As we build the story of an animated Disney Feature, we constantly screen the storyboards of the movie for audiences of people inside our building to get their opinions on what isn’t working in the story and to get their suggestions on what we could do to make the story better.
There are lots of ways to improve a story. It’s not an easy process, though, and there are always many different opinions on exactly what’s wrong with each film, let alone how to tackle the story problems that each story inevitably faces. It’s such a nebulous and confusing subject that people are always looking for methods or formulas that can be applied to every story in order to find the answers more easily and rapidly.
Every film maker wrestles with story problems…that’s why there are so many books on screenwriting available these days.
When we collect notes from people at the studio about how to make each story better, we get a lot of people who write notes pointing out the flaws in the film’s logic. People always point out the events that don’t make any sense or are inconsistent with events that happened earlier in the story.
It’s good to be aware of these things. I certainly understand why people point these things out: I hate movies that don’t make any sense and I can’t stand it when characters in a film do what the plot demands they do to move the story forward, instead of what that character would actually do at that moment.
But it’s worth keeping in mind that story logic is not always absolute. I’ve worked on films where the crew tried valiantly to iron out every bump of logic in the story with the goal of making the movie fit together perfectly and make sense so that it would work with all the precision of a fine watch.
But observing the inner workings of a watch is boring and tedious. It’s not interesting or exciting. And our films aren’t documentaries; they’re works of fiction. In my experience, almost every movie has some moment that’s a leap of faith…some moment that departs from logic and allows the story to go to where it needs to go in order to move forward.
You can get away with a moment like that, as long as you do it carefully, and it’s the only way for that particular story to work. The trick to making a moment like that work is to remember that–for the most part–people watch movies emotionally, not logically. Audiences will go with something if it’s the only way for the story go where they want it to go.
The most famous case in point is a moment from “Toy Story”: we see from the beginning of the story that toys are conscious of any person entering into a room, and they will choose to fall down lifeless wherever they are to keep people from realizing that toys are actually sentient beings.
When Buzz Lightyear comes into the picture, he’s completely unaware that he’s a toy and keeps refuting Woody’s demands that Buzz accept that he’s just a toy. Buzz actually believes that he’s a Space Ranger on a dangerous mission to save the galaxy.
And yet….whenever Andy comes into the room, Buzz drops down lifelessly, just like the rest of the toys.
That makes no logical sense. If Buzz doesn’t think he’s a toy, why does he fall down every time a human being comes in the room? Shouldn’t he continue to walk around and go about his Space Ranger business?
From what I hear, the film makers and story crew at Pixar tried to figure out a logical way to prevent this story “hole” during the making of “Toy Story”, but just couldn’t figure out a way to make it work satisfyingly.
I think it works just fine (and let’s face it, nobody notices this leap in logic) for two reasons: number one, we the audience know Buzz is a toy, even if he doesn’t, so when he acts like all the other toys we accept it as typical toy behavior.
But the other reason (and the much more important one) why we accept it is that, as I said, we watch movies emotionally. We accept leaps in logic if they allow the story where we want it to go. We are invested in the story of Woody competing with Buzz and we want to see how their conflict and rivalry will work out. Will Woody regain his spot as Andy’s favorite? What will happen if he doesn’t? How far will he go to stay on top as Andy’s number one toy? These are the questions we want to see answered. We have no interest in seeing what would happen if Andy suddenly saw his toys walking around and talking. That’s a completely different movie and not at all what we’ve invested in emotionally when Buzz shows up and ruins Woody’s life. So we accept the “cheat” because it allows our story to continue on the way we want it to.
Always look for logic when it’s possible to do so. But for those rare moments when you need a leap of faith to keep the emotional story working, don’t be afraid to let go and abandon logic for just a moment. It might, in the end, be the best solution for the story.