Saturday, November 10, 2012

Arcs and Transformations - Part One

These days I tend to stream a lot of free movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime, and lately I've been catching up on some war movies I've never seen before.

I like war movies, but I find many of them unsatisfying in the end. They're rarely very emotional. War movies tend to be about accomplishing a certain mission or winning a particular battle, and the characters rarely have any kind of emotional journey or personal change.

That's a different approach from most other types of movies. In general, most stories (be it novel, play or movie) involve a certain amount of transformation. Generally, this is done in one of two ways: either the main character changes in some way throughout the telling of the story, or the main character doesn't change but has a transformative effect on the world around them.

It's not required that a story meet this criteria, of course. Many people will say it's just an arbitrary rule that some screenwriter made up. But, for me personally, my favorite stories are ones in which there's some sort of change that happens. In general, I'd say that most movies that have any emotional component get this emotional rush based on changes that happen within the movie - either within the characters or within the world of the story.

I think a change within the telling of the story is important because the events of a story just feel more meaningful and have more weight if they have the ability to change a character. What's the point of a story if it doesn't have the power to change a character (or a world) in some way? If a story doesn't transform somebody or something, then what's the point of the story? If a story doesn't create a change within the telling, it's probably just a recitation of events. A recitation of events is more what you'd expect from a documentary or an informative TV special....but not from a movie.

So for this post, lets focus on the first type of arc: the type of story where the character changes over the telling of the story. This is the most common kind of transformation in stories.

John August and Craig Mazin have a podcast on screenwriting called "Scriptnotes", and in an episode called "Endings for Beginners", they have a great way of framing how this type of story works:

"At the end of the movie, the character should be able to do something that they were unable to do at the beginning."

...I'm paraphrasing because I can't remember the exact quote, but that's a great way to think of it. Check out that episode here, or download their podcast from iTunes if you're interested.

The clearest way to state it is that you show a character that is unable to do some certain thing at the beginning, and then the events of the story change the character in a way that enables them to do that certain thing at the end that they were unable to do at the beginning of their journey.

"UP" and "Finding Nemo" are two of the clearest examples of character transformation that I can think of [SPOILER ALERT].

In "Nemo", Marlin loses his family, except for one son (Nemo), who he is (understandably) over-protective of. The first part of the movie shows many different ways that Marlin is unable to "let go" of Nemo. 

Marlin's protectiveness causes him to stress out about his son's first day of school. Marlin's anxiety causes him to create a confrontation on Nemo's first day of school that ends with his son being kidnapped.

Marlin is forced to go on a journey to retrieve his son, and that trip has a cumulative effect on Marlin that changes him in a profound way. Being forced to confront all of his greatest fears shows Marlin that he can face fear and survive. Spending time with a surrogate for his son (Dory) lets Marlin work through his issues with his son. Meeting the turtle Crush and hearing Crush's philosophy about raising a child give Marlin a chance to hear a different point of view on life and parenting. And thinking that he's witnessed his son's death makes Marlin appreciate how much he loved his son and see how his fearfulness made his life empty before.

(I haven't seen the film since it came out, and I'm restating the film as best as I can remember, so forgive me if my interpretation is a little off here....but you get the point).

All the experiences that Marlin is forced to go through have a transformative effect on him, and in the climax of the film, Marlin is in the throat of a whale where he faces a choice: he can either "let go" and trust that things will work out, or stick with his old way of thinking.

In "UP" [SPOILER ALERT], the whole story is based on Carl's drive to preserve his house as a symbol of what he wanted his life to be. In the end, he literally lets his house go to achieve a goal he wouldn't have fought for in the beginning.

Another way to show the transformation of a character is to give them a goal at the beginning of the story that they're working towards - something that they think will make their life complete, or fix their life - they desperately want some goal that means everything to them. Late in the story they will get that goal, but by that point they've changed in a way that means they don't want that goal anymore. It's a hollow victory, because their priorities have changed and they want something else - some other goal that has become more meaningful to them.

