Story drops

Something I dislike while watching a movie, and something I try to avoid when writing one, is when the story drops – a point in a film where there is no more story, no more goals to attain, no paths to walk, no lessons to be learnt.

Unless, of course, you’ve reached the end of the film – then that’s fair enough. But I dislike a story drop in the middle of the film, when one story ends and there’s a pause before the next one begins. Even if the pause is only a few seconds, that’s a few seconds where the audience are thinking: “Is that it? Can I go now?”

It sounds like an obvious pitfall to avoid, but it does happen.

Hancock springs immediately to mind, like an enthusiastic puppy who’s tried to show how much he loves you by biting a child in half. Two separate stories with no appreciable join. One ends, they go for dinner, the next one begins. The result is everyone complaining it’s two films joined together.

It’s not, it’s two stories NOT joined together.

The first opposite example I can think of, bearing in mind I’m busy, hungry and don’t want to be here, is True Lies. Two stories which aren’t even woven together that much, but somehow seem like a coherent film.

Somehow? That kind of vagueness isn’t applicable, we’re writers, God damn it. We need to understand why.

Okay, so there are two stories:

  1. Arnie has to stop terrorists who’ve got a nuclear bomb.
  2. Arnie’s wife is bored and about to have an affair – he needs to win her back.

What actually happens is we start with story one for a bit, then we forget about it and move to story two; but there’re enough questions left hanging about story one for us to want to find out how it will end. Story two goes almost all the way through its arc: Arnie stops his wife having the affair (even though she wasn’t really going to do it, she does love after all), he gives her the excitement she craves and reveals himself to her. All they have to do now is kiss, she finds out he really is the man of her fantasies and that story is over.

At this point, the hotel/dancing scene, we’ve pretty much forgotten all about story one. If they kiss and story two ends, there’ll be a story drop. “Is that the end of the film? Wasn’t there some terrorists or something? Fuck it, let’s go to the pub.”

So it’s vital BEFORE they kiss, the terrorists break in and the two stories smoosh into one. The kiss gets shoved back until the end of act two and it all seems like two great stories in one magnificent film instead of two short films glued together.

It would have been very easy (and very crap) to have the kiss and make up in the hotel scene, then get back to the terrorists – but then you’d have this odd section for the first half of act two where there were no terrorists, no fights and all Arnie did was bang on about his wife for a bit.

And all it took to make the film seem like one film was to move two sequences – the explanation: “I’m a spy.” “Fuck me!”; and the kiss: “Actually, that’s kind of hot. Fuck me. Seriously, do it now.” … the third act of that story.

Same with Hancock – move the bit where he achieves his goal of public acceptance by saving people (the explanation: “It’s okay, he’s a good guy!”; and the kiss – or handshake in this case: “Well done, jolly good show.”) to the end of the film and hooray, one really cool film instead of two good films with a dinner break in the middle.

Every now and then I find a story drop in one of my scripts and it annoys the piss out of me. It shouldn’t happen, there shouldn’t be moments where if you stopped reading, you wouldn’t feel like you’d missed anything.

It’s a fairly simple rule, but one that needs to be drummed into me:

DON’T RESOLVE EVERY PROBLEM UNTIL THE END OF THE SCRIPT.

If there’s ever a point where your characters have nothing to worry about and can just slip off for a bit without anyone noticing – start again.

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Categories: Random Witterings, Things I've Learnt Recently | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Story drops

  1. Have you read Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson? It’s a wonderful example of two seemingly unrelated stories joining together in a “Fuck me, I didn’t see that coming” way at the end.

    • No, I haven’t – but I’ll put it on my list.

      By which I mean I’ll forget all about it until you remind me sometime in the (hopefully) near future.

  2. Too blinking right, Phill.

  3. Now you see I really dislike True Lies, because it’s two separate films smooshed together.

    Either one of which I’d have happily watched on its own, but which together irritated the tits off me.

    • Why am I not surprised, you contrary ole bastard you.

      So you don’t see them as two strands of the same story? I thought the rekindling of their marriage was the premise of the film and the terrorist bits gave them the situation in which to explore that story. Yes, you could have made a film about either strand but you could probably say that about any film with a strong subplot.

  4. I disliked it so much that I’ve never watched it again since. Which means my memory may be a little wonky. But based on my recollection:

    No. I saw no thematic resonance between the two stories, let alone plot interconnectedness.

    Damn. I’m going to have to watch the bloody thing again now, aren’t I.

  5. Hey, I stumbled across your site through Yahoo and just wanted to say that I really like it. I’ll definitely be bookmarking it!

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