Category Archives: empathy
Quickly cycling through Netflix the other day, looking for something to watch while ironing (I need something to distract me from the banal) I found The Purge: Anarchy. The kids were safely upstairs and out of the way, so I clicked play and switched the steam setting up to high!
I quite enjoyed the original The Purge (2013) and found it to be a decent, and tense horror/thriller. Definitely a “pop corn movie” but it was still a good way to escape for a couple of hours. The sequel does the same. Maybe not as effective as the first (in my opinion) as I guess the stakes are now well-known for Purge Night, but they both generate a significant amount of empathy for the characters (whether or not you sympathise with them) as it is easy to put yourself in their position, and ask yourself the question, “what would I do.”
And it manages this by having such a great concept.
Whether you like the films or not (they are a bit silly) they do have a great concept behind them. One that anyone can understand and immediately know what they are going to get.
WHAT IF, ONE NIGHT A YEAR, ALL CRIME, INCLUDING MURDER, WAS LEGAL FOR 12 HOURS?
Actually, I am sure you could boil the concept down to something even snappier than that, but it does give you the overview of the film in one sentence. It’s shorter than the logline even.
I’m not going to get into discussions about what is considered High-Concept or Low-Concept – that is probably for another post. However, it did make me think about the importance of concept and I think many successful writers will tell you that, “Concept is King.” If you can’t explain your concept, or are not even aware of it, you may well struggle to write your story. Actually, it doesn’t matter whether we are talking High or Low Concept, being able to articulate your concept is an important skill in writing.
WHAT IF A GREAT WHITE SHARK TERRORISED A PEACEFUL ISLAND COMMUNITY
That pretty much sums things up.
A YOUNG WOMAN MUST PREVENT A BOMB EXPLODING ON A BUSY CITY BUS BY KEEPING IT ABOVE 50mph
To be honest, these are probably all examples of High-Concept films, which may well be easier to articulate but, again, that is probably another post.
Regardless, it is obvious that a clear concept will make your story more impactful and saleable, instantly telling everyone what it is about and drawing them in. If it takes you 10 minutes to explain your concept, or you can’t quite pin it down, then you may struggle to get anyone interested in your next great script.
So when planning you next script, think about your concept and, perhaps, test it friends and family to see what their reaction is.
What importance do you place on your concept?
How do you test your concept?
While at work a few days ago (don’t tell the Boss) I was daydreaming about a script re-write I am working on when I came across the following tweet by Lucy V Hay highlighting advice from writer Julian Fellowes:
— Shouty Writing Tips (@Bang2write) 27 June 2016
(the full post is available HERE)
What caught my eye was Tip #7 which dismisses the expectation that all good characters must change over the course of their journey. Fellowes was more of the opinion that it is just as important to ensure the audience has empathy with your characters. This was timely as I am currently working on a script where the protagonist does not necessarily change that much during her story; she perhaps acts more as a catalyst for change among other characters. She changes a little, but not as drastically as many other movie characters who learn great lessons through the course of their arcs.
Now, change is a cornerstone of story-telling techniques as it informs the character arc, another common aspect of screenwriting teaching. Wikipedia describes it as:
“A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person, and during the story, things happen which gradually transforms him or her into a different sort of person.”
Character arc – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
and even more “respected” sources describe the importance of change:
“The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.”
Robert MCkee, “Story” (1999, p104).
“In a sense, stories are about change. And the measuring stick that tells us who succeeds and who doesn’t is seen in the ability to change. Good guys are those who willingly accept change and see it as a positive force. Bad guys are those who refuse to change, who curl up and die in their own juices, unable to move out of the rut their lives represent. To succeed in life is to be able to transform. That’s why it’s the basis of not only good storytelling but also of the world’s best known religions. Change is good because it represents re-birth, the promise of a fresh start.”
Blake Snyder, “Save the Cat” (2005, p136).
Which is exactly right – change makes for good-storytelling and fulfilling stories . The change in Michael Corleone in the Godfather (1972) is a perfect example of how a character can change. It might not be the most positive change, but he does change, and the audience is fascinated by this growth and how it affects the character and others around him. Want something more light-hearted? How about Lightning McQueen from Cars (2006)? He starts off pretty self-centred and selfish, but ends up changing through the course of the film, learning to slow down and be more considerate to those around him. Clearly more change. Indeed, grab a stone and throw it at the IMDB and you are very likely to hit a story that features interesting characters developed through change.
Despite this change, Michael and Lightning are two very different characters who also have something else in common; empathy. Regardless of what change they go through, audiences empathise with the characters. Even where that change is negative. We do so with Michael in the Godfather as he avenges his father and protects his family – a primal desire/urge within the vast majority of us.
