My brain likes to construct analogies. I don’t know why, it just does. Possibly it helps me learn or remember? Maybe I feel it’s the only way I can communicate things to other people?
I don’t know, all I know is they pop unbidden into my head on an alarmingly regular basis.
The latest one is about rivers.
I was thinking about someone else’s analogy (possibly Bill Martell‘s?) about how changing something at the beginning of a story is like dumping dye into a river – it changes everything from then on.
I love this analogy – there’s no such thing as a small change at the beginning of a script, everything has a knock on effect.
Conversely, I also love the one about being asked to change the ending is a bit like being asked to move the pyramid’s point three feet to the left.
No idea whose that one was.
But back to rivers.
It occurs to me that films are like dye-filled-rivers in other ways. To begin with, the river is your story. You know where it begins and in which direction it flows. Personally, I like to know where the end is too.
I want to know it’s a story about someone who does something – the film will be over when that person achieves that thing … or fails in a poignant way. Not knowing that beginning and end point is a bit like watching a race where the end isn’t clear … it’s hard for me to get excited if I’ve no idea how long it’s going to go on for or when anyone’s getting close to winning/losing.
Conversely, I don’t want to be able to see a straight bit of river from the start line to the finishing line. I want to know where the finishing line is … but not how to get there. The best films (to me) have a clear end point which seems utterly unobtainable for the protagonist.
I want there to be twists and turns and bends and dead ends between here and there … but I want to know (vaguely) where ‘there’ is.
I know not everyone feels like that. One of my bugbears is people complaining the end is obvious when it’s inherent in the genre.
- Rom-coms are boring because you know they’re going to end up together.
- Hero films are boring because you know Bond/Batman/whoever will win.
- Detective stories are boring because you know they’ll catch the villain.
Suspend your disbelief, for fuck’s sake! Everything’s boring if you think like that. Football matches are boring because either one of the teams will win or they’ll draw* – it’s the journey, the bit of river on the way to the end which is important.
Knowing the ending in a general sense is important to the process. Imagine watching a football match where there were no goal posts and no scores kept. Players just kicked the ball back and forth for an unknown period of time … and then stopped. I’m not convinced that would become a multi-billion pound industry.
You’re supposed to know vaguely what the ending might be … just not how the people get there or exactly how they’ll cross the line.
Yes, I’m aware I’m mixing metaphors/analogies here but it’s my blog and I’ll ramble inanely if I want to.
Back to rivers.
So the finishing line should be clear, but not visible from the starting line. We just need to know there is one and what crossing it means.
If choosing your story is like choosing a river, then maybe choosing the colour of the (eco-friendly) dye you’re about to dump into it is like choosing the genre?
Most stories can be multiple genres, it doesn’t take much to change a story from horror to comedy or comedy to tragedy. The same basic events can be told in different ways to make different genres. We choose our colour/genre at the outset and so long as we stick to that … or maybe fade gently from one to another^ then we’re fine.
Okay, so you can mix genres together. Frost/Nixon is a political story which uses boxing movie tropes. Fine. Red and blue makes purple, that’s fine … so long as it’s uniformly purple or fades nicely from one to the other. The problem comes when the colours are patchy and random. This bit’s horror, this bit’s comedy, this bit’s meant to be serious but people are still laughing at the last bit. A red bit, a blue bit, some green … it’s a mess.
Pick a colour/genre (or combination of) and stick to them throughout. Contrast if you want to … but make sure the colour changes harmonise.
If colour is the genre then maybe the hue/shade is the tone? Again, consistency is the key. That or slowly fading out or darkening? Imagine dumping green comedy into a river, it’s bright at the beginning but slowly fades away/disperses as we move down river. That’s fine, isn’t it? Most comedies have a serious bit near the end.
A consistent green might indicate a consistent type of comedy. A family/friendly comedy (lime green) which suddenly starts making jokes about fucking cadavers (bottle green) is jarring. Or maybe a comedy where the green fades in and out – funny bit, serious bit, boring bit, funny bit … just doesn’t work.
Unless it does.
Unfortunately, the other thing my brain likes to do is think up counter arguments to itself. This is about as far as I can stretch an analogy before I start heckling myself and telling me I’m full of shit.
Hey me, it’s just a way of thinking about things. If it’s useful, use it … if it’s not, don’t. No need to get all sweary about it.
Stories are like rivers. Sometimes. Other times, they’re not.
* Actually, this is why I don’t really watch sport – I have no interest in who wins. I don’t know any of the players and I just don’t care. I guess if I picked a team at random and decided to support them I’d get into it … but I don’t need more stuff to obsess about in my life.
^ Yes, I know From Dusk to Dawn crashes from one genre to another in the middle. It can be done … but usually badly.