Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Are Super & Myth Movies Only about FIGHT v. FLIGHT?

A Screenwriter Asked:
Hey, Stan, 
I find myself thinKing about your stuff; the thing I like best about “Moral Premise” is it’s the book to turn to when you’re suddenly asking, “Why am I writing this again?”   
It seems to me that all the “myth” movies, from Superman to Spiderman to Batman to Iron Man to Gladiator to Matrix all are about the responsibility of saving everyone when you have the power.   
I just read an outline for Gladiator, and I could see that Maximus (Russel Crowe) wants “nothing to do with politics” but gets pulled into a battle with evil.  It’s like the Edmund Burke quote: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  Is this the point of all these movies?   
Is my moral premise: 
 “Running away from evil leads to disaster and isolation; but  
Facing and fighting evil leads to victory and freedom and togetherness”? 
I guess my question is, do I have no wiggle room here?  Should I embrace that moral premise, and stop wondering why I’m writing this??? 
Thanks,  Mike

Dear Mike:

I think most of the “super” stories can be defined by a moral premise that you articulated. But in such clear cut hero/villain stories I think there are dual moral premises that are related to a foundational one, like what you suggest. We might call these “secondary” moral premise statements, which are organically related to the foundational one. But it’s the secondary premise that is more likely to connect to non-super human audiences.

But in both cases the values in conflict must be universal … if you want to avoid niche audiences.

What you wrote:
Running away from evil (isolationism) as a value to find happiness vs. Fighting evil (engagement) as a value that leads to happiness... the proverbial FLIGHT v FIGHT dilemma. It is definitely a universal concept that appears at all levels of the humanity condition.  It's evident in (a) a confrontation I witness on a street corner between a pimp and a whore, or (b) the Bush Foreign Policy Doctrine vs. the Obama Foreign Policy Doctrine. Fight or flight is everywhere and the answers are not easily answered.

You are perfectly safe keeping this simple and direct moral premise as the heart of your story, if that is what you focus on.

But you can give your story more personal and human death by looking deeper into the “human” story that exists in the “super human” diegesis.

For instance:

THE INCREDIBLES is also about:
Battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat; 
but Battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory. 

BLIND SIDE (yes it’s about fight vs. flight) is also about:
Courage to do what is difficult but foolish leads to dishonor;  but
but Courage to do what is difficult and wise leads to honor.

SUPERMAN II (1980) is also about:
Pretending to be someone we’re not leads to fragility; but
Being whom we were made to be leads to superlatives.

DARK KNIGHT (2008) is also about:
Revengeful, self-service leads to nihilistic  desperation; but
Sacrificial public service leads to purposeful hope.

And there are manny other examples.

So, I think your fight or flight is a good place to start, but I think you can also go deeper, to another layer, that will give the basic “super” movie an even more “human” connection that everyone in the audience will get. Not everyone will get “saving the world” because they can’t. But the secondary moral premise (exampled above) are value dilemmas we all deal with.

This moral identification is one of the  20+ techniques filmmakers and authors use to get audiences/readers to identify with their characters on a physical, emotional, and moral level.

Since you have been writing "short" stories for years, and your material is well accepted by the mainstream public, (if I were you at this point), I’d just write it and see if a moral premise (at the secondary level) doesn’t pop out later on. Don’t feel you have to figure it out beforehand. That can be a hinderance. Trust your instinct.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Can the "Moment of Grace" Be at the End

Recently, I was asked this question: Can the Moment of Grace (MOG) for the Protagonist be at the end of the story?

There are several ways to answer this.

A. IF you’re writing a straight ahead redemptive film, the MOG for the MAIN PLOT (13-18 beats), for the PROTAGONIST must be in the MIDDLE. This is because you want to create a fairly even roller emotional coast ride for your audience both (1) morally and (2) physically. 

1. The moral up and down is related to the psychologically of your protagonist’s and the audience’s understanding of the truth of the moral premise. This is a very subtle roller coaster ride because it is NOT explicit or obviously visible except in metaphors and non-verbal. Yes the MP is true, no it’s not, yes it is, no it’s not. But it is very critical because it is the foundational motivational factor in the protagonist’s actions and are seen on the screen. 

2. The physical up and down is the explicit answer to the story questions: Will your protagonist’s reach his/her goal and will your audience reach it’s expected cathartic moment when the goal is reached? Yes the goal will be reached, not it won’t, etc. Those peaks and valleys of those two interrelated roller coast rides must be evenly spaced or the movie will flatten out and you’ll have too long of a dry or boring sequence.  

Recall the macro effect of the turning points, how every other one is from the antagonistic force or the protagonist making a decision to pursue the goal in the face of that force.

