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To what do I owe this pleasure?

For some reason I got onto a thought thread about what makes a good
premise for a film.

We've already been through the more global concepts of story and
character, and how important they are to a film completely
independent of budget.
But trying to plumb the depths of what makes a story good, at
least within the context of a film, proves to be something of a

Think about your top five favorite films. If you don't want to play
favorites, then pick any five films that you like. Now for each of those
films, write down a one-sentence description of the story.

For instance, I picked these:
Alien: A group of space voyagers encounter a deadly alien race
and battle to the death until it comes to a one-on-one battle.
North by Northwest: A man is mistaken for a spy and falls into
the realm of intrigue.
Chinatown: A detective is hoodwinked, and in trying to determine
who hoodwinked him, he exposes a family's secret and pays a high price.
Star Wars: A young man loses his family but finds his destiny as
a hero against the dark side.
Mad Max: A young man loses his family but finds his destiny as a
hero against the dark side.

Something that struck me about all of these movies is that there is a
single protagonist.

Alien: Ripley.
North by Northwest: Cary Grant's character whose name I forget at
the moment.
Chinatown: Jake Gittes.
Star Wars: Luke Skywalker.
Mad Max: Max. Or whatever the hell his name was.

The stories are told centering around them and their conflicts.

A very wise man once said that all drama is conflict. And within this
context (entertainment movies), the more enjoyable movies for me tend to
revolve around the resolution of conflict around a single protagonist
(or small group of protagonists like The Incredibles).
Furthermore, there is one primary conflict that is the root of
the story.

That doesn't mean that a movie that has a story that has human conflict
is necessarily a good movie.

Van Helsing. Pretty much centered around Van Helsing.
Star Wars Episode I. Umm... ObiWan? The kid?
Ankle Biters (shudder). Centered around the vampire hunter. Of course, I
still don't know what the conflict was there, other than him vs. the
midget vampires.

Thus, not all conflict is drama.

And a movie like Ju-On (The Grudge) doesn't center around a single human
character, it centers around the character of the house and the human
conflicts radiate from that like the spokes of a wheel. Yet within that
structure, there are several smaller stories that reveal a greater whole
(a cool bit of storytelling in my humble opinion).

Another bit of fluffy logic is that (at least for the most part), every
story has a beginning, a middle, and an </i>end</i>. This
is true of most classical western literature, and actually pretty
universal among all cultures. And since I'm still trying to remain
within the context of a "commercial" movie, let's call the paradigm of
beginning->middle->end a universal.

(Side note here: If you want to bring up movies like Pulp Fiction
and Memento, I will still argue that they have a
beginning/middle/end, just not necessarily in the linear order.)

Now I'll try and link those two concepts together: the beginning of the
story sets up the primary conflict, the middle focuses on the
primary comflict
, and the end resolves the primary conflict.

Again, still not the key to a good story. But we're getting

I think that the key centers on the discovery of the primary conflict.
That conflict needs to be something that we can identify with, on either
a direct or a symbolic level.

Alien: The success of the individual against overwhelming odds.
Who hasn't felt like the universe is against them from time to time?
North by Northwest: Choosing to fight for the greater good over
the self. We all want to be heroes.
Chinatown: Not giving up in the face of adversity.
(Interestingly, the resolution of this conflict ends badly, which is one
of the reasons I like it.)
Star Wars: Triumph of the will, becoming the hero. Rooting for
the underdog.
Mad Max: Revenge. Placed in a context where revenge is allowed.

I may not have identified the same primary conflict arcs as you would,
but these are reasonable identifiable to me, and I think reflect my
experience of these movies.

So some of the "bad" movies:

Van Helsing: What is the primary conflict here? As likeable as
Hugh Jackman is in the role of Van Helsing, I just don't identify with
his character at all. It's a neat actiony romp, but it doesn't hold me.
(I enjoyed the movie, but it's not a great film by any means.)

Episode I: Assuming that ObiWan is the primary character here,
what is his conflict? He goes against the Jedi council? What gets

Ankle Biters: The vampire hunter has to fight vampires. I don't
think I've ever fought a vampire, let alone a dwarf vampire. So a little
secret here: successful vampire movies are about the symbolism--
vampires are used to represent something. In this case, they don't
represent anything but vampires. Bo-ring.

One of the things that I loved about The Matrix was the
trippiness of the whole world-as-we-know-it being an illusion. I think
that almost everyone has had that feeling at one time or another, like
there's something behind the scenes that is making all of this stuff
happen. It's something that we can all identify with. To me, that middle
point is clearly defined as the time that Neo is faced with the choice
between the red and the blue pill, and that defines the primary
conflict: the relative safety of the illusion or the risk of reality,
the known vs. the unknown.

