Everyone Has Reversals

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

June 28, 2006

You Know Darn Well What You Did, Mister

A simple rule of thumb in writing dialogue: it is never okay for a character to rhetorically ask themselves "What have I done?".

This is the worst line of dialogue in X-Men: The Last Stand-- a film containing its fair share of cheesy lines. Magneto says it as Phoenix (formerly the schoolmarmish Jean Grey) wreaks havoc on all manner of mutants and humans, whether or not they’re on Magneto’s side. Magneto can see that this most powerful of mutants has no control over her feelings or her powers… and he’s the one who brought her to the party.

But he still hasn’t earned the rhetorical "What have I done?". Because Phoenix’s wrath shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise. Magneto was there when this woman killed his oldest friend, Charles Xavier-- a man she herself loved. That should have been a teensy hint that she was a little off. The movie sets it up more that Magneto is willing to take a chance to have her be part of his team, not that he's ignorant of what could happen.

Besides, there are always ways to show a character's regret and get that big dramatic pause. In this case, some options were:

  • Have Magneto ask another character, in a kind of shock: "Pyro... what have I done...".
  • Better yet, have another character, in fear and rage, ask him: "What have you done?!" and then we'd see the reaction on his face as he considers the consequences of his actions.
  • But the best option? Let the "what have I done" sentiment come from his facial expression alone-- we'll get it, and we'll care. And guess what? You can write that right into action lines so it's clear to anyone reading the script.
The way it's delivered now, it's impossible to care through our that was soooo lame eye rolling.

And I don't want to hear any of your cheeky "but this film was aimed more at kids" arguments. The Jar-Jar defense didn't work before, and it won't fly here.

June 17, 2006

One Could Call This "The Radio Rule"

This one's on my mind after reading a couple of scripts that haven't yet learned this lesson.

If your main character is going to be "special" -- an innocent, an outsider, someone who just doesn't "get" the world the way the rest of us do -- you've got to have some kind of anchor character. We need someone to speak and react for us. The anchor may very well learn to love what's different about the main character, but they can't start there, or the audience will feel distanced from the action. Stories must acknowledge that a character is different before showing they are worthy of love.

An example would be Matilda (Christine Taylor) in Zoolander. Matilda can't believe the innocence (stupidity, really) of Derek Zoolander. It's quite late before she realizes Zoolander's naivete is sincere and sweet, and that she actually likes him. Matilda's journey may well mirror ours. At the very least, a role like Matilda's will reassure the average moviegoer: "it's not you, it's the character".

There are no shows full of just Kramers. Arrested Development couldn't work without Michael. We need a lens through which to see the odder ducks.

Can you tell I'm concerned about Nacho Libre?

June 08, 2006

Be It Unresolved

The Squid and the Whale
is the story of divorcing parents and their caught-in-the-middle sons. It’s one of those films that tells a messy story with clarity and authenticity… but maybe the best thing about it is its lack of resolution.

Throughout the middle of the film, we’re positioned mostly with the sons, Walt (the teenager), and Frank (the “kid”), who each have an allegiance to a parent. Walt leans towards their famous, but distanced, father, where Frank clings to their loving but self-absorbed mother. As the story progresses, the sons’ allegiances are challenged and start to shift… which parent deserves loyalty the most?

The conventional way to resolve this story would be to have a big out-of-nowhere climax (something like the one the film has, in which the dad has a heart attack in the middle of the street) followed by a kind of coming-together of the characters, as they, especially the parents, suddenly recognize “what’s really important” and start to take baby steps on the road to compromise and understanding. The conventional way to end a story like this is with hope, and the sense that everything’s about to begin anew.

Instead, The Squid and the Whale gives one character (Walt) a modest revelation, but leaves him hanging in that “what the hell do I do now?” limbo. The film resolves nothing and leaves us with a sense that everything’s really fucked up, and it probably will be for a while yet.

Why is this a good thing? ‘Cause this is a movie about divorce.

Two generations of moviegoers have enjoyed Kramer vs. Kramer while recognizing it for the happy lie that it is. Rarely do people understand their own culpability in a divorce, and rarely does divorce make people less selfish.

The now iconic image of the battling squid and whale gets right at the heart of the theme here: there’s never a sense that either the squid or the whale is going to win. This is not going to end soon, or well.

Sometimes no ending is better than a false one.