Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Key Story Elements: Inner And Outer Desire

Here's another key story element that I wanted to explore visually.

I've said here before that it's important to state your hero/ine’s outer desire aloud - either the character saying it or someone close to them (or better yet, in opposition to them) stating it for them.

Well, what I really meant is, you need to make inner and outer desire crystal clear. And that is often better accomplished visually than in words. You don’t actually have to have the hero say he wants the heroine, if you describe how his world stops at the moment that he meets her (as we see done so well in Notting Hill, as I talked about last post.).

Funny Girl is a great example of making the desire of the heroine concrete and visual (musicals so often do this brilliantly, in song and in visuals). Early in the story Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice is fired from the chorus line of a vaudeville show because she’s a terrible dancer and doesn’t, well, fit in. She tries to convince the producer to rehire her in a song (“I’m The Greatest Star”) but gets thrown out of the theater anyway. Out in the alley she makes a decision and storms back in to try again, still singing - only to find the theater empty. Then, out alone on stage, she has that moment – that I’m sure every actor and singer and dancer in the history of the world has had – that moment of being alone on an empty stage with the entire vast history and power of the theater around you – and she is speechless, silenced… and then finishes the song with a power and passion we haven’t seen in her yet. We see, unequivocally, that she IS a star.

Her desire is being voiced in the song: “I’m the Greatest Star” – but the visuals give it the emotional power – and truth. This is her drive – this is what she would kill for.

Think you can’t put that on the page? Come on, I know I could. And I think it’s instructive to look at musicals for the way they depict unadulterated longing. That’s the kind of emotion we want to get on the page, right? Try using that as inspiration.

It’s also interesting to look at the scene where Fanny first meets Nick Arnstein, and is instantly smitten. It’s clearly love… but not quite the moment that her first solo on stage is. And the whole story is about those two desires: for stardom and for love – are in conflict. I think it’s a great example of visualizing both the inner and outer desires.

Take Raging Bull. Jake LaMotta’s OUTER DESIRE is clear – he states it flat out, and he and all his entourage are working toward it. He wants to be a champion boxer.

But the moment he meets Vickie, we see a new DESIRE begin, and it’s quickly apparent that that new desire is going to conflict with his stated desire. He wants this woman, and Scorsese films Jake’s view of her so beautifully: she sits at the edge of a swimming pool, blonde and pale, with the sun and the water caressing her… the film goes into slightly slow motion as she moves her legs in the water. It’s a terrific depiction of the thunderbolt of love, and the beginning of obsession; time stops for the hero when he sees the loved one.

(That slow motion technique is used to wryly comic effect to introduce the teenage love interest, Astrid, in the wonderful animated fantasy, How To Train Your Dragon. Not only does the world go into slo-mo when protagonist Hiccup first introduces her in narration in the film, but also the backdrop is an explosion of fire and the expression on Hiccup’s face is downright starry.)

I want to note that the establishing of OUTER DESIRE is such a big moment that it’s often used as the SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX, as it is in Raging Bull and Funny Girl (the song gets her hired by the musical director at the theater). The hero/ine’s desire is important to establish early on, so using it as the Act One Climax would in most cases be too late.

It’s helpful to muse on how you might use any or all of the six senses to externalize INNER AND OUTER DESIRE. In It’s A Wonderful Life the sound of a train whistle is like a knife in George Bailey’s heart, reminding him of the places he’s never been able to go. As we all know, scent can be the most powerfully evocative of all senses… why not use it to externalize your own hero/ine’s desire?

And in the action thriller Collateral Jamie Foxx’s outer desire (two of them, actually) is established in a whole scene: when Jada Pinkett Smith gets into his cab for a short ride, their wonderful, sparkling, chemistry-laced dialogue not only reveals to us his dream of running a limo company (OUTER DESIRE), but also shows him developing a powerful new Inner and Outer Desire: He wants her (OUTER DESIRE ), but more than that: he wants to be a man worthy of her (INNER DESIRE). Which is so often the case in a love story or love subplot. And the way he can become a man worthy of her is to stop dreaming about the limo company and DO IT.

This terrific film shows how effective it can be to take an entire scene to detail the hero/ine’s desire line.

And remember that in a love story the moment of seeing the loved one for the first time does not just begin the inner – or sometimes outer! – desire, but it’s often also the INCITING INCIDENT and/or CALL TO ADVENTURE of the story.

Hmm, a lot of love story examples this time, for a change! May be the influence of some wedding that took place recently…

So you know the question. What are some examples of how filmmakers or authors externalize the main character's INNER AND OUTER DESIRE?

- Alex


Deb Smythe said...

Great examples, as always.

Tatum Flynn said...

great post, thanks for the food for thought!

Anonymous said...

Normally, I see it in a movie where it seems they are in sensory deprivation then after five seconds of slow motion, the world returns and the protagonist's face shows something needs to change.

Great blog.

Anonymous said...

Such a good, clear post. (They're all good, actually). Excellent examples, too. Thanks for sharing! I was reminded of the "Wish Song" story on "This American Life" - Ira Glass's sister Karen contends every great Disney film has a "wish song" early on, in which the character expresses exactly what he/she is longing for. Google tells me the episode can be found here http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/259/Promised-Land if anyone's interested. Have a great writing day.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks a million for that link, Susan!
Will absolutely have to watch it. It's not just Disney films, though - a "wish" song is absolutely standard musical theater. In fact I was just thinking a few weeks ago that I should do a blog on musical theater conventions and what authors can learn from the form.

Thanks for reminding me!