Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Humility Arc

Follow the link below to read an article I recently wrote for Creative Screenwriting Magazine. The topic is the "Humility Arc," a new concept of mine I consider to be one of the most significant discoveries I have made since publishing Screenwriting Down to the Atoms.


The Humility Arc finds in a most unlikely source an elegantly simple structure which all evidence seems to suggest has been adopted with near-universality into the Hollywood feature film, providing a fundamentally simple and easy to understand perspective on the concept of the Character Arc and its relationship to the story.

http://creativescreenwriting.com/

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Learning Movies By Watching Movies: Watching FAST and Watching SLOW



WATCHING MOVIES FAST

I like to watch movies in fast-forward. Not the first time, of course. There would be little point in that. Rather, when studying a film in order to learn from it. Strange as it may sound, I recommend this as something you should try as well.

I originally started to do this as a way to save time. Whenever I am preparing a blog article or have a particular area of screencraft I wish to study, I always have to re-watch three, four, sometimes up to a dozen films for research. But frankly, I don't have that much time in my day. Movies are long. So to cut down on research time, I began to take advantage of a feature on my laptop's movie player that allows playback at 1.5x speed (50% faster than usual) without muting the soundtrack. That way, I could still watch every moment of the film in only 2/3 the time.

However, I soon noticed a surprise additional benefit to this. If I was examining these films for anything to do with plot, story structure, or character arc, I found I could see the shape and course of such things quicker and easier than I could have by watching the same film at normal speed. One difficulty that stands in the way of the developing screenwriter who attempts to learn more by watching other films is a feature film's length. To the uninitiated, feature films appear to be such wild, complicated things, but this is actually untrue. Most great films have very simple stories and clear, straightforward structure. However, this is lost on many since they cannot see the forest due to all of the trees. Feature film structure demands a certain number of story sequences, each with their own objectives that must be accomplished through a certain number of scenes (five, six, a dozen or more). In turn, every scene has its own sub-objectives there to advance the story and move the sequence forward, all requiring series of action, exchanges of dialogue, sounds, images, and the use of camera and editing. The result is that the viewer gets lost in the details and finds it hard to see the overall shape and movement of the story as a whole. Being stuck in the moment, that bit of screencraft executed only a few scenes ago becomes a fading memory. This may be good for the viewing experience (good story structure should by nature stay hidden under the surface), but difficult for those trying to use the film as a learning tool.

In short, I owe a good deal of my film education to being impatient. Watching films at 1.5x speed compressed the overall narrative, allowing me to better see and remember how one event led to the next, how one turning point related to the one before it. Zipping through scenes caused me to no longer dwell all my attention on each individual shot and line of dialogue, but instead see the scene as a whole, and thus taking away only the general movement of the scene; what was done, what was accomplished, how it was accomplished, and how its outcome changes the course of the film, leads to the next story action, and advances the sequence to its next structural turning point. You could call it a “bullet-point” method of viewing a film. Light on details, heavy on function.

This tactic will of course give you no help when it comes to learning proper pacing and scene construction (the method I describe next will do worlds of good for this). Nor do I wish to undervalue the importance of the little details of plot, theme, and character (the difference between a good story and a great film is usually found within the use of these very details). But if what you seek to understand is the broader movements of story and structure, how each scene and sequence works together to create one cohesive and functional narrative, I strongly suggest you give this a try. 150% may sound a little fast, but it is not. In fact, I was surprised to find that a lot of films (mostly poor or painfully mediocre films) actually play better at this speed. Unless the film has unusually quick-paced dialogue or dizzying-quick action sequences, you will not miss a thing – as long as you are paying attention. (If you are going to be multitasking, its wisest to play the movie at its normal speed.)

One technical problem is that most movie or video players automatically mute the soundtrack when playing at faster speeds. Watching at 1.5x speed is not much help without sound. I am no expert on audio-video products, so you will have to test this out at home or experiment with the various media players you can get online. I use Toshiba's proprietary DVD player to do this on my laptop and the Playstation 3 can do this in my living room.

I should add to this that when it comes to analyzing films you have seen multiple times, films you have watched on so many occasions that you can now recite dialogue and no longer even need the sound to follow each scene, you can watch these films EVEN FASTER. Last month, I needed to re-watch Back to the Future and got through the entire film in under twenty minutes. What does this do? It turns every scene and sequence into a tight, concise brick of action. You don't watch the scene, you instead receive the concept of the scene, the idea of the scene; basically why it exists and how that brick fits into the structural whole. It's a bit like reading a written point-by-point breakdown of the film, but far better, as you can observe how each event directly causes the next, how the flow of action to action moves the narrative forward. It is difficult, almost impossible, for one to remember every essential structural point after observing a full two-hour length film in one sitting. That is expecting a lot from your memory. But the same seen all in twenty minutes? Far easier. The whole film's structure now sits firmly inside your head.


WATCHING MOVIES SLOOOOOOOOW

When it comes to using films as a learning tool, it is also good to watch them slow. I mean, really slow. Not in slow-motion, mind you. I don't see any use in that (at least not at the moment). I am speaking of a technique called the “START/STOP”, something found in UCLA & USC Screenwriting instructor William Froug's book Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, Volume 2. Used correctly, this technique can teach you more from watching a single film than you might in an entire semester-long course on the craft.

Step 1: Select a film to study. Make sure it is a film that is top-notch in terms of its storytelling, one you love and admire, and ideally one similar to the types of stories you wish to create. I also suggest choosing a film that remains fairly traditional in its approach to storytelling, one considered to be the “gold standard” of its genre or type, so its lessons can may be widely applied to your own narratives, rather than something like a three-hour nonlinear art film that stands out from the crowd simply by being so different. Also (this is optional) find a copy of the film's screenplay. In most cases, you can download these screenplays online in .pdf or .doc form. You can also find many published in book form in local libraries. You will want to refer to the written script from time to time.

