By now most of you have seen (or at least heard about) that infamous Miss South Carolina Teen USA clip over on YouTube. (If not, brace yourself.) Maybe you took it as further evidence that our youth today is dumbed-down and American Idol-ized, filled up with undeserved feelings of entitlement. Or maybe you saw it as a train wreck or a particularly grisly car accident you just couldn’t look away from. But you saw something in it – it has several million views.
But I’m not really interested about Miss South Carolina or about today’s youth – what I’m interested in is us, and why we watch this stuff. Because if we viewers followed the conventional wisdom of Hollywood, if we actually did what the screenwriting rules say we are supposed to do, we would change the channel as quickly as we could. But we don’t. We look. We slow down at car accidents. We watch YouTube clips like this and forward them to our friends. We don’t “change the channel” – we watch this stuff over and over and over.
Why? This goes back to a post from a while back about emotional attachment. Conventional screenwriting rules say that the viewer has to be invested in the character, has to identify emotionally with him and his struggles. This has to be clear and clean and unambiguous, and scripts in which the viewer and the character have any other kind of relationship are doomed.
But… I don’t buy this. Does Miss South Carolina have over 7 million views because that many people indentify emotionally with her?
I can hear skeptics saying, “Yeah, but you’re talking about a YouTube clip. That’s very different from investing in a $10 movie ticket or an hour of my life every week for a TV show.” But I don’t buy this either. Do people identify emotionally with Hannibal Lecter? They’ve made 4 movies about him. Do people identify emotionally with Dr. Gregory House? The show is in the Top 5 or 10. Captain Jack Sparrow is fun ($3 billion worth), but I don’t think anybody identifies emotionally with him.
Don’t get me wrong: this is not a whiny writer saying “See? There are no rules! It’s all random and there’s nothing I can learn to get better.” There are ways to get better, and there is a path you have to head down through practice and effort. I’m just trying to navigate it. I believe that in order to write something great you have to work as hard as you can to get your reader to become emotionally attached. I just don’t believe that “the thing” they get emotionally attached to is the characters. It can be, but I think this alone is insufficient.
Then what is it? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
The obvious answer is the old standby “A good story well-told,” but this is both obvious and cryptic. Traditional screenwriting principles say that character comes first, and then story/plot results organically from the character and his internal and external conflicts.
I would say that each of these are necessary but not sufficient. And I will throw something else into the mix – something that may be even more necessary than any of these – that would have probably been unthinkable for me just a few years ago: the speed and density and most importantly movement of the plot.
This is relatively new to me but I cannot deny it any longer: there is a real pleasure when a plot moves the way it should, and this is why I think people love movies (and music). This is not intellectual or even conscious. Momentum, build, reversal, realization, climax, all of these, in just the right amount of time. Like a great pop song. Like a ride.
Don’t roll your eyes – I am not saying that every movie should be a theme park ride or have any kind of thrill element. But people love rides. My sons love riding on trains. Who doesn’t? There is a sense of movement, of discovery, of being taken on a journey by an informed authority. There is a fixed shape to this movement, a instinctively knowable sense of progress, and an intuitive sense of where we are in the journey. And somehow it is the MOVEMENT of the train that unlocks all this. Sitting on an unmoving train isn’t any better than sitting on a chair at home. But RIDING on a train – that is magic.
Think about your favorite pop song, the one you’ve fallen in love with most recently. Now – what is it that you like about it? Why do you want it hear it over and over? What made you fall in love? The lyrics? The riff? The way the chorus sounds after the bridge? It is all of these – but I would guess the most important thing is the way that it MOVES. It bounces, doesn’t it?
A movie should move like this, take us forward. That’s what’s fun. That’s what we fall in love with, I think. Miss South Carolina listens to the question and we think, “okay, here we go.” We see her think for a beat and we know something is coming. These first two units are like the climb up the roller coaster lift hill – we suspect what’s coming and our expectations are primed. And then when she opens her mouth, the train starts moving downhill on its own and the fun/agony begins. We are glued to our seats and, whatever we think of Miss South Carolina’s profundity, we couldn’t “change the channel” if we wanted to. The ride has us and we are captive, and not because we “identify emotionally” with anyone. It is the movement that gives us this joy. Movement and density, I would say.
At least that is the current theory. We’ll see if this sticks.