Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Key Story Elements: Into The Special World

I was watching Collateral a few days ago: one of the best mainstream thrillers to come of Hollywood in ten years, I think (by Stuart Beattie. And anyone who says Tom Cruise can’t act is just plain wrong). Besides being maybe the most accurate and weirdly beautiful depiction of LA I’ve seen on film (actually digital video) since Chinatown, with wonderful characterizations from a stellar cast, it just hits so many things perfectly, seemingly without trying.

But a lot of “not trying” comes from having learned your craft so well that you make the right instinctive choices.

I’m thinking of a moment early in the film that on the DVD commentary director Michael Mann says he can’t explain, but he knew he had to have the shot because it summed up the whole story for him.

I was thrilled to hear it because it had been a goosebump moment for me when I rewatched the film. But I know why, for me at least.

The shot I’m talking about is when cab driver Jamie Foxx heads out onto the downtown freeways to start his night shift (it’s late afternoon), and he drives seemingly head on into a huge, wall-sized Mexican mural that actually is sort of iconic, if you know downtown L.A: a painting of a desert canyon with a vaquero (cowboy) on a white horse, and a black bull. The mural is unfinished, and the vaquero has no head. And for a moment it really does look like Jaime Foxx is driving right into that landscape. It’s surreal, and mythic, and it totally sets up the action that is to come.

Well, that moment hits one of the most important beats in storytelling: the Into The Special World or Crossing The Threshold moment.

A story will usually begin by showing in some way the Ordinary World of the main character, which externalizes a lot of essential information about that character – especially why they are somehow stuck in the life they are presently living. Then it’s time to take her/him out of that old, familiar comfort zone and plunge them into the adventure – no matter what the genre is. And this is one of the most magical moments of storytelling; perhaps the most important one to get right.

Because it’s so big, this scene very often comes as the Act I Climax, although it can be as early as the Sequence 1 Climax. Once in a while it comes early in Act II, right after the Act I Climax. And once in a great while it doesn’t happen until the Midpoint, as in Jaws, when Brody and his team of Hooper and Quint finally head out (in that too-small boat) to open water to hunt down the shark.

It’s not uncommon to have several crossings of thresholds, as the hero/ine goes deeper and deeper into the Special World. This is always an effective technique to make us feel we’re really going on an adventure.

In Groundhog Day: the obvious Into The Special World scene is very early in the story, under the opening credits, in fact, when after the opening scene in the newsroom, TV weatherman Phil Connors, his cheery producer Rita, and cameraman Larry drive out of Pittsburgh, over a bridge (an archetypal symbol of crossing a threshold), and into the snowy mountains of Pennsylvania. Out of the city, into a small mountain town. This kind of contrast underscores the feeling of newness and adventure we want to experience in an Into The Special World transition.

But there’s a second, more subtle Crossing The Threshold, when Phil wakes up in the morning to a replaying of the day he just spent. The filmmakers cue this moment with the shot of the clock alarm clicking over to 6 a.m., while “I Got You, Babe” plays on the radio. It’s a big visual that will repeat and repeat and repeat. The numbers on the clock are like a door, and they usher Phil into the real Special World: a time loop where every day is Groundhog Day and there’s no escaping Punxsutawney, PA.

The first Harry Potter is a great example of the many-threshold technique. There is often a special PASSAGEWAY into the special world, and in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone you first see Harry enter the new world of London, then Hagrid magically rearranges the bricks in a stone wall so Harry can step through into the very new world of Diagon Ally, then Harry has to figure out the trick of Platform 9 ¾, then the train takes Harry and the other first years into the wilderness, then finally the kids cross the dark lake (looking very much like the River Styx) in small torch-lit boats to get to Hogwarts. The Into The Special World moment is very often turned into a whole scene or sequence to give it the weight it deserves.

Other famous passageways are the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz (and Dorothy stepping over the threshold into Technicolor Oz is certainly the most famous depiction of that moment in film history!), the red pill in The Matrix, the chalk sidewalk paintings in Mary Poppins, the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the tesseract in A Wrinkle In Time.