Step 2: Watch the film in one sitting from beginning to end. Get an overall view of the shape and form of its story, but while watching also try to identify the most important elements of its storytelling from a screenwriter's point of view; where and what are the plot's major dramatic turning points, how does the protagonist's character change over the course of events and what causes this to happen, what thematic elements seem to be present, and anything else that may jump out at you as unusual or important. As soon as the film fades to black, start writing about your observations. Do this right away while the film is still fresh in your head. You can take as much time as you need and go into as much detail as you like, but one to two full pages should be enough. Include any questions you might have regarding how the storyteller accomplished one thing or another. Make note of any particularly memorable scenes. Also mention your viewing experience on an emotional level. How did the story make you feel throughout its course? Was this the storyteller's intention? Take a moment to hypothesize on how and why the storyteller managed to move your emotions this way.

Step 3: Here comes of the fun part. And by fun, I mean grueling. Go back to the first scene of the film. Watch it to the scene's conclusion. Go back to its start and watch it a second time. Watch this one scene again and again if you like. Then, on a clean page write “SCENE #1” followed by a short slug that describes the scene (ex. “JOHN WITH MORTY OUTSIDE BIKER BAR”). Then start writing a thick wad of notes on anything and everything you notice about the execution of that scene in terms of its written craft. Watch the scene over and over to observe it on its most atomic level; shot by shot, line by line. Ask, what is the purpose of this scene? Why is it here? What does it do? How does it do it? What important information is communicated in this scene? How did the storyteller communicate it? Is any of this exposition? Information that will be useful later? Is anything set up secretly that will be paid off in later scenes? How was this executed? What is the conflict in this scene? How does it start? How does it develop? How is its outcome important – or does the scene's conflict exist as a diversion to help deliver what the scene is really about? What is the scene's moment of change that moves the story forward? How does the end of this scene set up the action of the next?

This is only a small sampling of matters to consider. Some scenes give you a lot more material to chew on than others, but try to go far beyond a few simple sentences. Expand your observations into anywhere between a paragraph and a full page or more.

Step 4: Watch the next scene and repeat the process. Then the next scene. Continue on like this for EVERY SINGLE SCENE in the entire film. Every scene. One at a time. Analyzed under the microscope. Until you have reached the movie's end. By the time you have finished, you will know this film like the back of your hand and will have learned more about screencraft than you could have ever imagined.

Don't overlook the short scenes in your START/STOP. Give them the same degree of attention you give all others. Even if the scene lasts only a few seconds, that scene has been put into the film for a reason. It communicates something significant. What is it? The opening scene of Die Hard is nothing but a shot of an airplane coming in for a landing. This may not seem like much, but this simple opening still works to communicate information and set up the following action. Since we are watching this plane, it suggests someone important to the story must be on it. Someone who has just come a long way. Subconsciously, this causes the audience to ask, “Who is this person, where did they come from, and why are they here?” Then, in next scene we learn this person is our hero John McClane, gripping the plane's armrest in fear (which suggests he must be here for something important if he hates flying this much).

William Froug suggests doing a START/STOP on one film a month for an entire year (which I guess is a lot cheaper than going to film school). However, I must have been a much more hardcore START/STOPPER than Froug ever imagined. He believes an entire film can be finished in only a couple days. Yet whenever I have done this, I worked for one to two hours a day for a month or more. By the time I was finished, I was so exhausted that I didn't want to attempt another film for an entire year. But what a reward! For instance, on my third attempt, as you might tell from the example given above, I chose the film Die Hard (it's still the gold standard for the action genre for a reason – its craft's execution is shockingly pristine!). Using Froug's START/STOP, I learned more from watching this single film than I probably had my entire time attending film school. After two months of work, I had 81 pages of single-spaced type-written notes, so much of it I found so insightful that I had to include it in my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms three years later. 

You can read some of the highlights of this START/STOP in a five-part series of articles I began in 2009 titled “Things I Learned from Die Hard.”

If you want to learn to write by watching movies (and you should), you have to pull yourself outside of the headspace of the casual filmgoer. If learning the craft were that simple, everyone with a stack of DVDs or a subscription to Netflix would already be an expert. You have to watch them smart. Watch them slow. Watch them fast. Watch them repeatedly. Watch them in terms of their tiniest pieces. Watch them in terms of their absolute whole. And do your homework. Write your discoveries down. Writing about it forces to you to think about it and develop that which begins as a tiny vague notion into a fully-realized method of approach. Watch movies like a scientist. Watch movies like a writer.

That's all I got for now. scribble on

Saturday, June 7, 2014

A Review of "OFFICE SPACE", as written by Joseph "The Hero With 1000 Faces" Campbell


The Hero of 1000 Post-Its


“…First of all, I begin by saying my theory of the Monomyth, as introduced in my popular work THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, has been much misunderstood and misrepresented as of late. The conclusion of my work was that the stories found in myths and legends are all symbolic reminders that a healthy life must be a continual process of psychogical DEATH and REBIRTH. All our lives are made up of stages; childhood and adolescence, adulthood and marriage, old age and death. The transitions between these stages, usually accompanied by initiation rituals in primitive cultures, requires that the old self “die” and then be “reborn” as a new person with new sets of values and priorities. The old must die. Only death can bring new life. And only new life can bring death.

Like how the deep subconscious summons symbolic images in dream to give shape and form to otherwise inexpressible turmoils of the psyche, the myth acts as a tool of the psyche of society. The gods and heroes are no more than symbolic archetypes used to express experiences of social and psychological change universal to man – The Universal Will. Death and rebirth. This is the way progress is made. Even the two most revered moments of Western Christianity, the story of Christmas and the story of Easter, both continually reenacted on ritual holidays, are clear symbolizations of the death of an old age and the birth a new, purer, more illuminated age. Such is the power of Myth.

The contemporary Americans have a charming tale called “Office Space.” When the tale begins, the land has grown old and corrupt. People are suffering under the weight of a power that no longer serves its true purpose. Ruling this land is Tyrant-King HOLDFAST. “Hold fast!” the Tyrant-King cries. “All shall remain as it is!” In all his forms throughout myth, Holdfast is hoarder for his own benefit, one who has succumbed to greed and avarice, who now uses his mighty power to maintain the status quo. But change is inevitable. No man can resist the cosmic cycle. Death must come to the land of Holdfast. And it can only come from one source: a newborn child. For in terms of the land, only DEATH can bring NEW LIFE! And in terms of the hero, only NEW LIFE can bring that DEATH!


