How (Not) to Alienate an Audience: The Archive

Some of these made it into the book in a transformed form, but others didn’t. And hey, it’s an excuse to link to my favorite video again!  I get this stuck in my head all the time:

How to Alienate An Audience, Finale: The Hero is Callous

Okay, this last one may just be me. Every year movie heroes get more and more callous and nobody makes much fuss over it. But for me it’s an total deal breaker. My brain snaps and heads out to the lobby, even if my eyeballs stay and watch until the end. The first time I noticed this was in Batman Returns when Batman stuck a bomb to a henchman’s chest and pushed him down a open manhole, then walked away while a fireball shot up out of the hole. Huh? Batman? Really?

Since then it’s become an epidemic. Rock bottom was in The Incredibles, when the little boy happily tricked some henchmen into crashing their ships into each other and dying a fiery death. I think I was supposed to pump my first in the air and say “Hell yeah!” after that one.

Now I’m not one of those guys who complains about all the construction workers that were killed on the Death Star. That was clearly portrayed as a grim, do-or-die situation. Nobody was there to have fun. It was war, and I accept that lots of people die in war. But superhero movies are a little different. Superheroes are out there voluntarily, breaking all the rules and having fun. When I see them killing off minimum-wage goons with a cocky smirk, I kind of start to hate them.

Even when it is a do-or-die situation, please allow the hero to take killings seriously. If it’s not upsetting, we don’t buy it. They just announced that Jennifer Lawrence will take on the most coveted new franchise role out there: the lead in the adaptation of the super-popular teen novel “The Hunger Games”. The novel is very exciting, and it might make a good movie, but I hope the screenwriter fills the gaping hole in its center.

In a dystopian future, a young girl is forced to participate in a gladiator tournament where she must kill or die. That’s fine, and I get that she really does have to kill these other kids and the whole point is how horrific it all is. But the first time she kills somebody in the tournament, she doesn’t bat an eyelash. They tell us she’s never killed before, but when the time comes she drops a bee’s nest on somebody who gets stung to death and then she immediately moves on to the next task.

This is just not the way the world works, people! Read any oral history of any war. Every soldier confesses that they would rather die than kill. Killing is what they’re really afraid of when they get shipped out. Killing is what gives them PTSD. It’s horrible. Nobody gets over it, not even the toughest guys. It’s easy for writers to sit on their beanbags and type up scenes where the hero walks away from an explosion without flinching, but please take a second to think about how killing would actually make them feel. (Even if do they have cool-guy errands that they have to walk to.)

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 7: The Hero is Earnestly Sappy

This is one I learned the hard way. Yesterday, we talked about what it takes to convince the audience that the hero and heroine should fall in love. But once you’ve got the audience rooting for them to get together, what do they want to see next? Should the characters now start gushing about their true feelings? Don’t try it.

Despite Hollywood’s love of movies that condemn immature goofballs for being afraid of true love, nobody has more commitment issues than the audience themselves. In the dark, we all crave an emotionally withholding lover. Sure, we want to see two people get together, but first we want them to want to get together for a good long while. After all, wanting love is a far more universal emotion than having love.

Ideally, the hero and heroine will never say, “I love you,” because it’s so much more appealing to watch them dance around the issue. But if they have to, the key thing is to make sure that there’s a healthy delay. Getting hit with the L-bomb too soon onscreen feels just as alienating and manipulative as it does in real life.

Of course, the exception is when the hero or heroine suddenly blurts out “I love you” as soon as they meet somebody special—and then starts kicking themselves, which is endearing because the whole point is what a big mistake it is. But I once wrote a screenplay in which the hero earnestly entreated his crush with pleas of love before they ever kissed, which was supposed to seem winningly romantic, boy oh boy did it freeze my audience out.

Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost almost lost Demi Moore because he didn’t realize that she found “ditto” more convincing than an actual “I love you”. Harrison Ford, while shooting Empire Strikes Back, was smart enough to realize that the way to make both Leia and the audience melt was to answer her “I love you” with “I know,” rather than the scripted line. Likewise, we love it when Ms. Kubelik simply says “Shut up and deal.” Call us masochists, but we demand that our onscreen lovers leave us wanting more.


