Saturday, February 7, 2009

Generic Movie Plot.

What Is a Bad Movie?

It sounds awful.  Why would anyone want to write a generic movie?

But people have a sense of what a movie is.

Just like we know what a poem is or what a car is.

We know what a generic movie is--a movie-in-general.

I hesitate to use the word "essence":  too much philosophical baggage.

And it's largely unconscious.  We're not aware of all of its features--the movie-ishness of the movie.

We're most aware of it when we see a bad movie--because one of the things bad movies are is insufficiently movie-ish.

Bad movies aren't movies that are bad:  they're things that are not enough like a movie--they're not-quite-movies.  (There is a philosophical point here, but let that pass for the time being.)

So when I see a bad movie, I might say:  there was no hope, there was no surprise.  Or:  I had no idea what was coming next.

We become aware of norms when they are violated.

So by reflection we can come to learn things about the movie form--or our expectations about it, anyway.

Your Generic Movie--and Mine.

So in my Generic Movie, there is some hope.  Things might go better for the characters--which implies things could go worse.

There is surprise--meaning we are lead to expect one thing and another happens 'out of the blue' (yet in retrospect logically).

We have expectations about what comes next, which can then be fulfilled or frustrated (as Kenneth Burke observed way back in the 1930's about all kinds of aesthetic forms).

Now one of my key points about learning to write movies is:  you need to develop this sense of what a movie is (a feature-length movie story).

How Do I Learn What a Movie Is?

One way could be:  see bad movies.  But that wouldn't be too much fun.

Another is to examine closely a movie you admire to find how it's put together.

One technique here is the hypothetical universe movie:   what if the movie were different?  What if the ending were different?  What if this happened and not that?

By asking and answering such questions, sure, you can say 'it's better the way they made it.'  But you can also get a sense of why this choice was better (usually) than the one's rejected.

For a long time, I've been taking apart Sunset Boulevard.   It's not your typical movie.  But it's quite good (I think).  It's quite odd--dark, bitter, as Wilder often is.  Yet humane in its own strange way.  

And I've learned so much from reading the script, reducing it to an outline, to many outlines.  I've learned too much for one blog post.

Generic Movie--Structure and Story.

But recently, I had two sudden perceptions about the Generic Movie Plot.

Really it's two perceptions:  one about Generic Movie Structure, and the other about the Generic Movie Story.

One is:  
A few interesting things unfold over time:  meaning they are not yet decided; the audience awaits the outcomes.

Maybe someone tries to do something.

But that one person's actions, adventures and choices depend upon and impact other chains of events.

Because of this, each separate set of actions becomes more interesting.

The audience waits to see how one thing will affect another.

Enough things are going on that the implications are unpredictable--unpredictable enough to be interesting rather than confusing.
That's it.

If any of these things are lacking--actions with undecided outcomes unfolding over time and affecting and being affected by other actions--then we're not interested.  Whatever else is the case, we will not feel this is "a movie."

Notice that this is purely about the structure--how events unfold and are related to each other.  It's the syntax or the grammar, not the content or semantics.

Six Verbs in Three Acts. 

The other Generic Movie Story is semantic:  it concerns what happens, not how it unfolds.

This is:

Someone hopes, risks, loses, changes, revalues, accepts life's consequences.

Act I is:  someone wants something she doesn't have.

Act II begins when she risks something--in the hopes of gaining.

Very quickly, she usually loses.  

At this point she's usually caught and needs to keep shoveling her way out.

Act II ends when the protagonist reassesses everything she'd thought before, re-prioritizes her values.  

When she is able to do this, she can cut the Gordian knot that holds her in place.
"I thought I wanted that, but I don't."  

Then the consequences of this decision unfold, and the protagonist accepts the consequences.

These can be okay, great or tragic, depending.

(Here we're back to syntax:  "consequences" are part of the syntax of actions, the way actions connect with other actions, events and experiences, aside from what those actions are.)
Don't Take My Word for It.

Usually, screenwriting books and blogs try to tell you "this is what a movie is."  

And they're quite often wrong.  How do I know?  Because when I look with my own yes, I can see:  that's not the way movies are put together.

So these are some ways I verbalize that understanding.  

In the end, yes, the theories and generalities don't matter.  What matters is getting a sense in your bones of "this is how movies are," and being able to work with that.

And, like so many things, it's probably something no one can tell you.  You have to find it out for yourself.  

--E. R. O'Neill

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