Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Screenwriter Secrets of Effective Storytelling!
The Structure: Ruin It For Me

There are all kinds of terms for what I'm going to discuss here. Cut To The Chase. Inverted Pyramid Structure. In Media Res.

I like to think of it as Ruin It For Me.

All these terms tell us to begin our stories as late as possible in the plot. Why? Because believe it or not, it's what we prefer in our movie viewing and novel reading (not to mention newspaper reporting and other forms of narrative.)

Warning: Possible Spoilers Ahead!
The storm and brewhaha over the latest Harry Potter book is subsiding, last week's media frenzy over whether or not the outcome of the novel was leaked is over, and the madness has moved on. For awhile there it seemed that the spoilers were going to ruin it for the true and rabid Potter fans. It just shows us how much importance we place in The Ending of stories.

This importance, though, is misplaced. For every "Sixth Sense" twist ending that lights up the zeitgeist, there are a dozens of movies and novels that don't rely on The Big Surprise to make their impact. In fact, when someone says to me "I won't tell you the end and ruin it for you," I say "Go ahead, ruin it for me."

After studying film and writing screenplays, I no longer like being tricked by the narrative. And it's gotten so that I can almost guess the ending of these kinds of plots even during the opening credits. Ten minutes into The Others I thought [SPOILER ALERT!] "Everyone's dead, and the people they think are ghosts are still alive." When I first saw a preview for The Village, I thought [SPOILER ALERT!] "They're living in an enclosed sanctuary in the 21st century."

When we're telling or writing a story ourselves, our tendency is to withhold information up front, because we think that gradually revealing it will hold the audience's interest and build suspense.

Wrong. Especially today, with lightening fast communications and busy work/life schedules. Who has time to listen to a long drawn out story?

Besides, it takes a great deal of skill, knowledge and craft to fashion a narrative that holds your interest as it slowly builds to a devastating finale. Hitchcock did it brilliantly in Vertigo. M. Night knew how to dole out the bits of plot in The Sixth Sense.

Most of us aren't as accomplished. So, the best advice to follow? We've heard it so many times before: tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them.

After all, Citizen Kane starts at the end, with Kane about to die. He whispers "Rosebud" and the movie investigates his life to find the meaning of that word. It doesn't matter that "Rosebud" turns out to be [SPOILER ALERT!] a sled. The movie's far more interesting than that. Sure, the sled is symbolic. But knowing what Rosebud is doesn't do us any damage when we watch the movie for the third, sixth, thirty-seventh, or ninety-ninth time.

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