How to Alienate An Audience, Part 6: We Hate The Love Interest

This is another big one. This can stop any story dead. If the hero falls in love and doesn’t take us along for the ride, we turn very cold very quickly. Let’s return again to the Onion AV Club’s Inventory column, where they recently considered 24 Romantic Comedy Characters Who Don’t Deserve Love. The lesson is that you don’t get to just tell the audience that the hero loves this person, you’ve got to show them why. Naturally, it kills a romantic comedy if the audience isn’t feeling it, but it can also do a surprising amount of harm to action movies, horror movies, thrillers, dramas… just about everything.

The problem here, ironically, is that writers are writing what they know—or what they think they know. They remember when they met their soul mate, and how he or she seemed so astounding to them. So they write, “the hero sees, across a crowded room, the most beautiful person in the world,” and assumes that the casting director, lighting and make-up people will make it so, and then the audience will fall in love.

But the problem is that the writer has forgotten what happened after that golden memory: when they went back to their friends and said “Gee, is that the most beautiful person ever or what??”, and their friends rolled their eyes and said “Well... If you say so.” Love at first sight looks very dubious when viewed with a little perspective, and for good reason.

Usually, you want to create powerful scenes by tapping into your own emotional memory and recreating that feeling on screen. But in love scenes, the most emotional scenes of all, you actually have to dial that back and be a little more circumspect. What is love, really? Well here’s a C.S. Lewis quote I got from a subway ad: “Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’” Thats even more true of love.

Every love scene is about one thing: “I understand you.” If they don’t understand each other, it’s not real love. Love scenes that are about physical attraction, or, even worse, meeting the only potential match for them in the whole story (again The Matrix comes to mind), are death.

Even if you did fall for your mate at first sight (and I certainly did, so it happens) that puppy love only becomes true love as it passes a series of tests, and the final test is always this: “Do I understand this person and do they understand me?” This is the question that Molly Ringwald fails to ask herself at the end of Pretty in Pink, which is why it has one of the most alienating endings in movie history. If, on the other hand, we see that the hero and heroine understand each other, you can make the audience want, nay, demand to see them get together. But... you can still screw it up, as we’ll see tomorrow…


How to Alienate An Audience, Part 5: The Hero Is Too Powerful

I wrote before about the need to balance cheering for a hero with fearing for a hero. I also wrote about the badass/vulnerability ratio. The difference between a swaggering hero and a loser hero is about five degrees. Even losers, if we’re going to care about them, have to have a lot of stuff they’re secretly good at, and the most super-powered role-models have to be defined by their limitations, not their powers.

I was once in a pitch meeting where they wanted me to re-write a high profile project that began with a series of scenes in which a sniper eliminated various guys, seemingly at random, before we found out their secret connection (a childhood experiment they had all taken part in long ago). The producer said, “So we start by meeting the first guy and we’re sure he’s the hero of the movie because he drives a great car and goes home to his great apartment where he has sex with his hot girlfriend. But then he gets shot in the head! The audience will be so shocked that we’ve killed off our hero!”

I nodded politely but I wanted to scream about how wrong they were. No, the audience would not identify with this guy as the hero. The villain, maybe, but not the hero. Heroes are defined by their vulnerabilities, not their invulnerabilities.

In the treatment I wrote for them, I invented a very differnt fake-out-hero: My guy works in a stereo store in the mall. When we meet him, he’s down on one knee proposing to a dubious goth-girl co-worker, who laughs out loud and tells him to try again. He appreciates her honesty and asks for tips on how to do it better—he was just practicing for his real girlfriend, who works in another store in the mall. After his shift ends, he finds that she’s already left work. He catches up to her in the atrium, but she says she’s fed up with his unwillingness to commit and starts to leave, so he decides to propose right there and then. He gets down on one knee and offers her a ring while a crowd gathers… Finally, she hesitantly says yes. The crowd cheers! Then… BLAM! His head explodes from a sniper’s bullet.

Now that’s a shock, because this guy was really acting like a hero. Making yourself vulnerable is heroic. Exceeding your own capabilities is heroic. Taking a risk is heroic. Schtupping your hot girlfriend is not heroic. Audiences hate it when they’re asked to identify with invulnerability. This is why nobody cared for the second and third Matrix movies. By the end of the first one, the hero could already control the fabric of his reality. Who’s going to identify with that?


