Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sideways and the Healing Narrative -or- How Miles Got His Groove Back

(Just in time for November 2012! Wait... really? It’s almost January? I guess my holiday-themed article comparing Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to The Terminator will have to wait until next year.)
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Sideways, Alexander Payne's 2004 wine-country opus, and Academy Award-winner for Best Adapted Screenplay is treated by many as such a rare bird of cinematic storytelling. Oh, it is so different! It is so unconventional! Why, it seems to work with no real plot at all! Critics and naysayers of the teaching of screencraft then point to Sideways as proof that one does not need to learn rules and structure to create a great story. They seems to believe that by some bizarre happenstance this genetic mutant of storytelling happened to slip by the gatekeepers and create something different in every way.

What a load of crap. Sideways is as traditional as any other Hollywood film. It has the exact same structure and follows all the same rules. It has the plain old normal three acts with the same plain old major dramatic turning points doing what they do in every other well-written film. The only thing different about Sideways is its superficial details.

This becomes plain to see if one knows the right place to look. (However, experience has taught me that knowing where to look is an area of weakness for many dramatic critics.) Many people who write about this film seem unable to grasp what its story is really all about. First of all, Sideways is a Healing Narrative (Type #5 of my 20 Types of Story). It shares this story type with other well-known films such as The Sixth Sense, Goodwill Hunting, The 25th Hour, The Wrestler, and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. (I know that last one will raise some eyebrows, so there is a special section dedicated to it at the end of this article.) Alexander Payne seems to have a penchant for this story type, since his previous film About Schmidt was also a Healing Narrative. In fact, Sideways and About Schmidt follow what is basically the same structure.

In a Healing Narrative:

The protagonist starts the story somehow wounded, and pursues an objective that will heal him or her, whether that healing be literal, figurative, or symbolic. Though the hero is met with external conflict on his or her journey, real moments of development occur when story events force the hero to overcome his or her resistance to healing, forcing the hero to get out of his or her comfort zone and into the unknown.

Sideways' protagonist Miles starts his story a wounded animal. Miles's divorce two years earlier left a gash in his spirit so deep that he has yet to recover from it. In response, Miles seems to have all but given up on the pursuit of happiness in his life. The only emotions he seems to feel anymore are depression, frustration, and irritability.

So, Miles needs to heal. This will be the focus of the story. But what specifically occurs in Sideways that causes this healing to occur? Answering this question will point out the film's Story Spine. Unfortunately, most who have taken it upon themselves to analyze the film have misanswered this question and end up mislabeling rather insignificant events as the story's major dramatic turning points.

First of all, we must find the story's inciting incident. The inciting incident is the event that establishes the Story Problem, sets up the Story Goal, launches the Main Conflict, and sets the path the rest of the story will follow. Most people looks at Sideways and declare its inciting incident to be the moment Miles and Jack leave LA on their trip to the wine country. This is wrong. Leaving for the wine country does not create any kind of Story Problem. Nor does it incite any sort of story conflict. How can an event become an inciting incident when it is something both characters want to happen? Everything at this point continues to go according to plan, making this moment nothing more than another part of the film’s setup sequence.

To find the inciting incident, just ask: what is the story really about? It is about Miles finding a reason to give a damn about his life again. And how does he do this? By getting over his divorce by forming a relationship with a new woman – specifically, the Maya character (Virginia Madsen). And wouldn't you know it? Sixteen minutes into the film, right at the point when all the screenwriting books say the inciting incident should occur, this idea is first introduced. Jack says he is sick of seeing Miles feel sorry for himself and promises to get Miles laid. This is the film's inciting incident. It sets up the course of action through which Miles's healing will occur. It also creates the story's main conflict. Miles does not want to get laid, and resists Jack's help. Typical to this story type, Miles resists the path to his own healing. Yet, Jack insists, setting into motion the Story Spine and getting the real story rolling.

Jack is a good example of an antagonistic comrade character. A comrade is a character who assists the protagonist in getting what he or she needs. However, in stories such as Healing Narratives, where the protagonist does not wish to pursue the objective he or she desperately needs, the protagonist needs assistance from the outside. Antagonistic comrades achieve this by creating a conflict that indirectly forces the protagonist to take action. The comrade acts like a foe to be a friend. Keep in mind though that while Jack often acts in an antagonistic manner towards Miles, he is not the film's antagonist. Jack does not stand in the way of Miles' goal the way an antagonist must. In fact, he wants Miles to reach his goal. The only character in Miles' way is Miles himself. Miles' refusal to grow and heal makes him his own antagonist – a trait found quite often in Healing Narratives. Jack's antagonistic behavior exists to provide a counter-force to Miles' self-antagonism, constantly pushing him forward in spite of his resistance.

True to traditional 3-Act form, Sideways ends its first act with a major dramatic turning point that forces Miles past a Point of No Return. True to his word, Jack arranges a date between Miles and Maya. Miles does not want to go on this date, but agrees because he cannot let his buddy down. Act 2A is made up entirely by this date. And, just like any other cinematic story, in Act 2A Miles' character flaws cause his actions – though well-intentioned – to make the situation worse. Miles drinks too much, drunk-dials his ex-wife, and fumbles with every opportunity he has to make progress with Maya.

As usual, Act 2A culminates with the arrival of a Monster Moment at the Mid 2nd-Act Turning Point. The Monster Moment is a complicating event that unexpectedly puts the protagonist into a situation that is far worse than the one that existed before. Miles, once again acting as his own worst enemy, blows what seems to be a sure thing with Maya. With this disappointment in his rearview, Miles now realizes how stupid it was to resist his own healing. He now wants to heal, but the opportunity seems to have passed him by. He is angry at himself and just might spend the rest of his life pathetic and alone.

 After this point, Sideways becomes less of a cut-and-dry narrative as its multiple threads start to emerge and develop on their own. Because of this, like the inciting incident, there is a lot of confusion over what events count as Sideways' final two and most dramatically significant turning points: the End of 2nd Act Turning Point and the Main Story Climax. However, both are easy to identify as long as we remember one thing. The Story Spine is all about Miles healing through his relationship with Maya. This is what the story continues to be all about, even though Maya appears only sporadically for the rest of the film. Since this relationship is the focus of the Story Spine, the End of 2nd Act Turning Point and Main Story Climax must directly involve and build upon the relationship between the two.