My favorite example of this type of arc is "Up In The Air" [SPOILER ALERT]. George Clooney plays a businessman who is required to travel constantly to perform his job. He loves the nomadic nature of his life, staying in a different hotel every night, traveling with a minimum of baggage and never forming deep or meaningful relationships. His ultimate goal is to earn 1,000,000 frequent flyer miles.

He meets a woman and starts to have deeper feelings for her, and he begins to question the wisdom of the life he's led so far.

When he hits the 1,000,000 frequent flyer mile mark, he gets all the rewards that he's long dreamed of receiving, but he no longer really wants them. It seems like an empty and shallow achievement to him now, because of how he's changed from the beginning of the movie.

"Tangled" has this type of arc as well [SPOILER ALERT]. Flynn is desperate to get the crown back through most of the movie, but by the time he gets it back, he doesn't really want it anymore. His priorities have changed because he's fallen in love with Rapunzel and isn't interested in material things anymore.

Characters don't have to go through giant, sweeping changes for their journeys to have an emotional impact on the audience. Some films aren't built to do that, and in those type of movies it would feel false tonally if suddenly a character had a huge arc from one extreme to another. And in other films, you buy this without any hesitation.

So what are some of the problems that arise when trying to create characters that transform over the course of a story?

One pitfall is when you create characters that are too transparently "broken" at the beginning. If it's completely obvious to the audience how the character is going to change by the end of the story, then there's no surprise about where the character is going or how they're going to end up. It can be very predictable and it's not at all surprising when it actually happens. You see this a lot in films made for younger audiences.

I'll take this opportunity to name this the "Jim Carrey" effect.

Take any Jim Carrey (or Eddie Murphy) movie made for kids, and they'll be invariably playing a character that has a very obvious flaw at the beginning. Usually this takes the form of a businessman who's so focused on his high pressure job - and so focused on getting a particularly high-stakes deal done - that he doesn't spend enough time with his kids or appreciate his long-suffering wife.

We all know where this is going: by the end of the movie, he'll have told off his tyrannical boss, made up with his kids and his wife, and pledged that they're his new priority and that he'll never put work first again.

(Then, he'll be surprised to find out that the person he was trying to impress to get the business deal done was actually looking for someone with "good family values" the whole time, and that person will give Jim Carrey the deal he was working towards, based solely on how impressive Jim Carrey is at interacting with his wife and kids).

Once you've seen one of these, you pretty much spot the pattern as soon as you see the wheeling-and-dealing character in the beginning that's great at schmoozing clients and can sell anything to anyone....but doesn't make it to the Little League game or school play that he promised his kids he'd be there for. We've all seen these types of movies and a big part of why they seem so tedious is because you know exactly where it's going from the first scene.

The other problem that happens when trying to craft a character arc is when the "story math" doesn't add up. By that I mean that the steps the character goes through in the course of the story don't seem like they'd logically lead to where the character ends up.

An example of good "story math" is Marlin's transformation in "Nemo". I completely buy Marlin's transformation. I can see how everything that happens during the film changes his perceptions and leads him to see the world in a new light.

There are some films that attempt to arc characters without showing us any "story math". This is when characters transform and become the opposite of what they've been just for cheap surprise. For example, we've all seen movies where a character was cowardly during the whole movie, but then did something incredibly heroic at the end. It's surprising, but not earned. It feels false because we didn't see the moments that changed the character and transformed them into a different person.

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a film that I love, but it's an example of a movie where I don't totally follow the "story math" that lead to the transformation that Indy undergoes [SPOILER ALERT].

In the beginning, Brody warns Indiana Jones that the Ark is like nothing he's gone after before, and that Indy should be careful because the Ark may have incredible powers. Here's the exchange:

Brody: Well, I mean that for nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost ark. It's not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It's like nothing you've ever gone after before.
Indy: (laughing) Marcus, what are you trying to do? Scare me? You sound like my mother. We've known each other for a long time. I don't believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance, you're talking about the boogie man. Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am. 

So Indiana Jones is clearly a man at the beginning who doesn't have any belief or faith that the Ark might have supernatural powers. But at the end of the movie, right before the Ark is opened, he tells Marion to close her eyes, because now he believes in the power of the Ark, and he knows that opening it will unleash some kind of terrible force.

