Friday, June 13, 2014

Establishing the Rules

The audience will believe anything you tell them.

At least, they’ll believe anything you tell them about the world of your story. Do people in this world break into song and dance numbers with total strangers? Are there vampires and werewolves? Do people have spaceships with artificial gravity that travel faster than the speed of light? Are there mutants who put on costumes and fight crime? Dragons and elves and magic rings?

The audience will accept all of that and just about anything else you tell them – as long as you establish these elements early. This is known as suspension of disbelief. The audience agrees to accept the fictions you present them in return for a good story. So at the beginning of your movie the audience is trying to figure out what the world of the story is and how it works.

But the audience won’t stay open to anything forever. At some point they want to feel like they understand the rules of the world. Usually that seems to happen about ten or fifteen minutes into the movie. After that, it’s very difficult to introduce new elements that are not recognizable parts of the real world that we know.

Imagine if in the middle of Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) John McLane cast a magic spell. Ridiculous, right? But we have no problem with Harry Potter using magic. It would be weird, however, if a spaceship full of aliens landed on Hogwarts campus. But in Star Wars (written by George Lucas) a spaceship full of aliens doesn’t seem the list bit strange.

Why? Because in Harry Potter we’re told right up front that this is a world with magic, just as in Star Wars we learn aliens are commonplace in the first few minutes of the movie. If at the beginning of Die Hard it were established that this is a world where wizards exist (a la Harry Potter) and John McLane was one of them, we wouldn’t blink when he cast a spell (and it would be a very different movie!)

So it’s important that, if you’re introducing any element that isn’t a familiar part of the world we know, you establish that element early. You also need to clearly define the rules of that element – and then abide by those rules. If you’re using vampires, are your vampires repelled by crosses? Do they need to be invited in before they can enter a house? How do they work, exactly?

The audience has to understand what the characters can and  cannot do, otherwise there’s no way to judge how much jeopardy they’re in. The audience also has to understand what is and isn’t possible in this world. In a world where anything can happen, nothing matters.

You need to be careful to avoid the sense that you’re “cheating.” If in act three your hero suddenly reveals a super power we never knew he had to escape a situation, the audience will feel like the writer couldn’t figure out any other solution. Audiences are savvy. They expect writers to play by the rules of the world they set out.

Sometimes, however, it’s necessary to hold off giving all the details of your fantastical element. But you still have to let the audience know something fantastical is coming and set up a reasonable arena for that element.

This is one of the reasons The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) opens with the prologue of Trinity encountering Agent Smith. Neo – and the audience – isn’t going to learn that what we perceive as reality is actually a computer simulation until over thirty minutes into the movie. If we were given no hint of this possibility, then it could seem silly when it is finally revealed.

The Trinity prologue tells the audience something is strange about this world. We don’t know what, but we are implicitly promised an eventual explanation. As long as that explanation eventually comes – and makes sense – we’re willing to go with the strangeness for a while.

Similarly, in The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan), Cole doesn’t say “I see dead people” until almost halfway through the movie. But there are hints that something supernatural is going on. There’s an important scene very early in the movie where Cole’s mother, in one continuous shot, leaves the kitchen, gets something from the laundry room, and returns to the kitchen to see all the cabinet doors and drawers opened. She asks Cole if he was looking for something, but we know he could never have done that himself in the few seconds she was out of the room. Something strange is going on – and ghosts are a reasonable explanation.

Sometimes you need to be concerned about rules even when you’re doing a realistically grounded story. This happens when you are dealing with an aspect of the world that is not completely familiar. Let’s say you’re writing about virologists fighting a global pandemic. You will probably need to explain to the audience how viruses work and what the virologists can and can’t do to fight them.

That’s because the rules aren’t about getting the audience to believe the impossible, they’re about setting out the context of the story. It doesn’t matter whether something can happen in the real world, it matters whether the audience knows it’s possible in your story world.

Though the audience will believe anything, it’s best to keep the rules as simple as possible. The more complex your fantastical element, the more you risk confusion in the audience. It’s one of the reasons filmmakers so often fall back on common mythical creatures like vampires and zombies. Even though many stories contain slight variations on the rules of those creatures, we all understand the basic concepts. It’s then easier to explain your version of the creature to the audience.

Audiences aren’t the only ones who care about the rules. Hollywood producers and development execs are obsessed with them. If you aren’t 100% clear about how your fantastical elements work, expect a lot of questions and consternation.

This can be particularly challenging when you’re pitching. You usually have to set aside a little time after you’ve given your log line to explain the rules of your world. And here’s where simplicity is again your friend. The rules are boring – they keep you from the story. If you keep the rules simple, they won’t get in the way of the good stuff.

Of course all of this requires that you know the rules of your world. If they are vague in your head they will be vague to the audience. Be specific and clear. And then let the story take over.


Note: In the comments section of my last post, How to Pitch at a Pitch Fest, Signe Olnyk clarified some ways in which The Great American PitchFest is different than previous pitchfests I’ve been involved with. If you’re planning to attend that event, it’s worth reading. Most of my advice still applies – you should be doing a short teaser pitch for an existing screenplay, and you should endeavor to create a professional impression.

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