Saturday, April 12, 2008

Great Expectations

Last night I sat up late, impatiently waiting for extended coverage of the US Masters golf to end (who watches that stuff anyway!?). At last, about 45 minutes later than scheduled, the final episode of Damages began.

As I mentioned in a previous posting (The Power of Withholding Information) the masterfully created mystery and tension had me hooked right from the get-go and I could hardly wait to see the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place!

Which they did, but with a whimper rather than a bang as far as I’m concerned.

The build-up was tremendous. The clever use of flash-forwards kept teasing and wrong-footing me. It created the expectation of some kind of incredibly unorthodox denouement.

Which is exactly why, as the final details were laid out like someone revealing their hand after a nail-bitingly tense game of cards, I couldn’t help feeling they’d been bluffing. That’s it? That’s all there is to it!?

The principle the series used is simple: Cut the story and serve it up in such an order that it’s never obvious who’s really responsible for what until the very last moment. But for this kind of storytelling to be more than a fig leaf for an otherwise mediocre plot, the final twist needs to be hugely powerful and memorable. Which it wasn’t. Not for me, anyway.

Contrast this to a movie I saw recently, The Illusionist, written and directed by Neil Burger. A very simple story in terms of plot, but told in such a way that the very last sequence completely reverses almost every assumption you’ve been led to make throughout the film!

You are literally treated to a montage of all the pieces falling into place in the mind of the detective. Suddenly it all makes sense and in retrospect the entire story acquires a different value.

For me the difference between Damages and The Illusionist is like the difference between a slick and hugely expensive commercial for a run-of-the-mill product, and a modest recommendation for something surprisingly valuable.

The lesson for screenwriters? Never create expectations you can’t deliver on, big-time.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Your hero’s worst enemy

In most movies, the hero eventually has to confront his worst enemy: himself. This encounter with one’s own limitations is a mainstay of narrative fiction, and for good reason.

Because it’s so extremely hard to change your own behaviour.

A recent newsletter from by Michael Bungay Stanier (whose wonderful blog The Possibility Virus is well worth checking out), directed me to a fairly disturbing article called Three Keys to Change. The article describes most people’s inability to change their unhealthy lifestyles, even in the face of dire medical prognoses.

The prospect of dying in the near future due to fairly simple lifestyle habits such as smoking, overeating, lack of exercise, etc., is not enough to motivate most people to change. Even after extensive surgery, most people continue to live as they did before, often with fatal consequences.

You undoubtedly know people who have behaved in a way that everyone (including themselves) knew would ruin their lives? Disastrous infidelities, catastrophic overspending, debilitating social behaviour, you name it.

That’s how hard it is to change, even when you’re aware of the negative consequences of your behaviour.

That’s the basic human dilemma which so many films deal with, either explicitly or as the subtext: I know what to do, I just can’t seem to get myself to do it.

Which is why you need to know this aspect of your main character: What simple behavioural change are they avoiding even though they’re aware of the consequences? A change which could mean the difference between life and death, or at least happiness and misery, fulfilment and bitterness, and so on?

The easiest way to find examples of this phenomenon is, as always, just look around you.

And if you're really brave ... look in the mirror.

Happy observing.