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Don Draper: Tony Soprano in a suit.

October 19, 2010

Long time no post, busy an’ all that etc., but Mad Men is such an important part of the week in our household the season four finale seemed like a good excuse for a new post.

Season four has been outstanding, with only a couple of episodes falling short of excellent, but the finale itself I found a little disappointing. On reflection, that is probably not because the episode itself was lacking, but because I was disappointed in where the character choices took the story and what they meant thematically.

Specifically, Don’s choice — and this season really has been all about Don.

Season four thematically has been about change — how people have respond to change in their lives at a time when the world around them is changing very rapidly. Some have resisted change, Roger Sterling sulkily pretending it’s not happening, Betty Draper regressing so that she has become more child-like, incapable of empathy, than her own children. Peggy Olson has most exposure to the changes happening outside the office and appears best equipped to overcome her conservative instincts and move with the times.

Don himself has been on very unstable ground this season and has been plagued by self-doubt, leading to intense and painful introspection. Towards the end of the season, in his relationship with Dr Faye Miller, he has shown signs of emotional growth with the real possibility that he may be able to shake off his past and find some degree of personal contentment and happiness.

But Faye’s farewell as Don headed to California for the weekend held the promise — or threat — that he still faced a testing personal journey on his return, albeit one which she would accompany him on.

With that prospect looming over him, cheered on by the California sun, Don takes the easy option and declares his love for his secretary Megan. He opts for self-delusion over reality, chooses the illusion of instant happiness over the difficult path of striving for meaningful self-knowledge and real happiness.

As the episode closes, back in his Manhattan apartment, Don gazes out of the window into darkness as Megan sleeps sweetly beside him, and we know it is a choice which will cost him dearly.

And it also brings Don full circle back to where he started out years before with a pretty young wife — Betty Draper — and a life of secrets and lies.

Before Mad Men, series creator Matthew Weiner worked under David Chase on the Sopranos, and with the close of season four, in his leading man¹ has drawn the same conclusions as Chase famously did with Tony Soprano — that people are incapable of change.

¹Don Draper is the lead character in Mad Men, but for me Roger Sterling has always been the star of the show.

Whose emotion is it anyway?

June 15, 2010
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There can be few more frustrating reader comments than I didn’t really connect with the story emotionally. Give me some plot holes to fill any day, anything but some intangible touchy-feely emotional problem. If you can barely pin it down, how to fix it?

Please note, Dear reader, lest it seem I claim to know what I’m talking about, these are notes to myself, and when I say “you” I really mean “me”. And in this post I’m only going to cover the basics. If I come up with any more specific advice, I’ll let myself know.

First up: before getting bogged down in the details, sweat the big stuff.

As Bill Martell said the other day:

…the big problem with so many films ends up being basic screenwriting stuff. Those are the lessons that most need to be learned… even by pros!

The basics are just that: basic. But they’re easy to lose sight of when you are in the trenches, knee deep in mud and blood and shit and piss looking for the emotional heart of your story. Or maybe that’s just me and my desk.

I don’t remember where I first read it, but I last read how to distill everything you really need to know about screenwriting into three questions at John Roger’s Kung Fu Monkey blog:

First off, a quick reminder: the only eternal storytelling hard-and-fast truth is that there are three questions every story must answer.

1.) Who wants what?
2.) Why can’t they have it?
3.) Why do I give a shit?

The sequence approach to giving a shit

It seems to go without saying that the emotional heart of the story must lie somewhere in step 3, but that neglects the key role steps 1 & 2 play in drawing us into the story and connecting with the characters, particularly the main character.

Mea culpa — I’ve done it myself, and recently, focused so intently on my characters’ motivations, backstory, transformation, favourite pizza toppings, that I’ve neglected to adequately communicate who the story was about, what they wanted, and what was stopping them from achieving it.

If you get feedback saying the reader didn’t really connect emotionally with the characters, this should be your first port of call, because we are more likely to emotionally connect with a character if we are rooting for them to achieve something (or, conversely, hoping the smug fucker gets that smirk wiped off their face.)

“You’re either with me, or against me.” Good. As long as I’m not indifferent to you.

This talk of emotions, we need to clarify just whose emotions do we mean?

Well we know that emotion is grounded in character, right? So, we’re talking about the characters’ emotions, yes?

No.

The emotions we need to worry about are those of the audience (or reader).

They may be aligned with or in opposition to those of our characters, but emotional characters do not necessarily mean an emotional audience.

An extreme example of the disconnect between the emotions of a character and the reader is if the character dies, he ain’t feeling much emotion anymore, but hopefully the reader will be feeling it in spades. Although we can do better than hopefully, because we are the architects of our stories.

So, we are not talking about characters displaying their emotions, but about provoking an emotional response in the audience.

