Friday, May 26, 2006

The Amazing Disappearing First Act

"Learn the fundamentals of the game and stick to them." --Jack Nicklaus

I hate to come back to the whole “three act” thing, but I find over and over again that people are not adhering to it. My belief is that the lack of strong first acts in films in recent years has much to do with the steady decline in movie attendance. No first act, no emotional involvement.

I think that I mentioned before that I have been studying magic. There are many benefits for storytellers who study magic, one of which is the importance of the first act. Even the simplest magic trick uses three-act structure. Christopher Milbourne in his book Magic Book put it this way:

“The magician can assume nothing. Unless an audience has been led to believe that a closed hand holds a coin, they will not be amazed when it is shown to be empty.”

He’s talking about having a clear first act.

This idea of being clear often frightens my students. They don’t want to point out the obvious. But what is obvious to them may not be so obvious to the audience. Milbourne’s book continues:

“If they are not aware that an object is green, they will not be astonished when the color changes to red. My friend [magician] Paul Ebling illustrated this point during a demonstration of gambling techniques. He passed around a pair of unprepared dice with white spots for examination. Then he announced he would shake the dice and roll a seven. The seven came up as promised. This was a far more remarkable feat than the spectators realized. Until Paul reminded them that the dice that the examined dice had been green, no one had noticed that the dice on the table were red.”

People only notice what you tell them to notice. If you want to involve them be obvious about what you want them to notice. Magicians understand this but over the years I have seen a decline in the understanding and importance of a strong act-one in storytelling. The tendency is to want to get to the meat of a story because that’s where all the fun happens.

I often use jokes as examples because they are little stories. Everyone knows the importance a strong first act when they are telling a joke. And the listener knows that everything that they are being told will help them understand the punchline of the joke. A listener would never say, “Just skip all of that crap and get to the ending”. And joke-tellers know so well that act one is important that when they are in the middle of a joke and have forgotten something they will be sure to go back and fill in the missing information: “Oh, wait, I forgot to say that the guy has a duck in his pants.”

But first acts are all but disappearing from films. There is almost no time spent setting up the characters and the world they inhabit before the inciting incident. They deprive the audience of any emotional involvement. Imagine a magician’s opening move being that he takes a card randomly out of a deck and asks triumphantly, “Is this your card?” Not much of a trick. With no set-up there is no trick. No emotional involvement. Same with stories.

Don’t be afraid to take the time it takes to give your audience all they need to know to become gripped by your story.


Jamie Baker said...

Your several recent posts about CLARITY touched on some things that I have been thinking about (and even meaning to post about myself) for a long time. Not that I have figured it all out (far from it), but I dwell on this issue quite a bit. So brace yourself for a rambling (and ironically confusing) comment about CLARITY:

I think that clarity and simplicity have become equated with CRAFT which has taken a backseat to ART over the years. On top of that the definition of what ART actually is has changed. These changes in the perception of what ART is, touch on storytellers as well because most people who create things flirt with the notion that they are an artist of some kind.

Somewhere along the way the role of ART, as percieved by the people who consider themselves to be artists, has changed. Broadly speaking, I think that the focus has shifted from HOW something is done to WHAT being the issue. A "classical" approach to art holds that it is the HOW (or the craft) that is important. The material itself is not neccessarily new or profound; in many of the paintings we consider as classic for example, the material itself was merely a portrait of a Pope or a biblical scene the artist was commissioned to paint, yet we revere some of these pieces because of HOW they were done.

Now the artist sees himself as someone who must think of a new WHAT to create. He doesn't want to make something that has been made before because that is what CRAFTSMEN do not artists. I think the fear of clarity being seen as "mere" Craftsmanship is part of the problem. When CRAFT has been denigrated and given a back seat to the more nebulous but desirable label of ARTIST it may explain why people often choose obscurity, enigma and confusion over clarity

In the past the artist and the audience both had a shared idea of a "classical ideal" and the artists tried their best to attain or surpass that ideal. An analogy is perhaps in the field of athletics. The rules of the game are the same for everyone; the athlete is not trying to change the rules as he plays. He is judged by how much of himself he can bring to the game WITHIN the rules. And yet, by doing this the great ones are said to RE-DEFINE the rules... The most amazing athletes make your jaw drop because of the things that they pull off within the rules of the game. I think that was the way classical artists worked. The good ones performed dazzling feats within a relatively simple set of guidelines.. sometimes they make gape with wonder and awe at their sheer prowess, their "athleticism" if you will.

Nowadays the artist wants to WRITE the rules to a new game. He wants the audience, not to meet him in the middle, but to come ALL the way to him. I am not exactly sure why this is so but perhaps it stems from the belief that the new role of ART is to change the way we see the world... change the way that we communicate... be different. The fear is that if this constant change isn't striven for, ART becomes "mere" CRAFT. For someone who clings to those notions clarity is a no-no because then you are pandering, or speaking down to the audience etc etc.