In Act 2B, as usual in the Healing Narrative, Mile overcomes his initial resistance and becomes willing to heal. Only Jack's driving force is no longer available to make things happen. Miles must now man up and take responsibility for his own happiness. Miles reaches success, only to have his negative traits screw things up once again.

The second act ends with a traditional Dark Moment – though the scene itself is so short and subtle that it usually slips under the viewers’ radar without them noticing that the storyline has taken a dramatica turn. The End of 2nd Act Turning Point is not the moment when Miles has his falling out with Maya. It is not when Jack gets his face bashed in. It is the scene afterward when Miles, at his lowest moment calls Maya from a pay phone and leaves her a voicemail in which he admits he is a loser. This is an admission of failure on Miles' part. He is symbolically throwing in the towel, giving up on not only finding any kind of happiness with Maya, but possibly with anyone else in the future. Just like any run-of-the-mill Hollywood flick, the protagonist reaches his deepest, darkest point right before the moment he and Jack must begin their final journey home.

The third act of Sideways is nearly a carbon copy of the third act of Payne's previous film About Schmidt. Both protagonists accept failure at the end of their second acts and return home in despair. Their lives then circle the drain as both seem to give up altogether. Then, the gloom is reversed by a nearly identical burst of hope.

Not long ago, I read an article on Sideways in which the writer claimed the story's climactic moment occurs in the extremely short scene where Miles drinks his prized bottle of wine alone in a burger joint. I don't know what kind of crack was in this guy's pipe, but this is absolutely ridiculous. First of all, the story is not about the bottle of wine. Drinking it does not resolve any conflict or do anything to complete the Story Spine, so there is not way that this action could constitute the climax. Furthermore, what idiot of a screenwriter would put a story's climactic moment in the middle of a montage? Not the end of the montage. The middle. If the montage itself has not yet finished giving all it had to say, how does it make any sense that the story itself finds its end smack-dab in its middle? Miles's drinking of the wine holds no significant to the plot other than the symbolic. It communicates that he has given up on having any more great moments in life, the kind he has been saving the bottle for. Now, if this really were the story's climax, how depressing would this ending be? “Miles needs to heal. Miles fails. Miles gives up. THE END.”

No, dummy. Where the hell is Maya?

The entire Story Spine has been about Miles' relationship with Maya. Every major turning point has been about Maya. Therefore, to end the story with any kind of satisfactory closure, the climactic event must not only involve Maya, but resolve the entire situation between the characters. Sideways's real climax comes the exact same ways as the climax of About Schmidt, only instead of a letter from Ndugu, it is a voicemail from Maya. The protagonist has given up on life and resigned themselves to failure, only to receive unexpected contact from the person they really care about, reversing their view of the world into one once again filled with hope. Maya's voicemail – and more importantly, the scene that follows – completes Miles' Story Spine and resolves all story conflict. The story's Major Dramatic Question has asked “Will Miles ever heal?” After hearing Maya's voicemail, Miles abandons his last bit of resistance towards healing and bounds after the one thing he needs to make himself whole again. The moment he knocks on Maya's door, Miles is a fully-healed man.

Return of the Jedi


  Here's something that will make you sound smart the next time you're around a bunch of know-it-alls. Sideways and Return of the Jedi are the exact same type of story. Jedi is also a Healing Narrative.

First of all, it must be noted that the original Star Wars trilogy follows the same unique structural form as that seen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this structure, the first film is a single, self-contained adventure where the protagonist is at the head of a group of supporting heroes. Then, in the second and third installments, plot structure splits into two dual narratives. In the primary narrative, the protagonist from the first film continues the quest established in the first film, only this time he does so (relatively) alone. However, this is only half the film. The other half of the film is made up of separate-yet-connected secondary adventure, in which a former supporting character steps up into a leading role. (Han Solo becomes the protagonist of the secondary narratives in Empire and Jedi. Aragorn takes this role in The Two Towers, Gandalf in Return of the King.) Therefore, to study Jedi as a Healing Narrative, one must ignore all the stuff with Han Solo running around Endor with a bunch of teddy bears, because that material is all part of a secondary narrative that follows its own line of action.

Jedi's Healing Narrative is all about Luke Skywalker. Due to the actions that ended The Empire Strikes Back, Luke begins Jedi a wounded man, both physically (he lost his hand in battle with Darth Vader), and emotionally/psychologically (the revelation that Vader is his father has traumatized Luke and left him in a morass of emotion). Like Miles, Luke must be made whole again.

At the inciting incident, Luke receives the challenge through which his healing will be achieved. He is told by Yoda he cannot complete his Jedi training until he confronts Darth Vader and overcomes his psychological wound. Luke then sets a goal. He will not only face his father, but will try to save Vader’s soul and bring him back to the virtuous side of the Force.

It must be noted that Darth Vader is NOT the antagonist in Jedi. The Emperor is Luke's antagonist. Luke's goal is to bring his father back into the light. The Emperor directly opposes this goal through his desire to do the exact opposites – draw Luke to the Dark Side with his father. Vader himself remains relatively passive. Jedi is almost like a hackneyed romantic comedy where Luke is trying to steal his dream girl away from her jerk fiancee.

However, like Miles in Sideways, Luke Skywalker has internal flaws that stand in the way of his healing. Luke's wound cannot heal as long as he remains motivated by hate, anger, or fear – negative traits the Emperor uses against him. As in Miles’ case, Luke can either abandon these traits and clear a path to his healing, or he can succumb to them and let them drag him down into the Dark Side.

In the end, Luke wins, reconciles with his father, and heals the wound that has been inside him since the film began.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

November article and a BIG ANNOUNCEMENT

Those of you who read this blog may have noticed I usually get my monthly article posted right as the month runs out. Though I have been chipping away at my November article, it doesn't look like I will get this one finished before the 30th. But I do have a good excuse. I have been waiting to make this announcement, and now seems like a good a time as any.

