I recently binged through a Canadian TV series for certain specific reasons the least of which was the horrendous character development, dialogue, and contrived character situations. These least of reasons did inspire me to share something with you, i.e. how NOT to contrive dramatic situations.
Three contrivances that this series resorted to over and over to create drama were the following:
1. A character is presented with a possibility for success toward some goal and s/he throws one “what if” after another at it and an argument ensues. This is okay if the character throwing up the “what if” smokescreen suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but when all the characters do it throughout the series, that means the writer is out of creative ideas for character development. The drama becomes labored and contrived.
2. Two characters in an intense discussion/argument where one is about to reveal some deep secret or acquiesce in an apology necessary for the relationship to move in some dramatic direction and the interaction is interrupted by something – a phone call, a third character enters the scene, some emergency happens off-screen, etc. Again, this technique is fine to use once or twice in a movie, or in every third episode of a TV series, but when used over and over… and over… frustration sets in with the audience and it’s not a good frustration. It distracts.
3. Two characters in an intense discussion/argument and the distrusting/disbelieving one walks away… and the other character just stands there because the writer didn’t continue the scene even though it’s obvious that s/he would have pursued the other to clarify things, but the director has told the actor to stay in frame. Again, if the character that remains shrugs off the moment with the thought “oh, well, and c’est la vie,” or in slack-jawed confusion, that can be used once or twice depending upon the character, but when most of the characters, even the O-CD afflicted ones do it, I attribute it to the writer wanting to extend the conflict between the two characters. If this conceit is used frequently, it distracts the audience.
I continue to state that a dramatic writer must write each character from within that character’s skin and guts. You can’t bend a character to do, or not do, something that is against his/her nature just because you, the writer, need the story to go in a certain direction, or because you have another few minutes to fill out the episode. If all the characters sound and act the same, the story grows stale and the drama is muted.
Recently, I read a script wherein the writer created one of the greatest disaster stories of all time. It was up there with Titanic, Deep Impact, Volcano, etc. All the elements of a disaster story were present – mass destruction of millions of lives and tens of thousands of square miles of property, the necessity for governmental opponents to band together to turn the tide, and last-minute heroics. What else would you want?
It’s got a cast of thousands, scores speaking roles, and numerous primary and secondary characters. Surely this is a potential blockbuster movie. This is a script that the studios create bidding wars over each seeking their next tent-pole summer extravaganza. There are numerous catastrophic scenes that will generate an eye-popping trailer… and if a movie is made from the current draft, it will bomb. What? Why?
During the process of constructing the plot and unfolding it through numerous character perspectives, the writer forgot the purpose behind telling the story. He forgot that the disaster plot is merely a vehicle for an implied theme and that theme comes from character arc. He also forgot that an audience could care diddly squat about events unless it impacts the main character in a life-changing manner.
Perhaps the Main Character is instrumental in stopping said disaster, but if there’s no challenge to his emotional armor, which was constructed early in life to protect from some primary wound, then all the so-called heroic actions in the world will not create an emotional investment in the audience.
Take the movie Titanic, for instance. If Rose had not felt hemmed in by her lifestyle and upcoming marriage, depicted by the hit-me-over-the head-with-it corset scene, and if Jack had not challenged her fear of breaking loose, all we would have had was a story about a sinking boat of which we already knew the ending. Rose’s character arc from a sense of powerlessness to emotional freedom is the story. The event of the boat sinking is merely the vehicle for telling that story.
Above, I mentioned that the writer tells the story through numerous character perspectives with a great deal of exposition through dialogue. Even if each of these characters had an emotional arc that complemented the others, which in this example wasn’t the case, every time the story shifts perspectives the audience goes back to neutral emotionally. They have to adjust to a new perspective, which is not a good thing, especially if there is no emotional arc to the character. A single perspective is best when telling a movie story.
Let me repeat myself here: the audience must connect emotionally with the main character. This character’s emotional need creates intention. Intention provokes a character’s desire to step beyond his emotional armor (reactive fearful behavior) toward some goal. As a result of some Call To Adventure (impending disaster?), he takes an action which provokes a reaction from a character (antagonist) that wants him to reconsider his quest.
The main character’s actions and antagonist’s reactions creates plot. Plot is the vehicle for theme, which comes from the shift in consciousness that the main character must make in order to achieve his goal. In other words, nothing happens except through character.
If the audience doesn’t identify with the main character and bond with him emotionally early on, it doesn’t matter what the event is, the story is hollow, empty, and vacuous. The boat sinks and so what? The audience can only identify with the disaster event through a character with whom they identify emotionally. Even National Geographic finds a way to anthropomorphize an animal in order for the audience to identify with and root for it.
The Main Character in a movie story generates every other story element – plot, theme, structure, action (dialogue is a refined action), reversals, and everything but genre. Genre determines the tone of the story and dictates the writing style of the description and dialogue.
Structure is the result of escalating emotionally challenging dilemmas and decisions made by the main character up to and including a seeming death of the quest, which brings atonement with the past and a new perspective and a new direction. Structure culminates in a final battle with the antagonist and a resolution of the main character’s quest.
