Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Arc Welding

I don't know about you, but this whole “writing” thing strikes me as a pretty treacherous preoccupation. I’m still reeling from the Triple Chocolate Cappuccino Cheesecake that is The Dark Knight and a friend working on a romantic comedy poses a question that goes something like this: If I am trying to demonstrate how my main character (we’ll call him Hunt) changes for the better over time, then must I have him abandon certain silly, quirky behaviors that seem part and parcel of his nature?

The short answer is “No, you can do anything you want, provided it works.” However, because I like to pretend I’m a script consultant sent back in time by John Connor to save my friend’s pre-apocalyptic efforts (he’d do the same for me), I find myself recalling a certain panel discussion at the Austin Film Festival from several years ago. Here the likes of Ted Tally, Shane Black, and Barry Josephson opined that the so-called character arc is not always necessary.

The action item here is that Hunt at some level can’t change—he’s Hunt. He can become more himself, more fully himself, but he’s not going to make a huge change in personality or style. He may finally realize what he was already capable of, nothing more (though that may well be a big stretch). Think of a personality typing system such as the Enneagram, if you will, in which there are nine distinctive ways of relating to the world. You might be a Three, you might be a Nine, but in any case your individual “arc” will be, we hope, from the less healthy side of Threeness or Nineness to the healthier side. But you don’t suddenly become a Four or a Seven because of a series of events or decision you make. You don’t adandon certain silly, quirky behaviors just because you’re making better decisions. Depending on the nature and genre of your script, the climax you choose might be the moment at which the main character finally realizes his fullest potential . . . or sinks into the depths of madness.

I am reminded of a helpful DVD special feature on Randall Wallace’s writing of Braveheart, in which he spoke of William Wallace’s “arc.” I found his use of the term surprising, since I take Braveheart as an example of a film in which the main character doesn’t change all that much. However, to Randall, William’s arc consisted in realizing that, in the end, all the fighting was not going to accomplish the change he sought; he would have to accept the personal risk of further negotiations with the nobles. That’s when his values, his commitment, are put to the ultimate test. And thus William fulfills the theme, that you must follow your heart, no matter what, even if it’s torn from your chest. (Imagine taping that not just to your PC but to the ceiling above your bed.)

None of this is necessarily news to a subsection of my readership, but nonetheless I find it intriguing that the naturalism that seems to result from the anti-arc argument suggests another way in which drama follows life. In fact, just this evening my friend rang me on the cell just as I was about to enter Target in search of a new notebook. He had another question for me, this one about turning points. Something tells me this new behavior is unlikely to change.

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Anonymous Eric said...

I'm afraid I disagree slightly. The problem with a film 'arc' is that it is shortened to 1.5-3 hrs, and thus, as you say, a character must stay nominally 'the same.' Otherwise we cease to believe in the character as 'realistic.' There's not enough time for real change, even if a film is chronicling the entire 'life' of someone (like WW).

However, for TV shows, books, and of course to a much greater extent LIFE, an 'arc' can be much broader, and people do change significantly. In other words, I agree with this analysis when applied to film, but the blog entry seems to imply that this is a truism in 'life' and there I think I must draw the line.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Ryan Rasmussen said...

You're just saying that because you totally heart Buffy the Vampire Slayer and hurl rocks at the Enneagram (you Seven, you!).

You know as well as anyone my belief in the human capacity for transformation. What I'm trying to get at here is the idea that whether in film or life we change within a fairly bounded range of behavior, attitudes, perspectives. The shy introvert may become more gregarious over time, with effort, and/or in certain contexts, but an "ectomorph" will not become a "mesomorph."

7:52 PM  
Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

Sometimes people have an a-ha moment that radically changes the course of their lives. Sometimes their lives are fractured in profound and disturbing ways. Perhaps they are reborn.

Can they stay that way? I suppose, but like the Mighty Mississippi, you might divert it for a time, a long time, but sooner or later its going to take it's old form (or close to it), especially if left unattended.

And maybe that is the difference between books and movies and life. Perhaps movies can show little change (and be believable) and maybe books can show a deep change over a period of time. And maybe life in its entirety shows that deep changes erode over time.

This is all a matter of semantics and where you wish to draw lines, and your personal philosophies on life.

My mother told me recently that I am the same person now than the day I was born. That the personality and nuances and how I see the world are really not that different. It's an interesting perspective. Is she right? Dunno (since I don't have much of a reference).

12:08 PM  
Blogger Brett said...

In real life, people do not really change much past age 5-8. Certain aspects might continue to expand a bit, or contract (especially in comparison to other aspects), but by and large, what you see by age nine is pretty much what you're gonna see by age ninety.

EXCEPT of course in the event of some major shattering event, in which case all bets are off. A fair analogy might be with geography -- over the span of a human lifetime, land structure (miounatins, rivers, etc) do not change unless there is some cataclysmic event such as an earthquake or meteoritic impact.

Which is of course what we like to address in movies-- the emotional equivalent of a meteor impact on the geography of a human psyche and emotional life: Luke finds that he is not some nameless farmboy on the ass-end of nowhere, but is in fact the central player in a galactic rebellion.... Lawrence is dropped into a strange world in the Arabian desert and finds that his destiny lies along a totally different path than what anyone would ever have expected.... Frodo becomes swept up in an epic struggle against evil.

And Enneagrams... feh. Give me the far more solid science of phrenology any day.
two-time meteor survivor B

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Unk said...

Interesting comments...

But I think YOU are correct Ryan. Whatever WORKS.

Unfortunately -- it usually DOESN'T work.

Protagonists with noble philosophies TO BEGIN WITH usually do undergo some kind of change albeit not the usual arc we define as the arc.

However, I always call it the arc and just about everyone in Smallywood does too... Because no matter how small... Now matter how inconsequential -- it's USUALLY still there.

Protagonists with noble philosophies to begin with -- normally become EVEN MORE VESTED in that noble philosophy i.e., that IS the change or the arc.

Definitely semantics...


4:10 PM  

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