All has become old and corrupt.


The hero of our story is the simple young man Peter Gibbons (no mention is made of his parents, so possibly of Virgin Birth). Peter is one of many who bend under the oppression of the Tyrant-King. Little does he know that destiny has chosen him to be the world-savior, the Renewer of Life, the Bringer of the Ultimate Boon.

One morning, whilst crossing a grassy glen with two of his cohorts, Peter is met by a fat dwarf bearing tidings of ill! (its supernatural resemblance suggestion that he has a connection with The Power.) This is the Herald, a figure repeated innumerable times in fantasy and lore. In the same manner as the Grim Reaper, in the same manner as Virgil’s first appearance to Dante, the Herald says “Stop! Change must come! Leave this road and follow me!” This is the Call to Adventure, the narrative equivalent of the psychological anxiety one feels when dreaming that signals time has come for a change.

Peter does not know if he believes the dwarf’s story, but the dwarf begs that Peter take action. Here we have a Refusal of the Call. He would not dare risk challenging King Holdfast. Like Sigmund Freud’s cases of childhood neuroses continuing into adulthood, Peter wants to cling to his existing material world out of a fear of losing what one assumes is valuable. The first step in answering the call is to let go.

Peter’s period of refusal ends when he encounters the Supernatural Aid of a monstrous old wizard. As an amulet to protect Peter from the dangers that lie ahead, the wizard casts a spell on Peter to render him invincible to his enemies. His life’s mission fulfilled, the wizard turns to dust the moment his spell is cast.

However, the invincibility spell is in fact a spell of rebirth. With the wizard’s last words, Peter dies and is immediately reborn. We see him burst from his placenta of entrancement, and look about his surroundings with infant wonder in his eyes. This is a purified Peter, untainted by corruption, unbound to any former loyalties. This is an essential step in the hero-journey. Re-birth can only come from re-birth.

Armed with his amulet of power, the hero now feels confident to follow his call of destiny into the land of unknown. However, just as societies of old projected their fears of the unknown into imagined monsters that lurked beyond the safety of the village, just as our own minds erect fears and imagined bogeymen in our subconscious to resist the uncertainties of psychological change, so it is in myth. The entrance to the zone of magnified power is overwatched by Threshold Guardians, ogres created to threaten the weak of heart and keep out those not ready for the challenges which lay beyond. At Peter’s threshold stands twin ogres, both by the name of Bob. The Bobs crush and cripple every man that faces them. His weaker-willed cohorts warn Peter to turn back, but armed by his new-given power, Peter is undaunted. In his purified state, Peter is able to trick the twin ogres. He not only convinces them to yield the way, but gains their enthusiastic assistance.



Hi. We're here to eat your bones.


It is imperative to point out that Peter’s victory does not come due to guile or show of force, but by the effortless nature of his newborn purity. His innocence, honesty, and absolute lack of rationalized fear baffles the Bobs. This is reminiscent of the tale of the future Buddha’s battle with the demon Stickyhair, where the future Buddha, at the physical mercy of the demon, nevertheless fells the monster through nothing more than his forthright confidence.

(the editor now asks the reader to imagine the next line in the snootiest voice possible.)

The “Damn, it’s Good to be a Gangsta’” montage presents, in quick succession, a series of Tests the Trials of which every hero must face on his journey. The office through which Peter journeys is a deadly desert, fraught with obstacles. With the invincibility of his amulet, Peter passes these trials with godlike ease. He has crossed the rocks that clash! And the reeds that cut! And the sand that burns! And when he finally meets King Holdfast, he brushes him aside with a brush of his hand. He is proved mighty. The kingdom is his for the taking.

From here, Peter can advance to the Marriage with the Goddess-Mother. The name of this stage has been a source of much confusion, as the Goddess-Mother is not an actual personage (though repeatedly represented as so), but a symbolic form of an intangible ideal. The “Goddess” represents the apex of comfort and happiness a mortal man may hope to achieve from the material world. A blissful all-assurance not encountered since the mother’s womb. Hence, the feminine symbolic form of the Goddess-Mother. As such, achieving this state is often represented in Western culture through the hero winning the heart of a beautiful young maiden. The Goddess is Life. By the act of wedding with her, the hero gains Supreme Knowledge of Life.

In this story, our hero claims the hand of his goddess-figure Joanna. The mythical overtones of their courtship are quite apparent. Even before Peter receives his Call to Adventure, he captures a glimpse of the goddess, much like the Greek tales of the hunter who should chance upon the sight of the goddess Diana in the forest, and is enraptured by her flawless beauty. Upon receiving his power from the wizard, Peter approaches the goddess and casts his spell upon her, for only her divine eyes can perceive the aura of pure light which now surrounds him. With each test and trial Peter overcomes in the deadly desert, he is drawn closer to the goddess’s love until the point where hero and goddess become one with each other.

Now, nestled in the bosom of the Goddess-Mother, Peter believes he has achieved true happiness. However, many a hero soon finds that such material pleasures are hollow and fleeting. The Paradise turns to rot as the hero finds there to be filth and corruption in all earthly things. Peter’s childlike bliss is shattered with such a revelation. Though his amulet has saved himself from destruction, corruption continues across the land of Holdfast, spreading and infecting Peter’s garden of earthly delights. He has entered the Woman as Temptress stage of the monomyth. Like Adam in Eden, he bites the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and is transformed once more. The scales fall off his eyes and becomes aware that he tainted by the stench of a world of wickedness and decay. Even Peter’s goddess-figure fades from beauty as our hero is fooled by a trickster character who impugns the goddess as being stained by the Holdfast’s seed.


Our heroes encounter an idol of corruption. And hence, it is destroyed.