B. NOW, if the MOG for the Protagonist’s main plot is put off to the end and the film is still redemptive then you have a near tragedy where the audience is taken down, and down, and down a very dark roller coaster with tunnels ….and there’s no hope too close to the end. Aronofsky’s NOAH did this. As you may have read on my blog posts about that film, I liked it and found it Biblical etc. BUT, the MOG for the film's main plot is not until the very end of the film, and to the audience you have what looks like a tragedy with a madman at the center of the story. He’s mad to do what he thinks the Creator wants him to do, he doesn't see the clear ways in which God is communicating to him, and thus the MOG is not until the end... and many Christians could not understand that kind of a story character. In his defense I understand how Aronofsky could see the character that way because (a) so many of us humans can't "hear" God clearly, and (b) since Aronofsky was 10-years told he always saw the Noah story as very dark because of all the people and innocent babies that died in the flood. All his life he wondered if he was in that situation, would he be good enough to get on the ark?  But the structure of such a film requires that the protagonist NOT understand (even a little) the truth of the moral premise until it’s almost too late. (In Noah's case it's almost axiomatically, Too Little, Too Late.) … and it’s a hard, dark ride for the audience, even if it is true. I’ll point out that the NOAH movie did not do that well at the box office, and I think what I just pointed out is there reason.   

C. THERE is a horror film titled CLOVERFIELD where the MOG is at the Act 1 to Act 2 crossover. The act breaks is late (44% instead of 25%) and the MOG is early (44% instead of 50%) and because there is no emotional bump in the middle where the MOG should be, and because the crossover is late, I think the movie suffers from being  to slow in a couple of places like in the middle. The coaster track levels out, so to speak. I blog about here: CLOVERFIELD: Is There Danger...

D. YOU may think you have a MOG at the end of your story, but it may be that you’re confused by the placement of the MOG and the final realization by the protagonist.  You may be working on a story where the final TURTH is CONFIRMED at the end, but you can still have a MOG in the middle. Usually the MOG is not a “come to Jesus” moment where everything changes. But rather a moment where the truth is realized and now must be tested. Thus, the truth of the MOG is not confirmed until the battle is finally won. But from the mid-point's MOG to the Act 3 Climax (the last 50% of the story) the truths of the MP are being applied with increasing effectiveness. Remember the roller coast hills get steeper in the end of a movie, which is the opposite of a real roller coaster. 
In such movies the audience experiences a great cathartic moment at the very end. That is not the MOG, but the final confirmation of the truth of the Moral Premise's truth. 

FINALLY, just to tie up the obvious loose end of this question: The minor characters can have their MOG at the end, as Collette in Ratatouille does when she's running away from the kitchen on her motorbike.  She stops at a red traffic signal, sees her former boss's book in the bookstore window (Any One Can Cook), has a realization of the truth (the red light turns green), and in the next scene we see that she's returned to the kitchen. In fact, such minor characters can have a MOG just about anywhere in the story, but they work best when their MOG is after the main MOG of the protagonist, and before the main plot's final climax, say from 55% to 95%. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Aronofsky's NOAH, Story Structure, and the Christian Backlash.

Here is the link to my earlier blog about: NOAH's Moral Premise and Its Biblical Accuracy.

During the 2014 Biola Media Conference Jack Hafer moderated a way-too-brief panel about the controversy surrounding Aronofsky's NOAH. On the panel were Dr. Stan Williams, Brett McCracken (both who generally found merit with the film), and Brian Godawa who disliked the movie. Because our time was so short on stage we agreed to continue the conversation at Biola Campus later in the week. Unfortunately, Brian was unable to make the taping, so Williams and McCracken gave it a willing crack.

Dr. Stan Williams & Brett McCracken at Biola's Cultural Conversation Studio

Here is the link to the menu of all six videos on the Biola's Cultural Conversations site.

And then the individual videos embedded from YouTube.
Comments are welcome and moderated.

1. Why Are Christians so Divided About Darren Aronofsky's "NOAH"?

2. Justice, Mercy and the Darkness of Aronofosky's "NOAH"

3. Gnosticism, Environmentalism and the New Eden in Aronofsky's "NOAH"

4. Message, Moral and Myth: Christian Approaches to Film

5. Why Christian Filmgoers Should Care More About Beauty

6. Can an Atheist's Art Bring Glory to God?

Novi, MI Workshop - June 7

Dear Filmmakers and Novelists Friends: 

If you're in Michigan...

I am presenting a 3.5 hour workshop on the 20 Secrets of Successful Story Structure at the GloryReelz Film Festival and Conference, June 7 (1:45 PM - 5:15 PM) at the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel in Novi, located behind the Emagine Theaters. This is the same workshop I presented last month on the CBS Television Lot in Hollywood. I understand you can register just for my workshop at a reduced price. 

Hope to see you there. Register

General Content Info on the Workshop: 

Stan Williams