Sometimes films or TV series work towards an unusually powerful scene or sequence which burns itself onto the memory of the viewer.
This is much more than a mere “twist” (often a disappointingly trite or unearned plot turn), but something which plays really profoundly on viewers’ perceptions and emotions, touching them in ways they may not entirely understand.
Q: But how do we achieve this effect?
A: By being aware of how to use information in a story, and making and breaking patterns of ideas in the minds of audiences.
My Deep Narrative Design workshop on November 24 sets out many ways in which you can create powerful stories using these methods.
For now, though, let’s look at a great example of making and breaking patterns in the first season of HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE.
Spoiler Alert: I’ll be revealing one particularly surprising moment of the story, although the season has many other intriguing character and plot elements.
The story features Louisiana State Police homicide detectives Rustin “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin “Marty” Hart (Woody Harrelson).
The two men embody contradictory sides of the standard “hard-boiled” detective – aspects which are usually contained in a single protagonist.
Hart is an unreflective man of action, all fists and fiery passion, while Cohle is a sort of nihilist philosopher-cum-policeman - detached, despairing, unfathomable. Both share an overarching sense of alienation, of being at odds with life.
As well as twin protagonists, True Detective has an unusual dual-timeline structure. In the story’s “present”, 2012, the two detectives are interrogated about a case they worked on some twenty years earlier.
As we move between the past and present, finding out about the case and seeing how time has changed the men, we learn why they’re being questioned: one of them is suspected of involvement in a recent murder related to the past case.
The Joys of Voiceover
As in many noir-inflected stories (SUNSET BOULEVARD, MEMENTO, DEXTER, etc), voiceover isn’t just an add-on here: it’s a vital part of the story’s design. The narrative just wouldn’t work without this way of putting us inside characters’ minds.
Patterns and Rules
Series creator Nic Pizzolatto set out clear ground rules for the story in his treatment, including this: “The narrating voice may lie, but the images we see never will. So an audience can be sure they know exactly what happened, and also that they can tell when one of the detectives is lying.”
The Unforgettable Sequence
For much of the season, Cohle and Hart's spoken testimony squares with what we're seeing onscreen. But in “The Secret Fate Of All Life,” the fifth of the season’s eight episodes, this pattern is broken.
The duo track a suspect to a meth lab hidden deep in the bayou. Finding two kidnapped and abused children in the compound, Hart is incensed and unnecessarily kills the suspect, who he’s already taken into custody.
But the voiceover we hear from the men as we watch these events tells an entirely different story.
As Hart and Cohle tell us that they came under intense fire and were obliged to retaliate, the scene that we see is quiet and tranquil. And then we watch as the men fake evidence of a desperate shootout which never happened.
They’re subsequently decorated and promoted for their heroism. But they've become conspirators in covering up a murder. It’s a lie on which the rest of their lives will be founded.
The Emotional Impact
I vividly remember the sense of unreality I experienced when watching this scene: a feeling which drew its power purely from the way in which information was “coded” in the story. With it went feelings of bafflement, almost betrayal, as the visual information I was receiving departed so far from the characters’ verbal descriptions.
It’s these moments of thrilling strangeness – when viewers feel cut adrift and experience something genuinely new and compelling – that we need to look for in our stories, and which makes them truly memorable.
And when reading scripts, these are the moments that producers and directors are searching for.
The brilliant title sequence which includes the images in this article were made by Elastic, and you can find out more about the ideas behind the sequence here.
For more details and to book on my Deep Narrative Design workshop, click here.
Thank you for reading, and please let me know of any thoughts or comments.
"If we do not initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat" - African Proverb
Rites of Passage as inspiration for stories
The primal nature of life-passages, and their profound social, psychological and biological significance, makes them a perfect basis for stories.
But what is a Rite of Passage?
A rite of passage is a ceremony or event marking the transition from one phase of life to another. People often use the phrase to describe the change from adolescence to adulthood (coming-of-age), but there are many other passages in our lives: becoming part of a group or organisation, getting married or starting other kinds of partnership, adjusting to old age …
And the most important passages are the big biological milestones - birth, maturity, reproduction and death.
Horror, Comedy and Drama
The joys and pains of moving (or not) on in life provide the motive force for many stories. A vast number of dramatic situations arise when people refuse or fail to make transitions, or are unprepared for their consequences. This can play out in a comic way, as in Failure to Launch (2006) or The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005).
On the other hand, some screen monsters are essentially people who’ve become stuck in a particular phase of life and can’t or won't move forward – like Norman Bates in Psycho (1960).
