Category Archives: Films
About a month or so before Christmas I joined a Stephen King Group on Facebook as, funnily enough, I am a fan of his writing, and have been since I was a teenager. It is a decent and fun group but something I have noticed, in the short time I have been a member, is the regular repetition of many similar discussions. Of course, this is to be expected with so many members and constant posts; topics come and go rapidly – blink and you’ll miss them!
However, one that keeps bugging me is a discussion about the relative merits of the adaptations of his books to films. Most notably there is a regular outpouring of anger against The Shining (1980) whenever the subject of the book comes up. The general consensus among the participants is that the film is crap simply because it does not closely match the content of the book.
This is a fair criticism of the majority of book to film adaptations; there just isn’t the space to fit everything from a lengthy novel into a film. The adaptation of The Shining has a fairly generous running length of 2 hours and 26 minutes, but that still isn’t enough time to fit everything from a 512 page novel onto celluloid. Why else would they make a mini-series of The Shining (1997) years later? (Note to self: I must get around to watching the mini-series to compare and contrast all three.) I appreciate there were well-documented disagreements between Kubrick and King as to what the film should look like, and you were probably never going to get a word for word adaptation from Kubrick, but does that make the film rubbish?
No of course not, it just makes it different.
Part of my inspiration for this post was a recent guest post from Yvetta Dourin at Lucy V Hay’s author site exploring the differences between the Hunger Games (from 2012) films and books and why, despite those differences, both mediums work (go and read Yvetts’s post and check out Lucy’s site for other book vs film comparisons). There perhaps aren’t as many fundamental changes between the Hunger Games books and films as there are in The Shining but the principle is the same; it is hard to fit every word of a novel onto the cinema screen, especially when so much of a novel relates the inner workings of the characters’ minds, their thoughts and feelings, something that it is much harder to do in a screenplay when everything needs to be visual.
However, what you can do is use the strengths of either media to get the themes and messages across to the audience. The Shining film and book may be very different, but the themes of mental health, alcoholism, parenthood etc etc are present in both. I have not read the Hunger Games novels, but I suspect the same can be said for them. Have a think about some of your favourite adaptations, and I bet there is a fairly robust pattern?
I recently finished reading the wonderful Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children which I picked up just after seeing the film. I knew there would be changes and, without going into too much detail and avoiding spoilers, there are some significant differences, especially around the end of the story – the book and film are vastly different.
The themes of loneliness, isolation and being “different” are prevalent in both and, surprise surprise, I enjoyed them both. They can exist in the same world and both be great stories and, if you don’t like one of them, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) affect your enjoyment of the other. The are just two ways of telling the same story. If you think about it, haven’t the classic folk stories that have been passed down from generation to generation changed over the years, but still retained their message? Fairy tales come in many different versions, but the messages are often the same. Stories are retold and interpreted over and over again, so why not expect the same when a book is adapted into a film? It is simply another telling or reinterpretation of the same story.
One of the definitions of “ADAPTATION” in the dictionary (admittedly in relation to biology) is:
the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.
Films and Books are simply different environments for the same story to be told. The two mediums are very different and have their advantages and disadvantages over each other, but this does not make them mutually exclusive to your enjoyment. Where a novel can be very much internal and describe the invisible emotions that lie within a character’s mind, a film is much more external and visual; by their very nature, they will have to have differences. I could imagine that a stage adaptation of our favourite books and films would be very different again.
Yvetta comes to a similar conclusion in her excellent article. You will no doubt like one over the other, but it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy both. Don’t narrow your view, enjoy them all and don’t assume something will be crap just because it is an adaptation; things just aren’t that black and white. I think I preferred the book to the film in the case of Miss Peregrine, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them both immensely.
Stories are stories, we love telling them and having them told to us.
- Do you feel that film adaptations of books are always rubbish?
- Is there a particularly adaptation that makes you angry about the way a favourite book was treated?
A couple of years ago I was happily watching The Walking Dead on SKY and enjoying it immensely. However, we changed our TV provider, losing access to the series, and I was in the wilderness for a couple of years until we got back onto Sky and the first 6 series were available to me again. So, this summer, I started binge-watching TWD to get caught up from Series 3 to 6 ready for the return of Series 7 in October this year.
I wasn’t disappointed, the show is wonderfully written, directed and acted with great characters that I cared for so, by the end of Series 6, as Negan waved his baseball bat around in front of “our group” I was fairly tense and worried for all their futures.
Then the series ended, without the revelation of who was at the receiving end of “Lucille.”
At this point I was caught up and Series 7 had yet to start, so I had a look online to read some opinions of the series. I know the internet is not always the best place to go looking for “opinions” but I was amazed at the amount of vitriol aimed at the writers/production team for leaving us with a cliffhanger.