Throughout 2012 I have been working, almost nonstop, on completing my first book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms: Digging Deeper into the Craft of Cinematic Storytelling.

Atoms is a comprehensive guide on screenwriting for the beginning to advanced writer, making use of my unique Scriptmonk method with its focus upon the Story Spine, the storyteller-audience relationship, and the proper communication of story information. Intended as the next generation of screenwriting guides, Atoms not only explores established concepts in greater detail than ever before, but introduces many, many new perspectives and groundbreaking methods yet to be found in any other source.

I am very excited about this book. It is the culmination of years of study and possibly the beginning of some big things. Final revisions are reaching completion. Published copies are expected to be available from online retailers by mid-January in both hardcopy and e-book formats. I will keep readers updated in the coming months.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

LEONE vs. LEONE: A Comparison in the Reconciled Rivals Plot Type





If you ask me my opinion on the best western ever made, I would say Sergio Leone's 1966 classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. On the other hand, if you asked me what is the coolest western ever made, I would say Sergio Leone's 1968 follow-up Once Upon a Time in the West. However, even though West may have been a “cooler” film, it falls far short of its predecessor, even though it was made by the same filmmaker, in the same period, in the same genre, and even shares the same PLOT TYPE (The Reconciled Rivals). West has a lot of stand-out features: that haunting harmonica motif, Henry Fonda's out-of-character turn as a psychotic villain, and some of the most quotable dialogue ever found in the genre; but in terms of plot and structure, it seems to lack much of the qualities which made The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly so great – especially in its late second and third act. If they were basically the same film, with the same plot type, helmed by the same master of the genre, why did West score only an in-field double while Ugly was a home run? If everything seemed to be going so right for Leone on his follow-up, why did it not match or even exceed the success of his previous film?

It all comes down to a simple mistake in structure in terms of plot type. Both Ugly and West fall into the same category of plot: the Reconciled Rivals. As a refresher, the Reconciled Rivals is a story where:

“Two sympathetic characters, one or both of them protagonists, come into a personality conflict. The plot develops as the two are forced into a situation where they must work together to achieve a mutually desired goal. Obstacles and complications test their ability to cooperate, forcing the characters to overcome their inter-personal conflict in order to succeed.”

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a perfect example of this. It features dual protagonists, one the hero Blondie (Clint Eastwood), and the other the antihero Tuco (Elli Wallach). Though these two characters dislike each other, even openly wish to kill each other, they must unite their efforts and work together to reach a mutually desired goal, opposed by a single antagonist (Lee Van Cleef).

Once Upon a Time in the West upsets the balance of this classic structure by attempting to throw something extra into the mix. While Ugly is a traditional two-way Reconciled Rivals, West is a rarely-seen attempt at a THREE-WAY version of the same plot type. That's right, Once Upon a Time in the West is a story with THREE protagonists. There is the Harmonica Man (Charles Bronson), Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), and then Cheyenne (Jason Robards). (Do not be foolish enough to assume that Harmonica is the sole protagonist simply because he is the most charismatic character or is played by the biggest star. Just as you should not assume the same about Blondie. Protagonist status is decided by which character takes the actions which advance the plot and develop the Story Spine.)

The addition of a third protagonist complicates West's narrative development threefold. While Ugly had only the relationship between Blondie and Tuco to deal with, as well as their mutual relationship with the antagonist Angel Eyes, West must take the time to establish and develop three individual relationships between Harmonica & Jill, Jill & Cheyenne, and then Cheyenne & Harmonica... as well as the three separated relationships each seemed to have with the antagonist Frank (Henry Fonda). West does quite well at getting all these relationships up and running, but the unfortunate side effect is that it takes up half of the movie's running time to do so. The second and third acts then become compressed for time, and are thus not allowed the amount of development or number of dramatic turning points that The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has in spades. This becomes most noticeable at each film's climaxes. Both films end in shootouts, but West's climax does not deliver even close to the same amount of tension or emotional release as found in Ugly due to its significantly smaller amount of dramatic buildup to the event.

West's plot development is further hampered by the fact that its three protagonists are not unified in their action. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, both Blondie and Tuco want to accomplish the same thing: to find the buried Confederate gold. In West, all three protagonists pursue their own individual lines of action. Harmonica wants to kill Frank. Jill wants to honor her murdered husband by fulfilling his lifelong dream. And Cheyenne... well, it is never exactly clear what Cheyenne wants. The only thing that connects these separated lines and encourages all three characters to work together is their mutual antagonistic relationship to Frank. Because of this, Once Upon a Time in the West actually operates as three different plot types operating (and conflicting with each other) within the same film. Harmonica's line follows the Vengeance Narrative. Jill's line is a Small Man/Woman Rises. Cheyenne follows a Taking on the Mantle. This creates a muddy and confused second act. In fact, to find any clarity in the film's third act, the film must wrap up Jill and Cheyenne's storylines early and give the third act to Harmonica and Frank alone. (The turning point that begins the third act actually occurs very late. The third act takes up only eighteen minutes in the nearly three-hour film, beginning after Jill and Cheyenne's conflicts have been resolved.)

The conclusion? Once Upon a Time in the West may have been a far stronger film in terms of plot and structure if it had eliminated one of its protagonists. Its story may have reached success equal, or even than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly if it had been the story of simply Harmonica/Jill, Harmonica/Cheyenne, or Jill/Cheyenne united in a common goal against Frank. This would have given the narrative far better focus and allowed much more time to develop the main conflict.

West also loses clarity points due to a bit of antagonist confusion. Frank is obviously the meanest, most despicable character in the story, but for much of the film he is acting only as the henchman of railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Frank's acts of violence are done under Morton's supervision, often by Morton's orders. This confuses the audience over who exactly is at the top of the antagonist food chain and adds ambiguity to the main conflict. It also adds yet another independent inter-character relationship (the Frank/Morton relationship) to a narrative that is already overstuffed. Compare this to the simple clarity found in the force of antagonism in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. There is only one man opposing Blondie and Tuco: Angel Eyes. It is crystal clear to the audience that Angel Eyes is the apex predator of the story and the only serious force to be reckoned with.

