I’ve been thinking about different ways of driving a story, about how we keep an audience leaning forward in nail-biting tension, wondering what happens next … as opposed to lolling in the seat looking at background details and wondering if they remembered to take the chops out of the freezer.
Two techniques I use are the thread of desire and the candle of knowledge.
The thread of desire is the protagonists goal and/or need. What does she want? What’s stopping her getting it? Hopefully part of what stopping her get what she wants is her own personality which won’t change until she gets what she needs. Possibly she may then discover she doesn’t want the thing after all … unless the thing is some cheese to fight the Nazis.
Then she probably will still want it.
The thread of desire pulls the protagonist through the movie and us with her. So long as it remains taut and present in every scene, we’ll follow along. Every scene should be (at its core) about the protagonist crawling painfully along this thread towards her goal. Sometimes the thread leads to a dead end and the protagonist has to back track, sometimes we switch to the antagonist and see them interfering with the thread …
… but it’s always there.
Okay, so we can have scenes which don’t feature the thread, but I think they need to be few and far between because, essentially, these scenes aren’t part of the story we’re telling. Annoyingly these scenes can often be the funniest or otherwise best scenes in the film … but too many of them and people lose interest.
Rock of Ages had this problem for me, it set up a couple of clear threads with a love story and a desire for fame/success … and yet there are lots and lots of scenes about Tom Cruise’s character. Lots of them. Very funny scenes with great songs in them … but the threads and the protagonists are nowhere to be seen.
The result, for me, was a film full of great scenes which would have been far better if a lot of them had been chopped out.
Just follow the thread.
Or threads. The love story is often a second thread which intertwines with the first. Sometimes that’s the thread of need as opposed to the thread of want, often we feel both these threads will resolve at roughly the same time. Hopefully at the end of the film.
Captain America: The First Avenger is one of those films where the thread of desire is resolved about an hour before the film ends. We follow Steve Rogers on this journey to become Captain America … and when he gets everything he ever wanted … there’s still another hour of film to go. The film would have been more satisfying to me if the thread had resolved at the end.
Okay, so there were still Nazis who needed punching … but it’s not as emotionally satisfying without that thread.
The thread of desire isn’t too difficult to weave into a story, because it is the story. If you don’t know what that thread is, then maybe you don’t know what your story is? If you can’t point at the thread in any given scene, maybe that scene doesn’t belong in the story?
The candle of knowledge, on the other hand, is a tricky beast.
Most films (maybe apart from sequels?) begin with the candle of knowledge. We begin each film in the dark – who is it about? What is it about? Why is it about them? All we have is questions …
Unless you’ve seen a trailer which neatly summarises the first act … in which case we’re passively watching how knowledge is given out rather than actively gathering the knowledge ourselves.
But assuming we don’t know anything and are experiencing the story in the way it was intended to be experienced, the script is the candle which illuminates the darkness of ignorance. Every time it shines on something we gain a little piece of information.
This story’s about a man.
He works at a dentist’s office …
Oh, but he’s not a dentist …
The edges of the light, the gloom, is where our curiosity lies … what’s that thing at the edge of the light? If he’s not a dentist, why is he dressed like one? Our curiosity keeps us interested, it keeps us peering at the edges of the light, at the darkness just out of sight, waiting to be illuminated.
Memento is a great example of this – there is almost nothing to that film beyond curiosity about what happened to get us to this point. The scenes themselves aren’t particularly interesting if you know exactly what came before … but we don’t and it’s that ignorance, our curiosity about the darkness and what it contains which keeps us interested.
Most films begin with the candle of knowledge and then hand over to the thread of desire, keeping just enough in the darkness to keep us interested. Some are pure thread, like action movies – they don’t always need a twist or a surprise piece of information so long as the thread remains taut and it’s going through the most difficult terrain imaginable for the protagonist.
If our action hero wanders off in the middle of the story to do some shopping for things which have no relevance to anything … it may be funny, but equally it may be boring.
Murder mysteries rely more heavily on the candle, but maybe the best of them have a thread running throughout too?
I find relying on curiosity to retain interest to be a dangerous game because you’re relying on the audience not finding the light switch. As soon as they figure out what’s going on, the lights are on and the candle is useless.
Unless there’s a power cut, which in terms of this metaphor is … um … something. I don’t know. Nor do I know how to end this post. I should probably just write something pithy and stop.