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Monday, September 17, 2007

7 On Structure # 4: Narrative Logic

SPOILERS: SPIDERMAN and ALIEN

I've suspected for some time now that my nine year old lad is really an impostor. Approximately three weeks ago (around the time we moved, in fact) my all-rocking, Hells Angel son (he'd have a mullet if I let him - when he grows up I'm sure he will look just like the boyfriend in ERIN BROCKOVICH, or at least I thought he would, *sob*), suddenly started listening to The Prodigy instead of Tool and Nine Inch Nails and even started chastising ME for swearing. Like all good mothers however I told myself it was just a phase he was going through and I would have my foul-mouthed little baby back very soon.

Then I had it confirmed: he has indeed been captured by aliens or at least had his personality changed drastically by an unwise experiment with a power tool out in his stepfather's shed. How do I know this?

He tells me he likes James Blunt.

The shame knows no bounds. It's not that I dislike Mr. Blunt personally (except for the fact he bears an extraordinary resemblance to an Ex of mine whose eyes I would like to put in with a red hot poker), nor even the fact that I find the timbre of his voice particularly whiny (hands up whose Mum is a music teacher??). No. It's the fact that, as a screenwriter, I 100% object to the narrative logic behind James Blunt's smash hit of 2005, You're Beautiful.

Why? Well, it's not the fact that James makes stalking/obsession sound okay (you see a girl on a bloody train, go on and on about it AND kill yourself in the video? Have some self respect man!) because of course Sting did the very same twenty-odd years before him (bar the suicide if I recall correctly) in Every Breath You Take and got away with it (though I must confess I don't like that song either now you come to mention it. Let's just say I'm very hard to please.)

So anyway. What do I dislike about You're Beautiful? Join me in the first verse my friends and examine the evidence:

...She smiled at me on the subway.
She was with another man.
But I won't lose no sleep on that,
'Cause I've got a plan.


Right, okay. So He's seen this girl, she's seen him. She smiles. But oh no: she has a boyfriend already. Bugger. But hey! Not to worry, he will dispatch of the boyfriend and ensure he gets to go out with her instead. Right? RIGHT?

Oh actually-- no:

You're beautiful. You're beautiful.
You're beautiful, it's true.
I saw your face in a crowded place,
And I don't know what to do,
'Cause I'll never be with you.


But hang on one goddamn cotton-picking moment sir! You just said in the last verse you had a BLOODY PLAN. Now you don't know what to do because you won't ever be with her? WTF??? Did I miss something here - like him confronting the boyfriend, trying to win this lady's heart, what?! Where's the rest of that story!!!

But never mind. Songs do this to us sometimes - set up and then f*** up, you might say. And does it really matter when all people remember is the bloody chorus anyway? I'm always struck by how little people comprehend the meaning of songs: only the other day I heard a listener on the local station dedicate a song to her husband, the "love of her life", a soul mate whom had made her complete - her choice? Careless Whisper! A bitter song about guilt and betrayal. Hmmm.

Narrative logic in film however is more important than in songs. From the outset, you are asking your reader (and thus your audience) to suspend their disbelief and in effect, come on a journey with you. And you can do anything. Why not? I'll never forget an arthouse script I read about two years ago in which people would lie down in the road and run each other over in their cars, it was mental, but one of the reasons it worked was because it set it up from the start. And this is where narrative logic and structure are indelibly linked - or should be.

It boils down to this: if you're going to do stuff, you need to set it up. That's how you get narrative logic. However, setting up does not refer solely to HOW people get in the places or situations they are, but rather as starting as you mean to go on (more on this in the next post). Don't change the goal posts. The more mental the stuff it is you're doing, the more you need to set it up - but you'd be surprised by how many scripts there out there that start as one thing, change to another and are completely different again by the end. Genre is usually the biggest offender: I read a lot of thrillers that turn into horrors for example, or dramas that turn into thrillers or vice versa. Now, no one is saying that you can't mix genre - why not? - but if you're going to, you need to invest in a device that will set this up from the start. A lot of horror I see for example will SUDDENLY TURN supernatural, just like that. If we're dealing with the supernatural, even if we don't see it right in the very first instance, we need some clue that this is what we're going to be dealing with. One way of doing this is investing in your Arena and symbolism, as I've outlined before here.

Another way of setting up from the start to ensure smoother transitions in your structure is through your characterisation. I recall being annoyed by SPIDERMAN and Harry's character: throughout the film he had been an admirer of Spiderman's, yet when Spiderman brings Norman's body back, the first thing Harry says is not "Omigod Spiderman, what happened?", he says,"What have YOU done?" and gets a gun out of the drawer. This totally betrayed the logic of Harry's character in my view: if you admire someone, would you automatically think ill of them? After all, just because you bring a body back does not mean you killed them. But of course they needed to set up Harry as some other nemesis so they shoe-horned that in. But why not have him AGAINST Spiderman from the outset? Bizarre.

Then there is your scene construction itself - how they string together. I'm always surprised by scripts that have scenes in that seem completely "out there" in that they serve no purpose, yet clients want to keep them, usually because there is a "good line" in there. Some even make it to screen. Consider ALIEN and Ripley's visit to Parker and Brett in the steam-filled corridor where they "can't" hear her. What's that scene for? I have no idea. As Brett even says, "What the hell's she coming down for?" Apparently so Ripley can deliver the lame line, "Don't worry Parker... You'll get everything that's coming to you." Oh right, so he's going to get eaten by the big monster? This is a monster movie ffs. Everybody bar one or a few will die, so why include it?

