Saturday, August 2, 2008

Why You Should Know Your Fictional Reality Inside-Out

The other day I got stuck in the minutiae of a scene, asking myself over and over whether the action was realistic enough. Realistic in the sense of “how things actually happen in non-fictional reality.” I got annoyed and reprimanded myself: “It’s fiction, stupid!” Fortunately I wasn’t satisfied with that answer, and after a little thought I realized two significant things:

1. You need to get your facts right … within the fictional reality of your story world.

2. The emotional truth of a scene requires just as much attention as factual accuracy.

Allow me to illustrate with an example.

How many viewers of No Country For Old Men by the Coen brothers were so distracted by practical questions about Javier Bardem’s unusual murder weapon, that they couldn’t enjoy the film? Certainly far fewer than the number who felt shivers down their spine every time the bizarre piece of equipment appeared on screen, right?

That’s because the oddness of the weapon fits seamlessly into the context of the story world: It’s a fictional reality in which the boundaries of what is considered decent and expected (even amongst criminals) are blown wide open. The weapon astonishes and shocks everyone precisely because it is so outlandish. No need to dwell on how it works technically, and whether this is “realistic.”

In addition, it also makes perfect emotional sense in terms of the detached, psychopathic nature of the character. Each time the killer brandishes his weapon, it baffles his victim and causes them to drop their guard.

The emotional charge is right on target: This hit man is so methodical and indifferent, that even cynics such as the hard-nosed chief of police and a ruthless fellow assassin can’t get their heads around him. This is the emotional truth that accompanies the killer and his weapon wherever he goes: He overwhelms people by trashing all the accepted boundaries and norms.

Now, imagine the same implement in, say, a social realist film by Ken Loach. Or a romantic comedy by Nancy Meyers. Or a Star Wars movie. See what I mean? In a different context, the same thing isn’t necessarily realistic. That is, consistent with the fictional reality of that story world.

In order to establish your fictional reality effectively, you have to be clear about genre conventions (“laser gun” might be enough description for a sci-fi movie, but “pistol” might seem lazy in a crime thriller), plus you have to be consistent. It makes for confusing reading if the script changes tone arbitrarily, whether the tone is ultra-realistic or completely fantastical.

Once you’re clear on what characterizes the fictional reality of your story, you will be able to determine what level of detail you need to describe where, what issues you need to research further, and of course, what you’ve already nailed perfectly!

As for me, I have to get back to my in-depth analysis of the impact of the credit crisis on the average thickness of business cards.

P.S. For more insights into effective and successful screenwriting techniques, check out my Great Screenwriting blog, where there’s also a more in-depth article on No Country For Old Men.


Anonymous said...

Dave Herman,

We see your point of view and timely information.

99% of the movie I get and I concur with your article - 99%


The ending, that's where I almost threw the TV over the bridge.

The ending was a boring form of fictional reality!

And there was no cohesive factual accuracy.

As if they wanted to end the movie without trying.

The ending is neither factual or accurate and is actually the opposite of the reality the Coen brothers created in the first 99% of the movie.


Raving Dave Herman said...

Hi Confused,

Yes, many people found the ending bizar.

I doubt the Coen brothers wanted to end the movie "without trying." Perhaps they wanted to leave the audience with the same frustrated, uncomprehending feeling as the cop who has given up trying to understand the society he lives in?

I think the ending accurately reflects the emotional truth of the cop's world. But that it's a strange experience for the audience is a fact!