How to Alienate An Audience, Part 4: The Hero Agrees with Everybody

This is a funny thing: what we consider “sympathetic” in a movie hero is very different from what we find sympathetic in real life. We want our friends to be sensible, but we have very little patience for sensibility onscreen. We want movie heroes to be willful. Ridiculously willful.

Many uncompelling heroes are just too pliable. They sensibly take good advice. They foolishly take bad advice. When in trouble, they find people with experience and ask them what they should do. They never take the initiative. Nothing is ever their idea, good or bad. The audience might “admire” such sensible heroes on the surface, but deep down they hate them.

On one of the DVD commentaries for the show “24”, the producers joke that whenever a script came in short, they had one stock scene that they could use over and over knowing that the audience would love it every time. Before President Palmer took whatever action he had decided to take, they’d have one of his aides run up to him say, “Mr. President, wait! We just got some new poll numbers about this issue and everybody disagrees with what you’re about to do!” Palmer would consider this gravely for about five seconds, then declare in his stentorian voice, “I don’t care if they impeach me—it’s the right thing to do.” With that, he would boldly stride off into the situation room while his aide’s mouth was still gaping.

Is this how we want a president to act in real life? Absolutely not. In real life, when presidents double-down on their current agenda, even after the polls are screaming for them to reverse course, the American people become dispirited and depressed, and we blame their intransigence on corruption. But onscreen it’s a different story.

Compare this to later seasons of “24” where President Palmer’s more pliable, poll-following brother inherited the oval office. He was perfectly nice, but the audience hated that guy. We all dream of saying no to our boss, and we want every onscreen hero to live that dream, even if the hero’s boss happens to be the American people.

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 3: The Hero Isn’t Misunderstood

Some say that the quickest way to build identification with a hero is to see them save a cat. But when was the last time you saved a cat? That’s not really a universal emotion. As far as I can tell, there’s only one emotion that everybody feels every day, privately and silently, that they will always identify with onscreen: everybody feels misunderstood.

The first time we see someone onscreen, we form certain assumptions about them. But we don’t want all of those expectations to be confirmed. The moment we bond with them is the moment we realize that they’re more (or less) than they appear to be. But too many heroes are easy to figure out from the moment we see them. Everything anyone would assume about them, good or bad, turns out to be true.

What happens when Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Vic Mackey have a moment of private time? They melt down. They’re totally confident and super-competent in public, but when they’re not on display they each become a tortured mess. Compare them to David Caruso’s ultra-thin character “Horatio” on “CSI Miami”… He’s basically who he appears to be. His public and private personas are the same. He’s not complex.

There’s a great line in the Tick cartoon, when two parents discover that their young child is a supervillain, and always has been. At first, they’re in total denial, but after the facts have had a while to sink in, the mom finally comes to a realization: “You’re… you’re not misunderstood at all, are you?” Up until then, of course, they were able to accept and sympathize with all of their child’s evil actions as long as they could believe that he was misunderstood. The sympathy only breaks when they realize he’s merely what he appears to be. Audiences feel the same way about their heroes.

Tony, Don, and Vic do despicable stuff all day long, but we still love them because we see that that’s not all they are. Horatio, on the other hand, is a much more upstanding guy, the kind that might save a few cats, but even fans of the show despise him, because he’s just not misunderstood. (Which is not to say that you have to avoid ethically clean characters. Vic’s by-the-book colleague Dutch on “The Shield” was an equally complex example of a troubled, misunderstood hero.)

(Note: in the comments, you’ll learn that I originally singled out NCIS as the bad example here, but the commenters convinced me that that wasn’t fair. A leader cannot survive without the consent of the governed.)


How to Alienate An Audience, Part 2: The Hero Just Says No

We’re talking about alienated audiences this week, and no audience is more alienated than the fine folks at the Onion AV Club’s Inventory column. They recently did a good list of stick-in-the-mud characters who almost ruin otherwise good TV shows. Probably the most damning one on the list was Ted, the titular “I” of “How I Met Your Mother”. Indeed, I’m a fan of the show, but it is a rare case where the supposed star has become the least likable character by far. Ted is a scold, and audiences everywhere get very irritated with scolds. 