I love that idea: that the course of the movie's events have changed Indy and now he believes in the supernatural. I just have to say, though, that for me, personally, I'm not totally sure what brought that change in Indy about. At what point (or points) in the story did he experience things that changed his mind and gave him a new perspective?

Again, don't get me wrong, I love the movie, but I didn't see this transformation the first time I saw the film, and it took me many viewings to even detect that there was a change in Indy at all.

Anyway, next time I'll talk a bit about the other kind of arc: the kind where a character transforms the world around them.


Nikhita said...

Wow. Wonderful stuff, very well articulated.. Another good example of an arc where the character's goals have changed is Sinbad: Legend of the seven seas.

what about films where the character does not go through a transformation? For eg: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron?
Spirit changes his views on mankind after meeting the red indian, but he still wants to be a free wild horse. What is it about such stories that make them beautiful? is it because we predict the character to change and he doesn't?

Thank you so much, it was really fun reading this. And very helpful to understand as well.

AndrewRoot said...

Thank you!

the doodler said...

This is really excellent stuff.

I was wondering, too, if a story where a character *can't* do something at the end that they could have done at the start of the story would count. Like how in Lord of the Rings, Frodo has burned himself out so much carrying the ring that he can't return to normal life, or some other story were a character has given up some part of themselves or ability they had at the beginning.

Rebecca Burgess said...

Interesting post, although I think there are many films where a 'transformation' is not needed, and work very very well by having a narrative that 'explores' rather then 'transforms'. For me personally, I like films where there is an evident change in the character too, but I think I like them because that transformation allows the narrative to show the emotions the character is going through (then again, maybe I just *think* I like that, perhaps what I really like is seeing a character learn from their mistakes??)
So for me, I also lie films that dont have much transformation, but explore alot of emotion and still have a story that moves on, even of the character and world does not transform.
'Happy Go Lucky' is maybe a good example, none of the characters change at all, but they go through a series of events which still build up to a climatic ending, and are there to explore British society rather then have the characters learn anything.

I was going to saying 'Amadeus' but when I thought about it, I think Salieri transforms in the film, from someone who was content to someone who despises God! XD Still, the climax of the film is not one based on transformation- that change happens half way through. I think the climax of the film is Salieri finally getting his 'taste of God' that he's craved, only for it to be taken away immediately. The climax seems to very much be about exploring and emphasising how he deals with his own frustration and blames it on God, which was already apparent throughout the film.

And just a reply to The Doodler (I'm sorry I'm not sure how to just reply to other comments!) I think the transformation in Frodo is how he learns to deal with change and moving on. Its the acceptance that things cant return to normal which I think is his transformation :) Its an emotional transformation that all the characters go through, I think they translated it very well into the films, it is much more prominent in the books where there is more time to explore the changing of Middle Earth.

Mark Mayerson said...

You can also have films where the characters are presented with opportunities and don't change. That kind of story tends to be a tragedy. If you are familiar with From Here to Eternity, the characters played by Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift are all given with chances to take their lives in other directions, but don't.

Floyd Norman said...

I always bought Indy's "transformation" because I think he was just posturing before Dr. Brody in that scene. Indiana Jones was a man of faith. He was simply too embarrassed to admit it.

In the film's final act he tells Marion to close her eyes because he was a believer who was too ashamed to let others know it.

TheZealot said...

I like the term, "Story Math", which I believe you've just coined as it's in quotes. But it makes sense as story is built from causality = change. Love it.
One of my big faves is "American Beauty", and it may share the same flaw as "Raiders". Lester seems to change inexplicably, though you do feel that the change is overdue when you meet him. Still love it though!

Joshua Taback said...

