Friday, December 28, 2012

Elf Analysis: Buddy’s Internal Journey


 Last post I discussed the external journey of Buddy the elf in Elf (written by David Berenbaum). Today I want to discuss Buddy’s internal journey, often referred to as the character arc. It is a little difficult to identify Buddy’s arc in Elf because his personality at the end of the movie is much the same as it was in the beginning. In fact, it took me a little thought to identify the internal journey.

I’ve made the point in the past that good stories should change the character internally – if not, they aren’t really very significant in the character’s life, and if that’s the case why are watching the movie? So is Elf not a good movie? Or does it work in some other non-traditional way?

The internal journey grows out of the character’s need, and last post I said Buddy’s need is to believe in himself. That’s set up in the beginning when he can’t meet the work demands of the other elves and judges himself “a cotton-headed ninny-muggins.” And it pays off in the end when Buddy is the only one who can fix Santa’s sleigh. But perhaps “believe in himself” was not the best way to phrase what Buddy needs. More useful is to say that Buddy needs to accept himself. In essence, Buddy needs to not change.

This is a bit unusual, but if you think about it, it’s really just an example of one of the three forms I’ve identified of the interplay between want and need: Buddy’s need is to realize he has the wrong want. He wants to fit in. He needs to accept that it’s okay that he’s different.

So though it may not be immediately obvious, Buddy is changed by the story. He goes from wanting to be like everyone else to accepting that he can fit in by being who he is. And that is, in fact, dramatized in the story.

The not-fitting-in part is obvious during the status quo section – Buddy is too big for the elf world, he can’t work as fast as the real elves, etc. In the first half of Act Two, Buddy finds he doesn’t fit in well in New York. In the second half he has trouble fitting in with his family. He even tries to change to make Walter happy – donning a suit, for example. All without success, leading to Walter kicking him out at the Act Two Turning Point.

In the aftermath of the Act Two Turning Point, Buddy says, “I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.” But then at the Epiphany Santa tells Buddy he’s the only one who can save Christmas (by fixing the sleigh) and Walter finally tells Buddy he loves him. Buddy realizes he is valuable just as he is. And then in the denouement we see Buddy happily married to Jovie and with a baby, interacting warmly both with his adoptive father at the North Pole and his biological family in New York.

So Buddy does have an internal journey. But I would also say the movie gets more of its emotional depth out of how Buddy changes others with his unique spirit.

This is particularly true of Walter. He goes from a workaholic who ignores his family and doesn’t care about anyone to a loving father who sacrifices his job to keep his family together. Walter has the biggest arc of the movie.

Jovie, Buddy’s love interest, also has an arc. At the beginning of the film she tells Buddy she’s just trying to get through the holiday season. Later we learn she’s showering at the store because her water has been shut off. We also see her spending Christmas Eve by herself watching TV.

We don’t actually know that much about Jovie, but we can infer from these clues that she is beaten down and having a rough time in life. And we see how Buddy’s unfettered joy and wonder cheers her up. At the end of the movie, she’s the one who takes it upon herself to revive the Christmas spirit in the crowd of New Yorkers – something we couldn’t imagine her doing when we first meet her.

This story matters to Buddy because he starts out unhappy and ends happy. But perhaps in this case the real reason the story is worth our time is not so much how the main character changes but how he changes the other characters.

In the next post in this analysis I’ll dig a little deeper into how the internal states of the characters and their arcs are dramatized, one of the biggest challenges for a writer of film.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Structure of Elf

(Spoilers: Elf)

Last post I looked at the conceptual decisions writer David Berenbaum made when scripting the movie Elf. Now I want to explore the structure of the movie, but from the point of view of how it grows out of these conceptual decisions.

The main character of Elf is Buddy. This may seem obvious in hindsight, but there was actually another potential choice: Buddy’s biological father, Walter. Walter goes through the biggest arc of the movie and makes several critical decisions. And Elf is similar to a type of movie where a seemingly crazy outsider comes in and disrupts the main character’s life, ultimately causing them to be a better person. (Examples would include Anger Management, written by David Dorfman, and What About Bob, Story by Alvin Sargent & Laura Ziskin, screenplay by Tom Schulman.)

So actually making Buddy the main character is a bit unusual. But it’s a smart choice because Buddy is the one who’s a fish-out-of-water in this premise. I’ll take a more full look at Buddy’s character in the next post. For structural purposes, though, the important thing is that we identify Buddy’s want and need within this story. These will determine the external and internal storylines respectively and keep Buddy as the main character.

We should first look to the premise: this is the story of Buddy the elf looking for his father in New York. Ah ha – he wants to find his father. Not bad, but Mr. Berenbaum decided this is a story about family, not a search. So it’s not about finding his father, but rather winning his father’s love. (His need is to believe in himself, but I’ll deal with that more in my next post when I discuss the internal journey.)

For a story to be dramatic the character needs big obstacles. If Buddy finds his father and his father is happy to see him, then it’s all a little too easy, isn’t it? So Mr. Berenbaum decided that Walter should be an unloving guy, a bad father even to the son he does know – in the language of Christmas, he’s on the naughty list. That’s the primary obstacle.

(The major secondary obstacle also grows naturally from the premise: Buddy is a fish-out-of-water. He will have difficulty navigating New York. But this is secondary and we want our structure to come from the main character facing the primary obstacle.)

So given this conceptual foundation we should be able to determine organic structural beats. Buddy is a Christmas elf so his status quo is living in Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. We know Buddy wants to fit in so his dilemma must be that he doesn’t fit in. The Catalyst is when this dilemma is crystallized for the audience.

Q: What would best crystallize this dilemma for the audience?

A: Buddy learning that he’s actually human. And that happens about twelve minutes into the movie.