Now, earthly things must be cast aside. Peter’s only chance for salvation is to achieve Atonement with the Father. In the most primordial of creation-myths, the earth is a woman and the sky a man. Hence, in myth, the Mother represents all earthy care and comfort, while the Father, the heavenly and divine. The Father is the All-Creator, the Source of all Wisdom, the Essence from which all life is renewed; whether that Father be present or not, made physically manifest or remain abstract. Peter knows the comfort of the earth-mother will not bring the boon of salvation necessary to renew the land. He can complete his hero’s journey only by reaching atonement (“at-one-ment”) with the Father and gain the enlightenment of His pure wisdom and truth.

However, the Father is a divinity with two faces. When first approached, He seems a figure of pure fury and terror. To gain his favor, the hero must undergo a Supreme Ordeal, an ultimate test of the hero’s character and worth. Only once the test is surpassed is the hero allowed to see the second face of the Father, the face of benevolence and mercy, and is embraced into his kingdom.

Unfortunately, our hero Peter is not first aware of this need to atone, and readies himself for battle in potentially self-destructing pride. The Father initiates Peter’s Supreme Ordeal with a flip of His divine hand, laughing at Peter’s folly by reversing his fortunes with what seems to be a simple accident, turning his situation into one of impending doom. Like Aeneas and Gilgamesh before him, Peter must descend into the darkest valley of death, face terrors and anxieties most profound, (including a comical aside where Peter is allayed by a mischevious shape-shifter trying to trick him into buying false wares), whereby Peter’s soul is purified by fire until he reaches a state of utmost humility, emptying his vessel and making himself ready to receive the Father’s truth.

Peter reaches the stage of Apotheosis with the decision to sacrifice himself, all that he has, and all that he knows by returning the world-tainted treasure foolishly stolen from Tyrant-King Holdfast and offer his own life in exchange for those of his cohorts. Apotheosis is the process by which an earthly soul transcends to a divine plane, reaching a place amongst the gods themselves. As expressed by the East Asian traditions such as the Buddhist and Hindu, Apotheosis is only possible through absolute self-denial. All pride must be abandoned, all sense of self must be discarded, even the conscious ego itself must be shattered. Only once the envelope of self-consciousness is annihilated will the hero become free of all worry and fear, one beyond the reach of change.

Peter achieves this transcendence with this act of purest self-sacrifice, and within a breath, he is atoned with the Father and is allowed to rejoin the side of the Goddess-Mother. Peter is then saved from destruction by a coincidence that could only be the work of the divine interception of the Father. Castle Holdfast burns, death clearing the path for the renewal of this world.

It is interesting to note that this final destruction comes not by the hand of the hero, but through the magic intercession of a humble troll. This suggests that the troll was a secret servant and agent of the Father the entire time. In fact, the Troll of Fire and the Herald Dwarf can bee seen as twin servants of the Father; two creatures hatched from the same egg, one dark and one light; one the Caller for Rebirth, the other the Agent of Destruction. This notion is supported by how both Dwarf and Troll are rewarded by the Father by story’s end. Both, by strokes of what the unenlighted may consider as “luck” or “fate” are taken from their land of earthly toil, and ascend to plane of blissful paradise.

Finally begins the short Return portion of the hero’s journey as found in the monomyth. At the Crossing of the Return Threshold, Peter faces the same question every hero must consider when returning to the everyday world. Will such common-minded mortals be able to understand the transcendent wisdom the hero has gained on the other side? Are they willing to drink the magical elixir he has available to share? Sadly, the answer is no. His cohorts remain too short-sighted. Nevertheless, he has cleansed the land and brought back the promise of freedom and beauty. Peter has become the Master of the Two Worlds and has achieved the Freedom to Live.

Hence, through the continual life-affirming process of death and renewal, the story ends happily ever after.

............................................................

On a closing note, “Office Space” is a tale so permeated with the Universal Theme of Salvation through Death and Rebirth that, through the subconscious of its creators, this World-Redeeming truth is pronounced clearly in its text, hidden in plain sight through what might seem the most trivial line of speech.

As Samir leaves Peter’s home after their celebration, he is heard to say, as if incanting a spell of his own:

“Back up in Yo’ Ass with the Resurrection.”

Indeed, Samir. Most indeed…”

(Disclaimer: In case it needs to be said, I have to make clear that this article was not actually written by Joseph Campbell. It was written by me. Joseph Campbell died in 1987.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

SCRIPTMONK! Goes to the Movies -- "LOCKE" : Limited Premise Reveals Bare Bones of Good Storytelling

  
 
With Locke, the 2014 Sundance & 2013 Venice Film Festival selection now screening in select theaters, director Steven Knight (writer of Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things) presents a narrative experiment most filmmakers would dare not attempt outside of the confines of film school. One location, one on-screen actor, and a real-time narrative composed almost entirely of conversations via telephone. Often such premises amount to mere gimmickry that end up stumbling on their own limitations and fail to provide the audience a narrative as satisfying as a traditional film. However, considering its self-imposed limitations, Locke is a rousing success: tense, compelling, emotional, and with more than enough drama to make the audience forget they are doing little more than staring at the face of the same actor for nearly ninety minutes. Locke provides an exceptional example for study by developing screenwriters simply because, by stripping away all extraneous elements, Locke puts front and center the raw skeleton that makes up an effective dramatic narrative.

The setup: Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy in a near one-man show) is a married father of two on the eve of the most important project of his professional career. Locke's single marital indiscretion comes back to haunt him when he learns that the child he fathered on the one-night stand seven months previous will be born that very night. Driven by a commitment to personal responsibility instilled by the memories of his own deadbeat father, Locke decides to drive straight to London, putting both his family and his career at risk, so he might be there when the child is born. On that eighty-five drive, Locke fights to keep his entire life from unraveling through an endless series of phone calls with his family, his work, and the mother of his new child.

Locke presents a noteworthy piece of storytelling in that by stripping itself of the extraneous elements found in most cinematic stories, it exposes the absolute essentials of a compelling cinematic narrative:
  1. An internally-conflicted character,
  2. a crisis,
  3. a commitment to a plan of action by the character in response to that crisis, and
  4. a constant supply of escalating hurdles the character must overcome to resolve the situation.

