Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: character arc

Foundations of Storytelling, Part 1: The Logline

This is the first post in an occasional series.

With the Second World War looming, a daring archaeologist-adventurer is tasked by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant—a Biblical artifact of invincible power, lost for millennia in the desert sands of Egypt—before it can be acquired by the Nazis.

On Christmas Eve, an off-duty police officer is inadvertently ensnared in a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse in an L.A. skyscraper when his wife’s office party is taken hostage by a dozen armed terrorists.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, a resort-island sheriff finds himself in deep water—literally—when his beach is stalked by an aggressive great white shark that won’t go away.

All of the above story concepts should sound familiar—that’s why I chose them.  Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and Jaws are all popular—now classic—works of commercial cinema.  But they are also excellent exemplars of storytelling at their most basic, macrostructural levels, as demonstrated by the catchy summaries above, known in Hollywood as “the logline.”

When a single image, let alone a single sentence, imparts the essence of a story, the underlying concept is a powerful, primal one

 

THE LOGLINE AS A SELLING TOOL

The logline is a sales pitch:  In a single compact sentence, it conveys the protagonist (respectively:  the adventurous archaeologist; the off-duty cop; the beach-resort sheriff), the antagonist (the Nazis; the terrorists; the shark), the conflict and stakes (possession of the Ark for control of the world; the confined life-and-death struggle; the destruction of a man-eating leviathan), the setting (1930s Egypt; an L.A. skyscraper at Christmas; a summer resort), and the tone/genre (action/adventure; action-thriller; adventure/horror).  You can even reasonably glean the Save the Cat! category of each:

  • Raiders as Golden Fleece (Subgenre:  “Epic Fleece”)
  • Die Hard as Dude with a Problem (“Law Enforcement Problem”)
  • Jaws as Monster in the House (“Pure Monster”)

A cogent synopsis like any of the above allows a prospective buyer to “see” the creative vision for the movie, ideally triggering the three-word response every screenwriter longs to hear:  “Tell me more.”

Note what isn’t included in the logline:  The names of any of the characters.  Thematic concerns.  Emotional arcs.  Subplots.  Descriptions of particular set pieces.  That’s the “tell me more” stuff, and none of it is necessary—it is, in fact, needlessly extraneous—for the “elevator pitch,” so called for the brief window one has to hook to an exec before he steps off onto his floor (read:  loses interest).  The point of a logline is to communicate the story’s most fundamental aspects, and to capture what’s viscerally exciting about the premise.

I mean, if you’d never seen Raiders, Die Hard, or Jaws—if you knew nothing else about them other than the information contained in those loglines—you’d already have a sense of why these are, or could at least make for, gripping stories.  Pitch any one of them to a movie executive, and he can immediately envision the scenes—or at least the potential for them—suggested by the central premise.  Each one piques curiosity and, one step further, inspires the imagination.

The Raiders logline is so compelling because it takes (what was at the time) an arcane scholarly discipline, archaeology, and credibly applies it to an action-film archetype, typically the province of superspies like 007.  It also features historical elements that don’t seem like they should belong together—Nazis and Biblical relics—to envision something simultaneously smart and thrilling.

The Die Hard and Jaws loglines are exciting because they take their police-officer protagonists and essentially reduce them to “everyman” status (unlike Raiders, which features a specialist as its hero) by putting them in overwhelmingly harrowing situations that play to some of our most primal fears:  terrorism and sharks.  In short, they have that compelling What if? factor.

That’s how those stories got sold, and how the movies themselves got made.  We don’t need any information beyond what we get in those loglines to want to see the finished product.  As such, condensing a story to its logline is an absolutely essential skill for any screenwriter.

Let me amend that:  It is an essential skill for all storytellers, novelists included—perhaps especially.  And its applications are far broader than simply marketing.

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Classifying the “Star Trek” Movies by Their “Save the Cat!” Genre Categories

Star Trek turned fifty this year (something older than me, mercifully), but you needn’t be a fan to appreciate some of the lessons writers of fiction can take from its successes and failures during its five-decade voyage.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t myself qualify as a “Trekkie”—I simply don’t get caught up in the minutiae.  What I’ve always responded to in Trek is its thoughtful storytelling and philosophical profundity.  “Even the original series, for all its chintziness,” someone told me when I was thirteen, “it was still the thinking man’s show.”

