Storyteller’s Rulebook #69: A Good Movie Has An Hour of Plot

I have a weakness for overly-complex plots. When I first dream up a story, I worry about the wrong things: “Is that it?” “Are there enough twists?” “Is there enough story?” “Does it feel big enough?” “Does it feel like a movie?” I soothe these doubts by piling on twists, escalations and reversals until it “feels like a movie.” After all, only in a movie would all this crazy stuff happen to one person!

At first, my elephantine plots combined with my flabby scene-work to create first drafts that were upwards of 200 pages. Even a beginner knows they’ve done something wrong when that happens. (One page, properly formatted, is supposed to equal one minute of screen time, so you don’t want to go over 120, which is a two-hour movie.) Soon I figured out how to make my scenes as lean as possible and strip away enough subplots so that my screenplays were clocking in just under the line at 119 pages.

But I gradually realized that these 119-page-wonders were still not working. A lot was happening to my heroes, but they had little time to think about it or react to it. There certainly wasn’t any time to pre-establish what their expectations were before a scene happened. They were going on massive external journeys and teensy-weensy internal journeys. My first instinct was to add some “character scenes”, but I was already out of room. Even if I shaved off another plot twist in order to give them some rumination downtime, it was too little, too late to create a fully realized character.

Here’s the problem: when I was asking, “Does it feel like a movie?”, I though the key word was “movie” but the key word was actually “feel”. If it doesn’t feel like a movie, don’t amplify the movie-ness of it all, amplify the feeling. This is the difference between “complicated” and “complex”. All the complications in the world don’t add complexity, which is what makes a work great.

I suddenly realized something: my characters spent all their time talking about the plot, explaining it to themselves and explaining it to the audience. This is inevitable when the plot is too complicated. But a good plot must be simple enough that both the characters and the audience understand it just by looking at it. If there’s a problem (emotional or physical or both) they should see the problem, not figure out what it is with long explanations.

Once I realized that my characters needed to have much bigger personalities, and they needed to talk about something other than the plot at least once in every scene, I realized that my plots needed to be massively-downsized. I had been so proud of myself for shrinking my three-hour plots down to two hours, but now they needed to get even leaner: I realized that a good two-hour movie has a one-hour plot.

Carson over at ScriptShadow recently did excellent breakdowns of the first and second Die Hard movies, to determine why one worked and the other didn’t. The first one, for all its little twists, is a relatively simple, self-explanatory story: gunmen have taken over a bank-building and hold everybody hostage long enough to drill into the vault. The big problem for the hero isn’t about figuring out what’s going on, it’s dealing with his own personal baggage while he’s solving the problem, since the villains attacked just as he was dealing with a massive emotional crisis.

In Die Hard 2, John has no personal baggage, no emotional crisis, and never discusses anything but the plot. The extra room this creates in the script is filled by a far more complicated, non-self-explanatory plot. In the first movie, you can tell what the bad guys want to do just by looking at them. In the second, both sides have to keep explaining every step of the process. Die Hard has a one-hour plot, stretched to two hours by John’s emotional crisis. Die Hard 2 has a two-hour plot, which leaves us exhausted but not exhilarated.

The Story Project #5: They Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent

This is hard to believe, but ten years ago, comics fans were still convinced that the movies would never take them seriously. Then Sam Raimi hit the first two Spider-Man movies out of the park, and the scales fell from Hollywood’s eyes. They suddenly realized that, in the hands of skillful adapters (which proved to be the tricky part), comics could prove to be a theretofore little-touched treasure trove of high concept story material. Wa-hoo! It was land rush time! Now, of course, even an old school superhero fan like myself is sick to death of all the adaptations. They pumped out the well until it was dry and now they’re already insta-rebeooting franchises like Spider-Man and X-Men (along with Pirates and Bourne and many others). Gee, maybe they can get Tobey Maguire to come back and play the new Spider-Man’s dad! (or slightly-older brother.)

Why won’t they let the party end? Here’s one theory: Development people had always feared that the studio bosses were secretly illiterates who only pretended to read those dry stacks of scripts on their desk. Those fears seemed to be confirmed when they saw how much happier their bosses were about taking home stacks of graphic novels, which came pre-visualized and pre-set to maximum badass-itude. Once the comics well ran dry, they couldn’t force anyone to go back to reading dry prose, especially screenplays which are even duller than books, since they’re only blueprints. 

