This month and next, as I execute a novel I've been planning for years, and which certainly feels like the most high-stakes book I've written in a long time, I am endeavouring mightily to keep at the absolute forefront of my mind, at every waking second… the core dramatic principles. Nobody does those like him, so thus to David Mamet. [Bolding mine.]
Now, in psychoanalysis, there is no such thing as accident, no such thing as coincidence or mere happenstance. Neither is there in dramaturgy.
Let's examine a perfect movie: The Lady Eve, written and directed by Preston Sturges. Great story. Why? Because we wanted to know what happened next. That is more or less the total art of the film dramatist: to make the audience want to know what is going to happen next. The garbage of exposition, backstory, narrative, and characterization spot-welds the reader into interest in what is happening now. It literally stops the show.
The essential what does the hero want, what prevents him from getting it? It begins with a premise: the hero wants something. His desire begins with the beginning of the film. His desire must be awakened by a new circumstance. That circumstance is the film… The progress of the film is her progress toward attainment of her goal. When she attains it (in the last ten seconds), the film, the story, is over.
The audience will undergo only that journey that the hero undergoes. Similarly, the audience will not suffer, wonder, discover, or rejoice to any extent greater than that to which the writer has been subjected.
These first principles were best enumerated by Aristotle in his Poetics: The story should be brought into being by a unique event, and should consist solely of the attempt of the hero to solve the problem whose appearance gave rise to the play. That's it. To correctly formulate the problem, and then to work out the solution (the steps the hero must undergo) is a daunting process.
Again, the rules of dramaturgy are few, their application difficult, their product unusual, idiosyncratic, and surprising that is to say, dramatic.
We humans delight in drama. And our need to explain the world, to understand cause and effect, that joyful, innate capacity will be exercised. We may employ it at the theater, which is only an experience of the story around the campfire; in gossip, and that formalized gossip we call "journalism"; in that particular subset of gossip known as politics; and in neurotic behavior in the home, the workplace, and the community.
The dramatist begins with a theme, or quest, and endeavors to describe its progression in ostensibly unconnected actions and images that will, at the quest's conclusion, be revealed as unified, and that revealed unity will simply state the theme, which revelation will restore order. The rules of drama are few, its practice difficult, its implications many and surprising.
Other filmmakers' pearls seldom wrong, always instructive follow:
"Stay with the money." The audience came to see the star. The star is the hero; the drama consists solely in the quest of the hero.
"You start with a scalpel and you end with a chainsaw." Don't be too nice about cutting the film; throw away everything that's not the story.
To wit, I have been told the operative premise, and I want to know what happens next. When the film turns narrative rather than dramatic, the viewer's interest is lost.
"But then the ship struck the rock and began to sink in the cold and angry sea," is better than "But then the ship struck a large, gray, wet, and ragged rock and began to sink into a frothing, viciously cold, tumultuous sea, its riptides roaring, its calmer regions full of man-eating sharks." The rule, then, in filmmaking, as in storytelling, as in writing, is "leave out the adjectives."
The film may, perhaps, be likened to a boxer. He had better not bring one extra ounce of flab on him that all the weight he brings into the ring had better be muscle. When, again, is a scene superfluous? When it does not advance the progression given at the outset as the film's purpose.
An absence of sentimentality is a great thing in a writer and separates the merely good from those who actually have something to say.
If the subject of art is not our maculate, fragile, and often pathetic humanity, what is the point of the exercise?
No one can write drama without being immersed in the drama. Here's what that means: the writer will and must go through exactly the same process as the antagonist.
It is not only unnecessary but impossible to know the answers before setting on the individual project. The writer may choose to supply stock, genre, or predictable answers to the magic questions, and the drama will be predictable and boring. The writer will have saved himself the agony of indecision, self-doubt of work, in short.
Here is the long-lost secret of the Incas. The filmed drama (as any drama) is a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal so that he is forced to the next scene to get what he wants. To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:
- Who wants what from whom?
- What happens if they don't get it?
- Why now?
That's it. As a writer, your evil inclination will do everything in its vast power to dissuade you from asking these questions of your work. You will tell yourself the questions are irrelevant as the scene is "interesting," "meaningful," "revelatory of character," "deeply felt," and so on; all of these are synonyms for "it stinks in ice."
Storytelling is the form we apply in order to understand life. It casts us, the listener, as hero of our own personal drama, as, of course, we are, and it explains that drama to us in the way nature has fitted us to understand it: as a simple honest attempt to achieve a worthwhile goal. On our way to the goal, we encounter resistance, we find unforeseen reserves of strength and cunning, we are almost undone by some evil force, and we eventually triumph. And that's it. That is all drama comes down to.
How does it go? Once upon a time, and then one day, and just when everything was going so well, when just at the last minute, and they all lived happily ever after. Period.
