False Reincorporation

Posted on March 9th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | 2 Comments »

When a storyteller of any kind begins a story for an audience, it is understood between them that the story will make sense and have a point. Some stories lack cause and effect and so don’t make sense: “Today I bought a vase to put flowers in. I actually put a rhino in it. And then fell off the balcony.” This is suprising but not coherent.

Some make sense but have no point: “Today I bought a vase to put flowers in, but it was the wrong colour so I took it back”. This is coherent but unsuprising – the effect is not interesting.

In each case, some element of cause and effect is missing.

When elements from earlier in the story are reincorporated, there may or may not be cause and effect.

Star Wars. The Force is SHELVED (disregarded) while Luke makes his attack on the Death Star, but then MEMORIES of Ben CAUSE Luke to turn off his aiming computer and fire the winning shot using just the Force – which proves to be successful. Cause and effect all present and correct.

However, Han Solo is also SHELVED – he has opted out of the mission – only to be REINCORPORATED when he suddenly show up in time to blast Darth Vader’s ship and allow Luke to make his final run unmolested. What caused Solo to return and at that exact moment? Well, it’s far from clear, but because it’s a reincorporation, you get a pass. The CAUSE is the storyteller. A random pilot showing up out of nowhere just isn’t satisfying.

So, the understanding between storyteller and audience contains another detail, which is an extension of the first. “I include elements in this story for a reason.” Trouble is, audience members get wise to this. When the director includes a bloody big close up of a spike during a fight scene, and for no obvious reason, the audience *knows* that the bad guy is going to get that same spike in the face pretty shortly. When James Bond gets a certain gadget from Q, you’re waiting and waiting for him to use it in the field. If he never used it, you’d be disappointed. Once he does. you relax.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but what do you do if you want to suprise an audience? Bringing in something arbitrary, especially at the end is what audiences generally call a “cop out”. If at the end of the Wizard of Oz, Glinda says “just hold a cat above your head and say ‘fiddlesticks’ three times and you’ll be home in a jiffy”, that would be nonsense. It’s the ruby slippers (silver in the book, but this is the movie) on Dorothy’s feet the whole time which have the power to get her home, BUT WE DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING.

So, how do you hide your suprises in plain sight? Plenty of ways. John Cleese has said that in writing Fawlty Towers, he and Connie Booth would bend over backwards to make the set ups as funny as possible. That way the audience would remember but not analyse.

More subtly, the Ruby Slippers have already played a role throughout the Wizard of Oz. It’s the presence of the slippers on Dorothy’s feet which antagonises the Wicked Witch in the first place, and her desire to posess them causes her to try to kill Dorothy. Because they’ve already played a part, they aren’t hanging around like an as-yet-unused Bond gadget.

Now consider the last film I happened to see: 16 Blocks. Not a masterpiece of screenwriting by any means, but solidly constructed nonetheless. The movie begins with Bruce Willis trapped on board a bus, apparently believing that the end is near, dictating his last will and testament into a dictaphone. The movie then flashes back to earlier that day and over the next hour or so, we see the events which brought him to the bus. When one of the passengers drops a dictaphone and Willis scoops it up we think “well, I know what that’s for” and we feel very pleased with ourselves. But there’s still a good 40 minutes or so to go before the end.

30 minutes later, Willis has a verbal showdown with antoganist David Morse, during which they both articulate their moral positions. Willis then turns himself in as a witness against his fellow cops and in the courthouse, an attempt is made on his life and he falls to the floor. The dictaphone falls out of his pocket and begins to play… David Morse incriminating himself.

The POINT of the dictaphone is NOT to be reincorporated on the bus, it’s to be reincorporated in the court room. But unless Willis has a reason to pick it up on the bus, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Willis has NO REASON to pick it up on the bus, he doesn’t even get to finish his last will and testament, but the structuring reassures the audience that that loose end has been tidied away and we don’t need to look out for it anymore. We’ll sure as hell remember it when it comes up again though. This is a FALSE REINCORPORATION.

Another example, from The Incredibles. In a flashback early in the film, we see Mr Incredible pestered by his biggest fan, Buddy. Later in the flashback, Buddy is reincorporated during Mr Incredible’s attempt to defeat bad-guy Bomb Voyage and his further pestering is seen as being responsible for the anti-superhero law suits which have condemned Mr Incredible to a life of tedious office-work. The audience knows why Buddy was introduced, and has seen him reincorporated. The tick him off their list of things to worry about. The other shoe has dropped.

When, later in the movie the villain Syndrome is revealed to be Buddy all grown-up and hell-bent on revenge it’s hard therefore to see it coming. The first, false, reincorporation hides the second.

Maybe you’re smarter than me and you saw both those twists coming. Fair enough, some of the audience will often be ahead of the storyteller, and that’s just a fact of life. But I believe FALSE REINCORPORATION is an excellent substitute for both Obvious Set-ups and Cheap Suprise if you want to catch at least some of the audience unawares without them feeling cheated.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

What is a story anyway?

Posted on March 4th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | 1 Comment »

There are a lot of different answers to this question, and I plan to explore some other ways of tackling this issue in later blog posts.

Here’s a couple of initial forays into this dense thicket.

1. A story is a linked series of questions and their answers. When all questions are answered, the story is over.

2. A story is a device for establishing a hero and then making them suffer.

The first answer tells you the structure of a story. The second answer tells you about the content of a story. Between them, they give you the point of the story. If either of these two elements is missing or underdeveloped, then the story will feel pointles.