Despite all this, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has its own flaws that keep it from being a perfect film. The first is the film's misplaced inciting incident. If you look at the point which the inciting incident is expected to occur in most films (generally after the first 1/8 of the film's total run time) we are given the moment when Blondie breaks off his partnership with Tuco and leaves him in the desert. This event may incite Tuco's hatred for Blondie, but the blood feud between the former partners is not the focus of the narrative, nor does it establish the protagonists' main story goal. Ugly is the story of two men working together to find a stockpile of Confederate gold. This means the Story Spine does not begin until the protagonists learn of the gold's existence, an event the storytellers have mistakenly placed at the end of its first act. Blondie and Tuco's murderous rivalry is merely extended setup material. In fact, one could walk into the film an hour late and still be able to follow the film without missing out on anything terribly important.

Ugly's second major flaw comes from execution of character. As a Reconciled Rivals, Blondie and Tuco are supposed to be co-protagonists, equal actors in the eyes of the story. However, even though the script gives Tuco equal screentime and narrative weight, even going so far as to provide material intended to make the audience feel sympathy for Tuco, the audience never accepts Tuco as Blondie's narrative equal. In the audience's eyes he remains nothing but an important supporting character. The primary reason for this is that unlike Blondie, Tuco is... never anything but a total dirtbag. Tuco is supposed to be a co-protagonist. However, to be accepted as the audience as a protagonist, a character must meet three qualifications: 1. The character must be humanly relateable. 2. The character must be worthy of the audience's interest. 3. The character must be worthy of the audience's respect. Tuco, unlike Blondie, falls short in the third qualifications. Therefore, he never takes on full protagonist status in the eyes of the audience, and is always Blondie's lesser. Therefore, his scenes lack the same kind of audience appeal as those of his rival.
 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

On Tortoises and Hares


Time now for a story on tortoises and hares.

I usually stick to the subject of screencraft on this blog, and rarely diverge into anything that resembles career advice, but this is a topic that straddles both areas. Most of you should be familiar with the most famous of Aesop's fables. A Tortoise challenges a Hare (that's a rabbit) to a race. The Hare thinks the race will be easy, so instead of taking the task seriously, wastes the race goofing off. The Tortoise, on the other hand, keeps its head down and plows forward, one step at a time. Because the Tortoise maintains its focus and dedication, it eventually reached the finish line while the Hare does not. The moral: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

But what does this moral actually mean, and what the heck does it have to do with the subject of this blog? The point is, every aspiring screenwriter starts out thinking he or she is going to be the Hare. Furthermore, everybody wants to be the Hare. Being the Hare is easy. Young writers want to believe all they have to do is put together one or two drafts of a single screenplay, and their career will take off from there. But then, they meet disappointment. That one quickie script is not enough to bring success. So, they try again with a second screenplay, scrabbled together with the same amount of time and effort. But that screenplay also does not meet the writer's aspirations. It would be great if writing a great screenplay required only a modest amount of time and effort, but that is simply not the case. Even seasoned writers consistently fall prey to the Hare mentality. Every time a writer starts a new project, he or she would love to think all it will take this time around is three or four drafts to knock it out of the park. However, those three or four drafts inevitably turn into nine, ten, or fifteen. What they originally hoped to be a sprint always turns into a marathon.

It is not that the writer is fooling him or herself. It is just that the writer is indulging in wishful thinking. Everyone wants to be a Hare, because no one wants to accept the alternative. No one relishes the thought of being the Tortoise, dragging its ass along in the hot sun for days on end. Being the Tortoise requires more patience and perseverance than many should ever be asked to give.

Despite this, aspiring writers continuously prop up their hopes with supposed tales of past Haredom. They cite Callie Khouri with Thelma & Louise. Diablo Cody with Juno. Even if we ignore the fact that sixteen years passed between these two incredible freshman efforts, stories like these usually turn out to be more legend than fact. I refuse to believe that Thelma & Louise or Juno were their creators' first attempts at writing. Even so, these works demanded far more than a handful of drafts before they were worthy of the Academy Award. Writers love to mention how Sylvester Stallone invented his own stardom by writing Rocky from the back of a van. However, few realize that Stallone had to write forty drafts of the script before it was ready to produce. Even fewer know that Rocky was not even the first of Stallone's scripts to be purchased or optioned. Stallone had a previous script optioned which was never produced, and knowing other instances where Stallone bent the truth to create the Rocky legend, Stallone probably had written several other early screenplays that he conveniently lost for posterity.

The thing is, in the world of screenwriting, not only does the Hare never win, but Hares do not even exist! There are only two types of screenwriters: Tortoises, and Tortoises who think they are Hares. One will finish the race, one will not. Guess which is which.

Anyone interested in a career writing movies should know from the start that it will be a long, hard road. Even worse, it is a road whose length is unknown. It may take two years to complete your journey, it may take twenty-five. The only way to know is to keep moving forward until the destination arrives. But remember Lao-tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” A single first step and a lot more after that. This is what every day must be to a developing screenwriter. Every time he or she sits down to work, that is one more step closer to the ultimate destination. The only way to finish the journey is to keep your head down and keep grinding forward. Slow and steady. Focused and dedicated. Do not think about where you stand now. Think about where your work will get you in a month, in a year, in two years. Then, put in the work today to get there tomorrow. Maybe developing as a screenwriter it is not so much like being a tortoise as it is like a mole digging its way to daylight. The mole must claw through mile after mile of dirt before it breaks through. Only the mole, stuck in its dark little tunnel, cannot tell how or when this will happen. All it knows is that is must keep on digging if it ever wants to get there. The mole does not curse the fact that it has to dig. Digging is what it was born to do.

