Jan 29, 2009

I've Loved You So Long

Drama is the most intimate of all fiction forms. That gives it the ability to affect an audience deeply. But that same quality creates special problems for the storyteller. I’ve Loved You So Long is one of the best dramas of the year, and writer Philippe Claudel has used some excellent strategies to surmount the special challenges of the drama form.

Good drama is always built on a moral issue. But you can’t argue the issue directly or your story will sound like a sermon or an essay. You have to explore the issue structurally, under the surface, which means tracking the hero’s slow development as she works through the plot. And that leads to another problem: drama is extremely personal and real, something the audience can immediately recognize as potentially part of their own day-to-day lives. But quotidian life doesn’t lend itself to big plot.

It’s a bit of a Catch 22. You have to hide the moral issue in the plot, but you don’t have a lot of plot to hide it with. Claudel solves this dilemma in a number of ways. First he hides the big moral issue in the story by emphasizing from the beginning the day-to-day. An attractive, refined middle-aged woman, Juliette, goes to stay for a while at the house of her younger sister, Lea. There’s little emphasis on the fact that’s she’s just come from spending 15 years in prison, or the fact that she was guilty of killing her child, which comes out quite early in conversation. No, the story is about this woman readjusting to daily life, and living with her sister’s family.

Claudel highlights the everyday by using short scenes, and by starting scenes late or ending them early. There’s little of the carefully argued scene that we normally see in drama. Instead it’s as if the audience is catching glimpses of this woman living a normal life again.

This scene technique is risky in drama – which is why it’s not normally used – because it can kill the plot and give the overall story an episodic feel. Which is why Claudel uses another technique to pop the plot: he gives the story a lot of small reversals and reveals. Reveals are one of the keys to plot (I go into great detail about how to create reveals in the 22 Step Master Class). Genres like thriller and detective have the benefit of big plot, because the reveals are big and sensational: “She’s my sister. She’s my daughter. She’s my sister. She’s my daughter.”

Drama has to rely on small reveals, which is one reason many writers avoid this form. They’re simply not good at finding the tiny, but potentially life-changing, reveals of everyday life. Claudel excels at this way of seeing and telling a story. For example, Juliette is called into the office of the head of the hospital. But instead of getting fired she gets a permanent position. One or two of these little reveals are insufficient to drive the story. But Claudel peppers them throughout the script, giving the subtle effect that this little drama of the everyday is chock full of plot.

This technique solves another common problem of the drama form: the over-dependence on the ghost. Those familiar with my Masterclass know that ghost is one of the 22 steps. It refers to the event from the past still haunting the hero in the present. To increase the plot, drama writers often give the hero a huge ghost. But they hide it until the very end when the hero finally exposes it to the audience. For the drama writer, this seems like a terrific technique, because you know you have at least one huge reveal in your back pocket that you can spring at the most dramatic moment.

But the cost is much bigger than the benefit. The audience quickly senses that the story is all about what really happened way back when. So, in the back of their minds, they simply wait for the rest of the story to play out until the big reveal. Notice this is like driving your car with the brakes on. If you want to kill narrative drive in a story, this is a great way to do it.

The hero in I’ve Loved You So Long does have a strong ghost. But the story isn’t about learning the big secret at the end. We find out right up front that this woman murdered her child. Instead of focusing the audience’s attention on the past, Claudel focuses it on the present, on the ongoing conflicts and trials of remaking a life in the real world.

One of these moments occurs during a brilliant scene where Juliette joins her family and some of their friends at a house in the country. Claudel uses a technique I talk about in the Advanced Screenwriting Class called the “buzzing household.” The buzzing household is a form of utopia, but on the micro level, the level of the house. In this technique, the house is full of people, alone or in small groups, each wonderfully involved in their own activity. Often the characters in the house are quirky, even bizarre, each one a total individual. And yet they form a community of invisible but unbreakable bonds.

We’ve seen this technique in countless movies, such as You Can’t Take It with You and Steel Magnolias, because film is a medium that excels in showing utopias and dystopias. The country house in I’ve Loved You So Long is just such a buzzing household. But for Juliette, this house is also a dystopia, because it is filled with playing children. Every moment she is reminded of what it means for your child to be dead.

Claudel then extends the nightmare at dinner. The head of the table, who’s had too much to drink, playfully questions Lea about where she’s been keeping her lovely sister all this time. Lea and her husband nervously exchange glances. They try to make the man stop, but he keeps pushing. Finally, Juliette calmly states that she’s been in prison for murder. Everyone at the table cracks up. The witty, beautiful sister has provided a sensational story to solve the mystery. Only a kindly professor figures out that she’s telling the truth.

As is fitting for a small intimate drama about a woman slowly rebuilding her life, there is no single self-revelation moment to show character change. There is instead a collection of little changes, and none is complete. By the end of the film, Juliette has begun to get close to the professor, but she hasn’t kissed him. Her brother-in-law, once frightened of leaving his children alone with her, suggests to his wife that Juliette baby-sit their kids.

Drama is a form fraught with all sorts of hidden dangers for the writer. If this is the voice by which you speak, study I’ve Loved You So Long carefully and you can learn many valuable techniques. Master them and your ability to touch the heart of an audience will be unmatched.