Tuesday, December 27, 2005

We Live in the Dark Ages


These are the Dark Times. This is, in my opinion, the worst time in the history of cinema. This trend toward bad films began around 1980. When I say this to friends they often say that I just like old movies and that they have always made bad films. They are correct that bad films have always been produced, but there were also a lot more good films and more than a few masterpieces. I offer this as proof of my point that when I was a kid people would go to the movies and expect them to be good and be disappointed when they were bad. Now people go the movies expecting them to be bad and are surprised when they are good. High praise for a film nowadays is someone saying, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be”. How many times have your heard this or said it yourself?

Many things contribute to this trend, but at the top of my list is the death of the first act. The great screenwriter and director Billy Wilder said, “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

Act one is of the utmost importance to story telling and is all but forgotten by modern storytellers.
What is act one? It tells the audience what the story will be about. Sounds easy enough, but still people choose not to write one, because it isn’t the meat of a story. Storytellers are impatient and want to get to the “good part” as fast as possible.

Sounds smart, right? But it isn’t. The “good part” of a joke is the punchline so I’ll just give you the good part of a joke:

The old man from the far-away country was taken aback and was silent for a long time.
As he got up to leave the subway train, he leaned over to the priest and said, "Mister, maybe you should wear your pants backwards."

Not that funny? But that’s the funny part. It doesn’t work because there is no context. Act one provides the context for a story. Everything that happens in the rest of the story somehow relates to act one. A well-crafted act-one can make or break a story.

If you have read the installments of this blog that deal with armature you will be familiar with this: Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.

That is really the best definition for the three acts I have even seen. Today we are dealing with the “Tell them what you are going to tell them” part. That is act one. If your story’s point is that even a good man can be corrupted by power then your first act shows a good man without power. You must show that he is squeaky clean and even show him a situation where he could be corrupt and is not.

This is also where you let the audience know “the outer boundaries” of the reality of the story. E.T. starts with E.T not Elliot. Now the audience knows to expect aliens in this story. It’s a Wonderful Life starts with two angels talking so that the audience knows to expect a supernatural element. This all falls under “tell them what you are going to tell them”. The film Raiders of the Lost Ark begins with a big action sequence before we end up in Prof. Indian Jones’ classroom. We know there is more action coming because we got an outer boundaries scene. The storytellers told us what was to come.

The primary job of a storyteller is to communicate and a strong first act will help you to do that.

2 comments:

W said...

All right, I'll bite -- what's the setup for the punchline about the old man and the priest?

Also, I love the joke about the pirate and his first day with the hook in your book. But I tried to tell it once over drinks, and I bombed. Oh well. I guess I'll just stick with my joke about the four nuns.

Liddy Midnight said...

Spot on. I too decry the abysmal films that are produced these days. (Many books aren't much better.)

I'll be back to check out your thoughts in the future.