Don't be Hare-brained. A Tortoise who thinks like a Hare will start the race without any realization of how hard it will be or how long it will take. It will plod forward for a while, become frustrated at its progress, and then quit. All that hard work went for nothing because the Tortoise could not understand the reality of its situation. A successful Tortoise is one who knows he or she is a Tortoise and accepts that fact. It acknowledges that it can only move so fast, shrugs its shoulders, and gets moving. The Tortoise cannot force itself to move faster than natural. If it does, it will only burn itself out and collapse far from the finish line. All things must progress at their natural pace, and so must your development as a screenwriter. It may take a long time, but as long as the writer remains honest with themselves and their work, and finds the strength of will to keep at it, he or she will get there eventually. A Tortoise will only find happiness once it learns to be patient. Which more than can be said for the undisciplined, impatient, easily distracted Hare. Like they say about a marathon, the victory is not in winning the race, but simply reaching the finish line, no matter how long it takes.

"In this there is no measuring with time. A year doesn't matter; ten years are nothing. To be an artist means not to compute or count; it means to ripen as the tree, which does not force its sap, but stands unshaken in the storms of spring with no fear that summer might not follow. It will come regardless. But it comes only to those who live as though eternity stretches before them, carefree, silent, and endless. I learn it daily, learn it with many pains, for which I am grateful: Patience is all!"
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

THEME & PLOT, THEME & CHARACTER

It's hard to breathe with a corrupted nose.

Some movies have themes that bash you over the head. Some have themes so subtle they are missed entirely. However, the worst are themes that are dead-on obvious from the very start. Everybody always talking about how great love is. Characters constantly going on about responsibility. Every little duck lined up in a row to give a lesson on freedom and justice. These aren't so much stories as they are sermons, and no church on earth gives a sermon that lasts longer than twenty minutes. Why? Because the audience will get pretty tired of the message pretty darn soon.

Communicating theme is all in the execution. At its best, theme is invisible, a shadow that resides behind the story's events and characters. The best themes give their messages in the same manner as a good plot: through conflict.

THEME & PLOT

Both theme and plot achieve their ends in the same manner. A plot advances through a conflict between two opposing sides, a conflict whose outcome remains unknown until the story's end. The plot is a physical battle.

Theme is also a battle, but in a more abstract sense. Behind every event of the physical plot is a second struggle at play between the story's intended theme and its opposite, known as the ANTI-THEME. Love vs. Hate. Order vs. Chaos. Responsibility vs. Irresponsibility. Intimacy vs. Isolation.

A battle cannot exist with only one side. Story elements should not all be aligned to support only one side of the argument. To create an equally-weighted thematic conflict, material should exists to support the storyteller's theme, as well as an equal amount that seems to support its opposite. For example, a story that gives a message on the importance of family can and should contain incidents where characters reject their family. A story about perseverance should contain moments where the protagonist feels tempted to give up hope.

Chinatown

Chinatown presents a thematic battle of CORRUPTION vs. INTEGRITY. Jake Gittes' world is filled with corruption. The deeper he looks, the more corruption he finds. Jake himself is not immune from corruption, either. He get gets most of his money from the sleazy business of investigating cheating spouses (corrupted marriages). When the woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulwray wishes to hire him for the same purpose, Jake does not want to take the case until he learns she has deep pockets to exploit.

Every event that occurs from that point onward has the subliminal battle of integrity against corruption under its surface. Jake is first led to a city planner's meeting where an ill-planned dam on corruptible land is opposed by Hollis Mulwray's personal sense of responsibility, despite public outcry. When Hollis is accused by a sheep farmer of being corrupt himself, this leads Hollis, a man of high integrity, to investigate the claims himself. When Jake's photographs ruin Hollis' reputation, Jake nearly comes to blows with a man in a barbershop when the integrity of the act is questioned.

Then, Jake learns he has been used for a pawn. Jake may not be the most ethical person, or the most likable, but what he does have is a strong personal belief in the integrity of his own work. He will not stand to have his reputation tainted. This is what drives him for the rest of the story. His integrity vs. those who seek to corrupt it. Throughout the narrative, Jake meets several opportunities to avoid any more trouble by walking away; when Mrs. Mulwray drops her lawsuit, when he is it roughed up by thugs, when Noah Cross offers to hire him for more money; but this would mean compromising his integrity, and Jake refuses each time.

This theme permeates the story even down to the smallest details: Jake's face is corrupted by Cross's goons. Mrs. Mulwray admits to repeatedly cheating on her husband. The moment that leads to Jake and Mrs. Mulwray's first kiss starts with Jake noticing the black spot that corrupts Mrs. Mulwray's green eyes. Noah Cross even corrupts the integrity of Jake's name, constantly called him “Mr. Gits.”

Like the main story conflict, the thematic battle is not resolved until the story's climax. The climax decides the winner. In Chinatown, Jake has done all he can to fight against corruption. As the third act moves to its close, it even seems likely that Jake's sense of integrity will win out. Only then, everything goes wrong. Jake is detained by Lt. Escobar. Mrs. Mulwray is shot trying to escape. Noah Cross gets away scott-free, taking his Mrs. Mulwray's daughter/sister with him. Jake can do nothing but force himself to walk away defeat. Corruption has won.

Here we see that the manner by which the story conflict is resolved at the climax is absolutely essential to the message the audience ultimately takes away from the film. Change the ending, and it may change the story's entire meaning, even though everything else remains the same. Chinatown originally had an alternate ending where Mrs. Mulwray kills Noah Cross and saves her daughter, vindicating Jake in the process.

(You can find a discussion on this alternate ending HERE.)

Though still dark, this differing climax would have drastically altered Chinatown's message. The mere fact that the evil, corrupt Cross got what he deserved in the end would reverse the story into a win for integrity. Instead of a film that communicates that corruption is so pervasive in society that is cannot be overcome by one man, this “up-ending” would tell audiences that personal integrity always leads to victory.

THEME & CHARACTER

Theme expresses itself not only through the events of the plot, but also through that story's cast of characters. In a good story, all characters exist on one side of the thematic battle or the other, aligned against each other like pieces in a game of chess. There is often a white knight character - a character who embodies the positive qualities of the theme. There will also be a blackhat character, meaning a character who embodies the negative side. Noah Cross is the blackhat. He is corruption personified. His polar opposite is Hollis Mulwray, a white knight trying to fight corruption who gets murdered in the effort.

While some characters are a clear black or white, most of the remaining cast exist as various shades of gray. Every character resides on one side of the argument or the other, but in varying degrees of intensity. Chinatown's characters all exist somewhere between absolute integrity and absolute corruption. On the side of integrity are Lt. Escobar (a police detective who plays everything by the book), Kahn the butler, (completely dedicated to his duty to Mrs. Mulwray, though he is often blunt and unfair in that duty), and Mrs. Mulwray herself (she has a sense of integrity, but is willing to lie like crazy to protect it). The dark side of the spectrum runs from Ida Sessions, aka the fake Mrs. Mulwray (willing to ruin a man's reputation for money, but comes clean when it involves murder), to Deputy Chief of Water & Power Russ Yelburton, (a complicit member of the conspiracy in order to advance his career), to Mulvihill (a rival private eye who is little more than Cross's hired thug).

Chinatown's thematic character spectrum.
A wide cast of characters gives a storyteller the opportunity to explore both sides of the theme by not only showing the theme and anti-theme in all its shades of intensity, but by showing all the various ways the theme and anti-theme can manifest itself in various types of people. Themes can be socially complex issues. Having a diverse cast can explore theme with the depth and breadth it deserves. Noah Cross, Ida Sessions, Russ Yelburton, and Mulvihill are all corrupt, but we see very different types of corruption in each character. Even the snotty clerk in the hall of records represents his side of the theme as a man corrupted by the most miniscule amount of authority.

Only in the most melodramatic of stories is the protagonist the white knight. Instead, the protagonist usually begins the story torn somewhere in the middle. Jake Gittes starts as a neutral gray. He has as sense of professional integrity, but acts only in self-interest. He then, like most protagonists, goes through the story being constantly pulled from one side of the thematic argument to the other by members on each side. This continues until Jake chooses a side. Which side the protagonist ultimately aligns with will have a major impact upon the story and its final message. Jake chooses the side of integrity rather early, but it is not uncommon for protagonists to wait until the end of the 2nd Act or even later to decide which path to follow.

DECIDING FACTORS

Considering these concepts, two major factors decide the message the audience will take away from a film. The first is which side of the thematic battle the protagonist decides to align. The second is whether or not aligning with that side eventually helps him or her overcome the story conflict and find success at the story's end. This creates a matrix of four possible story endings that work to solidify the story's theme. Here they are, given with Chinatown in mind:

  1. The protagonist embraces the positive value (integrity), and succeeds. (The alternate ending)
    Jake helps Mrs. Mulwray. Cross is killed in the end. Justice is served. This type of ending celebrates the importance of a positive social value by demonstrating how its acceptance will ultimately lead to happiness and success. It supports social norms with the idea that doing good will bring about good.
  2. The protagonist embraces a positive value, but still fails.  (The actual ending)
    Jake has done all he can for the sake of integrity, but Mrs. Mulwray still dies, and Cross gets away free. This type of ending is the stuff of tragedy. It communicates the importance of a positive value, while at the same time implying that society is fundamentally flawed in relation to that value. Social criticism is the result.
  3. The protagonist embraces the negative value (corruption), and fails. (Hypothetical alternative ending #2)
    Let's say Jake accepts Cross's offer to work for him for more money. Jake betrays Mrs. Mulwray and her daughter. Only abandoning his integrity ends up ruining Jake in the end. Mrs. Mulwray gets away from Cross, and Jake is arrested for his dirty dealings. This type of ending uses story as a morality play. It promotes a positive social value by showing the negative consequences of embracing its opposite.
  4. The protagonist embraces a negative value, and succeeds. (Hypothetical alternate ending #3)
    Here, Jake would decide to betray Mrs. Mulwray to Cross, succeeds, and is rewarded handsomely. Jake learns in the end that corruption pays. This type of ending provides the most bitter and cynical world view. It suggests that the social system has become broken and society's supposed values have grown illusionary. The result is a suggestion that those values be reevaluated, strengthened, or abandoned.

Monday, May 28, 2012

UNUSUAL ANTAGONISTS

(Update: I don't know why this articles seems to get way more views than any of my others. It's probably the worst one I wrote all year. Try some of the links in the box on the lower right hand side. Those articles are much, much better. And more useful. -MWS 12/30)

When most hear the word “antagonist,” they automatically think “bad guy,” or “villain.” They assume the antagonist has to be evil, or criminal, or at least a colossally self-absorbed jerkoff. However, an educated writer will know that none of these are requirements for a capable antagonist. The whole “bad guy” thing is merely part of a formula used to simplify the narrative (i.e. dumb it down,) to all but guarantee that audience identification goes in the right direction.
The only real requirement for an antagonist is that the character directly oppose the protagonist's goal. The protagonist wants to accomplish something, but the antagonist stands in the way, from the beginning of the narrative to the end. If the protagonist is going to succeed, he or she most overcome the antagonist's opposing force.
However, this opposing force need not be malevolent in nature. The antagonist character may act with the best, most virtuous intentions. It is not even a necessity for the antagonist to recognize his or her opposition to the protagonist. (For example, Mozart in Amadeus has no idea that the protagonist Salieri is trying to ruin him. Mozart still provides conflict as he naturally tries to fight back against these ruinous attempts, even though he does not know their source.) Antagonism is really little more than simple physics. It is an irresistible force met with an immovable object. What one wants is the opposite of the other. In the end, someone has to give.
To demonstrate how the protagonist/antagonist relationship goes beyond the typical good guy/bad guy dynamic, here are four categories of abnormal antagonists who generate story conflict in nontraditional ways.

The Friendly Antagonist

In these stories, the protagonist and antagonist are friends. They bear each other no ill will. Despite this, the friendly antagonist's wants, needs, actions, and desires still stand in direct opposition to the protagonist and his or her goal. The protagonist cannot reach this goal until the other character's opposition is removed.

