Make Your Story A Movie: Chapters 7-9

by John Robert Marlow



What’s at Stake?

Stories—movies in particular—are vicarious experiences. Adventure. Catharsis. If character is the hook that gets readers and viewers involved, story is the line that reels them in. “I look for a story that moves me,” says Paul Haggis—who, as a screenwriter, director, producer and multiple Oscar-winner—has a broader perspective than most. “And that’s hard to find. You need to be able to say, this is a story that, once it’s on the screen, will move me in some way. It’ll make me laugh, it’ll make me cry, break my heart, heal me. Whatever it is, it will touch me. And if it touches me, it will touch others as well. That’s probably the most important thing to know.”

When considering material, Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nozik asks questions. “Is there a compelling central character? One whose dilemma can sustain the story? And what is that dilemma? Is it one that I care about, that I can relate to; one that I think an audience will relate to? I actually ask if I relate to it first, because if I can’t understand it and relate to it, I’m probably not going to be of much use in moving the project forward.

“I’ve tried a few times with things where I thought, hey, this story seems commercial—but if it doesn’t affect me on an emotional level, if it doesn’t compel me, I actually can’t go the distance with it, can’t develop it, can’t sell it very well because I’d just be faking it. And I just don’t understand or know how to do that.” Even the most fascinating character in the world can’t save a bad story.

But what, exactly, is a bad story? Christopher Lockhart of WME sums it up nicely: “A bad story is one where what you think is going to happen twenty pages from now, happens twenty pages from now.” Predictability is deadly. It’s the reason we don’t go around picking up rocks and dropping them; we already know what’s going to happen. It’s boring, and people don’t pay money (not intentionally, anyway) to sit in a theater and be bored.

On the other hand, you can’t have a hero who wanders around aimlessly, just to be unpredictable. What you—or, more specifically, your lead character—need are stakes. Something to gain or lose, or both. Something (a goal) of tremendous importance to the character and, by extension, to the reader/audience—because if we like, root for, or identify with the hero, his struggles become our own.

Remember that the stakes needn’t be huge in any objective sense—your hero doesn’t have to be saving the world; perhaps (as in Little Miss Sunshine) he just needs to get his daughter to a beauty pageant. Whatever the stakes, they do need to be—subjectively, at least—huge and all-consuming for your hero.

But even this, alone, is not enough. Because there’s another crucial aspect that must be in play: we must want the hero to succeed. If the entire plot revolves around the hero’s struggle to achieve something we don’t want to see happen—for example, to save the life of someone we (and the hero, if he knew what we know) would rather see dead, then you’ve created a situation where the audience actually wants the hero to fail (or would at least be happier if he failed). Which is, of course, the precise opposite of what you’re aiming for, and a recipe for disaster.

The stakes must escalate as the story progresses. Think of it like a fireworks show (or like sex, if you prefer): there’s a reason the biggest bang comes at the end. If the most impressive thing happens first, all that follows is bound to disappoint because it doesn’t measure up. When the biggest thing happens last, everything else is a buildup.

Another element of a compelling story is this: the hero is captain of his fate and, ultimately, his own actions and resourcefulness determine his fate. A lead character can lose control of his destiny; often, this is what triggers the hero’s journey: his or her world spinning out of control. The journey itself is the struggle to attain or regain that control. If on the other hand your hero loses control of his own destiny, and never regains it—or regains it only as a result of some other character’s actions or, worse, blind chance—then you, your hero, and the story are in deep trouble. In essence, the hero must save his (or her) own bacon.

The absolute worst thing you can possibly do, storywise, is just the opposite: bail your hero out with a deus ex machina—literally, “god from the machine”—some outside force that miraculously shows up at just the right time to make everything okay. This technique originated with the ancient Greeks, who would write the heroes of their plays into impossible situations—only to have a god (lowered onto the stage by a crane) save the day, and the hero. Plato ridiculed it then, and it is equally ill-advised today. Such endings do not grow “organically” out of the story, but are grafted on afterward to cheat the writer out of a jam. They also cheat the audience out of a story that makes sense.

Finally, to be compelling, the stakes in your story must have an emotional component: will the hero win the girl (or guy), overcome the handicap, stop the bad guy (or gal), save his family, the world—or the galaxy? If people care about your hero; if they want what he wants, are chewing their nails wondering whether he’ll succeed, will be happy if he does and disappointed if he doesn’t—then your story is compelling.

If none of these things are true, it’s not.



Tension, Suspense, Urgency

A “ticking clock” makes things happen now, rather than later. “I feel more comfortable telling a story within a tight time frame,” says producer Michael Nozik, “where there’s a pressure, an inherent ticking clock. It doesn’t have to take place in an afternoon; it can be over a number of months, even years—but you want to be able to keep the inherent pressure of the clock.”

Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh is best known for big-budget action films like Armageddon. “When you’re talking about action pictures,” he says, “films that are reliant upon a storyline where your hero is trying to achieve something that requires a tremendous amount of physical action, he’s put through the inner circles of hell that all involve physical action around him, he’s being chased or whatever—it’s almost impossible to do one of these pictures without a ticking clock.”

Consider this basic premise: Our Hero must find and disarm a bomb that will destroy New York City at midnight. Now think about this one: Our Hero must find and disarm a bomb that will destroy New York City at some point in the future. You see the difference. The first is workable, the second unfilmable—because the first has a ticking clock, and the second doesn’t. What are we going to do, follow the guy around for five years, wondering when—and if—something’s going to happen?

The logic is both simple and inescapable: If the bomb goes off at midnight, Our Hero has to hustle. Suddenly there’s tension, suspense, and urgency. Every second counts: a traffic jam, a missed bus, a dropped call could be fatal—for millions.

If Our Hero’s wife/girlfriend/child is also in the city and can’t get out before midnight—so much the better. Because now the stakes are personal, and therefore more emotional and compelling. Furthermore, it’s now relatable; even viewers who wouldn’t miss NYC, still want to see the hero save his loved ones. (When it comes to fiction, better to save one character we care about than a million we don’t—and best of all to do both.)

The movie Saw has a literal ticking clock, as does Back to the Future. Still, the ticking clock in your story needn’t be a literal, clock-based deadline. Stopping the Bad Guy before he [fill in evil deed here] also works. In this case there is no literal clock, but since the audience will see the bad guy in action—we can see how far along he is, and we know how fast the hero must act to stop him—the tension, suspense, and urgency remain.

There are probably an infinite number of plot-specific ticking clocks, but all fall into one of two broad categories: time-based and event-based. The hero must do (or stop) x before a specific time, or the hero must do (or stop) x before a specific event takes place. In both cases, the purpose is the same: to compress the story into something that can be told in about 120 pages, or two hours of screen time.

Time-based clocks do not change; we and the characters know exactly when the deadline is—and when the clock hits the established time, that’s it: game over, one way or the other. Event-based clocks, on the other hand, lack a specific, set-in-stone timeline; we do not know precisely when the event will take place. They can also change—as when, for example, the hero thwarts the villain’s actions, causing him (when he doesn’t succeed) to try, try again (creating new event-clocks), or when the hero fails to beat the first clock and later faces another, often worse clock as the villain’s actions escalate.

One example of a time-based clock occurs in Saw, which features multiple situations where characters must escape gruesome circumstances within a set period of time, or die. Other examples include: evacuating the Na’vi from Hometree in one hour, at which time the site will be demolished (Avatar); hitting the wire from the clock tower at the precise instant that lightning strikes the tower, in order to power a time machine (Back to the Future); finding and stopping a bomb/bomber before the fixed time at which the bomb will detonate (Déjà Vu, Source Code, Die Hard with a Vengeance (this last MOV/SCR));; winning the girl’s heart before she marries Mr. Wrong (if the wedding date has been set: Only You); get a person or thing from Place A to Place B by a specific time (literally scores of movies, including Midnight Run).

Event-based clocks include: convince the Na’vi to abandon Hometree before the RDA dozers get there three months from now (Avatar); defeat the RDA corporate military force before it destroys the Tree of Souls (Avatar); get everyone off a city bus before the speed drops below 50 mph and triggers a bomb (Speed); destroy the Terminator before it kills Sarah Connor (The Terminator); destroy the Ring of Power before Sauron finds it (The Lord of the Rings trilogy (NOV)); stop Ducard or The Joker or Bane before he destroys Gotham City (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises (all COM)); escape the island before being eaten by dinosaurs (Jurassic Park (NOV)); win the girl’s heart before she marries someone else (when the wedding date has not been set: Sleepless in Seattle; even if the protagonist doesn’t know about the impending marriage, the audience does, and so the clock still works); get to a specific place or thing before someone else does (again, scores of movies).

Some time-based clocks seem like event-based clocks, but really aren’t. Both Armageddon and Deep Impact, for instance, involve blowing up/diverting an asteroid before it slams into the earth and destroys civilization. Which would definitely be event-based—but for the fact that, in each story, both we and the characters know the precise instant by which the mission must be accomplished. So it’s actually more like: blow up/divert an asteroid before x time—after which it will become impossible to prevent it from slamming into the earth and destroying civilization. That makes it clock-based.

Some movies have both time- and event-based clocks; Avatar, as noted above. Also True Lies, where the hero must first escape (and save his wife) from an uninhabited island before a nuclear weapon detonates at a predetermined time—and then, later, stop a terrorist from detonating a nuclear weapon (and killing the hero’s daughter) in downtown Miami. Note how the stakes are personalized in both cases—and how they escalate.