Structurally, the story executed through three narrative threads: a) Conversations to and from home in which Locke confesses his infidelity and fights to keep his marriage from falling apart. b) Conversations to and from his work partners in which Locke tries to make certain the construction project in which he has poured his heart and soul does not come to ruin. c) Conversations to and from the soon-to-be mother of his new child, a pitiful woman Locke does not love, yet feels accountable for.

These three threads intertwine to construct a single effective narrative for two reasons. First, all three threads revolve around the shared theme of personal responsibility.
Second, the execution of these threads collectively follow a simple and essential structural pattern that every screenwriter should recognize and emulate. To explain:

In my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, as well as in articles on this blog, I use a Frankenstein analogy to describe the story structure found in the traditional feature film, particularly as used in Acts 2A & 2B. (Read the original article HERE) In the first half of the story, the protagonist takes well-intended actions in an attempt to ameliorate the story problem, but in the process his or her actions only end up making the situation worse. The protagonist unwittingly creates a monster. (Or a “monstrous situation,” if that makes it easier.) At the story's midpoint, the monster comes to life, putting the protagonist's fate in far greater peril than it was before. In the second half of the story, the protagonist must fight back against that monster and defeat it if he or she ever hopes to rise above in the end and achieve the Story Goal.

Ivan Locke begins his story trying to do the right thing. He wants to act responsibly towards his wife, his job, and the mother of his new child. Of course, the reactions Locke receives from his actions could not be further from his ideal wishes. People react in ways that make the situation worse. Locke tries to respond, but this only triggers another reaction that aggravates things further. When watching the film, note that for every phone call Locke makes or receives, ONE thing (and one thing ONLY) is added to the mountain of sh*t Locke finds himself being buried under. This, my friends, is what we call escalation. In every good story, the story problem, as threatening as it may seem, seems fairly simple in the beginning. But then, as characters act and react, the problem grows and complicates into an increasingly monstrous situation. Finally, the weight of the mountain becomes too heavy for Locke to bear. He must become proactive and fight back. He must find a way out of sh*t mountain. But the monster he has created is a vicious beast, and continues to throw complication after complication Locke's way. To these complications, Locke must continue to summon all his strength and battle through. Though Locke does not receive a perfect happy ending, he is rewarded for his efforts with a personal victory that made his struggle against the monster worthwhile.

This is the same type of structure seen in any tense, well-plotted film. Every major event adds one more complication to the story situation, continually developing and escalating the original premise into an increasingly complex situation. The plot buries the protagonist under a mountain and then forces him or her to fight their way out. Through the simple method of one complication per phone call, Locke successfully produces a steadily-evolving and structurally sound narrative, creating compelling drama from the most confined of premises.



Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Writing Child Characters, Authentically

One of the greatest challenges for a writer is to get inside the heads of characters of much different background than yourself. It takes great empathy to understand those of differing gender, age, ethnicity, or orientation in order to portray such characters with authenticity. However, there is one type of character with whom we should all be able to relate. After all, it is the only group that every person has at one time been a part. I am referring to child characters. Yet strangely enough, child characters are those that most often come off as inauthentic. Many writers treat child characters as if they were simply small adults. This explains the overabundance of “precocious” children found in film and television. But the precocious are a rare find in real life. The great majority of children do not behave like adults. They think, act, and see the world in a much different way. As we mature, we tend to forget the unique ways our minds worked when we were young. Unless a writer can get back inside the head of a child, such characters will not ring true.

Whether a child be four years old or thirteen, his or her mind is a project still under development, one that changes a great deal as the child grows. To help the writer learn where his or her particular child character is in this process, this article presents a brief look at certain concepts found in developmental psychology that can be adapted into character behavior. This begins with the manner in which children view reality itself.

1. Concrete to Abstract Thought

The youngest of children live in a world made of only what their five senses can tell them. They only understand that which is real, solid, and physically present. If it cannot be directly observed or visually imagined, it might as well not exist. Children then turn those perceptions into inflexible notions that landmark psychologist Jean Piaget referred to as “false absolutes.” Things can only be the way the child believes them to be. This means hypothetical thought is impossible. Consider this experiment: Children of various ages were asked, “If all dogs are pink, and I have a dog, what color is it?” Older children recognized they were being asked to consider a hypothetical fantasy world. Young children however did not even entertain such a notion. They knew from their personal experience that a dog could NOT be pink. Since the question ran counter to what the children believed as fact, they argued or even rejected the question since their minds could not yet consider a notion so disconnected from their concrete reality.

Thought becomes less rigid as children reach middle childhood (age 7-11). They advance beyond judging situations by appearance alone and develop the ability to logically infer what cannot be seen. Children begin to recognize that events can have multiple causes or multiple outcomes, and then use available evidence to find the most reasonable conclusion. Yet even at this stage, children often fail to grasp any meaning beyond face value. Metaphors, symbolism, and other non-literal forms of meaning remain lost on them. Such things belong to abstract reasoning, something for which most children are not ready until the onset of puberty.

2. Egocentrism

Very young children hold the impression that their way of thinking is the only possible way, and therefore must be correct. They do not understand that others have thoughts or opinions different from their own. This is known as egocentrism. If the young child encounters behavior contrary to his or her viewpoint, the child becomes confused, frustrated, or angry. For example, a child wants a cookie. However, it is nearly dinnertime, so his mother denies the request. Unable to comprehend that mother has a legitimate reason for denial, the child throws a fit since he can only conclude that mother is being mean to him.

Egocentrism starts to decline as children socialize with peers of their own age, usually beginning with the entry to grade school. Social interaction allows the child to recognize that others see things in different ways. By middle childhood, the child has grown fully aware that we are all separate minds of differing thoughts and emotions. However, the child still struggles to predict what another’s thoughts or emotions might be. This leads to much confusion and curiosity when dealing with adults and peers alike. It is not until the child has had the opportunity to forge stronger social bonds and gain the capabilities of abstract thought that he or she can accurately ascertain what may or may not go on inside the minds of others. This marks a milestone in social development. The child is now able to respect others for their individual viewpoints, rather than reject them for failing to conform to their own.