But certainly the entering the Special World moment doesn’t have to be a supernatural experience. In While You Were Sleeping – the warm, bright Callaghan house is a special world to lonely Lucy, who wishes for a family of her own. When she gets out of the taxi and sees the big house covered in Christmas lights, you can see her longing to belong there on her face. There she is confronted by a Threshold Guardian on the porch: the family friend who suspects she is lying about who she is.

Joseph Campbell talked about the idea of the Threshold Guardian: a character (or sometimes an animal or creature!) who tries to turn the hero/ine back at the gate. It’s a great way of giving the Crossing The Threshold moment extra resonance.

Another trick is to use symbols we all have in our heads. Bridges, doors, gates, freeway on-ramps or off-ramps: these are all symbols that are used constantly by filmmakers and authors to create the sense of Crossing The Threshold. And it’s very effective to have this sequence be a descent: Clarice descends multiple staircases and passes through seven gates to get to Lecter down there in that dungeon – a great, ominous Crossing The Threshold scene, that takes us down into the subterranean realms of the unconscious along with her.

Are you aware of that Into The Special World moment when you’re reading or watching a film? Writers, do you design that moment, consciously or unconsciously?

- Alex


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Debra Young said...

Excellent post. I recently discovered your blog and since I've been wrestling with the things you talk about in my own fiction, I bought your book. I'm an avid movie watcher and book reader. I see the value of applying screenwriting techniques to novel fiction and I'm using these principles in my current WIP. Thanks for clearing the fog, d:)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Debra, it's always so good to hear that these things make sense and are useful to people. I just think it's such a fun way to craft stories - especially at those times when the fog seems really thick! ;)

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar said...

Hi Alexandra!

I stumbled upon your blog and am really glad I did! You must be an amazing teacher because you have such clarity in your thinking which you then transpose so lucidly into your writing.

Am grateful for all that I have read thus far - congrats! and keep up the great work!

Mark said...

Thank you for this post. All your posts make me think, but this one has generated more than most.

One of my favorite transitions to the Special World is "Elf." Will Ferrell goes through a number of levels that we see visually and that are repeated verbally: "I passed through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and then I walked through the Lincoln Tunnel." When he arrives in the "real world," he is met by a vicious raccoon foreshadowing a crueler world, and there is a comical gap between twirly gum drops and the Lincoln Tunnel that reflects his innocence and denial of that cruelty.

Some movies throw you right into the Special World. We don't even see their comfort zone.

In "Die Hard" Bruce Willis steps off a plane leaving his home beat, and a comical sentry drives him to join the highfaluting corporate world of his wife's building. Several scenes indicate a rather labyrinthine setting. (rechts, links, links, rechts)

"Quigley Down Under" also takes him immediately into the foreign land of Australia. He gets some familiarity in the transition through town, but finds himself in a mockery of his home turf amidst the mystical setting of the land of aborigines.

I note that in both these cases the home turf is somewhat iconic. (New York/Dodge City)

I'm also intrigued by the idea of stopovers or weigh-stations before the major transition.

In "The Mummy" we take the librarian out of the library and into the prison yard, which then leads to the boat and camel rides into the deep desert and the lost city.

In "The Rock" Stanley Goodspeed is airlifted from simulations of lab-life and comfort with his fiance to military weigh-station before he goes under water to the bowels of prison.

I also like the death transitions of "Highlander" and "What Women Want." McLeod seems to die, but survives a lethal injury only to be expelled from his community. "What Women Want" practically kills Mel Gibson in a ridiculous accident that propels him into the magical world of the female mind.

Thanks for the synaptic jump start.

ElisaJaime said...

Wow. Now that I think about it, you're right. Those moments are KEY and the really great ones are so subtle that you're just barely aware of them because you're too caught up in the story. Thanks for pointing that out!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Manreet, hi and thanks, glad you found us!

A lot of this doesn't feel like teaching at all - it comes from having been a director and having get actors and dancers to understand immediately what I am thinking and what I want them to do.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gosh, Mark, great examples, you really did get those synapses going! Haven't seen Elf but that's a hilarious takeoff on a passage between worlds.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Elisa, yes, it's so true - some of these moments are so subtle they're subliminal, even. I'm reminded of Spencer Tracy's line about acting: "No one knows how hard I work not to let the gears show."

Ellen said...

Fabulous post. You do this very, very well!