Monday, February 14, 2011

The Three Magic Questions

If you've ever spent any time reading this blog before, you know I basically spend most of my time writing about two disciplines: drawing (and/or painting, etc) and story telling. The older I get and the more time I spend working at improving at these two things, the more things I think they have in common.

Both are incredibly difficult and both are constantly humbling. In order to do well at either you need to fail constantly and learn from each failure. Every story is different and every drawing is different.

In both areas, people are constantly looking for easy answers, formulas and short cuts.

And in both areas there are none to be had. And trying to find them will lead to cliched and unsatisfying drawings and stories.

The only way I know for sure to make good drawings or good stories is to constantly work at them and rework them and rework them and rework them and rework them until they are as good as you can make them. That's why good stories and good drawings are rare and both are things of great value. Because very few people have the patience, discipline and humility to create great ones.

Here is some simple advice about storytelling from David Mamet's "Bambi vs. Godzilla". He makes the point that storytelling isn't really complicated but it's very hard to do.

This chapter is entitled "Secret Bonus Chapter: The Three Magic Questions". And I have found that storyboarding is, in many ways, constantly answering these three questions in every panel. Sounds overly dramatic, I know, but I mean it. This is the single greatest thing I have ever read about writing and I con only say that, based on my twenty years of storyboarding, all that he says is absolutely true. Anyway, enjoy:

Secret Bonus Chapter: The Three Magic Questions

Here is the long-lost secret of the Incas. Anyone who wants to know how to write drama must learn to apply these questions to to all difficulties. It is not only unnecessary but also impossible to know the answers before setting out on the individual project in question, as there are no stock answers.

The secret of the Incas, then, is like the Torah, beloved of my people, the Jews. We read the Torah, the five books of Moses, every year, in the same order. Every year the meaning of the Torah changes, though the text remains unchanged.

As the writer changes, year to year, his or her perceptions and interests change. At twenty he is interested only in sex, at thirty in sex and money, at forty in money and sex, at sixty in money and validation, et cetera.

No one can write drama without being immersed in the drama. Here's what that means: the writer will and must go through exactly the same process as the antagonist (for what is the antagonist but a creation of the writer?).

The writer may choose to supply stock, genre, or predictable answers to the magic questions, and the drama will be predictable and boring. The writer will have saved himself the agony of indecision, self-doubt - of work, in short - and so, of course, will the protagonist. The audience will view this pseudo-drama much as the graduate views a liberal arts education: "I don't think anything happened, but I'm told I went to college, so, perhaps, I somehow got an education".

All right, you may complain, get to the fairy dust portion of the entertainment and vouchsafe to me the secret of the Incas.

Here it is.

The filmed drama (as any drama) is a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal - so that he, as discussed elsewhere, is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants.

If he is forced, the audience, watching his progress, wonders with him, how he will fare in the upcoming scene, as the film is essentially a progression of scenes. To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:

1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don't get it?
3. Why now?

That's it. As a writer, your yetzer ha'ra (evil inclination) will do everything in its vast power to dissuade you from asking these questions of your work. You will tell yourself the questions are irrelevant as the scene is "interesting," "meaningful," "revelatory of character," "deeply felt'" and so on; all of these are synonyms for "it stinks on ice".

You may be able to dissuade your yetzer ha'ra by insisting that you were and are a viewer before you were a writer, and that as a writer, these three questions are all you want to know of a scene. (You come late to a film and ask your friend there before you, "What's going on? Who is this guy? What does he want?" and your friend will, as a good dramaturge, explain that the subject of your inquiry (the hero) is the vice president of Bolivia, and he wants to determine where his boss is, as the bad guys are going to ambush him, and if he, our hero vice president, does not extract the info from the reluctant mistress, whom the president has just thrown over, the bad guys will kill his boss and bring down the country.)

1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don't get it?
3. Why now?

As one becomes more adept in the use of these invaluable ancient tools, one may, in fact, extend their utility to the level of the actual spoken line and ask of the speech, no doubt beginning, "Jim, when I was young I had a puppy...." "Wait a second, how does this speech help Hernando find out where his boss, the president of Bolivia, is?" And you may, then, be so happy - not with the process but with the results of your assiduous application of these magic questions - that finding the puppy speech wanting in their light, you will throw it to the floor and out of the scene it was just about to ruin.

