Warning: This is going to be a craft post, likely boring for non-screenwriting nerds.
I’m reading a new book by Yves Lavadier called Constructing a Story, and I’m reading about character arcs. One thing that we talk about in drama is character want versus character need. The want tends to be a tangible, external, and a conscious goal–to complete the mission, rescue the kid, win the girl, etc. The need tends to be internal, and unconscious–some kind of step toward growth that the character needs to take–like coming to terms with the past, letting go of judgement or rigid expectations, opening his heart.
Separate from that, there is a narrative tool called dramatic irony which is when the storyteller reveals information in such a way that the audience has information before the character does in order to create suspense. The audience is waiting for the character’s knowledge to catch up with our own. Like we know that there’s a dangerous intruder in our heroine’s apartment. She comes home and starts making dinner–unaware of the danger. It creates a specific kind of emotional engagement.
Mr. Lavandier points out that once the audience picks up on the character’s need– it elicits a question in our minds. Will the character learn what we already know in order to emotionally grow? He notes that this is, in fact, a situation of dramatic irony.
This was eye-opening for me, because, although it’s completely logical, I’d never thought about waiting for character change in as a form of suspense, suspense that could be for an entire act or maybe more.. The audience knows something and is waiting for the character to catch up to that knowledge, for her unconscious to become conscious.
In life we do the same thing, kind of, but it’s less satisfying. We have friends or relatives with issues that seem obvious to us, but which said person cannot see, and we talk with or other friends or family members, about how it would be better if they could see. In life though, person generally don’t change that much, so after awhile, there’s not so much suspense. I suspect there are probably people waiting in vain for me to make certain discoveries in my life. They should probably go to the movies, which will be more satisfying, because in constructed fictional narratives, people change.
Saturday was Earth Day and March for Science day. I almost went to the march, but did not. It’s okay though, because I made it a point to like all the Facebook posts of friends who did go. (That last sentence was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek but really just makes me feel sad for reasons I can’t unpack at the moment.)
It so happens that I am reading a science-type book during treadmill sessions at the gym.
I have a special interest in clones of late, in relation to a project I’m working on, which is probably how I stumbled onto this book online, but I think it was not clones that inspired me to buy it.
Via Amazon’s “look inside”feature, I was able to read the first few pages of the book and can across this paragraph:
“Not infrequently, the answer to an innovation’s dangers is more innovation. When human beings first started to congregate in large cities, disease grew to be such a problem that there was serious speculation that living in large cities was unnatural and unavoidably dangerous. People were not meant to live so close to one another. Cities were a disastrous and doomed experiment in living!
Then plumbing happened.”
This interested me, both at face value — and in how it views about science as a creative problem-solving process.
In creating narrative, there’s an idea that if you “paint yourself into a corner ” you’ll be pressured into finding some amazing way out of your predicament. So in this way you can force yourself to come up with a more brilliant solution than had you played it safe.
Sometimes though, the brilliant solution takes too long to arrive, and you have a deadline, so you just have the crumple paper into a ball, through it away, and start from scratch.
So in honor of Earth Day, I wondered which way Earth is headed. Maybe, if we keep polluting, it will force our scientists to perfect the special bacteria that can eat all the pollution from the air, or fake clouds that can patch holes in the ozone layer.
Or maybe we’ll have to resort to the crumpled paper scenario. I’m not sure what the Earth-sized, metaphorical equivalent to that is, but it seems grim.
Another interesting concept from my directing class is the idea that when you compose a shot, you can usually find within it a triangle. And the point of the triangle that draws your focus is the APEX of the triangle.
When the idea was introduced in class, I was intrigued–but wondered, beyond aesthetic benefits, what is the point of recognizing triangles in my shots? How should the presence of triangles affect the choices I make?
An image containing a fairly symmetrical triangle where the apex is at the top and the base at the bottom will feel stable –think of a an architectural photo.
But playing with the angles and/or inverting the triangle will make things seem less stable. Think of a low angle picture of a street where skyscrapers rise up on either side–you kind of feel the buildings might fall on top of you. A triangle on its point seems off-balance, destined to move or change its position, so it also seems less static-feeling.
Now I’m going to jump tracks for a minute and turn to writing.
In literature, the way an author describes the setting helps set up expectations, both narratively and emotionally. I took a class with the inimitable Janet Fitch and can thank her for this example–the first line from Scott F. Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.”