I agree with Floyd about Indy just "covering" that he isn't spooked my superstitious. Being my favorite film, when I learned of the character arc I was determined to see how it fit into Raiders. Mostly because I think the film works, and without that arc it wouldn't. I also agree with Mark that the character arc is not very clear, but only because it's not very "spelled out." Indy knows all the lore, he went to Sunday school and he's well studied in it all because he is, after all, an archeologist. 1st, the headpiece to the staff of Ra actually leads them to the map room. 2nd the map room actually works. 3rd there actually is a well of souls - ok, it was snakes, but the whole magilla was there. And lastly LOVE. It was love that initiated the real change in Indiana. He wouldn't have risked his neck in a number of cases if not to save Marion. He wasn't just in it for the thrill and the prize anymore. He was willing to risk his life for her and even blow up the whoile thing that started this adventure to begin with. And THAT is the obvious arc. BLOW UP THE ARK? THE ONE THAT'S IN THE TITLE? That's the physical manifestation of his change. And then what does the man who doesn't stop no matter what do just moments later?.... he stops and surrenders. By the time he's tied to the post with Marion he's seen too much and been changed already in a few ways. If Marion wsn't there, he might have looked, but he wasn't going to chance that she may have been hurt. And finally, what is one big thing that love gives you?..... Faith.

Best. Movie. Ever.

mark kennedy said...

Nikhita-Thanks for the nice comment, glad you liked the post! Soon, I will talk a bit about those other types of movies (as you mentioned) where the character doesn't change.

Andrew - thanks for the comment!

doodler - that is definitely another type of change: where a character tries to return to a normal life, but can't because their journey has changed them in some way.

Rebecca - I'm not familiar with "Happy Go Lucky", and I haven't seen Amadeus in a long, long time...but from what I remember, I thought Salieri transformed from a person who was genuinely interested in writing music, to someone who saw music as a way to escape his terrible childhood, to someone who used music to get power and status in society, and finally to someone who is driven by revenge and to me, as near as I can remember, he definitely changes. The scene I think you're referencing - where he burns the crucifix - is to me where his big change and descent into darkness begins. But I can't say I know the film all that well.

Mark - yes, definitely, I was going to talk about that type of transformation as well.

Floyd - that's interesting. I disagree though; I feel like Indy is pointedly very cavalier in the opening sequence and clearly doesn't have any respect for the temple he enters and steals from. He never seems afraid of supernatural forces there, just very clinical and practical about not getting killed there. He doesn't seem at all intimidated by any kind of supernatural forces when he enters the Ark chamber either. I feel that - if you wanted to create a character that was covering his faith - it would've been a recurring motif in several scenes. I'm not sure why he would only cover it with Brody...that's my interpretation, though.

Zealot - thanks for the comment!

Joshua - interesting interpretation...I guess we'll never know for sure. I'm not totally sure I totally see your interpretation, but that's what makes movies so personal to everyone! I think Indy is a character that goes from a clinical, practical person who sees only the face value in archaeological treasures to someone who sees them in a deeper, more meaningful way and understands that there are consequences to disturbing things that aren't meant to be disturbed, and that power s not something to be wielded lightly. But, again, that's what makes it art...we can each read our own interpretation into it and there's no absolute right or wrong.

Joshua Taback said...

Thanks Mark. Heheheh, maybe Indy's just too exhausted by the end to be cavalier. There's a transformation: exhaustion! "This bazooka's really heavy." "Sure tie me up, whatever, can I sit down?" Maybe he keeps his eyes closed at the end cuz he wants a nap.

Richard said...

Great Article Mark.
"Story Math" is a great term and yeah, when it doesn't add up can leave you scratching your head thinking how did that happen.
I buy the story math in "Raiders", the quote you mentioned of Indy's is a flippant one and follows the actions we saw of him in the opening scene well- he is brave, not afraid to get his hands dirty, cautious (when necessary) and not overawed by the situation. He is also a little reckless as seen in his confrontation with Belloq.
Indy's quote you mentioned also, isn't one of a mantra throughout the film.
As the story progresses from his conversation with Brody and he discovers more of the arc he sees that there is more to it. Be it the run ins with the Nazi's, Toht, the bad date, the big reveal in the map room. These story points are presented with more of an emotional impact than the simple treasure of the golden idol from the beginning so that by the time of the film's climax he is willing to close his eyes to what's about to happen.
Talking about a great film with story math that doesn't quite add up to me is, dare I say it- "The Incredibles". Mr Incredible from the beginning states "I work alone" and repeats it throughout the film, like a mantra, yet shortly after the film's opening act when we fast forward to him as a father of three, he goes out at evenings for secret hero work in a partnership with Frozone.

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