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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
challenge.

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
closer.

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
resolved?

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.

Comments

mlif
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.

Two MUST READS:

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.


magicmarmot
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.

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