Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Movie Serial Aside

I have, through some quirk of random shopping, acquired a 1943 movie serial featuring Batman.

I’ve watched about half of it so far. As I expected, it requires a mind shift to get around the 1940’s production values and limitations. What caught me more by surprise was the propaganda – the fighting American, wartime, unapologetically anti-Japanese jingoism.

But what really threw me was the realization that the hero wasn’t really quite Batman yet. Sure, he has the cave and the costume and the faithful butler, but he comes across like a generic masked avenger. He could just as easily be the Green Hornet or the Grey Ghost.

He doesn’t have the brooding, driven personality. He isn’t haunted by the death of his parents. He isn’t overly brilliant or competent. He's just a rich playboy with an odd hobby.

The audience (presumably) follows him for the adventure and the sly nods when someone talks to Bruce about the mysterious Batman. They don’t need the backstory because they know his type. Everyone is the serial so far is a type rather than a character (although Alfred, played for comedy relief, comes close).

Not really sure what my point is, except maybe this: It’s odd to watch a serviceable story with no real character depth. The story has thugs and a mastermind and a damsel-in-distress, along with a notable hero and sidekick, all dutifully playing their roles.

But it would be better if it had Batman in it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

I am seriously rewriting the second half of my script. While I successfully reached both my 100 page goal and the end of my story within April, I have found a significant problem in my story.

The quest has no stakes.

I’ve set up that my hero, Jon Warder, is going on what may well be a fool’s quest as a point of honor, because there is nothing else he can do for the people for whom he feels responsible. I like that. It’s nifty.

But if he should fail in his quest? Nothing changes.  And if he should succeed? Well, he does succeed, of course, and it turns out to be very important, but at the time he takes the quest, we don’t know why it’s important. For most of the movie, it looks like if he succeeds, nothing changes.

So why should the audience care if he fails?

When laying out plots, nothing changes is the kiss of death.

I have two options. I can invest the viewer more in Jon’s honor, showing that he takes some great, personal, internal loss if he fails. Or I can establish real, physical consequences to the quest. They already exist, I just have to find a way to share them with the audience sooner.

Ideally, I should do both of these things.

The problem is that I did a good job tying the story together. One scene logically follows the next. There is pacing and flow. So I’m going to have to break it before I can fix it.

That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Anticipating Explosions

The bomb wants to explode.

I don’t know where I first heard that, but it’s a great phrase. Generally speaking, if you see a bomb in a movie, it’s going to go off. That is its function, after all.

When something big and exciting, like an explosion, becomes possible in a story, the only satisfying way to have it not happen is to replace the event with something equally dramatic and powerful. This is why, when bombs are defused in action movies, our hero is always deciding between the blue wire and the red wire with only three seconds left on the clock.

The impending event doesn’t have to be an explosion, of course. It can be a divorce, a confession, a sex scene, whatever. But once the possibility of drama and excitement is raised, anticipation sets in. The reader/audience wants (or dreads) the fulfillment of that possibility.

There is a famous example from Hitchcock, defining the difference between shock and suspense. Two people walk into a room and a bomb goes off without warning. The audience is shocked for a moment. Two people walk into a room where the audience knows there is a bomb and have an extended conversation while the counter slowly ticks down… Now you have suspense.

Amusingly, striptease works on the same principle. The possibility, the anticipation, and what, in the end, does or does not get delivered.

There is a Jackie Chan fight scene on an adhesive-covered treadmill in a glue factory. In order to move, the fighters have to remove their shoes. When someone is knocked down, he has to take off his pants to stand back up. They fight standing on abandoned articles of clothing. The longer they fight, the less they end up wearing.

Once the pattern is established, Jackie’s beautiful female assistant, an Indian woman wearing little more than a long flowing sari, jumps up on the treadmill…

Admit it – aren’t you curious how the fight scene ends?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Creativity Challenges

So I spent the last month working on a Dungeon’s & Dragons-style screenplay (see any of my blog posts from April 2010).

One of the things that was helpful is that I’ve spent the idle moment, here and there, wondering what I would do with a D&D movie. Some of the stuff I was certain I would include didn’t fit the story and ended up on the cutting room floor. But I already had ideas about what kind of of lead character I wanted, where I wanted the tale to start, that kind of thing.

I keep in the back of my mind a number of writing challenges that I may never get to do. I know what I would do if suddenly given access to the Star Wars franchise, for example. Or given an assignment to write a superhero movie. Or hired to write a bad late-night cable flick. Or author the next hot urban fantasy detective novel. It’s fun to think about.

These are mere idle fancies, of course, but they have their purpose. They exercise some interesting muscles in the creative brain. To begin with, they not only challenge me with what I might do, but with how I might do it right.

When I contemplate doing a Star Wars story, for example, I don’t just give myself license to run amok with the established canon. I have to think about what are the elements common to Star Wars stories? What makes them work, what do their fans want?

These idle fantasies incorporate the careful study of existing material, giving me a way to think through how a given franchise or genre works and where it breaks down.

Because if I were to write a generic space opera story that could be shoehorned into to either Star Wars or Star Trek, I’m doing it wrong.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Jigsaw

Longer works – novels, movies, stage plays – are composed of multiple scenes. I suppose you could have a single long scene that included everything, but it would have to be a really good scene.

Changing scenes – that is, occasionally changing characters, locations, and points in time, keeps things interesting. It also resembles life. If we’re not in prison, most of us seek changes of surroundings, at least now and then.

The scenes add up to a story. They are like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. No one scene gives the whole of the picture, but each scene contains information necessary to complete the image. And like a puzzle, the pieces all have to be assembled in the proper order.

Where the analogy breaks down, however, is that the author not only assembles the puzzle, but also crafts each individual piece. And unlike jigsaw makers, storycrafters don’t start with a complete picture and then reduce it to components. Just the opposite, in my experience.

Imagine doing a jigsaw puzzle where, when you saw a piece was missing, it was your responsibility to make it. And each piece you make changes the final picture. And you can make them out of sequence, but they have to all fit in place when you are done. (You might have a few waste pieces left over that get thrown away because they don’t fit like you thought they would.)

If I really wanted to stretch the analogy, I could talk about how the events of the scene form the shape of the jigsaw piece while tone and theme are its colors. How the shapes lock the puzzle together while the colors work to make it pleasing.

But really, it’s enough for now just to contemplate how the story is built in our minds, one point at a time, adding up into a complete whole.