Dec 31, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges information about the plot of the film.

Most story failures go all the way back to the premise, even and including big budget epics like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Sometimes the failure occurs because the writer doesn't develop the idea properly. For example, he or she may choose the wrong genre. But most often failures of premise occur because the original idea is weak, with huge structural problems lurking under the depths that don't surface until the writer tries to write the script. Indeed, many of the premise techniques that I talk about in the Great Screenwriting Class are designed to show you which ideas simply will not work, no matter how good a writer you are.

The premise of Benjamin Button is certainly intriguing. A man is born old and ages backward. He meets a girl when she is ten, they have a great love in the few years when their ages intersect, and then their biology tears them apart. But the key question is: what does this idea mean structurally? Writer Eric Roth is trying to write a tragic, epic love story. This very powerful form has become rare because it is so difficult to make the case that even a great love can affect a nation, and because it is so much easier now for lovers to get together and so much easier for them to part.

Against such obstacles, this premise immediately feels like nothing more than a gimmick to make tragic love possible. If you can't create real tragic love, just come up with a man who ages backward. Now that guy's going to have some major love problems.

Fantasy always involves creating a unique story world with its own rules. But these rules must be allegorical; they must highlight the world we really live in, including its emotional reality. But that doesn't happen here. For long stretches of the story, the two leads could be together. But one of them doesn't want to. This does not have the makings of epic or tragic love. When the two do get together as a couple, they enjoy a number of apparently blissful years. But Roth knows he has to break them apart. And because the story is based on the gimmick of the guy aging backward, he is forced to concoct one of the phoniest scenes in recent memory. Benjamin tells his wife, Daisy, that he doesn't want his new baby to miss having a real father, or his wife to see him as he grows into a child. So he just up and leaves, even though he has many years before he becomes a child.

Benjamin Button has an even larger structural problem embedded in the premise. A story that unfolds backward is extremely rare for a reason. It makes story causation virtually impossible. Or, to put it another way, you end up with the ultimate episodic story. An episodic story is one in which each event stands on its own - each scene in effect becoming a mini-story - and does not connect with the other events. The whole becomes less than the sum of the parts.

One of the only stories to unfold backwards successfully is Harold Pinter's Betrayal. But notice that Betrayal is built on a relationship between a man and a woman. It is an organic unit from first to last. With this as a foundation, the story's backward movement, instead of being episodic, induces the audience to focus on the original causal forces that ultimately drive these two people apart.

Benjamin Button is the story of one man's life. But his backward unfolding is based on the lowest form of causation, the biological. That's not what we are interested in when we see someone's life story. We want to see an unfolding based on the character's life choices. We want to see how the character's highest, most human qualities play out. It is these human elements that make plot possible, because plot is based, among other things, on the hero's ability to plot his own course. Because Benjamin Button tracks a man biologically getting young, he becomes nothing more than a freak who can't make any choice at all. He floats through life, an observer of the world who holds little interest for the audience.

Benjamin Button, like Slumdog Millionaire, is a myth story connected to a love story. But where the writer of Slumdog Millionaire created a structure that would build inevitably to a convergent point, the writer of Benjamin Button, trapped by his premise, could only string together moments. We watch myth stories because they give us a lifetime perspective, and therefore let us see a model of how to live a fulfilling life. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the only life lesson we learn is: don't be born old.


Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges information about the plot of the film.

Drama is a story structure based on exploring a difficult moral issue in depth. It puts more emphasis on moral argument – concerning the right and wrong way to live – than any other genre, which is both a blessing a curse. In the Great Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting Classes, I explain in detail how to express moral argument through the story structure, instead of presenting it in dialogue like a sermon. When moral argument is done through structure it has tremendous impact on the audience, not because it tells them how to live but because it shows them, in deeply personal terms, the effects that moral decisions have on our lives.

Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, is a classic drama, and it shows clearly the strengths and limitations of the drama form. Because of the form’s emphasis on moral argument, the best drama tries to cut the particular issue as close to 51-49 as it can. And Shanley does this quite well. Sister Aloysius is a hard, bigoted, rule-bound woman who accuses another human being of a heinous crime based on no evidence but a feeling. But she is probably right. Father Flynn is a compassionate, gentle and decent man who wants to bring fun and community to the school. But he may be molesting boys. The boy whom the priest is accused of molesting is the first black child at the school. And Father Flynn is his only friend.

This balance and complexity is Doubt’s great strength and allows Shanley to create two powerful scenes between the nun and the priest that have the quality of a heavyweight fight. But Doubt’s great failure – and it is the most serious mistake a drama can make – is that the
story is nothing but moral argument. Drama must always be a story first, and that means plot and character development.

