Sunday, June 15, 2008

Door Number Three - Confessions of a Plot Junkie

Great article by Bill Marsilii from the always amazingly amazing,



I'll admit it, I'm a plot junkie.

I don't make many apologies for it, but it's true. If I'm flipping channels and NORTH BY NORTHWEST is on, no matter how much of the movie I've missed, that's where I stop -- even though I own a copy on video. (On the other hand, ORDINARY PEOPLE and LOS OLVIDADOS knocked the breath out of me, so I suppose there's still hope.)

I know that many of my fellows will scoff, but I'm sorry, plot is important. As a child, I don't remember ever tugging on my parent's sleeve and saying "Mommy, tell me a character study," and the years haven't changed me much in that regard. I don't think movie audiences have changed much either.

The heartbeat of a movie usually comes from the course of events that unfold within. I don't just mean the two famed "plot points" we've all heard so much about from Syd Field, because in fact I think "something should happen" on pretty much every page of the script. This happens, which causes that to happen, which means the other thing can't happen unless somebody does something. It can be the Death Star destroying Alderaan or it can be the first time Katharine Hepburn calls Humphrey Bogart "dear," but something has to happen that changes things. Those moments of change make up the plot, and the best plot moments come as a complete surprise to us.

This article is very specifically about ways to create such moments. I don't claim to be a master at it, but I do have an opinion or two.

I can't plot out a whole movie here, so to illustrate what I'm talking about, let's consider the time-honored movie moment that I'll call the "gunshot clinch":

A Nazi soldier and a young Jewish girl are rolling along the wall, struggling over a loaded Luger when suddenly -- BANG! They both freeze.

At this point, as the writer, you stand before three doors. Three ways to go, three possible outcomes for this moment, three choices before you.

Door Number One is the obvious choice: the Nazi's eyes bulge for a moment and he falls dead to the floor. That's the choice we've all seen a million times, the one that gives us the outcome we want. By making the obvious choice, you're giving us what we want, but you don't surprise us in the least. We expected that to happen.

Door Number Two is the dreaded choice: the girl's eyes bulge and she falls dead to the floor.

Were we surprised? Yes, we were surprised -- we did not expect that to happen. But we didn't expect that to happen because we didn't want that to happen, and therein lies the danger of choosing Door Number Two. You want to surprise people, but not at the price of making them angry at you.

By way of example, I remember that I was interested in seeing CLIFFHANGER until my friends warned me away from it. "Why?" I asked them. "Do the stunts look fake, is there not enough action, is Stallone bad in it?"

And every one of them said the same thing: they hated the fact that it's a movie about innocent people getting killed over and over again. Whenever the plot gets slow, a pair of innocent bystanders or a nice old man wander into the story so that -- surprise! -- they can get machine-gunned to death in slow motion.

The opening sequence ticked everybody off -- a female climber hangs onto Stallone begging for her life, screaming "I don't want to die!" while Stallone promises her, "You're not -- gonna -- die!"

Well she dies, screaming all the way down.

The best of us have tried this, only to meet with a similar fate. In his book "Adventures in the Screen Trade," William Goldman describes the audience's reaction to Susan Sarandon's death in THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER: "After the buzzing ended, there was silence in the theater. But not the silence of a group held in suspense. No. They were furious. They felt tricked, they felt betrayed, and they hated us."

This is Door Number Two, the dreaded choice. It will surprise the audience, but not because they never would have expected it -- it will surprise them because they never would have expected that you were that cruel. And once they've come to that opinion, unless they're watching a horror movie, they're not likely to forgive you.

(And even then it's a gamble... Siskel and Ebert went off on an incredible tear over THE HITCHER. Siskel claimed "You'd have to be subhuman to like this film," mostly because of a scene in which -- surprise -- C. Thomas Howell fails to save Jennifer Jason Leigh from being torn in half by the villain's truck.)

Lest you think me a wimp about screen violence, I should point out that it's not always blood and death behind Door Number Two. Door Number Two leads anywhere an audience doesn't want you to take them. At the end of PRETTY IN PINK, Molly Ringwald has to choose either Jon Cryer, the nerdy best friend who has loved her all his life, or Andrew McCarthy, the rich snob who dumped her just before the prom because his friends said she wasn't cool. Cryer was Door Number One, McCarthy was Door Number Two.

Well guess what: she dumps Cryer at the prom and leaves with McCarthy. Unexpected? Absolutely. Surprising? No question. And the audience I saw it with booed their final kiss right off the screen.

My advice: Stay away from Door Number Two.

So what's left?

Let's go back to that Nazi and our young heroine wrestling over the Luger. BANG! They suddenly freeze.

Door Number One is the obvious choice: dead Nazi.

Door Number Two is the dreaded choice: dead girl.

What's left?

Door Number Three -- the choice that truly surprises us without disappointing or enraging us.

