Friday, January 17, 2014

Story Game: Plot Structure and Finding The Wow

(I'm working on a central directory page for the Story Game, until then, you can review the Situation Game from Fall via the last post: Let's Play! which has an index of posts up to to that point.)

Creating the Situation Game was easy.  I'm stumbling as I try to figure out how to deal with the Plot Game.  And I think it's partly because I know so much about plot theory -- the dozens of theories of story structure, etc. -- that it's hard to get a handle on where you spin the wheel.  Every story has an Inciting Incident in the first act.  And at the end of the first act the character commits to the quest.
There is no way to do a "wheel of inciting incidents" or "wheel of character commitment."  They are things that happen, but not kinds of things that happen.  And they really have to adhere to your situation.

So, even though plot theory is a part of the game, the actual game itself has got to get its hooks in a completely different kind of theory.  You've got to drill down into genre, archetypes and a little something that Hollywood calls a "Wow."

So I'm going to tell you about one more plot structure theory.  A very simple one.  A very very simple one:

Action Movie Structure: put in a WOW every seven minutes.

That's it.  Sometimes people say a Wow goes in every ten minutes or every five minutes.  Sometimes it's three little wows and then every half hour you have one big WOW. intil the end, which is all Big Wows.But the overall theory is pretty much, keep hitting the audience with Wows.

And we've seen those action movies.  I call that genre "Movies In Which Things Blow Up For Absolutely No Reason Whatsoever."  I also call them "Friday Movies," because they are a great thing to watch on a Friday night after a very tough week at work.

But the concept is not just limited to those kinds of movies.  Comedies, for instance, often use this same concept.  Keep the jokes coming, and if one fails, well, the audience will laugh at the next.  The theory behind this is that you should never bore the audience. It's related to Raymond Chandler's advice to bring in a man with a gun whenever the story flags.

Wow Isn't Just About Big Explosions

There are good stupid action movies and bad stupid action movies.  The bad ones are where it's just noise and flash and there is no actual Wow invovled.  There is more to a Wow than just making something big and loud, and if we're going to take this concept outside of the stupid action movie genre, we have to understand what a Wow is.

A Wow has to be satisfying.  This may involve paying off on something we expect, but usually it pays off unexpectedly or ironically.

Star Wars (the original Episode IV) starts with a classic Wow: a space ship racing though space, blasters firing. We think we're seeing a pretty big space ship...

But then from just above the camera (as if it is coming from behind the audience) we see the bigger ship that's chasing it.  That is, we see the front of it enter the screen.  Oh, yeah, we think, that's bigger.  But then it keeps coming.  We haven't seen the end of it yet.  Oh, that's just the front bumper!  It's still coming, and coming.  OMG, it's really really big!  The ship just goes on and on and on.

If you've never seen this on the big screen you have no idea what it was like back in 1977 when theater screens were enormous. That scene would actually make you hunker down in your seat.

That's a wow.

A similar Wow with a different effect is when the Tyrannosaurus Rex is chasing the jeep in Jurassic Park and you can see in the rear view mirror 'Objects in mirror are larger than they appear."  This one works because it's surprisingly understated and ironic.  Same with Jaws when the shark flashes out of the water to be properly seen for the first time.  Only Roy Scheider sees it.  He's scared stiff (as we are) and says "We're gonna need a bigger boat. " (Spielberg was the master of the Wow, especially the ironic wow -- which contrasts something shocking or impressive with an understated comment.

Wows are about the audience's emotional response.  Which means a lot of the time they are archetypes or cliches.  The audience wants to experience it again and again... except that it doesn't always work so well when it's not unexpected.  Then the creator has to work at it.

For instance, dropping a luxury car out of an airplane was a Wow the first time it happened, but thereafter it was a Ho Hum.  It's no longer a surprise, and the irony isn't enough to make it fly.  But that leads me to an example of another kind of Wow, the Payoff Wow.

The Payoff Wow

There's a great "Stupid Action Movie" called Con Air.  I sometimes think the premise of that movie is "What if everyone in the universe, including God, had their IQ docked by about 25 percent?"  This is a movie which didn't try to do anything new, they just worked really hard to put a little extra something into every cliche to turn it back into a Wow.  They didn't always succeed, but like a fast-paced comedy, they keep coming at you so fast that if one thing doesn't work, the next thing probably will.

They used the old "luxury car drops from the sky" routine, and they turned it into a Wow by giving the audience a relationship with the car.  It belongs to a character you really hate, the the more you know him the more you hate him.  The car is a symbol of what you hate about the character, so you hate the car too.  The car almost has it's own subplot, and they build multiple Wows into it. At some point the car gets to fly through the air.  Wow.  Then when that car falls out of the sky... it falls at the feet of the owner.  The guy we hate.

And that's a big Wow.  Because it's a payoff.  It's like a punchline of a joke.  We are rewarded for patience.

Even Art House Movies Have Wows

An intellectual movie will Wow it's audience with moments of insight.  These will also involve irony or unexpected turns or payoffs.  They also have their equivalent of the big loud explosions: beautiful imagery in a movie, or incredible poetic language in a book.

There is a famous scene in the middle of The Third Man, when Joseph Cotton is walking home in the dark and empty streets of Vienna.  He thinks his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) died before he even arrived in Vienna. (At this point in the movie, we haven't even seen a picture of Harry.)  And he knows that he's under surveillance by cops and crooks.  He's drunk and pissed off so when he sees someone concealed in the shadow of a doorway, he taunts the guy. Calls for him to come out and show himself.  The guy doesn't come out, but then someone opens a window and casts a light into the shadow.... it's Harry.

That's a Wow, too. It's surprising and ironic, and what a classic look on Orson Welles' face!

The Third Man is chock full of "art movie" Wows (gorgeous cinematography, and careful counter-intuitive pacing, spritely zither music in a thriller plot). You could say it's the Arthouse equivalent of Con Air: You are barraged with Wow moments.

A wow can be a joke or a speech or a kiss, or surprise.  But it can also be something expected.  It can be the thing that the audience hopes for and anticipates with glee.  When Columbo turns around and says "Oh, there's just one more thing..."  That's a Wow for the audience waiting for it.  In a slapstick comedy, when there's a pie on the mantelpiece, you just know the movie ain't over until it is thrown.

A Wow, then, is basically any moment or event that gives the audience satisfaction.  In every kind of book or movie or poem or play, the Wow is what the audience is watching or reading or listening for.  That's why so many cliches are also Wows, because anything good is going to get used over and over again.

Part of what defines a genre is what kind of Wow the audience is expecting.  And because they've seen it all before, one of the skills of the master of any genre is to be clever and interesting with those expected Wows.  The masters are those who find a way to make them unexpected.

Wows and The Story Game

I'm thinking that the Plotting Game is going to have to revolve around Wows.  Yes, we'll start with plot theory, but to create a form for a plotting game, we're going to have to drill down from that into Wow territory.

So we're going to take a look at each act in a four-act structure and think about how it applies to genre, and then create Wheels of Wow for each item we identify.

So next week, I think we can finally get to Act 1.

See you in the funny papers.

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Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I like the way you define Wow Moments, Camille. I always thought of them in terms of car crashes, action-y type things...but I like the idea of having a big moment and an understated reaction. Very cool.

The Daring Novelist said...

One thing I always try to keep in mind when I'm thinking about Hollywood is that even the lowest of low-brow movie makers worship the great artists of filmmaking.

And if you dig a little, it's surprising what you will find under the surface of nearly any movie. (The French have always known this, of course, but they're so self-satisfied about it that it's hard to give them credit....)