Explaining the World in a Story

Too often movies degenerate into mindless action without any substance behind it. However, action is necessary is nearly every story but you need to know how and when to apply it.

Tell me if this isn’t a generic story. Some nice guy runs into a bad guy and the bad guy tries to kill him. Suddenly, the hero manages to defeat the villain with lots of gunfire, car crashes, and explosions.

Pretty boring, right? Yet this is exactly the same plot used in “Terminator 2.” This was also the same plot from some movie I saw a long time ago but can’t remember anything about it other than the climactic battle took place in a construction site and involved a conveyor belt somehow.

Why did I completely forget about this other movie but still recall the action scenes in “Terminator 2”? The answer is that the action was integrated into the story.

In the bad movie, the hero was some ordinary guy who suddenly at the end of the film, magically seems skilled in using a gun to battle the villain, who has already shown to be pretty good with a gun as well. How did this mild-mannered hero suddenly learn to use a gun as well as the experienced villain?

The movie didn’t explain it, and that’s what made this plot seem contrived and artificial. The action didn’t derive naturally from the story.

Too many stories throw in gunfire and car crashes just for the sake of action without any story behind it that makes sense. Think “Knight and Day” with Tom Cruise. Lots of action, not much of a logical story to hold it together.

To see how bad action and story often deviate, watch any bad karate movie. The plot is usually about somebody who has to redeem himself by battling a villain. While the action itself is comically fake, the action seems to occur for no apparent reason. Characters run into total strangers and start fighting for the sake of fighting.

Now watch a movie like “Ip Man,” a recent martial arts film that’s available on Hulu, the free video site that sometimes offers decent movies. In “Ip Man,” the martial arts action is integrated into the story because the hero is an expert martial artist and he’s caught in World War Two where a Japanese general likes pitting his soldiers against the best the Chinese civilians can muster.

In this case, the action is integrated with the story because the hero is a martial artist and the villain is one too. The entire story takes place in war-torn China so it makes sense to see fighting and violence.

The bottom line is that action only makes sense within the context of your story. If your story is set in an environment that implies fighting (such as a battlefield), then the action will seem logical. If the story is set in a calm environment and suddenly there’s action, then it looks fake.

Action not only has to feel integrated as part of the story, but also realistic as well. That’s why most karate movies are awful because the action is too outlandish to be believable. However, the action in a movie like “Ip Man” is completely believable.

If you want to add action to your stories, make it believable and integral to your story. Then your action will enhance, not detract, from your plot and characters.

There’s a Chinese folktale about how rabbits got short tails. At one time, rabbits had long tails and two rabbits stood on a riverbank and saw greener grass on the other side of the river. Since they couldn’t swim, they had to find another way to cross the river when they spotted a turtle. The rabbits told the turtle that he was very old and he must have lots of grandchildren. The turtle agreed so the rabbits said that they too had lots of grandchildren, and if the turtle would line his grandchildren up in two rows, the rabbits could jump on their backs and count to see who really had the most grandchildren.

The turtle’s grandchildren did as they were told and when the rabbits hopped across the turtles’ backs and made it to the other side of the river, they laughed at the turtle’s foolishness, which got the turtle mad so he bit off the rabbits’ tails so that’s why rabbits now only have short tails. Such a tale attempts to explain something and give listeners a sense of completion.

That’s what screenplays do to a certain extent as well. While most movies don’t explain something as mundane as how rabbits got short tails, they do tell a story to help us make sense of life.

In “Terminator 2,” the big message is that humans destroy themselves, but if a machine can learn the value of a human life, then perhaps we can too.

In “Thelma and Louise,” the big message is that women are fighting nan uphill battle in a man’s world and every scene and story plot enhances that idea. Whether you believe that or not is irrelevant. In that particular story, that’s the explanation of the world and it remains consistent.

Even in a movie like “Quiz Show,” there’s the big question of whether it’s okay to lie. The hero’s downfall occurs when he finally admits that he lied.

In “Up,” the central idea is that we need to keep looking forward to life at all stages.

Now pick a bad movie like “Clash of the Titans” or “The Last Airbender.” Did those movies focus on a central idea and help explain something about life or the world in general? Did you walk away from those movies feeling emotionally satisfied that some aspect of life has been revealed to you?

A good story centers around a single idea and repeatedly hammers home that point in multiple ways. That gives the story consistency. Even if we aren’t aware of it consciously, that central focus gives the story a sense of completeness. Ignore this focus of your story trying to explain something about life and your story may just flounder in a series of meaningless and unrelated events, and that will just weaken your story in the long run.

When writing your story, identify the main idea you want your story to tell. Then make sure your story tells that main idea and no other and you’ll likely create a much stronger story as a result.

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