“After dark on Saturday, one could stand on the first tee of a golf course and see the country club windows as a yellow expanse over a very black and wavy ocean.”
In class we talked about the kind of expectations this line might set up:
First, the idea of a country club has connotations of wealth and membership.
Then positioning “one” on the first golf tee, separated from the windows by a ” very black and wavy ocean” implies an outsider status.
However, not a complete outsider–because the speaker knows she is standing at the first tee. This is someone familiar with the golf course, aware of her position relative to the club.
Is there a yearning quality to the view of the “yellow expanse?”
So this could be a story about a person trying to get to a place that’s light and bright; and a place of belonging–and needs to make the difficult journey across a wavy black ocean in order to do it.
All this from the very first sentence. Pretty cool right?
Now I’m jumping back to the first track–which was triangles.
Do you have an image in your head when you read Fitzgerald’s sentence? I do. The widest part of the triangle is the line of windows in the distance, while the point of the triangle is person in the foreground–at the bottom of the frame.
According to “triangle theory,*” this is an unstable image. In a two-dimensional environment–which, despite three-dimensional cues, is what pictures and films are–the black ocean and bank of lights are precariously positioned over the head of the person. If she tries to move, is there safety to be reached, or will it all just collapse on top of her? Either way there is the expectation of imminent change.
So the opening line of this story works to set up expectation and mood. The right opening image could do very similar (though not exactly the same) work.
The two tracks converge!
See the triangle in this picture?
BONUS RANDOM THOUGHT: Thinking of an “opening” image reminds me that John August recently posted “The First and Last Thing You See,” a montage that explores relationships between first and last images. If you watch it, try thinking in the back of your mind–can you find triangles? And how would you describe the images in words?
*”triangle theory” in this context is a made up term. I think.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished a short course in book reviewing. We discussed things like the changing culture of reviewing with the advent of social media and decline in traditional publishing, and the recent debate regarding the pros and cons of printing a negative reviews. We also made a couple of stabs at review writing. I doubt I will embark on a career as a reviewer anytime soon, but it was a good exercise to have to generate a perspective on a book as I read it, and then present that perspective in some coherent fashion. Here’s a little sample of my efforts:
Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act
According to Clay Risen, we tend to credit the achievement of the Civil Rights Act to Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. largely because theirs are the names and stories with which we are familiar. Risen is kind enough to include himself in the “we” but I suspect he doesn’t actually belong there. I, however, do. In a word association game, I would complete “Emancipation Proclamation” with “Abraham Lincoln” and the “The New Deal” with “FDR,” because those are the only names I know. If there were more in my high school A.P. history study guide, I don’t remember them.
Unfortunately, Risen notes, our tendency to assign credit in such a simplified manner is both unfair and inaccurate. “The idea that either King or Johnson was the dominant figure behind the Civil Rights Act,” he writes, “distorts not only the history of the act but the process of American legislative policymaking in general.”
In The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, Risen sets out to correct that distortion by presenting us with the literary equivalent to a “making of,” documentary, beginning in early 1963, a point during John F. Kennedy’s term at which civil rights legislation was at low ebb, and tracing the gradual rise of tide leading to the signing of the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964.
A work that sets out to reframe historical events can’t help but shine a light on the fact that any view of history is a result of framing. Maybe this is why I found myself drawn to the moments in the book that revealed how players strove to frame events even as they were happening. While some examples of this—like a gala White House reception where Langston Hughes and Sammy Davis Junior rub elbows with Democrats for the cameras in a ploy to distract from John F. Kennedy’s meager progress on civil rights—felt par for the political course, other instances gave me pause.
Here’s one: In 1963, confronted by the knowledge that his movement was in danger of fading away due to a distracted public and a federal government refusing to intervene on states’ Jim Crow rulings, Martin Luther King Junior approved the plans for the Birmingham “children’s crusade.” On May 2, 1963, hundreds of children poured onto a plaza. At the end of two days, many were jailed and “photographers had snapped hundreds of pictures of German shepherds, their teeth sinking into young boys and girls.”
Just to recap: MLK, the “I have a dream” guy, sent kids to battle with angry policemen and big dogs. (Risen, by the way, does not react to this with the surprise I felt, probably because he is the author of an entire book related to King, and knows many things about him that aren’t inspirational quotes posted to Facebook.)
