Archive for Groundhog Day

Man Made Moon

Posted in FILM, literature, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2020 by dcairns

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Algis Budrys is really good.

I find it a bit discouraging that I’m back reading science fiction at my time of life. It IS the literature of ideas, and I love it, but I have a superstition that reading too much bad prose is bad for one’s prose, and Kurt Vonnegut was right to observe that most of those toiling in the literature of ideas were pretty sucky at putting elegant sentences together.

For instance, in the (excellent) short story Death March, Budrys is moved to say “Bessmer was a big, sprawling city that curved around the bay like a long arm.” I frown at this. I can picture a city curving around a bay, but the added information that it resembles a long arm while doing so tells me nothing. And arms, outside of Mickey Mouse cartoons, can only approximate a curve.

In the novel Rogue Moon, a character is described as “a heavy-boned man with loose, papery flesh and dark-circled, sunken eyes.” I recoiled in horror from this description. Then I pictured Attorney General William Barr, and recoiled again. Then I decided that the description only coincidentally fitted Barr in the sense of summing up my moral revulsion at his human failings, and was not a plausible description of a human being. I’ve never seen anyone be “heavy-boned,” for instance.

But BOY, Budrys is an exemplar of “the literature of ideas.” And I’m encouraged by the fact that I’m reading him now. I owned his 1977 novel Michaelmas IN 1977, or near enoguh, but couldn’t get into it. As an adult I gobbled it up. It’s about the internet — which didn’t exist when Budrys was writing, or was at best a couple of giant, clunky computers sending each other morse code. He predicts exactly what it would be like. He also posits a guy with an AI in his briefcase secretly controlling the whole thing. it’s the only AI in the world, Then, one day, it detects another…

Here’s the first movie bit: Budrys throws out these great story ideas but what he does with them isn’t usually very cinematic. But he’s been filmed twice: TO KILL A CLOWN (1972) stars Alan Alda as a sociopath in command of killer dogs. I haven’t seen it but I clearly must. It’s not sf though. WHO? (1974) was filmed by Jack Gold and is quasi-sci-fi. The Soviets (Budrys was born in what is now part of Russia) return a top scientist, disfigured in an accident and cybernetically reconstructed in such way that the Americans can’t tell if it’s really their man. It’s a thoughtful meditation on identity wrapped inside a would-be espionage thriller and it doesn’t quite work. The central design — the character’s iron mask — is a let-down.

who

(When the wrong people are in charge, the central bit of design will generally disappoint, while less important stuff is allowed to look good because it’s left to actual designers to make the decisons. Therefore, Batman is usually clunky-looking, while the Batmobile is OK.)

Now we’re on to Rogue Moon. The second movie bit will emerge in due course. In this novel, an alien artifact is discovered on the moon. The US has been teleporting agents up there, trying to get inside the thing, but found it to be a maze of death-traps. They’re triggered in consistent but unpredictable ways:

It is, for instance, fatal to kneel on one knee while facing lunar north. It is fatal to lift the left hand above shoulder height while in any position whatsoever. It is fatal past a certain point to wear armour whose air hoses loop over the shoulders. It is fatal past a certain point to wear armour whose air tanks feed directly into the suit without the use of hoses at all. It is crippling to wear armour whose dimensions vary greatly from the ones we are using now. It is fatal to use the hand motions required to write the English word “yes,” with either the left or right hand.

Charting a path through the complex to discover its secrets using trial and error seems likely to cost an unacceptable number of lives.

Fortunately, they’ve found a way of charting the progress of their agents through the complex, up to the moment of their deaths. Bear with me…

Each time the teleport somebody up there, they also create a duplicate version which they keep on Earth in a state of sensory deprivation. Through a process they don’t understand, this dupe remains psychically linked to his lunar doppelganger, experiencing the same stuff until he’s killed. The trouble is, getting killed on the moon sends the Earth duplicate mad.

So they have to find a guy who doesn’t mind getting killed. And, since there is a person for every job, they find one, an unpleasant macho nutter admittedly, but one they can work with.

