Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #93: Play By The Rules

I once wrote a spec script in which one character had psychic powers, but I was a little sloppy about the rules. The powers worked slightly differently from scene to scene, depending on what sort of danger I wanted to create. My managers loved the script but insisted that I nail down exactly how the powers worked in the next draft. I thought this was silly. The audience doesn’t care about a bunch of rules, I thought, and the powers are just a metaphor anyway. Why not bend the rules as I go along?

It took me years to figure out why I was wrong. The rules of your world have to be perfectly clear so that your audience can try to anticipate what might happen next. Audiences engage with movies by playing a guessing game. How will the hero solve the problem? What would I do in this situation? Will I spot the heroes’ solution before they do? Or will they come up with something I didn’t spot?But the audience can’t play that game if they don’t know all the rules.

That is why we need to know the exact powers of your superhero, and exactly how physics works on your fantasy world, and exactly what the threats are facing the family farm in your drama. The heroic finale, the surprising twist, the solution to the mystery all need to be things that the audience could have anticipated, or they will be unsatisfied.

If you’ve created a world where anything can happen, you’ve messed up. You should create a world in which one of five things might happen, and the reader can’t decide which of those five it will be, and then they’re shocked which one happens. Or maybe a sixth thing happens that they didn’t suspect, but they instantly realize that they should have considered that possibility.

Although few moviegoers guessed what was really going on in the remake of Ocean’s Eleven, it still felt fair when all was revealed. We realized that we really had seen enough to guess, and now we were kicking ourselves for failing to pick up on the important clues.

People walked out of that movie feeling dazzled, so of course they made a sequel, but in the sequel, the moviemakers just cheated. In the final twist, they revealed that the gang had secretly achieved their goal offscreen, and everything after that was just an elaborate con. Audiences were viscerally disgusted. They had been tricked into playing a rigged game, one that they had no chance to winning.

The audience is your opponent on the other side of the chessboard, trying to figure out what you’ll do two moves ahead. Even if you win that game, they’ll be happy to get a pleasant mental workout. But if you just cheat and change the rules halfway through, they’ll never want to play with you again.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

'If you’ve created a world where anything can happen, you’ve messed up.'

Tell that to the 'Lost' writers. Exhibit A:

Jacob: Jack, if you want to be the guardian of the island you have to drink water from the magic pond reciting these magic words.

Jack: OK.

Later...

Jack: Hurley, if you want to be the guardian of the island you have to drink water from... Uh, you know? Fuck the magic pond! Better you take the water from this bottle I was carrying with me all the time. And I can't remember all this magic mumbo-jumbo, so... Forget it! You're the guardian, right?

Hurley: Oh, dude!

Matt Bird said...

I think you're confused... there were only five seasons of Lost. It ended when Jack blew up the bomb and undid everything that had happened. The dialogue you cite seems to be from some sort of non-existent "sixth season".

Anonymous said...

lol

Betty (Beth) said...

Good points here. I always enjoy reading your thoughts!

Your post absolutely reminded me of BSG, and I think this is a particular reason the show went wrong. By the end of the series (and especially dealing with the 5 unknown Cylons), I really had the feeling they were just making things up without regard for anything that had happened before.

Matt Bird said...

Both Lost and Battlestar Galactica had most of their original writing staff gone by the last season, and I think the new writers were openly contemptuous of all the mysteries they got stuck with, which is why both shows ended with God showing up and hastily sorting everything out. I think Aristotle had something to say about that....

j.s. said...

I think this is a part of my huge problem with the entire fantasy genre. Even the story worlds that purport to stick to their own rules. Fantasy seems by its nature to foreground the one aspect of stories that audiences should never be so consciously aware of: The rules and the world and the story itself -- even the best-written ones -- are on some level completely arbitrary in the first place. If anything can happen magically, why should any small bit of it matter to us? Because of the ease with which J.K. Rowling invents new spells and monsters, it just never feels like such a giant achievement for her hero Harry Potter to accomplish any of his goals. The createdness of the the whole thing constantly reminds us of the hand of the creator. More than in any other genre, we sense that the fantasy writer has his/her hero's back. In any case, even the lesser fantasy scribe certainly has his/her backgrounds.

Beth said...

Well, j.s., that is what fans of fantasy love - entering a storyworld with different rules from our own. But yes, the rules have to be consistant in order the make the world belivable. But just because the rules of a fantasy world are different doesn't mean the characters don't fear and love and die. Rowling is a bad example, because her fantasy world is weak, (it's a cozy boarding school story with a dash of magic). Tolkien is the classic example; there are real struggles that magic can't solve. And his characters don't leave that story unscathed.

rams said...

@js -- This is why so many of us love Terry Pratchett. Even though the Discworld has magic the way we have magnetism, it also has physics, so that transformation is still subject to the laws of conservation of matter. It also has a chief of police, Sam Vimes, who won't allow magic in law enforcement and mutters something at one point like "And that's why I hate magic. Because that's all the explanation there is -- it's magic ..."

Matt Bird said...

Okay, rather than tackle all this in the comments, I'll continue this discussion in tonight's rule... The short version is: Yes, it's incredibly hard to "play fair" if you're the one making up the rules, such as in magic stories, but it can be done, and I think that Rowling and some others do it well.

Libby said...

I happen to think Rowling does it well, but then I'm not very rational about HP...

I do agree with the Ocean's 12 example, and it definitely felt like a cheat when I saw the movie...I still liked it, largely because my favorite scene was watching how the non-cheater (well, except for the whole fake wake-up call trick) did it. The dance across the laser field was awesome!