Narrative Efficiency …

November 3, 2009

… and a reason why you should clean out your Inbox.

I was just going through all my “starred” g-mail items, and came across one that my wife e-mailed me 2 months ago, which contained a link to Validation by Kurt Kuenne, which I still hadn’t gotten around to watching. Putting aside the message, which is a whole conversation unto itself, I just love the narrative efficiency.

Consider: In scene 1, somebody comes up to our hero, and he validates him. The scene is roughly a minute long. In scene 2, a woman comes up and he validates her – this one only takes about 15 seconds. Cut to someone running. “There’s a problem,” he says. And they go to this guy, and there’s a line out the door for people waiting for parking. We’ve just skipped months, and it only took two minutes to establish the premise, then the pattern, and then result.

The stakes continue to go up just as quickly. By the end of the third minute, he’d solved peace in the Middle East. Which left me wondering where on earth they could possibly go from here.

But of course, it moves brilliantly forward by giving him an obstacle he can’t overcome, and then the classical “ordeal,” followed by the “Dark Night of the Soul” where he pulls out of his low-point, and then the resolution. Thorough, complete, riveting, and only 15 minutes long. Fantastic!

Who’s Your Hero?

August 31, 2009

We finally got there.

As you may or may not know, I’m taking an improv class on narrative longform – that’s improv that tells a story, as distinct from shortform improv (the kind you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway?) or what I call montage-style longform (where there’s no narrative throughline, you just do one long show with random scenes).  And after several weeks of scenework, this week’s class was all about establishing the hero.

Think of some stories you like, and then answer the following question: How do you know who’s the hero?  This was one of our exercises, and the results we came up with were not surprising:

  • He’s the person the story is named after.
  • He’s the person we’re rooting for.
  • He changes over the course of the story.
  • He’s the person making the most active decisions.
  • He appears in more scenes than anyone else.
  • Any scenes he’s not in are there to support his story.
  • He’s got the biggest obstacle to overcome.

Then we set out creating scenes in which we established, as early as possible, who the hero is.  One of the guidelines I’ve established for myself is that whoever’s first to appear on stage, on screen, or on the page, is more often than not the hero.  There are exceptions to that rule, but usually those exceptions exist to establish the tone (Hamlet), or as part of a broader scene to establish the need for the hero (The Dark Knight), who is often then be the first to appear on screen after the scene is over.  Interestingly, an early draft of the Star Wars script has Luke Skywalker first appearing somewhere around the 4th minute – not really doing much, just showing up all by his lonesome to show us, the reader, that he’s the person we’re meant to be following.

Thinking Through the Stakes

October 28, 2008

I read in Save the Cat! today that your needs to have something at stake, and what’s at stake needs to be primal – that is, something connected to survival or reproduction.  He offers a number of “example ideas,” one of them being a company retreat in which people suddenly start getting murdered, as a means toward “downsizing” the company.  He says that this is more compelling than playing pranks, which I guess, in this example, is true.

Naturally, I began looking at Charisma, and started asking questions about the stakes that my character has.  The second act is about Charisma getting out of jail (or rather, getting acquitted) for a crime she didn’t commit – a primal stake, to be sure.  We can all relate to a character in that situation, because if we were in jail for a crime we didn’t commit, we’d want the same thing.

But I’m afraid the stakes after that are a little weak – she tries to convince teachers to change her grades so she can stay in school.  Much less compelling, in comparison to the drama that preceded it.  Ultimately, this will prove to be a fruitful exercise and the villain will put her life (literally) on the line, which gets us back to the primal stakes (which have been appropriately raised), but I’m wondering whether this second half of the second act is too much of a back-pedal from what happened before it.  Should this portion come earlier, maybe, so the stakes are raising linearly, rather than going up and down?  Or is that dip a necessary component to the drama – it’s the valleys that make the hardest mountains to climb.

I’ve wondered before whether Snyder’s goals aren’t a little different from my own.  And besides, how much can you trust his advice – according to IMDb he’s only had two movies made, one of which one a Razzie award for “Worst Screenplay,” and though he’s surely doctored dozens of others, that’s not exactly a gleaming resume.  Maybe his attachment to the formula is part of the problem.

So I started looking at other movies for the hero’s primal urge.  Movies I’m intimately familiar with that are also highly revered screenplays.

Aladdin – At the start, he just cares about finding food (survival) and getting the girl (reproduction).  When he gets out of the cave, there is no more immediate threat to his survival, so he turns to reproduction, asking the genie for something that will get him the girl.  Then he gets the girl … and gets captured, escapes … and realizes he needs to tell the truth to get the girl, gets ready to tell the truth … and then Jafar comes back, and he has to both survive and get Jasmine back.  It’s an exhausting zig-zag of attention, but it’s important, because when we’re focusing on one, the other is always in the background waiting to rear its ugly head.  The triumph of one always leads to the fall of the other, until the very end of the movie.  So there’s lesson #1 – intentions can play off each other, as long as they climax simultaneously.

The Shawshank Redemption – Physical survival and escape from prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  Sounds familiar.  The physical threat of death dissipates very quickly, but the theme is more about  emotional survival, and those stakes continue to get heightened.  Lesson #2 – the survival doesn’t have to be physical, as long as the theme is consistent with that.

The Usual Suspects – Verbal is the hero, and he’s constantly trying to “survive” and “make it in the big world.”  Lesson #3 – the survival can look like “making it,” as in “being successful” or “being famous.”  The character would have to be someone who associates riches with survival, subconsciously if nothing else. Of course, this theme kind of turns on its head with the twist, but that doesn’t change the fundamental lesson at all.

The Silence of the Lambs – In all the interactions between Hannibal and Clarice there’s the sense of personal threat, as well as a hint of sexual tension.  Of course, the sex will never be consummated, and Clarice says toward the end that he wouldn’t come after her, because, “He’d consider it rude,” but by that point it doesn’t matter because it’s not about her physical safety, it’s about saving someone’s life.  So there’s lesson #4 – the survival doesn’t necessarily have to be the hero’s own – if her interest is in saving someone else.  We simply must be made to care about that someone else, and our sympathies then move with the hero, whose job is to save that person.

Of course, all of these films carry something in common that we haven’t addressed yet, and that’s the subtleties that make a good movie great.  The Usual Suspects was good, but those last five minutes made it the 21st best movie of all time, according to IMDb.  The Silence of the Lambs was an outstanding screenplay, only made better by a pair of brilliant performances by our two stars – at every interaction between the two characters there’s a physical threat, but over time we realize that the threat is more internal than external – that he’s inside her head, and also inside ours. At every moment there’s a tantalizing sexuality there that just can’t be explained.

So here’s lesson #5: It’s all in the subtext.  In the greatest movies ever made, the quality lies in what wasn’t said on screen.  What the characters weren’t saying when they talked to each other.  What we go away thinking about when we’re done.

And lesson #6: The urge to write a successful screenplay is primal.

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