Daily Dojo

Rapping On Writing . . . Fatal Flaws

I haven’t rapped on writing in awhile, and I thought I’d start a new discussion topic about FATAL FLAWS . . . movies whose stories have great potential but are ruined by a couple of wrong choices that derail the whole show.

The idea for this came from Terry’s column WORDPLAY: The One Hundred Million Dollar Mistake which, if you haven’t read, you should run and read now. As in immediately. It’s long but totally and completely worth it (as are all of the columns on Wordplay) and you should send it to all directors, producers and development folk you know. I think Terry really hits on something important in terms of story DNA, and something younger scribes (like me, heh) should pay more attention to.

It’s interesting to me since I got involved with Trigger street and talking with a load of other spec screenwriters via the internet, I’ve come to discover writing disciples of a different sort than I met in theatre . . . it’s invigorating, I have to say.

At the same time, since I come from a different background (actor, director, playwright) I always seem to view things at a slightly different angle. Just a bit, a couple of degrees, but it’s there.

There are quite a few screenwriters who follow strict guidelines to format, events, structure . . . and this is not in any way, shape or form a bad thing, not at all. Their first act ends when a first act is supposed to, the inciting incident happens by at least page ten, etc.

Again, all good stuff. And I’ve learned a lot from people of this discipline* (and you should, too). However, I sometimes feel the forest gets missed because all the trees are in the way.

If I haven’t said this before, I’ll say it now . . . this is all just my opinion, no more, no less. LOL!

Let me see if I can share a story about it that may help illuminate.

When I was a wee lad, and later as a young adult and grown man, while in the martial arts I did thousands of thousand of punches from a horse stance.

That’s how marital arts were taught back then. You got in a horse stance and you punched (when I did karate, we punched walls. In a horse stance) and you got in a front stance and kicked from there.

Today, most modern martial arts classes don’t do that, you do your punches and kicks from a fighting stance, simply because if you were to find yourself in an altercation on the street, the horse stance would not only not be of help, it would hurt you (cause the groin area is open and exposed, ouch) . . .

Now to be fair, the purpose of the horse stance is to teach you to use your hips when punching and to strengthen the legs.

However, you can do and learn both of those things WITHOUT the horse stance.

And it can confuse the student, because some may think THE STANCE is the rule that works in terms of physical confrontation (it’s true, I saw a fight on the street once, where a karate guy gave a great yell, went into a horse stance and promptly got kicked in the nads).

Nonetheless, during my white pajama days, we’d spend hours on things like horse stance and front stance and cat stance and the instructor would pace back and forth and correct your foot or hip by tiny, minute degrees. For hours.

Again, nothing wrong with it, it’s good to discipline one’s body and it’s great mental meditation. But in the end, it didn’t necessarily make a person a better fighter, it just didn’t. Fights are much more fluid . . . Bruce Lee was one of the first to explode the myth of the “classical mess” of white pajama work, and the MMA folks of today are showing that many systems (not all, but many) need to evolve from their strict form** days.

We knew people like that, folks who were great students in class but basically missed the point of self defense and martial arts, we knew them when we trained, we saw them, they only went through the motions but missed the beyond. That’s what my mentor said, way back then.

How does this relate to writing and movies and whatnot?

Well, I often think some folks obsess over tiny degrees of bits and pieces that, as Terry says, won’t affect the success or failure of the piece and while they’re doing that, they’re missing out on a FATAL FLAW that can destroy the whole thing (what Terry calls a 100 MILLION DOLLAR MISTAKE I call a FATAL FLAW) and that’s the thing you should be watching out for, unless you wanna get kicked right in the nads.

While taking out the WE SEES in your script may please a reader or two, in reality it won’t change the movie that is shot. I know some folks say a dialogue scene should never go beyond three pages, too much exposition, or if it’s inside too much it becomes talking heads***, and these may be proper criteria . . . or they may not . . . However, if your character makes a severely unbelievable choice****, it could doom your script no matter what.

Or perhaps the story goes into a direction that turns it into something completely different - so that the film started out one story only to end up another (or example of this, remember the trailers for HANCOCK before the movie opened, and watch the trailers for HANCOCK now coming out on dvd . . . they show two essentially different movies, and they do that because, well . . . in the middle of the movie, the film becomes a different movie . . . though HANCOCK made enough dough, so it wasn’t a FATAL flaw, it sure was a serious one).

What I try to ask myself, while working on a script, is WHAT IS THE STORY?

To me, that’s what often gets overlooked while in the weeds whacking away . . . what’s the dna of the story, what’s the engine that makes it go? And am I getting there as efficiently as I can?

Of course, mistakes can be made beyond the story . . . I have a short play called ALL THE RAGE which has been done quite a few times (email me if you want a copy of it) … it’s about a guy who buys a pretty girl a drink, starts chatting her up, only to discover the conversation takes a really, really dark turn (”have you ever killed anyone? she asks) that’s funny but also, well, disturbing. It’s a piece that, when originally done, people loved.