In the wake of the incident, Attorney General Burke Marshall publicly denounced the move, saying, “An injured, maimed or dead child is a price that none of us can afford.” Other politicians, however, turned their criticism toward the Birmingham police. The story and images from the event galvanized the civil rights movement, caused demonstrations to spark around the country and led key players, including Marshall, to realize that federal legislation was needed. Whether or not the means justified the ends, they were successful in achieving them
Here’s another item that I didn’t learn in A.P. history: The historic showdown between George Wallace and Deputy Attorney General Nicolas Katzenbach at the University of Alabama was rigged. “Wallace, [Katzenbach] realized… might believe his racist convictions, but acted on them mostly to appease voters. Katzenbach would go to Tuscaloosa himself… let Wallace have his show, then insist on escorting the students to register. Wallace, through a back channel,… told Kennedy he would comply.”
The first third of the Bill of the Century—which runs some 290 pages including 40 pages of citations—depicts events leading up to the introduction of the Civil Rights Bill in June 1963. The final two-thirds details the tactics and maneuvers required to push the bill through —in back rooms, on the streets and on the Senate and House floors. Although no summary could be sufficient, Risen’s recounting of a memo written by Katzenbach to Robert Kennedy during the early life of the bill might give a sense of what was involved:
“If the goal was to get the bill intact through the Senate, then a filibuster was inevitable—which meant they needed 67 votes to stop debate and bring the bill to a vote…. The only way to do that…. was to get [Senate Minority Leader Everett] Dirksen on board…. Because Katzenbach could then take Dirksen’s support of the bill to the House Republicans, who were open to civil rights but wary of siding with legislation that might get pared back in the Senate. Dirksen, of course, did not support Title II, but Katzenbach hoped that his support on everything else could give momentum to the bill in the House, and that by the time it reached the Senate, Dirksen would have to choose between agreeing to the entire bill or standing in the way of historic legislation.”
If it sounds complex and confusing, it is. Risen, an accomplished journalist and author of A Nation on Fire, America in the Wake of the King Assassination, admirably manages to introduce and contextualize dozens of individuals—senators, congressmen, and myriad civilian activists—as well as organizations and political factions, but the density of information he is delivering can make for strenuous reading. I’ve no doubt been spoiled by textbooks andGeorge R.R. Martin novels, but by page 150 I would have been grateful for a fold-out timeline, a tree graph showing all the characters and their affiliations, and maybe a cheat-sheet with acronyms and their translations.
Despite this, I recommend The Bill of the Century. “The story of the civil rights bill,” says Risen “is about the interplay between elected officials, government officials, lobbyists, and countless thousands of activists around the country, pushing and pulling each other toward their common goal.” That story, with all its details, dramas and complexities, is what Risen delivers.
Reading: Just finished Jay Antani’s The Leaving of Things, about a young Indian man who has spent most of his life in Wisconsin but is forced to return to India with his family when his father takes a job there. It’s set in the 80s, and really manages to evoke time and place, mostly in India, but also the scenes that are set back in the United States. I guess you might call it a YA novel, as the narrator is a young adult, but the book is so beautifully written and elegiac that the term seems reductive–people don’t categorize Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot or Marukami’s Norwegian Woodas YA fiction, as far as I know (do they?). Anyway, I really enjoyed and recommend The Leaving of Things.
(Also, the 2.99 price tag on the Kindle version is a steal. It’s an interesting price point for a book–when I see something so inexpensive, I do look at it with some suspicion, and and if I don’t have any other information at all, I’m likely to pass it by. But it’s low enough that if I’ve heard anything good I’m willing to take a chance much faster than I would at $9.99. In this, I had met the writer, so took the chance and was very glad that I did.)
Watching: What I’m watching is research related. I met another writer, Janice Roshalle Littlejohn, through my MPW program. She’s written a book called Swirling, about interracial dating and relationships, and has been approached about making a fictional screenplay based on material in the book (maybe the way the non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes was the basis for Mean Girls), We’re going to meet and talk about her outline for the script. I’m just a consulting, (you know, because I’ve been to film school and stuff) but I think it’s pretty fascinating, so I’ve been watching films that deal with that subject matter. I haven’t had time yet to go back to some older ones I’ve seen in the past, like Look Who’s Coming to Dinner and Jungle Fever, but I’ve re-watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and watched for the first time Crash, and Something New. They aren’t all perfect films, but they each have something to contribute to the conversation, and they make you realize even though mixing is happening all around us, it’s not really a conversation you see in too many movies–at least not in depth. I’m looking forward to seeing where the project goes!