Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Don't Pick It Up If You're Not Going to Use It


Back in the late 80's-early 90's, there was this software company called Sierra Online that produced these great graphic text-based adventure games with titles such as “Space Quest,” “Kings Quest,” and “Leisure Suit Larry.” These games all ran on the same simple concept. The player would be a small animated character and each screen would be a “room” of sorts- and environment limited by the edge of the computer screen. The player would move the character about, explore the environment, and figure out how to advance further into the game by typing simple commands such as “look at table,” or “open door,: etc, etc.

But sometimes, the game would allow you to pick up items and take them with you. The items would be put into an “Inventory” where the player could use them later. But the game wouldn't let you pick up just anything. The player was only capable of taking specific items that had a use later in the game. If you asked to pick up something that did not have a future use, the game would give you a message explaining why you can't or shouldn't waste your time with that.

This trait was mostly due to the limited memory of computer systems at the time, but however, it had the side effect of creating a gamer who could predict where the game was going. IF the game allowed you to pick something up, the player KNEW that that item was needed in order to overcome an obstacle later in the game. Even if the item made no sense at the time, the simple fact that they could take it communicated that it held SOME sort of importance. For example, in Sierra's “Space Quest 2”, the player is able to open a gym locker in the game's second screen and finds a rubix cube and a jock strap. Now, at this early point in the game, the player has no clue what possible use either of these items could have. But, the mere fact that the game allows them to be picked up communicates that these things will be useful somehow.

When it comes to being a cinematic storyteller, the way you give information to the audience should be handled in much the same way. You do not want your audience to pick up and carry anything that is unimportant- something they do not need to take with them.

Audiences are far more savvy than they are given credit for. After years of watching hundreds of well-produced movies and TV shows, audiences come to innately understand that, if the director's camera pays particular attention to something, then that something must have importance. They might not know its import at the moment, but they know it WILL become important later on. Same thing if an actor makes an effort to communicate a piece of information in their actions or dialogue. So the main character announces that he's a former world-champion boomerang thrower. Okay, there may not be any relevance to that in the story at the moment, but the audience instinctively understands that they should hold on to this information because SOMETHING will happen later on that makes this knowledge worth knowing. So the audience picks it up. Put it in its mental inventory, and continues on.

This is, I should say, what happens when competent and experienced storyteller is at the helm. With a skilled storyteller, the audience can relax with the confidence that they are in good hands. The storyteller will only steer them towards the info that is essential to know- lead them along in a straight line like a trail of informational bread crumbs- never astray into murky, confusing territory.

But inexperienced storytellers tend to lack this steady hand. Instead of sticking to communicating only what is essential and spinning a story with a clear-headed focus, instead of leading the audience down a clear trail, they throw whole clouds of info at the audience, stuff both important and unimportant, with no way for the audience to tell which is which.

Why do young writers do this? I believe it is because they feel they are supposed to. Misguided by a shelf full of bad screenwriting books, they feel the need to “flush out” their script, so they add unnecessary dialogue and action to scenes that should be kept tight. In an attempt to “develop character” they make the person state their backstory- how they grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, like bowling, and had the measles when they were nine- even though none of this info will have any relevance to the story as it unfolds. They tack on subplots because they feel they must. And draft after draft, they hold on to scenes that do nothing to advance the story situation, just because the scene is “funny” or “develops character” or is “cool,” when it reality it just hangs there like a useless piece of flesh.

The danger that comes from unfocused writing of this sort is that, even though the storyteller knows that this extra bit of information is not important, the audience thinks it IS! Years of experience in watching well-written movies has taught them so. The audience continues to hold this item in their mental inventory, expecting it to find a use somewhere. No matter what you put on screen, the audience will scoop it up like a net.

If the storyteller is not conscious of the audience's mental inventory, soon the audience's mind becomes clogged with useless crap, their pockets weighed down with pointless items. The audience becomes distracted by the clutter, and confused over what really is important and what isn't. Then, they become annoyed or upset because the storyteller asked them to give their attention to something, and then never backs it up. The audience has been given keys to a door that doesn't exist- but they don't know that. They are going to continue jiggling doorknobs until they find it.

Worse yet, the information that IS important to the story starts to become lost. It gets diluted by all this other crap and fails to stand out in the audience's mind so they can recall it when the story demands it. The audience has limited space in their mental inventory. They may forget the good stuff in order to make room for the clutter.

Most well-told cinematic stories feel so “light” to the viewer. The story seems to unfold effortlessly as the plot breezes along from one event to the next. The audience needs only to relax and enjoy the trip. This sensation occurs because the storyteller has kept the audience's load light. You don't ask someone to take a parka to the beach, or a blender to a business meeting. Only ask the audience to carry with them what they absolutely need.

I guess the bottom line of all of this is that unless a piece of information is absolutely important to understand the story, LEAVE IT OUT.

The flip side of this, of course, it that if something IS important in order for the story to work, a writer must make sure to PUT IT IN!

I recently re-watched the original Back to the Future for the first time in years. (I just noticed how 80's themed this article is.) The strongest thing that struck me about these 1980's family-adventure movies is how contrived their stories are. But, the contrivances never have a negative effect on the movie experience, because these movies were so incredibly well-planned! Watching Back to the Future, I can't help but imagine a roomful of writers poring over a mapped out diagram of every moment of the movie like Churchill planning the invasion of Europe. The dispersal of information is absolutely spot-on. Pieces of info are never ambiguous, never unnecessary, but delivered in a manner so clear that it would be impossible for the audience to miss their importance.

Back to the Future's biggest structural flaw is undoubtedly its long opening setup sequence. It lasts so long that it pushes the story's inciting incident (the moment Marty escapes in the time machine and finds himself trapped in the year 1955) back to the thirty-minute mark, creating a sort of abnormal combined inciting incident/first act turning point. Although its writers ran the risk of losing the audience's interest this early in the movie, this long setup was necessary in order to communicate all the information needed for their story's premise to work. Most of Back to the Future's story development- as well as much of its humor- comes from creating parallels between Marty's world of 1985 and that of 1955. This means that all the setup information necessary for the later three-quarters of the film to make sense must be communicated BEFORE Marty travels back in time.

There are very few wasted moments in this thirty-minute setup. Nearly everything we see or hear communicates information we will need to have later on. From Marty's skateboard running into a case of plutonium under Doc's bed, to the breakfast-making machine that communicates the characterization of a man who won't be seen for another twenty minutes, to the clock tower, to Marty's dad, to Biff. There are incidents of back-planting (see the April 4, 2010 article on Back-Planting). The audience must see how Marty skateboards to school in order to make the memorable 1955 skateboarding sequence plausible. We must know that Marty is a wannabe rock star in order for us the believe his guitar-shredding at the 1955 prom.

(However, I must mention, in the spirit of the first half of this article (though I know it may weaken my argument), Future's setup could have been tightened up by some judicious cutting. There are a couple moments -namely, Marty's run-in with the school principal, and Marty's band audition for the 1985 school prom- that give info not entirely important for the audience to know. Sure, both incidents have their parallels in 1955, but their significance is so small that the audience would have accepted their implied meaning even without needing any set-up.)

In conclusion, when a skilled storyteller presents anything to the audience, it should never be casual. It's not, “Check this out, isn't this interesting? You can do whatever you want with this.” Instead it is: “Here. Take this with you. You WILL need it later.” And if you load that item into the audience's backpack, they better be able to find a use for it later down the road.