Things got so bad in Hollywood that many screenwriters, myself included, were advised to convert our screenplays into fake graphic novels that we could then adapt back into screenplays. The most infamous case of this was a “property” called “Cowboys and Aliens”, which pre-sold for big bucks, then put out one issue from a comic book company that existed just to generate material for adaptation. The project has been cited as an example of what’s wrong with the system so many times that I was a little shocked to see a trailer recently and realize (1) the movie finally got made, and (2) the trailer isn’t even half bad.

But comics were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The biggest problem is simply that failure begets failure. Too many bad spec scripts were sold, which happened to coincide with a time in which a lot or adaptations were unexpectedly successful. These and many other forces combined to create the vague impression that original material was now a hard sell, and once that set in, the great unspoken embarrassment about making up a story from scratch reached out and seized everybody’s heart.

If you try pitching an original movie to a development person today, even if they love it, they know that they’ll be in for a hard slog if they try to pass it on up the ladder. They have to explain that they liked a story that nobody else has ever bought before. It’s so much easier to say “x number of fans can’t be wrong!” (Even in the case of Cowboys and Aliens, where x equaled zero) They’re not in the storytelling business anymore, they’re in the franchising business. They’re not creating commodities, that’s for chumps. They’re trading commodities, that’s less embarrassing.

Our president liked to tell a story on the campaign trail about an idealist showing up to help out with a local Chicago campaign only to have the boss ask him which political machine had sent him over. When he answered “nobody,” they responded “we don’t want nobody nobody sent.” They, too, didn’t want to create value, they just wanted to trade it back and forth. That’s become the American way. But there’s just one problem: Americans crave new stories. If we keep trying to tell original stories, the producers will eventually have to listen to us, even if they don’t want to, as long as we refuse to be embarrassed about what we’re doing.

The Story Project #4: Oh Well, Whatever, Nevermind

Bait and switch time, people: before I get to the current crisis (bumped back to tomorrow), I want to look at another way that writers attempt to save themselves from the embarrassment of telling a story: postmodernism.

European cinema in the ‘60s was the first major flowering of self-aware techniques in movie-making. Both Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman were influenced by the playwright Bertoldt Brecht, who explicitly wanted his audience to think instead of feeling, so he used distancing techniques to shut down emotional reactions, but these filmmakers turned that idea on its head: They used distancing techniques that somehow increased emotional involvement. In Berman’s Persona, right at an intense moment, the camera suddenly dollies back to reveal the stage lights and crew, then dollies back into the scene, which continues unabated! Amazingly, we get right back into the story. Basically, Bergman and Godard know that they were so damn good that they could get away with anything. They could remind the viewer that he was watching a made-up story onscreen, which should make the viewer stop caring, but instead it would actually add another dimension of dramatic tension. Since the viewer still cannot stop caring about these compelling characters, his cognitive dissonance merely becomes an additional level of conflict for each scene.

A good postmodern story can seem like the most honest type of moviemaking. “Hey, guys, let’s deal with the fact that you’re sitting in a big dark room and you’re bringing your own expectations to the movie. That’s a pretty big part of the equation here, isn’t it?” I’ve frequently used this blog to praise early American stabs at post-modernism, like Tension and Unfaithfully Yours, which subtly prodded viewers to be aware of their own relationship to the movies.

But postmodernism would later become the law of the land after Quentin Tarantino came along in the ‘90s. He used distancing techniques in clever ways, but I was never sure whether he was simply dazzling us or whether he actually had something to say. Unfortunately, there could be no such doubt about the flood of imitators who followed him, aping his techniques in the crudest possible ways. The problem was that these moviemakers weren’t going for the intellectual effect of Brecht or the cognitive dissonance of the Europeans from the ‘60s. The new guys were winking to the audience for a different reason: because they were too embarrassed to ask the audience to care.

You could see this idea everywhere at the time, from Nirvana albums (“Oh well, whatever, nevermind”) to “Seinfeld”, (“no hugging, no learning”). In each format, the breakthrough originators I’ve named did interesting work, but the copycats used that work as an excuse to jettison emotion entirely. Putting every emotional moment in airquotes, like “Family Guy” does, doesn’t allow the audience to think or feel. In a grave somewhere, Brecht weeps. The problem is that the “too cool to take anything seriously” movement inevitably becomes a self-perpetuating juggernaut. If you’re the only guy at Cannes who wants to stop winking at the camera, you risk looking like a sentimental chump. This contributed to the problem we face today, which I’ll finally get to tomorrow...

