Goodwill, The Story Needs It

There are all sorts of promises a storyteller can make to her audience, but one of the cardinal ones is, I think, “I won’t come between you and the entertainment.”  By which I mean, during a dramatic moment I won’t break the tension with silliness; I won’t ask you to believe six impossible things before you know who the characters are; I won’t present my story as intelligent and undercut it with dumb; I won’t drag you through fascinating-to-me-alone arcana and forget where I was going in telling the tale. Coming between the audience and the story is guaranteed to lose you the audience’s goodwill, and sooner or later in the course of your story you’re going to need that goodwill.

What am I talking about?  Okay: there’s a movie out right now that is doing very well, a big CGI-laden summer movie, full of cool effects and whizz-bang.  And it lost me in the first ten minutes, and never got me back again.  From the reviews and audience comments I’ve seen about this movie, I am in the minority.

I came to the movie totally wanting to buy into the world.  And in the first ten minutes they did something stupid before I got engaged in the story.  Because of that I never did get wholly engaged; every time they did another stupid thing (and yes, it was a Big CGI-laden movie, the stupid was thick on the ground) I got pushed further away from engagement.

What was the problem?  In the first few minutes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes a researcher gets a great outcome from testing an Alzheimers drug on a chimpanzee.  On the basis of this one good result he exults, goes to his boss, says “we’re ready for human testing!” and the boss says “Yay!” and arranges for the scientist to go before the Board in order to get clearance to begin human testing.  And me–with maybe five years total of science classes reaching all the way back to high school–sitting there saying “Wait! What?  One success and you want to go to human testing?  No studies to check for side effects?  No replicating the success with other chimps.  And the Board of Directors is going to okay human testing (and none of the intrusive government agencies that regulate testing to keep bad things from happening and apes from taking over the world are going to get involved)?”  From that point on, every time there was another sticky point for goodwill to carry me past, I hadn’t the goodwill to give.

How do you keep the audience’s goodwill?  In the first place, don’t do things that are stupid just out of laziness.  A little handwaving in those first scenes, a sentence of dialogue to smooth over the issues that snagged me, and I would have eased right into the story and enjoyed it.  If there’s something that you think is going to snag your audience, address it in some way, then go right on past (“move along, folks.  Nothin’ to see here.”)  There are two terrific examples I can think of, one from TV, one from fiction.

Years ago on Lois and Clark (a rom-com series based on Superman and his girlfriend) a villain from the future comes in contact with Superman.  And he says, “Look, answer me this one thing.  You’re the most powerful man in the universe!  Why the dorky tights?  And the cape?  Please!”  And Superman looks down his nose at him and says “My mother made it for me.”  And that’s all you need, really.  He wears it because he wears it, and if it’s dorky, well: Mom. Any viewer problem with the suit has been acknowledged, and we move right along.

The other example comes from the first of Laurie R. King’s terrific Holmes-Russell books (in which Sherlock Holmes mentors–and later marries–a girl named Mary Russell).  As a Holmes fan from way back I was prepared to be horrified; Holmes and a girl detective sounded awfully Nancy Drewish.  But in the “introduction” to the book, which purports to be a memoir written by Russell in her old age, King has Russell announce, “this is not Conan Doyle’s Holmes or the Holmes that  Uncle John [Watson] wrote about.  This is the man I knew.  Our relationship was different.”  Saying that gave me permission to let go of my expectations and accept a different Holmes and that new relationship.

If the people writing Rise of the Planet of the Apes had just been a little less impatient and done a moment’s handwaving I’d have liked the film much, much better than I did.  I probably wouldn’t even have wondered how an army of 30-40 apes swelled to hundreds by the end of the film…

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