Monday, 10 October 2011

Scripts: Plot, Rinse and Repeat

 by Ola Zaltin

Once upon a time, on a dark and stormy night, in a galaxy far, far away...

...a story began. Probably, this ur-story began around a camp-fire, and probably because someone died. (This was some millennia before Celebrity Big Brother, mind) Someone had died and to explain the inexplicable, a person close to the deceased started telling the story of who he, or she, was: what they did in this life and where they went in the hereafter.

Thus; religion and story-telling became inextricably intertwined. A dual, Manichean, universe evolved that would influence most world religions to describe an everlasting storyline of good vs evil.

To make the legends that developed into story clearly recognizable as tales of woe, wonder and mystery, a formula began to develop: It was a dark and stormy night - There was once a - ‘Twas the year of - Etc.  Stories started taking on a certain form, a template, if you like. There was a hero. There was an adversary. But most of the time we already knew the outcome. The good guy would climb up to sit at God almighty’s side. The other fella would wash his hands in eternity: The hero would overcome all the obstacles, the adversary would vanish in a fiery pit.

This is where plot begins. Joseph Campbell was the great old man who synthesised millennia of story-telling into “The hero with a thousand faces” (1949) and it became a seminal work, with the later “The Power of Myth” (1988) seriously bringing him to Hollywood’s attention. Because if it’s something Hollywood has been looking for since Day One, it’s the answer to this question: what is the recipe for a block-buster  money-making mega-hit? How do you make tons of cash on stories. Later on, Christopher Vogler would distill Campbell’s work into the now legendary “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic structure for writers.” (1992), which was exclusively aimed at screenwriters.

Although this article isn’t about Vogler’s book,  I dare you, dear reader, to check it out on Wikipedia and not laugh out loud when you recognize exactly all the steps of the Hero’s Journey, being portrayed in film after film from Hollywood ever since Star Wars (George Lucas was a huge fan of Campbell), to now almost any modern crime, drama, rom-com or action film.

Basically, scripts set up a question-mark in the beginning: Will the detective find the killer? Will the boy get the girl? (When watching both of these genres - romantic comedy/drama action - note how after the last denouement, either romantic or dramatic, not very many seconds of film are left. I.e. The guy finally gets the girl? End of story. The Detective captures/kills the killer? End of story. Both plot engines - the question marks set up at the beginning of the story are null and void the second they are answered - and our interest fades faster than you can spell THE END)

I’ve previously mentioned it, but I’ll gladly be a repetitve old bore: character is plot. The main-character must take action. Action is forward momentum and action defines character - and so - plot. Imagine, if you will, a young American dreamer sitting on his room writing endlessly on his blog about his dream to become an action-hero, kick bad-guys’ asses and getting the girl. And that’s all he does. Nothing else.

Now, imagine the same set-up, but the guy making his own costume and walking out on the streets to become a super-hero. However, the first thing that happens is he gets brutally stabbed in the stomach by punks - then hit by a car. (Goal, Action: Twist). That was the opening of Kick-Ass, if you hadn’t noticed.
Because in the world of  formulaic film, you’ve got to have a plot-point 1: the first serious turning-point of the story. I think of it as throwing a  king hell-size spanner into the motor we just got humming smartly along. Something that seriously alters the course of the story.

In Four Weddings and a Funeral, e.g,  this would be the second wedding, when Carrie introduces her fiancĂ©e to Charles, dashing his romantic hopes, and spinning the story into unexpected waters.
I’ll refrain from getting into the mid-point the second plot-point and the possibility of a four-act structure and the mid-act ”pinches” of Syd Field and whatnot. Life’s too short. (And my word-count is headed for the moon.)

 As for the outcome in both films: the characters overcome insurmountable adversity and get the girl. Not surprised? This is probably because there is such a beautiful wonderness as Suspension of Disbelief. And without it, film-making would be dead in the water.

These three words mean that although we know that Bruce Willis is an actor and acting in a fiction recorded on celluloid  and reading from a script;  if it’s done well enough, we’ll still sit on the edge of our seats. Will he survive the 101 guys with machine-guns after him in a highscraper? Oh Willis, will you make it? Yippee-kay-yeee motherfucker!! (He does.)

We instinctively buy into this ancient sense of community around the warm camp-fire light. “Let me tell you a story,” and we hunker down and we hush up and we point our bright eyes to the story-teller and our bushy tails into the cold dark night and share stories. In kids this is very pronounced. When my niece Filippa wants to hear Where the wild things are read for the umpteenth time that day - nevermind week - she’s displaying the same instinct we grown-ups have as well (albeit we think we disguise it better).  For  there is something strangely satisfying about knowing the outcome of a story.

This, to me, is the central role of plot: an exciting question-mark set up to be answered, a sense of forward propulsion, astounding and unexpected things throwing us off track, coupled with the age-old safeness of suspension of belief and the the knowledge that at least here, within this story, we can rely on that all will end well.

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