Monday, March 9, 2009

The Perfect Stranger Syndrome

No, this has nothing to do with Balki and Cousin Larry. I just couldn't resist using that video. This does on the other hand have everything to do with the most necessary thing in order to make sure your audience really cares about what is going on in your story.

Every book on screenwriting tells you that you should get your plot moving as soon as possible. But none of them bother to tell you that there is such a thing as launching your plot TOO early. And the results are disastrous.

I have noticed a strange pattern in spec scripts that begin their action very early. These were scripts were the first inciting incident took place within the first five pages. Sometimes within the first scene. The first plot point occurred, the main conflict engaged, and the story began to move forward at a steady pace from there. From an objective point of view, it would seem as if these writers were doing everything right. They had a storyline that steadily developed and constantly moved forward. They had active protagonists that were pursuing goals while struggling against a conflict. Yet, I as the reader, couldn't seem to get myself to care about anything that was happening in these scripts. No matter what occurred in the story, I remained disinterested.

This wasn't from lack of conflict. These scripts had plenty. There were also decent stakes at play. It wasn't due to a dull premise. Theses scripts had premises that held promise. It was the protagonist. I just didn't care about him/her. No matter what they did, or what they said, or what danger they were in, I couldn't give two craps one way or the other. I didn't care if these persons lived or died.

It wasn't that these protagonists were unsympathetic. They weren't child molesters or kitten stabbers. They seemed like decent, respectable people. But, I just couldn't identify nor sympathize with their plights. No matter how long I stayed with them in the story, they seemed like strangers. Perfect strangers.

The problem was that the writers chose a too quickly-starting plot at the peril of their own characters. And in doing so, they ignored a rule of story setup that has major impact on audience indentification.

If you take a look at the first 5-10 minutes of any good movie, you will see that the protagonist does not spend this time really accomplishing anything important to the plot. But, this is because there is no real reason yet for him/her to accomplish anything. The inciting incident has not occurred yet, the direct conflict has not yet engaged the protagonist, there is no need for the protagonist to take any direct action because the spine has yet to fully form. Instead, what we see is the protagonist living in his or her daily life. We see them at home, at work, or having fun. We meet the people in their lives, get a sense of the protagonist's personality by the way they interact with these people. We see an environment and how our protagonist fits into it.

In this environment, the audience might see that our protagonist is a 40-year old loser who works a lame job in an electronics store and has nothing but a huge collection of action figures to keep him company (The 40 Year-Old Virgin). Or the audience could see their protagonist is an on-the-edge cop who lives alone in a houseboat with just a dog, drinking and thinking about suicide (Lethal Weapon). Or, the daily environment could be as intense as that of a young, cocky government agent who routinely goes way too far to accomplish his mission (Casino Royale).

This is the protagonist's status quo. This is what life is like for him/her before the movie began, and this is how it would continue to be if the plot events set into motion by the inciting incident never occur. This is the average daily life that will soon be thrown into unbalance and changed forever by the events of your story.

The audience needs to see this. In order for your audience to identify with your main character, they must first get to know them. They need to learn who this person is, how they act, how they treat people, just what makes them tick. Not only that, we need to understand who this person REALLY is. What do they want in life? What do they need out of life? What problems do they face? Is there something about their personalities that causes problems that should be changed? If the audience is going to go on a journey with these people, they need to care about them. These characters need to become, in some small way, our friends.

Then, somewhere around page 15 or so, the inciting incident happens. Something happens that has an inescapable effect on the protagonist's life and the story is suddenly thrown into gear. The character must now start acting or face terrible consequences. And if you bothered to correctly set up the protagonist's status quo, what happens is the audience suddenly CARES. By being introduced to these people and the intimate details of their lives, they have become emotionally invested in them. They may see a part of themselves in the character, or can identify a problem in the character's daily life similar to a problem in their own. Hopefully, they have also grown to like them and gain affection for them. Then, when the inciting incident throws everything into chaos, the audience is already on their side and ready to root for them. It is not just some random person who is in trouble, but one of their friends.

This is where the scripts in the opening of this article failed. They forced their protagonists to take action right off the bat. No time was given to properly introduce the characters to the audience to give them any reason or opportunity to empathize with them or care at all about what goes on in their lives. As their stories continued to unfold, rather than becoming more and more engaged with the characters' situations, the audience continue to feel as distanced and aloof to the characters as they were on page one. You can't expect the members of an audience to care about people whom they know nothing about.