These magic questions and their worth are not known to any script reader, executive, or producer. They are known and used by few writers. They are, however, part of the unconscious and perpetual understanding of that group who will be judging you and by whose say-so your work will stand or fall: the audience.


sethhoward said...

Hey Mark,

Thanks for sharing. Just have one clarifying question that you may be able to expound upon from Mr. Mamet's article. How does the 'Why now?" relate to the scene? Is that as in, "Why is this happening now in the movie (or play or whatever) as opposed to later?"

mark kennedy said...

Seth - it's always very important to explain in a story why the story is unfolding today as opposed to yesterday, or tomorrow. Say, for example, you made a movie where a guy was pining after the girl who lives next door but never approached her to tell he that he liked her. Then one day he knocks on her door and tells her how he feels.

In film, it's important to explain why he knocked on her door at that moment and not before. What happened to him to change how he felt and give him the courage to do what he couldn't do yesterday?

If you can answer the "why now?" it gives your story an immediacy and a reason for being told.

Hopefully that helps!!! Let me know if it's still unclear.

dedwardz said...

It's funny. I love how simple Mamet puts things and it's amazing how many filmmakers still dismiss the advice.

On the three points, if you haven't already seen it:

For me, rather than just giving believability to the actions of the protagonist (immediacy and reason, yes), the "Why now" forces the writer to create a compelling inciting incident that will not only kick a story into gear but provide enough drama for the whole film to sustain audience interest. There are so many films that fail the 'Why now' test because they have poor inciting incidents and they are ultimately dull.

The inciting incident is usually an event that changes the path of the protagonist from whatever they were doing before. Put simply, if you can't answer "why now" you don't have an inciting incident compelling enough to hold an audience.

Jimena Sánchez Sarquiz said...

I really liked this article. The paragraph where you talk about having patience, discipline and humility spoke to me specially.

I shared that paragraph on my blog and recomended your blog as a "must read" for everyone who is intrested in story telling.

Jack said...

This is apropos of nothing, just a gushing fan note to tell you how much I enjoy the blog! You're writing interesting stuff about my loves: drawing, storytelling, also visual media.

Will Finn said...

Really nice one Mark. The 3 Questions are food for thought... WHY NOW is one that i find very useful. Lately I find myself asking: "what were our characters doing the day before the story happens?" as a way of figuring that one out.

I love the opening scene in 101 DALMATIONS for instance: everything seems static and casual but a monumental event is actually taking place: Pongo has decided to end his and Roger's bachelor days and find mates to spend their lives with. What personal determination could be more important? But it's pulled off in a very offhanded way to distract you from the dramatic import...very, very nifty...

Anyways, cheers buddy...

J, Liberatore said...

Very inspiring. I've been thinking a lot about story and how to propel it along. It actually reminded me of Gail Carson Levine's "Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly." Although it's more intended for a juvenile fiction audience, what she has to say about story still holds true, such as how the author has to be as cruel as possible to their characters to create conflict! Your statement about the writer becoming the antagonist just reminded me of that! Thanks for the post and for giving an aspiring animator/story-person something to think about.

mark kennedy said...

dedwardz - yes, good point, you put it well. Thanks for the comment!

Jimena - great, glad you shared it! Thanks for the comment!

Jack - thanks so much for taking the time to let me know. I was always looking for a blog like this one....and then I decided I would just try to make one. Glad it's been a bit useful.

Will - good to hear from you! Very good point about Dalmatians. It is well handled, that's such a great scene in a movie full of them, huh?

J. Liberatore-Great, thanks for the tip, I'll check out the book.

Kyle Latino said...

This was really insightful. Thanks for putting it up.

It's really easy for me to get lost in the bells and whistles of setting and drawing fun things that I can loose sight of this sometimes.

Barry Crain - Story Artist said...


I'm so happy to have stumbled upon your Blog, and equally happy to see you referring to Mamet! For some years, I've been recommending Dave Mamet's essays to every cartoonist I know who would listen...and still trying to unlock his "Three Questions". Golden stuff, thank you for furthering this discussion!