Friday, September 23, 2005

Friday Sep 23 - Act Design

I was a bit unsure whether to venture out, because the day started off pretty rainy. But by the time I stepped out the door, there was a rainbow. I took it as a thumbs-up!

Having reached the limit of the path of the Oakley Creek (and not owning a good pair of waders) I did variations on a theme, walking through the nearby streets to get to the halfway point of the Oakley path, then doubling back towards Unitec.

Ended up finding my "classroom" in front of a waterfall. Absolutely beautiful, fairly noisy. Which was okay, except for the one phone call I got.

So I sat there and learnt about Progressive Complications, which began chapter 9 of Story.

It works like this: your protagonist starts out to do something, expecting things to behave normally. But they don't; in fact they go against him/her.

So, he/she (this is going to get tiresome; I'll use he, but you know what I mean) takes action to restore balance, and make things normal again.

The idea behind progressive complications is that things just heat up throughout the story. The stuff that happens to your character heats up; his reactions heat up. There's no point him doing something he could have done in an earlier scene - it's boring.

McKee introduced a law in this chapter, his law of conflict: Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.

Which is well illustrated by one of my favourite Simpsons episodes, where a concerned Marge writes to the creators of Itchy and Scratchy, asking can they make it less violent please.

The result? An Itchy & Scratchy show where they "love and share", and there's no conflict. It gets really boring, really fast!

Conflict runs on three levels:
  1. inner - like a stream of consciousness novel, not often found in films
  2. inter-personal - like a soap opera, it's all about the interpersonal relationships
  3. extra-personal - our hero vs. the world. Like James Bond.
McKee points out that if you choose just one of those, you need lots of characters to make it work. And lots of settings. It gets pretty expensive.

However, if you combine all three, you can come up with a really emotionally satisfying story, and not as many characters and settings.

Then he talked a bit about pacing in a three act drama. Usually, a movie is two hours, your first act (which contains your Inciting Incident, remember) being about half an hour, and your third act (climax) being 20 minutes tops. That leaves an awful lot of time for your second act. And it's in the second act that many stories start to lag.

So what can you do? Introduce subplots. If your main story is about interpersonal conflict, add a subplot of inner or extrapersonal conflict.

Of course, if you're working on a short story or a short film, you don't need to worry so much about subplots.

You might remember I mentioned sometimes you delay the Inciting Incident in order to reveal character. This happens in Rocky, because you need to know how downtrodden the character is before he takes up his first fight. However, all that character revelation doesn't feel like the story is moving, so there's a love story in there as well. A subplot, that plays out on a different timescale to the main plot.

Some other neat little tidbits:
  • The penultimate climax (ie usually your act 2 climax) must be the opposite of the ultimate climax. If penultimate is good, ultimate must be bad. Vice versa.
  • You can use a subplot to contradict the Controlling Idea (remember that?) of the Central Plot "and thus enrich the film with irony".
  • Or you could use your subplot to confirm the Controlling Idea, enriching the plot with "variations on a theme".
  • I'll quote directly here, because I wouldn't try to rephrase this: "If a subplot doesn't thematically contradict or resonate the Controlling Idea of the main plot, if it doesn't set up the introduction of the main plot's Inciting Incident, or complicate the action of the main plot, if it merely runs alongside, it will split the story down the middle and destroy its effect." Yikes.
Last word: "You're free to break or bend convention, but for one reason only: to put something more important in its place."


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