When it comes to creating character-audience identification, the first 10-15 pages is the now-or-never time. Once your plot gets going, no time can be wasted looking back. You've reached the point of no return, and now your story is on a one-way track that must constantly be moving forward. Taking time out after this point to establish some character information or to get to know your people would slow your story momentum to a halt. The cause-and-effect of your story sequence would be lost and the scene would seem like an unnecessary sidetrack. Only in the brief amount of time before the inciting incident sets everything into motion do you have the freedom and opportunity to have the audience leisurely get to know your protagonist, their wants, and their needs.

If your story includes a subplots that revolves around some internal struggle or flaw in your main character, this is also the time where it must be established. These types of subplots almost always deal with problems that already existed for the character before the movie began. They are part of the status quo. They are the “outer stories” that are already at play well before the “inner story”, (the active main narrative) kicks in. Throughout the course of the narrative, the outer and inner story will interact with eachother, and help bring about eachother's change. If that outer story is not there in the beginning, you will have missed an opportunity and be left with a far more shallow, simple story experience for your audience.

These opening minutes of your film are also extremely important when it comes to helping your audience recognize and understand your character arcs. In order for the audience to see and understand the change your characters go through, they must first have a firm idea of what that person was like before that change started to happen. Character change is a direct effect of the conflict they face from your plot events. If you start your plot too soon, there will seem like nothing is there to change.

Now, this is not to say that you should not try to hook your audience into the story as soon as possible. You shouldn't feel obligated to have five or ten minutes of screen time with just character development before anything substantial happens. If you feel you must put an important story event right in the first scene in order to grab the audience's attention right away, by all means do so. There are many feature films that follow the episodic TV model of opening with a “teaser”, a big event that rouses the audience's curiosity and persuades them to continue watching. But once you do that, make sure to slow things down and allow time for the audience to learn everything they need about your characters and their world before your plot hits the point of no return.

To illustrate this, I will use one of my favorite study scripts, Fargo. Fargo has not a single protagonist, but rather dual protagonists with conflicting goals, so it luckily gives us two examples on how to properly set up a protagonist.

The first interior scene of Fargo introduces us to our first protagonist, Jerry Lundegaard (played by William H. Macy). This first scene gets down to the brass tax of the story right away. Jerry wants to enlist the two hired goons he is meeting to kidnap his wife and hold her for ransom. Once the scene reaches its goal and establishes this story information, the writers are confronted with a choice. The first option is to move the story ahead right away to its next logical plot point: the kidnapping of Jerry's wife. But if the story were to move forward this fast to the “point of no return,” the action that sets into motion the entire progression of events for the rest of the film, Jerry would remain a pretty flat and undeveloped character. At best, the audience would consider Jerry to be something of a weak, ineffective villain, rather than one of the story's two protagonists.

Luckily, the writers had the wisdom to take the time to let the audience “get to know” Jerry, to understand and empathize with him and his actions. In the next scene, we see Jerry at home, we see his wife and son and how Jerry interacts with them. We learn how Jerry is not respected much in his own home, he is completely overpowered by the dominant personality of his father-in-law Wade (which will be important story information later on). Next we see Jerry at work at the car dealership, trying to lie to an irate customer. By watching Jerry in this innocuous scene, one that really has nothing to do with the film's plot, we are given important character information to understand Jerry. We now know that beneath his innocent exterior, he is completely dishonest. We also see that Jerry is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. He is a terrible arguer and panics when under pressure.

The film's second protagonist, police chief Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand), is not introduced until the very beginning of the second act. (Note: It is very unorthodox to wait this late in a script to introduce a protagonist. Fargo is a unique case in this regard, and it is also the strongest evidence that the film has dual protagonists rather than a single one.)

The second act gets Marge's storyline moving right away. We meet Marge only seconds before her “call to action.” Three people are killed. Marge's phone rings. She wakes up and answers it to hear the news. She is propelled into the story. But think of how anonymous Marge would remain to the audience if we cut from this moment right to Marge investigating the case. Once again, the writers have the good sense to hit the pause button so we can get to know our new character. We are greeted in the next scene with a quiet, uneventful breakfast with Marge and her husband. Though nothing really happens, we are given a wealth of quick and important character information, such as: Marge is pregnant, she is married to a dumpy nice guy who seems to have taken a motherly role in the marriage, and that Marge seems to have a pleasant, yet dull marriage. Marge's next few scenes continue on a slower pace, even as she investigates the killings. We continue to get to know Marge on a personal level by watching how she interacts with her deputies, how she, a pregnant woman shows enough guts to slide down a snowy embankment to check out the murder scene while Lou doesn't even want to leave the road, we grow affection for Marge when we see how she corrects Lou's mistakes with lighthearted patience.

We like these characters only because we have gotten to KNOW them. We care about what happens in the story because we were given an opportunity to care about them.

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