My point here is that if you do not know your characters intimately, your story will not connect with the audience. No matter how great your plot points or story events are, if there is no emotional connection with character, your movie will bomb at the box office.
Screenplays are structure. -William Goldman
A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… but not necessarily in that order.
American movies are about what happens next. -Richard Toscan
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law. -Louis Sullivan
What is structure? Structure is form. Form follows function. What is the function of a movie? To entertain and inspire. Why do people go to movies? To be entertained and to be inspired.
The only way that an audience can relate to a movie story in order for one or both of those things to happen is to identify with its contents in some manner. The only way they can identify is through character. Give the character a universal redeeming quality (the Beatitudes and the Boy Scout Law pretty much covers them all) and a flaw (some value out of balance that we can all relate to – try the Seven Deadly Sins).
Then send that character on a quest for something that s/he’s been afraid to pursue but current circumstances compel him/her to make the Emotionally-Challenging Decision, and you’re off and running. As long as you can keep the character coming face to face with emotionally-challenging dilemmas where his/her “good angel” (Conscience Character) and his “bad angel” (Tempter Character) do battle for his soul while the antagonist pushes him/her to reconsider the quest, you keep the audience’s interest.
And that’s all you need to know about structure. (But, he goes on…)
We hear writers complain about the “Hollywood Movie Template,” then set about to reinvent the structure wheel. Why, we may ask? So that stories are less predictable, they reply.
The problem of predictability is not with the “template.”
The game of modern Chess dates back over a thousand years. It uses the same archetypal characters every time and has three basic “acts” – Opening, Middle Game, and End Game. Yet, there are seemingly an infinite number of variations. Western music has twelve basic tones, yet listen to all the music that has been composed.
The problem of story predictability is solved with creative imagination while remaining within the principles of structure, which have their roots in antiquity and have been proven over the millennia. But, let’s back up and ask some fundamental questions to see if structure does need to evolve.
What is the purpose of Story? Why do we tell stories? The original purpose of Story was to pass tribal history and mythology to future generations. This was done in an oral fashion since recording it on a physical medium had yet to be developed. Creating a structure with emotionally escalating “signposts” allowed the listener to remember the story easier.
Aristotle (350 BCE) came along and codified all things, and with story-telling wisely stated that Story has a beginning, middle, and end. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Then, Horace, Roman poet and statesman, stated that dramatic structure consisted of five acts. That fell out of favor, then was revived during the Renaissance, then jettisoned for the four-act structure, only to be revitalized again by Gustave Freytag.
The five-part structure unfolds as follows: 1. Exposition, 2. Rising Action, 3. Climax, 4. Falling Action, 5. Denouement/Resolution/Catastrophe. I have no idea how or why Gustave makes a distinction between Falling Action and Resolution, but there it is.
But then you take a look at Alfred Uhry’s play Driving Miss Daisy, which takes place in 25 scenes, or Pulp Fiction, which steals its circular structure from Before The Rain (Milcho Manchevski), or Momento, which steals its structure from Betrayal (Harold Pinter), etc., and you wonder, so okay, what’s all this rigidity about structure?
Architect Louis Sullivan stated that form follows function, an idea he stole from American Sculptor Horatio Greenough. This goes along with Richard Toscan’s quote “American movies are about what happens next.” None of these dudes get to the main point, which is to keep the audience entertained until you can deliver your message, which is the function.
Let’s not forget the purpose of structure. The purpose of structure is to keep the audience involved in the story. The purpose of Story is to make a point. If you don’t have a point to make, your story is rather useless, in my humble opinion.
The function of Story is to make a point. Over the millennia, a form has evolved that fulfills that function. Form follows function. But, what are the building blocks of structure? Could it be turning points? What are turning points? Are they action-based? Where does action come from? Could it come from character decisions? Why does a character make decisions? Could it be because s/he wants something? What makes that decision interesting? Perhaps the character wants something s/he’s afraid to pursue but is compelled to pursue it in spite of fears. Why should the audience be interested in whether this character succeeds or not? Could it be that the character has been introduced in such a manner, i.e. shows a redeeming quality, that the audience identifies with him/her? Then through vicarious identification the audience cares for and desires this character to succeed?
EMOTIONAL SUBSTANCE is the link and the key to engaging reader/audience!
So, I conclude that structure has no basis without character – a character that emotionally involves the audience. And structure comes from an escalating string of emotionally-challenging dilemmas and decisions that this character makes until s/he succeeds or fails. Act one provides an opportunity for the audience to get to know the character; act two presents the emotional and questing journeys through the transformational world; act three allows the unfolding of the main character’s final battle with the antagonist, or shadow self and success or failure.
However, the success or failure has two levels. The character can succeed in his/her quest but fail to overcome personal emotional obstacles as in The Sweet Smell Of Success. Or the character can fail in the outer quest but succeed in overcoming his/her fears as in Wall Street. Or the character can succeed on both levels, external quest and internal challenge, as in a kazillion Hollywood films.
