The Plot-Fix Mini Clinic

Here are a couple of things I’ve wanted to write posts about. The problem is, I didn’t think I really had enough to say about them to justify doing it (I know, I know, since when has that ever stopped me before?).

What I decided to do is combine them into one post, a couple of thumbnails to look at when you’re planning and plotting your project to see if it could somehow be made “more better.”

Note: All opinions on examples are subjective. This is how they struck me.

Time Compression Problems

Remember that bit from one of the Naked Gun movies that showed a montage of a couple doing silly things while they dated? As a moviegoer familiar with film shorthand, you assumed that this montage was something that played out over the space of a couple of weeks. Then, at the end, one of the characters says something like, “It’s been such a fun day.” The incongruity of it all produced a laugh.

Laugh all you want, but there are films that fall victim to this (I don’t recall any novels doing this, but that’s not to say they’re not out there).

In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the three escaped convicts are on the way to a house which will be flooded over in three days. Along the way, they record a song to get some money. The record is pressed, distributed to radio stations, becomes a hit, sells like hotcakes in stores everywhere, and makes cultural icons out of the trio. All this before the house is flooded. Three days. Don’t think so.

Another example is Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown. The dutiful but suicidal son flies off to collect the remains of his deceased father as his mother stays behind to deal with her grief. She does so by learning to fix her car by herself, getting hit on by a libidinous neighbor, taking tap lessons, learning how to be a gourmet cook, and taking a class in standup comedy. And she accomplishes this in… well, by my count, Drew spends two days in Elizabethtown before his mother shows up for the funeral.

Time compression problems happen in film in the editing stage, I suspect. In Elizabethtown, I suspect it went back to an overzealous screenwriter. As Crowe was both on this film, he turned out to be his own worst enemy in this instance.

When this kind of thing translates into a novel, we tend to see it not as the passage of time, but some kind of continuity problem. Besides, in the novel it is easier to control time than it is on screen. The very form itself makes for a tightly controlled environment. Even in a book like Slaughterhouse Five, where conventional notions of time go out the window, there is still a sense of continuity, and nothing seems rushed or compressed or out of place, because the form of the novel itself is so controlled. And if it happens in something like a Tom Robbins or Thomas Pynchon novel, well, it was probably intentional.

So word to you potential screenwriters and directors. And to you aspiring novelists, take heed. Keep control of your medium.

The Underwhelming MacGuffin

I hadn’t seen my brother in a couple of years, and we decided to go to a movie that was new in theaters at the time, The Presidio with Sean Connery and that guy from the doctor show who was supposed to have a long career but didn’t. I watched and watched and watched, wading through the cliches of the thriller until at last a revelation was made. Diamonds were cleverly being smuggled in jugs of water, which made them more or less invisible.

“At last!” I thought. “The movie is finally going to get good!”

Imagine my surprise when the credits rolled.

I was reminded of this when I caught Alien Nation on the Fox Movie Channel the other night. There’s a lot I liked about that film – the whole culture of the newcomers, which was thought out even down to the grafitti spray painted on the sides of buildings. Then came the revelation that drugs were circulating that would once again make slaves of all the alien newcomers. And somehow… it… just… wasn’t… quite… big… enough.

What happened?

I think the MacGuffins weren’t properly matched to the plot.

In the case of The Presidio, the whole movie seemed to revolve around that surprise of the diamonds being hidden in the water jugs. But for me, that should have been a second act revelation. Who was smart enough to hide them like that? Why were they trying to smuggle them? What kind of nefarious deeds were they going to do with the money? Were they going to attempt world domination with Laser-Eyed Sharks, or were they just going to spend the money on sex and drugs? I wanted to know these kind of things, and the film just didn’t pay off. To the producers of the film, the water jugs were the way cool moment. I wanted more.

With Alien Nation the gravity of a race-enslaving drug was not felt during the course of the film. People were a little too cool, a little too level headed. There was only one person sent out to try and kill James Caan with a car bomb, and he was a nincompoop. Look at a film like Capricorn One, which took something smaller – the faking of a Mars landing – and put so much gravity on it that the movie was a swell roller coaster ride, with dead bodies turning up, a reporter with nowhere to hide, desperate men on the lam, and in the case of the brake tampering scene, a virtual roller coaster ride. By comparison, Alien Nation’s villains were the Andy Hardy of screen bad guys – they got together one day and said, “Hey, let’s enslave an entire race of people! I’ve got my old chemistry set…”

I know, I too subscribe to Hitchcock’s definition of the MacGuffin (what the spies want that the audience doesn’t care about). But tell me there was no gravity to the Lost Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, or heck, even the diamond in the opening scenes of the second Indiana Jones movie that ended up on the floor with all of that literal ice.

In other words, the audience doesn’t have to care about the MacGuffin (at least until it starts melting Nazi officers like Jell-o), but it had better have the weight behind it to propel the plot forward. If you’re trying to enslave a nation, one nincompoop with a car bomb isn’t going to do it. And if you’re going to smuggle diamonds through a military base, you’d better have a really good reason for it besides greed.

Does this happen in novels? Oh, you bet it does. In my mononucleosis days, I tossed many bad science fiction novels across the room in disgust before it occurred to me to find out how much those hack writers were being paid. And when I read the amount, it launched me as an SF writer.

Now just for sake of argument, what happens when you’ve got a MacGuffin that the audience literally isn’t supposed to bother with? It’s a cautious move, indeed. The movie Ronin uses a mysterious briefcase to launch all sorts of action sequences – and when the rubber finally makes it back to the road, we learn that – Surprise! – there’s nothing to learn. One of the characters collects the briefcase and takes it away, and we never find out what was in it. This twist, if you could call it that, fit in with the movie in that it only added to the disappointment generated by the rest of the film. On the other hand, from what I’ve heard about Pulp Fiction, it makes perfectly good use of a briefcase that we never learn the contents of.

The lesson? Do what you want with the MacGuffin. Deny showing it to us. Have it turn out to be worthless. Have it turn out to be precious only to the original owner. Have it escape from the hands of the pursuers and get scattered to the four winds. Have it be the answer to the seeker’s hopes and dreams.

Just make sure that it’s equal to the task of carrying the plot. And that we believe it’s important to them.

And one final note. If it really is that important to the spies seeking same, and they send someone to kill someone in their car, make sure they send the guy from Capricorn One and not Alien Nation.

Huh, I’m the director of this,
I’m the producer of that,
What you gonna do next?
How you gonna top that?

(via iPod Shuffle)


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