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.
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.”
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.
Were you paying close attention for clues during last night’s anticipated series premiere of How to Get Away with Murder? Did you manage to catch writer/creator Peter Nowalk’s object lesson in the simple art of murder?
It was easy enough to overlook. After all, Nowalk skillfully introduced multiple characters and mysteries in short order, creating—and holding his viewers in—the kind of edge-of-your-seat suspense that is the hallmark of the Whydunit genre (so modified from “Whodunit” because who, per Blake Snyder, is merely a conventional formality and ephemeral revelation—it’s the why that gives us the lasting insight into the dark side of human nature we crave from these stories). But, for students of the craft of screenwriting, consider yourself enrolled in How to Create a Fertile, Provocative Premise 101.
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.