Thursday, June 11, 2009

Questions and Answers - more on the basic building blocks of every screenplay

Now that we know that questions, questions and more questions are the basic building blocks of every screenplay, writing one may seem very simple. Just ask yourself the right questions, provide a good answer, let that be the basis of the next question and repeat ad infinitum until you hit fadeout - and you've answered the Main Dramatic Question that fuels the entire script.

Piece of cake, right?


Because there's another aspect of the 'question game' we haven't touched on much, but which is equally important to the final success of your script.

And that is: how do you tranfer these questions to the minds of your audience?

Which basically means: how do you get them to ask the same questions (more or less) which you used while writing the script?

And that's not all. Just as important is this consideration:

When do you give your audience the answer to the questions the script poses?

Let's look at these elements one at a time.

How do you get the audience to ask the sames questions you've used to contruct the script?
By engaging them fully with your characters and storyline. If your audience is 'with you', they will want to know the answers to the questions you are (subconciously) implanting in their minds. By subconsciously, I mean that the audience isn't actively sitting there spelling out the questions one by one; rather, the fact that they're anxiously awaiting to discover how things turn out, is the factual proof that your questions are shared by them.

What happens when the audience is NOT asking the same questions you've used to build the screenplay (and you're expecting them to ask)?

Quite simple - you lose your audience.

A good example of a filmmaker who takes his screenplays in directions the (Western) audience doesn't expect or like at all is (in)famous Hong Kong director/producer/writer/actor Wong Jing. Several of his films follow the following structure:

Act 1: a supremely talented Hero is challenged by a nefarious Villain, and the stakes are high. Action and/or cool moments abound.
Act 2: the Hero has been laid low by the Villain or by Fate, and the narrative is taken over by a comedic character (either another major star or someone Wong Jing is trying to turn into a big box office draw) and the main storyline is completely forgotten. Episodic hijinks replace a strong cause-and-effect storyline.
Act 3: the Hero has recovered and has the big showdown with the Villain. Action and/or cool moments abound once again.

This structure can be seen very clearly in God of Gamblers, where super-gambler Chow Yun Fat loses his memory due to a prank caused by small fry gangster Andy Lau, and spends the main part of the movie parodying Rain Man, and in New Legend of Shaolin where Jet Lee and his son escape the destruction of Shaolin Temple, become bodyguards for a merchant who is being conned by a mother/daughter duo and spend most of the film dealing with this silly subplot, and finally face off against the monstrous traitor responsible for the destruction of Shaolin Temple.
A Western audience expects the film to follow through on the promises of the first act, and completely loses interest in the middle portion of the film. The local audiences, though, enjoy the switch in genre and seem to have had no problems with these movies which offer 'a bit of everything' rather than one solid dramatic throughline.

An example of a movie where the audience does stay right with the characters, even though the storyline goes into a completely new direction in Act 2, is Some Like It Hot. The conflict set up in Act 1 is that Joe and Jerry, hapless jazz musicians, witness the Saint Valentine's Massacre and have to escape the clutches of the Mob. So they dress up like women and join an all-girl orchestra.

In Act 2, the Mob disappears completely from the story. Instead, we first see Joe and Jerry (or Josephine and Daphne) getting used to life as girls among the girls, and Joe falling in lust with singer Sugar, but unable to do anything about (as he's supposed to be a girl too). The second half of the act shows how Joe masquerades as a male millionaire in Florida in order to get Sugar into bed. The external plotline (on the run from the Mob) only reappears in Act 3 (in fact, the appearance of the gangsters at the hotel in Florida is plot point 2), and it serves to put extra pressure on the romance plot (which structurally speaking is the main storyline of the film).
It's a testament to the exceptional screenwriting and storytelling skills of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond that the audience doesn't mind this switch in story focus - but rather goes right along for the ride.

The second point we need to look at is: when do you provide the answers to the questions?

One may wonder why this is such a crucial matter. Well, let me illustrate it in a somewhat irreverent manner:

Q: How do you keep an idiot in suspense?

A: I'll tell you tomorrow.

What does this joke teach us? That as long as the answer hasn't been provided, we're kept in suspense - i.e. we feel tension, we want the release of the answer, and we stay hooked.

So knowing just when to provide an answer to your audience, knowing when to hold back, and also being able to determine which answers should be given straightaway and which should be held back are fundamental skills of every good storyteller.

Now, for some questions it's obvious when you need to answer them:

- the Main Dramatic Question gets answered in the climax, near the end of Act 3. Answer it sooner and you lose your audience, don't answer it and you not only don't have a climax but you have a truly open ending where your audience doesn't know how things will turn out (and that may be a valid storytelling choice in some cases - just don't do it out of laziness or because you can't decide which ending would be best and so you give none at all).

- The Act questions get their answer at the act climax.

- It then follows that the sequence questions will get answered at the climactic moment of each sequence.

- And each scene question is naturally answered at the end of the scene.

So providing an answer to a structural question always corresponds with the climax of that structural element. Whether it be the main throughline of the entire script, an act, a sequence or a scene. Getting the answer, then, is always a high point, and a release of tension - which is always the function of a climactic scene.

It also follows, then, that as long as the answer is delayed, the suspense and tension mount. And (depending on genre) the longer you keep this going, the more intense will be the desire of the audience to have the tension be released.

A good example of this is the scene from The Apartment I described in the previous post. It could also have been constructed as follows: Jack Lemmon enters Fred MacMurray's office, MacMurray immediately confronts him with the question - if I give you a promotion, can I then get sole rights to your apartment, and Lemmon answers yes. Same story point, same question/answer system, but almost zero tension, far less character reveals and no subtext. And a much less interesting scene.

For other, smaller answers which have less structural importance (though I think we've just discovered that all answers provided in a script are structural in nature), the same basic rule applies: provide the answer, and tension is relieved for the audience. Deny the answer, and the tension increases.

It also follows that if you were to write an experimental/non-traditional script, where you do nothing but provide questions without ever answering any of them (if that were theoretically possible), you would raise the tension level in your audience to untold heights. But unrelenting tension is unhealthy (why do people burn out due to stress? Because the mounting tension proves to be too much for their mental and physical capacities to bear), so this would alienate a very large majority of your audience. The frustration at never getting an answer would outweigh the pleasure of the suspense, and the lack of certainty would make it impossible for the audience to place everything in a framework which makes sense of it all. Not to mention, finally, that a story crafted in such a way would run totally contrary in intent to what stories are meant to do - which is to provide us with a way to look at and understand reality and our inner selves.

Well, I have to admit I didn't realize that when I started this post it would take me this far! Seems like I'm definitely on to something here - and that this aspect of screenwriting (and storytelling in general) definitely deserves to be examined in more detail, in order to increase its practical value for writers everywhere.

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