Everyone Has Reversals

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

September 30, 2006

Ensemble Strategy #1 - A Central Question

Been meaning to post something about ensembles for a while now, but I haven't been quite sure how to break down the many questions and ideas we could explore together. I think I've finally figured out where to begin.

No one ever went wrong starting with John Hughes.

The Breakfast Club is, by my definition, a "true" ensemble. That is, we follow multiple characters--more or less equally--who are part of the same story. (Unlike ensembles in which there's really a protagonist, like Galaxy Quest, and multiplot ensembles that follow multiple characters each with their own story, like Short Cuts. Let's save those discussions for another day.)

Now, conventional single-protagonist stories are generally structured around the posing and answering of a central dramatic question (Will Ripley triumph over the alien queen? Will Clarice learn enough from Hannibal Lecter to catch Buffalo Bill? Will Julia ruin her best friend's wedding so he'll marry her?)

A central dramatic question isn't always the way to go with an ensemble. Think of The Royal Tenenbaums: while Royal's fake illness is largely what brings everyone together, it's only one of many "questions" we have. (Will Chas grieve for his wife and relax his parenting style? Will Margot and Richie begin a romantic relationship?) In some ensembles, everyone's got their own desires and obstacles.

But one of the ways The Breakfast Club works is that it does have a central question of sorts. There is a key question posed to the whole group: will the brain, the princess, the jock, the rebel and the misfit overcome high school typecasting and become friends?

And here's the genius of the script: the characters, right around the end of the second act, pose their own central question out loud:

Um, I was just thinking, I mean. I
know it's kind of a weird time, but
I was just wondering, um, what is
gonna happen to us on Monday? When
we're all together again? I mean I
consider you guys my friends, I'm
not wrong, am I?

This little question leads to the group breaking down emotionally and turning on one another (the second act turning point-- when everyone's furthest away from their happy ending) which then propels them into a third act of discovery, change, and hope.

An all-together-ensemble isn't just a bunch of people going through stuff together... it can be a bunch of people going through the same stuff. Pondering the same question. Think of The Big Chill: everyone struggling with being "grown ups" while wishing they could go back to the idealism they shared when they were friends in college.

So here's the lesson: be half as clever as John Hughes or Lawrence Kasdan, and you'll be fine.

September 24, 2006

The Thing's the Thing

Sorry, not a post about The Thing. Maybe some other time.

Instead, a post about a great example of an objective correlative. By which I mean the "thing" that carries with it a specific emotion or meaning throughout a story.

An example of a great objective correlative is the toy compass in Contact. This little Cracker Jack prize is the perfect object through which we can understand Jodie Foster's character. It's also a small enough symbol that Jodie could reasonably carry it around with her, and playful enough to be a cute symbol instead of a groaner. So, what does the compass mean?
The compass is:
  • a metaphor for direction, searching, navigation: exactly what Jodie's devoted her life to
  • a memento of her lover, Matthew McConaughey
  • a metaphor for faith, which Matthew has brought into her life
We've invested a lot of emotion into this tiny little toy compass. So when Jodie is in the alien machine, not knowing where she's going or what's going to happen to her, and that toy compass starts floating away from her, suspended in the air, we know exactly why she has to get out of her chair to reach for it...

...Jodie's got to grab hold of her faith. Her faith in the science, her faith in what she's doing, and her faith in her lover. And of course, grabbing on to the compass actually saves her life to boot (she's reaching for faith while abandoning the chair the aliens didn't have in their plans in the first place).

Now here's something interesting. This little symbol (and the great moment of reaching) isn't in either of the 1995 drafts of the script I've seen. I don't know the full story on who's responsible for the compass or at what stage of development or shooting, but I do know this: writers, it's our responsibility to find these objects and exploit them in the script stage. Why?

Well, why not?

Let's have 'em saying: "So beautiful... should've... sent... a screenwriter..."

September 16, 2006

Horror Convention or Cliché?

Recently managed to catch both Wrong Turn and The Hills Have Eyes (2006) in the same few days. (Hey, do I ask you what you do with your holiday? No. I do not.)

The similarities in terms of conventions-- and where convention careens into cliche-- interested me. Thus, here's my analysis. Gather ye story lessons where ye may.


