(Continuing with the Plot Structure Series. Still working on the opening "Set Up" section of the story. Check out Part 1 - Overview. Part 2- Opening Image. Part 3 - Character Intros 1. Part 4 - Character Intros 2. Part 5 - Action Is Character. Part 6 - Foreshadowing.)
So last week we started to talk about how characters first enter the scene. We talked about the two lead characters from the 1967 movie In The Heat of the Night -- Virgil Tibbs and Chief of Police Gillespie. These are a pair of characters who kinda come pre-introduced, in that their political and cultural surroundings pit them against each other regardless of who they are as individuals.
So to get started, we don't have to know anything about either of them except that Tibbs is black, and Gillespie is police chief in a small Mississippi town in 1967.
However, these two guys are not symbolic cartoons for a political drama. The fact is, the story is an ordinary melodrama -- a murder mystery -- and our two protagonists are regular, complicated people. The political message of the story is merely that the cultural situation surrounding them makes it a real challenge to do their jobs.
But that political situation also makes it really easy to get the story going, and get our interest in the characters before we really see who they are.
There is a risk to using this method however, which I'll talk about at the end of this post, after I mention two more pictures that use external conflict as a way of introducting the characters.
Flashback -- The Old Hippie And The Young Fed
Back in 1990, there was a little gem of a "buddy movie" called Flashback. It starred Dennis Hopper as Huey Walker, an old hippie radica, and Keifer Sutherland, as Special Agent Buckner, a straightlaced young FBI agent.
Like In The Heat of the Night, this movie introduces the main characters by just telling us the key thing that puts them in conflict -- old hippie vs. g-man. Unlike Heat, the characters are very comfortable in their roles. As matter of fact, they are so comfortable, that they prefer the roles to reality.
That's a part of what this movie is about, and why it is interesting to talk about. We have two characters who are overtly wearing masks: A Fed must remain professional and keep his authority to the front, never letting us see who he is, because that would make him vulnerable. And all politicians -- even hippie radicals -- are at least one part conman. Their job is to charm and lie and do what's necessary to win people over.
And we know that these guys are hiding who they really are.
Somehow this allows the filmmakers to pull off something interesting: they don't hint much at where the story is going. There are some great twists and turns, but I just rewatched the setup section, and there is actually very minimal foreshadowing here.
I'm going to talk about foreshadowing later, and I'll go into what I found in this flick then, but suffice it to say that in general, this picture doesn't find the need to keep use interested with hints of what will come. Instead, the filmmakers have chosen to do something brave: they let the current situation carry itself.
I've said before how what keeps the reader reading and the viewer watching is that the story makes promises of great things to come. There are many ways to do this. In this case, the premise -- a cop transporting a fugitive -- makes all the promises we need. The fact that the cop is holding to his official personna, and the fugitive is a crafty clown, adds lots of color to the simple fact that we know the fugitive will want to escape, and the cop will want to keep control.
That all by itself gives us a natural story, even if we never learn a thing about these characters. You can read a dry news story about a criminal escape and manhunt, and not know a thing about the characters, and still be fascinated by how it shakes out.
But this is still a story about getting to know these guys. The opening sequence, their entrances, is all about the surface conflict of their personalities. (Unfortuantely, I have no clips about that.) Neither takes the other seriously. They spar. Dennis Hopper chews the scenery, setting up jokes which others walk right into. Keifer Sutherland holds his temper and sasses him back. We see that these two are a reasonable match for each other.
Or at least we think they are. We can't see beneath their masks, so we can't be sure. We know were' going to see more. We just don't know how or when, or if those faces beneath the masks are going to play a big part in the plot itself, or if it's just going to be the heartwarming character development subplot.
However, if youi're paying attention, you will get a clue from what happens at the 15 minute mark. Remember how I said that is usually seen as a significant moment in movies?
In the clip I showed you of In The Heat of the Night, that was the moment when Virgil Tibbs decides to tell his story, to actively engage with Chief Gillespie.
The clip below is just about the exact same moment from Flashback. (I couldn't find any earlier clips, but I suppose that's okay.) It's a long clip, but I'm mostly interested in what happens in the first three and a half minutes. (However, watch until the end and you will see a classic Inciting Incident.)
The start of this is kind of a mini version of the whole movie until that point, at least as far as these two characters are concerned. Huey (Dennis Hopper) is effusive and jabbers and jokes endlessly. Buckner (Keiffer Sutherland) is unimpressed, reserved, official.
But watch what happens at the 2:30 mark in this clip: Huey decides to go after Buckner's mask. He gets personal and says, "You like me."
And it works. Buckner relents and tells us something about himself -- as proof of why he does NOT like Huey.
Now, it's relatively clear that Buckner has not really let the mask slip here. What he has done instead is held up a stronger form of defense. Huey is all about emotions and sensitivity, so Buckner uses an emotional tool (and an old cliche "My father died in Vietnam to protect creeps like you") to shut him down.
The fact that this happens at the fifteen minute mark indicates it's not just another joust between characters who have been jousting all along. But unless you're watching the clock while watching the movie, you don't necessarily realize that this is a clue to what the story is about. You really don't know that there is a mystery here and that the truth will get more and more interesting.
So for now, the moment passes and it just seems like the characters are jousting, and that Huey is using personal stuff to try to get under Buckner's skin. We don't actually need to know more. What we're really expecting is the cop vs. fugitive plot to start ramping up. And that plot is fun and very very straightforward and clear about where it is going, so we don't miss the mystery we never noticed is there.
