Monday, April 18, 2016

Icebox Questions

(SPOILERS: Sweet Home Alabama, The Matrix)

When I was doing rewrites on Sweet Home Alabama, I got into an argument with the producers about a point of story logic. In the story, Melanie goes back to Alabama to secure a divorce from her estranged husband Jake. In my original spec script, Jake signs the divorce papers at the end of Act Two. The producers wanted to move that to the midpoint for valid reasons of character arc.

The only problem was, once Melanie has the divorce papers she has no reason to stay in Alabama. Her fiancé, friends, and business associates in New York are already pressuring her to get back home. Yet in the producers’ version, she would hang out in Alabama for the next couple of days for no apparent reason. The producers argued that the audience won’t notice or care. I wasn’t so sure.

The producers won the battle on the script, as they usually seem to do. And it turns out they were right about the audience: I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the movie over the years, but nobody has questioned why Melanie doesn’t hop the first plane home after getting the divorce papers. (We did try to sell the idea that she sticks around because she feels she needs to apologize to all of her friends for her bad behavior before she leaves. If you have to make a change, you ought to do it the best way you can!)

I still think this is a bit of a logic problem in the movie, but I now realize it’s what Alfred Hitchcock called an “icebox question.” An icebox question is a logic flaw that the audience doesn’t think about until they’ve gone home and are getting a snack from the icebox (refrigerator for us Americans). Hitchcock’s theory was that by then the audience has already firmly decided whether they liked the movie or not, and belated recognition of logic holes wouldn’t change their mind.

I think this is also related to the saying that “The only rule in screenwriting is don’t be boring.” (Not sure who coined that one.) Audiences want to be entertained, and as long as they’re entertained, they won’t start picking too hard at the story. Stories have an emotional logic that trumps plot logic. The audience doesn’t question Melanie sticking around Alabama for a couple more days because they want her to stick around Alabama for a couple more days.

The Matrix (written by Lilly & Lana Wachowski) also demonstrates this theory in action. Toward the end, Neo is shot inside the Matrix and therefore dying in the real world, according to the well-established rules of the story. But then Trinity tells him he can’t die because the Oracle prophesied that the person she loved would be The One and she loves Neo. She kisses him and he comes back to life.

There is no narrative logic as to why Trinity’s kiss has the power to resurrect. It’s a logic hole. But it is absolutely right in terms of emotional logic. It’s the culmination of Trinity’s emotional journey, the culmination of Neo’s internal journey, it plays off classic fairy tale mythology, and most of all, it’s what we want to happen. I think it also matters that it occurs late in the movie when the audience is deeply invested in the story. Once we have bought into the story, it takes bigger logic bumps to knock us out.

So as a writer, it’s important not to let plot logic trump emotional logic. The trouble is, how do you tell the difference between a serious logic hole that will take the audience out of the story and an icebox question? Because serious logic holes can absolutely ruin your movie.

In my experience, audiences don’t generally get too hung up on timeline issues like the one in Sweet Home Alabama. They don’t calculate how long it would really take to get from point A to point B or to write a computer program or for wet clothes to dry, as long as it's not blatantly unrealistic. They also don’t get overly concerned about things like how long a character’s been awake or whether they had a chance to go to the bathroom or if they’ve eaten recently (unless you explicitly make those things part of the story). They usually don’t track the ammunition in guns or the amount of gas in a car’s tank. In real life these kinds of limits are annoying and we're happy to look the other way if the movie ignores those annoyances for the sake of fun.

But probably the most important thing is to test your screenplay with a selection of friendly readers who will give you brutal and honest feedback. If those readers don’t notice a logic hole, then you might be safe ignoring it. If someone does point it out, though, you better figure out a way to fix it. It isn’t an icebox question if it occurs to the reader during the read.


Check out my book, The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

“In the crowded field of scriptwriting how-to books, Doug Eboch’s Three Stages of Screenwriting is a standout and a must-read. Why? Three solid reasons: He really, truly knows what he’s talking about. It will help everyone, from novice to pro, become a better writer. And, most impressive of all, it is entertaining as hell - as engaging and fun to read as one of Doug’s scripts.”
-Ross LaManna (Rush Hour)

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