And when societies stop marking life passages adequately, people may find their own, less acceptable methods to do so (as expressed in the African proverb above). Think of the fatal "chicken run" car races to the edge of the cliffs in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Carrie as a “Failed Rite of Passage” story
Menstruation is a clear biological marker of the change from girlhood to adolescence, but in Carrie (1976, remade 2013), the title character’s religious-fanatic single mother hasn’t prepared her for it – so Carrie is humiliated when her first period happens unexpectedly, among her hateful and antagonistic classmates.
Meanwhile, the Senior Prom is approaching: itself a passage rite in American life which (at least in films) seems focused on distinguishing those able to find acceptable partners from the wallflowers and inadequates who can’t manage it.
Carrie’s classmates decide to continue her harassment at the Prom. But when she retaliates with her psychic powers, the event becomes (quite literally) a bloodbath – a fitting ending for a story whose inciting moment revolves around blood.
Sometimes it’s good to be a Werewolf
Ginger Snaps (2000) was also about a girl’s transition to adolescence, symbolised by her transformation into a werewolf - a theme also explored in The Company of Wolves (1984). The protagonist in Ginger Snaps comes to a sticky end, but in the latter story it’s a positive move when "Little Red Riding Hood" leaves home with the handsome werewolf who is to be her lover – she’s taken the next step in life.
The story suggests that we may need to embrace the darker side of our nature in order to move on and taste new experiences.
The positive aspects of becoming a monster are further explored in Wolf (1994). Jack Nicholson plays Will Randall, an ageing editor at a large publishing company. Younger, more rapacious colleagues are conspiring to ace him out of his job, and he’s failing in his struggle against them.
The scene is set for his passage into old age and retirement. But when he is “infected” by a werewolf attack and becomes a werewolf himself, his dwindling powers aren’t just restored: they’re massively heightened, giving him the qualities he needs to win out against his rivals.
The story's satirical suggestion is that one actually needs to be a monster in order to thrive in the corporate world.
Vampires and blocked Rites of Passage
Among other things, vampire stories show us what it’s like to be stuck in a single phase of life. Vampires don't grow old - or grow up. In some instances, like Let the Right One In and Byzantium, the central character is an eternal child or adolescent, but one who seems to have come to terms with this fact.
In Interview with the Vampire, however, Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia becomes vengeful and enraged when it dawns on her that she’ll never grow into a woman and know the pleasures of love, sexuality and motherhood. She tries to murder Lestat de Lioncourt, who was responsible for turning her into an ever-juvenile vampire.
These are just a few possibilities of a huge and fascinating theme which continues to inspire many different kinds of story.
And it's just one of the avenues for fresh stories in the Horror genre that I’ll be investigating in my workshop, Writing Horror Now, on January 23rd in London.
One of the students at my recent Writing Science Fiction workshop asked, "what is the definition of Science Fiction?"
It’s a good question.
A vast range of stories comes under this genre heading. Stories about aliens and robots. Post-apocalyptic stories and pre-apocalyptic stories. Time-travel stories, and ones that take place in alternative histories. Stories about the far future, and stories about the distant past. Epic “space operas” and small chamber pieces. Science Fiction covers a huge amount of ground - and not all of it has that much to do with science.
So how do so many diverse themes fit into a single genre?
One way to answer the question is to look at two films with similar themes and see what makes one Science Fiction, and the other … something else.
In BIGGER THAN LIFE (Nicholas Ray, 1958), schoolteacher Ed Avery is prescribed cortisone for a heart condition. The drug has an unexpected side-effect: he becomes suffused with a sense of personal power, megalomaniacally convinced that he has “a special plan for this world,” which he retails to a mixed response at his school’s PTA evening.
Later, feeling displeased with his son, Ed decides that he must deal with him in the manner of the biblical Abraham, who was ordered by God to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. Ed’s terrified wife reminds him that the Bible story was in the nature of a test: on seeing Abraham’s obedience, God relented and sent an angel to tell the faithful father to spare Isaac.
Ed answers his wife with the memorable line, “God was wrong.”
But the effects of the drug never really transcend Ed’s family and immediate surroundings, and we don’t feel that his estimation of his mental powers and leadership potential is accurate. It seems, instead, that he is horribly deluded. So Bigger Than Life remains a Social or Medical Drama – maybe a Psychodrama – rather than a Science Fiction story.
Let’s compare LIMITLESS (Neil Burger, 2011). When struggling writer Eddie Morra begins to take a smart drug, his intelligence actually is elevated. He can write long screeds of quality prose without effort; he has instant, detailed access to all his memories, no matter how fleeting or partial; his perceptions become extremely acute; and he can quickly synthesise all these elements into expert knowledge on virtually any subject, enabling him to earn a fortune as a Wall Street trader - evidently the fastest route he can envisage to complete financial independence.
