Saturday, January 17, 2009

Rhetoric and the Screenplay: The Wrong Question.

Rhetoric Means Controlling the Question You're Answering.

There's a well-known thing in rhetoric.

You answer the question you want the other guy to answer--
because it's to your advantage to do so.

That is:  you don't let the other team pick the question.  You pick the question.

You talk about "how I'm going to lower taxes."  Then the other guy has to say how he's going to lower taxes--even if he thinks that's a terrible idea.
(Sometimes people even remark in debates when one person just answers a different question.  'What you're really asking is....?'  This is why.  It's not a question they want to answer.)  
So the team that controls the question controls the playing field, because it's the question you want to answer.

Make the Audience Dwell on the Wrong Question.

There's something similar in feature film screenplays.

The writer wants to control the questions in the audience's mind, the questions about how the story will unfold.  

More exactly:  you're never exactly posing the question that the plot will answer.  You must always force the audience to answer the wrong question.  If they know the right question, they would essentially know how the plot resolves, and so suspense is greatly diminished.

Star Wars doesn't start with "Will some team of misfits blow up the Death Star?"
No.  It starts with "Who will rescue the Princess?" and "Will Luke escape his family and grow up?"  
Then, with Luke's family conveniently killed, the question becomes "Can Luke and Obi Wan rescue the Princess?"

And then it becomes:  "--with the help of Han and the wookie?"

And they all do rescue the Princess.  

Which means the rest of the movie concerns another question:  "Can the Star Fleet fighters blow up the Death Star or not?  
And this question takes precedence over other questions, like "Is there a romance?  Will someone end up with the Princess?"  (I rememeber being totally puzzled about that when I first saw the movie.)
Every screenwriting manual is wrong about this, because every screenwriting manual is written as if the protagonist is given a problem which he solves at the movie's end.

Not so.

The protagonist starts with one problem, then gets another, then another.

The initial problem is almost never the one solved at the end--just as the question on the audience's mind almost never directly bears on the actual resolution of the story.

Sunset Boulevard and its Questions.

Or consider Sunset Boulevard (which I've been looking at quite a lot lately).  It poses a series of questions.
First the audience wonders:  Can Joe Gillis manage to keep his car?  Can he make it as a writer?  Can he even borrow $200?  Or will he instead be forced to crawl back to Dayton, OH where he bragged how he'd go to Hollywood and become a big shot?

Then--turning into Act II--Joe meets Norma Desmond, and she's rich, and she'll hire him to rewrite her thousand-page screenplay.

So now he's set, right?  The initial question is answered.  Except it's not.  It sort of is.  

But really it's replaced by another question, something like:  "What will become of the bargain between Joe and Norma?  Will they finish the screenplay?  Will it succeed in getting Norma's career back?"

We think probably no.

At the midpoint, then another question emerges.  Norma confesses her undying love for Joe, and she manipulates him into being her lover.

Now it's still "what will happen with Joe and Norma's screenplay?" but it's also "what will happen to this odd couple?"--really a variation on our earlier question.

The screenplay isn't sold, but Norma thinks it is.  And Joe starts writing and falling in love with someone (appropriately) named Betty.

Now we're down to a romantic triangle.  It's our same question of "what will happen to the Joe-and-Norma couple?" but it's more focused:  "Will Joe choose Norma or Betty?"  

And also:  "Will Norma ever realize that she's deluded?"
What of course happens--spoiler alert for everyone who's never seen Sunset Boulevard--is that Joe chooses neither.  He packs his bags and gets ready to go back to Dayton, Ohio--which he was so frightened of doing at the outset.  
This shows us Joe's changed.  He's less of a weasel.  Not so little of a weasel that he should get a nice girl like Betty.  But less of a weasel.  
Therefore, the question the audience is wondering about--and often it's posed explicitly by the characters to each other--is almost never the one the subsequent movie answers.  
We don't at all start wondering, "Will Joe be killed by a jealous lover?  Will an old lady become deluded out of her mind?"
Because if the audience knows the question, and it's a reasonably focused question, it only has so many answers, and there is little or no room for surprise--or really much pleasure.
This is a delicate balance, beause if the question is completey off-base, it seems like two or more separate movies.  But it's a risk that must be taken.

Suspense and Resolution in The Office 

There was a nice recent episode of a clever sitcom called The Office that worked like this, too.
Andy was engaged to Angela, but Angela was sleeping with Dwight.  

For weeks and weeks the suspense and humor revolved around:  "Will Andy ever find out?"  

Then Andy was told, and--like those cartoon characters who run off the cliff but don't know and so don't fall--Andy didn't realize he'd been told.  (It's a comedy:  real-life cluelessness can be exaggerated for 'comic effect.')  

Finally, someone tells Andy, and Andy and Dwight must face off.  The show constructed the question as "Who will win?  Who will end up with Angela?"
The resolution was a nice exposure and development of the characters.  (Spoiler alert--don't read on if you haven't seen the episode.)  We've been seeing Angela sleep with Dwight but not Andy.  It turns out she was sleeping with both.  
Both men thus lose respect for Angela--'okay she was lying to him but not to me!--and neither stays with her.
(There was a blues song by Little Milton some time back whose key line was "Hey Mister, your wife is cheating on us!")
Thus the resolution of the plot is never simply "what will happen?" The resolution of a plot always involves a rhetorical relationship to the audience in which the audience is forced to consider the wrong question and thereby given pleasure in a surprising resolution--which is really a reframing of the problem.  
And there's something of life in this framing of the wrong question.  
Because when we have a problem, and we can't see the solution, it's so often because the way we frame it prevents us from seeing another solution--which means seeing it as a different problem.

Why All This Sleight-of-Hand?

In a sense, there's no other satisfying way to do it.

You must give the audience the wrong questions to ponder.  You must give them first one question, then another, and change the issue every ten or twenty minutes.  

Why, you ask?  Why does one question give way to another like this in the feature film?

Very simply, because any more than twenty minutes is just too long for us to be curious about anything much.

I'm serious.  It doesn't matter how fascinating the people are.  We will get bored if the same issue is unresolved for too long.

Consider sporting events.
Yes a baseball or football game has one question:  "Will team A win?  Or will it be team B?"

But it's always smaller than that:  "Who will pull ahead?  Can that team come from behind?  Can this team expand its lead?"  


And if we wonder about these for too long--it's either a nail-biter or a yawn.

It's probably a nail-biter if one team has a very narrow lead and must hold it for a long, long time--because they could lose at any moment.  The question is very intense.  It's always very sharply in our minds.
And I would argue that this is one reason why Revolutionary Road is so awful.  
The question after the first five minutes is "Can these people ever be happy?"  or "Will this couple ever stop being so miserable?"

And then the movie really kicks off when they get the idea--'Yes, we could be happy, if only we lived in Paris!'  (No one's unhappy in Paris.  Are the characters idiots?  Or is it the movie that's idiotic?  Hard to say.)

Then it soon becomes clear:  these folks aren't going anywhere.

So then it's more like "How will they get out of going to Paris?  And what other kind of awful misery will then ensue?"

So it's really back to the original question--very quickly.

Which is why it seems like such a very long and very unhappy movie.  The couple is married--what?--six or eight years.  The movie feels twice that long--because we are not given different questions to wonder about.  
But reasonable people will disagree about which movie gives pleasure or fails to.  But the point of dramatic writers framing plot questions so as to mislead the audience--well I think this speaks for itself.

--E. R. O'Neill

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