(A continuation of a previous blog “2+2=”)
“So is the point that if you start movie this way, one should pick a dramatic point just prior to conclusion so ending is still up in there air? Or just not start movies this way? Are there any examples of movies that start with ending (or thereabouts) and work (American Beauty)?”
I’d like to blog about this. Hope you don't mind. I’m open to any thoughts from anyone who might disagree with me.
To answer the first question, NO. To answer the second question, YES. Stephen King railed against this structure in his book, On Writing, and over time, I’ve grown to completely agree with him. I believe that the kind of story structure we saw in Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd should be avoided as much as possible by contemporary screenwriters. Audiences are more sophisticated about movies than they were in the 1940s and that kind of structure ruins a movie for an audience. Weak (and new) writers give up the game by showing the ending in the beginning because they lack the skills to give the audience crafty hints throughout the narrative.
Let me give another example. I recently reviewed a very intelligent first script called The Marquise from a very intelligent girl with a Phd who went by the name “Immaginativa.” The story opened with the Old Marquise (a woman) who just lost her husband, Larrieux. We see her at the funeral crying. Afterwards, she tells her story to a young biographer. Then we dive right into a 125 page flashback…
When the Marquise was young, she was forced into a horrible marriage. The husband died. There was the issue about her dowry and her husband's estate, and thus, the Marquise found herself in the business of getting reacquainted with society and upper class gentlemen and hopefully, remarried. The catch to all of this was that this time around in marriage the Marquise wanted to actually be in love with a genuinely noble man, a man of decency and integrity, in a place where none could be found. All the men who tried to win her over consistently failed her, and it got so bad, that she eventually fell in love with an actor who PLAYS THE PART OF the kind of man she wants to love.
I honestly loved this story. A sensational concept.
However, in my review, I argued that her structure ruined the story. This is what I wrote:
Let's talk structure. I don't know why, but all the newbie screenwriters use this kind of structure when they write their first screenplays as if it's the bread and butter of story structure. An audience will RARELY feel any interest about an old person trying to tell a story nobody knows that takes place in the distant past. You care less simply because it IS taking place in the past. Forget about the flashbacks, send the audience back in time, and just tell the Marquise's story as if we're all living in 1756. You need to put the audience right in the middle of the action as if it's taking place right now. They will be far more emotionally invested in your story with that kind of setup. Not only that, you pulled the rug out from underneath all the rising tension we SHOULD be feeling throughout Act II by giving away the ending at the beginning of your story. By showing us in the beginning that the Marquise lived to be old and was married to Larrieux who died, you gave away the whole ballgame because we now know how her story will end before it ever gets started. And it's a long story, too, that goes from page 7 all the way to page 132. Before we even get to see a seducer like Bretillac in action trying to win her over, we already know that his advances will amount to nothing because she ends up marrying Larrieux. We know that she will not be with Lelio, the actor, because she ends up marrying Larrieux. We already know, when she was ill toward the end and worried about dying, that she will not die. I had to pretend I never read that beginning, that I didn't know she became old and married Larrieux, and only then did I really start to love your story, because I was rooting for her and wanted her to find a noble man who will really win her heart. So get rid of all the 1830 scenes. Get rid of the Old Marquise, get rid of Georges and Sophie, get rid of all those voice overs, which broke the cardinal rule of showing not telling, and just let Marquise's story unfold in front of us in very simple terms.
This isn’t a matter of what’s the right or wrong structure. It’s a matter of what makes for a better experience for the audience - to be shown the ending before they even see the story? Or to watch the story unfold and wonder how it’s going to end?
I would argue it’s the latter, because with the first you’re never fully invested emotionally in the character goals or the story – it’s just a matter of connect the dots.
The last time I saw American Beauty, I thought about its narrative structure. Was it the right decision to have Lester Burnham tell the audience in a voice over in the very beginning, “In less than a year, I'll be dead”? Yeah, I know Alan Ball got an Oscar for writing that script, but yet, I can’t help but question, “was that weak writing? Would it have been better if Alan Ball had shown subtle hints of what’s to come throughout the narrative and let the audience wonder and worry HOW it was going to end and perhaps even guess that Lester will die?
To answer the third question - I can’t think of any movie that opens with the ending and still works. If anyone can think of one, please tell me. Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd worked in the 1940s, but they don’t work today. It would be better today to wonder how the story will end than to be told upfront. The only exception to this rule might be the Titanic. In this particular case, we didn’t care about the flashback structure because a) by the time the movie was released, we already knew the story of the Titanic and we couldn’t wait to relive it, b) Cameron needed to give an explanation of how exactly the ship will sink so we’ll know what’s going on in Act III and could concentrate on the story, and c) we wanted to see the Titanic in its current form at the bottom of the ocean as well as in its pristine glory when it set sail.
In fact, this topic reminds me of something Stanley Kubrick said:
"The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves."