Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Problem With Sequels 2: Dragonfire!


Well, I promised you a sequel - though this isn't it, really. Think of it as a quick Asylum-style mockbuster.  A true sequel is in the works, rest assured, and it should be posted before George R.R. Martin finally finishes his last A Song of Fire and Ice novel.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is an excellent example of how hard it is to come up with a good story for a sequel once you've told the tale of how your protagonist becomes a hero. In the first film, scrawny-but-smart Viking lad Hiccup managed to tame and befriend a raiding dragon. In so doing, he managed to put an end to the sheep-raiding and won the respect of his macho father, chieftain Stoic. The outsider had found a role for himself within the community, and in so doing he solved its biggest problem, while simultaneously repairing the flaws in his most important personal relationship. Specifically, Hiccup and Stoic were always quarreling because they were so different and just didn't manage to communicate in the right way.

So what do you dofor an encore?


In HTTYD 2, writer-director Dean Deblois decides to resurrect the conflict between Hiccup and his father as the initial motor behind the conflict to drive the narrative. So what goes wrong this time? Stoick wants Hiccup to take his place as chieftain of the village. Hiccup responds by literally running away with Toothless, with whom he goes exploring in order to discover new islands. Hiccup doesn't want to be tied down and made responsible for the entire village, because... (ta daaaaa) he doesn't know who he is.

Well... that's a little weird, frankly.

Firstly, Stoick's gesture (which we don't see, only hear reported by Hiccup to his girlfriend Astrid) is one of love and respect. Exactly what Hiccup wanted the first time around. Now he gets it in the biggest way possible - and he runs off on the flimsiest of excuses. It might have made some sense if Hiccup said he didn't want the job because he can't bear the thought of being responsible for all the inhabitants of Berk, but...

... Hiccup has been nothing if not responsible throughout the first film. Though physically slight, he invents mechanical weapons/traps to defeat the raiding dragons (instead of, say, cowering in fear). He catches a dragon and overcomes ingrained prejudice, seeing it as an intelligent being rather than a dangerous monster. And he does his level best trying to convince his village that there is a better way to deal with the dragon problem - he even manages to get the other teenagers (at that point not yet his friends, but rather a bunch of bullies) to follow him in his quest. So being afraid of responsibility has never been one of Hiccup's flaws. Yet now, magically, it is.

This minor conflict cannot carry an entire animated movie, of course, so an external enemy needs to be found. And Hiccup's main personal problem has to be 'knowing who I am' - again, not really something present in the first film, but somewhat relatable as he is so clearly different from evereybody else in the village of Berk.

The external enemy is provided by a warlord, Drago Bloodfist, who has sworn to destroy all dragons, because dragons destroyed his village and cost him his arm. So of course he gathers an invincible army of - dragons. And he can control all dragons he encounters because he has a gargantuan Alpha Dragon under his spell (how he managed to tame this beast is never explained) - so his army keeps growing. Except he doesn't destroy dragons, of course, he just enslaves them. Which sort of defeats the purpose of his quest for vengeance, although it does put him up against the dragon-loving villagers of Berk.

Hiccup's approach of the Drago problem is to try and convince him that waging war against dragons isn't necessary, because men and dragons can live together in harmony. Both his dad and his mother (more about here in a little more than a jiffy) think this is the wrong approach - for Drago cannot be made to change. Idealistic Hiccup won't listen - but is proven wrong in the end. Drago is hellbent on revenge and this causes the biggest tragedy in the movie - Stoick dies when he takes a dragon's breath blast from Toothless, under the command of Drago, intended to kill Hiccup.

What's weird about this is that Hiccup is proven to be so clearly wrong - whereas in the first film, he was basically right all the time. Moreover, the way this story element is set up primes the audience to think that Hiccup is in the right again, and his parents are old-fashioned and narrow-minded. But it turns out that Hiccup is naive and stupid, and some people are  so far beyond redemption they need killing.

So basically Hiccup is changed quite fundamentally from the first film. He used to bring hope and a better way of life to his community, thanks to his ability to look at the world in a fresh way. Now he's become someone who shuns responsibility and whose immature naiveté brings about disaster. This is a sure symptom that Hiccup's character didn't really have anywhere to go change-wise, after the events of the first film. In order to get him into a transformation-story, they had to transform him first...


The other internal problem Hiccup is faced with is knowing who he really is. And to help him with this problem, he accidentally runs into his long-lost mother, Valka (clearly a relative of Munch's The Scream) . Just like Hiccup, she tried to convince the Vikings to stop fighting the dragons, with no success, however. Thought dead after being during a dragon-raid when Hiccup was a baby, she's actually spent the last twenty years on an island with dragons, wearing scary-looking armor and a polearm which makes her look like a dragon-lord - far more so than Drago. After Valka gest over the initial shock and delight of seeing her son again, she explains why she remained absent all these years - it was 'to keep her son safe'.