Do we now really need to have everything on a plate? Can people no longer wait for gratification in a world were we can pretty much get what we want, when we want it? I am sure there was a time when people would be happy to wait for gratification between episodes? What about leaving your audience wanting more or generating suspense and tension?
Was there as much of an uproar at the end of The Empire Strikes Back when we were left in limbo? Perhaps there would have been if the internet had existed in it’s current form but, for me, it just made things more exciting. I don’t necessarily WANT to wait, but it works to keep me coming back for more.
I’m thinking about this on the day I read, apparently, that the entire plot lines for the next Series of Game of Thrones have been leaked online.
I haven’t read them and have no plans to. I am happy to wait for the actual show, why would I want to spoil it now? As with the “death” of Jon Snow, surely the fun of having to wait for the next series is speculation with other fans about what might be going to happen?
Leaking plots like that is clearly a result of our “want it now” society and it’s sad that people struggle to wait for plot lines to develop naturally, unable to tolerate a season finale that includes a cliffhanger. Obviously, it is great if some strands are tied up, but why come back for more if all plot threads are finished in any one season?
I like cliffhangers and the Season 6 cliffhanger for TWD was brilliant; it left me wanting more and looking forward to the next season. I wanted to know what happened next, but I wasn’t going to moan at the writers, or scream about how unfair it was. It generates interest and a desire to see more.
But do you like them? Do you use them in your writing, or do you think they are a cheat?
Would love to hear what other people think about this…
… don’t leave me hanging!
(Obviously there are exceptions to the rule such as American Horror Story, before anyone starts – although you do get cliffhangers at the end of episodes rather than the season.)
A common “rule” in screenwriting that most of us have heard, usually when starting out is, “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s an attempt to steer us away from lengthy exposition scenes or having characters tell us, moment by moment what is going on. We are writing “moving pictures” so let’s stick to that and leave lengthy dialogue to the politicians.
However, as a “tool” it can be very useful and remind us to think carefully about the scenes, sequences and how our stories are structured. There are times when it is absolutely right that we show something visually, rather than have a character describe it. But, of course, like any other screenwriting rule, it is not always going to be the most appropriate way to write your scene. For every good example, there will be a bad example and for each of those good examples, I am sure you will be able to find another great example of a character “telling” the audience.
One of the examples explored in the Shorescripts link below is Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis in Jaws (1975). The speech is a long one, but a powerful one. The intensity and emotion of the experience is all there on screen as Robert Shaw recounts the events of the sinking and being hunted by sharks. It is a clear example of someone “telling” the audience and it works superbly. Would it have been better to “show” the audience? How would you do that? I’m not sure… a flashback? Possibly, but a flashback can be damaging to a film; a jarring interruption that takes you out of the flow of the scene. “Telling” worked in this case.
But “showing” can also work. You just have to get it right, just as with any screenwriting tool. Know when and how best to use it for the story you are telling at the time.
The reason I got to thinking about this was seeing the end of episode 1 of the new Westworld series.
Some spoilers coming up if you haven’t seen Episode 1 yet!
Towards the end of the episode there is a mass recall of “hosts” (the androids that populate the games in Westworld) because of a glitch relating to a recent update. Evan Rachel Wood’s Delores is one of those hosts and she is questioned by park staff to check her programming. During this process, Delores is asked whether she would “ever hurt a living thing.” In true Azimovian style, the hosts in Westworld are programmed not to hurt any of the guests and Delores answers unequivocally in the affirmative that, no, she would never hurt a living thing.
As the show ends, she walks out onto the veranda of her home, as she has every morning for however long she has been in her current role, past the host playing her father (newly changed from her previous glitching father), to look out over the prairie and absentmindedly swats a fly on her neck.
How good was that?
Simple, subtle but brimming with power and coolly setting up the coming storm that we all know is coming.
Don’t get led blindly down the “Show, Don’t Tell” alley just because you think that is what you have to do. As with all our screenwriting tools, be aware of it, learn how to use it and chose your moments – and blow your audience’s mind.
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?
We took the kids to see Swallows and Amazons a few days ago and we all enjoyed the film. It is a fairly slight story, even with added spies, but was a perfect, nostalgia-ridden family-film to spend an afternoon with – the sort of film we, perhaps, don’t see enough of these days?
Something that intrigued me about the film was the re-naming of one of the characters. Titty from the book, became Tatty for the film. The reasons for that change are obvious; a little sad that it was felt necessary but a sign of the times perhaps? The family were certainly not happy. I don’t want to debate the merits of the name change but what it did make me think about was how we go about choosing names for the characters in our screenplays.
Everyone loves a great character name and, most importantly, remembers them. But how are they generated? How do writers come up with some of these gems? And do they spend hours considering the meaning behind those names and how they can be cleverly linked to the theme of their stories and the nature of their characters?