However, what is also interesting about Cars is that Lightning’s change is catalysed by the characters around him. He gets to know the residents of Radiator Springs and their lifestyle and they affect him, helping him change. The characters around him don’t particularly change themselves (maybe Doc Hudson softens a little) but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less interesting. They all have a story and personality that creates empathy with the audience without the change that is considered vital.
So what’s going on here?
Well, perhaps characters DON’T have to go through change to lead an interesting story, as Julian Fellowes suggests. Perhaps interesting, empathetic characters are just as important, and they don’t have to change to generate an emotional connection with the audience. Put a character in a story that has conflict, that gives them a goal and a purpose that the audience can empathise with and you can still end up with an enjoyable and popular film.
Don’t believe me?
to name a few examples. The characters in these films don’t undergo any substantial change during their stories, but they are highly regarded and well-loved films. Why? Because of good characterisation, great conflict and drama, etc etc. Ripley doesn’t change during the film (apart from learning about xenomorphs VERY quickly) and starts and ends the story as a kick-ass, Nostromo crew member. When does James Bond EVER learn anything or change? Dumb and Dumber says it all – no learning here… move along please.
Interestingly, Forrest Gump is similar to the supporting cast in CARS in that the protagonist, Forrest, doesn’t change, but he does influence the people he touches throughout his life, helping them grow and change – think of Captain Dan!
This is a great revelation and another chance to “clarify” a screenwriting rule. While “change” is an important aspect of many films, it is just another Tool in our writing kit-bag, not the absolute Rule that many of us (myself included) learn about early in our careers and think we have to stick to. Characters can (and do) change, it’s a fact, we see it all the time. BUT, they don’t HAVE to change, there is just as much evidence for that. The common denominator, however, on both sides of the argument is strong, compelling and empathetic characters that an audience will get behind and root for.
So that gives us something to aim for.
How do you feel about character change as a Screenwriting Rule?
Have you ever written a story in which a character doesn’t change?
- Characters you Admire
- Know your Audience
- Conflict and Emotional Arc
- Know your Characters – part 1
- Know your Characters – part 2
Got around to The Revenant at the weekend; a pretty bleak and unforgiving tale of revenge based on the experiences of Frontiersman, Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a brutal watch and the historical accuracy is questionable (then again, who cares?) but it is a beautifully shot and acted film, well worth a viewing.
For over two and a half hours we follow Glass as he hunts down Fitzgerald, the chap who kills his son and leaves Glass alone in the wilderness to die from his bear-related injuries. Obviously he doesn’t die, but he faces one hell of an ordeal before finally facing down his nemesis against the backdrop of snowy mountains and an avalanche. The film ends with a close up of Glass’ face and the sound of him breathing as he watches his dead wife walk off into the snow. The screen goes black and we hear a few more breaths before the credits roll. There is debate on the internet about what all this means, whether Glass is alive or dead, but the thing I was thinking about was that final visual; Glass looking up the hill, after his wife and then turning to stare directly into the lens of the camera.
Now, this isn’t full on “breaking the fourth wall” as Glass doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the camera or audience. Again you can read endless debate about this online and what it all means. However, what it did for me, which is what breaking the fourth wall often does, is it dragged me even deeper into the film (if that was at all possible after the previous, intense 150 minutes) and into Glass’ soul, if you like. I’m not going to debate whether this was a “break” – I don’t really care – but it did heighten my connection to Glass, his story and the predicament he finds himself in at the end of the film – it made me almost an active participant, as opposed to the dumb-bystander I had been for the rest of the film.
And that is what breaking the fourth wall should do… what any screenwriting tool should do; enhance the story and the viewer’s experience. Thinking about how it can be used then got me thinking about one of my favourite examples.
*****MORE SPOILERS AHEAD*****
There are plenty of examples of films that have broken the fourth wall over the years. I’m not going to look at them all here, just Google “Films that break the fourth wall” and you’ll find them. I just wanted to concentrate on one of them, to show how effective the tool can be and, possibly, how devisive it can be as well.
I chose Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007), a remake (pretty much shot for shot) of his own 1997 film, also called Funny Games. I’m talking about the 2007 version as it is the one I have seen most recently and is fresher in my memory, but either will do if you want to watch it. It is, arguably, a lot more disturbing and hard-going than The Revenant and is, essentially, a home invasion story, where a couple and their son are terrorised in their own home by two sadistic teenage boys. For no apparent reason. It is brutal, with bursts of extreme violence and certainly doesn’t have a happy ending but, for me, what Haneke was doing was holding a mirror up to the audience and get them to explore what it is that keeps them watching an extremely violent film with a seemingly unjustifiable plot; it’s just violence for the sake of violence. Haneke himself described it as “pointless.”
