Monday, October 15, 2012

Put Desire in its Place

"I've brought you a goal. Sorry I was late."
I read a second draft of a short script earlier today. In it, three drunk, high, college students state their mission for the evening: to score.

The first scene of the script is set at their apartment as they prepare for the evening. The second scene takes place at a party, where said scoring almost-but-not-quite takes place, because, as aforementioned, we're dealing with three drunk, high, college dudes.

In the third scene, the three are pulled over and narrowly escape incarceration when the two conscious friends use their stoned, intoxicated state as an advantage, telling the cop, "We were speeding to bring our [unconscious] friend here to the hospital." The cop lets them go, and they continue on their way, having used their own flaws as an advantage to escape the law.

Assume that each of the three main male characters are well-delineated, that they're distinct from each other, and that they're funny.

What's wrong with this picture?

Well, what's their plot goal? To score. When do they accomplish/not accomplish it? In the middle of the script! Everything they're working towards, their main goal for even leaving the house that night, it's all wrapped up by scene two. They fail at it, and we're left wondering why the rest of the film is there.

My main point is to caution away the blossoming screenwriter from the following:

1. Letting your protagonist acquire that which he/she desires too early.
2. Telling us what said protagonist wants too late.

If your character has a goal (as your character should), then state it as soon as possible. Make it clear. Once it's stated, each of their remaining actions in your script must, in your character's mind, claw them closer to that goal. However, you, as the writer, must keep your protagonist away from his/her goal for as long as possible.

My story note to the writer was to switch the scenes of the pull-over and the arrival at the party. Show the college guys preparing, then show them being pulled over for speeding (being in a rush to score), and then show them arriving. They struggled, they fought, they made it.

Then, when they finally make it to the party, the place where their goal may be attained, that's not when to rest on your laurels and give them their reward, no questions asked. Goodness no.

You thought that readying for the night back at the apartment was tough? You thought that being pulled over meant curtains? Well once these guys meet up with what it is they want, that moment must explode out the biggest plot point. That's the scene to which your audience is most looking forward. Don't disappoint them! These guys fight every challenge they can (themselves, external forces) to make it to this party... only once they make it there, the most unexpected, dramatic event of all has to happen. Something less anticlimactic than, "The girls reject them," something less predictable than, "The girls are men," and something less passive/absurd than, "There's a gas leak and the whole party explodes."

What will happen?

Well, that's up to you, as the writer, to decide. Whatever it is, the pointers I'd give you would be to ensure that your main characters be at the center of it. Preferably the cause of it. Maybe these guys strike out, light up a bong to drown their sorrows, end up lighting the place on fire, and then have to end up saving the very girls who gave them the cold shoulder, one page prior. That's ironic. That's active. That's fun to watch. They transition from deadbeats to heroes in short order.

You could add in a final gag with the cop who pulled them over. He arrives to investigate the fire, he sees these same guys from before, and chases them off - ultimately giving us the final irony, that in their hurry to make it to the party to score, they end up not scoring at all. But at least they grabbed the girls' numbers. Etc.

This sort of situation comes up more often than you'd think. Indiana Jones spends most of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom, and The Last Crusade seeking the ark, sankara stones, and grail, respectively. But in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull he grabs the skull in the middle of the story. He then spends the rest of the film with a new goal, which is to keep it out of the hands of the Russians. But once the main goal is accomplished, are we all that interested? There's some good action scenes, but a good action scene does not a compelling film make. He goes from someone who wanted something to someone who has something that he has to keep from everyone else. The first story, the search, the hunt, was far more interesting. Indiana remains Indiana, and no one really changes.

On the flip side, goals can sometimes be unstated until way too far into the film. This year's critical darling, Beasts of the Southern Wild, runs like a documentary until about 70 minutes in, when Hushpuppy decides to seek out her mother. Why she didn't try to seek her out any earlier is anyone's guess, but the film, despite being packed with conflict, essentially shows us a series of slice-of-life vignettes, with no real sense of character goals, until it's time to look for mom, far later into the film than it should be. I realize I'm likely in the minority on this, but for me, it makes the difference between a one-time theater watch and a later purchase, or even repeat viewing as a rental. Once was enough.

Bottom line: tell us what your protagonist wants as soon as possible. Then, force them into trying to obtain it. And lastly, keep them from acquiring it for as long as possible. Keep us guessing. Ask more questions than you answer. Your audience will thank you for it.

What's more, I'll even buy your film and watch it over and over again.

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