I'll illustrate by using a Door Number Three that we've seen too often already. Namely --

BANG! They suddenly freeze. The girl's eyes bulge. The Nazi smiles and begins to laugh.

Then -- surprise -- the Nazi falls down dead!

Actually, that surprise should say "Copyright 1946" because it's been about that long since it worked. But it did work once, and that's why people keep using it. That's why all clichés survive: they worked once.

The reason it originally worked brings me to a discussion of three ways you can craft a Door Number Three. First...

Combine Doors One and Two

We're afraid the girl will get shot, but we expect that she won't, so that last example combines them -- she and the Nazi react as if she did get shot (Door #2), scaring us for a moment, until the Nazi falls down dead (Door #1), relieving our fear. It's the surprise combination of the two that makes this Door #3.

This is generally a better way to go, but as we've said the example above is not going to surprise anyone. The gunshot clinch has ended this way a thousand times already.

So how will we surprise anyone with this gunshot moment?

This is one of my favorite solutions to almost any plot problem, because it doesn't appear to be a solution at all...

Make it worse

When a situation is so bad that an audience can't see a way out of it, the last thing they expect you to do is make the situation even worse.

I think James Cameron is a great master at this. ALIENS had an incredible sequence in which Ripley and the little girl Newt wake up to discover that an alien face-hugger is loose in the room with them.

This is bad. First thing Ripley does is reach for her gun.

It's gone. That's worse.

She and Newt try the doors -- they're locked in. It can't get any worse.

But yes it can -- Burke (the Paul Reiser character) shuts off the monitors so that no one can hear their cries for help. Mere moments after that, the creature leaps onto Ripley's face, wraps its tail around her neck and begins clawing at her head. At this point Ripley's screaming, Newt is screaming, the whole audience is screaming -- this cannot possibly get any worse --

-- so of course that's when a second facehugger climbs into view about two feet behind the little girl's head and goes after her.

BANG! They both freeze, the Nazi's eyes bulge. Looks like Door Number One...

Then A SECOND BANG! The girl jerks violently -- and they're both shot now. The Nazi grabs onto her, pulling her down as he falls, they fall to the rug, bleeding. She rolls out of his grasp, clutching her abdomen, begins crawling for the phone, he grabs her ankle. She screams, he pulls himself up onto her, she tries to reach the phone cord, he starts strangling her, blood everywhere, he's on the verge of passing out, she's on the verge of dying...

Now, if the girl dies, it's Door Number Two... but she doesn't have to die anymore to surprise us.

We've combined Doors One and Two (they both got shot), and now we've made it even worse (she's dying and the guy's trying to strangle her before she can call for help). Whatever happens next -- she hits him with the phone, he faints first, whatever -- it's okay. She's already earned a happy ending. We've been surprised, now we want to be satisfied. For God's sake, save her!

(And after you do save her, don't make a sequel where she gets killed off under the opening credits, okay? 'Cause if you do, I won't go and neither will any of my friends...)

When in doubt, try real life

If you really want to surprise an audience, though, try having your character do what a real person would do. Not what a real person would do "in a movie", but what a real person would do in real life. Say you, for example.

"But we're not talking about a real person," you might say. "We're talking about a Nazi." And the moment you say that, you rob your story and your audience of something that could be astonishing.

BANG! They both freeze. Suddenly the Nazi steps back in horror, terrified that maybe he's shot the girl, asking is she all right, is she hurt, looking her over... The girl is astonished -- no she's not hurt, yes she's sure -- then she notices that in fact the Nazi is bleeding. But the fact that he didn't even look at himself, that his stern demeanor melted the moment he thought he'd actually hurt someone, tells this girl all that she needs to know: this man doesn't want to be a Nazi anymore. There's still hope for his soul...

But only if he survives the gunshot wound. He collapses, looks up at her, tells her to leave through the back way, if anyone sees that he's wounded she'll be blamed. Gasping, he promises to wait a few minutes before calling for help, then waves her off... go, go.

Then he passes out, still bleeding to death...

Let's go with that one! Great, we've surprised ourselves with the outcome of the clinch -- but that's led to another plot problem:

What will she do now? Is she just going to leave him there? Whether she's bleeding under a dying Nazi or wondering whether to save one, she's got a brand new problem.

Good! That's what makes it a plot. This happens, which causes that to happen, which means the other thing can't happen unless somebody does something.

So what happens next?

At this point, as the writer, you stand before three doors. Three ways to go, three possible outcomes for this moment, three choices before you.

If the Nazi pulls through on his own, it's Door Number One.

If the girl lets him die or gets killed herself, it's Door Number Two.

If she tries to save his life, though, if she manages to get him out the door and past the guards and past the neighbors to her own house, where her father the doctor-who-hates-Nazis has been hiding, it's going to take superhuman strength and will on her part and a great deal of ingenuity on your part.

But that's what's always behind Door Number Three: ingenuity.

Guess which one the audience wants to see?



Brian M Logan

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