It stands to reason that a bunch of teenagers emoting about the sudden and unexpected death of their parents has got to be emotional, right? Tears, frustration, anger? For them, yes, but not necessarily for us. Put that scene at the start of your story and it will leave us cold: Sorry, it’s not that I don’t care, I just don’t know you, and you are a work of fiction. There may be good reasons to have such a scene at the start (a good opportunity to establish character and smuggle in exposition for the story that is set to unfold, for example), but creating an emotional response isn’t one of them.

But put the exact same scene late in the story, it may well have us in tears, leave us angry and frustrated, if we have travelled on a journey with them, become invested in them, learned something beyond the generic about their relationships with their parents, with each other. We will by then feel what they feel, and perhaps more, with the benefit of the larger picture they are not privy to.

That example, about responding to extreme loss, is a typical one that comes to mind when thinking of emotional scenes. But of course there is a whole gamut of emotions to explore, positive (joy, love, hope) as well as negative (fear, disgust, hate).

And if we want emotionally resonant stories, the more emotions the merrier, right?

Ermm, not exactly.

If all of your characters are emoting all of the time, it will quickly become a big fingers-down-gullet turn-off for your audience (especially for British rather than American audiences, who lap up all that love-you-son, love-you-mom! crap. Probably.)

If you try the scatter-gun approach to stimulating the emotions of your audience, you will like-as-not confuse them or simply miss the target altogether. Sticking with this metaphor, a weapon with a telescopic sight will serve you better. Pick an emotional colour, any colour, and explore that in detail.

Robert Plutchik has handily produced a visual guide to that gamut of emotions, with eight primary emotions which are the root source of most others (varying in intensity or combining with others to produce secondary emotions).

While there are other theories of emotion, Plutchik’s is practically useful, pairing the basic emotions with their opposites. So in the diagram, Joy is opposite Sadness, Trust opposite Disgust, Anticipation opposite Surprise, and Anger opposite Fear.

Rather than try and cover all bases, or octants in this diagram, stick to one axis at a time, varying the intensity of that emotion and contrasting it with its opposite. That’s not to say you can’t mix it up with different emotions at the same time, but one of them should be your primary focus. That’s particularly useful if you use the sequence approach to writing, and can colour each sequence with a different dominant emotion.

Best give light purple a wide berth, though.

Mystery Man takes his secret to the grave

June 5, 2010

Mystery Man has been silent for a long time — and now we know why. The enigmatic champion of great film-making, scourge of screenwriting gurus has smoked his last Cuban.

Scott Myers broke the news on his blog after receiving an email from MM’s assistant Rebekah.

Although he adopted his anonymous persona so that he could express his forthright opinions without having to self-censor, in the end I think he kept it up just because he figured it was kinda cool.

And what opinions he had. His was one of the first screenwriting blogs I discovered, gosh, years ago now, and it quickly became my favourite. His deep love for and knowledge of cinema shone through, and in an industry where it seems anyone and everyone tries to make a buck out of recycled ideas and theories, he was notable for his originality and perceptiveness and his generosity.

Pontificating about the film industry may at heart be a fairly egotistical pursuit (if it makes sense to talk about the ego of someone who keeps their identity private), but Mystery Man was also very active reviewing amateur scripts on Triggerstreet, no mean feat.

The original location of his blog is still active, and his final post there was a round-up of his 101 best articles (okay, modesty may not have been his strongest suit). If you don’t know him, then do yourself and your writing a favour and read them.

Would-be screenwriters need a healthy dose of fantasy to sustain their aspirations given the miniscule odds of success, and while others may in an idle moment imagine themselves endearingly fluffing their acceptance speech at the Oscar podium, I always used to imagine myself sitting alongside Mystery Man with a fat cigar and a large brandy, basking in his quiet praise. Not that I smoke, and I’m allergic to brandy. But it would be good to talk.

Not gonna happen now.

Throw away your twist endings

May 27, 2010

Jane Espenson has made a welcome return to blogging, and recently the Drama Queen has been rapping on writing comedy. In a recent post she talked about the importance of throwing away your best jokes:

I realize now that this is what my showrunner on a show called Monty meant when he told us not to put the funniest word at the end of the line, but to make sure the line continued past it.

That advice works well for twist-endings, too.

I have a finished, fairly polished draft of a short film called Auto Karma that has been sitting on the virtual shelf for a few months. A gently comedic morality tale with two strong roles and a single location, I’ve toyed with the idea of filming it myself, but I’ve had a niggling doubt about whether there isn’t something I can do to give it a bit more I-don’t-know-what-exactly.

In its current form, it ends on the big reveal, an unexpected ah-hah! moment that delivers on the theme, and a good chuckle, too, hopefully.

But it leaves a bit of a nice, but so what? feeling, which is a common problem for shorts just a few minutes long.