Cole in The Sixth Sense
Cole is sweet, innocent little boy. He is the last character one would identify as a bad guy. He and the protagonist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) spend a lot of time together, and their interaction is, for the most part, friendly and supportive. Regardless of this relationship, Malcolm's story goal is directly opposed by Cole's. Cole appears to be a mentally disturbed boy. Malcolm, a child psychologist, wants to help Cole. However, Cole does not want Malcolm's help and resists his attempts. Even when Cole starts to give in, Malcolm refuses to believe his secret, continuing their conflict. The story cannot be resolved until both sides accept each other and abandon their mutual resistance.

Russell Hammond in Almost Famous
Almost Famous is the story of teenage newbie rock journalist Will Miller. Will's story goal is to complete an article for Rolling Stone on the band Stillwater. The only problem is that he cannot reach this goal without getting an interview from the band's star guitarist Russell, something Russell refuses to do. Though Will looks up to Russell, and the two even grow to become close friends, Russell is Will's antagonist. Russell's refusal to give the interview keeps Will on the road indefinitely, creating trouble for him from Rolling Stone and his mother. This is a conflict that continues unresolved until the story's end. Russell is also the force of antagonism in Will's subplot. Will is in love with groupie Penny Lane, but Penny is in a sexual relationship with Russell. Will will never get his dream girl as long as Russell is in the way.

The Mentor Antagonist

Elijah Price in Unbreakable, Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Henri Ducard/Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins

These antagonists start the story seeming anything but antagonistic. They are the protagonist's ally, teacher, father or mother figure. They put the protagonist on the path to who he or she eventually becomes. Only then, at a certain point, the protagonist realizes that this mentor is no longer a person he or she wishes to associate with. The protagonist breaks off the formerly positive relationship, putting the two sides at odds. This is psychologically similar to the process we all go through in high school when we must break away from the control of our parents to become independent persons. The mentor antagonist rarely bears any ill will towards the protagonist. After all, the mentor helped create the protagonist. He or she simply resents the fact that the protagonist now opposes him or her. If given the choice, the mentor antagonist would prefer the protagonist to rejoin his or her side so they might achieve the antagonist's goal as a team. The protagonist refuses the offer, putting the two sides into a unity of opposites where one side must be defeated.










The Virtuous Antagonist

Some stories flip the good guy/bad guy dynamic on its head. In these films, the protagonist is the criminal, the villain, or the all-around bad dude. The protagonist's actions then incite a lawful, virtuous, and well-intentioned antagonist to stop him or her.

Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman (1989 version)
The surprising thing about Tim Burton's first Batman film is that it is completely misnamed. It should be called “Joker,” since the villain is in fact the story's real protagonist. If one makes the typical assumption that Batman, the good guy, is the protagonist, the film appears to be a structural mess. Bruce Wayne does not appear until 20 minutes into the film. Not only this, but the Story Spine would not even be firmly established until the story's midpoint. Until then, Bruce/Batman remains passive and reactive, with no legitimate reason to take action. But, when one realizes the Joker is the real lead, the structure falls into perfect place. Batman is instead a Vengeance Narrative about a lunatic trying to get revenge on those who have wronged him. He is then opposed, and eventually defeated, by the Caped Crusader. This makes Batman the film's antagonist.

Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo
In the same way, most people assume that Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is Fargo's protagonist because she is the story's force of good. But then, one would have to explain why she does not even appear in the story until the beginning of its 2nd Act. The film's 1st Act is led solely by the actions of the morally bankrupt Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy). This simple fact makes it easy to conclude that it is Jerry who is the film's protagonist, and Marge the antagonistic force that emerges to stands in his way. (A similar argument can be made for Michael Mann's Heat, (1995) where Robert De Niro's master criminal character is opposed by Al Pacino's police detective. However, since both characters are so equally weighted throughout the narrative, this creates a sort of chicken-or-the-egg debate that could go either way.)

The Shadow Antagonist

A shadow antagonist is an antagonistic force that is not really “there” in the story – at least not at all times. Rather than harass the protagonist from beginning to end, the shadow antagonist lurks behind the scenes like a ghost, almost as a non-participant while the protagonist struggles with other problems, only to pop up at the most inopportune moments to ruin everything. The key quality of the shadow antagonist is that he or she is not directly related to the protagonist's main goal. The shadow is instead a trickster and a ruiner who does harm to the protagonist, not because he or she opposes the protagonist's goal, but because he or she opposes the protagonist's very existence, health, and happiness. The shadow wants to trip up the protagonist just for the sake of tripping.

Mal in Inception
It took me nearly three whole viewings of Inception to finally put my finger on the identity of the antagonist. At first it seems it will be Saito (Ken Watanabe), but Saito turns from antagonistic to friendly after the inciting incident. Then, it seems the antagonist might be Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the man whose head Cobb is trying to break into. But this assumption again dashes on the rocks when Fischer joins Cobb to actually help him achieve his goal. The only real, credible threat to Cobb's victory, from beginning to end, is Mal - a dead woman, who technically does not even exist outside of Cobb's memory. It is Mal who ruins Cobb's extraction attempt in the opening sequence, it is Mal who kills Fischer moments before assured victory, it is Mal that Cobb must overcome in the story's climax, and it is the constant threat of Mal that make the team nervous throughout the entire mission. Though Mal only appears a handful of times, though she is completely secondary to the mission itself, and even though she technically does not even exist, she is Cobb's antagonist. Cobb must destroy her to claim his story goal.

Friday, April 27, 2012

THIS, is a FOOTBALL! : Rewriting from Scratch

April 2012 marks the 4th Anniversary of scribbler blog-o-zine! And we're going to celebrate it with.....

another article!

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There was once a coach of a high school football team. To say that his team played poorly would be a gross understatement. Not only could his team not win, but they couldn't rush, they couldn't pass, they couldn't play defense. Every game was an embarrassment. Finally, after yet another Friday night humiliation, the coach gathered his team together. “Gentlemen,” he said, “something is seriously wrong with this team. And no amount of practice is going to fix that problem. The only way we are going to start winning is by unlearning all the bad habits you have accumulated. So, we are starting over. Forget everything you think you know, because we are going back to square one.” Then, the coach held up a pigskin, presenting it as if no one had seen one before. “Gentlemen,” he said, “THIS, is a FOOTBALL...”