The play was originally done with The Man Who Would Be King as the man, and he’s a guy you can look at and believe he may have a shot with this pretty girl. But in later productions many directors often insisted on casting a geeky bald nerdy type (it’ll be funny, they insist . . . it’s already funny, I’d say . . . trust me, it’ll be funnier, they say and it never is) trying to pick up a hot girl . . . inevitably this fails . . . it gets laughs, but not the same laughs, and at the end it dies . . . you know why? Because they changed the story with their casting . . . instead of a darkly funny piece about a slick guy who discovers the girl he’s trying to pick up is emotionally disturbed and trying to help her, it becomes a silly piece about a geeky guy getting tortured by a pretty girl who’s making up stories just to fuck with him (note to directors, if I write it, it’s real, don’t pretend my characters are making shit up unless there’s evidence in the script to support it) . . . so they both become pathetic and the audience becomes bored.

I actually changed the character description of the lead because of it, emphasizing that the guy was handsome and hot. Still directors miss the point and cast opposite because, well, they’re not looking at the story, they’re looking at pictures. Always look at the story.

Sometimes things get out of your hands, and so people will make flaws during the execution of the story, but while it’s in your hands, it’s important to understand when and if the engine breaks down, why that happened.

Or, for a spec, if it’s even broke to begin with*****.

Usually I think FATAL FLAWS are linked to events and choices made in the story DNA (usually, not always) and I hope to examine a few of these with you from time to time, because I think we can learn a lot if not more from near misses as we do the successes . . . So let’s chat about it, okay?

As an example of a FATAL FLAW, I think of the last two MATRIX movies, specifically the second one.

At the end of the first MATRIX film, Neo speaks to the machine and promises to free everyone (all those lost souls enslaved as batteries) under the machine’s rule.

But . . . he doesn’t do that in the sequels.

In the second movie, he doesn’t bother with the battery folk at all, instead he’s trying to save the people of Zion. And as a result, we don’t really care . . . because the Zion people are pretty and clean and have nary a cold sore among them and every night they dirty dance.

Compare that to people hard-wired into pods and used as batteries by machines, which of those would you care about?

We cared about the enslaved folk, because that’s what we feel like, trapped in our cubicle making Dilbert reports . . . that’s why the first one worked, we all felt like slaves . . .

In the second two movies, the enslaved are forgotten (in fact, they all die, usually at the hands of rebels) as Neo fights the machine with his band of rave-loving club kids. We don’t really care about the underground club kids, sadly. Plus, he promised.

Neo doesn’t keep his promise and it kills the movies, for me.

The first movie was about freeing the enslaved mind. And that should have been the second and third movie, too, as Neo promised us, but it wasn’t.

Obviously some folks still liked it, still attended in droves, but I was in the theater on opening day and I can tell you what most people felt once it was over . . . we were all disappointed.

Neo let us down, dude.

There’s a couple more films I want to talk about in terms of fatal flaws, near misses that could have been great movies but got derailed . . . in particular REIGN OF FIRE and VANTAGE POINT and anything else I think of along the way.

Hope you join me. Any suggestions are welcome.

What movies do you think qualify as near misses?


*Again, I’m not slagging on the hard core discipline of format, structure, etc. Eddie Van Halen was a classically trained musician, after all, and Bruce Lee mastered the old forms before forming his own philosophy . . . I merely point out that these things should be the foundation, not the house, and they are primarily a place to START . . . just my opinion, of course.

And there’s nothing wrong with avoiding the type of writing that pisses off professional readers (which include the rampant use of WE SEE, for some reason), at least not without a good reason to do so.

**Also, I’m not slagging on the classical approach to the martial arts, just putting them in perspective … for my part, I loved the old school pomp and ceremony of wearing a black belt, the formality and comforting familiarity of the stances, the rigidity of how it all laid out, I really did. I learned a lot from it . . . but again, it’s not the end-all, be all. Nothing is, except the journey, I think. Biographies of Bruce Lee really put this into perspective.

***It always kills me when someone goes on about talking heads (it’s a wonk term, it means people sitting in the room, talking and not doing anything) because one of my favorite movies of all time is THE BREAKFAST CLUB which is, of course, five people sitting in one room. Talking. Sometimes they dance, but mostly they talk. And it’s fantastic.

Note to readers, directors, etc. Just because it’s inside and it’s talking heads, that won’t necessarily kill your film. Only if the talking heads are BAD. If the writing and the characters and the discoveries are great, it will be great, no matter how long the heads talk.

****Sometimes, of course, you may make a believable choice that some folks will never believe, no matter what. There’s a famous story about Glenn Close reading FATAL ATTRACTION and just not buying that her character would do those things. She met with some psych doctors who pointed her to case studies of women doing exactly those things, and charted with her the characters journey so it would be believable . . . and the end result was an Oscar nomination for Close and a lot of dough for the producers.

But sometimes people will refute the obvious due to their own experiences and / or prejudices (which IN THE PAST has led to ridiculous beliefs in the past that women can’t handle certain jobs like doctors, truck-drivers, fight in the military, that people of different races should marry or that gays can’t love and marry. Wait, that last one, that’s not in the past, that’s the unfortunate present) because their own emotions get in the way, unless they really look at it objectively, like Close did.

