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Back to Basics

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In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen some very poorly executed movies. Is there anything more frustrating than going into a theater with high expectations and watching for two hours as those hopes are slowly dashed to pieces? Why yes, I’m sure there are things more frustrating but it’s definitely near the top of any reasonable list. It’s right up there with forgetting to do laundry over the weekend and discovering on Monday morning that you’ve got to go to work in whichever clothes are least dirty. Maybe that’s just me.

The frustrating thing with these critical flops is that they often get a lot of things right. They have solid ideas behind them that promise great stories and they’re often drawn from source material full of complex and interesting characters.

I usually can't blame the actors in these films. Plenty of filmmakers have proven that a good movie (sometimes even a great movie) need not stand solely on the strength of its acting. Mark Hamil, anyone? Two of the movies I’ve seen lately have actually had some fine actors doing fine jobs with the material they have to work with and yet the films still fail dramatically. The trouble is not actors.

In the case of blockbuster-style summer movies, action and special effects play as big a part as actors. But flashy special effects do not a good movie make. Nor do cheesy effects a good movie ruin. You’d be hard pressed to bring down a good movie with bad effects, although a distressing number of bad movies succeed solely on the quality of the effects work.

The story is the same with music, cinematography, editing, lighting and all the other technical aspects of filmmaking.

So where is the disconnect? Why does a movie with a good concept, good actors, and competent technical prowess fail?

The issue is that among blockbuster level filmmakers there often seems to be a general lack of understanding of the fundamentals of good storytelling. The basics are not being covered.

One of those basics is Character Arc. Every character needs to have his or her own particular story within the greater whole. Each character must start with a problem, struggle with that problem, and find some kind of resolution by the end of the story. Each character ought to have grown and changed and come out at the end someone other than who he was in the beginning.

What many storytellers seem to forget is that this applies not only to the main character but to every single member of the cast. If a character doesn’t struggle and change then it’s one-dimensional. Either beef it up or cut it out.

Another basic: Scene Structure. Scenes are the building blocks of a story whether in a book, on stage, or on screen. A scene doesn’t serve merely to pass on information, a scene must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has to pose a problem and find a resolution to that problem through conflict. If a scene doesn’t do that then guess what? It isn’t a scene.

That doesn’t mean that scenes can’t be intercut and it doesn’t mean that they have to be shown linearly, but they have to satisfy those conditions. They must not only show conflict, they must move toward resolution.

When I sit down to write a scene there are several things that go through my mind. The first is that I need to know what the scene is meant to accomplish. Maybe it needs to move the action from one location to another. Maybe it needs to set up a subplot. Maybe it needs to introduce a character. Once I know what the scene needs to do, then I go about learning how it does it.

The ‘how’ is the job of the characters. Every character in a scene wants something. The audience doesn’t necessarily need to know this but the writer does. Once you know what a character wants, then you decide how they will go about trying to get it. Maybe a character wants acceptance, maybe he wants to go to sleep, maybe he wants to kill someone. No matter what is going on, every character wants something. The storyteller’s job is to figure out what that desire is and use it to propel the scene forward.

When you put two or more characters together that want different things or, even better, that want the same thing, you’ve got conflict. Now you’ve got a scene going.

But the scene can’t end with conflict. Someone has to get what they want and there have to be consequences, a new problem has to be encountered. If no one gets their way then there’s no forward motion and the scene falls flat. If no new conflict is introduced then the story is over, you’ve dropped the dramatic ball.

These aren’t revolutionary ideas. These are the bare bones basics: Character and Scene. If writers and directors followed those simple guidelines they’d have a much harder time making bad movies. It’s heartbreaking to go to the theater and see the work and sweat and passion of so many people falling apart because the writers and the director didn’t cover the basics, they didn’t adhere to the most foundational concepts of storytelling.

I don’t expect every movie to be great. I do, however, expect that if millions of dollars and years of work are going to be put into something that it should at least betray evidence that you understand the fundamental concepts that make a story work. Pixar understands this. What excuse does the rest of the blockbuster machine have?

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