No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Signpost 1

Characters must struggle then suffer as a result.

Update 1: (27 February, 2006) Perhaps better written as:

Characters must struggle, suffer, and finally change.

_____
The 'signpost' entries are meant to be mercifully short -- it's not a fault with your browser leaving stuff out! These occasional and brief posts will be a welcome relief for those who, er, struggle through my customary long-winded posts and, um, suffer because of it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

STOP! Hammer time...

Seriously, right now, stop work on that screenplay until you answer this question:

Why are you writing this?

Money? That better be your Number Two reason, buckeroo. I'll give you a pass if your Numero Uno reason is in order. Is it? (Return to the top of this post and start again.)

New Year's Resolution? It's February already. Let it go. Everybody else already did. Nobody cares if you stick to your promise to finally finish your killer screenplay. I'm one of those people. There are a lot of us. So slide your twenty pages back into the bottom drawer. You can dust it off again next January 1.

To win back your girl? Move along. This one's taken. Ahem.

Guilt? Yeah, funny how that 'paint yourself into a corner' philosophy thing works. You know, you go around telling everybody you'll write a screenplay and make it big time. That way you set up a tangible motivation to achieve your goal. There is real risk and real reward. You've already told everybody and their dog about it, so now you have to do it. If you fail, everyone will know you're a loser for real, they won't just suspect it. There are a million easier ways to prove to the people you hold dear that you're not a loser. Spending every spare minute of your time alone at your keyboard writing is not one of them. Think about it. Then switch off your computer. Go invent a cup of tea that whitens teeth as you drink. Something useful. Anything. Just stop pretending everything will be better as soon as page 120 scrolls past your screen. Just stop writing that god-awful screenplay. Just stop.

Because you can write stories! Whoop-dee-diddly-doo. Yes, I know your Uncle Bob and Aunt Wendy ooh-ed and ahh-ed after reading your short story Tick-Tock Will Clean Your Clock. "Timepieces come alive in Victorian England! Nobody's done that! Where do you get your ideas?" I bet Bob exclaimed. Wendy went on to say something like, "It's so... so visual! You should make it into a film!" And that was the point you should have thumbed the detonator button Battle Royale style, triggering the explosive collars clamped around the necks of dear Uncle Bob and Aunt Wendy. But you didn't. Dear Lord, you didn't. Instead, you took their advice and started working on a screenplay. I'm telling you now, Bob and Wendy will be triggering their own collars after reading your finished screenplay, because it will be too painful for mortal eyes to experience. Good writers do not necessarily make good screenwriters. Case on point: Stephen King. Don't get me wrong -- love the guy's novel writing. In that medium he is a god. But merciful Heaven above, let there be one spare explosive collar left for Mr King the next time he decides to pen a screenplay.

Because you can tell stories! Ah yes, the deformed twin of the equally deformed Because I can write stories! Another case on point: Clive Barker. Ye gods, Clive Barker. What an imagination. What stories! What a festering dung heap on screen! Yes, Clive Barker can tell stories -- big stories. But Clive Barker hasn't a clue how to make movies from his stories. Sure, Hellraiser was fun, and boy did it promise a glorious franchise -- until the sequel reminded us, even freakshows need to be paired with an entertaining story if you want to pull in the marks. Just because you can built elaborate, entertaining stories does not mean you'll manage to shoehorn all that into a screenplay. Screenplays are a ruthless exercise in brevity and connectivity. Nothing is wasted. Look at Who Framed Roger Rabbit if you want to learn about story connectivity in screenplay format. Almost every line of dialogue, every character action or reaction connects to something previous or something to come. Every line earns its place on the page. Can you be that ruthless? No, I thought not. Stick to novels. Bye bye, now.

To prove something to yourself? Hmmm. Is this a good motivation to drive you toward success? Um... NO! Do you think the company that buys your screenplay gives a squirrel's left nut (pistachio) whether or not you liberated yourself from some longtime inner anguish during the writing of your script? Um... NO! Do you think they care it took you three years, two ex-wives, and one collapsed lung to crank out this piece of personal salvation? Um... N--oh, forget it. Congratulations on your self-satisfaction. Welcome to the unemployment line.

Why are you writing this?

I've stripped you bare of all those excuses. Now I can remind you why you are writing this screenplay. Bogged down in words, zoomed in to extreme focus for days, weeks, months -- it's too easy to forget. Don't forget. I won't let you.

Why are you writing this?
You're writing this to make an audience suffer (gratefully).

No, bad movies don't make you suffer. Bad movies make you want to be somewhere else. Only good movies can pin an audience to their seats and make them suffer... suffer and be thankful for the experience!

