Saturday, January 26, 2008


Would there be a script without misbehavior? Of course not. But we're talking about something a little more precise today. Misbehavior, like a lot of good words, has an almost too particular meaning in a screenwriting context.

It's what used to be called a character flaw. Or a character's 'mode'. Or any number of different things. Most books on screenwriting talk about the central trait of the main character, and how it works best when deliberately set up in opposition to the character's goal at the end of the script. In a typical Hollywood movie, you can define virtually every beat of a main character in terms of the conflict between the defining trait and the overall goal. Work up escalating conflicts built around this dichotomy through the 12 beats of the three-act structure and you've got yourself a movie. There. I just summarized most major screenwriting gurus on plot structure. That was easy.

But why, exactly, does misbehavior work? Does misbehavior exist in real life? I think it does, in a way. We all have traits that define how we relate to the world and how it relates to us. If you're an angry person, then it probably trips you up repeatedly on your universal goal of human understanding. And no doubt there's a climax coming in which you'll need to rise above anger if you have any hope of surviving. Don't worry about it: you'll rise above it, and have a beautiful resolution, not to mention all kinds of realizations about anger. If you're a drunk, then yes, drinking will drive you through an inciting incident, plenty of second-act complications, high points, low points, and so on, before you get off the sauce just when you need it most, and manage to salvage your relationship, or graduate from college, or land your dream job.

Of course, our real life misbehaviors rarely play out as dramatically as they do in Spiderman 3. Okay, maybe that's a bad example. As in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Perhaps that is why misbehavior works. We want to see a trait we can identify (and identify with) play out through a series of conflicts. We want all the rote behavior and recurring cycles and humdrum realities of our lives to play out in some way we can vicariously enjoy. This may or may not be true.

I think that answer is just a little too simplistic, because it rests on an unexamined paradox: the best route to universal appeal is through particularity. A character must be distinct to function. He must feel 'real', even though that's the one thing he or she is not. The character must be an individual -- even though what makes her an individual is precisely what makes her universal.

Most films, in one way or another, are about people becoming more human, more evolved. It's about stepping out of a role. And THAT is where the universal appeal comes in. The filmmaker knows some basic truths about society. The average audience member spent his day fitting into an exchangeable role. We're educated for a work force. We're identified as consumers. We're groomed for interoperability, because it's much easier to sell to such a population. We're made interchangeable, because that's how you glean the most productivity from a population. We go to the gym to meet a single ideal of beauty. We dress to look more alike -- to assume a role.

Most of use, knowingly or not, identify ourselves by traits that are completely independent of us. The make of car you drive does not depend on you, but everyone knows what it means when you drive a Lexus. I am a devoted Mac person. Yes, they're better computers. But they also place me in a context. I consider myself far too smart to fall for that consciously. But I do fall for it.

I could go on. The food we eat. The religions we believe in. Our political parties.
They all function without us. They don't need or want our particularity, no matter how much they say they do. I'm not saying they're good or bad. I'm saying that their reliance on you is limited to what is general, and not what is particular.

Stories do want your particularity. They require it. It defines them. This is why writers write. And suddenly I'm a lot less jaded about how easy it is to sum up a couple decades of screenwriting books.

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