Plot and character development are the scaffolding on which moral argument must stand. Plot is based on surprise. It’s what delights us. It’s the game that seduces the audience into facing the pain the drama ultimately causes its characters and all who watch them. Character development is what makes the audience care about the people going through the struggle. It’s what makes the emotional connection.

Doubt has virtually no plot or character development. We see four characters dealing with a crisis that Sister Aloysius has brought to a head. Almost the entire story is played out in the two big scenes between the priest and the nun. Since the film has no plot or character development, it creates little emotional connection with the audience, so the argument remains intellectual and the mechanics of the drama come to the surface.

Without an emotional connection, everything in the film boils down to the quality of the moral accounting, and in this the drama fails. Sister Aloysius uses trickery to force the priest out, but this trickery is not unreasonable or extreme. And it indicates that the priest was probably guilty. So the film ends up supporting not so much her method of attack but her original certainty that he is guilty, even though it is based on nothing but a feeling. This is highly suspect.

Shanley seems to realize his moral accounting is skewed. So he has the nun experience an emotional breakdown in the final scene, in which she cries out that she has “such doubts.” But this moment is both intellectually unbelievable and emotionally phony. Try as hard as she can, Meryl Streep can’t bring it off. And if Meryl Streep can’t bring it off, there’s a good chance the problem is in the script. The result for the audience is a huge letdown. Because the nun’s final breakdown and confession of doubt is unbelievable, it doesn’t correct the imbalance of the moral argument.

Screenwriters who wish to write drama can learn much from this film, especially from its complexity and its hard-hitting dialogue. But most of all we can learn that even drama is a story first, and the old foundations of plot and character development are the keys to greatness.


Great drama is among the most advanced and challenging forms of storytelling. Sadly the glory days of drama in worldwide entertainment are long gone. Witness the highly acclaimed Frost/Nixon, the latest example of “much ado about nothing” in the drama form.

Frost/Nixon seems to have many of the elements that make up an excellent dramatic script, most especially the relationship between the hero and the main opponent. From the title itself, we can tell that writer Peter Morgan understands one of the first rules of great storytelling, which is that the hero is only as good as the person he fights. The opposition here between Frost and Nixon promises to be a heavyweight fight, between the charming, media-savvy English interviewer and the lying, bitter, anti-media American ex-President.

In fact, what we get is the most hollow, limp opposition I can remember. Sure there’s plenty of conflict. Frost has to fight not only Nixon and his chief handler, but also his own teammates who push him to be harder on the ex-President.

So why does this drama disappear into thin air when you try to engage it? The reason has to do with what’s really at stake in a drama. Good drama explores a moral issue in depth. And this moral issue has to be important, meaning that it has to affect people’s lives deeply.

At first glance, Frost/Nixon seems to deal with a huge moral issue: the most powerful man in the world abuses his power, attacks the Constitution and then creates an elaborate cover-up to hide his crimes and retain power. That would be the moral issue at stake if the film tracked Nixon and the events of the Watergate scandal.

But this film is about Nixon talking about Watergate. Which is why we get so much fake drama about how Frost has his own money on the line, how he has a reputation as a lightweight, how Nixon is a big, bad wolf, how Frost and Nixon are both trying to make a comeback and only one of them can succeed, etc. This is all puff and nonsense.

Break the film down structurally and you realize that Frost/Nixon is a film with 90 minutes of smoke-and-mirrors set-up for 5 minutes of payoff. And what is the payoff? Nixon admits he made a mistake and let down the American people. Whoa. What a revelation. Look all you want for a deep exploration of a major moral issue. You won’t find one.

The only reason this is surprising is that the actual Frost/Nixon interviews happened so long ago. Looking back at when the interviews were shown on television, I recall I watched them sporadically. And why was I not engrossed by this supposedly momentous landmark of television history? Because it was a long, crashing bore, endless hours of bloviating for the 5 minutes of payoff we get at the end of this film.

One reviewer has called this film “Ron Howard’s most mature work to date.” Please. That’s wrong on at least two counts. First, it’s another example of the sheer idiocy of the auteur theory. Ron Howard has relatively little to do with the success or failure of this drama. It’s all about the script, the play, the workings of the drama from the inside. Second, this is not good drama. It’s what is sometimes referred to, disparagingly, as the “well-made play.” Looks good on the gloss. But it’s hollow drama in the theater. And it’s hollow on film.

