Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Plotting Part 7 - Problems and Catalysts

(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 ImagePart 3 - Character Intros 1. Part 4 - Character Intros 2. Part 5 - Action Is Character. Part 6 - Foreshadowing. )

We're still talking about the set up portion of the standard plot formula. (Basically the first half of the first act, if you go by Hollywood formulas.)  We will move along a lot quicker when we get past this two part post, I think.  The problem here is that the opening really has a lot to do.  In some sense, it is a miniature of the whole story -- it has to set everything up.

But don't worry, you don't have to actually pack it all in there, you just have to get it started.  All the same, this is why many writers will write the opening last.  (And why others will blather out false chapters to get their feet wet, and then cut them once they know where they are going.)

So far we've looked at the whiz bang cool stuff of the opening portion of a plot -- things like the opening image and character introductions.

What I'm going to talk about today is less flashy, but more important. It's the real meat or substance of the opening of your story:

What's wrong?

Blake Snyder calls this "Six Things That Need Fixing."  The number six here is an arbitrary number.  He's just pushing the idea that you need a hit list for this section. You are setting up things to be addressed later.

I actually don't like the idea of the list, or the idea that they will be specifically addressed.  I think that pushes certain kinds of problems and action on the writer.  It is efficient, but when I look at well-done stories -- film or fiction -- I find that some of the things in this category really do resolve themselves naturally in the course of the story.

So we can call them just "Things that are wrong," or maybe even better "Things that we want to change." I say "want to" because we don't always get everything we want. 

A prime example of a problem which is not fixed is It's A Wonderful Life.  Jimmy Stewart deserves a chance to go to Europe, to study and become the best he can be.  He never gets to do that.  In this supposedly happy, feel-good holiday story, his dreams are crushed -- repeatedly.  He sacrifices those dreams for his town and his family.  If this were a "thing that needs fixing" then the ending implies it was wrong of him to have that dream. It would imply that there was something wrong with him.  (And that's actually what he comes to believe. He feels worthless and hopeless.)  But he was not wrong to want those things.  We aren't hoping for him to get a clue and stop wanting them. We want them for him.

But it is not in the power of those who love him to fulfill his dreams.  This is a sacrifice he chooses to make.  If it weren't a sacrifice, the story wouldn't mean much.

Other examples would be any great tragedy.  In any tragedy, the key thing that's wrong is the pride or prejudice of the tragic hero -- he is doomed because this cannot be fixed.

In addition to these personal problems and flaws, I've decided to also talk about the Inciting Incident, or Catalyst.  I was going to save that for a separate post, but I realize that is actually very much a part of this subject.  It is the big problem that drives the story, and it's indeed something that is wrong, and something we want to see fixed. (Even if it's a tragedy and won't be.)

The Inciting Incident

Nearly all plot theories talk about this in some way. This is the event that sets the story in motion.  It is often defined as "The Thing That Throws The Protagonist's Life Out of Balance and Forces Him to Act."

And many many theories say it's supposed to happen (in a two-hour movie) at the 15 minute mark.

But here's the thing: it almost never does happen then.  (At least it didn't until all the screenwriters in Hollywood started following the same theories too closely.)  Something happens at that moment, usually something that shifts the balance of the story into a new direction, but it generally isn't the real inciting incident.

There is one story guru who acknowledges this: Robert McKee in his giant writing book Story, says that the inciting incident must happen as early as possible, or if it has to be delayed, there should be some kind of teaser or foreshadowing incident.  He uses the example of Jaws: The story begins with an unwitnessed shark attack.

This gives us the Big Thing That's Wrong long before the characters will realize it.

And that's one of the secrets of ramping up the opening of your story: if you want to avoid boring the audience with trivia and cliched little problems, give us the BIG problem first. Set Jaws up with the shark, before we learn that the police chief is afraid of water.

So, let's start today by talking about one of the movies we talked about last time, then we'll finish up next week with a couple of others.

(NOTE: I'm sorry that I don't have any clips this week -- this section is one that very seldom get excerpted onto YouTube.)

Inside Man - Very Neat and By the Book

Spike Lee does a very efficient job of setting up the things that are wrong in his opening sequences of Inside Man.

It starts with the bank robbery -- this is the Inciting Incident.  It's what sets everything in motion. Even though we don't know who the good guys and bad guys are yet, we know that the police and the bank and the customers and the robbers all have to deal with this problem of the robbery.  This is a problem for them all, and without anything else, it's sufficient to carry the story.

So frist we meet the bank robber antagonist -- a slightly scary, precise, controlling and very smart guy.  And then the robbery itself is also smart, very controlled, and follows up on our what our robber told us at the beginning: pay close attention, everything he does is deliberate, and he won't repeat himself.

That opening robbery sequence ends with a beat cop seeing some smoke coming under the door of the bank, trying to get in, and suddenly finding himself face to face with the masked robber, who sticks a gun in his face and says "We have hostages."  He doesn't waste time. He doesn't repeat himself. He pulls back into the bank and locks the door.

This is the kind of moment that many theorists consider to be the Inciting Incident -- because it's the moment when the protagonist(s) are made aware of the problem. The conflict begins.

But we haven't reached the magic 15 minute mark, and we haven't even met the protagonist yet.

So next, we finally get to meet the protagonist: Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington).  In one very neat, compact scene we discover all that is wrong in Frazier's life: he's under suspicion of having stolen some money from a drug dealer, so even if he is not suspended, he's definitely in the dog house at work.  His girlfriend wants to get married, and he's not ready to commit.  Her good-for-nothing younger brother lives with them, causing constant stress, and it appears to be a permanent situation, because she loves her brother and Frazier won't say no to her.  So what he really needs is a promotion so he can afford to move to a bigger house to give them all some space.

And big reason he cites for not wanting to get married: he can't afford a ring. You need a diamond ring to get married.

He already knows his best solution: his own ambition. He needs to make Detective First Grade.  And as the story starts, he has almost no chance of it, with this corruption allegation hanging over his head.  All the same, he is confident he can do it. He is, in some ways, like the bank robber in that confidence.

And lo and behold, at the end of the scene, he gets the news: there is a bank robbery with hostages, and the other negotiator is on vacation, so he gets the case.

What happens at the 15 minute mark -- the thing that closes this sequence and begins the next?

Detective Frazier commits his first act of leadership: he checks on the officer who was first on the scene -- a guy who had a scary encounter with the robbers -- and not only gets his report, but asks questions to see how he's holding up, and offers to let him go home.  The officer says he'd prefer to see it through -- a sign that Frazier is building a team.

And so this set up sequence begins with the robber taking control, and it ends with the hero making his very first move to take control back.  His action irrevocably changes the dynamics of the story.  The next sequence will be about him taking over the large operation that is the police response to this robbery.

One thing I think is interesting about this story is that the inciting incident doesn't throw the protagonist for a loop.  It throws him a life preserver.  This is a positive development for him.

And that's not terribly unusual.  A variation on this happens with In the Heat of The Night, which I'll talk about next time.  Also, I'll talk about a classic movie with a very different set up structure, just to show you how you don't have to do all of these things in the opening sequence. Sometimes you can slow it down.  That movie will be the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

But before that, on Friday's Story Game, I'll finally tell you about the Map Game.

See you in the funny papers.

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