Every Picture Tells A Story, Though Not Always A Good One

It’s easy to put the boots to M. Night Shyamalan whenever he debuts a new film, but the fact of the matter is as long as Lady In The Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender exist, After Earth will never be considered his worst film.

The story, conceived by Will Smith while he was watching an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, was originally meant to tell the tale of a father and son crashing their car in some remote region, and the son having to venture into rough terrain to get rescue for his father. Will later changed it to:

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A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help.

It’s a simple story, which is what you should strive for when creating fiction. So, why doesn’t it work (apart from the wooden acting and bizarre futuristic southern military accents)? What storytelling lessons can you learn from After Earth?

1. When good exposition goes bad – Avoiding exposition is nigh-impossible when dealing with science fiction set in the future. In the case of After Earth, the audience needs to be brought up to speed on why humans fled the planet one thousand years ago, as well as being introduced to the new homeworld, Nova Prime. And that’s where it should end. Everything else the audience needs to know should be introduced organically. The one thing you should not use your opening expository scene for is telegraphing the solution for the climax of the story. It’s lazy and a cheat.

2. The protagonist/antagonist relationship – Even with coming of age stories, which After Earth is—–well, that and a motivational speech dressed up as a sci-fi actioner—–the strength and audience interest lies in the conflict found in the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. The reason After Earth doesn’t ring true isn’t because the protagonist, Kitai, is weak—possessing a weakness that must be overcome is exactly what any good story needs.

The first problem is the antagonist. The thing that combats Kitai in the film is nature—which is filled with its fair share of animal and insect nasties (plus one blast from Kitai’s past, conveniently placed to help him arc properly)—but it doesn’t oppose him. There isn’t one beast that stalks him with animal cunning and outflanks him at every turn, with the ultimate goal of turning him into a tasty morsel. The wilderness isn’t planting snares and death traps in his path to prevent him from reaching his destination.

Not that either of those scenarios are particularly original or great, but something else is needed than to have Kitai stumble and bumble his way through unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. I would have been more invested if he actively tried to outwit the environment and was constantly met with defeat. At least then he would have gained some insight. We learn from mistakes.

Which is the problem I had with the resolution. At the all is lost stage, Kitai suddenly masters the gimmick that allows him to prevail in the end. Without obtaining the wisdom or acquiring the experience to properly do so. And again, it’s a cheat and lazy storytelling.

3. Telegraphing – Some writers mistake this with foreshadowing—the act of dropping hints about certain plot developments that will come to be later in the story. The difference between them? Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense, or the impact of the event.

Before using foreshadowing, have a good think. Is it necessary to heighten the tension? It can be difficult knowing which side of the line you’re on, so if you’re attempting to foreshadow, you should ask yourself if there’s any chance the audience can predict what you’re hinting at? If the answer is yes, take a good look around. You’re standing in telegraph territory. Try a subtler approach.

4. Flashbacks – It’s amazing how many screenwriters still get this wrong by thinking flashback sequences serve the purpose of filling in plot holes in the past. A well-constructed flashback should always move the story forward. Always. If your flashback doesn’t accomplish this, you need to rework your story and find a way to introduce whatever bit of information is missing from your plot.

In After Earth, we have dueling flashback sequences, one set belonging to Cypher which explains his estrangement from his son and the other set telegraphing Kitai’s final obstacle. Nether of these string-of-past-event-sequences impact the present day story, nor do they escalate the conflict. The just provide information that could have be delivered during the Act 1 set-up.

Naturally, there are other problems I had with this film, but delving into them would reveal too many spoilers, so I’ll just end the post here. If you happen to see the film and want to discuss it, feel free to comment below or drop me a line.

Sally forth and be writeful.

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Climbing The Freytag Pyramid (or getting on top of dramatic structure)

ImageScholars have been analyzing the structure of drama for nearly as long as it’s been written or performed. One of the more notable studies belongs to nineteenth century German playwright and novelist, Gustav Freytag and his “Die Technik des Dramas” (Technique of the Drama).

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He didn’t originate the concept, mind you, Aristotle introduced the idea of the protasis, epitasis and catastrophe—beginning, middle and ending—three-act plot structure, which was later replaced with drama critic Horace’s five-act structure.

But creators are never satisfied with the status quo, so when playwrights began toying around with three and four act plays, Freytag wrote a definitive structure study—referred to as Freytag Pyramid—that explained the necessity of dividing a standard drama into the following five acts:

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Stage 1: Exposition—as discussed in an earlier post—introduces the setting of the story, the characters, their situation, atmosphere, theme, and the circumstances of the conflict. Traditionally, exposition occurs during the opening scenes of a story, and when expertly executed background information is only gradually revealed through dialogue between major and minor characters.

