Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Story Chapter 16: Problems and Solutions

A screenwriter faces 8 enduring problems:
  1. Interest
  2. Surprise
  3. Coincidence
  4. Comedy
  5. Point of view
  6. Adaptation
  7. Melodrama
  8. Holes
1. Interest!
How to keep folks interested for two hours or more.

Needs to engage intellect and emotion. For the intellect, each turning point must hook curiosity.

On the emotional side, the audience seeks the 'centre of good' - who are we rooting for here? A positive focus for empathy and interest... and then we feel concern when that protagonist is under threat.

"At the very least the centre of good must be located in the protagonist"

Curiosity and concern create three ways to connect audience and story:
  1. Mystery
  2. Suspense
  3. Dramatic Irony
In mystery the audience knows less than the characters. Murder mystery subgenres are:

Closed mystery (e.g. Agatha Christie) - we don't know who did it. "Who did it" is the main question we ask.

Open mystery (e.g. Colombo) - we see the murder, so we ask "How will he catch him?"

In suspense the audience and characters know the same information - and it could end up or down. That's the main thing we want to know - how is this going to turn out?

In Dramatic Irony the audience knows more than the characters. We just want to see how it'll play out.

2. Surprise!
Reversal of expectation.

"As characters arrive onscreen, the audience surrounds them with expectations."

3. Coincidence
First, bring coincidence in early to allow time to build meaning out of it.

Don't use coincidence past the mid-point.

Second, never use coincidence to turn and ending. This is deus ex machina, a writer's greatest sin. It takes away the characters' personal responsibility for their actions.

Exceptions: antistructure. "When coincidence rules story, it creates a new and rather significant meaning: life is absurd."

4. Comedy
Frustrated idealism.

In comedy, laughter settles all arguments. You know when you screen it if it's funny: did anyone laugh?

The comedy writer first asks, "what am I angry about?"

"In drama the audience continuously grabs handfuls of the future, pulling themselves through, wanting to know the outcome. But comedy allows the writer to halt narrative drive, the forward projecting mind of the audience, and interpolate into the telling a scene with no story or purpose."

A true comedy is about turning points, not dialogue or sight gags.

5. Point of View
The more time spent with a character, the more opportunity to witness his choices. The result is more empathy and emotional involvement between audience and character.

Which is good.

6. Adaptation
is best at portraying inner conflict - inner dialogue.
Theatre is best at portraying interpersonal conflict - dialogue
Film is best at portraying external conflict - visual

1st principle of adaptation: the purer the novel, the purer the play, the worse the film.

Look for stories in which conflict happens on all three levels - with an emphasis on the extra personal.

To adapt:
  1. Read over and over without taking notes. Familiarise
  2. Identify turning points and reduce each even to a 1- or 2-sentence statement of what happens - no more.
  3. Is this story well-told?
2nd principle of adaptation: be willing to reinvent.

Reorder into chronological order, see what needs cutting or inserting. Turn the mental into physical.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a good adapter. (Merchant Ivory)

Exercise: Read Room with a View, Quartet, the Bostonians, pull a step-outline from each novel, then compare to Jhabvala.

7. Melodrama
"Melodrama is not the result of overexpression but of under-motivation; not writing too big, but writing with too little desire."

Match motivation with action.

SY: For instance, In My Father's Den has characters who are typically reserved kiwis. There needs to be a lot of motivation before one brother is threatening another with a shotgun.

8. Holes
Holes happen in life; they'll happen in your script. Will they notice?

"Courageous writers ... expose the hole to the audience, then deny that it is a hole."


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