Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

February 25, 2006

Heroes Need Saving, Too

One of the most poignant and satisfying moments in Batman Begins is the second act turning point: Raz Nagul has crashed Bruce’s birthday party, wreaked havoc, and torched the place, leaving Bruce incapacitated under a burning rafter. This is BATMAN. The guy’s so good, he’s so powerful, he so wants to save the city... but in this moment he’s not able to save himself. No, it’s Alfred who comes valiantly in and hauls poor Bruce out. Our response: go, Alfred!

Or something less nerdy.

Point being, it's NICE when a hero is fallible. It reminds us of the strength of the enemy, and allows us to feel that slight bit of worry that the hero may not be able to save the day after all. Even if we know, deep down, that he will, we need to know how difficult it's going to be.

And the Alfreds of the world need their moments to shine.

February 15, 2006

This Whole Screenplay's Out of Order!

Sometimes, telling a story out of chronolical order is a great way to go. Think of Reservoir Dogs, and its dual "What happened?"/"What's going to happen?" structure. We follow the threads of the group planning the gig and the aftermath of the robbery-gone-wrong concurrently. It works because it's thrilling. There's mystery and suspense in both throughlines. And the payoff for the two threads coming together is beautiful: we see flashbacks showing us Orange is the cop just as, in the present, he needs to start acting like one.

And there are great examples of heart-poundingly charged (City of God) or heart-stoppingly beautiful (Before the Rain) nonlinear stories. These films are as much about the worlds of the stories as they are the characters and their choices.

But sometimes, the nonlinear storytelling device just gets in the way of, well, the story. 21 Grams contains a dramatic, compelling story of loss and love and revenge. If you didn't know that, it may because you had to work so hard to put the nonlinear puzzle pieces together. Instead of feeling invested in the characters, and feeling their raw, truthful emotions, we spend a lot of the experience thinking "Where are we now? Did this happen before, or after, that?"

If the story's dramatically sound, why not make the wild and crazy choice of showing us what happens in the order in which it happens? So we can feel dread and hope for what might be to come?

Can you imagine if Million Dollar Baby, Capote, or In the Bedroom had been told out of order?

Most of the time, simpler's going to be better.

February 05, 2006

Nothing Left But the Doing

There's nothing quite like a second act turning point you can really feel. In The Omen, Gregory Peck is an ambassador who's been tormented by a prophecy that his secretly adopted son Damien is actually the Antichrist. The second act is filled with denial, then mounting doubt, shame, and fear-- must he really kill his five year old boy?

At the second act turning point, Peck learns his wife has been horrifically killed. Explaining what has happened to his photographer friend who's helping uncover the mystery of Damien's origins, Peck lies on his hotel bed facing us, and says this:

When the Jews return to Zion

And a comet rips the sky
And the Holy Roman Empire rises,
Then you and I must die.
From the eternal sea he rises,
Creating armies on either shore,
Turning man against his brother
'Til man exists no more.

Kathy's dead. I want Damien to die, too.

And then, the race to (he hopes) kill his little boy begins.

That, my friends, is how you enter the third act.

*In case it needs to be reiterated, this blog does not promote the killing of children.