The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Working from the inside-out

The two workshops I'll be teaching in Wenatchee this weekend are
1) The Hero's Journey and
2) Writing the Thriller

I'm thinking that the definition of "Hero" is almost always someone who takes great risk for the potential of great benefit for his family or community. And that in the oldest stories of Heros there is almost always externalized risk and threat, with attendant action and dynamism.

The Thriller writer has to understand that the genre is primarily defined by the dominant emotion you want the audience to experience: thrills. I mean, this isn't hugely complex: a romance wants to trigger romantic yearnings and memories. A horror film wants to trigger the sensation of fear. A comedy wants you to laugh and release tension. Each has their own rules, but by studying the most successful films and books in each genre you can familiarize yourself with the methods and tropes associated with each.

I can tell you one thing,'d be well served not to think you're going to produce thrills with big stunts and special effects, just as you would be foolish to count on bloody SFX to produce horror, or mugging and slapstick to produce humor. Note the quote from Aristotle: "(Powerful emotion) may be aroused by spectacular means, but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior (writer). For the plot ought to be constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place." (The Poetics)

There it is. The emotions must be produced by a meshing of the basic structure of the situation with the basic nature of the characters, and be separate from the window dressing of effects and broad physical action. This, however, is writing INTRINSICALLY, working out the "bones" first. What most writers do is operate EXTRINSICALLY, from the outside-in.

If you look at the AVENGERS rendition of the Hulk, I believe you're seeing this in action. For the first time, the actor playing Banner also played the Hulk. Previously, "Hulk" was "acted" by the SFX animators--the computer folks. Now, not to slight animators, but they aren't actors . Yes, they take acting courses. But one would expect that to be exactly as effective as actors taking animation classes. I kept seeing something in Ruffalo's depiction that I never saw in Edward Norton's, or Eric Bana's.) It took me a while to figure it out, but I finally got it: Ruffalo's Hulk wasn't just a force of nature like the others were. It was an animal. I could feel its actions motivated by emotion, rather than the need to fill the screen with destruction.

And that, to me, was a world-class actor creating the core of the character, rather than world-class animators who have taken a few hours of acting classes. I think the artists responded by giving the Hulk's musculature more "reality". I felt like I was watching an anthropoid creature, with fantastically thick tendons and ligaments anchoring inhumanly powerful and springy muscles to bones stronger than girders. Its body accelerated and decelerated in segments--like real-world flexible objects--rather than all in a "block" as previous Hulks had seemed to do.

And I think Ruffalo set the context for much of that. Inspired. Began with an emotional truth: "I'm angry all the time" and constructed both a Banner and a motion-capture Hulk which, once "spectacle" was added, blew audiences away.

The inspiration of an army of SFX people might be compared to the inspiration of ALL your creative aspects (and it can be useful to actually consider your internal resources to be a crew, rather than a single "creative" aspect) to create the greatest work of which you are capable. Or the ultimate inspiration of an audience which suspends its disbelief more readily because they believe in a character, understand his needs, sees the threat and potential in the situation, empathizes with the goals and sees parallels in their own lives...and therefore has an investment in believing, a PREFERENCE to surrender, rather than leaning back, crossing their arms and saying: "I dare you to entertain me."

Write from the twin balance of situation and character, crafting each to the other, and you'll have joined the male and female generative energies that create an artistic "child"--and be on your way to creating a living work of art.

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