April 2012 – Writing Lessons from Norway
First of all, let me say what an inspiring range of talent there is in the region. The films were all very different and had a wonderful local sense of place combined with the potential universal emotional appeal that gives a film “legs.”
This isn’t to say there weren’t challenges to overcome in the stories and characters in the films discussed.
Here are three key take-aways about common issues that make a film project less effective and less emotionally compelling.
No matter how poetic, beautiful, or inspired the visuals in a film are, without conflict you don’t have a story.
There are three levels of conflict–
External conflict (obstacles presented by the physical environment or terrain, the weather, the society or culture, or any other obstacle presented by the larger external world of the story)
Relationship conflict (conflict or opposition between the people or creatures in the story)
Internal conflict (conflict within a character– the personal or psychological obstacles the character struggles with inside him or her self).
The Internal conflict drives the other two kinds of conflict. By this I mean how a character deals with any challenge, opportunity, or threat depends on who they are emotionally. Emotion always drives action.
CONSISTENT OVERALL TONE
A film’s tone should be consistent and yet surprising. The film can and should have ups and downs, shifts and reversals, and comic or dramatic turnarounds. But the story should an overall tone that works as an underlying point of view about the story world.
If a film is a black comedy then the ending must be funny in an ironic way or end in a sharp or biting comic twist. You don’t want to end a warm romantic comedy with a sad, ironic, or scathing twist at the end. Nor do you want to end a sharp dark comedy with a moment of emotional violins.
Be careful that shifts in tone fit a consistent comic or dramatic sensibility. Comedy must, of course, have moment of drama or pathos and drama must have moments of humor or absurdity. But reversals in tone should not be confusing, jarring, or pull the audience emotionally out of the story.
Detail makes for a rich story world. Avoid details that only complicate the story plot. Strip away all details that don’t support the main character’s emotional journey.
Audiences love SIMPLE stories about COMPLEX emotions. Complex stories about simple emotions are confusing. There is a great difference between what is complex (consisting of many different but connected parts) and what is confusing (extraneous information that is bewildering or difficult to follow).
I find that no matter how experienced or talented a filmmaker is he or she has to keep returning to the basics in every project. It’s so easy to forget the key tenets– we all need to be reminded of what is fundamental in each new story.