SPOILER WARNING. I'm going to discuss key points in movies and TV shows.
As we touched upon in the Monday post, your stories need to demonstrate real consequences for your characters. The world simply existing around them, no matter how unique or interesting that may be, does not a story make. Where is the cause and effect? Where is the drama?
So let's take a look at a few examples of good, and bad, consequences in film and television. Good examples will highlight how character choices should lead to new moments in the story. The bad will show the passive, reactive version of storytelling. To set the bar low, let's go with an easy one.
Basically, this entire series is a case of things happening to people, which really undercuts the storytelling. Michael Bay gets away with it because explosions. Also, he's made like a billion dollars, so maybe he knows a thing or two about the direction the industry is headed.
Anyway, we're here to talk storytelling.
You know your writing is a bit lacking when things just HAPPEN to your characters. Need to get them from point A to point B, but there's no reason? Introduce a character to the mix with all the information. Scene is getting a little stale? Maybe the bad guys show up out of nowhere.
This kind of lazy writing is unfortunately becoming an epidemic in the summer blockbuster arena. For this particular case, I'd like to focus on Transformers 3.
Patrick Dempsey--AKA my wife's third Hall Pass--plays some rich douchy guy who's name doesn't even matter. He's a sort of secondary antagonist, and his big moment comes when he helps the Decepticons launch a full-scale invasion of Earth.
For the life of me, I cannot imagine why.
This is a problem of things simply HAPPENING in your script. Why would a bad guy, even a greedy, douchy, sexy-Demspey type, destroy the very planet HE IS CURRENTLY SITTING ON?
It's bad writing. It makes no sense. It takes the audience out of the moment. There is no choice, no cause and effect, because it's so damn lazy.
Now, let's see what they could have done:
No, I'm serious. The Matrix has a great many scenes of choices and consequence. It's one of the reasons that movie resonates so well. Things don't just happened, they happen BECAUSE of decisions made by the characters. Let's look at a pivotal sequence: The Capture of Morpheus.
At this point in the film, we are knee-deep in crazy talk. Neo (Keannu) has spent a frustrating five minutes with the Oracle, walking about only confused and sporting a decidedly stale cookie (you can hear it in the crunch as he takes a bite. Come on, computer simulation. Add some butter to that recipe!)
Anyway, Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Cypher, and three red shirts head back to their hotel to go home. But...uh oh! Deja Vu? That means...
BAM! Agents coming in, supported by a full SWAT team.
Now, let's look at some key decision points and how they play out.
- Neo is told "he is not the one." This goes against pretty much everything he's been told so far, and reveals to Neo (and the audience) that this mission was a waste of time.
- Neo tries to tell Morpheus what he heard, but is quickly rebuffed. "What was said was for you alone." Morpheus doesn't know that Neo isn't the one. He is still committed to his mission.
- Deja Vu, agents arrive, led there by a traitorous Cypher. Because Cypher betrayed them, the "hard line" is cut. They can't leave the Matrix.
- BECAUSE Morpheus believes Neo is the one, and therefore all efforts must be made to protect him.
- The group tries to escape through the walls, but an Agent grabs Neo. Morpheus, believing Neo to be the most important person in history, sacrifices himself to save them. Now, we know what Neo was told, so this sacrifice (to us) is completely in vain. But to the character, this decision makes absolute sense.
There are a lot of great moments in The Matrix. There's a reason we remember it so fondly, despite the oddities that were the sequels. Characters made decisions based on their wants and needs, not just random happenstance. Let's dive into another dumpster.
The whole movie.
Seriously. The whole movie. Now, I know that it's really easy to criticize others. And I know that the writers of Hollywood's flops didn't set out to make something bad. Sometimes it's a combination of studio interference, trying to shoehorn in a franchise, and really weird choices by the crew that lead to garbage fires.
But this was really a poorly planned, designed, and executed movie. Actually, I'll take that back a step. The execution was in line with the planning. It's just that the planning was bad.
Now, this isn't a tear-down of story as a whole. This is about the choices characters make--or don't get a chance to make--and the passivity of narrative in the film. Over the course of like nine hours, the ragtag group of ne'er-do-wells basically shuffle from set piece to set piece, rarely making a choice in their direction.
