ELEVATING THE SET-UP
I’ve read a lot of scripts in which the core set-up is predicated on the characters being dumb and doing dumb things. In some genres (comedy, horror) this is usually fine, and perhaps even a plus. But generally it’s cheating; forcing stupidity onto the characters is an easy way to get the story ball rolling.
The stronger approach is to elevate the set-up, and the way to do that is to make the characters as intelligent as possible. We can still get the story ball rolling, but instead of relying on easy choices, now we have to look for new angles: unforeseen complication, undeserved misfortune, actions on the part of the antagonists that are motivated by the darker and weaker aspects of the human soul.
For example, JURASSIC PARK. In the original film, a bunch of people get eaten by dinosaurs. Does this happen because they blunder into the park and try to pet the velociraptors? No. Hammond creates the park because he honestly feels it’s an incredible scientific achievement. But he also fully understands that dinosaurs are dangerous. Thus, he has the park equipped with every safety precaution.
But if the park is equipped with every safety precaution, how do people get eaten? Because Nedry shuts down the power and sabotages those precautions. He does so out of greed, and a petty sense that he isn’t being fully appreciated. The toad in this particular garden is the loathsome but understandable human failings of one of our antagonists.
So we have a situation in which intelligent people are in a tough situation due to no particular fault of their own (besides failing to predict Nedry’s plans).
Grant and Ellie have to save the kids’ lives and escape the park. Do they solve their problems through dumb brute force? Do they go around punching dinosaurs? No. They are two of the best paleontologists in the world, and use their unique understanding of dinosaurs in order to intelligently address the problem, thus further elevating the story.
Working to elevate the narrative choices not only makes the movie feel “smart” and avoid easy choices; it helps to better connect it with the audience. Because when we feel like we understand what the characters are thinking and why, we’re right there with them in the story; we engage with their decisions and actions. If we’re sitting there thinking, “Why would they do that?” we’re disengaged; we aren’t with the characters; we’re at a remove, thus killing the emotion and drama of the scene. We need to at least match the logic of what the audience might be thinking they would do in X situation, while striving to impress and surprise them with smart characters who do them one better.
Elevating the set-up and storytelling doesn’t automatically mean that we’re turning the movie into a cold, cerebral exercise in smarty-pants superciliousness. JURASSIC PARK is still a fun, brilliant sci-fi action-adventure that delivers a ton of scares and thrills. Dinosaurs eat smart people, too!