Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Throwing Rocks at a Tree

There's an old saw that likens telling stories to forcing your character up into a tree (act 1), throwing rocks at the tree (act 2) and then bringing your character back down out of the tree (act 3). For instance, if you watch King Kong, it takes 45 minutes before the boat even gets to Skull Island and in that 45 minutes, you get to understand and relate to all the characters so that when Kong finally makes his entrance—at 1 hour 10 minutes!—the audience (hopefully) cares about the main characters because they're like people in a tree getting rocks thrown at them. And rocks hurt.

I mention this because writing Arousal, my horror screenplay, has changed colors unexpectedly: writing the first half of this script has been qualitatively different from writing the second half, both in the tone of the script and (perhaps unsurprisingly) the speed of its writing.

The first half of the story establishes the characters, sets up the situation, "loads" the plot. It's like weaving a massive tapestry which really turns out to be a series of interconnected slip knots... because when it comes time to move into act 2, everything gets messy real fast.

And so it is that the second half of the script is where all hell breaks loose. The first half has been mostly dialog and how the characters interrelate, hinting at sub-text... whereas the second half is fleshing out action and getting the fuck out of dodge as fast as possible. You'd think the first half, given all the exposition you need to cover, would take longer to write than the second half, but it's exactly the inverse because—in a first draft, anyway—action is hard to write succinctly and compellingly. For successive drafts, action will probably take a back seat while I spen 80% of my attention on improving sub-text and tweaking character interaction, punching up sub-plots, etc.

I've also been studying the horror genre to gain insight on audience expectations: Prophesy, The Hills Have Eyes, High Tension, Wrong Turn, Dawn Of The Dead. In each film, the characters are put into a situation they can't easily get out of, and we love to squirm as we watch them wriggle their way out of it. There is usually a good twist, too, where the main characters are forced to make a split-second decision to run for safety and leave their loved ones behind, or stay and protect them as the cost of losing their own lives. Most importantly, there always seems to be some dark twist at the very end... sometimes even after the credits roll.

1 comment:

T. said...

This all sounds interesting. Being a devoted fan of the horror genre and studying the formula, I think 'setting' used as an antagonist is a great and effective tool in these kinds of films, just as important as any character, and is, a character in itself.

The New Mexico desert comes to mind in Hills, The hostil in Hostil, the woods and cabin in Cabin Fever. The list goes on. If you put characters in a box, they need to overcome their circumstances while clawing their way out of the world in which those circumstances exist.

Best of luck.