of potential misunderstanding of what you're getting at. And I suppose if you want your system to get popular, you need to invent Blake-Snyder-esque memes that sum up your point both accurately and catchily, like his "Promise of the Premise" or "Pope in the Pool" or "Save the Cat" or whatnot. Whatever limiations Snyder's system had, the man could write a good meme. You need something both more accurate and more catchy than "the easy way" and "fun and games," because both terms are both imprecise and not punchy/memorable enough to take flight.

j.s. said...

For me, one of the strengths of Matt's writing/teaching is that he's able to straightforwardly acknowledge the contributions of others who've gone before him and integrate their work and their terms into his own. I don't think he ought to throw all of them out wholesale.

That said, I guess the previous step,"The Easy Way," seems more like a more accurate way to view this whole section structurally. "The Promise of the Premise" is more about aspects of marketing and genre than structure. And, really, shouldn't a well-made film be delivering on the promise of its premise in every frame, not just between minutes 30-60?

Matt Bird said...

I must see that Safety Last Blu-ray!

I know you've never been a fan or the "Easy Way" formulation, James, but I think I've justified it. Another definition of the easy way is "avoiding direct confrontation," which Luke and Han definitely do, thinking they can sneak on and off the Death Star. The hard way then, is direct confrontation.