The Story Project #3: About What You’d Expect

As long as people have told stories, they have tried to avoid starting a story from scratch. Don’t worry, it’s only an adaptation, or a remake, or a sequel, or at least part of a shared universe or a familiar genre. My story is new but I haven’t cut the material out of whole cloth. I’ve just re-tailored your last year’s coat to fit you better. Let’s look at a few of the tricks people use:

I wrote before about Shakespeare’s preponderance of adaptations and remakes, so let’s move on to sequels: We all know that sequels deserve no respect. Except the “Odyssey”, and “Antigone”, and the “Aeneid”, and “Don Quixote Part 2”, and “Huckleberry Finn”, and “Ulysses”, and Godfather II, and The Empire Strikes Back, and Silence of the Lambs, and… well, okay, I guess there have been a few good sequels. It’s always comforting for a writer to start with characters that people already love, and there’s no reason that you can’t use those characters to create a new artistic statement. Of course, you have to overwhelm the voice of the producers, who often assume that the audience will want the same story too. To succeed, the writer needs to be willing to make something as different as the “Odyssey” was from the “Iliad”.

Shared Universes: One of the hardest things about telling a self-contained story is that it has no consequences. If somebody misses it, so what, it’s not going to affect any other stories. When you accept the benefits of a shared universe, your story gains permanence, but that brings new responsibilities: “Dallas” infamously threw out a whole year’s worth of stories by having a character wake up and discover that the previous season had been a dream, but they had a unexpected problem on their hands: that season had featured a cross-over with its spin-off “Falcon Crest”. Dallas couldn’t say that those stories didn’t really happen unless they were willing to sever their shared continuity with a larger fictional universe, where everything has to “really happen” in a way that simply doesn’t apply to separate stories.

Nowhere does this concept reign more supreme than in superhero comics, but those same superheroes are now bringing the concept over to movie screens. Nobody would call the recent Hulk reboot a sequel to Iron Man, but it’s clearly set in the “same universe.” Of course, this may mean that they’ll soon learn the downside of a shared continuity: If Thor sucks, then Marvel may discover that they’ve devalued other successful franchises along with it.

Genre: This is the simplest way that stories try to put us at ease.You may not have seen this before, but don’t worry, you’ve seen something like it, and we’re going to play by the same rules.” Strangely, movie rental stores have every movie divided by genre-- but no book store divides the “comedies” from the “dramas” and puts them in separate sections. They might separate out the “crime” or “romance” books, but that’s seen as a judgmental ghetto-ization: they slot books into those sections only if they clearly aren’t trying to be “literature”. Every movie goes into a ghetto automatically, so does that mean that no movie is as good as any piece of unclassifiable “literature”? (Maybe it just means that movies cost a lot more to make and so they can’t afford to just trust the right audience to gradually find them on their own—they have to market themselves very specifically.)

Almost every story finds a way to promise, “Don’t worry, this won’t be entirely new to you,” and that’s fine, to an extent. But artistic, cultural and business trends sometimes conspire to bring things to an extreme, like we have today in the movie business, in which original stories have become almost entirely devalued. How did we get here, and how do we get back? Let’s pick up there tomorrow.


The Story Project #2: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up (Or Can You?)

Let’s say that you’re a homemaker in middle America. Your neighbor has come over seeking to be re-assured because she’s worried about an upcoming event, so you want to put her problems in perspective by telling her an amusing story about people in a similar situation. What do you say to her? You’re not allowed to say this: “Your predicament is a difficult one, so I’m going to tell you an untrue story I heard about two totally made-up people who attempt to solve a similar problem in a humorously bull-headed and/or poignantly mistaken and/or clever and laudable way!”

The problem is that people love good stories but they hate lies. This is a paradox, since the best stories are never exactly true. So how do we get around this problem? If you’re that homemaker, you simply say, “Let me tell you something that happened to a friend of a friend of mine.” You’ve added a lie to a lie and made it all okay. These are the stories that have come to be known as “urban legends.” 

Why do we cloak our urban legends in a flimsy veil of truthiness? Its not like anybody believes it anymore. We all know that when we hear “I heard this from someone who heard it from someone else”, then that’s code for “this is just a good story.” So why do we still do it?

The “urban legend” format was invented because it’s embarrassing to tell a story. But here’s the crucial thing: the teller is embarrassed that they’re telling a story, but they insist on doing it anyway, even if they have to pretend that it really happened. They’re willing to bluff their way past their embarrassment. Why? Because urban legends are great stories—so great that you have to re-tell them, even if it’s taboo.