The film breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasion with one of the teenagers repeatedly acknowledging the audience’s existence, through monologue and knowing winks. But one particular scene does this superbly, breaking the fourth wall and playing with audience expectations. Following the murder of their son and the imminent murder of her husband, Ann (Naomi Watts) grabs a shotgun and kills one of her attackers, giving the audience what it wants; the twist and fight back that will lead to a satisfying (for the audience) ending of revenge. But we don’t get that relief, as the surviving tormentor finds the TV remote and rewinds the film to before Ann grabs the shotgun. He restarts the film and this time makes sure she doesn’t get the gun.
It is a device that split audiences. I’ve spoken to people who hated it, and the film, largely because of that scene. I thought it worked perfectly. In a film that questions audiences and voyeuristic behaviour, it teases us with a glimpse of the ending we want to see and think we are owed (revenge) and then whips it back away from us, leaving us watching what is then simply a bleak, violent and ultimately pointless film. We can justify watching a violent film because we are waiting to see the good guys prevail, that’s our justification for sitting through the bad stuff. But Haneke highlights this to us when his characters break the fourth wall. Not only does it make us willing participants in the action on screen but it tells us things aren’t going to go the way we think. The two violent teenagers are in control and the rules have gone out of the window – so why do we keep watching?
It was interesting to me that the people I knew who watched it, disliked the film more because it screwed with their expectations of what was going to happen in this type of movie than they disliked the violence being perpetrated on innocent people. By breaking that wall, Haneke makes us complicit in the action and people didn’t like it. It made them uncomfortable (me included) and that is wonderful film-making. Films should make you feel something.
There are lots of other incidences and examples of this in films. I don’t have space to talk about them all, and they are all done for different purposes but, ultimately, they draw us into the action and make us a part of it. Whether that is a good thing (Ferris Bueller) or a bad thing (Funny Games) really depends on the film and the mirror it holds up to the audience.
As another tool at our disposal, I would think it is probably one for the experienced writer and one that should be used sparingly, to avoid lessening its impact. But, when it is used well, it can make a massive impact on your audience. Most audiences these days a pretty savvy and understand how movies work – any tool that we can deploy that changes this, subverts expectations and can help us take them by surprise, has to be a good thing.
Yeah, okay I’ll admit it, The Revenant doesn’t really break the fourth wall, but it was the trigger that made me want to write this post. I’ve never used the tool myself (although I have suggested it to a friend for one of their projects and have an idea for its use in one story I am working on) but I do recognise how it can work well and perhaps shouldn’t be dismissed as a gimic.
Have you ever broken the “fourth wall” in a story?
Do you think it is a useful tool or a pointless gimic?
I caught up with a viewing of Maleficent a week or so ago. It is a film I had wanted to see with the kids, but we hadn’t got around to it. I don’t know whether it was a subconscious reaction to some mixed reviews or just forgetting but, when it appeared on NETFLIX, I thought it was time to give it a whirl.
And we all enjoyed it. I love a good fairy tale and this was based around one of the best; Sleeping Beauty… but with a slight twist.
I am sure we all know the traditional story of the Princess, especially as told by Disney; cursed by the wicked fairy to prick her finger on her 16th birthday and fall into a death-like sleep until awoken by true-love’s kiss. In Disney’s 1959 classic, the wicked fairy Maleficent curses the baby Aurora after she is left off the party-invitations to celebrate the royal birth.
We all know the rest.
Maleficent cleverly expands on this and explores the reasons why Maleficent was so… well, Malevolent. This time we get to hear what happened from the perspective of the “wicked” Fairy Maleficent. The film starts with a view of her childhood, her relationship with the boy who will, eventually, become King, betray her and father the Princess. In essence, we see everything from her perspective, her reasons for being, feeling and behaving the way she does.
Sleeping Beauty told from the perspective of the bad guy… or at least the character perceived as the Antagonist in the original story.
This is a fantastic way to look at stories and to think about how to create audience empathy for your characters. Nobody has to like any of your characters but, if you can get an audience to empathise with them, you can get them to care. Hannibal Lecter is one of the prime examples of this being done well; an antagonist who is, essentially, pretty evil but, despite this, the audience identifies with his simple desire for a window. Regardless of everything else he has done (or will do) there is that smallest of chinks in the armour that make him human.
And Maleficent generates that same empathy. We know, before the film has even started, that she has done bad things (or will DO bad things); or, at least, “bad” from Aurora’s and the Royal Family’s perspective. Flip this over to view the story from Maleficent’s perspective and we see the “truth” (or at least another truth) of how the “bad” stuff happens to her, acting as the catalyst for her actions. All of her decisions are right, as far as she is concerned, in the same way that the King probably thinks his actions are the right ones – regardless of whether the audience agree or not. As long as the audience can understand WHY a character does something, they can generate empathy and find themselves caring.