“Now look,” Barker said, slapping the folder. “According to this, if I make a wrong move, they’ll find me with all my blood in a puddle outside my armour, with not a mark on me. If I make another move, I’ll be paralysed from my waist down, which means I have to crawl on my belly. But crawling on your belly somehow makes things happen so you get squashed up into your helmet. And it goes on in that cheerful vein all the way.”

What Budrys has come up with here seems to me an analog for the video game narrative. Complete what you can of the route, and if you get killed, start again and try to figure out what you did wrong.

Groundhog-Day

Here’s the second movie bit. GROUNDHOG DAY is, as far as I know, the first movie to use an approximation of this approach to a story. Oh, wait, before that there’s 12:01 PM (1990) and 12:01 (1993), both time-loop movies adapting Richard Lupoff’s 1973 story (that’s how far sf movies lag behind the literature). Obayashi’s adaptation of THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME (1983) is listed on Wikipedia as a time-loop story but I haven’t seen any version of this popular manga so I don’t know how relevant it is. The following year, URUTSEI YASURA II: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER portrayed another time loop.

More recently, HAPPY DAY and the lovely Russian Doll use the video game structure successfully to very different ends.

sourcecode

It seems logical that as video games have grown in both sophistication and popularity, their tropes will infect cinema. Ideas like long subjective camera action scenes like the opening of VILLAINESS strike me as of limited value, since they’re basically like watching a video game over the player’s shoulder, removing the actual thrill of participation. But if you can come up with a novel way of showing it, the actual problem-solving aspect of gameplay can be adapted from games to movies. The two examples I’ll offer are SOURCE CODE and EDGE OF TOMORROW, which are both very engrossing entertainments.edgeot

Rogue Moon, however, was published in 1960.

So Budrys wasn’t working out a way of using vidgaming as a narrative ploy. What he was up to is revealed late in the novel, and I think it’s to do with the way the human race accumulates knowledge.

“The thing is, the universe is dying! The stars are burning their substance. The planets are moving more slowly on their axes. They’re falling inward towards their suns. The atomic particles that make it all up are slowing in their orbits. Bit by bit, over the countless billions of years, it’s slowly happening. It’s all running down. Some day, it’ll stop. Only one thing in the universe grows fuller, and richer, and forces itself uphill. Intelligence — human lives — we’re the only thing that doesn’t obey the universal law. The universe kills our bodies — it drags them down with gravity; it drags, and drags, until our hearts grow tired with pumping our blood against its pull, until the walls of our cells break down with the weight of themselves, until our tissues sag, and our bones grow weak and bent. Our lungs tire of pulling air in and pushing it out. Our veins and capillaries break with the strain. Bit by bit, from the day we’re conceived, the universe rasps and plucks at our bodies until they can’t repair themselves any longer. And in that way, in the end, it kills our brains. 

“But our minds… There’s the precious thing; there’s the phenomenon that has nothing to do with time and space except to use them — to describe to itself the lives our bodies live in the physical universe.”

There’s more. Go get it, if you’re intrigued. Despite occasional infelicities of style, at his best Budrys was a terrific writer.

 

 

The Mysterious Mr If, Part the If-teenth

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , on September 5, 2011 by dcairns

I seem to recall last week’s episode, and much of this week’s, were added to The Mysterious Mr If at second draft stage (yes! there were two drafts!). A producer had pronounced the script exciting but asked for more of a character arc. And this is what he got.

In redrafting I was violating Jerry Lewis’s dictum that one cannot rewrite comedy. I’m not sure Lewis is correct — I think what perhaps he means is that HE cannot rewrite comedy. But he is at least partially onto something. If you come up with a joke/gag/line/situation that actually makes you laugh, I mean ACTUALLY, and you’re able to get it down in as close as possible to the form it came to you in, that’s as close to money in the bank as exists in the precarious world of humour. And if you then tamper with it, in hopes of achieving improvement, it’s very tricky, because unless you manage to make yourself laugh all over again, how do you know you’re not actually ruining it? And even if you do make yourself laugh, are you laughing based on your knowledge of the original joke/gag/line/situation, knowledge your intended audience won’t possess?

