Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 13: The Timeline is Unexpectedly Moved Up

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • I have never seen any other storytelling guru mention this essential step.  It took me years to figure it out, but as soon as I did, I noticed that it happens all the time.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • We always begin a huge project with proposed end in sight, but we rarely finish unless there’s an externally-imposed deadline to kick us in the ass.  And surprise: that’s when we do our best work.  Self-motivation peters out at the worst possible times, but impending doom sharpens the mind.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • This moment is necessary to resolve a paradox: the audience wants the hero to be smart and proactive at this point, but it’s still inherently unsympathetic for a hero to fight the final battle “at a time of our choosing” (as George W. Bush would say).  To resolve this paradox, the heroes should be preparing for a final confrontation, but then those plans should be ruined when the antagonist unexpectedly moves up the timeline.
Examples of Timelines Getting Unexpectedly Moved Up:
  • Most famously, George Lucas realized in the Star Wars editing room that the ending wasn’t exciting enough if they simply used the plans to attack the Death Star on their own schedule, so he re-cut and re-dubbed the scene in post to make it appear that the Death Star unexpectedly attacked them first.
  • Joel in Risky Business finds out his parents are coming home early.
  • The heroes of Rear Window and Blue Velvet find that the objects of their voyeurism are coming over to pay them a visit.
  • Clarice in Silence of the Lambs finds herself accidentally dropping in on Buffalo Bill without back-up.
  • …And Goldfinger literally moves up the ticking clock on his nuclear bomb!
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • This step gets skipped more often than some of the others (it was skipped in about a quarter of the movies I looked at) and that’s fine.  It’s good to knock the hero off balance one last time, but sometimes the story already has enough momentum, or you have a setting like the Jury Room in 12 Angry Men where, by design, there’s no ticking clock.
  • In some rare cases, it’s more powerful to not only skip this step but to do the opposite.  In movies like Bringing Up Baby and The Apartment, the chaos ends early, and the hero finally gets what he wanted…but does he really want it?  Only when he’s no longer being dragged along by events can he really decide…
Next: The Finale!

1 comment:

j.s. said...

For me, this step is one of your major discoveries. One that's utterly true to the way that people experience their own problem-solving arcs in everyday life. And also the perfect tool for keeping audiences guessing going into a third act showdown.

I think the examples you cite in films like BRINGING UP BABY and THE APARTMENT -- where characters unexpectedly "win" early and get what they (think they) want and then have to live the consequences -- are closer to variations on this step. And their purpose in these films seems to be to foreground the protagonist's inner journey.

Since I'm rewatching the Dardennes' films, I'm also thinking about the ending of THE KID WITH A BIKE. The protagonist has a long difficult struggle toward acceptance of both a hard truth and a new opportunity. But the film isn't over when he achieves it and changes his life. There's one final sequence, where some of the bad things he did while trying to solve his problem the wrong way come back to haunt him and threaten his newfound stability and happiness. The protagonist -- having been intensely proactive for the whole rest of the runtime -- is suddenly reactive. He's vulnerable in the most profound way. And it's his ability to simply (perhaps even miraculously) survive what happens that creates the film's perfect ending.