In other words, the changes that the drug has made in Eddie are tested against a wider world – and found to be real.
Later in the film, Eddie must contend with another man who is also taking the smart drug, and is using his increased capacity to the more sinister ends of masterminding a violent criminal empire. This is a strong sign that the drug is indeed effective, and that it can be put to a wide variety of applications.
It’s possible to imagine a scenario in which the central conceit of Limitless is taken a step further, and just about everyone in a given society – or the world at large - has their intelligence and effectiveness raised by the drug. What would a planet full of individual geniuses, all pursuing their possibly conflicting ends, look like?
That’s a question for another day, but Eddie and Ed’s experience suggests a possible working definition of Science Fiction:
“A story with a novel (but plausible) twist on reality at its heart which has the potential to ripple out and affect the entire world in which the story is set.”
Please let me know if you have any further thoughts on this – perhaps you can come up with a much better definition?
I’ll be holding the Writing Science Fiction workshop again in the not-too-distant future – do get in touch if you would like to know more.
Science Fiction is a huge genre which can inform many kinds of story. And a major reason for its popularity is because there's something inherently cinematic about it.
One way to think about it this is to concentrate on the basic themes animating its stories - so let's take a specific example.
In some ways, Spike Jonze's HER (2013) is essentially a story about an isolated man who has separated from his wife, is in the throes of divorce, and can't deal with real relationships. So he takes refuge in fantasy.
It's also about the way in which people (especially men?) can become deeply involved with their computers, forming relationships with them which verge on the sexual.
Q. How would such a story play out in a more realistic genre?
A. Possibly as a tormented Psychodrama, in which a sweaty shut-in overindulges in internet porn, outed only when he furtively takes his laptop in for servicing.
In other words, it could have been a bit dour and introverted.
But Science Fiction enabled Jonze to tackle the topic in a lighter, less individualistic way.
He took the leeway SF offers to fabricate an infantilised, primary-coloured world around Theodore, his protagonist - a world in which everyone, male and female, is falling in love with their computer.
This meant that Jonze could look at the theme from various directions, and surprise us with our own reactions. Rather than repelling us with Theodore's behaviour, for instance, the story lets us share his giddy delight in the early flush of love with 'Samantha'.
Jonze uses Science Fiction to create a world that is visually intriguing, with a bittersweet story containing drama, emotion, surprises and reversals - in other words, a cinematic story.
Why is Science fiction cinematic?
Science Fiction opens up stories because the writer is obliged to create an entire world (or at least infer one) to support their basic "what if ..?" proposition.
Everything from from decor and design to customs and speech patterns underline the "what if..?"
This doesn't mean that Science Fiction films have got to be expensive.
We may only see one small corner of the new world, as in EX MACHINA (2015) or MOON (2009). In such cases the clues are particularly concentrated, with small indications pointing to a larger external reality.
Writing Science Fiction - a workshop
My Writing Science Fiction workshop takes place on September 26th. Come along to find out more, and leave with notes towards your own stories in the genre.
Click here for more details.
It's interesting how, within a few years of its making - sometimes even less - a film can become a "storage vat of regional memory" (a phrase coined by Deep Topographer Nick Papadimitriou) as the locations where it was shot change or disappear.
Why should one small corner of the world rather than another become a candidate for this kind of immortality? Many of the choices made by film crews probably depend as much on brute practicality - cheapness, accessibility, permission - as on any deeper considerations. And countless yet more poignant fragments of visual information may have been discarded on forgotten cutting-room floors, swept up in bins and bulldozed into oozing landfill many decades ago.
Even so, films sometimes offer us the only chance we will get to explore long-gone neighbourhoods and intuit the lives that were led in them.
A few seconds of footage from Bedazzled (1967), directed by Stanley Donen and written by Peter Cook, allow us to reconstruct one particular vanished corner of London, already on its last legs even when the film was made. Of course, it's just a partial view; many details of the area's geography remain tantalisingly beyond our grasp, and to bring our own imaginations to bear we may need to sidestep the aesthetic imposed by the director, cinematographer and art department.
Now a stone's throw from Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower, Elkstone Road runs from the Great Western Road, past Meanwhile Gardens and towards Golborne Road, which crosses the railway on a metal bridge painted black at the time of filming, but now a gleaming white.
Southam Street, which continues Elkstone Road after it crosses Golborne Road, is well-documented in Roger Mayne's famous photographs and Colin MacInnes's novel Absolute Beginners, but Elkstone Road is less known.
We screened Bedazzled at West Hampstead Cinema Club on Friday July 3rd 2015, and Peter Cook's friend "Rainbow" George Weiss came along to share some memories with us; the screening, and my investigation of the film's locations, inspired this short piece.