Part of your job as a screenwriter is to create emotional highs and lows in your audience. How? Make the audience suffer along with the hero. Without that connection there can be no empathy. At some point in the story, the audience should cross an invisible threshold, a point where they merge in some way with the protagonist. A subconscious slipping into the protagonist's shoes. What happens to the Hero affects you, the watcher. Suffering is a great way to learn and change. Certainly evolution thinks so. With cinema, it's a safe kind of suffering. Unlike the hero, you can close your eyes at any time and avoid any oncoming unpleasantness. But with a good story you wouldn't dare skip a moment of the ride.

Emotional highs need emotional lows for contrast and reference. Suffering immediately creates emotional lows for your characters, and this in turn sets up powerful emotional highs to follow. Have you noticed in a story that affected you strongly how highs follow hot on the heels of lows and vice versa? How the Hero is celebrating victory and suddenly gets a call about a tragic accident that instantly swings the situation into an emotional low? How the Hero instinctively deviates from the Plan at the last second, and all seems lost, only to discover that the Hero's new approach was in fact the right solution -- the only solution -- to the problem. Emotional highs and lows -- suffering is the thing that enables them both.

Oh, you think comedies are the exception to this rule? Go watch Dodgeball again. When the coach is shooting balls at the players, did not your eyes squint and tear up a little bit when Justin gets it in the goolies? Or the sack of wrenches... yeeow. Suffering at its most superficial, yes, but suffering nonetheless. Next time you watch a comedy, count how many times the main character undergoes physical suffering. It's a bit of a two-edged sword for comedies: the overt physical suffering, funny as it is, primes the audience for the protagonists emotional suffering to come, but on the other hand it runs the risk of diluting the impact of any serious emotional suffering. Hey, comedy is a tough balancing act, no doubt about it.

Here's something I guarantee most of you have experienced at some time watching movies: something happens on screen and it triggers a cold electric tingle up and down your spine. (Sadly, I don't get that so much as when I was younger, but I remember the feeling vividly.) While that isn't fully fledged suffering on the audience's part, it's a darn good start. It means you, the screenwriter, momentarily tapped directly into the audience's nervous system and made them react involuntarily. You affected them. I can think of no more supreme compliment than that.

At the heart of it, screenwriters are the puppetmasters of the audience. Screenwriters manipulate the audience through the story's characters. That is a deep reach, my friends: you -> characters -> audience (millions of individuals). You do NOT want to squander that kind of opportunity.

Why are you writing this? Not for yourself, not for your girlfriend, not for your shiny new BMW.

You're writing this to make an audience suffer (gratefully).

Friday, February 17, 2006

Shark-jumping the L word

This is a new blog. So I really should save this topic for later. I don't want to 'jump the shark' this early in the game. I feel like I'm about to act out the money shot before the cameras are up to speed. Ah well.

Once we are done, here in this post, you may not want to return. Ever.

Some will run screaming because of the two brief but stenchiferous sentences I am about to utter. Yes, I had to invent a whole new word to describe how disgusted these folk will be a few short paragraphs from now.

Others won't return because they will soon have an essential piece (the essential piece) of the storytelling puzzle they didn't have before. They'll walk away from this post bearing a firebrand that will spark heat and light and life into their stories. Once you have that, the rest is a technicality.

A third group will read what follows and curse me for being the masked magician who gives away the mechanism behind the mystery.

But, know what? I don't give a flapping forelock about any of that.

This is important. You need to know this and you need to know it now.

OK. Here we go.

This is a one-two-punch deal.

One (left lead) — All the good stories are about Love.

... And? So what's the big deal? Seems kinda obvious. "Stories are about love." Sure. Whatever. I'm writing a romcom right now, so this is not news to me.

Two (right cross) — All the great stories are about Love Beyond Death.

... Waaait a minute. That sounds heavy. How am I supposed to work that into my 'fish out of water' romcom about the last-job-before-retiring blind assassin emu hunting the didn't-do-it deaf Kangaroo?

Let me hold the door open for anyone feeling creeped out because I mentioned the L word. Goodnight and good luck to you.

For those remaining, thanks for giving me this opportunity to argue why this is the single most important quality to inject into your storytelling.

Take a movie I saw tonight: Flight of the Phoenix (hereinafter FOTP) . The remake with Dennis Quaid. First half, after the plane crash, yawn. Second half, kick arse! From the moment we get the scene featuring Massive Attack's Angel and that awesome gunshot slow-mo through to the final credits, loved it. Rollicking good fun. (We should all look so good after days baking in the hot desert sun, rationed water, and endless cans of peaches.)

But something was missing in that movie. It had no Love.

