Monday, November 16, 2015

When to Define the Rules… And When Not to.

(Spoilers: The Star Wars movies, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Gravity, Alien, The Village)

One of the projects I’m currently working on is a script for a graphic novel. The story involves a demon with supernatural powers. I recently showed the script to my writers group for a second round of feedback. Since the last draft, I had added a prologue that, among other things, attempted to define the demon’s powers and how they worked. I got feedback that the mythology was confusing and too complex. Ironically, I didn’t get that feedback on the first draft, which had the same mythology but didn’t try to explain it. So what had I done wrong?

It’s generally accepted that you have to explain the rules of your world and any supernatural or sci-fi elements in your story. If you have a superhero movie, for example, we want to know what the superhero’s powers are. The audience needs to understand what he can and can’t do. If we don’t know that, it’s hard to understand the drama. We don’t know when the hero’s in danger. If he pulls out a brand new power to save himself from a perilous situation, it’s unsatisfying. It feels like cheating.

That theory would suggest I was right to try to explain how my demon’s powers work. But I missed two crucial nuances to the principle.

First, when we say we need to know the rules, we mean that we need to know what is and isn’t possible. That doesn’t mean we need a complicated explanation for how the magical thing works.

I made a “Star Wars” mistake. In the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V, and VI), the force was a mystical power. We got some sense of what one could do with it – the Jedi and Sith basically had telekinetic and telepathic abilities. Nobody really questioned the logic of it. But when Lucas started his new trilogy with The Phantom Menace, there was exposition that tried to explain how the force worked. It was a confusing bit of mumbo-jumbo involving tiny microbes called midi-chlorians. And the more the movie explained the force, the more confusing and unbelievable it became.

Compare that to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). In the movie, E.T. has three alien powers: he has a psychic link with Elliott, he can heal with a touch of his finger, and he has a small amount of telekinesis. All of these powers are established in the first act. This satisfies the principle of “defining the rules.” Since we see E.T. levitate the fruit in Act I, for example, we don’t question his ability to levitate the bicycles in Act III.

What we don't need to know is how E.T.’s alien physiology allows him to do these things. The explanation is simply: he’s an alien.

There’s another screenwriting principle that will help explain the second mistake I made. The principle is: coincidence that works against the main character is okay; coincidence that helps the main character is forbidden.

The theory behind this is similar to why you should explain the rules of fantastical elements. We want the hero to earn their victory, so if they’re saved by a random event, it’s unsatisfying. It seems like cheating. (Deux ex Machina endings are a specific type of a coincidence that saves the hero, and we’ve known they were unsatisfying since Aristotle.)

But also because we want the hero to earn their victory, a random event that works against them is okay, because it makes that victory more difficult. In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) almost everything that happens to thwart Ryan’s survival is coincidence, from the shuttle being destroyed to landing in a lake instead of dry ground at the end. And it certainly doesn’t feel like cheating!

Supernatural or sci-fi powers are not coincidences, but I’ve realized the same concept applies. We need to know about E.T.’s ability to levitate early on because it will be used later to save the heroes. But consider a different kind of alien movie: Alien (story by Dan OBannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon).

In Alien, the alien’s powers are revealed slowly. That’s part of the fun – watching how the characters react to each new terrible surprise. When the heroes try to cut the face-hugger off of Kane, it’s a shock to them and us that the alien has acid for blood. And then the chest-bursting scene is shocking because we didn’t know an embryo was implanted in Kane. Next, the characters try to catch the little alien with small nets, only to discover it has grown to a huge size. The movie wouldn’t be nearly so entertaining if we were shown all those alien powers up front.

The difference is that in Alien, the alien is the villain. Each new reveal of the alien’s powers puts the heroes in a worse situation. Like coincidence, it doesn’t feel like a cheat because it’s making the characters’ problems greater and therefore their ultimate victory greater.

And I do think it matters that in Alien, once the creature’s power is revealed, some science-y sounding explanation is offered – the blood is a “molecular acid” for example. When people go to a movie, they make a subconscious agreement to suspend disbelief. But that suspension comes with an expectation of internal consistency. So you can introduce unusual stuff early (like in E.T.) and the audience will just accept it, but if you introduce new stuff after Act I, you need to offer some justification.

And you can’t stray too far from what you’ve set up. In Alien, we learn early in the movie that this is a world where aliens exist. When the crew of the Nostromo receives the mysterious signal, they discuss whether it could be of "alien origin." And once we know that there actually is an alien, we imagine it probably has some unusual physiology, even if we don’t know what that physiology is. Compare that to The Village (written by M. Night Shyamalan) where the twist threw people out of the story because it was so radically different from the world that had been set up.

So I’ve learned my lesson. I’m going back to revise my graphic novel script. I won’t try to explain the demon’s powers up front, but I’ll be sure they are of an internally consistent nature. And I’ll make sure any reveals work against my heroes. Hopefully my next draft will pass muster with my writers group!


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