There are also lots of examples of clever names in films; names that are used to enhance the viewers experience. Take Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (2007) for example – could you get a more descriptive name for a character who sees the world in black and white? Or Louis Cypher from Angel Heart (1987)?
It is incredibly easy to look up the meaning of any name via the wonders of the interweb, using sites such as Behind the Name or Ancestry. There are too many sites to mention, but certainly enough to be able to check names from any corner of the globe and in any language.
I have, in the past, spent a very long time considering the names of some of my characters, thinking there needs to be some deeper meaning behind them. This can often be a very painful process, trying to find just the right name to fit the right personality, only to find two sites that describe the meaning of the name differently; hopefully fairly closely but I have found some that have provided almost opposite meanings to each other.
A screenplay I am currently working on has Chinese characters who are storytellers, so I wanted something that reflected that in my protagonist’s name. Chen Ming was the name I chose in the end, where the surname Chen can mean “exhibit, narrate or arrange”. This fits well with storytelling and the puppetry that features in the story. Ming means “bright”, reflecting both the lights used in their puppetry, but also the nature of a smart lead character. My antagonist is named Lie, which means “fierce” and Ming also meets characters such as Shu (kind or gentle) and Ho (goodness). I spend a long time getting to those names, and I am very happy with them as they do reflect the nature of their characters. However, ultimately, does it really matter? Will it mean much to the majority of people who may make up the audience? Or does it just sound authentic? Won’t most of the audience just want to watch great characters, whatever their names?
As my writing has progressed, I have tried to shy away from obsessing too much over names. I am sure that, while there is always something to be said for smart naming, the deeds, actions and traits of your character are far more important than their name. You could have the greatest name anyone has ever heard of but, put that into a dull, weak story with lifeless characters, and that is all the audience will remember – and not for the right reasons.
So is the creation/use of a name in a script THAT important? Titty/Tatty is a difficult example, actually, as the name refers to a real-life person but, ultimately, does the name matter, or is it the deeds of the heroine in the story that define her more?
What do you think?
Do you painstakingly create clever, meaningful names for your characters?
Or do you think that is all just too much like hard work, when I could, in fact, be writing?
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.
I was watching an episode of Gogglebox (don’t judge me) on UK Channel 4 recently and had the opportunity to watch other people watching JAWS (1975), one of my all-time favourites. I was probably around 10 years old when I first saw JAWS and remember being terrified by it – especially old Ben Gardner and his damned head. I remember playing “JAWS” at school and taking turns in playing Quint; there was an old log in the playground that sloped down to the ground and we used to pretend that was the stern of the ORCA, sinking slowly into the water. (Who needs violent computer games when you can eat your mates off the back of an old log?)
In short, a film like JAWS, for someone of my generation, left a lasting impression; one that has persisted 30 years later, and still finds the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention when John Williams’ score looms up at the start of the film.
What I saw on Gogglebox was a group of people laughing at Bruce and what they described as “rubbish” effects. Now this may be due to the environment – being filmed while watching the TV is probably not the most intimate of settings to watch and appreciate a classic – or, perhaps, because they had all seen it many times before and were not really paying attention.
But it got me thinking.
Now, I’m the first to admit that Bruce can look a little ropey in some shots but, for me, that is not what the film is all about. It’s about the anticipation of the shark, the fear of the unknown; what IS under the water? Jaws works so well because the reveal of the shark is left so late into the film – if we had seen him during the opening credits, the latter parts of the film would have had a much less shocking or powerful effect on this 10 year old – Spielberg knew what he was doing by withholding stuff from his audience. A lot of this withholding was, of course, down to the problems they had with Bruce and the technology driving him. The physical effects required for Jaw were probably a lot more demanding than the CGI required for Deep Blue Sea (1999).
What I began to wonder is whether a younger generation of film-goers (hark at me, miserable old man) are spoiled by the advances we have made in technology over the last couple of decades? Spielberg himself opened CGI up to the masses with Jurassic Park (1993), and fan-favourites likes The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) really piled on the “wow” factor of what could be done in films with this new “technology.”
I’m not complaining, I love a good effect but, when everything is photorealistic in a film, does it mean that viewers of a certain age can’t appreciate the skill involved in the physical aspects of film-making? Is Bruce, in Jaws, the 21st Century equivalent of me watching an Iguana with a plastic horn fighting Doug McClure? (Which, I hasten to add, I loved.)
It is great to see newer films being made by teams keen to reintroduce more real, physical effects; for example Mad Mad: Fury Road and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. I realise these films still involve a lot of CGI work (it’s almost unavoidable in a modern “blockbuster”) but you can’t beat good old fashioned effects work. I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with the kids a few weeks back and it really is a joy to watch all those physical effects being shown onscreen, bringing back memories of watching “The Making of Documentaries” on TV on a Saturday afternoon, a long time before the advent of DVD extras.