Check, and check. Hills opens with the skewering of an entire HAZMAT team, and Turn opens with the death of two rock climbers. Both openings are reasonably satisfying, but I've got to go with Wrong Turn on this one: the climbers are organic to the story (they become two more missing people reported in this area) while with Hills, I just can't buy no one would have investigated-- thoroughly investigated-- the disappearance of an entire HAZMAT team. ("Hmm, that's weird. Bill, Jim, John, and Nick never came back after lunch. Huh. Oh well, I'm sure they just got transferred.")


Both Turn and Hills have that gas station in the middle of nowhere with a pay phone that doesn't work, run by a single dirty, leathery old man who's no help at all when the weirdos are after you.

Is someone out there still finding the gas station thing creepy? Don't you just kind of want to get through that part, so you can get into a scene that could possibly have some surprises? This definitely falls under cliche and not convention. But I give Hills the point here, for at least making that leathery guy a character in the story (he appears to have fathered some of the mutants, and he actually has an arc... sort of... if you consider breaking down and killing yourself on the can an arc... and I do).

Both films lose credibility for including gas station pay phones that just don't work. I understand that our characters can't successfully use the pay phone, or there'd be no horror story. But the pay phones always just being dead? Come on, that's lazy. At least have the line intentionally cut or something. Or have someone make a comment about how, in the age of cells, the world is now full of dead pay phones no one's in any hurry to fix.


Again, both stories take place in a remote landscape apparently out of cell phone range. And again, of course the cells can't work. But Hills wins the point on this one as well, by having one of the characters actually be a cell phone salesman who notes: "97% coverage in this country, and we have to be in the 3% with no coverage". Sometimes all you need to get away with something your plot requires is to acknowledge it. Or, as a smart guy I worked with said, "When you can't fill the hole, shine a light on it."



Hills easily wins this round, with characters that feel a lot less stock: the ex-cop dad and his former-hippie-but-now-spiritual mom; their oldest daughter, who seems to have happily given up thoughts of a career for her husband's business, and to raise their baby; the middle child, a spoiled, sullen teenage girl who keeps her affection for her family tight under wraps; the youngest, the teenage boy who's not a pushover, yet also doesn't seem to need to prove anything to anyone and who unabashedly adores the family dogs.

Not to mention, the characters in Wrong Turn seem to exist purely within the confines of this story. You simply don't believe these are people. (The robot doctor guy's on his way to a job interview? I don't think so. I think he's on his way to a WRONG TURN!) There isn't even any tension within the group. These characters are clearly set up to be knocked down.

In The Hills Have Eyes, though, the characters seem to have full lives and problems before they ever get to Mutanttown. The liberal son-in-law's sick of conceding to the conservative redneck father-in-law. The teenage girl's just starting to want to spend holidays away from family. Etc. They feel, more or less, like people who don't know what's coming yet. Which is great for tension.


Is it predictable? Wrong Turn: you betcha. Come on, if the stoners who are left to watch the broken-down car decide to kill the time by having sex aren't gonna be the first to go, then I'm Eliza Dushku.

Hills surprises, though. I think you're led to believe the whiny son-in-law's going to be offed early. But not so much. Again, the benefit of having slightly fuller characters: no one feels expendable.


Well, Wrong Turn's got the trapped-in-the-burning-watchtower bit, which I don't think I'd seen before. Pretty solid stuff. Hills? Mmm... I guess the incredibly disturbing scene in the trailer is the central set piece. Both movies were making do with limited locations/environments. Let's call this one a draw.


Oh yeah, we got those. Turn's is brief, but has Pretty Ditz take an axe to the mouth, pinning her to a tree. That's a pretty ugly image. But I think Hills wins this one: part of a family tries to figure out how to save dad who has been crucified and set on fire just a hundred yards or so from their trailer, where various forms of torture are occurring. That's right: the movie has a crucifixion/immolation that's a diversion from the really bad stuff.


Um. Yup. Both movies've got'em. Which film's horribly mutated villains living apart from society are better, you ask?

Tough call. Hills's villains have a back story and distinct characterization. Our family has found itself on what used to be a nuclear testing facility. The miners and their families refused to leave their homes, which led to their progeny being horribly mutated.