Which is all a very long way of saying that you don't need to tell everything about a character to develop that character into something complex, deep and interesting. It can be good to start with simple and clear, and let the audience see more as you go.
But you also can be complex and mysterious, if you want....
Bad Day at Black Rock
In the comments to last week's post, Steve Vernon pointed out another pot-boiler movie that begins with a train arriving in a town, carrying a catalyst character who will set the story in motion.
The train in Bad Day at Black Rock brings Spencer Tracy, a one-armed veteran just after WWII, who comes to a tiny tiny desert town on a mysterious mission. And everybody in town is freaked out by his arrival. It's not that they don't like strangers, or just that strangers hardly ever visit this town (though both of these seem to be true); no, it's something else. Something neither we nor Tracy know anything about. I'ts just weird.
After a little hunting, I found a clip of the opening on YouTube. The credits act as the "opening image." A train races through the desert to loud, urgent music. It has that inexorable feel of fate racing into the story (a little like Fargo's car in the blizzard, but less ironic.
(NOTE: the credits go on until the 1:20 point, if you want to click ahead. And at the 4:15 mark, It SKIPS TO THE END OF THE MOVIE, so you may want to stop watching then.)
This story begins with nothing BUT mystery and menace. We don't know what Tracy is there for, and we don't know why the town reacts the way it does. All we know is that the very first things we see, other than the train roaring across the dessert, is that when the train just slows down, everybody in town steps out to look. And not in a friendly curious way.
They aren't exactly scared either. They're suspicous, on edge, and they clearly think that the train stopping is just plain not right. The station agent is aggreived. "Nobody told me this train was stopping! And they ought to!"
We see just about every one of the characters even before he speaks. However, we don't actually get to meet them -- and there are too many to remember at this point.
Now, the good thing about a movie is that when you have an opening like this, you see the actor's faces, so you get a sense of them each being different people. Even if you don't know who Ernest Bourgnine or Lee Marvin or Anne Francis or Walter Brennan are, you see individuals when you see them. So when they make their formal entrance, you have been set up to meet them.
In fiction you have a different advantage. A bunch of people sitting or standing outside in a western town are generally all dressed alike. You can't necessarily guess much about them. In a book, though, they have a label. One guy is the doctor. Another is a cowhand. Another is the hotel clerk.
So you can still have that kind of introduction if you want it. The problem is that it is harder to pull off. With a movie, one shot can have three guys step forward, looking perplexed, and you don't waste time or focus on them. With fiction, you have to either describe them, which takes time and draws undue attention, or you summarize to get the same effect, but then you don't see the individuals.
What it usually means is that you have to be selective about your details. You might not even mention all of the characters, even in summary. You mention as many as would give you a picture, and let the others be introduced later.
As for how these characters are really introduced: they make their real entrances one or a few at a time, mainly in their interactions with the stranger or with each other.
But because their interactions are so mysterious, and at first they are all acting as a group, the person we mainly get to know is the stranger played by Spencer Tracy. They don't want him to know anything about themselves. They put up a front....
So the first thing we learn is how Spencer Tracy handles this brick wall they put up in front of him. Like Sidney Poitier, Tracy remains polite and vigilant, but his situation is different from Poitier's. He has more natural power. These people are wary of him, and so he uses their closed-in stubbornness against them. He steps around them.
Just after the clip, inside the hotel, the deskman tells him there isn't a room available, but the stranger just ignores and steps around him. He signs in anyway, and he steps over and takes a key.
But then we start meeting the individual townsfolk as they each try new ways to get information out of him without giving any themselves. And that's when we start to see them reveal character. Lee Marvin tries to bully him. Walter Brennan is friendly but also doesn't have luck getting info.
BTW, this movie is relatively short, so you could say that it has two moments that are like the 15 minute mark. Normally that would be about halfway through the opening act. With this picture, that moment is about 11 minutes in -- and that is when the lead villain enters the story. But we don't actually quite meet him. We don't know that he's the lead villain. He's just a guy in a truck with a dead deer on the front.
He doesn't speak. His sidekick steps into Spencer Tracy's path, but Tracy sidesteps them both and continues on his way.
The dead deer is clearly meant to be a symbolic detail -- a touch of extra menace in a town full of subtle menace -- but the thing that really makes it memorable and disquieting is subtle. The deer is not tied across the hood. It's tied just to the driver's side, strangely off balance like it could slide off. I suspect this is a clue to the fact that the driver here is the chief menace. Even though his sidekick is big and belligerant and more menacing, it's the driver (who at this point seems nondescript and unassuming) who is the hunter.
We meet him for real just moments later as he goes into the hotel to meet with his people. And by the end of that scene... it hits the 15 minute spot, and by golly something significant happens.
But I will tell you about that when I get to inciting incidents.
Before I get to that, however, I'd like to talk a little more about introducing characters, and how they set up the story. I was hoping to maybe do an extra post tomorrow, but the novel I've started working on is going great, so... I'm going to stick to the Tuesday schedule for these plot theory posts.
In the meantime, on Friday, I'll tell you a little about this Whodunnit/Mystery Plotting Game that seems to be working for me.
(NOTE: I posted an addendum to this post, just a quick suggestion of some books which introduce a whole community of characters.)
See you in the funny papers.