I recall watching The Original Series in syndication, and being swept away by the classic time-travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”; finally I understood that Trek was about ideas, and those could be just as thrilling—more so, in fact—than set pieces.  Anyone who was around for it certainly remembers the excitement when The Next Generation premiered, unknowingly kicking off perhaps the first major-media “shared fictional universe” two decades before Marvel got there.  I watched the pilot with my father—which was a big deal, since television wasn’t his thing (the nightly news excepting)—and I haven’t forgotten his lovely, two-word appraisal of the first episode when it was over:  “It’s kind,” he said, with no further elaboration.

It took some years to fully appreciate that assessment.  Having grown up on the adventures of James T. Kirk, the original captain’s renegade spirit and cowboy diplomacy appealed to my juvenile worldview; Picard, on the other hand, seemed like a high-school principal in comparison.  But over time, I came to identify with Picard’s genteel, introspective mindset, and every line he uttered—even the technobabble—sounded like poetry from the mouth of Patrick Stewart, who endowed his performance with such dignity and conviction.  For me, the best part of Star Trek was getting Picard’s closing takeaway on the issue du jour.

The franchise continued to grow as I did, and my wife, whom I started dating at nineteen, was as much a fan as I was, it turned out, and we looked forward every few years to the next feature film, until the series finally, against all expectation, sputtered out with Nemesis (2002) and Enterprise (2001–2005).  Among other reasons for that, Trek had been eclipsed by a new sci-fi franchise—The Matrix—that spoke to the ethos of our new Digital Age.  Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction needs to reflect its times, and times change; finality is something to be accepted—embraced, even—not feared.  The Enterprise, thusly, had been decommissioned.

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Solitary Consignment: A Christmas Story

Movies, it should come as no surprise to learn, were an absolutely critical part of my formative experience.  It wasn’t merely that my first exposure to them was during the wondrous Lucas/Spielberg heyday of the early eighties; no, we didn’t have a VCR in the household till the very end of that decade (like color TV, they were deemed by my parents to be “just a fad”), so seeing a movie meant going to the movies.  To this day, the very whiff of butter-steeped popcorn time-shifts me back to those magical days, like one that occurred precisely twenty-five years ago, when a little Christmas-themed film with absolutely no brand awareness or marquee stars whatsoever created an unforeseen sensation—it was the must-see movie of the season, and I was eager to oblige.

The perfect occasion to do so arose on one of those barren Saturday afternoons in New York—too cold to be outside for any length of time, too hard to hear yourself think over the hiss of the monolithic prewar radiator.  Well, it would’ve been perfect, anyway, if not for one small hiccup:  Nobody was around to join me.  I called everyone in the Rolodex (and that isn’t just an archaic figure of speech—these were the days of actual Rolodexes), but came up empty.  Where the hell was everybody?

There was no real precedent for this scenario.  There’d always been someone around to meet on short notice—that was the benefit of living in a building full of young families, after all.  Hell, my best friend, Chip, lived one flight below us, and was always available to team up to save the world with me by way of a spirited (read:  profane), two-player game of Contra.  But, not that afternoon.

My problems, it seemed, were rapidly compounding:  What was I going to do for the rest of the day?  Go to the movies by myself?  It was really only through pure desperation, having exhausted every other avenue, that I finally asked, “Why not?”

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Rendering a Verdict: Annalise Keating of “How to Get Away with Murder”

Spoiler Alert:  Plot points from the first season of How to Get Away with Murder discussed herein.

In the previous post, I touched briefly on the subject of character arcs.  An arc is the personal transformation or catharsis a character undergoes—almost always against his will—over the course of a story:  In fulfilling his obligation to get outlaw Russell Crowe on board the titular 3:10 to Yuma when everyone else bails on the dangerous endeavor, rancher Christian Bale learns at long last to have dignity; in the process of uncovering who framed him for murder in Minority Report, PreCrime detective Tom Cruise comes to terms with the devastating loss of his son some years earlier (excellent movies both).

