AWAY FROM HER: Create The Rules That Amplify The Truth
By Jacob Krueger
But what about when you feel like you need to completely make up a rule to make your story work? Or when the real world rule you are working with seems like it might unbelievable to an audience?
When you need to invent a “rule” in order to make your script work or convince your audience to accept a real life rule which flies in the face of their expectations or beliefs, the question to ask yourself is not “is it true?” The question to ask yourself is “how do I sell this to an audience?”
Movies Don’t Come With Footnotes
The good news is, nobody’s going to be whispering in your audience’s ear when you fudge the details or make up a rule that isn’t technically correct. Unfortunately, nobody’s going to be there to tell them “no, this really happened, in real life!” either. As writers, we often want to believe that just because something happened, the audience will accept it as true. But often, audiences are much more happy to accept fiction that seems believable than reality that doesn’t– especially if it makes things hard for your main character. The good news is, you can shape what your audience believes, by setting up the rules (real or imagined) in ways that are viscerally and dramatically powerful for your main character.
Selling The Rules of Away From Her
In Away From Her, the main character drops his Alzheimer’s suffering wife off at a nursing home, only to be informed that he has to leave her for a full month so that she can “adjust”. Now, perhaps somewhere in America there truly is a nursing home with such a rule.
But more likely the rule exists because the writer, Sarah Polley, needs that separation (spoiler alert:) so that when the husband finally returns for his “joyful reunion” with the woman he loves, he can be shocked to discover a totally different person the woman he left– a woman who has forgotten him completely and fallen in love with another man.
That’s the movie. And if Sarah Polley doesn’t sell the rule, whether it exists or not, that movie doesn’t happen.
In the real world, you might spend time with your wife every day, and then one day realize you’re with a totally different person. But in a movie, with characters we are just getting to know, it takes a strong juxtaposition to create that feeling. Polley uses the rule to create that juxtaposition. And she sells it by allowing the nursing home to have a reasonable rationale, and allowing the husband to fight against that rule with everything he’s got- a fight that only further dramatizes his connection to his wife when she finally asks him to go and he reluctantly gives in to her request.
Create The Rules That Amplify The Truth
In this way, writing a script about law is a lot like writing a fantasy. People know that there is no such thing as goblins and that little boys don’t get to be king by pulling a sword out of a stone. But if you create the rules of the world properly and in a dramatic way, the audience will be happy to go along for the ride, because it gives them access to the story they want to experience. And more importantly, closer to the essence of that emotional truth the writer is communicating.
Stay tuned for the final installment of this series: What Are The Rules of Your Script: Part 4: Superbad and the Rules of Genre