Personal Growth - How Much is Good for You

For all you film-makers and film-viewers out there - I hope you'll link up and share your thoughts.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Big Story Tricks No.1 - "Make Your Baddy Badder"

Donald Pleasance is Blofelt
Over the years people, movies, novels, stories have handed down to writers a few "tricks of the trade"-  I'm going to pass them on to you.  None of them are new - they're as old as the hills.  None of them are fancy.  They are obvious.  They're not complicated.  They are simple.  Simple and fantastically useful.  In fact, you already know them.  I'm just going to remind you that you do.  This first is called "Make your Baddy Badder" and it is, in my opinion, one of the most important "Tricks" in the bag.  Click the "Read More" link to read on.

But why are you reading this?  Why do you think you need to look for new insights on how to build and tell a story?

If you want to jump straight to the "trick" - go ahead - it's down below, heading is in BOLD.  But it might be worth having a think about how you use it.

There are a thousand "How To" screenwriting/writing books out there.  Hundreds of thousands of pages of advice on strengthening this and fixing that.  And, well, the sum effect of most of these tomes is to scare the sh** out of all of us writers and film-makers.  "Oh," we think, "I'd never thought of it like that.  I've written quite a lot," we tell ourselves,  "but the fact that I didn't know that, or fully understand THAT must mean that I'm a complete moron and not qualified to even fantasize that I might be able to write a story that could hook a solitary soul."

So, like the self-help industry, the writers of these tomes have a lot to gain by keeping us insecure - might just encourage us to buy the sequel.

So, I'm a writer and I'm the Director of an Institute that tries to help writers/filmmakers make the most of their stories and get them made.  And any half-honest individual who has been writing and selling stories for a lot of years will tell you that long-winded lists of do's and don'ts aren't worth the paper that they're written on.  You keep taking your eye off your story and panicking.  There is a school of thought that you've just got to glue your butt to a seat for a lot of hours and beat the hell out of your laptop and, as much as is humanly possible, attempt to enjoy it - haven't you?    For me, there's the third way.  Steal from the masters.  Learn the "tricks".  I use the word, advisedly.  A good storyteller is a magician, isn't she/he?  So here is number one.

We writers spend a hell of a lot of time trying to figure out what our protagonist wants.  Most of the time we try to make it a simple, conscious goal that is clear to our audience.  And then we construct a series of ever more difficult obstacles for the protagonist to overcome.  Again, most of the time, we try to make our protagonist proactive - we want to get him to do stuff not just be.  And all of this is as it should be.  But what event/s kicked this story off?  It is very often the case that it is the agenda of the baddy that our hero/ine has to react to.  Let's take an obvious example.  Why is James Bond the world's greatest spy?   He's intelligent, fit, good with a gun, great with the ladies.  But that is not why he's the best.  He's the best, because he's up against Blofelt.  (The franchise has gone a bit touchy-feelly these days.  In the old days it was quite straight forward - the baddy wanted to rule the world.  Nice and simple.  You decide for yourself whether the stories got better or not.)  The big point is, in the Bond movies it is the SCALE of the baddy and his cohorts that gives James Bond his extraordinary status.  So far, so obvious.
Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton in "Ordinary People"

So jump sideways and ask yourself of your baddy, "What does he want?  And why?  What's the worst thing that could happen to him/her?  What's the best thing?"  In other words think of your baddy as if he was your goody.   It is quite possible that you'll benefit from leaving a lot of this information out of your story - take it too far and you'll find you just turned your antagonist into your protagonist.  But the investigation will help you enormously in the area of plausibility.  So many poor stories have been written as a consequence of the Baddy's agenda just not making sense.

Bond's Blofelt is beautifully simple in his insane goal to rule the world.  In "Goodfellas" (1990, writers: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese) by contrast we have a wonderfully complex structure of antagonists.  The mob boss (Paul Cicero played by Paul Sorvino) holds the greatest power but Joe Pesci playing Tommy DeVito represents the end of the moral line.  Combined they serve to make our anti-hero, Ray Liotta playing Henry Hill seem a thoroughly well-balanced and, comparatively, virtuous individual.  Paul wants to scare people into handing over money, Tommy is one of the scariest tools in his armoury and Henry is a vulnerable young man tempted by the pull of power.  "Goodfellas" is not just a great gangster movie, its a great moral fable.  And the role of the baddy is almost invariably to establish a moral compass for our hero AND the audience.

One great example of this exists in the movie "Ordinary People" (1980)  which won Alvin Sergeant (and Nancy Dowd, uncredited) the Oscar for best adapted Screenplay from Judith Guest's novel.  But, incidentally, won Best Picture, Best Director (Robert  Redford) and Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton).  Mary Tyler Moore, who was the Badder Baddy, was nominated for Best Actress but lost out to Sissy Spacek playing Loretta Lyn in "The Coal Miner's Daughter".  The Academy has a tendency to give the gong to the goody not the Baddy!  In Mary Tyler Moore's Beth Jarrett (a mother who hates her son) the writers created one of the most disturbing antagonists in film history.  She is the Hannibal Lector of the kitchen drama.  Her agenda is to make her son, Timothy Hutton's Conrad, suffer.  This is a simple goal, plausible in the context of the story (she's lost her favoured son in a boat accident that Conrad survived) and pretty scary.

When we say "make your Baddy badder" - what the trick really means is "make your Baddy want something very plausible and very painful for someone else - the hero".  And that's it.

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