Two elements of my approach to teaching story have always been on the controversial side. Wouldn’t have it any other way – if you want vanilla, take a community college writing class.
If you want to publish, stick around here.
First, I advocate that novelists study movies, and screenwriters study literature. And second, with regard to the former, I don’t hesitate to recommend a mediocre or even a bad film if it illustrates and clarifies some principle of storytelling. Because often they do, and it may be that the very lack of subtlety in doing so is what turned the critics off.
Then again, it might just suck, even though everything is in the right place. This is art, and sometimes even art, done by the book, doesn’t hit a home run. Go that store in the mall with all those beautiful oil paintings for 75 bucks… they’re all better than you and I can do — which means there’s something to learn from them — and they’re all technically sound, too.
The Maltese Falcon and Gone With the Wind and the literary work of Dostoyevsky teach us little about storytelling in today’s professional marketplace for commercial novels and screenplays, which is the point.
That’s why I’m recommending you see the current mind-warping film, “The Box,” based on a short story by Richard Matheson (of “I Am Legend” fame, and many other iconic stories), starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden.
I often talk about finding a concept that is highly original, wildly compelling and creates a robust dramatic stage upon which a story can unfold. This story does that in spades.
This is a huge “what if?” proposition: what if someone brought you a box with a button on it, and told you that if you pushed the button you’ll receive one million dollars, free and clear… but… someone, somewhere will die at the moment you do it? What would you do?
The question merits, even demands, an answer. Which is why it works.
Theme is one of the six core competencies of storytelling – perhaps the toughest to wrap your head around – and this story is nothing if not wall to wall theme. And it does it perfectly, without preaching, and within the context of dramatic narrative. It asks the viewer to decide what they would do, and the answer is laden with consequences and agenda.
If you can’t catch the essence of a set of themes here, maybe you should take up oil painting.
These characters – both good guys and bad guys and a few in between – are perfectly introduced in the Part 1 set-up, with meaningful backstories and agendas set into play that not only come into jeopardy after the first plot point, but also drive their response to that plot point, as well as our emotional investment in what happens next. The stakes are huge, and they begin getting that way in Part 1.
And, the heroes here (there are two) clearly evolve through the four stages of orphan, wanderer, warrior and then, very literally martyr. If that metaphor has confused you in the past, you can see it play out before your eyes here.
Structurally speaking, the movie is a model for the four-part sequence and its essential milestones. All of them come straight at you, and they are all in the right place in the story sequence.
As in the Michael Mann-directed movie Collateral, a major plot twist comes after about 20 minutes, which is easily mistaken as the First Plot Point. But it’s not… look for a scene about six or seven minutes later that explains what all this means to the characters going forward (in terms of defining the ensuing journey and its inherent stakes), and with the antagonistic force in full view, which is the very essence of a First Plot Point.
Watch and Learn
Nothing teaches the principles of storytelling, especially structure, better than experiencing a story well told. “The Box” fits the bill, big time.
And who knows, you might even have a good time, or at least an intense vicarious experience. Because like the old Robert Redford/Demi Moore flick Indecent Proposal (another iconic theme movie), you’ll find yourself thinking about – and perhaps arguing about – what you would have done, and for a long time after the credits role.