Friday, April 2, 2010

It Isn't Good Enough

I watched Up for the first time the other day. Wow! Okay, so parts of it could have been better, but that setup… Wow!

In a novel, we would call that section the prologue. It takes place in a different time with a different set of characters than the rest of the story and if some readers are true to form, they would skip over it, but all I can say is that I aspire to write a prologue like that. With hardly a word being spoken, the filmmakers paint us a picture of a couple who love each other very much. They live a long life together, but none of their dreams are realized. They dream of taking a trip to South America. They save their pennies, but life eats into their savings. They dream of having children, but the doctor tells them it isn’t possible. They keep dreaming, but the day comes that she dies. All that is left for the old man to do is to head off to the retirement community and wait to die too. By the time we reach the end of the prologue, we understand why the old man would fill a bunch of balloons with helium and float off into the blue.

The story itself is a love story, but not a love story between the old man and his wife. The story is a love story between the old man and the boy. As is the way with all stories with this plot, the old man doesn’t like the boy at first. He doesn’t want him around and tries to get rid of him by sending him off snipe hunting. As the story progresses, we see how they need each other and by the end of the story, we see that the boy has become the son that the old man and his wife couldn’t have.

I think there’s something to be learned here. Don’t be satisfied with some generic motivation to lead our protagonist into some action. If the motivation emotional enough, it could cause the protagonist to do almost anything, including flying off in his house, but if it isn’t, the move into the second act is somewhat boring. Blake Snyder aptly described what we need as the stasis equals death moment. If the story isn’t such that we feel the protagonist will die in some form if he doesn’t take action, then we haven’t done enough.

It turns out that this is the point I’m struggling with in my work in progress, at the moment. In this story, a mother and daughter have shown up, claiming that David is the father of the daughter. After some convincing, Sara decides they are telling the truth and moving into the second acts she decides to persuade David to do the right thing by these two. But why? In actual fact, it is in Sara’s nature to stick her nose in things where it might not belong, but that’s not the kind of motivation we need. What we need is some kind of motivation such that if Sara doesn’t do something about the situation there’s a part of her that dies. But what could that be?

There are a few possibilities. One would be to draw on Sara’s relationship with Ellen. Ellen is out of town and when she gets back she may not be happy to learn that there is a mother and daughter living rent free above the restaurant. She may express her displeasure with Sara and talk about losing respect for her. But this is Ellen we’re talking about; she would probably have done the same thing.

Another possibility is to pull Sara’s past into the story. As you recall, in Searching for Mom begins her existence in a single parent family. In her case, she was without a mother, while Beth is without a father, but it makes them sisters, of sorts. But can I show that by not helping Beth gain a relationship with her father that Sara will die or lose a piece of who she is? It isn’t the same caliber as the Up prologue, but it’s a start.

I could combine the two, so that Sara would feel that she would lose part of her self by not helping, after Ellen expresses disappointment in Sara’s decision not to help. That would be more consistent with Ellen. But maybe I’m making it too hard. I doubt I’ll be able to raise it to the level of Up anyway, so maybe the thing to do is to dare Sara to take action. She wants to help Beth and Amber because it hurts to see her “sister” without a father, but things aren’t clear and she needs an extra push. She discusses it with Neal, who dares her to persuade Beth’s father to take responsibility for his actions. Now it becomes a matter of principle and Sara being Sara isn’t going to back away from it once she says she can and will do it.

I’ll give it some more thought, but one thing I know is that she won’t be doing it for her dead husband. I see no way it could every be as emotionally charged as Up.