Most screenwriting manuals (and many screenwriters) talk in terms of “acts”. These are fairly arbitrary divisions, a bit like chapters in a book. They describe separate portions of the story but are rarely flagged up to the audience. So one person’s six acts might be another person’s long middle act. But you can see in, for example Star Wars, that there’s an introductory bit with the droids escaping, a bit on Tatooine, a bit on the Milennium Falcon, a bit where they rescue Princess Leia and a bit where they attack the Death Star. Each of these could be called an act.

At the beginning of a story, questions are raised. What is Leia’s message? Who is Old Ben? Will Han Solo help Luke and Ben? Can Luke become a Jedi? As some questions are answered, others are raised through the middle of the story. Who will win the lightsaber duel – Vader or Ben? Answer: Vader – but what did Ben’s last words mean? At the end of the story, all questions are answered, and that’s how we know it’s the end. Acts often end when a lot of pressing questions have all been answered. If a lot of questions are answered, and then a lot of new independent questions are raised and then these are answered in turn, and this pattern repeats, then we feel a movie is episodic.

But this is all very dry and brittle. Stories don’t feel dry and brittle, they feel emotional and engaging. Most importantly, we have to have a hero of some kind that we engage with on some level. Heroes don’t have to be likeable – although you do make your life a helluva lot easier if they are – but we have to have some kind of empathy with them or why should we care if they live or die, succeed or fail? And once we know who they are, you have to get them into trouble, you have to make them suffer.

I’m generally rather wary of  statements about stories which include the word “all” or “never”. I often find myself searching for exceptions to the rule. But I’ll stick my neck out and claim the following: all stories involve somebody suffering in some way. Try this. Think of something you wouldn’t want to have happen to you. Whatever you’re thinking of, somebody would pay to see.

Different genres of story mean different kinds of suffering. Suffering in Die Hard means being trapped at the top of an exploding skyscraper. Suffering in the books of Jane Austen means being female, unmarried and over thirty, but it is still suffering.

So, artful screenwriters use the process of raising and answering questions as a framework, within which to establish an interesting hero and make them suffer in exotic ways. When these two elements mesh, we have the exquisite anguish of Jack Lemmon realising that he has facilitated his boss’s affair with the girl that he loves in The Apartment, or the horrible spectacle of Robert de Niro’s explosion of violence at the end of Taxi Driver, or the pure excitement of Indiana Jones’s pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant by horse and by truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Some of these are also set pieces which will be the subject of a future blog entry.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Storytelling II: Character flaws are also cause-and-effect

Posted on March 2nd, 2009 in storytelling | No Comments »

Comparing different gurus who tackle the same subject-matter is always fascinating. Robert McKee, for example, appears to know almost nothing about reincorporation. He briefly mentions foreshadowing, but completely fails to spot that good structure is not just about timing sub-plots and breaking down long stories into smaller acts, it is also about “planting” what you need early to reincorporate it later.

Keith Johnstone, on the other hand, who sees reincorporation as the primary technique for structuring stories, is very weak when it comes to creating characters. The best he can offer is a super-objective persued by different means and to remind us that characters need to be affected by what happens to them. Unhappily, we are given no guidance as to how to combine the two. His work on status, which doesn’t appear to be about character, is much more useful.

McKee is much stronger on creating characters and on how to assemble a cast of characters which will work well together. Rambo, he tells us (or I paraphrase him, at any rate) is a less successful and less interesting character than James Bond because Rambo is entirely consistent. Rambo looks like a killer and behaves like a killer. Bond looks like a playboy and behaves like a killer. With contradiction comes fascination. 

Having designed a central character with lots of contradictory elements, you can then round out your cast by having characters likely to bring out their different qualities. When Bond is with M, he behaves like a loyal footsoldier. When Bond is with the villain, he behaves like an assassin. When Bond is with the girl, he behaves like a lothario.

So, it’s not surprising that a great many heroes who have been given exciting skills, or even superpowers, such that they can legitimately achieve what the plot demands of them are also given fatal flaws. This not only allows the possibility of failure, but also makes them more interesting.

But it’s not as simple as creating a character who – let’s say – can run very fast and then giving them a lisp. You can’t just give with one hand and take with another. Even if the lisp turns out to be a vital plot point, preserving narrative cause-and-effect (he can’t make a voice-activated gadget work at a crucial moment!?) we still don’t feel like we buy in. There is no way in which we perceive a lisp as being the cost at which his amazing running was bought. There is no cause-and-effect.

Consider on the other hand, one of literature’s first and most successful superheroes: Sherlock Holmes. Is Holmes’ lonely existence, lack of empathy and opium addiction just colour? Are these arbitrary choices to lend dimension and enticing contradiction to a bland character? No, they also *justify* his amazing powers of deduction. Only because he has devoted his life to learning botany, chemistry, mythology and heaven knows what else, can he solve the crimes he does – but this has come at a price: he has cut himself off from human contact, and now seeks solace in the chilly beauty of classic music and the impersonal intoxication of opium.

The original Superman – Kal El / Clark Kent – is an even more interesting case study. His allergy to Kryptonite is simply a plot point, like Achilles Heel. It tells us nothing whatsoever about his character. The price he pays for his awesome powers is that he can’t connect with Lois Lane. His social failures as Clark Kent does far more to make us accept his astonishing powers than any scientifully vacuous blather about yellow suns.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.