Everyone Has Reversals

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

October 28, 2007

Honouring the Horrific

I was having a conversation recently with a friend about hard-to-watch moments in the movies. I'm not talking about peek-through-your-fingers gore shots in horror movies... that's safe in the realm of the fantastical, even when the horror is a somewhat realistic one. I'm talking about scenes -- often inciting incidents -- in films that otherwise appear to be straight-up dramas. They're the ones that pull the rug out from under you.

The movie we were discussing was Nurse Betty -- a fairly good-natured, quirky dramedy about a waitress who, for a while, gets involved with a soap opera actor she believes to be the character he plays on TV.

Fun premise, right? Only problem is laying the groundwork for a character who might possibly think an actor is their character.

Nurse Betty's inciting incident is Betty's witnessing of her husband's scalping. It's horrible... but it has to be horrible, because the whole rest of the story relies on the character's temporary (and somewhat understandable) mental break. Betty's brain can't deal -- so it protects her.

Another example, that I've mentioned in a comment on a previous post, is the curbing scene in American History X. Another unwatchably horrible inciting incident. And yet... if a movie like this is going to attempt a dramatic redemption by a neo-Nazi, the neo-Nazi protagonist has got to start out really, really low. I still don't love the movie; I still love that the movie sets out to redeem a character who, first thing, commits an unforgiveable act. That's a movie that loves a challenge.

So it seems to me that there are sometimes some very good reasons for including horrific acts in your non-horror scripts. You may have your own favourites -- I'd love to hear 'em.

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October 21, 2007

Since You Asked

We all know how tough it is to bring a character's back story to light. The character may have a history... but how do you reveal that history without it sounding like pointless exposition? "Hey, remember how when you were a kid you were abused, and that's informed every decision you've made since?" "I know. Crazy."

Convention says that bringing up back story works best when a) the audience is dying to have the gaps filled in, e.g. Rick and Ilsa's history in Paris; or b) the characters are playing out conflict now based on what happened then, e.g. the slapfest that is "She's my sister... she's my daughter... she's my sister AND my daughter!"

Another take, that I haven't seen articulated before (and that could easily go into the Lessons from the Incredibly Obvious File): bring up a character's back story because someone else asks. In Michael Clayton (no real spoilers, here) we learn the facts of George Clooney's education and employment because Tilda Swinton really, really wants to know. A lackey does some research and shares his discoveries.

Now, just a warning-- in Clayton, as we're hearing the unadorned facts about this character's history, we're also seeing him in action, doing something that has nothing to do with what we're hearing. Otherwise, hello-- the story would stop dead for a minute or two. Still, I think this is such a tidy lesson: want to share some facts about your character? Have someone in your story ask.

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October 14, 2007

The Littlest Reversal

If you've never seen Richard Curtis's The Tall Guy, you must. It's funny, charming, it stars Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson, and it features one of the best rom-com sex scenes ever.

And it also has one of the most credible reversals I've seen. I'm going to talk about it now, so if you haven't seen the movie, really-- go on. This post will still be here when you get back.

Okay, good. So here's what I mean: towards the end of the second act, Jeff is cheating on his lovely girlfriend Emma with his on-stage co-star. At the Opening Night party for the show, Emma discovers their affair. And do you know how she finds out? The co-star hands Jeff a glass of champagne without saying anything. And Emma knows that only people who are intimate would communicate like that without a word.

It is so small. It is tiny, it is wee. And it's also perfectly real. No need to find a damning note or a condom... it's all in the human behaviour.

I love this small reversal, that causes a breakup and dire moments for our hero. I think these are the great moments in film; the ones to aspire to.

*For another example of a small reversal, check out Thomas Pope's essay about Fargo in
Good Scripts, Bad Scripts... it makes clear why Marge's reunion with Mike Yanagita is absolutely essential to the telling of the story.

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