It means the whole story ends and so stands or falls on the reveal. It’s a fairly blatant da, da! Aren’t I clever! sign-off from the writer, which is probably not the best way to connect with your audience.

The solution is to take the pressure off the reveal – to throw it away like one of your best lines – and write past it, to keep going and put it in its place.

What follows needs to be good, of course, just as good as all that came before the reveal, otherwise it will feel inorganic and tacked on. But when you breeze through your short story and unveil the twist, remember that the hard work is far from over, and that you need to pay-off the reveal to make the whole more satisfying.

Gene Hunt. Cop Killer.

May 22, 2010

Update: It occurs to me now that although the writers knew the ending from before the first episode of Life on Mars, the revelation of the truth about Gene Hunt creates a logical flaw that effectively invalidates the whole of Ashes to Ashes. Look back at episode one and Alex Drake knew the identities of Gene Hunt, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton before she was shot through her research into Sam Tyler’s case, and it is just not plausible that she would not have known that each of them was already dead. She would have known the truth about Gene Hunt the moment she met him. She would have been confused, but it would only have taken a little while to figure out.

So Gene Hunt killed Sam Tyler after all.

Not with a gun, a tire iron, a knife or his bare knuckles, but with what he was best known for, his core essence, the sheer force of his personality.

The bad stuff and the good stuff, the man and the monster, the bastard-nailing hard-nosed bastard, immoral man of principle who might bludgeon you with his wit or with his fists, friend or foe alike.

A man who sucked dead or dying coppers into his own particular self-created purgatory, and by dint of the fierce loyalty he inspired, kept them there in ignorance (albeit unknowingly, for the most part).

So what looked like Sam Tyler’s story (Life on Mars) and Alex Drake’s story (Ashes to Ashes) was really all about Gene Hunt. In an interview, co-creator Matthew Graham (and writer of last night’s finale) said that had always been the case, right from the get-go. The specifics of the resolution of the stories (whether Sam and Alex would live and return to the present day, whether they would die, or whether they would commit to life with Gene) were undecided and up for grabs, but the over-arching story was already determined.

The focus on Gene Hunt only really came to the fore in series three of Ashes to Ashes, with the key dramatic question, did Gene Hunt kill Sam Tyler? And although at face value it seemed the answer was an emphatic No (and any doubts about our Gene were erased as we came to understand the significance of his final trip to the pub with Sam), on reflection the answer was a rather poignant Yes.

At the end of Life on Mars, we the viewer didn’t know whether the mysterious world of Gene Hunt was real or not. Hard to see how it could be, but Sam Tyler believed in it, so that it was oddly uplifting when he chose to reject the modern day and go back to Gene Hunt’s world – by throwing himself off the top of the hospital roof.

But now that we know the truth about Gene Hunt’s world, that decision is no longer uplifting, but is retroactively tragic, sad. The lure of Gene Hunt led Sam Tyler to kill himself. No more, no less.

How many other coppers has he lured to the same fate? We weren’t shown whether Ray, Chris and Shaz were killed outright or whether there was ever any chance that they might return to their real world. We know that Alex, like Sam, had a chance. But for Gene might she have made it back to her daughter?

I thought the denouement was terrifically well conceived and executed – but the truth does have certain uncomfortable ramifications which I’m not entirely sure were fully intended.

Still, here’s to the man, Gene Hunt, Cop Killer:

… and my personal favourite – “as nervous as a very small nun at a penguin shoot”.

Lost the plot

February 19, 2010

I miss Lost.

There, I said it.

I know, season 6 is underway, but I stopped watching at the end of season 4 (gosh, looking back I can’t believe it was only 4 seasons.) Forget what the fanboys say, the ending to season 4 was so poor¹ it was a frustration too far and tipped me over into the I-can’t-be-in-thrall-to-this-life-suck-any-longer crowd. Lost’s magic has always been a little tarnished by its frustrations. The weirdy-beardy shenanigans, the ghosts, the polar bears, the time warps etc., they are not why people tune in – I’ve now come to realise. Sure a lot of people get a kick out of trying to second-guess the ins-and-outs of what is really going on, but they wouldn’t bother if it weren’t for the terrific characters.

It’s said that if you have great characters people will forgive you a lot – and I think Lost demonstrates that’s right. Now, as an unknown would-be writer you need to be firing on all cylinders, getting everything right. But the one thing you absolutely have to nail is making characters that people want to spend time with. I miss Jack, Kate, Sawyer and the rest. I don’t miss some of the silly stuff, but I will be firing up the DVD to see how they are getting on. There’s an emotional attachment here, something the writers of Lost have mostly been very good at nurturing, and a key lesson for my own writing.

