a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, August 28, 2006

In Storytelling, Information is Power

So I finally saw "Syriana" yesterday.

I generally liked the movie; it's very thoughtful and pointed, and there are some great sequences throughout.

But boy, was I lost a lot of the time. And from what I remember, I wasn't the only one; this is one of the more divisive movies among critics last year, with a lot not liking the film simply because it doesn't spell everything out as it goes along.

Somewhere along the line, in defense of the movie, someone (it might have been writer-director Stephen Gaghan) stated that the fact that the audience doesn't know what's going on a lot of the time works, because none of the characters know what's going on all the time either, because the Middle East situation is too complex a problem for most people to understand.

On a certain level, yeah, that's brilliant. But on another level... it doesn't really help the enjoyment of the movie.

The obvious comparison is to Gaghan's "Traffic", which similarly told an ensemble, multi-location tale around a central issue. Yet in that movie, everything was very spelled out; there was never the sense that you were trying to puzzle out exactly what's going on. I think that served that script well; it's the kind of drama that lent itself to being able to follow what was going on.

I definitely think Hollywood has the tendency to go too far the other way, in which everything is too spelled out, treating the audience like idiots. I think it's a common writing problem too; I read a lot of scripts in which the same basic point will be made over, and over, and over again.

You need to trust the audience to get something the first time, especially if it is pretty basic stuff.

So the idea of a film on the Middle East in which things remain sort of cryptic is great... but I still think they went too far. Too much of my brain was engaged in trying to figure out what was going on, and not in a way that caused me to become wrapped up in the story; instead, too often it was just sort of distracting.

At the end of the day, it's about telling an effective story, and as much as "Syriana" works -- and I applaud it for what it tried to do, and what it achieved -- it could have worked better.

But how much to tell up front, and what to reveal along the way, is tricky. When I give notes, this is often one of the things I focus on, because a lot of writers struggle to get it right.

It's one of the key choices in the script, especially for certain kinds of tales, particularly mysteries, dramas, or anything with a little suspense in it.

Too often I'll read a script in which the main character is trying to find the answer to something, but the audience knows so much up front that we are never engaged in the story with the main character; we are only impatiently waiting for the main character to catch up, already.

Meanwhile, the tale would be endlessly more engrossing if the audience only knew what the main character did. This way, the audience could get caught up in learning things as he/she does, and puzzling things out with them, effectively becoming the main character ourselves.

Other tales have so much going on along the way, that it becomes about spreading out the exposition so that it doesn't clump up. I'm a firm believer in establishing a lot of things early, just to put your audience in a comfort zone in which they can concentrate on the script's other mysteries and questions, but on the last draft of my supernatural thriller, I went too far with this, establishing too much early. In my latest draft, I start out a little more cryptically, teasing the audience with things about the main character, then dropping the info in along the way. It works better.

But every tale works differently, and when info is revealed has a huge impact on any script, that impact is different with every script.

No one said this writing stuff was easy.

In general:

Respect your audience. They are smart, and don't mind figuring stuff out for themselves, if all the info is there.

If you need to repeat a bit of info more than once, there had better be a reason why.

If you are writing a mystery, wrap the audience in the mystery as well (unless you are doing a Columbo-type "watch the investigator learn what we already know" tale, but those are tricky, and you'd better pull it off).

And if you are writing any kind of tale in which key info plays an important part, play with the question of when some of these key things are revealed. Often it can mean the difference between a compelling story, a too-confusing one, or one that shoots its wad too quickly.


At 2:50 PM, Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

I wanted so much to like Syriana, and it did raise some very valid points, but it was just way too complicated, with far too little character development, to draw me in at all .. if I'm gonna invest so much in a movie, at least give me more in return!

At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

I would have liked to have seen Syriana revolve around the Clooney character in a way somewhat similar to Chinatown. That may have given people a solid reference point to digest what Gaghan wanted to say about U.S. foreign policy and its dependcy to oil.

Those other storylines with the oil men and lawyers and the dead kid didn't work for me at all. I don't care for movies that telegraph everything out for the people in the cheap seats, but it seemed like Gaghan was trying to duplicate Traffic in style without thinking through a lot of the things you talked about in your blog.

At 3:38 PM, Anonymous EM said...

I actually thought it was too simple, and contrived at the same time. Gotta hide stuff a little better, or at least make me care one way or another about the characters. Boring. Oh, and I wanted to like it.

At 6:25 PM, Blogger deepstructure said...

i loved syriana. it was my favorite movie of 05. i loved having to work a little bit to keep up with it.

im the opposite about comfort zones. i want to know the least information necessary to piece together what's going on.

even if syriana did go too far in the not-enough-info department (which for me it didn't), i'd still take that over the 99% of stuff that gives far too much.

At 7:38 PM, Blogger glassblowerscat said...

It's only too true that this is tricky to figure out. I think secrets can be one of the best ways to make a character engaging, but bury the information too far and you land yourself deep in the world of subtext. And subtext does not move a plot.

At 8:31 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I think that people like to feel smart. And when you give them just enough information for them to figure it out seconds before the main character does, you have something of true quality. Your audience has to want the revelation as bad as the character does.

Same goes for comedy to an extent. Some of the best jokes are the ones where the audience figures them out slightly before, and they know its funny, and they wait for the punch line so they can laugh, and they feel good for being "in the know."

One example is the rotating bookcase in "Young Frankenstein". When he tells Inga that he is going to block the bookcase with his body, you know exactly what is going to happen and that doesn't diminish the hilarity one bit.

At 9:40 AM, Anonymous Zane Smith said...

I really enjoyed Syriana. On the surface, the story structure seems abstract and chaotic, but given the subject matter, I think it's a cool choice and very appropriate. The reason it works is that emotionally, it's pretty linear and Gaghan knows how to hit all of the beats to keep you invested on an emotional level. It's a different kind of ride and sort of refreshing.

I found myself thinking about this film for a few days an interesting meal at a new restaurant or a good one night stand.

Or even a bad one.


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