Unfortunately, some never reach this stage. Children raised in isolation or those rejected by their peers may never gain enough social experience to fully overcome their egocentrism. Unable to relate to others, the child may grow socially distant, possibly leading to deviant behavior.

3. Child Logic

A recent episode of NPR’s “This American Life” opened with a story in which little girl’s best friend came to her with a startling revelation. The friend had lost a baby tooth, and as most children do, placed it under her pillow for the Tooth Fairy. Only she awoke in the night to find not some glittering fairy, but her own father exchanging the tooth for money. From this, the two girls could form only one logical conclusion: the friend’s father lived a double life in which he was in fact the mythical Tooth Fairy!

The problem with seeing the world in false absolutes is that once a child accepts notions as facts, it becomes nearly impossible to break them. Whereas an adult would see two contradictory premises and realize one must be incorrect, a child will contrive fantastical assertions that allow both premises to remain valid. Rather than consider that the Tooth Fairy may not exist, the girls in the NPR story found it more plausible that a run-of-the-mill father donned fairy wings to exchange teeth for money.

Children take wild leaps of logic in many situations. Any time a child observes a curious situation, but lacks the facts to explain it, he or she will “fill the gap” with contrivances that allow things to make sense, regardless of how ludicrous the conclusion may be. Interestingly enough, this urge to fill the gap is at the origins of storytelling itself. As mentioned in my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, when ancient cultures encountered natural phenomena they could not explain, they invented stories, often involving magic and deities, so things would seem to make sense. Children do the same thing. For a child, fantasy is preferable to ignorance. It is not until a child has reached the middle stages of development that he or she is able to question ideas, weigh evidence, and then judge their veracity. Still, the child remains unable to reason with abstract concepts until he or she approaches teenhood.

4. Morals and Ethics

“Right” and “Wrong” are abstract social concepts, and thus must build over time. A child is born an ethical blank slate. A toddler does whatever he or she pleases, and if denied, throws a fit. The first glimmers of morality are really nothing more than the results of simple conditioning. Do “good” and the child is rewarded. Do “bad” and the child is punished. Because of this, young children act based upon personal consequence rather than any ethical notion of right or wrong. Should parents fail to consistently discipline a child at this age, the child will continue to behave antisocially since he or she has not been given any cause to think there is something wrong with such behavior.

As socialization increases and egocentrism declines, children grow to understand how their actions affect others. The child’s view of morality shifts to one based on “fairness.” Reciprocity becomes key: “Act unto others as you would like them to act unto you.” However, a child’s ability to reason is still too rigid at this stage to separate an action from its intent. Breaking a rule is seen as wrong, regardless of why it was done. Consider this question: “Karen took $2 from her mother’s purse without asking and spent it on candy. Sarah took $6 from her mother to help a needy friend. Who deserves the worse punishment?” An older child will realize Karen stole for selfish reasons while Sarah took money for an act of kindess. Karen is therefore the worse offender. However, an early or middle-age child will simply see that $6 is more than $2 and declare Sarah worse. Like when performing logical operations, a child’s mind must mature to a certain level of abstract thought before he or she can weigh a premise and find meaning beyond its surface. Because of this, children under the age of twelve tend to follow rules unquestionably, while more mature children can evaluate rules, judge their intentions, and then decide whether or not the rule should be followed. These children can now think for themselves and make their own moral decisions. It is not until this point that a real sense of right or wrong exists.

Conclusion

While psychologists have found a consistent pattern by which children develop, a writer must be aware that no child develops along a perfect timeline. Each child’s mental and social ability is affected not only by age, but by environmental factors as well. Most important amongst these factors is the quantity and quality of support and discipline the child receives from authority figures, as well as the level of acceptance or rejection the child receives from peers. When constructing a child character, a writer must, as for any character, look into the child’s background and identify what physical and social factors exist that may help or harm psychological development and then portray the character accordingly.

Above all, one must resist approaching child characters from the mindset of an adult. This encourages an egocentrism of an adult kind. Instead, go beyond how children appear to behave and get inside their heads to see the story world from their own still-developing eyes. Children do not act like adults. But they are not random, irrational creatures either. They think and behave according to their own rules. Understanding these rules is the best way to make child characters authentic.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

SCRIPTMONK GOES TO THE MOVIES -- Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- The Perks & Perils of Genre-Swapping



It appears that Marvel Studios, and their partners (Paramount, Disney), have begun to take their Avenger superhero properties in the same narrative direction as the Marvel comics themselves. They no longer exist as separate films, or even separate franchises, but a web of intersecting characters and story arcs that can only be fully appreciated through a familiarity with the others. You never know what character is going to pop up in what film or how one film's results are going to influence the storyline of the next. Though this is a novel (and extremely lucrative) approach, its stands to pose some very significant problems when it comes to the narrative integrity of each individual film. Namely, how to keep each individual film an independent, self-contained narrative that can be followed and enjoyed all on its own, and how to maintain the unique identity of each franchise instead of succumbing to the homogenization that comes from blending things together. Fail to do this, and each movie will no longer be so much an individual film, but only another monotypical episode in an extremely expensive soap opera.

Marvel's latest installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier tries to achieve some separation from the pack by swerving its plot and tone outside the typical superhero box – with debatable results. Winter Soldier does this by employing what could be considered a clever trick – or a cheap and lazy one, depending on who you may ask. Though this trick may make Winter Soldier seem very fresh from one perspective, it can be incredibly stale from another.

First off, Winter Soldier is nothing like its predecessor Captain America: The First Avenger. If you removed the title character's name, you would not even be able to tell they are part of the same franchise. Personally, I am happy about this since I did not care much for the first installment. The First Avenger seemed content connecting the superhero-origin dots in the kind of corny, formulated high adventure that went out of style when Spielberg stopped making them in the early 90s. In complete contrast, Winter Soldier is not even a superhero film. Sure, it has superheroes. It contains the fantasy elements found in every superhero film in terms of its action and characters. But in terms of its plot, Winter Soldier is really a POLITICAL THRILLER masquerading in superhero clothes.