There has been quite a lot of new or returning TV to catch up on recently, a fair amount of it good, and it’s the characters and the emotions they illicit in the audience that mark out the more successful ones. Being Human was an unexpected treat in its first series. Like Lost, the premise marks it out as inherently silly, but it was charmingly so. But the second series has struggled, partly, I think, because of a lack of focus, but perhaps more importantly, because the quirks of the characters have been pushed too far so that they have surpassed endearing and become irritating. So that has fallen into the maybe-I’ll-watch-it-in-the-summer-when-there’s-nothing-else-on folder on the PVR.

Caprica has been a disappointment so far. It’s early days, but I only have so much time for TV. Battlestar Galactica was thrilling and intriguing right from the get-go, and Caprica, well, it isn’t. Some of it is very well done, I love how Zoë’s avatar has ended up in the prototype toaster. But, for me it has two big problems, enough for me to turn off for now. The Adamas-as-wannabe-Sopranos (who look more like they belong in a grown up version of Bugsy Malone) look and seem ridiculous. The steampunk-lite mix of the old and the very new, I personally find it very jarring as employed here. The other problem is the amount of screen time given to the new religion.

A non-religious audience can buy-into a story about devout worshippers of Christianity, Islam etc., because, whether we are believers or not, these religions and their reach and effects are very real and tangible, and all but the most ardent-atheist probably harbours a smidgen of doubt about things spiritual. But a fictionalised religion that we know to be completely fabricated. Humph. Spend too much time with it (as Battlestar Galactica sometimes did to its detriment) and it becomes silly and you start to take the viewer out of the story. Better get in and out of the religious parts of the plot much more quickly and move on. I put Caprica down as an example of how good characterisation on its own is not enough, when the other flaws are too deep.

Back to characters and emotion, I’ve only seen the pilot so far of Life Unexpected, but it does what American shows seem able to do effortlessly, push the right emotional buttons to have you caring about these people within, what, fifty minutes? Yes the child is a little too precocious, and, yes, she doesn’t look like she could be the offspring of her purported biological parents, but, hey, you can forgive these things, it’s character that matters, whatever their hair colour.

¹ Why, or rather, how did season 4 end poorly? Because, with the benefit of flash forwards we had been told pretty much everything that was going to happen as they got off the island, and the two-hour special finale was just a procession, as if we’d been shown all of the floats on the parade before they set off and we knew exactly what to expect. Even the big reveal at the end – it’s John Locke in the coffin! – was undramatic. We knew it was one of a handful of characters, and we knew that’s what the episode would end on, and there was no dramatic context to make a judgement about it. Anyway, enough. You’re forgiven.

Avatar – third person 3D

December 24, 2009

It don’t happen very often – seeing a film in an actual cinema – but the stars aligned and we managed to see Avatar in 3D. Woo-hoo. Terrific spectacle, a lot has been said already about its technical merits and about how story plays second fiddle, and I’ve not much to add other than to say I enjoyed it and was more than happy to pony up for tickets and popcorn. You can see where the money went, and my bum didn’t get sore.

Though my eyes were a little fatigued, maybe.

This is the first time I’ve seen a modern generation 3D film with polarising lenses rather than the old red and green specs, and the technology has come on leaps and bounds – as it is wont to. None of the old colour bleeds, everything really crisp and convincing. Almost too convincing.

Traditional, ie 2D, cinema is not immersive visually – our brains are never really kidded into thinking what it sees is anything other than images played out on a flat screen. Depending on the particular shot, some of the image will be in focus and some of it blurred. Typically the actor will be in focus and the background blurred, for example, and this allows for the director to direct our attention to particular objects or areas on the screen by adjusting the focus. Commonly, the focus might be on one actor speaking in the foreground, and the focus shift to another actor in the background for a reaction shot without requiring a cut. Our eyes track these changes in the focus depth.

But the 3D technology used in Avatar is so convincing that our brains are tricked into thinking that we are almost a part of the world displayed before us. But this is not first person 3D, it is third person 3D. James Cameron and his team went to enormous length and expense to create a rich world for the story – but for every frame, whether shot with real cameras or CGI – they still have to specify the focus depth, to guide what we are – or should be – looking at.

The disorienting part of the experience is that we may not want to look exactly where the director intends us to look, while some character is talking we may be looking around at the exquisite detail in the background. But when we look away from the character to this other object, we expect it to come into focus as things do in real life. But it doesn’t respond. It’s as if someone else is driving our eyes, or we seeing the scene through someone else’s eyes, some Avatar’s, indeed.

I don’t know what the significance of this is creatively, it is just what struck me most about the experience of watching the film in “3D”. True 3D, or first person 3D as I’m describing it, where you are free to look around and the images respond as you would expect them to, as in real life, will presumably be the next stage in 3D technology, some way off in the not-too-distant future. They’ll have to come up with some fancy name for it, like, I dunno, a hologram or something.

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