A Slice of Lifetime

So you have that blank page starting at you and you’re think that it would be a good idea to fill it with some fine touch of story. But wait, did you make THE QUESTION? No? Then you just can’t keep going.

Before writing the header of your scene you should ask yourself: “Why now?“. Yes, this gets more complex. You’re possibly dealing with a character which has born, grown and lived quite a bit of his life and you’re not stupid enough to follow him since he was a fetus, so when you’re writing a story you’re taking a slice of his lifetime. That is what all movies are.

Why this slice of life begins in the particular moment you thought of? See, the first scene is possibly the most important scene with a number tag on it.

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

That’s from Franz Kafka’s METAMORPHOSIS. First paragraph. Well-known as one of the best beginnings ever written. After that paragraph we get to know the two most important things to introduce in the beginning of a movie:

  • Who our character is?
  • What’s the problem?

If all movies are slices of lives, then all movies are ABOUT changes. And the PROBLEM is exactly that: what is problematic enough to change my character’s life? Because your movie begins there.

In SUNSET BOULEVARD (Billy Wilder, 1960), the movie starts with our main character shot dead in the pool, so you have our problem (DEATH) and the story is about the events which led to his murderer.

in THE SEARCHERS (John Ford, 1956), the movie begins with Ethan’s family slaughtered and so he rides through the desert in the seek for revenge. That’s problem. Ethan is a racist and wouldn’t look out for Debbie since she’s turned into another indian, but when he catches the fleeing teen in the middle of a full battle, he catches and holds her. That’s change.

in THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne, 2011) our main character’s wife suffers a boating accident and he finds out she had an affair. The movie proceeds with his search for answers about her lover and about himself.

Eventually all feature films plots go down to this: problem & change and they’re connected: the problem must cause a change and the change must be caused by a problem. Nothing comes from nowhere.

The problem is that working on short films we don’t have enough runtime to expose our characters enough for a change to be substantial. This is the reason why there’s no decent short film about characters (unless it is a documentary like Sunshine) and that’s the spot where most beginners stumble, since they want to write about their lives, their loves, their changes.

Short films are about a single situation, two at most. They’re exclusively about the problem. We’ve seen that last week with the 2 short films i used as example: The Black Hole & Lucky. The first is about a guy whom finds a paper with a black circle that works just like in the cartoons, the character takes advantage of this tool and the film is over when he can’t do that any longer. The latter is about a guy whom must escape from a car in movement, it ends when he escapes, quite ironically somehow. Check ALL PIXAR shorts, they’re all about a situation and its outcomes.

Now we know the biggest difference between short films and feature films, one is situation driven while the other is character driven. You can start separating the wheat from the chaff now.

AND a pixar movie just for the record:

Until next time.

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