Genre-swapping can be a neat trick. Keep in mind that we are talking about genre-swapping, not genre-mixing. Swapping genres means a story presents the external, superficial traits of one genre while following the internal structure of different genre altogether. When done well, genre-swapping can result in what appear as fresh and original films. Star Wars may have been set in space, but in terms of its themes and narrative, it had nothing in common with contemporary science fiction. It took the superficial traits of sci-fi and layered them over the internal structure of the fantasy sword-and-sorcery subgenre. The Coens' The Big Lebowski may seem like a slacker comedy on its surface, but underneath that surface, it operates by the rules of a classic film noir.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has mixed success with this strategy. This is mostly because it does little more than trade one tired formula for another. Anyone familiar with the political thriller subgenre will have no problem spotting all the standard elements: an organization with god-like power, a conspiracy from within, the morally questionable mentor figure, the villain who is but a pawn of the true evil, and the hero stuck in the middle who must go rogue to become an enemy of the organization which he was once loyal. It is basically the same story arc as every season of “24”, except Jack Bauer can run a lot faster and has far stupider fashion sense. The fact of the matter is that genre-swapping does not automatically create something new and original on its own. It has to be done right. To that end, anyone attempting to create such a film should follow three pieces of advice:

#1 COVER YOUR TRACKS

Swapping genres will not impress an audience if it is too obvious that you are simply taking the clothes off one group of cliches and putting them on the body of another. To put things a different way, Captain America: The Winter Soldier tries to take the cap off of a blue pen and put in on a red one and pretend it is writing in a whole new color. It is not. It is still the same old red ink. Winter Soldier does very little to hide how it borrows most of its content from the political thriller. The plot hits all the same marks and the cast of characters have all been adapted to the standard political thriller roles. The only differences are the level of fantasy given to the story world and the way the political thriller's usual chases and moments of violence/suspense have been expanded into full-blown superhero-style action sequences.

To work best, the two genres must be allowed to intermingle – not in their totality, but in the place where the two meet. It is where peanut butter meets jelly. We have the story's deep internal structure, and layered over the top is the story's external world. It is where the two meet that can make such a story feel unique. The traits inherent in the surface genre should be allowed enough influence over story events that they cause the internal genre to adjust how it executes its own rules. For example, most casual viewers of The Big Lebowski never notice how closely the film's plot follows the classic model of a film noir. In fact, it takes effort to really see the noir under the surface because the execution of that model is constantly being subverted, undermined, and flipped on its head by the slacker comedy elements visible on its surface – most notably a protagonist who couldn't be a more bizarre fit for the internal genre. The noir underneath must adjust to these incongruous elements into something off its usual center. Thus, Lebowski does not seem to be a noir trying to be a slacker comedy, or a slacker comedy trying to be a noir, but something completely new. The blue ink meets the red and creates an entirely new color.

#2 If you are going to combine two genres, DO BOTH OF THEM WELL

Swapping genres does not mean you can ignore the requirements of one genre for the sake of the other. When swapping genres, the storyteller must pull double-duty. He or she must meet the visual, tonal, and character requirements of the surface genre; the narrative, structural, and thematic requirements of the internal genre; do them both well; and execute all of this so the elements of the two sides support and enhance each other, not distract or undermine.

The Winter Soldier serves its surface genre pretty well. The action sequences are top-notch. It does an excellent job of absorbing the audience into its fantasy universe. And its choice of characters,
though they have been fit into typical political thriller roles, maintain the larger-than-life personalities of their source genre, keeping them far more than plot-functional archetypes.

However, as a political thriller, The Winter Soldier is rather mediocre. Though its plot hits all the proper notes for its first three-quarters, apart from the superhero element the story offers nothing a viewer has not seen a dozen times before. It's a purely by-the-numbers affair. Furthermore, the story is advanced on several occasions through coincidences and questionable plot contrivances that would cause a normal political thriller (being a genre more grounded in reality) to instantly lose credibility. This usually occurs whenever Winter Soldier tries to inject story devices from its surface genre that do not fit well with an otherwise pure political thriller. The most egregious case is the revelation of the identify of the Winter Soldier. Though this kind of too-corny coincidence that may be common in the comics, it stinks like a wet turd in the more logically-grounded political thriller.

However what ultimately causes Winter Soldier's political thriller plot to result in a less than satisfactory end is the same malady found in many political thrillers: the execution of the big conspiracy. Conspiracies are difficult things to pull off narratively. They must be complex enough to be a mental puzzle for the audience, yet still be clear and simple enough for the audience to follow without confusion. Furthermore, there is the issue of stakes. Unless the audience is orientated well to understand and, more importantly, care about what is at stake, the conspiracy will feel like much ado about nothing. The Winter Soldier struggles to get the audience to really care about the stakes behind its conspiracy; and in terms of its plot, errs on the side of simplicity in the end. When we do finally learn what the Big Evil is really up to, it turns out to be little more than a cheap contrivance to set up the obligatory ultra-battle that comprises Winter Soldier's final act. This brings us to the third principle of genre-swapping:

#3 FINISH THE RACE ON THE SAME HORSE WITH WHICH YOU STARTED

If you start a story following the internal model of a certain genre, stick with that model all the way to the story's end. Do not fall back or revert to the surface genre just because it becomes convenient or when things get too hard. Under its surface, Star Wars remains a sword-and-sorcery story throughout, ending with the young warrior's destruction of the evil warlord's impenetrable fortress. Lebowski also maintains its noir model, ending with a classic detective's inquest (of course, this is followed by a long comic denouement, but even it retains its noir elements). The Winter Soldier on the other hand all but abandons its political thriller model as it enters its third act. This was no doubt because, as a superhero franchise, it was felt mandatory to end with the kind of explosion-filled CGI schmozz expected from the surface genre. All elements of the political thriller then became secondary concerns; no longer even attached to the story's protagonist, but instead delegated to supporting characters (Black Widow and Nick Fury) in a way that is often clumsy and underserved. With a political thriller setup and a superhero film end, The Winter Soldier's third act is less than completely satisfying to either genre. The political thriller we have followed for ninety minutes is allowed to wither. Meanwhile, all the big superhero set piece action feels to be a lot of “Sound & Fury Signifying Nothing”since it had not been set up in the first three-quarters of the film in the way it would in a more traditional superhero film to provide the proper build-up and attached emotional content. One has to wonder what kind of original, and possibly more satisfying, end Winter Soldier might have had if it had stuck to its political thriller guns all the way to the finish.

