Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Middle May Be a Distraction.

I saw a student recently work on a mystery plot. It was a clever idea, but the student had a lot of problem with--surprise, surprise--the middle.

That's not unusual. Screenwriters often have a great first 30 pages, maybe a killer last ten pages, but the middle is The Beast.

I have an inkling that mysteries in particular require about four or five plots in the middle that hide the answer to the mystery. They're pure distraction or misdirection. (Misdirection is when the magician waves his hands to draw your attention while the assistant is stuffing the rabbit into the hat.)

For example--and don't read this if you've never seen Murder on the Orient Express--let's say lots of people get on a train, they all conspire to kill a Bad Guy. They succeed; the bad guy turns up dead. We don't know or see this, but it's what's going on beneath the surface.

Poirot happens to be on the train. He investigates and finds...many tantalizing backstories and clues that point hither and yon.

(People who haven't seen Murder on the Orient Express can start reading again!)

So the middle is 90% smoke and mirrors to distract from the actual story.

But I'm beginning to suspect that the middle of a feature film (not just a mystery) is largely misdirection from the beginning and end--except insofar as it effects a change in consciousness for the protagonist. The middle is thus not entirely consequential for the ending, only indirectly through the protagonist's motives.

Take True Lies--one of James Cameron's finest films, IMHO.

There's one problem--in True Lies it's the marriage--which is then replaced by another, more interesting, glamorous, dramatic problem--something about spies, I forget what. (I think the spies almost literally fall from the sky to interrupt the marriage-fidelity-trust plot.) When the spy story is resolved, the characters are dumped back at the main problem again, which now looks different to them.

Or take The Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy's dog gets in trouble with Miss Gulch. Also Dorothy is bored in Kansas. No one truly listens to her. So she plans to run away. Now she'll run away or not, return home or not. But that story's immediately cut short.

The device of the hurricane and the dream then fulfills Dorothy's wish--as Freud tells us dreams and phantasies do, and as pop culture stories so often do. Dorothy wanted to run away but backed down. Now she's forced to run away.

That strangely reverses the problem: not how to get away but how to get home.

Thus in The Wizard of Oz, the problem in the middle is precisely the opposite of the problem at the beginning.

This points to a deeper aspect of aesthetic form: everything that leads away from something also leads to it. The part of the story that's distraction and misdirection, that leads away from the actual ending, is also in a sense a preparation.

That is: you can't just stick any plot in the middle. It has to relate in some substantive (and even formal) way to the beginning and ending story.

In The Wizard of Oz, many strange adventures ensue--talking trees, flying monkeys, etc. They have little to do with Kansas. They're mostly contrast. They make Kansas's problems seem desirable by comparison.

Dorothy gets closer and closer to her new goal (getting home) with the help of helpers who themselves will be helped--they'll all get their wishes in the end. But the putative solution (the wizard) in fact demands even more and harder work--attacking the witch in her lair.

With pluck and determination, the team succeeds. The final route home (the balloon) falls through. But it turns out all the adventures were unnecessary--more or less--save the change they effected in Dorothy's consciousness.

Indeed, the adventures mainly serve to give the characters what they wished for--which it famously turns out they had all along. The adventures serve as a kind of pretext for the characters finding out strengths they had in themselves which they might never have found were it not for the challenges presented by the middle of the plot.

Dorothy has been made happy to be in Kansas, unlikely to run away again--in part because all her fantastic adventures were abetted by the farmhands from whom she had been running away.

What I'm underlining is the way the middle is often kind of a dead end. It doesn't directly solve the initial problem, may have little to do with it, or it may be a fantastic reversal or just cover-up, a thicket in which the threads of the main problem are buried, reflected indirectly.

This are questions of story design--how do the parts relate--but also of narrative logic--what forces or causes one thing to lead to another.

But these are the kinds of things one has to think about to understand how the parts of the feature film hang together--which is in part by not hanging together.

--E. R. O'Neill

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Go Figure.

I've been mulling over a couple-few of questions lately.

One has to do with the mystery of the three- (or four-) act structure of the feature film.

Namely, what happens in the middle? How does the middle relate to the beginning and ending?

Second, how do the chunks of the middle cohere? What's their logic? A series of unrelated problems? One problem's solution begets a new one? What?

Finally, these all connect back to the controlling idea, the vision of the universe that's explored, revealed, assumed, yet somehow also confirmed by the story.


Many observers claim that the middle of a feature film consists of a series of 'progressive complications,' efforts of the protagonist to achieve a goal, perhaps getting successively closer or trying a series of different tacks.

Each of these ideas has its problems.

If it's just the protagonist trying to accomplish something, and then doing it, as many claim, then it's more or less just a wish-fulfillment--and thus not very interesting.

More often it's the complication that gets successively deeper, not the protagonist's actions. That is: things tend to get a lot worse before they get any better.

And the logic of those actions in the middle tends not to be just 'more and more,' but one thing happens and that causes a new problem to open up.