I have a script with a sociopath in it, a cute blonde girl, and sometimes people have trouble with her because they don’t want to believe the girl next door could kill (despite, you know, cheerleaders and teens killing each other all over the news) and in one discussion about the script with a guy (a manager type), he had trouble believing she would kill her boyfriend - “But they loved each other! I could buy it if she didn’t know him, but they’ve been together for years!”

I pointed out that a person is actually in more danger from people we know and love than we are from strangers . . . it’s true, people are more often killed by a husband, wife or family member than from a person they don’t know.

That’s why, if someone is found murdered, the FIRST person the police look to is a loved one. Because usually, that’s who did it, according to statistic reality. Heh-heh.

The guy didn’t get it, he just didn’t want to believe someone you loved could kill you, despite evidence to the contrary.

And you’ll run into that. Not much you can do but point to the reality and then move on to your next script. Of course, if someone BUYS your script and demands a change, present your case and if they refuse, nod and be HAPPY to do it . . . Because paid writers are paid to write, heh-heh. Unsolicited opinions are just that, to take or discard at your leave. Paid writers write for pay.

For more on that, see Terry’s column called Story Molecule.

*****Something to keep in mind, bearing what I said in the footie above, what may seem like a fatal flaw for some films are actually a strength . . . as an example, the non-linear structure of PULP FICTION, a script a lot of people turned down . . . Is what people are stumbling over a flaw, or is it just so different that they can’t see how unique it is?

That’s often what fucks people up. Is it a flaw, or is it something new?

Often what some people make think of as a FATAL FLAW is actually a marketing consideration (ie, people won’t see movies that are three hours long, won’t see a film with an unsympathetic protag, won’t see movies about cowboys, etc) . . . marketing is a consideration, sure, but if your choice is true to the story DNA, then it isn’t a fatal flaw . . . maybe your epic about quilters at the turn of the century banding together against raiding Apaches has a limited audience due to its length and subject matter, but that doesn’t mean it’s flawed . . . We’re talking story, not marketing, at least today, heheheh.

Okay, obviously I’ve ranted enough for today.

7 Responses to “ Rapping On Writing . . . Fatal Flaws”

  1. jodi Says:

    Terry’s column was great. Thanks :) Near miss= the Mummy Returns. I liked the Mummy. The Mummy Returns was nothing but visuals. It could have been a really good movie *sigh*

  2. jodi Says:

    oops–btw, Happy Thanksgiving. :)

  3. Joshua James Says:

    Yeah, I seem to remember MUMMY RETURNS as having no sense of danger in it, which was different from the first one, which was both fun and scary … but in MUMMY RETURNS, once they introduced their son and had him on their adventures, I knew right away that nothing was going to happen to him … the kid wouldn’t or couldn’t be killed, so it was gone for me.

    Which was too bad, because there were a couple things about it I liked, but I never got the ominous danger of the first one (in the first MUMMY movie, if you remember, the Mummy stalks down and kills these America cowboys, working his way toward our heroine) … in the second one, they said, we’ll have some fun quips and asides and actions sequences and there’ll be a kid there saying funny things …

    But I don’t remember real danger in it …

  4. Andrew Says:

    If I were a blogger we’d be chuckling about the coincidence of posting similar topics as this very one has been much on my mind. Once the caffeine clears the cobwebs, perhaps I’ll come up with some FATAL FLAWS worth mentioning.

  5. Mystery Man Says:

    Great post, man! I want MORE, MORE, MORE! Hehehe…

    With respect to the Matrix sequels, I couldn’t agree more. Terrible experiences. In the original, you knew what the core story was. In the sequels, whatever core story they had in mind was lost in a vast sea of pointless subplots and indulgent FX. Ugh…

    Loved the comparison to the horse stance. But if you write “we see,” I will personally hunt you down and kick you in the nads.

    Send me ALL THE RAGE. Love to read that one.


  6. Joshua James Says:

    Nads, huh? I see … Heh-heh.

    Just sent it, chief!

  7. Alexander Says:

    Excellent post! It got me thinking about how many of the all-time classics ignore or intentionally break “the rules”. The highest grossing movie of all time, adjusted for inflation, has a female protagonist (not salable) who isn’t particularly sympathetic (no “pet the dog” scenes), and it doesn’t reveal what it’s “about” by page 17 (a big no-no). Not to mention the scenes that are purely dialogue, or purely for spectacle (bad screenwriter! bad!). And it’s four hours long (the kiss of death). Of course the movie has other problems, but I doubt anyone other than a screenwriting expo-bot would consider these fatal flaws.

    A good screenwriter should know the rules and understand why they exist, but ultimately the writer’s job is to tell the story in the best way it can be told. Sometimes it’s following the rules perfectly, or trashing them. Look at the 15+ minute talking heads scene in Breathless. It’s perfect for that story, but try using it for Die Hard VIII: Harder and Deader and the audience will destroy the DVD in frustration. All depends on the story.

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