Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Levin's Tips Week 5 -- Plot

What's the difference between a Song and just Noise? A song is still noise, essentially. It's just orchestrated and conducted to evoke emotion out of you.

Plot, as a concept, is similar. It's just a bunch of events. But if you make them connected and emotionally resonant, then you can make it sing.

So, what makes a good plot? Let's talk about two very simple, fundamental elements.

                               CHARACTER CARES

If it's not personal, it's probably not that good.

There is a reason in all the detective movies the protagonist is looking for his wife's killer. There is a reason Liam Neeson in Taken didn't go all around the world tracking down... just another client. No, he was looking for his child. In the Hangover, our gang aren't tracking down their best friend out of some weird obligation, they're doing it because it's his wedding on the line. In Bridesmaids, the entire premise is based on how our main character feels like she's being frozen out of a real important part of her best friends' life.

We talked about how one of the major objectives you have in your screenplay is to make your characters suffer. This is how you make them suffer. This is how you imbue an "event" with emotional resonance so that your plot sings. This also makes your character ACTIVE as he will WANT that personal thing very, very badly.

Of all movies, James Bond series gives a pretty good glimpse into this phenomenon by the way. When Bond has a personal stake in what's going on in addition to saving the world, the movie is suddenly much better. Golden Eye (his relationship with 006), Casino Royale (his relationship with Vesper Lynd), Skyfall (his relationship with M) are much better movies than Quantum of Solace and Spectre.

So if your character saves the world/does something objectively important and it still feels underwhelming, maybe you need to hit a place closer to your protagonist's heart. Walter White did a plethora of stuff more objectively important than what happened with his family, but very few things hit as hard as that personal story does.

                            ESCALATING OBSTACLES

Here's a sequence of events that really happened to me:

- I was writing in a coffee shop just like any other day.

- Fortunately, the writing was going great. I was writing the final sequence of a script and it was thrilling as intended.

- Unfortunately, my heart started pounding like mad and it got freaky after ten minutes.

- Fortunately, there were other people in the coffee shop and they were helpful and soothing. They said I must have drank too much coffee and that's that!

- Unfortunately, then they started to freak out, saying: "Holy shit, your heart is beating out of your body. I can see your clothes shaking!"

- Fortunately, someone who seemed to know what she was doing approached me and asked if I was feeling okay. I was elated and asked if she was a doctor.

- Unfortunately, she said "kinda" and proceeded to say that she believes in the power of prayer and knelt down and started to speak to Jesus.

- Fortunately, we called 911 and the paramedics arrived promptly.

- Unfortunately, even they were freaked out and put an oxygen mask on my face.

- Fortunately, one of the paramedics said "I know what to do!" and went for his bag.

- Unfortunately, it was the biggest motherfucking needle I ever saw and he said, verbatim: "Now you're gonna feel like something just punched you in the heart. Like in Pulp Fiction. You've seen that movie, right?" which freaked me the fuck out.

- Fortunately, just as the needle touched my sin, my heart rate -- after the needle put the God's Fear in me, I guess -- stabilized and I no longer needed the giant needle.

THE END. (Also, I'm fine. It was a silly thing.)

So, that's not what I would call a great plot (I'm a pretty passive protagonist) but it has one thing you need in a plot that works: Those twists and turns and escalating obstacles.

The audience know there's going to be an "all is lost!" moment in your movie. Your challenge is to make it much worse than they think it's going to be. Like, for example, they could be like: "Hey, at least the paramedics came! He's safe!" but then THAT gets even worse by the revelation of the giant needle.

Also, this doesn't mean make your movie an endless series of defeats. Every story needs to have balance and dynamism. We need victories that bring us to glorious highs and defeats that bring us down to deep, dark lows. Neither can exist without the other.

Alright, that's that. Next week, we're going to talk about the First Act!

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