So try to see your story from both your protagonist and antagonist’s position and you will understand them more; their motivations, their needs and wants. Everyone in the story thinks THEY are right, much like real life, and by exploring this in our stories we can develop believable characters in even the most unbelievable situations. I have read how some writers produce two versions of their stories to see it clearly from both perspectives. I haven’t tried this myself, but can see the attraction for the creative process. As soon as you understand that your Antagonist thinks they are just as right as your Protagonist, their actions and decisions will make more sense to you and your audience and the dynamic between the characters will soar.
Do you explore your stories from both perspectives?
Feel free to comment below and let me know if you have ever written two versions of the same story and how you got on.
The Transit of Mercury didn’t pan out quite as I had hoped on Monday, with pretty much the entire World’s quota of fluffy grey clouds hovering over my house for most of the day. So, with some spare time, we chose to watch Ex Machina instead; another disc that has been sitting, waiting for a long time.
It was certainly worth the wait.
Ex Machina is a mesmerising exploration of the consequences of advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and, to my non-scientific mind, felt like a glimpse into a possible future where the smartest person in the room is also the artificial one. As Dr Malcolm might suggest, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.
The story follows Caleb, the lucky employee of Nathan, a technological genius who has chosen Caleb to apply the Turing Test to his lifelike AI Android Ava. Rather, a slightly twisted take on the Turing Test where the tester knows they are sat opposite a computer but are testing their capacity to believe that what they know is a collection of nuts and bolts could actually be human.
And that’s all I will say about the plot as it is a fantastic film, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Sci-Fi. I am sure that those with more knowledge of this area would be able to find holes in it, much like they did with the Garland-penned Sunshine, but that is not why I choose to watch movies – I want to be transported to a world that is believeable, not necessarily realistic. Although I think Ex Machina does both extremely well.
However, what really struck me with Ex Machina was the characters. The three main characters are very different. Caleb comes across as a fairly strait-laced IT geek, very much in contrast to Nathan’s heavy-drinking, aggressive Alpha-Male. In between is Ava; inquisitive and almost child-like. Each character is different, but they are so well written, you find yourself empathising with them all. There is no clear “good or bad guy” in this movie, each of the characters have their own agendas and each could be considered a Protagonist and Antagonist in their own right.
You may dislike Nathan because of the way he treats Caleb and Ava, but that doesn’t mean you can’t identify or empathise with his situation, his genius or what he is trying to achieve. And, I suspect, we will all be able to identify with the relationship that develops between Caleb and Ava and the reasons for that relationship. It is this empathy that helps draw us into the story and the twists and turns that come our way by the end of the film, and it helps us understand and rationalise the choices each character makes on that journey. It also makes us question those choices after the credits roll.
In a recent post I talked about the importance of dialogue and how that is not the be all and end all of a good script. Ex Machina is almost the polar opposite of Mad Max in that it is much more dialogue heavy. And it is great dialogue, the exchanges between Caleb and Nathan are tech-heavy, philosophical discussions and work in superb contrast to the more innocent, awkward and sometimes flirty conversations between Caleb and Ava. There is no doubting that there is great dialogue.
But I don’t remember much of it.
What I do remember are the characters, their motivations, actions and emotions, and that is what drives this film and reinforces, to me, the importance of great characters and how they will elevate your story beyond mere words on a page.
Ex Machina is a stunning piece of film-making and I would recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it, who likes good sci-fi, to give it a go. Actually, even if you don’t like sci-fi, give it a go anyway, you might just be surprised.
If you have see Ex Machina, why not let me know what you thought of it below… in a non-spoilery kind of way!
Directed and written by John Hughes
Just a quick entry this week because writing time is fairly limited as I approach the last few days of NaNoWriMo and the growing concern that I might not make it to the 50,000 word target on Monday! So I thought I’d cheat a little and just post clip from one of the greatest comedies of all time and one that is perfect for Thanksgiving; Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
This superbly written comedy of errors that unfolds as two polar opposites share the titular vehicles in an attempt to get home for Thanksgiving is a wonderful example of just how important character is to a story. The two leads in this film bring the characters to life from the page and invest them with so much humanity and believable qualities that we, as an audience, are right up there on screen with them. We all know characters that are like them in some way and we have all been in a situation where someone we know or have met is annoying the hell out of us.
The scene above plays out perfectly as we are, at first, also irritated by Del and share Neal’s frustration with the situation he finds himself in. The scene twists and turns and beautifully lays their cards out on the table as Neal vents spleen and Del opens his heart about the way Neal behaves to him. We see Del’s vulnerability coming through his annoying veneer and catch a fleeting glimpse of the the warm, family man, that is lurking inside Neal. It sets the rest of the film up nicely and, although we might be able to see where it is going from this point, it is a hell of a lot of fun going on the journey.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles is my wife’s favourite film and definitely one of mine. It is as funny now as it was the first time you saw it and that is largely down to excellent characters that we can all relate to.
Right, I’m off to count my NaNo words… again.
Have a great Thanksgiving!