Everyone Has Reversals

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

April 29, 2008

The Drama Before the Drama

Rewatching Cloverfield, I was struck again by how tight a movie it really is. Come on, people... if you don't think this movie works on a monster/disaster level, I don't know what.

But here's a simple lesson that's a great reminder for our own work: before the "problem of the movie" kicks in, the characters already have problems! In Cloverfield, our gang of partiers is celebrating Rob's big promotion... while Rob is pining for Beth, the girl who's about to be the "one who got away". For the first twenty minutes of the movie, that's what Rob cares about -- Beth is seeing someone else, because he never called her after their perfect day together. It's also what pretty much everyone else at the party is interested in too. 'Cause you know what? Who's-sleeping-with-whom is what life's all about.

Characters are supposed to be people. People always have drama in their lives. The things they care about may seem small when a giant monster attacks New York City... but until then, life isn't just jello shots and singalongs. Minor dramatic conflict goes a long way in helping establish the characters and what drives them, while keeping the tension up until the real stuff gets going. Even Luke Skywalker whined about wanting to go get power converters, if only his aunt and uncle weren't such sticks-in-the-mud.

Of course, in Cloverfield's case, the minor (romantic) drama is pretty much the major throughline of the film. The central question of the story is less "Will they survive?" and more "Will Rob get to Beth in time to tell her how he feels?"

So there it is. Have your characters sweat the small stuff until the big stuff comes along. You can't go wrong.

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April 19, 2008

More Like 30 Hours of Night

Watching 30 Days of Night, I carried two main (conflicting?) thoughts in my brain for pretty much the whole time:

1. This is a great premise for a movie.

2. This is a terrible premise for a movie.

It's a great premise because it's about an extreme-Northern town that shuts down for a month in which it'll have absolutely zero daylight. Ideal slaughtering grounds for vampires. You'd think it would write itself.

It's a terrible premise because 30 days is, in fact, quite a long time. At least, it is in movie-land. When was the last time you saw a horror covering such a very long timeline? I'd argue they don't really exist, and for good reason: it's impossible to maintain a sense of urgency.

And that was my problem with the movie. I just couldn't get over the fact that days seemed to be passing while our main survivors were hiding away in an attic. Days. Many in a row, just glossed over. And no one seemed to be getting especially dirty, or claustrophobic, or mad. The story felt like it took place over 3 days; maybe a week, max.

I've said it before
, time is a problem. How much time is passing affects how we understand the story as well as the characters and their motivations. It's why I feel the Harry Potter books can never make great movies: in the books, you always feel an entire year passing. You feel the frustrations, the missed clues, the build. Covering a year in two hours always feels somehow rushed.

When you have the option (i.e. it's not an adaptation?), your best bet is to tell the story over as little time as possible.


April 06, 2008

Mommie Dearest

It has occurred to me that some areas of human experience are hot-button issues for people... writers and non-writers alike. (That's right, there are two kinds of people in the world...) One is motherhood.

I've been thinking about this because I have a script I want to write (once I'm "done" with my ever-growing to-write list) that revolves around a mother who sometimes really can't stand her kids. She loves them, but Lord, does she sometimes want to kill them. (It's a comedy; think of Jane Kaczmarek in Malcolm in the Middle.) I've had some friends who are parents weigh in on the story, which is admittedly at a very early stage... and there seems to be some reluctance about this mother character. I'm kind of getting that many moms won't buy my mother character because she's just not authentic enough. Not loving enough. Not all-consumingly, self-sacrificingly devoted enough. This is such a tough area; how can I, a non-mom (there are two kinds of people in this world...) write a convincing mother? How can I know what it means to experience a love like motherhood?

I haven't figured it out yet. Or even if it's going to be a problem (I'm really still in the "What's the essential premise?" phase). But I have to say, sometimes, even as a non-mom, I see a mother on screen and want to call bullshit.

Case in point: Padme Amidala's expiration of a broken heart in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

I know. She loved the dude. She loved him more than anyone in the universe has loved another person. And he betrayed her, and all the people she's ever cared about, and chose the dark side. And oh, by the way, she thinks he's dead.

Her heart is broken. No doubt.

Meanwhile, she has just given birth to twins. Two babies borne of this great, cosmic love. Two babies with her dude's DNA, his face, his deep-down goodness. Her children.

She names them, and dies.


Maybe you want to stick around and honour the memory of your great love by raising your/his kids to be loving, wonderful people who will do good in this world, rather than, I don't know, leaving 'em in the hands of whoever'll take 'em?

I don't think anyone can possibly believe this particular example of motherhood. This choice just screams "the character has to die because 25 years ago I wrote the ending, and she's totally dead".

Anakin, as he wakes in his shiny-new Vader suit, asks after Padme. He's told that he himself killed her. I kind of wish he had.

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