Yves Lavandier’s book Writing Drama currently rates as the absolute favorite of our book reviewer Jack Brislee.
To give you the opportunity to delve into Lavandier’s amazing knowledge and insight, we will be publishing a weekly excerpt from the book.
Too many obstacles (1)
A perfectly legitimate wish to confront a protagonist with a series of strong obstacles and to place him in extreme situations can in some cases lead to an excess of obstacles. Four possible problems may result.
DEUS EX MACHINA
i) the writer is obliged to resort to a deus ex machina (see below) to save the protagonist from his predicament.
ii) the problem is inherently insoluble, and the spectator realises this early on.
This is the case with Uncontrollable Circumstances. In this movie, the protagonists are two young men (Patrick Bruel, François Cluzet) who have returned to France from an unnamed Asian country not unlike Malaysia or Thailand where they have left their stash of hashish with a friend who has stayed behind. They then learn that their friend has been arrested and faces a possible death sentence because he was carrying a certain amount of drugs.
drama is not real life, it is not God or chance
who intervenes to save the situation
They are faced with this dilemma: should they return to the country in question to tell the authorities there that two-thirds of the quantity of drugs found on their friend belonged to them, and thus face the prospect of several years in prison, or should they simply leave their friend to meet his fate? Clearly in either case they face a significant degree of conflict. There can be no happy outcome to the situation.
No wonder that the film ends with a cop-out, a frustrating deus ex machina: just as they are preparing to fly back to Asia, they learn that their friend has died in jail—an extremely convenient death. True, it can happen in real life that a timely event occurs and solves our problems at a stroke. But drama is not real life, it is not God or chance who intervenes to save the situation but the writer, and the spectator knows this.
a solution can always be envisaged as coming from the protagonist
Obviously the problems are only insoluble because of the external obstacles that have created them (in this case, the harsh Asian anti-drugs legislation). When the problems are internal, peculiar to the protagonist—a Cornelian choice, so to speak—a solution can always be envisaged as coming from the protagonist and we are no longer faced with an insurmountable obstacle.
iii) the spectator realises too soon that the protagonist is not going to achieve his objective.
This is what happens in In the Eyes of the World in which the protagonist (Yvan Attal) is determined to impress his girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg). To achieve this objective he decides to hijack a school bus. We soon see that this is an entirely unsuitable means, and that the objective simply cannot be achieved this way. This is so not because the hijacking is doomed to failure but because his girlfriend is more appalled than won over by the hijacking. Note too that this is not the only problem the film raises. As I shall show later, it also lacks an inciting incident (see page 159).
Jake La Motta is so odious and jealous
that it is difficult to empathise with him.
For some spectators a similar problem arises with Raging Bull. The boxer Jake La Motta (Robert de Niro) is so odious and jealous that it is difficult to empathise with him. This is because his jealousy is too strong, too pathological. We sense from the start that he will never overcome it. In other words that he will never achieve his objective, or at least that part of it which is related to his jealousy.
For a spectator to be interested in a character, he has to be able to look forward to a positive outcome. We come back to that balancing act between fear and hope. In Othello, the protagonist’s jealousy is extreme too, but it is caused in part by Iago, and Othello does not know this. If he were only to realise what was happening, he could break out of his jealous frenzy. The situation leaves grounds for hope. Thus the obstacle is not too strong.
a spectator […] interested in a character […] has to be able
to look forward to a positive outcome.
The case of Raging Bull, like that of The Lost Weekend, in which the protagonist (Ray Milland) is an alcoholic, is admittedly borderline. The issue is not clearcut and each spectator will respond differently.
Those who cannot believe that La Motta or Don Birnam (in The Lost Weekend) will ever overcome their problems will lose interest (without necessarily realising it, as the phenomenon is often unconscious); others may find much to appreciate in these works.
Next week: (iv) Ever greater obstacles
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Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.