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

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