Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Story Part 1

Before I get started, I want to dedicate this post to Victorine E. Lieske. Much like the super-awesome Karen McQuestion, she's been sharing a lot of publishing information on her blog, and it's frequently fascinating. Read her stuff.

(Seriously. Here's her write-up on how to create a press release. So useful.)

Okay, story.

Here's the first thing I always ask my students: What makes a good story?

Usually, at this point I have to qualify what I mean a little bit. When I talk about the story in a movie, I'm not talking about, say, a movie that puts together a thoughtful dialogue on the human condition.

I am, for better or worse, talking about a general-audience popular movie, like "Star Wars," or "Toy Story," or "Terminator." They all have philosophical points, yes, but for the most part, they are good stories well-told.

I'm going to semi-steal the idea of good story from a speaker I saw, whose name escapes me. If I remember it, I'll cite it here later.

And to be fair to him (and me) I've modified his definition a touch:

A good story follows a character you find interesting through a series of greater and great obstacles, until your character wins.

Now, if you're writing a story with a sad ending, well, then your character doesn't win. But most of the time, if you want a lot of people to see your movie, your character has to win.

Sometimes, you can make your character both lose and win. Indiana Jones, for example, finds the Ark, but then it's tucked away where no one will ever look at it again.

You should also note that I don't say you have to like the character in question. I can't say that I really "like" any of the characters in "Pulp Fiction," or "Fight Club." But I find them interesting enough to follow them around.

There are other aspects to a good story, as well. If a character can learn something about themselves, or the world at large, that's awesome, especially if it can make the audience think in new ways.

But James Bond has cycled through a lot of movies and learned pretty much nothing. He is just an interesting person who overcomes obstacles.

Okay, so now that we know what a story is (for certain versions of the word story), the next question is, how do you assemble a story?

Here's where I have to get into something that annoys me: The Three-Act Structure.

TAS, as I'm going to call it, because I don't like typing it over and over, is one of those things that just about every screenwriting book emphasizes, because they have to tell you SOMETHING.

It's not really a new idea, as from everything I've read, it goes all the way back to the Greeks. Essentially, it breaks the story down like so:

1st Act: Chase Character Up a Tree

2nd Act: Throw Rocks at Character

3rd Act: Character Knocks Tree Over on Top of Villain

The biggest advocate for this was a guy named Syd Field, who for a long time was THE reference point in Hollywood. (These days I think the book Story, by Robert McKee, has eclipsed it.)

I have no real feelings on McKee, as I haven't read his book. I have read Field's book, and I thought most of the ideas in it were obvious at best and questionable at worst.

If you really want to read a book on screenwriting that talks about three act structure, I prefer Lew Hunter's book, "Screenwriting 434." Why? Lew has actual writing and producing credits, something Field lacks.

The thing is, I don't think that the structure is wrong, per se. But I think it does make people new to writing attempt to conform to a template that doesn't always fit what they're trying to do.

Instead, I tell my students (and anyone else who asks) that as long as their character is always facing a new and difficult challenge, their story will always be interesting and have a clear thread the audience can follow.

You want that.

More in Part II, tomorrow.

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