In our culture, a housewife doesn’t have permission to create a fictional story, but she does have permission to repeat a true story.  So when she wants to create or repeat a fictional story, she simply pretends that it’s true.  

Okay, now I’d like to show you some short films… Hey, where’d everybody go?? Come back here! All right, I’ll admit it, the short film is one of the most unsuccessful storytelling forms ever derived by humankind. I hate short films. You hate short films. You find yourself wondering, “How come, if this thing is only fifteen minutes long, it seems like the most interminable stretch of time I’ve ever spent in a movie theater?” 

Most short-filmmakers (who are almost all student filmmakers) totally misunderstand the form. They think, “Well, I don’t have time for a story, so I’ll just focus on a poignant character moment.” Ugh. Sure, character is more important than story, but you can’t have one without the other. No matter how short your story is, there still needs to be a story, or nobody cares. People only care about characters if they’re in a story.

When I arrived at film school, we had a Friday seminar where the chairman of the program showed us award-winning short films, hoping to knock some sense into our heads before we went off and made plotless messes. At around that same time, I picked up the book pictured above, a graphic novel adaptation of the 200 best urban legends collected by the great Jan Harold Brunvand. As I read the book, I noticed something... Many of the best short films were just uncredited adaptations of urban legends! Which makes total sense. Let’s look at two legends from the book. This legend... (please click to enlarge, as always)
...became this Oscar-Winning film (ditto):

And this legend...
...became this Oscar-Winning film (It’s in French, and the subtitles are in Spanish, but you can still follow the story):
Why do urban legends make such great short films? Because they’re simple and universal, yes, but more than that: They set up an expectation and then reverse it. That’s the magic. That’s the heart of a great story. That’s the basic unit of storytelling. Most short films don’t create or reverse any expectations. This was a typical short film at my school: “There was the this one time that my stepfather yelled at me and then later I sat on the abandoned railroad tracks and watched a sunset and cried.” That’s a bummer, but it’s not a story. A story has a reversal. Someone attempts something and their action has an unexpected outcome: That’s a story. And if it’s good enough, it might even become an urban legend. People will feel the need to repeat it even if they fear that they have no right to tell a story.

Tomorrow we’ll get back to the idea of how professional storytellers apologize for the stories they’re telling, and why that’s no good.

The Story Project #1: It’s Embarrassing To Tell A Story

For this new project, let’s pick up where we left off in a piece I wrote a few months ago about… 

--Wait! Stop! That’s exactly the problem I want to talk about! Did you see what I did there? I invited you all here today to tell you something, but when you showed up, I was too embarrassed to just start from scratch. I didn’t say “I’ve got something to say about storytelling, so boo-ya, here it is…” Instead, I felt the urge to couch my new comments as merely the continuation of an ongoing narrative. Why do I feel the urge to do this?

This is a mild example of something that I have come to realize is the big problem that lies behind so many little problems facing writers: It’s embarrassing to start a story from scratch. I’ve recently become more and more aware of all the ways in which storytellers contextualize their story into a previous framework, or apologize for trying to create meaning, or emotionally distance themselves and the audience from the characters, or explain that this story isn’t really their story at all—it’s just something they found lying around.

This is nothing new. The history of storytelling is the history of apologizing for storytelling. Three thousand years ago, if you wanted to make up a story, you had to pretend that it was a foundation myth. A foundation myth is a story with four big caveats attached. The reader must understand a few things:
  1. This really happened
  2. This is part of the origin of why the world is the way it is, not just a metaphor for how the world is. You will see relationships you recognize and can identify with, but this is the first time those relationships were established. You are the way you are because they were the way they were.
  3. These are our ancestors. In the end, they or their direct descendants become the founders of this very city. Our current ruling family is descended from those founders, who were themselves partially descended from the gods. This story explains why we treat our rulers like gods.
  4. Because this is part of our foundation myth, everything that happens in this story has consequences in your daily life. If these events had turned out a different way, your life would be different. These events aren’t just metaphors for our beliefs, these were the actual events that were the source of our beliefs.
Modern-day authors would kill to have that sort of p.r. work supporting their own launches. But today’s authors have their own ways of announcing, “this is not just a story—this is authentic!”. First and foremost, they announce: “I am not an author. This novel is not a product of the time I spent in graduate school learning the art of fiction. No, this novel is a result of the time I spent in prison, or growing up on a ranch, or doing odds jobs around the country, or slumming in Prague. 