The Act One Turning Point may be a little trickier. It should be when our character is locked into the story, the point of no return. They must resolve their dilemma or suffer the consequences. In Elf, Buddy sets out to find his biological father, expecting to find a home where he will be accepted for who he is. The Act One Turning Point could have been when he sets out on his journey, but remember, this isn’t the story of a search, it’s the story of winning his father’s love.

Q: What would lock Buddy into the story of winning his father’s love?

A: His father refusing to accept that Buddy is his son. And sure enough, when Buddy shows up at Walter’s office around twenty-five minutes in, Walter thinks he’s crazy and kicks him out. Buddy now has to win over Walter or be doomed to unhappiness.

Next comes the fun and games section of the script. This is where the premise of an elf in New York is explored, with all the action at Gimbles. The next big structural beat we need is the Midpoint, a high point that should mirror the ending. Since, based on the conceptual decisions, we know the ending ought to be happy, we should ask:

Q: What victory could Buddy achieve that brings him part way toward his goal?

A: Walter could accept the fact that Buddy is his biological son. And this is what happens about halfway into the movie.

Mr. Berenbaum also wisely raises the stakes here by having Walter’s wife invite Buddy to stay with them, and by having Walter get in trouble at work. This gives him new material to develop as we approach the Act Two turning point. And we determine that beat by asking…

Q: What’s the worst thing that could happen to Buddy in the context of this story?

A: He’s kicked out of his human family. And sure enough, after Buddy ruins Walter’s meeting, Walter tells him to get out, that he wants nothing more to do with him.

Now we’re in Act Three. We see the aftermath of this event – Buddy loses hope. Now we need the epiphany, the thing that will show Buddy how to ultimately succeed.

Q: What does Buddy need to succeed?

A: He needs to believe in himself. And this happens when Santa tells Buddy that he trusts him to fix the sleigh. And shortly thereafter Walter finds Buddy and apologizes and tells him he loves him.

But we still need the big climactic resolution. We’ve already determined we want a happy ending. And since this is a Christmas movie, someone really ought to save Christmas, and that someone should be our main character. But we also need this resolution to relate to our main storyline. The way we find the resolution is to ask:

Q: How is Buddy’s dilemma resolved?

A: Walter accepts him.

But what represents acceptance? Walter’s already said he loves Buddy. But actions speak louder than words. Mr. Berenbaum wisely uses the Christmas spirit to test Walter’s acceptance and dramatize that it is real.

Buddy is full of Christmas spirit; Walter consistently rejects it. So the way we know Walter really accepts Buddy is when he sings along with the crowd at the end. And Mr. Berenbaum then found a way to have this action save Christmas by establishing that Santa’s sleigh is powered by Christmas spirit. Walter’s transformation gets Santa flying again. This is a good example of how it’s not just a matter of figuring out the correct structural beat, but figuring out how you’re going to dramatize that beat.

There you go, the structure of Elf. Not terribly complex, but it does have a nice cohesiveness that comes from the fact Mr. Berenbaum grew his structure organically from his underlying conceptual decisions.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment: what would Elf's structural beats be if Walter was the main character? Do you think that movie would work as well as the one they made?

By the way, I’m curious what people think of this approach to analyzing structure. Was it helpful? Informative? Confusing? Please let me know in the comments section.


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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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Not According to Plan

SPOILERS: (Aliens, Little Miss Sunshine)

What are your plans for the weekend? What are your plans for the holidays? What are your plans for the script you’re currently writing?

Chances are you have an answer to those questions. We make plans all the time. It’s the only way we get anything done! Your characters should be making plans as well.

Over the last month I’ve read several scripts that suffered from lethargy and/or a feeling they were too episodic. The underlying cause was that the main characters were failing to make plans. They were reactive to events rather than driving the story. Giving the character plans keeps them active and gives the story forward momentum.

But remember, things should never go according to plan.

That’s one of the key ways to create drama and twists. The character makes a plan but then something goes wrong. In fact, often it can help to work backwards. If you have an idea of something befalling the character to make their situation worse, have them plan on a completely different future. Often this means creating a scene of preparation.

For example, in the middle of Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) Ripley and the soldiers discover all the colonists have been killed by the aliens. After they fight their way out of the alien hive, they stop for a scene of aftermath that becomes a scene of preparation. In this scene, Ripley suggests they just nuke the entire installation from orbit – “It’s the only way to be sure.” After some debate, the soldiers decide to do just that and summon their shuttle to return to the ship.

However an alien has climbed abord that shuttle and it immediately crashes, derailing the characters’ plans before they even begin. Time to make a new plan. They head to safety in the housing complex.

So why devote screen time to a debate over a plan that doesn’t even make it to the first step? Why not just have them move to the housing complex? Besides revealing things about the various characters through debate, the nuke-them-from-orbit plan sets the audience up for the twist of the shuttle crash. We’re pointed in one direction and then blindsided by the turn of events. This is an example of the preparation-in-opposition technique of heightening drama.

If things do go according to plan then it will seem too easy. We want to see our beloved characters struggle to achieve their goals. That’s what makes good drama. Consider Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) – how interesting would the movie be if the family just hopped in the car and drove to California as they planned? What makes that movie dramatic is the car breaking down and grandpa dying and the cop pulling them over with time running out. In fact, it’s when things don’t go according to plan that the character is forced to grow.

If I might humbly suggest an exercise: Consider your current script. What are your character’s plans at the beginning? When do those plans go awry? What are their new plans? When do those go awry? If you find a spot where you can’t identify your character’s plan, maybe you should have them make one. If you find things going according to the character’s plan for more than ten pages, maybe you need to have something go awry to heighten the drama and force character change.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what the character’s plans should be, consider what they want. What’s their goal in this story? If you have trouble identifying that, stop what you’re doing and figure that out immediately!


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