There are certainly numerous ways to screw up good material in a rewrite, notable among them the temptation to interpolate one gag into another, which violates the Zucker Proposition: only tell one joke at a time. This proposition seems to hold water under most if not all circumstances, and is part of the reason comedy is notoriously a bit difficult: you want to get the laughs coming at a fair lick, but you’re prevented from going for more than one at a time. For this reason, long-form comedy sometimes benefits from a sedate and not-too-hilarious first act, where a number of plot points and characters can be set up in leisurely fashion, paving the way for a fast and furious series of pay-offs later. 

But I was interested to hear PG Wodehouse, in an archive interview quoted in a recent BBC documentary, saying that rewriting was the most pleasurable part of his job. And I could see how that makes sense. Wodehouse’s plots are intricate, machine-tooled things of rare brilliance, obviously an absolute swine to work out. They’re funny in and of themselves because they’re so ridiculously contrived (and yet perfectly credible within his story world). But the other level of comedy, which is kind of superimposed over that (sort of defying the Zucker Proposition), is the language in which the plot is expressed, and here Wodehouse scores laughs simply by how he describes things. One can see that a first draft might include expositional and scene-setting sentences that aren’t funny in themselves, while a polish would turn even the most straightforward, informational bit into something with its own comedic snap and flounce.

Anyhow, all I did in rewriting MR IF was add some more silly stuff, which follows.

Now read on —

INT. WAREHOUSE – NIGHT

Ticking.

Sheena examines the wall with the door painted on it in frustration, using her specs as a crude magnifying glass. She sighs – not a crack in it.

On the cinema screen, a shot of stars twinkling.

MR. IF (V.O.)

This is The Universe. Modern science reveals it as nought but a collection of microscopic particles, perhaps as many as fifty-seven.

Shot of dividing cells seen through a microscope. A title: PARTICLES.

SHEENA

Think, damn it! A locked room mystery? There must be a way out! Or at least a way in.

A WHIRRING.

A clockwork MOUSE trundles its way towards Sheena. Dragging from its tail are little metal boots, like the one you get as a counter in a game of Monopoly.

Sheena follows the mouse.

MR. IF (V.O.)

These particles, known to physics as “items”, perform many functions.

A shot of a rocking chair and a beach ball, side by side.

MR. IF (V.O.)

They stop one thing from becoming another.

A SPINDLY MAN enters and looks at the chair and beach ball.

MR. IF (V.O.)

But what if we WANT one thing to become another?

The man sits on the ball, falls off, and lies as if dead.

Sheena’s mouse weaves about the room at speed and vanishes into a cartoony mouse hole in the skirting board.

A sharp CRACK. Sheena looks around. No sign of what that was.

MR. IF (V.O.)

What if we wish to be freed from the tyranny of these so-called “items”?

If appears in close-up, delighted.

MR. IF (V.O.)

Good news! For now we can! Scientism now reveals that matter is composed of energy, which is information. Facts are all that imprison us!

(sudden deep voice)

WHERE IS MY FILE?

Beside the mouse hole is a little glass pedestal with a miniature whiskey bottle on it. The label on the bottle says DRINK ME.

SHEENA

Well…what have I got to lose?

She takes a swig from the miniature.

CREAK! A much larger mouse hole opens in the wall. Large enough for Sheena to crawl through.

She crawls through.

MR. IF (V.O.)

WHERE IS MY FILE? WHERE IS MY FILE?

INT. NEW ROOM, WAREHOUSE – NIGHT

Sheena reaches the next room, where she finds the clockwork mouse crushed in the grip of a mousetrap. Little springs and cogs spill from the rodent’s ruptured tin carcass.

Just past the slain automaton, a wicker basket.

Sheena crawls the few feet to it and looks in.

Her reflection looks out at her, puzzled.

And from the ceiling a Guillotine blade is released, falling towards Sheena’s exposed neck.

SHUNK!

EXT. ZOO – NIGHT

Turner slams the door on Howie’s cage, with Howie, and Edward Woodward in his box, inside it.

TURNER

Stay here. Stay out of trouble. I’ll let you know when we crack the case.

