Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: Rambo

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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Pop-Culture Digest: Musings on Annalise Keating, Postnarrativity, and “Twilight”

Readers of this blog (I trust I’m not being quixotically presumptuous by my use of the plural form) have come to expect in-depth, long-form essays here, but today I’d like to try something different:  I thought I’d offer brief commentary on three unrelated pop-cultural developments that are directly relevant to articles I posted this past summer.

 

MURDER!

In my analysis of the first season of How to Get Away with Murder, I concluded by asserting that series creator Peter Nowalk left himself little choice but to reconfigure protagonist Annalise Keating’s psychological profile (yet again) on account of how carelessly he exhausted her backstory in the initial fifteen-episode run.  And, boy, he did not waste any time proving me correct.

Right in the season premiere, we learned (via one of several clunky pieces of exposition) that Annalise has a “wild-child” side (who knew?), and later we saw her partying the night away under the strobe lights of a dance club—with her students, no less!

No, sorry—that doesn’t play.  Here’s why:  It is a complete violation of one of her core traits (and a defense mechanism, at that)—“publicly composed and guarded.”

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To Survive and Thrive: Strategic Genre Switches in “The Hunger Games”

You sensed it right from the start:  The familiar plot machinations of The Hunger Games series weren’t there to comfort us (in their perversely dystopian way) in the latest theatrical entry, Mockingjay, Part 1.  The world and characters were the same, sure, yet we found ourselves, like the protagonist herself, immediately disoriented in this third go-round; nothing about this adventure, for us or for her, could be deemed business as usual.

So, what changed?

I’ve written a great deal about how indispensable I find Blake Snyder’s ten story models, but have offered little thus far in the way of illustration.  The Hunger Games series, a powerhouse big-studio franchise if ever there was one, provides an object lesson in two distinct types of Save the Cat! genres.

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Who’s Laughing Now? Different Depictions of the Joker, Part 2

Last week, we looked at the Joker as portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman and analyzed his five traits:

  1. Criminally, murderously sociopathic
  2. Wickedly macabre sense of humor
  3. Grandiose/theatrical
  4. Artistic/aesthetic
  5. Egomaniacal

This interpretation somewhat varied from those that had come before it:  He was certainly more lethal than Cesar Romero’s Clown Prince of Crime from the old Adam West series, and artistic is such a singular Tim Burton peculiarity—a signature he left on the crazy-quilt mosaic that comprises the Joker in his ever-evolving mythic totality; in American Idol’s clichéd parlance, Burton “made it his own.”  His Joker shared an undeniable DNA strand with the arch-villain created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane in 1940, the one later personified by Romero in the sixties, as well as then-contemporary comic incarnations as envisioned by Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), Alan Moore (The Killing Joke), and Grant Morrison (Arkham Asylum:  A Serious House on Serious Earth), despite the markedly different aesthetics within which each of those varied interpretations were realized.

Because where is the line drawn, really, between a reinterpretation and an altogether different character?  How does an artist (in a vocationally general sense) redefine a folkloric figure to reflect his own personal idiosyncrasies, the sociocultural conditions of the day, or both, while still working within the recognizable parameters of a time-honored fictional creation?

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Who’s Laughing Now? Different Depictions of the Joker, Part 1

To commemorate his seventy-fifth anniversary, the United States Postal Service recently released a sheet of stamps featuring an illustration of Batman from each of the four culturally designated periods of comic-book history:  Golden Age; Silver Age; Bronze Age; Modern Age.  In light of Entertainment Weekly’s recent observation that we seemed to have reached peak Batman saturation, I can’t help but feel a nostalgic longing for the Batman of my youth.  My Batman.  You know the one I mean:  The Batman that hopped behind the bubbled windshield of the Batmobile, an earnest Robin riding shotgun, fiery thrust of the afterburner blasting my heroes from the Batcave…

Hmm.  That could’ve been several different Batmans—even in those more innocent times (for him and me)—now that I’m thinking it over.  My first exposure to the Caped Crusader came in the form of syndicated afternoon reruns of the old Adam West series (which had ended its run over a decade earlier); at some point, my not-yet-literate mind recognized a correlation between the show’s splashy opening logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman,” to my mother’s surprise and delight, became the first word I could read and write.  (She was, mercifully, apparently either unaware of or unconcerned with the admonitions of Fredric Wertham a quarter century prior.)  Batman also had a strong animated presence at the time, appearing concurrently in a Filmation series that served as a de facto sequel to the ‘60s live-action show, as well as the long-running Super Friends franchise from Hanna-Barbera.  (That these aired on competing networks, something that would never happen today, only serves to illustrate how comic-book characters have gone, in my lifetime, from licensed-property afterthoughts to tightly leashed, billion-dollar corporate assets.  But, that’s a topic for another article…)

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A Survivalist’s Guide: The Continuing Relevance and Reinterpretation of Rambo

Here I am—intrepid screenwriter—gearing up to embark on a dizzying new adventure in my writing career:  my first full-length novel—a work of historical fiction (with supernatural twist, of course—the change in venue isn’t indicative of revamped storytelling sensibilities on my part!).  In a plot convenience straight out of a first-draft screenplay, Writer’s Digest recently hosted a novel-writing conference here in Los Angeles; among the seminars offered was a “Historical Fiction Boot Camp”—taught by no less than bestselling author David Morrell, who introduced the world to Rambo in his inaugural novel, First Blood (1972).  I’d have likely attended the workshop regardless, but given that on my most recent vacation I lazed on the beach and read three Morrell novels in a row, the happenstance of it all seemed too providential to dismiss.

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Like Clockwork:  The Inner Workings of Jack Bauer

This is the first in a series of posts on characterization, in which I reverse-engineer a psychological profile for an established fictional character.

Four years ago, the clock ran out on 24, the groundbreaking “real-time” television drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as indefatigable counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer.  A writer on Lost once told me how much he loved 24 for being such an immersive entertainment experience:  It made him completely forget, as he watched it, that he was both a television scribe and a liberal!  Indeed, the series remained so reliably entertaining throughout its initial eight-season run that its often outlandish plot twists never seemed to irrevocably strain the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief, nor did its occasionally controversial depictions of both Muslims and the use of torture overshadow its legacy as an evolutionary pioneer in serialized television.

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