Sunday, August 16, 2009

Crafty Screenwriting on the elements of a story

This is the last post about Crafty Screenwriting, and in it I want to look at what it says about the elements that make up a compelling story. These elements are very similar to the ones in 'Elements of Persuasion', so I think it's worth checking out whether they agree, amplify, or contradict each other.

This is how Alex Epstein summarises the way his elements work:
A main character
... who has a goal that we (the audience) care about.
... The main character is risking a lot
... and they have at least one but ideally three basic obstacles in their way.
Main characters can be unlikeable, but we do have to care about what happens to them. What is it that makes us care? Alex proposes two ways:
  • their situation is familiar to us (eg. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz)
  • we enjoy projecting ourselves into their shoes (eg. James Bond if you want to be a hero; D-FENS from Falling Down if you want to work through your rage)

The character's goal needs to be something we care about. Maybe it's internal (psychological, emotional); maybe it's external (save the world, fall in love). As Alex points out, "We don't have to necessarily be on the hero's side. We just have to be involved emotionally in what he's trying to do."

So, goals help us care about people. A person may be a jerk, but if their goal is one we can admire or get behind (put on the best show possible; kick the Nazis out of Europse), then we can root for them as a protagonist.

For me, one of the biggest tests of this (in recent years) is Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. As a manipulative, obsessive 19th century oil-man, he’s not a character I feel familiar with or whose shoes I want to walk in. And his goal: ‘to con a small community out of its oil at any cost’ isn’t one I can admire or get behind. So why do I root for him? I guess partially it’s because he’s an object of fascination – Daniel Plainview is such an unusual psychological presence; the way he thinks and sees the world just rivets me (plus he’s too dangerous to take your eyes off). And partially it’s because he cares about the boy he’s raising; Plainview’s goal of raising his son well is only a small part of the film, but it’s one I can get behind.

Man, time to watch There Will Be Blood again!

This idea of goals (and methods, I guess) being things we care about also reminds me Humanity checks in the game Sorceror. A protagonist can be a real scum-bag, but they remain worthy of our attention as long as we don’t think “That’s it. I’m done with you; I don’t care what you do any more – you’ve crossed a line and you’re irredeemable as far as I’m concerned.”

Alex also observes that characters without goals lead to stories without drama.


The third element is risk, jeopardy, the idea that the character has something to lose. And that what they could lose is worth caring about.

Actually, some of this feels a little tautological. We'll care about a character if the thing they could lose is something we'll care about? It's the idea of 'caring' that needs to be grappled with here.

And I think Alex makes a good crack at answering that at the end of this section:
Jeopardy puts the hero in play.
I like that phrasing. The hero (who's someone we care about because we identify with them or want to be with them) is now at risk of being transformed, harmed, or losing something vital to their life. They are in play; the thing that they are risking is (essentially) themselves.


Finally, the main character has "at least one but ideally three basic obstacles in their way." These obstacles are:

1. An External Antagonist or Obstacle: this could be so many things ... environmental (an erupting volcano), social (a corrupt justice system), personal (a masked killer stalking you), widespread (a continent-spanning war), or nearly microscopic (a swiftly growing brain tumour).

Again, we have to care about the antagonists - perhaps because they're sympathetic; perhaps because they're scary as all hell. In fact, check out this quote from James Berardinelli's recent review of Robocop:

One of the standout elements of Robocop is the despicability of the villains. These aren't mealy mouthed bad guys - they are vile, mustache-twirling cretins who deserve horrible, painful deaths. It takes a talented director to fashion characters that become targets of such extreme vitriol. This is what Verhoeven wants; the more deeply viewers hate the bad guys, the more they will be involved in the outcome. It's nice for an audience to like the hero, but more important that they loathe the villain.
And this quote from Crafty Screenwriting addresses the other side:
If your hero has an obstacle instead of an antagonist, we still have to care about it. If your hero is crossing the Antarctic, you have to find a way to make us feel what is grand and compelling about a lot of ice. In a movie about climbing Everest, you are going to have to make us care about a really big rock.
2. An Intimate Opponent: Someone on the main character's side who is working at cross-purposes to them.

3. A Tragic or Comic Flaw (A Psychological Opponent): Indecision, guilt, self-doubt, a death wish, self-loathing, pride. This is all stuff I'm very familiar with from playing lots of Primetime Adventures - most situations can be made much worse if you just give a character enough rope to let their own Issues mess them up.

... oh, and a main character's tragic flaw can reflect the external antagonist or obstacle in some way.

That's it for Crafty Screenwriting. In about a week, I'll be moving on to the last of these books on story construction: "Made to Stick", which talks about why some ideas and stories survive and get passed on from person to person, while others wither and die. You can read excerpts from the intro here, if you're curious.


debbie said...

Hmm, these have been really interesting posts.

You're example of Daniel Plainview struck me as a great example of a character that doesn't fit into the familiar or wanting to walk in their shoes categories. I suspect this type of character might be a third group - characters that fascinate us because their are frightening and repugnant. Maybe they are characters you find compelling rather than care about as such.

There are films that center around serial killers or really dark, twisted individuals that we don't admire or sympathise with, and we certainly don't wish to share their experiences.

hix said...

I suspect you're right, Debz. I suspect that (in part) they're compelling and fascinating because we don't know what they're going to do next. They are so far outside our experience that we fear and want to know what they will possible do in any given situation.