Which begs the question, why all the acclaim? We could blame it on the old excuse: you can fool all of the people some of the time. But the real reason for the hoopla is the virtual disappearance of the drama form in Hollywood film. Movies like Frost/Nixon, Doubt, and Revolutionary Road come out at the end of the year, at awards time, and because they have the audacity to address adult issues, reviewers, who are used to watching cartoons, are so shocked they call these films brilliant.

Sure we might all want to have the success of these dramatists. But don’t be fooled. If you want to write drama, a dying form, you can’t get away with smoke and mirrors. You have to have real substance. And you have to know how express that substance through a building conflict between two virtually equal sides. Master that and reviewers will call you brilliant too. And you’ll earn it.

Dec 8, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

All the praise for Slumdog Millionaire has been focused on Danny Boyle for his energetic and colorful direction. No question Boyle's direction is terrific. But the real key to the film's success is the script by Simon Beaufoy. Using a unique story structure and scene weave, Beaufoy combines the myth and love genres with some advanced screenwriting techniques to build his story to a stunning climax.

To appreciate Beaufoy's accomplishment, we first have to look at is challenge. This is the story of a "slumdog" orphan boy who grows up in Mumbai with his older brother and ends up competing for the big prize on the game show, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Here are just some of the difficulties inherent in the premise: a boy as main character, a story that covers ten years, a mix of myth and love story forms - two genres that are notoriously tough to put together - and keeping the hero's desire for the girl believable and strong. In the Great Screenwriting Class I spend a lot of time on specific techniques for developing the premise, since this is where 99% of writers fail. To win the premise game, you first have to identify the structural problems buried in the idea, then come up with structural solutions to solve them. And you have to be able to do this before you write the script.

Beaufoy's solution to the daunting challenges of his premise is a triple cross-cut framing device. In this advanced technique (see the Advanced Screenwriting Class and the Blockbuster story software for details), the writer cuts between the hero, Jamal, being tortured by the cops who suspect he has been cheating, his performance on the game show, and the story of his life. This is a classic example of how a non-chronological structure is often the right one for a story. But it is very risky, because this much cross-cutting can suck out all the narrative drive.

So why does it work here? One of the big problems of telling a myth story that covers many years in a character's life is that it becomes extremely episodic, meaning that individual events stand out and don't build in a single, narrative whole. A storytelling framing device literally puts brackets around these events. They are told from the mind of the hero, so they gain a unity they would not have if told chronologically from an omniscient narrator.

Using a child as the main character poses all kinds of problems. A child has limited awareness, he is usually a victim and the audience senses that the most dramatic elements will come near the end of the depicted life. That's why Beaufoy uses the other two cross-cut lines. By beginning with the boy grown-up, being tortured, then cutting quickly to his performance on the game show, Beaufoy brings the most dramatic element of this boy's life story to the front of the tale. Structurally, he has taken the battle step - one of the seven major structure steps that usually occurs at the end of the story - and cut it into pieces. The audience is constantly reminded of the most dramatic moment of the story, and it too builds slowly and steadily as the hero moves closer to winning the big prize.

This also allows Beaufoy to connect the game show questions to the key events of the boy's life, a technique that not only undercuts the episodic quality of the story but also makes the thematic point that any life is a combination of chance, freedom and necessity.

The torture and game show lines solve another problem inherent in the premise: they are the primary way Beaufoy connects the myth form to the love story. Myth usually covers vast time and space. Love is compact, driven by white-hot passion that tends to dissipate if the story travels. The torture and game show frame allows Beaufoy to establish Jamal's love desire at the very beginning of the story, even though chronologically the hero encounters the girl of his dreams when he is a little boy and then doesn't see her for long stretches of his life. This makes the love story the primary genre, which is a much more unified form than myth.

The writer was also fortunate that the writer of the original novel, Vikas Swarup, chose the picaresque tale as the basis of the original story. A picaresque tale is a kind of comic myth in which the hero is a rogue-trickster character from the lower class who succeeds by his wits and in so doing highlights the corruption of the society. This sub-genre is the basis of such classics as Tom Jones, Oliver Twist, and Huckleberry Finn. In the "greatest techniques" section of the Blockbuster software, I talk about this rogue-trickster character as possibly the single important element in blockbuster films. From the very beginning this boy is a schemer, able to succeed and even escape death through his quick mind. Faced with terrible poverty and corruption, he nonetheless survives and flourishes. There is even an Indian version of Oliver Twist when a man saves the brothers from their poverty only to force them into his society of beggars.

This film is worth careful study by any writer hoping to master advanced storytelling techniques, as well as to learn how to bring together genre forms in unique combinations.