Stage 2: Rising action—sometimes called complication and development—begins with the point of attack that sets a chain of actions in motion by either initiating or accelerating conflict. Difficulties arise, which intensifies the conflict, while narrowing the possible outcomes at the same time. Complications usually come in the form of the discovery of new information, the unexpected opposition to a plan, the necessity of making a choice, characters acting out of ignorance or from outside sources such as war or natural disasters.

In this stage, the related series of incidents always build toward the point of greatest interest.

Stage 3: Climax—is the turning point, where the protagonist’s journey is changed, for the better or the worse. In comedies, the protagonist’s luck changes from bad to good, due to their drawing on hidden inner strengths. Drama is the other side of the coin, where things take a turn for the worse and reveal the protagonist’s hidden weaknesses.

Stage 4: Falling action—during this stage, the conflict unravels and the protagonist either wins or loses against the antagonist. This is also where a moment of final suspense might be found, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.

Stage 5: Dénouement—also known as resolution, or catastrophe— in drama, brings the events from the end of the falling action stage to the actual closing scene. Conflicts are resolved in a manner that either creates normality and a sense of catharsis for the characters, or release of tension and anxiety for the audience. In comedy, the protagonist is always better off than they were at the beginning of the story. And in tragedy, the protagonist is worse off in the end—hence the alternate title for this stage, catastrophe.

As I’m sure you’re well aware, Freytag’s analysis wasn’t meant for modern drama. For starters, front loading your story with exposition is usually the kiss of death for your audience’s declining attention span. If exposition is truly needed, it should occur naturally within your story in the smallest fragments possible.

Also, modern storytellers tend to use falling action to raise the stakes of the climax for dramatic impact, having the protagonist fall short of their goal—–encountering their greatest fear or losing something or someone important to them. And when they’re at their lowest point, they’re struck with an epiphany, giving the protagonist the courage to take on the final obstacle, resulting in the classic climax.

And there you have it. Now, sally forth and writeful… and enjoy your weekend.

Don’t Be A Chump, Don’t Infodump

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Finding balance in your life isn’t simple. Balancing life and writing is even harder. Finding balance in your writing? That’s something you’ll be working on for the rest of your natural writing life, because a well-written story balances exposition, description, action and dialogue, but not in equal measure. You need to keep a watchful eye on exposition.

In its basic form, exposition is the part of a story that sets the stage for the drama to follow, introducing the theme, setting, characters, and circumstances, usually at the beginning of the story. Sounds straightforward enough, right? Well, writing good exposition that flows with the story and continues to draw the audience in, isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, many writers misuse exposition as an illegal dumping ground for information that not only causes a distraction that breaks the flow of a story, but also decreases interest.

And you don’t have to be an expert to spot the exposition dump (aka infodump) because we’ve all experienced and recognized it while reading a novel or watching a movie or television program. It’s that speed bump or sometimes roadblock in the story where the writer unloads a ton of information at once as a means of explaining things like backstory, characters, and the rules of the story world. If you’re a culprit of this, stop it now. We’ll forgive your ignorance in past works (go back and cull the exposition, if at all possible) but it’s a bad exposition technique and the line must be drawn here. This far, no further.

Typically, infodumping occurs when a character, new to the scene, is introduced to a foreign setting and is force-fed all the knowledge of the various individuals at play, the rules of the micro society, and the overall big picture of the story world. You’ll find this a lot in science fiction and fantasy tales.

Other bad/lazy infodumping techniques include “The Lecture,” where a speaker over-explains information the writer discovered during their research period of the writing process and thought would show their faux expertise in the subject. The other offender is commonly known in the sci-fi writing community as the “As You Know, Bob,” conversation, where one character tells another character information they already know. Please don’t do this. Not only is it lazy, but it comes across as unrealistic.

This isn’t to say that all exposition is bad, in fact, properly executed, it takes up roughly 10% of a well-balanced written piece (the other 90%, of course, being the description, action and dialogue that make up the scenes). Some of the information embedded within expository text is actually relevant, it simply requires a little finesse to fit it in seamlessly and not disrupt the story’s flow.

Of course, if you handle your description, action and dialogue properly, you can whittle that 10% down and most people won’t notice or care about the missing exposition.

Well, that’s enough infodumping for me today. I’m off to tear a story down and rebuild it.

Sally forth and be writeful.