Sunday, July 23, 2006 the Future!

Allow me to rephrase and reapproach what I was trying to say awhile ago with my post on "Pirates 2". I suspect I didn't flesh it out enough to make myself clear, and perhaps using "Pirates 2" as an example lead to me being a bit vague because I didn't want to cite specific examples from the movie which would be spoilers.

Anyway, let me first say that I have always tried to avoid reprinting material from books that are in print - I don't want to rip off some writer trying to make a living. But I'm going to do it anyway and tell myself that I am plugging the book and helping it sell more copies. This is from "Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach" by Paul Gulino.

Basically, the whole book is about a subject that, to me, is a very big key to making movies work. All movies don't have to involve this technique but it is very useful in keeping your audience involved with your story and characters.

The best quote in the book is, ironically, from another book called "Aspects of the Novel" by E. M. Forster and it concerns the root nature of story:

"It has only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can have only one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next."

You want to focus your audience on the future: what's going to happen next? If they don't care what happens next why should they even stay in the theatre? Another writer called this "The Bathroom Test": we all know those giant sodas they sell at the movies. If you drank one during the trailers and then sat through a movie, is the movie compelling enough to keep you from going to the bathroom in the middle? Did the filmmaker create enough questions about the future of the story to keep you riveted to your seat?

Many good movies pose a question early in the movie that requires an answer.

This does two things: if the question is compelling you will stick around to learn the answer (and hopefully the answer will be satisfying). Also it creates a framework. The movie will not be over until this question is answered.

This is important. The audience craves a framework for the movie (in my opinion). Even before you go to a movie, the ad campaign for the movie has created a certain expectation for the movie. Some people complain that movie ads give away too much up front. This is true, but on the other hand, I don't think those mysterious "teaser" campaigns work well either. If I'm commiting 2 hours of my life and paying $10 to buy a product (in this case, a movie) I want to have a good idea of what I'm getting beforehand. I don't want to think I'm getting a comedy and get a drama instead. Or go see a Western and then halfway through it turns into a sci-fi adventure. That's okay if I knew about it up front, but if you feel like you got the old bait-and-switch and the movie turned out to be something other than what you expected...well, that's kind of a letdown.

Like I said, movies are a product like anything else. It's like buying a soda. Say you were really in the mood for a Coke on a hot day and bought a Coke can out of a vending machine. But when you opened the Coke and took a big turned out to be Sprite in a Coke can. Even though you may love Sprite, when you want a Coke you want a Coke, right?

This probably sounds very commercial and crass to many of you but I happen to like popular movies, when they're done well, which we can all agree is not nearly often enough. Don't get me wrong, I watch a ton of independant movies as well but I find them to be, in general, just as tedious and boring as popular films, if not more so. Just because they were made for less money and are trying to be more cereberal than popular movies doesn't make them better. I believe films have one goal above all other: to entertain. I like a movie that can uplift me as much as anyone, but I've never seen a movie that uplifted me without entertaining me first. A true artist isn't afraid to entertain you. Only snobs think that entertaining people is beneath them.

Anyway, that was a bit of a left turn there........for those of you still with me what I was trying to say is that people want to have a framework. They want to know when the movie is going to be over, and many movies will pose a question up front. The audience knows that the movie won't be over until that question is defintively answered. And that gives the ending a more satisfying weight, becasue we've been anticipating the answer for a while and it doesn't just come out of nowhere and blindside us. From the very beginning it was a part of the fabric of the movie.

And again, this is something that I feel both Pirates movies do very well and it makes the storytelling work well. There are many questions being setup with each character and it works well on many levels. Off the top of my head, here's one example: near the beginning of the first movie, Jack points a gun at Will and tells him "this shot is not meant for you".

That creates a very interesting question: who is the shot meant for? And why? Will Jack ever get to shoot it at the correct recipient? And what will happen when he does?

And you know that the movie won't be over until we know the answer to that question. And when it happens, it's so much satisfying than if we didn't hear this setup. If we didn't have this setup, then it would just be another gun being fired in a movie. It would have no weight.

And think about if that gun had never been fired in the movie. How unsatisfying would that have been? That's the thing about creating anticipation: you have to deliver on it in a satisfying way.

Anyway, in his book Mr. Gulino talks about four ways to create an anticipation of the future in your audience. I'll talk about them in my next posts.

Which is funny, because even though I didn't mean to, I'm telling you about the future and (just maybe) creating an anticipation of my next posts!

But probably not.


Marmax said...

The movie I think of that pulled a genre switch was The Village. The magic got sucked right out of that one.It was a real let down especially since I figured out what was going on before they let you know.

Also, Cold Creek Manor. The trailer set it out to be a ghost story...not the case. Yawn...


When reading a book, there's some that are so intriguing that you can't put it down. You have to work the next day, get to the end of a chapter at 1:42 am, grit your teeth and have to start the next chapter. Then you curse yourself in the morning...

RoboTaeKwon-Z said...

Thanks for the tip on this book, Mark. I'm off to get it from Amazon!!!

chickennuggets said...

Oooh, you loved want to marry it and have pirate babies with it! goo goo arrrrrgh!

Jayenti Collins said...

loved this post mark! it's one of those concepts that seem so simple but is almost always overlooked. and you hooked me! i'm ready for your next posts!

Anonymous said...

Creating a complex and nuanced set of expectations (in other words, doing a good job writing and then implementing the script) can have disastrous results, of course, when you don't manage to carry through with an equally satisfactory resolution.

I'm not a script writer (I've mostly written reviews -- yes, I'm one of those!), but it seems to me that this must be an incredible pressure for a writer: the pressure not only to create this wonderful story over an hour or an hour and 15 minutes, but then to somehow resolve it in an equally wonderful way.

When it's done well, it's one of the greatest experiences that I can think of (I think of the countless films where I've just been floored at the end, by how wonderfully the whole thing lands up: I recall the ending to The Third Man, for example, or Chinatown).

But when the resolution fails to achieve the heights of the narrative development that spawned it . . . well, that's pretty much devastating, isn't it?

hobo divine said...

you are helping to sell the book, I'm gonna run down to "World's Biggest" and see if I can get a copy myself!


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