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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Boring Work of Story

I did a guest blog on Rex Sike's Movie Beat where I reviewed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

In it I mentioned that in the original film the story worked because Captain Jack was basically a wild card while Will and Elizabeth were doing the main plot work. It may sound like I'm encouraging writers to create boring characters. I should clarify.

Now first off, I may be in the minority, but I never found Will and Elizabeth that boring. Sure, compared to Jack Sparrow they're as dull as oatmeal but so is every one else including Geoffrey Rush and Jonathan Pryce. Especially in the first film Will and Elizabeth are sympathetic and even a little funny in their own right. Plus they set the emotional stakes for the story.

Go back to the very first scene in the very first film. That scene is a marvel of economy. It sets the ominous and mysterious tone of the films that follows with the ship coming out of the mist. It sets up the menace of the Black Pearl with the wreckage of the ship. The speaking roles are all important characters later on in the story, Gibbs, Norrington, and Governor Swann. It sets the plot in motion with Elizabeth discovering the cursed gold piece. But most importantly it establishes the relationship between Will and Elizabeth. Even though she's just met the boy, young Elizabeth still takes away his gold piece, which she believes will condemn him as a pirate. This is an important point, she takes the gold piece out of altruistic motives. It would be very, very different if she simply stole it. But the relationship starts on a positive note. So when we cut to the next scene of Will and Elizabeth the characters are on firm footing. These aren't just two young people making goo goo eyes at each other despite their station. They've a relationship going back several years. In Elizabeth's eyes she's even saved Will's life. Whether or not you personally find this aspect of the script compelling or whether you love Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley or hate them, the important thing is that it makes sense as far as the story is concerned.

Captain Jack hasn't appeared yet but the story has already started. When he does come in, he doesn't have to worry about the plot or the emotional stakes, he can just be Captain Jack Sparrow and the movie is better for it. That freedom he has is part of his appeal. I remember a lot of my characters seemed to lose a little bit of their luster when you got down to the emotional stakes. And every story needs emotional stakes even if we want to resist it.

Emotional stakes means grounding the character in the stuff a mass audience can relate to. Will and Elizabeth's romance may not be a love story for the ages but it is a love story. That's where the new movie flounders most of all.

The trick is to find a character as explosive as Jack Sparrow yet give him believable emotional stakes. That's one of the trickiest feats in all of writing. The magic is in the mystery, in not knowing where a character like that is coming from. To give him emotional stakes is to take away a bit of that mystery, to make him more of a recognizable human being. But stories are about recognizable human beings.

So no I don't advocate writing boring characters. I advocate writing the characters that your story needs. Those emotional stakes have to be set by somebody.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, and it all makes perfect sense except that until you mentioned it I never knew that Elizabeth took Will's medallion for altruistic reasons and to save him from a pirates fate. I assumed she took it because she dreamed herself of being a pirate, or an astronaut or a shepherd or whatever - just anything except the governors daughter.

    I guess the point is that it should have been better explained in the scene. A sinlge line of dialogue like "They mustn't catch you with this" - or similar - would have explained a whole lot and made me much more favourably disposed towards her. Assuming she stole it and then later on took his place when she went to parley has always made me think of her as selfish and petulant.

    Just goes to show that it's a lot of small things that make the difference.


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