But, as mentioned, ticking clocks aren’t just about action. “If you’re going to define the ticking clock broadly as something that lends immediacy or urgency,” says screenwriter/director Jonathan Hensleigh, “you rope in virtually every single plotline ever presented in any commercial way since Greek drama.” Which makes it kind of important to include in your story.

Occasionally, if you look very hard, you will find a movie (usually independent and low-budget) that has no ticking clock of any kind. Generally speaking, the heroes tend to wander, the plots to ramble, and the box office to flatline. That’s not a place you want to be.



The Eyes Have It

James Cameron—writer/director/producer of The Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, True Lies (MOV), Titanic (HIS) and the Avatar franchise, among others—is to the film industry what Secretariat was to horse racing when he won the final race of the Triple Crown by 31 lengths. No one else operates at his level, or close to it. While most filmmakers would be out-of-their-minds ecstatic to have a movie gross $400 million to $500 million at the box office, Cameron spent $400 million to $500 million just to make his film Avatar. If you ask him what he looks for in source material and scripts (which I have), he’ll tell you this: “Unique visual potential.”

Screenwriter Terry Rossio notes that “very often films are based on plays, and so can seem ‘stagebound’ when those stories are filmed. Or short stories or even novels, which, in exploring their ideas, don’t concern themselves with an audience’s need for visual relief. It makes sense to explore those story concepts without the restraints imposed by the prior medium.”

Screenwriter John August cuts to the heart of the matter in dealing with source material: “You look for a story that can be told visually, that doesn’t rely on long passages of exposition to get the story told. You want something that can fit into a two-hour window; it’s not so epic and sprawling that you’re not going to do justice to what the story is by fitting it into a smaller package.” (Though keep in mind that series offer a larger canvas; witness Game of Thrones.)

Simply put, film is less flexible than print. A book, whether fiction or nonfiction, can delve inside characters’ heads—and stay there—for three hundred pages. Movies can’t do that. Or, to be more accurate, can’t do it without externalizing the characters’ inner experience in a way that makes that experience seem objective (and therefore lensable). Brilliant examples of this technique include Inception and the Matrix films—all of which are, of course, action-heavy. Avatar—also action-heavy—completely blurs the line between internal and external experience. Film is a visual medium, and interesting things must pass before the camera, even if the character is sealed inside a high-tech coffin for half the movie.

No one knows this better than the director, whose job it is to mold the visual experience. Lesli Linka Glatter’s directorial and producing debut—Tales of Meeting and Parting—was based on a series of true stories and earned an Academy Award nomination. *She currently has five feature films in development, three of which are adaptations. “You need to create the kind of experience that people can see taking place on the screen,” she advises. “And doing that with an adaptation is hard. You have to strike a delicate balance between being true to the original material and story concept, and translating it into this other, very visual medium. But it can be done.”

Still, this is easier with some adaptations than with others. As screenwriter/producer Leslie Dixon points out, “There are some stories that have a great idea in them, but not a single scene that would translate into a cinematic experience. Maybe the story doesn’t go where a movie audience would feel fulfilled, or a character behaves in a way that is just too reprehensible and would throw you right out of the movie. And so you have to change it.

“At the other extreme, there are movies waiting to happen: The Silence of the Lambs, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. You’ve got the characters, the story, the scenes are really dramatic, and there’s action.”

In adapting Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields into the hit film Limitless, Leslie found herself with a dilemma; main character Eddie narrates the book, but never shares his experiences with anyone other than the reader. In a movie, that’s boring; events must be shown, and thoughts conveyed through realistic dialogue.

Enter Eddie’s new girlfriend Lindy (“new” because she’s not in the book). Now Eddie has someone to talk to about what’s happening to him—thus informing the audience indirectly, in a way the camera can see. The addition of Lindy’s character also serves another purpose: by placing her life in jeopardy, the stakes are raised tremendously. A third purpose is also served by this: conflict when Lindy disapproves (to put it mildly) of what Eddie’s doing. This lends the information conveyed a dramatic aspect, which wouldn’t be the case if Eddie were simply reciting the facts to a disinterested third party. A fourth purpose: an emotional expansion of the original story, as Eddie’s character is both broadened and given more depth by the relationship. A fifth purpose is to add an additional dimension for the viewer: a love relationship between two characters. A possible sixth purpose would be to up the film’s appeal to female audiences. All of this boosts the story’s cinematic potential—with the addition of a single character not present in the novel.

As you can see, things aren’t always lost in translation; sometimes, things are gained. The best adaptation specialists can help prevent the first and ensure the second.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: MYSAM Chapters 10-12, coming in late April or early May, 2019. To be notified of important site updates (new chapters, full-length interviews etc.)…

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