Saturday, December 15, 2012

Conceptual Decisions in Elf

(Spoilers: Elf)

In the spirit of the season, I’ve decided to spend a few posts analyzing Elf (written by David Berenbaum).

Normally when I – or most other screenwriter guru types – analyze a movie, we start by diving right into the structure. However, lately several of my students have been struggling with structuring their screenplays because they haven’t really figured out the bigger conceptual ideas.

It’s really hard to know what the story structure should be until you know what the story is really about. How do you make the decisions as to what the Act One Turning Point or Midpoint are? Too often we begin the discussion of how-to-write assuming that the writer has a fully fleshed out story concept. But seldom do stories just spring to mind fully formed.

So I want to start by looking at some of the big conceptual decisions Mr. Berenbaum made. Of course I have no idea how he went about his idea development process. But even if we can’t say exactly how he made his conceptual choices, identifying those choices will demonstrate the kind of things you need to figure out in your story before you can properly break the structure.

Let’s start with the logline: Elf is the story of a human raised as an elf in Santa’s workshop who goes to New York to seek his biological father. That’s the high concept idea, the thing that sells the movie. And it suggests a lot – it gives us a good sense of the character’s external journey and a hint at where the internal journey may lie.

Again, I don’t know how Mr. Berenbaum developed the story. Perhaps he first had the idea of an elf in the city. Or a human raised by elves. Or maybe the whole premise came to him all at once. Regardless, it’s important to note that there are actually two big ideas here: 1) a human raised by elves, and 2) that character searching for his father. I find that most really good concepts are actually two big ideas put together.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment: What if the story was simply about a human raised by elves – if it left out the part about going to New York. Imagine what that movie might be. Can you imagine a good version? Did you have to add a different second idea?

Let’s consider what underlying concepts Elf’s logline suggests. First, it’s a fish-out-of-water-story times two. We have a human who is out of place in the elf world, and then an elf who is out of place in the human world.

Second, it’s about family. Buddy (the human/elf in question) is looking for his father. This dovetails nicely with the fish-out-of-water idea. Buddy doesn’t feel like he belongs at the North Pole, so he’s seeking out his human family. And, given our fish-out-of-water angle, he shouldn’t fit in well there, either.

Third, this is a Christmas story, so it ought to take advantage of the mythology of Christmas.

Now may be a good time to bring up genre, tone and rating. There are several ways one could take this concept. It could have been done as a raunchy, R-rated, anti-Christmas comedy (like Bad Santa). Or it could have been done as a G-rated, sentimental children’s adventure (like the Rudolph TV special). It might have even worked as a straight-up romantic comedy, but that would be fighting the concept. The filmmakers of Elf chose to do a PG-13 all-audience broad comedy.

So that decision influenced how they addressed the underlying conceptual elements. The fish-out-of-water element obviously has great potential for humor, and based on the tone/genre/rating choice, that humor ought to be broad, goofy and largely inoffensive. In terms of the family element, the tone would suggest a happy ending where Buddy finds a family. And in terms of the Christmas element, we would expect a positive angle celebrating Christmas as a time of love, joy, optimism and hope.

And sure enough the movie delivers exactly those things, achieving a tonal and thematic consistency. Now the structure should start to grow organically out of these conceptual decisions. I’ll look at how that happens in my next post.

Note that these conceptual decisions are the ones I encouraged writers to make in my post titled, “What Kind of Movie Is It?


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