Plot Development (Part Two)
INDUCING REALITY The Holy Grail of Storytelling
by Ken "frobber" Ramsley
THE STRUCTURE OF THE STORY
All complete stories exhibit two principal aspects: an underlying dramatic structure which contains the story's inherent meaning and a secondary meaning which is created by the manner in which that structure is presented in words and symbols. In practice, neither aspect of story can exist without the other, for a structure which has not been made tangible in some form cannot be communicated.
The Art of Storytelling
Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley
BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END
Aristotle had a lot to say about structure in stories, and in a nutshell it comes down to this: Stories should have a beginning, middle, and end. Of course, what we create in each section, and how these pieces are used to build the story requires a little more development. So, as Aristotle advises, I will start at the beginning...
We, the movie audience, or the reader, or the game player have just paid our 10, 20, or 60 bucks -- and now before us lies the unknown. Someone may have already told us about the story, but even still we hardly have more than a passing sense for who these characters are and why this story is about them. The trailers for the movie, the artwork on our book cover, or the details of our CD case are just teasers to pique our interest. And even if someone were to sketch out the whole story for us, we still have yet to experience it for ourselves.
As a writer, on the other hand, I know my story inside and out, and for a long time one of my big worries was how the audience, or reader, or game player might see through the whole thing -- especially if I dropped too many early clues. But I have since discovered that you can't drop too many clues in the first scene --the prologue-- because the audience has no idea at this point what anything means. The writer could even show the very last scene of the whole story as the prologue (like you see in many trailers), and nobody would know enough to understand that the beans had just been spilled. Rather than keeping the audience in the dark. The very first step in any story is to show exactly what will happen, why it will happen, and who will be in the middle of it.
But this does not mean that the prologue must say this directly (although it could). For the first scene, the writer usually picks some smaller metaphor which has the same premise, symbolic elements, and resolution as the main events of the story. For example, the introductory scene for Men in Black has the camera following a meandering dragonfly as it wanders through various desert perils only to be squashed on the windshield of a van-load of illegal migrant workers. Perfecto! That is exactly what happens in the rest of movie -- a "bug" alien wanders around metropolitan New York avoiding one peril after another (being hunted by MIB), then winds up squashed in the end. Whether the audience realizes this or not, they just saw the whole movie during this three-minute prologue. Are they upset about this? Of course not -- because they have no idea yet what it means.
Think about how many stories start with the final climactic scene then work backwards from there using flashbacks? The movie Ghandi starts this way -- with his murder. But rather than spoiling the end, it sets up the whole story. If there is no way to create a convincing metaphor like squashed dragonflies, this is certainly a valid way to start your story -- or any other scene for that matter. Anything can be used for an introduction, so long as it's a short snapshot of what will be happening in the rest of the story.
Remember: In the beginning, you can not possibly spill the beans.
The next step is stating the premise in no uncertain terms. In Men in Black, as soon as the dragonfly is smashed on the windshield, we are immediately shown how there are aliens on the Earth -- and not just the regular sort that the U.S. government tries to keep south of the border -- but the kind from outer space. Act 1, Scene 2 -- here it is, right in our face, with no dithering around the point: Space aliens really do exist, they live among us, and because size does not matter, they fit right in -- and that is the premise of this story. Or put another way, everything you read in the tabloids is true.
As this second scene develops, the point is driven home in every way possible. Nothing is wasted. Even the metaphor of migrant "alien" workers comes into play when the van is discovered by the U.S. border patrol. One of the aliens hiding in the van really is an alien, and there is no doubt left about where the movie is headed after this space creature gets smeared all over the desert.
Is what the tabloids say about aliens true? It is starting to look that way. Of course we haven't seen any tabloids yet, so this particular connection is yet to be made. But the splash has stated the point, and now it is just a matter of filling in the pieces by saying this same thing again in other ways.
NAILING THE MAIN CHARACTERS
In the second scene we see K acting really cool in a tense situation. In fact he's about as cool as they come, maybe even a little cooler than he would like to be. Also from this scene we can gather that K's job is to track down aliens who violate the terms of their visas on earth, and based on the performance of his elderly partner we can also understand how K might be looking for someone new to train in this profession.
Enter James -- soon to be "J." We meet him as a young New York City cop chasing somebody on foot. In fact, the somebody is really fast and able to jump to the roof of a building no less! But James runs him down anyway in the old-fashion human way -- finally cornering what is clearly an alien disguised as a human. Are we convinced that James is an amazing human? Yes. Is he resourceful? Absolutely! Is he funny? That too, especially when he jumps from a bridge into an open-top tour bus with the excuse of how it's "just raining black people in New York!" In less than two minutes we already have a feeling for this guy's inner strength, determination, and total incapacity to give up.
Next we meet Edgar (and the bug) in no less of a memorable way. The bug's spaceship crash lands into Edgar's pickup truck and when Edgar, shotgun in hand, swaggers out to investigate, the bug steals his skin. Although the bug character could have started then, the real Edgar is almost as annoying and conceited as the bug itself -- so no moment is lost in developing the bug's character.