One crystal clear idea, superseded by another, creating expectations dashed in a logical and surprising way, thus, of necessity, propelling us into the next beat.
- Make them wonder.
- Answer the question in a way both surprising and inevitable.
Our delight in the drama comes from our momentary triumph over that ever-vigilant repressive mechanism, that distinctive, questionable human gift that, otherwise, we are required to praise: our consciousness. Participation in the drama, as in the hunt, in sex, in war, and, curiously, at the movies, regresses us to an irreducible humanity.
Over the years various journalists and other worthy folk have asked me, "Where do you get your ideas?" To which I usually reply, "I think of them." I permit myself this jolly facetiousness as the truth is, to me, more ghastly: (1) I have no idea; (2) I have so very few of them.
Dramatic structure consists of the creation and deferment of hope. That's basically all it is. The reversals, the surprises, and the ultimate conclusion of the hero's quest please in direct proportion to the plausibility of the opponent forces.
Burn the first reel. Almost any film can be improved by throwing out the first ten minutes. Exposition puts the audience to sleep sleep sleep. Get right into the action, and the audience will figure it out.
If you think that perhaps you should cut, cut. If you suspect the sequence, line is unnecessary, get rid of it. You, the dramatist, can't quite trust yourself. Err on the side of the audience… might be subsumed under the all-encompassing "Give 'em what they want."
Always leave them wanting more. One should leave the theater thinking, "I never wanted it to end," rather than, "Now I am sure I got my money's worth!"
If you can't figure out what the scene's about, it's probably unnecessary.
The film is going to tell you various things about itself, and many of your most cherished preconceptions will prove false.
If it's coherent, they will get it. The filmmaker's job is not to pander to them but to make his vision coherent.
It is the goal of the dramatist to involve the audience in the working out of a hermetic syllogism. The goal of the hero is stated, as are the impediments to that goal. The audience, then, engages its intellectual fantasies, attempting to anticipate the hero's possible solutions. Because the creators have invested time and effort, they, the audience, become emotionally involved. They root for the hero, exult at his successes, are anxious for his triumph, and suffer at his reversals.
As we have signed on for what, in Hollywood, is known as "the ride," we identify with the hero (that is what the term means: that for the length of the drama, our interests are one).
The identified-with hero becomes an object of love (how otherwise, as it is ourself?), and we want to know more about him. The untutoried mistake effect for cause. Their logical fantasy: that in the successful drama we want to know more about the hero, therefore a drama can be made successfully by telling the audience more about him. Now, the more the audience is told about the hero the more their legitimate, indeed, induced desire is gratified the less they care. For they have signed on to follow his journey in anticipation, glee, and dread. When the author indulges his ability to folic away from the described path (the path, the sole path, to which the audience has vouchsafed interest), the less interested the audience becomes.
More effective and much more difficult is the creation of a thrill by means that do not draw the audience's attention to but further enmesh the audience in the storytelling process, e.g. the surprise ending of The Sixth Sense. Here, the essential nature of the dramatic interchange to engage the audience in wondering what happens next is employed to lead them on to a surprising, inevitable, and thus thrilling conclusion.
One wants to close the circus with the quadruple somersault, not with the farting elephant.
The dramatic experience is essentially the enjoyment of the postponement of enjoyment. Delayed gratification which is to say, drama.
This last film is notable for its almost complete absence of narration which leaves only narrative. We watch in order to discvoer who the folk are, what might be their relationship, what they want, and how they are going to go about getting it.
Movies possess unlimited power to entertain. They have, however, no power whatever to teach. The audience lends its attention only for the purpose of entertainment. (The child wants his bedtime story it is an impertinence to use it as a lecture.)
Any artist of any worth is absolutely his or her own harshest critic.
Stanislavsky wrote that the last ninety seconds are the most important in the play. Hollywood wisdom casts it thus: Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.
How might one achieve this perfect completion? First the problem of the play must be concise. Then, the progress toward it must be direct and all incidents essential either in the advancement or disruption of that progress. Finally, the conclusion must be definite. These three steps are difficult to accomplish. The play is a syllogism, and to function perfectly, it must be structured perfectly. If A, then B. Each small step is essential to the clearly formulated superobjective, and the audience will follow the story, wondering what happens next.
Here the audience, if sufficiently engrossed, again, scene to scene, is rewarded in the last ten seconds by the revelatory recasting of the goal. They discover, in The Sixth Sense, that they have not been watching Bruce Willis's compassionate efforts to help a disturbed youngster with his clairvoyance but, rather, watching the youngster help Bruce come to terms with his own death.
God bless the writer who can do this, and let him or her retire, with our blessings, to the pleasures of Bel Air, whatever they may be.