Oct 30, 2006

The Prestige

Using advanced storytelling techniques (see the Advanced Screenwriting Class and the Masterpiece Software) is probably the single best way to set yourself apart from the Hollywood screenwriting crowd. But this approach is extremely challenging as well, and if you aren't careful you can weaken the very story you are trying to showcase.

In their story of competing magicians, the writers of The Prestige use a double storyteller. While not uncommon in a medium like the novel, this advanced technique is extremely rare in mainstream Hollywood film. Structurally a double storyteller creates two equal main characters. When you have virtually unlimited amount of time to explore character (as in a novel), this isn't a problem. But in the relatively short two-hour time period you have in a Hollywood movie, it's a huge problem.

If you add the advanced technique of making both characters unsympathetic, you compound the problem even further. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, characters don't have to be sympathetic. But they do have to be compelling. By cross-cutting between two main characters in the time a writer normally has to define one, these writers make both of their heroes superficial and opaque.

The great strength of The Prestige is the plot. But ironically, that simply highlights the fatal weakness of the story. This film about slight of hand and trickery has plenty of slight of hand and trickery in its plot. But without the proper character work, it's all just pulling strings. By being extra complicated, the mechanics of the plot actually become more, not less, obvious. The audience pulls back and notices they are watching a movie.

Instead of showing us how clever they are, these talented writers show us how they have failed in the first job of the writer, to make the audience care.

Oct 13, 2006

The Departed

The Departed is very instructive in showing us how to write a crime thriller, and how not to. It starts with a terrific premise: cops and criminals have a mole in the each other's organization. But this is also a premise that is loaded with pitfalls. In the Great Screenwriting Class, I talk extensively about how you develop your premise, to learn not only the potential strengths of your idea but also the hidden structural weaknesses.

In The Departed, the writers must immediately confront the difficulty of two main characters (see my breakdown of The Prestige for more on this problem). Again, the need to cross-cut between two leads first takes a toll on the definition of the characters. The writers are so interested in getting the plot going they fail to give Billy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) a motive for going undercover. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that no one in this movie has a motive for what they do.

Lack of character motive (which is connected to the first major structure step, the Need) is always a big weakness. But in a story already dominated by plot, this is a disaster. The characters are nuts and bolts being moved by plot mechanics.

The premise does highlight the strength of The Departed, which is the plot. But it also shows us how even the best plot can spiral out of control.

Plot in crime stories is all about opposition under the surface, and The Departed is worth studying to see how to create that, not only in a crime story but in any work of fiction. But when you are creating your plot, you have to be aware of the fundamental trade-off between plot and believability. The more you try to hide the opposition under the surface - thus giving you more plot - the more you push the believability of your characters to the extreme. You become so conscious of creating surprise that you force the characters to take actions that they, and indeed no human being, would logically do.

This believability problem surfaces right away when Billy, who has been to the police academy, becomes the mole in the Costello crime family. It would be so obvious that this guy is the snitch that I was immediately reminded of Clark Kent and Superman. Somehow when Superman puts on a suit and a pair of nerdy glasses no one can see that he is Superman. In a fantasy superhero story, the audience accepts that convention and lets it pass. Not so in a realistic crime story.

The writers keep the believability problems at bay for most of the story. But any story that emphasizes plot always pushes the reveals to the end, where whatever believability problems it has will be magnified as the reveals come fast and furious. Sure enough, The Departed rapidly disintegrates into farce and stupidity. The final sequence is filled with reveals and assassinations, but they are based on actions so mindlessly dumb that the audience is left muttering, "No! No! No!"

Even worse, this sort of false plot, sprung at the end, kills the audience's sense of investment in the film itself. If it's so easy to assassinate these characters, why didn't they just shoot Costello in the first place and save me 2 1/2 hours of my time.

Oct 5, 2006

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Studio 60 has not been the big hit everyone at NBC hoped it would be. And it's taken more than a few shots, mostly from insiders who say that it's not an authentic view of a sketch comedy show. Why? Because it's not funny. And they're right; it's not funny. That could be because creator and writer Aaron Sorkin can't write funny. Or more likely it's because the show's not a comedy. It's a drama about working in a corporation, a corporation that just happens to be in the business of making culture.

Sometimes Sorkin gets too cute in his writing, typically from updating a classic story beat. He always does the beat well, but it's still a recognizable beat. And I get the feeling that he is writing so much so fast that for long stretches he just puts it on automatic and lets his considerable knowledge of story carry him along.

To see one of the reasons why Studio 60 may be having trouble with audiences, let's look at a technique that is crucial to a TV drama: the episodic desire line. In other words, what is accomplished in each episode? In a classic cop show, it's solving the crime. In a courtroom drama, it's winning the case. In a doctor show, it's saving the patient. On Studio 60 it's … Well, we know what it isn't. It's not putting on a 90-minute comedy show. So what is it?

The desire line in each episode is what gives the story its shape, and is one of the key elements of a show's DNA. You can create a show in which the desire line extends over many episodes, but you will have more difficulty holding a mass audience. So many shows provide at least one desire line that is accomplished by the end of the episode, and extend the others. Aaron Sorkin doesn't do that on Studio 60. It's not a bad thing. It's just not popular. Regardless of Studio 60's essential structure, there is a lot to like and learn from by watching it.

For example, we see a great technique in the second part of a two-part episode in which Harriet gets an award. It's the technique I call the "dialogue of equals." Good conflict dialogue should be a heavyweight fight. Punch/counter-punch. One throws a hammer blow. The other comes right back with a hammer blow of his own. Not only does each line have dramatic power, the scene builds in the sequence of the blows (lines), ending in a knockout punch.

To create a building punch/counter-punch, you have to have two equals, by which I mean two characters with an equal ability to verbally attack. If one is too strong, he or she will get in the most blows and the scene will not build. In the concluding episode of the two-parter, Matt and Harriet go at each other with ferocity. Matt is the obviously more aggressive and nastier of the two. But Harriet does not shrink back and ends up having the more powerful blows, including the lethal knockout punch.