The other issue that's been on my mind is the view of the universe one finds in feature films.

I've written before about 'everything that can go wrong does.'

Or another one would be 'God doesn't close a door but he opens a window.' A man tries to overcome a terrible disease. And he does. But he loses a child in a freak accident.

Maybe that's just the type of 'mixed' ending I prefer.

And seeing a number of student films recently, I realized that many films can be typified by the sentence 'the world isn't what you thought.' That is: within ordinary reality, someone discovers that the world follows different laws than she thought.

All these things come together in--of all things--The Incredible Shrinking Man. (I know: go figure.)

Not that it's the greatest movie ever. But as a B-movie, it embodies movie-ness with a certain clarity.

Namely, the protagonist is more or less minding his own business. He's not even doing anything 'wrong.' And some passing radioactive something-or-other causes his strange condition of shrinking.

The world changes. In an unusual and thus watchable sort of way.

This opens up a series of adventures and challenges.

Some flow from the basic problem: he shrinks, so his clothes don't fit. He shrinks, so he's an object of curiosity.

Others follow from each other. He gets trapped in one situation, and the action that rescues him also tumbles him into another, worse situation. He escapes the cat, but only to be pinned down by the spider. That sort of thing.

The resolution is partly overcoming these obstacles. But the basic problem isn't solved at all! He's still tiny, tinier than ever--and getting ever more miniscule.

The 'resolution'--if it can even be called that--is that the new universe is the discovery. The problem is the solution. The positive spin on his terrible situation, the 'silver lining,' as it were, is that he's going to explore a brave new world: he'll become as small as atoms.

So even an old sci-fi B-film, even because of its simplicity and novelty, can show us a few things about how feature films work.

--E. R. O'Neill

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How Memorable.

In the morning on my way to the office, I read the newspaper.

Yes, it's on actual pieces of paper.

Not a Kindle Reader. (Kindle as in flames? Yipes!) Not an iPhone. Not a laptop.

Actual pieces of paper a human being in a gas-guzzling vehicle flings at my door sometime in the early a.m.

I like it.

I usually finish reading the paper on the train. But then there are articles I'd like to 'clip'--but that I do virtually.

I get to the office, and when I have a moment, I grab the articles from the web site and save them (strictly for my personal use). I figure since I buy the paper, I deserve to keep a copy of an article or two.

But how do I remember which articles?

I use an age-old technique: mnemonics.

Legend has it a visitor to a party walked from room to room, and just after he left, the building collapsed. No one knew who all had died.

So the asked the man to remember. He couldn't. Until he imagined walking from room to room and place to place, and then he could recall all the people he had seen.

This gave the idea of topoi or topics--places (like the rooms of the collapsed house) you associate with different items, so a list, even a random list, becomes memorable.

My technique is similar. I just create a crazy image for each article, and then I link them together in a story.

A woman's cleaning her flooded house, and the fridge pops open, and there's a dead elk in there. The elk comes to life and smokes some Greek tobacco.

That points to three stories in the paper I want to 'clip' today.

All of which made me think of memorability.

In teaching screenwriting online, I've lately noticed that the actions in screenplays have a general and a particular side.

Athletes train. Rocky drank raw eggs and ran up some museum steps. Maggie in Million Dollar Baby is a waitress. So she takes home a leftover steak from work, practices her footwork while waiting tables, and uses the change from her tips to buy a speed bag.

The clever screenwriter made the training specific to the profession.

This also created memorable images.

It's really worth thinking about memorability in writing. Don't we remember certain images from movies very clearly? Certain moments from the story?

There's something about how a movie gets under your skin, into your brain. It's not just efficient--getting from point A to point B--it's memorable.

So taking one's story and then saying 'how would I remember this?' could be a nice way of going down that path.

--E. R. O'Neill

Creative Maieutics.

Maieutics is the Greek term for midwifery.

Socrates used it to describe his dialogical method--by which he could bring forth truth by interrogating an individual to disclose a truth hidden behind the individual's often faulty beliefs.

Not that we have to use Socrates as a model or accept his rather combative procedure. (Everyone else was always wrong, and Socrates could always convert their ideas into his. He asked a lot of loaded questions to trap his interlocutors. In short, Socrates is kind of a terrible examplar for finding truth through discussion--but let that be.)

Creative maieutics would be concerned with the creative process as a process of invention, discovery and shaping.

How does creativity 'give birth' to new things and ideas?

A particular focus here will be on writing in general, screenwriting in particular, and filmmaking as a kind of exemplar.

But almost anything can be an exemplar or emblem of the creative process. Indeed, creative thought can be particularly concerned with exemplars and emblems: what's in image for something, an emblem of it?

As a long-time student of acting I often feel that acting is the best exemplar of the creative process--because it leaves no physical trace or reside (except when filmed or taped).

The actor must always create the performance anew from inside herself. So the creative challenge and task is always foremost on the actor's mind.

--E. R. O'Neill