HOWIE

(under his breath)

Fat chance of that.

He takes some fish from his pocket and gives it to the cat.

HOWIE

Let me have a last look at that note.

Turner sighs and shows it to him.

HOWIE

“Serge herd high her crag retch egg fleck.”

TURNER

Call me if you think of anything. Leave a message if I’m out. DO NOT try to investigate this yourself. I’m a detective and you’re an exhibit and there are reasons for that.

Turner marches off, leaving Howie disgruntled.

HOWIE

(to Edward Woodward)

What would author John Fowles do in this situation?

INT. WAREHOUSE – NIGHT

Sheena’s body lies next to the great guillotine blade, now embedded in the floor.

She moves.

She sits up – her head is still attached. She rubs her scalp, which has had a tiny piece of hair shaved off, like a micro monk’s tonsure. She looks at her hands. The middle fingernails have been clipped short, her other nails are long. The trailing Marigold sleeves of her bridal gown are truncated, losing several latex fingertips.

SHEENA

What would Miss Marple do in this situation?

She shouts up at the ceiling:

SHEENA

Motherfucker!

Her voice reverberates off into the dark, formless room.

REVERBERATIONS

Motherfucker! Motherfucker! Motherfucker!

She gets up, furious.

SHEENA

I’m a human being!

REVERBERATIONS

I’m a human beeeeeee-aaaaaaaaaa-rrrrrrrrrr-oooooooo-eeeeeee…where is my file?

The echo, in Sheena’s voice but saying something she didn’t say, freaks her out. She looks around for an exit.

A mural of William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea points to a black curtain. Sheena fights her way through the folds into –

INT. BOUDOIR, WAREHOUSE – NIGHT

Representative fragments of an opulent shagging parlour assembled in a bare brick bunker.

A dressing table covered with gingerbread men, some of them broken. The dressing mirror is badly warped.

An ancient gramophone crackles out thirties British jazz. The singer sounds stoned and distant.

SINGER (ON RECORD)

Where, oh where, is my file?

Was it eaten by a crododile?

Did you give it to a necrophile?

Where, oh where, is my file?

The floor is a field of poppies.

A khaki bowling ball.

A massive bed. The covers pulls themselves aside seductively.

Sheena takes an unsteady step. She’s dizzy.

The poppies…

In the dressing table mirror she sees the reflection of a STAGE DOOR sign. She turns and staggers to the door.

It’s another trompe l’oeil painting.

She lurches away and sits down heavily on the bed.

SHEENA

Think…think. When you have eliminated the impossible…

The poppies wave hypnotically…

The record slows down, down, down…

Sheena’s eyelids grow heavy…

SHEENA

When you have eliminated six impossible things before breakfast…

An alarm clock TICKS: ten to twelve…

SHEENA

When you have eliminated breakfast, whatever remains must be true…

Sheena falls back into bed and everything goes out of focus.

EXT. ZOO  – DAY

Howie puts down his copy of THE MAGUS. Looks around at the various herd animals in the zoo –

HOWIE

“Serge herd high…” Herd… Herd animals… Zebras… Giraffes… Impalas

– and spots a stiff man in a blue serge suit watching the impalas. This is HORACE FOYLE.

Howie slips from his cage and approaches.

HOWIE

I have a note containing the word “serge” which your suit seems to chime with.

HORACE FOYLE

That’s an unusual but, on the whole, refreshing way to open a conversation.

HOWIE

Thanks. What do you do for a living?

HORACE FOYLE

Again, a pleasing bluntness. I am Horace Foyle, mountaineer.

HOWIE

So the words “high” and “crag”, on my note also have some relevance.

HORACE FOYLE

You could say that. May I see this note?

HOWIE

I committed it to memory. Some git has it now.

HORACE FOYLE

That seems a shame. Join me for eggs in the zoo cafeteria and we’ll discuss this further.

INT. CHICKEN LITTLE’S CAFE, ZOO -DAY

Howie and Foyle at a formica table, a soft-boiled egg apiece.

Howie stares at his as if trying to divine some hidden meaning from it.