In less than twenty minutes, we have a clear picture of K, and J, and the bug, and now the meat of the story can begin.
THE MEAT OF THE STORY
This is usually what screenwriters call the beginning of Act 2, and it is almost always the hardest section to write. The writer has stated the premise and created a splashy entrance for the main characters. Now what? The answer is that you do it again, and again, and again -- while bringing the protagonist and antagonist into closer conflict.
At first, J and K only encounter the small crater made by the bug's spaceship. The spaceship is gone, and so is the bug in its Edgar suit. But evidently, this is no mystery to all the of other aliens on the Earth who are leaving in droves. Something is up -- a major war perhaps. And in this way, once again we hear evidence of the premise --Aliens are on the Earth-- because otherwise none would be leaving now!
In fact, by leaving Manhattan to reach their various jump points, the aliens violate their visas -- and this finally draws the attention of MIB. The aliens know something that they don't -- the Earth is about to be blown to bits.
What do the tabloids tell us when we're standing in the supermarket check out line? Don't they often predict how the Earth is about to be blown up by some pissed-off aliens? This point is made again and again in the movie -- especially when the aliens who work for MIB start packing up.
Finally, after a series of gags along these lines, the premise is laid at the audience's feet in no uncertain terms, when, to the utter amazement of J, K consults a news stand for various tabloid headlines -- "the most authoritative reporting on the planet," he deadpans. That's when I fell out of my chair -- perfecto, again!
Okay, we've got it -- the tabloids are true. Aliens do exist. The Earth is minutes from doomsday on a regular basis. Even, Silvester Stallone is an alien! But now what?
As I wrote last time, the story can not end until the protagonist defeats the antagonist in some fitting way. And this happens in Act 3.
ACT 3 - THE PAYOFF
Throughout Act 2, the protagonist (both K and J) come into increasingly closer contact with the antagonist (the bug). Each time they get closer to stopping him, and each time he gets closer to his own quest of stealing the "galaxy." Finally, the bug grabs the galaxy, takes off in a spaceship disguised as a 1964 Worlds Fair sculpture and is shot out of the sky by K and J.
Now the finale can take place -- the bug is furious, so much so that he sheds his Edgar suit and for the first time we see the thing for what it is -- a 20-foot tall bug monster (remember size does not matter), and now the fight is on to keep the giant bug from climbing aboard the second of the two spaceship sculptures, thus leaving for good (with K and two blaster weapons in its stomach to boot).
Here again J shows us his unwillingness to give up. He confronts the 20-foot beast with useless sticks, a lot of mouth, and finally just the right amount of resourcefulness -- confounding the bug long enough for K to retrieve their weapons. If not for the first scene where James chases the amazing alien on foot, we would never have bought this final sequence.
So how does it end? Most fittingly. The bug gets squashed, just like the dragonfly was squashed in the prologue. In fact, every story should be this clear. We, as the audience, should always know what is coming at the end on some level, because what happens at the end of the prologue should always be what happens at the conclusion of the whole story.
Is there any doubt that the tabloids are true? No!
Has the bug been squashed? Yes!
So the story is over, and now let's get to the credits as fast as we can.
The story is over, but sometimes there are a few loose ends worth tying up. That is the point of an epilogue. Nothing major should happen. Also, it should only tie the most interesting loose ends, since nobody expects everything to be cleaned up. And lastly, it is best to keep it short, or leave it out altogether unless a loose end is crying out for resolution. Audiences don't want to hear anything addressed at this point except their burning questions.
You may have already noticed that I am using the same story-telling structure in this essay. This section is my own epilogue. Here I will capture some of the loose points that would have been a distraction had I pointed them out in the main body of the text.
- Use foreshadowing as much as possible, For example, K tells J "never to press the red button unless I tell you to." So it's pretty obvious that at some point K will ask. But if we had not already been told how is was for a very special occasion there would have been no emotional setup and payoff when the time comes to use it.
- The crucible for this story is combination of the New York City area (aliens are only allowed in this zone since this is the least likely place for them to be noticed), and also how the story is bounded by the Archelien ultimatum to return the galaxy within one galactic week (one hour). So the story can not wander much geographically, and certainly can not go on for very long.
- Notice the arching. The orderly MIB headquarters gets trashed. The bug transforms from something resembling a human to a 20-foot-tall monster. K finally gets his dream to quit. The pathologist becomes human. Edgar's wife gets her life back. J gradually gets a handle on this alien thing and earns respect from the big boss, Zed. And that damn bug finally gets squashed! Who among the main characters is left unchanged? No one. Even the Earth-like Unisphere sculpture gets flattened! But the real Earth --the one we never knew was in danger-- is saved again just like described in the tabloids. And as far as the planet is concerned, besides a few MIB agents and a few more aliens, nobody ever knows the difference.