Nov 23

Studying the conventions (or lack of)

It can be very interesting to study stories that made it to screen (or indeed bookshelves) for reasons beyond just the story itself. What I mean by that is, for example, Star Wars Episode 1. A new writer pitching that script would have had it torn to shreds and a bunch of other writers would have been brought in make it fit with more traditional story expectations. The weight of Star Wars and Lucas meant that didn’t happen so we were presented with a sort of ‘what if?’ scenario: what if you can study a story before all the usual conventions get applied?

It isn’t all that often we get a huge movie that allows us to study why other movies stick to certain story conventions.

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is one of them. A beautiful looking movie. But I think nobody but Rowling (or Lucas or the Wachowskis in their day) would have been allowed to put this story to screen. That makes it very interesting to study. Before you object, I don’t mean to disparage the movie by the Ep1 comparison. You see, we’re so used to story ‘formula’ that veering away from that isn’t always a bad thing in itself. It is just a different story. One we can learn from.

So in a movie and stories in general, I think three questions are really important:

1) What’s it about?
2) What is the climax?
3) Who is the main character?

Obvious questions, right? The trick is that each one should relate to the other. While the answers to 2 and 3 are very clear in Fantastic Beasts, they aren’t all that related to each other. The main character doesn’t act in the climax beyond a few words that don’t really influence the outcome. The outcome is taken away from the main character, who wasn’t even all that aware of the events leading to that climax until just before it. I have a feeling many would struggle to come to a consensus on what the answer to 1 is. Is it the title? If so, the climax didn’t relate to the main story. Was it the story being teased throughout that then became the climax? If so, the main character wasn’t a part of it. I have seen that part referred to in reviews as the ‘subplot’ and yet that’s the big climax of the movie.

Story convention tells us that the main character should drive the story. The story should be about something that presents a goal for that main character, an obstacle to overcome or a quest of some sort, ideally an area for growth. The climax should be that character’s and that story’s ultimate showdown, where they bring everything they have earned or learned to overcome the final challenge and achieve their goal (or not if it’s a sad story although we’ll still expect growth).

This works whether its a true life story of a broken person overcoming an addiction, a huge ridiculous sci-fi story to save the universe or a little preschool story about a bunny learning to tie their shoelaces. It is what keeps your story moving forward, gives it focus and brings it all together at the end for a satisfying conclusion.

So what happens when we don’t get that? Well, we can see that right here. Fortunately for Fantastic Beasts, it presents an incredible spectacle with a bunch of very entertaining scenes and characters. My daughter loved it and that’s what counts. I will often make the argument that, if a script or book has you turning that next page eagerly, it’s working. But I have to wonder if there was any tension at the climax? Whether many people were truly invested beyond just enjoying the spectacle? Or, if people were truly invested, whether it would have been possible to heighten that. That’s a hugely important thing in story. You have give someone reasons to really care by the time we get to the end of your story. That doesn’t just affect the feeling we have while watching it – it affects what I call the aftertaste of a story.

Ever enjoy the experience of a story but then you forget afterwards what it was about? Or you start picking holes in it yourself? Or you liked it but never really want to see it again? That’s the aftertaste. The moment to moment experience can drive us through a story in an exciting way (Star Trek Into Darkness). But without coherence and strength and earning each emotional beat, you can be left with a hollow aftertaste and a feeling that it never really made a lot of sense (Star Trek Into Darkness). The aftertaste is important.

So it is possible to tell stories any way you like. You can ignore story conventions altogether and never learn about them. Or better, you can learn them and choose to discard them. But unless you’re Rowling or Lucas a decade or so ago or the Wachowskis around the same time, you will have a much harder time getting your story out there for people. You might think, but Rowling did it and it worked. It did. That’s true. But no story is perfect (maybe Alien) so perhaps consider how the film could have been with that same spectacle, that same world of wonder and magic, that same entertaining cast but with a story driven by and for that main character, leading to a climax where everything for him was on the line and he was the only one who could achieve the final aim.

The great thing about learning about story conventions and getting to a point where you truly understand them and they become a part of your work is that they give you the choice. You can use them to make your story better. You are not a slave to them. They are your tools to help you tell your story even better. And when you read a book or see a film that doesn’t use these tools, for whatever reason and whatever outcome great or not, study it. Think about the different things you could have added or taken away from that story in an attempt to improve it.

I’m not saying you’ll do better than Rowling. But you will learn from it.

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