Back to Basics

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In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen some very poorly executed movies.  Is there anything more frustrating than going into a theater with high expectations and watching for two hours as those hopes are slowly dashed to pieces?  Why yes, I’m sure there are things more frustrating but it’s definitely near the top of any reasonable list.  It’s right up there with forgetting to do laundry over the weekend and discovering on Monday morning that you’ve got to go to work in whichever clothes are least dirty.  Maybe that’s just me.

The frustrating thing with these critical flops is that they often get a lot of things right.  They have solid ideas behind them that promise great stories and they’re often drawn from source material full of complex and interesting characters.

clapperboardl1_800wI usually can’t blame the actors in these films.  Plenty of filmmakers have proven that a good movie (sometimes even a great movie) need not stand solely on the strength of its acting.  Mark Hamil, anyone?  Two of the movies I’ve seen lately have actually had some fine actors doing fine jobs with the material they have to work with and yet the films still fail dramatically.  The trouble is not actors.

In the case of blockbuster-style summer movies, action and special effects play as big a part as actors.  But flashy special effects do not a good movie make.  Nor do cheesy effects a good movie ruin.  You’d be hard pressed to bring down a good movie with bad effects, although a distressing number of bad movies succeed solely on the quality of the effects work.

The story is the same with music, cinematography, editing, lighting and all the other technical aspects of filmmaking.

So where is the disconnect?  Why does a movie with a good concept, good actors, and competent technical prowess fail?

The issue is that among blockbuster level filmmakers there often seems to be a general lack of understanding of the fundamentals of good storytelling.   The basics are not being covered.

One of those basics is Character Arc.  Every character needs to have his or her own particular story within the greater whole.  Each character must start with a problem, struggle with that problem, and find some kind of resolution by the end of the story.  Each character ought to have grown and changed and come out at the end someone other than who he was in the beginning.

What many storytellers seem to forget is that this applies not only to the main character but to every single member of the cast.  If a character doesn’t struggle and change then it’s one-dimensional.  Either beef it up or cut it out.

Another basic: Scene Structure.  Scenes are the building blocks of a story whether in a book, on stage, or on screen.  A scene doesn’t serve merely to pass on information, a scene must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It has to pose a problem and find a resolution to that problem through conflict.  If a scene doesn’t do that then guess what?  It isn’t a scene.

That doesn’t mean that scenes can’t be intercut and it doesn’t mean that they have to be shown linearly, but they have to satisfy those conditions.  They must not only show conflict, they must move toward resolution.

When I sit down to write a scene there are several things that go through my mind.  The first is that I need to know what the scene is meant to accomplish.  Maybe it needs to move the action from one location to another.  Maybe it needs to set up a subplot.  Maybe it needs to introduce a character.  Once I know what the scene needs to do, then I go about learning how it does it.

The ‘how’ is the job of the characters.  Every character in a scene wants something.  The audience doesn’t necessarily need to know this but the writer does.  Once you know what a character wants, then you decide how they will go about trying to get it.  Maybe a character wants acceptance, maybe he wants to go to sleep, maybe he wants to kill someone.  No matter what is going on, every character wants something.  The storyteller’s job is to figure out what that desire is and use it to propel the scene forward.

When you put two or more characters together that want different things or, even better, that want the same thing, you’ve got conflict.  Now you’ve got a scene going.

But the scene can’t end with conflict.  Someone has to get what they want and there have to be consequences, a new problem has to be encountered.  If no one gets their way then there’s no forward motion and the scene falls flat.  If no new conflict is introduced then the story is over, you’ve dropped the dramatic ball.

These aren’t revolutionary ideas.  These are the bare bones basics:  Character and Scene.  If writers and directors followed those simple guidelines they’d have a much harder time making bad movies.   It’s heartbreaking to go to the theater and see the work and sweat and passion of so many people falling apart because the writers and the director didn’t cover the basics, they didn’t adhere to the most foundational concepts of storytelling.

I don’t expect every movie to be great.  I do, however, expect that if millions of dollars and years of work are going to be put into something that it should at least betray evidence that you understand the fundamental concepts that make a story work.  Pixar understands this.  What excuse does the rest of the blockbuster machine have?

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


21 Comments

  1. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Only Tolkien could answer that for certain but I’m pretty sure that if you read over the Prancing Pony scenes you could pick a few hints out.

    On the other hand, you’re right, minor characters aren’t always fleshed out. But if they exist as full characters in the writer’s mind then that authenticity shows in the story. If a character exists only to serve a mechanical purpose and is flat in the writer’s mind, he’ll be flat on the page as well.

  2. Gareth Davies

    To what extent is a resolve essential? Swapping to theatre and plays such as Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot, or Endgame. The characters want something, but there is little development, and certainly no resolve and that’s what makes it brilliant. Would this transpose to screen? I don’t know. Perhaps i’m taking the idea of resolve to litterally.

  3. Kevin

    Dude, thanks for sharing! I really like how you broke down the basics. I wish that stuff you just wrote about had been emphasized a lot more during film school. It’s amazing how at every stage of filmmaking those principals are constantly knocking on your door. Screenwriting, pre-production, production, and editing are always coming back to story and character arcs. Story is king and the characters are, um, princes I guess.

    As far as blockbusters being a bust I can postulate another reason why that happens. Too many movies get into hands that don’t really care about the story. A friend of mine who recently was a PA on “Race to Witch Mountain” seemed to think that the director got the job purely based on the financial success of “Game Plan” and the result was a director who never knew what he wanted. It’s hard to have vision for something you don’t REALLY care about!