Foyle decapitates his egg and spoons in a hot mouthful.

HORACE FOYLE

You seem distracted, my friend. As one who often scales an Alp before breakfast, I –

Foyle begins to choke. Bits of eggs spray from his mouth and spatter his suit. Howie stares, transfixed, as Foyle begins to turn blue.

HOWIE

“Serge herd high her crag retch egg fleck.” It’s all there. But WHY?

Foyle keels over.

INT. BOUDOIR, WAREHOUSE – DAY

Sheena, still sat on the bed. Her head nods sleepily.

The room swims in and out of focus.

SINGER (ON RECORD)

Where, oh where, is my file?

Did mail it to a distant isle?

Or did you spatter it with camomile?

Where, oh where, is my file?

Sheena comes to her senses a little, frowning at something:

The EXIT sign over the fake door actually says TIXE. The letters are reversed.

SHEENA

Back words. Word’s back…wards.

Only in the dressing table mirror does the sign reads EXIT.

Sheena groggily gets up, tripping on the khaki bowling ball in the middle of the poppy field floor.

She picks it up and looks at her warped image in the mirror.

SHEENA

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

She lobs the ball at the mirror.

SMASH.

SHEENA

Here’s a khaki bowling ball.

A secret passageway, opening onto darkness. A rumble as the ball trundles away into the gloom.

Sheena drunkenly throws herself through and plummets –

INT. CHICKEN LITTLE’S CAFE – DAY

UCK!

Howie Heimlichs the purple mountaineer and dislodges a morsel from his windpipe. As he does so, the unfortunate man’s leg comes off. A Prosthesis.

Howie notes carved letters on the plastic shin as the artificial appendage inches from the trouser leg.

HOWIE

A prosthesis?

HORACE FOYLE

My real one was –

(chokes)

snapped off by an enraged mammoth. I had this leg whittled from its tusk.

This is obviously bollocks.

HOWIE

What’s this written on it?

HORACE FOYLE

There’s nothing written on my leg.

HOWIE

Don’t be an arse. It says here, “Hawk guru to fig your ate.”

EXT. POLICE STATION – DAY

A big number 8 – the police station’s address. Turner pulls up in his car. His mobile rings – it’s PC. Thrower.

THROWER (PHONE)

No luck, Inspector. We’ve got men scouring the crags, searching chicken farms, and watching out for anything in serge. We’ve drawn a blank.

TURNER

I’m outside.

He hangs up and is about to get out when True Crime, the eraser-handed author, climbs into the passenger seat. Turner barely tolerates the stench of the man.

TRUE CRIME

I betook me the liberty of erasing the car door of your car so we could make hot conference. I bethought me something that might give you succor. A gleaning from my own mishap. In his stroppy jaunt to annihilation, If is inimical to factual account of his being. The dossier, file or coupon – these are his foes.

TURNER

Yes, there’s been some confusion about the whereabouts of his file.

TRUE CRIME

And, oh inspector, what of the duplicate?

Turner starts his car –

TURNER

Thanks, True Crime – you’ve given me an idea.

But the malodorous informant is gone.

To be continued…

The Ten Commandos

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2008 by dcairns

My Ten Commandos of Screenwriting (a couple of people said they would be interested in a list of screenwriting “rules” — well, I don’t believe in rules, but the reality of commandos is there for all to see).

A Sonar Commando of the 32nd Century.

In order to populate this list at all, it’s necessary to point out that even the most amorphous of commandos apply only to traditional dramatic narratives (including, to large extent, comedies) — I should probably spend the next 10,000 words defining what those are, but I’m not going to.

Re-reading this, I still find it over-prescriptive, but if people want guidelines / thoughts, these are some that I’ve found sort of useful. None of them will actually GET YOU STARTED though.

Commando One: Battalion Leader Brewte Masterson.

Write something you would genuinely like to see. But not something you have already seen and enjoyed.

Commando Two: Major Dirk “Honey” Sharples.

Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise. There must be some uncomfortable material that the audience has to work through to get to the joy. This will accentuate the pleasure when it comes. Maybe this should be an end result rather than a goal from the outset, I don’t know. But I do think that pure fun tends to be uninteresting. Even Laurel and Hardy have those strange cartoony bits where Ollie’s neck gets stretched, or whatever, which always freaked me out as a kid.

Commando Three: Corporal Steve Punishment.

Dramatic tension = something is at stake and the audience is concerned about the outcome. That’s it. Conflict is not necessary for this. A man struggling to get a door open is a dramatic situation, and there is no antagonist involved. To say that the door is the antagonist is just being silly. And commandos are never EVER silly.

Commando Four: Private Burke “Silly” Beggar.

Question marks are shaped like hooks because questions are the hooks that snare us and drag us along with a story. The audience must want the answers to questions. They must also believe that some of these questions are GOING to be answered. So you can’t just accumulate mysteries as the story goes on, you have to clear some of them up as you go, while creating new ones. The TV show Lost is actually very successful at this — sometimes it might have seemed, especially early on, that nothing would ever be explained in a satisfactory way, but the creators have so far reassured their audience by providing satisfactory solutions to SOME of the big mysteries.

Commando Five: Private Baragon.

Surprising that Baragon hasn’t risen in rank, despite his obvious leadership qualities.

Character arcs are not always necessary in comedy. Typically, comic characters are funny because of flaws and intractable behaviour. A certain predictability is necessary to make their silly behaviour logical. For instance, Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm has a tendency to fight for a principle even when the reasonable course would be to give in. His intransigence is a recognisable character trait which we grow to expect him to display, so while his behaviour is inappropriate and absurd, it is also grounded in character. This may be why the show improves as you watch more of it — we get to know the character, and his behaviour, while never less quixotic, is more credible.

But if Larry suddenly learned from his mistakes, he would cease to be funny.

An interesting example is GROUNDHOG DAY, a very successful comedy that’s so good, it gets away with turning into a drama partway through. As soon as Bill Murray resolves to use his situation to become a better person, the laughs start to dry up. There’s nothing intrinsically funny about watching somebody improve (I’m not sure disimproving would be funny either: could Macbeth, a play about the slow decay of the moral sense, translate into comedy?). But the film has hooked us in with its premise and its characters rather than purely with comedy, and so few even notice that they’ve stopped laughing. They’re still smiling very loudly.

But Buster Keaton made several great features where his character did not change (half of his films are about unworldly but hard-working fellows who succeed through perseverance or ingenuity, without changing who they are at all; the other half, which DO have character arcs, are about immature rich kids who have to acquire those traits) and Chaplin never changed. W.C. Fields and Mae West don’t change, and we love them for it. My God it would be AWFUL if they changed. Perhaps the ineffable unalterability of Laurel & Hardy made them better suited to shorts than features, but they did nevertheless make several terrific long-form films.

Comedy characters CAN change, and “learn important lessons,” it’s just that they needn’t ALWAYS.

Commando Six: Private Rocky Hemingway.

Films can do many things. Starting with a limited idea of what’s possible is not helpful. Expand your horizons beyond just a few types of commercial cinema before beginning. I want screenwriters to broaden the possibilities, at least a bit, with everything they write.

And: each element in a script should be multi-purpose. A scene does not justify its existence just by “Introducing a character,” or “showing that the bad guy has a human side.” Each scene should probably do several things: (1) move the action forward (2) create new questions (3) answer old questions (4) develop the characters (5) increase the tension (6) get a laugh — AT LEAST three of these. And every line of dialogue should justify its presence by (a) characterising the speaker (b) characterising the listener (c) advancing the plot (d) getting a laugh — AT LEAST two of these.

Commando Seven: Private Ernst “Gnasher” Mandibles.

Format and prose: learn how scripts are formatted and follow that. Nothing is gained by weird formatting. But the rules are simple, and need not be agonized over.

Develop good prose that evokes what you’re writing. If the scene is supposed to be exciting, use exciting, active language. If funny, be funny. But only while describing, as simply as possible, what the eventual audience will see and hear (while avoiding all constructions such as “we see” and “we hear”). Avoid technical descriptions of camerawork, but suggest the stylistic approach by language: a sentence equals a shot; “the hand turns the key” suggests a close-up. Rewriting: Remove excess words. Replace dull words with evocative ones.

