Friday, November 19, 2010

Dramatic Devices, Big and Small.

Recently I watched a really lovely film called Last Holiday (1950, directed by Henry Cass). The story concerns a boring young salesman with no real friends or romances to speak of. He finds out he's going to die soon, so he gets all the money he can and goes for a holiday to a posh resort. A junk dealer sees him shopping for suitcases, realizes he's the size to fit some expensive clothes he acquired, and so now the salesman has a posh new look.

At the resort, he's a new man, since he's determined to enjoy life. Everyone loves him and finds him mysterious. Because of his clothes and where he is, they assume he's wealthy. He gets betting tips and offers for jobs and political appointments. People ask his advice, and he's not shy, and they find this refreshing.

It's all very ironic, since he could never do this during his normal life. Eventually he finds out he's not really dying--and I won't spoil the ending for you.

It's all very charming, but it also made me realize something.

It won't come as news to many, but movies have certain repeated tricks I'm currently calling "devices." A device allows something to happen in a film or structures the film in a dramatically interesting way. The device lasts somewhere between a moment and most of a movie.

They could be called 'tricks,' but that seems mean.

Devices vary in size. Some just last for a moment and get something done.

For instance: "finding a letter or diary." A newer version is: "listening to someone's answering machine." (Actually, that's dated already. Now I think someone sits down at another's desk and opens up the email program....)

This is a device. It gets some work done--conveys some information to a character, changes the situation, etc.

Some devices are very broad: "a long journey home." This ranges from The Odyssey to Lassie, Come Home--to name only a few. This structures a long part of a movie. It's basically a serial structure: there will be many adventures, various traps. It's an episodic plot.

In between is something like "a death sentence, an incurable disease." This usually takes up much of a movie. It makes sure that the character has a secret. It makes everything extra meaningful for the audience and the characters who know. It's built-in irony. (You see now how Last Holiday got me thinking. The device basically propels most of the plot, aside from the specifics of who is at the seaside resort.)

It's unclear to me if "falling in love" is a device or an action. You can't do it intentionally like most actions--it's more like a bolt from the blue, or a gradual process. In dramatic writing, falling in love has to be married to other events: while taking tennis lessons, Mary falls in love with Steve.

A very broad one is: "having a secret."

Now take Dark Victory (1939, directed by Edmond Goulding). It's built from a number of devices. This is the plot:
Judith keeps a secret: she gets headaches, and her vision isn't so good. She sees a doctor. While he treats her, she falls in love. He operates successfully, but he keeps the secret that she will get sick again and die. They are madly happy--until she reads some papers in his office. This causes her to go on a tear, get drunk and nearly sleep with some unsavory folks. The whole time she keeps secret the fact that she knows about her death sentence. When she breaks down and reveals the secret, she marries the doctor, and they are very happy. One day her death starts kicking in, but she keeps it secret and dies alone, so as not to bother her husband.
Really, you could re-arrange the devices or change various actions. The headaches could interrupt her reading novels, rather than riding horses. The results might be better or worse. But they would be a more or less involving dramatic story--which is my point.

The point of such devices is: the small ones get something done; the big ones structure big chunks of a movie. "Fish out of water" isn't a device, because it gives no idea of structure or pattern. "Body switching" is too specific. "Switching roles or identities" comes closer, because if there is a clear set of actions which makes up each role, then the switching follows the same pattern, with some shifts.

Beginning screenwriters can use devices, because they are a middle ground between actions and three-act structure. You can try to write movies by just writing people doing things. It's helpful to use purely formal strategies--like alternating and combining actions. You can do fancy things, like omit bits of action or hide information from the spectator.

But three-act structure is big and complicated. Sure, there's an adventure in the middle, and things more or less get more and more complicated. Often multiple stories collide--but that's purely formal.

Devices are a middle space between "Jack goes to the store" and "Jack takes this amazing opportunity."

A writer could do worse than: taking some characters, lives, actions and problems--and seeing how far a few devices could get in structuring a workable storyline.

Judging by the two films mentioned, a love of people and a nose for dramatic interest take you a long way from device to feature.

--Edward R. O'Neill

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