Oct 10, 2010

The Social Network - Memoir/True Story

Whenever I break down a film script to see how it works, I always start by identifying the central problems and challenges the writer faced in cracking the story code. In adapting the true story of the creation of Facebook, master screenwriter Aaron Sorkin faced at least three major challenges.

First he had to make a true story dramatic. The Memoir-True Story genre must hit the seven major story structure steps just like any other genre. But the writer doesn’t have the freedom to make up the basic story events. And events in real life rarely have the dramatic density and punch of fiction.

Sorkin’s second major challenge was that the main character is a nasty person who is guilty of massive theft and betrayal. It is a common misconception that the main character must be likable in a story. But if he is not likable, the writer’s job immediately becomes much more difficult. No one in the audience wants to identify with someone this unpleasant (though they may want this much success), or see such a person accomplish his goal. So the writer is left with a character who is at most clinically interesting to the audience, much like a strange beast in the zoo. Sorkin’s third big challenge had to do with plot. The real events of Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook form a structure that is fairly similar to the rise and fall of a rock star, a story shape that is notorious for lacking plot and for being deadly dull as a result.

To meet these challenges, Sorkin relied on the nine genre beats of the Memoir- True Story form. One of these is the Story Frame. The frame is found in a vast number of true stories because it allows the writer to solve the form’s biggest restriction, which is the anti-dramatic sequence of true events. You can’t change what happened in a true story, but with a frame you can change the order of how you tell what happened.

The frame in The Social Network is provided by the depositions in which Zuckerberg has to answer to the Winklevoss brothers and Mark’s business partner, Eduardo Saverin, for his theft. Like most frames, the depositions are the chronological endpoint of the story. They are the story equivalent of a trial, or battle, which allows Sorkin a natural funnel point toward which all events build. The frame also lets Sorkin cut out all the boring moments that are part of real life, along with the mundane but necessary steps of building a business.

With the frame, Sorkin largely overcomes the second challenge of the repellant hero, using a structural technique that is both rare and risky: Sorkin turns the hero into the opponent, and the ally, Eduardo, into the hero. Instead of trying to create sympathy for a bad guy, Sorkin changes the focus of the story to the question: will the bad guy lose the deposition and have to pay the people he cheated? Eduardo literally tells the second half of the story, making him the hero, and he gains the audience’s sympathy because he has so clearly been wronged.

I say that Sorkin largely overcomes the challenge of the repellant hero because this guy is unsalvageable. Turning him into the opponent helps, but this story frame comes with a high cost. The crosscut between the deposition and the real events has a cold, distancing effect on the audience. Sorkin might have been able to warm things up by delving deeper into Zuckerberg’s motives, which are nothing more than the schematic ones of being a nerd and wanting to climb the social class ladder. But my sense is that this was a dead end, because Zuckerberg comes across as an idiot savant whose brilliance is extreme but narrow. From the very first scene, we know this guy is hopeless.

It’s in facing the challenge of plot that Sorkin had the most difficulty and where his success was most dependent on craft. The rise-and-fall story is a very old plot form, and has the benefit of a clean line on which to hang the particular events of the story. But it makes for a lousy plot because there are almost no surprises. You really have only two story beats: the rise and the fall. Once you establish the rising line, the audience gets it. And when the hero starts to fall, everyone knows immediately where this is all headed.

Strictly speaking the real events of the creation of Facebook only give Sorkin a rise. Using the deposition frame at least gives him a fall to go with the rise, in that Zuckerberg was forced to pay quite a sum to those he cheated and he has obviously suffered a moral decline.

But Sorkin clearly knew that this structure still left him with a thin plot. In my Memoir-True Story class I talk about how to combine fiction genres with a true story to juice the plot. Sorkin’s choice was the thriller form. The thriller is a type of story in which the hero is placed under constant attack and increasing pressure as he goes after his goal. Like the story frame, this genre combination creates a vortex in which events assault the viewer at a faster and faster pace. To see how much this helps the plot, imagine telling the story of the creation of a business, even one that grew this fast, in a strictly non-fiction, chronological style.

Still the frame and the thriller genre can only go so far. Ultimately the facts of this true story and the unpleasant main character mean that The Social Network has one big flaw: there’s no way to end the story. The hero’s moral decline is indisputable early in the second half of the film. And a series of deposition scenes is a far cry from a big courtroom trial where the fight is decided in one last blaze of glory.

Of course Sorkin knows this. He tries to finesse it with his great skill at dialogue. In an attempt to partly redeem Zuckerberg and put final closure to the moral argument of the story, Sorkin has a female lawyer tell Zuckerberg, “You're not an asshole, Mark. You're just trying so hard to be.” But it’s a false distinction and it fools no one. The Zuckerberg character portrayed in this film really is an asshole. And no matter how much the real Zuckerberg was forced to pay, I couldn’t help leaving the theater thinking it wasn’t nearly enough.