Arcs are what give a story its emotional resonance.  Take Dirty Dancing:  It could’ve easily been one of a thousand 1980s teen-romance movies all but forgotten here in 2015.  But, it became a worldwide phenomenon—and lasting cinematic classic—because not one, not two, but five characters experience profound transformational arcs in that film:  Baby, Johnny, Penny, Lisa, and Mr. Houseman.  That’s rich storytelling—deceptively so.

Transformational arcs are designed to force a character to confront his so-called “fatal flaw”—a psychic wound that’s been haunting him, that’s been holding him back, since incited by some trauma in the backstory.  (So, in 3:10 to Yuma, the traumatic catalyst would be Bale’s shameful cowardice on the battlefield; in Minority Report, it was the unsolved kidnapping of Cruise’s son that led to his personal downward spiral).  There are exceptions to this design—Luke Skywalker, for instance, has a very powerful arc that spans three movies, no less, yet he bears no fatal flaw when we first meet him on Tatooine (for reasons we’ll perhaps discuss on another occasion)—but, by and large, protagonists typically suffer from some measure of psychic scarring that makes the events of the plot emotionally difficult for them, forcing personal growth in the process.

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Company of Fools: The Genre of “Amadeus”

In a recent podcast, the custodians of Save the Cat! offered a very thin and unconvincing assessment of Birdman’s genre classification, the essence of which was this:  “Look—Michael Keaton’s got a Life Problem!  He goes about fixing it the Wrong Way!  Clearly this is a Rite of Passage!”

In a serendipitously timed blog post, I argued that Birdman is, in fact, a Fool Triumphant, and even held it up for comparison, like two perfectly aligned sketches on tracing paper backlit against a lamp, with a recent (and accurate) example of RoP, Jon Favreau’s Chef, as proof that those stories don’t share fundamental commonality with respect to their genre conventions.

Because that’s ultimately what distinguishes the codified narrative models of the late Blake Snyder from one another:  their conventional criteria—the requirements each particular genre is expected to deliver upon.  A golf cart and a city bus both have wheels and seats and a motor (i.e., a similar fundamental underlying structure), but you’d never mistake one for the other; you’d never expect one to perform the function of the other.

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Final Repor(t) Card: A Character Assessment of “Stephen Colbert”

Stephen Colbert:  Great performance artist… or the greatest performance artist?

I ask that as someone who saw Spinal Tap play Carnegie Hall.  (Seriously.)  After popularizing the “mockumentary” format in 1984 with This Is Spinal Tap (and I don’t think anyone since has done it better, even in light of how fashionable the aesthetic has become among contemporary network sitcoms like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation), a strange thing happened:  fictitious bandmates Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) emerged from the movie’s contained narrative to play live concerts and sit down for talk-show interviews; they became altogether separate entertainers (and entities) from the actors who portrayed them (the wigs and British accents contributed to the seamless illusion), seldom speaking out of character (even on the DVD commentary track!), and the history of the group so painstakingly “documented” in This Is Spinal Tap came to serve as the band’s accepted background as they went on to forge, over the next several decades, a genuine history here in the real world, which includes the release of actual albums (1992’s Break Like the Wind and 2009’s Back from the Dead, the latter of which lost the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album to—wait for it—A Colbert Christmas:  The Greatest Gift of All!) to supplement their apocryphal discography.

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Revisiting Old Haunts: A Paranormal Investigation of “Ghostbusters II”

Given that this summer marks the thirtieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries, respectively, of Ghostbusters (enjoying a limited theatrical rerelease this week) and Ghostbusters II, I recently took an opportunity—the first since screenwriting on a professional basis—to re-watch them.  This can be something of a perilous exercise—bringing my experienced analytical eye to a movie that carries such personal nostalgic weight for me—but I almost always walk away with an enhanced appreciation for the film in question, be it a newfound recognition of its merits or clearer grasp of its shortcomings.

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