Commando Eight: Private Gavin “Brick” Shithouse.

People obsess over structure without understanding it. Here’s what you need to know: introduce a narrative hook as soon as possible so that the audience is concerned about what happens next. If your first act gives us a character we like and a narrative problem for them to face, it can be five minutes long and that’s fine.

Don’t feed the audience a lot of exposition until they actually care. This is why people don’t really absorb the historical information in those crawls that go up the screen telling you who the Jacobites were.

In act two, things should get more complicated, with at least one major turning point. Usually the first half of act two builds up complications and the second half just keeps them in play. And often there’s a simplifying of issues so that the climax can be resolved in a straightforward dramatic way (often the dreaded “fight in a warehouse”).

At the end of act two, one aims for a moment when the conflict, or dramatic issue, becomes “locked”. The antagonistic characters are no longer able to back down, and must resolve their conflict. Or, the dramatic tension reaches a crisis point where it must be finally resolved. Often a countdown is introduced, so that we know this situation must be resolved WITHIN A GIVEN TIME-FRAME. It’s all about bringing the tension to maximum level.

Act three brings things to some kind of resolution: plot problems are resolved, character problems are worked through (important lessons can, if you really want, be learned) and the theme is brought into focus if it isn’t already.

Often the protagonist is going about things the wrong way until act three. Often there are three climactic problems to solve: an intellectual one, to give us the satisfaction of seeing something figured out, an emotional one (this is often very badly handled: moving conversations between people hanging from cliffs) to deliver the all-important character arc, and a physical one (the protagonist had better DO something).

Commando Nine: Private Bob Crunch.

The happiness graph: Kurt Vonnegut suggested you could plot the hero’s happiness on a graph. A popular form illustrates a character who is reasonably happy at the story’s beginning, becomes very unhappy due to testing circumstances, and emerges at the end very much happier than before. We could also plot the audience’s happiness, which might follow a similarly course in such a story. But part of the author’s task in a conventional drama is to create peaks and troughs on the graph, moments when the hero is very happy and very unhappy, or the audience is very happy or very unhappy.

“Oh good!” they cry, as the hero throws dust in his enemy’s eyes. “Oh no!” they cry, as the enemy calls in his three heavily-armed henchmen. In an exciting drama, the peaks get higher and the troughs get deeper as the story progresses, and they also get closer together, so that the graph of a third act should look like somebody having a heart attack. And it really applies to the audience more than the character. Observe how the darkest moment of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION comes right before the most pleasing. And the darkest moment is one of audience perception: we THINK something terrible has happened, and a moment later we learn that really, something wonderful has happened, instead. I actually like that movie best for how it illustrates this principle.

Commando Ten: Mascot Archie G. Marauder.

Audience sympathy is a very complex thing and it’s generally talked about as if it were a very simple thing. There’s a screenwriting book called Save the Cat! which suggests that you should have your hero do something lovely early in act one (i.e. save a cat) so the audience will like him. I don’t despise that book or that idea, but I do think it’s better to have the character make a choice that makes us respect him/her, rather than just do an arbitrary good deed.

And OF COURSE there are fascinating and successful UNsympathetic lead characters. The “heroes” of SCARFACE and THE PUBLIC ENEMY aren’t “sympathetic” at all, but they are fascinating. I think this gets overlooked because, while it’s easy to see why a likeable character would draw the audience in, get them rooting for their success, it’s much harder to say why these films work. Muni and Cagney are remarkable in them. Does the Irish gangster film RESURRECTION MAN fail because Stuart Townsend isn’t as good (he’s certainly not bad) or because of some more complicated question of the way the films work? Where does SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS fit in? The “lethal innocence” of the nice characters makes them ultimately dangerous, like Tweetie Pie, and the protagonist is a ratfink from the get-go, but maybe we’re on his side because he’s trying not to be destroyed by an even bigger bastard. Like I say, it’s complicated, and we should remember that.