I like using examples when writing about storytelling techniques and found a few good ones when watching I Am Legend the other day. Movies and books aren’t the same thing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything about storytelling from watching a movie. Here are the lessons I Am Legend has to offer.
1. What makes an engaging first scene
The first scene (not the prologue) is great.
There’s a three year gap between the prologue and the first scene, in which we jump from curing cancer to a deserted New York City. We have no idea what happened in those years between, but we’ve somehow come to a Last-Man-On-Earth scenario. Are we immediately told how this happened? Nope.
What we do have in the first scene is action unfolding against this fascinatingly desolate backdrop. The main character has a goal – to shoot a deer – and encounters obstacles before ultimately failing this goal.
Lesson to learn:
Don’t start your story by painting a world without the protagonist in it. Start with the protagonist doing something in his world. Readers are more engaged by action than description and the world can be built in the context of the protagonist’s actions. If a detail can’t be established in following the protagonist through the plot, it isn’t important enough for the first scene.
2. How to structure a key scene
Let’s jump back to the first scene of the movie. Neville’s goal is to shoot a deer, and we meet him as he’s chasing a herd through the city. In the process of trying to achieve this goal, he comes across some obstacles. First, the deer are too fast for him to be able to get a clear shot. Next, he comes across a roadblock and can’t follow them any further. When he finds them again and is about to get a shot off, lions get to the deer first. Finally, his watch goes off, indicating that the sun will soon set and he has to get inside. Deer hunting for the day is officially over and he hasn’t succeeded. The other key scenes in the movie are structured the same way: a goal or complication, obstacles and a resolution.
Lesson to learn:
Key scenes can be structured like mini-stories, with a beginning, middle and end, and a goal, conflict and resolution.
The movie ends when the dog dies Creating sympathy through animals
Why we love animal characters so much is a question I’ve not yet thought of an answer to, but it’s a thing. We have a soft spot for animal bffs.
Neville talks to Samantha, his canine companion, like she’s a person – or even a child – who can talk back to him. The way this is portrayed means the viewer can completely ignore that these are probably one-way conversations. It’s a heart-warming relationship that creates sympathy for our protagonist. We like him because he loves his dog. I can’t explain why.
Sam is the main catalyst in this movie. Every key moment in the story comes back to that first plot point when Neville follows Sam into that building because he loves her. The movie is basically built around their relationship and the most compelling parts of the movie are about this relationship.
For this reason, the story falls apart after Sam dies. She set up the second half of the movie, but without her, the movie lacks emotional engagement after Neville’s initial reaction to her death. While we do see more reaction from Neville, the scenes that follow his rescue are mostly about his bonding with characters I don’t care about now and never will care about. Neville has no short-term goals. There’s nothing pulling us forward anymore. The movie’s ability to engage its audience is lost. The movie ends when the dog dies.
Be aware of the roles your animal characters (all characters, really) have in your story and how things would change if they were to exit the story.
4. How to use goals and plot points to structure a story
The first scene introduces the main characters as they’re trying to achieve a short-term goal: hunt deer. The following string of scenes establishes the relationship between these characters to set up the first plot point. These scenes happen in the context of the central conflict (hunting is cut short by sunset; the protagonist battens down the hatches with some serious window shutters; screeches fill the night). This all takes up the first 10% of the movie.
The next scene is a flashback, in which the situation becomes more understood and we learn the protagonist’s long-term goal: “I can still fix this.” He’s trying to find a cure. At 16%, one of his compounds looks promising and he sets a new medium-term goal: commence human trials. In the next few scenes we see more of the protagonist’s goals: the short-term goal of finding and gathering supplies, and the medium-term goal of trying to reach survivors.
The first plot point begins at about 25% of the way through, when Sam chases a deer into a dark building and Neville follows. Both of these actions were set up in the first few scenes (hunting the deer and Neville and Sam’s relationship). This is a key moment because it’s the first time the viewer comes face-to-face with the antagonistic force (central conflict is fully realised by the viewer), the relationship between Neville and Sam is further developed as a set-up for the midpoint, and the resolution of this scene prompts Neville to set a new short-term goal (which will help him achieve his current medium-term goal, which will help him achieve his long-term goal).
Heading in this new direction, Neville works on his short-term goal and succeeds, setting a trap and capturing a dark seeker from the building he followed Sam into. In achieving this goal, he is also confronted with a new conflict: one dark seeker looks particularly bold, dangerous and vengeful.
So he works on his medium-term goal and we see him try and fail as the compound doesn’t seem to work on his subject. Well, he can’t achieve his goal that easily or the story wouldn’t be engaging. He seems to need to go back to the drawing board.
He doesn’t do this straight away, though. For now, he has no short- or medium-term goals, he’s regrouping after his failure (reacting). But the antagonist has levelled up again. Fred, Neville’s mannequin mate, has been moved. The antagonist has set a trap for Neville, which was set up by the first plot point.
So after the achievement of a short-term goal, a trial and a failure, and a run-in with the antagonist, we’re now entering the midpoint. Neville’s upside down up shit creek just before sunset. The key moment in this scene is Sam being bitten. Neville takes her home and tries to cure her, but the compound is ineffective and he’s forced to kill her when she turns into a dark seeker. This is the midpoint. It drives Neville in a different direction. The next few scenes show how overcome by grief he is and his long-term goal is temporarily forgotten. This sets the rest of the story in motion as it puts Neville out after sunset with revenge in mind and leads to Anna ex machina finding him and telling him there’s a settlement in Vermont.
As I’ve already mentioned, he doesn’t have any short- or medium-term goals at this point so the story sags a little. He reacts to his new situation for a while until the second plot point (about 75% of the way through) brings dark seekers to the house. This changes the context of the story because it forces the antagonist and protagonist to come face to face and have a showdown, which we know will be the climax. We know we’re getting to the end of the story now. During the climax, Neville finds out the latest compound has worked and gives it to Anna, allowing her to achieve his goal before he sacrifices himself. Then there’s a short resolution where we see her getting to the compound to achieve Neville’s goal.
There it is: the skeleton of the story is made up of goals and plot points.
Lesson to learn:
The long-term goal is the overarching goal that the protagonist strives toward for the entire story and is made up of medium- and short-term goals. Medium-term goals take several scenes to fail or achieve and are made up of short-term goals. Short-term goals are what the protagonist hopes to achieve in an individual scene. Medium- and short-term goals that exist outside of (but are not unrelated to) the long-term goal can become subplots that will have some effect on the long-term goal.
Even though movies and books are different mediums, there’s still a lot to learn from movies about storytelling.
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