Wrong Turn doesn't even bother with back story. The pitch for these mutants would be something like: "Did you see Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Those inbred guys, real ugly? They're like that." Except, of course, even Texas Chainsaw Massacre gave their cannibal family some back story. Wrong Turn's inbred psychos are about as developed as its human characters. ("Look out, Funny Nerd, Inbred Mutant With Bow and Arrows is right behind you!") Wrong Turn does not even go so far as to say the inbreds are cannibals. In all honesty, I don't know why these guys were killing people in the first place. They chop people up... but why?

And yet, Hills loses some points for overplaying the back story and trying to go political-for-dummies. The mutant back story is responsible for the worst line of dialogue in the whole film
: "Your people asked our families to leave. So we hid in the mines, and you brought out your bombs and turned everything to ashes! You destroyed our homes and made us what we've become." To which the audience utters a collective "Duh!". I mean-- you want to really think about what happens when you bomb people? Go watch Akira again.


What would a horror be without a few good scares?

It'd be one of these two movies.

Wrong Turn manages to create a few moments of tension (as in the aforementioned watchtower scene) but mostly it's dialling it in. Hills, on the other hand, has many moments of tension, but they tend to pay off with something more gruesome or disturbing than scary. Neither film has any of those moments where, for a second, your blood runs cold. One movie you forget instantly, the other just leaves you feeling kind of dirty.

So there you go. Take these offerings as warnings.

Those close to me may choose to take this post as a cry for help. But hey, do I ask you what you do with your sunny Saturday afternoon?

September 10, 2006

Brevity = Clarity

"If you can't write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don't have a clear idea."
David Belasco, playwright and producer

Good story conflict is simple. So simple, we should be able to sum up the conflict in a line or two. Look at how these film taglines aren't just compelling, but also suggest the whole of the film's story:

  • There are 3.7 trillion fish in the ocean. They're looking for one. (Finding Nemo)
  • He's having the worst day of his life... over, and over... (Groundhog Day)
  • To enter the mind of a killer she must challenge the mind of a madman. (Silence of the Lambs)
  • The odd are about to get even. (Open Season)
  • In 141 years, there's never been a traitor in the Secret Service... until now. (The Sentinel)
Look at how very few words can get right at the meat of the thing. I'm not saying we all have to have marketing minds, but... well, those with marketing minds sure are going to be able to write their idea on the back of a calling card. Or pitch it while waiting for latte milk to steam. And it'll actually sound like a movie.

And lest you think I'm all joy and praise today, here are a few sucky and/or lazy tag lines. By not addressing the central conflict of the story, they leave us with only a vague feeling of what the movie's about, and only a vague feeling of why we should care.

  • Some sacrifices must be made. (Wicker Man, 2006)
  • Sometimes rules are meant to be broken. (Saw III)
  • A New American Story. (ATL)
Of course, a story that taglines well doesn't necessarily make for a better movie. But being able to envision the compelling one-liner for the movie's poster-- a one-liner that actually describes the conflict of the story-- may help us envision a better and more cinematic story as we write it. Surely it's worth a try.

I know, I know, this post should've been shorter. Do as I say, not as I do, 'n' all that.

September 02, 2006

Don't Cry for Me, I'm Already Dead

Every once in a while, a movie will open with the information that the main character of the story is already dead, before going back in time and telling their story. Maybe the movie opens on a shot of the body; maybe it's a scene of their funeral; or maybe it comes out in voice over. Regardless, it's a stunningly nervy choice. I'm sure I'm not the only one to think-- okay, now I know how it ends. The getting there had better be good.

And sometimes it is. Some strategies to making this story structure work:

  • Keep the mystery of how the character will die going. In this model, we'll still find ourselves on edge, and the stakes will remain high. We want to know how it's going to happen, and, often, we can't help ourselves hoping against hope that it won't. (Sunset Boulevard.)
  • Make the getting there epic. As in, the character is legendary, and sure, they died somewhere along the line, but we care about the journey of their life. (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Lawrence of Arabia.)
  • Distract us from the end with a really engaging middle. American Beauty opens with Lester Burnham telling us he's going to die. There's some mystery in that-- especially heading into the third act-- but on first viewing, the beauty of Beauty is that you actually forget for a while that it's coming. What's at stake here isn't really anyone's life... it's this family's quality of life.
If this is a structure you're thinking of using, you'd better have a sense of what makes your getting-there good!