Oct 30, 2006
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.