Doctors and lawyers boast about where they got their degrees, but writers hide their degrees in shame, at least for the jacket copy or magazine interview. Writers live or die on their “authenticity”, which is the degree to which they are not really “writers”, deep down.

And of course, if professional writers are too embarrassed to admit that they’re making all this up from scratch, just imagine how embarrassed everyday people get when they have to tell a fictional story. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the one distancing technique we’re all most familiar with: “This happened to a friend of a friend of mine.” What can urban legends tell us about where stories come from?

Storyteller’s Rulebook #51: Nothing’s Wrong Until You Make It Wrong

It’s day two of Election Week, doncha know. (And for our neither-American-nor-Brazilian readers, you’ll just have to play along.)
Here’s the all-time funniest note I’ve ever received: I was in school, I had written a very earnest script about a cop who gets ordered to stop investigating the disappearance of a black girl once a richer white girl disappears across town. The cop gets fed up with the racism of the system and takes drastic action. It wasn’t a great script by any means, and I was happy to let my fellow students try to fix it. As I was trying to justify some aspect of the script, one of my fellow students, a well-to-do young man, suddenly interjected—“wait, so is your main character white or black?” Had I not been clear about that? “Uh, white.” He looked confused, then he finally asked: “Soooo… why does he care about racism?” (Naturally, this is the only student from our class who has gotten a TV staff-writer job so far)

But he had a point. When I wrote that script, I was assuming that I could tap into strong moral feelings that people would bring with them into the theater, but that doesn’t work. For the most part, people don’t bring their moral feelings into the theater. Because the movie isn’t set on their world, it’s set on your world. You created it, and they’re happy to put themselves in your hands. Things only become bad if you show the audience that they’re bad. Or, if you’d rather, you can show them that they’re good. You can make an anti-war movie or a pro-war movie. And, yes, you can make an anti-racism movie or a pro-racism movie. That’s a little scary, but you have to own up to that power, especially if you want to send a message.

It’s very hard to write political movies. Generally, they only work if nobody onscreen shares the writer’s political point-of-view. There is no pro-reform activist in The Great McGinty. It’s virtually impossible to make a good movie about an activist you agree with, because there’s no journey for that character to go on. They’re right and everything that happens only confirms that they’re right. That movie is morally inert. “Issue” movies only work if the heroes start out on the opposite side of the issue from the screenwriter, then make their way over to the side of the angels by the last reel.

If The China Syndrome had been about the heroic activists trying to shut down nuclear power, it probably would have been earnest and dull. Ironically, the heroes of an anti-nuclear power story have to be a gung-ho plant worker and an ill-informed local newscaster. These are the characters who have a terrifying journey of discovery to go on. Only at the end do they accept the horrible truth about the industry.

Activists have the answers from the beginning, but movie characters should learn the answers onscreen the hard way. That’s more dramatic, and you have to be dramatic if you want to make a strong point. The China Syndrome is a whip-smart thriller, but, far more importantly, it helped to turn the tide of public opinion against the nuclear power industry in this country for at least a generation. Now that’s powerful movie-making.


Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Part 3: Story

As I discussed yesterday, your story is the sizzle, and the characters are the steak. This is the sexy part. And it’s the democratic part. Anybody can come up with a good story, and if you’re a good talker you can even get people excited about it. This is why swindlers run “pitch fests” where they invite one and all to pitch their ideas to Hollywood producers. Such shenanigans are based on the concept that an idea does 90% of the job. Unfortunately, the original idea will only provide about 10% of the ultimate quality if the movie ever gets made.

But... a good story idea is the best way open doors all up and down the line. Even big time agents, managers, producers, and studio heads can get seduced by the notion of latching onto a unique idea so clever that the movie just writes itself. They should all know better, but they don’t. So ideas are huge—for getting you in the door. But if you want to stay there, you’d better learn to actually write.

What we talk about when we talk about story:

  1. Hook: A great hook is a simple premise that nobody has done yet but everybody who hears it thinks “why didn’t I think of that??” Wedding crashers? Sold. With two words, it’s already a funny concept—one that you may never have heard of but you can imagine how it would work. You can see the poster in your head and guess half the jokes that will be in the trailer. For better or worse, movies are more and more hook-driven because there are so many chefs in the kitchen. The person you pitch it to has to re-pitch it to twenty other people. Only strong, simple ideas survive that process. Of course, even if you don't have a great hook, you can still tell a great story, but you'll need to cash in a lot of pre-established clout in order to get it made. If your concept isn't the hook then your name has to be the hook.
  2. Size of the Stakes: Some ideas are too big and some aren’t big enough. Sometimes too much is at stake: “We need to defeat evil itself!” Other times, too little is at stake: Shattered Glass is a well-made movie, but the stakes are laughably low-- “You’ve endangered the reputation of a vanity-project magazine that they stopped selling on the newsstands twenty years ago!” As Iago might say: “He who steals that purse steals trash.”
  3. Linearity: You can have as many subplots as you want, but ultimately there needs to be one big story that starts in the first scene and ends in the last scene. Sorry. 99% of good movies made anywhere in the world are about one person’s problem. Why try to squeeze though the 1% gap?
  4. A Steady Stream of Reversals: One problem with hook-driven movies is that they get sold based on one big twist. But then the studio that bought it has to sell it to an audience, and the only way to do that is to repeat the process: reveal the one big twist in the trailer, at which point the movie isn’t worth seeing. Great narratives don’t just turn on a dime, they bend and twist and unravel and snap back together. A good story has five or six great reversals in it, enough so that they don’t all end up in the trailer. See again: Wedding Crashers. They exhausted their hook a half hour in and didn’t have enough reversals to get through the movie. Great trailer though.
Coming back to the original point: Some people will read your whole script but judge you only on the inspiration and not at all on the perspiration. So when they say “It’s great!”, be aware that they might just mean “I can already see the poster!” (And when they say “It sucks!”, they might just mean “Who’s going to want to see a movie about a bunch of coal miners in flyover country?,” no matter how well you told that story.)


Storyteller’s Rulebook #37: Why Do Hamlet and Batman Delay?

Last week, I talked about how hard it hard it is to get the hero and villain to both try to kill each other in thrillers, then I talked about how creature features actually make more sense. But there’s yet another extension of this problem that I haven’t covered yet, so allow me one final column on this topic--

The big difference between a murder mystery and a thriller is the amount of time that your hero and villain are openly confronting each other. In a mystery, the villain keeps a low profile and there’s usually not a confrontation until the very end. In a thriller, the thrills have to start by about 30 minutes in, so by that point the hero and the villain usually have an open antagonism.

So why isn’t the movie over ten minutes later?

The answer is the that the hero and villain confront each other, then take some time off, then confront each other again, then cool off some more, then finally gather for their final showdown. Sometimes, in more ambiguous thrillers, this wavering makes sense, but just as often, both hero and villain know right away that only one of them can remain standing, so why do they keep disengaging? Why don’t they finish each other off the first time?

The most famous example of this, of course, is Hamlet. Why does Hamlet delay? There are several reasons given in the plot: First he wants to get more evidence, then he has religious doubts, then he spends two acts extricating himself from an elaborate death trap. But ultimately, Shakespeare never really explains it, so this is considered to be the key question that the director and actor must answer for themselves.

But ultimately we trust Shakespeare, so we give him the benefit of the doubt. If we can’t find enough justification for Hamlet’s delay in the text, then it must be our fault. But we don’t give as much leeway to the people who write Batman comics, who face this problem month after month. In almost every single issue, Batman confronts the villain inconclusively a few times before they finally have it out. And this is the hardest thing for me about writing thrillers: How do you get out of these early action scenes in inconclusive ways? Why would either side walk away without killing or arresting the other? I’ll tell you how: you write a bunch of scenes like this one, from Detective Comics #437:
I myself have written variations on this scene: “Villain throws hero out of a window, can’t check to see if he’s dead, villain is gone before the hero comes back.” It’s better than “Villain puts hero in a death trap, assumes that it works, doesn’t bother to check.” But it only buys you a little time until you have to write your next inconclusive confrontation.


Storyteller’s Rulebook #36: …But Creature Features Make Sense

I talked yesterday about how nobody would actually try to fight back if they were in an actual thriller-type situation. In real life, everybody calls the police. Every time.

But the irony here is that supernatural-jeopardy movies are actually more realistic than normal thrillers. In the real world, no one has ever been attacked by a supernatural monster, but it’s easy to imagine that, if you were, you might respond by trying to kill the monster yourself. In this case, it makes no sense to call the police—they actually wouldn’t believe you. And in most supernatural horror movies, only the hero knows how to kill the monster anyway. It just makes sense to take care of it yourself.

So if you want to make your thriller more realistic, add a supernatural element. Wait-- Huh? This is an example of how believability isn’t the same thing as realism. As a classmate once said: “Just because we accept that Superman can fly, doesn’t mean that we’ll accept it when he turns on the TV and they just happen to be showing the news story he wants to see.”