Errr... Safe from what, exactly?? From the dragons, which were raiding Berk all along? In any case, meeting her does help Hiccup realize who he is - he's just like his mother - but that doesn't really let us discover interesting or appealing new aspects of his personality. Indeed, his reaction to discovering his mother is still alive is tepid: he's slightly discomfited at first when she wants to be all motherly towards him, but apart from that it's apparently no big deal. It would have been so much more interesting to have Valka be a major antagonist in the movie (whether the main villain or a temporary antagonist who turns into an ally). Now it's just a huge missed opportunity.

Now, HTTYD2 isn't all bad - it's often spectacularly beautiful to look at, the story does become more engrossing in the second half of the second act (I thought the huge crisis setpiece was going to be the climax at first) and it's much bigger in scope than the first film. But the transformative arc of the protagonist really works against the narrative, this time around, rather than shaping it effectively as it did in the first instalment.

So what could have made this better? That's always a difficult question and obviously has a lot to do with personal taste. But I think it would have made for a stronger storyline - and a stronger transformative arc - if Hiccup and Berk were faced with an invincible external opponent much sooner in the story. An opponent against whom their usual way of tackling problems doesn't work. Both Hiccup and the society he lives in would have to change, adapt, to be able to overcome this new threat. There's your transformational arc, and you can build on what came before - look for the flaw in the new status quo and start building the conflict from there, rather than finding all sorts of weird new flaws to visit upon the protagonist which make little sense, contradict what went before, and frankly make him a far less appealing main character this time around.

If a second sequel is considered, Hiccup is now in an interesting new position, of course - as village chieftain, he will have a lot of new responsabilities and problems to tackle. But this also means he's no longer in the position of the child (no matter how capable or intelligent, he's still someone who is taken care of), but in the position of the adult. Which won't make it easy to come up with a storyline that will resonate with a audience of children. Unless, of course, they jump a generation, and turn Hiccup's eventual offspring into the new protagonist...

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Book review: Into The Woods (John Yorke)

John Yorke is one of the most influential people in British drama: he's been Head of Drama at Channel 4 and Controller of BBC Drama Productions, helped win legendary soap Eastenders its first BAFTA, and was also instrumental in bringing series like Spooks, Life on Mars, The Street and dozens of others to the screen. Currently, he's the Managing Director of Company Pictures, one of the most important drama independents. And he created the BBC Writers Academy in 2005, which has produced a generation of succesful TV scribes.

So when John Yorke puts his thoughts on writing down on the page, it's a given that the result will be at the very least of great interest to screenwriters everywhere.

In fact, it's of great interest to storytellers everywhere - because Into The Woods goes beyond the obvious how-to approach and delves deeply into the why. Why do we tell stories, but also, why do these stories have a universal, underlying structure and why does it have the shape it has?

That all sounds like very heady stuff, and Into The Woods delves deeper into the evolution of narrative and drama than almost any non-academical text. It's also not a 'how-to' book, per se, though it provides a wealth of practical advice. And although it tries to uncover the Archetypal Story with its universal structural elements, it doesn't ever try to proscribe this Archetypal Story as the One True Way. Indeed, as John Yorke notes, several great films, novels and plays diverge from the Archetype very succesfully. But many other 'divergent' works fundamentally fail at telling a good story well.

Yorke's main intention with this book is to explain why stories are told the way they are, and why this Archetypal Story can be found throughout the ages and all around the globe. In Yorke's view, stories are about change, and their structure reflects how an individual deals with change. The three-act structure, and its thesis/antithesis/synthesis-dialectic, is a basic roadmap of how change occurs. It's not a static impediment to true narrative creativity, but an expression of a basic psychological mechanism.

But the book goes beyond 3-act structure and expands it to five-act structure. In fact, the book itself is in 5 acts: Act I is about story and act structures, Act 2 is about acts, the inciting incident and scenes, Act 3 is about showing and telling, Act 4 is about characters and dialogue, and Act 5 is about dramatic structure in television drama. Now, I'm sure this isn't the first time someone applied classical 5 act structure to screenwriting, but it is the first book I've read which makes the case so powerfully and clearly. Of course, 5-act structure is basically an elaboration of 3-act structure, in which the second act is subdivided

Not that Yorke wants everybody to be 'enslaved' by 5-act structure or any other model: he states that a screenplay can have as many acts as necessary. Each act being the attempt of the protagonist to reach a specific goal along the way to finally achieving or failing to achieve the major goal that drives the entire story.