Narrative logic. It's a killer. I think of scripts as those little tile puzzles where you have to make a picture - just one tile out of place can screw it all up and make your reader lose faith in the story. NIGHTMARE. The best specs start as they mean to go on - without becoming predictable. Yes it's as hard as it sounds. But did anyone say this screenwriting shit is easy?

22 comments:

Jason Arnopp said...

"But hang on one goddamn cotton-picking moment sir! You just said in the last verse you had a BLOODY PLAN."

You terrible woman. Almost made me burble coffee over myself. A proper 'lol' moment and everything. I could've sued!

Next time, folks, Lucy should tackle Alanis Morissette's Ironic. Don'tcha think?

Lucy said...

DISCLAIMER: Any hilarity that ensues as a result of reading this blog and results in injury of any kind is THE READER'S FRIGGING FAULT!

Honestly, heard everything now-- injury by blog!

Dragon said...

I'm going to hazard a guess and suggest you didn't approve of the genre change in "From Dusk Till Dawn".

Lucy said...

Actually, interesting you brought that up Dragon since it caused little bother to me at all: it is SO flagrant and done so obviously on purpose that it has a logic all its own in combining the talents of Tarantino and Rodriguez in such a fashion. Did I think it worked? In a sense - it was what it was, urban legend has it was two scripts stuck together. And on that basis it makes sense and is fun. Is it a great piece of storytelling however? The jury's out for me there.

lucy's ex said...

"It's not that I dislike Mr. Blunt personally (except for the fact he bears an extraordinary resemblance to an Ex of mine whose eyes I would like to put in with a red hot poker"

Not if I get you first.

Oli said...

Jeepers Creepers and Prestige spoilers below!




Watching From Dusk Till Dawn with someone who doesn't know what's coming is a joy, just for that moment.

A similar moment in Jeepers Creepers killed it dead - creepy taxidermist serial killer? Scary. Big frickin' bat thing? Not scary. I enjoyed JC 2 more for knowing it was going to be about the stupid bat thing.

In an interview about the Prestige, Jonathan Nolan says the scene where Michael Caine says that the machine actually works was them signposting to the audience that things were going to get weirder, so everyone wouldn't be totally nonplussed when the Angier clone appears.

English Dave said...

Re Mr Blunt? Okay his voice hits me like fingernails on a blackboard.

But he's talking about emotion in a 3 minute song. It's not a story. It's an emotional journey, something slightly different.
Yeah, he sees her, he wants her, he's determined to have her. Then reality sets in.

Songs can have no third act, movies can't.

Lucy said...

I have no problem with songs just being about emotions rather than whole narratives English Dave - after all, I found a place where we can boogie, FLASH: aaaah-aaaah - he'll save everyone of us - but what peeves me about You're Beautiful is that he sets it up like it *could* be a story and then leaves a big chunk out. For shame.

I suggest Mr. Blunt study the work of the great composer and storyteller Prince, in particular his seminal work Raspberry Beret.

English Dave said...

lol You are forgetting the work of Kenny Rogers with 'Coward Of The County'

Lucy said...

Aha! So ED is just a little bit country hey... The only country artiste I am aware of is Kris Kristofferson due to his work in BLADE. Marvellous.

English Dave said...

lol I'm old enough to have to have listened to that shit on TOTP. Remember TOTP? lol

As I recall he followed that up with The Gambler.

You've got to know when to hold them.
Know when to fold them.
Know when to walk away.
Know when to run.
You never count your money.
When you're sitting at the table.
There'll be time enough for counting.
When the dealing's done.


Sing along if you know it! lol.

Lucy said...

Oh dear. Quick - someone give ED a sponge bath. It's the only thing he can look forward to now he's THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FOUR YEARS OLD! ; )

English Dave said...

Three hundred and seventy three and a half I'll have you know!

lol.

Good Dog said...

Was that Kris Kristofferson singing with Rita Coolidge?

Are you sure narrative logic is a thread you really want to pull on? Just about every movie of the last thirty years will probably unravel.

Lucy said...

My mistake ED!

GD - oh ssssh you old goat. You know full well that there are SOME films from the last 30 years that have good narrative logic. Now get in the corner! ; )

Good Dog said...

Of course:

The Right Stuff
Blackhawk Down

...er, Big Trouble in Little China

David Bishop said...

"I suggest Mr. Blunt study the work of the great composer and storyteller Prince, in particular his seminal work Raspberry Beret."

Other seminal Prince songs: Cream, Do It All Night, Do Me Baby, Gett Off, Head, I Feel For You, Insatiable, It, Jack U Off, Lovin' Cup, Orgasm, Private Joy, Slow Love, and the slightly less than subtle Come.

I suggest Mr Blunt fuck off and die, but that's just me.

Jason Arnopp said...

Mr Bishop, not all of those Prince tunes were about shagging, though. Jack U Off, for instance, confronted speculation that Jack Osbourne was set to quit MTV's The Osbournes, while Private Joy was a look into the homelife of English actress, comedienne and singer-songwriter Joyce Grenfell.

Lucy said...

You see Jason it's this naivety that means you missed your chance with me all those years ago. Fool.

English Dave said...

Now get in the corner! ; )

Nobody puts baby in the corner!

Lucy said...

English... Is that DIRTY DANCING?! ; )

I never had you down as the type...

English Dave said...

I have hidden depths! lol