Monday, January 14, 2008

"An Emotional Delivery System"

In his book, "Writing for Emotional Impact", Karl Iglesias points out that there are many screenwriting books that talk about how to fix the structure of your movie but many of them neglect the most important part of making a movie: delivering an emotional experience to the viewer. The phrase "an emotional delivery system" is how Karl describes movies.

Karl illustrates this point in an interesting way; he points out that, when you see an ad or poster for a movie, the quotes that they pick from critics to make the movie sound good never say things like "...this film had a flawless structure!" or "This film had the perfect number of subplots to sustain act two!", instead they always say things like " emotional roller-coaster" or "'ll need ten hankies to get through this one" or "...a nail-biter from beginning to end" which are all statements that speak more to the film maker's ability to manipulate your emotions that to their talent for forging a perfectly structured film.

This is a good point, and one that gets overlooked sometimes in film production. There are so many different books that offer helpful insight into how to fix the structure of your script and, after all, it is very, very important for the structure to work. But ultimately you want the structure to service the overall emotional experience of the film - the whole point of the structure is to make the emotional "punch" of the film work as effectively as possible.

But since it's so much easier to talk about the structure - after all, screenwriting books have provided us with a language to deal with and discuss structure (terms like inciting incident, the act two midpoint, etc.) as well as countless numbers of pages devoted to how to fix the structure of any movie, reams and reams devoted to the rules, principles and tools that can be applied to fix any ailing storyline. That makes talking about the structure so much easier to do than discussing the emotional component of the movie, because there aren't nearly as many books written that really talk about how to make sure the emotional aspect of your movie is working, and we don't have a short-hand vocabulary for talking about emotional structure like we do for discussing plot structure. And making the emotional side work is so much more subjective...I think a lot of it comes from who we are and what we've been through, because the films that seem to resonate with people seem to be those that speak to things that mean something to them and what they've experienced, and the same films don't always elicit the same emotions in everybody.

I felt that for years we fell into the trap at Disney of thinking that as long as we analyzed and scrutinized the structure to death we would ensure that the movie would succeed. You can see how this might happen at a studio - studios are always trying to make a "bulletproof" movie that will appeal to everyone and be "guaranteed" to be a critical and financial success. It's not hard to see that nervous executives and film makers would comfort themselves with the "crutch" of thinking that as long as the structure is executed perfectly, the film will resonate with the public and be a hit.

I always felt (and I've said this many a time in the past, usually to the kind of awkward silence that most of my pronouncements inspire in listeners) that this is like putting together a watch and making all of the gears work perfectly. It may "work" and it may even be fascinating to watch for a short time, but it doesn't inspire any kind of emotional response in the viewer.

Anyway I haven't read much of the book yet (another Christmas gift) so I can't share any of Mr. Iglesias's specific techniques for improving stories, but as I get further along I will share some more of his thoughts with you, if they seem worthwhile.


Mark Mayerson said...

I agree with what you're saying and thanks for pointing to the book. I have a book on order called Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne that I suspect covers the same issues.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vineet said...

i wonder how effective a book on creating emotion will be, wouldn't there be formulae and structure prescribed to best get hook your audience?

TS said...

I think the above points are fairly on spot: you just can't tell someone how to create something emotional without making it feel contrived. Also to consider is that some people ultimately have a much better feel for story telling than others.

Miyazaki is someone who has made films that have relatively flawed structure yet for the most part have a good emotional impact. I think if you look at a film like Porco Rosso it just seems to work though the story structure is all over the place. I think you also have to consider that a good script may not necesarrilly translate to the screen without the right direction.

I see films all of the time where I can tell exactly what they were trying to do but it just didn't work. All of the pieces are there in the correct spots, but the acting, direction, and editing just din't mesh together to create the right film.

Making a film is such a complicated process that it is amazing that all of the pieces can come together into a coherent mass.

mark kennedy said...

I have to disagree with the automatic rejection of any kind of book that concerns screenwriting or storytelling. This is a habit common to people in animation, but I don't understand it.

Books on story structure are like books on drawing, and we'd all agree that there are good books on drawing and bad books on drawing. A good book on any artistic subject introduces you to the PRINCIPLES that you can apply to guide yourself and analyze your own work. On the other hand, any book that offers RULES for how to do something ONE way and one way only is a complete waste of time.

You wouldn't say that we should all avoid art instruction, and avoid life drawing, because it hampers our "creative freedom", would you?

You wouldn't call memorizing the skeleton and it's parts and the location of all the muscle groups a "formula", would you?

I guess screenwriting books get a bad name because studio executives use them to create insipid garbage, but I know many many many talented and smart film makers that like to read and hear anything they can about story or film making.

If you disagree with something, you can always disregard it, and remember the parts that are helpful or make sense to you. Being exposed to someone else's thoughts - even if they're inconsistent with what you believe - isn't going to make you dumber.

notanymike said...

I'm an animation writer but I do it mainly for myself. I don't want to be manipulated or manipulate anyone in any there a way to make a good film while ignorant to how you're doing it?

Kevin Koch said...

