Nov 28, 2000


Most writers set up a series of reveals that build steadily. M. Night Shyamalan sets up his structure to play one monster reveal. This reveal isn't just the biggest reveal in the story so far. It is information that is so powerful it changes everything that has come before. It is like an earthquake underneath the world the audience shares with the hero.

Most writers do not use this technique because you have to come up with a second alternative for how the events of the world work and what they mean. You have to be able to come up with a detailed reality with the same apparent events as the first alternative, but whose cause-and-effect connection is totally different.

Most writers have tremendous difficulty coming up with one cause-and-effect line. But in Sixth Sense Shyamalan showed that if you can come up with two, you can blow the audience away.

Nov 21, 2000

You Can Count on Me

Kenneth Lonergan's film shows us the difference between drama and melodrama. Because we see true drama so rarely it is a surprise when it comes along. What is called drama in Hollywood is almost always melodrama. Melodrama is about going big: the shocking reveal, resorting to the gun, the character who goes mad. It's exciting, it's surprising, but it's almost never honest. It is fake drama, and for that reason, the emotion doesn't hit home with the audience.

This film is real drama. Sammy, a woman with an eight-year-old boy and a job at the bank, endures a visit from a fun but unreliable brother. They don't shoot each other, no one goes mad, no one molests the little kid. But there is real conflict and honest emotion. The brother eventually leaves and the sister and her son stay behind in the town. But they are all deeply changed by their time together.

Notice how the writer sets up both brother and sister as likable people with serious flaws. He's a Tom Sawyer, a mischevous fun-lover who's also unreliable. She is a decent stable woman who locks herself into her way of life and falls into relationships with men because she feels sorry for them. No one is evil in this film. Not even the loser father.

The quality of the drama makes the film's one false note stand out even more clearly. Sammy's affair wiyth her boss isn't set up properly to be believable. So it becomes obvious that the writer is using the event to force the plot to go where he wants it to go.

One other lesson: notice how Lonergan often starts scenes late or ends them early. This not only gives the story economy it makes it feel more real.

Nov 4, 2000

The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton is a storyteller who shows characters trapped within a system. This is advanced storytelling and the most challenging kind of fiction writing you can do. Wharton is a master at showing that the real currency in a close, hierarchical society is status, not money.

But in The House of Mirth, Wharton makes the deadly mistake found in much of advanced fiction: creating a passive character. Lily Bart simply reacts to the attacks of others around her. Wharton compounds the mistake by making her hero foolish. That means that the plot is stripped of almost all turns. The hero is beaten on for the entire story and then falls. But we've known the final destructionwas coming for a long time. About the only element of story interest here is the fact that Lily's ultimate downfall is caused by her own misplaced sense of right.

Terence Davies' adaptation makes the weaknesses of Wharton's story worse. This film defines slow. Wharton doesn't have to be this dull, as The Age of Innocence proved. Here everything is pounded into the ground.

Some important lessons: if you write about characters within a system, make your hero active, even if he or she fails to defeat the larger system. Keep the scenes tight. And remember, this is film, which uses the cut, and that means that the juxtaposition of scenes is more important than what is in any individual scene. The placement of one scene before or after another should create new information.