I'm really trying to get a handle on story here. This isn't something
that comes easily to me, particularly with writing a screenplay. I
really want to make good movies. So hit me up here. Tell me if I'm
wrong, or if you think I'm missing something (character aside-- I will
agree that good characters are important) in what makes a good movie
story. Or if you can think of good or bad movies that don't fit the
story/conflict paradigm. Or what movies you like/hate and how they fit.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 4th, 2005 07:23 pm (UTC)
You know, most moviemakers don't write, direct and produce. They do one (or two) and do it well. Just pointing that out.

Of course, having a good handle on the whole thing means you're more likely to pick good projects...
Mar. 5th, 2005 12:43 am (UTC)
It's partly out of necessity, partly out of control-freak-ism, partly out of wanting-to-be-famous-ism, and partly out of wanting-to-impress-my-friends-ism.

I have the technical stuff down. It's the less tangible things that leave me wondering...
Mar. 5th, 2005 06:36 am (UTC)
nonetheless -- each "job" is still about telling a story. If you're not aware of how to do that - there's a definate problem. Even the camera guy and the editor or propmaker has to understand the basic tenents of storytelling to do his or her job to the fullest.
Mar. 4th, 2005 07:48 pm (UTC)
An extension of your conflict resolved theory is that there is growth on the part of the characters. Self-discovery, realization of talent, whatever.

As an aside: Chinatown is a piece of crap that never should have been made. The costumes and cars are more interesting than any of the characters or the story. So there.
Mar. 5th, 2005 12:45 am (UTC)
Growth of a character is a moe difficult thing from a writing perspective. While watching a movie, you can extend the character's life out backwards and forwards in your mind, but with writing the character ceases to exist at the last page.

And poo-poo on you for not liking Chinatown. It's simply aged, like a fine cheesy wine.
Mar. 5th, 2005 06:34 am (UTC)
Resolution of conflict can also be a lack of resolution, a lack of discovery. All resolution really means is (in this context) -- we have some idea (based on what we know of this character) of what is to become of her/him after the screen fades to black.
Mar. 4th, 2005 07:55 pm (UTC)
Ooh! Just another thought: stories are intended to convey something. Whether it be asking a question (What is The Matrix?) or making a statement (The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few... or the one.) or just portraying a piece of human truth (Hate, like love, can transcend time).

I tend to enjoy films that make me think or try to teach me something. But, stories that accomplish this don't have to be complicated (look at Greek mythology... straightforward, unencumbered stories with a simple meaning).
Mar. 5th, 2005 12:49 am (UTC)
Try to teach is a fine line to walk. It's really easy to cross the line and become heavy-handed, which is why I like the symbolic concepts so much (as well as the occasional mixed metaphor).

I don't think that the Matrix was actually intended to convey anything about what the Matrix was, aside from a nifty marketing scheme. And the needs of the many outweighing the few-- too heavy-handed. It's good vs. evil, just wearing different underwear.
Mar. 4th, 2005 08:58 pm (UTC)
Windy notes that most moviemakers don't write produce & direct. True.

Robert Rodriguez does. And scores, and edits, and and and. Obviously, he's not most moviemakers. Not even close. My thought is, since he makes good movies by my measure, it's totally worth doing if you're willing to commit to a singular aesthetic vision as a comprehensive whole.

I'd be interested to see if the filmmakers themselves analyze their movies at the level you have. Perhaps Ridley Scott would agree with your essential point while also asserting, "hey man, I made Alien to show the machinations of corporations as delusional in the face of implacable nature and its drive to breed" Or whatever. But he'd also probably agree with you on the point that IF you have a strong central conflict with a strong resolution that is also a gateway to a symbolic understanding of the events, you PROBABLY have the framework of a good story and thus a good starting point for a movie. Or at least a reliably good way to frame a movie.

I found Slacker to be a very good movie without a story/conflict paradigm and a constantly shifting cast of dozens, with very few individuals to hang our hat on. There were micro stories, and micro conflicts, though you find a lot of the conflicts took place within stories told by characters, not seen per se in the movie.

Or Lynch's Lost Highway. There's a pretty straightforward single character with a strong material conflict that represents a deeper symbolic conflict: Bill Pullman's character is trying to solve a problem and is apparently beset by dark forces which may or may not represent the larger force of society or nature or the like. But then there is a deliberate breakdown of the individual character, and the nature of the conflict is telescoped, inverted and displaced as we not only see the character transformed but the events and timeline disrupted. There is almost no sense of resolution, though I left feeling that things had been "explained" more or less to my satisfaction.

One of my favorite movies is Network, in which we see a strong and sympathetic character engage in terrific conflict, while also becoming complicit with the antagonist(s) in the conflict against himself (?!). The ending is a very firm resolution, but I leave feeling not like the conflict is resolved, but the character himself is.

I had to think pretty hard for these and my analysis may be off a bit. But I think it can go both ways. Your description feels right--on gut instinct--as a sufficiently general viewpoint which isn't harmed by these few exceptions. Or wouldn't be harmed with numerous exceptions! I think there's enough movies that match what you've noted for you to be "right". FWIW.