Nice post, Mark, and I also completely agree with your comment above. I'll be interested in hearing if you recommend the Iglesias book once you're done.

myke_bakich said...

Are there any other screenwriting or storytelling books you would recomend?

TS said...

Books like Robert Mckee's and Syd Field's are great for understanding the underlying architecture of the process much in the same way that drawing books help you to understand the "underlying" structure as well. But past a certain point you can't teach someone how to feel things out: they either see it or they don't. Some people just have an inherent ability to tell stories.

I don't think that anyone disagrees that books aren't great learning tools (I love my books on drawing). However, you have to understand that like drawing, the tools that we learn in class and from books are only a jumping off point and not the end of the line.

vineet said...

A book on screenwriting would be interesting, I don't disagree. But when it comes to emotions I can't help but wonder how much success you'd get by simply reading another person's thoughts in print. I'd thought that the emotion works only when you're able to be sincere, when you understand what makes people tick the way they do. And that comes only from experience. But to hear another's thoughts on the subject would be a great starting point.
I don't believe story lacks sincere emotion because we don't have a good book on the subject. I'd say it's because most don't have the sense of curiosity and sensitivity toward life and people that's essential for our craft.

Holger said...

Hi Mark,
thanks for your generous comment on the Thief blog! Comments like this boost the motivation to keep on blogging.
Thanks for the book tip. I have it on order for the library at work and look forward to checking it out.

mark kennedy said...

I still can't fathom why people feel the need to leave comments equivocating about books on story structure and tempering the usefulness of such books. every professional person I know in animation and live-action is a student of film, and they watch tons of films, listen to film makers speak and they read everything they can on film. None of them seem to be afraid that they will fall into some sort of formulaic paint-by-numbers trap when making their film.

The only people I've met who worry about such books having a negative effect are people who don't work professionally making movies...maybe I associate with the wrong people, and I don't mean to insult people who don't work professionally, but I just don't understand why people feel the need to reject screenwriting books out of hand.

I guess people have the notion that many bad films are made because people in Hollywood whip out a screenwriting book and follow a checklist that leads to a cookie-cutter bad movie. This is simply not what happens, and it is impossible anyway. Every film is such a unique animal that no checklist of points would ever apply to the same two movies and people who make movies know that once people have seen a movie, nobody is going to pay to see the same movie all over again. If you crack a good book on structure and compare it against the structure of an awful film, you will see right away that the movie would have been so much improved if they had only used the advice of the book and found NEW ways of using the principles of the book. Do people really think that the writers of "Dunston Checks In" spent late nights poring over the writings of Robert McKee and Lajos Egri and that is why the movie turned out crappy?

If people are under the impression that someone can sit down and just bang out an awesome screenplay based on pure intuition then that's like saying someone can sit down and just draw like Leonardo daVinci without any study. Or write an opera without studying music theory and studying every other opera ever made. Learning what tools are in the toolbox makes you more flexible and broadens your reach. It doesn't reduce you to a one-trick by-the-numbers hack.

Aristotle saw a lot of crappy plays in his time and a few good ones. He wrote down a lot of similarities that the good ones shared and created the first known principles of dramatic writing. Many movies that stink are stinky because they break his rules.

Should we not read what Aristotle had to say because that's a "formula"?

I had one of the directors of one of the top-grossing animated movies of the last decade tell me that when he was making the movie, he and his partner struggled and struggled and tried everything to make the story structure work. They finally - after years and years of re-arranging - came up with something that seemed to work. A couple of years later a book was released that contained many, many great ideas and concepts that they had discovered the hard way along the way of making the movie. He was so flabbergasted and he really wished that they had had the book when they were making the movie!

If they had had the book available when making the movie, it would have put them further ahead of the curve and allowed them more time to put twists on their story and find new and inventive ways to do the things they did - everything in the story would have been better and fresher if they had found their structure earlier and been able to try things with it, re-arranging beats and turning conventions on their head. As it was they spent all of their energy finding the conventions.

kevin - thanks for the comment, I will keep plugging away at it, and we will see!

holger - yes, please stick with it, your blog of fascinating!

myke - that's a good question! I will make a list someday.

mark kennedy said...

holger - I mean your blog IS fascinating, sorry, apparently I need a book on basic English-type speaking.

Matt J said...

You must be talking about SHREK 3? Just kidding, stimulating post & thought provoking comments as always. I try to read as much as possible about film-making & story-William Goldman, Hero with 1000 faces,Michael Powell' autobigraphy etc. Robert Bolt's biography is excellent-he wrote some of the greatest movies of all time but struggled like hell! Apparently he was unimpressed working with David Lean-loathed working with directors of 'inferior intellect'!

JohnH said...

A movie that seems to me, as a viewer, trying the hardest to create an emotional response is just about the least likely to do so.

The thing that, to me, movies do to sabotage the possibility of emotional engagement is overplay the music. Some movies will pile on the violins so deep that it's really laughable.

Anyway, making a movie like a mechanism might work sometimes, but will fail at least as often as making a movie as an honest attempt to tell a story (emotional or not), and could eventually cause harm to the industry (or at least, I hope it will).