The nearest we get is the characters briefly expressing their love of family and a desire to return to them. It was completely underplayed. The audience spends maybe a few minutes during the entire film being reminded why these people want to survive, what they have worth returning to. Just before the end credits we get a snapshot montage revealing the surviving characters' rosy futures -- the classic happy-ending wrap up -- with the characters shown doing what they love or being with those they love.

To my thinking, that was totally back to front. The filmmakers showed us the Love at the end of the movie. Consequently, the characters were robbed of their most powerful motivation. Had the filmmakers focused throughout the movie on what it is that each character loved -- what was motivating each character to stay alive -- then that end montage would've been unnecessary. At fade out the audience would already have a mental picture for each characters' future. They'd fill in the blanks automatically. It's the same deal with horror flicks, where showing the boogeyman on screen rarely matches the horrifying (and very personal) boogeyman the audience imagines for themselves. Diversion: Back in 1999, Spielberg said this about the shark in Jaws:

SPIELBERG: I couldn't tell. I mean, I was on that picture for nine months, making that movie, shooting the movie for almost nine months, over 160 shooting days. And after that, you get -- you so lose your objectivity that all you can see are the flaws. All you can see are the moments where the shark looks like this large stale turkey floating on the surface. You know, the shark became debris for me. And I didn't understand how it could be scary.

And one of the things that benefited the movie was the shark didn't work for so many months that I resorted to Hitchcock-ian rule, which is basically shooting the water and suggesting the shark without showing it: having the pier go out and turn around by itself and come back again.

KING: Oh yes.

SPIELBERG: All those -- I was forced into making those creative choices because I didn't have a shark to use.

- link


Essentially, I think the problem for FOTP is the separation between the characters and the things they love. It's hard for an audience to evaluate the relationship -- the connection -- between two people when one is revealed only through dialogue and photographs. A scene featuring a shoebox full of photos and one character's 10-minute monologue describing Love-for-another can be eclipsed by five-seconds of quiet eye contact between the actual Lovers. (And here I use 'lovers' to mean two people, or a person and something else -- King Kong and Ann Darrow, for example.) Imagine Cyrano De Bergerac where Roxanne never appears in person, or a Romeo and Juliet told entirely through text messaging.

Hmmm. Off the top of my head, what about a film like Castaway? Tom Hanks doesn't interact with another human being for... what, an hour of screen time? Ah, but we've already seen first-hand his love dynamic before he gets shipwrecked, and we see it again after he gets rescued. What would the film be like if it began with the plane crash? Would we care as much about his motivation to return to his love, his wife? We would not. We would be on emotional autopilot.

No, Love needs to be in the room. We need to see Love in action. It needs to be live and in your face. It's not one person talking to an answering machine, which is how I think it played out (metaphorically) in FOTP. Something like: "And here's another picture of my girlfriend." "The two of your look very much in love." "Yes, we are. She means the world to me..." Thank you for calling, leave your message after the beep. Substitute that with a desperate call between the two Lovers over an intermittently working airplane radio... and then we've upheld one of the basic tenets of storytelling: show, don't tell!

So what if in FOTP there was no radio to connect the Lovers in realtime. I call foo on that. There's always the fallback of clever use of flashbacks. A smart screenwriter would've figured out an appropriate way to given us both ends of the Love, not the dull here's-a-picture-of-my-girl routine.

Enough about FOTP. I want to get real specific now. So far we've discussed the L word as if everyone in the room knows what it is. I guarantee that some of you don't. Those of you with kids or a partner, or both, don't need an explanation from me about the meaning of the L word, but stick around anyway.

What is love?

Love is longing.

Longing is an unfulfilled desire.

Show me one person in the world with all desires fulfilled. Can't? I posit it's an impossible state to attain. Even if a person truly fulfilled all of their personal desires, would not that person then want to fulfill the desires of others, and by definition revert to a state of unfulfilled desires? Perhaps I am being overly humanistic in making that claim. But you get my point. Life is a continuous state of cascading unfulfilled desires (and I'm not convinced it stops at Death's door).

But what about those who've obtained the object of their Love? Doesn't that happy state end the longing? No. Having found peace and happiness for themselves, those lucky people then desire to bring or maintain that state in their partner (or the thing loved). Love can only be fulfilled for the moment, for the here and now. The longing/desire to maintain it, once achieved, is ever present, prompted by a world that changes in ways big and small, day to day.

And thank goodness for that. What use would Love be if it were simply something claimable after accumulating enough frequent-flyer points?