I don't mean to sound snotty towards the concept of ART. I love art as much as anybody especially if it challenges me. Yet I think that the fact that the definition of ART has become so murky, means that aspiring to it is more confusing than ever. This confusion then gets transmitted into the piece being created. Perhaps it is best not to think about the issue while making something. Leave the judgement of whether something is, or is not ART to the beholder. Then the artist has one less thing to worry about and can focus on making the thing that they are trying to make as good as it can be.

I got to thinking about CRAFT vs ART and WHAT vs HOW when I spent some time in Japan. Over there many people who would be deemed "mere" craftspeople in the west are called "artists" . People who make tatami-mats, pots, comic-books etc. My impression was that the measure of an artist is not so much in what they do but How they do it. If you approach your work with passion and reverence you can be considered an artist.


Another thing that I wonder about is the difference between "Ambiguity" and "Confusion". I don't mind some ambiguity in a story; it gets me to thinking and often leads to debate with people who interpret the material in other ways... But I think that ambiguity perhaps works best in a piece where the artist/story teller is asking a question rather than making a statement (of course a well placed question CAN make a statement) but I find that very different to material that is confusing. I think some people purposefully make things confusing because they believe it will create ambiguities.. but it is not the same thing.

I once heard an artist say that technique is just a window through which we see something beyond. He doesn't want his window to be dirty or smeared because it is what is on the other side of the window that he wants people to be looking at. In the terms of that analogy I guess a lot of people are making stained glass windows these days... maybe there isn't anything on the other side to look at? Maybe a lot of artists really have nothing much to say even though their desire to speak is strong. (I can relate to that feeling!) sometimes you can surprise yourself by just doodling randomly and discovering something in the process... perhaps some people write (and paint etc) with that approach in mind... but it doesn't always work, or when it does, it may not create something meaningful for anyone other than yourself...

I believe that any piece (be it a novel, painting, movie or what have you) should communicate all that it has to say within itself. A lot of modern art can only be truly appreciated if you read the manifesto or the artist statement stuck on the wall next to the painting (likewise the audio commentaries to BAD films are often more involving than the films themselves, because you become involved in the drama of its creation). But to me that means that the manifesto is the artwork more than the artwork itself. The audio commentary IS the movie. For an artwork to be truly successful I believe it has to stand on its own two feet and speak for itself with out its mummy standing behind it, chiming in occasionally.

Brian McD said...

Wow, Jamie, that was like a blog all on it's own. And a really great one. "What vs. How" what a great way to talk about this stuff. Thanks for saying it! And thanks for giving me something to think about. Very nice, man.

Jamie Baker said...

whew! i just HAD to get that off my chest... thanks for listening, Brian!

but maybe the big question is WHY? (WHEN is the producers problem)

Jamie Baker said...

Oh, and another thing; much in the same way as you point out that a blend of FEMININE and MASCULINE is what makes a work truly sing (versus a case where one or the other is lacking) I think that BOTH the WHAT and the HOW are important...

son of lim said...

I agree jamie! I think one of the problems that leads to confusing, muddled, or just plain random works of art is that not enough artists take the time to stop and think about what ART is. There are a lot of artists out there who, when asked "what is art?" will only answer with speachlessness and blank stares. Part of being an artist is KNOWING what art is, isn't it? I suppose it would be like being a salesman without know what you're selling. I'm not saying that there is one universal definition for art; But isn't it part of an artist's job to discover, at least for themselves what Art is?

One of my painting professors keeps telling everyone, "DON'T BE LITERATE with your painting (or drawing)!" or "It needs to be more abstract." But to what end I ask?

I really hope more artists start asking themselves WHY, because it's just depressing to see art that is abstracted for the sake of being abstracted, film that is made confusing for the sake of the oh-so-artsy random mystery-box that is "ambiguity". It's like filling a movie with special effects just because you can, and hoping that one of the more "ambiguous" or "non-literal" scenes will fluke it's way through people's hearts. There has GOT to be a WHY to the ambiguity for it to work, and for it to make sense.

son of lim said...

additionally, I think a lot of artists automatically assume that they know what ART is already, and so they never give themselves the opportunity to ask themselves WHY. And thus many come out producing great works of craft, rather than works of art.

Jamie Baker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jamie Baker said...

Jamie Baker said...
ah yes, GOOD POINT! the quest for abstraction. That is another thing I think about a lot, it is another legacy of modernism that sometimes leads to obsurity in art and storytelling. Because to be representational, simple and clear is thought to be mundane.