Great films that I love that support your thesis:

The 400 Blows: a boy is beset by peers, elders, even the authorities. He overcomes considerable odds to discover a kind of liberty and and maturity that anyone could rejoice in. A struggle for victory against larger forces, by one of the world's weakest members-- a child.

okay I'm running out of time. some personal faves that fit-
LA Confidential - 2 protagonists, a personal struggle connects to a wider one against endemic corruption
Star Trek: Wrath of Kahn - a band of protagonists, a singular villain, a profounder question of life-death-rebirth held between a personal struggle with very broad impact
The Big Lebowski
Grosse Pointe Blank
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Much Ado About Nothing
Good Will Hunting
Dead Poets Society
Princess Mononoke
Victor Victoria
Mar. 5th, 2005 12:55 am (UTC)
I didn't particularly like Slacker, but I did think it was a brilliant piece of contextual fimmaking-- the style of the movie reflecting the lifestyle of the subjects. I haven't seen Lost Highway yet, which is so not like me being a huge David Lynch fan. He turns things in quirky ways enough to make me squidgy inside (I absolutely love Eraserhead), but his quirkyness isn't just to be weird: there is a purpose behind every frame.

Then again, I've been (ahem)altered on more than a few occasions while watching Lynch films. And no, it is not true that if you watch Eraserhead while on acid that your head explodes.
Mar. 5th, 2005 06:29 am (UTC)
All very good points. You should check out The Anatomy of A Screenplay by Dan Decker. He introduces another element to structure that he calls "Drive", there are several "types" of drives the move a story along. I think using his theory, you'd see that some of the films you've mentioned that look like exceptions to the conflict/story thing, are really just using different "Drives".
Mar. 4th, 2005 09:12 pm (UTC)
I'm a great believer in the following tenants of story structure:

* Conflict is Everything.

If your story doesn't have conflict you end up with "Star Trek: The Next Generation".

* Don't Beat the Theme Across the Reader or Viewer's Face

Doesn't mean you shouldn't HAVE a theme; it just means that you should give your audience more credit than you may think at first.

* Just Because It's Always Been Done That Way Isn't a Reason Not To Do it Differently

In short, don't play it safe.

...and lastly...

* You're Idea Has Certainly Been Done By Someone Else Before, and Maybe Even Better. That's No Excuse Not to Write It.

Create for the act of creation. That's why I do it. And to those who whine and bitch my response is a direct "Really? Tell your own fucking story." Rude, sure, but it's the truth.


...who is all about the love.
Mar. 4th, 2005 11:56 pm (UTC)
Funny part is I knew it was you writing this. :)
Mar. 5th, 2005 06:20 am (UTC)
You're definately on the right path.

A traditional "American" screenplay has three sections - Setup, complication, Resolution (beginning, middle, end and/or act 1, 2 and 3).

Interestingly enough -- your one sentence exercise is the perfect way to test for this. All one sentence descriptions should be able to fit the following pattern:

A guy (protagonist), does something, it works out (or doesn't)

Beginning, middle, end

In most cases, the "it works out" part is assumed and therefore truncated.

By adding an action oriented adjective to the character, you see the relation ship between character, story and conflict thusly

A dyed-in-the-wool Republican must join forces with Ralph Nader in order to survive a horrific Tropical Storm.

The conflict is inherent in the character description. This is crucial. conflict comes from Character - NOT PLOT. Storytelling is about people in the midst of an event, not about events. We, as humans, relate to the events around us through the context of other humans (or characters we assume have human qualities).

The relationship between character and story is probably THE most misapplied element to story telling, especially in film. MOST tech manuals talk about the three acts, the plot points, the mid-points, conflict, complication, inciding incident -- they even tell you what page they should happen on.

So, you end up creating a film from the outside, in. You set up a frame work, then create a character that fits that frame work. However, a properly created and developed character will motivate the necessary plot points and other structural story elements. If your character is built right, the plot points will magicly appear where they are supposed to be. In otherwords -- if you have a great plot, but shitty characters - you have a shitty story.

This is the most overlooked aspect of filmmaking in my opinon. And oddly enough, it is the most rudimenary (spelling?) element - filmmakers -- be they writer, producer and/or director -- are STORYTELLERS -- period! They just use pictures instead of words. And yet, you can nail "bad" movies down to one common trait -- Where the fuck did they learn how to tell a story? Saddly, that is not always the filmmaker's fault -- the industry execs are mistakenly under the impression that there business is about selling tickets to a seat in a theater - NOT to sit and be entertained by a story.


The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler

The Anatomy of a Screenplay by Dan Decker

If you are truely interested in the essence of storytelling for film, THESE are where it's at.

Mar. 5th, 2005 10:52 am (UTC)
Very cool-- I hadn't even come to the layer of character yet, but that does fit in quite nicely, and it opens up a door that I hadn't considered in the stuff I'm writing. Thanks!

And I will check out the books.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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