- The premise of the titular squad seems to be "What if Superman was a bad guy? Who would stop him?" So it really makes no damn sense that the answer would be a psychotic ex-therapist in booty shorts wielding a baseball bat.
"What about Deadshot," you scream into the night. Well, what is his power? He's REAL good at shooting things. What is Superman's power? He's BULLETPROOF!
Rather than tear about a single sequence, let's look at decisions that had no reflection on the story or character:
- Waller Shoots Crew: Toward the end of the movie, the real baddie--Waller--is revealed to be the VIP that the Suicide Squad was meant to rescue. She's somehow teleported into the middle of this whole mess, into a secret spy lab that doesn't seem to be doing anything other than filling a plot hole with a larger plot hole. When her rescuers arrive, she murders her staff and leaves.
WTF? She works for the government. Presumably, the people she works with have the clearance to be a part of that particular task force. Presumably, they've all been briefed on what happens if they leak. What the actual F?
This scene doesn't reflect Waller's character. It's a trope that the writer had seen in another movie at some point in their life (it's a classic Pirate move; Dead Men Tell No Tales). It's dumb, uninspired, and serves to frustrate the viewer more than titillate.
This also serves to undercut the character of Flag. He's spent most of the movie berating Deadshot for being a gun for hire. A murderer. But when his boss murders people, he's okay with it. Now, that could be a statement about the shifting values of morality, based on which side of the line you stand, but I don't give the movie that much credit.
- June Moon's Butter Fingers: June Moon is, as described in the opening 30 minutes of Voice Over (Jesus Tap-dancing Christ, didn't anyone take Screenwriting 101?) is a great archaeologist. That's how she found the idol containing Enchantress in the first place. And then she breaks that shit like it's a Kinder Egg. WTF?
Now I know this is taken from comic books, so some of the origin stories are going to be a little strange, but COME ON. Archaeologists aren't all Indiana Joneses. They're slow, methodical, meticulous, and CAREFUL around ancient artifacts.
- The Character of Slipknot and Everything He Represents: "This is Slipknot, the man who can climb anything."
You're forming a squad to fight SUPERMAN. And you brought a climber? Go F yourself. What the hell was the point of that?
You want to know? The writer needed to show off the explosive neck injections, and didn't want to lose any of his main characters (because heaven forbid we lose a main character and build any F'N stakes in this film).
- The Bar Scene: Particularly the exposition-filled monologue by Diablo. He recounts his story of being a tattoo-faced cretin who murdered his family. Which, he explains, is why he has to keep calm and not use his powers anymore (despite having used them, like, five minutes ago). Harley bangs the counter and says "You OWN that Sh*t."
What? I'm sorry, are you really in the position to be giving moral advice right now, Harley? Seriously? You were JUST about to abandon everyone and run off with the Joker. How are you able to get on a high horse now?
Basically, this is a story that happens around a cast of unlikable characters. It is unfortunate, as there was a lot to be done with Harley, Deadshot, and the rest of the gang. But you can't have an ensemble troupe and then force them into situations without considering character.
Now compare that to...
Guardians of the Galaxy
Yeah. I'm going there.
James Gunn is an outstanding writer. He understand brevity and humor, how to coax the most from a character, and where to insert the drama into his comedy. His latest outing, the billion-dollar franchise of Guardians of the Galaxy, is a stellar follow-up to the original. It might lack some of the polished pacing of the first, but it moves the characters forward based on their personal motivations.
- Starlord chases after things with charming abandon, often ignoring the risk for the sake of reward. He does, though, have a line that cannot be crossed: Disrespecting his mother.
- Drax, realizing his new family means a great deal to him, tries to make their lives better at every turn. However, his inability to read situations leads to tremendous comedy.
- Rocket is worried about getting too close to people, so he pushes them back. When that doesn't work, he fights them.
- Baby Groot is the greatest thing ever.
Every moment in the film drives toward an emotional core.
- Yandu's entire relationship with Peter drives his actions with the Reavers, the Guardians, and even his choices at the end of the film.
- Starlord's love of his friends, and the memory of his mother, drive his fight with his father.
- Even Ego, played wonderfully by Kurt "My Hair is a National Treasure" Russel, is motivated by the fear that his existence is meaningless if he has no end.
When you understand your characters, their decisions never surprise you. When you have your characters make decisions, your stories are driven rather than controlling. What are some examples of choice and consequences from your favorite tales?