When the coach said square one, he meant it. Sometimes, when things do not work, you have to hit the reset button and start over.

Sometimes, a writer has a great idea for a screenplay, but when he or she tries to put it on paper, the story simply does not work. No matter how many times the script is rewritten, no matter how hard the writer works to fix its flaws, the things simply refuses to function the way a cinematic story should. There is something fundamentally broke with it. Tweaking some plot here and polishing there will not make that script function. At this point, making superficial changes is like spending money to pimp out a car with no engine and a broken transmission. Junk is junk. The only way to fix it is to strip it down to its core.

“THIS, is a cinematic story.” - Note that I said cinematic story, not screenplay. A screenplay is nothing more than 90-120 pieces of paper bound together with words on them. It is the cinematic story told on those pages that gives it any worth. If your script does not work, it is the flawed principles behind its story at fault.

Here now is the SCRIPTMONK guide to overhauling a broken cinematic story.

The first rule: Don't cling to what you have written! Doing so just keeps you holding onto the side of a sinking ship. If need be, you must be willing to take everything you have worked so hard on so far and throw it in the trash. If it does not work, it does not work. Holding on to what you have, whether it be out of fear, insecurity, or sentimentality, amounts to literary hoarding. Hoarding is a mental illness where people are unable to throw things away, regardless of how useless those things may be. If you really want your story to work, you have to be willing to clean house.

Start by returning to the very ideas that seeded the beginning of your screenplay. The earlier flaws originate in the creative process, the more fatal the effect on the finished product. Your early ideas are called seeds for a reason. They grow and expand as the work progresses. If your original ideas are flawed, they will grow into a weed the size of a beanstock, choking everything connected to it. At this point, simply fixing superficial problems without considering the sources beneath is like placing a band-aid on a mortal wound. Real improvement starts at the foundation.

First, review the idea that inspired the story. Does it have what it takes to create a story? A REAL story? A story is defined as a series of events about a) a character, b) dealing with a problem, c) told in a structured order, d) unified by a premise. Does your idea meet all four qualifications? If not, the idea is no more capable of creating a functional cinematic story than a page out of the phone book.

Next, look at your story's protagonist. Are you sure this is your story's protagonist? Sometimes a writer will think one character as the hero, when it is in fact a completely different character who drives the narrative. Are you sure this is the best choice for protagonist? Sometimes stories fail simply because the storyteller has chosen the wrong person to tell the story through. Is it clear to the audience that this is in fact the protagonist? Sometimes the protagonist gets lost within all the supporting characters, and it becomes to difficult for the audience to figure out which one they are supposed to get behind.

How is the protagonist portrayed? Does he or she have a clear internal need? Does the protagonist have a fatal flaw that creates a difficulty he or she must overcome? Is the action is the story designed so that it forces the character on an adventure where he or she must change and grow to achieve the internal need? Remember that story comes from character, not the other way around.

Since the storyteller creates the events of the plot solely for the sake of the protagonist's journey, the choice of protagonist has a dramatic effect on the course of the plot. The choice of protagonist decides what events are possible, and how the the plot moves forward as the protagonist reacts to those events. Plot and protagonist are intimately connected. If you have created a plot that does not fit the protagonist, or vice versa, the story will not work. This is a fatal mismatch. One must be changed to accommodate the other.

Likewise, a storyteller cannot create a plot in a vacuum. Did you come up with the main character first, and then the action of the story based on that particular character? Or did you come up with the actions of the plot first, and then as an afterthought pull some generic people out of the air to carry out that plot? A plot-first approach will create an experience that is hollow and lifeless. The protagonist will not be an authentic human being whom the audience can attach their thoughts and emotions, but a hollow shell who exists simply to connect the plot's dots. The audience will then feel little emotional connection to the plot's events because there is no humanity behind them with which the audience can connect.

What is your story's premise? Does the script stick to this premise from beginning to end? Or does it suddenly abandon its established premise halfway through and veer off into an unrelated area? Abandoning a premise means essentially abandoning the entire story and trying to invent a new one halfway through the film. Audiences become confused and upset as everything they have been paying so close attention to thus far has been thrown in the garbage. Now, they are being asked to pay attention to a new story. Most audiences do not have this kind of patience.

Next, look at the script's Story Spine. Identify the forces that propel the protagonist to act. What is the protagonist's main Story Problem? What Story Goal does he or she set to overcome that problem? What actions does the protagonist pursue on his or her Path of Action to reach that goal? What is the Main Conflict that stands in the way? What are the Stakes that keep pushing the protagonist onward despite the resistance created by the Conflict? Does the Spine have all five elements? Are they strong enough to provide enough dramatic impulse for the entire length of the story? Does your script have a Story Spine at all? (A missing or incomplete Story Spine is the most common cause of failed scripts.)

How does the action of the Story Spine unfold? Does the plot develop in clear, structured story sequences? Does the protagonist advance the story by willfully pursuing immediate goals that have the purpose of furthering his or her overall cause?

Look at the script's genre. Are you SURE this is the right genre for the particular story? Do you understand the inherent rules of the genre? Does your story conform to these rules? Genre creates guidelines that help the audience understand what to expect from a story. Genre confusion creates audience confusion. A script that does not know how to handle its genre will create a muddled mish-mash to which the audience does not know how to react.

Any problem you find during this process is a major flaw at your story's very foundation. It is an enormous crack in the bedrock that radiates out into dozens of problems on the surface. Like a building with a damaged foundation, sometimes the only way to fix the problem is to bulldoze the structure, lay a new foundation, and then start construction all over again.

(BTW, I do know that the phrase "Gentlemen, this is a football" is famously associated with legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi. However, his use of the phrase communicated something different than the story of the high school coach- a story that I heard first. Lombardi's use referred to a dedication to the fundamentals, not a stripping down to start over.)