It is, perhaps, just too easy to destroy worlds inside a computer now than it has ever been – well, maybe not “easy” but the restrictions are so much less than they have ever been, meaning the sky is the limit; which had me thinking whether this has had an affect on the types of stories that people write and the way they write them. 30 years ago, a film like The Avengers (2012) couldn’t be made or, at least, not on the same scale. The effects required would have put even the most dedicated film-maker off. This made me wonder whether writers in the past felt restricted in the stories they could tell or whether it made them more creative in finding ways to skirt the technological limitations of the times and bring their visions to the screen?
Today, we can pretty much write whatever we want knowing that, if necessary, we can show it on screen. I am not sure there are any restrictions now other than budgets and our imaginations.
What do you think?
- Are we spoiled by CGI these days?
- Has it made story-telling easier… or harder?
- Do you write without boundaries because of this?
Please feel free to comment below!
For a last couple of months I have been enjoying the ITV Series Marcella starring Anna Friel and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, Marston Bloom, Mark Greig and Ben Harris. Hailed as a “Scandi-esque” drama, it promised an intriguing look into the world of tortured soul Marcella, returning to work as a detective after having some sort of break down relating to the loss of a child. She also suffers from blackouts during which she struggles to remember her actions.
So far so good.
The series finished this week after 8 episodes and while, on the whole, it was a well made (if sometimes confusing) drama, the season finale left the internet in uproar over the amount of unanswered questions in an obviously sequel-baiting ending. I am not one to get too upset when I don’t have everything explained to me; my favourite film is 2001, for Heaven’s sake and I am a big fan of Lost! However, what Lost did do for its audience (or at least for me, YMMV), is provide all the clues for its audience to piece together the jigsaw. Although the answers in Lost were not all neatly spelled out by the end of the finale, I believe there was enough information in there to help you piece together answers to any remaining question you might have.
Marcella didn’t quite do that for me and left me feeling a little flat. The internet (on the whole) seemed to be feeling entirely cheated.
Characters were introduced, did important stuff, and then disappeared. Mysteries were posed early on in the season and we never even came close to an answer. I am sure that, if Marcella makes it to a second season, we will get some answers to these questions, but I can understand why people would be angry and threatening not to continue watching if it does. (I’m ready to give it a go!)
For example, the series started with Marcella in a bath, confused and covered in blood and mud. That raised a big question that the audience were really going to want answered by the end of the series. We get a hint of how it may have come to pass, but there is nothing to tell us why it happened and what caused it. The first, and biggest, mystery of the series is left unanswered.
This got me thinking about how much we should tell our audiences to keep them interested in our stories and what we should disclose? Of course this will all depend on the story you are trying to tell. Different approaches give us a different take on withholding information. On one extreme you might have Lost, which did its best to keep us in the dark on as much as it could and, on the other, an episode of Columbo, for example, where we know who the killer is before the detective has even got out of bed. However, Lost, for me, was as much about the characters as it was the Island and information about the characters was drip fed to us from episode to episode, season to season, so we were having questions answered, even if we didn’t realise it. Even if we do know who the killer is, there is still mystery in each episode of Columbo because we don’t necessarily know why or exactly how, and we enjoy finding out at the same time as Columbo. In both cases there is a balance of knowledge and ignorance; enough knowledge to keep us happy but enough ignorance to keep us intrigued and to continue watching.
There needs to be a balance.
Judging by the reaction on the internet (which is probably a bad thing to do) I think a lot of people would have stopped watching Marcella if it had gone on for a few more episodes, because the ignorance as to what was going on was overpowering the knowledge we were being given; there were not enough answers to keep everyone happy. Mystery is really important in a story, we don’t want to know exactly who, how, why, where, when and what within the first few minutes of a film, but we do want answers and a skillful writer will manage the way key information is revealed throughout their story to keep the audience happy, but also intrigued. Drip feed me, but don’t keep me completely in the dark.
J.J. Abrams talks about the joy of mystery in this TED Talk from a few years back and discusses his Mystery Box and the intrigue generated by not knowing what is inside. One example he uses is Star Wars and how the plot involves numerous Mystery Boxes throughout the story, posing a question to the audience, which gets answered, but also replaced by another mystery box – a constant process of question and answer that keeps the audience hooked.
This is something I am consciously trying to take into account more when writing; thinking carefully about how I feed information to my audience and, perhaps more crucially, when I feed it to them. Get the balance right, give them enough to keep them invested in the story, but don’t leave them bored ten minutes in, with nothing to keep them guessing what might be in your Mystery Box. If we can do this, then I suspect we will more easily be able to hook our audience and keep them dangling on the line until the bitter (or happy) end even if we don’t answer all their questions.
How do you decide what to withhold and when to reveal?