In lots of stories, and especially in comedies, you have heroes who are plunged into over-the-top situations where everybody wants them to do something wild and stupid. Stupid isn’t sympathetic, right? So you show how smart your hero is by having them say “no” repeatedly and tell everybody else that they should be sensible, right? Nope, if all they do is say “no”, then we’ll have no patience for them.
All you need to do to solve the problem is to give them something else they really want to do instead. Maybe they’ve got an important business appointment they should be attending, or they’re supposed to be marrying the wrong person that weekend, or whatever. If they’re got a false goal that they could be pursuing instead, then the offer they’ve been given will present an actual dilemma, instead of a no-brainer. No matter how crazy or stupid the offer of fun is, we’re never going to sympathize with someone who simply chooses nothing over something.
In Risky Business, a nice boy named Mitch ends up, despite his qualms, becoming a pimp. You would think that such a morally repugnant proposition would be objectionable strictly on its own merits, but no. The audience is never going to root for Mitch to sit around moping while his parents are out of town. Compared to that, even becoming king of the prostitutes would seem like a no-brainer. The audience’s bias is always in favor of something —anything— happening. Instead, the movie gives Mitch another positive he could choose: this is the weekend he’s supposed to interview for Princeton. That’s a dilemma we can take more seriously. 

What if Cary Grant hadn’t had a fiancé in Bringing Up Baby? Or Rosalind Russell hadn’t had one in His Girl Friday? They were both being courted by crazy people, but crazy is better than nothing, so it still would have been totally unsympathetic to just say no. But choosing between boring security and crazy fun is a classic dilemma, so it’s compelling to watch.

How to Alienate An Audience, Part 1: The Hero Isn’t Curious

This is the big one. Pure death. Your hero has to want to unravel the story. That’s all a hero is: the character who has to solve this problem. Your audience wants the whole story to come out, but they can’t do it themselves-- Instead, they have to trust your hero to get to the bottom of it for them. If the hero doesn’t care, what are they supposed to do?

But let’s say that you feel you need to drop some information to the audience that they’ll need later, so you have somebody casually mention something important in conversation with the hero, but the hero doesn’t notice or care, even though it should be a big clue... This is a huge sympathy killer. If you’re hero passively receives an incomplete piece of important information and doesn’t follow up, then the audience feels betrayed. They say to your hero, “Hey, loser, I’m counting on you to dig up all the information I need to enjoy this story, but you’re not asking the follow-up question I need you to ask! What good are you?”

Now of course, you can occasionally have your hero “miss” a piece of key info that the audience picks up on, but only if the audience feels that the hero has a good reason for missing it, like a big distraction. Even better, drop the information, then have the hero and audience both get distracted by something else at the same time, so that they both forget about it. Then, later, when it turns out to be important, they’ll both be kicking themselves at the same time, and they’ll bond even more.

An example of the right way to do it would be the glasses in the pond in Chinatown, the audience and Jake get distracted at the same time and forget all about them. But later, when they turn out to be the key piece of evidence, we don’t get mad at Jake for forgetting about them, we get mad at ourselves.

It’s an equally big sympathy killer if heroes don’t act on the concrete information that they do receive. This can be a problem when you try to build tension by ending every scene on an ominous warning of some kind. Oooh- spooky! But then, in the next scene, the hero has moved on to another part of their day, and they forget all about the warning until it’s too late, three scenes later. You can make a case that not every hero has to be proactive, but at the very least, they have to be reactive.

The audience is constantly trying to anticipate what’s going to happen next. If they can tell that the hero is not able, or not even trying, to anticipate a consequence that we can anticipate, just by looking over their shoulder, we feel powerless. Why are we putting our trust in these schmucks?? Remember on “The X-Files”, when they would get a big piece of the alien invasion puzzle at the end of an episode, and we’d all be on the edge of our seats, and then next week they were back in some podunk solving some dinky little monster mystery, as if they’d never gotten that big clue? Remember how infuriating that was? Don’t do that.