Sunday, November 16, 2008

Finishing with Symmetry

For me, good screenwriting is largely a question of modeling complexity effectively. Good characters are complex. They have a depth and a resonance to them. But they arise out of two simple traits -- a misbehavior or flaw, and a goal or desire. It's not that those two completely define the character. It's that those two give the audience access to the rest of the character.

Take a good conceit, also known as a strategy for unity. It's what gives a script its 'thingness', its identity. How do you know you're watching Wall-E or Jaws? There's a key concept that permeates every good script that gives it uniqueness. It's present at virtually any moment in the story, but it's not the story. It gives the audience access to the story. For that matter, it gives the WRITER access to the story. It helps you find the tale. It tells you where it is, or what it might be, rather that what's right or wrong. You find association and affinity with a story through a well-derived conceit. You go beyond the fact of the matter and find a dynamic with your conceit.

Plot is no different. Screenwriters plot and plot (or plod and plod) through synopses and loglines and treatments before actually tackling a script. There's a reason for it. For one, it's actually less work in the long run, because you work out most of your problems on a single page rather than in 120. Second, it lets you know what's important. It helps you find the unity.

But then, sooner or later, you actually start to write. Now, if you've worked out most of what's happening, it's relatively smooth. But small problems and shifts inevitably occur. There is no science here. It's like ironing a shirt or laying down a piece of carpet. You roll out one small wrinkle, but it never quite makes it all the way out. As soon as you think it's gone, it's popped up on the other side. You attack and attack, but that wrinkle just moves around to wherever you aren't paying attention.

I'm drafting a story now with this problem. In my synopsis, I let a little girl eavesdrop on an adult conversation. When I got to the scene, she ended up on the wrong side of a car door. No big deal, you think. But of course, she doesn't know what happens inside the car anymore. Which affects the next beat, which affects the beat beyond that, and so on.

You might try solving the problem by putting the little girl in the car. No big deal, right? You've papered over the crack, and saved yourself an awful lot of work. You go onto the next beat. Everything seems fine. You aren't quite as sold on how the whole thing fits together as you might be. But it works. And you write another beat. And you wonder if maybe you need to rethink the misbehaviors a bit. This, of course, means you stare at the ceiling for at least an afternoon. And then your thirty pages down, and the little girl and the old man have to steal a car. And there's absolutely no way to make it work. They just wouldn't do it. They wouldn't think about it. They aren't that crafty or resourceful. They don't fight that way. And strangely, somehow, that's all because you let the little girl in the car to hear the conversation.


What happened when you let the little girl into the car. First, you probably sidestepped some necessary conflict. You were choosing your own needs over those of the main character, who really had no desire to have the little girl in the car. You lost a chance to express their misbehaviors. You muddled the whole question of what the characters ultimately want. You didn't let them fight for it.

And thirty pages later, it comes back to bite you.

How do you find your way out of the wilderness?

The blanket answer is you go back to your tools. There's plenty you could do here with character, but just for today, let's talk about symmetry.

If you've read anything about screenwriting, you know something about the three-act structure. If you've read this blog before, you'll probably know that virtually all the gurus and schools of screenwriting essentially rehash Aristotle.

Aristotle was big on UNITY. Why can't you start a rom-com halfway through Jaws? Because you're breaking unity. You're working against expectations. You're deflating your own drama. The audience wants to see dramatic distance covered -- real developments. And those changes, those developments, are all contextual. They are relevant to the story. If Sleepless in Seattle ended with Tom Hanks becoming president of the United States or defeating a gigantic shark, he'd be a good guy. But the story wouldn't make sense.

Symmetry is the activation of that unity within the plot. The inciting event has symmetry with the climax. The opening has symmetry with the resolution. The first plot point has symmetry with the second, and so on. What does this mean? It means that SOME things are the same, and some things are different. You can gauge the differences -- and therefore the dramatic distance -- by measuring them against the elements that are the same.

There's something incredibly key here for a writer. Say you're struggling with your climax. Where do you find a cue? In your inciting event. Or the reverse. Say your little girl character is outside of a car you thought she'd be in. Look at the symmetric beat. And, voila, you find the bigger picture. In this case, the older male protagonist is pushing the little girl away and damaging himself. In the symmetric beat, he more or less rights that wrong -- by having another secret conversation, and learning from his mistake.

Say you find yourself at a loss when your characters just won't steal the car they need to steal for the plot to move forward. Take a look at the corresponding beat earlier in the script (i.e. equidistant from the midpoint). Guess what. They're actually taking a car that doesn't really belong to them.

Surprise! We have unity in our heads. We aim for symmetry, even when we don't realize it. Look at any story -- your own or someone else's. Find the structure, and I'll bet you'll be able to locate symmetries you hadn't noticed before.

Suddenly you're master of your universe again. You look to the beat, what's same and what's different. And soon you've deepened BOTH beats, and found a lot more story.

How does this affect the reader/viewer? Listening to a story is more or less recognizing a pattern. When you see a character in a parallel situation, but acting differently, you can gauge where you are in the story. And you settle in, relax, and wait for that pattern to unfold.

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