All in all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier may be seen in two ways. It is either an effort to inject a new tone and identity into the franchise in order to separate it from what are now so many similar properties, or it is the slap-dash attempt at a workable plot in order to put out just one more of Marvel's big money tentpoles. Time will tell if Marvel will try to maintain and improve upon this new approach to the Captain, or if it will fall back onto more of the same-old, same-old.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Comedy, Conflict, and Character: What We Can Learn from Sesame Street



I confess. I am a grown man who still enjoys Sesame Street. Not all of it of course. Not the tedious, repetitive stuff on the Letter A or whatnot. What I love are the short comedy scenes that have been a part of the show since its inception. This is not because I am a sucker for Muppets (even though I am). This is because they are classic bits of comedy writing that continue to be amusing even though my tastes in entertainment have greatly matured. There is a lot that can be learned from these little segments. I strongly believe that if one wishes to master sophisticated forms of storytelling such as screenwriting for film and television, it does one much good to first study the principles of storytelling in its simplest of forms. In this regard, Sesame Street demonstrates little nuggets of gold for anyone who wants to write funny scenes.

Here is one of my all-time favorite bits. Give it a watch:


Now what, as a grown adult, makes me still find this scene amusing? Sure, it is zany. Sure, the song is catchy. Sure, Ernie has a lot of charisma. But for me, what really makes this scene is Bert. The scene could have done fine with Ernie singing and dancing on his own, but the inclusion of Bert is what takes its comedy to a higher level. Why is this? This is because Bert supplies the scene with conflict. Everyone should know by now that conflict is the lifeblood of a dramatic scene. It is also the lifeblood of comedic scene. Bert and Ernie have conflicting goals. Bert wants peace and quiet so he can go to sleep. Ernie wants to sing and dance the night away. The scene then develops from this conflict.

However, conflict in itself is not necessarily funny. If this were so, every scene in every movie would be a laugh riot. What makes a conflict funny?

First, let's define our terms a little more clearly. “Comedy” is a very broad term, so for the sake of this article we are only interested in what we can call “dramatic comedy,” which is humor intended to emerge from interactions between two or more characters in a situational context. It is late at night. Bert wants to sleep, but Ernie is wide awake. That is the situational context of the scene. In such a context, conflicting story goals may drive the action of the scene, but the humor really comes from a conflict between the wildly different PERSONALITIES who created those goals. The more wide the difference between personalities, the more potential there will be for conflict.

The Bert & Ernie duo make use of a very common character dynamic known as “Straight Man/Funny Man.” One character, the Straight Man, is serious, down-to-earth, and tends to see things in terms of established rules and order. The Funny Man is the exact opposite. He is flighty, irrational, and usually handles situations by his own rules – rules he often makes up on the spot. Observe an even more extreme example of Straight Man/Funny Man in this segment between Kermit the Frog (the most rational of the Sesame Street Muppets) and Cookie Monster (the most irrational). (BTW, I don't understand why the show stopped teaming Kermit with Cookie Monster. They have great chemistry.)



Once again, Kermit and Cookie Monster have different scene goals. However, all the laughs come from how Cookie Monster's irrational nature causes him to refuse to cooperate with the rules and order Kermit wishes him to operate by. The humor comes from the conflict of two clashing personalities.

Comedic personality conflicts – and any personality conflict for that matter – are based on what are known as character paradigms. A PARADIGM is the personal lens through which an individual views their reality. It is a mental translation key a person uses to interpret events to decide how they should feel out the situation and how best to react. If we say a person is optimistic or pessimistic, if we call someone idealist or pragmatic, we are talking about the paradigms through which the person views the world. Differing paradigms are the reason why a dozen people can look at the same event and interpret it in a dozen different ways.

When paradigms amongst individuals are too different, it can cause a lot of friction. When characters are polar opposites, such as in the Straight Man/Funny Man dynamic, the smallest of conflicts can easily spiral ludicrously out of control because each character is facing off with someone whose interpretation of reality is so different from their own that both come to believe that the other is a raving lunatic. To demonstrate, here is a scene between Grover and the character known as “Bald Blue.” (That may not be his real name. I'm not even sure if the character has a name.) In this scene, both Grover and Bald Blue are in the same situation, but operate under very different paradigms regarding what should be considered a proper interaction between customer and waiter.



Once again we must ask, why do we find this conflict funny? Neither Grover nor Bald Blue find their interaction amusing. Rather, both are quite serious and soon become very irritated with each other. This is fun for neither of them. So are we laughing at their frustrations out of cruelty? No, not really. We are not laughing at the characters themselves, but what is created between the characters.

Dramatic comedy typically pits a character possessing a relatively rational/logical paradigm with a character possessing a paradigm that is irrational/illogical. When the logic collides with illogic, they react like matter and anti-matter. They annihilate each other, and in their wake leave an ambiguous psychological state called THE ABSURD. The Absurd is a state of mind in which our human abilities to think and reason prove completely useless. Something makes no sense at all, yet still exists. Unable to move forward in its cognitive processing, our brains register a big flashing ERROR message. But rather than freeze up or crash the way a computer would in this situation, our brains have evolved a unique way to release this cognitive logjam. We LAUGH. Laughter is a physiological response used to dismiss the tension caused by logical inconsistencies that the mind considers meaningless (aka, the Absurd). Luckily for the entire field of comedy, this reaction is accompanied by a release of endorphins, making laughter a pleasurable experience.

So in summary, comedy is about presenting an audience with moments of absurdity. In dramatic comedy, this is done by pitting two or more characters against each other with logically irreconcilable paradigms. This creates conflict, both situational and personality-based, making the scene both dramatic and humorous.

Or you can just throw in some boogie-woogie sheep. Now THAT is absurd.