Whether you imagine your movie in 3 acts, or 4 acts, or 12 beats, or 22 beats, or 25 scenes, or travel in reverse, or go in a circle, or proceed through 9 seasons and 198 TV episodes, there are fundamental structural elements that must be present in order for your story to have any impact. Those elements begin and end with character. Without character leading the charge and creating the structure, plot, theme, obstacles, reversals, etc., your story quickly grows banal, empty, and boring. I find the Mission Impossible franchise boring for that very reason. No character growth and evolution that I can see or feel.
My suggestion is that you construct a complex character with redeeming qualities and flaws and values out of balance, a character that strongly desires something but is afraid to go after it until s/he receives vital information (or boon) that compels him/her to make the decision to take the journey.
How you present that story is called story weaving. As Godard says, you don’t necessarily have to present it in a linear fashion. However, you DO have to justify your story weaving with your thematic intent. If you are weaving your story non-linearly to be cute, give it up. If you have a point to make and your weaving is intricate to that point, as in BeforeThe Rain or Momento, then by all means proceed.
Otherwise, get creative with the dreaded “Hollywood Movie Template.”
It’s a fractal universe. It’s all connected, reflective, and interactive with itself.
About 5 weeks ago I wiped out on a bicycle and ripped up the MCL (medial collateral ligament) in my left knee. It was a number-2 tear. Not life-threatening, but not an easy fix either. Since I’m quite active and athletic, this injury threw me for a loop. I limped around for 3 weeks and still can’t make quick lateral movements, but I’m turning the predicted 6-month healing process into 6 weeks because I know how to heal! I don’t leave it up to fate. I am the author of my own healing. I write my own story.
In the meantime, I’ve had to deal with the side effects of the injury. Limping throws my lower lumbar out of alignment, which throws out my upper cervical vertebrae via the sacral-occipital connection. With the two ends of my spine out of integrity, my thoracic area subluxates. Tertiary effects, like sciatica, headaches, poor sleep, restricted deep breathing, etc., come with these secondary issues. So, I go to my chiropractor and acupuncturist to realign my structural integrity and unlock my blocked energy flow.
I’m making a point here. Stay with me.
The knee, ankle, and feet are the foundation of our spine’s integrity. They must be strong, flexible, and structurally integral in order to support the integrity of the spine. The outer structure of the spine is the vertebrae, or a set of interlocking bones that encase the spinal cord. So, the spine consists of this outer protective casing to this mysterious inner bio-fiber-optic that conducts vibrational impulses throughout our bodies.
The same is true of Story. A story has a spine, which I will define in a minute. But what are the foundational “legs” of a story spine? I continue to insist that the foundation of the story spine is Character. If you don’t have well-defined characters, you’re story spine will be compromised.
Following through with the analogy, the plot of a story is like the vertebral column and the spinal cord is like the theme. The plot is the obvious part of a story and the theme is the more subtle, more profound part that rides within a Main Character’s emotional journey.
If your characters, like my knee, are weakened, or not well-developed, the spine will be weakened. The reason is because the spine of a well-developed story consists of emotionally-challenging decisions that the main character makes in the face of emotionally-challenging dilemmas. The dilemma must always be an emotional challenge. A physical challenge is not enough.
Let me explain by referring to an iconic scene in an iconic movie, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Butch and Sundance are trapped high up on a cliff a hundred feet above a raging river. The Super-Posse is closing in. To confront them head on means certain death. Butch suggests they jump for it. Sundance tells him to go ahead; he’ll hold them off. Butch reminds him that if they jump there’s a chance; trading bullets offers no chance. Sundance insists. Butch demands to know why. Sundance reveals with great embarrassment that he can’t swim. Sundance would rather die than suffer the humiliation of admitting he can’t swim to his best bud. Revealing that he can’t swim is more of an emotionally-challenging decision for Sundance than dying!
My point is that physical confrontation isn’t always emotional. Gunfights, fisticuffs, chases, and staged stunts full of special effects are cotton candy to the eye and the adrenals, but they are not profoundly thematic. They have nothing to do with a story’s structural integrity if the action does not come from the main character’s emotionally-challenging decision to confront some fear that keeps him/her from pursuing the goal.
Back to my knee: my fear was that I had done some permanent damage to my knee and therefore my vital ability to act. My emotional challenge was to make adjustments in the picture of my healing. I’ve had ligament tears before. I knew that it would be a matter of discerning the good pain from the bad. As an endurance athlete, the pain is not the issue. Backing off of activity when I want to continue is the emotional challenge for me.
Likewise in screenwriting, it’s important to know that however great a scene may be, or however much you may love a scene, if it doesn’t move the story forward while developing character through inner and outer conflict, you need to whack it out. That’s the writer’s emotionally-challenging decision. Spiritual growth comes from abandoning your comfort zone, confronting your fears, and making the difficult decisions. Those kinds of decisions also build the story spine that carries the integrity of character, story, and meaning, or theme.
Who am I to state these things? I am the chiropractor of story spine; I am the acupuncturist of story energy. I can show you how to create structural integrity and vigorous vital purpose through character development. All elements connect, interact, and affect the whole.