    It seems you have a passion for film and understand story fundamentals. Have you tried writing a screenplay or considered getting more involved with film? I really like listening to writers talk about film – thanks again!

  4. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Gareth, I think that at the basic level, which is where most ‘summer movies’ fall, that it’s absolutely essential. The thing that generally makes a blockbuster ‘bust’ is that it appeals to a wide range of people, it’s accessible, it’s easily digested.

    In movies like No Country for Old Men that don’t have an easily identifiable resolution, I’d say that the lack of resolve IS the resolution. That’s a much more complex idea, which is why it doesn’t appeal to everyone and also why it takes a much more talented filmmaker to pull off.

    Kevin, I was a film major and for a long time I wanted to make movies but I eventually got sidetracked. These days I’m much more interested in writing prose. Speaking of movies…I’m off to see “Up” …so excited.

  5. Benjamin Wolaver

    Speaking of Up… I think the film may be one of the most perfect in terms the principles set out in this post. What a winsome and creative film!

  6. Jim A

    Be careful Benjamin and Pete. I just got back from UP. Wife and I took my 3 and 6 year olds. I cried through the just about the whole dang thing and that WASN’T supposed to happen. I’d seen the trailers. It was supposed to be funny. grumpy-ish old man, millions of balloons, stow away boy scout. Pixar did a masterful job keeping the main plot silent (at least from me) so I never saw it coming. couldn’t prepare myself. wasn’t ready for it when it hit. THEY MADE ME TURN IN MY MAN CARD!!! I mean, it was animation for Pete’s sake (no offense Pete).

  7. Peter B

    Jim, how did your kids take it? I have a fairly normal 4-year-old and a *very* sensitive 6-year-old, both girls; the boy (2) would probably not attend. They saw Wall-E and loved it, though it was tough for a while there (my oldest cried in Ratatouille when the kitchen crew walked out on Linguine).

    We were a little worried about the start of the film for their sake, but now it sounds a bit more widespread; I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.

  8. Benjamin Wolaver

    The beginning sequence of Up is, in my humble opinion, probably the pinnacle of Pixar’s creativity and storytelling at this point. Very few montages have hit me as deeply as that one… and all in five minutes!

  9. Jim A

    Peter B – I’d say all total they watched about 50-75% of the movie. the rest of the time they were burying their faces in me (or mamma’s). It has some intense scenes (read scary). But neither felt the emotional bits of the movie like we did. I’m not going to put up any spoilers here. I’ll just say that it hit me like a ton of bricks that I never saw coming. It’s going to be more “emotional” for adults.

    I Loved that part in Ratatouille but my oldest (both girls) didn’t like that movie at all and now she’s scared of even the word Rat.

    Fair warning though, UP is rated PG which I didn’t realize (would still have gone) but it’s PG on purpose.

    Benjamin W – you nailed it sir. Very well put.although it felt much longer than 5 minutes!

  10. Jim A

    Oh! and another thing Peter B, my girls were unphased by the opening. it was really later in the film when the action picked up and the chase scenes that scared them.

  11. Peter B

    Thanks, Jim; I guess I’ll wait for some more input before making a decision. You seem to be indicating that the PG rating is for the “scare” factor in the action scenes; I wonder how it compares to The Incredibles. The opener might be worse in this case (our sensitive older one is named Ellie; hard to tell if that will weigh in here).

    Either way, I do look forward to seeing the film and I hope Potter VI comes out better-told than the book.

  12. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    I agree completely, Benjamin. The opening sequence of Up is the best love story I’ve seen on the big screen in quite a while. I love how Steven Greydanus describes it:

    “Up opens with an eloquent, economical prologue that is among the most arresting tributes to lifelong love that I have ever seen in any film, let alone a cartoon. Joy, serenity, hope and heartbreak, dreams long cherished and long deferred — a lifetime of indelible memories effortlessly evoked in a few brief minutes.”

  13. kevin

    Am I the only person who hates it when the entire plot is hidden in the trailer? I mean, good grief, how do I know if I want to go watch it or not?

    I’ve been fighting my wife since we saw the UP trailer weeks and weeks ago, because she said “oh, that looks good.”, and I said, “Why the heck does that look good?” Old guy, young guy, balloons… I don’t get the appeal.

    Now, thanks to the overwhelming RR reviews, I have to go ask the little woman which showing she prefers…

  14. Jim A

    Kevin, the trailer is definitely not what the movie is “about”. though there is obviously a balloon theme throughout. GREAT GREAT movie.

    Peter B, hard to compare The Incredibles in terms of “scare” factor. Up had much more “animalistic” scariness even though I thought Pixar did a fantastic job using “voices” to offset. I’d say go for sure. Worst case is Ellie might need some tissues at some point. but it’s pretty subtle from a kids point of view I think.

    Stephen Lamb, Thank you for including that write up. Greydanus nails it. What he doesn’t mention though is how, with pictures, that opening scene is kept fresh in your head the entire movie and when he

    *****——–******SPOILER ALERT—————******************

    finally make it to paradise falls, it’s just absolutely overwhelming emotions. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house when he finally turned past what he thought was the last page “Adventures I’m going to have”.

    Does somebody remember what the line in the movie was by the boy who was remembering all the things he did with his dad? Something about “it’s the ordinary things you remember?”. boy did we loose it there.

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