You'll have your own ideas about what Love is to you -- and I hope you do. Because if you don't, if you haven't stopped to look long and hard at what Love means to you personally... well, good luck rubbing shoulders with those several million other clueless screenwriters in the world. In a year, after the tenth "thanks but no thanks" rejection letter for your uber-action screenplay, and you're puzzling over this "missing ingredient" those rejections allude to... this blogpost will still be here pointing out the obvious. I promise not to say, I told you so.

Before we go on to examine specific examples of how Love powers the best stories, let's talk about Love Beyond Death. It's a topic that gets me very fired up. Take a step back, folks, because this monkey is about to dance.

Love is a fundamental story element, certainly. It's one of the most powerful ingredients to motivate your characters. Indeed, you could say Love is the only motivation for your characters, that every other motivation derives in some way from Love. It's simply a matter of scale.

But there is something more powerful. Way, way more powerful. After you've dialled up Love to ten on your Marshall amp, and you think there's nowhere left to go:

"You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?" - link

Uh-huh. That's right. You go to eleven: Love Beyond Death.

What is love beyond death?

I'm going to dwell on two films, maybe more, but these two illustrate my point better than any: E.T. and Titanic. But first, a quick discussion about what makes Love Beyond Death the most potent of all story ingredients.

We all die. And we all die alone. There is no greater Unknown than death. Except for the most disciplined and enlightened among us, we all worry about our death at some time in our lives. It's a big deal. We worry about the things we will leave behind. We worry about what, if anything, lies ahead. It's natural to worry. It's human. So it's something everyone in your audience can connect to, either consciously or unconsciously.

Death reduces life to one thing. You guessed it: Love.

Google for information about deathbed research and read up on how people behave during the final moments of their lives. You will find a common thread. At the end of their lives, people seem to have one thing on their minds, and it's hardly surprising: Was I loved and did I love? The mortally wounded soldier radioing "Tell my wife I love her" before manually detonating the explosives under the bridge, guaranteeing the hero's escape -- that's a cliche, but like many cliches it's based in truth. Love powers life, and death ends it. (Oh, really?)

So we can bank on those two things. No matter who's in our audience, they know about love and longing and desire, and they know about death and loss. For storytelling purposes, splicing the two together creates the ultimate dramatic one-two punch. The concept of love enduring for the departed one beyond death... that is tantalising, because it includes an implicit acknowledgement that death is not the absolute end, that something goes on regardless. That love really does transcend death. Notice I've avoided saying anything about the movie Ghost. Damn, there I go. I did my best, folks.

Let's see some Love Beyond Death in action.

E.T. and the L-word

Elliott loves E.T. in that he desperately desires to help E.T. get home. Elliott knows E.T.'s happiness (return home) is intertwined with his own happiness. Helping E.T. will help himself.

E.T. 'dies' and Elliott briefly experiences fully fledged Love Beyond Death. I say briefly because, of course, E.T. miraculaously revives with no explanation. However, the Love Beyond Death theme is not undermined (thankfully) because E.T. finally departs Earth -- a figurative death. Spielberg gets to play out Love Beyond Death and still keep his upbeat, celebratory ending.

So 'death' need not mean literal death, but the literal flavour is arguably the most powerful.

Titanic — "I'm the king of the L-word!"

Cameron also pulls off an upbeat, celebratory ending with Titanic. Love Beyond Death gives you that. How can realization of Love Beyond Death be anything but celebratory!

You know the story: Jack rescues Rose when she flirts with drowning herself; they fall in love; complications ensue ("Would you like some ice with that?"). A series of near-death experiences culminate in Jack's frigid, watery demise. From then on, Rose lives out the very essence of Love Beyond Death. Her love for Jack endures her whole life.

LBD for the Mentor figure

Sadly for mentor characters, they tend to get killed off after fulfilling their main task of setting the Hero on the path of change. Inherent in this is the Love Beyond Death a Hero feels for his/her absent Mentor.

LBD for the Absent Parent figure

Students of storytelling and fairytales know that commonly one (or both) of the Hero's parental figures is absent at the beginning of the story. In these cases, LBD exists from the outset. Consider Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Nemo, Spiderman, Elliott in E.T., and so on.

Conclusion

So there you have it. Find the love in your story and keep it in the foreground. You'll be surprised how the most superficial screenplay can be transformed into something engaging by giving your Hero an unfulfilled desire, a love, a connection to something or someone.

It can be love for a person, a place, and object, a pet, a sport, an ideal (although something concrete rather than abstract is probably best) -- as kooky or conventional as you care to make it.

For maximum emotional impact, push that Love through to it's final incarnation: Love Beyond Death.

Remember...

All the good stories are about Love.

All the great stories are about Love Beyond Death.

Go for it.