Much of what is discussed here is well-known - inciting incident, midpoint, protagonist & antagonist, theme - but Yorke's enormous experience in script development, coupled with the impressive breadth and depth of his research, ensures that even experienced writers will find much of value here. And for beginners, this is a treasure trove of very practical advice to absorb and master. Although not a how-to book in the strict sense, most of the central concepts are immediately applicable to your actual writing.

What's also a little controversial is that Yorke is critical of many if not all screenwriting gurus (yes, even of the Mighty McKee). Though he does state that many screenwriting manuals are worthy of reading and can help writers achieve good results, he lambasts the gurus for overcomplicating matters, or remaining too superficial, or asking for too much money. It's very rare for this to happen in print.

You should also read the footnotes in this book - they are plentiful and often contain extra nuggets of wisdom, or examples of Yorke's dry wit. They form an integral part of the reading experience in this case.

Any criticisms? Well, apart from some regrettable typos (Guillermo Del Torro, sic), I do feel a little underwhelmed by the final conclusions - not that they are bad or wrong (or final - Yorke clearly states that these are his conclusions based on the current knowledge and research available to him), maybe just a bit too... normal. There's no Sixth Sense-like twist ending to turn everything we thought we knew about storytelling on its head. Which is reassuring, of course, but I guess the sensation-junkie in me was hoping for a bigger wow finish.

But rest assured this is one of the most entertaining, intelligent, deep and yet accessible books on storytelling on the market. Anyone remotely interested in screenwriting and storytelling will find this an insightful delight. You can get the book here:

And for the real enthusiast, John Yorke is doing a (pricey) online course here, starting on July 14th:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The problem with sequels... (this is heavy, Doc!)


Okay, so we all know that the odds of getting a sequel as enjoyable (or, heaven help us, better) than the original movie are pretty lousy indeed. But why should this be the case? The original movie was a hit, so obviously just providing the same type of thrills and/or emotions, possibly on a larger scale, should be sufficient, right?

On the screenwriting level, it often comes down to one thing. Character. And more specifically, the character arc.

Just about every protagonist nowadays has to have his/her arc, or we tend to consider the events of the script as non-essential (in the sense that they do not provide the framework for a major shift in your character's psychological make-up). But because a character arc almost always consists of a character overcoming their major psychological flaw, the result is that at the end of the screenplay, this flaw is cured. And the character is 'healed', and therefore no longer the same as when we, the audience, came to know and love them.

So as the writer of the sequel, you are faced with a major problem: what arc can you give the character in the sequel, when their main problem has been solved? You can either give them the same problem again, as was the case in Another 48 Hours, but the result is that the audience has literally seen it all before - and the character arc has lost its freshness which made it work so well the first time.

Or you can try and look for a new problem to foist on your protagonist. That's why James Bond had to overcome his fear of commitment in Casino Royale, his overwhelming desire for revenge in Quantum of Solace, and his mummy issues with regards to M in Skyfall. On the one hand, this constantly opens new avenues of internal conflict to examine along with the gunfights and explosions; on the other hand, it reduces the world's Greatest Secret Agent to a neurotic wreck.

An interesting avenue was explored in the Back To The Future-trilogy. In the second film, Marty McFly has a playful yet potentially devastating flaw: he can't resist a challenge, because he's afraid people would consider him a coward ('Nobody calls me chicken!'). And this flaw is used brilliantly to complicate matters during the very long and intricate climactic sequence of the movie. In fact, Marty doesn't overcome his flaw in this film. That is saved up for BTTF 3. So here we see that it is possible to keep a flaw going for longer than one film, if it provides sufficient material for conflict and complications.

What's remarkable about the flaw Marty McFly was saddled with in BTTF 2, was that it fit the character so well, it seemed to have been part of his psychological profile from the outset. But it wasn't! In the original Back To The Future, Marty doesn't even have an arc. He's the same spunky, lovable, brave kid at the end as he was in the beginning. What does change, is the world around him - he changes his mother, his father and even Doc Brown during the 1950's, causing him to return to an idyllic present at the end of his adventure, where all his problems have been magically solved. He starts out as a catalyst hero, and only becomes a  'typical' flawed hero once the external problems which plagued his life were dealt with.

In any case, the lesson to be learned here is that when you're looking for 'new' flaws for your protagonist to overcome, to make sure they fit the character so well that it seems they were there all along. Don't change the essence of the character. For instance, Robert Zemeckis could have decided to turn Marty into an inveterate lecher in BTTF 3, or a teenage alcoholic hooked on Wild West hooch - but luckily he didn't. These flaws would have been inappropriate for the character, and to use this type of inappropriate flaw only highlights the artificial nature of the technique.

But what about those long-running series starring the same character? How do you manage to keep things fresh then?

Ah, now that is a topic for the sequel to this article...